A Travel Hack for Photographers Who Fly

Traveling with photography equipment can be a challenge. Airlines limit the size and weight of cabin bags so much that it's nearly impossible to bring all gear as carry-on. While I've accepted that my tripod has to go into checked luggage, cameras, lenses, filters, and laptop have to stay with me. In this article, I share a little travel hack that helps to get around hand luggage limitations.

Over the past ten years of traveling, I had to weigh my hand luggage three times. Each time my bag was around 5 kg above the limit, which is typically 7 or 8 kg. The first time, I could persuade the airline staff that my photography gear was too valuable to put into hold luggage and that there had never been a problem fitting it into the overhead compartment.

The second time, I had to remove a few items: I had some less important gear, which I could put into hold luggage. And luckily, they didn't weigh my bag afterward — it was still too heavy.

Before boarding a flight back to Germany from the Seychelles, I ran into a bigger problem. As I went to drop my large bag and collect my ticket, the lady at the counter didn't want to allow me to keep my camera bag as a carry-on item due to its weight. She refused to process my luggage and hand out the ticket, and I couldn't convince her otherwise. After a few minutes, I saw someone from Qatar Airways, with whom I was flying, walk by and quickly talked to her. Thankfully, she was understanding, and I could keep my camera gear as a carry-on.

Those three incidents showed me that I'm on thin ice with my camera gear. It's just a question of time until I get into more severe problems as airlines enforce their hand luggage policy more and more in the future. As it stands, it's simply not a good idea to check any valuable gear. Too many checked bags get lost or damaged nowadays. So it was essential for me to find a solution that would allow me more wiggle room the next time I get stopped.

Several conveyor belts at Frankfurt Airport looked like this in Summer 2022. Stranded bags were a common sight at many European airports. You don't want this to happen to your bags. And you certainly don't want to have valuable gear in your checked luggage if it happens.

Hand Luggage Solution

Most airlines allow not only one carry-on item but two. You can usually carry a laptop and small personal items in a separate bag. The total weight stays the same, but distributing your gear can still help next time you get stopped by airline or airport staff to weigh your hand luggage.

In the feature video, I show my solution for distributing weight during check-in. My 15'' Dell XPS goes into a robust Inateck laptop case with some accessories. I place this case in an Eagle Creek Packable Daypack. It is very thin and weighs next to nothing. I put it into the large front compartment of my NYA-Evo Fjord 60c camera backpack.

My camera bag usually weighs around 13 kg when I'm traveling. Before I head to the counter to drop off my hold luggage, I remove the daypack from my backpack. In addition to my laptop, I put my passport, purse, power bank, headphones, and other small gear in there. In the end, it weighs a bit over 3 kg. As a result, I now carry three bags: the large bag I want to check in, my camera backpack on my back, and the small daypack.

Usually, nobody notices the daypack as I put it down in front of the counter. If my hand luggage has to be weighed, I take my backpack from my shoulders and put it onto the scales. It is still too heavy, but 2 - 3 kg is much less of a problem than 6 kg.

If I'm wearing a jacket, I can put the daypack beneath it. It's low profile and should go unnoticed. If you have trousers with large pockets, you can stuff additional items in there.

After claiming my main luggage, I continue my travels with a two bag configuration. The Eagle Creek daypack is again stored in the front compartment of the NYA-Evo Fjord. At the back, I carry a Db Nær 65L Duffe.

More Comfort

Having a daypack with you doesn't only help with the hand luggage limitations. It also makes traveling much more comfortable. I usually wear the NYA-Evo Fjord at the back and the daypack at the front while I'm at the airport. I have easy access to my travel papers, and I get through security faster because I can quickly get out my laptop.

After boarding the plane, I put the daypack under the seat in front of me. This way, I don't have to access the overhead compartment if I want to get my headphones or cell phone, which I also put in there.

I store the Eagle Creek pack in the NYA-Evo Fjord again before I collect my checked luggage after a flight. From there to the hotel, it's easier with just two bags.

Conclusion

I know that hand luggage restrictions are there for a reason. People with heavy bags usually slow down the boarding process, and those overhead compartments are designed with those limitations in mind. That's why splitting the weight, as I show above, is a great solution. It doesn't only help you if you have to weigh your cabin bag. It also makes boarding much quicker and reduces the need to access the overhead compartment during a flight.

Such a daypack can also come in handy during the rest of your travels. You can use it to buy groceries or for a quick trip to the beach if you don't want to bring your camera gear.

Now let's hear some of your stories in the comments. Did you ever run into problems because of too-heavy hand luggage? How did you resolve the situation?

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13 Comments
Jason Frels's picture

I usually pack my socks and tee-shirts in with my lenses and camera to add padding and free up room in my suitcase for other stuff.

Felix C's picture

Just stay away from CDG, other than SFO, worst airport to bring camera gear.

Otto Schlemmer's picture

is CDG not even one of the worst airports ever ;) ?

Tod ODriscoll's picture

I bring my Tenba rolling camera bag with cameras, lenses, and laptop, but I also bring a large Lowepro messenger bag, so if they say my rolling bag is too big, I can just transfer my laptop, and camera gear to the smaller messenger bag, which can fit underneath the seat in front of me ( or in the bin above me). I also put my phone in there, as well as a snack, magazine, etc.

Michael L's picture

Main pain for me has been unpacking everything from my carry ons, really would like a better solution.

Idan Livni's picture

I found myself packing jacket pockets with lenses, crazy world

John Pierce's picture

I do a similar thing -- my laptop has a separate sleeve I can pull out of my carryon bag since most airlines allow a laptop in addition to the 7kg carryon. Then, I carry any excess in my ScottEVest.

The Vest is your friend. I carry my phone, iPad, headphones, pen, spare batteries, SD cards and sometimes even a couple of lenses. Wear the vest when you check in. I have *never* had an airline check the weight on my vest and I can guarantee it has weighed 5-6kg by itself

When I check in through security, I toss the vest into a separate tray.

I will *try* not to go on a rant where I've seen gate agents argue with me about the weight of my carryon and someone comes in behind me with a baby and about 40kg of associated "baby stuff" for the flight and they don't say a word.

Michael Breitung's picture

I like the vest, you can never have enough pockets when flying with camera gear ;-)

The Bassman's picture

These are all good ideas. But the best idea is a vest. Mine has gigantic pockets, including a large one across the back. Heavy lenses, camera bodies - all in the vest until we board, then it goes back in the bag.

regan albertson's picture

the best idea is to steer clear of cheap fares where their revenue model is to nickel & dime you. Stay away from regional jets that usually require you to gate check larger carry-ons. Any airline that has a weight limit listed on their carry-on baggage for less than 15kg is likely to charge you penalty check fees if you have a heavy gear bag.

Michael Breitung's picture

I never travel with budget airlines, but I've yet to find an airline that allows more than 10kg hand luggage. All European, middle-east, asian and australian airlines with whom I traveled in the past 10+ years have those limits. Unless you travel business class, you'll have to find a way around those limits.

Otto Schlemmer's picture

right. but i have never been weight-checked for my hand luggage in the last 3 years. last year 22 flights ;) but as you said, i don't fly budget airlines like ryanair or other catastrophes ;)

Peter Domb's picture

Good idea perhaps for you, but you can't always get anything under the forward seat, then it's in the overhead. I am so fed up with overheads so full that you can't get your own expensive , single bag in above your seat as other people have stuffed 2 , 3 bags and other bits above by hiding it when boarding from crew.
Just try flying in Africa , you can be in row 3 but your hand baggage is above row 20 ...that's if your lucky , alternatively if no space then it goes in the hold ......if you are lucky

Morale is ..be fair, don't cheat, take only what you are entitled to