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:


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.


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.


  • 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:

    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

  • Very helpful online guides for beginning photographers. Moreover, I think that even highly experienced photographers may find a lot of helpful information at webpages provided in this blog post. Many thanks.

    Camera and Laptop Bag

  • Tia Rochelle

    So if I am flying anywhere In the world can I keep my camera gear in its case in my carryon bag or do I have to open it and put it in a bin separately to be screened?

    • Tia Rochelle


  • crahol

    Terry: I own a MindShift BackLight 26L, and it’s too large to fit underneath the seat on an international flight. (29 x 51.5 x 20 cm)

    Here are the personal carry on limitations of the flights I will be on.

    Air Canada: 16 cm x 33 cm x 43 cm (6 in x 13 in x 17 in)
    Swiss International Airlines: 40 x 30 x 10 cm)

    Here is the gear that I want to take:

    Canon 5D Mark III
    EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
    EF 24-70mm f/2.8 II USM
    EF 70-200 f/2.8 IS II USM
    Gitzo GT2542T Series 2 tripod
    Really Right Stuff BH-40-LR Ballhead
    Format Hitech filter kit in pouch
    Canon Timer Remote Controller TC80N3
    Canon GPS Receiver GP-E2
    Canon Extender EF 1.4xIII

    I already have a carry-on travel backpack for my clothes, etc., so I need a camera bag to put under the seat.

    What do you recommend?


  • Thanks for the information. The airline baggage pages didn’t make any mention of photography equipment. I’d like to add however, that recent changes require you to power on electronics when going through security, so you may now need to get out your camera(s) and flash(s) and turn them on to prove their functionality.

    • “recent changes”? I have traveled all over the world and recently traveled internationally to Iceland. i have yet to have security ask me to turn anything on.

      • msg

        Awesome was worried about this going from toronto to iceland and was wondering if i had to take my MAVIC drone out, I even purchased special safety lithium packages as recommended just to be safe. I’ll have my laptop and my drone with DSLR and lenses in my bag so this is a really helpful article. So just to clarify i wont have to take everything out my backpack i’ll just put it on the tray and thats it?

        • Just to be clear: airport security can always at any point do an extended search on your carry on bag and take every single item out to examine/re-X-ray it. However, no you don’t have to proactively do it.

  • p nelson

    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.

    But that’s a problem. Airlines don’t just have carry-on size limits, but also carry-on weight limits. Most airlines today limit your carry-on weight to 10kg (22 pounds). And I’ve personally seen people forced to check carry-on luggage for weight, not size reasons.

    And if it’s an important shoot then you need redundancy – two bodies and two lenses at all key focal lengths. hard to do and stay under the weight limit. Now if it’s just a casual vacation then fine; carry insurance if your gear is damaged or lost or stolen by the baggage handlers. But if you’re shooting for a client then are you willing to risk his shoot on your good luck at not getting caught?

    And even if you’re a civilian, but your trip is the trip of a lifetime – Antarctica, Galapagos, or an African Safari – are you willing to risk having to check you carry-on because it’s over 10 kg?