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.)
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:
Ultra Lightweight Personal Item Backpack
Zpacks Ultra Bagger 25
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.
Full-Featured & Super Comfortable Backpack
Tom Bihn Synik 22
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.
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.
Camera + Electronics + Tech Backpack
Lowepro Fastpack Pro
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.
Minimalist Ultralight Duffel Bag
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?
Durable & Functional Duffel Bag
GORUCK Aviator Kit Bag 2.0
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.
High-End Personal Item Tote
Mission Workshop Drift
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.
Tried-and-True Shoulder Bag
Timbuk2 Messenger Bag
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.
Ultimate Shoulder Sling
Peak Design Everyday Sling
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.
Simple & Stylish Briefcase
Tom Bihn Daylight
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.
Hard Cover Luggage with Wheels
Samsonite Novaire Wheeled Underseater
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.
Mini Rolling Luggage
Travelpro Maxlite 5 Softside
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Best Minimalist Backpacks for Modern One-Bag Travel
- Waterproof Backpacks to Keep Your Gear Dry
- Ultra-Minimalist Travel Packing List for a Week
- Pack Light, Travel Right: How to Travel With Less
- Travel Essentials: Top Necessities for Men & Women
- Travel Organizer Gear (To Keep Your Luggage & Bags Tidy)
- Ultimate Carry-On Travel Packing Checklist
Last Updated on August 11, 2023