What is THE best travel laptop purse/backpack?
November 19, 2018 8:50 AM   Subscribe

I've got a new job that requires travel every week. I need a laptop purse/bag that can be my home office on the road. I typically travel M-Th every week and need to carry everything with me at the end of every day. It needs to be durable for flights, remote office travel, and my general abuse.

After traveling for a few months, I've learned I need a magical unicorn of handbags. I've looked at A LOT of bags in-person or online, and can't seem to find the perfect thing.

Must haves:
- Padded storage for my large, bulky laptop
- Sleeve/strap/opening to hook this bag onto my roller bag
- Zip-top closure
- Many pockets and compartments for my "office": 2 phones, tech storage (mouse, headphones, dongles, chargers), notebooks, personal items
- Fits under the seat on airplanes

Don't likes:
- Huge bag with one gigantic opening
- Thin/wimpy straps (either backpack or over-the-shoulder)
- Magnetic top closure (magnetic within for compartments is fine)
- Something that looks like a hiking backpack
- Zippers that only open/close 3/4 of the way (Yes, I'm looking at you, Tumi)

Does this bag exist? I'm willing to pay all.of.the.money to get something that works.
posted by frizz to Work & Money (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have this bag from Lo and Sons and it seems perfect for what you are looking for.
posted by mjcon at 8:57 AM on November 19, 2018

Tom Bihn was pretty popular on the bag threads on MetaTalk. I've seen the Pilot in person and heard great things from its user.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:05 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

A Longchamp le pliage with an organiser insert would fit your bill except for the trolley strap. However, the shape of the bottom makes it stay on any 4 wheeled case I’ve ever rested it on, including when in motion. I always found it preferable to most bespoke laptop bags and only abandon it when my back plays up and I end up using my laptop rucksack for a while. I suppose also no dedicated laptop sleeve but I’ve never managed to break my work laptop not using one and I do tend to abuse them.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:08 AM on November 19, 2018

I'm a Tom Bihn devotee, but I'm going to suggest the Cadet (this is the bag I have; and honestly it sounds perfect for you) or the Empire Builder (which is their bulkier laptop bag).
posted by protocoach at 9:58 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I second Lo and Sons. (And, it turns out, have so many thoughts on this.) I used the Travel Tote linked above for quite a while. The straps are good, though even as a taller person (5'9'') I found that if I wanted to carry it in my hand (rather than over my shoulder), the bag would drag on the ground a bit unless I held it up. The luggage strap part is great, very generous and can be tightened with zippers so the bag doesn't shift around too much. Also, you can zipper the bottom part and it becomes another external pocket.

I eventually switched to the Brookline because my TT wore out (just became a little threadbare looking, after 2.5 years of heavy use) and I wanted a more traditional east-west shape. I love the navy color, which to me reads more on the blue side so I feel ok matching it with navy or black coat etc. I'd say it's sliiiightly less roomy inside than the TT, but I do like the long strap so I can wear it messenger-style. My one comment on durability is here: the stitching for the anchor for this strap unraveled on one side after probably 2 years of less heavy use.

(I really like their bags so) I also purchased their Hanover Deluxe backpack--it has all the features of the other two plus two outer bottle/umbrella pockets and the interior padding/organizing is removable--I planned to be able to switch back and forth between using this as work travel bag and larger diaper bag. To me the design of this one is almost too plain, even though I generally like their minimalist aesthetic, but it comes in some nice colors now so you could pick something you like. The strap padding is very good.

Overall, what I like about these bags are the smart designs and the extremely lightweight and water resistant fabric. I never wanted to add any weight from leather to my already heavy load, and these bags are both practical and reasonably stylish, so I feel like I can fit into the corporate environment in which I work.
posted by CiaoMela at 10:53 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

How large is your large laptop? I, too, can recommend a Lo & Sons bag; I use the OMG bag for my daily commute on mass transit as well as travel and it's taken a fair beating over the past eight or so months and doesn't look worse for wear.

The straps are durable and there's a shoulder strap/crossover strap option. Lots of compartments for organization and zipped storage. Separate padded laptop section. Key leash. There's a shoe pocket that can keep your shoes separate so they don't dirty up the rest of the bag but I don't use it much.

I think their bags are thoughtfully designed - I like the one I have, but the TT linked above would probably be of similar build quality if you prefer its design!

Edit: one of its best features is the ability to slip it over a suitcase handle, almost forgot to add that especially since it's on your list of wants
posted by rachaelfaith at 10:53 AM on November 19, 2018

My solution is two bags: a Briggs & Riley Baseline large shopping tote with the older model of the Incase Sling Sleeve that has a back slip pocket. Separating the laptop sleeve from the bag gives me the flexibility to carry one, the other, or both as needed.
posted by evoque at 11:18 AM on November 19, 2018

My Tumi Dara does pretty much all this, depending on what you're saying when you reject zippers that "only open/close 3/4 of the way." Most east-west women's bags unzip across the top but not all the way down the sides. If you're saying you want a clamshell style where the bag basically separates into halves, then the Dara won't work. You'll need to look for actual briefcase or backpack styles. I always want to talk smack about Tumi because it kills me to spend the money on mostly nylon, but the sad fact is that their bags are often very well-organized. My 15-inch Macbook Pro fits into it. The padding for that compartment is light but noticeable. You could also easily buy a cheap slip-in cover for additional protection.
posted by praemunire at 11:29 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have one of the Bihn Empire Builders. The strap and the padded insert are extra. They are made of obvious synthetics and are on the less formal part of the spectrum, rather than a more finished look of fabric or leather.

That said, it has been the hardest wearing bag I've ever had. Mine is just is of a decade and still looks new. It's been washed many times (I do field work in some dirty places). It does everything you ask---Yours are similar to my requirements too. I typically have a lot of stuff in my bag. The insdie is somewhat structured. There's a main large compartment accessible from the top and a generous side pocket, covered by a flap that has several smaller pockets. Finally, there are three on the outside flap, convenient for phones and for boarding passes and tickets.

It works well in airports, having an open top for easy access to laptops at security. It has a band across the back to slide over a wheelie luggage handle which is very secure. The strap is wide and has a soft, grippy neoprene pad which has never slipped on me.

The things I compromise on are that it's large and relatively heavy, the size of an actual briefcase. Bihn don't have a solution for files that I like, so I travel with one of those accordion-style expanding folders for my papers.

With those caveats, I've been very happy with it. It's not the perfect bag, and certainly not fashionable, but it does what I need.
posted by bonehead at 2:45 PM on November 19, 2018

I have a Piquadro backpack that as far as I can tell ticks all your boxes. I got it on eBay and it is gorgeous. I make house calls and can carry all my gear including a MacBook Air, papers, etc. and keep it all organized day to day. The pockets are very well arranged so it's easy to remember which pocket this or that thing is in.
posted by 6thsense at 3:09 PM on November 19, 2018

I travel quite a bit, too, and I have the Lo & Sons OG - that's the slightly larger version of the OMG linked above. It's super durable, has a ton of space, and is extremely versatile. I don't unpack it - I leave my extra chargers and power pack in it all the time, for instance, and just move my wallet, laptop, and phone in and out of it as needed when I'm not traveling. And as noted above, it has a sleeve that slips over a roller bag handle; when you aren't using the sleeve, though, you can zip the bottom of the sleeve and use it as an extra outside pocket.

I think the Lo & Sons bags generally tick all of your boxes, but the OG or OMG are probably the best fit, given your space needs.
posted by devinemissk at 7:39 PM on November 19, 2018

I have a Tumi Carson backpack, and I don't think it looks like a hiking backpack. It has everything else you're after, and I find it incredible durable. I commute with it for 1.5 hours a day and treat it roughly and it looks great and holds up. It has a cool, wide strap on the back that slips over the handle of a roller bag- great feature.
posted by Miko at 7:45 PM on November 19, 2018

To add a dissenting voice, I also have the Lo & Sons OG and consider it a total waste of money; I have stopped using it entirely. It isn’t comfortable to carry on my shoulder (the short straps are too narrow and cut into my skin; the single long strap has no padding either and the shape of the bag means it swings oddly and awkwardly against my body when I use this strap) and its odd shape prevents it from standing solidly upright (it usually collapses onto the side holding my MacBook Air). It also BARELY fits under an airplane seat when packed to capacity. Finally, despite appearances, it actually doesn’t hold as much as, say, my Ariat Carryall (which I also can’t recommend because it has no laptop compartment/sleeve, but wow, that bag does shoulder straps right!).

Anyway, am reading these answers with interest, as I’m on a similar hunt.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 11:36 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Coming at this from a completely different angle, this is my go-to work backpack. I know! Everyone is suggesting high-end bags, many of which I've tried and are gathering dust in my home office. I keep coming back to use this! It fits a lot but is itself very lightweight. It meets all your criteria and is so comfortable to wear. It's held up to a lot of work travel in the year I've had it. You didn't emphasize looks a lot and while it isn't as sleek as some of the others I don't think it looks like a hiking bag.
posted by marylynn at 9:03 AM on November 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

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