Recently flew from Baltimore (BWI) to Las Vegas (LAS) via Southwest Airlines for a week of vacation in southern Utah and northern Arizona. You bet your ass I wanted to bring a drone along so I'm writing this down before I forget the details. As usual, this post contains affiliate links. If you see something you want to buy, use them - it'll help me out!

What I packed

Ideally, the Mavic Pro would have been the drone of choice for travel... great flight times, quick battery charges and it's so nice and compact it could've fit into a really small carryon bag. The achilles heel of the Mavic, however, is its image quality. Not what I'd consider stellar. Couldn't stomach the thought of traveling to such a scenic area and returning with sub-par 12MP images, so I decided the Phantom 4 Pro was the right tool for the job. 

DJI Phantom 4 Pro with a skin from DecalGirl.com, packed and ready to carry-on.

I managed to cram all of the items below into an older Think Tank Photo Airport Helipak V1 (i've had mine since the Phantom II) and a Think Tank Photo Artificial Intelligence 15.

These two bags/cases work incredibly well together for travel because the Artificial intelligence slides into the back compartment of the Helipak. This modularity comes in handy in three ways... 1) When you're on the bus going from parking->terminal or rental car pickup, everything is one backpack unit. Hands are free while walking/loading and all your expensive shit can be held in your lap when seated. 2) Laptop and iPad can be separated from the main pack quickly when you go through the TSA security checkpoint/scan. 3) When you board the plane, drone and camera gear in the Helipak fits nicely into the overhead compartment, while the Artificial Intelligence bag with your laptop and iPad can come out for use during the flight.

Kudos to the folks at Think Tank Photo for the thoughtfulness they put into their gear. It shows.

TSA Stress

Not going to lie... I was worried about getting through the TSA security checkpoint without any hassle. Would they require a separate bin for every bit of crap in my bag(s)? Would I get yanked to the side for an anti explosive swab down? Would the Phantom drone props/rotors be considered a stabbing weapon and be confiscated? Would I hold up the line because of the metric tons of lithium I was carrying? Nope, nope, nope and nope. 

To my utter amazement they didn't even stop to open or inspect the drone bag. Nada. Zip. My laptop however, had to go back through three times. I think what looked weird was the Anker PowerCore and coiled cables I had in the bin with it. Can totally see that looking suspect, but it was surprising that they didn't even bat an eye at the drone, camera, lenses and batteries. Props were a non-issue as well.

The Return Trip

Return trip home from McCarran found us waiting for over an hour to get through security... easily a line of 400+ people. The only difference this time was the requirement to put the MacBook and iPad each in totally separate bins with nothing else.

Against my better judgement, standing there in my socks, I opened both my mouth and the drone bag and said to the overseeing agent "You may want to hand inspect this bag sir, there's a drone and bunch of camera gear in it" he just glanced at it and said "naaaah, it's no problem, I'll just let the scanner know that we've got a drone going through." He leaned over the gate and much like a pharmacy cashier yelling out "how much are these condoms/tampons?" he yelled over to the large irritated-looking lady working the x-ray machine "GOT A BAG WITH A DRONE AND BATTERIES COMING THROUGH." At that point I went through the metal detector, waltzed over to the conveyor belt, grabbed the bins and rolled on out to gate C2 with a smile on my face. 

YMMV

Your mileage may vary, but I'm confident that if I ever get the chance to fly again with a drone, this will be the exact same way that I do it. Seemed to be minimal hassle. Checked baggage contains all dry goods... clothes, toiletries, tripod, backpack, hiking gear etc. Carry-on is the Airport Helipak with the drone and camera, lithium etc, and the Artificial Intelligence Laptop bag is kept out as my personal item, holding my iPad and MacBook for use on the plane.

Ah, one last thing... if you're flying Southwest Airlines, be sure to pay the extra $15 for the "early bird check-in" - and be sure to check in as early as possible... 24 hours before your flight departs. This will get you in the "A" boarding group, and guarantee you a place in the overhead bins. If you don't do this, there's a chance you'll get bumped back to the last group "C" to board the plane. There are no assigned seats on Southwest flights... I don't know why they choose to do it like this, but it's a free-for-all... like herding cats when everyone gets on the plane, so you definitely don't want to be last. I didn't know that going in.