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What’s the Best Personal Carry-on Bag for Flying?

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

Between finding a carry-on bag that’ll fit in most overhead compartments, a toiletry bag or Dopp kit for your tiny 3-ounce bottles of shampoo, and a 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 of what counts as a personal item. According to the TSA website, the “size dimensions of carry-on baggage allowed in the cabin of the aircraft vary by airline.” That leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but generally a personal item is something that fits under the seat in front of you. JetBlue defines that as a bag smaller than 17 inches long, 13 inches wide, and 8 inches deep. On United, it’s 17 by 10 by 9; on American Airlines it’s 18 by 14 by 8. Southwest allows an 18.5-by-8.5-by-13.5 item, whereas Delta simply says a personal item is a “purse, briefcase, camera bag, or diaper bag,” with no specific size limit.

In other words, there’s a lot that you can get away with. So for further guidance, we sought advice from stylish airport regulars. We’ve previously asked frequent fliers to recommend the rolling carry-on bags they like best, so here are the personal items they use to stash their stuff while in the air. Turns out there are lots of backpack fans among the Strategist editors, but we’ve also got picks for totes, laptop cases, camera bags, and even fanny packs that fit perfectly in a seat-back compartment for easy access.

The best carry-on tote bags

Dazed executive editorial director Lynette Nylander pointed us to this travel-bag “system” from gender-inclusive bag company Ojeito, which contains four durable bags — three of which fit inside a large, sturdy tote. Each component of the system is constructed from military-grade ripstop fabric using double-stitched seams. While you could definitely organize all your essentials using the interior packing bags, Nylander often finds herself just hauling the tote around. “It’s made for the constant traveler in mind, it’s understated, and I can get it dirty and roughed up without worrying about it,” she says.

[Editor’s note: The Go-Kit Tote is currently sold out, but you can enter your email on the product page to get notified when it’s back in stock.]

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 he 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 carry-on duffel bags

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 26-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.”

Editor’s note: Patagonia says that as a result of “production and shipping delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” this bag is temporarily out of stock. You can join the waitlist to be notified as soon as it’s available again.

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, 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.

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The best carry-on backpacks

The Strategist team is all-in on backpacks as personal items. Writer Emma Wartzman opts for this one from Madewell, which is perfectly sized for minimalist packers. “It’s on the smaller side, but not so small that it feels like just an out-for-the-day purse,” she explains. “And it’s not so big that it ends up being full of stuff and heavy, or annoying to put under a plane seat.” She uses it to stash a book, snacks, and a laptop during work trips. But if you’re inclined to bring an extra sweater or ten face masks, she suggests, “it might not be for you.”

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.

Strategist editor Maxine Builder is also “a big backpack guy, especially when flying.” This Haerfest backpack has become her go-to, because “it’s compact enough to slip under any seat in front of me, even when packed to the brim.” One of Builder’s favorite features is a slightly hidden back panel, separate from the main compartment, with its own zipper. “It’s a convenient place to store my laptop, so I don’t have to dig through all of my junk to get to it,” she says. The Haerfest backpack “also just looks and feels nice, sturdy yet sleek, and always comfortable to carry.”

[Editor’s note: This backpack is currently sold out, but you can sign up on the product page to get emailed when it’s back in stock.]

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.

Fjallraven Kanken Mini
$55

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, the Kanken is basically like Mary Poppins’s magic bag: You can fit way more stuff inside than seems humanly possible given its petite size.”

The best carry-on accessories

Pariso also likes to add a simple fanny pack to her carry-on mix, using it to store airport essentials like her passport, headphones, and wallet: “Less out of a fear of pickpockets and more out of a desire to remain completely hands-free in the airport.” Because of its compact size, she says, the fanny pack “fits nicely in the seat-back pouch” once she’s on the plane. “All my essentials are within easy reach and I don’t need to dig through my backpack every other minute. A win for both me and my traveling companions.”

Another fanny pack option comes from longtime Strategist go-to 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, like a Mary Poppins never-ending bag,” she says.

If you’re bringing a camera along on your travels, Strategist contributor Chris Black advises storing it in this Hadley Pro bag from British brand Billingham. “Much like a Leica camera, the brand Billingham is favored by wealthy hobbyists, but its stuff looks great and will protect your gear,” he says. “And, who knows, maybe that is the vibe you are going for!”

As you whip it out for the TSA then shove it quickly into your tote bag again, you’ll want to protect your laptop from stress-related mishaps while also keeping it accessible for in-flight movies. The Strategist team is fairly obsessed with Baggu’s simple padded velcro cases, which are like slimline puffer jackets for MacBooks. Senior writer Liza Corsillo calls it “the Goldilocks of laptop cases” and her favorite purchase of 2021.

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What’s the Best Personal Bag for Flying?