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The Ultimate Personal Item Bag Essentials: What to Pack and What You Can Leave At Home

I love it when I overpack my suitcase so much that I'm dripping sweat trying to zip it closed.

Taye Diggs

You never want to be caught without your essentials while traveling. But at the same time, you don't want to be lugging around a heavy bag full of things you don't need. So what's the solution? The perfect personal item bag, packed with only the essentials. Here's what to pack (and what to leave at home) to make sure you're always prepared.

First, let's start with the basics: easy access. Your personal item should be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you but large enough to fit everything you need. It should also have multiple compartments or pockets for easy organization. And finally, it should be comfortable to carry, with straps that distribute the weight evenly.

For me, that's either a travel backpack or my trusty Longchamp Le Pliage bag. Technically, the second one is just one big hole, but I've been using it for years, and it perfectly fits everything I need. I put everything in pouches or use a purse organizer to combat that. Plus, the straps are sturdy and don't dig into my shoulders. The best part is when I've arrived at my destination, I can fold that sucker up.

Now that we've got the basics down let's talk contents.

Some essential items to pack in your personal item bag include your passport, boarding pass, lip balm, and a scarf or blanket. You can also pack snacks and a water bottle to stay hydrated during your flight. If you're traveling with electronics, pack chargers and headphones so you can stay entertained during the flight. And finally, don't forget to pack any medications you might need during the flight.

These are the items I make sure to always have in my personal item bag:

  1. My passport and travel documents: This one is a no-brainer. Your passport is your most important item, so make sure it's easily accessible. I like to keep mine in an outer pocket where I can get to it quickly and easily. I've also done away with fancy passport covers. TSA usually takes it out anyway, which slows them down. I know it's tempting, but just don't bother with them.
  2. Phone: You already know why. Don't forget to charge it before you take off.
  3. A change of clothes: Again, this is essential. Whether you're traveling for business or pleasure, you never know when you might need a change of clothes. I like to pack a light cardigan or shawl, jeans, a clean shirt, and panties. This way, I'm prepared for anything.
  4. Handheld fan: On airplanes, I'm prone to becoming overheated and anxious, so a little handheld fan has always come in handy. I've tried using rechargeable USB fans only to be disappointed again and again. Low-tech is the way to go!
  5. My iPad: I travel with my laptop almost everywhere I go. It's my lifeline to the outside world, and I need it for work. But in my personal item bag, the iPad is a must. I download all of my magazines, books, and movies beforehand. It's great for entertainment on long flights, and you won't be stuck watching Spider-Man or Peppa Pig for the 10th time.
  6. Headphones: Another essential for me. I always like to have headphones if I need to tune out the world around me. They're also great for watching movies or TV shows on your laptop, phone, or tablet.
  7. Power bank: This is a must if traveling with any electronic device. FYI: Charge all of your items before you leave your house. Nothing is worse than being stranded with a dead phone.
  8. Scarf or shawl: I am always cold on airplanes, so a scarf is essential. It's also great for using as a blanket or pillow. I usually wear black or a colorful one like my favorite Marimekko x Target scarf with a bright floral pattern. Both hide stains well.
  9. Skincare kit: At a minimum, this includes items like face wipes, moisturizers, sunscreen, eye masks, and lip balm. This might seem small, but trust me, it's not. Your face gets dry on airplanes, and no one wants chapped lips or flaky skin. I also bring at least two face masks and a mini jade roller. About an hour before landing, I slap that face mask on, and I'm good to go.
  10. First-aid kit: This is always a good idea, especially when traveling with young children. Bring bandaids, Neosporin, pain relievers, and anything else you might need. I also like to keep a small container of hand sanitizer in my personal item bag.
  11. A water bottle: Staying hydrated is key when you're traveling. I like to bring a reusable water bottle with me so I can fill it up after security. And if you're worried about leakage, invest in a S'well or BKR bottle. They're 100% leakproof (and super stylish).
  12. Snacks: If you're anything like me, you get hangry when you travel. I always make sure to pack snacks in my personal item bag, so I don't have to buy overpriced airport food. My go-to's are Kind bars, hard-boiled eggs, and trail mix. But really, anything non-perishable will do.
  13. A notebook and pen: You never know when you'll need to jot something down. It doesn't have to take up too much space either. Grab a cute one from the dollar store. I also use my notebook to track what I'm packing in my suitcase, so I don't forget anything. For your pen, black and blue ink only, please.
  14. Gum or mints: This is for takeoffs and landings. It helps with the pressure changes and prevents your ears from popping. Mints are for after meals or whenever you want to freshen your breath.
  15. Small makeup bag: This is for touchups after you land. I like to keep a lip color, blush, brow gel, and mascara in mine. I don't wear much makeup, so this is my kit for the entire trip.
  16. A travel pillow: I cannot fall asleep anywhere, so a travel pillow is essential for me. It helps me get comfortable and catch some zzzs on long flights. Mine is inflatable because I can't stand lugging that around with me.
  17. Sunglasses: These are great for when you land, and your eyes are still adjusting to the light. They're also good for hiding any dark circles you might have. If you're always losing yours, just grab a cheap pair.
  18. Small bag of toiletries: This should include toothpaste, a toothbrush, deodorant, floss, and body lotion. I also like to keep a small bottle of perfume in my personal item bag. The “if I had to camp out at the airport, what would I need” kit.
  19. A small bag of electronics: This should include items like your phone, camera, and any chargers you might need. I also like to keep my headphones in this bag, so they don't get tangled. An external charger: This is for charging your phone or other devices while on the go. I always make sure to pack a charger in my personal item bag, just in case my phone dies at an inopportune time, and the power bank is out of juice.
  20. Hand sanitizer: This is when you can't find a sink to wash your hands. I like to keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my personal item bag.
  21. An emergency contact card: This is just in case you lose your wallet or phone. I like to keep mine in my personal item bag, so I always have it.
  22. …and a face mask. This is for when you're flying and want to protect yourself from getting sick. I always make sure to pack a face mask in my personal item bag.

These are just a few of the things I like to keep in my personal item bag when I travel. I know I'm a bit extra, but this is what I need to feel safe.

ALLEZ ELIZABETH - QUOTE - The Ultimate Personal Item Bag Essentials: What to Pack and What You Can Leave At Home - "I love it when I overpack my suitcase so much that I'm dripping sweat trying to zip it closed." - Taye Diggs
“I love it when I overpack my suitcase so much that I'm dripping sweat trying to zip it closed.” – Taye Diggs

Pouches Are Your BFFs

Organizing your items in pouches ensures you're not digging through your purse/tote or backpack. Ideally, you want your personal item bag essentials to fit into 1 out of these 5 categories:

  1. First aid
  2. Makeup
  3. Skincare/Personal Care (if you need more space aside from toiletries)
  4. Tech
  5. Toiletries

You can add one or two more categories, for example, if you have kids or pets. Otherwise, keeping it lean is your best option.

Remember, this is just the personal item bag, not the carry-on. These are items that need to be quickly accessible. If you want to personalize this, here are some simple guidelines to follow:

  • Keep an easy-access bag for your important items. What are YOUR non-negotiables?
  • Determine what is important to you and what can be left at home. Ask yourself, is this important or can it stay at home?
  • Bring items that will make your travel more comfortable. Back to the non-negotiables. What items will make you feel at ease while you're traveling?


So there you have it: the perfect personal item bag, packed with only the essentials. By following these guidelines, you can be sure that your personal item bag is packed with only the essentials – everything you need and nothing you don't.

What are your must haves? Let me know in the comments below!

*Hey, this page contains affiliate links. There’s no extra cost to you, but I receive a small commission when you decide to use them. They help me keep this party going.


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