There’s nothing more exciting than preparing for a big photography trip and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably running logistics though your head day and night before you ever step foot out the door. Packing for a large photo trip that requires a flight or two can be downright daunting. As a full time photography workshop instructor, I have had my fair share of international trips. There are a lot of details that go into planning but this comprehensive article is designed to walk you through how to prepare and pack for an international photography trip. Most of the guidance in this article can be applied to domestic trips as well. I hope you enjoy the tips and don't forget to check out my world class photography workshops once you're done reading.
Make a list
The first step of preparing for an international photography trip or any large photo trip for that matter is to make a list of all of the items that you will need to bring along. This list should be separated into two parts. The first part will be all of the camera gear that you will need to bring. This list should include everything from the camera and lenses to the tripod, batteries and filters that you will take. Don't forget the camera rain jacket and tripod plate! The second portion of the list should be all of the other non-photography essentials that you will need. If you’re taking a trip to a wet location this list should include, rain jacket, rain pants, hiking boots, ect. Making a list may seem like overkill but it will help to ensure that you don’t forget anything. Start making your list a couple of weeks or even months before your trip starts. This way you can add items as you think of them. I often make lists using the notes app on my phone that way I can add to them at any time.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of an international photography trip is the luggage. When it comes to checked luggage, I prefer a large but light bag so I can fit as much clothing and gear in without going over my weight limit. After doing some extensive research, the lightest checked luggage I could find is the Travel Pro Maxlite. The large 29" bag weighs 8.5 lbs and the medium 25" bag weight 7.3 lbs. you will not find a lighter bag than these. A close second hard-shell case is the COOLIFE Luggage set. This set of three bags weigh 6.3lbs (20" carry on) 7.9lbs (24") and 10lbs (28").
No matter what bag you choose to take, you’ll want to make sure that it fits your tripod if you will be using one on your trip. Keep in mind that the tripod head is removable and you may need to remove it if you have a long tripod or a small checked bag.
If you are traveling from the USA, you are probably used to a 50lb checked bag limit. If you are traveling outside of the US you will want to check your airline’s website for rules. Many countries have smaller weight limits than the US and you could get charged large fees for an overweight bag if you are not careful. If you know that you are going to be overweight on your luggage it may still be more convenient to pay the overweight fee than to bring a second one along. One issue that can stem from overweight bags is that you may not to be able to use the automated bag tag station in some countries which would mean a longer wait in line to check your luggage. It took me three hours to check my bag and get through security at the Dublin airport due to a checked bag that was over their weight limit but not the US. If you are just a pound or two overweight at the airport you can always wear your hiking boots on the airplane and check your shoes.
In addition to checked luggage weight limits, all airlines have weight restrictions on carry-on bags and personal items as well. While it’s extremely rare for an airline to weigh your carry-on bag in the US, it can happen quite regularly in other countries. I suggest researching the carry-on bag policies of every airline that you will be flying with on your trip and know that you may encounter a fee if you’re over weight or oversize. The airline will more than likely make you check your bag if it is oversized.
How To Pack your Luggage
Packing a suitcase, it pretty self-explanatory but here are a few tips and notes. I generally pack my suitcase with a tripod on each side of it. Then I’ll add the rest of my clothes in the middle. I roll my shirts instead of folding them to help reduce the chance of wrinkles. I use small packing cells to store my under garments and socks. These keep the suitcase organized. I also bring along a large packing cell for my dirty clothes. This makes doing laundry at the hotel a breeze. While we are on the topic of checked bags, make sure that all batteries have been removed and placed into one of your carryon bags.
The best camera bags for international air travel.
The best camera bags for air travel have a removable core. The Tilopa by f-stop bags is an excellent travel camera bag. It is a shell backpack that is designed to fit an internal camera unit (ICU). ICUs come in a wide variety of sizes to fit any photography need. I use the XL ICU in the Tilopa when I travel. The XL ICU is large enough to fit two camera bodies with a long and short lens attached. It will also store a few extra lenses or filters. If you'd prefer more room inside the camera bag for other gear or clothes, the Large ICU might be a good option for you.
While the Tilopa will fit into the overhead of any large airplane it does not fit into the overhead of small commuter jets. This is where the ICU come into play. Since the ICU is a self-contained unit, you can zip it up and pull it right out of the camera bag. This allows you to take the ICU with all of your precious camera gear onto even the smallest of planes. The only item that you will have to check at the gate is the shell and that will be mostly or completely empty. No matter what size plane I’m getting on, I preemptively zip up the ICU just in case I have to check my bag due to a full flight. Paying a few extra bucks to board early can help eliminate that scenario from happening in the first place though. Never put your camera or lenses underneath the airplane. The last thing on a luggage handlers mind is what is in your bag. Bags get thrown around and fall off of carts from time to time.
Check for customs restrictions
Some countries do not allow certain items and they could be confiscated if you pack them. Many countries have restrictions around live fruits, nuts and vegetables. New Zealand is very strict with the cleanliness of outdoor and camping gear. You must claim all of your recreational gear when entering the country and you could be fined if you don’t. No mater what country you are traveling to, check to see what is and what is not allowed though customs.
Accident Proof Yourself
While it is unfortunate, accidents happen from time to time. Being prepared for them can help minimize their impacts though. If you’re making a once in a lifetime photography trip, then you better be prepared for the worst-case scenario. The best way to do that is to duplicate as much of your camera gear as reasonably possible.
When flying halfway around the world for an international photography trip, it’s a good idea to bring along two camera bodies. As a workshop instructor, I’ve seen the worst-case scenario unfold more times than I’d like. The people who had a backup camera handled their disaster much better than those who didn’t have a backup. Don’t panic if you only own a single camera body though. You can always rent a second one for a reasonable price from Lensrentals. An added bonus of having two bodies means that you will have to change lenses less often as well.
It may seem like overkill but I will often travel with two tripods and ballheads when making an international photo trip just in case one should develop an issue when abroad. My first tripod is a XL 3-Series Gitzo Systematic and the second tripod is a light weight tripod from Colorado Tripod Company that can be used as a backup in a pinch. As unlikely as it may seem, I have had tripods die on me in the field while traveling. It's. fact, Murphy’s Law will always try to ruin your trip. In Patagonia, I had a tripod leg snap completely off simply from the act of opening it up. Since I had a spare tripod, I did not miss a single shot on that trip. Other spare items that you may want to consider bringing with you are batteries, memory cards, chargers, filters and lens caps.
Camera Insurance for international travel
Now that we have talked about worst case scenarios, it’s time to talk about the aftermath. Having camera insurance is relatively inexpensive for the peace of mind that you get from it. When it comes to camera insurance, there are two types that you need to be aware of.
An unscheduled policy will only give you a portion of the gear price back to account for depreciation. The older your gear is the less you will get back. You’ll want to check in with whatever insurance provider you choose and inquire what their depreciation rate is and if there’s a cap after a number of years.
The second type of insurance is a scheduled policy. Scheduled policies will cost more upfront because they give you better coverage with no depreciation. This means that if your $3,500 camera is damaged, lost or stolen, you’ll get the full replacement value of the claim. If you are not selling your photos or services, then the simplest option might be to check in with your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance provider to see if you can schedule your photography gear. Some insurance companies will require you to have the gear appraised or brought into their branch location for a scheduled policy. PPA and Full Frame Insurance are great options for people who want an insurance company that is dedicated for photographers and their equipment.
International Health Insurance
The most important part of any trip is knowing that you’re covered in the event of an emergency. Check in with your health insurance provider before any international photography trip or workshop. Ask them if there is any change to your coverage when traveling abroad and if a secondary plan is needed. Even if you have coverage from your domestic policy, it might not be a bad idea to get a secondary travel insurance policy to fill in any gaps
If you are on Medicare or simply lacking medical insurance, you will not have coverage abroad and will need to purchase a travel health insurance plan. Travel health insurance is relatively inexpensive and well worth the investment if you get hurt in a country far away from home.
One thing to look for in a travel insurance policy is evacuation coverage. Evacuations are very expensive and can easily cost $100,000 or more.
Trip Cancelation Insurance
In addition to camera insurance and health insurance, you may also want to consider trip insurance. Trip insurance will reimburse you for a portion of the trip cost should it get canceled or delayed. Not all trip insurance is the same though. I highly recommend a cancel for any reason trip insurance plan. These plans will reimburse you a percentage of your total trip cost for any reason. These plans are typically more expensive and usually only cover 75% of the total cost but that can be a lot of money saved on a canceled international trip. There can be many unforeseen reason to cancel a trip and some of them might be out of your hands such as weather, travel, logistics and illness.
If your flight gets delayed and you miss your three-week photography cruise to Antarctica, you will be bummed no matter what, but at least you will be reimbursed for most of the interrupted travel. Always read the fine print when it comes to any kind of insurance policy so you know what to expect. Most “cancel for any reason” travel insurance policies will require you to book every aspect of the trip within a week or two period.
Data backup is important at home and it’s even more important when traveling because there are so many ways that you could lose your data such as theft, data corruption, loss of cards or drives and more. If you will have access to decent internet while traveling, I recommend backing up as much data as possible whenever you can. The best backup plan would be to backup all of your new images nightly.
Online Data Backup Options for your Photos
Backblaze is an excellent solution for backing up your files at home and abroad if you solely work from a laptop. Unfortunately, the backup is linked to a single computer so you would need to purchase an additional license in order to backup a desktop and laptop computer. The great part about Backblaze is that it will automatically backup any external drive that you have registered and is connected to the computer. There is also no cap on the amount of data and photos you can store in their cloud server.
Another good option for data backup while traveling in Google Drive. Google has plans starting at $6 a month for 30 Gb of online storage and $12 a month for up to 2 TB of storage. The google drive option is not automated like Backblaze but it’s still a good backup option.
Physical Data Backup
If you cannot backup your photos to the internet or if you’re just a fan of redundancy like me, then I highly recommend two physical backups of your data in addition to your memory cards. This might look like a backup on your laptop’s hard drive and a second backup on an external hard drive. Once you have the two backups made try and make sure that everything is not stored in the same place. For example, if someone steals your bag and it has your memory cards and both backups then you are going to be having a very bad day.
I will sometimes store my backed up memory cards in a hidden jacket pocket so that they are with me at all times. Most Patagonia jackets will have a hidden inside pocket with a zipper inside. If you are visiting a warm location then you may want to look for shorts with zipper pockets. Not only will this help keep your photos safe, but you’ll also be highly fashionable as well. Make sure the cards are backed up before you carry them with you because you are probably more likely to lose them than to have someone steal them.
International Photography Workshops
It seems like photography trips never last as long as we want them to no matter how big they are. One way you can maximize you time abroad is to hire a private photography guide or book a photo workshop. A photography workshop will help ensure that you get great shots because you’ll be traveling with someone who is familiar with the location and will know the best spots and when to be there. When it comes to photography guides and workshops it is best to be proactive since they can often book up months in advance. There’s nothing worse than having your heart set on a photographic experience only to find out that all of the photography workshops and tours are sold out.
Download Offline Maps and GPS Points
It is a good idea to download offline maps and GPS points before you leave your home. I recommend downloading offline maps on Google Maps as well as any other GPS apps that you use. Having the offline maps will help prevent any navigational woes from happening which can be very time-consuming resulting in missed photos as a consequence. It is also a good idea to make sure that all of your phone apps are up to date before the start of your trip. Click here to learn how to download offline Google Maps.
Duplicate all of your International Travel Documents.
Make Screenshots and printouts of all of your travel documents.
Hopefully you are noticing that redundancy is key to preventing issues while traveling. You should have a physical and digital copy of all of your travel documents. These should include flight itineraries, visas, passport / drivers license, accommodations, medical insurance info and last but not least tour reservations. I once had a small hiccup with the Irish customs because I could not connect to the airport WIFI and they wanted proof that I was leaving the country but I did not have any documents offline.
Contact Your Bank and Bring a Backup Card
Some credit card companies no longer require you to notify them before an international trip but some still do. Check in with your bank to see if you have to give them a travel notice before an abroad trip. Having your credit card or debit card freeze on you is bound to cause some trouble. It is recommended that you travel with two or three credit cards to help ensure that you don’t run into issues. If you have three cards and loose one, you still have two to fall back on. Adding your cards to Apple Pay is another good idea in case you lose your entire wallet or purse.
I also recommend turning on auto pay if your trip will be longer than a month. This way you do not have to worry about missing a payment.
Bring Local Currency
The country that you are traveling to will ultimately determine how much local currency you need. In the modern world, most places will accept the major credit cards. There is always a chance for systems to go down though and you’ll want to have some backup cash in case that happens. It’s not a bad idea to travel with $200 - $500 worth of local currency as a just in case. Keep in mind that the airport has the worst exchange rate out of anywhere. Your local bank or credit union will have the lowest exchange rates so it is best to use them before the start of the trip.
Visas and Passport
The country that you are traveling to and from will determine if you need to apply for a visa or not. If you are traveling from the US there is a good chance that you will not be required to apply for a visa when you travel abroad. Here's a quick list of countries that do not require a visa for US travelers. Visa requirements are always changing though so make sure that you check in with your country's official embassy website before traveling to another country. Additionally, make sure that your passport will not be expiring during the duration of your trip otherwise you will not be allowed out of the US in most cases.
Vaccinations may be required or recommended when traveling to certain countries. Check in with your country's embassy website to see you will need any vaccines to enter the country you will be photographing.
Make a list of important information and contacts
Try to think of all of the information that you might need while traveling and make a list. Do you know your bank login and password? Do you have the phone numbers or email addresses of all of the people that you might need to get in touch with during the trip? It’s a good idea to type out a full itinerary of your trip in order to give yourself a mental roadmap of when and where you need to be. It's also not a bad idea to share that itinerary with a relative or friend in case something happens.
I hope you have found the information in this guide helpful and I hope that you get some great shots on your next trip. Don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions that you might have. Additionally, I offer small group photography workshops around the world and I’d love to see you on a trip sometime. Let me know if you’d like to join me on an unforgettable photography adventure.