One of the amazing treats of bird watching is to be able to see birds different from your local species, whether they are in another area of your own country or in a foreign country far away. And of course the best way to really appreciate these birds up close is seen through your optics.
If you fly with binoculars, how can you ensure that they will travel safely and arrive at their destination in one piece? Some people fly with hand luggage only. Does this prevent you from taking binoculars with you because the bag needs to be checked in?
The good news for carry-on-only travelers is that binoculars are permitted to be taken in the cabin. You can bring a pair of binoculars directly onto a plane.
But is it better for all travelers to take their binoculars in their carry-on bag? Or will binoculars be safer with careful packing inside a padded case within your checked bag?
We’ll take a look at the relevant rules, and weigh up whether it is better to pack your valuable binoculars into the checked luggage or carry them on board with you.
Can you fly with binoculars?
The Transportation Security Association (TSA) is in charge of what is allowed on board flights. Their website references binoculars as permitted to be taken in carry-on or in checked bags.
For each case it includes the caveat:
The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.
So the official answer is, yes, it is possible to fly with a pair of binoculars, either as carry-on or in checked bags.
If you are in any doubt, it is worth checking directly with your particular airline. Whether to put the binoculars in the hold or in the cabin with you is the next question.
Should I put my binoculars in checked luggage?
The short answer is, in our opinion, no. If you can avoid putting your binoculars in a checked bag, it is best to do so. Ultimately, it is a personal choice. But there are several reasons why we believe it poses too much of a risk.
Just as binoculars can suffer when subjected to extreme changes in temperature, so too can changes in pressure affect them. Most binoculars are a totally sealed unit. Waterproof models are filled with a gas like argon or nitrogen. The reason for this is to purge the air that might cause moisture to form inside.
Please see this article on the waterproofing and fogproofing of binoculars for a fuller explanation of this benefit.
Avoid the unpressurized hold
If the binoculars are packed into a checked bag, no matter how carefully they are wrapped and padded, they will be subject to pressure changes. Unlike the cabin, the luggage hold in an airplane is not pressurized.
This puts your binoculars at risk. The pressure inside the sealed unit may be higher than the air pressure of the compartment where it is traveling. What could happen is that the airtight seals of the binoculars get damaged due to the excess pressure.
Once the seals are no longer airtight, then the binoculars may no longer be waterproof or fogproof. It is possible to get optics purged and re-sealed. But this might not necessarily be doable at the destination where you arrive. Not only will the repairs cost money, but the damage may cost you the unrepeatable experience of viewing the wildlife on the current trip.
Another risk to consider when putting valuables in checked luggage is the possibility that they will be stolen or go missing in transit. The sinking feeling of watching an empty baggage carousel go around without your bag is not a pleasant experience.
Even if you can recoup the cost via insurance, there is still the inconvenience of dealing with the issue. Plus, most people prefer to avoid the disappointment and missed opportunity of not being able to use their binoculars on the trip that they are taking.
This can be avoided by keeping expensive belongings or things that cannot be easily replaced nearby at all times. In other words, avoid checking in valuables, including delicate instruments like your binoculars.
Should I carry on my binoculars for air travel?
In our view, the advantages of taking your binoculars in a carry-on bag when flying outweigh the disadvantages. We have looked at how checking the binoculars into the hold can be too much of a risk. But there are also disadvantages to taking them as carry-on items.
The size of your carry-on luggage is usually limited to a bag that will fit in the overhead locker. Sometimes there are weight restrictions too.
In any case, you would usually need the bag to be light enough to be lifted to head height for it to be stowed in the lockers. Smaller items can be put under the seat in front of you, and this may be the best place for your binoculars so that you can have eyes on the bag at all times.
Once the binoculars are within their padded case, though, this all takes up room. Depending on what else you need to fit into your hand luggage, the binoculars might use up a good proportion of the space inside your bag.
Hand luggage space is limited
So the disadvantage is that there is less room for other belongings. This can be a major factor for those fliers who prefer to travel light, with hand luggage only. Once your binocular is packed there is little space for the essentials and the bag may be heavier and more cumbersome.
If you are a frequent traveler, it may be worth investing in a compact pair of binoculars that will take up less room in your luggage. There are smaller, lightweight binoculars designed for extra portability if this is one of your main priorities.
It also makes your hand baggage heavier when transiting airports, changing planes or getting to your terminal. But perhaps using a wheeled bag rather than a backpack can solve this issue.
Keep binoculars in hand luggage when traveling
The main advantage of keeping your binoculars to hand is that you are totally responsible for what happens to them. No one else can tamper with them or mistreat the bag. You can make sure it is stowed in a safe place.
This is a crucial consideration, especially if you are undertaking a long journey. Multiple segments or changes in forms of transportation add extra risks of unpredictability and unknown variables. For example, after a plane flight, there may be a leg riding on a local bus or in a jeep with luggage strapped to the roof.
When you have the option to keep your binoculars with you instead, to us it doesn’t seem worth the worry to wonder if your precious instrument is going to bounce off the roof rack into the undergrowth or get jarred and cracked along the way.
To keep your binoculars safe within your hand luggage, pack them in the center of your bag, carefully wrapped in something like padded envelopes, a thick item of clothing or camping/yoga mat.
It may be worth allowing yourself extra time to go through security, just in case the officials would like to take a closer look at the optics items, which might look out of the ordinary on the scanner.
Can I carry binoculars round my neck on a plane?
If your hand baggage is already tipping the scales towards the maximum weight limit for carry-on, you may be considering wearing the binoculars on your person.
This option would save both space and weight in your handbag or backpack. But is it actually allowed or would you run into trouble trying it?
Many airlines are getting tighter with their checks on what passengers are bringing on board. This usually involves a close inspection of the dimensions and the potential weight of the bags people want to take on board in the cabin.
While binoculars are potentially ‘wearable’, it’s worth contacting your airline directly to confirm whether it permits such items as binoculars to be carried in this way.
Still wondering whether to carry on binoculars when flying?
If you decide to fly with a pair of binoculars, it’s clear that you would like to be using it at your destination. The most trouble-free way to transport the binoculars on the airplane is in hand luggage.
All things considered, checking them to go into the hold carries too much of a risk of damage, theft or misplacement.
Even if your suitcase gets recovered, it is still inconvenient. It will probably also cost you several days of viewing enjoyment while your baggage is found and returned to you.
In general, it’s better for most birders to fly with binoculars in carry-on. Packing your binoculars securely in your hand luggage to bring them on the plane will keep them safer and more likely to be in one piece rather than broken.
Best option for stressless travel
This choice makes for less stressful air travel. It will also mean that you can start using the binoculars as soon as you disembark. Some people might even want to use them on board!
Even if you are not a plane-spotter, it can still be fun to be able to use your binoculars to get a proper birds’ eye view out of the window while flying.
The advantages of carrying on valuable and fragile optics into the cabin do, for most people, outweigh the disadvantages. If weight is a major consideration, there is a wide choice of lightweight compact binoculars available.
We wish you very happy, safe and birdful air travels to your bird-watching destination!