10 Air Travel Tips
How To Protect Your Photo Equipment

No matter where we travel during the summer, a camera is a constant companion, for recording the sights, scenery, wildlife, and people we encounter. Traveling by air however, does pose problems, especially for those who take a lot of equipment. The risks of damage, theft, and unnecessary expense should not be underestimated. As airport security and other regulations become more stringent, photographers need to plan ahead, taking suitable steps to ensure peace of mind. If you're planning a trip on a commercial airline, consider the following information and tips for your film and photo equipment.

1. Avoid the airplane's cargo hold. We have all seen that TV commercial a few years ago where gorillas tossed a suitcase around to see how much abuse it would tolerate. While baggage handlers at most airports are far more respectful, loss and damage to luggage and its contents is all too common. To reduce the risks, I always try to carry my cameras and lenses aboard so they cannot be subjected to any rough handling and other risks.

2. Make inquiries as to carryon allowances.
At one time, all airlines adhered to a single international standard as to the maximum size of carryon bags: 9x14x22" was the norm. In the past year however, some carriers have become more restrictive in terms of size while others have imposed a weight limit as well. (A maximum of one carryon item per person is also becoming a common rule.) At this time, there is no consistency among the various airlines, so you will need to do some advance research. Their web sites usually offer information as to the current rules and these can change from time to time. Check our section for the specific URL regarding the baggage policies of some of the major airlines.

3. Protect equipment in checked luggage. If your photo equipment is too large or too heavy, some of it is destined for the cargo hold. In that case, take some advance precautions. Use a hard shell camera case from Lowepro, Tundra Sea King, ZERO Haliburton, or Pelican for additional security. Consider buying a heavily padded case for your tripod, or travel with a large duffel bag as I do; those intended for hockey equipment are often long enough for a full-size tripod. If you place photo equipment inside regular luggage, wrap every item in several layers of clothing and stash it in a high quality hard-sided suitcase.

4. Disguise valuable equipment. During a seminar with Frans Lanting, this professional nature photographer explained how he ships cases of gear (as checked baggage) while on assignment for National Geographic. In order to avoid advertising the expensive contents of the shiny silver cases, Lanting acquired several large duffel bags. By intentionally abusing the bags, he made them appear to be old and worn. Then, he simply placed each hard shell case inside one of the duffel bags. While loss by the airlines is always a possibility, this tactic should at least minimize the risk of theft.

5. Place film in a carryon bag. Tests conducted by the British Aviation Authority and by the Photographic & Imaging Manufacturers Association, Inc. (PIMA) confirmed that the familiar x-ray systems used for carryon bags at modern airports, in well-developed countries, employ a very low level of radiation. As a result of their tests, PIMA maintains that "the vast majority of conventional x-ray equipment used to inspect carryon luggage will not cause noticeable changes to your film." (PIMA represents US photo products distributors.) However, their formal recommendation is more conservative: "With film above ISO 400, avoid more than five low-dose scans. Do not subject any film over ISO 1000 even to conventional x-rays." Keep this in mind particularly in underdeveloped countries, where antiquated equipment may still be in use.

Note: In Canada and the US, you are entitled to a visual inspection of your film instead of x-ray exposure. However, this right does not apply in other countries. If you are concerned about exposure to even the low-dose x-ray systems try this. Pack your film inside a lead-lined container, in a carryon bag and let it run through the machine. At the other end of the line an attendant will open the lead bag; on satisfying himself that it contains nothing but photographic film, he'll probably wave you on.

6. Never place film in checked luggage. Over the past few years, some 60 airports worldwide have installed the new "tomographic" CT-scan type high-dose x-ray systems. According to PIMA tests, and confirmed by the manufacturer (InVision Technologies), "such radiation causes damaging streaks and unacceptable fogging of all speeds of unprocessed film; higher speeds of film show more damage." Note that "processed film, computers, cameras, and electronic/magnetic media such as disks and tapes are not affected by x-rays."

Tests confirm that the conventional lead-lined bags are not effective against the new high-dose x-ray systems used on checked bags. Some manufacturers now offer bags with much thicker lead such as the Sima FilmShield XPF 8 (0.2mm of lead) intended for film up to ISO 200, and XPF 20 (0.5mm of lead composite) recommended for ISO 400 and faster film. "Think of these products as you think of sunscreen for protection against a burn during a day at the beach," says Sima. "The bags may not completely block all radiation, but they reduce it so you won't see visible damage on the film." (For additional information visit the PIMA web site at: www.pima.net or the Sima web site at: www.simacorp.com)

7. Avoid loss by theft. Having taken the necessary precautions, you can enjoy your trip with peace of mind--unless your equipment is stolen while you're waiting for a flight. Even if it's fully insured, the experience of being without your photo equipment can be frustrating. An inexpensive single-use camera will provide a few snapshots, but that's hardly a consolation on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with spectacular photo opportunities. Suitable replacement equipment may not be available, or will be exorbitantly priced, in many vacation areas.

In some countries your gear will be an appealing target for thieves, especially if it's worth more than a month's pay to a local resident. Carry it all in a fancy camera case and you'll be advertising the apparent value of its contents. Leave it for a minute while in an airport bar or restroom, and you may never see it again. To avoid such invitations to theft, consider some bag which does not resemble one intended for photo equipment--the older and shabbier the better. If you do not flaunt your affluence, you're less likely to be viewed as a target. In any event, keep the zipper or flap tightly closed and keep a firm grasp on the case to prevent someone from walking off with your valuables.

8. Read your insurance policy closely. Homeowners and renters insurance policies generally cover photo equipment for theft, although there may be an exclusion for equipment used for professional or commercial purposes. As well, limits apply to any off-premises theft. Read the fine print closely and consult your insurance agent or broker to be sure that your gear is covered and adequately so, while traveling.

Note too that insurance companies may not consider lost luggage as having been "stolen." If your policy covers only specified perils (e.g., fire, theft, etc.) ask your agent or broker to arrange for an All Risk endorsement for your camera equipment and other valuables. Be sure to confirm that it provides worldwide coverage, or that it does not exclude losses that occur in the countries that you intend to visit.

9. Minimize hassles with Customs officials. When you return home from abroad, Customs officials may well demand proof that your equipment is not a new purchase being imported. For suitable evidence, travel with receipts showing the serial number of each item to confirm the origin of purchase. In the alternative, complete a Customs registration form a few weeks before departing on a trip. Ask your travel agent for assistance, or call the Customs office in any major center for the required document allowing you to pre-register each item.

This provides a permanent record to avoid disputes with border officials on re-entry into the US or Canada. It will also preclude your being asked to pay import duties, since it's documentary evidence of prior ownership. Should your equipment be stolen, this record will also help the authorities identify your property if it's ever recovered. Naturally, it's wise to keep the documents separate from your camera bag in case the latter is stolen or lost.

10. "Buyer Beware" in foreign countries. If you're tempted to buy a camera at ridiculously low prices in some duty free port or back-alley discount shop, think twice before making a quick purchase. The one you pick may already have been discontinued, or of an earlier technology not competitive with the best currently available. At least check price tags before leaving home, or you may experience sticker-shock when returning with that presumed bargain. I have relatives whose experiences will vouch for the validity of both pieces of advice.

Note two other factors as well. Customs Duties may apply on equipment purchased abroad if the total value exceeds the amount of your allowance. More importantly, be aware that many equipment distributors in the US will not honor International Warranties; some will not provide any repair service on products purchased overseas. If that bargain turns out to be faulty, the cost of repairs may exceed what you originally saved. And avoid apparent "deals" in used equipment on the street, unless you're adventuresome enough to spend time in a foreign Police cell. It can be a long wait for a judge who will finally hear your explanation about the stolen equipment in your possession.

Conclusion. Some of our hints will apply equally whether your voyage involves a short hop to another state or a long flight across the international date line to some exotic destination. Vacation travel is never the same without your camera along to help re-live the good times later, during the cold winter months. A few precautions will protect your investment in time, dollars, and memories. These safeguards should ensure enjoyable trips--without frustration, disappointment, or a lot of unexpected expense.

Airline Baggage/Carryon Policies
Because rules regarding carryon allowances, weight of baggage, etc., are changing (and also vary from one carrier to another), we cannot provide specifics as to the current standard. In order to determine the most recent policies of the various airlines, visit their web sites in advance. The following web pages--provided by Dr. Ellen Rudolph, host of the Nature Photography board on AOL--include the pertinent information. Each URL was accurate at the time of this writing but may change. In that case, start with the homepage of the relevant airline and look for links to pages detailing baggage allowances.

American: www.aa.com/American?BV_Operation=Dyn_AAPage&referer=index.html
Air Canada: www.aircanada.ca/contact/baggage.html
British Airways: www.british-airways.com/travelqa/fyi/baggage/baggage.shtml
Continental: www.continental.com
Delta: www.delta-air.com/baggage/index.html
Northwest: www.nwa.com/services/shipping/luggage.shtml
TWA: www.twa.com/passenger_services/ps_baggage_info.html#carryon
United: www.ual.com/traveler/default.asp?SubCategory=airport_guide
US Airways: www.usair.com/travel/passinfo/dyknow.htm