Travel Tips for Nature Photographers (Part 1)

Your bags are packed and you're ready for your trip. How can you make your airport experience stress free?

Your bags are packed and you’re ready for your trip. How can you make your airport experience stress free?

The days when travel was glamorous are long gone.  Nowadays, heading to the airport is more likely to elicit a sigh of nervousness or frustration than it is to make you purr with pleasure.  With all the gear we need to bring along, what can photographers do to make the airport experience a little less stressful?

From the Editor: This is the first in a series of travel tips from NANPA members. If you have a favorite tip, share it with us! Send it to publications@nanpa.org and we’ll post it in a future article.

I was recently on a field workshop led by NANPA member John Slonina.  The pre-trip material he sent included a link to some travel tips on his website.  With his permission, I’m sharing some of them here.

Get PreCheck or Global Entry

If you travel more than once a year, consider signing up for PreCheck (for domestic travel) or Global Entry (for international and domestic travel).

PreCheck, run by the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), gives you expedited security screening at the airport.  In these dedicated lanes, you don’t need to remove your shoes, belt or light jacket, nor do you need to place laptops, liquids and gels in a separate bin.  In many airports, you have to remove your camera gear from your bag before it goes through the x-ray machine.  But not in a PreCheck lane!  Your gear stays inside its bag.  Most of the people in PreCheck lines are seasoned travelers, so you also avoid being stuck behind a family that acts like they’ve never traveled before and is befuddled by every aspect of the TSA screening.  Typical wait times in a PreCheck line are only about five minutes.

Global Entry, run by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), gives you the benefits of PreCheck plus expedited screening at customs when you travel internationally.  PreCheck costs $85, but is good for 5 years.  Global Entry costs $100.

Both programs require an application, an in-person interview and fingerprints (taken at the time of interview).  Some credit cards, particularly airline-affiliated and travel-oriented cards, will reimburse card holders for Global Entry or PreCheck.

Join Airline Frequent Flier Programs

It’s worth being a member, even if this is the only flight you’re going to take with the airline.  Why?  Because being a member puts you at a slightly higher level than not, and that can mean the difference between being bumped and not.  The first people to be bumped for overbooking are the travelers that aren’t in the airline’s frequent flier program.

If you do travel with some regularity, it may be worth your while to get an airline-affiliated credit card.  You’ll pay a yearly fee, but can often make that back in the checked bag fees you avoid.  The cards usually give you one checked bag free and place you in a higher-level boarding group, which can be important when the flight is running out of overhead space.  As mentioned above, some cards will reimburse you the cost of joining Global Entry or PreCheck.

Get the airline’s app, too.  In a recent trip, I found that I received notice of a flight cancellation via the app about 20 minutes before I got the cancellation email.  That extra 20 minutes gave me time to rebook while there were still options available.

Know Your Aircraft

When you’re booking your trip, if at all possible, avoid the smaller regional jets.  While the overhead bin space varies among different models of aircraft, you’ll be less likely to run into problems if you’re flying in a Boeing or Airbus.  Some of the Embraer (ERJ-175 & 190) and Bombadier (CRJ-700 & 900) planes have decent overhead space, but smaller regional jets often don’t and will require you to gate check roller bags and even large backpacks.

Websites, like Kayak.com, that let you see multiple airlines in your search results can help you select flights with larger aircraft.  And while you’re at it, check SeatGuru.com when you’re selecting your seat to make sure you don’t get a bad one.

Weigh Your Bags Before You Leave Home

You don’t want to check in at the airport and find your bag is overweight.  You’ll have to pay an extra fee, which can be $100 or more.  Or, you will have to repack everything at the counter, shifting items between suitcases and carryon bags.  That will definitely not endear you to the travelers waiting behind you!  Avoid the hassle by weighing your bag at home.  A bathroom scale will give you a ballpark estimate, but there are specific luggage scales you can get for about $10 (look up “luggage scale” on Amazon for some options).

Check Bags Curbside

For checked luggage, John checks his bags with the skycaps outside, whenever possible, as a way to avoid overweight bag charges.  At most major airports, there is a baggage check location outside the terminal in the area where passengers are dropped off.  The skycaps are not airline employees and rely on tips for a substantial part of their income.  It’s not in their interest to ding you for overweight bags.  Even a generous tip will be a lot cheaper than a $100 overweight bag fee!

Bonus Tip:  Backpacks over Rollerbags

You’ve made it through security and are at the gate.  The airline’s gate attendants are making passengers gate check bags that are oversize and won’t fit in their bag sizer.  I’ve seen this happen a lot, especially if your boarding group is towards the end.

As often as I’ve seen roller bags sized and gate checked, I’ve never seen a gate agent take a backpack to the bag sizer.  Where a roller bag anywhere close to the size limit often draws scrutiny, backpacks almost always go uncontested.  If you’re able to carry your gear in a backpack, do it.

Happy Travels!