|The Complete Travel Update
by Vivid Light Staff
Over the past 18 months periodic updates on travel and traveling with camera equipment have appeared in this magazine. Judging by your emails this is still a hot topic and we've gotten several requests to pull all this information together into one location. This article includes information on the following (click on any topic to jump directly to it):
Before we dive in we should spend a second on who does what. At least three government agencies have jurisdiction over some part of you trip; four if you're traveling out of the U.S.
The Department of Transportation (DOT http://www.dot.gov/) oversees consumer issues such as denied boarding, lost baggage, overbooking, ticketing, as well as statistics on on-time performance.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA http://www2.faa.gov/) is responsible for civil aviation safety. That includes developing safety regulations, certifying pilots and aircraft, and the air traffic control system.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA http://188.8.131.52/public/index.jsp) is responsible for security for all modes of transportation. The TSA publishes a comprehensive list of what can go onto an airplane on your person, in your carry bag, and in your checked bag http://www.tsa.dot.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/Permitted_Prohibited.doc
Finally the Department of State (http://travel.state.gov) is responsible for passports and is your source of information on visas and travel advisories for every country in the world.
To simplify things we've included a ton of links that will take you directly to the appropriate government Web site where you can download forms and get additional information if needed.
Don't go to the passport agency to apply for that new passport. Most passport agencies are now only processing emergency passport requests; passports for people leaving in less that 14 days.
In each case listed here you'll need to complete the proper forms and take them to a Passport Acceptance Facility. This is different than a Passport Agency. Passport acceptance facilities will review your paperwork and documentation and then send your forms on to a Passport Agency for processing. To get a list of passport acceptance facilities in your area go to http://iafdb.travel.state.gov/ where you can search by zip code, city, or state.
Additional information on U.S. passports is available at http://travel.state.gov/passport_services.html
Medical Issues and Travel Warnings
Your first stop for information should be the CDC Traveler Web site http://www.cdc.gov/travel/. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) regularly updates this site with information on outbreaks, diseases, required vaccinations, and information on safe food and water. Just don't get carried away here. Like the medical warnings on a bottle of aspirin these cover every eventuality. Think about them too long and you won't go anywhere! For example, it's not likely that you'll be exposed to plague when traveling in Western Europe but the site contains the following warning:
Common sense says that you shouldn't go wrestling stray dogs, but it's probably not much of a risk to pet the golden retriever at your bed and breakfast and I haven't seen many stray monkeys running around Europe. If you really want to get scared look up the U.S. and you'll never leave your house again! But there is good information here on vaccinations, which are a must.
Other Web sites worth a visit include the Pan American Health Organization http://www.cdc.gov/travel/ and the World Health Organization http://www.who.int/en/. It is especially important that you check all those sites that apply if you're going into a high-risk area (such as parts of Africa) as one site may have information that another is lacking. Outbreaks that are rare or unheard of in developed countries, such as cholera and hemorrhagic fever, are still common in some parts of the world. The CDC also maintains a vaccination hotline at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) where you can obtain information about vaccinations needed for your destination.
If you're going somewhere requiring vaccinations you'll need to find a local hospital that can administer those shots. While there find out if there is a doctor affiliated with the hospital that specializes in traveler's illnesses. Doctors specializing in this area may be aware of outbreaks that haven't yet made it onto the Web sites and vaccination lists. They may also be able to prescribe some relief for common ailments such as traveler's diarrhea, which is probably the single most common affliction no matter what your destination. Resources written for doctors specializing in travel medicine include the Journal of Travel Medicine and the ISTM News Service. If you do get sick these doctors are a great resource when you return home.
Make sure you start looking into your shots several weeks before your departure date. Some vaccinations may need to be specially ordered (especially if you don't live in a large city) and some may require a series of shots over days or weeks.
Now that you've waded through all the medical stuff you can really scare yourself and take a look at the travel advisories posted by the state department at The Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site at http://travel.state.gov/ and you'll find warnings on specific countries at http://travel.state.gov/travel_warnings.html. This site includes detailed warnings that range from "there's been a lot of theft against tourists in Rome" to "armed tribesmen in Yemen have kidnapped a number of foreigners."
Among the other information available from the State Department is a list of "Tips for Travelers" bulletins (http://travel.state.gov/travel_pubs.html). They cover destinations as comfortable as Canada and as exotic as China. They're packed with information that you might never have thought of. Had a drunk driving incident in college? You won't be able to rent a car or drive your own car in Canada - unless you get special permission in advance, which takes several weeks.
And finally there's a lot of good information available in the CIA World Fact Book http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/. This isn't James Bond stuff. It's more like a big almanac for every country in the world.
The two most important things to remember when traveling are to bring along your common sense and to pay attention to the hairs on the back of your neck. Common sense will keep you out of most trouble and if ever something doesn't feel right get out of there - in some cases that may even mean cutting a trip short and getting out of a country. Always trust your gut feelings as they are seldom wrong.
Never put undeveloped film in your checked bags. Checked baggage scanners will absolutely fog your film. Lead bags in checked baggage appear opaque to bag scanners and will cause them to switch into high power mode in an effort to see through the lead bag - frying your film in the process.
The TSA recommends that all film be hand checked rather than run through the carry-on baggage scanner. But in practice hand checks are routinely refused unless you are carrying high-speed film (ISO 1600 and faster). Film that is 800 speed and slower won't be harmed by a couple of passes through a carry-on x-ray but the exposure is cumulative. Pass the same roll of film through the machine at the gate 10 or 12 times and you'll eventually cook it. Even high speed film can tolerate a pass or two through most low power scanners that you find at the gate. The Fuji 1600 film reviewed elsewhere in this issue made four passes through gate scanners in Philadelphia, Orlando, and Key West before being used and was unaffected.
We can't seem to say this often enough: digital cameras and memory cards are unaffected by x-rays. The people in news groups or on some Web sites who claim x-rays damaged their digital images are idiots. Ignore them.
If you want detailed information on baggage scanners and their effects on film the best resource we've found is Kodak's Technical Information Bulletin: Baggage X-ray Scanning Effects on Film. It's available for free on their Web site at http://www.kodak.com/cluster/global/en/service/tib/tib5201.shtml. It explains the issues in detail and contains sample images from damaged film so that you can recognize if your film has been damaged by x-rays.
Carry-on Bags, Checked Bags and Passenger
Anything that reduces time spent standing in line is good news. The bad news is that every airline is doing things a little differently right now. Check your airline's Web site before traveling or call their customer service hotline.
If you've been in the habit of using frequent flyer lounges to meet with clients during layovers these new regulations will add an extra step. Most frequent flyer lounges are now behind the screeners and you can't pass the screeners without a boarding pass. Upon request you can have the airlines issue a "boarding pass" that will allow meeting attendees past the screeners and give them access to airport lounges and conference rooms. Call ahead and talk to the manager of the lounge you're planning to use their lounge for a meeting to arrange for the passes in advance.
If you want to avoid the hassle many airports have an attached hotel that is on the outside of the screeners and their lobbies and restaurants do well as impromptu meeting spaces.
Common sense goes a long way when determining what you can and cannot take onto an airplane. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) publishes a comprehensive list of what can go onto an airplane on your person, in your carry bag, and in your checked bags .
It's no surprise that dynamite, sabers, ice axes, and meat cleavers all made it onto the banned carry-on list. But don't take this list as gospel. I was surprised to see cigar cutters listed as an OK item to carry-on. Only two months ago a screener noticed a cigar in my pocket at the gate in Orlando and asked if I had a cigar cutter with me. I told him it was in my checked bag since I assumed it would be a banned item whereupon he informed me that he had confiscated quite a few of them. The rule here is when in doubt pack it in your checked bag.
Tripods are neither ruled in or out on this list. But according to the TSA "Prohibited items "… include items that are seemingly harmless but may be used as weapons". Since Baseball Bats, Golf Clubs, Hockey Sticks, Lacrosse Sticks, Pool Cues, and Ski Poles are all banned as carry-on items it's a good bet that your tripod might be as well. Our recommendation is to play it safe and pack it in your checked bag. The same goes for your Swiss Army knife and your Leatherman tool.
There has been a lot of flap in the media recently about the FAA instructing people not to lock their checked baggage. Get over it. All the locks do is help to keep the catch from springing when the baggage handlers drop you bags from the belly of the plane onto the tarmac. For one large luggage manufacturer there are a total of two keys that open all of their bags. That's if a thief wants to bother carrying the keys. You can open just about any luggage lock with a bent paper clip in under 10 seconds - as was demonstrated to me by a luggage repairman. A good webbed strap that wraps around your bag and has a good catch will go a long way toward protecting it from baggage handler abuse.
Never pack valuables in checked baggage unless it's something like a hard sided Pelican case. These cases can accommodate a real lock and you should use one. I'd rather the inspectors call me down to unlock the case than risk losing its contents to thieves. It's also a bad idea to cover your hard case with Nikon or Canon logos. You might as well put a sign on the bag saying "Yo thieves - a couple of grand in camera gear inside! Steal me!" This is especially good advice if you're traveling through high theft airports such as JFK or Miami.
Folding up valuables inside other items in your checked baggage doesn't help. Thieves will search bags if they have time. In one instance they found an American Express card belonging to a traveling companion even though it was buried in an inner pocket of a DayTimer that was folded up inside a sweatshirt. By the time we landed several hours later they had already charged several hundred dollars to the card.
If you're going to be traveling more than once a year invest in good luggage. It costs a little more but it will last years and take an amazing amount of abuse. Get bags with wheels for both your carry-on and checked baggage. Make sure the bags have high quality zippers and catches. Soft-sided bags should have reinforced corners since that's where they get the most wear. A provision to attach a laptop or briefcase bag is a real plus for your carry-on.
I prefer hard-sided bags for checked baggage. Look for a good quality hard-side with high quality catches and a gasket seal. That waterproof seal will protect your clothing if your bag is lying out on a runway in the pouring rain when it's being loaded or unloaded. I've watched people pick up soft-sided bags from baggage conveyors that had water running out of them.
If you prefer soft sided bags make sure you invest in a high quality soft side. It should have an internal frame, reinforced corners, hefty zippers, and reinforced seams. In either case I recommend buying your luggage in a luggage store - not in a department store. A good luggage store can show you the differences in construction between cheap bags, mid-line bags, and frequent traveler bags. Then you can make an educated choice.
Don't overload your checked bag. If you and your spouse both have to sit on it to latch it the gasket won't seal and the chances of it springing open in transit go up about a 100%. An inexpensive web strap to fasten around the bag is additional insurance against it springing open. They cost around $5 in the luggage department of most stores.
Finally many people don't realize that it's usually pretty inexpensive to get your damaged luggage repaired. One of the big luggage companies used to have a commercial that featured a gorilla knocking the bejesus out of a bag. I'm convinced that commercial used footage of actual baggage handlers. Think I'm exaggerating? Get in the habit of watching these guys while you're waiting to get on a plane! My current bag has been through at least four wheels and several handles (I've lost count). All were broken off by what had to be a ridiculous amount of force. Finally half of the clamshell had to be replaced when a corner of the bag was stove in. The repairman took one look and estimated it had been dropped from the belly of a plane onto the tarmac onto that corner. He wasn't surprised. He said he sees it all the time.
And because repair costs are low I'll report damaged bags to the airline, but I'll never leave the bag with them to be repaired. When reporting a damaged bag most airlines will give you address where you can ship the bag for repairs or in some cases will require that you bring it back to the airport within a set time limit. The cost of repair usually isn't worth the hassle of dealing with the airlines who are denying more and more claims as their bottom lines get tightened.
In November the duty free exemption was raised from $400 to $800 per traveler. That means that you can bring up to $800 worth of stuff back into the country without having to pay any duty (tax) on those items. The items you're bringing in must be for your personal use. Only 1 liter of alcohol and 200 cigarettes or 100 cigars may be included in this exemption.
The good news for parents is that family members who live in the same home may combine their exemptions. So if it's you, your spouse, and your two year old your total exemption is $2,400. But you're limited on the tobacco and alcohol exemptions to adults. You can't claim that extra bottle of single malt whiskey is for your toddler (unless you're Irish).
For you tobacco lovers there are a whole set of rules just for Cuban cigars (which are widely available outside the U.S.). Check out this link http://www.customs.gov/travel/know.htm#Tobacco Products for the rules on Cuban cigars. If you're traveling to Italy and plan to bring back a couple of cases of wine you may need to get permission in advance so that Customs officials don't think you're bringing it in for resale. Check out http://www.customs.gov/travel/know.htm#Alcoholic%20Beverages for information if you'll be clearing customs with more than one or two bottles.
Customs is also responsible for securing our borders against people smuggling drugs or firearms. Try it and you may run afoul of the tough customer pictured on the right. If you do run into a canine officer doing bag checks keep in mind that customs dogs are working dogs and agents may discourage you from petting them.
The U.S. Customs service has a good Web site for travelers called "Know before your go" at http://www.customs.gov/travel/travel.htm that should answer any other questions.
Check with your auto insurance company concerning coverage on rental cars. What happens if you're in a fender bender in London? Do you need to pick up additional insurance from the rental agency or are you better off with a rider policy from your own insurance carrier? Also check with your homeowner's insurance provider. If your camera equipment is lost or stolen while traveling is it still covered? Are there restrictions or exclusions based on the country you're traveling to? In some cases it pays to pick up a separate, and usually inexpensive, rider just to cover your camera equipment. If you do, make sure it has a zero deductible and that it insures you for replacement value on your gear - not current market value. That's the difference between replacing your stolen F4 with a new F5 or being given book value on a well used F4.
Remember the difference between and ordeal and an adventure is your attitude.