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Flying Your Photography Gear Using a Media Rate

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Flying Your Photography Gear Using a Media Rate

Many of you know about my headshot work, but one of the other major areas of my business is photography for hotels, also known as hospitality photography. Hospitality photography often requires a jack-of-all-trades. I frequently shoot food, cocktails, headshots, mock weddings, and work with models for lifestyle shots. Then add to all that the architectural elements and details of the interior and exterior of the property and you have a shoot that requires quite a bit of different types of gear. When you add it all up, sometimes I’m flying a few hundred pounds worth of gear with me. As I was traveling recently, I thought it was a good time to write up an article about flying and traveling with your gear, and the best way you can minimize the cost of moving it all.

I’ve been very privileged over the last couple years to be traveling all over the U.S. photographing various properties. I realize not everyone travels for work, but the few tips I’m going to lay out below might enable you to bring more gear on your various travels and vacations without having to worry much about weight.

Those of you who do travel probably already know where I’m going with this, so feel free to chime in in the comments if you want to add tips you have learned as well. For those outside the U.S., do some research into your local airlines and see if they have media rates, and feel free to share.

Sacramento International Airport © Dylan Patrick Photography Inc.

The Media Rate

This is the single best thing that has ever happened to the traveling photographer. I realize some guys who travel rent everything on location, which is also a very solid way to go, but with a media rate sometimes the cost of flying everything may be lower than the cost of renting. In my case, it just makes the most sense to bring everything with me. That, and I like working with gear I’m familiar with.

It’s very important to note that each airline has different language for their policy, but they all require a form of identification for your company proving you are indeed what you say you are. This is where having your business set up as a separate entity can be very helpful. Some counter reps may just take your business card and call it good, especially when they see you have a bunch of hard cases in tow. I always hand them my business card and my business credit card, or business debit card. This is simply proof to them that I have a legitimate business, as anyone can print a business card, so be prepared for this. You can try it with just your business card and it might work, maybe wear a T-shirt or hat with your company name or logo on it, and you might get by. I have found that American Airlines and Delta were a little easier and smoother to process the bags than United. Also make sure you arrive very early to do this. I’ve had the process of checking my gear take up to 45 minutes as some people don’t even know how to apply it in their computer system, so they have to ask for help. I’ve also had it take 10 minutes, so you just never know.

So what is a media rate and how do I get it?

The media rate is essentially a flat baggage rate for members of the media, photographers, and filmmakers. Below I’m going to outline the details of each airline’s media rate, but they all share one thing in common, a $50-$75 flat rate for a bag up to 99 pounds. That’s a lot of gear that you can fly for the price point. Many airlines also give you up to 25 bags at this rate. Normally for the average Joe, a bag weighing over 50 pounds will carry a fee, and over about 70 pounds the fee gets even larger. With a media rate you don’t have to worry about it as long as your cases are under 100 pounds. So let’s look at some media rate policies.

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Denver International Airport © Dylan Patrick Photography Inc.

United Airlines

I fly United the most. I have a credit card with them, and I also get a free bag, which is nice. I have recently gotten into their hoity-toity Premier Silver status that makes flying more comfortable, but they are the longest when it comes to handling my media bags. They have a lot of gate agents that don’t know the policy as they should. They usually think it is just for members of the media like CNN or NBC. This usually results in me handing over a copy of their policy, and having to speak with some supervisor who ultimately tells them photographers count. Like I said, I’ve had it take 45 minutes and I’ve had it take 10 minutes. Here you can find their media rate policy.

Representatives from network television, broadcasting and commercial filmmaking companies will be charged a flat service charge to check camera, film, and lighting and sound equipment. The items must be checked by the media representative and the charges are per item at the prices listed in the chart below. The discounted service charge applies for worldwide travel on flights marketed and operated by United, and is subject to seasonal and permanent baggage embargoes. For flights connecting to other airlines, baggage charges are subject to the connecting airline’s baggage policies.

 

1st standard bag up to 50 lbs. and 62 linear inches

1st bag if bag exceeds 50 lbs. or 62 linear inches

2nd standard bag up to 50 lbs. and 62 linear inches

2nd bag if bag exceeds 50 lbs. or 62 linear inches

3rd – 25th bags up to 99.9 lbs. each

For travel within the U.S.*

Standard checked bag service charges apply. ($25)

$50

Standard checked bag service charges apply. ($35)

$50

$50

For travel outside the U.S.*

Free

$70

$100

$70

$70

To obtain media checked bag service charge rates, media representatives should provide United airport check-in counter representatives with media credentials; company personnel identification for an entertainment, media or production company; or clearly identified media equipment cases labeled with company identification. If the media representative is unable to provide such verification, customers will be charged standard checked baggage service charges. Spouses and/or other companions, whether traveling in the same or separate reservation as the media personnel, are not eligible for the discount unless they present eligible media credentials.

So as you can see above in bold, the language is worded a little weird. When the counter rep reads it they immediately think you need to be with NBC or something, but in reality you should be able to show her a business card and your clearly labeled equipment cases and be fine. For good measure, having a business credit or debit card will make for an airtight case should they decide to give you any flak, and be prepared to stand your ground if you have to.

I can fly everything pictured below for $200 each way (excluding my free bag and carry-on… no free bag: tack on another $25), and this fee just gets passed on to my client. I should also mention that when I’m doing a full hotel shoot I can easily be onsite for 7-9 days: 2 travel days and 5-7 shooting days. Because I know people will ask, here is a brief overview of what I take.

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Flying roughly 317 pounds of gear costs me $200 each way. Click to enlarge.

Those HPRC cases have three Induro tripods with various heads, various clamps and grips, six light stands, two umbrellas, three 1,000W Lowel DP lights, three 250W Lowell Pro Lights, three 50 foot extension cords, a DJI Ronin, an Aviator Travel Jib, Rhino Slider, various diffusors, grids, three speedlights, a 1,200Ws Elinchrom Ranger AS Pack with two heads, Lowel GL-1, 36 inch Lastolite Octa, 24 inch Lastolite EzyBox, a reflector kit, gels, cables, batteries, and so on.

What you’ll find is that to rent all of this would easily be more than $400. Renting the DJI Ronin alone would run $243 for five days from Lens Rentals.

Delta Airlines

Delta’s media rate policy is basically the same as United, however their language is a little different. They want a valid ID with company insignia, however I have successfully flown Delta by just handing them my business card and business debit card, and they didn’t even look too closely at either. They were probably the nicest and easiest when it came to speed of check in than anyone so far, but again print out their policy and take it along with your ID and business cards.

Camera, film, video tape, lighting and sound equipment that is tendered by representatives of network or local television broadcasting companies or commercial film-making companies will be accepted as baggage at the fees noted below. Valid photo ID with company insignia is required.

Domestic

Same as regular baggage allowance if no more than 50 lbs. (23 kg)/62 inches. If overweight / oversize, flat media rate of 50 USD/CAD/EUR* applies.

3rd-25th bags 50 USD/CAD/EUR* each if no more than 100 lbs. (45 kg) and 115 total linear inches*

International

Same as regular baggage allowance if under 50 lbs. (23 kg)/62 inches. If overweight / oversize flat media rate of 70 USD/CAD* or 50 EUR* applies.

 

3rd-25th checked bags 70 USD/CAD* or 50 EUR* each if under 100 lbs. (45 kg) and 115 total linear inches** (Exception for travel to/from/through Europe, South Africa, or United Arab Emirates: maximum weight is 70 lbs. [30 kg])

American Airlines

They have the most friendly policy language for photographers of any airline so far. You can print their policy here. The only thing that is vague is that they don’t specify any weight limits, but just keep it under 100 pounds and you should be fine. The language also says it’s only $50 per piece for international flights as well which is cheaper than United or Delta, and they allow up to 40 pieces.

Camera, film, lighting, and sound equipment will be charged a rate of $50 USD per piece when tendered by representatives of network or local television broadcasting companies, commercial film-making companies, professional photographers, the federal government, Department of Defense or the American Society of Media Photographers. These rates apply to travel within the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and international destinations. A maximum of 25 pieces is allowed per organization/company per American Eagle flight or 40 pieces for American Airlines flights. This policy is subject to seasonal and permanent baggage embargoes. The maximum size and weight allowances are subject to the policies in place for the destination.

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Dulles International Airport © Dylan Patrick Photography Inc.

Southwest Airlines

I have never flown Southwest with gear, but they do have a friendly policy. It is more expensive than the others we have talked about, $75 per piece, and no weight restrictions. Southwest is also the only one to still give everyone two free pieces of checked bags, but they have to be 50 pounds or less or else it’s $75 per bag. You can print their policy here.

Camera, film, video, lighting, and sound equipment will be accepted when presented by a representative of a network or local television broadcasting company or a commercial filmmaking company. A fee of $75 will be charged for each item in excess of the free baggage allowance. Media equipment will not be assessed oversized or overweight charges.

 

US Airways

They have merged with American Airlines so their policies are now aligned.

Alaskan Airlines

They don’t have a specific section of their baggage policy that deals with media, however their rate for bags from 51 pounds to 100 pounds is $75 per bag which is $25 more than United, Delta, or American. You can read more about their baggage policy here.

Jet Blue

Not friendly at all for media. They have no media rate policy, and their overweight charge for 51-100 pounds is $100 per bag. You can read their policy here, but I would just skip them if you plan on flying more than 50 pounds (unless of course the ticket is so cheap that it offsets the cost). It’s unfortunate as I really like JetBlue in every other regard.

Frontier Airlines

I decided to throw this in the mix as they have a media rate, but it’s loosely worded and more expensive than United, American, Southwest, or Delta. Their policy is here. Also note it is only valid for travel entirely on Frontier.

Media personnel with ID may check bags and equipment for $75 each for one-way directional travel wholly on Frontier.

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George Bush Intercontinental Airport © Dylan Patrick Photography Inc.

Tips for Packing

It goes without saying: never pack the cameras and lenses in with everything else and check them. You should always carry that stuff on the plane with you. I use the Lowepro Pro Roller X100 for my cameras and lenses, PocketWizards, CamRanger, and a couple speedlights, along with my iPad, and chargers, memory crads, etc.

I then carefully consider my shot list for the client and go over everything I might need, or should bring just in case. You don’t want to be 2,000 miles away and find you forget something. It’s happened to me and it sucks, so when you are packing your gear, really stay on top of all necessary components. One time I brought along my Elinchrom pack and forgot the flash head… Yup, stupidity and Mr. Murphy won.

Not all the time do you need to take everything, and due to the 99.9 pounds allowance most airlines give, you can take plenty of stuff in one hard case. I find getting a couple big hard cases that are empty with no foam can accommodate most anything you need. I personally fly a lot with the HPRC 2780. It is big enough to throw some medium-sized light stands in, along with tripods and a whole host of other things. Sometimes I’ll pack all the gear and then clothes in it so I’m only dealing with one checked bag if the job is smaller.

A lot of people ask about the HPRC cases, so without going into a full gear review they are basically about the same cost or less as a Pelican, sometimes a little more. They are made just as well, and are typically a little lighter. Now that last part is important because you have to factor in the empty weight of the case along with your gear. Heavier the empty case, the less gear you can take.

Just for a quick comparison:

(In this particular case, the HPRC is a little more expensive.)

HPRC 2780 No Foam

Interior Dimenions: 29.4 x 20.6 x 14.3 inches (74.68 x 52.32 x 36.32 centimeters) (LxWxH)

Weight: 26.1 pounds (11.8 kilograms)

Cost: $322

Pelican 1630 No Foam

Interior Dimensions: 27.7 x 20.98 x 15.5 inches (70.3 x 53.3 x 39.4 centimeters) (LxWxD)

Weight: 31 pounds (14.06 kilograms)

Cost: $258.12

So while the HPRC is more expensive, the dimensions of the two are close, but notice the length. The HPRC is longer by a couple inches, which can make a huge difference when it comes to tripods and light stands fitting. It’s not quite as deep as the Pelican, but for me the length is more important, and it weighs almost 5 pounds less. That may not seem like a lot but it adds up. Either way you go, getting one or two of these will allow you to carry quite a bit of gear, and each of these companies have smaller options as well. Whatever you do, make sure you pack everything in there tight and you will be fine. Both cases are built like tanks, and trust me they take a beating from the airlines. I have yet to have anything break, and I also pack in a box of 12 daylight-balanced light bulbs in a cardboard box, and have yet to have that break in transit.

Get some tape or spray paint, and make sure your company info, address, and contact number are clearly on the front of these. I have had many people ask if I get worried about the airline losing them; I never do. First, everything is insured through The Hartford, and second, an airline actually completely losing your bag is pretty rare these days. Also with cases like these they are hard to miss. I have had them get delayed though. As long as you keep your receipts and baggage tickets you will be fine. Certainly if you can get on nonstop flights it is even better. Arrive very early at the airport to allow for check-in time, and give them ample time to get the bags down to the plane as they will be heavy. I often just get a luggage cart from one of the vendors and they will usually have me leave the bags on it so it’s easier for them to take down. If it is a lot of heavy bags they won’t put it on the normal baggage belt, they will have to manually either take it down or wheel it over to a heavy-duty belt for odd sized items. Also remember once you get to your destination sometimes they will put your bags on the oversized belt there and it will come out in a different area than the main baggage carousel. They usually have signs for this area labeled “Odd Sized baggage.”

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Dulles International Airport © Dylan Patrick Photography Inc.

Get Priority Boarding

These days people aren’t checking bags as much, and if you are in the last group to board the plane, your roller with all your cameras and lenses may have to get checked under the plane. One way to do this is to sign up for a credit card through United American or Delta. The United and American cards are easier to get, and they give you one free checked bag under 50 pounds as well as priority boarding. The benefit here is two-fold. First, you get access to that valuable overhead bin space. Second, if you use the credit card for business purposes only (which you should), then you are getting a lot of miles for meals, bags, and other expenses along with the priority boarding and airline perks — and it’s all a tax write-off for your business. This way you never have to worry about some airport baggage handler tossing your bag off the jet bridge to the guy below with $5,000–10,000 worth of camera gear in it. Unless you get a carry-on compatible hard case which both Pelican, HPRC, and others make, but even then I don’t want my cameras out of my sight.

Hopefully this helps you all travel a little easier with gear. Even if you are only taking one case with you, it can help save you money on overweight charges, and increases your potential capability to handle any type of job that might come your way.

If you have some tips you have learned along the way feel free to share in the comments below!

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