This is a story about camera bags and airline travel. It pays to do your research before spending your money!
My own main camera backpack is currently a Gura Gear Bataflae 26L, which is a very comfortable and efficient workhorse. In it I often carry ~14-16 kg of equipment (including tripod and water supplies) on hikes. As well as carrying a lot of equipment comfortably in the field, it is built to be lightweight (only 1.8-2.2 kg empty, depending on configuration) and to meet almost all of the airline carry-on size limits. There is also a 32L version of the Bataflae, which differs only in being slightly taller (and not quite meeting the airline limits, although people often get away with it).
When flying I pack things like tripods, monopods, tools in my checked luggage, but there’s a certain amount of equipment and medical supplies which always flies with me as carry-on luggage in the Bataflae. My laptop is a tiny 11″ MacBook Air which fits into a jacket pocket, so the Bataflae’s lack of a laptop compartment doesn’t worry me. A backup drive will be in the Bataflae of course. Having one carry-on bag (and a jacket with useful pockets – gotta love my SCOTTeVEST) simplifies the travel experience, and the Bataflae even fits on regional turboprop aircraft such as the Dash-8s that service Lord Howe Island. When I get to my destination I just rearrange some of the internals and the bag is ready to work in the field.
I love my Bataflae and highly recommend it, but not everyone has the same requirements. For some people the lack of laptop storage is an issue (although many airlines allow a laptop in a neoprene sleeve as an extra item, keeping that safe in a busy airport can be a challenge, and not all airlines allow this). Gura Gear do have some models with laptop storage, but not in configurations which suit me.
Airline carry-on limits
Different airlines have different limits for cabin baggage (see this summary from 2009 although some airlines have changed their limits since then, and sometimes have limits specific to different regions) but they’re generally made up of three components:
- A maximum weight (often 7 or 8 kg, but sometimes up to 23 kg!).
- A maximum “linear dimension” (which is the sum of the length, width, and height).
A common limit is 105 cm.
- Separate maximums for length, width, and height (these add up to the “linear” limit).
That last item is an important one. The bag has to be able to fit into a confined space, usually either in an overhead locker or under the seat in front of you. The plastic and metal cages in many airline departure areas are intended to check these, although unfortunately many airlines seem to keep old cages around even after they change their listed allowances. Some airlines list only weight and linear dimension limits on their websites, leaving you to take a chance at each airport.
I know that many people have managed to flaunt these limits successfully. Sometimes it just takes some confidence and bluff. However, once you’re safely onto your flight you’re not home-free! Not only will you also usually need to get your gear home again at the end of your trip, but most international travel from Australia involves multiple flights (often 2 or 3, and sometimes on multiple airlines). For example my next international trip this year involves 6 flights on 3 separate airlines. These days many transits between flights at major airports will involve going through multiple security checkpoints, although these aren’t checking for airline luggage limits. But I have also experienced multiple weight/size checks at the same airports, and seen passengers told that they have to gate-check their luggage. Losing control of my sensitive and expensive equipment or my medical supplies, which may then get damaged/lost is not something I want to experience.
As you can see transiting is sometimes a slow and tedious process, but claiming you’ll miss your flight usually doesn’t help, especially at the security checkpoints. When planning a trip I always research the current baggage limits of every airline I’ll be using so I’m hopefully not caught unawares mid-trip. Sometimes it takes a bit of work to track these down, but it’s worth it.
Even if you’ve got past the check-in gate and onto the plane with an over-sized bag, you still need to stow it. Either in a compartment above you or underneath the seat in front of you. If your bag simply doesn’t fit then it can still get taken away and gate-checked. On a Qantas Dash-8 I know even my Bataflae won’t fit in the overhead lockers, and it goes straight to the floor position. Holding up the loading of the plane while you fight an impossible fight is a good (or is that “bad”?) way to draw attention to yourself.
Does your bag fit?
Checking the airline summary linked to earlier, we can see that many airlines have a linear dimension limit of 105cm (45 inches). In the case of Qantas (that link is to the detailed Qantas limits), this is made up of a maximum length of 48 cm, height of 34 cm, and depth of 23 cm. Obviously you can rotate your luggage to suit, so it doesn’t matter which is the length/height/depth, but an important number is that the smallest side has to be 23 cm or less.
Comparing these with my Bataflae 26L, the external dimensions are listed as 46 x 36 x 23 cm. That 36 cm dimension is just larger than the Qantas 34 cm limit, but it turns out there’s enough give and flex in the bag’s pockets and handles that it will fit.
Recently I was researching the new Manfrotto Pro Backpack series of bags (which have an integral laptop compartment which attracts some people). The Backpack 50 weighs 2.3 kg and has a layout which may suit some photographers. Manfrotto makes a point of listing carry-on luggage at the top of the Product Features:
However, the external dimensions of that bag are listed as 50.5 x 31 x 28 cm. That’s about 5 cm larger than the Qantas limits in two directions! Very approximately, in inches the bag’s size is 20 x 12 x 11 inches.
Looking back at Flying With Fish’s 2009 summary I can see only 1 out of 68 airlines that would accept that as carry-on luggage, and then only on one plane type. Sure, I haven’t spent the days required to check all the current limits of these airlines, but even so it seems that Manfrotto’s claims are far-fetched!
Incidentally, the Manfrotto Pro Backpack 20 (43.5 x 31 x 20.5 cm) does fit most airline limits, but the Backpack 30 (43.5 x 31 x 26 cm) stretches one of the limits by 3 cm, and the Backpack 50 is well and truly over-size.
Manfrotto is not alone
When you’re selecting a bag to carry your precious equipment on a plane, don’t trust the manufacturer’s claims of cabin-luggage compatibility! I commend Gura Gear on designing their gear with airlines in mind, and for being up-front and clear in their descriptions. I wish more bag manufacturers would do the same. No, this is not a paid announcement: I’m just a happy customer.
But whatever gear you’re looking at taking, check the limits of all the airlines you’re likely to travel on and make your own assessment.