Choosing 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, and return, chastened, to your seat. Or you could choose the right personal item, the one smallish piece of hand luggage most airlines allow, and you’ll have everything you need at your fingertips. And won’t your trip be easier without annoyed seatmates?

Choosing the right personal item can make or break your flight Photo by Bambi Corro on Unsplash

How to pick the right personal item for you needs, a bag that’ll carry everything you might need, but will fit under the seat in front of you. (NOTE: most airlines require those seated in emergency rows stow all bags during takeoff and landing)

Check with your airlines for carry-on restrictions.

What size bag can you take on a plane? 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 (as of 2/1/2019) of specific 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 strict in their definition of a personal item, and may require you to gate check a bag if oversized.

Look for organization and zipper closures in your bag

These are musts for airline travel. Zippers to secure your contents during turbulence and organizational features to make getting to that one item you need easily. Think back to your last flight and you’ll remember how tight those seats are, how difficult getting in and out of your bag can be. 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 carry extra clothing and supplies for them, or do you carry lots of tech? Are your trips short jumps or long hauls – the time you’ll spend on-board will figure into what you intend to 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 extra jacket on game drives
Physical Carry – a backpack is best as you’ll be carrying a duffel as your primary bag.

Choose an inflight bag that'll fit under the seat and will fit everything you need.

Some of our favorites personal item sized bags

For most US and International Airlines allow dimensions that add up to 36″ (90 cm) The following bags will likely be accepted without question. If you are pushing the limit on bag size, choose a dark color to be less conspicuous:

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. 

Read a review of another Tom Bihn EDC bag – the Luminary a 12 L backpack

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 we love the trolley sleeve to attach to a roller bag

Cons: the zip does not extend to the edges of the bag, so it’s possible small items may fall out.

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.

Cons: a bit boxy for use outside of travel.

Osprey Daylite backpack (1 lb, 18″ x 9″ x 9″, $50)

This lightweight pack is great for flights with multiple pockets and sleeves. There are water bottle pockets, spots to stash jackets, and will attach to the bigger Osprey packs if you have one. This is a natural if you’re going on an active vacation and will need a daypack.

Contents – all basics needed for flight – Daylite Plus has a sleeve for a laptop or tablet. 
Versatility – travel, hiking, beach bag 
Physical Carry – only backpack carry.

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.
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.

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.

Read a review of the Lo & Sons OMG

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.

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!

Cons: The height of the bag makes a tight fit under airplane seats.

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

Cons: little organization or support to the bag.

What to do about a Personal Item if you’re traveling on a very restrictive airline

Some airlines are eliminating the personal item for passengers in coach. In this situation, we stash our minimal flight needs into a smaller bag which will fit inside our bigger bag. Once onboard, we slip the smaller bag into our seat pocket for the flight. Many bags will serve this purpose but a brightly colored bag will be harder to leave behind in a seat pocket!

Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag – our favorite bag within a bag. This lightweight bag has zipped closures, and can be used at our destination as a shoulder bag, a camera bag, or whatever.

EMS Packable Backpack – 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.

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)


Do you have a favorite bag you reach for every trip? What determines what you carry?


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