Do Your Best To Never Check Your Gear
Have you ever been on a plane waiting for the rest of the passengers to board and taken a quick gander out the window to watch the baggage handlers load your luggage? Most of the time, the baggage handlers load suitcase after suitcase with care and no incident, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that every so often I see a luggage handler throw my bag onto the conveyer belt so intensely that I felt like some crazy W.W.F. elbow drop would quickly follow. I’ve also witnessed numerous bags make the leap of faith off the conveyer belt in one last attempt to avoid flying to their final destination. Needless to say, stuff happens and the last thing you want to do is put your precious camera gear at risk of being thrown around and introduced to the Earth’s gravitational pull. Do your best to carry your valuable gear onto the plane with you. This can be done by packing as much into your camera bag as possible just until you arrive at your destination.
Attach Your Tripod To Your Bag
I get asked all the time about how I travel with my tripod. Do I check it? Is it allowed on the plane? What if I have spikes on the feet of my tripod? First things first…I never check my tripod. It’s not because I’m worried about it being tossed around and dropped (those things are made to take a beating) but more so about the idea of my luggage not making it to my final destination. No luggage = No tripod. No tripod = Reduced shooting capabilities. My solution to not checking my tripod or carrying it on as a “personal item” is to simply attach the tripod to my camera bag. I have flown on so many different airlines that I’ve lost count, but I have never once had any issues with taking my tripod onboard when it was attached to my bag. Now, did you notice that last sentence? Spoiler alert, “When it was attached to my bag.” Most people never see the tripod, and when they have, it’s immediately, “Oh, you’re a photographer?” The one time I carried my tripod onto the flight not attached, I was stopped on two different occasions by employees and they tried to get me to check the tripod because it could possibly be used as a weapon. I guess it looked more threatening. Most camera backpacks have a way to attach your tripod, utilize it. Oh, and if you have spikes on your tripod feet, be sure to take those off before you arrive at the airport because they do pose a safety hazard.
Be Courteous To Your TSA Agent
Unfortunately, in today’s day and age there are so many rules and regulations that you must oblige to before you can board your flight. As a photographer, we spend some serious time playing Tetris and perfectly packing our bags before our big trip, so needless to say the last thing we want is a TSA Agent telling us to remove everything from our bag for screening. Recently, TSA introduced the rule that all cameras must be removed from any bag for screening. I think I stumbled upon a loophole for this (it’s not 100% but works quite often). One of the big goals of TSA is to move travelers efficiently, quickly and safely through security. Keyword, quickly. Introduce the photographer’s bag into this scenario and now a wrench is thrown into that quickness. I find that when I approach the table where the metal detectors are, I talk to the nearest TSA Agent and explain my bag situation to them. Usually when I tell them that there is thousands of dollars of camera gear packed perfectly into this bag and ask if I can just send the whole bag through, they are onboard. They simply ask me to remove my laptop instead. Of course, I talk to them politely which is usually a nice change to their day. Now this doesn’t guarantee your bag won’t receive additional screening after the metal detector because let’s be real…there’s a lot of crazy looking electronics in our bags. Usually every fourth trip or so, I’ll receive additional screening to my bag. Also, getting TSA Pre-check and Global Entry is totally worth the time and money.
Break Down Your Gear
This may sound silly as we all want to have our gear ready to go at a moment’s notice, but during our travels, we put our bags through a lot of torture. Shoving it in an overhead compartment, running through an airport and bouncing all the gear inside up-and-down, even the occasional thump against a wall or person. It’s all bound to happen sooner or later. I highly recommend leaving all your lenses unattached to your camera inside your bag during your travels. Reason being is that one wrong bump could jar the gear the wrong way and you can damage your lens mount / lens. This actually happened to two workshop participants of mine last year.
Call The Airlines Before You Depart
We are going to keep this tip pretty simple. The overhead compartment sizes for each airline is different, so it’s always a good idea to call and find out the dimensions that are allowed. Last thing you want to do is get to the gate and be told your gear must be checked because it doesn’t fit in their sizer.
Talk To The Gate Attendant
One of my favorite airlines to fly is Southwest. I love the open seating options, the fun staff, and the sometimes (but not always) accommodating gate agent. Here’s a little tip, if you arrive early and politely talk to the gate agent about the expensive gear you have in your bag, they just might allow you to board in between the A and B groups. I typically start off the conversation with a kind, “Hello” quickly followed by a, “How is your day going?” You know, pretty much the way we should all greet one another regardless of whether or not we need something. Just saying. Anyways, I then kindly explain that I have quite the investment in my bag and it would be an absolutely worse-cast scenario to have to gate check my gear. I ask if there is any way possible that I can board with the extra time group to assure that there will be overhead space for my gear. This actually works most of the time, but I have had times where I was told that they couldn’t accommodate.
Buy A Bag With An ICU
So you called the airline and double and triple checked that your bag will indeed fit in their overhead compartment, but what happens when you are one of the last to get onto the plane and there is no space available? Well, the courteous flight attendant will then tell you that you can gate check your bag for free! Terrifying words indeed, but alas, there is a solution to this problem. I highly recommend buying a camera bag that comes with an ICU (Internal Camera Unit). It’s essentially the storage compartment for your camera gear, but can slide in and out of the bag and zip up like a suitcase. It’s much smaller than your overall bag and can me a lifesaver in instances like these. They are small enough to fit underneath the seat in front of you while the rest of your bag goes under the plane. These ICU’s are also a great piece of gear to have for when you have to travel on much smaller planes that have almost no overhead compartment space.
Know Your Batteries
Whether you are carrying all your gear on or having to check it, it’s important for your safety and all those on your flight to know the batteries in which you are taking on your travels. Any lithium batteries need to be carried on and cannot be checked. If you check these batteries and they are picked upon your bags screen, they can be confiscated without the option to get them back. If you are unsure of any battery that you have, give the brand a call and simply ask them if the batteries are safe to fly with.
If You Have To Check
There may be times that you have to travel with more than what you can fit into your camera bag. For me, this has happened when traveling to destination weddings and having to bring off camera flashes and such. It is a scary experience checking any expensive gear, but if you have to do it, the best advice I can give you is to make sure the gear is traveling in a protected case. I highly recommend Pelican cases. These are great cases that are extremely durable and also come with inserts that you can customize to fit your gear perfectly. You also want something that can be dropped and not damage what’s inside and also is water sealed. I can recall one time when I was one of the first on the flight and it was raining outside. I looked over to see the luggage handlers slowly unloading bags from an uncovered trailer. It took a good five minutes for all the luggage to be loaded onto the plane, so most luggage was drenched with water.
Whether you do photography as a hobby or as a profession, you WANT to get your gear insured. Face it, at some point your gear is going to get damaged. Whether it’s something you do or something that happens because of other people, it’s bound to happen. You can get your gear insured quite easily and for relatively cheap. Think about it, you have all your other important items in your life insured, why not your camera?