Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Choosing the Best Bags for Air Travel: Tips to Help Reduce Excess Baggage Fees When Traveling

I traveled through Australia and Indonesia back in February for an underwater shoot.  I had so much fun (and the fare from Australia to Bali/Jakarta was so inexpensive), that I decided to repeat the trip with my old friend, Andy Day, as a working vacation.  Andy and I have been friends since the second grade, and we grew up hunting snakes in the woods of Atlanta, Georgia.  We’ve since traveled to numerous places in pursuit of wildlife photographs.  I am the underwater and photography expert, and Andy is a bird and reptile expert, so he shows me things in the topside world that I would never otherwise see or know about. 

One of my biggest concerns when traveling overseas is how much I will be charged for my baggage.  As an underwater photographer, I travel with a lot of gear.  I brought an absolute minimum of gear on this trip, but it still amounted to three large bags at 50 pounds each.  I attach a list at the end of this blog that describes what I put in my bags. 

Traveling by airline in Australia is always especially worrisome, since airlines there, especially Qantas, are legendary for their strict baggage policies, and the exorbitant rates that they charge for excess baggage. 

I’ll describe some of the tips I’ve learned over the years to keep my baggage charges to a minimum. 

1.  Use an airline-affiliated credit card that gives you free bags. 
I applied for a Continental Airlines Presidential Plus Mastercard for the first time this year.  This card has since been replaced by the United MileagePlus Club Card.  Both of these credit cards offer cardholders two free checked bags for free.  They also give the cardholder membership in United’s airport clubs, which is a $475 value.  I paid the annual fee of $395 for this card, the first time I’ve ever decided to pay so much for a card.  Chase does offer another United card that costs only $95 per year and gives one checked bag for free. 

This card offers good value for the $395 fee, although I will be evaluating the fee each year.  Beyond the free checked bags and United Club access, the card does not charge foreign transaction fees.  This means that if I charge a meal or hotel room on the card in Australia, I won’t get hit with the 2% to 3% foreign transaction fee that other credit cards apply to purchases.  This can be a pretty big savings also.  I use this card (along with a no-annual-fee Capital One credit card that also does not charge foreign transaction fees) exclusively when traveling outside of the US. 

Many other airlines, such as American, have partnered with credit card companies to offer credit cards with similar benefits.  I also have a Citibank credit card that gives me one free bag on American Airlines, and has a $95 annual fee that was waived for my first year.  Often, credit card companies will waive or discount annual fees for good customers who ask. 

2.  Try to attain “elite status” on a preferred airline. 
United Airlines, which I prefer to use for most travel, allows its “elite flyers”-- those customers who fly over 25,000 miles per year on United and its partner airlines, to check in two bags at 50 pounds for free on international flights.  I would also get these two bags for free since I carry the Continental Presidential Plus credit card.  Almost every airline has programs for loyal travelers that give a host of perks when a customer flies over a certain threshold per year.  Among those perks are free checked bags. 

3.  Research what luggage best meets your needs and is also lightweight and flexible. 
When I started out as an underwater photographer, I was always allowed two bags at 70 pounds for free, when traveling internationally.  Now, the standard is two bags at 50 pound for free for international travel, with a charge for the third bag.  No matter how much I try, I still have about 140 pounds of gear including the weight of the bags themselves. 

What’s the solution?  I use flexible packing.  For my two main bags, I use Eagle Creek ORV Super Trunks, which are rolling duffel bags.  These bags carry an enormous amount of gear (their capacity is about 8500 cubic inches) and weigh only 12 to 13 pounds.  These bags have a main compartment for my diving gear and things like clothes, wetsuits, tripods, and smaller cases containing underwater housings and camera gear.  They have three smaller pockets on top which I use to store receipts, sandals, socks, insect repellant, sunscreen, and other smaller items that I may need to get at frequently. 

I’ll pack my two Eagle Creek rolling duffels to the 50 pound limit, then bring fairly lightweight items like a rain jacket, towels, a Scottevest vest, and sweatpants in a separate large duffel bag (no wheels or structure to this bag).  Many times, when I arrive at an airport, the airline agent will be pleased to see that I have packed two bags right at the 50-pound limit, and that I am knowledgeable and polite about the airline’s baggage policies.  Since I have both a credit card allowing me two bags, and I am also an elite member of the airline, the agent will more often that not let me check this duffel bag at no charge. 

If, however, the agent is a stickler and wishes to charge me for this third bag, then I have the following plan if the excess baggage fee is outrageous.  I’ve never had to do this, but it’s my last option.  I will take out the Scottevest vest, which has 24 hidden pockets.  I’ll repack quickly right at the ticket counter, taking out what small, heavy items (such as dive regulators, camera bodies, lenses) I can from the Eagle Creek rolling duffels and putting them in the vest or my carry-on bags (more on these bags in a minute).  Because the duffel is just a bag with no hard sides or wheels, I can completely empty this bag, then stuff it and all its contents into my two big rolling duffels, while placing small, dense items in my carry-on luggage or Scottevest. 

Please note that you should NOT try to carry on any tools, pocketknives, too many batteries, or any items that could be construed or used as a weapon, like a tripod. 

4.  Chooose Carry-on Baggage That Can Carry a Lot of Gear. 

I’ve probably spent more time researching the best carryon bags for my needs than anything else.  I’ve settled on several products from Lowepro that are superbly designed for carrying my gear on the plane.  I’ve used these bags from Lowepro to decrease my excess baggage costs and to travel efficiently.  Here’s a list of what I carry on the plane:

Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250AW (Black): my primary wheeled carry-on bag.  

Lowepro Magnum 200 AW: a shoulder bag that has a luggage sleeve, allowing it to be carried easily and efficiently on top of the Pro Roller Lite. 
Lowepro Vertex 300AW camera backpack, to replace the backpack that I normally carry for my errands around town. 

A.  Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW
I’ve previously written about the Lowepro Pro Roller Lite 250 AW, which has become my primary and favorite wheeled carry-on bag.  The Pro Roller Lite 250 AW is a rolling case that contains Lowepro’s usual fabulous set of padded dividers, which let you organize, pad, and separate all your gear. Unlike earlier Pro Rollers, this model has the padded dividers within the case itself, rather than in a separate bag that fits within the rolling case. I prefer this, as space is at an absolute premium when traveling by air today. I used the dividers to separate, pad, and divide my larger and heavier items. 

You can see my review here:

I love the thoughtful and extremely convenient touches that Lowepro puts into its products.  For instance, the Pro Roller Lite 250 AW has a small plastic “bucket” on the bottom of the bag.  This makes picking up the case very easy and convenient.  I also love the elastic pocket on the top flap of the roller, which allows me to quickly access and store a laptop, ipad, magazines, even thick books. 

B.  Magnum 200 AW shoulder bag.
This bag is a great solution to the problems I’ve encountered with airline travel.  First, it is a perfect size for an outdoor and wildlife photographer --big enough to carry a completely topside camera kit -- camera body along with a wide zoom, telephoto zoom, and a flash unit.  It can carry all other kinds of things as well, since it has Lowepro’s famous dividing system and numerous pockets. 

One of the best features of this bag is the luggage or trolley sleeve on the back.  This sleeve allows the bag to fit snugly right over the handles of the Lowepro Pro Rollers and many other rolling carts.  Because both bags are black and look alike,, airline attendants have never bothered me about carrying on an extra bag (passengers normally are only allowed one carryon and one backpack or purse).  Once I am on location, this bag is perfect for having a topside camera kit ready to go, or fitted out for something else. 

C.  Vertex 300AW backpack:
I chose the Vertex 300AW to replace the backpack that I normally carry for my errands around town and have used for air travel in the past.  My normal backpack, although large, is not anywhere near as large as the Vertex 300AW, which is a bag made to carry a camera with lenses and accessories, along with a 17" notebook computer. 

The advantages of the Vertex 300AW is that it, too, contains Lowepro’s custom-divider solution.  I carried camera gear, hard drives, and even swimming trunks (I use running shorts) and a complete change of clothing in this capacious backpack.  I was able to put in my usual notebook of papers along with my MacBook Pro laptop in the laptop compartment.  The Vertex also has two nice “side” pockets on the front, which I used to put in a few toiletries like a toothbrush. 

There are other camera backpacks like the Vertex 300AW out there.  However, for the light weight and sturdy construction, no other backpack comes close.  The Vertex 300AW has a professional harness system that took all the weight off my shoulders, unlike the flimsy and thin straps that some other backpacks feature.  It was a pleasure to wear, especially on those long hikes through an airport from the departure gate to customs and beyond, before airports provide carts.  Why ARE all those hikes over 2 miles? 

The only disadvantage of the Vertex 300AW is that it is too high to fit underneath an airline seat.  Since I often come onto flights swaddled with many bags, it is important that I board the plane early, before all the overhead compartments are taken.  Sorry, that’s life as a photographer.  I do wish that the Vertex had a third and larger pocket after the laptop pocket, as having a third and larger pocket would let me store things like guidebooks and an iPad.  The present laptop compartment is just wide enough for a laptop and can fit very little more.  Having just one more, thicker pocket would make this backpack into a real all-around traveling and photography pack. 

Here’s a fairly complete list of what I put in my carry-on bags:

In my Pro Roller and Vertex 300:

Cash (in small bills)
American and United frequent flyer cards

MacBook Pro laptop computer with AC power supply
VGA and HDMI adapters for MacBook Pro for presentations
Two-prong (Panasonic-type) AC power cord

Cell phone and charger
Portable hard drives
Memory cards in Lowepro card case
Media or PC card reader with USB2.0 cord
Small inverter for using computer on airplanes and in cars
two mesh pocket cases containing all kinds of computer cables
Cradlepoint wifi router and USB data modem
Garmin GPS loaded with maps for places I am traveling to

one topside camera body (currently Canon 7D or Nikon D800)
wide-angle zoom lens
telephoto zoom lens

set of shorts, swimming trunks, light long pants, and T-shirt (if stranded)
shaving kit with toothbrush, etc in case I am stranded
swim goggles
Ear plugs
eardrops to ward off ear infections
medicine for seasickness
large and small ziploc bags
Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies or Snickers bars in case plane is stuck for hours

Postcards to give to "grease the wheels" at airline counters
Business cards
 ipad loaded with e-books
 airline baggage policies to challenge excess baggage charges

small flashlight
underwater video light heads

If forced to, I will carry denser, heavy items like Scuba dive gauges and underwater photo gear, but I try to remember NOT to hand-carry anything sharp, any batteries or items that could be rejected (and therefore lost for the trip) by airport security.


Andy said...

In order to make your trip through the customs as smoothly as possible, some important air travel tips on what NOT to bring with you on an airplane.

Arik Air

Albert said...

Your review is a big help. I wanted to get the Vertex 300AW after I saw a friend walking worry-free from check-in at the front desk to our rooms by the beach. I was lugging 2 medium sized hard plastic watertight photo cases in each hand, while he was already shooting with both of his free hands. When he showed me that all his mammoth Seacam housing, 2 strobes, and 2 arms fit snuggly in the adjustable cases, I knew I was still trapped in the stone age. I sought out the unavailable Vertex 300 in all the shops in Metro Manila, and ended up leaving my phone number with all the shops. 80 days later, I received my call. I'm glad it didn't arrive earlier because I was low on funds from the Christmas season (I still am). So I was a bit hesitant when they told me the price. When I browsed the internet for reviews, your blog just happened to show your hotel room with 5 Lowepro bags, with the Vertex in the foreground. That was it! Thanks.

Norbert Wu said...

Hi Albert -- I'm glad to hear that my review of the Lowepro bags helped, and that you are happy with the Lowepro Vertex 300. Hopefully we'll dive together someday soon!

Norb Wu

Albert said...

I look forward to it. I'm an amateur UW photographer with greatest ambition of capturing the undersea world in a manner that will meet even half the level of what I see in the numerous marine picture books. Until then, I will just steadily discover who I am, what it is I can really shoot, and enjoy the sea while taking care of it, diving with my family.

Johnes Joseph said...

Its a Great and informative article.... Thank you for this interesting information

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