Best Handbags For Travel

travel in style: handbags

What to do on Sunday in Paris

Perhaps a picnic along Canal St. Martin? I’m indulging in a bit of weather optimism here…

Sunglasses: Barton Perreira // Scarf: Theodora and Callum // Cardigan: Eileen Fisher // Tee: J.Crew // Jeans: Eileen Fisher // Bag: Givenchy // Shoes: Born

I’ve received several questions about the best handbags for travel, and once again I’m going to fall back on “It Depends.” It depends on your destination, activities, how much you’ll need to carry with you, and what kind of style and functionality you prefer.

My own preference is for a lightweight, dark leather “convertible” bag (both short and long straps) that can be worn cross-body or carried on my arm or in hand. A day spent sightseeing is much easier when you can keep your hands free, and it’s easier on your neck and shoulders too. Unless you need to carry a change of clothing with you, a smallish bag should be sufficient and will keep weight down. Be sure the longer strap is wide enough to wear comfortably, and not too long. When worn cross-body, your hand should be able to reach the bottom of the bag. Too short and it will look and feel awkward. Too long and it will bounce against your leg as you walk. A good cobbler can shorten the cross-body strap if needed. I also prefer bags that have multiple compartments, interior organization, and that aren’t too structured or bulky.

Why leather instead of nylon or fabric if weight is a concern? First, leather will usually (not always) be more impervious to the elements. It will be less likely to get ripped, soiled or stained than fabric. I also like to travel with just one handbag, and a leather bag is often more versatile for day-to-evening wear. For a slightly dressier “smart casual” look, remove the cross-body strap and carry in hand or in the crook of your arm. (Another reason to keep the bag relatively small.) Look for bags with minimal hardware or chains, as these can add considerable weight. While leather is my own preference, if you prefer nylon or fabric there are many good looking and functional options available. (I’ve included some below.)

With today’s smart phones, there’s little need to carry guidebooks or lots of printed materials with you while out sightseeing. If you prefer a “hard copy,” tear out or make a copy of relevant pages from guidebooks and just carry those for the day. Use your smallest, lightest wallet, and leave any cosmetics you won’t need during the day back at the hotel or apartment.

Let’s talk about security for a moment. While some situations may have more inherent danger of pick-pocketing or purse-snatching, I think with a little caution and awareness of surroundings you can minimize your risk. One of the reasons I like a cross-body bag is that it feels more secure; when I get into crowded situations I can keep it close to my body and wear right on the front of my hip, resting my hand over the zipper closure. I don’t recommend any bag for travel that can’t be closed securely either with a zipper or a flap with hardware that fastens shut.

Other security recommendations, no matter where you’re traveling:

  • Take only one or two (three at the most) credit and/or debit cards. Make a note of the account number and customer service number(s) of each and keep in the hotel safe and with someone you trust back home.
  • Only carry as much cash as you’ll need for a day. Keep the rest in the hotel safe.
  • Unless you’re traveling between destinations, keep your passport in the hotel safe. Have a photocopy of your passport to carry with you in case ID is needed.
  • Be sure that someone at home has your complete itinerary.
  • Be careful about where and when you use your smart phone, as these can also be targets for theft. And be sure to set up a passcode or pin to lock it.
  • Men: don’t keep your wallet in a back pocket or open jacket pocket.
  • Trust your instincts, and don’t feel that you have to help or even engage with strangers who approach you.

Fanny packs? I know they’re “in” again. I tend not to wear anything belted around my waist, but if  you like them and they work for you, they are another alternative. Backpacks? Same thing. With either I’d highly recommend wearing in the front in crowded situations.

Do you have a favorite style or brand of purse or bag for travel?



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  1. April 16, 2014 / 4:41 am

    I have a couple of light weight bags from Baggalini that I like for travel. Vera Bradley can also be good (they make some in solid black that I prefer to the wild prints). Before I leave on a trip, I clean our my purse and wallet and leave a lot of items at home to lighten the load, items I don’t need frequently. I do make room for my small camera.

  2. April 16, 2014 / 4:55 am

    I am using a burgundy Bagellini and the Karine Dupont bandouillère 3 poches. They can be packed inside each other in the suitcase. I have been considering the Lipault week-end bag to replace my awkward personal bag. Bazaar Hôtel de Ville has a -20% sale. Still warm in Paris (by Vancouver standards). You are dead-on about engaging with people on the street. The French just don’t do it.
    Another thing to remember to pack are drug and optical prescriptions.

  3. April 16, 2014 / 6:02 am

    Great tips! You could write a very helpful book on packing and travelling Sue, I know it is here on the blog but it could be lucrative as well as being a fun project.

  4. chris
    April 16, 2014 / 6:21 am

    For traveling I like a small black leather cross body that has a lot of pockets and compartments to organize the basics. While I make sure that it fits easily into my “personal item” bag if needed, I have often worn it under a coat or jacket onto the plane and then tucked it away in my personal bag for the flight.

  5. April 16, 2014 / 6:24 am

    I just have to agree on the cross-body part – it’s so much easier for walking around, getting on and off buses or trains, whatever. It should definitely be zipped closed, but I would still keep it hanging to my front instead of my back. In Barcelona I could feel someone trying to open my zipper on my backpack-style bag, and I turned to see two girls pretending to look at a map. I should have had a bag that hung at the front. Anyway, just a half-hour later we got conned by trying to be too nice to someone on a street. It’s a long story, but we left Barcelona with a really bad impression!

  6. Marguerite
    April 16, 2014 / 6:30 am

    Absolutely right on your ideal travel handbag. I do the same and take only one versatile bag. The removable cross body strap is the key. Great choices pictured. I’m looking forward to your trip Femme, lol!

  7. Ann Sutherland
    April 16, 2014 / 6:33 am

    Just returned from 2 weeks Boston/DC using a soft leather convertible shoulder/cross-body bag – flat with two outside zipper compartments, but nice looking with those turned towards me. Despite leaving almost all my usual handbag contents behind I still found it irritatingly restricting once a small guidebook, camera, 2 pairs glasses, small Baggalini wallet, minimal makeup, cell phone, etc. were packed in. It was hard to reach everything, and so I will be taking my pouchy woven leather bag to France in September. I used it in Scotland last year and never had a problem – and it never felt full.

  8. SallyJ
    April 16, 2014 / 6:55 am

    I have been using this bag for awhile: and it’s perfect! It’s black but the shoulder strap, (which runs down both sides of the bag) and the zipper tassels are dark brown. Two outside zipper pockets, one inside zipper pocket and two inside open pockets. The best part of this bag is the strap as it can be worn crossbody or you can unclip one side and clip it higher (there’s a second clip about halfway up the shoulder strap) to make a short shoulder bag so more formal for evening. I get a ton of compliments on this bag! It’s small but holds enough (I also take a lot of stuff out before I travel) and it easily slips inside any bigger tote I use for the airplane.

    I think the key is one bag that’s a) crossbody (a must in my opinion) b) big enough to hold my essentials c) versatile enough to work day or night and d) small enough to slip inside a bigger tote.

  9. Duchesse
    April 16, 2014 / 8:28 am

    A few additions: You will need your passport with you if you shop at a store such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris (and many boutiques) where you fill out the VAT tax forms with the vendor. They are required to inspect and record your passport info and just having its number with you is not accepted. Make photocopies of your cards/ppt b/c if only stored digitally you can lose your phone or be out of range. If staying awhile in a city, learn where your nearest bank branch OR its network affiliate is.

    re security: Be aware that it is not the shady-looking guy you should necessarily look out for, it is also (on the métro) the well-dressed, preppy teen texting by the train door, the adorable 9 yr old girl “playing” by darting up and down the aisle, or the sweet 20 yr old woman “student” asking you to sign her human rights petition.

    I carry •tough• microfiber bags by Groom, Karine Dupont, Bensimon.

  10. GingerR
    April 16, 2014 / 7:34 am

    On my recent trip to SF every other woman I saw at the DeYoung had a Bagellini bag. When I returned home I discovered that my local TJ Maxx had a nice selection — so that’s my new travel bag. I had LeSportsSac bags for years and only once have I had one fall apart, and that was a bag I’d loaded down in a major way.

    I’d advice checking on ones’ data plan before ditching the paper guide materials. You may be able to download what you need on the hotel WiFi, but it’s a good idea to know what things are going to cost before whipping out your phone. When husband travels he usually buys a burner with a prepaid plan for local calling.

  11. April 16, 2014 / 7:39 am

    I love and wear a very small LV waist pack, toward the front (hence not a fanny pack) around my waist as I navigate the airport and travel day. Once I arrive, I switch to a lightweight cross body or small tote depending on my plans for the day. As Ginger states above, I always update my data and calling plan before leaving the country.

  12. Lori
    April 16, 2014 / 8:27 am

    Thanks for the great travel bag review! Longchamp makes a great travel cross-body bag:
    Regarding travel tips – I’d add one very important one…don’t carry the same credit cards as your partner/husband. If you do, and either wallet or bag are stolen, you’re both out of luck with credit card access. Carry different cards (one or two maximum) and leave one in the hotel safe that you never carry in case of emergency (along with a decent amount of cash for this very purpose).

    • Andrea Roelofs
      April 19, 2014 / 6:40 am

      The Longchamp is perfect for travel, lightweight, impervious to rain and lasts forever. I have a slightly different version of this bag that I purchased in 2008. It has many,many miles on it and still looks great.

  13. Ginny
    April 16, 2014 / 9:51 am

    You cannot go wrong with a Baggallini. I carried one for years through all kinds of adventures. This year I’m testing out a Sherpani. It’s more casual than a Baggallini, but that’s okay for my lifestyle.

  14. April 16, 2014 / 11:15 am

    I’m laughing because I was working on a post on day bags and you beat me to it! You said most of what I would say. I would add only a few more items. First, the bag shouldn’t be too big or you’ll end up having to check it in museums and art galleries. Staff are a little sensitive to bags banging into things. For the same reason I prefer very narrow day bags as they have a lower profile and appear smaller than a bulging hobo style bag. It helps on the street too – you’re not going bump, bump, bump with a bag that sticks out.
    I always add in a clasp of some sort to prevent theft as stated in my post about “Casual Theft and the Rule of Three“. I favor dark bags as they appear smaller and are less likely to be noticed by thieves.
    My all time favorite bag was by Timbuk2. It was a fold-over cross body bag that could convert from clutch to day bag. That bag somehow held everything for the day and then some. Unfolded, it was around 12″ long by 9″ wide by 1” thick. And black.

  15. April 16, 2014 / 11:54 am

    Always a nylon Healthy Back Bag, think these are also known as Ameribags, but that was not on the label of the one I last bought. I can’t do with a tiny bag; I may also be buying some small things like books or some groceries. Books, especially in Paris! Here I always have one because I ride my bicycle everywhere, but I find them very handy, and perfectly presentable in black.

    I’ve done the passport photocopy too, but remember that in many countries you are legally required to carry identification. Of course some ages, ethnicities and, well, usually the other gender, are targeted more, but it should be kept in mind.

    Never say fanny pack in Britain, and the expression should probably be avoided in continental Europe as well.

  16. April 16, 2014 / 12:45 pm

    I just traveled to Northern California for 4 days to a jazz festival. Before I left I purchased a wonderful nylon, carry-all bag in royal blue from Banana Republic. I loved it. The straps were long enough to place the bag on my shoulders to allow for free hands. I was able to throw all my necessities plus some into it. A great investment.

  17. Martina
    April 16, 2014 / 3:48 pm

    I’ll second your point about not engaging…I said “no, thank you” to a woman in Rome, and in that SECOND had my wallet stolen. Money, credit cards now go in a little exercise wallet under my clothes.

  18. Jill Ann
    April 16, 2014 / 5:05 pm

    My last couple of big trips, I used a Fossil crossbody bag. I have them in brown, red, and matte gold (my latest). They are leather, reasonably priced, and have a sturdy thick strap which would be hard for a thief to cut or break. They also have credit card slots and several zippered or snap pockets. They are maybe not dressy enough for a fancy evening type event, but for mostly anything I do, they are great.

    —Jill Ann

  19. Ellen
    April 17, 2014 / 12:30 pm

    I am firmly in the Baggallini fan club. I have had several in the last decade, and whatever else I might try, I always turn back for these when I travel. I like the crossbody ones with multiple inner zipper pockets, as I think that by the time a thief could figure out which pocket has the valuables, I would know. Usually I rest my arm on it as I move about, so its always being touched by me. . I like small bags; I really don’t see much need to carry about much, except that I am very dry, and I like to have a small water bottle with me.
    One thing that you have not touched upon is splitting the load for the extras with your traveling companion. A few years, I found, at TJMaxx, a Tumi “guide bag” in a manly color for my husband; although he was sceptical, one trip to London with the bag and he was sold. We pack it in the suitcase, filled with socks, as he likes a knapsack for the plane, but once there, he switches to the other bag (seen commonly in Europe and Asia), for camera, sunglasses, water, etc. Since he has a camera, I rely on my phone if I need one, and reduce the load a bit more. We each carry different credit cards, and we each have our own ATM as we bank at different banks, but we also each carry a copy of the credit card number of the others card, as well as its 800# should they be lost or stolen. Its also an excellent idea to call your credit card company to tell them you will be out of the country so you don’t find yourself closed out.

  20. Nicole
    April 17, 2014 / 1:37 pm

    It took me a while to decide what I would use on our excursions off the riverboat. When I packed, I threw in a brown crossbody that I liked for its size but not crazy about anything else. Well that little thing turned out to be a godsend. It held my camera and wallet, tickets and other small sundries that I needed to take, and with a zipper across the top it felt secure, and I liked that I could pull it to the front with my hand across the top in a crowd. I’d like a more stylish one, just for my own taste and for the fun in finding one. After all, isn’t hunting for these things half the fun?

    Another note: My friend who traveled with me got the idea to take a shiny, zippered cosmetic case that came free with purchase (and was filled with her cosmetics) and empty it to use for fancy dinners. Brillliant!

  21. April 19, 2014 / 10:35 am

    Goodness! Halfway through your comments I bounced over to Zappos and spent a half hour poring over Baggallini bags and then bought one!

  22. Judy
    April 19, 2014 / 4:59 pm

    Sue, can you comment on the Eileen Fisher cardigan? Would it be good for someone who is busty? I have not yet tried Eileen Fisher ….

    • une femme
      April 19, 2014 / 5:25 pm

      Hi Judy, I think this cardigan style works well for someone who is busty, as the v-neck doesn’t add any extra bulk there.

      • Judy
        April 19, 2014 / 5:31 pm

        Merci! what size would you recommend for, er, 34G?

        • une femme
          April 19, 2014 / 6:01 pm

          Depending on your shoulders and hips, I’d guess a small or medium. You can always contact EF customer service; I’ve found them to be VERY helpful with sizing questions.

          • Judy
            April 19, 2014 / 6:05 pm

            Thanks again! Sorry to bother you with sizing questions, but I value your opinions and in fact have bought several things on your advice!

          • une femme
            April 19, 2014 / 6:48 pm

            Hi Judy, it’s not a bother at all. 🙂 But I think EF sizing can be very subjective so if you’re at all unsure, best to check with their customer service.

  23. Amy in Pittsburgh
    April 21, 2014 / 10:14 am

    Late to the party, but I purchased a Mosey bag for my European trip last year and it was fantastic. VERY lightweight, nice colors, lots of interior and exterior pockets. I bought one of the more utilitarian-looking styles that it appears they discontinued, but it looks similar to the current style called Sidewinder. I love the thicker strap for additional cross-body comfort. Held everything I wanted and then some. Pricier than Baggalini, but Mosey touts that their bags are made out of recycled bottles or something like that, so I justified the cost (just wish they were made in USA!). I bought mine from Amazon, but Mosey has its own site and Zappos sells them as well.

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