Ask Allie: Durable Commuter Bags

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I have been finding it a challenge to find a work tote/satchel that can handle all of my work items (iPad, shoes, book, and occasionally lunch) without having the handles break. I am preparing to take my latest two off to the great purse surgeon for some love and repair and am wondering if you can recommend a great tote/satchel for work that can carry all of the above and handle the weight of it all? I'd like to stick to a price tag of no greater than $200.

Some things I think are worth the price – well-crafted tall leather boots, a winter coat, and a work tote. It’s very hard to find a decent tote that can handle wear and tear without looking like crap. Honestly, few bags can carry all that on a regular basis and survive nicely unless you purchase a heavy-duty tote. While I recommend a black tote for business, for your commute a bag like the L.L. Bean Boat and Tote or Lands’ End Canvas Tote is a brilliant choice since it will hold up with a lot of weight, wear, and tear and won't be worn outside of the commute. The version with elongated straps will fit over your shoulder even if you have on a heavy winter coat, and they have options with open or zip tops and storage compartments. Choosing a darker color will be better for public transportation and city life as these totes can’t be thrown in the washer and do best when spot cleaned.

I often carry multiple bags instead of stuffing my work totes to preserve their condition and shape, but it’s still great to have a bag that doesn’t look sloppy and can carry both your Kindle and your bottle of water without bursting at the seams. My two favorite work totes were both purchased on sale and would have been over $200 otherwise.

However, price doesn’t equal a good work tote – you want to look for heavy straps that are sewn into the body of the bag (even better if they wrap around the body of the bag), metal feet to protect the bottom of the bag, and a bit of structure so it keeps it shape over years and random contents. The two bags I have are leather with leather straps, fully lined, and one has a center dividing compartment which keeps the shape and structure of the bag, even when seated on a table or the floor. While a crossbody can seem convenient, I find that if you plan on stuffing a bag, a crossbody can be hard to carry, dig into your shoulder, and put far too much wear on the straps.

The bags I suggest below have not been seen in person and I cannot vouch for their quality and appropriateness; their style and fabrication lead me to believe they would be good choices and are all around $200:

lands end sophisticated shopper tote leather

Love the canvas boat bags but yearn for something more polished? Lands’ End has you covered with this brown leather tote with brass feet and organizing interior pockets. Reviews are positive and show owners use it for everything from hauling books back to the library to packing for a trip. Supple leather, classic design, smart styling and less than $200!

Le Donne Leather Double Strap Medium Pocket Tote

No frills, but who needs them when you’re trying to cart your work essentials via mass transit? Plenty of pockets, full grain leather, and a variety of subtle shades make this a great commuting tote. The reviews are positive and seems many use this to lug around heavy 17” laptops with no issue. A classic style and less than $90 makes this bag a great option.

halogen jane tote

The best thing about this tote are the straps that continue through the body of the bag – this will keep your straps in one piece far longer. Generously sized, and fun yet work-friendly fabrics and colors. Currently on sale for less than $140 and free shipping.

brahmin anytime tote

I have a Brahmin and can attest to the fact that they are sturdy, well-made bags. My tote has a thin crossbody strap but easily supports a bag full of heavy things like leftovers and bottled water. Though the straps aren’t sewn deep into the body of the bag, they are wider at the bottom and secured all the way around for a strong foundation. Metal feet, interior organizing pockets, and a variety of conservative and fun colors make this a great work bag. While it is a bit over $200, it’s a classic style that should give you years of wear and is polished enough to use for corporate meetings and conferences and work travel. In fact, if you’re interested in splurging, the larger ‘Melbourne Large Anytime’ tote has a padded compartment inside just for your iPad.

le sportsac 7008 travel tote

I feel inauthentic recommending a brand I wore strapped above my fanny in the ‘80s, but LeSportsac is known for high-quality, sturdy, and lightweight bags that last forever. The Travel Tote is famous for being the perfect tote you didn’t know you needed. Lightweight, durable, expandable, and not covered with overly visible logos or prints, this is a LeSportsac that can fit with most any personal style and will comfortably carry everything from your gym clothes to your netbook with ease. Less than $100, and many say they are still happily using the same LeSportsace Travel Tote that they purchased over a decade prior.

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  1. My fave for the past 5 years has been the Vera Bradley Vera Tote. It’s got a bunch of decent size inside pockets (I can fit my starbucks travel mug in one of the small ones) both inside and out, it’s big enough to hold a lot of stuff. While it doesn’t have a special slot for a laptop (or tablet), I just put my lap top in a protective sleeve and it’s been fine. It would be nice if the bag was just a bit bigger, but it’s shaped like a grocery bag, so you can stack up pretty well. I’ve tended to stay away from leather bags. They’re quite durable, but they’re so heavy before you put anything in.

  2. I use a Namaste bag (the Monroe: It’s not leather, so it’s a little less expensive, and my 15″ laptop fits (in its sleeve) perfectly in the main compartment. They have a bunch of great-looking colors, too (although I use a black one, I keep thinking about buying a second bag in red).

    I had a bad zipper, and the company sent out a replacement bag immediately – fabulous customer service.

  3. Allie–Do you remember the Hardware Handbags (from maybe 6 years ago?) with flexible plumbing handles, grommets, and super-durable nylon? I saw your post on them in 2007 or so, bought one and am still using it. I think maybe they’ve gone out of business, since I tried to find them online but couldn’t locate them? Those are awesome commuter bags! Never underestimate the power of a good product and a great review!

  4. You actually can machine-wash the Lands’ End canvas totes, even the structured ones. You can even fluff them in the dryer. Just FYI – and they come out looking a heck of a lot cleaner. 🙂

  5. I go for tough nylon bags over leather. Inexpensive leather bags wear quickly, vinyl-wantabe leather even faster. Expensive leather bags are heavy in themselves, who needs that when you’re loaded up?
    In my way of thinking save the bucks for a fancy leather purse and get a respectable looking nylon bag for heavy packing.

  6. Allie,

    Did you notice the Halloween goodie bag totes on sale on the Lands End linked page? I know that’s off topic right now. But I love Halloween and $12.99 for sturdy, cute Halloween totes is irresistible.


  7. I gave up on leather entirely for my commute in DC because I got sick of having my bag (and therefore inner contents) get wet in the sudden downpours we sometimes get here. I LOVE Timbuktu commuter bags. Reasonably priced, waterproof, and will fit everything in the medium size. The trick is that you need to buy the all-black ones so that you still look professional and don’t look like a bike messenger (I HATE it when people wearing professional suits are wearing bright yellow and red canvas messenger bags – that look doesn’t work at all). Also, I bike to work sometimes, so I wear the bag cross-body when I bike. However, it also works as a regular shoulder bag when you are just walking.

  8. Allie, years ago you posted about a durable travel bag made with hardware and canvas. I ordered the bag and use it as my carryon for every trip. I’ve gotten SO many compliments on it, to the point where TSA actually grabbed it off the belt and ran across the airport to show a coworker once! However, I don’t remember where I bought it. I’m pretty sure they’re discontinued but I thought I’d check with you to see if you know. Thanks again for the awesome recommendation. That bag is holding up the test of time, and perfectly matches my personal style.

    1. Oh yes, I wonder where that bag went! It was something basic like Hardware Handbags and it was AMAZING. Sadly, the company did go under and the bags are no longer available. Oh I loved that bag, now I know how I will be spending this weekend… wrapping presents and looking for that tote!

      1. One woman told me she was going to go the hardware store that night and get all the supplies needed to make one. Guys are especially impressed by the fact that the handle is some kind of plumbing supply. Great tote! I hope you find yours 🙂

  9. Thanks for answering my question Allie. I also appreciate the advise on using multiple bags for toting my goods. Why is it that I think I need to get everything in one bag? Craziness! I love the suggestions you made and will be checking them out. Thanks again.

  10. Ahh! I must mention Lo & Sons bags – I have used their OMG back in black nylon for almost 2 years, traveling by plane every week. It has held up beautifully and for the first time in 7 years, I have stopped being on a constant search for the “perfect travel bag.” Love it!

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