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What to Pack in Your Travel Personal Item Bag



If you’re the type of traveler who struggles with only packing a carry-on suitcase, only to give up and lug a checked bag to the airport, you’re most likely doing one of two things wrong. A majority of the time, overpacking stems from a lack of preparedness; you left your packing until the very last minute, and you didn’t strategically think through every piece’s function. There’s also the possibility that you’re not taking advantage of your allotted luggage allowance — namely, the personal item. If it’s spacious in design and properly packed, a personal item bag can be the difference between zipping out of the arrivals area, carry-on suitcase in tow, or waiting by the baggage claim for an extended period of time to collect your larger luggage.

While I believe a personal item bag is the unsung hero of carry-on-only travelers — and swear by this extra-roomy MZ Wallace tote — I’ve also found that, just like a regular suitcase, there are right (and wrong) ways to pack one. Through trial, error, and my years of experience as a professional travel writer, I’ve come up with 10 items you should never bring in a personal item, as well as the 10 things you should travel with instead. Shop the travel essentials, all from Amazon, below, starting from $12.

Don’t Pack: Tumbler for your water

Do Pack: Leak-proof water bottle 

Amazon


One of the first things I pack in my personal item bag is my laptop. Bose headphones, chargers, and various other electronics follow suit. With that in mind, I avoid bringing a water bottle with even the smallest chance of leaking. So instead of the stainless steel tumbler (the kind with a handle and straw) that I keep by my desk at home, I travel with a reusable water bottle that tightly screws shut and locks into place. This way, I can slip it into my bag and never once worry if any moisture will cause damage during the flight.  

Don’t Pack: Hardback book

Do Pack: Kindle or e-reader

Courtesy of Amazon

For me, a book (or two) is essential for getting through travel days. You never know when the plane’s Wifi will be spotty, or when delays will leave you ample time to get through a few chapters. Unfortunately, books aren’t exactly space-saving items, so I recommend investing in an e-reader instead. You’ll have several books at your fingertips, yet your bag won’t be weighed down in the slightest. You can also think about it like this: The space you’ll save can be used for that extra shirt or pair of pants that didn’t fit in your carry-on suitcase. 

Don’t Pack: Toiletry bag without proper lining or closures 

Do Pack: Spill-proof toiletry bag

Amazon


My toiletries rarely, if ever, go in my suitcase; I like to travel with them in my personal item. Even though all of my products are travel-sized, the pouch ends up being relatively bulky and it just takes up too much precious real estate in the suitcase. I also like to have my skincare easily accessible in case I need to reapply sunscreen or moisturize my hands during a flight. Given the number of products with potential spillage (including shampoo, conditioner, and face wash), I make sure to pack them in a pouch that’s designed to zip completely shut and withstand moisture. I use the July Hanging Toiletry Bag, but you can also find similar styles on Amazon. Be sure to look for ones made of water-resistant nylon or a strong PVC material. 

Don’t Pack: Heavy-duty slippers or fuzzy socks

Do Pack: Compression socks

Amazon


You might be on a long-haul or overnight flight, but that doesn’t mean you need to bring every comfort from home with you. Case in point: your go-to slippers. While they may technically fit in your personal item bag, you’re better off bringing a more packable pair of socks, ideally a pair that performs multiple functions. Compression socks keep your feet cozy and covered (as you should never go barefoot on a plane), and they help with stimulating circulation, leading to a reduction in discomfort and swelling. 

Don’t Pack: Bulky neck pillow 

Do Pack: Foldable neck pillow

Amazon


Neck pillows are one of those travel items that remain controversial. Some people can’t fly without them, others believe they aren’t worth the hassle. If you fall into the former category, and plan on carrying your pillow in your personal item bag, make sure to invest in a style that’s significantly less bulky than traditional neck pillows. The trtl Pillow Plus is the perfect example of a travel-friendly neck pillow. It even comes with a waterproof travel bag that holds the folded-up pillow when it’s not in use. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for a similar foldable pillow, but want to save a bit on the price, the Trtl pillow model that precedes this newer version is just $65.)

Don’t Pack: Traditional umbrella

Do Pack: Travel-sized umbrella

Amazon


I’ve flown into London Heathrow countless times over the last 12 years, and, more often than not, been greeted by a bit of rain. After learning the hard way to never travel without an umbrella or a raincoat, I consistently tuck an umbrella into my personal item bag. Of course, a regular umbrella is too unwieldy for this type of transport, so I use a travel-sized version. It’s small enough that I hardly notice its presence, but it’s at the ready if I need protection from the weather. I’ve also heard of fellow travelers opting for a packable poncho instead; when it’s in its packaging, this particular version is only about the size of an iPhone. 

Don’t Pack: Loose cords and electronics

Do Pack: Electronics organizer

Amazon


Organization is an art form that will greatly improve your overall travel experience, especially when it comes to packing your personal item bag. After all, if you’re wildly tearing through the bag trying to find your phone cord, there’s a high chance you might not notice the contents falling out around you. Luckily, you can easily circumvent this scenario by using an electronics organizer or similar travel case. Use it to hold your Airpods, chargers, cords, phone, and any other miscellaneous electronics you might need during your travels. This will ensure everything you need is easy to find, and you won’t experience any unnecessary stress. 

Don’t Pack: Bulky jacket or blanket

Do Pack: Cashmere wrap

Amazon


Planes are notoriously chilly places, but that doesn’t mean you should dress for the Arctic while onboard. If the season or your destination doesn’t require a heavy coat, bring a cashmere wrap (instead of another voluminous layer or blanket) in your personal item bag. While the material is warm enough to ward off the plane’s lower temperatures, the wrap itself is light and foldable. I personally like to place mine across the top of everything inside my bag; in this position, it remains accessible and serves as another layer of protection, keeping the rest of the contents secure. However, if you’re on a budget, we also love this cozy $14 wrap shawl that can double as a blanket on the plane.

Don’t Pack: Ziplock bags

Do Pack: Reusable silicone bags or pouches

Amazon


This rule has more to do with sustainability than it does with saving space, but it’s just as important. I always have a variety of snacks stowed in my tote bag, and I find they’re less likely to get smashed or forgotten about if I have them organized in small baggies. Given how often I’m in the air — usually between two and three times a month — it makes more financial, and environmental, sense to employ reusable silicone bags. I’ve even used one or two of the smaller sizes from this 10-pack to hold a few toiletries that didn’t quite fit in my main Dopp kit. 

Don’t Pack: Half-charged electronics

Do Pack: Portable charger

Amazon


There is nothing more disappointing than boarding a plane, fully ready to zone out to the newest episode of your favorite podcast, only to discover that your headphones are about to die — and the plug at your seat refuses to provide a charge. If you’re ever in this scenario, a portable charger will be your lifesaver. I like to keep mine, as well as the appropriate connecting cord, in the aforementioned electronics organizer inside my personal item bag. That way, I can grab it the second the battery level on my phone or headphones goes below 10 percent. 

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