Photo: Marcus McDonald
The best bag for work isn’t one-size-fits-all. Sometimes you need it to do everything at once: look professional but not too stuffy, accommodate gym sneakers and a laptop, and organize all the miscellany you definitely don’t need (reading material, kids’ toys, and even the odd wine bottle). Other times, you might just be looking for a stylish bag that fits the essentials — a workhorse tote from Baggu, for example — or something that can go from in the office to after-work drinks like the roomy Telfar I’ve relied on for over two years.
To help you find the work bag that suits your lifestyle and budget, we surveyed a bunch of stylish, industrious women about the multitasking tote bags, backpacks, and over-the-shoulder options they rely on to get them through the workday — and beyond.
In general, you want a work bag that’s strong enough to hold heavy laptops and durable enough to survive being squished on the subway but still looks good to bring to the office. The material will be the main thing that determines that. Leather is a no-brainer in that department, but it can be expensive. Canvas, especially waxed or coated, is another common option; it’s still durable and usually less expensive than leather. We’ve also found some nice nylon options, which are generally easier to clean than either leather or canvas.
Prices for work bags are broad, ranging from $20 to a few hundred dollars, depending on their durability and materials they’re made of. Most of our picks are in the range of $100 to $250, and we’ve found that’s generally the sweet spot for durability and looks. But we included affordable options as well as worth-it, and every bag is denoted as either $ (under $100), $$ (under $250), or $$$ (over $250).
Material: Leather | Price: $$
The Madewell Transport Tote has been a favorite of Strategist editors and readers alike, since it was first recommended to us by Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen in 2018: “I do not have very exciting or expensive tastes in handbags; I just need a bag with a handle-drop length, so I can shove it over my shoulder while wearing a puffy jacket that holds a laptop, water bottle, and all the toys my kids swear they want to play with that I get stuck carrying home.” This tote is just that. Graphic designer Meagan Sapashe says it’s “quite literally the perfect medium” because it’s big enough to fit all of her day-to-day necessities without being too bulky. And we recommend taking advantage of Madewell’s complimentary personalization service: It’ll give you up to ten characters to play with, so feel free to go for your initials or favorite (short) phrase.
Material: Faux-leather | Price: $
For the cost of a Sweetgreen salad, you could sport this “super-affordable work bag” from Dreubea. It comes recommended by Dianna Baros, who chronicles her life as a frugal-fashion expert on her style blog the Budget Babe. She notes that there are “lots of colors to choose from, making it easy to swap out your bag for different color trends as the seasons change.” She’s not the bag’s only fan: It has more than 5,000 Amazon reviews, 75 percent of which gave four and five stars. This soft, structured bag can comfortably hold an iPad, as well as your wallet, phone, keys, Dopp kit, and the latest novel.
Material: Cotton | Price: $
Baggu’s Duck bag has been a favorite work bag here at the Strategist for a number of reasons. It has a snap closure, top handles, an adjustable strap long enough to make it a crossbody, and it’s deep enough to accommodate documents and a laptop. Kule’s content and partnerships manager, Elizabeth Tamkin, also counts herself as a fan. For about five years, she has used Baggu’s tote whenever she has her laptop on her. She likes that it is extremely long-lasting and sturdy, comes in fun patterns, and is machine washable.
Material: Leather | Price: $$
Our favorite work bag from Madewell is also available with a top zip, in case you’re worried about accidentally dropping something from a too-stuffed tote. It’s also got two different sets of straps: two short top handles, plus a detachable shoulder strap that allows you to wear it across your body.
Material: Artificial leather | Price: $
Cosmetic-surgery directory founder Annabelle Baugh commutes on the train with this inexpensive faux-leather tote. “I get asked where I got my bag all the time,” she says. “It’s replaced a more expensive Dune tote bag that I had for a few years, and I would say it’s one of the nicest bags for less than $50 I have ever had.” The bag has plenty of space for a tablet, her cell phone, a notebook, a one-liter flask, and the pair of ballet shoes she likes to slip into between meetings. She also appreciates the adjustable straps that she toggles up and down to perch the bag most comfortably on her shoulder.
Material: Nylon made of postconsumer plastic | Price: $
While other bags on this list are made partially out of sustainable materials, this Kokolu tote is made of 100 percent recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. Strategist senior editor Chelsea Peng, who has been carrying her work computer in the yellow Kokolu bag for three months now, says she “swears its springiness (probably thanks to the water bottles it’s made from) gives some sort of energy return that makes things feel lighter” than in other totes she’s owned. Peng also appreciates the bucket shape, because it can fit “a sweater, pouches, and other softer things around your laptop both to protect it and to obviously fit more inside.”
Material: Recycled tarpaulin | Price: $$
Suitcase Magazine columnist Anna Hart and designer Tyler McGillivary told us they use the sturdy bags from Freitag as their workhorse. The Swiss brand recycles truck tarpaulins into sturdy bags. Hart says her tote is a “compact yet virtually indestructible carry-on that can be converted into a comfortable backpack with a simple clip-on strap.” McGillivary also loves the strength and look of her bag: “It’s the perfect shade of yellow, in my opinion, and paired with a washed-out orange, it reminds me of fruit and fresh paint.”
Material: Leather | Price: $$$
Former Strategist senior writer Karen Iorio Adelson was a devoted Madewell Transport Tote user until one ill-fated trip to the airport, when the strap on her “(admittedly overstuffed) tote tore off” while she was waiting in the security line. She ordered an older version of the classic zipper Cuyana bag from her phone on the spot and called it a “big upgrade.” “The pebbled leather doesn’t show scratches or wear as easily, and it holds everything you’d need for a workday,” she says.
Both Strategist senior writer Liza Corsillo and writer Arielle Avila tested Cuyana’s pebbled-leather Easy Tote. It comes in two other versions — small and tall — and Avila chose the latter. “I appreciate its slim, streamlined silhouette and that it’s still able to fit my laptop, wallet, phone, keys, and even a couple journals,” says Avila. Corsillo’s bag is her go-to for her New York City subway commute. “My favorite thing about it is how light the actual bag is, so I’m not adding any weight to what I’m carrying,” she says. “It also has double handles, so I can carry it two ways really easily.” You can shop the tall tote in eight colors, including pine and cream.
Material: Canvas | Price: $$
For a versatile bag with some serious structure, try this tote from Dagne Dover that “meets all the needs” of high-school assistant principal Jade Stenger. She trusts it to hold her digital camera, work folders, school supplies, snacks for her little one, and her travel coffee tumbler. A favorite feature, according to Stenger, is that the bag has many interior compartments to keep all those items safe and organized.
Material: Neoprene and mesh | Price: $$
“I’ve never been a big backpack person, but that may be because I always had a plain, unfussy Jansport,” says Avila. “After testing out Dagne Dover’s Dakota backpack, I’m a backpack convert.” The backpack is made from a thick, durable neoprene material that, as well as being water resistant and easy to clean, looks far more luxurious to Avila than plain canvas. It also has plenty of slots for essentials. “My laptop, notebooks, pens, and other miscellaneous things stay organized with its laptop compartment, two exterior zipper pockets, interior zipper pockets, and more. And it’s incredibly comfortable to carry around with its padded straps.” When we spoke to cool women for another story, it was also brought up multiple times. One of its fans, personal stylist Cassandra Sethi, says that the neoprene and mesh material “molds to your body and breathes.” Sethi adds that while it can comfortably “hold everything you need” for the workday, it’s also great for travel. She says “it was the perfect backpack to bring along” on her four-country honeymoon trip.
Material: Vinylon F | Price: $
This backpack is typically on sale for less than $100, but even at its normal price of $110, it’s a steal. Strategist writer Lauren Ro has had hers for almost a decade, carrying it “every day on the subway in New York City, but I’ve also taken it hiking in the mountains of Vermont, island-hopping in Greece, on the beaches of Tulum, and through the streets of Seoul and Tokyo,” she says. Through all those treks, she promises there isn’t a single tear or any loose threads, and the zippers have never once snagged or come apart. The backpack is made out of Vinylon F, a synthetic material made out of polyvinyl alcohol that swells when it’s damp. That means it’s naturally water-resistant and long-lasting. As for its other features, it comes with a convenient separate laptop compartment, padding on the bottom, comfortable padded adjustable straps, and two side pockets for a water bottle or umbrella.
Material: Faux-leather | Price: $$
For a “sleek, stylish, structured” backpack that’s just north of $100, style influencer Bethany Everett-Ratcliffe suggests this faux-leather option from Calpak. It has a separate, zippered back compartment to keep your laptop secure, a luggage sleeve, and several zippered pouches inside the main compartment that help keep the rest of your belongings organized. While the bag is available in classic colors like black and brown, it also comes in blush and mint if you prefer something a little less predictable.
Material: Nylon | Price: $
Longchamp’s Le Pliage tote is a favorite among multiple Strategist staffers, including myself, for being so durable. New York Magazine deputy editor Alexis Swerdloff says hers has withstood nearly two decades of wear and tear, and Strategist editor Maxine Builder says her 15-year-old Le Pliage tote is a “classic in our household” that her fiancé has “permanently borrowed.” I personally bought mine secondhand about five years ago, and it’s held up through commutes and multiple vacations. It’s so durable because it’s made of a waterproof nylon material. Seattle-based knitwear designer and blogger Elisa Yip says that it “repels water to protect all my important stuff,” including her iPad, phone, wallet, makeup bag, and eyeglasses. Yip adds that it’s a great bag for traveling, since it can fold up and fit into a carry-on, making it a good choice if you’re someone who takes a lot of business trips (and the zip makes it one of our favorite personal items too).
Material: Nylon | Price: $
If you’re looking for a more affordable nylon travel slash work tote, Rifle Paper Co. co-founder Anna Bond highly recommended the LeSportsac Classic Zip Top Tote. The zipper closure at the top of the bag is “a huge plus when I’m going to the office or traveling.” The interior pockets are helpful for organization, and especially useful for days when the agenda is particularly varied. “Every day is a little different, but as a working mom, I sometimes need room for my laptop as well as items for my son,” Bond says.
Material: Nylon | Price: $$$
While this bag may cost the same as two months of membership dues at a luxury gym, Katheryn Thayer, Kickstarter’s brand content director, says it’s a must if you love to work out after (or before) work. “Caraa’s super-versatile ‘luxury sports bags’ are magical,” she promises, noting that the bag “has a million secret pockets, adjustable straps that convert to a backpack or over-the-shoulder weekender, and a big, cushiony pouch for my laptop. Plus, it zips fully closed.” Thayer adds that people stop her in the street to ask where she got it all the time. (If you’re just looking for a gym bag, we’ve got lots more options at various price points here.)
• Karen Iorio Adelson, former Strategist senior writer
• Arielle Avila, Strategist writer
• Dianna Baros, Budget Babe
• Annabelle Baugh, founder of Cosmetic Surgery Advancements
• Anna Bond, Rifle Paper Co. co-founder
• Maxine Builder, Strategist editor
• Liza Corsillo, Strategist senior writer
• Bethany Everett-Ratcliffe, content creator
• Anna Hart, slow travel columnist at Suitcase Magazine
• Tyler McGillivary, designer
• Chelsea Peng, Strategist senior editor
• Deb Perelman, author and Smitten Kitchen writer
• Lauren Ro, Strategist writer
• Meagan Sapashe, graphic designer
• Jade Stenger, high-school assistant principal
• Cassandra Sethi, personal stylist
• Alexis Swerdloff, New York Magazine deputy editor
• Elizabeth Tamkin, content and partnerships manager at Kule
• Katheryn Thayer, brand content director at Kickstarter
• Elisa Yip, knitwear designer and blogger
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