The Art of Travel

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I was in the midst of traveling home from my seventh crossing of the country in as many weeks this year, when my frequent-flier program proudly reminded my tired butt that I’d already flown 38K miles in 2012. I am very fortunate that I get to travel, shoot and teach as much as I do. I am a confirmed road warrior, being on the road about six months out of every year. It goes with the job title: Photographer.

Summer is typically when most photographers tend to hit the road for either their vacation, or that long anticipated trip to some exciting and exotic locale. Traveling by air—in particular, traveling with camera gear—can add a layer of stress that can prevent many from hopping onto a plane and going,altogether. I think I can take care of that for you.

There is a definite art to travel; getting your gear to your destination safely with minimal stress makesyour photography just that much better once you arrive. Much of it centers on common sense, and the rest is simply insider tricks gleaned from traveling way too much. But don’t fear; it’s something everyone can master the first time out, so let’s get traveling!

Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post from Moose Peterson.


First Parameter for Travel

While some of what I’m going to refer to can apply to traveling by vehicle, I’m mainly talking about traveling by air. When you fly commercially, you have two basic reasons to panic: carry-on luggage and check-in luggage. They are only panicky issues because of the unknown—which we’re going to fix right now.

Carry-on luggage applies to the two items you can take with you onto the plane. One goes in the overhead compartment, and the other goes under the seat. Check-in luggage is what you hand over to the ticketing agent, and you don’t see again (don’t take that literally!) until you get to the baggage-claim belt at your destination. This distinction is important, because it affects where you pack what items. While this might seem obvious, I have seen way too much happen when checking in and boarding a flight to know that it’s a detail that some miss.

You need to check with your particular carrier, but here are the general rules I pack by:

  • Check-in luggage should not weigh more than 49lbs each. Carry-on luggage should not weigh more than 25lbs each. Yes, your check-in can weigh up to 50lbs with no extra fees (but a 2nd bag might cost you, depending on carrier/frequent-flyer program).
  • I have learned, though, that items tend to come back heavier than they left, typically from simple moisture.
  • If you get to your destination a little light, it makes the return trip less stressful (you don’t want to be the one in the check-in line pulling out your tighty whities to shed some weight).

Packing for Air Travel—Carry-on

So with this, I have two strategies for packing for travel. There are those things I care about and cannot live without, and there is the rest—those items that if they show up late or go missing, life and my trip continue. This is where carry-on and check-in come into play.

In a nutshell: Camera gear, bodies and lenses don’t leave my grasp when I travel—period! Are there exceptions? Afraid so, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Here’s how I’ve been doing it for a long, long, long, too many miles, time.

I have three “bags” that I use for carry-on luggage—two Think Tanks and one WRP. What I always use for my briefcase is the Think Tank Urban Disguise 60 v2.0. This ‘briefcase’ easily carries my passport, my notebook computer, a set of four 1TB Buffalo drives, miscellaneous cords, pens and the like, as well as some camera gear (if you have meds, carry them here!). In addition to these items, it can carry the D4, 24mm f1.4 and 50mm f1.4 (and more, depending on how heavy you want it). The best part is that this all slips under the seat in front of me in any plane I’ve flown. It’s great, because my camera body is safe and accessible when I’m flying!

The other carry-on bag goes in the overhead. If I’m taking off for a project that requires the 600mm lens, then I use the WRP MP-1 Photopack. That’s because no matter what plane on the planet I’m flying in, it will fit in the overhead with the Nikon 600mm. At the same time, the 600mm means I’m heading out on a wildlife project, where having items on my back some of the time is a possibility.

If I’m not taking the 600mm, it means the Nikon 200-400mm VR2 is coming along, so that’s the time to pack the Think Tank Airport Security v2.0. This is a great rolling case,and the Urban Disguise slips over its handle for easy transport through the airport. The Airport Security has its own TSA locks that the zippers snap right into (killer design), and once through security, it gets utilized!

The Airport Security, though, doesn’t fit in the overhead of commuter flights (which is why I don’t use it with the 600mm, due to the tight fit in the case) like Canadian Regionals. It will fit in your basic Boeing or Airbus overhead (wheels first, except in 757 where it goes sideways only), but not the small regional jets, so you have to gate-check it. That’s another way of saying “A La Carte” service. You give the gate agent your roller bag, and you get it back when you land at the gate.(Always check that this is the case—that it doesn’t go to baggage claim.) This is where lots of folks wig out, and rightly so, when that camera gear goes into the hands of a possible gorilla. Knock on wood, but since the first moment I’ve used the Think Tank Airport Security, I’ve never had one issue!

I honestly think it helps being a knowledgeable traveler. This means you know your roller won’t fit in the overhead. Here’s what I do. I go up to the gate agent and ask for an A La Carte tag before it’s time to board (ask with a smile). I carry with me in the Think Tank these stickers that say “Fragile – Handle with Care  - Thank You!” and they get placed on both sides of the Think Tank. (With all that black luggage, the red is a real visual aid to watch the case as long as possible.) Finally, I place my bag so it’s the first one the baggage handler grabs and puts on the cart, and is hopefully the last one loaded in the plane’s belly.

Lastly, I have with me in the carry-on all that I need to take care of myself and my photography for a couple of days, in the event my check-in bags might be late. (Knock on wood again, hasn’t happened to meeither.) Batteries are charged, flash cards empty and ready to be used, and after that, it goes in the belly of the plane. There is one thing not on the carry-on list you might be wondering about, the tripod. Carry it on the plane with you in one of the bags.

Does this sound silly? Quite a ritual?! Silly or not—knock on wood again—I’ve never had one issue with my gear while traveling, and that’s what counts, isn’t it? I know a number of others who follow this advice, and they too have not had issues.

Packing for Air Travel—Check-in

The actual luggage you use for your check-in can vary widely; I prefer one soft and one hard sided case for my travels. I have an Eagle Creek wheeled duffle and Think Tank Logistics Master (insert zips out). The reason for this is because some items I take I don’t want squished, and other items don’t really matter.

The duffle has all the basic personal stuff like clothes, shoes and the like. It also has the tripod legs and it’s not in any kind of case (inside the closed legs I pack my razor so it’s protected). I pack everything in the duffle knowing it will go through the scanner, so items are packed vertically. Shoes are packed one on top of another, for example, so the x-ray shows them easily.

Then there are the more precious items which can’t take being stepped on (which happens inside the belly of the plane). Items from the Wacom Intuos 5, to the sensor cleaning kit, chargers, tripod head and spare batteries…they all go in this case. All of this is packed thinking about the fact that it will pass through the scannervertically. For example, if the Wacom tablet is packed horizontally, the scanner won’t be able to see what’s below it in the luggage. So then it will get pulled out and physically gone through by TSA. Hard drives, chargers, Wimberley Head, and dense items, when lying down flat / horizontally, create a shadow that will have to be investigated. Pack thinking vertically, and you can avoid problems.

Lastly, items are all packed into other smaller cases inside the Logistics Manager, not loosely to rattle around. This not only makes packing easier, and working on location simpler, but it also keeps honest people honest if they have to hand-check your checked luggage. Think Tank makes see-through cases, Cable Management 10, that I think just rock! Real easy to pack vertically, and easy for anyone to see what contents are inside!

While this is a real common-sense factor, I see it not being done the vast majority of the time. Lock your luggage! I have TSA locks and they are locked on all my check-in luggage (and I carry spares inside my luggage). And I always leave the locks in one spot, so I can quickly see if someone has been in my luggage. Every one of your bags, carry-on and check-in, need to have a very secure and visible luggage tag! I go so far as to have one on the inside and one on the outside, and I carry spares in case they are lost in transit. Have you seen the program on TV called Baggage Wars? There’s so much unclaimed luggage that they made a TV show out of it! Don’t let yours end up there!

Packing for Air Travel – Other’s Eyes

While everything in our luggage makes total sense to us, it doesn’t to others. A good example:our battery chargers, which end up being solid masses, with cords attached. If you don’t know better, and you look at just a silhouette of a couple of these chargers in a case (because manufacturers can’t seem to make one universal charger for all our needs), it’s not hard to imagine them to be some type of explosive device. We know they aren’t, but we’re not the ones scanning our luggage.  Add video accessories to this mix—mics, monitors and all the cables, man we’re a walking strip search waiting to happen!

This holds true for carry-on as well as check-in, and I can’t emphasize it enough! I’ve seen too many photographers go through security, get totally flustered in the process, and that’s when accidents happen. Remember that your briefcase will be laid down flat going through the scanner. With that in mind, pack the hard drives vertically. Keep cables to a minimum—and to the opposite side of the briefcase, so that they don’t appear attached. Just think about this from the scanner’s point of view, and you’ll be fine.

The Educated Traveler

Smile—a lot! There is already enough stress while traveling, so try to make it easier on yourself. A smile is a great place to start, and a way to keep that smile is staying informed and avoiding surprises. For example, there are apps for your smartphones which keep you informed of the basics to the complicated, depending on how much you want to know. TripIt and FlightTrack Pro are two that I depend on, as they tell me everything from departure and arrival gates to flight times and delays. (Even tells you the plane type you’re flying on, and your seat!)For example, you can know—once the tires touch down—the gate of your arrival, the gate of your departure, and how much time you have in between.

That smile, though, works magic like nothing else,when traveling. Ticket and gate agents are always the bearer of the bad news when there is any. Whenever I go up to them, I wear the biggest smile I can, have the calmest voice, and nine times out of ten I get the service I need, to make the trip as pleasant as can be. And the pleasantness can rub off. Managers of certain airlines sometimes walk the counters and waiting area with upgrades in their pockets. They want happy, return customers, so they are targeting the clean, well-dressed traveler, and giving them the free upgrades. I’ve seen this more than once in action, and it’s always fun to see the recipient’s face when presented the upgrade! Dressing for success or, in this case, smoother travel, just makes sense these days.

One other piece of advice: As soon as you get into your room after travel, check your camera’s sensor. I don’t care how clean it was when you left; the vibration from travel always puts some foreign objects on your sensor. Take two seconds to check, your upload process the next day will thank you for the time not spent cleaning off dust spots.

Why Did I Write This?

I wrote this for first-time fliers getting ready to head out on their first photo expedition. I wrote for the veteran flyer who might be looking for a less-stressful experience. These are simple ideas, tools and techniques that just aren’t available, except by word of mouth. Our packing videos on our website this last month have been hit hard, telling us photographers are on the move. (And I think that’s just freaking great!) I just figured that photography was stressful enough with apertures and shutter speeds, that traveling shouldn’t add to it. Because once you become a road warrior, you will learn there is an art to travel!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo Video Pro Audio

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Great article . thanks for the tips .

A few tips I hadn't seen before, thanks Moose.  Here's another suggestion. If you have lots of cables for laptops, cameras, etc, and your bag is full of other stuff (computer, camera, etc.). Put your cables in a separate bag like you suggest, keep that cable bag on top where it's easy to reach.  Pull it out with your laptop and throw it in a bin with your liquids, shoes, jacket.  It reduces the probability that they will have to hand inspect them.  It also makes it easier to find what you are looking for later.

These are great tips!!  I'm a bit confused about vertical and horizontal.  You write, "Remember that your briefcase will be laid down flat going through the scanner. With that in mind, pack the hard drives vertically."  Perhaps a picture of what this looks like will explain it best?  Also, what is vertical and horizontal when it comes to a check-in piece of luggage?  Again, a photo would help...

Thanks!

@Brooke: I think what Moose means is that while you are packing your bag/suitcase is laid out flat (horizontal) and open in front of you. Packing items vertically means put them in so that they are vertical with the bag/suitcase in its current orientation. This results in items positioned side by side instead of being stacked on top of each other.

Please correct me if I am wrong.

Good info, Moose.

Nice stuff thanks!

I put my cables in zip lock bags so they don't get hung up on my gear. Also if you squeeze out the air it saves space too.

Great article! :)

You have added here an interesting article with useful tips, i appreciate your thought that 'Smile a lot! There is already enough stress while traveling, so try to make it easier on your self. A smile is a great place to start and a way to keep that smile is staying informed and avoiding surprises'. Nice to read this great article. Thanks for sharing.

Moose, how do you pack a tripod inside one of those bage you mentioned? I own all 3 and can't figure out where it would go inside the carry on. Thanks for the article.