12 Best Personal Item Bags for Underseat Carry-On Travel

Zpacks Ultra Bagger 25 backpack sitting on a bench in an airport
Our Favorite Personal Item Bags for Underseat Carry-On Travel in 2023

Sixty bucks to carry on my bag at the Milwaukee airport?! That’s my backstory for this list of 2023’s best personal item bags. I usually fly budget airlines like Spirit or Frontier. They’re mostly okay, but if you don’t watch the size of your luggage, they’ll hit you with nasty gate fees that’ll wipe out any savings from your ticket purchase.

That day, I knew my carry-on bag was going to be a tight fit in the airline’s personal item sizing slot. I’d overpacked the bag, and no amount of stomping on it was going to make it fit. “That’ll be $60, sir.” Thanks a lot, Milwaukee.

I’ve since learned what to look for in hassle-free carry-on bags for personal items, and I’m going to share that info with you. Not only will the backpacks, totes, shoulder bags, duffels, and rolling luggage on this list save you money on gate fees, but if you’re traveling light, you also won’t have to join the less-than-enthusiastic crowd at the luggage carousels.

When compiling this list, I stuck to upper-echelon brands like Tom Bihn, Samsonite, GORUCK, Matador, Timbuk2, and Zpacks. No cheap knockoffs here, so you can be assured of quality construction and durability for many years to come.

This buyer’s guide will also discuss the features to consider and which bags will best match your style of traveling. At the end, you’ll find a summary of permissible luggage sizes. (Spoiler: choose a bag size allowed by the airlines you fly most frequently.)

Table of Contents

Best Personal Item Bags of 2023

Types of Personal Item-Sized Bags
• Ultralight & Ultra-Efficient Backpack: Zpacks Ultra Bagger 25
• Full-Featured & Comfortable Backpack: Tom Bihn Synik 22
• Lightweight Packable Daypack: Matador On-Grid
• Camera + Tech + Electronics Pack: Lowepro Fastpack Pro
• Minimalist Ultralight Duffel: UltraLite Sacks
• Durable & Functional Duffel: GORUCK Aviator Kit Bag
• High-End Personal Item Tote: Mission Workshop Drift
• Tried-and-True Shoulder Bag: Timbuk2 Messenger
• Ultimate Shoulder Sling: Peak Design Everyday Sling
• Simple & Stylish Briefcase: Tom Bihn Daylight
• Hard Cover Luggage with Wheels: Samsonite Novaire
• Mini Rolling Soft Luggage: Travelpro Maxlite 5 Softside
Why I Travel with Only a Personal Item Bag
Factors We Consider When Choosing Products
Final Thoughts: Best Personal Item Bags of 2023
More Travel Gear & Resources

Types of Personal Item Sized Bags

Not all bags are the same. Not all travelers are the same. Each bag on this list has specific pros & cons to consider. Here are some of my favorite styles of under seat luggage:

Backpack

I like to move nimbly when I travel, and a wheeled bag or duffel is just too cumbersome. I fit everything I need conveniently onto my back, so that’s how I roll. Backpacks just make life ‘bing, bang, boom.’

I understand some people can’t wear backpacks because of back pain or other health issues. If that’s the case, consider a duffel bag or a wheeled case instead.

Duffel Bag

Duffel bags are a great no-fuss solution to personal item-sized bag travel. A duffel bag is ideal when you need extra space to bring along a few extra things. They help maximize your storage space compared to the other two options above.

A duffel style has a few downsides and can be slightly more annoying to carry than a backpack. However, you can fit a wide variety of stuff into a duffel because they’re fairly malleable, which also helps if you need to stuff it into oddly shaped spaces.

Messenger/Tech/Shoulder Bag

I recently traveled to Vietnam for an entire month with only a messenger bag. I’d have chosen no bag at all if I didn’t need my laptop and other work essentials. I could fit my laptop, a change of clothes, and a few personal items in my messenger bag, but nothing else.

But not everyone is a minimalist travel junkie. Even so, if you still have an extra bag in addition to your carry-on, a messenger-style bag is a quality solution seeing as you can fill it with all the stuff you need in-flight and jam it under the seat in front of you.

Roller Bags & Hard Cases

There are some excellent options for wheeled mini carry-on bags that fit under the seat ahead of you. Soft- or hard-roller bags are best for those wanting more protection for their belongings or anyone who doesn’t want to carry a backpack or duffel bag for long periods.

If you’re flying frequently, however, a hard case may not be the best style of bag for you. A roller case is awkward to carry, and not every destination is roller luggage friendly. I’ve been in very busy locations where this style of luggage simply didn’t work. Ask the experienced travelers you know about what to expect at your destinations.

Ultra Lightweight Personal Item Backpack
Zpacks Ultra Bagger 25

Zpacks Ultra Bagger 25 pack

MSRP: $249
Capacity
: 25L
Weight: 10.7 oz

Zpacks is far and away my favorite ultralight minimalist gear brand. They’re constantly pushing the limits of lightweight and functional equipment. The Ultra Bagger 25 is a backpack designed for ultralight minimalist adventure trips. It’s made from waterproof Dyneema Composite Fabric and weighs in at a minuscule 10.7 ounces.

This bag is perfect for gear nerds or anyone aiming to carry the least amount of weight possible around. While it’s an incredibly functional and versatile option for personal-item-sized bag travel, it is a tad pricey. It’s worth every penny, in my humble opinion.

BUY ON ZPACKS

Full-Featured & Super Comfortable Backpack
Tom Bihn Synik 22

Tom Bihn Synik 22 personal item travel bag

MSRP: $320
Capacity
: 22L
Weight: 2 lb 9 oz

The Tom Bunh Synik 22 is a 22-liter backpack ideal for day hikes, work, or for one-bag personal item travel. Made from high-quality water-resistant materials, it features a padded back panel and shoulder straps for comfort.

My favorite part of this bag is its laptop compartment and the abundance of pockets that keep travelers organized. It’s a well-balanced bag that’s effortless to wear, easy to adjust, and with its internal frame, you can carry significant weight. All this comfort and utility make it difficult for me to find any downsides.

BUY ON TOM BIHN

Packable Daypack
Matador On-Grid

Matador On-Grid daypack

MSRP: $65
Capacity
: 16L
Weight: 7.5 oz

The waterproof On-Grid packable daypack from Matador has a tiny footprint and can be packed and stored in your carry-on or checked luggage. It’s perfect for someone who needs space for extra items on the return trip.

Although small and lightweight, this bag packs a punch. Its 16-liter capacity is excellent for carrying all your necessities, whether in-flight or as an around-town daypack. It is, however, on the small side for single-bag travel, so look elsewhere if you’re only taking one bag.

BUY ON MATADOR

Camera + Electronics + Tech Backpack
Lowepro Fastpack Pro

Lowepro Fastpack Pro camera and electronics backpack

MSRP: $179
Capacity
: 27L
Weight: 3 lb 3 oz

Depending on where and why I’m traveling, I generally like to keep all my gadgets close at hand. Cameras, lenses, chargers, laptops, and tablets all deserve a safe and secure home during my travels. If you bring fragile and expensive tech gear along when you travel, look no further.

The Lowepro Fastpack Pro is a go-to tech bag because it keeps gear safe and snug without getting in your way. And for rapid access to your camera, this is one of the few bags that offers a dedicated camera compartment.

BUY ON LOWEPRO

BUY ON AMAZON

Minimalist Ultralight Duffel Bag
UltraLite Sacks

UltraLite Sacks duffel bag

MSRP: $149
Capacity
: 23L
Weight: 11.4 oz

Like the Zpacks bag, the UltraLike Sacks Duffel Bag is made from space-age Ultra fabric. And while this bag doesn’t offer the whole kit-n-caboodle of the Zpacks bag, it’s still very functional for use as a carry-on or under-seat bag.

This is a minimalist, no-frills duffel bag, which begs the question: why is it 150 bucks? Well, you’re paying for cutting-edge materials, impeccable attention to detail, and hand-made-in-the-USA build quality. This bag shouldn’t fray, tear, or explode when stuffing it, and it’s as lightweight as you could ask for. Just don’t fill it so full that it no longer fits in the airline’s personal item sizing slot. Fees, remember?

BUY ON ULTRALITE SACKS

Durable & Functional Duffel Bag
GORUCK Aviator Kit Bag 2.0

Black GORUCK Aviator Kit Bag

MSRP: $150
Capacity
: 32L
Weight: 2 lb 9 oz

Pro travelers who need more features than the UltraLite Sacks duffel listed above, should check out the GORUCK Aviator Kit Bag for their next adventure. It’s a sturdy and utilitarian piece that’ll thrive during your travels, everyday life, and anywhere in between.

This duffel is made from burly 1000D Cordura nylon and sports three exterior and three interior zipper pockets (six total) to keep all of your gear organized and accessible during travel. It’s protected by a ‘You Break It, We Fix It’ guarantee, though it’s so durable, I doubt you’ll ever need it.

BUY ON GORUCK

High-End Personal Item Tote
Mission Workshop Drift

Mission Workshop Drift travel tote

MSRP: $335
Capacity
: 28L
Weight: 2 lb 13 oz

Okay, Mr. or Ms. Fashionista, I didn’t forget about your upscale fashion sense. If I’m talking about you, consider this stylish and functional tote from Mission Workshop. It’s quickly growing in popularity as a versatile personal item carry-on in the travel community.

The Drift is a high-end bag, tailor-made for professionals that demand performance from everything in life, even including the bags they carry. This tote-style bag will hold a wide array of top brand stuff, from electronics and gear to clothes and travel necessities. And it’ll make you look extra good while doing it.

BUY ON MISSION WORKSHOP

Tried-and-True Shoulder Bag
Timbuk2 Messenger Bag

Timbuk2 Messenger shoulder bag

MSRP: $150
Capacity
: 25L
Weight: 1 lb 11 oz

On a recent trip to Vietnam, I wanted to travel “bagless” but still needed something to hold my laptop and carry-on items. I purchased a cheap knockoff messenger bag, and I quickly regretted not grabbing this Timbuk2 instead.

I won’t name names, but the knockoff bag was frumpy and dug painfully into my shoulder. Reviews of the Timbuk2 Messenger told a different story, however: It’s comfy to wear, they said, looks fantastic, and puts a little extra glide in your stride. Lesson learned; it pays to buy quality.

BUY ON AMAZON

Ultimate Shoulder Sling
Peak Design Everyday Sling

Blue shoulder sling for underseat carry on travel

MSRP: $120
Capacity
: 6L
Weight: 1 lb 3 oz

Being a minimalist and writing about minimalist gear can be challenging. Not wanting to be weighed down by my possessions is constantly at odds with all the nifty minimalist gadgets and gear I found while researching these articles.

That rings especially true with this shoulder sling from Peak Design. The Everyday Sling is a sleek and stylish shoulder sling that keeps your EDC essentials at hand, safe from the elements, and sitting comfortably on the small of your back. For a guy like me, I couldn’t ask for more.

BUY ON PEAK DESIGN

BUY ON AMAZON

Simple & Stylish Briefcase
Tom Bihn Daylight

Tom Bihn Daylight briefcase

MSRP: $93
Capacity
: 8L
Weight: 12.7 oz

Tom Bihn makes its second appearance on this list of the best personal item bags for 2023. That’s because the Daylight bag is a well-designed and functional bag/briefcase suitable for travel, work, and trips to the coffee shop.

The Daylight’s spacious main compartment and multiple organizing pockets keeps your stuff exactly where you want it. Materials and build quality seem top notch, so expect many years of faithful service. With comfy straps and a lightweight design, you’ll make good time on those long sprints down the concourse.

BUY ON TOM BIHN

Hard Cover Luggage with Wheels
Samsonite Novaire Wheeled Underseater

Samsonite Novaire Wheeled Underseater

MSRP: $220
Capacity
: Not listed
Weight: 6 lb 12 oz

Maybe you’re looking for extra protection for your belongings, or having trouble carrying backpacks or shoulder bags. If so, a classic roller bag might be the solution. This Samsonite Novaire Wheeled Underseater is a shining example of the hardside style.

This has all the classic design features of a roller carry-on, but it’s… mini. The Novaire fits under most airline seats while taking full advantage of every last square inch allowed by travel regulations. Yeah, it’s a bit like a tiny tank, but on the road that can be a good thing.

BUY ON SAMSONITE

Mini Rolling Luggage
Travelpro Maxlite 5 Softside

Travelpro Maxlite 5 Softside underseat travel luggage

MSRP: $170
Capacity
: 26L
Weight: 5 lb 8 oz

Like the Samsonite Novaire above, many people choose this style of roll-around bag because it’s often more convenient and comfy than totes, backpacks or duffels that hang off the body. But unlike the rigid Samsonite, this Maxlite is soft-sided and can be shaped and flattened if needed.

Despite its soft sides, the TravelPro Maxlite still offers plenty of protection. It comes in a compact, 5-pound version that slides easily under airline seats as well as a spacious 9-pound model that should trigger gate fees on some airlines, including Frontier and Spirit. Choose your size carefully.

BUY ON AMAZON

Why I Travel With Only a Personal Item Size Bag

Black backpack sitting on a metal table in front of an airport security x-ray scanner
Less is more in the world of minimalist travel

I choose to travel with less. Less stuff means less weight dragging me down. That makes it easier to navigate crowded airports or to flag down my Uber. I shudder at the sight of folks pulling their entire wardrobe around in a 50+ pound monstrosity on wheels.

What’s the secret of being a light and nimble traveler? Just bring less stuff. Duh, but I know for a fact it can be done — I traveled Europe for six weeks carrying only a personal item-size bag. Years ago, I couldn’t have done that, but once I embraced a minimalist lifestyle, everything fell into place.

I now save a lot of time and money by never paying gate fees for a bag. I use the extra cash to treat myself to better meals and memorable travel experiences. And I don’t miss the time I used to waste chasing lost baggage or standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the luggage carousel, hoping my bag would emerge in one piece.

So the ‘secret’ of being a nimble traveler is to always avoid checking your luggage. Commit to fitting everything you need in your overhead compartment bag or the personal item bag down by your feet. “Easier said than done,” you may say, but try it the next time you fly. It’s liberating.

Factors We Considered When Choosing Products

What qualifies a bag for our ‘best of’ list? After scouring numerous forums, product reviews, and videos, I decided to use the following criteria:

Size & Dimensions

First and foremost, carry-on bags need to fit in the space allowed by regulations. Specifically, a “personal items” handbag, backpack, or purse must fit under the seat in front of you, not in the overhead bin.

Some budget airlines measure your bag at the gate by testing whether it fits inside an official sizing slot. If it doesn’t fit, your only options are to pay a hefty gate fee to bring it or to leave the bag behind.

Here are the maximum allowed sizes for personal item bags for airlines that charge for a carry-on:

  • Frontier: 18” x 14” x 8”
  • Spirit: 18” x 14” x 8”
  • United: 17” x 10” x 9”
  • JetBlue: 17” x 13” x 8”
  • Allegiant: 16” x 15” x 7”
  • Norwegian: 15” x 12” x 8”
  • Wizz Air: 16” x 12” x 8”
  • Ryanair: 16” x 10” x 8”
  • Easyjet: 18” x 14” x 8”

Note: Before you travel, confirm the current allowed sizes for the airline(s) you’ll be using. Specifications and policies sometimes change. The folks at NerdWallet created this useful policy guide if you have more questions. 

Airlines that don’t charge for carry-ons are a bit more lenient towards the size of your item as long as it fits under the seat ahead of you. For these airlines, having a carry-on and a personal item is convenient because it may give you just enough cargo space to prevent the need to check a bag.

Weight

Consider the weight of your empty bag. The less your empty bag weighs, the less it contributes to the overall weight you’ll be handling as you travel. Your feet and shoulders must endure every extra ounce or pound you drag around the globe, so put your luggage on a diet and leave your barbells at home.

Materials/Durability

A bag is only as good as its components. That’s why I picked bags made from proven materials that will withstand abuse. I also preferred double-stitching, YKK-type zippers, and heavy-duty puncture-resistant fabrics.

 Weather Resistance

I’ve dragged my stuff through a blizzard in Detroit, a downpour in Budapest, and a sandstorm in Africa. At the very least, choose a bag that’s rated as water- and weather-resistant. And even with a sturdy bag, I still sometimes choose to wrap my stuff in a plastic bag before it goes into the luggage.

Price

The best bags provide more peace of mind. The savings from buying a flimsy knockoff bag vanish as soon as that cheap bag splits open halfway around the world and you have to replace it. Travel light, but always bring the peace of mind that comes from spending a bit more to get a higher-quality product.

Which Underseat Travel Bag is Best for You in 2023?

Man seated in an airplane with a backpack between his legs and a tag that says "CABIN GUARANTEED"
Grab your ideal bag, store it underseat, travel light, and avoid fees

It’s your turn to decide on one of these best personal item travel bags for 2023. Will it be an ultra lightweight and efficient backpack from Zpacks? A simple and stylish briefcase from Tom Bihn? A futuristic tote from Mission Workshop? Choose carefully, because whatever you choose will be your joined-at-the-hip travel companion for the next few thousand miles.

And remember: when traveling, it’s best to avoid nasty surprises. (Milwaukee taught me that.) Do your research and only buy bags that will fit comfortably in the sizing slots of the airlines you actually use. And travel light. Surprise yourself with how little ‘stuff’ it takes to travel comfortably.

Finally, combine the money you save by avoiding luggage gate fees with the time you save by skipping the luggage carousels and treat yourself by splurging on the good stuff the next time you travel!

Please let us know if you’ve enjoyed this list of the best personal item underseat bags for 2023 by sharing your comments below. We wish you wheels up and calm, clear skies.

More Travel Gear & Resources

Last Updated on August 11, 2023

Photo of author

Josh Riley

Josh Riley is half mountain man, half kid wrangler. He goes hiking, fishing, hunting, and traveling as often as possible, and loves to bring his family of five along for the ride.

Affiliate Disclosure: Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click an affiliate link and end up making a purchase, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Affiliate links help support this website and keep it 100% ad-free.

1 thought on “12 Best Personal Item Bags for Underseat Carry-On Travel”

  1. Hey Josh, You overpacked your bag and you were flying a budget airline knowing the rules. Why is it Milwaukee’s fault? pffft

    Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.