Over the last few years of traveling, after some trial and error I’ve worked out a few criteria for what makes a good travel bag. I do love (and invest in) nice bags, but you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a stylish and functional option, nor do you need special “travel” bags (though some prefer them). A well-chosen bag will be comfortable to carry or wear, hold what you need, and help you to look polished and pulled-together.
Above, last year in Amsterdam with my trusty sidekick, which will be going with me to Europe later this month.
Most of our itineraries involve the usual sightseeing, dining and shopping, and I’ve come to value a bag that can go from day to dinner. The types of bags I’ll cover here aren’t intended to handle activities like hiking in the mountains or spending days at the beach.
Size matters. Think about what activities you’ve planned, and how much “stuff” you’ll actually need to carry with you during the day. A smart phone can replace a camera, guidebooks, notepads, magazines. Do you want to bring a notebook or pad and pencils for sketching? Will you be out mostly on foot or be riding (car/bus/train)? Will weather or activities require bringing additional layers or changes of clothing? Will there be a secure place to stow a larger bag during the day? You’ll want to be prepared, but as with packing, be wary of Just In Case thinking, which can lead to lugging around a bigger, heavier burden than you need to. I’ve found that for most days of in-town sightseeing, I can use the same-sized bag that I do at home.
Bag style. I learned the hard way on our first visit to Paris that even a fairly lightweight shoulder bag may not be optimal for all-day-on-your-feet activities. My neck and shoulders were tired and sore after a few hours, and I eventually bought and switched over to a crossbody bag, which was much more suitable. It’s also nice having both hands free if you want to take photos or do some shopping. My optimal travel handbag has both a shorter handle to carry in the crook of my arm and a cross-body strap. It’s important that the strap is wide enough to sit comfortably on the shoulder, especially once the bag is full.
Some may prefer a lightweight tote or satchel style bag, but again that additional crossbody strap can be your best friend.
What about backpacks? They’re back as a handbag option, and may be one of the more comfortable choices. However I don’t think most backpacks transition to “smart casual” evening looks as well as other styles of handbags, and in crowds I like keeping my bag in front of me where I can keep a close eye on it. I have seen people wearing their backpacks in front on subways and in crowds.
Materials and weight. I prefer the look and structure of a soft leather bag. A pebbled, distressed or textured leather will hold up better against scuffs and scratches than smooth leather. I avoid suede bags for travel. I do find most leather bags are durable if cared for, but may be heavier than canvas, nylon or vinyl. I’ve seen some very nice looking faux leather, nylon and canvas bags, so if bag weight is your primary concern, check out those options first. The more structure, compartments and hardware a bag has, the heavier it will be. Suede or leather lining will add more weight than fabric or no lining. When test driving a bag for travel, load it up with everything you’d want to carry, and walk around with it for a few hours. How heavy a bag feels is often a function of actual weight x time.
Security. I always travel with bags that can be completely zipped shut or closed with a flap that locks in place. When I get in crowds, I wear my crossbody bag towards the front, and keep one hand over the closed zipper/flap. Some people prefer the added security of a money belt or anti-theft bags; I’ve never used them. I practice awareness and vigilance of my surroundings and move away or wave people off if I feel that anyone is getting too much in my personal space unnecessarily. From what I’ve read and experiences people have shared with me, thieves or pickpockets often rely on distraction, a potential target’s diminished capacity (e.g. appearing drunk or lost/confused) and inattentiveness. Let your own level of comfort be your guide, and research your destinations to know what areas or events might be pickpocket targets. Thieves may not look like who you’d expect either; children and teenage girls may be who you need to keep an eye on most. Stand away from closing subway doors if you can, as that’s often a prime opportunity for thieves to snatch bags or wallets. Keep your smartphone in an interior pocket in your bag. That said, a lot of cities in other parts of the world may be safer than those at home, so be alert and aware but not paranoid.
How many bags? I usually travel with no more than two: my regular day bag, and perhaps (if I know we’re going out to a fancier restaurant, or to the theater) a smaller evening bag with a shoulder strap. If you’ve planned a bike tour or day hike, a small lightweight backpack may be helpful for those activities.
Other considerations. A sleek style in a dark neutral color will be most versatile and look most polished, as well as being a less obvious target. I find that a slightly slouchy bag without hard corners is more comfortable to wear/carry, but I need some interior organization and structure. (I hate having to dig through a large, soft, cavernous interior when I’m trying to find something quickly.) If you need to carry a larger tote, put smaller items in lightweight cloth zippered pouches to help locate them more easily. Another option is a purse organizer.
What are your priorities when it comes to handbags for travel?
A few options: