Jeffrey R. Charles
© Copyright 1996, 2004 Jeffrey R. Charles, All Rights Reserved.
This paper will address travel preparations and other issues that are particularly applicable to total solar eclipse expeditions. More particularly, it suggests ways to get your eclipse equipment safely through airports and to your eclipse site. It will not address general travel issues such as obtaining passports. This paper is one chapter in a series of documents that comprise a cumulative on-line solar eclipse "book", which is also available on electronic media and in print. (Color CD and black and white printed versions are available from versacorp.com) Together, these chapters cover many fascinating aspects of total solar eclipses, and how to travel to them.
The following section is a new chapter that will address the way events of September 11, 2001 have influenced (or may be expected to influence) negotiating airports and other terminals when bringing equipment on eclipse or astronomical expeditions. I have not personally traveled by air all that much since 2001, so the new section will be based on a combination of my own experience and what I have learned from other travelers or public statements by security officials.
Other sections of this paper have not been exhaustively edited to remove all previous material that would be superseded (at least for U.S. travel) by the following new section. This is partly because there are some countries that already had relatively stringent security arrangements in place before September 11, 2001, and these countries may not have needed to make a great deal of changes since then. Also, there are probably other countries that may have had more average security before 2001, and some of these countries still may not have not have upgraded their airport security to the extent the U.S. has. However, at least in the case of U.S. travel, information in the following new section will supersede any conflicting text in other sections of this paper or in other papers at the same web site(s) or in associated printed works.
Finally, with so many aspects of security subject to change, it is obvious that no single privately written source (including this paper) should be relied on as a sole or primary source of information. Accordingly, by reading or discussing this paper, all readers agree that the author and any associated persons or organizations shall be held harmless under all circumstances, without regard to whether or not the reader (or those a reader communicates with) perceives that this publication or any associated persons, publications, communications, or comments have influenced the actions or circumstances of the reader or those said reader communicates with. For the most up to date information, good sources include security officials in one's own country and in the country to be visited. In the United States, a good place to start is the Department of Homeland Security, at: www.dhs.gov.
In many if not all parts of the world, reaction to the profoundly tragic events of September 11, 2001 have significantly changed how airport security is handled. The events of that day showed the world that some people are willing to step to new moral lows in order to promote their ideologies, and that the risk posed by people taking over an aircraft extents well beyond the passengers and crew on the plane. With the stakes so high, a great deal of effort has been directed toward preventing future attacks. In the United States, changes in security have been significant, but given the enormity of the changes, the typical burden on passengers has been remarkably mild. Nonetheless, the changes do significantly impact what one must do in order to be adequately prepared for air travel, particularly when the air travel is part of an expedition that involves transportation of cameras, telescopes, or other equipment.
In some countries, the requirement for how long before a flight one should arrive has become significantly longer than before. Sometimes, the required arrival time will even change according to local conditions such as nationally communicated security levels, etc. Additional changes that are strictly enforced in the U.S. and many other countries include a prohibition on bringing smaller sharp (but previously acceptable in some countries) objects onto a commercial aircraft. For eclipse chasers, such recently prohibited objects would include items such as tools for assembly or maintenance of en eclipse photography setup. The original version of this paper (published years before 2001) mentioned the possibility of bringing small tools on aircraft in cases where everything will fit in carry on bags. Small tools are still mentioned as a useful items to bring on an expedition; however, in countries where such items are prohibited in the passenger cabin, they obviously should not be brought on board the plane as carry on items. The unfortunate outcome of this prohibition is that it puts one in the position of having to check a bag even in cases where everything would fit in carry on luggage. As a solution, I had hoped that airlines would eventually permit people to "check" (at check in) pocket size items, that these items would be stored in a lock box during the flight, then be retrieved by the traveler after the flight, but with less hassle than going to the baggage claim area and waiting out the full baggage claim procedure. For semi-automation of the process, the items could be numbered or imaged, then cross referenced (if necessary) to (for example) digital photos of the passengers who checked them. This could make it easier to get small tools to one's destination and still travel light.
Other security changes influence the scope of acceptable behavior in an airport. For example, the original version referred to the possibility of pleading one's case with security or airline personnel in regard to getting equal treatment (regardless of one's attire, etc.) when it comes to allowance of a certain size or number of carry on bags, or to keep from getting bumped from an overbooked flight, etc. These practices (while no doubt legitimate in some cases) would now typically be discouraged, and would fall into a "consider doing only at your own risk" category. This is because such actions (particularly if they appear disruptive) could be perceived as a threat by some, while in other cases, there is the (hopefully very rare) possibility that an uncooperative airline or airport employee could use their increased scope of authority to just make things worse. The remaining option for the traveler is to (when possible) simply select an airline that is both predictable and reasonable.
Fortunately, some security changes in the U.S, particularly the change to government security employees (as opposed to using airline employees) should actually reduce the chances one would be treated unequally for purely arbitrary reasons. In addition, since the security people are not direct airline employees, there is probably less likelihood that security screening areas will be used to the same extent they were in the late 1990's to (possibly sometimes meerely for the airline's convenience) strictly limit the size of carry on bags to ridiculously small dimensions. However, there is still the matter of the ticket agents near the gate, which is where most of the inconsistent treatment (based on attire, etc.) has (in my own experience) occurred.
Even with the positive changes in security screening, there has been a general trend toward allowing fewer or smaller carry on bags for each passenger. This trend has led me to begin assembling a completely new eclipse setup that can be transported in only one rolling carry on bag and one shoulder bag. (My previous setup required two rolling carry on bags, and these days, it is unlikely that many airlines would routinely let a person carry on that much.) For myself, another reason for the change to a smaller setup is arthritis, and the resulting need to occasionally have one hand free for using a cane.
The security screening process itself has changed a great deal, with more thorough inspection of shoes and computers, plus X-ray of checked bags being some of the most obvious. These changes can lead to occasions where different security people simultaneously carry off a number of things to inspect, after which time some of the inspected items are always not returned directly to you, but may instead be left in an area that many people have access to. This potential temporary scattering of one's stuff to the four winds can make it very hard to keep track where all your items are, and the need to track where your items are can often occur at the same time that your person is being screened. These changes add enough complexity to the screening process that, when possible, one wants to avoid even having a camera or a bunch of film hand inspected. In the case of film, this leaves the option of either buying film at the destination (not all that good of an idea on an eclipse trip) or using (hopefully good) X-ray bags for film so the film can be left in one's luggage when it is X-rayed.
A stronger preference to avoid hand inspection of film or cameras came about after my first domestic U.S. flight in 2002, which was a real eye opener. On this trip to Colorado, I was bringing a film camera, digital camera, small Fujitsu P-series laptop computer, and extra film. In my checked bag, I was transporting a defective WinBook XL2 computer to donate to the Colorado Computer Museum (CCM),which is a nonprofit organization founded by my brother.
Upon arriving at the airport to start my trip, my checked bag was put in an X-ray machine, which revealed the presence of the WinBook computer. At this point, the security people wanted to see computer, so I unlocked my checked bag. Needless to say (given 20/20 hindsight), it raised some eyebrows when the computer in my checked bag didn't work. The security people then thoroughly went through my checked bag (they don't want any "help" from the bag owner while they do this, which can make it hard to repack the bag after the fact), and rubbed several items with cloth pads that they then analyzed. After that, they closed my checked bag and let me proceed.
I then encountered the security gate area, where I was asked to place my working Fujitsu laptop computer in a plastic tub, then send it and my carry on bag through the X-ray machine separately. The Fujitsu computer attracted some attention, with one person commenting on its small size. Next was the security gate itself, where I took things out of my pockets before passing through. However, in the previous confusion, I forgot to take my camera film out of my jacket pocket for hand inspection (I had kept the film out of the camera to avoid hand inspection of my camera) and this set off the metal detector alarm. Then, one of the security people took my film for inspection, but since they appeared to be heading for the X-ray machine with it, I had to specifically ask for hand inspection. At the same moment, another security person asked me for my shoes, took them, and a different security person started screening me with a wand. As this was going on, I was distracted with having to keep track of 5 separate types of items at once: My carry on bag, my Fujitsu computer, my keys and pocket change, my film, and my shoes. Once the inspection was over, it took a while to locate all of my stuff, but I finally found it all and was able to enter the gate area and get on my flight. While going through security, I had noticed that the screening was roughly the same for most people, with almost everyone being screened with the wand and having to get their shoes inspected; however, relatively few of my fellow travelers had brought computers or cameras, so they did not have the added hassle of dealing with these items.
Before returning from Colorado, I had all of my film processed (which kept X-rays at the airport from being an issue), applied some lessons learned from my recent experience, and things went a great deal easier. The process at the Denver airport no doubt helped simplify things, because their security area had a far better layout that allowed me to stand where I could easily keep track of my computer and carry on bag while I was personally being screened. Even the shoe inspection was done in a way that I could keep track of things without being overly distracted. In fact, the screening process at Denver (while thorough), was only slightly more hassle than the average airport security process was before 2001. Therefore, it could be said that the implementation of security at each airport will influence how smoothly the process goes. Of course, for each traveler, one's own preparedness will be the greatest factor.
When it comes to becoming acquainted with how to efficiently go through airport security screening, there is no substitute for actually experiencing the evolving process first hand. It could be of assistance to travelers if the screening process became more uniform and if there was some sort of handout for how to best go through security screening at each airport, but one can also see the safety benefit of keeping security screening process from becoming too predictable or too well publicised. This safety concern is one reason why the above accounts of going through airports do not describe specifics about any security screening setups, etc.
The events of September 11, 2001 have also influenced the way people are encouraged to behave on an airplane. This has included a redefinition of what is often considered the best way to deal with those who would presume to take over an aircraft, with action by passengers and crew now being preferred over a passive approach. The active approach is particularly appropriate in airspace where an aircraft that has been taken over would be subject to being downed if designated areas were approached. (This does not mean that passengers have to be action heroes, but it does mean that people should be vigilant.) A logical conclusion one can draw from this is that it would be a very bad idea to be disruptive on an aircraft, even if the "disruption" is only of the type that may not have seemed unusual before 2001. This is because disruptive behavior on an aircraft, regardless of the motivation, could now be interpreted as either an attempt to take over an aircraft or a diversion that is part of a group effort to take control. Accordingly, disruptive behavior on an aircraft is likely to incur the wrath of the flight crew or other passengers (and rightly so), not to mention the potential consequences from law enforcement after the plane lands.
The events of September 11, 2001 may have been the catalyst for resulted in many changes in security, and due in part to these changes, one can still travel to eclipses and other events in relative safety.
Some large, well organized eclipse tours offer advantages such as addressing logistical travel issues for their tour members. This can make travel relatively simple, but I have found that most eclipse tours are undesirable for my own purposes; they are relatively expensive; the venue often includes only "traditional" tourist destinations; the schedules are usually very heavy; and more importantly, most tours allow inadequate time for rest and sleep, particularly on the night after arrival in the destination country and on the night before the eclipse.
In order to overcome these deficiencies, I often plan my own eclipse expeditions and travel alone or in a very small group. This type of "do it yourself" travel has its own sets of challenges, but it also has its rewards. While this paper addresses a number of travel issues, it is written primarily for those who may plan to travel alone or in a small group. Issues that members of a large tour would not even have to think about can be a potential show stopper for the individual traveler. The lone traveler lacks the "clout" and "blocking power" associated with being on a large tour when negotiating an unfamiliar airport and dealing with the personnel there.
Recent developments have increased the likelihood of rigorous and time consuming security checks at U.S. airports; however, it is important to remember that observing total solar eclipses usually involves international travel, and many international airports already have rigorous and time consuming security procedures to enhance passenger safety and to discourage drug trafficking; therefore, it is important to be prepared to cooperate with these security measures. An important part of this preparation is in how you document and pack your instrumentation.
International travel involving the transportation of specialized eclipse equipment requires planning, documentation, mobility, vigilance, and the matter of getting film and magnetic media through unfamiliar security checkpoints. In some situations, even the selection of proper attire will have an effect on how one is treated by airport personnel. In rare cases, an airport employee who is on a power trip may act unreasonably. This paper suggests how one may deal with such situations without being walked on. However, as mentioned in a 2004 addition to this paper, security measures brought about in response to the events of September 11, 2001 have created situations where it can be far less advisable to stand up for certain aspects of one's rights, even when one's position is completely legitimate.
Ground transportation to a suitable eclipse site will also be addressed because it can present one of the greatest logistical challenges of any eclipse trip. In some countries, cultural factors have the potential to adversely effect on one's travel activities, including ground transportation to an eclipse site. These cultural issues are only briefly addressed in this paper.
Potentially unfavorable cultural issues are covered more in depth in my paper entitled "Cultural Reality at Your Eclipse Destination; When Caution may be in Order". The cultural reality paper relates misadventures and problems myself and others experienced in various countries, and suggests how one may avoid similar problems.
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Documentation; for U.S. & Foreign Customs:
The first step is to contact U.S. customs about the registration of your equipment. This registration is partly for the purpose of proving that you had purchased or previously owned your equipment in the U.S. rather than having purchased it in the country you will be visiting. Ideally, you should register your equipment several weeks in advance of your trip. You may be required to physically bring your equipment and all related sales receipts to a port of entry, show them to a customs agent, and fill out some forms. You may also have to make an appointment and/or wait in line, but don't worry; this procedure has the potential to go smoothly. While registering my equipment before the 1991 eclipse I had a delightful conversation with a customs agent who had an interest in amateur astronomy. They're not all mere "bureaucrats"; most of 'em are real people!
In addition to U.S. customs, you should check with the proper foreign authorities to see what is required for you to temporarily bring your equipment into the country you will be visiting. Some countries may have rules that seem "unconventional" to say the least.
Common Sense: If you intend to visit a country in which rather "radical" views of the U.S. (or of your country of origin, if different) are promoted, you should exercise discretion in bringing certain "new technology" with you. For instance, it may not be a good idea to bring a modern image intensifier or a computer with a modern analysis or encryption program into such a country. If in doubt, check with the proper authorities in your country.
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Documentation; for Security Personnel:
Many people (including some security employees) may be unfamiliar with eclipse related items such as long telephoto lenses, telescopes, and equatorial mountings, so it is very important to be prepared to patiently take the "mystery" out of your equipment. To do this, it is helpful to bring a few extra "educational" items such as; an eclipse photo or a copy of an article about eclipses; photos which clearly show each part of your equipment as it will appear when set up for the eclipse; and a copy of a brochure or advertisement for equipment similar to that you are transporting.
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Packing for Mobility and Faster Customs & Security Processing:
The best laid plans can be left in ruins by late flights, overbooked flights, or the very rare case of the grumpy, power wielding airport employee. You may arrive at the airport many hours early and have a seemingly smooth flight, only to have the flight arrive late or find upon arrival that that next leg of your flight has been rescheduled and that you have less than 40 minutes to get across a big, unfamiliar airport to catch it. This happened in Hong Kong as I was going to the 1995 eclipse in Thailand, so I was certainly glad that my carry on baggage had built-in wheels!
At such rushed times, it is very important to have your carry on baggage organized, and not to have it packed so tightly that it "explodes" when you open it. (By the way, I don't recommend using the term "explode" in an airport, even in this context!) If the X-ray of your equipment looks unfamiliar to security personnel, you may have to unpack your carry on baggage for inspection (I had to in Hong Kong) and if you do, you need to be able to repack everything quickly.
I usually pack each piece of my equipment in Rubbermaid or Tupperware food containers before I put it in my baggage. This allows me to easily remove a given piece of equipment for inspection without disturbing most other items. Most of the padding is in the plastic container with each piece of equipment, so after inspection, I only have to put the container back in my baggage.
It is helpful to pack in a way that will allow easy access to the most unusual or "suspicious looking" items; accordingly, try to anticipate which items may raise eyebrows: Tubular objects such as small telescope tubes may fit the bill, as may metallic items that contain batteries; including some of the newer equatorial mountings with battery powered clock drives.
Be prepared to remove lens covers, etc., from your equipment, because you may be required to physically demonstrate that your equipment does not contain "undesirable" materials. Certain custom made items (such as the prototype Versarama (TM) rotating panoramic camera platform I built for use at eclipses) always seem to attract attention, so it is advisable to bring along tools so you can partially disassemble these items if necessary. (Of course, after 2001, your tools would have to be in a checked bag owing to prohibitions on having sharp objects in the passenger cabin.) I anticipated the matter of disassembly for security inspection when designing my rotating camera platform, so it can be easily disassembled with a simple Allen wrench. (However, after 2001, even the Allen wrench may not be allowed on the plane, so the Allen screws will be replaced with knurled head screws before any future eclipse trip.) Be prepared to cooperate with security personnel without losing your cool. Packing to facilitate quick inspection will better enable you to get through security easily, and it will probably allow you to be more relaxed.
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Preparation for Your Encounter with an Airport X-ray Machine:
Your film (particularly after it is exposed) may be the most valuable part of your expedition. It is always best to protect your film in an X-ray bag, even if you plan to have it hand checked. To speed things up, keep your film bag easily accessible so you can have it hand inspected while you send everything else through the X-ray machine. The X-ray machine will not harm your cameras or lenses, and avoiding a hand inspection of these items will save time. Hand inspection of film usually does not present a problem, but there are unreasonable (though usually rare) exceptions. The following suggestions should prove useful in "reasonable" situations.
It is a good idea not to load your film until you get past the last security checkpoint on the way to your destination. Likewise, it is a good idea to remove the film from all of your cameras before you catch your flight home. This way, you can send your empty cameras through the X-ray machine without having to take the time to have them hand checked. This will simplify things for both you and the security personnel. If your film is in a good X-ray bag, you can send it through the machine as well. X-ray machines will NOT damage film if it is in a good X-ray bag; I have the pictures to prove it! On the way to the eclipse, bring at least some film with you on the airplane, just in case your checked bags arrive late. After the eclipse, you may want to put your film in a checked bag, but if you do, leave it in an X-ray bag.
X-rays and your film: X-rays can definitely affect your unprotected film! On my return from Thailand, I accidentally left a roll of relatively slow ISO 100 film in one camera. The camera was X-rayed twice on the return trip. When I got back, I had all of my film all developed at the same time, but there was a big difference in the base density between the X-rayed roll and other rolls of identical film. This resulted in a slight loss of shadow detail. These different rolls of film were purchased at the same time and had the same expiration date. Fortunately, my eclipse pictures were not on the X-rayed roll! In addition to this, I have seen Kodachrome 64 slides belonging to others that had been spoiled by just one trip through an X-ray machine at a domestic airport. Some X-ray machines may use a low enough level of X-rays that they will not significantly damage your film, but why take the chance? A further consideration is the fact that eclipse and other astrophotos are more sensitive to fogging than "conventional" photos.
X-rays and magnetic media: X-rays themselves will not harm magnetic media, but the effect of other electromagnetic fields associated with high voltage used in generating the X-rays is a subject that is open to debate. Depending on the manufacturer of the X-ray machine, the magnetic fields could possibly be stronger just "outside" the machine than they are in the area where the X-rays are used; therefore; minimizing the time your tapes are in close proximity to any part of the machine is probably the best bet. Accordingly, I typically put my video tapes in checked bags, since they are more likely to pass by and through an X-ray machine more quickly. Again, the effect of these magnetic fields on magnetic media is debatable. It is very unlikely that an X-ray machine would actually "erase" a tape, but prolonged exposure to magnetic fields in a poorly designed or poorly maintained machine could have the potential to impart noise or cause a slight loss in signal strength. If you are concerned about this, try putting your tapes in a ferrous metal box.
X-rays and film cameras: X-rays will not harm your film cameras.
X-rays and CCD video or digital still cameras: Theoretically, X-rays should not harm video cameras and other electronics, but there have been rare reports of CCD sensors developing "hot" pixels (i.e. pixels that always appear like a white spot on the video) after being X-rayed. I cannot confirm or deny this alleged effect, but I have heard an explanation for how it could happen. Specifically, the CCD would need to have a sufficient amount of impurities for hot pixels to occur due to X-ray exposure. If a CCD has enough impurities of certain attributes near given pixels, the impurities can be ionized by the X-rays, and walla, hot pixels! This may develop into a much debated subject. If this issue concerns you, request a hand inspection of your video camera or digital still camera. Given the probable cause of the hot pixels, the previously recommended approach of trying to orient your camera so the plane of its CCD sensor will be roughly parallel to the X-rays when it goes through the machine probably will not make any difference.
Anticipate the Possibility of Air-headed Airline or (or more rarely, Security) Policies: Airports in some countries (such as Brazil in 1994) were reported to have had some very disagreeable policies in regard to examining film, such as refusing to hand inspect film and insisting that people send their unprotected film through X-ray machines. I advise pleasant, patient, cooperation with security and airline personnel, but the issue of such unreasonable policies regarding X-rays and film may incline one toward being prepared to vigorously argue their case, particularly if the so-called "policies" are selectively imposed. However, arguing may not always work (and could be a bad idea in some places following 2001), but at least trying to "rescue" your film the extent that will not get you in trouble (which is a matter that is up in the air) can beat kicking yourself for not trying after having found that your film was damaged by X-rays. Fortunately, such disagreeable situations tend to be rare, and you may possibly avoid such problems by packing your film in an X-ray bag, then putting that in a checked bag. (In my own experience, the difficulties with being hassled about what I'm carrying have involved airport personnel who are not part of the security screening.) With digital photography getting better all the time, it is becoming practical to go all digital for eclipse pictures. In this case, if you bring along some means to make CD's of your images, you will have backups copies before you even arrive back home! This can take the matter of film and X-rays completely out of the equation.
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Travel Attire; Pros and Cons. Appearance is Worth Considering!
Garments with lots of buttoned or zippered pockets are very useful in airports. They can deter pick pocketing while still giving you good access to your funds, film, tickets, passport, other documentation, and small, softer items that won't quite fit in your baggage. In addition, such garments can be very useful during other parts of an eclipse expedition. The disadvantage of these garments is that they generally don't look too good. This should not affect the ease of air travel, but alas, I have found that it really does. Western society may pride itself on the way people supposedly are no longer judged by appearance, but it is this very type judgmentalism that is the problem. My own experience at airports attests to this.
When I travel, I sometimes wear a Domke photo vest. It has lots of pockets. It is also khaki in color, which some people may subconciously associate with ultra right wing ideologies. I have found that when I would wear "ordinary" or nice clothing, I was treated cordially by U.S. airline, security, and customs personnel. When I instead wore the photo vest and a T-shirt, I was treated curtly or unequally over half of the time! It took a while to realize that people's response to my attire was the culprit. On two occasions in the mid 1990's, domestic airline personnel (not security personnel) even tried to keep me from taking either of my two regular pieces of carry on baggage on the plane with me, while at the same time they were allowing other, better dressed people to carry on luggage of identical size and shape. I had to demand to talk to the manager in order to resolve the situation and get on the plane (I am no longer using that airline, by the way). This judgmental tendency among airport personnel is unfortunate, because it is not always easy to wear "nice" clothing to an airport when one is attempting to travel with minimal baggage. I could describe many more examples, but you get the idea.
All airport personnel certainly don't think that everyone wearing khaki is a terrorist or smuggler, or that all terrorists and smugglers lack taste when it comes to attire. The world has seen that anyone from a moderately well dressed man in a dark jacket (September 11, 2001) to a humble looking woman (the Korean Airlines incident if the 1980's) can be terrorist, but it is obvious that some airport personnel think they should be placing emphasis on hassling poorly dressed people. Consider this possibility when selecting your travel attire - and when selecting your airline.
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Keeping Your Equipment Safe:
Preventing Damage: Many people are apprehensive about how checked baggage is handled, and justifiably so. Horror stories about theft and rough handling abound, and no one wants to subject their optical equipment to such risk; therefore, it is usually advisable to pack your optical equipment in your carry on baggage. This will typically allow you to control how it is handled. In addition, if you have your equipment with you, you have an opportunity to explain seemingly unconventional items to security personnel. This is far better than having your equipment in a checked bag and arriving at your destination only to find that your bag was never put on the airplane because some security person that you never met thought the contents seemed "suspicious".
If you do carry on your equipment, you should be careful to select small enough baggage, and to plan on carrying on no more than two pieces of baggage per person. Some airlines may make a fuss even if you have more than one carry on, so check with your travel agent and select an airline with reasonable policies. You don't want to arrive at the airport only to find that you are required to check one of your carry on bags. Such a prospect could be disastrous for your equipment since a small bag offers little protection from the consequences of rough baggage handling.
The moral of the story is that you should try pack clothing and other "padding" into at least one carry on bag. If this is not possible, be prepared to vigorously argue your case for carrying on two bags, particularly if you observe others being allowed onto the plane with more baggage than you have, or more importantly, if you had been legitimately told that the airline would allow you to carry on two bags. If you MUST have two carry on bags, it may often be best NOT to ask airport personnel about it when you arrive. I have found that asking before the aircraft is boarded tends to be counterproductive because it only calls more attention to you and your baggage. It may be best to just try to fit in with everyone else and get in line near other people who have a similar amount of baggage. There are definite logistical advantages to traveling so light that you can carry on ALL of your baggage. Unfortunately, most of these advantages are lost if you arrive at the airport only to find that the airline requires you to check one of your bags.
Be aware that not all baggage billed as "carry on" by the manufacturer will be accepted as such by all airlines. Some airlines specify a maximum size as small as 20 cm x 36 cm x 53 cm (8" x 14" x 21") but most typically allow slightly larger sizes. My bags are each about 24 cm x 36 cm x 57 cm (9.5" x 14" x 22.5") including handles, feet and other protrusions. One of the bags has rounded corners, which is helpful. I usually put one bag under the seat and the other in an overhead compartment. Either of my bags will easily fit the overhead compartment of any full sized aircraft, and either will fit under the seat in just about any full sized aircraft. The exception is under a window seat on some older DC-9 aircraft. (This space is so small that you would be lucky to get your feet into it, let alone a piece of baggage.)
I have measured a few aircraft and found that baggage dimensions exceeding 26 cm x 38 cm x 58 cm (10" x 15" x 23") would definitely present a problem. The center overhead compartments in DC-10 and MD-11 aircraft are the least favorable, and my own baggage just barely fits these compartments. Even though my bags will fit in the required spaces, there have been times when airline personnel tried to keep me from carrying them on. Not surprisingly, all of these incidents occurred when I was not particularly well dressed! The trends appear to be toward smaller and smaller limits on carry on items, even though the aircraft will still accommodate the larger sizes. Therefore, if you have not yet purchased a carry on bag, you may want to look into getting one of the smaller models.
Discouraging Theft: Vigilance is always indicated when it comes to discouraging theft. Maintaining a low profile with your equipment can also be effective. This is yet another reason to keep your film separate from your cameras so you can allow all of your cameras to be X-rayed. Insisting on a hand inspection of your cameras will only advertise the fact that you are transporting them.
If you travel alone, it is a good idea to bring along a looped metal cable and a good padlock. This will allow you to tie all of your baggage together while you wait at the airport. A rope may be inadequate, since it can easily be cut. Traveling in a group can afford even more protection, particularly from threats like mugging or armed robbery.
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Planning & Packing to Allow for Delayed Checked Baggage
On international trips, it is more likely that your checked baggage will not arrive at your destination when you do. This is especially true if you change planes (or even worse, change airlines) on your trip. Thus far, my checked bags have only arrived on time with about 50% of my international flights that involved a plane change.
To combat this situation, it is a good idea to plan your trip so that once you arrive, you can remain in the same city as the airport for up to 28 hours if necessary. This implies that you should typically arrive at your destination at least 2 full days before for the eclipse. If early arrival or staying near the airport is not possible, then consider the possibility of packing all of your necessary eclipse instrumentation in your allowable carry-on baggage. This is what I did for the eclipse in Thailand; in fact, everything I brought on that trip fit inside two "standard" pieces of wheeled carry on baggage. Delayed checked baggage could have been a "show stopper" on that trip because totality occurred only 34 hours after our arrival in Thailand.
It is always a good idea to include items such as a comb, toothbrush, mouthwash, and at least one change of clothes in your carry on baggage. If your checked bags are delayed, this will allow you to be clean and avoid having a slimy feeling in your mouth during the first day of your trip, all without having to do unscheduled shopping. I usually bring along a couple of small water bottles and a little food, such as peanut butter. This makes it easier to wait for a possible delayed flight. (However, note that with the increasing potential for other passengers to have extreme allergies to peanuts, it may be advisable not to open a container of peanut butter on the plane without first checking with passengers in your immediate surroundings.)
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Persistence; Rare Occasions when it is Appropriate.
(It was appropriate before September 11 2001, anyway.)
There are rare occasions when one may encounter undesirable human factors such as a grumpy airport employee who is on a power trip. If this happens, one may need to be very persistent or even verbally aggressive, but not to the point of being obscene. In these cases, it may be necessary to go over the offending person's head, and if he won't "let" you do that, you may need to raise your voice until you get the attention of his superiors. If you are given to impatience, it may sometimes be a good idea to act moderately agitated before you really get mad. Losing control of your temper usually won't help your situation at all. On a 1994 trip to Bolivia, I had two encounters that called for considerable persistence and the use of creative tactics that I would have avoided under normal circumstances. I will briefly address these encounters here in order to show that it is possible to out negotiate grumpy "power freaks" WITHOUT resorting to violence, obscenity, insults, or deceit. (Note that since 2001, even the act of merely being persistent raising one's voice in the wrong context or area could result in consequences that prevent you from being allowed on your flight, to say the least. Also, one obviously should NEVER make a scene on a plane.)
(Softly hum the Dragnet TV show theme to yourself as you read the rest of this paragraph): "The story you are about to read is true. The names have not been mentioned to protect both the innocent and the guilty."
Example #1; the Apparently Racist Ticket Agent:
The first incident involved flight change in Miami while on my way to Bolivia for the November 3, 1994 total solar eclipse. There, I was to catch my connection with a certain South American airline, which shall remain nameless. My connecting flight arrived in Miami on schedule, allowing about 1-1/4 hours to make the connection. I was traveling to Bolivia several days before the eclipse because I intended to present some eclipse information to about 1,000 kids at a certain public school in Cochabamba, Bolivia. When I arrived at the nameless airline's area and got in line, it eventually dawned on me that I seemed to be the only non-Bolivian person on the flight. This did not bother me, but it did seem to bother one of the airline's ticket agents.
When my place in line reached the ticket counter 25 minutes later, I presented my ticket and seat assignment to the airline's ticket agent, but before he even looked at it, he curtly told me that the flight was full, and if I had wanted on the flight I should arrived over an hour earlier than I did. The next flight would be 24 hours later; too late to allow preparation for my first Bolivian school presentation. I explained this situation, and the fact that I had asked my travel agent about the relatively short connection time when I booked my flights (at which time I had been told it would be no problem). I also pointed out that I had waited in line for 25 minutes. The ticket agent responded to this by telling me that I should have cut in front of everyone else. This made no sense because the people I spoke with in line were also waiting to get on the same flight I was. This appeared to be a case of a "racist" ticket agent. Praying seemed like a good idea at the time; (too bad for you, if you're an atheist!) I continued to politely plead my case, and as many precious minutes slipped by, I realized that other agents had been allowing dozens of other passengers onto the plane. Eventually, only a handful of passengers were left in the area.
Finally, I raised my voice and repeated to the agent that I had arranged to speak to about 1,000 kids at a school in Bolivia, and if I could not get on THIS flight, I would not arrive in Bolivia soon enough to be able to make my first presentation there. At that point, the ticket agent's supervisor overheard me and signaled for the wayward agent to come and talk to him. They both went through a doorway, and a few seconds later, the same ticket agent returned, looking shaken and bewildered. He huffed that he would make an "exception" and put me on the plane, and added; "You're only getting on this flight because I decided to let you on". I thought to myself; "Yeah, right", but I was nonetheless thankful and relieved to get on the flight. By this time, it turned out that all of the coach seats really were full, and the befuddled ticket agent had give me a free upgrade to business class! Boy, was he steamed!
Note that in spite of the efforts of a racist ticket agent, I got on the plane, and even got an upgraded seat; all without uttering a single obscenity!
Example #2; the Foreign Customs Agent Who Apparently Wants a Bribe:
Neither of my checked bags arrived with my flight to Cochabamba, Bolivia. These bags contained my telescope mount and some material I would need need in order to make my eclipse presentations at a Bolivian public school. I knew a little Spanish, but I decided it would be prudent to be accompanied by a local acquaintance who could translate for me when I went back to the airport to pick up this luggage. When I tried to get the luggage through customs, the agent inspected the contents and told me I had fill out some forms and leave my my telescope mount and other items with him for several hours while the forms were processed. I had been warned by Bolivian friends not to go along with this scheme if I ever wanted to see my equipment again.
I had been previously informed that the usual solution to this type of problem was to pay the agent a bribe in the amount that he would subtly indicate with his fingers. I watched his fingers, but did not see the characteristic signal. I did not want to pay a bribe; both because I did not want to spend the money and because I did not want to contribute to the delinquency of an adult (the agent, in this case). I patiently argued with him through my interpreter for about 40 minutes. I considered the possibility of waiting by my equipment all day while the customs agent "processed" my forms. Praying came to mind again, and shortly thereafter, I realized that there may yet be an expeditious way to end the situation.
While flying down to Bolivia in my business class seat, it had been my pleasure to be seated next to the director of one of the local newspapers. We had talked about the eclipse and he had asked me if I would write an article for his paper about my experience in Bolivia. At the time, I fully intended to oblige, and I realized that my experience with this customs agent was as much a part of my experience in Bolivia as anything else, so in the hearing of the agent, I said to my Bolivian acquaintance; "You know, I've been asked to write an an article for a local newspaper, and I sure would hate to have to write that I could not appear for today's local school presentation because I had to wait all day in an airport due to of a difficulty with aduana" (customs). At this, the agent looked at my acquaintance and said "Que dice?" (What did he say?) My acquaintance then translated my last remark to the agent, and the agent instantly lost his confident demeanor. He then went into a corner office and began talking to another agent. When he came back a couple of minutes later, he told us that we could leave immediately with all of my luggage. No forms, no fuss, no muss!
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Some total solar eclipse paths pass over major cities. This makes it possible to observe an eclipse from a local airport or hotel, thereby eliminating the need for any special ground transportation. These "convenient" eclipses are the exception rather than the rule. Most total solar eclipse paths cross only oceans or relatively remote land areas.
Observing an eclipse from a ship offers its own set of unique advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include the ability of the ship to "dodge" clouds without requiring any effort on the part of the observer. In addition, the "eclipse site" is literally walking distance from most of the ship's cabins. Disadvantages include the fact that the ship is not a stable photo platform and that the eclipse site is by necessity at a low elevation; sea level. Getting on a ship to see an eclipse also tends to be relatively expensive since most cabins are only available as part of large tour packages. This practically rules out shipboard eclipses for those who want to plan their own expeditions.
Airborne eclipse expeditions may be worth considering if weather prospects on the ground are undesirable. Aircraft offer many of the advantages of a ship in that they constitute a moving eclipse "site". An aircraft offers a unique view of the lunar shadow as it is projected onto the earth below. If the flight is along the same path as the lunar shadow, aircraft can also offer a slight increase in the duration of totality. Disadvantages of aircraft include high frequency vibrations and the typically poor quality of their windows. The window problem will be compounded if the eclipse is at a high elevation angle. These factors make it impossible to get truly high resolution corona photos from most aircraft. Unfortunately, airborne expeditions also tend to be expensive and relatively inaccessible to the "do it yourself" eclipse chaser.
Observing an eclipse from land generally allows a lot of flexibility in the selection of tours, carriers, settings, and price. It is important to consider local infrastructure when selecting your destination. Even though the weather prospects in Thailand were not quite as good as in India, the local infrastructure made Thailand a clear choice. In Thailand, it was possible to travel by four lane highway almost all the way to the eclipse site; and the sky was clear! The relatively gentle nature of the Thai people was also a consideration; I previously had undesirable experiences when visiting cultures where people were more "aggressive".
In many countries, ground transportation to a suitable eclipse site can present the greatest logistical challenge of the entire expedition. In a worst case scenario, the path of totality could be hundreds of kilometers from improved roads or significant services. In other situations, local terrain and other factors may require that you travel hundreds of kilometers on dirt roads to get to an eclipse site that, as the crow flies, appears to be relatively near an airport . The eleven hour drive from Cochabamba to Sevaruyo, Bolivia for the Nov. 3, 1994 eclipse presented a challenge, though the roads were paved for about half of the way.
In some countries, cultural factors can adversely effect on one's travel activities, including ground transportation to an eclipse site. To a U.S. driver, traffic control conventions in many countries may make driving seem like a fast paced video game. In addition, traffic in a significant number of countries travels on the left side of the road. Some countries have few improved roads. Others require permits to travel from one district to another. Due to these factors, it is often prudent to travel by taxi, public transportation, or chartered vehicles with local drivers.
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Planning Your Own Eclipse Expedition
Commercial eclipse expeditions offer many advantages, but many tend to be over scheduled and relatively expensive. If one makes their own travel arrangements or selects a tour package that is not specifically associated with an "eclipse tour", it may be possible to travel to an eclipse for less than half of the cost of going on a commercial "eclipse expedition". Most expeditions to Asia for the Oct. 24, 1995 total solar eclipse ranged from $2,800 to $3,500. To observe this eclipse, another observer and myself went to Thailand with a tour that was not "eclipse related". Our entire trip to Thailand was less than $1,500 per person! This included everything; airfare, lodging in a very fancy Bangkok hotel, a tour of the Grand Palace, all ground transportation, (including a chartered van to the eclipse site) and all meals, tips, taxes, souvenirs, etc. The cost of the "basic" trip (air fare and hotel only) was about $1,200.
On the subject of lodging, it may (in some cases) be inadvisable to accept "favors" from local people, even if the primary reason is to get acquainted with them. In certain cultures, some local people (particularly the wealthy) may believe that they "own" you for the duration of your visit if you stay with them. This can become a nightmare, because in addition to constantly imposing on you themselves, members of such a host family may allow or encourage many of their friends to impose on you as well - even to the extent that there is almost no time left for your own activities! Yes, this can really happen! It happened to me in Bolivia! In yet other cultures, potential hosts may seek to get you "involved" with, or even married to, a member of their family; clearly an awkward situation! Still others may be good hosts, but if you are not familiar with the local culture, why take the chance? For most eclipse expeditions, the cost of lodging in a hotel is a relatively small percentage of the overall cost. If you stay in a hotel, you can have privacy when you want it, manage your own schedule, and still be free to go out and see as much of the culture as you want!
When I went to Bolivia, funds were not a factor in my decision to accept a local family's invitation to stay with them. I simply wanted to get acquainted with them, since they were relatives of friends in the U.S. Having Bolivian friends in the U.S., I had become interested in the Bolivian culture and wanted to see more of it. To the surprise of myself and my Bolivian friends in the U.S., the person who promited himself as the head of the local Bolivian household (who was a different person than my friends thought was the head of the household) saw me as just a "commodity", and I was "exploited" by he and his friends to such an extent that I was not able to get acquainted with his family or see much of the local culture. (Or at least the parts of the culture I had wanted to see!) To make matters worse, this exploitation also interfered with my eclipse work. I would have seen much more of Bolivia (and had better results from my eclipse work) if I had stayed in a hotel!
Planning one's own expedition definitely has its challenges and risks. My overall experience with a few problematic locals in Bolivia is something I would not want to repeat; however, that expedition was the only one in which I had any really "bad" experiences. I experienced very few difficulties on my other expeditions. In general, I have not found traveling alone or in a small group to be nearly as problematic as many contemporary eclipse articles had led me to believe it would be.
Large groups traveling with well established eclipse tours definitely have an advantage when it comes to the provision of ground transportation and modest "creature comforts" at the eclipse site. Small groups or individuals can arrange this, but it can be more difficult. Chartered travel and other services in another country can also be hard for a small group to arrange ahead of time, so it is a good idea for a small group to arrive well in advance of the eclipse in order to arrange for local transportation.
The advantages of traveling in a small group rather than alone cannot be overstated. Group members can keep each other company, cooperate on baggage transportation, watch each other's baggage, work on group projects, and many other things. Group travel can also be less expensive since members can share hotel rooms, chartered vehicles, and other items. Group travel is particularly advantageous in situations involving potential cultural problems. Traveling with just one other person to Bolivia probably would have enabled me to avoid all of the problems I experienced there.
Being informed about a foreign country and the way its cultural issues can affect you and your expedition is very important. In the case of undesirable cultural issues, the influence on you tends to be somewhat proportional to the degree in which you are exposed to the culture. My paper entitled "Cultural Reality at Your Eclipse Destination; When Caution may be in Order" covers this subject in greater detail. It focuses on misadventures and problems myself and others experienced in Latin America, and suggests how other eclipse observers may avoid similar problems.
It has been said that knowledge is power. In the case of international travel, knowledge can certainly minimize the extent to which others may be able to exercise power over you. If you interact with a foreign culture, be informed and cautious to the degree required by local circumstances.
Enjoy Your Eclipse!
Request for comments and suggestions:
Hopefully, this document has been effective in informing you about the importance of many types of preparation for your eclipse expedition or other travel. This paper or an associated may generate some controversy since it addresses cultural issues and it (the pre-2001 version) does not always recommend blind submission to selective and unreasonable treatment at airports and other areas; however, it may also get people to think. (Note that after 2001, there are many situations where blind submission to the proper authorities may be the only realistic option. The remaining place where there may be some wiggle room would be the hopefully rare case where an airport employee overseps their authority to an unreasonable degree for their own personal benefit.)
I am interested in comments and suggestions regarding this paper, particularly from U.S Customs personnel and other authorities. I am particularly interested in adding links to appropriate government web sites which will give people additional information about travel related regulations and other issues. Government agencies are free to link their web sites to this paper if they like. Please direct inquiries to Jeffrey R. Charles (jcharles *at* versacorp.com).
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Steps to a Successful Eclipse Expedition, by Jeffrey R. Charles
Cultural Reality at Your Eclipse Destination; When Caution may be in Order
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Document uploaded to EclipseChaser web site: 14 Feb. 1997
Document last modified: 20 Feb. 2004
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