The Right ‘Personal Item’ for your Flight

We’ve all been there – finally settled into the seat when you realize your sweater – 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. This item should fit under your seat and contain all the items you’ll need during the flight. (NOTE that some airlines prohibit stowing a bag if you’re seated in an emergency row.)

Not all airlines have specified size limits for the personal item but the piece is supposed to be the size of a purse, briefcase, laptop, camera bag or diaper bag.  Here are a few examples (updated 2/1/2019) of airline restrictions:

  • AirFrance – 16″ x 12″ x 6″
  • American Airlines – 18″ x 14″ x 8″
  • British Airways – 16″ x 12″ x 6″
  • JetBlue -17″ x 13″ x 8″
  • Lufthansa – 15″ x 11″ x 3.9″
  • United Airlines – 17″ x 10″ x 9″

As you can see, some airlines are getting stricter in the definition of a personal item, so check with your airline before packing.

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 tote or purse might not be optimal for flying. Before deciding on what you’ll carry on-board, 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 on-board 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?
Physical Carry – How able are you to carry a bag? Sometimes it comes down to comfort.

For example-

For a business trip –

Contents – scarf, pillow, laptop, e-reader, tablet, toiletries, water, wallet
Versatility – choose a bag you can take to meetings. It should be professional and functional.
Physical Carry – 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, e-reader, tablet, toiletries, water (with Gatorade powder) wallet, passport
Versatility – bag might carry camera equipment and fleece on game drives
Physical Carry – wheeled bags are discouraged on safaris so have a backpack option.

Some of our favorites

None of these bag will fit the most stringent airline’s restrictions, but should pass if under packed. Choose a dark color to be less conspicuous.


Lo & Sons Edgemont (2.2 lbs, 13″ by 14.5″ by 5″, $128)

A convertible tote/backpack made from recycled materials, this bag is a good choice for destinations where you’ll want a tote on the trip. The bag has a removable insert with a padded laptop sleeve and water bottle support. There are ‘hidden’ pockets on the outside seams where you can stash a passport or similar. An outside pocket can be unzipped to become a sleeve for sliding on your roller bag.

Contents – water bottle, laptop, just about anything you’ll need on-board
Versatility – great as a tote bag, or camera bag, at your destination 
Physical Carry – backpack straps are quite comfortable and love the trolley sleeve to attach to a roller bag

Tom Bihn Daylight Backpack (12 – 15 oz, 17.3″ x 11.8″ x 5.1″, $80)

A simple backpack with one exterior zippered pocket and two inside pockets. Tom Bihn offers a variety of accessories that allow you to ‘customize’ your carry. I might use a packing cube for clothing I need, a Freudian Slip organizing panel for pens, chargers, etc., and slip my e-reader and tablet into the outside pocket.

Contents – with almost 17 L of space most on-board essentials can be carried.
Versatility – travel or EDC only. Will roll up inside a bag if you wanted to bring along as an extra bag.
Physical Carry – backpack option only. Quite lightweight though. 

Tom Bihn Pilot (1 lb. 7 oz., 11.4″ x 15.4″ x 5″, $160)

A shoulder bag with lots of built in organization. The front of the bag has three pockets, the middle one is designed for a water bottle or umbrella, the two side pockets will hold tablets, headphones, or a small purse. There are pen slots in one of the pockets which is great for having at hand to fill out custom forms. You can stash a sweater or even a packing cube of clothing in the back compartment. Or use the Tom Bihn cache system to secure your laptop. There is a sleeve for attaching to a roller bag.

Contents – everything you’d need on the flight. The outside organization makes this a pleasure to pack and use.
Versatility – great as a briefcase, or for travel. I use my bag for the gym, but that’s just me… 
Physical Carry – hand or shoulder carry, but can be mounted onto your roller bag with the built in sleeve.


Kelly Moore Saratoga (2.8 lbs, 15.5″ by 12″ by 5″, $199)

Kelly Moore creates stylish camera bags. The Saratoga (no longer available, similar bags) 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.
Physical Carry – The messenger strap is well padded making this easy to carry.

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 too nice to take to the gym!  This bag is highly organized, with a separate compartment for shoes (or gym clothes), pockets within pockets (great idea for security!)and padded compartment for your laptop. This bag also features a sleeve for sliding onto your roller bag.

UPDATE: The bag is on the large size to use as a purse but manageable. The height of the bag makes a tight fit under airplane seats.

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.
Physical Carry – The messenger strap is included for cross-body wear, but the ability to attach to my suitcase was the selling point for me!

Lowepro Photo Hatchback 16 L (1.8 lb.,18″ by 10.8″ by 7.3″, $35)

This is the biggest of the bags we recommend and won’t fit the dimensions of the international airlines. But I love this bag for active traveling. The camera basket is accessible from the rear of the bag giving extra security for your valuable equipment. There is a padded spot for a tablet and e-reader, 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.

Contents – camera gear, tablet, e-reader, 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…
Physical Carry – 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.

Longchamp Le Pliage tote (small – 14.9 oz, 11 x 10 x 5.5, $120)

The classic, fold-able tote for travel and daily use. This bag is quite sleek and elegant. Minimal interior organization, but the small size should allow it to pass on most airlines. We love taking this bag on cruises where it looks great on tour or by the pool. Lots of colors available.

Contents – basics for the flight – wallet, tablet, shawl, etc.
Versatility – travel, beach bag, shopping – you will see this bag everywhere when traveling internationally
Physical Carry – only shoulder or hand carry, but the bag is lightweight

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
Physical Carry – nothing more convenient than a bag that packs into its own pocket! 

Similar Option:

Tortuga Setout 19L packable backpack – made from ripstop nylon material, this pack folds into a tiny package, but has mesh pockets for water bottles and a zippered outside pocket. (8 oz., 5 x 11 x 17, $39)

More great little bags-

Darby Mack camera bag

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!

Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag – If you’re flying a Air Emirates or similar and have NO personal item allowed, put your in-seat essentials in this multi-functional bag, and pack it into your carry-on. When you arrive at your seat, slip the bag into the pocket of the seat back.

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Choosing the best Personal Item for Air Travelimage


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