How to Fly with Cameras and Batteries
It is almost guaranteed that you are, as a photographer, going to want to head overseas with your camera gear. Flying with camera equipment, especially if you have a lot of it, can require some degree of planning to keep things safe, legal, and as cheap as possible.
Choosing a carry-on bag
There are a number of camera bags available that fit within airline limitations for carry-on baggage. This is where you should probably keep the most valuable items that you can’t do without.
If you’re looking for a hard case, the Pelican 1510 is the correct carry-on size and allows you to keep your camera alongside all the necessary batteries. If you do end up exceeding the carry-on weight limits (which is easily done with camera equipment), you’re unlikely to be forced to put the bag in the hold if there batteries in there. If you’re told to remove the batteries and check the bag, you have peace of mind that your camera is safe in the hard case.
What is safe in the hold?
As long as you pack things well, camera gear is fine the hold. In fact, I always travel with my cameras in the hold. Television crews travel with a huge amount of expensive equipment, and it is always transported in the hold of the plane. Even if handlers are throwing bags around, proper packing inside Pelican cases (or similar) will keep things safe from impact damage.
You should also keep a mirrored backup of your photos and video taken during your trip. One hard drive should be kept in the hold, and another should come with you in your carry-on baggage. This means that if a bag does go missing, you still have a copy with you.
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How many camera batteries can you fly with?
There are now international laws for air travel that prevent you from taking lithium batteries in the hold of an airplane. You should ensure that all of your lithium batteries (almost all camera batteries) are carried with you in your hand luggage. Playing by the rules, you should also tape up the metal contacts on all of your batteries to stop them shorting. You can use camera tape to avoid any sticky residue remaining on the batteries; do not use parcel tape as this will leave marks all over the batteries.
You are allowed to fly with 2 large lithium batteries that are between 101 and 150Wh, and an unlimited number of batteries of less than 100Wh (provided they are not for resale). Just make sure that you aren’t exceeding the weight limit. These regulations are true for flights in and out of the USA and UK, and most other countries too.
You should never fly with damaged batteries. If batteries become damaged in any way (whether it be water or impact damage) during your trip, then you should dispose of them properly wherever you are. It is dangerous to take these on the plane with you.
Securing your hold bags
It is very easy to break through a zip, even if they’re locked, using a pen to pry apart the zip’s mechanism. The zip can then be drawn back across the opening to seal it again, and you wouldn’t know that anything had been tampered with.
I always travel with my cameras stored in Pelican cases that I check into the hold. These boxes are fairly difficult to break into. Instead of using padlocks to lock them, however, I would recommend using heavy-duty cable-ties. These have the advantage of needing a sharp blade to break through (if pulled very tight) which baggage handlers will likely not have access to. It also makes the contents seem less valuable than if the bags were shut with heavy padlocks.
Incase security cuts through the cable-ties to check the bag, it is a good idea to put some spare cable-ties inside the case so they can secure your equipment again for you.
It’s worth remembering that your cameras aren’t going to be completely safe from theft whilst moving through baggage systems internationally. Some airports are less secure than others, and everyone travelling with equipment (especially in the hold) should ensure that they have the proper camera insurance to cover it.
Working with weight limits
Excess baggage can be expensive. It may also help to keep some bits of camera equipment, such as a lens and batteries, in your jacket pockets. What you have on your person isn’t weighed, and it can help you to keep your hand luggage within the limits.
Most airlines allow you to carry a laptop or small bag in addition to your main carry-on bag. Keeping your laptop separate from your main bag will keep things light.
If you’re paying for excess baggage, then it is often best to book it ahead of time. If you pay at the airport, excess baggage can cost a lot more than if you pay for it online ahead of the check-in desk.
Travelling through customs
I have never had to declare cameras a photographer. If you try to declare stills photography equipment to customs officers, they’re probably going to be confused as to why you bothered telling them. Even if you’re taking photos to sell, it’s unlikely you need to declare them. Things are different when you’re travelling with video equipment, however, as you are immediately seen as the media and on a larger commercial operation.
Always look up the regulations around camera equipment for the country you are travelling to, though. Some countries will limit the number of cameras you can bring with you and, whilst customs officers are not the most stringent in some countries, it is best to do things properly.
If you’re travelling for commercial reasons, then you may need to declare your equipment if it isn’t counted as personal property. This doesn’t have to cost money, though. If you bring duplicate lists of all your equipment, alongside the proper documents from your local government to stamp the gear in and out of your home country, then you can pass through easily.
Some countries require carnets to be filled out and approved ahead of your trip. If the country you’re travelling to is a carnet country, then you might need to deal with a broker to get the proper paperwork.
Should you freight camera gear to your location?
Something that I’ve considered in the past is to freight equipment ahead of me. However, this is not necessarily cheaper and it is risky. Freighting takes a long time, and things can get held up at customs very easily. You may find that your equipment never makes it to you, and you aren’t there with it to help get it through customs and into a country.
Bite the bullet and pay for the excess bags, if you are packing that much equipment, as your entire trip could be ruined with kit being lost by cargo companies.
It can be a bit daunting the first time you’re travelling with more than a basic camera, but media personnel travel all the time and it’s unlikely you’ll run into issues. The main thing is to ensure you are transporting your batteries properly, and you’ll most likely be fine!