How to Avoid Having to Check Your Camera Gear When Flying

Few sentences strike fear into the heart of a photographer like "you're going to have to check that bag." This helpful video will explain how you can avoid having to check your expensive and fragile photography equipment.

Coming to you from Matt Granger, this great video talks about how to keep from having to check your gear bag when flying. Personally, I think you should never check gear. In addition to what Granger says, one thing that has helped me in the past was to know the airline's specific rules. Many gate agents simply eyeball bags that come by and if they look close to the maximum size, they'll tell you to gate-check them. This happened to me when I tried to board a flight to Europe with my Pelican 1510 full of very expensive glass and bodies. I smiled and politely said: "I understand your policy is a maximum of 22" x 14" x 9". This case is 22" x 13.8" x 9" and was designed specifically to be carried on. I'd be happy to walk it on and show a flight attendant it fits, as it is full of some expensive and fragile gear." I think the gate agent was more taken aback by the logical argument presented courteously than what I actually said, but whatever it was that swayed him, he let me on with the case after that. Also, remember that most airlines let you take a carry-on bag and a laptop bag; if you get a messenger camera bag, you can normally fit two or three more lenses in that as well. 

Lead image by Pixabay user winterseitler, used under Creative Commons.

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jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

There was a shocking article a few months back, about a guy who checked his camera bag, and a Leica & lens inside it were crushed by the way his bag was handled. Destroyed beyond repair. Over $15 grand's worth of gear, in one hit. If they won't let me on with my camera bag, they can refund the ticket - the risk's not worth taking.

Jen Photographs's picture

These stories pop up way too often.

Your argument will only work up to a point, most foreign carriers have a weight limit which can be exceeded rather quickly with camera gear. Air France has a limit of 22 pounds and in LA, they do weigh each carry on.

And if you are flying a small regional carrier, that pelican case is too big to fit. I saw a talk from one photographer who carried a Think Tank bag inside the Pelican case. When the case was too big, she pulled the Think Tank out and was allowed to board.

Alex Cooke's picture

Agreed on the regional carriers. I always made it a point to check the plane I would be flying on before I booked the ticket. If it was a puddle-hopper, I would try to find another flight.

Alex Armitage's picture

I flew Air France from LA last year and had an entire pelican carry on case filled with gear. After taking my C100 out and handing it to one person I was flying with (who was under weight), and taking out 2 other lenses and handing them to the 3rd person I was flying with. They let us walk away. Turned the corner and proceeded to put the gear back in my case.

That said. Sometimes I have to take flights where my bag will not fit in an overhead bin, even if it's carry on size. Specifically to more remote places which is why I use the pelican case. So far so good but I always try to not let anyone take it. It's never checked but sometimes it has to go in the little space below the plane.

Mark Richardson's picture

I feel like if you are hauling more gear than you can easily carry on then you are probably working with a client budget large enough to rent whatever you need on location. The essentials go on my back while stands, tripods, lights, cables, and all of the other nice to have but not essential items go in a large pelican that I check.

Jen Photographs's picture

That's true for working pros. But what about hobbyists? Some do travel with bulky gear, but don't have the budget or revenue to justify renting other necessities on site.

yes I work with clients that have a budget but a lot of the places we shoot don't have rental houses and we have to lug in everything plus backups.

David Love's picture

I usually have a small suit case with my laptop, gimble, etc. But my 5D mark 4 and gh5 have lens attached and both fit in my backpack so at least my cameras are safe. But they stopped me eight at the plane once and said the suitcase had to be checked and I watched a guy pick it up and toss it down a chute. That was Frontier airline and the last time I will fly with them.

Robert Nurse's picture

"I understand your policy is a maximum of 22" x 14" x 9". This case is 22" x 13.8" x 9" and was designed specifically to be carried on..."

With the way things are today, I seriously doubt any logical argument will work at the gate: "Here and now, the rules are what I say they are! Check that bag or else!". And you have no recourse. Make a fuss and meet Mr. Tazer. :)

There are exceptions to everything but, as Matt said, calm, *friendly*, logical conversation goes a long way. I've almost never been turned down for anything and those few occasions were long shots anyway.

It is sometimes surprising the good reactions you can get if you are polite but know the rules and demonstrate that you have already made sure you are compliant. Once, I hitchhiked to the US, and at the border the agent told me hitchhiking was illegal. Which I had thoroughly checked the laws about, explained them to him alongside how I was going to keep complying to the rules. He let me go through.

Tony Clark's picture

I had a trip from Atlanta to Dallas this week for a food shoot. All went well except for the small bag of flatware that TSA pulled from my checked bag returning home. I rented lighting and grip which was shipped and even bought a smaller backpack to insure I was within carryon limits. Know the carriers limits and your rights.

Ariel Martini's picture

Also don't let your open can of liquid product placement between your laptop and your erratically swaying hands

michael andrew's picture

I have traveled quite a bit and never had an issue. I’ll be honest all the trouble comes when you get to the airport late or check in last minute. When the flight fills up things happen. So get the airport early, pay for the upgraded seat selection (not class just boarding group) it’s never much.

I always tell them that my Pelican contains several thousand dollars of fragile equipment and so far they always let me take it. I watch the weight though.

Morris Erickson's picture

I take my Think Tank Airport carry-on to the Alaska Airline ticket counter. I explain the contents and they put a "red tag" on the handle. That bag stays in the cabin.

Rules are strict though within Alaska. No bear spray or loaded firearms allowed in the cabin.

Simon Patterson's picture

I was flying from Melbourne, Australia to Singapore a couple of years ago and they weighed my carry-on bag as 11kg. The limit was 7 kg. My bag was substantially overweight, albeit within the size limits.

When I told them it contained a camera (it was actually full of camera gear), they simply stuck a "7kg" tag on it and let me on the plane. Whew!

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

LOL - bet that was Singapore Airlines !!

Simon Patterson's picture

Yep - I'd happily fly with them again after that!

Mark Richardson this is a great observation. But I would be willing to bet you don't often travel with large businesses. It is not always a possibility to rent. If you are headed to a large city great. But when traveling the world its often not the case. About 50% of the time I would be lucky if the location had AA batteries. Also renting on location is a logistical nightmare depending on the project. Especially when you have to pick up in another city or your shoot schedule doesn't align with the shipping center near by. This was often the case. So the client often had to pay for the rental and an extra day of hotel and food because the rental had to be taken back the next day. Which could end up being over a $1000 more. When you could pay $50 - $100 for an extra bag. Moral of the story is never assume. 😁.

Mark Richardson's picture

Yup, every case is different.

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

haha. I just check that shit in and hope for the best. I'm terrible. I haven't had a problem yet.

I've heard the trick of purchasing a starter pistol (like an official uses at the beginning of a foot race) and placing it in your checked bag with your photography equipment. Bags carrying weapons have to be placed in a specific area of the plane's cargo and individually handled when being removed from the plane. The starter pistol can be easily purchased at a sporting goods store and because it can't fire a bullet, doesn't have the same safety concerns.

Here is the TSA page showing the requirements for transporting weapons, including starter pistols.

Rob Watts's picture

I've heard of the same and remember a video of a guy explaining how it works, but I can't seem to find it.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Question... Does a camera on a strap, over your shoulder, or even in your hand, count as hand luggage?

Maximilian Sulzer's picture

It really depends on the airline. For some low cost carriers it might yes, as they say everything you carry (apart from clothes) has to fit in one bag. Mostly because these airlines earn more money with charging for luggage than selling tickets.

Other airlines give you a "personal item" on top of your hand luggage, in this case the camera. In general i find more expensive airlines are more relaxed about luggage regulations.

Claire Whitehead's picture

Hide it under a coat. Has always worked for me in in doubt. I once got a boom pole on a plane this way.

Claire Whitehead's picture

I travel for work every few weeks with my DSRL video equipment. Usually only short haul within Europe. For security the biggest issues tend to be my tripod and monopod. They often have to come out after being scanned once. Then I tend to get swabbed for explosives. But once I'm clear I'm ok.

At the gate I have been asked a few time's to gate check. Once I had to go with it, the bag was ok, I use pieces of sound absorbing foam to pad the inside of my hard suitcase.
Another time I was asking and I said "Okay, but do you have any 'fragile' stickers? Because this is my camera equipment" and she let me go through without checking it.

I will still always travel with my main DSLR in my backpack.