Finding the Right Purse for Travel

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Should you bring a purse on your travels? If so, what kind of handbag makes the best travel purse?

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.

Kate wearing elephant-printed pants and standing in front of a mountainous green overview in aPi, Thailand.

Sure a purse can serve as your personal item on a plane, and the home for your credit cards. But it goes EVERYWHERE.

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. Thieves are opportunistic and will steal if it’s easy.

I myself had my wallet stolen 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 with an open top. 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 bring 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.

A lot of people assume that you need to buy special gear for traveling. But I only buy special gear if I’m hiking or doing other outdoor sports or activities. Most travel isn’t radically different from your lifestyle at home; most of what you already wear should work just fine.

Let’s take a look at the best purses for travel!

This post was most recently updated in May 2024.

A woman wearing a money belt and pulling out her euros and passport.
A money belt that is definitely not mine, via Shutterstock.

A Money Belt is NOT a Travel Purse

Money belts get a lot of talk, but I’m not a fan, and 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 Nicaragua, I wouldn’t dream of wearing a money belt, reaching down into my underwear when I want to buy a coffee.

Money belts aren’t for handling your day-to-day cash and supplies, anyway. They’re for storing your important items, the ones you absolutely can’t lose, while in transit. Passport, important documents, confirmations, ID, etc.

Honestly, I prefer a scarf with a hidden pocket instead, which serves the same purpose as a money belt, only it’s more convenient, far more stylish, and thieves don’t try to steal them.

More on those scarves below — but let’s take a look at travel handbags first.

Kate in a dark purple top and bottom, carrying a burgundy leather crossbody bag.

What Kind of Travel Purse Should You Get?

You’ll see lots of “anti-theft” purses on the market, like this one by Travelon (definitely not pictured above), complete with anti-slash mesh and super-secret pockets. If you really want to get an anti-theft bag like this, go ahead. But it’s not necessary to spend $55 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 than a simple shoulder strap, which a would-be mugger to grab off your arm. An adjustable strap is even better.

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 faux 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.

No luxury branding. Labels should be minimal, and not any famous mid-range or luxury brand. (I’ve noticed that showy mid-range brands like Michael Kors and Kate Spade are often perceived as more expensive than discreet luxury brands like Loewe and Celine.)

Quick access. You shouldn’t have to practically do a combination lock to open and close it. A top zipper or a foldover flap works nicely.

Is there anything else you need? Safety features, perhaps? A lot of people look at purses that have RFID-blocking pockets, which prevents thieves from scanning your devices, but I think an RFID-blocking wallet is a much better choice. Much better than just throwing your credit cards into card slots.

(In the pic above, I’m wearing a Marc Jacobs Tote Bag in cherry, which I wear for everyday use at home, but rarely travel with because it’s a bit too much luxury branding. Styled with a Sézane top, Sézane trousers, very old Miu Miu aviators, and Sézane sneakers that I wore at my wedding.)

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

Here are some affordable purses on Amazon that fit the above criteria.

Kate and Pinay Readers
Shout out to my readers from the Philippines! Love you ladies!

Best Travel Purses Under $50

While in Busan, South Korea, I found the perfect purse for travel: a cute black mock leather Alexander McQueen knockoff covered with studs and metal skulls. The purse is a crossbody and measures about 12 x 5 inches (30 x 13 cm). 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 and have invested in higher quality purses since.

But if you’re looking for an affordable purse similar to my bag from Busan, here are some great affordable options under $50:

I love this black Covelin crossbody purse. It’s black, faux leather, cheap and awesome. Those angular zippers add a bit of interest, and the crossbody strap is adjustable.

A black Lululemon belt bag.

The Lululemon Belt Bag is enormously popular — and for good reason! While it’s a nylon bag, not leather, it’s a casual and secure option that you can keep close to your body at all times.

It also works great for athletic outings (obviously, Lulu is a yoga company!). It can be worn as a fanny pack (also known as a bum bag to Brits, around whom you should never utter the phrase “fanny pack”), or over your chest. It’s water resistant, too.

The bag comes in several sizes. I think the 2-liter size is ideal for travel, though they also have it in the 1-liter size and the mini size. They even have a clear belt bag that is great for concerts in the US! And they all come in lots of different colors.

A black crossbody bag with rounded corners and chevron stripes.

The Lola Mae Black Crossbody Bag is another super-popular travel purse under $50 — and I love the chevron detailing on the leather and the cute tassel. It’s another nice cheap option that would make a good travel purse.

A Uniqlo bag shaped like a half moon with a long crossbody strap.

The Uniqlo Round Mini Shoulder Bag is another cheap and cheerful option that you see on many a traveler. The crossbody strap and zippered top are great; it’s made from nylon and comes in many colors. It’s also available in a small size.

I personally wouldn’t wear this to more chic environments like Paris or Italy, but it’s a great option for athletic trips, longer trips, or more casual outings.

A black folder purse with a crossbody strap.

This Mundi crossbody purse has the added benefit of RFID protection. And I like the foldover style, which keeps your belongings nestled inside (and keeps it difficult for a thief to pickpocket you.)

Check out more affordable crossbody purses here.

Best Travel Purses Under $300

When I moved to New York in 2016, I invested in a $220 purse by Christophe Kon that lasted me several years. Black leather, crossbody, with a zipper — plus a fun intrecciato style of weaving that was inspired by Bottega Veneta.

At the time, this was the most expensive purse I had ever bought for myself — but I wore that purse every day for YEARS and YEARS. I probably got the cost per wear down to something like 15 cents. Under $1 is a win for me.

I think that you can find good leather purses for travel for $100-300, either retail or on the pre-loved market.

Why leather in particular? Leather, honestly, is going to last a lot longer than faux leather or vegan leather, which is made of plastic. I think it’s well worth the extra cost. Sorry, Stella McCartney.

Here are some of my picks for travel purses under $300:

A black square bag studded with little silver studs.

I love the look of this Aimee Kesterberg crossbody bag. The weaving and the studs — it adds a lot of edge, and I would absolutely wear this in Paris or Italy! And it has that great zipper on top.

A black leather saddle bag with a long crossbody strap.

Let’s be honest — this Maison de Sabré leather saddle bag is a dupe of the Hermès Evelyne bag. The only thing missing is the H-shaped holes! Either way, I love this bag — it’s unisex, it’s a surprisingly spacious bag, it can be casual and more upscale, it comes in a few colors, and the crossbody strap makes it so comfortable to wear.

A black quilted tote bag with a crossbody strap.

If you like carrying a bit more when out and about (or having a black hole of a bag!), this MZ Wallace Medium Metro Deluxe Tote is a great option. This big bag can be carried either as a travel tote or as a crossbody bag, and I love the quilted pattern. It comes in a few colors.

A crescent-shaped black leather bag with a long crossbody strap and a tiny pocket on the strap.

If you love the look of the Uniqlo Half Moon Bag but wish it came in leather — check out the Oryany Rookie Crescent Bag! A cute shape, a good zipper, a nice long crossbody strap, and even a fun little pocket on the strap. Versatile to work enough for daily use, but with plenty of style, too. It also reminds me of the Polène Numéro Dix bag.

A small black crossbody bag with chevron stripes, and a gold chain.

This Rebecca Minkoff crossbody bag is another great choice for a bag in a smaller size that can go from day to night while traveling. You can wear it either crossbody or as a shoulder bag, and I love the chevron pattern in the leather.

Kate in a trench coat, black crossbody bag, and burgundy patent leather heeled shoes.

What I Wear Now in 2024

In the last few years, I’ve become a lot more interested in handbags. Rather than choosing a single bag and wearing it for every single occasion, no matter the formality, I’ve amassed a small, fun collection with different purses for different moods.

The bag pictured above was a SPECIAL purchase — a Loewe mini puzzle bag in black. This is the most expensive bag I have ever owned (and it was cheaper last year), but I wear it ALL THE TIME and it will last for years. I am dedicated to getting it down to $1 per wear eventually. (I bought it for myself as a reward for getting through Czech driving school, which was really, really tough!)

The mini bag is pretty small, but the small version can fit a ton more.

In this photo I’m styling it with my Sézane trench, an Express top from the early 2000s, Sézane trousers, Sézane belt, and Carel heels.

Kate in the Atacama Desert with a bright pink bag shaped like a pill.

This is the one and only purse I took with me to South America this past fall — a Marc Jacobs Snapshot Bag! I actually bought this one pre-loved on for about half the price.

This bag is TINY (forget a wallet, it’s just for a cardholder and the basic essentials), and is a bit of a pain to get into (great for dissuading thieves!), and I found it to be enough for everything I needed. It was my perfect travel purse.

Styling it with a thrifted denim jacket, very old Miu Miu aviators, a black tank top, Maje satin cargo pants, and Cole Haan sneakers.

I would definitely recommend a Snapshot if you want a bag you can keep close to you that is very difficult to break into.

Kate sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn, wearing a circle scarf and showing that her passport is in the pocket.

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, lip balm, 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.

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. And one of the best ways to be simultaneously stylish and safe!

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 their hand in it and pull out your wallet.

If you buy one of these bags, don’t rely on it to protect your valuables. 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?