Personal Item Carry-On: Backpack or Cross-Body Bag?

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(March 2019 update: I have a related post discussing convertible carry-on bags here)

Your Personal Item is the one smaller item most conventional airlines let you bring on the plane in addition to a full-size carry-on bag.  A Personal Item could be 17 x 13 x 6 inches, for example.

Are you thinking, “Backpack or Cross-Body?  But what about all the other kinds of bags!?”

I’ve tried all sorts of carry-on bags.  Open-top totes can dump all over the floor and feel heavy to carry around on your shoulder and you likely have to lay it on its side under the seat, AND pick pockets must love them.  Duffels are heavy, awkward, and uncomfortable to carry.  Wheeled duffels usually tip over constantly and can be heavy when empty.  Handbags with top handles feel heavy and awkward to carry and I like my hands as free as possible.

My favourites are cross-body bags and backpacks.  If I carry a backpack, I usually also wear a small cross-body (think wallet-on-a-chain) that contains my phone, passport and boarding pass (things I want to access while going through security and need handy while at the airport).  Along with the spinner or rolling carry-on suitcase, doesn’t that make three items then?  Nope… my little cross-body can always fit into the backpack so it’s never an issue.  That’s still just a Carry-On and a Personal Item.  (Youtuber Just Jennifer does this too!  She carries her Chanel mini inside her Personal Item.  See it here.)

Here are the top three bags that make the best Personal Item in my experience.  If you are not checking any large bags and you are carrying everything with you, bring a small wheeled carry-on bag with most of your stuff in it.  Your Personal Item should be a bag that can rest on top of your wheeled bag through the airport and/or that you can comfortably wear cross-body OR a backpack.  Also important is that you use something squishy that’s top-loading or easy to access in a cramped plane.  Unzipping a 50/50 split suitcase in-flight just isn’t realistic.

Bag #1 The Tumi Ruth Satchel from Tumi online isn’t available anymore but I’m sure they have many more that are suitable, as Tumi is a thoughtful, detailed travel brand.  It is one of my favourites because it checks off so many boxes:

unnamed (3)

  • looks good
  • decent capacity
  • lightweight, packs down
  • great pockets
  • free custom monogram tag on many products
  • top-loading, so easy access in the plane
  • can be worn cross-body- barely
  • has the split in the back so you can put it on the telescope handle of your spinner

Bag #2 is also from Tumi.  It’s the Tumi Halle backpack.  It comes in a range of colours and prints each season.  (Tumi online $355-$415 CAD)


  • looks good
  • deceptively large capacity
  • lightweight, packs down
  • great pockets
  • great day-pack for touring in places like Europe.  I also used it in Iceland, Fiji, and Vegas.
  • free custom monogram tag on many products
  • has the split in the back so you can put it on the telescope handle of your spinner to give your back a break
  • comfy straps

Bag #3 Balenciaga Velo.  This comes with some risk.  For instance, on one flight a few years back I got stuck near the back of the plane (I’ve never made that mistake again since) and the blue toilet fluid from the bathroom leaked on the floor and ran under my seat.  It permanently stained one of my Balenciaga handbags (specifically, the stitching on the handles).  Regardless, sometimes I bring a more upscale handbag because of the type of trip we’re going on (Vegas, NYC).  Mine’s light grey but here’s an example from Neiman Marcus currently ($1950 USD).

Screen Shot 2018-05-18 at 2.07.42 PM


This has been a great Personal Item on so many trips.

  • looks great
  • fits a ton of stuff in it
  • small zipper pocket on the front is useful (ie cell phone)
  • it’s lightweight; particularly for a leather bag.  This is unique for designer bags; many are heavy when empty (ie Salvatore Ferragamo Sofia Satchel)
  • the removable strap is very long and can easily be worn cross-body (yes, even on a curvy body)
  • it can be carried comfortably on the elbow or in the hand when not heavily packed

I hope those three bags give you some ideas for more stress-free travel.

Remember:  Keep everything you need for the flight in your Personal Item under the seat in front of you and the rest of it in the larger wheeled bag in the overhead bin, which, if you’re packed well, you should not need to access for the whole flight.

Tip: Bring an empty water bottle through security in your Personal Item.  Many airports have bottle fillers near the gates, so you don’t get gauged paying $4-5 for a bottle of water.

Stay Well Packed

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