Common Sense And Courtesy
Most security personnel would love to check us through, one after the other, without any stopping, and then go home to a quiet evening of reading Outdoor Photographer. But the bottom line is that they have a job to do, and that may sometimes cause an inconvenience for photographers. Try to approach them with a willingness to help the system move along as smoothly as possible. That might mean getting in line earlier than most other people normally would because you know your gear will be scrutinized.
Baggage allowances are readily available online for almost any airline. If you don't have Internet access, a call to customer service will help. If you're still unclear of what's allowed, plan for the worst-case scenario and hope for the best. In other words, if you're not sure that two bags as carry-on are permissible, then just take one.
If the rules say each carry-on can weigh no more than 22 pounds, don't show up with 35 pounds. You'll have no leg to stand on if your oversized bag is detoured into the black hole of checked luggage. Pack your gear accordingly.
I pack my camera equipment so that it's protected en route and is flexible to carry when I'm at my destination. For example, I use a Tamrac Expedition 8 backpack that, when tightened with the cinch straps, fits most overhead bins. In that pack, I'll remove all of the individual padded dividers and replace them with pouches that I use on my Think Tank modular belt system. That way, my gear is still protected, and the belt system can come out of the backpack for my daily use.
If the pack doesn't fit in the overhead bin or under the seat, quite often the flight attendant will find a place in the cabin for it. But if you're on a small plane where that's not possible, it's better to leave your bag at the baggage cart by the stairs to the plane than having to check the bag. This avoids the possibility of the bag being lost or unceremoniously tossed onto a ramp by baggage handlers.
In my suitcase, I carry a tripod with the head detached, battery chargers, wires and cords, some filters and smaller miscellaneous items. I protect them by padding them with clothing. I try to ensure that breakables are placed in the center of my luggage.
In the event that my carry-on allowance will be really limited, my strategy changes, and I'll use a large Pelican case with the understanding that my gear will likely have to be checked. These are large, black and almost indestructible cases that can take the pounding of the luggage handlers. The downside to the Pelican case is that all that protection can weigh a lot, so you may have to check your case into oversized luggage. Finally, if you do take a small carry-on, know that restrictions seem to change daily regarding liquids. For instance, you should be able to carry on lens cleaner, but check with your airline before leaving home. If you have small tools to tighten screws on your gear, leave them in your checked luggage. For the most part, it's still okay to bring camera equipment on board a plane, but be prepared to turn it on in front of security so they know that it's a functioning piece of gear.
Hot Travel Tips
1) Keep a list of all your equipment, including serial numbers. This helps in case you get separated from gear you need to check.
2) Make your checked luggage look as inconspicuous as possible. Cool-looking stickers that say "Handle With Care—Photographic Equipment" only serve to alert potential thieves.
3) Make sure your checked luggage is clearly marked with your name, address and phone number—at home and at your destination. Know the brand, color and dimensions of your luggage in case you need to file a report.
4) Use TSA locks when you can. They can be opened by security personnel and act as a deterrent to would-be thieves.
5) Use a photographer's vest to carry pieces of equipment that won't fit in your carry-on camera bag.
6) Some photographers use FedEx to transport their gear to destinations. On the upside, FedEx has never let me down with a delivery. On the downside, you better know who will sign for your gear and where it will be stored.
7) Business class and first class seats come at a hefty price, but they also come with a greater baggage allowance and more room in the cabin.
8) When on the ground, if I need to leave gear in my hotel room while I'm out, I close the curtains, turn on the TV so that it easily can be heard and place the "do not clean/disturb" sign on the door. I'd rather have nobody go into my room and make the bed myself.
U.S. Dept. of Transportation (carry-on allowances): www.dot.gov
Transport Canada Baggage Regulations: www.tc.gc.ca
Think Tank Photo: www.thinktankphoto.com