Photographers travel a lot. Whether you shoot weddings, commercials, real estate, nonprofits, or landscapes, one thing that binds us all is how frequently we all travel. As I was recently packing for a trip to photograph the Italian Dolomites, I got to thinking recently: Which airline is the most photographer-friendly?
I wanted to spend a little time comparing some of the world’s most popular airlines from a photographer’s point of view. Keep in mind nothing I say here is a hard rule. If you like flying Delta, then do it! All that matters is that you’re getting out there and seeing more of the world. But some of these concerns are very real for photographers and I wanted to see how each airline stacked up from a photographer’s point of view. Being able to plan ahead can make or break a big photography excursion and I know I’m not the only one who stands at the gate, hoping I won’t get hassled for my camera bag.
So for the purpose of this article, I’m starting out with the top 35 (or so) airlines and using the process of elimination to determine which airline is the best for photographers based on a variety of considerations: carry-on size, carry-on weight, the total number of destinations and frequent flyer programs.
First, we are going to eliminate all the airlines that do not include carry-on luggage with your boarding pass. Sure, some of these airlines will allow you to use the overhead bins for a fee, but that creates an opportunity for an airline employee to question your bag in the first place. We’re looking for airlines that give photographers zero BS when they board their flight.
With that in mind, it’s time to say goodbye to Spirit, Allegiant, Frontier, Ryanair, EasyJet, AirAsia, Vueling, Volaris, Interjet and United. We hardly knew ye.
My Go-To landscape photography bag: WANDRD PRVKE 31, which measures 22 x 14 x 9 without using the top compartment.
For this next metric, I took the top 25-ish airlines (who weren’t eliminated earlier) and researched their luggage policy. To determine which ones allow for the most carry-on space, I charted every airline’s maximum carry-on size, ranked by volume (liters). The results are below:
Source: Airlines Website
Here are a few takeaways:
- British Airways and Southwest seem to be head and shoulders above their competition with allowing nearly 65L bags. This translates to 22in x 18in x 10in and 24in x 16in x 10in, respectively.
- Aside from Southwest, all other US-based airlines performed pretty poorly here. American, Delta, Alaska, JetBlue and Hawaiian have identical carry-on limits: 22in x 14in x 9in.
- My WANDRD bag fits on all but one airline: Emirates. But even then, I can’t pack anything in the top compartment of my bag… except when I fly British Airways and Southwest.
So to help us narrow these results down, we’re going to eliminate some of the worst-performing airlines as we examine our next metric…
Just like bag size, all airlines have a limit for how much your bag can weigh. As photographers, this is an incredibly important metric to look at because camera gear gets heavy! For perspective, the bag I’m carrying to Italy already weighs 18lbs and that’s considered packing light.
Source: Airlines Website
- Again, British Airways and Southwest are miles ahead of the competition, as well as Air Canada and KLM
- It seems the industry-wide standard is 22lbs, which is ok for a soft camera backpack but less-than ideal for a Pelican case or any other hard-case. Keep in mind Pelican’s standard carry-on case weighs 13lbs when empty, leaving you with just 9lbs for camera gear on most airlines. This is a big deal, since one camera body and two lenses can easily hit 9lbs.
Just like the Bachelorette, it’s time to eliminate some of these guys. Since 9lbs isn’t much to work with, I’m going to eliminate everyone with 22lbs or less carry-on weight limit.
Isn’t the point of an airline to go places? What good is an airline if you can’t get to faraway places?
Source: Airlines Website
- This metric is entirely subjective, so I’m not going to eliminate anyone from it. Which airline serves you best here depends on where you want to go.
- With that said, Air France is the most impressive of the group but British Airways isn’t far behind.
- Air Canada scored high as well but keep in mind a large chunk of their destinations are small, isolated northern Canadian cities where driving is not an option.
- As expected, this is the only metric Southwest scored poorly on. Southwest was founded on the idea of cheap, short distance flights using an identical fleet of short-distance aircraft and they’ve only recently started expanding beyond the southwestern United States.
With that said, there’s one last metric I want to explore…
I want to take a minute to explore the remaining airline rewards programs because that definitely makes a difference if you travel a lot. Being able to rack up points for free flights is easily my favorite thing about being an adult. Early on in my photo career I regularly used travel rewards to book free travel, which allowed me to continue photographing landscapes in far-away places while I was a broke twenty-something.
Nearly every airline has a travel rewards program, offering redeemable points to frequent flyers as well as points for using the airline’s corresponding credit card on everyday purchases. Before opening up an account, I’d strongly suggest reading up on the subject with ThePointsGuy and NerdWallet.
Airlines points guru ThePointsGuy has an excellent method for calculating the dollar value based on a variety of metrics: redemption value, how easy members earn points, and cost to buy points. So using this dollar value, how do our remaining airlines rank?
- Air Canada has the most generous credit card rewards program, but at a cost. The card has a steep annual fee (approx $477), a hefty sign-on bonus (70,000 miles when you spend $4,777 in the first 6 months), and an unusual monthly bonus (5,000 bonus points for every month you spend at least $1,000).
- Air France and KLM are both members of SkyTeam alliance, along with Delta, AeroMexico, Korean Air, etc. This means their points are interchangeable and can be used towards a flight with any of these carriers.
- Southwest finally beats British Airways in a category! Their ever popular Rapid Rewards program has a decent point value and offers a complimentary “Companion Pass” to all members who earn 125,000 points in a year.
Now that we’ve looked at a variety of metrics, I think a clear winner has emerged…
And the winner is…
British Airways! Dominating the competition in terms of carry-on size and weight, with a respectable number of destinations and an above-average rewards program, British Airways is the best airline for photographers, especially when taking a trans-continental flight, however, they have very few options for photographers traveling within the US or to Latin America… which brings us to…
Coming in a close second is Southwest Airlines! With a benevolent rewards program, a highly-ranked customer service team, and a generous carry-on policy, Southwest Airlines should be the photographer’s choice whenever traveling within the US or Central America. The only weird quirk with Southwest? They only fly into LaGuardia.