How to Travel On an Airplane with Camera Gear

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How to Travel On an Airplane with Camera Gear

The first question you must ask yourself is, how much gear should I bring? If you’re traveling light and avoiding any checked luggage fees, (plus the hassle of waiting at baggage claim, and the risk of lost luggage), then the answer is easy: You can only bring whatever gear you can fit in your overhead-bin-sized carry-on camera bag, plus one under-the-seat “personal item.”

This might mean that you can’t bring all your lenses, flashes, and light stands or whatever other accessories you would normally bring.

How to Pack for Airplane Travel with Camera Gear

So, you’ve decided how much gear to bring, and whether or not to check a bag. Next, how do you pack your gear? As the sarcastic reply goes… “very carefully!” Indeed, pack carefully. I’ll be specific, and not waste your time with sarcasm.

Checked Luggage vs Overhead Bin vs Under-Seat

Which items should go in which suitcases? That’s one of the best questions you can ask! OK, let’s talk about the checked luggage, which is where your clothes and some other stuff should go. These are the things you could possibly survive without, if your luggage were to be lost.

First, anything not so delicate, like light stands and tripods, should go at the very bottom of your suitcase.

Then, add padded case-type items, like lenses or flashes, inside their padded protection, but with batteries removed. I have found that while you’re not supposed to pack large Lithium-Ion batteries in your checked luggage, I’ve had no problems with other types of battery sets, like 4x Eneloop AA cases.

Last, on top goes the really soft stuff, your clothes, socks, and other items. I also prefer luggage that has one or two external compartments, so that I can quickly access accessories like rain jackets.

Next, what goes into an overhead bin carry-on, and your under-seat personal item?

Before we get any further, here is my very important, number-one rule: never let your bags out of your sight. Ever. If you're late to the flight and the gate attendant tells you that you must check your bag, inform them that the value of the gear in the bag far exceeds the airline's limit of liability for lost luggage, and you simply can't take the risk.

Split your key pieces of gear up between your overhead carry-on item and your under-seat personal item. I usually put my main camera body and one lens and one flash in the under-seat bag, and my backup body, plus all other lenses, flashes, and anything I can't afford to lose in checked luggage, in the overhead bin carry-on bag.

How Never to Forget Critical Photography Accessories

When you're packing everything up, it really helps if you can come up with a system so that you never forget smaller items like batteries, memory cards, etc. This system should be super easy to follow; in fact, it should make failure almost impossible.

Maybe for you, what works best is a little whiteboard where you check off every single accessory before every single outing. Or a phone app that does something similar. Or, maybe you have a shelving organization system for dead and charged batteries.

My own secret trick is this: if something has a door, (battery door, memory card door) then I leave that door open if it’s empty inside. Flashes and cameras etc. are left on my gear shelves on their sides, with those doors left wide open. Now, it’s essentially impossible for me to pack up my cameras and/or flashes without first putting memory cards and batteries in them.

When I travel for my stock photography, I also like to get in the habit of formatting all my downloaded, backed-up memory cards immediately after I have verified that they’re downloaded and backed up safely, instead of waiting until just before my next big adventure to do all my formatting. Remember, a formatted but unused memory card is easy to recover images from; however, once you save new images to the memory card, it’s almost impossible to get over-written images back.

Final Air Travel Tips for Photographers

Here are a few more rapid-fire tips, just in case:

  • Never check in most Lithium-Ion batteries—those must go in your carry-on luggage.
  • Always check sharp pointy objects like pocket knives.
  • Remember to remove any alcohol-based lens cleaning solutions from any of your luggage or bags. I’ve accidentally forgotten a small ~1 oz bottle of Eclipse solution in my bag sometimes, and it was never confiscated, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Last but absolutely not least, here is some very important, down-to-earth general advice for all travelers: always be polite to the people who have the authority to ruin your day. Being genuinely friendly toward someone who is "power-tripping" is the best way to resolve most tough situations. Getting aggressive or frustrated with someone else who is easily “triggered” will only make your situation worse.

Everybody knows that air travel can be an ordeal. So, take a deep breath, pack your bags long before the last minute, head to the airport very early, keep calm, and have a great trip!

Usnea Lebendig's Bio

Usnea Lebendig is an urban activist and loves hiking and adventuring in the mountains in her spare time. For the past 10 years, she has been a traveling stock, landscape, and portrait photographer, having visited more than 40 countries all over the world. She currently writes for www.shotkit.com.

4 Comments

I am intrigued as to why you would carry lighting stands? I can understand not carrying the lights but stands are heavy and surely not ideal for carry-on.

The rules on electronic items are interesting too; TSA may ask you to switch on an electronic item, like a camera, and if there isn't a battery fitted may question why. Personally I would take equipment through security with batteries fitted and then remove them later. My last trip my wife was selected for additional checks at the gate (LHR), they might ask you to activate an electronic item there too. Make sure your phone, computer etc. is fully charged before leaving for the airport.

Spare Li-Ion batteries must be in carry-on but, if installed in equipment they can go in the hold, I wouldn't do that though. The equipment is probably above the compensation level anyway. Use the protective terminal covers that came with the spare batteries and/or put insulating tape over the terminals.

Finally, make sure the bag to go in the overhead isn't so heavy you can't lift it. If you want it in the bin it is your responsibility to get it there. Cabin crew aren't supposed to help. I spent 45 years working for an airline.

I would also add a caution that smaller aircraft may force you to ‘gate check’ your carry-on luggage anyway, because the overhead bins are too small to accommodate any rolling carry-on bags. I put all my expensive camera gear in a backpack and the tripod in the 22” carry-on as a result. 

Some airports like the Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan do not allow tripods in carry on luggage.  I had a travel tripod in my carry on,  airport security would not allow me to take it on board, they were very helpful finding me a box I could use to check the tripod as my checked luggage was already into the baggage system.

Brazil was the same. I flew in without issue but upon departure they insisted I check the tripod (12.8” long Sirui travel tripod!) in my bag. This was a US carrier (United), but the rule was Brazilian. 

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