Weighty Advice

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, idiotic  restricting, and inconveniencing encounters with various people vested with too much authority and not enough 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 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 photography kit:

  • Backpack
  • Two camera bodies (I'll use D800's in this illustration; D3 through D6 users be prepared for more misery)
  • 200-400mm f/4 lens
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 lens
  • 16-35mm f/4 lens
  • 50mm f/1.4 lens
  • TC-14E

What do you think that weighs (not including filters, cards, or batteries)? Well, we clock in at a bit over 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 loaded weight of the bag I'm currently carrying overseas at the moment is a hefty 18.6kg; knock on wood, no one has checked its 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 D800 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 the one I use. Both weigh 1.8kg or less but have just enough padding to be minimally protective of your gear. The bag has to have some padding, otherwise the infamous forced gate check will ruin your day. 
  • 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; sometimes I put batteries and a lens or two in there).
  • 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 fast aperture 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). 
  • Ryanair is absurd. A 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 so regularly. It appears that flying out of Ushauia back to Buenos Aires they now often weigh and size items and trip 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).
  • Note how small the plane is. Travel within some countries can often be by very small plane. Flights from Nairobi to the Masai Mara, for instance, are typically on as small as 12 passenger planes (it can be smaller, but most people are flying on SafariLink or one of the larger carriers, and they tend to use 12-36 passenger props). Bush flights in Alaska, internal flights in Botswana and a host of other countries are often on something as small as a Cessna 172. Once you get down into the single engine realm, things change. Very small planes generally have very critical weight limits for takeoff, and those are even more critical if takeoff or landing at altitude or in heat is involved. If every passenger averaged 300 pounds of total weight, for instance, most Cessna 172's would be over their safety limit. You actually want these small "airlines" to weigh you and everything you carry: they simply shouldn't be taking off without an accurate and complete weight check. You just need to be prepared for what will happen when you are weighed and told that you exceed what they can carry. Usually that means that you have to have some of your gear come on a subsequent flight, which means you need to be already packed for that possibility (e.g. know what you absolutely need and have it packed separately from what you can do without for a few hours or even a day). You also need to be prepared to pay for that extra flight and perhaps be ready to grease some palms to make sure that your unattended bag gets met by someone and catches up to you. When I do multiple-destination trips within Africa, I always carry an extra empty duffel with me. In some cases, I'll leave this behind (say in Nairobi with the local coordinator I use) with things I don't need until much later in my trip. When I climbed Kilimanjaro, for instance, I had a three-bag scenario going within Africa (which collapsed to two for my US-Africa overseas legs): one bag with what was going up the mountain with me on a porter, one bag with my safari gear for later in the trip to the Masai Mara, and one bag with my in-between-clean-me-up-and-replenish bag that tended to stay with my local coordinator between the separate legs of the trip. At any given time I tended to only have one light bag with me, and when I popped back to Arusha or Nairobi or another big city for a day or two between segments, I had all the bags brought to my hotel and did my cleanup and replenishment for the next leg. 

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 be used 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 for awhile after a December 2009 incident on the Detroit flight, TSA tended to hand check camera gear again, though this varied depending upon the airport and destination. If they see lots of camera gear on the X-ray, they sometimes will flag you for a hand check when security is at a high level. This sometimes involves taking everything out of the backpack. Be prepared for that. (Germany is notorious for making you take all your camera gear out of the bag, by the way.)

Unfortunately, things are getting worse, not better. As Canadians discovered after that 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!

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