The airlines are stupid. You have to be smart.
Updated: 3/20/2010 (added notes about individual airlines and a few additional comments)
So, you're off to photograph your dream destination and you have to travel there by plane. My condolences. Things used to be easier and simpler. Today traveling with cameras on planes results in silly, idioctic, restricting, and inconveniencing encounters with various people vested with too much authority and too little common sense.
But I'm not going to tackle the full gamet of airline atrocities today. Instead, I'm going to concentrate on just one thing: carry-on weight.
A few airlines still have no official policy on carry-on weight, but most are starting to have published policies. The most restrictive of those policies tend to list a carry-on bag weight of 8kg (approximately 18 pounds). (Note that TAP has a 6kg weight, and in Brazil all internal airlines seem to have a 5kg weight restriction, so it is possible to encounter lower weight restrictions. Always check your airline's site carefully for any updates about carry-ons.) Considering that even the lightest bag will take up almost one-quarter that amount, things start looking bad for us photographers very, very quickly. Let me illustrate.
Consider a simple African safari kit:
- Two camera bodies (I'll use D300's in this illustration; D3 users be prepared for more misery)
- 200-400mm lens
- 70-200mm lens
- 16-35mm lens
- 50mm lens
What do you think that weighs (not including filters, cards, or batteries)? Well, we clock in at 9.585kg if we use a Gura Gear Kiboko bag, a slightly lighter 8.9kg with a completely stripped ThinkTank Airport Ultralight. (By way of comparison, the actual weight of the bag I'm currently carrying overseas at the moment is a hefty 18.6kg; knock on wood, no one has checked it's weight yet). In other words, even a very basic kit of gear is going to be over the weight limit at the most restrictive airlines. Sometimes they check, sometimes they don't.
It isn't that they're actually concerned about the weight. Because the usual way around the problem is to take items out of your pack and hang them around your neck (camera and lens) or stuff them into your vest pockets (you are wearing a vest with lots of pockets when traveling by plane, aren't you? If not you should be: see below). In the above example, just taking one D300 out and putting the 16-35mm lens on it and hanging that around my neck gets me just under the weight limit. And they'll let you walk on board like that, at which time you put the camera back in the bag and put the bag in the overhead. This tends to slow down the plane loading process for no good reason, but I told you the airlines were silly.
So what do you do when you need to travel by plane these days and carry a fair amount of photo gear? Well, here's the advice in a nutshell:
- Get the lightest backpack that'll carry your gear comfortably and that has some padding. The ThinkTank Airport Ultralight is one such bag, the Gura Gear Kiboko is another. Both weigh 1.8kg or less but have enough padding to be minimally protective of your gear. The bag has to have padding, otherwise the infamous forced gate check will ruin your day. Thus, the very light Moose Petersen bags are out.
- Don't overpack the bag. Find another place for your filters, cards, cleaning equipment, and other miscellaneous gear while on the plane. A small hardshell bag that goes in your checked luggage is one possibility. But basically strip out all but the things that have to go in the carry-on. You'd be surprised at how fast all those little extras add weight.
- Wear a vest. As a starter, put all your batteries into vest pockets until you're safely on board. Since you pretty much have to carry batteries in your carry-on now under current TSA regulations, a handful of batteries piles up weight real fast, and you don't want that burden in your bag when it's weighed.
- Have one camera and lens ready to go. If it looks like they're weighing all carry-ons, pull the camera out and hang it around your neck.
- The computer goes in your "personal bag." Almost everywhere you're allowed a small laptop bag in addition to your carry-on, so make use of that (it's a good place for those extra cards, too).
- Rethink your kit. There's usually a lower-weight alternative that doesn't sacrifice too much. The 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 instead of any of the AF-S wide angle zooms, for instance. The 70-300mm VR is half the weight of the 70-200mm VR, so if you absolutely don't need f/2.8 there's a big savings right there.
- Look and act light. Don't take off your pack in front of airline personnel and then moan and gasp as you try to lift it back onto your back. Stand tall, walk with a spring in your step. Leave the pack on your back as if it weighs nothing. Except at dedicated weigh stations (which unfortunately are appearing with more regularity), no one wants to weigh everything. But they do want to weigh things that look heavy. So don't look heavy!
- Candor sometimes works. Once in Africa I was trying to head home and both my checked bag and my carry-one were overweight. The ticketing agent weighed my checked bag and sent me out of line to the notorious "we're going to charge you more per extra pound than high-grade caviar" line. When I had paid my toll and came back to the ticket agent, she eyed my backpack and asked "how much does that weigh?" I rolled my eyes and said "you don't want to know." She hesitated a moment, but having already having extracted at least one weight penalty on me, she eventually chuckled and said "sawa" (OK) and added "next time you lose some weight."
- Be prepared for the infamous Gate Check. There will come a time when the airline gestapo absolutely insist on separating you from your bag. They'll happily "gate check" it for you. I've had more equipment broken when gate checked than in any other situation, plus it is more vulnerable to theft. So make sure you have a padlock for the bag. Bring a big and very visible Fragile sign that can be hung from the carrying handle. Have everything in the bag already wrapped with an additional protective sleeve, if possible. As a last resort remember to remind the airline personnel insisting on the gate check that you've got thousands of dollars of fragile equipment in there and would they please acknowledge that they'll insure it if it gets damaged (they won't, but sometimes this is enough to convince the agent maybe they shouldn't force a gate check: see "Candor," above).
- Just avoid British Airways. BA is notorious for sticking hard and fast to their arcane rules. I'm sure there are other airlines that are getting as bad, but BA stands out amongst the ones I've encountered. The rule that they seem to enforce these days is carry-on size (officially they have no weight limit: "if you can lift it into the overhead, it can go on."). Note also that some African airlines flying into and out of Britain use BA as their gate agent, so you can't always slip from their watchful grasp. Note to BA: if you wonder why I never fly on your flights despite piling up massive air mileage (currently nearing 1 million miles), have you ever considered it might be your rules and attitude? Nope, didn't think so.
- Ryanair is absurd. Single bag is allowed (even a purse is counted as a bag) and you can't have your camera out. This airline is notorious for trying to find ways to charge you extra for something, and the thing they're trying to do is force a checked bag, which they'll charge you for.
- Aerolinas Argentina is inconsistent. I've flown on them many times throughout Argentina, and know others that do regularly. It appears that flying out of Ushauia back to Buenos Aires they now are weighing and sizing items and tripping up a lot of photographers coming back from Antarctica. They don't seem to care when you're headed to Antarctica; only when you've completed your cruise and are starting to head home do they get officious. This, of course, is a silly way to run a travel business. Essentially you're telling customers "and don't come back."
- Be a frequent flyer (or fly first class). If you concentrate your flying mileage and work you way up into the higher levels of most airline reward programs, the agents you encounter along the way that can most cause you trouble tend to go easy on you. They know that their livelihood depends upon regular travelers, so they don't often take their anger out on them (conversely, if they think you're flying with them for the first and only time, watch out! Indeed, outbound from Africa tends to provoke more weight checks than in-bound).
In all fairness to the airlines I flagged, I also have to point out that TSA is sometimes absurd, too. I'll cite a couple of examples: tripods are actually allowed through TSA checkpoints, though pretty much anything else that's long and can use as a bat isn't. Allen wrenches are not allowed through TSA checkpoints--they'll hand search your bag if they see one on the X-ray. TSA uses a "checklist" mentality. If an item is on their checklist for any reason, it isn't allowed. If it isn't on their checklist, they almost always just let it through security. This is a training issue: they're trained on checklists, not logic. The problem with these "checklists" is that they change, and sometimes without announcement. This is another reason why I write that you should keep your camera backpack down to just the things that need to be in it: cameras, lenses, batteries. Note also that since the December 2009 incident on the Detroit flight, TSA tends to be handchecking camera gear again. If they see lots of camera gear on the X-ray, they will flag you for a hand check. This sometimes involves taking everything out of the backpack. Be prepared for that.
Unfortunately, things are getting worse, not better. As Canadians discovered after that recent attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight, sometimes we get knee-jerk reactions that make flying for photography really inconvenient. It's quite possible that we'll get to the "charge for all weight" and "no carry-ons to keep you from carrying explosives" point at some time in the future, which is the day I probably stop traveling by plane. You'll find me in a 4x4 traveling the US backcountry at that point. Oh, wait, they closed all those roads to all non-logging and non-drilling vehicles. Doh!