Even before I started working as a photographer, I fell in love with photography by taking pictures on vacation. After several years of venturing to many parts of the globe, I’ve found that arguably the biggest challenge of travel photography is the travel itself. By trial and error, I’ve developed some handy strategies to make the logistics of traveling easier, and I thought I’d pass them on in hopes that others might learn from my experiences, good and bad. A few of my tips:
TRAVEL LIGHT! As a guiding principle, this maxim would seem to be a no-brainer. But as a diehard gear-head, I know how easy it is to succumb to the temptation to take along too much equipment. When you’re about to embark on a once-in-a-lifetime excursion to exotic places, your mind reels with all the possible photo opportunities you might encounter, none of which you want to miss. You just might want this lens or that accessory with you…and before you know it, you’re lugging a ton of gear through airport security.
That’s what happened to me–on my honeymoon, no less! My new bride and I had decided to take a two-week trip to Costa Rica, and I wanted to be prepared to capture every memorable moment. I was just getting into digital photography after a long break from film, and I read all the camera forums as to what gear I should bring along to get the best shots of the rainforest. I ended up with a Canon 40D and four lenses. Including my laptop, it added up to 35 pounds of gear, all packed into my nice, secure Pac Safe duffel, which became my carry-on. Couple that with a 26″ roller suitcase for my clothing, and I was waddling through terminals and hotel lobbies under the weight of too much stuff.
A few years later, Olympus came out with their Micro 4/3 camera and lenses. I was quick to buy the new, lighter Olympus gear, and the Micro 4/3 became my travel camera, so I could leave my big, heavy DSLR gear at home. Although the picture quality didn’t compare to my Canon setup, I found it an acceptable sacrifice to save weight and space while traveling.
About a year after that, I discovered the Leica M9. After reading about it on Steve Huff’s blog, I felt certain the M9 would give me the optimum combination of photo quality and portability. With the hefty prices on the body and lenses, it was quite an investment, but the dividends I reaped in quality and convenience made it worthwhile. The more compact camera and lenses allowed me to exchange my cumbersome duffel for a small shoulder bag such as the Think Tank Retrospective 5, which fit the M9 with a lens attached as well as two additional lenses, or the Clik Elite Traveler, which can accommodate two camera bodies with lenses attached and a couple more lenses. Fully loaded with my Leica gear, these shoulder bags weigh in at only around six pounds, a huge improvement from my 35 pounds of Canon gear.
Having pared down my photography cargo, I have since sought ways to streamline the rest of my luggage. It became clear there was room for improvement when my wife and I took the Chunnel train from London to Paris and discovered that our 27” roller suitcases were simply way too big for the overhead racks in small European railway cars. Dragging the suitcases sideways through the narrow aisle was, well, a drag, and I did not like having to worry about whether some thief might snatch our bags from the luggage rack near the door. Determined to shrink the size of my suitcase, I did some research online and found the eBags Exo Hardside 19″ and 24″ Spinner.. These cases roll on four wheels very smoothly, and can readily maneuver through the aisles of both trains and airplanes. As an added bonus, the 19″ Spinner fits in overhead compartments with ease.
Now that I’d evidently found the ideal carry-on bag, I had to figure out how to make one to two weeks of clothing fit in the small case. I consulted my friend Eric Kim, who travels the world teaching street photography workshops, and he revealed that he uses quick-dry clothing, which he washes in his hotel room. This way he can get by with only two sets of clothes and really cut down on space, plus it saves him the hassle of seeking out foreign Laundromats to do his wash.
With Eric’s advice in mind, I conducted a little research online. By reading other travel blogs and reviews of various products on Amazon.com, I came up with the following list of clothing and toiletries for traveling light during extended trips:
Columbia Sportswear Tamiami II Short Sleeve Shirt x 3
Russell Athletic Men’s Short Sleeve Dri-Power Tee for sleeping x 2
ExOfficio Men’s Give-N-Go Boxer x 3
Columbia Men’s Convertible II Pant x 1
Levi’s Jeans x 1 (not quick dry, but warmer than the Columbia pants)
Kohls Tekgear running shorts for sleeping x 1
Injinji Performance Original Weight Micro Toe Socks x 3
WrightSock Men’s Coolmesh II 4 Pack Double Layer Socks x 1
Vibram Five Fingers KMD Sport shoes
Sanuk waxed canvas shoes
Columbia light jacket
Travel laundry detergent
Travel clothesline (not suitable in many situations, but handy to have when usable)
Single clothespin hangers
Panasonic Single Blade Travel Shaver (actually works better than my $150 razor)
Travel toothbrush and toothpaste
All of these items would easily fit in the 19” eBags Exo Hardside Spinner, enough clothing for 7 to 14 days. The only non-quick-dry articles of clothing are the Levi’s jeans and the Columbia jacket. I can easily wash all the other clothes in the hotel sink and hang-dry them overnight. Depending on the climate, some items make take more than one night to dry, so I often have to experiment to figure out how much drying time I require in a given location.
For my current travel photography kit, I chose the Clik Elite Tropfen backpack to accommodate chargers, adapters, a travel power strip, a portable hard drive, and a 11” Macbook Air, as well as my camera gear. I was able to squeeze in the laptop by extending the length of the iPad compartment to fit the 11” Macbook Air, with a little bit of sewing and extra padded material taken from an iPad case. The Tropfen will easily fit under the seat on an airplane, while the eBags 19″ roller fits in the overhead bin. The combination makes for a quick way to get out of the airport without having to wait for baggage claim.
While searching for a smaller solution than the 11″ Macbook Air, I recently discovered Parallels Access, an app for the iPad Mini may do the trick. The app allows you to control a remote computer with your iPad. It does require a decent internet connection on both the iPad and the remote computer, but it works much better than similar software such as Logmein. So far, I’ve experienced pretty accurate control with the iPad Mini, and I’ve been able to work on both Excel and Word files without any issues. Connecting the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover to the iPad Mini makes the work even easier. Indeed, about the only thing the iPad lacks that would make it a fully-functioning laptop is a mouse. In order to attach a mouse, however, one would have to jailbreak the iPad, which I have not attempted yet. But thanks to my Parallels Access setup, I’ve been able to ditch the larger shoulder bag or Tropfen backpack and carry my camera gear and iPad Mini in my Clik Elite Traveler bag, the smallest option possible…so far!
Having suffered the effects of flat feet all my life, I’ve recently joined the barefoot shoes movement, thanks to Eric Kim. Not only does this footwear help prevent the soreness I previously endured from protracted walking while traveling, the minimalist shoes are so light and compact that it’s easy to find room for them in my suitcase. My regular shoes would take up too much space in the 19” carry-on, but the Sanuk canvas shoes or the Vibram Five Fingers compress very flat, so it’s easy for me to pack an extra pair. Also, I find that the Five Fingers remain very comfortable to wear during a flight. Even after my feet swell from sitting for 14 hours straight, the barefoot shoes stretch well, so they never feel as tight as my old shoes did.
Although it may be a cliche, I’ve found that, when packing for a vacation, “less is more.” In the past couple of years I’ve traveled to Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Great Britain, Turkey, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, the Netherlands, Japan, Mexico, Canada, all around the US, and with each trip, I try to carry less and less to make the traveling experience easier and therefore more enjoyable. Of all my techniques, this one is probably the easiest to accomplish, and yet it can yield some of the best results.
MAKE THE MOST OF LOYALTY PROGRAMS. In their zeal to get repeat customers, airlines and hotels can offer some pretty lucrative incentives to the savvy traveler. However, if you spread your business amongst too many vendors, it can take forever to accrue any significant rewards.
Instead, stick with one airline and hotel chain to build up your status. I have Platinum status with Delta, for example, which allows me to bypass the long lines at check in and to board the plane right after First Class and Business. Such preferential seating gives you a distinct advantage if you’re taking a carry-on, since you can place your bag in the overhead compartment above your seat. The storage space fills quickly, and passengers who board last may have to check their bags.
At Delta, Gold and Platinum status confers other benefits as well. Even if I do check a bag, it will be one of the first pieces of luggage unloaded from the plane and dramatically reduce my waiting time in baggage claim. In addition, I’m always on the list for an automatic Business or First Class upgrade for domestic flights. Although flying Business class is so much better than coach, I would never pay full price for the privilege–but it’s nice to get it for free! I also got the Delta Reserve Amex card, and while it’s not cheap, it gives me extra qualifying miles towards my Delta status, as well as access to the Delta Sky Club for me and two guests. Located in airport terminals around the globe, the Delta Sky Clubs provide a nice way to relax and enjoy some complimentary snacks and drinks before you fly.
For my hotel loyalty program, I stay with Starwood. Four Points Sheraton, Sheraton, Westin, Le Meridian, W, and St. Regis are all part of the Starwood group. Having Platinum status grants me access to shorter check-in lines, complimentary breakfasts, free internet access, late checkout, and occasional suite upgrades. As an added bonus, Starwood recently partnered with Delta, which means I now receive points for both programs whenever I spend on either one.
SPEED YOUR WAY TO–AND THROUGH–THE AIRPORT. One of the most stressful aspects of any trip that involves air travel is simply getting to the airport on time. The cheapest transportation to the terminal is usually a shared shuttle van, but a shuttle can cause nail-bitingly frustrating delays as you wait for other passengers to be picked up and dropped off. While I once used such services all the time, I swore off shared vans after enduring too many long rides and close calls. SuperShuttle offers a private van or car service which costs a bit more than a shared van, but does not require you to wait for other passengers. Its prompt service allows you to get picked up at a reasonable time, so you don’t have to allow four hours before your flight as with the shared vans.
Another attractive option is to park at the airport, which again lets you control the time you leave home. Once you safely lodge your vehicle in the parking structure, you ride a quick shuttle to your terminal, and a shuttle also collects you when you return. I usually opt for valet parking, which costs a bit more but is well worth the convenience. You simply pull into the parking garage, leave your car, and hop on the shuttle, thereby saving you the trouble of having to drive up several flights of the structure searching for a parking space and then tote your luggage back down to the bottom floor to board the shuttle. When you return, you merely call the garage and give them your ticket number. Your car will be waiting for you upon arrival–a welcome sight after a long flight!
As every traveler in the post-9/11 world knows, even if you make it to the terminal in a timely fashion, the obstacle of airport security can still keep you from getting to your gate before departure. To address this problem, the Department of Homeland Security has established the Global Entry Trusted Traveler Network, a godsend for anyone who flies on a regular basis. Becoming a Trusted Traveler requires some pre-planning, for you must file an application and submit to an extensive background check and in person interview. But you’ll be glad you made the extra effort as you breeze past the long security lines at most major airports; you can even leave your shoes, jacket, and belt on, and keep your liquids and laptop in your carry-on bag. In most cases, I’ve been able to pass through security in about five minutes, which really makes air travel more bearable. When returning from an international flight, you are also able to bypass the long Customs lines and go straight to a kiosk, where you can scan your passport and exit the Customs area through a quick, short line.
The above techniques may take a bit more preparation as you ready for your trip, yet they can make a huge difference in your ease and comfort in traveling. Whether it’s shaving a few pounds off your luggage or reaping the rewards points from your hotel stay, these are the kind of simple travel strategies I wish someone had told me way back before I planned my honeymoon. They will reduce your stress and increase your pleasure…and, really, isn’t that what a vacation is all about?