Tips For Choosing A Travel Bag

In the Palais Royal gardens in Paris. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

I’ve received a few questions recently about handbags for travel, so it seemed like a good time to share some updated recommendations.

My Travel Bag Checklist

Choosing a travel bag or purse really comes down to the type of travel and personal preferences, but there are a few attributes that I always consider.

Size

  • What will you need to carry with you during the day? Will your bag need to accommodate extra clothing, medications, food or water?
  • Can you downsize some items (like a wallet, cosmetics bag, or camera)?
  • My recommendation is to go with the smallest bag you think you’ll need. The more room you have, the greater the temptation to toss in stuff “just in case.” Stash a small reusable nylon shopping bag or two in case you pick up some items during the day and need more room.

Weight

  • Travel often involves a lot more walking or standing that we usually do at home. So it’s important to start with a bag that’s relatively lightweight. A purse that weighs 3 pounds empty will feel like lugging around a toddler once you add your belongings and spend a few hours on your feet.
  • A leather bag will generally weigh more than fabric. Hardware, structure and compartments will all add weight. It’s a tradeoff…sometimes the organization is worth a few extra ounces.

Style

  • I’ve come to prefer a simple, sleek bag that has some organization, but isn’t too stiff and bulky.
  • Crossbody bags are my personal preference; they allow you to have your hands free, and I find them easier on the neck and shoulders. Look for straps that aren’t too thin; a strap that’s at least 1/2 inch wide will be more comfortable over time. (I’m not a fan of backpacks, but I know some people prefer them.)
  • A darker color will be less likely to show dirt or scuffs, though some materials may be more resistant.
  • Are you bringing more than one bag, or will you need a single bag that can go from day to evening? If the latter, I recommend sticking to a neutral color.
  • If you’re traveling to a destination where heavy rainfall is the norm, consider water-resistance. You can also treat leather and some fabric bags with a waterproofing spray before go.

Security

  • A bag that zips completely closed will be most secure.
  • Another reason I prefer a crossbody bag is that I can keep it in front of me and close to my body in crowds, and it’s a tougher target for a snatch-and-run thief.
  • I’ve never felt the need to travel with one of those special anti-theft bags, but if you feel more secure with one, there are a lot of choices.
  • If you do travel with a backpack, I’ve seen it suggested to wear it on your chest rather than your back in crowds or on public transportation.
  • I still believe the best security is staying aware of your surroundings, and moving away from people who seem to be unnecessarily close or are trying to distract you.

The Varsity Team

Longchamp le Pliage Neo nylon bag with crossbody strap. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

The Lightweight. This small nylon “Le Pliage” bag has a removable crossbody strap, and classic Longchamp style. The size is deceptive; this actually holds quite a lot. (Also available in Medium.) I traveled with this bag when we went to Japan in 2016, and added a purse organizer (similar to this one).

Travel bag option: MZ Wallace Mia Bedford crossbody bag. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

The Manager. Though I haven’t tried this bag myself, many of you have recommended various MZ Wallace bags for travel. This model looked like a good balance of size, style, light weight, and organization. Here’s a larger satchel style (with optional crossbody strap). Updated to add: several commenters have specifically recommended the “Paige,” which is a slightly smaller version of the one shown above.

 

Quilted nylon satchel with crossbody strap. Details and more travel bags at une femme d'un certain age.

The Utility Player. This style offers the option of carrying in hand/over the arm or wearing crossbody. Nice for day-to-evening wear. (Also in Medium and Large sizes.) I’ve examined this one up close and it’s extremely light!

Baggallini charcoal grey crossbody travel bag. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

The Alternate. Many of you have recommended Baggallini bags for travel, and this style is highly rated. I thought I’d show you an option that isn’t black, but it is also available in black and taupe.

Lo & Sons Pearl crossbody bag in light grey. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

The MVP. Most leather bags have become too heavy for me for travel use, but this one is the exception. (It’s the bag I’m wearing in the top photo.) This is a great little bag that holds quite a bit more than you’d think from its size. Though the middle section doesn’t zip closed, it does snap securely. The strap can convert from a crossbody to shoulder to wristlet length (though I use it exclusively crossbody). It’s lightweight and good-looking, and available in multiple colors and hardware options. As of this writing, it’s 25% off too.

I’m still not sure which bag(s) I’ll be taking to France next month. What bags or handbag features have you found best for travel?

Affiliate links in posts may generate commissions for unefemme.net. See my complete disclosure policy here.

50 Comments

  1. Robin Gay Richard
    April 16, 2018 / 3:21 am

    I have a dozen different styles of MZ Wallace bag and depend on them for travel and everyday use. They are lightweight and they all have both shoulder and cross-body straps to use as needed. The outside pockets are especially useful for easy access to a phone and keys. In the past year, my MZ Wallace bags have accompanied me to Ireland, France, Morocco, and NYC. And my shoulders especially benefit from the lightweight construction. Thanks for including all the different types of travel bags in this posting.

  2. Jackie
    April 16, 2018 / 3:22 am

    I agree 100% with all of your comments for a travel handbag for all of the reasons you mentioned. We have traveled at lot (to over 40 countries so far). My current favorite is a black Baggolina, light weight fabric bag that holds my mini i-pad and other necessities, but nothing more and it is perfect for more than 90% of my travel time. I got this bag at TJMaxx for a very reasonable price. I will be sad when it wears out and would immediately look for a similar replacement. I also have a much larger bag of similar water and dirt resistant fabric than can pass as a purse, or personal item that I usually carry on the airplane, and can use for a daypack if more than my usual nesessities are needed for a particular outing. This larger bag has hand handles but also a detachable crossbody strap that I can use while going thru airports, or when I need my hands free for additional items. I agree with all of your safety advice and also have not felt the need for a special theft proof bag. [I did buy one once but returned it right away because it didn’t fit all of the other criteria that you mentioned) which I felt were more important. I also have a small slightly bigger than a wallet —item (also in black) that has a detachable crossbody strap, that holds my passport, money, credit cards, a pen, lipstick, a few cough drops…that fits down inside the other bags, but can be used separately and keeps my most important items close at hand and can be used alone too.

  3. April 16, 2018 / 3:44 am

    Absolutely a cross-body bag (having been dragged down a Barcelona street by a purse-snatcher…I won, thanks to my bag, which didn’t break). Some museums don’t allow backpacks, even small, chic leather ones.

  4. Beth
    April 16, 2018 / 4:50 am

    The Pearl looks wonderful, but the cross body strap a bit thin. I travel quite a bit and swear by the Vera Bradley Hipster Crossbody. A strap that is over an inch wide and water proof fabric that cleans in a heart beat. 2 external zipper pockets and more room than you originally think inside. And only $80, so I don’t worry when it gets battered. The only problem is that I have it in black and it doesn’t come in a lighter color. For spring and summer, I”d love to find a woven, neutral (for that summery feeling) cross body with zippers and closures. Any thoughts?

    • Tracy
      April 16, 2018 / 1:26 pm

      Have you seen the new Vera Bradley color called denim? I just bought a bag in that colorway and I think it will work year round. It’s not as heavy-looking as black for the summer.

  5. Elizabeth Milton
    April 16, 2018 / 5:10 am

    Agree that a crossbody is a must. I prefer one that is large enough for my iPad mini but small enough to fit in my personal carryon bag. . I usually ditch the wallet entirely and use the slots in the purse for credit cards, passport, etc. I only take one lipstick, a compact, a small fold up brush/comb and a travel size suntan lotion. I wear my sunglasses or carry them in a coat pocket. Your suggestion about including the small nylon fold up is one I will adopt. Great idea. Inspired by your blog, I just bought a Brahmin (turquoise) crossbody for this summer’s travel. It will punch up my black or other neutral travel clothes!

  6. Kim
    April 16, 2018 / 5:38 am

    On my recent trip to Seattle I finally purchased a large Le Piliage tote for the plane (in an olive khaki color). For walking around, I’ve been using a Patricia Nash crossbody in the Avellino style (in her camo pattern), it has gotten plenty wet and survived just fine, although I forgot to add any protectant.

  7. Jan
    April 16, 2018 / 5:44 am

    Yes definitely cross body and always nylon with enough room for a small bottle of water. I always leave my usual leather wallet at home and travel with a small lightweight one with one credit card and my cash. I also agree with your tip regarding the fold up nylon bag – I take one with me ever day, both home and away. Mine hooks nicely over my shoulder and is so handy.

  8. Caroline
    April 16, 2018 / 5:45 am

    I can’t recommend MZ Wallace bags highly enough! I’ve carried them almost exclusively for over ten years now. They are lightweight and water resistant, which is great for travel of course, but the thing I love the most – the inner and outer pockets. There is a place for everything and as a result I’m never digging through my bag to find anything. I have the Mia, which you have featured here, and I do really like it, but I would have to say my favorite for travel (and everyday, actually) is the Paige.

    https://shop.nordstrom.com/s/mz-wallace-paige-bedford-nylon-crossbody-bag/3103227

    It’s quite roomy, but its dimensions also allow me to put it into my personal item before boarding the plane.

  9. Kellee
    April 16, 2018 / 6:11 am

    I love my Baggalini – black, cross-body and very light weight and I can wash it! Comes out like new. I love the Longchamp, but how heavy is the hardware on it? I have the foldable one in orange that is my go-to for work.

  10. Adele Miller
    April 16, 2018 / 6:33 am

    Now that I wear prescription glasses, I find it more challenging to fit everything I need during the day into a smallish bag. How do you deal with having both a pair of regular and sun glasses? On not so sunny days, transition lenses are a an option, but I find that they don’t get quite dark enough for me on very bright days.

    Also — where on your body should a crossbody bag lie? I have the Longchamps neo bag in small, and I adore it for being light and functional, but it seems a bit short when worn crossbody.

    • Margot
      April 16, 2018 / 2:15 pm

      Transition lenses just aren’t for me and i will not purchase them a second time. They don’t seem to get dark enough and are slow to lighten up once I am inside. I don’t feel like a shadow of color ever goes away which I feel makes me look tired. Also for outside photos you are always “wearing sunglasses” as there isn’t a way to get rid of them beyond taking them off which looks unnatural for me as I’ve worn glasses for 50 years.

    • Susan B
      Author
      April 16, 2018 / 2:24 pm

      Hi Adele, I’ve been told that for crossbody bags, the strap should be long enough so that when the bag is worn, you can just cup your hand around the bottom of the bag. I’ve also known people who prefer them a little shorter…just depends on whatever is comfortable for you.

      I’m a fan of transition lenses for travel, especially if activities involve going between inside and outside frequently. I find it kind of a pain to keep having to switch glasses. That said, I usually also pack a non-transitions pair of optical glasses for evenings, and a pair of very dark sunglasses if I’m going to be out in bright sun for extended periods. I don’t necessarily carry all with me all of the time, but it’s good to have if needed.

  11. Adele Miller
    April 16, 2018 / 6:37 am

    One more comment: I’ve found that I need to have a smooth nylon or leather strap on any travel purse, So many of them have webbing-style straps, Baggalini included, and they cause my knit tops to pill.

    • Julia
      April 16, 2018 / 10:35 am

      Good advice! Sometimes the webbing strap can cause a “burn” on your neck.

      • Wendy
        April 27, 2018 / 5:35 am

        I purchased a dooney bourke canvas cross body bag for a trip. It was perfect in every way. Except that the stitching on the strap was catching on my clothes where it rubbed. I didn’t realize it for the first few days and it ruined several pieces of clothing. I just looked at them again at the store and this is still an issue.

  12. April 16, 2018 / 6:40 am

    I have a teardrop-shaped baggalini – it is ok but I prefer a somewhat larger but lightweight Healthy Back Bag. Depends on how one travels – I avoid hotels if I can, and buy groceries and other supplies on my way to my temporary “home”.

  13. Maire
    April 16, 2018 / 7:02 am

    I have several Longchamp bags but I wish their strap was longer – 18″ is not crossbody – it’s more like cross chest.

    Depending on where I’m going or how I’m traveling I will take either a Longchamp or one of my Wallace bags.
    I’ve also used the black, long, adjustable MZ Wallace strap on a black Longchamp – best of both worlds.

  14. Leoni Z. McVey
    April 16, 2018 / 7:20 am

    After years of travel with every purse recommended and a frequent sore shoulder, I have found that one of the slightly smaller MZ Wallace fabric purses is by far the best. I always buy a purse large enough for a standard iPad and iPhone and full enough to hold a folded shawl or nylon tote but one with multiple exterior pockets and a full zipper. The clincher is the width and fabric of the cross-body shoulder strap which allows full-day comfort unless I stuff too much into the purse for long hours. I am 5’2” so proportion is important.

  15. GingerR
    April 16, 2018 / 8:17 am

    I like a everyday baggollini bags, they slip easily into a larger tote. I’ve tried some of their mid-sized bags but haven’t quite found the right one, If a bag is tall and narrow I feel like I’m unloading it every time I want to get something out.

  16. Brit
    April 16, 2018 / 8:47 am

    I have the MZ Wallace Paige, which was purchased for a trip to Europe about three years ago. Agree with the other commenters that it is ideal for travel. It’s lightweight, water resistant, has lots of pockets, and is quite roomy as well. It’s become my everyday bag and still looks as good as when it was purchased.

  17. April 16, 2018 / 8:51 am

    Good advice! When traveling, the practical concerns you cite become very important.

  18. Candy
    April 16, 2018 / 8:57 am

    Absolutely, a crossbody Baggollini bag. I ordered and returned so many before getting a black lightweight Baggollini with multiple zippered compartments, slash-resistant strap and exterior. It was comfortable, hung close to the body and even easily fit under a light coat for extra security. We have traveled around Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. and that bag held all the glasses, meds, maps, phone, ID, etc., that my husband and I needed.

    • Margot
      April 16, 2018 / 2:33 pm

      Any idea what the style name was?

    • candy
      April 17, 2018 / 4:59 am

      Oops, thanks to Margot’s question, I got my travel purse out to look for a style name or number and discovered it’s not Baggollini but the Travelon Anti-theft Classic Crossbody Bag style #42373. It has two front pockets and zip compartments front and back in addition to main one, plus lockable zipper and anti-slash. I got it in black to blend better with most of my clothes. Here’s the link: https://www.travelonbags.com/anti-theft/anti-theft-cross-body-bag

  19. April 16, 2018 / 9:03 am

    I have traveled many times with the exact MZ Wallace bag pictured and can’t imagine a better bag. It holds whatever I pick up along the way, doesn’t weigh too much and has a zillion inner zip pockets to thwart pick pockets.

  20. Kathy
    April 16, 2018 / 9:21 am

    My husband and I are leaving Friday on a re-positioning cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Copenhagen. I”m not worried about bags for this part of the trip. I have a small cross body and Le Pliage tote for the ship. However, I’ve started to panic a bit about our planned week in Barcelona post-cruise. For that, I’ve decided to bring an old Timbukt2 messenger bag to thwart the pick-pockets. The bag is actually rather attractive because it has a printed lace pattern. I once lost a valuable gold watch in it for over a year. The watch was an extravagant anniversary gift from my husband, and I knew I’d put it in that bag. Checked the various zippered pockets for over a year, until with great relief, I found the watch one day. I figure this is the perfect bag to foil pick-pockets in Barcelona. Even with a secure bag, I’ll be wearing a Braza secure stash “pocket” that I can wear on a bra. I also have the “over the neck” bags for plane tickets, etc. When wearing one for security, as opposed to just convenience at the airport, I wear the bag in a cross-body style under my clothing. I’m thinking that in Barcelona, I might loop it around my bra strap rather than my neck. I don’t like the idea of the strap being visible and potentially being dragged by my neck.

    • Kay
      April 16, 2018 / 9:54 am

      I have to smile because more than once I have lost earrings somewhere in a bag and found them accidentally later. What a relief you found the watch.

  21. April 16, 2018 / 9:27 am

    I carry a Travelon Anti-Theft Signature 3 Compartment Crossbody and have been very pleased. It’s lightweight and holds plenty, including my Fire tablet. Fits right down in my under-seat bag.

    • Susan G
      April 16, 2018 / 2:09 pm

      I have the Travelon Messenger bag and love it. For those of you going to places like Paris or Barcelona, please note that the shoulder strap has a metal cable that prevents a thief from slashing it. Also, it’s modestly priced so if it’s stolen, lost or damaged, you’re not out much money.

  22. Mary
    April 16, 2018 / 9:31 am

    Please be thoughtful about the Longchamp Pliage bag. A friend was carrying hers on the Paris metro and a thief slashed it and stole her wallet before she could react. That thin nylon is lightweight but not secure.

  23. Helene G.
    April 16, 2018 / 9:35 am

    A very good post, very useful about this question of the choose of a travel handbag.
    And very complete, at the same time : congratulations, Susan !

  24. Julia
    April 16, 2018 / 10:29 am

    Hobo bags always have a well organized stylish option. I use a light grey cross body for spring/summer travel and a burgundy with cross body and shorter strap for fall/winter
    On my last trip I flew a discount airline within the EU. They have pretty stringent rules with carry on.
    I have a perfect underseat travel pro,love it! Well they included my smallish crossbody as carry on. They told me to get my purse into my underseat bag or they will charge me 60£.well my underseat bag is packed to the gills no way I can get my purse in there
    Yikes! I sweated it out and concealed my purse under my jacket.
    Note to self~always travel with a small adjustable bag mine is scout brand. Just returned from a trip and implemented that travel tip and low n behold I used the little bag,Ta daaaa perfect.
    Also,Susan I so appreciate your transparency on commissions.
    I have quit following some bloggers because I don’t really trust their information. It feels like the money is driving the conversations.
    I trust your honest blog and look forward to it. Thanks!

  25. Lisa B
    April 16, 2018 / 10:45 am

    Love that Pearl bag. My traveling has been curtailed due to health issues with my 16year old beagle. I’d like to try that Pearl bag though. Tempted to get one for one of my twin girls who is a writer for Lonely Planet who travels extensively through Italy.

  26. Cathy D.
    April 16, 2018 / 10:53 am

    I recently purchased the Tumi Voyager Capri crossbody bag, mainly for running errands around the neighborhood. When I shop, especially for food, I like to have both hands free. It is made of practically indestructible fabric, is wonderfully organized with 4 pockets, and only weighs 0.85 pounds. It holds much more than it would appear to and will be excellent for travel. Although I bought it to replace an older bag I used only for local errands, I use it almost daily for everything. Unlike most fabric bags that I think look somewhat frumpy, the Tumi Capri is chic with beautiful, with well-functioning zippers. I receive compliments nearly every time I carry it.

    • Diann P
      April 17, 2018 / 8:36 am

      I second Tumi products for day and travel! I have this same bag in gray for summer and navy for the rest of the year although I primarily use for travel when I really need my hands free. Tumi makes an excellent product which is lightweight, holds plenty, lots of pockets, and looks great. They make me feel polished when I travel but also are very functional. I use a Tumi duffel as my under the seat bag and I love it so much. Link is below. I was able to buy it in a beautiful medium blue which looks good with my black carryon and it still looks new after 3 years of a lot of airplane travel. It was more expensive than my actually rolling suitcase but was worth every penny, especially when I figure out cost per use! I sound like a commercial but these products make me happy since they meet my function yet stylish need.

      https://www.tumi.com/p/durban-expandable-duffel-0484602D

  27. Laura
    April 16, 2018 / 10:58 am

    I agree with all your recommendations and also choose to carry the lightest weight bag possible when traveling However, I sometimes wonder if Europeans judge Americans based on their handbags. I was denied entrance to a “luxury” goods store last year in Italy and I swear the guard at the front door stared hard at my nylon bag. I was dressed perfectly well (better than average since I knew I was going shopping) and I’m only guessing that perhaps my handbag did not signal that I had enough money to be shopping there!

  28. Laurel Hill
    April 16, 2018 / 11:25 am

    Another vote for MZ Wallace. I bought the Paige for our last trip to Italy and can’t say enough about it. Lightweight, water resistant, with enough compartments that I never ran out of space. Love it!

  29. April 16, 2018 / 12:21 pm

    Hi Susan,
    Depending on where I’m going or how I’m traveling I will take either a Longchamp or one of my Wallace bags.
    I’ve also used the black,
    Cheers,
    Ellie

  30. Hiluhilu
    April 16, 2018 / 1:10 pm

    The Lo & Sons Pearl is my everyday bag, and it’s perfect. My wallet is safely zipped up, and my phone, pen and notebook live in easily accessible slots. But for international travel I use my Tumi Voyageur Capri nylon crossbody in black. It’s super lightweight and there are zippers for passport, wallet and phone compartment. It can hold a travel umbrella if needed.

  31. April 16, 2018 / 2:05 pm

    The Manager looks great. My travel purse is by Hobo and looks a bit like this (though I paid much less for mine): https://www.zappos.com/p/hobo-liberty-black/product/9014076/color/3. I like all the pockets for organization and I can put my laptop in it if I want, a sweater, a water bottle, or even a spare pair of shoes. This one only weighs 1 pound 7 oz empty and I think mine weighs a bit less than that.

  32. Jill Ann
    April 16, 2018 / 5:25 pm

    I have several colors of Fossil leather crossbody bags. They are fairly small (for me), so I switch to a smaller wallet and consolidate my usual lipsticks. I recently got a Baggalini convertible backpack I love; it’s lightweight black nylon and has lots of compartments. I put my wallet in the inside zip pocket for security. I can wear it as a backpack, but can also convert the straps so it looks like a shoulder bag.

  33. Nicole K
    April 16, 2018 / 5:41 pm

    Always appreciate your reconnaissance work Susan! I’m yet another MZ Wallace fan. I currently have four in various iterations-tote to crossbody-and love all of them. I like Le Pliage, but you seem them everywhere. MZ Wallace is not quite as ubiquitous, many styles offer multiple straps, and the organizational features and trim elevate them as travel or every day bags.

  34. Vivien
    April 16, 2018 / 7:25 pm

    I have bought so many travel bags-most are so utilitarian looking. Tough but ugly. OK for some destinations. Get heavy if overstuff-bought a plus iPhone to avoid taking an iPad which seems too heavy these days. Plan to ditch by big camera.

    Going to trying the Lo&Sons Pearl for city trips. Have been using a smallish Jimmy Choo suede black/silver camo crossbody. It has three zippered compartments that can take my sunglasses, wallet and phone and even a small camera. Works great and can be tucked into a larger carryon but nutty price-would not use it in wet weather if I didn’t have a coat to stick it under.

    Those light weight collapsible nylon bags/ knapsacks have been life savers to decant/stash stuff especially if going from a cold to a hot climate. There are many that fold down to nothing-Tilley’s have some great ones. I take a couple sizes in my suitcase.

  35. Susan D.
    April 17, 2018 / 3:19 am

    After a friend had her bag slashed on a train in France (and she was not even aware it had happened) , I have followed her lead and now carry an anti-theft/anti slash bag when I travel abroad. It’s lightweight black fabric and also has a secure clip on each zipper. In my regular life, I do prefer leather bags, but have felt very secure with my antitheft/anti slash cross body bag. The brand of my bag is Travelon.

  36. Cheryl
    April 17, 2018 / 9:06 pm

    Timely post for our European cruise in June. Have you heard of the Lug brand? I just purchased a crossbody purse but have a few of their bags. Love them. They are lightweight nylon with many color choices and have lots of organization including a fold away pocket for a bottle of water or small umbrella. They now have RFID protection in some of their bags as well. Great reading all of the tips and I so appreciate your website!

  37. MarianL
    April 23, 2018 / 6:53 pm

    Kind of a late-to-the-game post, but I wanted to mention my favorite bags, Mandarina Duck (http://www.mandarinaduck.com/en-US). I just bought my 4th Md crossbody bag, a replacement for a small black one I’ve been using every day for 5 years, including trips to Italy, Paris (twice) and the Netherlands (also twice). The old one has gone from being strapped on the back of my bike to the opera, alll in the same day. Md offers both leather (too heavy for me) and technical fabric bags in a wide variety of sizes, shapes & colors. In addition to the small one, I have two larger ones – another in basic black and one in a beautiful iridescent blue gray.

  38. jennoko
    June 17, 2018 / 4:42 am

    The Chanel Wallet on a Chain is my favorite travel bag. Dresses up my outfit instantly with the signature Chanel chain. It has so many great features, especially the extra deep zippered pocket found in the flap. I would love to add the Pearl to my collection. I want to whole Lo & Sons line! I am obsessed with watching their videos! MZ Wallace are my favorite “work” bags, great pockets for organization and lightweight but still stylish. I have always wanted a Longchamp, but the lack of organization worries me; now that there are organizer options available, I may have to pick one up. I did notice a couple of colors on sale…

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