Finding the Right Purse for Travel

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Kate in Pai

Should you bring a purse on your travels? If so, what kind?

This is a question that I’m asked often. It’s no surprise — people always want to know how best to protect their belongings when they’re exploring a new destination.

And my answer is a resounding YES! Bring your purse! I use a purse at home — always. For that reason, I use it the vast majority of my travels. When I go on safari in South Africa, my purse comes with me. When I motorbike through Southeast Asia, it winds around my shoulder and sits on my lap. And when I’m strolling through Paris or Tokyo or Ushuaia, I have my purse on me at all times.

But what if someone steals it? Or slashes it? Or pickpockets you?

Yeah. That can happen, though it’s unlikely to happen if you use common sense and keep an eye on your belongings. I myself had my wallet stolen lifted out of my purse in Buenos Aires back in 2008. But that’s because I was using the worst purse imaginable — a giant, oversized H&M purse that didn’t even close. I was advertising my naiveté from miles away.

I first learned the importance of a purse the hard way during my semester abroad in Florence. For some reason I assumed I’d just use a sky-blue messenger bag for a purse, since it had a lot of pockets and was, well, “good for travel.”

This was the worst idea ever.

Not only was it impractical, it was ugly, and I happened to be in the single most stylish country on the planet. Within a few days, I had gone to the market and bought a new purse that wouldn’t get me dagger eyes from the impossibly stylish Italians.

It’s easy to think that you need to buy special gear for traveling. But you don’t. Most travel isn’t radically different from your lifestyle at home; most of what you already use will work just fine.

Moneybelts get a lot of talk, but I don’t think they’re necessary most of the time. Whether I’m walking down the street in Copenhagen or hanging out on an island in Thailand, I wouldn’t dream of wearing a moneybelt, reaching down into my underwear when I want to buy a coffee. Plus, thieves are well aware that moneybelts exist and they know how to steal them. I much prefer a scarf with a hidden pocket instead, which serves the purpose of a moneybelt, only it’s more convenient and thieves don’t try to steal them.

And most of the time, my purse has been on me.

What Kind of Purse Should You Get?

You’ll see lots of “anti-theft” purses on the market, like this one by Pacsafe, complete with anti-slash mesh and super-secret pockets. If you really want to get a bag like this, go ahead. But it’s not necessary to spend $85 on a “special” purse like this.

Instead, get a regular purse that fits the following criteria:

Crossbody strap. You should be able to put the strap over one shoulder and let it hang over the opposite side. This makes it more difficult for a would-be mugger to grab it off your arm.

A manageable size. You want to be able to block access to your bag with just your hand.

Tough fabric that can’t easily be slashed. Leather or mock leather is a good choice. While it technically can be slashed, a thick leather strap is much more of a challenge than a bit of thin cotton.

Zippers. Forget snaps or partially closing bags. Zippers are crucial, as they prevent wandering hands from easily slipping into your bag.

Your purse doesn’t need to be expensive, but it should be of reasonably good quality.

Here are some great purses that fit the above criteria.

Kate and Pinay Readers

The Purse I Chose While Traveling

While in Busan, South Korea, I found the perfect purse: a cute black mock leather Alexander McQueen knockoff covered with studs and metal skulls. The purse is a crossbody and measures about 12 inches by five. I got it for about $30.

And after some heavy wear and tear on the road, one of the straps fell off — but I promptly took it to a Bangkok seamstress who repaired it and reinforced both of the straps. It was as good as new.

That purse lasted me about a year of regular wear; I upgraded to a nicer purse in 2015. But if you’re looking for an affordable purse similar to my Busan bag, here are some great affordable options from Amazon:

I love this black Covelin crossbody purse. It’s black, faux leather, cheap and awesome.

I LOVE the look of this Amelie Galanti Purse! Those are two dueling pockets — like the purse I bought in Busan, it allows you to separate your belongings into two different sections.

If you prefer a vertical-style bag, this B Bretano crossbody purse is a great choice. It’s vegan, has multiple zippers, and comes in tons of different colors.

If you’re crazy about Balenciaga bags (like I am!) but not crazy about the $500+ price (hell no!), this Mn&Sue crossbody handbag is very similar to Balenciaga’s signature style. Added bonus: you can use it as a crossbody purse when traveling and as a shoulder bag in more relaxed settings.

This Kenoor crossbody handbag is the most expensive of the cheap options, but I love that it’s made of leather and it’s big enough to fit an iPad.

Check out more affordable crossbody purses here.

The Purse I Use Today

Today I’m based in New York and spend most of my time in the city, so I wanted a more fashionable purse of higher quality. I use the same kind of purse that I recommended when I first wrote this post in 2014 — it’s a black leather crossbody handbag with a zipper.

My purse is by Christopher Kon and I bought it for around $220 in 2015. (Expensive, yes, but I’ve used it daily for 3+ years so the cost is about $0.20 per wear — incredibly reasonable.) While it is no longer sold in stores, I can recommend you several similar high-end handbags that cost $150-300:

I love this black quilted crossbody purse by MZ Wallace, especially that you can keep the decorative chain or remove it.

This Michael Kors black crossbody handbag is serious enough for a business trip and fun enough for a night out.

Kate Spade is a classic New York brand that looks good everywhere. I love this purse and it would be great for both travel and home.

One of my absolute favorite handbag designers is Rebecca Minkoff — I’m in love with this black chevron cross body purse.

And I am crazy about the pattern in this Amsterdam Heritage crossbody bag. I’m not super familiar with the brand, but I love all of their purses I’ve seen!

Pack a Speakeasy Scarf with a Secret Pocket

I love Speakeasy Travel Supply scarves, and they’re ideal for keeping your valuables safe. They each come with a hidden pocket big enough to hold your passport, phone, money, lipstick, even a small guidebook! When I went to Chernobyl for the day, I needed to show my passport at frequent checkpoints, so I kept it hidden in my scarf.

Speakeasy scarves essentially serve the role of a money belt — with the added bonus that no thief is going to go for your scarf. It’s virtually unpickpocketable! And they come in a million different designs and fabrics for all seasons.

I also worked with Speakeasy to create the signature Adventurous Kate Melbourne Scarf. It’s a super-soft scarf covered in a blend of white, blue, and gray. (The design reminded me of crazy weather so I named it after Melbourne, Australia, where you often get four seasons of weather in a day!)

For this reason, I love having one of these scarves as security. This is a good place to put your most valuable items when you’re in transit.

Check out the whole Speakeasy scarf collection here.

blue beach bag made out of a tank top

The Worst Purse for Travel

In cities, beach towns, and touristy areas throughout the world, you see a certain kind of bag for sale on every corner: a large bohemian sack made out of thin fabric, like the one pictured above. It’s large, it’s light, and it’s a cute souvenir.

For the love of God, don’t use this for a purse. 

A bag like this can easily be pulled off your shoulder, it can be slashed or cut without much effort, and it couldn’t be easier for someone to stick his or her hand in it and pull out your wallet.

If you buy one of these bags, don’t rely on it to protect your belongings. Instead, use it as a shopping bag or beach bag — put your towels and sunscreen in it and leave the important stuff locked up at home.

Kate Lanta Purse

Traveling with a Purse

Protecting my belongings is always at the forefront of my mind — both when I travel and when I’m at home.

My goal is to keep anyone from accessing my bag, so I always keep it hanging diagonally across my body, either on my hip or in front of me, and I have it at a height where I can rest my hand on it at all times. The zippers are always closed.

When I go to restaurants or the movies, it either stays in my lap or between my feet with the strap wrapped around my leg. I never, ever leave it unattended.

If I go through a crowded place, like the subway during rush hour, I am extra vigilant, sometimes holding it close to my chest until the crowds dissipate.

On the rare occasion when I don’t take my purse out with me, I keep it locked up in the portable safe back in my room.

And just in case the worst happens, I always travel with travel insurance. In the event that you’re robbed, your travel insurance company will compensate you for what you lost. I use and recommend World Nomads for travel insurance.


The Most Important Item I Pack: My Pacsafe TravelSafe

What kind of purse do you use on your travels?

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90 thoughts on “Finding the Right Purse for Travel”

  1. I have a purple Pacsafe that was a gift from my boyfriend. I love it for travel but I also use it at home quite often. It’s not something that screams “travel bag”. Before the Pacsafe I always used a medium sized cross body bag that closed. It’s the only way to go.

    1. I also have a PacSafe. Love it and use it at home a lot as well.
      Before that I always traveled with a cross-body bag with zippers or some kind of cords. I’ve got one little black cross-body bag (also with studs!) that has cords you have to pull to close it, but the big plus is that you can tie a nod in those cords so that it’s really hard to open.
      Another thing I often do when a bag has more than one zipper and the zippers are close together: put a piece of string or something through and attach them together by making a nod. Now they both won’t be able to pulled open anymore.

      1. Yes I’ve always used a small crossbody bag for going out at night. I think soft fabric bags are good as you can squeeze them into your backpack and they still look fine. I used to have a black straw bag that was great as it didn’t take up much space and could be folded up.

        I’ve never had anyone rob me with one, plus to be safe, I’ve never brought anything other than some money and a camera out at night.

  2. I was going to bring a small side sling bag plus a cute polka dot purse as well but SIL convinced me not to bring the latter. On a couple of occasions I wished I had something nicer. But overall I didn’t really miss it – I’m pretty casual generally. Most of the time we were super lame and carried around our daypack with built in Camelbak.

  3. I used to carry a lovely manbag everywhere with me before we travelled, now it’s sitting in a charity shop somewhere being neglected ;(

  4. I agree Kate- I always use a cross body bag with a zipper- I actually use bags like that pretty much all the time whether I’m travelling, living abroad or back in my home country. I’ve never used a money belt- even in places that have high crime rates. Some people forget that whilst you might be ‘travelling’ the places you are visiting are still homes to other people. When I lived in London I would walk around listening to my ipod ,carry a regular bag etc (i.e acted normally because it was my everyday life) yet I’ve seen tourists who wear their backpacks on their front, use money belts etc. I personally think that makes you stand out more as someone who obviously doesn’t live around there. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be careful and if someone likes money belts- then that’s an individual choice, but I think it’s best to see how the locals dress/behave. No Londoner is wearing a money belt!

  5. Great post! I loved traveling with a purse I got in Greece off the street for 10 euro: simple, black mock leather cross – body that fit everything I needed. It was a trusty travel companion on a gap year of travels and it was the only purse I think I wore all the way out.

  6. I have been using the same Pacsafe bag for like 10 trips now and LOVE it. Totally worth it. Plus, it has room for my guide book, a water bottle, notebook and wallet.

  7. Really good tip about the zipper. I stupidly used a bag that didn’t close properly on the Paris metro and got my wallet pick pocketed during rush hour, won’t be making that mistake again!

  8. I’m with you – I ALWAYS travel with a purse, too. I actually don’t know how to function without some kind of bag, especially since all my camera gear is small enough to fit in my purse, and I almost always have that with me when I’m on the road.

    A cross-body design with zippers and strong material is definitely a must!

    At home, I have a gorgeous Italian leather bag with a vintage map print on it that I bought in Florence. It, too, is cross-body and has a zipper, but I’m too afraid of it getting ruined for me to travel with it. So I bought a “tougher” bag (that’s admittedly not as attractive) from Overland Equipment – the “Donner.” I actually REALLY love it as a travel bag.

  9. Great post! I always wear a crossbody bag, and I always keep it directly in front of me as well. While anything can happen, I do hope I would be more apt to notice someone trying to access a purse that is directly in front of my body. I always put money on the inner most zipper of the purse (the side which I keep closest to my body) and usually I have my camera (or iphone) firmly planted in my hand which is in my pocket. I’m always surprised seeing actual everyday designer purses with gaping wide openings at the airport!

    Great advice for women traveling!

  10. I have been thinking about the best way to keep some valuables on me when traveling. I’m not much of a purse carrying gal, but I think now I will seriously consider it. It might take me a while to find one that fits my style, but I think I will try looking!

  11. Excellent advice here. I’ve never used a money belt, always a purse or bag with zipper. My last trip was to Italy (Rome, Amalfi, Puglia) and I used a small messenger because I needed something large enough for my photography kit but not a Camera Bag. Thus far I’ve never had an issue with pickpocketing or attempted theft. Hopefully the trend continues!

  12. Thanks for the tips! Like some other have mentioned, I always needs something to fit my DSLR camera and/or the small point-and-shoot. But i’m struggling to find a bag that won’t look too big and tacky. Any suggestions welcome!

  13. I am obsessed with the perfect travel purse! I actually have a slash-proof one similar to the pacsafe because a company sent it to me. I love it, but before that I was using a $15 target purse for ages, so whatever works ya know?

  14. Yup, I do use purses on my trips. Usually the kind that can carry everything in it – my camera and other stuff. My point is to carry only one thing – be it my camera bag or a big bag which can carry everything.

  15. Would have love to read this a few weeks ago when I was searching for the right kind of purse to bring! I was struggling with the idea of having one because I felt like having a purse would scream “here! money! phone! rob me! “… But it is so useful! So I settled for something exactly like you describe: crossbody strap, small, with a zipper. And it works perfectly! I didn’t know about the infinity scarf, I love it! 🙂

  16. What do you use for your camera? I’m about to take a DSLR on a trip with me for the first time, and I don’t want to carry around both a purse and a camera bag. Trying to figure out something that could serve as both without being gigantic.

      1. I’d never carry a valuable camera in a bag with a lable “LowePro” – or similar – thieves know how to read and know the brands. My camera goes in my beat up cross-body bag – which doesn’t look like a camera bag – it used to fit my 11″ laptop too – but now I have a 13′ one I’m looking for another bag that does’t look like a laptop bag 🙂

        I also never keep my laptop and camera in the same bag – because the laptop backs up the photos which are on the camera card!

    1. I bought a Pacsafe purse for a trip back to Nepal, where I lived for years, because when I lived there I had bags slashed more than once. The Pacsafe purse fit my DSLR with lenses (I bought one of those camera bag inserts that fit) plus all my usual purse-y things, and a water bottle, without looking like a camera bag.

      I also do use a moneybelt when travelling in South and Southeast Asia, because I have had too many friends have their passports lifted. It would be weird to have one’s daily spending money in it (does anyone really do that?) but is a safe way to keep passport, credits cards and the bulk of cash out of sight and out of easy reach.

      1. Kate (not THAT Kate)

        Oops, I should have clarified, I am NOT Adventurous Kate, just another commenter who happens to also be Kate.

      2. Which pacsafe purse do you use? I’m also looking for one to carry a DSLR and other essential items… Without being too oversized.

    2. The million dollar question… In my quest for a perfect DSLR bag, I have bought way too many for my bank account’s liking. =)

      I have not tried these but have heard good reviews:

      Personally, for carrying my DSLR in cities, I use the Tenba in Burnt Orange:

      The Tenba is nice as it has a quick access on the top. When I was in theft-heavy cities, I would use a flexible lock and lock the zippers together.

      For hiking, I recently bought the Lowe Pro Flipside : which is nice as you can flip the camera bag around without taking it off your back. Also, it’s orange. I like orange. =)

  17. I have a small black leather bag (I am English, a purse is what we keep our money in) that meets all you advice. I had a purse inside a zipped compartment that even I struggled to get out when I needed to pay. It had a flap and pockets where I kept travel documents. I survived Barcelona and Madrid with it, two cities renown for pickpockets. Then, on the metro in Madrid, on the way back to the airport, at the end of the trip, thank goodness, a pickpocket stole my purse. I still am baffled as to how as was my travelling companion. I now attatch an alarm to my purse, inside my bag. Happy the easy to steal travel documents were not stolen and he only got £30. But it shook me to the core. Hated it and still continue to blame myself.

  18. I personally LOVE H&M purses. Their fabric looks expensive and is very solid. I’vee had a medium-sized (can fit my dSLR, phone, passport, wallet, first-aid kit, etc.) one for years and it still does a fantastic job. I love how stylish they look too, they don’t scream “tourist purse”.

  19. Great advice! I have 2 different crossbody purses in my collection that I use for my travels. One I got at Target years ago for $15, another one at American Eagle for $40. Both are great for traveling. I can’t imagine using anything else. Crossbodies are my favorite purse style since they keep your hands free and feel safer from theft.

  20. My go to travel bag so far is from The Healthy Back Bag company. Used on on the RTW as it could be slung on the back, front or hip, and when carrying a front and back pack, in between, and so good for organising.

  21. Kate thanks for this post. This was something I’d been thinking about for a while. I don’t understand why people buy a whole bunch of special equipment, clothes, gear, etc. specifically for travel, when whatever they have already will often do just fine.

  22. We’ve definitely heard a lot of scary stories as we’ve gone through South America. I do the exact same things as you’ve mentioned during the day, and otherwise we try to be purse and bag-less at night (most of the horror stories we’ve heard happen at that time!).

  23. Perfect timing with the post! Gives me more to think about in terms of the purse I want to bring along on our next trip. I had been thinking a Pacsafe since so many people were telling me I needed to be super careful about theft in Rome, but at $100 and very low on the style chart, I have been hesitating. I’m so so so happy to hear another perspective on this. So much doom and gloom about theft has had me worried. I also really didn’t want to stick out with my obvious tourist-ness. Thanks!

  24. “It’s easy to think that you need to buy special gear for traveling. But not all travel is so radically different from your lifestyle at home that you need to change everything you own.”

    THIS. So true! It baffles me when I see tourists walking around cities in Europe wearing khaki trousers, fanny packs, vests with loads of pockets in them and weird passport carriers around their necks. They look like they are going on safari, but they are just walking around Paris or Budapest! It’s very strange.

  25. I realize this blog is for the traveling woman, but have you any advice for the traveling man, who can’t carry a purse?

    I have a money belt that holds my credit card, debit card, and whatever cash I need.

    But when I buy valuables, or carry things (like a Mac, iPad, iPhone), I resort to deception. I have covers tha look like regular office inter-office mail envelopes or international mail.

    Still, I don’t think I’m doing enough. I try to keep my backpack worn front ways on the metro, but I look like a tourist.

    1. Lee, why not try a cross body messenger bag? They have plenty of space to carry everything you need, you will feel secure carrying it because you can easily wear it at your hip or in front of your body, and you won’t stick out as a tourist while visiting any medium or large sized city! Best of luck on your travels. 🙂

  26. I carry a regular cross-body purse (usually a little bigger than my normal bag because I’m carrying a camera and other extra stuff), but I use a money belt just for my passport, extra credit card, debit card if I’m not planning on needing the ATM, and extra cash if I’ve gotten more than I need for that day. I am not that worried about pickpockets, but I wouldn’t carry my passport and a bunch of extra cash around in my purse at home, either. For my passport, I don’t have to worry about it accidentally falling out while I’m getting something else, or anything else like that. It’s nice not to have all my access to money in one place.

  27. Great tips. Another tip for using a bag with a cross-body strap – and this may seem obvious, but it’s not obvious to everyone – when using it, keep the bag on the part of your body AWAY from the street you are walking down. This is especially true for quieter side streets and lanes. In a lot of touristy areas, guys on motorbikes drive around and snatch bags off peoples’ shoulders, then drive away before anybody can stop them or even get a good look at them. If your bag is on the side of your body that’s away from the street they aren’t even going to bother with you as a potential victim.

  28. Great post, Kate!

    I agree that one does not require s special travel bag per say, but just a nice bag which ticks in certain boxes (sling, cross-body, zipper, leather or some such sturdy material, adjustable strap). I recently went to Bali and KL with my Husband, and all the while we were on the road, zipping around in our motorbikes, I had a nice, sturdy aqua coloured leather messenger bag, which did not really have a zip, but had one of those metal buckles (even more difficult than zip to unlock). The bag is from Clarks, pretty sturdy, and since it is a nice colour, it looked cute with all my outfits.


  29. Love this article! I had the same question before I started traveling this past autumn. I agree with you, though – if you wear it in American cities at home, why not wear it abroad? There’s the same safety issue for ANY city!

    I totally agree with the zipper theory – my mom always used to comment that my purse should have a zipper closing whenever we go shopping & now that I’m older, I couldn’t agree more!

    For my travels, I brought a crossbody bag I already had that had removable straps. Then, I bought this anti-theft camera strap and used it as the strap for the bag: It’s slashproof so no one driving by can cut it off and steal it. I also ALWAYS wear it cross body. There’s much less chance of someone running or driving by to just rip it off!

    Being safe can be fashionable, too. :]
    xx. Jillian

  30. I don’t use a small purse like you have – what’s the point of it – I always have my camera with me – and it wouldn’t fit. I use a zipped cross-body bag about the same size as the pacsafe one you link to. It fits my iPad, my camera, my wallet, sunglasses, etc etc when flying ,and somewhat less when out for the day.

    I use a money belt – a shoulder holster – but you’d never know -and no one should ever access their money belt in public – that’s crazy – I have a throw away wallet with the day’s money in it. Most of my cards, my passport and the majority of my cash go next to my body in the shoulder holster and stay there.

  31. Great post! Cross-body purses/bags have become my favorite thing…and using them for travel is just one of many reasons why.

  32. I use a Healthy Back Bag when I’m travelling because I get shoulder and neck pain when I carry a heavy bag for too long. It seems to work pretty well and I really enjoy the bag so far!

  33. Thanks for the advice! Even though it seems so simple, it’s been something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about as I prepare for travel later in the year.

  34. I always take a purse with me, though it’s probably not as small as it should be. I got it at Desigual, and it is a cross-body with zippers, so I’m not too concerned about the size. Thanks for the tips – it’s so important to have the right bag with you when you’re travelling!

  35. I used to have a locally made strap hand-bag purse thing that I got in Vietnam. At home, I have a leather bag that I strap across my shoulder and when I’m in crowds the bag itself is turned onto the direction of my stomach. I now have a purse which I use on a daily basis for my cards. It’s actually used for camping!
    However, I have used a money belt. It worked beautifully when I had my passport, cards and freshly taken-out cash. I used this a lot in India and Indonesia. It can be rather hot so I used to wrap all my documents in plastic folders, slip into the moneybelt and then pin the moneybelt onto my trousers and knickers especially when going to the bathroom….! It worked a dream!
    Thanks for this post. Really useful. 🙂

  36. I miss my murse (male-purse). I’ve now been in SE Asia 6 months and definitely regret not bringing my leather murse. Backpacks are too big and money belts are too small! It’s a total essential.

  37. Haha! I totally use the purse you said not to buy…. but I travel to sleepy little rural areas and I rarely carry all my cash in the same place or not all in my purse. It really isn’t ideal but its worked for where I go. I agree with moneybelts. awkward.

  38. I use a pacsafe during the day, it’s big enough for everything including my mirrorless camera and lenses. I have a small leather cross body bag similar to yours for going out at night and more dressy occasions. I’ve found these two to be a good combination for my travels!

  39. I use a crossbody Baggalini when I travel. Its light, water resistant and just big enough for my phone, wallet, small camera and a bottle of water.

  40. Great post. I’m obsessed with luggage, purses and any sort of travel gear and it’s taken me a while to figure out what works.

    My favorite all-purpose travel purse is my Marc by Marc Jacobs Natasha bag, in nylon. It has a zippered section that’s hidden away, making it difficult for pick-pockets to reach in. It also has a large open area, just under the flap, giving you easy access to your camera, lip balm, etc.

    If I’m going to be out hiking, I’ll switch to a daypack since the cross-body strap starts to hurt after a while.

  41. My new go to bag is this Carpisa leather handbag that l got in Rome. It’s stylish and deep enough to fit my DSLR camera and lens. Using the shorter strap, it fits perfectly under your arm or you could use it cross body.

  42. If I am traveling somewhere overseas where it is jacket weather, I like to keep my wallet and cellphone in the side zip pockets. I usually just have my camera around my neck. I also keep my passport with me all the time in a carrier that hangs around my neck and is between layers of clothing. I like to use a backpack as well, one with double zippers so I can use a small lock.

  43. 100% agree! 🙂
    I seriously don’t understand the chicks who walk around foreign countries in heels and little clutch bags, or those huge oversized bags that slink on their shoulder. You are asking for trouble!

    I ALWAYS wear an across the body bag WITH a zipper. Always. My other “purse” is a bright yellow 5 gallon waterproof bag that I use on rainy days or when I want to go snorkeling but have no place to leave my personal things. These are the only purses I have used for over three years now. I have been around South Africa, Mozambique, and all of SE Asia without any problems. I have known many people to get their shoulder bag snatched off their shoulder by a thief on a motorbike. Bye bye! You will never see that purse again.

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