Traveling to Conventions by Airplane
How I Get My Convention Setup to Shows on an Airplane!
How I Got Started
Growing up, we traveled and moved a lot as a family, packing our lives up into a handful of trunks to move between countries. This constant packing and unpacking has made me efficient at squeezing my life into a suitcase.
One of my early experiences traveling to a show was for an event while I was still living in Japan. At the time we didn't own a car, and my only option for getting there was public transportation. I packed up everything I would need for my small 4ft by 3ft space at Design Festa, including a folding table, and with the help of my mom, carried everything on the train over an hour into downtown Tokyo. That was the longest I have ever walked carrying my convention setup, and every show since then has been a breeze by comparison.
I now live in California and am often flying to large shows in the Midwest or East Coast. Over the past few years, I have become well-practiced at getting to and from conventions with my exhibitor booth setup.
Many friends ask me how I get my stuff to shows on the plane, so I’m here to share with you how I do it!
Suitcases & Bags
Finding the right bags will make or break your “getting to the show” experience, especially if you are traveling alone as I do. I started out using two large roller bags with a single set of wheels each. These kinds of bags you need to tilt to roll, and they make getting around the airport alone really difficult, even if all you have to do is get to the check-in counter from the curb. While it did give me a good forearm workout, it significantly limited the additional items I could also bring with me (carry-ons!) because I was quickly out of hands.
I highly recommend getting two large suitcases that have 4 wheels each and that can stand on their own. My two checked bags have a few features that help a lot getting around an airport or convention hall:
First off, their handles, when extended, are the same height so I can roll about 100 lb of convention stuff in one hand ahead of me. I joke that I’m often carrying more than my body weight in my three suitcases going to a show but it’s actually true.
One suitcase is a hard case. I use this one for extra-fragile items and, surprisingly, it doesn’t weigh much more than my fabric-sided one. My very large flat items I pack against one wall of the case, ensuring things like my large giclees don’t get crumpled in transit.
My second bag is soft-sided, and is great for oddly shaped items. It can fit longer items because of the flexible sides, soft things and prints that are wrapped and packaged in “blocks” or “cubes” (or even other boxes) for protection.
My carry-on bag is a matching roller bag, also with four wheels. I made sure to choose a standard overhead size so I don’t struggle to find a spot for it in the plane. I prefer bags that have the expandable option if I need it.
Tips for picking out a bag:
Plan ahead,and know the longest items you will need to fit into a bag. I can squeeze a set of risers into my soft-sided case because I measured them before I went shopping.
Bring a measuring tape and a travel hand scale with you to the shop. I weigh everything! Because your bag weight will add to your overall allowance it is important to pick something that is sturdy yet lightweight. Most large checked bags are going to weigh anywhere from 8-12lbs.
I shop for bags at Ross but there are many other places you can find them. The brand I prefer is Samsonite but I’m not too brand loyal and have bought others in the past.
Banners and Backdrops
For most of my shows, if I’m bringing a backdrop, I will ship it ahead of time to the hotel or a friend who lives in the area. The banner I currently use is just a standard photography backdrop to which I hang fabric, and then my artwork.
I have traveled with a simple retractable banner on the plane before, and never had issues with simply carrying it on board with me since it wasn’t very large. If you want to do this, though, I recommend calling ahead and just getting a verbal confirmation from someone at the airline.
Packing a Bag
As a traditional artist, I bring a lot of original paintings with me to shows and often carry them in my checked bags.
Most are fairly small pieces: framed and matted 8x10 or 11x14 watercolors. To get these safely to a show, I put each artwork in a frame box to protect the corners. I always have something in front of the glass or plexi, usually cardboard or foam core. I then pair up my framed pieces with the glass facing each other to eliminate any possibility something might puncture and break.
The final key to keeping these safe is to make sure they don’t shuffle around in your bag, so they need to be paired together, centered and well-padded. To keep them together, I have several large envelopes that I made from flexible, reflective insulation, purchased at Home Depot or Lowes. Inside each of these, I place two or three framed pieces, all protected in their boxes, and make sure they are secure inside the padded sleeve. The sleeve then packs nicely into my bag around other items like table cloths, banners or clothing. I prefer to put this on the bottom (when upright) of my bag so when I’m walking around with the bags, they aren’t shifting down onto other things.
If you’re like me, you’ll find that you will run out of weight before you run out of space in your bag, so keep this in mind when you’re distributing items between different bags. I always have bubble wrap on hand to add as the final item in a bag (or those poofy “air pillows” that always show up with my Amazon orders).
I like to corral all of my smaller items into zip-lock bags. This makes it easier to transfer them into another bag when I get to the show and also keep track of what I’ve brought. The mesh pockets in a bag are also useful for keeping little things. Remember, just because you packed it in a nice little spot in your bag doesn’t mean that it will stay there during the whole trip. I’ve found small items, if just thrown into a bag carelessly, can actually cause a lot of damage when they start moving around and jabbing holes into your other items and packaging.
Prints & flat items
In general, I try to pack similar items together and the majority of my booth packs down into a lot of flat items. I group prints into bundles that I put into larger bags or even boxes. This keeps them from spilling into my bag and getting bent. Collect flat items together and always sandwich soft things around them. My carry-on bag is typically where I carry my prints. These fit snugly into my bag which means they won’t shift much. I cushion the areas around them with clothing to keep things protected even more.
Clothing and Personal items
Speaking of soft things, in case you’re worried I forgo any additional changes of clothing, let's also talk about what you should consider when packing your clothes.
In general I wear my heaviest clothing on the plane which is usually a jacket and my pair of pants and walking shoes. I don’t have to actually wear my jacket but having it with me helps reduce the weight in my checked bags. The remainder of my clothing I squeeze into the areas around my items on the outside of the bags.
I always check my bathroom items and liquids rather than dealing with trying to keep things down to a specific size for carry-on. Just remember to double (or, if you’re extra paranoid, triple) bag these so you don’t need to stress about possible spills. Bring only what you need though. For a long weekend trip, a small travel-sized container of shampoo and conditioner should be more than enough.
If you’re bringing electronics with you (and who isn’t), like an iPad for newsletter signups, it makes sense to keep them in a backpack or tote bag, so they’re close to you at all times and you don’t need to worry about damage or theft (even if you need to end up gate-checking your other carry-on).
When packing a bag, weight is the first thing that’s going to get you, typically long before you run out of available volume. When I’m designing my booth or table setup, I opt for items that can break down into smaller parts and are also lightweight. Heavy wood crates for prints will quickly take up your meager allowance and leave you little for the actual products you’re trying to sell.
Here’s a few things I consider and use as alternatives:
Fabric organizing cubes from Target make for great risers in disguise under a nice cloth.
Wire frame holders are light weight and don’t need protection in your bag. I use these instead of the heavier wood options for that reason.
Dish rack holders or record organizers work well for holding prints upright on a table. I prefer these instead of a bin because they can break down and also are much more lightweight than the inflexible bin options. There are some collapsible bins you could consider as well, depending on what size you need.
Pack what I want into each bag.
Weigh the first bag with the travel scale to see where I’m at weight-wise.
If over 50 lb, remove items that I can put into other suitcase or my carry-on, and re-weigh.
If under 50 lb, weigh individual “packages” of items (why things in zip-locks or bundles come in handy) on my postal scale before adding them to the bag. Add the right amount of weight to the bag.
Rinse and repeat.
It is important that you take your travel scale with you to the show (I leave the postal scale at home), since you will need to do the same for your return trip. Hopefully you will be returning with a lot less, but you will still need it to make sure things are evenly distributed. I have re-packed bags in the airport before but the added stress isn’t worth it. Plus, last-minute packing is an easy way to get things broken in your bag if jammed in at the last minute.
I almost always fly with the same two airlines: Southwest and United.
Untied: My husband flies with United for work so we have a lot of points (and free upgrades) with them. I also have a United Mileage Plus credit card as my work card which gives me a free checked bag, among other things.
Southwest: They are convenient to me airport-wise so I use them on and off. Also they offer two free checked bags on every ticket, which is wonderful when flying to shows!
I highly recommend getting TSA precheck if you are planning on flying to multiple shows. This will greatly reduce your stress traveling through the airport and the amount of time you need to allow for check-in. In my opinion, the $85 fee has paid for itself several times over since I signed up.
When I get to my gate I always check to see if the plane is full. If it is (usually the case, these days) I offer for them to gate-check my carry-on suitcase. Remember, this thing is full of prints and often weighs about 40lb. Yes, I could lift it into the overhead bin myself, but why bother when some nice gate agent will take it off my hands for me?
Checked Bag Note
In each checked bag I have a note that include at the top to whomever might open it for random bag screenings. It’s a kind request to please handle my bag carefully because of it’s fragile contents. While I don’t know if it works all of the time I have had an experience where additional bubble wrap was added to a my own packaging around a glass jar after they screened my suitcase in order to ensure the item made it safely through. I’d like to think someone read it and was being extra thoughtful. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Watch my convention videos on my YouTube channel to see some of my packing in action including what I’ve brought to each show, timelapse of packing my bags and setup.
Naomi VanDoren is an artist who spent much of her life abroad. She grew up in the Spice Islands of Indonesia. A childhood of travel and immersion into a variety of cultures at such a young age left her with the desire to explore the earth and share her experiences through art.
She has a formal education in graphic design and began pursuing illustration on her own after moving to Japan in 2013. Naomi dove deep into painting digitally full time, and her passion for drawing and painting blossomed. In 2015, she experienced painting in watercolor for the first time and found it to be the perfect medium for traveling and she hasn't put it down since.
Currently she is developing projects around her own foxdragon creatures.
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