Tripods — TSA and the Airlines, updated

by Ned Levi on January 21, 2013

Camera and lens protected from rain on tripod by NSL Photography

More and more travelers are serious about photography on their trips. While many travelers use their cell phones and tablets to record their travel memories, I’ve noticed more and more travelers capturing those memories with high quality camera gear.

Travelers today often wish to capture night photos and other long exposure photos which make traveling with a tripod almost essential for them. As a result, tripods, large and small, are making their way into either checked or carry-on luggage, which are inspected by TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and other countries’ security officials prior to boarding.

One of the questions I’m asked over and over again from travelers carrying photographic gear is, “Are tripods allowed in my carry-on bag?”

Unfortunately, there is no absolute answer to that question.

An extensive survey of governmental airport security programs I ran merely indicates tripods in carry-on or checked luggage aren’t on their “prohibited lists.”

At the same time, the world’s security agencies, including TSA, tell us they give flexibility to their agents to interpret and enforce their rules and regulations, so even while tripods aren’t on prohibited lists, it’s impossible to say tripods definitely will be permitted in carry-on luggage.

I have interviewed countless TSA TSO’s (Transportation Security Officers). They, like other airport security agencies’ agents around the globe, are looking for weapons, explosives, and other prohibited items to prevent them from getting on board airplanes to keep passengers safe.

Some security agents think tripods can be used as a weapon, much like “prohibited” baseball bats.

Frankly, if I have checked luggage, my tripod is in it. Then I don’t have to worry about a TSA agent rejecting my tripod from my carry-on. Yes, if my checked luggage is lost, so is my tripod. I mostly fly direct, non-stop flights, which minimizes the odds my checked luggage will be lost. The tripod could be stolen from my checked bag too, but TSA has stated in the past that only 3 per 100,000 passengers file loss claims. Even if losses are somewhat under reported, the odds are your tripod will be in your bag when you retrieve it at baggage claim.

As mentioned above, TSA TSOs, like security agents in other countries’ airports, have enormous flexibility in deciding what’s allowed and what’s not in carry-on luggage. Last summer I saw a couple instances of tripods (sans spiked feet) in the outside pocket of photo equipment backpacks, just peeking out, refused by TSA. I also saw a few tripods neatly strapped to the outside of camera bags (sans spiked feet) refused by TSA last spring. Reports from readers indicate they’ve seen the same TSA tripod refusals.

In the last 18 months I have not seen TSA refuse to permit a tripod which was packed totally inside a carry-on bag (sans spiked feet), but I have seen them refused, packed that way, in years past. In my opinion, it’s not possible to be absolutely certain what a TSA TSO will decide about permitting tripods in carry-on bags in the future.

Of this, I’m certain. If a traveler tries to carry a tripod in or on the outside of a carry-on, with spiked feet attached, the likelihood is extremely high, if not 100 percent, it will be refused to be permitted past the TSA airport checkpoint. Beyond that, nothing about traveling with a tripod is certain.

My experience with TSA personally, and after speaking with TSA, is if your tripod is wholly inside a bag, it will most likely be permitted, but that’s not absolutely, positively.

I can also say that if a tripod is hand carried or tied to the outside of a carry-on, it’s at least even odds it will be refused by TSA. More than a few TSA agents consider tripods, brought into an airplane cabin, a potential weapon.

Even if a tripod gets through airport security, while on the outside of a carry-on bag or handheld, there is a strong possibility the gate agent will refuse to allow it past the gate. For example, I’ve seen gate agents inform passengers their tripod on their carry-on violated the size limitation of the carry-on, which is linear (L+W+D), when it’s top and/or bottom extended past the carry-on itself.

While gate agents who refuse tripods generally permit them to be gate checked, sometimes they say it must be checked in with checked luggage, back at the ticket counter. Either way, a separately checked tripod may not physically survive the flight.

Here’s my suggestion. If you’re taking a tripod on your trip, and are using checked luggage, put it in the checked luggage. If you’re traveling with only carry-on bags, pack your tripod totally in your carry-on bag, and if you use spiked feet, remove them before you get to the airport. Pack them separately.

Ned Levi is a long time professional photographer with a passion for wildlife and travel photography. You can view some of Ned’s travel and other photos at NSL Photography or get more travel photography advice at the NSL Photography Blog.

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  • mtp51

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=576001031 Jeff Linder

    Supplementary note – if you carry your tripod attached to the outside, consider it in total dimensions as noticed to make sure you are only taking up your fair share of space. Was just on a flight where the person had full size carryons, a backpack and an attached tripod (made it through security), the tripod could not fit into the overhead bin while attached and was too long for under the seat. If they had put it in the overhead bin, someone else would not have fit their bag. Fortunately the flight crew was nice enough to stand it in the back of a closet in first class, but that’s not the norm.

    My new trick to try to save space is carry a monopod inside my checked bag or carry on. A plumber neighbor made me a PVC ring stand with 3 folding feet that holds it fairly steady and is small, going to see how that works…

  • MilesRunner

    Contrary to mtp51′s concise assessment, this info is very helpful. I have occasionally hand-carried a tripod in the past and never had a problem. I am looking for a new prosumer tripod and need to know that TSA might consider this a deadly weapon. Now I will make sure I only shop for models have removable spikes and that will fit inside my carry-on. Thanks Ned.

  • Carrie Charney

    Funny that tripods are suspect, but 5-inch spiked heels that can efficiently pierce the carotid in one blow are perfectly fine.

  • Fisher1949

    The screeners don’t have flexibility, they are simply inconsistent and incompetent just like the rest of this dysfunctional agency.

  • NedLevi

    My pleasure MR. There are many quality tripods which have removable spikes and get very smaller. To companies which come to mind which you might want to investigate are Gitzo and Feisol. They make great carbon fiber legs in their traveler class. I also recommend either Markins, or Really Right Stuff ball heads for the legs.

  • NedLevi

    Hi Jeff,

    I generally put my tripod sans head in my checked luggage, though sometimes it’s in my carry-on. Most of the time, while traveling I use a Gitzo Traveler – Series 2 leg set with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 head and a lever release attachment.

  • NedLevi

    While some TSO’s may be incompetent and inconsistent, they are definitely given flexibility to assess objects on a case by case basis, which are not on their prohibited list, to determine for themselves if they will or won’t be safe in an airplane cabin.

    I personally think the quality of the typical TSA TSO has improved in the last 2 years. Unfortunately, I don’t think their management has improved, and I still think many of their procedures and rules are not just poorly crafted, but in many cases so wrong-headed they have made us less safe than we would be if they weren’t in place.

    While the removal of the back scatter x-rays is a welcome happenstance, I note that TSA still has not acknowledged that they are unsafe, nor is TSA willing to actually test the MMW machines for health safety problems. Is it possible they are afraid of the results of such tests?

    I find it interesting that while TSA keeps investing in these questionable MMW full body scanners, according to Wired.com reports, France and Germany have concluded that since MMW scanners produce so many false positives due to normal circumstances, such as sweat and folds in clothing, that they will not use them in airports in their countries.

    TSA needs to almost totally rethink their procedures, in my opinion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=576001031 Jeff Linder

    Sounds great, then I looked at the price :) – Right now I have Vanguard Alta tripod and monopod, with a pistol grip and friction head, plus a vanguard monopod with a Gitzo holster and ball head. I want to get the really right stuff head for my monopod when budget permits to allow easy angle changes.

  • fdesign

    thank You for the tripod info, and the graphic design no no in your copyright. ps brush script in all caps is a huge design no no

  • Robert Mang

    I was flying out of Naples, IT recently with only carry-on including a tripod. Stopped at security and they said, “it must be checked”, to which I said, “but it’s only a tripod”. “Sorry, not allowed”. This conversation went back and forth about 5 times, but to no avail. I had to check my tripod. They were adamant, and it’s a “Naples Policy”. Be warned. However, when I got to Madrid holding my breath, there on the luggage belt, was my lonely tripod.

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