Planning flights

Unfortunately, travelling with camera gear on an international trip is not a simple exercise. You need to pack the gear suitably for getting on and off planes, transiting airports, etc. But before sorting that out, you need to organise your flights!

When booking flights there are many issues to consider, including:

A reassuring sight from the window seat!
  • Which airlines? After you’ve travelled a few times you may end up with preferences based on your experiences, but don’t automatically discount airlines you haven’t used before.
  • What are the airlines’ baggage policies? Steven Frischling’s Flying With Fish blog has a useful summary of the carry-on limits of airlines around the world. If you’re going to be transferring between airlines you need to make sure your bags are not going to cause an issue mid-trip. You would hate to be told to check your carry-on bag full of cameras/computer/etc at the gate half-way around the world. At that point it’s a bit hard to say “Fine, I won’t fly with you then”!
  • If you have all your flights booked on a single ticket (not that we really have paper “tickets” these days) and/or with a single airline/network, this can give you “international” check-in limits when travelling on domestic flights. I’ve been bitten by this in the past: having to pay excess baggage fees on a flight within Argentina because I hadn’t flown in on one of that airline’s international partners. In fact I had queried my travel agent about this prior to travelling and was told it wouldn’t be a problem…
  • Which airports will you have to transit through? Some airports are notorious for delays, some don’t have anywhere obvious to sit comfortably for hours waiting for your next flight, some impose carry-on luggage restrictions that are tighter than the airline’s own requirements (usually on the grounds of something like “combating terrorism”), etc. Do your research on the web beforehand.
  • What model/size planes will you be travelling on? Some planes don’t have as much convenient luggage space in the cabin as others. SeatGuru is a useful site to check out the configuration of each model plane in each airline’s fleet. It can also be useful information when checking in to each flight and getting seat allocations. Staff at the check-in counters have some freedom to change seat allocations, and sometimes asking for exit-row seats (I have long legs) is not enough: some of those seats don’t recline at all, and on a long flight this can be a killer. But don’t hold up the queue at the check-in: if you’re going to do this, you may want to have some printouts of seating plans with you rather than try to access the SeatGuru website on your iPhone!
  • Will it get you there on time? Sometimes you need to build in safety buffers between flights to cope with delays. Having to wait a couple of hours between flights is usually a better option than missing a connection and having to wait a whole day (with flow-on effects to the rest of your schedule). Some airlines are notorious for delays/cancellations. When flying somewhere to board a ship you may need to arrive at least 1 day early (and build in the cost of an extra night’s accommodation). For example if you (or your luggage) missed your ship’s departure to Antarctica that would be a disaster. Other times those extra buffer days are needed to overcome jet lag (it’s hard to be productive when you’re asleep on your feet).
  • How much will it cost? Every choice we make involves a compromise.
That’s a big list of issues to consider, and you can sometimes get by without worrying about all the details. But checking through all those issues before you fly can save you a lot of heartache mid-trip. By now the travel agents I use are used to me querying them about specific flight options rather than just accepting the initial options they present me.
Once you’ve selected your flights and booked them, check before you leave whether anything has changed! For our South America/Antarctica trip in January 2009 we knew 15 months in advance that we were going, and we booked the flights fairly early. Mind you, in what now seems normal for some South American airlines, over the intervening months many of the flights changed times and one was even cancelled. So revisiting the itinerary with the agent as our departure date approached was important.
On this trip I’ll be taking a combination of Thai and SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) flights from Melbourne through to Norway (via the UK) in mid November, then back home again after Christmas. The flights aren’t too complicated but there are still 7 hops to coordinate, and stretches of over 25 hours travelling between destinations. Checking through the above list has hopefully made for as smooth and simple a trip as possible!

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