What to carry, what to check

By now, most are aware that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules tightening air travel security restrict carry-on items to one bag and one personal item. And, carry-on items such as cameras, laptops, and cell phones, may be screened more thoroughly at checkpoints. Given the restrictions and security checks, it pays to:

      Know in advance the airline's carry-on and checked-luggage restrictions.

      Ensure that carry-on items such as cameras, film, and laptop computers are packed so that you can quickly remove them for screening.

First, visit the airline's Web site. Look for a section on luggage limits, and any section on travel advice. Then plan your luggage needs accordingly. Most airlines allow a total of three pieces of luggage including carry-on items and luggage carts. Anything more qualifies as excess baggage, and you may be charged excess baggage fees.

Current guidelines allow one carry-on bag. The carry-on bag should fit into the Size Wise(tm) container found at airport check-in locations. That means the carry-on item should weigh no more than 40 pounds and not exceed 22" x 14" x 9."

In addition to the bag, you can carry on one personal item. A personal item can be a:

      Purse (female or male variety)


      Computer bag

      Camera bag

      Diaper bag

      Personal aid such as a wheelchair or crutches if you are dependent on them

In addition to the carry-on bag and personal item, you can also bring food that you will eat on the plane, a child-restraint device, a box or bag of duty-free items, an umbrella, a coat or jacket, and one item for reading such as a book or magazine.

Once you know the luggage limits, decide what to carry onboard and what to put in your checked luggage. If you're like most people, you'll want to carry your camera and computer onboard with you to avoid potential damage. Even if you're traveling for pleasure with a digital camera, you may elect to take a laptop computer to store or upload and edit pictures to an online site such as MSN Photos during the trip.

Of course, if you carry a camera bag and a computer bag, those two bags will take up your carry-on and personal allowance. This is where careful packing comes into play because you'll also need space for personal necessities, such as prescription medicine and immediate-use personal items in your carry-on or personal-item bag. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration's packing tips suggest putting valuables, irreplaceable and fragile items, medicine, keys, passports, tour vouchers, business papers, and anything you will need during the first 24 hours of your trip in a carry-on bag.

From personal experience  Fitting camera gear and personal items into the carry-on allowance can be a challenge. For example, on my last business trip, I needed to carry two cameras and a laptop. Since I also needed to carry a purse, I decided to consolidate the camera and computer into a single bag. I bought a dual-purpose rolling camera and computer bag/backpack advertised as being 'compatible' with airline carry-on size restrictions. The bag was great. I packed a digital and film camera, three or four lenses, a flash, and other small accessories as well as my computer laptop. Thankfully, I was able to squeeze in a few personal necessities as well. With my purse over my shoulder, and a jacket on my arm, I felt quite satisfied with the packing results, and was ready to head to the airport.

At the airport, I had to take out the cameras and computer for separate inspections. They were accessible and equally easy to put back in the bag. However, boarding the plane was another story. The fully loaded bag just barely rolled down the aisle. But getting down the narrow aisle was nothing compared to the moment of pure panic when I realized that the bag would not fit into the overhead compartment. Thankfully, two men were able to wedge the bag into the overhead bin. On my connecting flights, I removed the laptop and carried it under my arm after I boarded the plane. The now thinner bag now fit, albeit snugly, in the overhead bin.

Airline Reservations and Airline Web Sites


American Airlines

America West Airlines

Alaska Airlines

Continental Airlines

Frontier Airlines

Delta Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines

Northwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines

United Airlines

U S Airways        

What to expect at security checkpoints

When you get to the security checkpoint, have you identification and your tickets available for checking by security personnel. Remember that electronic gear, such as laptops, cell phones, and camera gear, will be screened by machines, and security personnel can request to screen items by hand as well. In most cases, you will be required to put your computer laptop in a separate container to go through the carry-on scanner.

If your camera is hand-screened, security personnel may look through the camera lens. They may take a test picture or ask you to take one, and, in some cases, swab or use a wand to check the camera for trace materials such as explosives. They may also hand-inspect protective film bags.

Be aware also that security personnel routinely select passengers, apparently at random, for more thorough checks. You may be pulled to the side, checked with a hand wand, and asked to remove your shoes and open bags.

Film do's and don'ts

If you're traveling with a digital camera, the pictures stored on digital media are unaffected by screening machines. The same is not true, however, for film.

And that means that you should never pack unprocessed film in checked luggage. Tests conducted on film using high-intensity x-ray scanners, like those used to screen checked luggage at many airports, resulted in streaks and film fogging of all speeds of film, according to the International Imaging Industry Association (I3A), a not-for-profit association that develops and promotes adoption of open industry standards. Predictably, higher speed film showed more damage than slower-speed films.

As a result, the association recommends carrying film as part of your carry-on items. X-ray scanning at carry-on security checkpoints in the United States will not cause damage to unprocessed film rated at speeds below ISO 1000, says a spokesperson for the I3A. However, some passengers may be randomly selected to submit their carry-on items to a high-intensity scan apart from general security checkpoints. In these instances, to eliminate damage to unprocessed film and single-use cameras, the I3A advises travelers to request hand inspections when passing through security checkpoints that use high-intensity x-ray scanners.

If you request hand inspection, expect to wait in longer lines. To help make the inspection process more efficient, the I3A also recommends packing film and single-use cameras in clear plastic or mesh bags.

For international travelers, the I3A also recommends being wary of all scanners at airports outside the United States. When traveling internationally, the association suggests that travelers request hand inspection of film and single-use cameras.

Note  Scanners affect only unprocessed film. They have no effect on processed prints or slides.

Another option, of course, is to not carry film with you. For example, on my last trip, I opted to buy it at my destination, and to have the film processed before I left. Or you can send unprocessed film to your final destination by a carrier such as UPS or other express services. Be wary of mailing film, however, because many post offices also use scanners that can damage film.

Good-sense travel tips

Useful Links

Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report

International Imaging Industry Association, Inc.

Airport Security reports  

In addition to the precautions and planning for carrying cameras, film, and laptops on a trip, general, good-sense precautions can also help ensure that your luggage arrives when you do. To minimize the potential for lost or delayed luggage, the FAA advises passengers to:

      Not leave your bags or personal items unattended.

      Not bring anything aboard for another person.

      Choose flights that minimize the potential for baggage disruptions, such as nonstop flights. The likelihood for baggage problems increases proportionally with the following types of connections: through flights (one or more stops, but no change of planes), online connections (change of aircraft but not airlines), or interline connections (change of aircraft and airlines).

      Allow ample check-in and security clearance time. Contact the airline to find out how early to arrive at the airport. Note that some airlines restrict how early you can check in luggage; for example, no more than four hours before a flight.

      Buy excess valuation from the airline if the property in your bags is worth more than the airline's liability limit (usually $2,500 per passenger for domestic flights). If you choose to check camera or computer gear, consult an insurance agent about insuring the equipment for damage and loss.

      Know where your bags are checked to, and verify that the agent attaches a destination tag with the three-letter code for your destination airport to each bag.

      Get a claim check for every bag that you check, and don't throw the claim check away (or leave it in the seat pocket on the airplane) until your bags are returned.

      Have a government-issued ID (federal, state, or local) available, along with a boarding pass or proper documentation, such as a written confirmation from the airline acknowledging the reservation, for flights booked online. With few exceptions, only ticketed passengers will be allowed past security checkpoints.

      Limit the amount of metal carried or worn, and remove metal objects before going through the metal detectors.

If your bag is opened, unlocked, or damaged when you get it, immediately open it to see if anything is missing or damaged. Report any problems to the airline before leaving the airport: Fill out a form at the airport, and make certain that the claim check number is written on all copies of the report. And be sure to get a copy of the report for your records.

While the guidelines for packing and the security screenings have changed, a little advance research and planning will help ensure that your trip, and the pictures you take, will come back safe and undamaged.