I've been getting many queries about choosing bags for travel for photography gear. The two major domains in which photographers carry their gear on trips are “in-transit,” and during shooting.
In Part I, I discussed the problems of “in-transit” travel, which also affects how you pack for your trip.
In Part II, below, I'll discuss specifications for bags for carrying your gear while “in-transit.”
In Part III, I'll discuss carrying your gear while shooting.
As already discussed in Part I, whether traveling by bus, train, ship or plane, the issues of “in-transit” travel are similar. When traveling solely by car, the traveler is restrained only by the car's capacity and the traveler's personal convenience, so whatever works for other transportation modes, will work for automobile travel.
In Part I you learned it's essential to stow photography equipment in “carry-on” bags while traveling, due to breakage, and liability issues, and the ability to take photos, even while “in-transit.”
There are three general constraints for any “carry-on” bag, including photography gear bags; size, number and weight.
More and more airlines are strictly enforcing their size restrictions. The airlines are finding “carry-on” restriction enforcement speeds passenger loading, which saves them money.
There are two important size factors; airline regulations, and airplane stowage space.
Airlines restrict the physical dimensions of “carry-on” bags by linear dimension, and specific dimension. A review of major airline “carry-on” restrictions, found the most restrictive linear dimension (length + width + depth) appears to be 45” (114cm), including retracted extension handles, and wheels, for wheeled bags.
The most restrictive specific dimensions appears to be 21.5” long x 14” wide x 9”¹ deep (55cm x 35cm x 23cm²).
When choosing a “carry-on” photo gear bag, I suggest it should meet the specific dimensions restriction to prevent needing to purchase multiple bags, for individual airlines.
There are three basic overhead bin space limitations according to airplane type; regional jet, narrow body jet, and wide body jet. If your “carry-on” meets the above specific dimensions, it will fit into the overhead bins of both narrow and wide body jets. It may not fit into the overhead bins of some regional jets or propeller planes, but will usually fit under the seat in front of you.
TIP: The space under regional jet and propeller plane seats are not created equally. Window seats often have less room under them compared to aisle seats, due to the curvature of the planes fuselage. If your bag is pushing the size limits, in one of these smaller planes, get an aisle seat, if possible.Most touring buses have overhead bins which are sized similarly to narrow body jets, but there are exceptions. If you're touring on a bus, check with your tour agent about the bus' overhead bin size, and the space under the seats.
Most trains, have overhead bins which are similar to narrow body jets, but like buses, there are exceptions. In the US, “carry-on” bags which meet the specific dimensions should be able to fit in the overhead bin of Amtrak passenger cars. In Europe, the overhead bins are often smaller, but those train cars generally have a luggage rack which will fit your bags.
Cruise lines don't specify particular size limitations for “carry-on” luggage, however, it's a good idea to apply airline restrictions for shipboard “carry-on.” The cruise lines use the same basic “carry-on” x-ray equipment as airports. Your bags must fit into those x-ray units.
On US domestic flights, travelers are permitted a “carry-on” bag, plus a personal item. Personal items include a purse, briefcase or laptop bag. There are no specific size restrictions on these items, as they are presumably smaller than “carry-ons,” however, we all know that some purses (pocketbooks), briefcases and laptop bags can be quite large.
From practical experience, I've found if my camera equipment backpack, which I wear on to the plane, is no larger than the permitted “carry-on” size, I've don't have problems taking it aboard my flights, as my personal item. Of course, that could change the next time I fly. I hang nothing on the exterior of my equipment bag, and never pack it so tight that it bulges.
On international flights, and flights outside the US, not all airlines permit both a “carry-on” and a personal item.
Some airlines have different “carry-on” restrictions based on class of travel. For example, Luftansa allows 2 “carry-on” bags for first and business classes, but only 1 in economy, however, they will generally allow a small purse, or laptop in a sleeve too. Some airlines, especially when they are flying small planes, have more severe restrictions, such as those flying to remote safari sites in Africa.
TIP: In my experience, all the airlines will let you carry a camera/lens over your shoulder, or around your neck, as long as your lens isn't a long lens, and not count it against their “carry-on” limitations, however, it might count when you fly on some of the very small planes in more remote locations of the world.Touring buses typically permit the same number of bags as the airlines, however, most of the time, you'll only be permitted one bag in the passenger area of the bus, while other bags will go in the luggage compartments underneath. The most restrictive cruise line limits on the number of bags appears to be the same as the airlines.
Trains have their own restrictions on the number of “carry-on” bags you can take in your train car. On Amtrak, you're allowed 2 unchecked bags, both of which can be as large as standard suitcases. (Amtrak also permits 3 checked bags.) In Europe, on TGVs and other trains, you're generally allowed the same number of bags as permitted by the airlines.
The permitted weight for airline “carry-on” bags, ranges from 40lbs (18kg), down to 15lbs (7kg). This will restrict how much you can stuff in your bags. You need to check with each airline you use, during your travels, to know what weight is permitted. My experience is that only a few mainline airlines actually enforce “carry-on” weight restrictions (BMI in Europe does). Most only care if you can't easily carry and lift your own bags. On the other hand, smaller airlines, and some mainline airlines, when flying small planes, follow their weight restrictions, “to the letter.”
TIP: If some of your equipment can't fit into your “carry-on,” or if it weighs too much, a photographers vest may be your answer. Under most circumstances it can act as an extra “carry-on,” as long as you don't overdo it.When I travel, I use a camera equipment backpack “carry-on” to haul my camera gear while “in-transit,” no matter what mode of transportation I'm using. I also take a roller “carry-on” with my other valuables, breakables, medications, toilet articles, and a change of clothes, when appropriate. I wear the backpack into the transport vehicle, and roll the other bag behind me.
I believe a camera equipment backpack used as a personal item, when possible, or as a “carry-on” bag, if necessary, fulfills photographers' “in-transit” needs better than other bag types.
¹Emirates airline is the only airline with a depth restriction of 8” (20cm), so I use the 9” (23cm) restriction above, which is otherwise the most restrictive, shared among the airlines.
If you anticipate flying Emirates, then use its more restrictive depth measurement for your standard.