How to Pick the Right Camera Bag or Luggage for Travel

In Gear by Brent Huntley

Picking the right way to carry your camera gear while traveling is essential to have a good vacation.  Picking the wrong bag or luggage is a sure fire way to make your travel uncomfortable, burdensome or risky (for your gear).  I travel a lot, some within the United State, but a good portion of it is international.  I also have four shelves in my garage full of photography bags or bag-like camera holders.  The reason I have so many, besides the never-ending quest to find the perfect bag, is that the bag I use is determined by the type of travel I do.

What and how I pack is a whole lot different for a two-week  family vacation in Europe as opposed to a solo four-day photography trip to Glacier National Park.  Likewise, packing is going to be a lot different if you are doing street photography in New York or shooting a wedding in Hawaii.  I have tried a ton of different packing options-some have been great and some have failed miserably.  To hopefully keep you from an un-enjoyable trip or from wasting money on something you don't need, I thought it worthwhile to share how I determine what to take.

Dealing with a Tripod

A tripod is both my favorite photography accessory and my least favorite travel companion.  Personally, I never travel without a tripod.  Even if I have no plans to shoot any landscape or long-exposure photography on a trip, I feel like I need to have my tripod just in case plans change.  If you are carrying a tripod, there are some limitations you have to deal with.  First, you have to prepare for how you are going to carry the tripod once you reach your destination.  If you are going to need to carry the tripod with you, you will need a bag with a tripod carrier. In the rare occasion where you don't need to carry a tripod on a bag, then you can get away with just putting the tripod in your luggage and pulling it out where you need it.

For most of the people that want a way to carry the tripod on location, their luggage options are going to be a bit more limited.  Most likely, this means carrying a camera backpack that can hold a tripod.  Most  camera backpacks and the Best carry on in 2019 have this option, but not all, so you want to make sure the bag you pick has this option.  Two other options include messenger bags or luggage.  Unlike most camera backpacks, it is much harder to find a messenger bag or luggage that has a dedicated system to carry your tripod.

For the messenger bag, I have two options that I routinely use when I am traveling for business or don't want to carry a backpack.  I use the Think Tank Spectral 15, available on Amazon, for more business travel, and the Mindshift Gear Exposure 15, available on Amazon, when I am going to be outdoors a little more during business trips.  Both of these bags have a great little tripod holder on the bottom that works very well.

When it comes to luggage, the only options I have used come from Think Tank.  I have one bag that I use for international travel and one that I use for domestic travel.  For domestic travel, I just recently got the Airport Advantage Plus, which is a little larger and lighter than the international version I have.  Both of these carry-on suitcases have a side pocket on the outside of the bag that has a pocket to carry a tripod.  While this is super convenient, it can complicate things if you are on an airline that strictly enforces size requirements.

For the Minimalist

There are some occasions where you want to keep your camera gear to a minimum.  If photography is not the purpose of your travel, if you are doing something like street photography where gear requirements are minimal or if you are just in need of minimizing your weight or size burden, there are ways to safely carry your camera and minimal gear without having to bring a dedicated camera backpack.

One option is to just carry your camera on your body, but I hate this option because it is burdensome and not safe for the camera.  Rather, I prefer a small holster bag that can be tucked inside a different bag or, better yet, attached to the outside of a different bag.  My personal favorite holster bag for minimalist travel is from Mindshift.  The Multi-Mount Holster is awesome because it perfectly fits one camera body with a lens attached, but also has room for essentials like extra batteries, memory cards, cleaning cloths and so forth.  This is exactly what you want in a holster bag.  Its small size means you can throw it in carry-on luggage or even keep it as a personal item if available.  It also gives you a good way to carry your camera while on vacation that is not bulky  or difficult to carry.  Another big plus to this specific holster is that it can be strapped onto the outside of a backpack which is great for travel days when your hands are going to be full anyway and you may not have room to fit the holster inside the bag.

When You Need a Small Bag

Probably one of my most used bags is a smaller camera backpack.  I use a small camera backpack most often when I travel on budget airlines in the United States.  I fly a lot on Spirit and Allegiant in the United States because Spirit has a cheap flight from Vegas to Portland, where my in-laws live, and Allegiant has a cheap flight from Vegas to Boise, where my parents live.  The problem with these airlines is that they charge for a carry-on bag, but not for the much-smaller personal item.  The other problem is they will actually check the size of your backpack to make sure it is small enough to be a personal item.  They don't check nearly as much as the budget airlines I have flown in Europe, but typically the European airlines don't charge for a carry-on bag so I have never had a problem with a bigger bag in Europe.  Unfortunately, all of my favorite bags are too big to count as a personal item on these budget airlines.  Because of this, I typically go with a bag from Mindshift Gear.  The UltraLite Dual 25L is awesome because it is small enough to be a personal item and is super light.  I am not crazy about the organization of the bag, but it works well for this situation.  Just be sure when traveling budget airlines to check the size requirements to make sure your small bag of choice is actually small enough to make the cut.

The Normal Backpack

This is the bag most people are going to travel with on most vacations.  I have several bags in this category, but my two favorite are the Tamrac Anvil Slim 15 and the Think Tank Streetwalker HardDrive.  The normal backpack is fine as a carry-on for almost any flight, but can also squeeze in as a personal item on most major airline carriers.  This usually allows me to take my camera bag for all my camera gear and a carry-on bag for all my other luggage.  The one word of caution here is the Think Tank Streetwalker HardDrive, despite being an awesome bag, can be an issue if you are traveling somewhere with backpack size restrictions.  This was a problem for me at the Pantheon in Paris as the bag was just a few inches too tall so they wouldn't let me inside.

The Large Backpack

The large camera backpack is where I turn when I need to combine my camera bag with my luggage.  This usually happens when I am traveling solo and don't need a full suitcase for a few days worth of clothes.  An large camera backpack has plenty of room for camera gear, but usually also has extra room to store whatever else you need for your trip.  the large backpack will almost always count as a carry-on bag, but you should check the restrictions of your airline to make sure you will not be forced to check the bag as that is the last thing you want.  There are so many good backpacks out there, but my two personal favorites come from Mindshift Gear and Lowepro.  The Lowepro Whistler BP 450AW and Mindshift Gear Backlight 36L are pretty similar bags with a few key differences in their design.  I tend to think the Mindshift bag is slightly better quality, but they each work really well.

The Carry-On Suitcase

There are two situations where the large backpack just won't cut it.  The first is where you are on assignment or shooting a wedding or event.  In this situation, you are likely carrying a whole lot more gear than you can fit into even a large backpack.  The second situation is when you just don't want to carry a huge backpack around.  This can be especially true for smaller people or those who have physical limitations.  In these situations, a dedicated piece of luggage is your only real option.  Of course you don't want your expensive camera gear floating around a normal suitcase.  It is important you have a suitcase with extra padding and compartment dividers dedicated to carrying camera gear.  Many people love the rollers from Pelican, but I find the hardcover is overkill in most situations and prefer the more traditional design from the Think Tank bags.

If you are traveling internationally, you should check out my article reviewing the international bag, but I wan't to focus on the Think Tank Airport Advantage Plus rolling suitcase in this article because it is the bag I use whenever I am not restricted to the smaller size (typically European budget airlines).  The thing I love most about the newer model of the Airport Advantage Plus is that they managed to cut a lot of weight off the bag.  In the United States, they don't typically weigh carry-on bags, but this can be a big issue when travelling overseas.  Plus, shedding some weight is a benefit no matter what.

I haven't already published a review of the Airport Advantage Plus to point you to so there are some things I want share about the luggage.  The design of the bag is about what you would expect with a few unique aspects.  The front of the bag is a huge laptop pocket.  It is plenty big to fit any laptop, but my concern is the lack of padding on this pocket.  It is not a big deal ninety percent of the time, but I don't like to risk it so I usually pack something soft like clothes in the pocket with my laptop.  There is plenty of room for this.

The inside of the bag has two big mesh pockets that have plenty of stretch so they are great for packing in anything extra you want.  This can be camera accessories or even some clothes if you need the extra space.  The main compartment is full of padded dividers to help organize your gear how you would expect.  There is a pretty decent amount of space here so you can fit pretty much anything you would need.  You can easily fit a couple bodies with an arsenal of lenses or a few less lenses if you are carrying a massive telephoto.  There is also plenty of room to remove some of the dividers to store some non-camera gear.  This makes it perfect if you only want to carry one suitcase, but have to bring non-camera gear as well.

The things that really set this luggage apart, though, are the great little things in the bag that really up the quality.  You will notice these things right away and understand why this luggage carries the price tag it does.  The first thing I noticed was the impressive handles.  They are much thicker and padded than most luggage I have dealt with.  This is a big deal to me because I have pulled out way too many handles from luggage, even my expensive Samsonite luggage, but these handles are sewn in well so I am not worried about it.  The awesome handles extend to the telescoping handle as well.  What I really like about this handle, which tucks into a zippered pocket, is how tall it is because that makes it so much nicer to use.

The last two key things about this luggage is the wheels are super smooth, which is nice for pulling it, and the awesome zippers.  If you have read any of my reviews for Think Tank, you know I love the zippers that are used by Think Tank.  They are so smooth and nice to use.  The Airport Advantage Plus is currently on Amazon for under $300.


About the Author

Brent Huntley

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Brent Huntley is a 32 year old partner at a litigation-focused law firm. He is a hobbyist photographer focused primarily on landscape and travel photography. He also writes articles and shares his work at photographyandtravel.com and is active on instragram @brentdhuntley.