Getting Overweight Carry-On Bags On Board

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13/03/2009 – Getting Overweight Carry-On Bags On Board

If there is one thing photographers fear, loath, worry about and detest it is getting stopped at the boarding gate and getting your bag weighed.

Luckily these occurrences are few and far between for US and Canadian flyers, however it happens, and it happens often outside the US & Canada.  Flyers in Europe, Asia and the Pacific are subject to ‘stop & weigh’ far more often, and it can be nerve racking.

Personally, I have only been stopped three times in the United States due to my carry-on bag weight. All three times occurred while flying American Airlines, all three times happened while changing planes at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport (DFW).   Each time I was told my fully loaded Think Tank Airport Addicted Backpack would need to be checked. Following each occurrences I exited the secure area, walked up to the Delta Airlines counter, bought a ticket, and continued my journey on Delta Airlines.

However I have been able to successfully avoid the weight restrictions while traveling through Europe and Asia, even when flying with a fully loaded Think Tank Airport Addicted.

The secret is not so secret; it is all a matter of appearance.

If a gate agent has no reason to believe your bag is heavy they are not likely to ask you to weigh it.   I have watched photographers struggle with bags in the gate area, then get pulled out of line to have a bag weighed or measured.   I have also watched photographers open their bags in gate areas, allowing an airline agent to peer into a bag and easily determine that a bag is over weight.

When I travel I never open my bags in any way that can expose the full contents in a gate area. This is not only to avoid being a target of theft, but also to not draw attention to myself from airline staff.

Once boarding has been called, no matter how heavy my bag is (and my Airport Addicted can weight over 60lbs/27kgs) I pick the bag up as if it was a feather and carry it like it weighs 5lbs/2.25kgs. If a gate agent has no reason to believe the bag is overweight they will not waste the time to pull you from the line and hold up the boarding process.

Yes, carrying a 60+ lbs bag like it is a feather can be challenging, and after a long day, or heavy travel, it can be painful, but it is better than the alternative…which is having your bag of equipment placed in the cargo hold with the checked baggage.

When flying on strict airlines, such as Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, etc etc, it is best to choose a bag with a smaller profile when possible. A bag that appears to visually be under the maximum carry-on size is less likely to draw attention from preying eyes.   I have flown multiple flights with a heavily loaded Mountainsmith Parallax backpack on airlines known weigh bags and never been stopped once.

A good example of using a smaller bag that can pack a lot of gear is when I travel with Air China.   Air China’s carry-on weight limit is a mere 11lbs/5kgs.   With such a minimal allowable weight limit it is nearly impossible to carry any gear on-board a flight. By using the ‘smaller’ Mountainsmith Parallax backpack I have been able to comfortably pack 2 full-size bodies, 6 lenses, a laptop, batteries, battery chargers, clothing, accessories, with a weight of more than 20lbs and never catch the attention of an airline gate agent.

To avoid problems with Lufthansa I have used a non-photo rolling bag. Converting this LL Bean roll-aboard bag is easy, as I removed an insert from a photo backpack and placed it in the LL Bean roll-aboard bag to blend in with the other passengers. Although Lufthansa’s carry-on baggage weight limit is only 18lbs/8kgs, by using a standard roll-aboard bag and picking the bag up effortlessly, the bag which actually weighs in at 33lbs, goes unnoticed by any airline personnel, on the ground or on the plane.

Simply put, if you want to get your overweight carry-on bag on the plane, blend in, don’t draw attention to yourself or your bag and choose your bag wisely.

Walk tall, walk confidently and never let on that the weight of your bag feels like it is tearing your shoulders off!

Happy Flying!


  1. I travel with a Parallax on the recomendation of this blog. To me, this is a large backpack (I am not a professional photographer) and with laptop, cameras and lenses it is generally over the handlugage limit.

    On a recent trip to New Zealand, I had an issue both ways with Sydney Airport. Each time the security team put the bag through x-ray they required a hand inspection which gave the weight away. I was lucky to be in transit.

    On this same trip, I had no problem with Heathrow, Dubai, Singapore, Bankok scanners or staff.


  2. There seems to be an issue with American (and maybe others, but I fly AA out of ORD often) and large, obviously-full backpacks. Everytime I’ve tried to fly with my LowePro NatureTrekker II AW, the staff at the gate wants me to gate check it. Generally, taking it up to the counter (after asking them if I can reenter the line at the same place) and opening it up for them, they acquiesce. I did have one gate attendant very rudely tell me I’d still have to gate check it, and I stupidly got confrontational, asking her why I have to gate check and the gentleman in front of me (in the 3-piece suit) didn’t have to gate check his obviously oversized roll-a-board, and then asked her for her credit card so I could replace any damaged equipment.

    It was stupid, I know, but another gate attendant came up and told me I’d be OK as long as it fit in the overhead.

    Since then, I’ve purchased a ThinkTank Airport International, and haven’t had an issue on American or United, except once, when United (at ABQ) asked if I could gate check it, and I said it had delicate equipment and my computer. She took the gate-check ticket back, and said “Oh, no problem.”

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