• Our 2013 Ultimate Travel Guide!

Airline travel.

It’s one of our greatest technological advances, and one of the greatest things to ever happen to filmmaking, as it allows us to travel across the country for a shoot in mere hours.

However, it’s easy to lose sight of that greatness when you’re at the airport and realize that your bags are overweight, it’s going to cost you $200 extra, and your external hard drive is smothered in less than 3oz. of shampoo.

The ever-present crying babies, the sassy but still not very funny intercom speeches, the tiny cups of water, the movies you never thought you’d be paying $8 to watch. On top of all this, as a filmmaker you’re traveling with a ton of precious cargo and if it breaks you’re kind of screwed.

But, as the great Louis C.K. is quick to remind us…

chairinthesky

He’s absolutely right. Flying is a privilege, and while there are certainly things we could complain about along the way, it’s really pretty amazing that we can fly through the air across the country while sipping a complimentary ginger ale, wrapped in the arms of a zebra-print neck pillow.

As filmmakers it is so crucial that we pack our gear wisely and understand just how much easier our lives can be when we do.

Somewhere in the world, right now, a Stillmotion team member is probably on an airplane. We’re always flying for our work, and over the years we’ve actually picked up a lot of know-how about the process of traveling with cameras, lights, audio equipment… the whole loot.

Recently airlines changed their policy on bag size and we had to deal with how much fun that was, and in the process we thought about how there really is so much to know about flying with gear and how it effects filmmakers… and it’s always changing. For this reason, we’ve put together the first annual Stillmotion Ultimate Travel Guide, where we cover all the stops on the itinerary of airport knowledge.

Stuff like…

How heavy is too heavy?
What are the new size requirements?
How much does it cost if my bag is overweight or oversized?
But gear is so heavy… how can I make sure my bags aren’t overweight?
How do I get status?
What the heck is Star Alliance?
Which airlines are the good ones?

…and the list goes on.

We’ll answer all these questions and more, so fasten your seat belts until the seat belt light is no longer illuminated.

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The Big Three: Weight, Size, and Safety

When you’re packing for a shoot, there are three major things you need to consider: the weight of each bag, the size of each bag, and how safely you’re packing your beloved equipment.

We’ve broken each section down to include our tips for conquering each area of focus, but if there’s something specific you’re curious about, be sure to ask and we’ll do our best to answer you.

1. What are the weight requirements, and how can I conquer them?

Ok, the first thing you want to think about with your bags is weight.

The requirements for weight are strict and airlines are sticklers for the rules, as you’ve probably experienced if you’ve ever tried to bring tweezers on the plane. Everyone can bring 2 carry-on bags at up to 15lbs. each, and for checked bags the requirement is usually 50lbs. per bag without paying overweight fees.

Internationally the requirement is usually around 44lbs. but it’s best to check with your carrier to confirm.

If you’re within the weight requirements, the cost per bag can range anywhere from free to $35 per bag (for up to 3 bags), and beyond that it’s going to cost you more, so it’s crucial to pack accordingly to maximize what you can bring with you.

These numbers all change when you have status with the airline, and we’ll get to the details of that later — but those with higher status, Star Alliance members, for example — can usually get up to three check-ins at 70lbs. each for free. If you’re employed for a network and can obtain media credentials, you can get even more overweight bags at a free or lowered rate.

However, one thing to note is that regardless of frequent flier status and airline, bags over 100lbs. will never be accepted for check-in.

So how do you minimize the weight of your bags?…

There are several things you can do to minimize the weight of your bags, you just need to believe in yourself and your ability to leave some things behind.

Rule #1: Less is more.

Bring only what you need to the shoot. Every single pound really does count, so don’t bring extra weight if you don’t have to. Usually this means those things you think you “might” need can stay at home. Bring the stuff you know you’re going to use, and since you’re a Stillmotion Storyteller and you’ve planned out your entire shoot ahead of time… you know exactly what you need to bring for the story.

Rule #2: Get it locally.

As you’re packing, prioritize you gear by what is crucial to the shoot and work backwards from there. If you’re maxed out on weight with camera and camera support… consider renting from a grip house for lighting and/or grip.

You’ll also want to go through a grip house for things like c-stands, sandbags and modifiers. These items are big and heavy, and they’re relatively cheap to rent so it’s a win-win.

If you’re flying internationally it’s a really good idea to rent your lighting locally so you don’t have to deal with converters and power issues with 110V vs. 240V lights.

Rule #3: Go lightweight.

Invest in things like carbon fiber tripods and collapsible flag sets to help keep the size and weight issues to a minimum. We have mini-lightweight grip heads, nano stands for modifiers and Litepanels vs. aftermarket Brightcast ones. Although the weight difference may only be a pound or two for each piece individually, the cumulative weight difference is substantial. You’d be surprised how much more you can pack in if you save a few pounds here and there.

Rule #4: Get a scale.

It’s a grab idea to invest in a travel scale so that you can weigh out your bags before heading to the airport. We didn’t always do this and it caused major problems when we had to pull gear out of a bag at the check-in counter.

Dangers of pulling gear out of the bag at the counter:

-The piece of gear is no longer with its counterparts.
-It’s no longer in a protected environment.
-You may have to pay for another bag or fees (noooooo!).
-You might have to leave the gear behind, leaving you without crucial gear for the shoot!

The biggest thing we can stress when it comes to weight is that every pound counts. Take an excess item out here and there, source something heavy locally…. and boom, you’re just under the weight requirement rather than over, and you’re not paying a $150 fee.

2. How long is too long?!

The size thing is rather simple, in that there are no extensions to size requirements for frequent fliers: carry-on bags cannot exceed 45 linear inches, and check-ins cannot exceed 62 linear inches.

If your bag does exceed 62 linear inches, you’ll be fined, and if it goes over 115 linear inches it’s not going on the plane!

So, to sum up the weight and size requirements:

Check-ins: 50lbs/62 linear inches
Carry-ons: 15lbs/45 linear inches
Star Alliance Gold: 3 x 70lbs/62 linear inches
Bags in excess of 100lbs or 115 linear inches will not be accepted.

3. How do I keep everything from getting destroyed?

Packing to protect can make or break (literally) your shoot.

The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you have a dedicated space for everything. We mean everything! This includes small items like adapters, cables, and accessories. They should all be packed together with their corresponding items, so the bags will function as self-containing units.

Back in the day we didn’t always do this — we’d pack some of our gear in with our clothes but it would result in broken gear, missing gear, or unusable gear because one part of something was left in the hotel next to our socks.

The last thing you’d want is to have two cameras and batteries in one case and the chargers in a lost check-in, so now you don’t have a functioning camera. This system is also just going to make it easier to find things in general because you won’t have stingers and gels in with your audio gear or lenses in with your light stands.

For safety we also recommend gaff taping the lid and/or the compartments with an itemized list of the contents so that everything gets put back in its proper place after the shoot. You’ll know right away if anything is missing when you see an empty slot at the end of your shoot.

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Do You Fly Frequently?…

If so, you’ll want to get frequent flier status! It makes everything we’ve discussed a little easier…

Frequent fliers are the people who zoom past check-in and security lines, because they’ve stuck with one airline long enough that they’ve built a relationship and have attained status.

What are the perks?

Well, we’ve already mentioned the waived baggage fees (stewing!), but in addition to that and being at the front of the line for everything, you can also earn free award miles — this means you can use them to purchase tickets for those last-minute flights that would normally be horrifically expensive.

You’re also more likely to be upgraded to first class seats. The more miles you have under your belt, the higher up on the totem poll you are, and the more chances you have of being upgraded. Some of us fly so often we’re upgraded to first class on almost half of our domestic flights! And when you’ve got a 30-hour travel day ahead of you… there’s nothing like flying first class.

So how do you get status?

The big thing is to stick with one airline and/or its affiliates whenever possible, even if it means paying a little more for some flights, because in the end the benefits far outweigh the fare differences.

We fly United Airlines because it’s part of the Star Alliance network — this is one of the biggest networks worldwide that allows you to fly just about anywhere and still accrue status miles. You can read more about Star Alliance on their website, but long story short: if you’re flying a lot, you’ll want to become a member!

Where you’re located in the country will often influence which airline you choose to go with. At one point we were based out of California, where United has a hub — so it made sense for us to go with them purely for the flight options.

If you’re based in Atlanta consider Delta, if you’re in Orlando consider American Airlines, and if you’re in Seattle go for Alaska Airlines. Overall, though, it doesn’t matter so much which airline you go with so long as you are loyal to them and stay with the same airline.

Wait! There’s more!

We say to stick to one airline primarily because your status is determined by the number of miles you fly each calendar year (this is not to be confused with award miles, aight? Got it?) — and they restart on JANUARY 1ST each year.

What does this mean? You’ll re-qualify for status each year and the tier you reach (gold, platinum, cubic zirconia, whatever) is based on how many miles you traveled the previous year.

A few years ago, on a cold December evening, the legendary Joyce Tsang was a mere 1200 miles shy of 1K status. While some would simply say “ah darn,” and move on, Joyce wasn’t about to take “1200 miles” for an answer. What did she do? She picked a day in the last week of December and just chilled out on a round trip to Chicago.

Some might call her crazy, but nobody laughed when Joyce spent the next year flying in style at Premiere 1K status which got her 6 additional international upgrades and put her way ahead on the upgrade list for countless other domestic flights.

TLDR: Get yourself in a long term relationship with one airline, and don’t stray.

The Rankings…

Every airline has its pros and cons, and by now we’ve managed to determine which has what. We figured it might be nice for you if we highlighted which ones are ideal for different reasons, so we’ve got a few awards to give away: the most comfortable, the most economically wise, and the best frequent flyer perks.

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Virgin America

If you’re going on a long flight and have the opportunity to fly Virgin (and you’re not tied down to one airline already) — go for Virgin. Their planes are by far the most fun to be on, with “club” lighting and hip flight attendants, as well as a convenient system for ordering food… Virgin takes the “Best Comfort” award easily.

They’re a smaller airline, however, so they won’t end up being one you want to commit to long term as they often won’t be offering a flight where you’re trying to go.

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Southwest Airlines

If you’re looking to get the cheapest flight, it’s often going to be Southwest. They offer simple, cheap fares and usually bigger discounts for flights and unpopular times like 6AM.

It is, however, a cattle call. Their system is set up for all the passengers to get in line and board the plane in an unorderly fashion, so if it’s comfort and guidance you’re looking for… might want to choose a different airline. But if you’re looking to get from A to B at the cheapest price, go Southwest.

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United Airlines

United boasts on their website that they have received the award for having the best loyalty program for 10 year in a row (or something), and they’re our airline of choice, so we had to give this one to them.

Since we’ve remained loyal to them, we haven’t really experienced the program at other airlines – but United is quick to waive fees for us and bump us up to first class all the time, so for the most part we experience the benefits of the program all the time.

Again, the important thing to remember about frequent flyer perks is that they come about when you stick with one airline.

Other Cool Stuff To Think About…

Carnets:

Another thing that you can do when it comes to traveling with gear is apply for a carnet. This is basically a gear passport or document that allows you to travel to other countries with your gear while avoiding fees and taxes.

We don’t really use carnets anymore, even though they are considered the “proper” way to fly with gear. Honestly they just caused a lot more problems for us than they were worth, but as we said, they’re said to be the correct way to travel with gear so it’s worth looking into.

Global Entry:

There’s this thing called Global Entry from the US government that allows pre-screened, low-risk international travelers to bypass the lines at Customs when returning from an international trip to the US. It’s similar to Nexus (which Amina has…it’s for Canadian peeps), where you don’t have to see a grumpy customs officer (and skip the long lines). You can just scan your passport and fingerprints at a kiosk and off you go.

The steps:

  • You apply via their website.
  • The government does a background check on you.
  • You go to some government building in a city near you for an in-person interview.

If you don’t act shady at your interview and you’re legit, you’ll be cleared for Global Entry Status for 5-years.

In addition to that, all Global Entry holders automatically get accepted into the TSA Pre-Check program which means you:

  • Bypass the regular long security lines at US airports domestically…even without frequent flier status with any airline.
  • Don’t have to take off your shoes/jackets, take out your laptop and liquids and all that crap.

And the kicker? People who have Premier Platinum status with United Airlines get a complimentary coupon code for the $100 application fee to the Global Entry program. YES.

Dirty Flying Tips That Stillmotion Does Not Condone…

The thing about airports is that you always have some wiggle room, and there are lots of ways to bend the rules if you know what you’re doing.

We are good people here at Stillmotion, and we fly by the rules… however, there are some strategies for squeezing through various steps of the process that we’ve heard are rumored to work. We might know some people, though we aren’t naming names, whom these strategies have worked for.

1. Lean The Wheel
It is rumored that when weighing your bag, leaning one wheel off the back of the scale (though risky) can work if you’re in a busy line and the attendant is not paying close attention. Attempt at your own risk.

2. “I’ll just take this out.”
If a bag is too heavy, remove something with the promise of relocating it to another bag. Keep it under your arm, whatever, and once you’ve passed the weighing area just put it back in. We’ve heard many success stories about this one from people who are shady enough to try it.

3. Technical Difficulties.
The ol’ technological glitch. It is rumored that when you’re faced with a long line to board, you can simply walk up to the attendant at the kiosk and tell them that the machine is not printing your boarding pass. They’ll generally just print it and send you on your way all at once, rather than making you go through the process of waiting in line.

4. “It’s exactly 48.7 pounds.”
Saying the exact weight of your bag is said to be a very successful method for avoiding the weighing process altogether. This is ESPECIALLY true if you actually know the weight of your first bag, say it to the attendant, and when they see you’re correct they will not bother weighing the others. The key here is to say a very specific number, so that it’s more believable. Or so we’ve heard.

5. Curbside Cash.
There are always people waiting curbside when you pull up to the airport that will take your bags and weigh them for you. These people don’t work for the airline, and if you are good to them they will be good to you. Lead with the money — a $10 or $20 will do depending on how much you have. Hand them a fat tip right away and say something to the effect of “I really appreciate all the hard work you do…”

Curbside will tag your bag without weighing it, or mark it as medical equipment. This strategy definitely works.

6. Be A Storyteller.
You got this. Chat up attendants as they’re weighing your bags about why you’re flying and the cool shoots you’re going on. If they’re having fun with you, they’re not going to be such sticklers for the rules… they’re going to smile and laugh with you, and move you along.

7. Carry That Weight.
The weight requirement for carry-on luggage is 15lbs, but we’ve heard of some studios carrying up to 40lbs in their carry-ons. Why? Because the airline almost never weighs it.

Again, we do not necessarily condone any of these shady activities as they are against the rules and we here at Stillmotion have hearts of gold.

Now Spread Your Wings!

Phew… who knew that one production company could ramble on about airline travel for this long.

But hey, we spend a good portion of our lives up in the air and we know how crazy it can be.

Storytelling is about being present on a shoot, problem solving, and putting story first. It’s easy to let flying get to you… but only if you really let it. Do everything you can to avoid those headaches, and you and your crew are going to be much happier people with much better work in the end.

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What are your strategies for flying with gear? Tell us ’bout em!

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11 Thoughts on “Our 2013 Ultimate Travel Guide!

  1. Do you have any recommendations for buying insurance for traveling with a lot of gear? I’m from Vancouver, BC and I’m making a documentary on a bike ride going from Banff, AB to Boulder, CO and I’ll be carrying quite a bit of equipment. Also, to reiterate what Ben just asked, what can I expect at customs when crossing the border into the US?

  2. Good tips, thanks. I’ve used the Global Entry program and it works like a charm. I want to add something that was a life saver on my last trip to Rome. I lost my passport during the day and had no idea it was missing. Fortunately, I had a tracer tag on it. A waiter where I ate lunch found it and entered my tracker number on the website. I was automatically sent a text message (and an email) with a pickup location before I ever even knew my passport was missing. Lucky for me, I was leaving in the morning for Germany and getting a new passport would have been impossible. Tags are available through mystufflostandfound.com That tag saved my trip from total disaster and I put them on my phone, laptop and almost everything that travels with me now.

  3. I learned a little trick on RyanAir quite by accident when flying to Poland.

    First of all let me say that trying to go for cheap when flying with gear is something I will NEVER do again. I ended up flying back from Heathrow to Vancouver with ALL of my gear in an unpadded duffle bag, quietly crapping myself the entire time hoping it wouldn’t get damaged -and- I paid 700$ in excess baggage fees for the honour. All because my return flight was on a different airline with radically different baggage policies – something that was not made very clear when I booked the flight.

    But back to RyanAir.

    I was travelling with a rolling case that weighed 9kg all on its own. I filled all available pockets in my anorak with gear, but the 70-200 wasn’t going to fit, so I left it in the nice padded case. Which brought the weight up to 11kg – 1kg over RyanAir’s limit. I was told that I would need to gate check the bag, so I resigned myself to my fate and slogged to the departure terminal.

    As I arrived at a long line of gates there was a cheery woman standing beside the dreaded scale saying “weigh your bag sir?” I went to put the bag on the scale and tripped, stumbling forward slightly as I set the bag on the scale. I looked at the read out and it said “8 kg”. I knew this was impossible but the number was rock steady so I didn’t say anything. “Thank you”, she said happily and waived me on to my gate. As I went to pick up the case I noticed that the toe of my hiking boots had slipped under the edge of the scale when I stumbled. It was just the right height to stop the scale from registering the correct weight. I realised that I could never have faked this without the right footwear. Trying to hold the scale up with a toe it would have been impossible to hold still enough to get a steady reading.

    On the way back from Lodz I decided to try it again – on purpose this time. In the interminable line up I practiced tripping over my own feet without being too obvious about it. When I got to the scale I did my little stumble, jammed the toe under the scale, and set the bag down. 8kg again. Sorted.

    I imagine this requires just the right pair of shoes, but on a trip where I got nailed with excess baggage fees that almost doubled the cost of all my airfares, it was nice to get one tiny break.

  4. We use hard golf travel cases with padding inside (goo.gl/uNMnS9) to carry our travel gear on domestic flights inside the US. They have wheels, can carry quite a bit of stuff (tripods, light stands, monopods, etc) and are very easy to wheel around. Our equipment stays put and safe and we can travel quite easily with it. There is a subsidy for golf, hunting, and ski or snowboard bags to promote recreational tourism and so you don’t get charged with oversized baggage.

    On rare occasion, when asked what is inside of the bag at the x-ray, we tell them the total, honest truth and also about the neat shoot we are going to/coming back from. We haven’t had any problems in the 3 years we have been doing that. The bags are, however, a bit more difficult to put inside small rental cars. :)

  5. My only rule when flying is to never, ever, ever check camera bodies/lenses. I’ve got a decent size lowepro backpack that I use as my personal item(it’s never been weighed) and then a regualr size roller. I ensure that all bodies/lenses/hard drives/laptops/and a couple days worth of clothes fit between the two. My status with American Airlines has me boarding first so I never have to gate check a carry on. If my checked bag with the grip gets lost I can still shoot and try to find support gear locally, beg and borrow, etc…

  6. First, have to disagree about the carnet. Never leave the country without one. It has saved so many headaches. On one trip the wardrobe person did not have a carnet and the foreign customs nailed her for $600 CASH per bag. They could nail you for so much coming back in unless you have sales receipts for everything. If you are using a carnet, your first connecting flight needs to be outside the US. You have to process your gear on the flight that leaves the country. Or you need a three hour layover to retrieve your bags at your departure point and process customs. It’s not just about leaving, it’s also about bringing it back.

    Take your own cart. Make all your stuff fit on it. It’s worth the $50 each way.

    ASMP members, with an ASMP photo ID, can check any number of bags, any size, any weight for a flat rate on American or Delta. If you are using a flight that is flown by one air line, say KLM but it also sold through a companion airline such as Delta, buy the Delta tickets, check in through Delta and get the Delta baggage policy. Same for American. Can be very important, especially if going someplace that does not have any gear.

    On British Airways, register your gear on line before the flight and they will also give you a flat fee.

    Mix up your gear so if one case gets delayed it doesn’t shut you down.

    Carry on all critical gear to pull of a shoot if possible. Use credit card insurance if your clothes get lost to buy new stuff.

    If you can use clubs like the American Admirals Club, they can usually check your bag status to alert you as to how many changed planes with you.

    I’m sure I’ll think of other stuff. Good luck

  7. I was in Kenya and packed my Canon 70-200 in a case inside my checked bag surrounded by clothes and other things to protect it. (My carry on was already full of gear) It got checked through security in Nairobi and when I arrived back home is was gone. #1 – don’t trust the airport in Nairobi. #2 – make sure your business insurance will cover overseas losses – mine only covered U.S. (unbeknownst to me at the time) so I lost the lens and couldn’t do anything about it.
    Second tip: if the gate agent makes you check your padded tripod bag don’t count on it being safe. They broke the head off of my monopod which was packed inside with a tripod. I planned to carry it on, then they decided not to let me. Then they declined to pay for the damage because there wasn’t physical damage to the manfrotto ballistic nylon tripod bag. It’s designed not to tear, so there you go. They also said I could’ve damaged it before I checked it.
    What I’ve done since then is talk to the gate agent when I arrive and ask them for a Group 1 boarding pass to be sure I get overhead space or use Southwest Early Bird check in to get an A group. I hide my tripod bag along side my backpack and stand sideways to the person in line in front of me as we hand off our boarding passes. They usually don’t see it. Otherwise I tell them how they broke it the last time and wouldn’t pay for it and that I have to carry it on. They’re usually cool with it after that.
    Thanks!

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