Continuing our series on travel photography, this time we set out fo find the ultimate photo personal item. We've already found the best photo carry-on, the Pelican Air 1525, which can hold mucho camera equipment and even tripods in a lightweight yet hard case. The companion piece to the carry-on is the smaller personal item. Long story short, the Thinktank Airport Ultralight version 2.5 fits the bill (and underseat).
The best way to ensure your precious camera equipment stays with you on the plane is to pack it into your personal item. Unless you have a bulkhead seat, you are guaranteed to have underseat storage in front of your seat. Some airlines like Delta don't specify an exact size for your personal item, just saying that the item must fit under the seat in front of you. Approved items include a purse, briefcase, camera bag, diaper bag, or laptop computer or item of similar size. American Airlines specifies 18"x14"x8" for your personal item. The most restrictive domestic airline is United, specifying 17"x10"x9" as the maximum size for your personal item. Some airlines, mainly smaller overseas carriers, also limit the weight of your carry-on and personal items.
Airline baggage sizers are actually larger than their specified maximums. In United's case, the personal item cage is about 1" larger in two dimensions. The actual sizer dimensions are 9"x11"x18", so 18"x11"x7" should fit.
Thinktank made a series of airport carryons called the Airport Ultralight. There are three models of the Ultralight version 1.0, 2.0 and 2.5 (see Figure 1). Version 2.5 is the one you want for United, it is smaller than the first two models, which are about the same size. The final version 2.5 of the Airport Ultralight is officially 17.5"x11"x7" designed to fit into a Pelican 1510 carry-on hard case.
In reality the Ultralight 2.5 is 17"x11"x7" and fits under airplane seats and even into the small overheads of CRJ 200 regional jets. The Ultralight was designed to be lightweight (it is just over 3 lbs empty) and fit into the overhead compartment of regional jets. The 7" thickness is the critical dimension.
The Airport Ultralight 2.5 can carry a lot of gear (see Figure 2). It can carry one pro-level camera body and 4 or even 5 lenses and filters. The front velcro pocket can accept a 14" laptop, thinner the better and still stay under the 9" maximum dimension typical for personal items.
Equipped with The Pelical Air 1525 and the Thinktank Airport Ultralight 2.5, you can carry on a lot of camera gear. With the top lid's padding removed, in additional to a tripod and ball head you can squeeze in a laptop, a book and even 3-4 days worth of clothes into the Pelican Air 1525. While the Airport Ultralight is no longer made, you can still find them on Ebay if you are persistent. Some alternatives are the Think Tank Urban Disguise 50, the Airport Essentials backpack, or the Peak Design Messenger bag.
Protecting your camera gear while flying is a challenge. Using a purpose-built camera backpack like the Thinktank Airport Ultralight v 2.5 as your personal item is the best way to transport your gear to far-flung places. As alternatives, the Think Tank Urban Disguise 50, the Airport Essentials or the Peak Design Messenger can also serve as lightweight personal items.
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