Do you want to know how to fly with your photo gear? Congratulations! If you are reading this article, you are possibly planning your next photo destination. While it is certainly not too challenging to properly pack your photography gear for a road trip, it is a bit of a challenge when that trip takes you in the air.
Over the years, I have taken many trips by plane and wanted to share some things I have learned, as well as some best practices you may want to follow. Please keep in mind that this is not a “one size fits all” article, so you will need to assess your needs as well as what you are hoping to accomplish.
Some “Do” Items For You To Consider
- Strongly consider flying Southwest Airlines. If you are a serious photographer, you are likely on a budget anyway. Southwest has the best baggage policies which will come handy in some of the items below. Their points also don’t expire, so I recommend you fly with your photo gear with them.
- Your first checked bag should be your backpack or suitcase. I typically stow away my backpack and daypack inside my largest suitcase. Items that I typically pack for hiking or backpacking are carefully packed in each pack, while other items such as clothing, shoes, toiletries, etc., are rolled up carefully and put into the suitcase. Don’t forget to weigh your suitcase before leaving for the airport. Try to keep your suitcase to 40 – 45 pounds to give you a few extra pounds for any souvenirs you take home from your destination. Your suitcase is the most important bag to plan because it must be organized, packed well and tightly, and fit everything you need.
- Your second checked bag should be your tripod. Most tripods already ship with a case. Be sure to use a brightly colored luggage tag with it. Some people may mistake it for a gun bag and you don’t want the added hassle, so be sure to make it conspicuous. I would not recommend trying to make this item a carry-on, because it will almost certainly put you into secondary inspection with TSA. Another important thing to keep in mind is that your tripod bag will often end up in the “oversized” baggage area, so if you do not see it at baggage claim, don’t panic.
- Your overhead carry-on bag should be your camera bag. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Checked luggage is not treated as fragile cargo, but you know how just how precious your camera equipment is. Having your camera equipment with you in a camera bag is the best way for you to personally be sure it travels safely. While I have had my camera bag sent to second inspection with TSA a few times, the agents have typically been easy-going when they see that it is camera equipment.
- Your under-the-seat carry-on bag should be your technology or laptop bag. I typically travel with a Macbook Pro laptop as well as an iPad. This gives me easy access to these items while on the plane, especially with new FAA regulations allowing “airplane mode” usage under 10,000 feet elevation. In addition to my laptop and tablet, I also have mobile charging cables, notes for my trip, maps, and other items that I may want to access. I typically keep my paperwork in a small binder that fits into one of the pockets of my laptop bag.</li>
- Make sure any lens cleaning fluid is under 3.5 ounces. If you have a large cleaning bottle, you will need to remove it from your camera bag and put it in your suitcase. I typically do this with smaller bottles as well, but even something as innocuous as lens cleaning solution over 3.5 ounces will be confiscated by TSA.
- Plan your flight check-in. As you probably know, if you are flying Southwest Airlines, you need to “check in” to your flight 24 hours in advance. While checking in a day in advance of your flight out is not trivial, your check-in 24 hours in advance of coming home can be a challenge. Southwest offers a mobile application on iOS and Android that allow you to check in via your cell phone. But consider your location. Is it remote? Will you have internet or cellular access? While you are on your trip, make note of the locations where you have adequate cell coverage and put a reminder on your phone to be there 24 hours in advance of your flight. Doing so can be the difference between boarding in the “A” group and being stuck with an uncomfortable middle seat boarding with the “C” group. If you know you will be out of cell coverage with no chance to check-in, you can pay the early boarding fee with Southwest. Finally, when you get to the airport, you will be able to print your boarding pass(passes) at the self-service kiosk.
Some “Don’t” Items For You To Consider
- Do not pack all of your photo gear. This item explains itself, but it is extremely tempting to pack everything. You always want to be prepared to get that perfect image. An overpacked camera bag is going to slow you down, rob you of your focus, and increase the chances of things getting disorganized on your journey. You may think you are going to shoot wide-angle panoramas, long focal-length images of wildlife, as well as macro images of bugs and flowers. Be honest with yourself. Are you really going to be shooting “everything?” You are probably flying to make some particular images. Visualize those images, and what combinations of body and glass you need to capture the moment. Leave everything else behind.
Now, Go Have Some Fun!
While the items I have prepared for you are exhaustive, they cannot possibly account for every travel scenario. Be ready to adapt. Plan ahead. Visualize your trip and account for everything. Your trip won’t go perfectly, but if you have planned for everything you can think of, you will be ready when something doesn’t go according to plan. Write down your best practices. And, in closing, be sure to have fun!
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T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.