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Carry-on Luggage Restrictions

by Bob Atkins, 1998

[see also the Q&A thread on " Nature Photography and Travel by Air"]

With many airlines tightening up on carryon luggage regulations, the nature photographer carrying long lenses may run into problems. Nobody wants to check a 500 or 600mm telephoto costing $4000-$10,000 and trust the airlines not to lose it or damage it (not to mention theft). Richard Stum of Kinesis recently measured some of the "sizing cubes" being used by airlines at Denver International to see if the Kinesis long lens bags would fit. His results are reproduced below.

Looking at the data, it seems that if you keep below around 22x14x9 (inches) you should be OK.  How big is that? Well a popular photo backpack is the LowePro Trekker. I chose this model, because I own one! The LowePro catalog lists it as 17.5x12x6. Plenty of room to spare right? Wrong! These are internal dimensions. When I measure mine with a reasonable amount of gear inside (but nothing in the front pockets), it actually measures about 20x14x9. Just small enough for most airlines. The Trekker AW is 1.5" longer (19x12x6 internal), so it should just fit too. The Pro Trekker AW adds another 1.5" to the length and 0.5" to the thickness (20.5x12x6.5). Now it's getting a pretty tight fit for some airlines! The Super Trekker AW at 25.5x14.5x6.5 (internal), just isn't going to make on most airlines if they get really strict and the counter staff are having a bad day. If you are basing your choice of bag on whether you will be able to use it as carry-on luggage, make sure you use external dimensions. Most catalogs give internal dimensions. You might need to call the manufacturer for external sizing, or better yet actually measure one for yourself in the store.

The Domke 600mm lens bag I have measures 22x8x8, so it should be fine on any of the larger airlines. This is the older, soft sided bag, not the current version with stiffer sides. The regular Trekker mentioned above will not take a 600mm lens. It will take a 300/2.8 or a Canon 500/4.5L though, plus a bunch of other stuff. If you fill the (unpadded) front pockets, it will probably not make the 9" thickness limit

Be warned that the dimensions the airlines quote over the phone and the dimensions of their "sizing cube" might not be exactly the same. If you are planning on carrying one of the larger photo backpacks on a plane, make sure you check with the airline right before you fly (restrictions are changing all the time with regard to size, weight and number of bags, and it may vary from flight to flight depending on the plane being flown and whether it's a domestic or international flight). Not all airlines actually make you force your bags in the sizing cube to check the size, but they might. It hasn't happened to me yet, but I've seen it happen to others and in the current climate, I expect to see the rules enforced more strictly in the future. There have been comments that some airlines might even classify a fully loaded photo vest as an item of "carry-on" luggage, so you may not be able to "wear" the gear you can't get into the camera bag!

If you have to put some of your gear in checked baggage, do not include film. There are new X-ray systems for checked baggage which have been found to damage film in a single pass. The scanners used to check hand luggage are very unlikely to damage film, even with multiple passes, though asking for a hand inspection is always a good idea. Outside the USA such requests may not be granted. You will be wasting your time at some airports (like Heathrow, London) but it never hurts to ask I guess. If you can seal your checked baggage (locks, straps, plastic wrap, duct tape - preferably all of the above!) it may lower the risks of casual theft of contents, though not the theft of the entire bag. According to some recent press reports, removing items from luggage is the most usual method of theft, not stealing the whole bag. There is one know and documented case of a 600/4 being removed from a checked bag, so it can happen.

If you have more data, please add it via the "View/Add Comments" link below.  Please make sure to at least view the comments, as they are as important as the text you have read so far!

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Article created 1998