travel in style: handbags

travel bag, sightseeing in Amsterdam

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:

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  1. I have recently returned from 6 weeks in Euope and agree with the criteria you have outlined about about bags. I took a Hedgren bag this time & it is the best yet. I expect it to be my travel handbag for years to come. It is nylon & fits everything without being uncomfotably full but also looks good.

  2. I haven’t learned to walk with a crossbody bag yet. If I wear it in the front, it flies forward and bangs back against my leg. If I wear it on the hip, it’s in the way. Maybe I need to shorten the strap? Any tips?

    1. Hi LeeAnn, a cobbler should be able to shorten the strap for you. I’ve had a couple of mine shortened. The guideline my cobbler shared is that when worn crossbody, you should be able to reach around the bottom of the bag with your hand (on the side you’re wearing the bag). If I follow this, I never have a problem with the bag slapping against my leg.

      1. Susan, thanks so much for that tip. My bag’s strap actually has a functioning buckle, and with your guideline, I was able to shorten it so that it fits perfectly.

  3. This is so freaky. I woke up this morning mulling over what bag to take with me to France. My trusty bag is an old brown Longchamp La Pliage large tote. I love it because I cram a ton of “stuff” into it as a mini carryon. I use it as a pool and beach bag and use it to go out and about. I don’t want to bring my “good” leather Longchamp because it isn’t a good multitasker. I can’t bring it to the beach. I am considering my Nat & Nin “Carrie” bag because, even though it’s pretty large, it has a crossbody strap. But I still can’t bring it to the beach. Son of a beach–I’m now being indecisive!

    1. Hi Catherine,

      I always saw the Lonchamps pliage and said why buy what looks like an overpriced shopping bag and a big sack to loose everything in. Plus I couldn’ t get past the brown small handle. Then they created the shopping handle one then the le pliage neo, so I finally broke down and bought the all black one. At the time they were having huge discounts on the summer colors so I thought what the heck so I bought the small shopper in pearl gray.
      You know what I don’t care that it has a brown handle I love it better than my black one cause it looks small in size is so lightweight yet I can pack the sucker full. I love it so much I bought a fuschia one wore it today with an all black outfit and fuschia pedicure.
      I am officially addicted. I am hoping winter colors they will have burgandy
      The black one is my personal bag (not fully packed it squishes to correct dimensions) then fold up my grey one for my daily purse and then my carryon baggage. 2 weeks vacation I only do carry on.

    2. I have a bad neck and most bags are too heavy. I am a huge fan of the Le Pliage and have a range of colours. I guess for the beach, you could take a canvas tote bag which would pack flat and be suitabke for the beach.

      1. The Pliage nylon is fine for the beach. Have seen French women on the beach with their LV Neverfuls – this looks so chic. But a bit expensive for most people to tote as a beach bag.
        I always take small cross body bags to carry key things like wallet, camera, phone and glasses when I get there, supplemented with small Vanessa Bruno cabas in linen or canvas to carry pashmina, umbrella, and other items as necessary. For the plane itself I wear a much larger leather cross body because it needs to fit the other things I can’t afford to lose as well, like prescription medication, passport, airline tickets, copies of hotel booking confirmations etc. It is heavy – but I only use this big bag on board the plane and empty most stuff out into the hotel safe on arrival. I only use the Pliages as totes never as handbags. Best wishes, Pamela

  4. I just returned by London and Paris, and I took a Kate Spade crossbody bag in an orange sherbert color. It was the perfect size, and had a small handle to convert it from crossbody too. It also fully zipped at the top and a pocket in front. I love that little bag. Perfect for travel and everyday. This was a great post Susan.

  5. I have a gray, nylon Baggalini with lots of fun-looking zippers that I toted around Peru. To go to Rome, I wanted something more stylish, and shopped for months in Marshall’s and TJ Maxx. I finally found a bucket bag with handles and an optional cross body strap. It’s faux leather, so lightweight and can handle the elements. Middle zippered compartment for wallet, phone, passport with outside snap compartments for guidebook, map, water. The brand name is “Gussaci”. Could you get any more faux than that? $40 and it’s served me well as my regular weekend bag.

  6. About 8 years ago I grabbed this m0851 bag (in tan) at the last minute before a trip to Barcelona – I wasn’t too excited about its appearance, to be honest. Today I can’t think of a better travel bag and I find myself reaching for it often at home too. It is extremely lightweight, has a zip top and a deep zipped interior pocket too, is sleek but surprisingly roomy (I’ve put a sweater, umbrella, water bottle and guidebook in it), and very comfortable thanks to the wide strap. Another benefit is that it is neutral/quiet and can go into any environment without attracting attention.—Large-by-M0851

  7. My physical therapist pushed me to cross-body bags–they distribute the weight across your back better than a shoulder bag or a bag on the arm. Since they rest in front of you, they are more secure in crowds.
    A backpack lugged in front tells everybody you’re a tourist and you probably have a fancy camera in that bag.
    Don’t forget to download your maps/guidebooks, etc. Data can cost a fortune overseas.
    Put your passport and credit cards in the hotel safe. Just carry a piece of ID and one credit card. If your driver’s license is stolen, it’s a hassle but you can deal with it back home. If your passport is stolen, it’s a huge hassle that you have to deal with during your precious vacation time.
    I’ve traveled all over Europe, Africa and Asia and only once has someone tried to steal my bag. A guy in Barcelona grabbed it, but I held on. He dragged me, screaming, down the street, with dozens of people stopping to look but nobody helping me. I didn’t let go and my bag (a Furla–still have it) didn’t break. There was no way I was spending my weekend trying to get my passport replaced. He finally let go.

      1. In parts of Italy, there are thieves on motor bikes who make a speciality of robbing women carrying shoulder bags. They zoom along the street and stick their arm through your shoulder strap and yank it off as they go by. If you try to hang on to it you will be dragged along by the bike and can be seriously injured. Our Embassy in Rome has to deal with distressed women who’ve gone through this – some of them have been hospitalised with serious injuries. If you do insist on carrying a shoulder bag, be very careful, especially in Italy. Try to walk on the side of the road next to the oncoming traffic where this can’t happen so easily. It’s the guys who come from behind who are travelling in the same direction as you who are most likely to do it. But of course in many of the hundreds of narrow streets in Italian old towns and the centre of Rome, Milan, Naples etc they can easily cross over.
        Agree about back packs. Very bad idea. I warned my DIL when she arrived in Paris with a smallish one for every day – but she just didn’t believe it would happen to her. It did – her laptop was stolen when it was on her back and she didn’t know till she got back to their apartment. A disaster for them as they had all their travel info and bookings on it – and no hard copies. It’s always good to have back up paper copies of everything. Best wishes, Pamela

  8. Good advice here, Susan. I hope I will one day learn not to overstuff my handbag when traveling. I always make it too heavy and I always regret it! Hopefully, I will hear your voice in my head next time.The last story (comment) about the thief is pretty scary as well!

  9. I prefer a nylon Ameribag and am going to get one in taupe since the light blue is too light a color and stands out too much.

    Even the small size seems like a clown car where you can keep putting in more and more and more. Camera, phone, bottle of water, shawl, wallet, etc.

    1. I have had both the med and lg sizes of Ameribags (Healthy Back Bags). I finally decided the large is the better all around bag for travel, which I use as my personal item when flying. I have the black nylon version. It is the size of a small back pack, so I can use it for things on a trip that I wouldn’t carry everyday at home. I use a smaller black crossbody Baggalinni for evening. etc.

    2. I have a black nylon Healthy Back Bag – that and the Ameribag seem identical; perhaps the name depends on where one buys them? I had a red one too and it died after years of service; will be looking for another one. The only bags I carry – at my back on the bicycle or in low-stress walking situations; towards the front and hanging on in crowds and dodgy situations.

  10. I don’t like a bag that sits on or around my back…like you, I prefer the bag on my side or slightly in front. I carry a Perla or a Tumi small black cross body. I do not take a wallet. I take a men’s money clip with a slot for cards and the clip for money (only one credit card and my license). My husband and I take one iPhone. I will put in a lipstick, glasses, small charger, money clip and a tote bag that stuffs into a tiny sack in case we buy goodies. Just my rule: if you can’t afford to lose the contents, don’t take it. I’ve been traveling to Europe every few years since 1966 and if safety was ever a concern, it is now.

  11. I carried back up Euros and a spare credit card in my sports bra. It made big cities less stressful. The rest of our valuables were either left at home or in the hotel safe. I made do without a handbag most of the time. We traveled in November so a few things in my jacket pockets was enough. It’s very freeing 🙂

  12. Cross-body is definitely the way to go. I learned it the hard way. I have a black nylon bag that looks pretty good, though admittedly, not as nice as a leather bag, but leather is so heavy.

  13. I just use my everyday bag, a Prada Vela nylon messenger bag. Doesn’t matter if it gets soaked and because I use it almost everyday I know where everything is. I always wear a money belt. I’m also thinking of taking a Longchamp Le Pliage backpack on our next trip. It packs flat and doesn’t take up any room. That way I’ll have a place to stash on extra sweater, water and an umbrella.

  14. We’ve been on several overseas trips and I use a small black Baggalini cross body. I like all the zippered pockets and wallet that attaches with a lanyard inside the bag. I keep my passport in the innermost pocket. My neck bothers me if I have much pulling on my it. I have minimized what I take with me to only the essentials. My husband usually uses a day pack so I can put a scarf, sweater, or umbrella in if needed.

  15. I, too, am a fan of the Baggalini cross body bag. We spent 6 weeks in France this spring and it was perfect. I only carry one credit card and a photocopy of my passport; my husband carries a different credit card.

    i picked up the Longchamp medium pliage bag for 45 Euros at their outlet store near Roissy. This will make a good second bag for future trips.

  16. Since I always carry my cameras when traveling, I use a money belt to hold id, credit card and extra cash with a small amount of ready cash in a pocket. I love not having to worry about a bag or try to juggle a bag plus a big camera. The money belt is very thin silky material that doesn’t add much bulk around the waist (nobody wants that!) unless I carry my passport. This is the best solution for me as I’m not giving up my camera!

  17. Since I live in NYC, everything you said about a travel bag and the precautions to have when traveling is my everyday life. My current casual summer bag are a couple of cheapie, on-sale EMS cloth crossbody bags. I love that it has a separate slot on the side of it for a water bottle. And then I have many MZ Wallace crossbodies in different sizes for a bit more polished look. I’m constantly changing bags and I use the small Muji double zip mesh bags to organize my things. I just have to transfer the Muji bag/s, my wallet, metro card holder and phone to the new bag. I despise digging through my purse for stuff!

  18. I always travel with my black leather Longchamps Le Foulonné crossbody
    (It looks very similar in style to the Baggalini above which so many of the commenters seem to love – flat with zippered compartments – not too big, not too small).

    I’m a complete convert to cross body bags, not just for travel but in daily life (although at 5’10” my issue is finding straps that are long enough for the bag not to be hanging at my waist!). The Longchamps is perfect, imo. I have my share of “investment” bags I’ve collected over the years, but the only ones that ever see the light of day anymore are the cross body bags. I find I can no longer tolerate a bag that takes up one of my hands at all, even just to keep it up on my shoulder (and that in-the-crook-of-arm thing has never worked for me).

    Like several other commenters, I always have in my suitcase a Longchamps Le Pliage small backpack – it folds up to the size of an envelope. If I’m shopping while traveling, I can tuck it into my crossbody and if I find I end up with some small parcels to juggle, out comes the backpack and voila, I’m hands-free again!

  19. I have several different bags for different kinds of trips! As a photographer, I always take a camera. On my last trip, i opted to take my bigger DSLR and a couple of lenses. Since we do carry on only, it was little challenging! Found a great crossbody camera bag that folded flat in my case. Used the insert in my larger “personal item”. Camera bag worked great. I put lip balm, tissues, etc. in a small pouch that fit in the front of the bag. Money went in an interior side pocket. That trip really helped me determine what I absolutely needed to carry on a daily basis.

    1. Nancy, would love to know more about the crossbody camera bag you mentioned that folds flat. Thanks!

  20. Sharing the love for Hedgren, Baggalini and the chic microfibre Groom Paris line. Leather is just too heavy for me. In theft-prone locales I use a bra wallet. I don’t access it in public, but it keeps my credit card and larger bills safe till I need them.

    1. Duchesse, I’ve seen so many recommendations here and elsewhere for Baggallini bags, I’m going to give them a try. And I’ve bookmarked the Groom Paris locations so we can visit when we’re in Paris next month.

  21. Dooney and Bourke has some cute crossbody bags in lightweight nylon in a wide variety of colors, from subdued/sophisticated to colorful/fun. I’ve never owned one so can’t remark on the functionality, but I’ve been tempted to give them a try.

    I have had good luck traveling with various LeSportSac bags. The brand is so lightweight, and comes in so many color and pattern options. Maybe not the most sophisticated bag available, but very practical and functional, and very affordable. I suppose Longchamp is the grown up version of LeSportSac, but I do not like the handles on the Longchamp–they are too hard and narrow and dig into my shoulder.

    I also like the comfort and ease of the Vera Bradley triple zip hipster, but it’s hard to find a pattern that goes with everything. They have the microfiber line now in nice solid colors, but I’ve found that the squared-off buckle used on the microfiber strap ruins my clothes. The patterned bags have a rounded buckle that don’t cause any problems. It’s so hard to find the perfect bag!

    1. I like Baggallni or LeSportsSac bags. They’re light and tough with zippered pockets. They also do well in wet weather. You can easily pack them inside other bags.
      The trick to LeSportsSac bags is that they’re often prints. I try to ignore the design and focus on the colors in the print.

  22. I have fallen in love with my bag organiser! Being a constant “changer” to suit an outfit, I found it tiresome to quickly change all the contents when running late. I bought a medium size which fits all my day bags and is just so quick to slip out and in. My pick for travel is a soft leather crossover but probably would keep extra weight out by leaving the organiser at home as no changes required.

  23. MZ Wallace is outstanding for travel – as they’re predominantly nylon they’re lightweight, the organizational features are top notch, they wear like iron and look like a million bucks. My Paige has sheen to Paris 3x (once with me, twice with friends!) and I’m thinking about a Charli for the crossbody/satchel interchangeability.

      1. Don’t forget to check out Hobo bags. They are designed for travel. Each season they have a little extra somethin somethin added for flair. Also if you are still looking for glasses check out the bespoke line of Tom Davies. They are made for your face,so if you want oversized you can and not look like Mr.Magoo. I think I’ve found my forever frame a I’ll just change up the colors. Right now I’m sporting a great neutral gray and pink….

  24. I travel for work A LOT. I never check luggage, so I bring my rollerbag on board and then I use either a backpack or the Lo & Sons OG as my 2nd carry-on. Therefore, a key bag characteristic for me is a pocketbook that folds flat and fits into my carry on. So, I usually bring a small Kate Spade cross-body for evenings, and a larger Kate Spade that can hold my pocketbook items, a light laptop, and a file folder or pad of paper. Container Store has a great pocketbook organizer that I can move from backpack to OG to the Kate Spade day bag.

  25. Hi, Susan! Thank you for this extremely well written and informative blog. I see you are wearing a Christian Dior bag–what style is it? The link you provided is no longer up-to-date. Thank you!

    1. I agree, this is a great little bag if you don’t need to carry a lot of stuff. I’m going to be road testing their “O.G”. bag on my next trip and will report back. 🙂

  26. I’m a long-time follower, but I have never looked through this post. I carry a small Tumi crossbody bag which holds a small camera, phone, sunglasses and a small RFID wallet. I recently got a new Vera Bradley hobo bag in black leather, which is big enough to carry a full-size camera. As Susan suggests, it has both a short strap to tuck under your arm, and a longer one for crossbody. Great bag!

  27. I lost you a few years back (I couldn’t remember your name) and so glad I found your blog again! It’s lovely. I’m a little late to the party here but can’t help but post. I have been using MZ Wallace bags for a few years now. They are expensive, especially for a nylon bag, but their custom nylon and hardware make for an elegant bag and their pockets are just fantastic. In the end, worth the money in my mind. I used ‘Paige’ for a trip to Croatia last year and got the bigger ‘Hayley’ for France in May to accommodate a day out (guidebook, water bottle and room for small items I pick up along the way). The Hayley is great because it can be worn with a single hobo strap (i.e. evening) or crossbody style.