Travel Tips for Photographers:
Flying with Camera Gear

 

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, "How do you transport your photo gear when flying?" After 9/11, there’s some bad news but also some good news for photographers.

The bad news is that you’re now strictly limited to one carry-on bag and one "personal item" (that was always the rule, but it was rarely enforced), and you are asked to arrive two hours before your flight. But with a little planning, this isn’t much of a problem at all.

The good news is that flying with photo gear is almost unchanged since 9/11. Also, most air travel is actually running smoother than before.

Photographers have always needed to plan ahead when traveling with lots of gear, and my approach to air travel remains pretty much the same. Keep in mind that you have three ways to transport your gear when flying:

  • carry-on
  • checked luggage
  • shipping ahead

I’ll tell you how I use all three, and pass on tips I hope will make your trips smoother and hassle-free. Let’s get started:

Strategic Ticketing

I try to fly out of smaller regional airports instead of busy megaports like LAX whenever possible, and I’ll sometimes pay a higher fare to do so. But it’s often worth it for shorter lines, less traffic, easier and cheaper parking, and shorter walks to the gates.

I avoid tight connections (less than an hour), to protect against weather and other delays. A two hour layover doesn’t seem so bad when you’re sitting on a delayed flight, looking at the pained expressions of your fellow passengers who are wondering whether they’ll make their connections. When we arrive I have plenty of time to haul my carry-on gear to my next gate, grab a meal to supplement the sometimes meager or nonexistent in-flight meals, and stretch my legs.

When traveling someplace distant, I often arrange to arrive a day or more ahead of time, especially when weather delays are likely. It also gives me some time to get over jet lag and otherwise relax and be refreshed.

When making reservations, I request seats towards the rear of the plane, so I can be one of the first to board and find overhead space for my photo backpack. And when boarding starts I am standing there at the gate with everyone else in the "milling around" area ready to spring, cheetah-like with boarding pass and photo ID in hand, into line to board the instant my row is called. (Confession: I sometimes cheat and board before my row is called, to make sure that on crowded flights the airline won’t do me a "favor" and check my camera gear if overhead space runs out. As penance I help older passengers stow there overhead luggage.)

For comfort, I try to avoid the very last rows, which often seem shared with the engines and lavatories, and I request aisle seats, which are more comfortable except when the attendants bang the cart into my dangling limbs.

And one last seating tip: If you’re unable to get a good seat when purchasing your tickets, ask again at the check-in counter or connecting gate. When I asked one check-in agent if she could do anything about my dreaded "middle seat," she responded with a symphony of keystrokes on her computer and proceeded to hand me a free upgrade to first class!

Checking In

Airlines advise you to arrive 2 hours before departure with photo ID. In most cases this has left me with a lot of time on my hands after clearing security. What I don’t miss is the stress I usually felt in the past as I inevitably arrived at the last minute and rushed to make my flight.

Air travel has actually gotten smoother now since 9/11, as reported in a recent Consumer Reports Travel Letter, as passengers check luggage and get to their gates earlier. Buy a magazine, bring a book or something else to pass the time, and breathe a little easier.

(Note: All airports strictly prohibit unattended vehicles at curbside or standing while waiting for passengers. Walk away from your vehicle for a moment and you’re sure to get ticketed. Again, the good news is that vehicle congestion at the gate is greatly reduced.)

Carry-on: Know the Limits

I prefer to carry on my most important and fragile camera gear. (I purchased camera equipment insurance, which gives me peace of mind when gear must be checked. See below.)

The current carry-on limit is one "large" carry-on bag and one "personal item" (purse, briefcase, laptop computer) that can be stowed under the seat. (Check with your airline, as these limits could change.)

I’ve gone on six trips since 9/11 and have not experienced any difficulty with my carry-on luggage. Occasionally screeners are puzzled by the large lens or mass of equipment and ask for a closer look or a "sniff test," and I cheerfully cooperate. The system isn’t perfect, but it’s improving, they’re performing an important function, and I’m glad they’re doing it.

I carry a maximum-carry-on-size photo backpack which can hold a lot of gear. (I use the Lowepro Photo Trekker.) Be careful not to overstuff it or attach the accessory pockets, though, because then it might exceed the size limits and you’ll have difficulty stowing it (and it’s bad for the zippers). Put the pockets in checked luggage for use when you arrive.

I used to place my large telephoto in a Tenba lens bag (which also holds plenty of film) as another carry-on, but now that’s one big bag too many. Instead I carry my Canon 500 mm f/4 inside my Photo Trekker (I reverse the lens hood and relocate some gear to checked luggage to make room for it), and transfer the lens to the lens bag at my destination. You may need to temporarily remove the lens hood from a 600/4 to fit it in the your backpack without overstuffing it. At my destination I usually carry then lens in the Tenba bag, which was in my checked luggage helping protect my tripod and ballhead.

As I write this I’m awaiting delivery of an expandable soft-sided briefcase/computer case to use as my personal item and stow under the seat. One airline told me the size limits for under the seat were 23" x 13" x 9" (check with your airline). My bag is 17" x 12.5" x 7" and can hold a considerable amount of equipment and/or film, as well as my tickets, papers, cell phone, book to read, water bottle, and even some extra clothes.

I use a large XtraHand photo vest in the field, but I wear my old Domke vest on the plane. It looks more like clothing, yet it holds plenty of equipment, film, plane tickets, and other small items.

Checked Luggage

I’m about to depart for three weeks in Costa Rica to photograph hummingbirds, Resplendent Quetzals, and more. I will be taking all my "regular" photo gear including 500 mm f/4, plus five lightstands, ten flashes, numerous power packs and chargers, backgrounds, feeders, clamps, reflectors, binoculars, 300 rolls of film, etc., etc. My total load will approach 200 pounds.

On the other hand, in December I will travel to the Falkland Islands, where flights on small planes limit the amount of gear I can take. This will require a different strategy.

My philosophy is to travel light when possible, but take the gear I’ll reasonably need. That includes backups, especially on long trips, and plenty of film. Obviously, your destination will be a factor: trekking in Nepal is different from driving around Ding Darling or Death Valley. (In Nepal you can hire Sherpas!)

Typically airlines limit you to two checked bags, 70 pounds each. (You can take more for $50-$100 each). A seventy pound bag is not something I want to lug around for long. On the other hand, getting the bags from home to car to airport counter, and then from baggage claim to vehicle to hotel, is not too challenging, if you keep in mind the following:

I finally wised up and purchased checked luggage with wheels; it makes life much easier. I protect camera gear in these large bags by placing it in smaller padded bags I’ve accumulated over the years and wrapping clothing around it. I sometimes use a closed-cell foam sleeping pad (as for camping) for extra padding.

With a lot of gear, this packing configuration is fine for flying, but inconvenient for access at the destination. I frequently take one or more soft-sided bags inside my checked luggage; after I arrive I transfer some gear to these bags. I may take some of these with me in the vehicle when shooting, and leave what I don’t need in the room. Even when changing motels frequently, it’s easier to keep things organized in smaller bags, assuming you have adequate room in a vehicle.

Of course, for "adventure" travel you may need to adjust for using a camel instead of a car. But I used a similar approach when trekking for five months in Nepal: once I arrived in Kathmandu, I rearranged my gear, left some in locked storage at the hotel, carried camera gear and essential clothing in my daypack, and the Sherpas put the rest on a yak!

I own a Tamrac StrongBox, designed in a suitcase style with padded dividers. I don’t carry this in the field, but find it useful to transport myriad items including those that don’t fit in my carry on bag. I check it in an old duffle, padded with extra clothes, so it doesn’t look like camera gear. I’m in the process of "super-sizing" this to a larger Tamrac Rolling StrongBox -- gotta have those wheels.

Transporting Film

I carry on film and also ship film ahead to my destination when practical. I used to ask for hand inspection or my film except when I was in a hurry -- but I was usually in a hurry and put it through the scanner.

Repeated studies have shown that x-ray inspection for carry-on luggage does not damage film even after multiple passes. Some locations will not hand inspect film, but I don’t worry about putting it through the carry-on scanners. I do, however, try to keep track of unused film from trips, putting it first in line to use so that it won’t be repeatedly x-rayed.

For convenience I often ship most of my film ahead of time to my motel, marked "Hold for arriving guest." Some, but not all, mail-order suppliers will ship to a motel; confirm ahead of time. I use FedEx 2-Day or similar shipping that can be tracked, and allow extra time. I still carry some film with me on the plane in case my shipment is delayed. (I haven’t found the need to ship equipment ahead, but that is also an option.)

When time allows I ship exposed film directly to my processor (Photo Craft Labs in Boulder, CO), and I carry order forms and address labels for this. It saves me the hassle of carrying it home, and the processed slides get to me that much sooner.

IMPORTANT: Do not place film in checked baggage, since it may be subject to damaging scans. Scanners for carry-on bags are claimed not to cause damage to ISO 100 film even after 10-20 scans. I routinely put film through carry-on scanners.

Equipment Insurance

Camera Equipment Insurance can give you added piece of mind if you’re forced to check your equipment, as well as protect you against theft and damage at home and on the road. Your Homeowners or Renters policy may cover your equipment, but you may have to take out additional coverage for lots of gear and expensive lenses. These policies generally exclude professional photographers, though.

I obtained camera insurance from NANPA (1-303-422-8527, www.nanpa.org), which covers both amateurs and professionals who are members. So when I couldn’t find my 600 mm f/4 lens one morning because I left it sitting in the motel parking lot in Florida overnight, I took comfort in the fact that my investment was covered. The lens was quickly recovered, leaving me to deal only with the embarrassment.

Final Thoughts

I chose a career in nature photography in part because of my desire to travel to great places, some of them remote and requiring a lot of planning and effort. But in the end, it has always been worth it. I hope these tips help smooth your path, wherever you may wander!