I’m kicking back in my seat in the International A Terminal at the Philadelphia airport, casually reviewing some notes on Florence, Italy. I’m leading a workshop there for Strabo Photo Tours, and I’m connecting in Munich for my flight to Florence.
But not everyone in the waiting area is relaxed. A young couple two rows over is frantically searching for their passports. It appears they misplaced them when they went through security. Things are getting tense as the couple realizes their romantic trip to Italy is about to come crashing to a halt unless they find their passports. Lucky for them, they find their documents in a mesh pocket on the outside of their backpack. This starry-eyed couple needs to get a little more travel savvy or the next time it could be worse.
I’ve been leading photo tour groups around the globe for almost 20 years now, and I’ve learned some valuable travel lessons. Sometimes I make mistakes, and other times, group members make mistakes. Collectively, I learned from hundreds of people’s mistakes! I’ve constantly refined my travel methods as I have learned more. Use the guidelines below on your next trip and be worry-free, so you can concentrate on your photography, not dealing with a problem on the road.
1 SECURE YOUR TRAVEL DOCUMENTS. This sounds obvious, but time and again, the lost or stolen passport puts a big wrinkle on a bucket list photo tour.
I wear a simple travel pouch around my neck (check out www.travelsmith.com) that contains my passport and also holds my boarding passes. Most international flights require you to show both your passport and boarding pass at the gate, so this pouch keeps things organized. Don’t just stuff your passport in your jeans pocket—be consistent about putting it in a secure place.
Once in the country of your destination, you generally don’t need to carry your passport with you. Most hotels have room safes to hold your passport for safekeeping. Why risk carrying it if you don’t need it? Make extra copies of your passport, and have these in different spots in your luggage. I also have my passport scanned on my computer at home. If needed, I could have someone email me a copy.
2 CHECK IN EARLY. Ask anyone who has flown recently, and chances are the plane was full or even oversold, and overhead space was limited.
Checking in early accomplishes a few things. First, some airlines reward early check-in with an earlier boarding group, which means you’ll have overhead space for your valuable camera gear. Second, it helps ensure you get a seat on an oversold flight. You might be able to even get an exit-row seat with more legroom. The worst scenario here is you’re in the last boarding group and there’s no overhead space left for your fragile camera gear. If you’re a frequent flyer, then you should get priority boarding. If you don’t have a million frequent flyer miles and platinum luggage tags, consider paying for early boarding. If I have a photo backpack loaded with camera equipment, I’m happy to pay the extra fee to ensure I get ample room in the overhead compartment for my camera gear.
3 PACK ESSENTIALS IN YOUR CARRY-ON. I always feel a moment of anxiety when I check in at Denver International Airport and watch my bag disappear down the luggage conveyor belt. Will I ever see it again? Is it really possible it will arrive in Florence, Italy, in a day and half when I get there?
One comforting thought is even if I never see my luggage again, I have everything I need for my trip, minus picking up a few extra clothes. I always pack my essentials in my carry-on. These include camera gear, battery chargers, prescription meds and an extra change of clothes.
I once went to Mongolia on a photo trip, and my luggage didn’t arrive with me. Korean Air swore they’d find my bag and deliver it to me. The next day, I took a small plane to the Gobi Desert and traveled many miles by jeep to my final destination.
My mistake was not packing some extra clothes in my carry-on, so I was getting a little ripe in my only outfit, but sure enough, on day three I saw a trail of dust coming across the desert, and watched in disbelief as a Korean Air employee jumped out and delivered my bag. Unbelievable!
4 DON’T BRING EVERYTHING IN YOUR WALLET. In addition to having my passport in a pouch around my neck, I also carry my wallet for day-to-day expenses, but I take out all the various cards I won’t need and leave them at home, just in case I lose my wallet or it gets stolen. Parking pass? I don’t need that in Italy. Sears card? I can leave that one at home, too. I only keep my driver’s license, insurance cards and bank cards with me.
Make sure you can get cash at an ATM with your credit card (you’ll need a PIN), and know what your daily limit is. If you can’t get cash easily, this can cause a lot of headaches on the road. I split up my cash when traveling. I’ll leave some with my passport in the hotel safe, and carry some with me in my wallet during the day. Keep your wallet tucked tightly in a zippered pocket, or consider using a money belt if you’re worried about pickpockets.
5 LOSE THE ATTITUDE. Airport security varies around the world, but the bottom line is they’re there to make sure flights are safe.
I recently was traveling in the U.S. and waiting in line at airport security. I’ll admit I often scope out the security lines and try to guess which one will be the fastest. I got in line behind a guy who looked like a seasoned business traveler. Boy, was I wrong. First, the guy didn’t want to take off his shoes. This is standard practice in the U.S., and not something to debate with TSA officials. This traveler made a huge issue out of taking his shoes off, but finally relented. Then came the laptop problem. Why, he argued, did he have to take his laptop out of the bag? Once again, this is standard practice.
His bad attitude was starting to rub off on the security officials, and the whole process was slowing down considerably. Security was just doing their job. So, be polite, follow the normal procedures, and you’ll move on through more quickly.
6 TRAVELING WITH A LOT OF GEAR. Many of my assignments require me to bring travel equipment. Sometimes, this amounts to multiple cases of 1,100-watt flash packs and heads, extra batteries, cables—all the things that will ensure my bag gets checked by security.
You may not be traveling with that much equipment, but here’s what I do to avoid problems. First, I have an envelope addressed to TSA officials that they see the second they open my bag. This envelope documents the type of batteries my packs use, and what I’m doing to make sure they’re safe. All my Elinchrom packs allow me to take out a fuse and make the battery inactive until the fuse is replaced. The batteries are lead-acid, and are certified safe for air travel. Check TSA regulations (www.tsa.gov) on batteries, especially if you’re carrying lithium batteries. I also have my mobile phone number on the envelope, so I can be reached with any questions. So far, this has worked great for flying with strobes.
If you’re traveling with speedlights loaded with double AA alkaline batteries, you should have no problems. Don’t travel with loose batteries in your luggage, have them in the device or packaged.
7 DON’T ADVERTISE YOUR CAMERA. I once was on a photo shoot in Brooklyn, N.Y. I was teaching students how to light models, and the gritty streets were a terrific location. I had just bought a Nikon D3s, and still had the strap with the camera name emblazoned with big yellow letters. Strobes were going off, models were striking poses, and everyone was having a good time.
A light needed adjusting, so I put my camera down on my bag right beside me. I adjusted the light, turned around to get my camera and—poof—it had been stolen.
I learned three things right then. First, change your camera strap so it isn’t a billboard saying, "Steal me." Second, never put your camera or any expensive gear on the ground, even if it’s right beside you. And third, buy a camera bag that allows you to change lenses without putting anything on the ground. Big photo backpacks are great when you are alone in the woods, but a sling or shoulder bag is a better choice for busy streets. With the lens included, that mistake cost $7,000. Ouch!
8 USE A ZOOM LENS. Zoom lenses today are excellent. Most have image stabilization and extended zoom ranges. When I travel I use my Nikon D800 and a 28-300mm zoom lens. This lens covers just about everything I need during a day of travel. By using this one lens, I don’t have to switch lenses, which avoids dust getting in my camera and keeps me moving instead of stopping to make the switch. Sure, there are times I want my 85mm ƒ/1.4 or a wide-angle lens, but using a super zoom allows me to get more shots effectively than having to stop and change lenses every few minutes. I can quickly grab a portrait of a vineyard worker, and then back off for a wide-angle shot of wine barrels.
9 BRING A POCKET CAMERA. When I travel, I always bring a pocket camera. These small cameras are unobtrusive, create stunning images, and allow a lot of control. Thieves are less likely to be interested in a point-and-shoot than a $5,000 SLR.
If I’m shooting in a very busy market or a place where subtlety is required, I use my Nikon P7000. This attracts a lot less attention, and allows me to get closer to shy subjects. Many pocket cameras have no shutter noise, making this camera more stealthy. I really enjoy taking my pocket camera out for dining. I don’t want to bring my big SLR with me to dinner, but I still want to have a camera to capture those unexpected moments.
10 COMMUNICATING ABROAD. Today, the world is a much smaller place due to improved communication and infrastructure. I can download images to Facebook of my fine Italian meal in Tuscany, and people can see the pasta before I even finish eating it! Communicating while abroad is critical to facilitating your trip, staying in touch and dealing with emergencies.
You have three basic choices to communicate while on your trip. One option is to use your existing phone. I’m an iPhone user and have an international plan in place. For most countries I visit, I simply turn on my phone, let it find the local network, and I’m ready to go. I need to use the appropriate country codes, but these are simple to add to the number.
If my phone won’t work on the local network, then another option is to buy a local cell phone. Buying a local phone with a set amount of usage minutes can be cheaper than using your existing phone with long-distance rates.
What if you’re going into a remote region with no phone service? Then you need to rent or buy a satellite phone. I use an Iridium (www.iridium.com) satellite phone. I can be photographing caribou in the Brooks Range of Alaska while talking with my family at home in Colorado. Sat phones work great, as long as they can get unobstructed views to satellites overhead. I buy a set amount of minutes before my trip. Using sat phones is expensive, but being able to communicate when you’re off the grid is worth every penny.
11 GET THE RIGHT PLUG ADAPTER AND TRANSFORMER. I’ll never forget traveling to St. Vincent in the Caribbean. We were staying at a "rustic" hotel with dubious electrical power. I had checked before leaving, and found that not only did I need a plug adapter to use my computer, but I also needed a transformer for the high voltage.
I plugged in both the transformer and plug adapter, and things worked great, but a workshop participant plugged in her laptop with only a plug adapter, and the computer got fried. Another lesson learned—always check the plug configuration and voltage of the country you’re visiting.
Many countries have power that stays within the normal 120-220 volts, and all you need is a plug adapter, but some countries may require a transformer, as well. I check the Global Electric and Phone Directory (www.kropla.com) to see what I need to power up my batteries and computer at my destination. 12 DON’T GET SICK. Imagine: You’ve saved up all year, taken all your vacation days and finally arrived at your safari camp in the Masai Mara. You’re giddy with excitement—this is the trip of a lifetime. You chow down all that exotic buffet food your first night in camp, and head off to bed so you can rest up for your dawn zebra shoot.
Except you don’t make it to dawn. Instead, you hardly sleep because you’re up all night, sick with a terrible stomach. By far the most common "problem" I encounter leading photo tours abroad is someone getting sick. Wouldn’t it be great to stay healthy?
I just follow a few simple rules to avoid getting sick. First, I always have hand sanitizer with me. Some sanitizers come with a rubber strap that you can attach to your camera bag so it’s always handy. I don’t use it at every meal, but after I’ve shaken hands with 40 local villagers, petted some dogs and wiped the dust off my pack, I’m going to either wash my hands or use sanitizer before eating.
Second, I drink bottled water. I brush my teeth with it, too. In some countries tap water is just fine, but if you have any doubts, don’t drink or use the water.
Third, avoid suspect foods and don’t overdo it. I love to sample local food, but I stay away from anything that looks suspicious. Thoroughly cooked foods are generally okay, so are fruits you peel. Sure, you can be a tough guy and eat the fried grasshoppers in the Cambodian market—as long as you can handle the consequences if you get sick!
Consult with your doctor before you go on your trip about vaccinations you might need and drugs to take if you do get sick. I always carry antidiarrheal medication with me in case of an emergency during the day.
13 KNOW THE LOCAL U.S. EMBASSY. One handy number and address to have with you is the local U.S. embassy or consulate in the country you’re visiting (check www.usembassy.gov). If you have an emergency, this is where you can get help with a v
ariety of problems.
There’s a saying that the more you’re prepared, the less likely anything bad will happen. Chances are your photo tour will go off without a hitch, and you’ll have the trip of a lifetime. You’ll be counting the days until your next trip. I just got back from Italy, and I’m already packing for my trip to Mexico. I’m ready to go!
To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit www.tombolphoto.com.