How to pack your bags
Unless you're one of the lucky few who is able to live on the water in a shore diving location, the hobby of scuba diving will most often involve travel of some sort. If you're like the majority of scuba divers, this travel is by plane. Airline baggage restrictions are becoming more and more stringent, and you're going to need to transport a lot of expensive equipment with you.
So what are the concerns for packing your gear for airline travel? As a professional in the rebreather and underwater photography industry for the better part of 15 years, it's a topic I've advised people on quite often.
To begin, there's a lot of variables in the divers themselves, the destinations, the type of diving, and the dive equipment they bring with them. What I'll write about below is coming from the perspective of someone who travels alone with a rebreather and a large DSLR camera setup. Most of you will not be traveling with a rebreather, so I consider this a worst-case scenario. If you're not - great, it should only be easier and lighter for you.
Also consider that some of my travel was different from what you might do. I've flown quite a few times as a trip leader for groups, as well as a product representative attending dive shows. In either case, I'd be traveling with quite a bit of expensive equipment. During my time with Reef Photo and Video, I once traveled abroad with 5 full DSLR camera setups for our customers to try out. During my time with a Yucatan cave diving expedition, we brought an entire compressor down to Akumal - mostly disassembled in our baggage.
It's because of the countless trips and crazy things I've traveled with that I think I have a unique perspective on how to pack and, over the years, I've modified and amended how I pack equipment many times. What works for me, might not be the best way for you, and that's fine. However, you might find a few useful tidbits in here for the next time you pack.
Keep in mind, every dive traveler needs to do their own risk assessment and determine what their priorities are. Mine are:
Mis-direction and loss
Excess baggage fees
I'm going to address these in reverse order. I'll offer some insight from my own training and experience, along with some expert advice I've received from TSA professionals and airline workers.
Excess baggage fees
This really should be the least of your concerns. I know excess baggage fees suck, but compared to the cost of your dive gear, your camera gear, the cost of the flight, and the vacation you're taking, they are a relatively small percentage of your trip expenses. Joining frequent flier programs or playing the points game can sometimes reduce or eliminate these expenses, however I think it's a better mindset to just suck it up and go to the counter knowing full well you're going to pay.
My advice here would be to know and understand your airline's baggage policy, plus get yourself a traveling luggage scale and use it. According to my friend Laura - a ticketing clerk for American Airlines for over 30 years, airlines are very strict on overweight baggage largely due to worker's union rules, as well as workplace health and safety rules that govern baggage handlers. If a piece of luggage is one pound over weight, it must be marked as such, or the ticketing clerk can get in trouble for this. If it is marked as overweight, of course the airline wants to generate the additional revenue. Laura tells me that in her career, she's been yelled at hundreds of times per day by irate passengers whose bag weighs half a pound over the limit. Can't she just make an exception? Laura tell's me she can't - if she lets it slide and it's noticed by a baggage handler down the line, she herself can get in trouble.
I've adopted a minimalist strategy. Do I really need this piece of equipment? If so, is there a version of this equipment that is lighter? My current personal dive kit includes the KISS Spirit rebreather, which when empty, weights less than 20 pounds without tanks and absorbent, a super-lightweight Halcyon carbon fiber backplate, and ScubaPro's titanium regulators. While expensive, the total weight savings does add up. But you don't need carbon fiber - there are plenty of scuba products created specifically to be compact and lightweight.
If you just can't get the checked bags any lighter, then the next choice is to spread some of it out to your carry-on bags. My friend Jeff was a Captain for Southwest Airlines for many years. In 2009 he offered me some advice which has worked quite well for me. Most airlines let you have a carry-on bag, along with a "personal item." The difference is a carry-on is meant to go in the overhead compartment. A personal item is meant to fit in the footwell under the seat in front of you. The line between these sometimes gets blurred. Jeff's position meant he got to fly for free, but on many occasions he has to fly something that's known as 'standby.' Basically, if there were leftover seats on the plane, he could go. Often, this meant he never actually knew what flight he'd be on, so checking bags was an impossible task. Jeff would carry everything on, boarding as soon as he could, and always selecting seats in the rearmost of the aircraft. These seats fill up last, and often have ample overhead space if you are able to board in the first half. Now of course this means you'll be last in line to go through immigration at your destination, but it can be a worthy trade off.
While rare, this is not unheard of. A friend and loyal customer of Divetech had his rebreather confiscated by TSA on his return trip from Grand Cayman to Los Angeles. It was mis-identified as a compressor, and an overzealous security agent pulled it for some reason. I've seen Facebook posts of other similar stories. This is probably highly unlikely to occur for traditional open-circuit equipment. however, as Divetech does have a large rebreather client base, I do mention it.
One strategy to help this, is to write a note to the TSA baggage screeners, informing them what the rebreather is. While the large notes screaming "this is life support" I've heard of divers using seems a bit melodramatic, having a quick note saying that what's in the bag is scuba diving equipment, and even throwing in a copy of the owner's manual would be a prudent move.
To gain some more insight, I spoke to a group of TSA baggage screeners. They quickly pointed out that only a small percentage of bags are physically searched, and only when the bag looks like it might contain something hazardous. One of the screeners said he was directed to ignore notes, however the others said they had never been instructed to do this, and did actively pay attention when they find notes inside.
A key tip they all agreed upon was to pack your equipment as neatly and cleanly as possible. Organization of the items inside the bag helps in the x-ray screening process. It makes it easier for the operators to identify potentially hazardous items, and makes the odds of a physical search less likely. If they do need to search it makes it easier for them to remove and re-pack when it's well organized.
Loss or mis-direction
There are many devices on the market that will track your bags for you, using GPS and cellular data cards to transmit the tracker's location in real-time, but this is sort of an expensive and overkill approach.
Today, many of you might be familiar with Apple's Air Tags, which use the entire worldwide network of iPhones to act as one gigantic mesh network, providing location information on the tag's whereabouts. This article doesn't get into the specifics of how AirTags work - if you'd like to know that, there's plenty of others that cover the topic. What I can tell you is that the system works very well. On my recent trip from Grand Cayman to Fort Lauderdale, I brought one bag with my rebreather and dive gear, another bag with clothes, and finally my laptop bag, which would go with me as carry-on. Each contained an AirTag. During my arrival at Miami International Airport, I saw very quickly that all of my bags had arrived, and could even see where in the airport they were.
The problem, with missing bags though, is there is not much you can actually do about it if they didn't arrive with you. AirTags can give peace of mind that your bags arrived safely, but if they didn't the most you can do is yell at a claims agent.
That said, there is a way to mitigate this risk to some degree. Unless the barcoded luggage label comes off the bag, 'missing' baggage is not in in fact missing at all. It just isn't where you currently are. A better phrase might be 'delayed bag,' and while this is still very much annoying, we can reduce the likelihood of this happening. Hint, it's not by having your name and phone number written on a tag. While a prudent move, this only comes into play if the airline's luggage label is no longer attached to the bag.
Here's an example: delayed bags are a very common problem on flights from Grand Cayman to Little Cayman, where the aircraft used to make the route is a very small de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter. The maximum payload of this aircraft is just 3,500 pounds. The FAA mandates that airlines use a weight of 170 pounds per passenger (which seems ludicrously slim for most travelers these days,) to calculate the total passenger weight. Cayman Airways falls under the mandate of the CIAA, and some airlines use different weights, but you get the idea - an aircraft can only safely lift so much weight into the sky. If the aircraft is filled to capacity with a full fuel load and 19 persons each weighting 170 pounds, the aircraft is already at 3,230 pounds of payload, and leaves only 270 pounds for luggage. On average that's between 5-7 bags. Since of course each diver usually has a minimum of 2 bags with them, that means the majority of passengers on this flight are not going to have baggage arrive. These delayed items need to wait for the next aircraft, which then creates a cascading problem as the day goes on.
But there's another problem, and that is heat. High air temperatures affect the physics of how aircraft fly, meaning aircraft takeoff performance can be impaired on hot days. The amount of lift that an airplane wing generates is affected by the density of the air. The hotter the temperature, the less dense the air is and the less lift the wings have. Which means the less payload the aircraft can carry. It's an odd coincidence, that most dive destinations are located in warm climates, and you are likely to have days where the aircraft won't be able to carry it's full load, even if there is space left over.
The trick for avoiding baggage issues on any flight is to be EARLY. While large jets don't have the same weight limitations as these little turboprops, as the flight day progresses delays occur for a variety of reasons. These delays cause backups in the actual infrastructure of moving bags from one place to another in the airport. The luggage carts can get filled up, the conveyer belts can only hold so much, and screeners can only process so many.
As we said above, these delays are cumulative and begin to compound as the day goes on. Avoid this by getting the earliest flights you can. Book the first flights you are able to, check into the airport early, and pray for no problems from your connecting flight.
Divetech held our Innerspace 2019 rebreather event in Little Cayman, which meant each staff member and attendee had to make the transit on the Twin Otter with lots of equipment. Delayed baggage and rebreathers were a massive concern on our part. Our recommendation to each customer was to arrive to Grand Cayman the night before, so they could board the very first flights to Little Cayman - before delays could begin to accumulate. And it worked. Shockingly, we managed to get 40 customers, each with an average of 3 bags and 150 pounds of equipment to the event on the busiest flight day of the week with no delayed baggage.
This should be the strategy for any connection, not just the ones in the Cayman Islands. If you have an important connecting flight, don't try and cut it too close. If it's one of those "big trips" then fly to your final hub the night before and stay there the night so you can get early flights the next day. The folks that wait for the end of day flights usually end up diving rental equipment for the first day at least.
Many people worry about damage. I actually don't. Scuba equipment is pretty tough. It needs to be to withstand the rigors of scuba diving. Sensitive items that could be damaged include acrylic camera housings, dome ports, the cameras bodies and lenses themselves, as well as dive computers, and rebreather electronics. All of these things will always be packed in my carry-on bag, so I'm not worried about this. For the remainder, they are easily safe in your checked bag, wrapped in your wetsuits, or clothing. (*Camera housing handles can break off, so tend to travel with them removed from the housing.)
In 15 years of traveling with camera and dive equipment, I've never had anything damaged in transit, although I'm sure some of you have. In fact the only damaged baggage I ever had was on my return flight from a 1990's backpacking trip in Ireland. The aluminum frame on my backpack arrived literally snapped in two pieces. I'm still not sure how they managed that, however the 4 Guinness pint glasses I had packed in my clothes remained undamaged. Today, the items that are packed in my checked bags could probably be dropped from the top of the airport parking garage and survive - even my rebreather.
Many people have asked me over the years about using hard cases - like Pelican Cases, Storm Cases, or some of the other similar products on the market. I'm really not a fan of these because of theft concerns which I'm going to address below.
My last suggestion here is to use a size-appropriate suitcase, and wrap items in your clothing, wetsuits, or other soft material. A suitcase that is loo large allows items to shift around and impact each other, potentially causing damage.
So this is the real worry in my humble opinion - having your equipment stolen. Theft can happen in a number of ways. Your complete bag could be taken by someone else, or your equipped could be removed from your bag. In one instance I spoke with a customer who (using a Pelican case) set it down next to him at the crowded Miami airport to check in for his flight. When he looked down, his case was gone. It had been stolen from right beside him while he was talking to the ticketing clerk. Inside was his full DSLR setup costing almost $10,000.
Incidents of stolen baggage outside of your presence in the TSA baggage inspection areas are getting far less common. According to my TSA friends, most inspection areas are blanketed in surveillance cameras. The resolution and quality of these are getting better by the day. According to one, you can't fart in the inspection area without the camera seeing the dust on the floor move. When items are stolen by unscrupulous security or inspection agents, it's usually a quick grab of something small and quickly recognized as valuable. Unlikely to be a rebreather or dive gear, but most often an iPad, camera or lens, or perhaps a dive computer.
As someone who grew up in New York in the 1980's, I learned at an early age to be inconspicuous - something that was later reinforced when I became a Police Officer. Don't be flashy and call attention to yourself from dishonest individuals. A pelican case calls attention to the fact that you are traveling with something valuable enough that it needs protection. This was my hypothesis in the theft I spoke about just above. A case stolen from right beside a distracted individual was probably a simple crime of opportunity in a busy, bustling airport. I really believe the case was targeted because a pelican case looks like it is protecting something expensive. Else, why would you have one?
I personally transport all of my dive gear, including my rebreather in nondescript inexpensive wheeled suitcases. Over the years, the bags themselves have taken a beating, and look worn. There's glue and tape holding parts of it together. This is exactly what I want, because thieves will often overlook a bag like this in favor of something else that looks more valuable. As long as the zipper is secure, and the wheels don't jam - I'm happy.
From 2009-2012 I had a tactic where I'd carry everything on. At the time I dived a rEvo Rebreather, and I was able to wear it on my back like a backpack. A nylon grill cover was affixed to the back of the unit, and kept the loop, gas block, regulators, computers, and other dangly bits nice and tidy. While it did get a few odd looks. (someone once asked if I was wearing a parachute) it worked well.
For my camera, by removing the housing handles, and storing the camera body in the housing, I was able to carry my complete setup in a Think Tank Retrospective 30 bag. This bag was considered my “personal item” since it was able to go under the seat in front of me. This bag contained my entire DSLR system. The handles were removed from the housing, and camera body inside. My 10-17 lens, and 100mm dome port (selected for it's size,) a pair of Inon Z240 strobes and arms. It was a tight fit and was heavy. But it worked.
I've since revised this. Standing in hour-long immigration queues with this on my back made for an uncomfortable experience, and my camera equipment has also grown in size. Now I just pack my rebreather in my ratty old checked suitcase. The stuff I carry on now is my camera equipment. All of the bags have wheels, and I keep a long weight belt with me to lash all the bags together so I can roll 3 of them around the airport wirh one hand.
To sum up:
Be light - get the most compact and lightweight gear you can find
Be minimalist - if you don't absolutely need it, don't bring it
Be tidy - pack your gear in an organized fashion
Be early - take early flights, and even consider staying the night before in your connecting city
Be inconspicuous and nondescript
My current travel load is 4 bags and weighs a total of around 165 lbs.
My backpack is my personal item and has my laptop, DSLR body, lenses, dive computers and rebreather head. It weights between 25-30 pounds, sometimes more depending on what lenses I'm brining.
My small carry-on roller bag contains my full Nauticam housing, strobes and dome port, and weighs 35-40 pounds.
My checked medium roller bag contains my entire dive kit. Rebreather, bailout regulators, mask, fins, wetsuit, and weighs between 40-50 pounds.
My large roller carries clothes and toiletries, and leaves room for souvenirs on the return trip. It weights around 45 pounds on the outbound leg.