Airline Laptop Ban Guide For Photographers

Concerned about traveling with your laptop and expensive camera gear? Learn about the best ways to handle the ban on laptops in airline carry-ons
Laptop Ban Guide For Photographers
Checking your laptop and camera gear on international flights appears likely to become the norm, not the exception.

You probably know that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has banned devices larger than a smartphone from airline carry-ons on flights to the U.S. from several airports in the Middle East and Africa. Recent news reports suggest that the ban may be expanded soon to include all international flights to and from the U.S.

What does this mean for photographers who are travelling internationally? And how can you best prepare to minimize the disruption and protect your laptop and camera gear? Outdoor Photographer contributor and Muench Workshops leader Andy Williams prepared the following advice for workshop participants and generously offered to share this guidance with OP readers.

The full text of the guide is below. You can also download the PDF guide that Williams prepared: Muench-Workshops-Airline-Electronics-Ban-Guide.

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A Photographer’s Guide To The Airline Electronics Ban

By Andy Williams
Version 1.1, May 30, 2017

There are already restrictions on carrying electronics larger than a smartphone in the airplane cabin if one is traveling to the US from one of ten different airports in the Middle East and North Africa. The UK has a similar ban in place. Based on the latest news reports as of this writing, it seems that the US Department of Homeland Security electronics ban (aka “laptop ban”) could be implemented for all flights into and out of the US. What is the the traveling photographer to do? In this article we will present solutions and give ideas on how to travel successfully and safely with laptops and photographic equipment.

Because “we don’t know what we don’t know” we are going to make the following assumption: “any electronics larger than a smartphone” not only means laptops, tablets, e-readers and the like, but also includes camera bodies, lenses, hard drives, drones, power bricks, and spare batteries. If and when the extended ban happens, you should expect that rules will be difficult to understand and not consistently enforced from one airline to the next, from one airport to the next, or from one country to the next. Anticipate the most stringent rules, assume you will deal with confused security personnel and airline staff, and prepare for both.

I Don’t Have Gear Insurance.

Now more than ever before, you should be covering all your gear with an insurance policy. For some, this might be your homeowner’s or other existing insurance, but you should check the policy carefully, and call your company. Ask specific questions, since many policies exclude things like expensive camera gear and air travel. Also, your insurance company can deny your claim if they feel you are working in any way commercially or in a professional capacity. Anyone doing commercial or professional work (even part-time!) should really have an insurance policy that covers you as a working photographer. It’s easier now than ever before to get coverage, so just do it. Make sure you are getting the right amount of coverage, that it works internationally, and that it covers you for theft, damage, and delays. Make a photographic record of all your gear, including the serial numbers. Insurance is critical since the risk of loss, damage and theft is much higher.

The Ban Is Not Yet In Place But I’m Worried Because I Leave Tomorrow, And What If It Changes While I’m Abroad?

  • Get a hard, lockable case (such as a Pelican case) that fits your camera backpack.
  • Carry your gear in your backpack on board your flight as normal and as allowed.
  • Pack non-electronics in the Pelican case and check it in with the airline. You should also bring a soft-packable duffel bag to put clothing in if you need to use the Pelican for your trip home. Include a roll of packing tape and a good amount of bubble wrap.
  • If you can travel with the hard case while on your trip, great. If it’s too bulky, store it in an airport locker, or with your hotel. Make a plan for this. If you’re on a photo workshop with Muench Workshops, don’t worry, we’ve figured that out for you.
  • If the rules change while you are on your trip, put your camera backpack with all your gear in it inside the Pelican case, stuff clothing around the edges to make it safe and secure. Inventory and photograph all of your gear. Fill the soft duffel with your clothing and non-breakable items. Check your duffel and Pelican case.
  • Important: your SD/CF cards stay with you, on your person, safely stored.

The Ban Is In Place And I’m Preparing For My Big Photo Trip.

  • Time to invest in a Pelican or similar case (there are alternatives, check Amazon). This case should be large enough to hold all of your camera gear, hard drives, power supplies, laptop, tablet, kindle, everything. They come with foam interiors that can be customized to safely secure and hold your specific gear.
  • Pack everything carefully. Make a detailed inventory and photographic record.
  • You might have to store your Pelican case somewhere during your trip. For example, there’s no room on the small charter aircraft used in Africa for these cases. When traveling with Muench Workshops, we already have this figured out for you.
  • If you are worried about your laptop getting damaged, and also about your personal or business data on that laptop, then consider getting a cheap “beater” laptop that will just run a browser, your cloud service(s), and Lightroom CC, or the editing program of your choice. You’ll be surprised at what you can get for a few hundred bucks! Tip for Mac lovers: check out the Apple Refurbished store for good deals.

What About Backup And Storage Without A Laptop?

  • Get a portable hard drive that has built in card reader and WiFi. Western Digital makes a couple different models with huge capacities (find them on Amazon). They allow you to copy files directly from your card to the hard drive, no computer needed. The integrated reader is for SD cards, and there’s a USB-3 port as well for your CF card reader. Backups will be slower than you’re used to with your laptop, but at least you’ll be able to make copies of your files.
  • When flying, this device will need to be in checked luggage, still not ideal. But you will be keeping all of your SD and CF cards on your person with you at all times.
  • Travel with enough SD or CF cards so that you do not have to reformat them while on your trip. Figure out how many you will need, and then pack a few extra.
  • Another option, if you have a camera that has dual card slots, write your photos simultaneously to two cards at once. This is certainly the easiest method to get redundancy, as you’ll have two copies of every photo from the moment you shoot. Just remember to keep your cards and card copies separate from each other in two different card cases, and store them in different locations while traveling.

I Use My Laptop/iPad/Tablet/Kindle All The Time To Work, Edit Photos, Watch Movies Or TV While Flying.

  • Upgrade and upsize your smartphone. Get an iPhone 7 Plus or any of the newer, bigger Android phones, and max out the storage.
  • Download your favorite movies/tv/music/books ahead of your trip. Get the Kindle App for your phone and sync up your favorite books.
  • Learn and practice how to transfer files from your SD/CF cards to your smartphone, so you can use use Lightroom Mobile or Photoshop Express or Snapseed on your smartphone. You’ll be amazed at what you can do as far as editing goes! There are card-reader dongles for your phone, and many cameras also can transfer files via WiFi or Bluetooth.

Can I Just Ship My Gear To And From My Location?

  • Yes, both DHL and UPS offer worldwide shipping options, but the costs are pretty high. You can pack your gear in a Pelican-type case and ship safely. You’ll have to arrange for receipt of the delivery, by a friend, an agent, or hotel. And you’ll have to arrange for return shipping as well, leaving time for that at the end of your trip.
  • We are arranging shipments like this for our clients at Muench Workshops, should the need arise.

This Is All Just Too Much. I’m Staying Home.

Certainly this is a choice you can make, but with a little extra planning and preparation, you can deal with this new way of traveling with your gear. With a bit of advance thought and planning, your gear properly insured and carefully packed in a hard case, you should be safe. If you’re reading this far, you are passionate about photography and travel, so don’t let the electronics ban get in the way.

We will stay on top of any changes to the rules and regulations, and update this as needed. Got questions? We’re available to help:

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    Yes, it appears that the restrictions that currently apply to the 10 airports with incoming flights to the US will be expanded to other airports, even domestically at some point. I can tell you that I flew from Abu Dabi (one of the current 10 that are restricted) to the US in late April 2017 and carried all my camera gear on board with the exception of the camera body. I was able to have a friend traveling via Amsterdam take it. I had no problem carrying on the lenses, cable releases, … I agree that the rules can be applied differently at different airports.

    I’m sorry but this article vastly under delivers on the title. It essentially boils down to a single sentence. Get a pelican case.

    Well thanks, but I figured that much out on my own. How about some actual detailed information on what cases are good for the job, how to best use and configure them, etc? Maybe look at ones designed (if any are) for securely and safely transporting a laptop, accessories, and gear?

    This really worries me. Not only for camera gear, but just in general. Normally I would never, ever, in a million years even consider *checking* my laptop and other sensitive electronics because I know for a fact they would be broken.

    I’ve been telling people for years not to put valuables in their checked baggage, not only because they might get broken, but also because they might get stolen. On one flight that I was on, when I received my checked luggage back from the airline, the side of the suitcase had been sliced open. Nothing missing that I noticed, but I didn’t have any valuables in it either. Now we are required to put valuables in checked baggage. Won’t the criminal element just love this requirement.

    I already hate to fly anywhere…this won’t help my resistance to fly at all. I already prefer to drive rather than fly and am getting to the point where I would even prefer to walk there over flying if given the choice. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with cramped seating and rude/obnoxious passengers. As an added bonus…walking there would provide more opportunities to take photos along the way! 🙂

    I live overseas and travel extensively. Disappointing article especially as it totally disregards the impact of weight allowances and the “pelican” impact on same. Basically, buy insurance, get extra memory cards.

    A post script to the weight issue – don’t underestimate this cost when traveling internationally. Rates can be as high as $50 USD for 2 pounds. A good DSLR and accessories and your into several hundred dollars quickly.

    You forgot something, camera batteries. Lithium batteries are not allowed in checked baggage, you have to remove all the batteries from camera equipment and carry them with you

    Also I think if this becomes reality, airlines will have to give a second bag free on international flights.

    it will be a lot easier to get on planes, since overhead compartments won’t be as valuable

    It might be helpful to publish an article on obtaining gear insurance that addresses both the needs of non-professional as well as commercial photographers. Or point to one if it already exists. Thanks!

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