Traveling by plane with your camera gear

Recently a fellow photographer asked me about flying with her camera gear and what was allowed and what wasn’t? Since I fly for a living and I usually have at least one camera with me I’m pretty familiar with the rules and thought I’d share some tips here. First I have to give you a disclaimer in that TSA can decide to search any of your baggage at anytime and ask you  to take out every single item one-by-one for inspection. I’ve had it happen! Now with that out of the way luckily this is not the norm. Let’s go over some quick tips on carry-on vs. checked luggage. I absolutely HATE checking my luggage and only do so if I have no choice. This means that I want to carry both a camera bag AND a computer bag on board and therefore I will check the 3rd piece of luggage containing my clothes. Under no circumstances am I ever ever ever going to check my camera or computer gear. It’s like waving good-bye to it as I feel like I’d never see it again. If I have to check my camera gear, then I’m not going! Most airlines allow you one piece of carry-on luggage such as a roller-board suitcase and a personal item such as a backpack, briefcase or purse. For me that means a backpack.

A Quick FAQ

Q. Do I have to take my cameras out of the bag when going through TSA security?

A. Typically NO, but TSA at any time can ask you to take ANYTHING and EVERYTHING out of your bag. With that said I can’t remember the last time they asked to take my cameras out. It’s been years. This of course goes out the window outside the US. Foreign airport security is a lot less forgiving. Give yourself time as you will likely need to take out each piece of gear and put it in a bin.

Q. Should I just check my camera gear under the plane to save the time and hassle.

A. NO! You may never see it again if you do and the airline will NOT replace it.

Q. What about tripods/monopods?

A. I have been known to travel with a tripod from time to time and I put it in my larger roller-board suitcase with my clothes. This however, is a grey area. Some TSA checkpoints will let it go and others will require that you check it as a tripod could be used as a club/weapon. So be prepared with extra time if you’re traveling with a tripod and have it in a bag that you don’t mind checking (not with the rest of your camera gear).

The backpack pictured above is my BIG ThinkTank “Street Walker Hard Drive”  Backpack. This is the one I carry when I’m going on a trip specifically to shoot and I’m going to carry a LOT of camera gear. This one backpack also holds my MacBook Pro 15″ Retina notebook and iPad Air. It weighs a freaking ton once I have I have it loaded, but it still fits under the seat in front of me on a plane and therefore allows me to carry a rollerboard on with my clothes (and tripod) in it.

On trips where I’m carrying less photographic gear but still more than two lenses then I carry my smaller “Kata” backpack:

kata

This one will still hold one camera body and 2-3 lenses plus my MacBook Pro. Also since it’s smaller you’ll be less likely to load a ton of gear in it and therefore it will be lighter to carry and manage.

Although both backpacks above  are great for those photo specific trips I go on, neither of them are my “regular” backpacks. Since most of my trips are not photo specific I’m usually carrying only one camera body (my Nikon D600) and one lens (my Nikon 28-300mm) or my even smaller Sony Alpha NEX-3N. My daily/weekly travel backpack is actually my Tumi Alpha T-Pass Laptop Backpack.

tumi_alpha_t-Pass_backpack

I really like this backpack A LOT! The T-Pass stands for “TSA Friendly” in that the back containing your laptop can unzip so that you can lay the bag flat (open) without having to remove your laptop saving you time. Tumi bags are expensive, but they come with a 5 year warranty and are very very very well constructed. I use this bag daily and it shows no signs of wear after one year so far. There is plenty of room in it for my laptop, iPad, camera stuff and just a ton of other little items that I carry. It weighs a ton once I load it up, but it handles the load very well.

 

The Bottom Line

For the most part you should be fine traveling by plane with your camera gear and carrying it on as long as your carry-on bag meets the size restrictions for the overhead bin or under the seat. TSA sees cameras everyday and while they still require you to take your laptop out and put it in a separate bin (unless you are TSA Pre-Check or you have a bag like my Tumi above), they tend to not ask you to take your camera gear out. The only other thing they can be uptight about is carrying a lot of batteries. So keep your extra batteries to a minimum and spread them across multiple carry-on bags as best you can.

W-camera-gear





  • Joel Fricker

    Thanks Terry. Always getting lots of useful information out to us.

    • terryleewhite

      Glad I could help.

  • wgchinn

    So now we know your clothes get checked. Any tricks on avoiding the charge fees?

    • terryleewhite

      The easiest way as I have stated above is to NOT check a bag. I only check one when I absolutely have to. Even then since I’m a frequent flyer I don’t pay for checked bags anyway. If you’re not going to fly enough to earn status, the next easiest way is to get the airline’s credit card. They usually wave the bag fees for card holders.

  • David Latour

    Okay tell us how you did those cool backings on your ipads.

  • John B

    One thing that should also be mentioned is to go through your bag and remove any prohibited items before you leave for the airport. Pack them in your suitcase or leave them behind. I tend to carry some survival gear in all my backpacks and camera bag just in case I am stranded. At least one knife (normally a Leatherman) is in my kit and must be removed from carry on luggage.

  • InklingBooks

    It’s likely to raise your profile with the TSA, but there is a workaround for the risks of luggage handling for those who need to bring more camera or video gear than they can carry on. Lifehacker describes it here:

    http://lifehacker.com/5448014/pack-a-gun-to-protect-valuables-from-airline-theft-or-loss

    Here’s the essence: “Most of the time, travelers are on the short-end of TSA regulations. In this instance, however, you can use travel rules to your advantage. If you’re traveling with equipment you would prefer locked up and watched more closely than your run of the mill luggage, you can pack a firearm with the equipment or luggage. Whether or not you own an actual firearm isn’t important—the TSA considers a starter pistol a firearm, and it must be checked in and secured properly.”

    The TSA doesn’t want firearms to be lost while luggage is in their possession and will treat is with special care.

    Also, do not use zippered luggage for anything you won’t always have near you. Youtube has videos about how easy it is to bypass locked zippers, steal what is inside, and then make everything look OK from the outside.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride