Flying into the Age of Exploding Underpants

(and taking your camera, laptop and other valuables into the cabin with you)

Updated 28/01/2010 to reflect the Canadian madness has ended (see key tips section). I’ve also linked to an article on the Luminous Landscape with useful information on the same subject.

So, Christmas Day 2009 will go down in infamy as the day that changed the world forever. A mad but doubtless clever bastard managed to get a poor, deluded, brainwashed Nigerian to walk onto a plane wearing what is best described as a pair of exploding underpants. The aim was to destroy the plane as it flew low over Detroit on its approach to the airport. As has happened in just about every single hijack attempt since 9/11, ordinary members of the public, who have a clue these days, prevented this from happening.

The upshot is that we are probably going to have to put up with some changes to security arrangements when we fly for the time being. This is happening already on flights to America where a strict one piece rule is being enforced as to what you can actually carry onto the plane (for most originating airports, the maximum dimensions of this one piece have not changed though). For the photography enthusiast, this has potential implications.

Many photography enthusiasts (and pros also) wouldn’t dream of taking a holiday without a Canon 5D, Nikon D700 (or bigger) plus an expensive top of the line lens for every occasion. After all, nothing tells the world you’ve made it as a photographer better than Canon’s L glass.

Add to that a laptop and a couple of changes of clothes and suddenly you’ve i) got more stuff than will fit into one bag and ii) even if it did fit into one bag it would be well over the 7.5kg limit imposed by most airlines (though in practice, most airlines don’t ask about the weight of your cabin bag unless you give them reason to be suspicious).

So, what’s a traveller who wants great photos of that holiday or business trip to do? I have some thoughts….

Key Tips Before You Read on,,,,

Everything security related is subject to change. Anything I write here can very quickly be invalidated by a further security incident. With this in mind:


The good news about Canada is that all the bullet points below are no longer valid and hand luggage is “business as usual” when flying from Canada to the US.

  • If flying from Canada and the US, bear in mind this is a special case as all cabin bags are bags are banned
  • This does not stop you taking a camera or laptop (or probably even both) on board but it cannot be in a bag
  • Some forum posters have reported a clear plastic bag is allowed for your camera and/or laptop
  • Air Canada also say they are waiving some excess luggage fees on flights to the US, for the time being.

Europe (and probably most other places)

  • Before you pack, do check the web sites of both the airline and the airport and, if necessary, call them
  • Ensure you know the size and weight limits of your hand baggage
  • Ensure you understand whether one piece really means one piece of if it means one piece plus personal item (which can mean a purse, laptop bag or even a small camera bag)
  • Be flexible: If asked to check in something you really don’t want to check in, make sure the check in agent marks it as fragile
  • Don’t bother arguing with airport staff as this is a waste of your energy and could get you arrested for being right.

With the above in mind, I recommend considering the following for your photography related equipment:

You Could Check it In

Anyone who has to travel with lighting equipment already does this. Both Haliburton and Pelican make cases that will keep your gear safe in the hold of a plane. There are three downsides:

  1. It’s going to eat into your hold luggage allowance.
  2. I’m never 100% convinced that my valuable items are safe unless I’m carrying them.
  3. It wouldn’t be at all nice if your African Safari was ruined because your camera equipment didn’t make it with you? Would it?

If you transit through Cape Town or Johannesburg international airports, check in nothing that might be stolen. Cameras, laptops, DVDs and leather belts (yes, leather belts) are frequently liberated by airport employees (the locals refer to this as “affirmative shopping”).

You could ship it

I came across this blog via a message in my Twitter stream:

Traveling? Better Get a UPS Account

For traveling around around the US and Canada, this actually makes an awful lot of sense because UPS and FedEx (especially FedEx in every Kinkos, on every other strip mall) are everywhere, reliable and relatively inexpensive.

This also probably makes a lot of sense flying to/from Europe and the US. If staying in a hotel though, there’s a couple of things you need to do:

  • Advise them that your goods will be arriving before you do.
  • Check with them that they are happy to store your equipment for a couple of days (many US hotels will not allow so much as a a laptop in their luggage storage due to insurance requirements).

Your Friend the Netbook

Unless I’m transiting through South Africa, I always have a cheap Netbook checked in. It’s small, light, relatively well built and, thanks to its solid state hard disk, has no moving parts. On business I pack it as a spare laptop. For pleasure, it gets packed as my only laptop. This leaves more room in my cabin baggage for camera stuff.

Consider Taking Less

There are a number of ways of looking at this.

One is to take a smaller DSLR body. A Nikon D5000, for example, has more or less the same image processing as the D90 or D300. The same applies to smaller/newer DSLRs from Canon, Olympus, Pentax and Sony.

Another way is to look at taking smaller, consumer oriented lenses along. All the DSLR makers provide a reasonable effort these days (Canon in particular has improved while Olympus, Pentax and Nikon have always been good enough). Of course, they’re not as good as L glass but then again, the notion that one must have the best glass to take great (and even sellable) photos is, quite frankly, ludicrous.

Good glass can be addicting but it’s not necessarily essential. Consider why you actually need the bigger, better lens before deciding to bring it along (a faster lens, for example, is sometimes very necessary).

Also, don’t forget there are now smaller, mirror-less systems out there with Micro Four Thirds and now the Samsung NX system. More will follow.

Further Information

The Luminous Landscape has an excellent article on the issue.


~ by jasonhindle on January 6, 2010.

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