The Weighty Matter of Flying with Dive Gear

A friend was a board director of British Airways. I asked him if he could give me a letter to show at the airport check-in, telling his staff to look after me and to waive excess-baggage charges. He said it was more than his job was worth to do that, and that I’d do better to make friends with someone who worked at the airline’s check-in desk.

That encapsulates the problem of travelling with dive and underwater photography equipment. It’s a totally hit-and-miss system unless you are prepared to pay up. You take your chances and hope the check-in staff will be lenient.

I recently traveled to the Maldives and copped a painful $400 excess charge at Heathrow – – that’s after the first 20 pounds above the limit had been waived. On the return leg, the check-in woman responded to my announcement that it was diving equipment by charging me nothing – – but it could as easily have been $800 extra, and there would have been nothing I could do about it.

Traveling via the U.S. used to be simple. They let you check in a maximum of two pieces, neither of which could be more than 70 pounds. A massive total of 140 pounds usually takes care of my requirements. Now the airlines have reduced that to two bags, neither of which can weigh more than 50 pounds. One bag weighing 55 pounds and the other 46 pounds will see you repacking your bags on the airport floor. I’ve had to do just that, on my way to Houston with Continental Airlines!

I approach the check-in staff with my Gold Card within reach. I wear my most charming smile. I ask if they are having a tough day. I never lose my cool. I smile resignedly if and when they tell me I’m overweight (in the luggage department, that is). I pay without complaint if I must.

Traveling east from London, the baggage charges are even more onerous than going via the U.S. When visiting the Far East I sometimes wonder if it would be cheaper to pay the extra fare to go the wrong way round the world. A trip to Papua New Guinea should have been a breeze. Air Niugini had pre-agreed to waive any excess weight, as it was an invited press trip, but I was soon smiling unhappily at a $900 excess-baggage charge that took me as far as Singapore with Singapore Airlines. I had to re-check my bags there or pay the charge for the whole journey to Port Moresby from London. An unexpected $900 each way could really spoil a holiday. In fact, you can have a good vacation for $1,800!

British Airways has introduced a new and fairer (so it says) checked-baggage system that is especially important for us poor folk who have to sit at the back of the aircraft. Economy Class passengers can now check one bag (note: not two that weigh the same as one) that weighs up to 50 pounds.
If you go via America, Mexico or the Caribbean, you can check two 50-pound bags free of charge. That still hits rebreather owners, who have trouble getting in under the old 70-pound barrier. They say you can also check in one item of sports equipment. They don’t specify what that is. I know a windsurf board or set of golf clubs is OK, but it’s not clear whether scuba gear is classified as sports equipment. It wasn’t under the old rules. I can just see a would-be Schumacher queuing up to check in a Formula Ford!

Here at DIVER, we once fought hard to get diving equipment included as sports equipment on airlines but to no avail. It seems that no important airline bosses are keen divers, though they do play a lot of golf. We once won a concession with KLM for diving equipment to Bonaire but now that KLM is merged with Air France, I guess that agreement disappeared in the economic fallout.

The good news is that BA is being realistic in allowing each passenger to carry on one bag that is small enough to fit in the overhead bin, but It apparently has no weight restriction other than that you must be able to put it there unaided. I’ll wait to see how long that rule lasts and expect to see the 13-pound limit reinstated as soon as a bag falls out on someone’s head. Meanwhile, I can see lots of us going to weightlifting sessions prior to a long-haul trip! I bet even I can lift 45 pounds above my head if it means saving money. It’s just bad luck for those who are vertically challenged. I hope they still cater for an umbrella and a camera, too. The old rules stated that passengers could carry on one of each in addition to one bag. A woman’s purse is another concession.

I tend to carry on my camera in its submarine housing, even though it raises eyebrows at security checks. Well, it’s a camera, isn’t it? I’m still working out how to use that umbrella concession. It’s amazing how many TSA staffers profess to be divers. While screening my camera in its housing, they let the underwater flashgun in my bag pass, even though someone usually squeals that the factory-fitted batteries have to be removed.

My wife has come up with another solution by buying me one of those safari jackets with 101 pockets. I haven’t tested my ability to walk while laden with heavy items, but it will come to that.

In the end, there are few alternatives to paying up and being smart, but excess-baggage charges make it an expensive way to send your stuff. Airlines charge around 50 cents of the first-class fare per pound – that’s a whopping $50 per pound to Singapore with BA. The other trick is to airfreight your luggage ahead. Just pray it’ll be there when you reach your final destination.

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7 thoughts on “The Weighty Matter of Flying with Dive Gear”

  1. My wife is an underwater photographer and I do uw video. We travel with eight bags – four check-in and four that stretch the definition of carry-on. We fly Contintal to most dive destinations, and local airlines like Hawaiian and Cayman Air to our end destinations, if they are not served directly by Continental. When we can upgrade with award miles, we fly first class, and we have never been challenged on our baggage.

    Our four checked bags include a large Storm case for my wife’s UW housing, stobes and support accessories, either two dive bags if we each take our BC’s (which we do for live aboards and Caribbean destinations) and one clothes bag, or one dive bag (we rent BC’s in Hawaii) and two clothes bags. My wife puts her computer and its accessories in a wheel-aboard bag and carries her camera bodies and lenses in a knapsack, which stay with us. I have my video housing in a pelican case and my computer and video camera in a knapsack, also carryon items.

    We occasionally get charged overweight in the Carribean or for an extra bag on Hawaiian inter island flights, but we keep any individual case below (or right at) 50 lbs, and we are prepared to have to gate check a carryon bag, in the event a surly gate agent determines it to be oversize.

    One overlooked fact on Continental is that they have a special sports equipment baggage category. For SCUBA gear, it implies that a single bag containing only SCUBA gear may exceed the 50 lb limit without penalty. This may be something divers traveling together can take advantage of. Check out their website.

    For information, we have had the worst baggage experience with United, who have a specially designated “bad baggage cop” to weed out those who have made a purchses in the airport shop and don’t think the plastic bag with the t-shirt and souvenier coffee cup ought to count against the carry-on allowance. Ask me how I know. Our solution was to gate check it and carry it down the jetway to the plane to deposit it at the aircraft door. Somehow enroute to the plane, the gate check tag “fell off” and so I had no recourse but to carry it on board, anyway.

    Also, we have had the experience of a bag not making a connecting flight on a small aircraft to our final destination in the Caymans. Our solution is to arrive a day early on Grand Cayman, then catch an earlier flight to Little Cayman or Cayman Brac ahead of the usual connecting flight from the mainland. If our bags still don’t all get there, we have found the resorts well prepared to deal with this situation by routinely meeting all incoming flights to collect delayed baggage and rearranging the first days dive schedule to leave later in the morning (and dive longer in the afternoon), to allow the first morning flight to get in with missing gear.

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  2. I can vouch for the comment by Kay when using LIAT airlines. We’re leaving most of our dive gear at home because of the very tight baggage restrictions. I was told one bag, 50 lbs. because of the small aircraft used. The 2nd bag is costly and may not make the flight having to wait until the following day… if your lucky.

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  3. My wife and I lost our luggage in Roatan. The scheduled flight never left due to weather and our luggage magically disappeared.. Insurance paid a fraction of what was lost. We now carry all of our luggage as carry on. On our last dive trip we contacted the airlines we would fly and got the dimensions of the most restrictive luggage requirements. We bought our wheeled luggage accordingly… Since I am physically larger than my wife my gear is a tighter fit… However, I can fit my bc, snorkel, mask, reg, shorty or skin, (I need to see if I can fit both the shorty and skin in the luggage together), computer, extra batteries, small flashlights, and tightly rolled up misc clothing into the suitcase… I then use a back pack to put in my extra clothes and misc items. Since we travel to warm climates clothing is kept to a minimum. Rain coat is a Marmot that rolls up tightly.. I wear long pants and teva’s on the plane which would otherwise take up room in the luggage. This works for me and my wife even on a 2 week dive trip.. I do not do underwater photography and I cannot take a dive knife but otherwise this works for us…

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  4. I’d be interested in hearing the ins and outs of air freighting your equipment in advance. I’m sure someone has done it enough to know when it’s a good idea and when not to do it. I’ve been interested in doing it, but I don’t know the best carriers to use, restrictions, costs, etc.; basically all of the CONS. If anyone is willing to share what they know please blog.

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  5. My perennial problem is traveling with “Spare Air.” Security personnel in Miami, Ft.Lauderdale, and Freeport (Grand Bahama) have seen it often enough to give it a quick check with a flashlight and send it on. Security personnel elsewhere (notably Barbados) can be downright nasty.

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  6. Traveling to dive destinations has become an adventure within itself! I have learned the hard way that you need to call your airline carrier to determine what the current luggage weight policy is. For example Continental Airlines overweight policy varies depending upon the destination. You might have to call multiple times to get a consistent answer. Having hard copy documentation on hand at the ticket counter can be very helpful.

    Being courteous at the ticket counter can save you money. Ticket agents are now charging more often for overweight luggage. I guess I need to start working on weight lifting to be able to lift the 70lbs of equipment into the overhead. Hauling that much gear through TSA is an adventure also.

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  7. Traveling is a bitch, my primary choice when I have to leave home is LIAT (Leave Island Any Time / Luggage In Another Terminal etc etc etc…) I am constantly hearing from divers that they would love to come back and dive with me if it were n’t for Liat.

    HOWEVER as a dive operator I see this as an opportunity to prove that where there is a will there is a way… how?

    Firstly I keep my customers informed… don’t book your travel via Barbados during the last week of July, first week of August, it’s carnival there…. etc

    I include equipment in the cost of my dive packages. (My equipment is good quality and well maintained. I also throw in dive concierge service at no extra cost).

    I provide rechargeable batteries for photographers at no additional cost (lead in batteries can be a killer on the weight).

    I also suggest that on an island like St. Vincent you don’t need all the extra shoes, or dressing for dinner clothes. And if push comes to shove I always have extra t-shirts!

    This doesnt really cost me any extra as a dive operator, but it makes a big difference to my customers. If more dive operators stopped to look at the needs of their divers it would save an awful lot of extra stuff being carried around the world!

    Lastly if you are lucky enough to be being paid to travel ask the PR firm of the company that you are working for to contact the airline directly, you may be able to get a chit or note in the airlines computer to receive a concession on your allowances. Always worth a try…

    By the way, I’m a traveling diver / photographer too, so I understand the frustrations, but with a little forethought it is possible to carry your equipment and photography gear with you.

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