Travelling with camera gear?

Discussion in 'Travel' started by andrew_gorton, May 30, 2011.

  1. I have my first job as a photographer travelling o/s (South Africa). The question I have, is about travelling with camera gear. I will be taking 2 camera bodies and 3 lens (one will be a 500mm). Does anyone check-in their camera equipment (in a hard case) that goes underneath the plane? Or do you do your best to get it on-board with you? I know this would be ideal but how hard is it with most airlines. Do you have any good one-liners that work with the airlines, to get your camera gear on-board? Any suggestions/help would be greatly appreciated.
  2. "Nobody" checks camera gear. What can't go as carry-on becomes problematic because there are potential theft and/or damage problems with checked baggage. In the USA, the TSA allows an additional bag of photographic equipment but it's subject to airline space and weight restrictions. It may become necessary to ship some items separately, etc.
    There are ways to ship expensive items with some added levels of security but it isn't by showing up with it at the gate and hoping for the best.
  3. david_henderson


    I'm sure most people try and carry on their photo gear, but what happens when you can't? In post 9/11 days when airlines were very restrictive about carry-on and I was travelling with two systems, I bought a Pelican case and travelled extensively with it, checking one medium format system and carrying on the smaller one. For myself I never had a problem. I never lost my gear or had it delayed. Obviously the equipment was insured just in case. So if I can't carry on all my gear thats what I'd do now. I still put my tripod legs , battery chargers and a spare body in my checked bag.
    But you need to start by looking up the dimensional and any weight guidelines imposed by your airline for your specific flights. You'll almost certainly be able to get at least most of your gear on the plane with you. The problem comes when you know you can't stick within the limits indicated. You have no idea whether the people you'll come across at check-in and at the gate will be lenient or whether they'll play it by the book. No advice or argument anyone here can give you will provide a guarantee that your gear will all be allowed on with you. No-one can guarantee that what works on the way out will work also on the way back. So the fundamental rule is this. Don't go to an airport with carry-on baggage that exceeds your airlines allowances unless you have a clear strategy about what to do if you get stopped. That might mean leaving some space in the bags you'll check in case you need to transfer some equipment. It might mean wearing a coat with big pockets so you can slip a few lenses. It might mean turning up with a hard case which you hope will travel empty but is there if you need it .
  4. I always carry camera bodies and lenses on board with me in a carry on bag and a small day pack. I carry my tripod in checked baggage.
    Once Thai Airways informed me that my carry on bag exceeded their weight limit. I was polite and looked perplexed. My wife explained to the representative in Thai that I was carrying expensive camera equipment. I opened the bag and showed the gear. They allowed me to carry it on board rather than checking it.
    Most airlines advise you not to carry expensive items in your checked luggage so if you are challenged on the weight of your carry on you could POLITELY point out their recommendation and seek their indulgence.
    Business Class tickets also typically get you more carry on allowance.
  5. Limit one bag @ 8 kg on Austrian Airlines--which they tell you when you check in for your return flight. On the outbound flight they charged me $ 150 for 3 lbs over the limit on checked luggage. The modern form of piracy.
  6. I have been working as a travel photographer for many years now (both pre and post 9/11) and if there is something I can tell you for certain is: there is NO specific answer or recipe for success. Rules (supposedly mandated by the FAA and the IATA and whichever other body) are applied so liberaly that you simply never know. For example, I had to argue with Greek airport officials (not airline personnel) who wanted me to empty the entire contents of my camera bag (5 lenses, 2 bodies, flashes, adapters, and so on and so forth) onto the X-ray belt so they can be scanned individually - something that has not happened to me in ANY other airport I have ever travelled into or out of! Similarly, Qatar Airways didn't even bat an eyelid when I walked in with my camera backpack AND a special soft case containing a 200-400 f/4 Nikon lens. On the other hand, British Airways made a fuss because my backpack was - ready? - 3cm over the size limit (seriously! I had to tighten the various straps around to compress the size before they allowed me to proceed.
    Personally, while I carry all my cameras and lenses WITH me on the plane, everything else (chargers, light modifiers, stands and tripods, etc, etc) all go into my checked luggage. So far no problems. I have travelled with Peli cases twice (for relatively large productions) but there my problem was that the Indian customs officials wanted us to register ALL items separately PRIOR to checking them in. Stories abound...
    I would advise you to approach this as a "hopeless" situation. Take with you ONE piece of carry-on luggage. Taking more than one is an invitation for problems (unless the other one contains nothing more than a laptop) because, well, you never know the state of mind of the check-in agent (who has come before you with 5 massive items and complained and got on his/her nerves, how late in the day it know how it goes!) I disagree with the "feigning ignorance" advice however - it may work sometimes but it is disrespectful and some airline personnel have seen this scene a billion times already. Simply be VERY polite and straightforward, explain that these are your work tools, that you're travelling on business and it is important that you have those items with you - 99% of the time, you'll get your way.
    As for the 1%? I have found that remaining polite must SOMETIMES (VERY RARELY) be, after a long time and when faced with stubborn people, escalated instantly to harsh (but calmly insistent and polite) demands to talk to their supervisor. 99.5% of the time, the supervisor is someone who knows more, has more authority to resolve matters and WANTS to help you move along.
    Final note: if your 500mm is a massive lens, I would ship it over with FedEx (and even make arrangements to have it picked up on the return leg) in a Peli case, with two locks and accompanied by a customs declaration form (to prove, on the way back, that you exported this item and that you did not buy it abroad and importing it...)
  7. I'm with the prevailing opinion here - I carry bodies/lenses on the plane with me, but put tripods, chargers, flashes, etc. in checked luggage. In extensive travel over the last 40 years, I have never had a problem. My basic attitude has always been to carry the most important/valuable/sensitve/likely to be stolen gear on the plane with me and check the rest.
  8. I always carry two bags on board with me, a photo backpack that has one body and 4 lenses in it along with my computer backpack. Checked is everything else, but one compact tripod is separately in my 'clothes' luggage. If something is stolen, I doubt it will be a simple tripod. If the rest is stolen, I still have a mostly complete DSLR system with tripod, and would immediately start a claim with my insurance company on the rest.
    I don't fly as much now, I rarely take international jobs since 9/11, so I mostly drive. But in 3 decades of LOTS of flights, nothing stolen, not even a late arriving bag.
  9. By the way, congratulations on the job. Exciting!
  10. My wife and I did a two week trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe last September where we had 4 internal flights inside South Africa. On virtually every one of these flights our checked luggage was broken into and more than once we had items stolen. Our South African hosts explained that the SA airports have cameras that thoroughly monitor baggage handling areas, but the workers are adept at breaking locks or zip ties and quickly searching through luggage without being detected by the monitors. So, you must carry on all high value items, unless it is your intention to dontate these items to the airport workers.
    I always carry computer and camera equipment onboard with me in a backpack. My largest backpack which carries a notebook computer, two bodies, two long lenses and two-three smaller lenses, plus all accessories is difficult to stow in the overhead of smaller short-range aircraft, but I managed on this trip by removing the computer and a couple of other items and keeping them in the seat with me.
  11. I always carry on cameras, lenses and film, in fact anything that is absolutely essential to the functioning of the cameras. That includes chargers obviously - If you cant charge the camera it very quickly becomes expensive junk. Tripods, lighting etc I check.
    I usually manage to take it all in two camera bags, and so far so good , camera bags seem to be separate to the system of allowance.
  12. I just booked my trip to S.A. and doing my homework too.

    Having spent a lot of time in the air, with a ton of electronics (not just camera gear). I have picked up on a few things.

    While my camera body and lenses and laptop are in my carry on. Everything else is checked. I use a large Peli case, for anything of value. It's TSA locked, wrapped in plastic and most of all I buy the extra insurance from the airline. So far never been broken into.

    On the other hand a Peli case, can cause major headaches when clearing customs in some locations. Peru, saw it smiled and waved me over for inspection. Nothing says, "Valuable" louder than a Peli.

    As for the carry on, I'm always over weight, but no one has ever said a thing. I have a cute spinner case and a computer shoulder bag. In the spinner, is body, 3 lenses and what ever else that would be at risk as well as my purse. The trick is to walk around like it's as light as a feather. Looking tired, and dragging it around like it weights a ton, is a red flag.

    As for shipping, I have shipped items. While Fedex is great in the U.S., DHL rules in most other locations of the world. UPS and postal service... are like rolling the dice. Also if you do ship your 500, check with the S.A. customs office first. You may have to pay duty, and you want to make sure you can get a refund.
  13. The Pelican 1510 perfectly fits the carry-on dimensions for domestic US airlines. I have one with the divider set and have traveled with it often over the last 4 years. Check the dimensions, but I'd bet you could fit your gear. A quick search, and I found it for $160USD with the divider set.
  14. Print a copy of the TSA guidelines that allow the extra bag--since I started carrying that sheet of paper I have never needed to use it...
    I will usually check the LF gear and tripod, well padded inside my clothing bag (Busch Pressman, packs pretty small) but carry on the MF kit (and usually a Nikon/Nikonos or two), 3-5 lenses and my films, usually a daypack and a Domke F2. I split the difference: the pro bag for the people that might object to excess carry-ons, and sub-rosa packing for the unattended stuff.
    The other issue is that the main time for security to notice and object is when you have your shoes, jacket and belt off, your laptop out, someone trying to go though the metal detector with a walker, and all the other agents crowded around the screen looking at someone's body piercings. You don't worry about them. You worry about the flight attendant at the gate, and whether your stuff will fit in the little box if they ask. That's the time to stride confidently by, never looking like you're carrying 60 extra pounds, not slowing down. That's when it helps to have a shoulder bag and a backback--they usually won't see both at the same time. It also helps that backpacks aren't just for "backpackers" anymore, I remember some harrowing searches at JFK in the '80s, anyone that looked like me must be carrying something worth finding...
    If I were travelling with an entourage, or at least paying for other people to cart my stuff around the rest of the time, I would invest in Pelican or Halliburton cases, though, so you can call out "get me the 500 from case yellow-two!" "Yes Bwana"
  15. I gave up! Travelled with 3 Digicams to SA. It was fun sailing thru security. Had 12 memory cards plus flash drives. No PC Laptop,No bulky cameras,no extra lenses,no film to freak about being safely fogged! Its also dangerous to walk around the streets of some South African cities never mind carrying fancy cameras! I think thiugh the question was for going out of SA.
  16. it


    Lots of people check their gear into the hold, but you won't need to with so little stuff. Just don't use an over-sized bag and take it all carry-on.
    A few months ago I did a shoot that had 26 flights and I had no problems, even with more gear than you are carrying.
  17. Thanks guys to all that responded, more then helpful.
    I'm going to post a thread re: insurance for you camera guys. Happy for any help.
  18. Research the restrictions imposed by the sirlines on carry-on bags. They are different. As an example on my trip to China last year, my international flight on China Airlines had different size/weight restrictions from the domestic Chinese airlines which I used to fly around inside that country.
    A tip for overweight camera bags... Wear a photo vest and put some of your heavier items in the vest along with one camera/lens around your neck while going through security. Replace the items back in your bag in the boarding area.
    Another tip... Travel with lighter weight carry-on bags. I have a wheeled Lowepro Case which is just too heavy to use as a carry-on where they have a weight restriction on carry-on bags. Since, you will be handling the bags yourself, you don't need as much protection.
    Final Tip... Straps can be a problem. I traveled to Alaska with a Lowepro backpack which was quite large and also had bulky shoulder and waist straps. These straps were so bulky thatI almost didn't get to carry the bag on one flight because it had a hard time fitting in the box which indicates maximum carry-on size.
  19. Andrew, You have some excellent advice here. I fully agree with carrying all cameras and lenses with you on board. In our city, there is a professional photo store that rents or leases equipment to traveling professional photographers for specific shooting needs. This niche is a substantial portion of their business. I wonder if such an option exists in South Africa should you need it?
  20. I've checked my Peli case on several trps and never had any problems. I didn't use it last time I went to China. Is there any reason I couldn't or shouldn't check it this time? There will several internal flights, by the way.
  21. I have a Tamrac Pro 12 bag that just fits under the seat, so there's the carryon with bodies and lenses. I have a travel jacket with tons of pockets that I always wear and I can get anything from a lipstick to a 250- mm in somewhere! (I look like the Michelin Man when I'm loaded up but hey...) If I have to put anything in checked baggage, it will be stuff like flashes, filters, cables, etc., well-wrapped in my clothes, stuff that does not scream I AM VALUABLE PHOTOGRAPHIC EQUIPMENT. STEAL ME!
  22. A question that always pops into my mind as I check in: Will my Peli case be opened and cameras or lenses ripped off at Newark or in Europe or Asia? Has anyone had a Peli case opened and stolen from other than Mike Walker in South Africa?

Share This Page