For us doc makers on a budget, just getting through the airport can be half the challenge of a location-based shoot.
Should I bring that big tripod, or just go for the monopod? What about my hard cases: how am I going to afford the extra baggage costs? And is the ticket taker going to stop me at the last minute and make me check my camera bag? EVERYTHING I OWN WILL BREAK!
For those of us who don’t want to leave our gear to the whims of the throwers, it can be stressful to carry everything you own on your person. Panic attacks in a crowded airport full of grumpy moms is most likely not on your AD’s schedule for “Travel Day 1.”
But don’t despair, with these handy tricks and a confident smile, you’ll probably be able to avoid most pitfalls and breeze through the airport.
1. Get Through the Ticket Taking Line with Confidence
● Pack everything in a backpack. We use this great bag from CLIK, which fits so much, but actually looks quite small when you wear it. A small appearance is the most important factor when taking a lot of gear on a plane. And the expandability of a soft bag allows you to stuff way more gear in than an inflexible Pelican hard case.
● Sling it, and look casual. Put your bag on one shoulder, preferably the opposite shoulder to whomever at the ticket taking line is looking more like they are a stickler for the rules. If you face away from them, only one shoulder strap is visible, and you look like you just have a normal bag. Your bag is probably super heavy – but act as if it’s featherlight for the 3 minutes you’re approaching the ticket taker.
● Keep your bags low to the ground. If you have a bag looks like it violates their size requirements, like a tripod, keep it on the ground whenever possible, and as you approach, hug the ticket counter so it’s out of sight. When you move, hold it low, at the end of your arm, and don’t sling it up on your shoulder Out of sight, out of mind.
● Smile, make eye contact, and keep moving. I often give a “Hi, how ya doin?” when I give my ticket. This takes their eyes off my bags, and reminds them that I’m a real person, and they hold all the power to let me through. It’s harder to drown a puppy that’s looking you in the eyes!
● Once you’re through, don’t look back. I’ve seen plenty of ticket takers raise an eyebrow at my bag, but only once they’ve scanned my ticket and I’m on my way. At that point, they’ll probably favor keeping the line moving instead of asking you to gate check.
2. Pick Your Battles at Security
● Avoid taking the toolkit, or use portable alternatives. It’s a bummer when you forget about that leatherman you keep in the top pocket of your bag – even small knives are rarely allowed, whatever the “3 inch blade” rule may be.
● Know your rights: for example, you are allowed to take screw bits, but not a screw driver. So you might wanna take some detachable bits along with you, that fit into a screw handle adapter. One more tip on this: if you pack the bits deep in a bag full of lenses, cords, and chargers, it’s much less likely they’ll flag them at the x-ray machine, than if they’re in an outside pocket.
● Avoid small airports if possible. The smaller the airport, the more likely the security crew will hassle you about your gear. On a local flight in Egypt I watched for 30 minutes as some curious security guards removed every single item from my bag and held it up to the light. Overzealous, and a little clueless, but a continued smile plastered on my face got me through it with no troubles.
3. Go Ahead, Take the Tripod! (Probably)
● Use the guitar defense. If you’re getting hassled by anyone about a tripod, ask them if they allow guitars. They almost always do, and sometimes you can broker a quick deal with someone, assuring them it’s just like a guitar and you carry it with you every time you fly. “Oh, yeah, well… hmmm. Ok.” Confidence here is a real help – if you believe it’s allowed, they will want to as well.
● Pack it safely if you hit a wall. For tripods, sometimes they just won’t let it go with you, despite all logic, and they demand you return to the counter to check it. (Naples, Italy and Medillin, Colombia are two such culprits.) If you get stuck this way, there’s two good solutions:
○ 1.) Remove the tripod head completely from the tripod legs. Unscrew the bottom of the head from the top, take it off the ball socket, and pack the head into your carry-on. The legs can take a reasonable beating on the baggage belt, but the head (which is the sensitive and fragile part of the tripod) will be safe and sound on your person.
○ 2.) Stuff your clothes into your tripod bag! If you don’t have room to put the head in your carry-on, not only will this save you burden of carrying a clothing bag, but it will provide much needed padding for your tripod head. I usually put 2 sweaters or hoodies around the tripod head, and then stuff everything else in the middle, alongside and between the tripod legs.
4. Be the First Person to Get On the Plane
● Zone check. If you’re traveling with someone else, compare zones, as these indicate what order you’ll be able to board the plane. If one of you is ahead, give them the bigger bags – they’ll be able to stash the gear while there’s still room.
● Avoid the Jetblues. If flying JetBlue, pick seats near the back – they load back to front.
● Get frequent flyer status. In the long term, choose an airline you like, join their free frequent flyer program, and try to book flights with that airline whenever possible – often times the frequent flyer perks include priority boarding.
● Upgrade cheaply. Often you can upgrade your seat for around $20 (usually has a name like “economy comfort”). The seat is still in coach, but you do get a whopping 1 inch more legroom – most importantly though, you board along with First Class folks. Definitely worth it to avoid jockeying for cargo space.
● Think ahead in the aisle. If you’re walking down the plane and it’s looking like most of the storage space above is full, grab the first free space you see, even if it’s not near your seat. Way better to be stowed and safe, rather than getting to the end of the plane only to find that there’s no space left.
○ If the plane is low on space, try re-arranging bags in open bins. Very often you can rotate a bag 90 degrees and reveal a lot more space. Flight attendants sometimes even thank you for helping!
○ However, flight attendants tend to be pretty annoyed if you open up a closed stow bin to re-arrange the bags within, even if it’s clear that you could make a space available, so don’t bank on that. If they close it, likely it’s stayin’ closed.
A final note: be forewarned while traveling abroad, they sometimes weigh your carry-on bags! A quick solution is to take the heavier items (lenses & battery chargers are often culprits) and pack them into your spare coat pockets. It’s really silly, I know. Heavily laden with these items, feeling like a back-alley watch salesman, it will allow to you pass inspection at the ticket counter. Then once you get through security, you can safely pack them back into your carry on and no one will weigh you again. 🙂
10 years of location shooting has taught me a lot about what rules airports actually care about, and I feel so lucky to be able to share it! These are the exact kind of real-world tips I like to share whenever I’m teaching a class – stuff that is hands-on, and you can apply in your own life. I’m very excited to be able to spend a solid 2 weeks training folks at my upcoming class with the Documentary Center, be sure to check it out if you want to learn more tricks of the trade!
And good luck out there, airport goers! What are your travel tips? Above-board, sneaky and otherwise, please post them in the comments below!
Eric Phillips-Horst is a director, producer and cinematographer based in New York. He teaches production and digital arts at The Documentary Center, and is a founding member of three filmmaking collectives: Brooklyn Filmmakers, Meerkat Media, and The Goddamn Cobras.