with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Packing for Flights

That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff! Sometimes you gotta move, gotta get a bigger house. Why? No room for your stuff anymore. Sometimes you leave your house to go on vacation. And you gotta take some of your stuff with you. Gotta take about two big suitcases full of stuff, when you go on vacation. You gotta take a smaller version of your house. It’s the second version of your stuff.”
George Carlin

Suitcase tags, photograph by Brent VanFossenDeciding what “stuff” to take can make even the most experienced traveler cringe with angst. The more we travel, the less we seem to need, but then why is it so damn hard to zip up the suitcase every single time. There is always that one last thing to add that fills the bag – the thing we think we can’t live without. With today’s luggage restrictions, taking it all with you makes traveling even harder.

New Weight Restrictions Restrict Travelers
As if the hassles of security aren’t enough, as of November 2004 it’s official. All US domestic and international flights are limited to 50 pounds per checked-in suitcase – two suitcases per person. For now, most airlines are charging a USD $25 fee for overweight bags and an additional $50 for extra suitcases, though this may vary by airline. International carriers, like Luftansa and British Air, aren’t as restrictive for outgoing flights, but expect them to start to comply soon. The reason behind this? I’ve heard from several airline staff that the US’s TSA enforced this to “protect” the backs of their security workers. Most airlines are furious with this new ruling imposed upon them, so have a little patience with it. The number of complaints they are getting is making them work overtime. But do complain because it makes taking your camera on the road even harder when you are reduced by 20 pounds!

Before you start packing, check with the airlines to find out what your luggage restrictions are, in quantity, size and weight. These restrictions vary by airline and flight. Many European flights are now restricting passengers to one suitcase and one carry-on, calling a purse a carry-on. In the USA, in general, you are permitted two bags, animated graphic of luggagea carry-on and a purse. In the USA, most airlines have a 60 pound (27 kilo) suitcase limit, with high fines for exceeding the weight limit. Many foreign airlines restrict you to 45 pounds (20 kilos) per suitcase. Carry-on luggage is also restricted now by weight. On average, most airlines restrict carry-on sizes to 22x14x9 inches (55x35x22 cm) and 40 pounds (18 kilos), though we’ve found much lower weight restrictions in Europe (one limited us to 8 kilos/18 lbs). Keep the weight scale near you as you pack and check it as you go.

Many traveling photographers are leaving the old box suitcases behind and going for backpacks, giving them maximum mobility moving from place to place. Make sure you protect yourself and your back by testing a backpack as thoroughly as possible before loading it up for a big trip. Don’t scrimp – spend some serious money on a serious backpack. Get one that will last as well as one that makes the trip, and your back, glad you spent the extra money.

Start at the store and try on the different packs with weights inside to get the “feel” of it. There are many different styles and harness designs, so try different ones. Eagle Creek, Jansport, and EMS design backpacks specifically for women, with shorter torsos and wide shoulder pads with narrow straps over the shoulders and down under the arms to accommodate the breasts. They are designed for a lower center of gravity and are much more comfortable to wear while carry heavy weights. Have the backpack specialist fit the pack to your body for the best fit and placement, and to teach you how to adjust it correctly.

Check the pack’s guidelines to determine the volume and weight limits to estimate how much it will carry. Packs open from the front, sides, and top, so check to see which loading access will work best with what you carry, while still allowing you easy access to camera equipment and water. Make sure they have a return policy, take it home, fill it with what you will be traveling with and walk around the neighborhood a few times. Professional backpack travelers recommend a pack that you can easily carry for at least a half mile without strain, though seasoned hikers and backpackers tell you it should be a least 2 miles before you need to rest. It depends upon your desired travel experience. Give the pack a bit of time to “warm” to your body, but if it is really uncomfortable, return it and try again. Find a good pack that will make your trip an enjoyable one, and use it well for years.

Do not lock your suitcases or carry-ons. In the USA, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) advises that they will break the locks without warning or compensation if they need to look inside your luggage, calling this a “necessary security precaution” in accordance with the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 ( http://tsa.dot.gov ). If they do inspect your luggage, they are required to insert a note saying that they have done so. Do your best to make it easier for them by padding things in easy-to-open materials or clear padding, and by not taping up or wrapping anything that could be considered suspicious and require a lot of effort to unwrap. With my sensitive computer equipment, I put a note on the outside of the padding and on the inside identifying the equipment and requesting that if they have to open it for inspection, would they please securely re-wrap this item for its protection. So far, so good.

Photography and Computer
Equipment Crossing Borders

Our Computer Equipment to Go
We carry a bit of computer equipment with us when we go for more than a couple of days. Here is our packing list for our computer equipment:

  • Laptop
  • Program Software CDS
  • Operating System Boot Disks and CDS
  • Backup CDS
  • 2-4 RW CDs/DVDs
  • 12v to 110v converter
  • Autoswitch Power Converter
  • Extra Laptop Battery
  • Headphones orearphones
  • USB, Firewire, Other cables
  • Phone cords and adapters
  • Mouse and batteries
  • Handheld Computer (Palm)
  • Palm USB Cord
  • Extra Palm Stylus
  • Palm power adapter with 110/220/12v plugs/connections
  • Extra Storage Cards

ALERT: Computer equipment is now being questioned and challenged in many international airports, and in major airports within the United States. Among the questions they are asking is if you have had the computer equipment repaired or serviced, is new or used, and if it has stayed within your possession at all times. In general, since we handle most of our own repairs on our computers, I say no if it has been fixed. You don’t have to lie, just be honest and give them as much information as they ask – and no more. Wireless and Bluetooth technology is also being questioned and investigated, as are super large hard drives and the various odd looking power adapters and cords. We’ve had our laptop seized by security in Israel and promised to be on the same flight arriving the next day. We got it almost a week later, broken and damaged, and the hard drive crashed within days. Be sure and stay with them while they pack the laptop and sensitive equipment for the next flight, no matter how much they argue. Follow them. Protest to everyone and write a lot of letters immediately. When possible, put the laptop and computer equipment well padded inside of your luggage rather than carry-on. This seems to make a difference.

While photography equipment is rarely questioned as it passes across borders, there are still some borders which give you hassles. If you are concerned about your equipment either being seized by the border customs, or taxed as an import, take time to create a detailed inventory of your equipment, including every filter and battery. List the manufacturer, place of purchase, date of purchase, purchase price and even the current market value (if needed). For big ticket items like camera bodies, big lenses, and tripods, include copies of the purchase receipt. Make at least three copies of all this information and take it and your equipment down to the customs office at any major airport (call ahead for times and directions) and fill out form CF4457, US Certificate of Registration, and attach the receipts and inventory to it. The customs officer will check the inventory list and form against your equipment and then issue the certification. The form is valid for re-entry into the country. The US Government Foriegn Entry Regulations has more information on entry and customs to foreign countries. Check your own country’s customs policies at their government web site.

Photographic equipment purchased, altered, or repaired outside of the country are subject to duty and should be declared to customs when re-entering your native country. The free personal duty exemption has been recently raised to USD$800 for returning US citizens.

Photographic film is permitted to be taken in and out of most countries without question, though you may have to show proof (receipts) that you are using the film for personal use if you carry large quantities. This is true of all types of film, unless you bought the film and had it exposed abroad. Then it “should” be counted as a dutiable item. If customs believes the film might contain prohibited material, such as child pornography, they can seize it without question.

In a series of articles called “Taking It With You When You Go”, we cover a wide range of options on what to take with you when you go. Regarding camera gear, take with you what you will need for the subjects you plan on photographing, and a backup lens and/or camera body – just in case. We’ve been carrying a 35-70mm lens for “just in case” for years and never used it. I’ve now decided to leave that one behind in the future, but I’m sure I will regret it. With the increased weight restrictions, every filter and roll of film adds to the weight and something has to come out. Put together what you absolutely have to have, weigh your luggage, and then add backups or optional equipment if you have room.

Clothes on Your Back

Our Carry-On Checklist
In addition to computer and camera equipment, we bring the following on plane flights, which general last 4 – 18 hours:

  • Eye covers
  • Ear plugs
  • Playing Cards
  • Miniature Backgammon Game
  • MP3 player
  • Small portable radio
  • Hand lotion
  • Aspirin
  • Gum
  • Sleeping/Neck pillows
  • Swiss Kriss (herbal laxative)
  • Bottled water
  • Emery Nail File (paper, not metal)

Regarding clothing, go easy on yourself. There is a lot of travel gear available today that is warm, waterproof, and made with thin, washable fabrics that dry quickly, even in low temperatures. Consider investing in lightweight travel clothing if travel and weight restrictions fill your life. Escaping from Israel, we found ourselves leaving behind almost everything except our sleeping bags and camera gear. We narrowed our clothing down to three days of clean clothes, wearable for six days if we didn’t sweat too much. Layers were the theme of the day. Skiing in Andorra, I wore my walking leggings under my cotton pants as long underwear and bought a sweatshirt for under my coat. Basic clothing is cheap just about anywhere in the world, so consider taking only the barest of needs, like two or three days worth of clothing and a week’s worth of underwear and socks, then buying clothes if you need them as you travel. You don’t need a new outfit for every day of your trip, unless you are going to show off your ability to buy stylish clothes. Keep it simple, washable, and flexible.

Like the towel in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, I recommend men and women carry some form of a scarf about a meter square, usually made out of Egyptian or Indian cotton in a neutral or dark color. This can be used as a thin blanket, cover, umbrella, coat, pillow, wrap, towel, muffler, hat, and carrying bag. When waiting in a public area, I will drape it over my camera bag, purse, or pack as it sits beside me, lowering its profile from thieves. In religious areas, it can be used to cover heads, faces, necks, and arms if the religion requires it. It can be carried in the suitcase until needed, or stuffed in a pack, or hung around your neck, ready to use. Carrying this simple kind of scarf has saved me on many occasions when I needed that extra warmth from the cold, shielding from the sun, or an impromptu visit to a mosque.

Taking Paper on the Road

What papers should you carry with you when you go? Different countries require different paperwork, depending upon their visa and custom requirements, but in general, bring your driver’s license, an international driver’s license, passport, international health certificate (available from your doctor or health clinic), a copy of your birth certificate (to expedite replacing passports), international health and accident insurance papers and cards (for person and vehicle – if necessary), and more than one “type” of major credit card. Before you go, gather all this together and make at least three photocopies, including both sides of the bank cards. Put one copy in the bottom of your suitcase in a zip-lock, waterproof bag, and give the others to two friends or family members along with your itinerary. If needed, they should be able to fax or email the information to you anywhere in the world. Using today’s technology, we’ve scanned all of our critical information, including bank account and investment information, and stored it on a CD-ROM, with copies to our families and a good friend. Instead of a stack of papers, we can limit our weight to the most essential papers and the CD disk. For further security, access to the files on the CD can be encrypted. This is best for long term trips. If your passport goes missing or you have any other emergency, contact the local US Consulate/Embassy office in that country, using the copy of your birth certificate to speed up the process of passport replacement. Carry the embassy contact information with you before you leave home, just in case.

Money On The Run

While traveling, separate your credit cards so you never carry all of them in one place. Divide them up between your body and your luggage. If you are traveling with someone with the same credit cards, have each person each carry a different credit card so that if one is stolen or lost, the other person can still have access to funds after the other card has been reported and cancelled, avoiding a return to your hotel or lodging. If you will be traveling for an extended length of time, bring an extra copy of at least one cash/debit card in case the other becomes demagnitized or damaged. Keep the contact information for lost or stolen cards with you in an easy-to-access location.

If you travel extensively and frequently, consider choosing a large international bank for your bank services while traveling. If you are traveling to major cities, odds are that they may have an office there. Some banks offer special services for their traveling customers. Examples include (number of countries in parentheses):

Before your trip, call your credit card company and inform them of your travel plans including the departure and return dates. Most companies track abnormal use of your credit card and can “freeze” your account if in doubt. If this happen to you, call the number on the back of your card collect, and, after proving who you are, provide them with a short list of your most recent purchase locations and amounts to confirm that these charges are legitimate. Even if you advise your bank of your travel plans, sometimes the information is missed, so if you are told by a clerk that there is a problem with your card, ask them to hold your items and if they could help you call your bank. Most are very obliging. Upon returning home, check your bank statements carefully to make sure no illegal or “over” charging occurred.

Traveling through major cities and in “modern” countries, cash machines are usually easily accessible. The need for traveler’s checks are few, and rarely are they accepted anymore, even by some of the larger merchants. Most major bank cash/debit cards can be used overseas, but not at all cash machines. Check with your bank and on the back of your card for the cash machine “system” your bank is a member of. Common ones are Exchange, Plus, Cirrus, Maestro, and Accel. Look on the cash machine for the matching name and/or logo to ensure your card will work in that machine. If not, move on to another one and try again. If you will be spending time in that country, learn which bank’s cash machines work with your card to speed up the hunt for money. We recommend that you take the daily maximum cash out, usually USD$250 to $500 in equivalent foreign money, and separate the cash around on your body as well as in your kit. In general, you should carry about one week’s worth of cash. Thieves lurk around cash machines so lower your risk by visiting them less frequently. As you near the end of your trip, pay as much as you can with cash and then use your credit card when the money gets low so you will not lose money exchanging the foreign money back. Overseas, most banks will “hold” your cash withdrawal amounts until a time in the day when the exchange rate is “good”, usually giving you a better rate than any local money exchange.

What We Do

Extra Tips for Overseas Travelers
World tour leader and nature photographer, Joe Van Os, gave us a favorite packing tip. When traveling overseas, your unconscious goal is to bring back more than what you left with – all the souveniers and goodies. Instead of bringing an extra suitcase, he recommends buying inexpensive clothing to wear only on the trip, and give it away to the local thrift shops or homeless shelters before you leave. This not only makes room in your suitcase, it helps out those in need.

Arriving in San Diego in the middle of winter, we left 11F degree freezing and arrived in 70F degree heat, unprepared. We found a local thrift shop and bought shorts and t-shirts, then dropped them off later for resale at another thrift shop. Recycle travel clothing when possible to save space and spread the wealth.

Traveling as two nature photographers and writers, we take a lot of STUFF with us when we go. Laptop, two to three cameras (sometimes four), numerous lenses, one tripod, binoculars, tons of film, and odds and ends of camera gadgets and power cords and cables. It is a lot. We put what we can, within weight restrictions, into our backpacks, often dismantaling camera bags and putting the less important and non-fragile equipment into our suitcases. When carry-on weight restrictions are very restrictive, we put take the head off our tripod and put the legs in the suitcase. We often use extra large men’s hunting socks and cut them at the ankle and use the foot part to stretch over the tripod head for padding. The legs fit along the bottom of the suitcase with clothing or breakables inside of ziplock baggies shoved in between the legs. The legs act as a protective constraint, keeping breakables from crushing. We wrap and pad the head well, and either carry it with us or put it in the suitcase, well protected. When we’ve carried the tripod on the plane, security tends to dismantal it and spend a lot of time inspecting it, so we save some time putting it in the suitcase, though suitcases are inspected before ticketing in Israel, and the tripod always attracts attention.

When camping is on the end of our flight, we use either large suitcases for our sleeping bags and pads or we take the SunDog Art Wolfe monster backpack (only available by special order) which will hold our Peak One stove, our lantern (never take gas or any flammable liquids onto a plane), two Thermarests, cooking utensils, and odds and ends of clothing stuffed in and about. We strap the Ridgerest sleeping support pads, if we need them, to the outside of the pack. The long pockets on the outside allow for water bottles to be placed here. The slot for the tripod expands open enough to stuff our rolled up tent inside, strapping it solidly against the pack.

Our clothing can fit into the other suitcases, including two pillows, hats, gloves, boots, and other necessary items for camping. Clearly, if we weren’t camping, the load would be much lighter.

Some airlines are stricter than others. We arrange our flights to be during the cheapest rate times, often the off times for the airlines: middle of the day or late night. When they are less busy and there are fewer seats filled, they tend to be more lenient. But nothing replaces a smile of innocence and sincerity.


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