No photographer wants to put a valuable camera kit into the hold. The stories of how the luggage is handled when out of sight, and suitcases travelling on a different holiday to you are widespread. As a result, we're often asked if a bag is suitable for hand luggage, and unfortunately it's not as easy as you might think to answer.
This is the restriction everyone automatically thinks of.
IATA has traditionally been the industry standard, and their general guide is that the external dimensions of your bag should be no larger than 56cm x 45cm x 25cm. This includes wheels, handles, side pockets, etc.
However, over time airlines have moved away from a one size fits all solution. For example, at the time this article was published, the limit on British Airways is in line with the IATA guidelines at 56cm x 45cm x 25cm, but Ryannair is 40cm x 20cm x 25cm. As a rule of thumb, the budget airlines allowances tend to be more restrictive, but don't assume this is always the case as Emirates is 55cm x 38cm x 20cm.
The individual airline rules are also constantly changing without notice, so what may be correct today, may change tomorrow so you can't buy a bag and forget about it. We advise you to double check before every trip to avoid the risk of issues arising at the aircraft door.
The key issue for photographers is not normally height or width of the bag, but the depth. With more airlines moving to a maximum depth limit of 20cm it does make carrying a pro-level camera with grip or battery pack attached harder, especially as the bag also needs padding to keep your kit safe.
To get the latest hand luggage allowance information on a wide range of airlines, we recommend a great starting point for you is to visit Skyscanner (but always double check on your preferred airlines policy as they may have changed it and it's not been updated here).
The other consideration that is easy to overlook is weight.
At the time this article was published, British Airways is/was 23kg while Emirates is at 7kg (interestingly Ryannair has no weight limit, but there is only so much you can fit in the bag). Given that it's easy to pack 5-10kg of camera into a bag, that can lead to some tough choices on what kit to take, but also what bag to buy.
There is also the weight of the bag to consider.
Traditionally travellers use roller (or trolley) bags, such as the VEO Select or Alta Fly, which can have the ability to transform into a backpack or shoulder bag to carry over less hospitable terrain. However, the handle, frame and wheels can add 2-3kg to the weight of the bag. This isn't an issue for airlines like British Airways, but is significant where the airline has a low load capacity.
As a result, you may be better with a traditional lightweight backpack or shoulder bag like the VEO Adaptor or VEO Range so you have maximum allowance for your camera kit, of another bag and put a VEO BIB Bag-In-Bag inside (more on this option later).
So with that in mind, we would suggest use a website like Skyscanner to check the requirements of your preferred airline.
Over the years of talking to photographers based on their experiences, we have some suggestions that you may also wish to consider. Some may be obvious, some less so.
If your kit is that significant, pay a little extra to fly on an airline with a larger cabin luggage allowance, or upgrade. A few hundred pounds more on the airplane fare may be less of a loss than to lose a £20,000 camera kit in the hold.
Be selective on what you pack in your hand luggage. Maybe you can't take every lens for every eventuality, but you can take the core kit within the restrictions, and that will allow you to take the majority of shots you planned.
Keep every item that you need to complete your photoshoot with in hand luggage. You don't want to turn up at your destination having put key elements of your kit in the hold, and then find out your luggage has not arrived.
If there are are a few in the group, why not spread out your kit so that you're all within the restrictions, but using your allowances to the max. Products like the VEO BIB bag-in-bag are designed to be lightweight while protecting your camera kit, and fit into a wide range of everyday bags
This has to be at your own risk, and we wouldn't recommend relying on it, but it has been pointed out my many photographers so we thought we'd share. If your bag is only slightly over the limit and looks like it will fit, most of the time you won't be checked. So keep it clean on the outside (no tripod or stuffed side pockets) and if it has the capability, make it look easy to carry (most suggested carrying it as a backpack). Also if the bags a centimetre or two out, then there is a little bit of "squish" factor with material handles and empty pockets that normally allows you to fit your bag into the cages they use to check.
Always try to board early. Even if you have a bag that is within the airline allowances. As the overhead lockers become full, cabin crew will often take the bags from the last passengers to place in the hold.
In the unlikely event you are stopped at the aircraft door and told to surrender your bag, have a backup plan. For example, you could take a bag that has a removable insert to hold your camera kit like the VEO Active, or have your kit in a VEO BIB Bag-In-Bag, that you can remove from the bag. These are much smaller than the bag itself, and it increases the chance that the cabin crew will let you keep your kit with you in the cabin as it may, for example, be able to store under the seat in front of you.
If you are stopped and don't have a backup plan, be politely uncompromising. Remember, the cabin staff aren't deliberately going out of their way to pick on you, and will understand that you don't want to put an expensive camera kit in the hold and will look for solutions. However, they are human too, and none of us respond well to threats and attempts to bully or intimidate. The difference is that here that they can go into a rule-based mode that will increase the likelihood of your kit ending up in the hold.
As a last resort, if you can't get your kit into the cabin luggage allowance, then you have little choice but to leave it behind or put it in the hold. In this situation, make sure you have a case that is designed to protect your gear from rough handling on the ground (those "fragile" stickers will probably be ignored), the changes in air pressure as the aircraft ascends/descends (or the lid may decide not to open when you land if it's airtight/waterproof), and be secured with suitable locks (to prevent prying fingers). From the Vanguard range, we would recommend one of the Supreme Cases.
Hopefully this article explains why it is difficult for any manufacturer to guarantee your that your camera bag will fit into your chosen airline's hand luggage allowance. However, we hope it also gives you some practical pointers to consider so that you can choose the right bag for you, whether it's from Vanguard or any other brand.
If you have any insights to share from your experience, we'd love to hear them. It helps us to design better bags, and may give other photographers ideas too.
Please note: Figures quoted correct at 12th September 2022, but may change at airlines discretion.