travel tips and hacks I have learned as a destination photographer

My last travel job of the year was a couple weeks ago. Up until then, for the past 14 months since I moved to Michigan, I was on a plane on an average of once a month traveling for weddings I had booked out of town.

I wish I could go back in time and share with past Casey what I’ve learned since I started traveling for work several years ago. So, I’m using this blog post to share the mistakes I made and the tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way.

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I think it’s easy for anyone to think that traveling for work is glamorous. Especially when I’ve been brought to so many fun places, including both coasts of the US (and a few states in between), Europe, and even Costa Rica.

But, honey, it ain’t all glitz and glam, I can tell ya that much.

There are so many myths that go along with traveling for work. The first thing to keep in mind is:

traveling for work ≠ vacation.

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Let’s get one thing straight: traveling for a job is not a vacation. It has it’s expectations and stresses. You are planning a trip around someone else’s timeline and agenda, after all. You’re going somewhere you’ve maybe never wanted nor had any reason to go. You can’t stay wherever you want because you need to be close to where the job will be. You can’t be a tourist unless you plan to stay extra days (and spend extra time and money out of pocket) while you’re there. Not to mention, you are adding on extra days just to get yourself to the place you need to be. For me, this means a minimum of 4 days away per destination wedding. Add on the fact that I need to carry all my equipment — my livelihood — with me. And I have the added pressure that I can’t forget anything— because that can mean disaster. Not everywhere has the stores you need, and Amazon Prime is usually not quick enough (or available as an option at all) if I forget, say, my camera batteries.

get to the airport early

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Traveling didn’t used to be as much of a hassle as it is today. I swear that just within the past couple years the lines have gotten longer and security has become stricter. Now, no matter if I have to check a bag or not, I arrive at the airport no less than 2 hours before my scheduled boarding time. I’ll try to arrive even earlier if I’m checking luggage, have rented a car, or if I’m going through an extra busy airport like Atlanta or LAX. I’d always rather have the extra time once I get through security to walk around, grab something to eat and drink, and find my gate.

if you travel a lot, Splurge for TSA Pre Check

 Then, treat yo’self with all the time you’ve saved.

Then, treat yo’self with all the time you’ve saved.

This was maybe the best investment I made when I started traveling for work more. Did you know that now any electronic that’s bigger than your phone needs to be removed from your bag when you go through a normal security line? That’s in addition to any liquids, belts, shoes and miscellaneous things in your pockets. For me, this means I’d have to remove everything from my camera bag, which would add so much more time before and after passing through security, thus pissing off the already stressed travelers waiting behind me.

If you have TSA Pre Check, you can bypass the long security line and forego removing all electronics from your bags. You also don’t have to take off your shoes and you can walk through a regular metal detector instead of being scanned in the X-Ray. It cost me a little over $80 for 5 years of this luxury, and it only took about 20 minutes of my time to apply and get an interview/background check to qualify. Now any time I need to fly for work, I have added peace of mind that security will be a breeze.

Plan for delays

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If you are contractually obligated to be somewhere on a specific day, especially if that day can’t be rescheduled (like, say, a wedding day), you must account for delays. At this point I just expect them to happen. So I always plan to land 2 days before the contracted event date. If the wedding is on a Saturday, I land by Thursday afternoon. This technique has literally saved my reputation and reliability for my destination weddings, as some delays have made me 12+ hours later to my destination than I originally planned to be. And I always like to bring a deck of cards or some sort of game in my carry on to pass the time in case my flight is cancelled and I’m stranded in an airport overnight.

Pack a change of clothes (and underwear) in your carry on

 Although sometimes they appear the same from the outside.

Although sometimes they appear the same from the outside.

Otherwise, you could end up like me if the airline loses your luggage: stuck in a remote location where no one speaks English (and nary a Rite Aid in sight), washing your panties in a hotel sink and trying to air dry them out the car window each day. Yep, that happened when I went to Costa Rica. My luggage went to Honduras instead of arriving with me, and I had to travel 4 hours away from the airport to shoot a wedding the next day. The only clothes I had were what I wore on the plane, and let me tell you: jeans and a long sleeve button-up isn’t the most ideal outfit to wear while shooting a wedding in muggy, 90-degree weather. I was stranded in a remote part of Costa Rica, and the only option I had to buy a change of clothing was a little beach bodega near our hotel. I was able to get essentials: sunscreen, toothpaste, and a passably decent change of clothes to wear to a wedding (ok, it was plastic flip flops and a beach dress, but beggars can’t be choosey). But it brought up unexpected expenses that the airline wouldn’t refund, because the luggage hadn’t technically been lost… it was just “misplaced."

My luggage wasn’t delivered to me until the last day of our trip.

So now, if I absolutely have to check my luggage, I always bring at least one change of clothes in my carry on (ideally, an acceptable outfit to work in) and underwear.

Which reminds me, I should also mention:

Never pack anything of value in a checked bag unless you’re willing to risk never seeing it again.

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Do I really need to explain why? Flight crews randomly search checked luggage, and items can be mishandled or even stolen. I remember one Christmas when we flew home, I thought I was being proactive by wrapping all my gifts and packing them in my suitcase. I checked the bag, and to my dismay when we arrived home, the contents had been rifled through and every gift had been ripped open. I’m not sure if this was a safety precaution or if someone just wanted to see what I was getting for my mom, but it was so upsetting. I was very lucky that no gifts were stolen or damaged, and you can bet if I’m ever in the same situation, I’ll plan to either carry the gifts on or ship them to my destination.

Assume you’ll never have an outlet

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If you rely on your phone to get you around (which I’m assuming most of us do) buy an external battery pack for your phone. I have this one and it is awesome. It charges not only my phone but any device that has a USB attachment, like my Kindle. And it’s literally saved me when a plane doesn’t have a charging port available at the seat, or I’m in the middle of nowhere shooting and I need directions.

Pack lightly

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For weekend getaways, there’s no reason you really need to check anything under the plane. This isn’t always possible, especially if you’re like me and travel with equipment you can’t check. But, I like to take on the challenge no matter what.

I’ve become the queen of light packing. I especially love these compression packing cubes that I can fit up to a week’s worth of clothes in, and when zipped it fits comfortably (with room to spare!) into a backpack. I seriously use them every time I travel, and I feel like I’ve beat the system.

Other ways to lighten the load: Prioritize first what you absolutely cannot live without. Consider what you can buy there (like a disposable razor or toothbrush). Bring clothes you can mix and match, so you have multiple days of outfit choices (do you really need four pairs of jeans for a week?). Find out what your hotel provides (like toiletries) which can save you some room in your bag. See if you can rent equipment in the destination city while you’re there, or ship items to your hotel in advance. And wear your heaviest clothing on the plane to keep your carry on as light as possible.

Upgrade to priority boarding

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If you really want to guarantee that your carry on won’t be checked under the plane, upgrade your seat. It costs a little more for some peace of mind. For me, I never ever want to get my camera bag taken from me, or I’ll risk items being broken, stolen, or lost. And I can’t afford to have that happen when someone is relying on me to shoot their wedding in 48 hours. So, I’ve learned to avoid the headache altogether and pay for a guaranteed space overhead.

pack a lightweight, little luxury

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I love my travel slippers. They are basically glorified socks, but they are practically weightless and can roll up small and fit in a coat pocket or purse. And for long stretches, they are essential to my comfort. Plus it’s better than removing your shoes and being the person who stinks up the cabin with their sweaty feet.

If you’re close enough to avoid flying, take a train!

I love trains. I made my way around Europe on trains and it was so relaxing, stressless, and simple compared to traveling by air. When you take into account the time spent at the airport and on the plane, sometimes it equals out to being the same amount of time or more time-efficient! I recomend this route if you’re going to a major city like New York or Chicago, where various public transportation options are easily accessible and you can avoid renting a car altogether.

My husband and I also like to pack a little cooler full of snacks and beer to enjoy while we watch the world go by outside.

I hope these insider tips help you the next time you need to travel! Is there anything else you like to do to make traveling a little easier? I’d love to hear them in the comments.