The first time I took my camera tripod on an airplane as carry-on luggage I was terrified. Was airport security going to confiscate it? What about the airline staff at the boarding gate? Or at the door of the plane? Or the cabin crew member who gave me a hand to lift my bag to the luggage storage?
Not one of them said a thing because—with some caveats—flying with your tripod is okay. Let’s look at the situation.
Is a Tripod Legal Carry On?
The good news is that the TSA doesn’t give a damn about your tripod. Tripods are listed on their website as approved for both carry-on and checked bags.
Now, this comes with one major caveat: everything is at the discretion of the TSA officer you meet at security. They have pretty broad powers to confiscate anything they want, even if it’s technically on the approved list. If you’re bringing your grandad’s ancient two-meter long wooden tripod with you or just act like an ass, then all bets are off.
The TSA is also only the security provider in American airports. Most other airport security setups generally follow their lead, but there is an outside chance that some airport somewhere has specifically banned tripods.
Does a Tripod Fit In Your Baggage?
Just because the TSA has let you through the security screening doesn’t mean your tripod is on the plane yet; the airline still has to let you on. And this step is trickier.
Different airlines have different cabin baggage allowances—Skyscanner has a good summary—and different levels of enforcement of the rules. I’ve been allowed on a plane blatantly carrying two bags that pushed the limits of what the storage bins could hold and also been pulled aside to have my schoolbag-sized backpack weighed and measured.
This means that there are no universal rules when it comes to getting your tripod on the plane. In general, if your tripod and bag are combined—whether your tripod is inside the bag or strapped to the outside—and come in under the maximum dimensions and weight limits, you aren’t going to have any issues. It’s when you push things a little bit that something might be said.
The majority of the time I’ve flown with my tripod, it’s been strapped on the outside of a bag that fits the maximum allowed carry-on dimensions. My tripod has generally fallen within the limits of what airlines call a “small bag,” “personal item,” or “laptop/handbag” and that was going to be my defense if I needed it. In around 20 flights, no airline staff member has ever had an issue.
Now, there is one big thing to note here: I am flying with our sister site’s favorite collapsible carbon fiber travel tripod. The MeFOTO Roadtrip folds down to just 15.4” long and weighs 3.1 lbs. While it’s still obviously a tripod strapped to the side of my bag—and it’s far from the smallest tripod you can buy—it’s not obnoxiously oversized and easily fits in the luggage racks. I’d imagine things would have been different if I’d tried flying with a much larger tripod.
Tips for Flying With a Tripod
If you’re going to fly with a tripod in your carry-on baggage, then there are a few things you should do:
- Use a travel tripod: I’ve only really addressed this in passing so far because it kind of goes without saying: use a dedicated travel tripod. Something small and light that fits under the height limit of the cabin baggage allowance when fully folded.
- Pay for early boarding: If you’re travelling with your camera gear, it’s always a good idea to get on the plane as early as possible. It massively increases your chance of getting space in the luggage bin without your bag being too closely inspected.
- Be nice: A smile and a friendly manner go along way with airline staff. Don’t be that passenger and they’ll go out of their way to help you. On the other hand, if you are making their lives hell, there’s a good chance they’ll take any opportunities for revenge—like sending your camera bag to the hold.
- Think about other passengers: Flying with camera gear is tricky. It’s expensive and delicate, but also heavy. You’re almost always going to toe the lines of what’s actually allowed by the airline’s policies. Have a bit of respect for your fellow passengers and just think about your actions. If you’re bringing too much stuff, you should really check it in.
Travel and photography go hand in and hand and, since a tripod is often a required bit of kit, it’s worth bringing with you. The good news is, you generally can—as long as you follow the airline’s baggage rules.