One of the amazing treats of bird watching is to be able to see birds different from your local species. These new bird sightings could be 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 a spotting scope, how can you ensure that the scope will travel safely and arrive at its destination in one piece?
Some people fly with hand luggage only. Does this prevent you from taking a spotting scope with you because it needs to be checked in?
The good news for carry-on-only travelers is that spotting scopes are permitted to be taken in the cabin. You can bring a spotting scope directly onto a plane.
But is it better for all travelers to take their spotting scope in their carry-on bag? Or will a scope be safer with careful packing inside a padded case within your checked bag?
We’ll take a look at the relevant rules. We’ll also weigh up whether it is better to pack your valuable spotting scope into the checked luggage or carry it on board with you.
Can you fly with a spotting scope?
The Transportation Security Association (TSA) is in charge of what is allowed on board flights. Their website references scopes as permitted to be taken in carry-on or in checked bags.
In this case the TSA refers to scopes in relation to rifle scopes, but the website also says that it permits binoculars 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 spotting scope, 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 it in the hold or in the cabin with you is the next question.
Should I put my spotting scope in checked luggage?
The short answer is, in our opinion, no. If you can avoid putting your spotting scope 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 spotting scopes can suffer when subjected to extreme changes in temperature, so too can changes in pressure affect them. Most scopes are a totally sealed unit.
Waterproof models are filled with a gas like argon or nitrogen. The point of this is to purge the air that might cause moisture to form inside.
Please see this article on waterproofing and fogproofing for a fuller explanation of this benefit: Do I need waterproof or fogproof binoculars?
If the spotting scope is packed into a checked bag, no matter how carefully it is wrapped and padded, it will be subject to pressure changes. Unlike the cabin, the luggage hold in an airplane is not pressurized.
This puts your spotting scope at risk because 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 scope get damaged due to the excess pressure.
Once the seals are no longer airtight, then the spotting scope may no longer be waterproof or fogproof. It is possible to get optics purged and re-sealed – but not necessarily 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.
Prevent risk of loss or theft
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 the disappointment and missed opportunity of not being able to use your spotting scope on the trip that you 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 spotting scope.
Should I carry on my spotting scope for air travel?
In our view, the advantages of taking your spotting scope in a carry-on bag when flying outweigh the disadvantages. We have looked at how checking the spotting scope can be too much of a risk. But there are also disadvantages to taking it as a carry-on item.
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. This may be the best place for your spotting scope so that you can have eyes on it at all times.
Once the spotting scope is within its padded case, though, this all takes up room. Depending on what else you need to fit into your hand luggage, the spotting scope might use up a third of the space inside your bag.
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 scope 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 scope. A scope with smaller dimensions will take up less room in your luggage. There are compact spotting scopes 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 spotting scopes in hand luggage when traveling
The main advantage of keeping your spotting scope to hand is that you are totally responsible for what happens to it. No one else can tamper with it 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 with multiple segments or changes in form of transportation. 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 spotting scope 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 scope safe within your hand luggage, pack it in the center of your bag. It is worth the effort to carefully wrap 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. This adds leeway just in case the officials would like to take a closer look at the optics items. These might look out of the ordinary on the scanner.
Still wondering whether to carry on a spotting scope when flying?
If you decide to fly with a spotting scope, it’s clear that you would like to be using it at your destination. The most trouble-free way to transport the spotting scope on the airplane is in hand luggage. All things considered, checking it 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 the airline finds your baggage and returns it to you.
In general, it’s better for most birders to fly with a spotting scope in carry-on. Packing your spotting scope securely in your hand luggage to bring it on the plane will keep it safer. Plus it is more likely to arrive in one piece rather than broken.
This choice makes for less stressful air travel. It will also mean that you can start using the spotting scope as soon as you disembark.
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 are lightweight compact spotting scopes available.
When travelling with a spotting scope, it’s likely that you will also be carrying some kind of supporting instrument as well. These help to achieve stable views. Click on these links for another couple of articles tackling similar concerns about taking items such as tripods or monopods on plane journeys.
We wish you very happy, safe and birdful air travels to your bird-watching destination!