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What’s the Best Personal Item Bag for Flying?

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

Between finding a carry-on that will fit in most overhead compartments, a toiletry bag or Dopp kit for your tiny bottles of shampoo, and an under-the-seat personal item to hold everything you’ll need for in-flight comfort and entertainment, solving the packing equation isn’t easy. To make things even more complicated, there aren’t even standard regulations for what counts as a “personal item” — each airline has its own particular requirements. If you’ve purchased a basic fare on a no-frills carrier like Frontier or Spirit, you’ll generally want to stick with a bag measuring 8 x 18 x 14 inches or smaller (and if you’re not sure how to fit everything into that, I’ve written a minimalist packing guide to help). On most other airlines, there’s a lot more you can get away with. Below, find advice from stylish frequent fliers (and Strategist staffers) about the totes, duffels, and backpacks they slip over the handles of their suitcases.

The best personal-item tote bags

At least two friends that I know of ended up immediately purchasing a Baggu Cloud Carry-on after I flaunted mine at a destination wedding this past May. Made from weightless but durable nylon, the airplane-friendly version of the brand’s original Cloud Bag can hold a lot of stuff, and the bright colorways (there’s even a Sandy Liang limited edition, if you’re able to snag it) stand out in a sea of boring navy duffels at the airport. Puffy shoulder straps make standing in line at security a bit more tolerable, and generous external pockets are handy for stashing a book or water bottle. This bag’s dimensions are actually rather large (14 × 20 × 8 inches) for a personal item, but its bulkiness really depends on how much stuff you pack inside. I’ve taken mine on a personal-item-only Spirit flight with no issues at all, and on longer trips I have also slipped it over the handle of a Samsonite carry-on suitcase using the attached luggage sleeve.

Yolo Journal’s Yolanda Edwards is a fan of travel bags that don’t look like travel bags and can therefore be used for everyday sightseeing and shopping upon reaching your destination. Parker Thatch’s roomy totes fit the bill, and while they don’t have a luggage sleeve, Edwards has no problem slipping the handles of this one over her Rimowa suitcase. “And it’s great for going to the farmers’ market once I arrive where I’m going,” she adds.

Strategist writer Lauren Ro received a monogrammed T. Anthony carry-on luggage set that included a rolling suitcase and a matching, attachable travel tote when she left a previous job. While the suitcase is a little too fancy to use regularly, she almost always finds herself reaching for the tote on the way to the airport. “It is the perfect under-seat size, and its rigid structure means that I can organize all my crap better than when I use my Fjällräven backpack,” she explains. “There are also multiple pockets on the outside, great for stashing boarding passes and passports. I would never buy this on my own, but having it makes me feel like a fancy, very organized, jet setter.” But a warning for overambitious packers:It can get heavy, especially when you’re used to strapping everything on your back instead of on one shoulder.

Ro says this more understated MZ Wallace tote “also makes a great carry-on personal item.” The lightweight bag is custom-designed for air travel, with a luggage sleeve and exterior pockets for stashing chargers and tidbits, as well as a removable crossbody strap.

Is there a more quintessential carry-all than the L.L.Bean Boat and Tote? Writer and influencer Harry Hill doesn’t think so. “As someone who is usually drawn to more uppity travel bags, this trusty tote is a delight because of how unfussy it is,” Hill tells us. “It fits a ton, it’s super-lightweight, and I don’t have to worry about spilling coffee on the vachetta or putting it on the ground.” Hill suggests monogramming your name — or a crude joke, depending on personal preference. For additional customization, “the colorways are constantly changing, so keep an eye out if you have a specific vision for your tote.” While Hill adds that it’s impossible to go wrong, because any L.L.Bean “will make you look like a Kennedy skipping town,” it’s better to get the zip-up version of the bag to protect precious electronics from theft while in the airport.

The best personal-item duffel bags

Former Strategist associate editor Louis Cheslaw calls this Patagonia duffel his “secret second suitcase,” because its unassuming-yet-roomy interior lets him pack heavy without checking a bag. The Black Hole’s 30-liter capacity is about as large as a bag can be while still qualifying as the “personal item” you can bring onboard with your main carry-on suitcase and slide under the seat in front of you, Cheslaw notes. “Within that capacity, I can easily fit two pairs of shoes as well as a week’s worth of underwear, socks, and thin shirts, relieving a ton of pressure on my suitcase.”

This new-school garment bag, which made our Travel 100 list of the best products to take on the road, can keep a suit or gown unwrinkled while also cleverly storing several other outfits. It’s ideal for destination weddings, and Moonflower wine bar co-owner Rebecca Johnson even took hers all the way to Tasmania for a romantic antipodean getaway with her husband. Going’s travel spokesperson, Katy Nastro, told me that it’s very popular among her exceedingly well-traveled colleagues.

For a duffel that’s less gorp-y, more luxury, Longchamp is the name of the game. “I look for a bag that can sit on top of my carry-on, fit a lot of items, and be easily stored when not in use,” says Daniela Velasco, the creative director of Drift and Ambrosia magazines. That bag, for her, is Longchamp’s Le Pliage tote, because it carries her camera, laptop, chargers, and more. And it’s water resistant, so she doesn’t have to worry about rain damaging her expensive gear.

For both carry-on backpacks and duffels, former Paper fashion editor Mario Abad turns to Dagne Dover’s neoprene travel bags. “They’re the best,” he says. “They’re really lightweight, and they’re made of this scuba material that looks sleek and modern and is nice to the touch.” The bags aren’t just aesthetically pleasing, though. “You can fit a lot of stuff inside — it’s a minimal aesthetic, no busy details or anything, just all the compartments you need.” Abad also notes that the bags are perfectly sized for all airline carry-on regulations.

The best personal-item backpacks

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Here’s a thoughtfully designed backpack that is as appropriate for day hiking and office commuting as it is flying. Travel creator Jessica Wright of Bon Traveler is a longtime user and says she is “shocked” by how much it can hold. “You can definitely fit everything you need for two nights,” she says. “It’s wildly spacious.” Great for packers who like to compartmentalize, the interior is separated into various sleeves and sections for a laptop, clothing, and tech items.

The “clown car of personal items” is what writer and film wrangler Maggie Slepian calls this top-loading backpack from hiker-beloved brand Gregory. And with good reason: It easily holds a large amount of items of all shapes and sizes. When she used it as her only luggage item for a four-day trip to the East Coast last fall, it fit a laptop, notebook, sandals, running shoes, rain jacket, jumpsuit, two pairs of leggings, two pairs of shorts, several shirts, toiletries, socks, undergarments, five pairs of headphones (over-ear, noise-canceling earbuds, white-noise only, corded for the plane, and AirPods for Zoom calls), and snacks. Her water bottle was also easily stashed in the stretchy side pocket.

Like Cheslaw, Strategist senior editor Simone Kitchens is a fan of Patagonia’s Black Hole bags — but she uses the brand’s 25-liter day pack as opposed to the duffel. There are one zillion separate little pockets and perfectly sized compartments for things like chargers and night guards and passports and AirPods,” she explains, “as well as slim sleeves for a laptop and magazines.” The bag opens at the top, which means things won’t come tumbling out when you need to grab something. And while there’s a high level of organization happening on the inside, the bag still looks sleek: I quite like that the outside doesn’t look all that tricked out.

Former Strategist deputy editor Jason Chen upgraded from a Herschel to this daypack a few years ago, and he hasn’t looked back. He uses it to store a laptop, Kindle, and Dopp kit, adding that while traveling with a tote can be convenient, a backpack keeps all that valuable tech stuff a lot more secure.

Despite fears of looking like a Scandinavian school child or 2012-era hipster, Strategist writer Dominique Pariso is loyal to her Kanken — and she’s not alone among our staff. “This backpack is so light, so compact, and so durable it really is ideal for stuffing under tiny airplane seats,” she explains. “Plus, you can fit way more stuff inside than seems humanly possible given its petite size.”

The best personal-item cross-bodies and fanny packs

Crescent-shaped bags have been everywhere this year, but here’s one that’ll stand out from the crowd. Writer and artist Ludwig Hurtado says it’s big enough to fit your phone, headphones, passport, sunglasses, snacks, and even a book or two. And the cross-body strap makes it ideal for travel: “In theory, I love the look of a large tote bag, but when I’m running around the city or the airport, they tend to fall off my shoulder way too easily.” He took his to Paris Fashion Week as well as on a quick trip to Berlin, where it successfully helped him gain entry to Berghain.

Less sporty-looking than the ubiquitous Lululemon belt bag, and constructed from stretchy neoprene fabric that lets you stuff it full if you need to, our favorite fanny pack is perfect for the plane. As Strategist editor Maxine Builder explains, it’s made of “forgiving, easy-to-clean” neoprene, and “it expands a fair bit” so she can stuff more into it.

Another fanny pack option comes from Baggu, which photographer Jacq Harriet says she’s “obsessed with.” Harriet used the bag for traveling this summer and says it’s roomy enough for chunky 35-mm point-and-shoot cameras, plenty of film, a small water bottle, and a heavy wallet. “It holds pretty much everything,” she says.

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What’s the Best Personal Bag for Flying?