Travel Photography: Should You Carry, Check or Ship Your Camera Gear?


Like many wildlife photographers, I'll go almost anywhere in search of an image. From Alaska to Florida, there are very few places I won't travel to in search of the next great photo.

But when travel includes a flight, that raises the question of how to get my gear to the shoot.

The airport experience is easily the most unpleasant part of any journey these days. Between having to carry all of your gear to and from the airport like a pack animal and enduring the tender mercies of TSA, I just dread the entire airport experience. 

Here are three options for transporting your equipment (and for that matter, your suitcase) to your destination.

1. Check it as luggage on the flight.

2. Carry it on board, to be placed in the overhead bin (it's probably too big for underseat storage)

3. Ship it ahead via FedEx or UPS.

Full disclosure: in addition to my photography business, I also own a "pack & shp" store.  But that also means that I have some expertise on the shipping option, which we'll discuss in a moment.

1. Check it as luggage: This is probably the worst option. Checked luggage not only endures the pounding dished out by baggage handlers, but behind the scenes, it's subjected to even more abuse by the conveyor belt system, where your cameras tumble like boulders in a rockslide and have who-knows-what landing on top of them at the bottom. 

Checking your gear as luggage requires either very good padding, or a lot of luck. Personally, I prefer not to have to count on luck when it comes to my camera gear. 

2. Carry it on board: This is probably the best option, except that with airlines charging for even the first checked bag, using the overhead bin for your gear probably means you'll have to check something else.

If you do carry your camera gear on-board, try to select a seat that lets you board ahead of other parts of the aircraft—for most airlines, that's the rear of the aircraft. That way, you'll be sure to have an empty bin to use.  And here's a hint—use a bin that's at least slightly in front of you, so you can keep an eye on your gear throughout the trip.

3. Ship your gear ahead: I've been a pretty big fan of this option for the last few years—I've even been shipping my suitcase too. It's VERY nice to travel light and have everything awaiting your arrival. 

Here are a few things to consider if you use this option:

1. Padding: If you pad your gear so it can survive a four foot drop onto a concrete floor, you'll be fine. Airline baggage handlers don't have a monopoly on rough handling!

2. Secure receiving: Shipping everything to family or friends is a great option—but be sure you require a signature on delivery. You don't want your camera gear left on Mom's doorstep if nobody is home!

You should also be safe if you have everything delivered to a national chain hotel like a Holiday Inn, Ramada, Hilton, Marriott or Best Western. I'd be a little nervous about shipping to "Jumpin' Joes No-Tell Motel" though.

Another option is to have a "pack & ship" store like mine receive and hold your items—most charge less than $10.00 per package. Use Find a Shipping Store to locate one.

3. Carrier & timing: I prefer to use UPS and FedEx more than the Post Office. Both will give you a scheduled delivery date that is pretty reliable, with a caveat that severe weather can throw a wrench in the works.  

Schedule your gear to arrive at least one business day early and you should be in good shape.

And when your gear arrives on time and in good shape, you're ready to make some great images!

Great Egret Preening 2011 Florida Bird Photo Tour. Canon 1D MkIV. Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS,  ISO 400, f5.6, 1/1250th second

4. Tracking: Track your packages early in the process for the best chance of resolving any issues.

5. Insurance: Check with your insurance agent to be sure, but your camera equipment may already be covered under your homeowner's or renter's insurance. However, it may only be covered for the depreciated value, not the replacement value–that sometimes requires a separate rider.  

If you're a professional, you'll need a separate policy—the homeowner's and renter's policies normally exclude gear used professionally. I purchase mine though a program offered by Professional Photographers of America.

6. Security: The final steps for security are to padlock your bags and to record the model and serial numbers of all equipment.  And if you're leaving the USA, stop at US Customs *before* leaving, and tell them that you want to register your camera gear - and any other valuables, so you won't be charged taxes on them when you re-enter.

So there you have it—carry it on or ship your gear ahead—either way, you'll have the best chance of getting everything there in one piece and having a great photo vacation!

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 Nice post, Charles.  I'm flying for the islands tomorrow on vacation with the family.  I've stripped my camera bag down to the essentials for the trip.  Less weight means it's easier to lug around and slightly more "squishable"  Beware the small regional (puddle jumpers) flights.  I've had attendants try to take my bag so that they could throw it in the belly of the plane.  No thanks.  And three years ago, I had a small Canon S2IS stolen from my checked bag, so the people behind the counters obviously have places to go through bags where there are no cameras.  I fought with airport security and the airline for some time about that one, with no luck.