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A Guide To Packing A Personal Item Like A Pro

Feb 1, 2020 | Packing Guides, Travel Tips | 4 comments

There are a million and one methods out there to pack a carry-on. Some say to roll your clothes, other say to lie them flat and fold them all together. But, what about your personal item? After all, a personal item is just as important to your travel day. What are the best tips and tricks of the trade for packing a personal item efficiently, to make your travel day seamless?

The art of packing a personal item is a fine one. I have spent years of traveling to finely tune my process of packing a personal item, and my travel days are much more relaxing thanks to these tried-and-true tactics.

Here is a full guide to packing a personal item for easy access to your liquids and tech for security, how to pack only a personal item for a weekend trip, and how to maximize your baggage allowance with budget airlines using only a personal item!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase any of the products or services from the links below, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. I only recommend products and services I love!

The Best Bags for Personal Items

Before you can pack the bag, you must pick the one that best fits your purposes. As a good starting point, a personal item bag must be:

  1. Comfortable to wear or carry for long periods of time,
  2. Designed with compartments for easy access to important items, and
  3. Small enough to fit under an airplane seat, but large enough to be worth carrying in the first place.

Aside from these three main things to look for in a personal item, it’s nice to have a bag that’s lightweight for your own comfort. A good personal item can be a backpack, a tote bag, briefcase, satchel, laptop bag, or even a purse, depending upon your personal travel day needs.

While it is important to check with the airline you’re flying with for personal item size restrictions, the most common allowance is 18in x 14in x 8in.

These bags are great options for personal items!

Gonex 35L Travel Backpack

Modoker Vintage Laptop Backpack

Veegul Wide Open Multipurpose Travel Backpack

Odyseaco – Montera Vintage Canvas Rucksack

My go-to personal item is my Tek Gear backpack. (Unfortunately, they’re no longer sold–I’ve had mine since 8th grade!) It’s the perfect size to fit under even the smallest of budget airline seats, and yet it holds much more than it looks. 

While it only has two pockets, it can hold my 13.3” MacBook Pro, camera bag with my Sony A6100 and two lenses, microphone, charger bag with my portable charger, laptop charger, outlet converter, camera charger, my tripod, my liquids bag, some vitamins, and a few bottles of generic medicine. (Pro tip: it’s always a good idea to travel with ibuprofen!)

Outside of the bag, I can place my water bottle in a mesh pocket. I also save room for my cardigan, and for my cross-body purse in case a gate agent asks me to consolidate my items. 

For a bag as small as mine, there’s a LOT it can hold. You want a personal item like that! The recommendations above are great options for your very own go-to personal item like mine.

What Should Go in Your Personal Item

Now that we’ve determined what kind of bag best suits as a personal item, it’s time to decide what goes inside it. If you’re traveling with a carry-on, then your personal item should hold:

  1. All your technology that must be removed at TSA Security Checkpoints (ex. laptop),
  2. Your liquids bag that also must be removed at airport security, and
  3. Anything you’ll need in the middle of a flight.

For example, I always pack essential oils in my liquids bag to soothe me, and because they smell good. If I chose to put my liquids bag in my carry-on, I’d have to open the overhead bin and rummage through my hardshell suitcase to find it. 

And, of course, this process takes so long that I’m occupying the aisle for far too long and I’m starting to stress sweat about holding up others on board who need to walk past me.

Yeah. Not ideal.

The key to making your personal item work best for your needs is to use it for everything you know you’ll need easy access to.

While it may seem complicated now to figure out amongst all your things what you’ll want immediate access to, it’ll be a breeze in no time! I used to obsess over packing light, and now it’s second-nature.

grey backpack with blue water bottle in foreground; hilly landscape in background
All of the essentials for your flight should go in a bag like this one.

How to Pack Your Personal Item for Airport Security

What are you bringing on your trip? Will you need snacks? A 3-1-1 liquids bag? Maybe you want to read on your Kindle Paperwhite. Regardless of your specific needs, the bottom line is this: your personal item needs the space and compartments to make your airport and flight experience relaxing.

So, I recommend to have the items that can go in the same security bin near one another in your personal item. For example, keep your tech items together, since your laptop and camera bag can go in the same security bin. 

No one wants to be that person holding up the line. By all means, don’t rush when you’re doing your best to get through security. But, at the same time, we all should be respectful of our fellow passengers and their time.

One way of getting through security faster for yourself (and for others involved) is to have everything you know must be placed into a bin near one another, inside your personal item.

grey messenger bag with brown leather accents
You want a bag with more than one pocket for easier access to your liquids bag at security!

Travel Hack: Packing Only a Personal Item on Budget Airlines or in Basic Economy

As a study abroad student in Barcelona, I was on a TIGHT budget. I only booked the cheapest flights, took public transportation everywhere, even taking the hourlong night bus for my early morning flights. That’s right. I set my alarm for 3:00 in the morning to catch my Ryanair flights on Fridays.

I wanted to see as much of Europe as I could before I left for home, so I did what it took to make my little $2,000 budget stretch for four months. For me, that meant taking budget airlines and packing the bare minimum.

The best perk of packing for entire weekend trips in other countries was never having to part with my bag. At the time, I knew nothing about how to use renter’s insurance for insuring your stuff while traveling, and I didn’t use any credit cards for insurance perks. 

If I lost everything in that bag, I would be in trouble.

Because my personal item backpack is so small, none of the gate agents asked me to check it when there was no more room in the overhead bins. It helped me feel more relaxed in my first days as a traveler, and I learned the valuable skill of minimalism. 

For a budget airline, you’ll want a personal item that is smaller than the average recommended size. You’ll feel the difference in your allotted space on their planes! 

Here are the size requirements for common budget airlines/airlines with basic economy in Europe and North America:

AirlinePersonal Item Allowance
Ryanair40 x 20 x 25cm
Vueling35 x 20 x 20cm
Norwegian30 x 20 x 38cm
Frontier18 x 14 x 8in
Spirit18 x 14 x 8in
Allegiant7 x 15 x 16in
United17 x 10 x 9in
WizzAir40 x 30 x 20 cm

If you’re traveling on a shoestring budget and can pack super light, it’s worth considering a basic economy ticket!

Ryanair plane
Airlines like Ryanair offer a base fare class that only allows a personal item.

How to Pack for a Weekend Trip in a Personal Item

Now that we see the potential money-saving perks of traveling with just a personal item, it’s time to determine the best packing methods to make the most of less space.

If you’re only traveling with a personal item, I recommend to use a luggage cube to pack the clothes you want to take. Pack your laptop (if you’re bringing one) first, using it as a support to keep your bag stable. Next, you’ll pack the luggage cube with your clothes. Any other small tech goes next, and then you’ll want to place your liquids bag in a smaller, more easily accessible pocket.

If you’re using a tote bag instead of a backpack, use one side of the bag to pack your laptop, then insert the luggage cube, and then pack your liquids bag along with other small items on the other side of your tote.

{Pssst! If your personal item still feels small and everything you want to take isn’t fitting, it’s time to purge. What do you really need? I know it hurts. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, y’all.}

When I studied abroad and only used a personal item for weekend trips, I packed one medium luggage cube with clothes that matched the shoes I wore to the airport, a small luggage cube with makeup, a printout of my reading for class (to work on when I didn’t have Wi-Fi), a water bottle, and my liquids bag. 

Even with all of this, I had room to spare!

If I traveled Europe on weekend trips packing this lightly, so can you. Believe me, before I fell in love with travel, I was a pack rat diva. 

You’ll be in new places, around strangers you’ll likely never meet, and you’ll be having the time of your life

Who cares if you wear the same shoes two days in a row?

Vienna, Austria at dusk
On my first weekend trip to Vienna, I was traveling personal item-only.

. . .

I used to pack personal item-only when I was traveling in Europe on a college student’s budget. Now, I usually roll with a hardshell carry-on, a personal item backpack, and a small crossbody purse. 

But, a personal item can fulfill your needs just as well if you are willing to make it happen. I never felt like I was missing out by carrying less luggage as a study abroad student. I remember having amazing experiences I never dreamed possible, all with my go-to backpack.

Have you ever traveled with only a personal item? Would you do it again? What is an essential that always goes in your personal item?

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Background: airplane wing and sunrise
Text: How to Pack When You're Flying on a Budget Airline


    • Sarah

      Thanks for reading!

  1. Farrah

    Great tips! I am all for budget travel whenever possible, so I definitely had to learn how to pack a personal item like a boss when I was traveling for job interviews!

    • Sarah

      That is awesome! Thanks for reading!


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Hi, I'm Sarah

Girl on boat with turquoise water in background

Welcome to my oasis! I am a writer and budding entrepreneur with a love for caffeine, capital gains, and seeing the world. If I'm not writing, you can find me reading a good book, trying out a new vegan recipe, or adding to my coffee mug collection. My goal in life? To see every country in the world. Come along for the ride!

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