Ethics Statement: I am not an affiliate of any of the mentioned companies, although the Amazon links do go to my affiliate where, at no cost to you, I get a small percentage of purchases made. 90% of the bags and stuff I mention I have bought. The DSLR Backpak from Petrol was supplied to me for review and I can thoroughly recommend it. Please read more in my full ethics statement here.
I have been flying with camera gear for 20 years and I can say one thing: flying today is a nightmare compared to when I first started to fly.
In my old days I used to have my BETACAM SP camera as hand luggage (no laptop, as they didn’t really exist then and we didn’t use them!), Flight case with 3 X Red Heads, Vinten tripod in tube, flight case for sound gear, flight case for batteries and charger, flight case for stock, about 4 LARGE flight cases for our edit gear…put it this way, it was a lot of stuff, way more than I take today. Which of course is great, since if I flew with that all the time, I would have excess baggage bills for many thousands. Of course that depends on with whom you fly. Some airlines are better than others!
Let’s take last year. In 2011 I was abroad for 9 months of the year, I took around 60+ flights. The most I had with me was probably around 9 or ten bags. That was the most and completely excessive!! Generally I have around 3 to check and try to sneak on two as hand luggage, as many airlines only allow one.
I am not going to get into things like Carnets and stuff. Just about luggage and what you can and cannot get away with. Flying has become the single biggest stress for me for these jobs. Be nice to drive my truck everywhere, but it would take a fair while to get to Australia!
Let’s start with hand luggage and the issues you can have with that. Some airlines have a limit on weight as well as size. For example, the airline I usually use for transatlantic flights and the one I am using to go to Australia, Virgin Atlantic, for economy (which I avoid!) they allow one single piece of 6kg, which is a paltry 13lbs. This is nothing. My 17″ MBP is half that allowance on its own!
I never check cameras and rarely check lenses. Too fragile so they always go as hand luggage. I also always keep my hard drives/ media as hand luggage. No way I am trusting an airline with my rushes!
For almost all my flights, taking a full size ENG camera loose has generally been accepted (wrapped up in my coat and blankets!), take it in a soft bag and they often say no. Putting it in a big flight case and checking it scares the crap out of me, both for fear of damage and also because luggage gets lost easily. I remember waiting for my luggage at Heathrow last year and seeing a Sony F900 HD cam camera in a flight case left on the floor by the carousel. Obviously not where it was supposed to be. I phoned the production company to tell them it was there, and they said their crew were on their way to Thailand…obviously without the camera. Scary stuff!
With smaller cameras it’s a bit easier, they can go in smaller bags like the ones Petrol make below (which take my C300 or FS100 just fine, too tight for my F3). My main carry-on bag is made by Think Tank. I use the Airport Security V2 when flying to the US and back or within the US, and the Airport International for the rest of the world. The US hand luggage max size is slightly bigger than the rest of the world…like the country
I have flown with my Epic in the Airport Security V2 (padded up of course) and lenses. It’s pretty damn spacious. Although heavy when loaded up so if your airline weighs your luggage…be prepared for a fight!
There are of course loads of different types of other types of bags. The most solid being Peli/ Pelican cases. They’re really rugged but the problem is they weigh a fair bit even empty. So if you are having issues with weighed hand luggage, these are not for you…
You can be sneaky with hand luggage though and WEAR you stuff. You see, hand luggage does not include your coat, so a good coat with lots of pockets can get you out of a sticky situation. There are a few different solutions. Some cheaper than others…
This deeply attractive waistcoat style jacket can hold about 12KG of stuff, though make sure it’s padded as it’s rather thin. But it does work and the pockets are deep. It’s called a Rufus Roo! If you are going to do this then make sure that stuff is protected in there and not knocking against each other!
A more elegant solution, and more expensive, is from Scottevest. They do a variety of vests, coats and jackets. I recently bought some and will try them out on my two and a half months of flying coming up (8 flights in 2 weeks!) One of the ones I bought is below. They are not that cheap, this one was $200 but with 22 pockets it could come in very handy.
Ok so with these neat tricks you have got away with your hand luggage. I have never had issues in the US with hand luggage. Mostly Europe!
Basically if you can get a press pass for some airlines, it can save you a packet. Some don’t care. Just avoid the airlines that charge per kilo excess and stick with per bag excess or overweight excess. Guaranteed way to piss you off!
As mentioned earlier, Pelican cases are rugged as hell but heavy, so I rarely fly with them. What do I use? Well I use a lot of standard looking bags. Ones which don’t look like they have expensive gear in them generally! I do use some professional bags but generally I avoid them. I don’t want my bags to look attractive to light fingered people the bag can encounter on its journey!!
Below is my luggage for my recent trip to Dubai (The think tank is not in there yet) in the back of my truck to go to the airport. It consists of a big snowboard bag to take my 3 foot PB Kessler Pocket Dolly (wrapped in clothes). I also have my tripods in there, wrapped up VERY well with (more) clothes, a large Petrol RED case which goes on all my gigs. No RED in there, but perfect for putting bits in and solid but not too heavy. Also a large Petrol DR bag which I love for putting my rigged up camera in for transporting whilst there. Going out it has “stuff” in it.
The key to a successful, and not to expensive flight abroad with gear is to pack well, as in protected, but not bring too much stuff. I am very guilty of flying with too much stuff. When I fly Virgin I get Gold luggage allowance as a very frequent flyer, which means 4 x 32KG of hold luggage. That is a lot. But I manage to fill it every time!
Make a list of essentials before you go. NEVER pack last minute. GUARANTEED way to bring too much stuff. I speak from experience! Make a list. Keep things in separate pouches, ones for batteries, chargers, cards etc…
I rarely fly with my lights now, I generally hire on location. Too many, and too big and heavy. Of course renting other stuff could save you money, but not everywhere is LA, NY or London where renting is easy.
Some people ask me why don’t I ship my gear…simply because I need it pretty much up until the day I leave and after I get home, so it needs to be with me. Oh well!
So basically, much of this is common sense. Remember: baggage handlers do not treat luggage well and sticking a fragile sticker on it guarantees nothing. Make sure everything is very well protected, doesn’t look too valuable (stealable) and you don’t bring too much stuff!