Business Travel 101: The Personal Item (Revisited)

a blue handbag with black handlesBusiness Travel 101 is a series from a couple of years ago about making that first business trip as easy and successful as possible. I’ve re-tooled the series, and now it’s more comprehensive than ever! It covers everything a new business traveler needs to know for that initial trip, including essential tips for packing, security, safety, etiquette, and comfort.

One of the most important items to have for that first business trip is the carry-on. I don’t mean your rollaboard, although that’s certainly critical. Today I’m talking about your personal item. It holds everything you need for your flight, and acts as a purse, briefcase, laptop bag, and entertainment center all in one.

What exactly do I mean by personal item? The guidelines for American Airlines state that the personal bag is anything that can fit under the seat in front of you. It can be a purse, laptop bag, backpack, tote, or a smaller suitcase.  I have traveled with everything from a backpack to a tiny purse to an Eagle Creek packing cube holding my giant tablecloth that I use for events. As long as it fits under that seat, it counts, but technically it should not exceed 36 inches when you add length, width, and height.

For the ladies: In addition to acting as a necessary travel tool, your purse should make you happy when you look at it. Just because we are professional women who travel for business does not mean we need a boring purse or briefcase with no style. There are so many fabulous possibilities out there! You can, and should, love your bag.

What To Look For in a Great Travel Bag

There are several things I look for in my travel bag. Not all of my bags have all of them, but my general guidelines are:

  • Size. Has to fit my laptop, and hold all of my carry-on travel items.
  • Multiple interior pockets. I think the best interior is divided into two sections, one for a laptop and one for the rest of your stuff. It also needs to have a pocket inside for keys, cell phone, and small items like chapstick.
  • Exterior pockets. An exterior pocket on the side of your bag is so helpful for things you don’t want in your hands, but need easy access to, such as your boarding pass.
  • Easy to carry. You have to be able to carry your bag on your shoulder or strapped to your suitcase. It would be very difficult to travel with a bag that you had to carry in your hands. I like two straps that are at least an inch wide, which will minimize cutting into your shoulder.
  • Sturdy construction. There shouldn’t be any obvious weak spots, or stitching coming loose. Leather is great for travel bags because it is so durable, but fabric bags can work as long as they are strong enough (and easy to clean).
  • Rolling or not? Another thing to consider: do you need a rolling briefcase? If your bag gets really heavy or you have back or shoulder issues, this might be the way to go. There are plenty of high quality, attractive options in a variety of price points.

Some great travel bags I have found are this Kenneth Cole Reaction Show Business in Tan, this rolling Samsonite Xenon 2 Spinner Mobile Office, and of course the O.G. from Lo and Sons (pictured above in Royal Blue). I also really like this fun laptop purse from Knomo for a seasonal, less expensive option.

Options for Purses:

There are several schools of thought about the travel purse. Some find their travel bag too bulky to bring out to dinner, or they would rather have something small with the necessities that they can grab. Here are a couple of options.

  • Get a big purse that fits your laptop. I am a big advocate of getting a purse for travel that is big enough for your laptop. It’s the simplest way to make sure all your stuff fits. For some people, this means you have a really large travel purse! But there are definitely big, attractive purses (or laptop bags that look like purses) that will fit a LOT of stuff. (Like this fun bag from Latico.) This works well for me because my laptop is pretty small, and I have found regular purses (not specifically designed for laptops) that will hold it and my other stuff.
  • Use a bag made for laptops for actual travel, and pack your purse in your suitcase. I think this one is a little more complicated, but it seems to work for some people.  They simply take all of their purse stuff (wallet, phone, lipstick, etc) and put it in their laptop bag, and then they pack their purse in their rollaboard. This way when they get to their destination they pull out their purse and put all the stuff back in. They still only have two carry-ons, and they have a smaller purse for when they arrive. Best of both worlds!
  • Drop a clutch or wristlet in their laptop bag. The other way to have the best of both worlds. Take your normal laptop bag, and have a wristlet with your wallet, phone, keys, and lipstick that you just drop inside. Especially convenient if you can put this small purse in a pocket or hook it to the inside top of your laptop bag.

What’s In My Personal Item?

What exactly do I keep in my bag when traveling? I like to keep it simple, and only keep the necessities handy. I clean my bag out before every trip so I’m not carrying around receipts, old boarding passes, or other unnecessary junk. This way I can find everything I need, when I need it.

  • Normal purse stuff.  Of course I have my wallet, with my ID, credit cards, and money, as well as my lipstick, keys, iPhone, and sunglasses.
  • Boarding pass. In the outside pocket so it’s easy to grab.
  • Make-up. I keep my make-up with me so that I can touch up when I arrive, if necessary.
  • Kindle. It used to be a book (or two or three), but now that I have the Kindle my purse is much lighter. Hallelujah! For those of you who haven’t been converted into fans of ebooks, a book or a magazine will work just fine.
  • Laptop. For work, it’s a necessity. If I’m on a day trip, and therefore traveling without my suitcase, I will also keep my charger in here.
  • Pashmina. I often use it as a blanket or pillow on the plane, and a scarf once I arrive. It has also served as a swimsuit cover up and a substitute towel.
  • Knitting. Just because I love to knit! I don’t always feel like working or reading, and knitting is a great way to pass the time.
  • Notepad. I love writing lists, and my little notebook holds them all. I have to keep it around in case I have a stroke of brilliance!
  • Office supplies (in a small bag): pen, highlighter, wireless mouse, binder clips, flash drive, headphones with microphone.
  • Comfort items (in a small bag): Emergen-C, eye mask, lip balm, tea bags, Splenda, ibuprofen, tums.

Readers, what’s the most important feature to you in a personal item?

Be sure to check out my page with products I recommend for travel!

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  1. I watched “up in the air”. If you are as good looking as George clooney you should bring condoms. But maybe good looks will protect you from STDs and pregnancy.

  2. I travel eery week, sometimes more than once a week. Sometimes it’s a day trip, sometimes overnight, sometimes 2 nights. I have found a system that absolutely works for me every time, whether or not I need an overnight rolly bag.

    (1) Professional TSA-friendly (Tumi) backpack (can be traded out for a nice non-backpack for those without lower back issues!): This holds laptop, cord, files, book, magazine, newspaper, and the other items you mentioned in your list. The personal bag MUST have an easily accessible outside pocket. (See below.)

    (2) Smallish, flat-when-empty purse with wallet, iphone, blackberry, lipstick, tissues, and a very small bit of spare room.

    (3) Overhead-sized rolly bag if staying overnight – with only items I do not need during the flight.

    When I have the three bags, the purse fits nicely in the personal bag for getting through the airport. (Flat when empty is the key!) That outside pocket of the personal bag that I mentioned? Contains: boarding pass or device with e-boarding pass, and TINY leather holder for license, one credit card, and $20 bill (airport coffee, magazine, whatever). When I’m on a day trip, the backpack is pretty much unchanged, but I just don’t bother putting the purse in the backpack, and the boarding pass etc stay in the purse. Then, when I am with a client or colleagues, I can use just the purse for going out to lunch, dinner, etc.

    I tell you, this has worked perfectly for me since I settled on it a couple of years ago.

  3. Just ordered the lo and sons bag. Thanks for the tip! In my personal item, a bag of nuts or bag of dried fruit is as much a necessity as my e reader, so if stuck on a plane or too rushed between meetings I have something healthy-ish to tide me over. For longer or early morning flights I must have my tumi inflatable travel pillow. It comes with a case that keeps it compact when folded. I never go on a plane without a bottle of water or Purcell wipes. The latter won’t take the place of a liquid in your ziplock and has many uses from hand sanitizing to dealing with dirty tray tables or armrests.

  4. I just emailed you regarding my next question so you can ignore it when you see it. I’m a pack rack so it sounds like the TT won’t work. My problem is that my work gave me a 14″ PC on the slightly thicker size so the OG doesn’t work with me. Do you have any other recommendations?

  5. @Patricia Do you mean TSA approved? I’ve flown with it every trip for four (five?) years now. If you don’t have Pre-check you do have to take your laptop out. Does that answer your question?

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