The Right ‘Personal Item’ for your Flight

We’ve all been there -finally settled into the seat when you realize your scarf – book – whatever – is in the overhead compartment. Your choice is now to do without your needed item, or squeeze back into the aisle, jostling your neighbors as you wrestle your bag from the packed bin, dig through it for your item, and return, chastened, to your seat.


This is where your ‘personal item’ comes in – the one smallish piece of hand luggage most airlines allow on board. [Not all airlines have specified size limits for the personal item but United Airlines restricts this item to 10″ x 17″ by 9″ deep. American Airlines defines this item as a purse, briefcase, laptop bag or tote. Delta’s standards are similar – purse, briefcase, camera bag or diaper bag]

This item should fit under your seat and contain all the items you’ll need during the flight. Organization features and zipper closures are musts for efficient bags. Zippers to secure your contents during turbulence and organizational features to make getting that one items in hand easily. For these reasons your everyday purse or tote might not be optimal for flying.

So it’s time to shop! But before you do, consider YOUR needs-

Contents-What will you carry in the bag? Do you travel with children and bring extra clothing, or do you carry lots of tech? Are your trips short jumps or long hauls – the time you’ll have onboard will figure into what you carry.
Versatility-How might you use the bag during your trip? Will it be stored until your return flight or will you reach for it for meetings or excursions?
Convenience– How able are you to carry a bag? Sometimes it comes down to comfort.

For example-

For a business trip –

Contents – scarf, pillow, laptop, ereader, iPad, toiletries, water, wallet
Versatility – choose a bag you can take to meetings. It should be professional and functional.
Convenience – rushing through airports or city streets, it’s great to have a sleeve that’ll attach the bag to your rolling luggage.

For an African Safari-

Contents– cameras, binoculars, scarf, pillow, ereader, ipad, toiletries, water (with Gatorade powder) wallet, passport
Versatility – bag might carry camera equipment and fleece on game drives
Convenience – wheeled bags are discouraged on safaris so having a back pack option is appreciated.

Some of our favorites

  1. Kelly Moore Saratoga (2.8 lbs, 15.5″ by 12″ by 5″, $199 – watch for sales!)

Kelly Moore creates stylish camera bags. The Saratoga is from her nylon line and features padded sides and a removable camera basket. Zippered interior and exterior pocket and slots for SD cards make this a great option for traveling photographers. The Saratoga comes with a removable messenger strap which is nice for using cross-body when dashing through airports. But remove the strap and you have a stylish handbag which doesn’t advertise the camera equipment within. Love it!

Contents – with the basket in place your camera, and extra lens or a pair of binoculars, tablet, etc. are secure and cushioned. Without the basket the bag loses some structure and organization.
Versatility – this bag works well as a handbag for everyday use.
Convenience – The messenger strap is well padded making this easy to carry.

2. Lo & Sons O.M.G.  (2.1 lbs, 13.5″ by 16″ by 6″, $275 – watch for sales!)

O.M.G stands for Overnight Medium Gym bag, but it’s almost to nice to take to the gym!  This bag is highly organized, with a separate compartment for shoes (or gym clothes!), pockets within pockets and padded compartment for your laptop. This bag also features a sleeve for sliding onto your rolling bag. I have not yet used this bag but look forward to trying it soon!

UPDATE: just received this bag and am thrilled with the organizational features. The zippered pocket within another zippered pocket is a great idea for security. The shoe compartment on the side of the bag is unobtrusive, not breaking the line of the bag.  The bag is on the large size to use as a purse but manageable.

Contents – shoes, laptop, a scarf etc. The zippered pocket within a pocket is great for securing passports and documents.
Versatility – works as a larger handbag or elegant briefcase. Designed for the gym.
Convenience – The messenger strap is included for cross-body wear, but the ability to attach to my suitcase was the selling point for me!

3. Travelpro Maxlite Rolling Tote (5.6 lbs, 13″ by 15″ by 8″, $80 – $100)

This bag is pushing the limits on what some airlines might count as hand baggage but it will fit under the seat and offers an alternative to those who are unable to carry a bag. The bag is well organized and easy to manage. I like this bag but rarely use it.

Contents – similar to a suitcase, this bag can carry clothing, tablets, etc.
Versatility – travel only. 
Convenience – wheels make travel easy !

4. Pacsafe Citysafe CS400 Travel Tote (1 lb 11 oz, 13.4″ by 18″ by 5.9″ $130)

Pacsafe specializes in security. Straps and body are slashproof, pockets offer RFID protection for your sensitive documents, and zippers lock. All in all a great option for traveling safely. I don’t own this tote but have used others in this line and enjoy being able to secure the bag before sleeping on flights, etc.

Contents – padded compartment will accommodate macbook or similar, lots of room for clothes, gear, etc. Side pocket for water bottle
Versatility – Though similar in size to the OMG the style of the bag doesn’t lend itself to using as an oversized purse.
Convenience – carry handles and messenger strap allow for several carry on options. The security features are the hallmarks of this bag. 

5. Lowepro Photo Hatchback 16 L (2lb 18″ by 10.8″ by 7.3″, $60-$75)

I love this bag for active traveling. The camera basket is accessible from the rear of the bag giving extra security to you valuable equipment. There is a padded spot for a tablet and ereader, and a pocket for extras like boarding passes, etc. The top of the bag has enough room for an extra jacket and other miscellaneous items making this a well organized bag to carry on excursions.

This is the smaller of the two Hatchback bags. There is a 22L size available.

Contents – camera gear, tablet, ereader, water bottle pockets on sides. Small area for personal items
Versatility – this is the ideal bag for the traveling amateur photographer. Easy to carry on hikes and expeditions. Not for use as a purse…
Convenience – padded shoulder straps make carrying this a breeze. The camera compartment is on the rear of the bag so there’s little worry about theft while wearing as a backpack.

6. EMS Packable Backpack

With so many options available, it might seem surprising that I reach for this so often! But it’s super lightweight and easy to carry. No padding or structure, but this bag can, and will, be used for beach trips, shopping etc. at your destination. I stuff this bag with my flight essentials including tablets, etc, in their own cushioned sleeves. The vivid color of this bag makes it less like to miss as I stumble bleary eyed off the plane.

Contents – most anything as long as you protect your electronics in padded sleeves or cases. Mesh side pockets work for water bottle or similar.
Versatility – travel, beach bag, gym bag, shopping
Convenience – nothing more convenient than a bag that packs into its own pocket! 

More great little bags-


Darby Mack Camera Bag/Insert

I love my Darby Mack camera bag/insert. I can use this as a insert in my larger bags and then wear it alone when sightseeing. This item is available from Etsy fully customization to your camera needs. I requested cushioned compartments for a camera and binoculars and a slot for my phone. I used it nonstop during our trip to Greece and Turkey!


Always a good idea to bring a string backpack. Put your inflight essentials in it and slip it into your seat back pocket. Keep your items clean and close at hand!



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