Where Art Thou Perfect Travel Tote Bag? Tips For Shopping For Your Right Hand Man

I am naive every time. I think that I have found you. I was convinced that you had the most to offer. You had room for my laptop and all of the necessary beauty products that go into long haul travel. You even had a zipper to give that security that everything was in my bag, as opposed to those pointless travel bags that remain open and exposed to the elements and pickpockets. And then, the night before my big trip, I would attempt to pack you up. Your zippers would break. Your seams suggested an impending burst at any moment. A strap would give out in the middle of the airport. The travel tote bag has always failed me.

Shopping for vegetables when I should have been shopping for a new travel tote bag.

I will be heading out over country and ocean in November (more on that later). While I am beyond excited about the trip, I worry that still in all of my years of travel, I have yet to find the best bag for carrying on the plane on long haul flights. I require a bag that fits a 15” laptop, notebooks, beauty essentials, my wallet and other electronics. While this doesn’t sound like too much to ask in a travel tote bag, I have quickly found that it can be. Many bags are too small to fit my laptop. Others look like I would be playing the part of Santa carrying a bag of loot as they are far too big. Some are backpacks which I have never been able to digest for my style. I might sound like a Goldilocks here but I want a travel tote bag that is just right. While I still haven’t found a winner in my measly budget, I have discovered what I look for in this bag. If you are dealing with many of the same problems, here are a few things to keep in mind while shopping around for your right hand man for travel. 

The girl with a whole lot of baggage problems


I don’t like to look like I am carrying a bag bursting at the seams. I have been doing this for years however because I want a bag that looks fashionable like a purse but one that also has the durability and size of luggage. If you travel with your laptop, you need to be sure that your bag has more than enough room to accommodate a computer. I have purchased bags that are big enough to hold my computer, but not much else. I am now in search of a bag that yields a few inches in width on both sides so that I don’t clog up the security line while trying to wiggle out my laptop from my purse. This has happened. 

This travel tote bag is just too small.


There might be nothing worse while traveling with your bag tucked underneath your arm only to have a strap give out on you. I have had many travel tote bags that just could not withstand the weight that I needed. I would then find myself hugging my bag through the airport as though I am clutching buried treasure that I found in a jungle somewhere. When looking for the right travel bag for all of the necessities you need right on your arm, be sure to examine the straps. If they look flimsy or secured with just simple thread, you might have a “hugging my bag” situation on your hands.

Style and Color

Perhaps I am asking too much of my travel tote bag, but I look for bags that are classic and can go with everything. A bright purple bag will stand out when you want to blend into the scene. I have mostly excelled in this department with my tote bags. The style of the bag should also be comfortable on your arm or shoulder without being cumbersome. Some bags I have purchased have lent the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” effect. They are awkward when filled due to their shape, forcing me to look like I could topple over at any minute. As this is the bag for weeks of travel, it is important that the bag will go with everything you pack in an effortless manner. A black or cognac colored bag tends to go with everything. 

Basic black goes with everything including Baroque babies


I have long neglected this aspect of travel tote bags. Sometimes I get clouded by the style and the color that I fail to look inside first. Do the pockets make sense? Will the bag be an unorganized mess once I pull out my computer at airport security? Is there an outside compartment for my cellphone and boarding pass or other items that I need to get to quickly? These features are ones we can forget about in the shopping process. You need to visualize how you will actually pack this bag and how it will work for travel. I appreciate a travel tote bag that has a strap that slips over a rolling suitcase. I welcome this feature as once I get my checked rolling suitcase, I can free up the weight on my shoulder and let my wheels do the work.  

Suitcase and Tote Bag Matrimony

Have you found the ultimate travel tote bag? Please share the wealth for those of us who are still searching. What do you look for when shopping for the perfect travel bag?


  1. says

    I feel your pain – literally. I usually don’t check bags, even on international flights. I have a satisfactory roller bag, and a good backpack carry-on for computer, camera, electronic paraphenalia. However, my issue is what to carry all day. I carry my expensive (sort of large) digital point and shoot everywhere, my phone, my travel notebooks, my e-reader, and all the brochures/cards/tickets I pick up through the day. During the day I don’t want to wear a backpack and I have neck problems so I need a cross-body bag. It’s hard as sin to find something that is fashionable and functional. I wish you well in your search.

  2. says

    Ahh the tote bag search. I hate to admit that I have given up this search in favour of backpacks. Looking nice has been traded in for a sweaty back and looking like a tourist. Unfortunately my camera is just too bulky for any sort of order within a tote :( I wish you better luck than me! (And can’t wait to hear about your plans!!)

  3. says

    C Wonder has a tote that might fit your needs (I think it’s the Gusset, expands for air travel and could collapse some for around town style), @Lindsey, I found the Timbuk2 Harriet Shoulder bag to do the trick, it is a cross body bag, holds my dslr and an extra lense with room to spare…happy shopping

  4. says

    Travelon makes excellent carry-on bags that are comfortable and also good looking. they all have add-a-bag slips in the back to slide onto your bigger bag. They also have great, useful pockets and are easy to keep all your stuff organized.

  5. says

    So it’s not just me? I’m not the only one struggling with this whole carry-on thing? I just invested in a Vera Bradley duffle. I think it’s a keeper. As an experiment, I packed it for my annual trip to Mexico. It easily held two weeks casual beach wear, toiletries and shoes without being too heavy. It also fits in the overhead. I’ve been using a crossover messenger bag as a “purse” that holds my camera, lenses, computer (macbook air), power cords/chargers plus my usual purse things.

  6. says

    I love your fashion posts. I have the dual problem of needing a cute travel tote bag that can also double as a diaper bag (I know…sigh) when I am out with my younger one. I found one that I love but am still looking for the perfect one, maybe one I can use just for my stuff. Maybe I will find it in Florence…

  7. Bathilda says

    I am on this self same quest. I’m going to a luggage store to see what they have, but I’ve looked on zappos for hours. (They have good videos of the actual bags–very helpful). There are a couple of baggallini styles I like, but they tend to be not too deep, and there are a couple of Sherpani bags that are nice. Both of these brands come in at under $100–even for their large styles….so it won’t break your heart if you get airport or train gunk on it.
    My problem is that I need it to carry an insert for my DLSR camera, plus “stuff” for the family. I don’t want the kids carrying around bags for day travel, for fear they will be easy targets for theft. I inevitably have to cart around jackets, rain gear, bandaids, Tylenol, you get the point…plus I’m a hot five feet tall. I need a “just right size” that won’t make me look even smaller by comparison.

  8. Beti says

    Thanks for the suggestions in the comments. We are off on a month-long trip to Paris and the UK soon (first time – woot!). I’m an over-packer by nature and am really trying to minimize this trip. I have a good rolling bag to check but the daily bag is elusive. My criteria is a bag about 11x13x3-4 inches, zipper top, room for DSLR and a spare lens in sleeves, water bottle, travel journal and a few personal items like wallet, chapstick, passport, phone, etc. Plus I’m really, really trying to find one that’s made in the US. There are some great American bag manufacturers like Duluth Pack, Port Canvas, Frost River and Wood & Faulk but none of them are Just Right. The Quest continues….

    • Mary says

      Have you looked at any of the Kipling totes? Mine has a padded section for my laptop that could offer protection for your camera. It also has lots of other nice zippered compartments. It has been my day bag on numerous trips and you might just love it.

  9. LM says

    The OG travel bag from Lo and Sons is the answer to my travel tote bag dreams. It has a handy sleeve to attach to suitcase handles, has a messenger strap and is the perfect size. With handy pockets, including both a laptop and iPad pocket and a handy side pocket for shoes, it really is all I will ever need for travel. Yay!!!!

  10. Karin L. says

    OMG – I felt compelled to comment because I found this page a while ago as I was on my quest for the perfect travel tote. I have a new job that requires frequent travel for work and I am in the same dilemma where I wanted the following: laptop bag, doubles as a purse, fits over suitcase, reasonably fashionable. I found something that fits all this criteria and thought I should share – it’s by KBG Fashion and it’s called the “Smart Pack Overnighter Tote Bag” – http://www.thebay.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/en/thebay/home/totes-duffle-bags/smart-pack-overnighter-tote-bag

    It also comes in a larger “weekender” size, but I found this to be large enough to fit my 15.6″ laptop plus charger, mouse, and all other normal purse items. It’s not the MOST stylish, but in my opinion definitely offers the best balance of price/style/functionality that I have been able to find. It retails in Toronto, Canada for $80 CAD. It has pockets all around the outside which is so perfect for those random things you just need pockets for (tissues, business cards, etc.) as well as an inside zip pocket, cell phone slot, and other small slots. I wear it as a shoulder bag but it also has a strap that can be used to wear it cross-body.

    Hope this helps someone out there!

    • kristine says

      yahoo! i have been on a quest as well and as a fellow canadian stores online are limited. this bag looks perfect! thanks for sharing. i am about to buy it right now.

  11. says

    I”ve bought a million but I want one that doesn’t just slip over the handle but has that wide band across the back that holds it in place. The handles will allow the tote to slip from side to side! I may have found one. I”ll be back with the info if so.

  12. Sydney says

    I have bought so many travel totes and none have really worked for me. I recently picked up a Pour Le Victorie Inez carryall tote (bloomingdales on sale) and so far it’s working. I can fit my 13inch MacAir, travel headphones, makeup bag, glasses keys, phone, ipad mini , charger , a couple of mini bags of nuts for a flight snack and my wallet all nicely organized. The bag has a middle zippered compartment for my wallet to keep it secure, and has an inside side pocket for easy access to phone. It’s stylish and goes well with my carry on luggage. I also usually pack a nylon cross body purse in my luggage for running around town, currently using the Liebeskind small shoppers tote (purchased at Nordstrom last year).

  13. says

    It’s nice to know I’m not alone. (And apparently this problem has yet to be solved)

    I’ve tried Tumi Bags, Kate Spade (and others like her) as well as Lo & Sons in search of a great bag that looks classy enough to take into meetings (laptop, files, etc) as well as a workhorse that doesn’t slide off my suitcase & has enough room to not burst at the seams with an outside pocket I can slide my wallet in. (Wishlist also includes room for a pair of flats, water bottle + odds & ends)

    I have yet to find it.

    (Closest I came was L&S’ OMG bag, but found the design was difficult to get stuff in and out of because of the tapered top… absolutely heart broken)

    My husband is convinced such a bag doesn’t exist. I say nay nay. The search continues…

  14. Sherry says

    Greetings fellow travelistas! It has been both a joy and a pain to find that rare combination of style and character–no I’m not speaking of a significant other–I’m speaking of luggage! Sometimes I wondered how it was easier to find the love of my life and a simple carryall. But, find it I did.

    The secret to my happiness lay in 2 things: allowed dimensions and travel necessities. The first thing I did was cross compare size allowances for a second personal item and the most common was the size of a backpack: 12in x 8in x 17in. So flipped around anywhich way, those were my limitations. Then, I realized that my travels around the world needed a lot of flexibility: museums and sightseeing needed a backpack, shopping needed a tote, and dinner needed a clutch.

    With all of this in mind: I first bought a large “bag-in-bag” tote with provided crossbody strap (Charming Charlie’s $30) — a “bag-in-bag” simply means that the tote has two clips on the inside to hook in a clutch (think of it as a removable pouch). I took the tote to my local seamstress and had her attach four D-rings on the backside of the tote to accommodate two shoulder straps to make the tote a backpack ($10 for 4 D-rings, $20 for the seamstress, 2 straps for the backpack were removable black straps from other purses). Now, I had a convertible tote/crossbody/backpack with an internal clutch.

    But now, that was great for when I was at my destination, but what about the plane rides to get there? My tote was much smaller than the allowed dimensions so I had a few more inches… and travelistas know–never let inches go to waste!

    Along ce the solution… the Tumi Larkin Ashbury Duffle ($545 and a few months of surviving on Ramen dinners and therapy to get over the fact that I was going to spend that much on a bag). The Duffle is perfectly within the dimension allowance, has a piggyback sleeve to allow you to slip it over your Wheeler, an external pocket to shove your boarding pass/passport/jewelry/phone for getting through security, an a cavernous central component to put my convertible tote … Oh, and still space for a trenchcoat!

    So, I found my solution for it all in a Russian Matryoshka Doll system- a clutch inside a convertible tote/messenger bag/backpack inside a Duffle… and it’s passed through Japanese Airlines, Chinese Airlines, German Airlines, Swiss Airlines and almost all American Carriers without even a glance. Roller goes up and the small Duffle goes by my feet (and I’m a tall gall- 5’9″).

    Happy travels dolls 😉

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