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, steadied by your trusty tripod.
If you fly with a tripod, chances are that it is integral to your viewing enjoyment. How can you ensure that it will travel safely and arrive at its destination in one piece?
Some people fly with hand luggage only. Does this prevent them from taking a tripod because it needs to be checked in?
The good news for carry-on-only travelers is that, in theory, tripods are permitted to be taken in the cabin. You can bring a tripod directly onto a plane.
But is it always better to take a tripod in a carry-on bag? Or will tripods 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 tripod into the checked luggage or carry it on board with you.
Can you fly with a tripod?
The Transportation Security Association (TSA) is in charge of what is allowed on board US flights. Their website references tripods as permitted to be taken in carry-on or in checked bags.
For each case, though, 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 tripod, either as carry-on or in checked bags.
If you are in any doubt, it is worth checking directly with your particular airline. While the TSA guidance is applicable to flights within the USA, other authorities may take different views.
At some international airports, all luggage is required to be scanned as you enter or leave the airport. This applies whether the suitcases or bags travel checked or stay in the cabin.
While in theory you shouldn’t experience any permission issues transporting a tripod within checked bags, it is worth allowing extra time in case security officials would like to open your bag for closer inspection.
Seen on a scanner, tripods may appear sufficiently unusual or unfortunately ‘weapon-like’ to merit double-checking. This also can present challenges to travelling with a tripod in hand luggage. So whether to put the tripod in the hold or in the cabin with you is the next question.
Should I put my tripod in checked luggage?
This is a very tricky question to answer categorically. In many cases, a traveler is at the mercy of airline policy. And this policy may be interpreted and applied in different ways by the officials encountered on your particular journey. Or for one long multi-stop journey you may travel via a variety of airlines.
While we would usually suggest keeping optics like binoculars and spotting scopes in hand luggage, tripods may cause less stress stowed away in checked bags. They are not quite as delicate as the optical instruments themselves. And they do not suffer as much from the pressure changes that can affect sealed units like binoculars.
The cons of checking tripods on flights
However, the disadvantage of packing tripods in checked bags is that careless or rough handling puts them at risk of being broken. 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 items 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 tripod for some or all of the trip.
This can be avoided by keeping expensive belongings or things that cannot be easily replaced nearby at all times. In other words, avoid checking prized items.
Should I carry on my tripod for air travel?
In our view, the advantages are fairly evenly matched with the disadvantages. We have looked at how checking the tripod can present a risk. But there are also disadvantages to taking it as a carry-on item.
When seen through a scanner, they can appear as something that might be used as a weapon. But this theory can be applied by some officials but not by others. It is difficult to predict with any consistency. How strictly permissions are enforced may vary even within the same airline between outward or return journeys.
It may be possible to obtain an answer in advance from the airline(s) that you are travelling with. If you decide to transport the tripod in hand luggage and it is questioned, being able to present a confirmation in writing might help to smooth the way. How easy or difficult this confirmation is to obtain is of course another story…
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.
The cons of keeping tripods in hand luggage when traveling
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 tripod and optics so that you can have eyes on it at all times.
Once the tripod is within its padded case, though, this all takes up room, especially with the scope or binoculars that are probably in there too. Depending on what else you need to fit into your hand luggage, the tripod 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 tripod is packed there is little space for the essentials and the bag may be heavier and more cumbersome.
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.
The pros of keeping tripods in hand luggage when traveling
The main advantage of keeping your tripod 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. These might include 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 tripod with you instead, to us it doesn’t seem worth the worry to wonder if your bag is going to bounce off the roof rack into the undergrowth or get jarred and cracked along the way.
To keep your tripod safe within your hand luggage, try wrapping it in something. Potential cushioning includes items like padded envelopes, a thick item of clothing or camping/yoga mat.
Further considerations when transporting a tripod on a plane
Excessive movement and vibrations caused by lengthy travel can loosen the movable parts on your tripod. To avoid the damage or loss of any small parts like screws, washers or levers, make sure that the tripod is tightly secured within the bag. Sometimes it is worth securing any loose parts with something like electrical tape.
Wrapping up the tripod carefully can avoid damage to the tripod itself, and prevent its hard surfaces from bumping against any other objects around it – especially any delicate items.
If you are a frequent traveler, it may be worth investing in a compact tripod that will take up less room in your luggage. There are lightweight tripods designed for extra portability if this is one of your main priorities.
Using a monopod instead of a tripod is another option. We consider how easy it is to pack and travel on a plane with one here.
Still wondering whether to carry on a tripod when flying?
If you decide to fly with a tripod, it’s clear that you would like to be using it at your destination. But you may already be using the room in your hand luggage for your optics devices, which are more delicate and valuable than a tripod.
There is also the consideration that tripods raise alarm for some airlines, which require tripods to be checked in. In some cases, for extra inconvenience, this can be something that you only find out when going through security. And this would usually be after already having checked in your other bags.
On the other hand, checking the tripod to go into the hold carries a risk of damage, theft or misplacement. Even if your suitcase gets recovered, it is still inconvenient. It may also cost you several days of viewing enjoyment while your baggage is found and returned to you.
There are several reasons why air travel may be smoother with tripods in checked luggage. Packing your tripod securely in your hand luggage to bring it on the plane will keep it safer. The tripod is more likely to be in one piece rather than broken. But this is at the risk of your device being misinterpreted.
Ultimately, it is a personal choice, albeit a tricky one. In some cases, it depends on how much information that you can obtain in advance from the airlines.
We wish you very happy, safe and birdful air travels to your bird-watching destination!
Whichever environment you are using your tripod in, be sure to keep it clean. For top tips on how to take the tripod apart to make sure it is thoroughly clean and operating at its optimum, feel free to check this article.
- 1 Can you fly with a tripod?
- 2 Should I put my tripod in checked luggage?
- 3 The cons of checking tripods on flights
- 4 Should I carry on my tripod for air travel?
- 5 The cons of keeping tripods in hand luggage when traveling
- 6 The pros of keeping tripods in hand luggage when traveling
- 7 Further considerations when transporting a tripod on a plane
- 8 Still wondering whether to carry on a tripod when flying?