6 rules for high-value, carry-on baggage

Think Tank Airport AirStream Rolling Camera Bag, photo courtesy of Think Tank Photo, Inc.

Recently, a photographer wrote he needed help after traveling on Delta Airlines from Jackson, Wyoming, to Ft. Lauderdale, via both Salt Lake City and JFK Airport in New York. When his luggage arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, more than $10,000 of his photographic gear was damaged or missing.

His loss may have been avoided if he had followed six carry-on baggage rules.

His flight to Salt Lake City arrived late. He got to the gate for his Boeing 737–800 flight to JFK Airport at the last minute. Reaching the door, he was told, “due to lack of space” he’d have to check his camera bag, even after he told the flight attendants his bag contained almost $23,000 worth of camera gear. He wasn’t given the chance to try to put it under the seat in front of him.

The flight attendant assured him the bag would be handled carefully when she returned with the claim check for the bag, which was checked all the way through to Ft. Lauderdale.

At Ft. Lauderdale, his wait at “baggage claim” was excruciating. His photo equipment bag hadn’t made it.

After submitting his baggage claim, he was promised the bag would be on the next flight from JFK Airport. Five flights later, the bag finally arrived. He wrote, “Immediately upon retrieving the bag, I knew something was not right. It was lighter than I recalled after carrying it so many miles over the past month.”

As he unlocked and opened the bag in front of the baggage claim clerk at the airport, he found the bag was in a “chaotic state.”

A Nikon D4 DSLR, SB-900 flash, and 14–24mm lens, plus memory cards and other items, were gone. A portable LaCie hard drive, a Nikon 200mm lens, and 1.4x teleconverter, plus other items, were damaged. It was $10K in missing and damaged gear.

All travelers flying with valuables and breakables need to understand that the airlines clearly state in their “Contracts of Carriage,” which control the relationship of the airlines with their passengers, that they don’t accept any liability for valuables and breakables in their luggage, some specifically noting they have no liability for camera equipment.

Air travelers need to also understand the airlines’ maximum liability limits for lost, damaged, or stolen luggage and contents is very low.

In the US, for example, for domestic flights, the airlines’ maximum liability is $3,300, and for international flights it’s about $1,800. In addition, the value of passengers’ belongings is depreciated value, not original cost or replacement value. Passengers can purchase extra insurance from the airlines, but the limit is typically $5,000.

Additionally, travelers should be forewarned airlines don’t guarantee them overhead bin space in their planes. In fact, the airlines don’t guarantee the stowage space under the seat in front of each passenger. Some seats have no seat directly in front of them, and some seats have obstructions under them, preventing their use to stow a carry-on bag of any reasonable size. On regional jets, window seats, in particular, often have substantially restricted space underneath them.

Here are my basic rules of thumb for flying with valuables and breakables when you travel, including laptop computers, electronic tablets, games, e-readers, cameras, prescription medicine, etc.

1. If you don’t need them, leave your valuables and breakables at home.

2. Pack all valuables and breakables, electronics, photo gear, prescription medications, etc., in your carry-on or personal bag, not your checked luggage.

3. Before flying, determine the type of plane for each flight you’ll take, as some planes have significant size limitations for carry-on luggage under seats and in the overhead bin. Base your carry-on plans on the airplane with the most severe size limits.

4. To be safe, make sure your most valuable gear can be stowed under the seat in front of you if the overhead bins are filled by the time you board the plane.

5. When choosing a seat on a regional jet, you’re likely to have more room under the seat in front of you if you’re in a non-window seat.

6. If, when you try to board, the flight crew says there is no room on the plane for your valuables and breakables, insist on putting it under the seat in front of you, since you have chosen a bag of equipment which will fit. If the seat in front of you is already stuffed with gear, have the flight crew remove it. That’s your space.

I suggested to the photographer flying to Ft. Lauderdale on Delta that he contact Delta’s CEO and stress the flight crew wouldn’t allow him to try to stow his camera gear under the seat in front of him, even when he explained how valuable the gear was. I also suggested he stress the flight crew never told him he could buy insurance on the bag since it would be checked.

Delta seriously considered their crew’s conduct and responded,

“The tariff rules and the ticket contract covering your travel exclude responsibility for jewelry, cash, camera equipment, electronic equipment, or computer equipment contained in checked or unchecked baggage. However, based on the circumstances, we feel an exception is warranted in this case for process of your claim. Accordingly, our check representing full reimbursement for your property as stated in your claim will be mailed under separate cover.”

Delta saw this case was unusual and came through. He has received the check.

He was very lucky. I strongly suggest no one takes a chance that any airline will ever do the same for them.

  • Jean

    If one would not hand over $23k cash to a flight attendant to check through, why would one do so with $23k worth of photography equipment? I would have skipped that flight. Whatever penalty I might have to pay for changing flights would be worth it for peace of mind.

  • Anonymous

    Jean, I’m with you, and in fact, I once refused to board a US Airways jet to Chicago because of the same circumstances. I went right to customer service for US Air and explained what happened, and that as far as I was concerned the flight crew violated their own rules by not allowing me the use of the space under the seat in front of me. The customer service agent for US Air agreed. I got on the next flight an hour later at no charge and they put me in First Class.

    Regardless, I knew that it was unlikely I’d recover the cost of the broken or missing equipment, but more important, I needed the equipment in Chicago. It was the loss of the use of the equipment that was the most telling factor.

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  • Anonymous

    If you traveling with that much money in expensive equipment, then why not travel Business Class? Maybe the flight attendants will go easy on you and your hand carry.

  • Anonymous

    These were all US domestic flights, so no business class, but there was first class, but that’s very expensive, and not everyone can afford it, or if on an expense account, justify the expense.

  • Anonymous

    The other week I boarded our AA domestic flight early, with my elderly mother and then watched the rest of plane board as we were in the back.. About 3/4 through the boarding pocess for the flight, it was announced that the overheads were full and that carry ons had to be checked. The overheads in the back by us were all open, no bags in them at all.

  • Wingmark

    The best, inexpensive methods for assuring you board along with your carry-on before the dreaded “all carry-on space is full” message is to get in an early boarding zone by reserving a seat in the back of the plane, by paying the “preferred boarding fee” if the airline has one, or by wearing a large backpack or carrying a medium dufflebag. They will let the duffles and backpacks through after the message, but nothing suitcase-shaped or rolling on wheels. I’ve flown a lot recently and every flight gave that message. It’s just a preemptive guess they make, as I have always seen overhead space available on every flight I’ve boarded, even towards the end, after hearing that message. What I’m also seeing is a lot of people paying that preferred boarding fee as insurance if they have a large carry-on. In fact, I was in zone 1 on a flight from Chicago, and about 80 percent of that flight had preferred board and I was one of the last dozen or so to board!

  • Anonymous

    Good point on duffle/canvas bags. I use a backpack and a large canvas for non 747 or 777 planes. The airlines have caused this problem and I refuse to pay extra to board early for overhead space just as I refuse to pay a bag fee!