11 Travel Tips for Destination Wedding Photographers

May 12, 2016

By Levi Tijerina

Travel is an essential part of my business. It’s exciting, gives me a new perspective and challenges the equilibrium in my life. It can also be absolutely exhausting. My first year shooting weddings took me out of state about six times, and since then, that number has more than tripled. Over the years, I’ve learned my share of things to improve on.

All photos © Levi Tijerina

1. Always book your own travel.

It can be financially viable for your clients to book travel for you, but this sacrifices any level of comfort for pure convenience. The cheapest flights are often at the worst times, often with (multiple) connections. Take control of your own schedule, do your research and remember to be kind to yourself.

Before you look at airlines, look at Google Flights. It’s brilliant, it’s needed and it’s asinine not to use it. If you’re headed somewhere pretty remote or to a really popular destination in peak season, ticket prices can skyrocket, but with Google Flights you can input your starting location and put a vague destination (say, Europe) and find cheaper routes. When I was booking a flight from Denver (where I’m based) to Florence, Italy, single-ticket flights were coming in around $1,950 round trip. On Google Flights I found a flight from Denver to Copenhagen for $850 and from Copenhagen to Florence for $250, bringing the total to $1,100 round trip.

Once you have a route and an idea of price, you can quote that number to your clients and keep track of the cost of the airfare. An app such as Hopper can track the cost of these flights for you in order to save as much money and time as possible. In this case, it literally pays to be creative when it comes to booking flights.

2. Airline loyalty pays off.

This is one lesson I’m late to the game in learning—airlines will reward you for traveling with them frequently, and having loyalty to one specific airline will pay for itself in benefits, rest, rewards and upgrades.

Up until 2015, my go-to airlines were Southwest Airlines and Icelandair. This year, after a few long-haul flights to Asia, I upped my game and decided to go all-in with United Airlines, due to their proximity to locations and the fact that they have a hub in Denver. I also have status with Icelandair. Status is elusive and often misunderstood, but the general gist of it is that it can involve (free) upgrades on flights, meaning free meals, seats with outlets and access to the airline lounges. With Icelandair, lounge access saves me an average of $20 each visit to the airport in not having to pay for food. In four trips to Iceland this year, that’s been $150-worth of free food and drinks in addition to being able to shower at the airport after a long wedding.

Of course unless you’re a very frequent flier, airline loyalty really pays over time. What defines a frequent flier? If you’re taking about 30 flights a year (on one airline) or heading about 50,000 to 60,000 miles in a plane, then you’re probably well on your way to building great status. Because it’s all relative to your amount of travel, I’m going to break this up into three categories of traveler:

• The Casual Commuter
If you’re catching flights once a month or so—even while that is much more than most—it’s usually still not enough to let you build status with airlines (though each person, airline and main hub are different). Your main hub location will be a better determiner of which airline is right for you. If you’re living in the U.S., one of the best frequent flier programs for casual fliers is Southwest. Their credit cards can help you rack up extra points, and Southwest flights can often be so cheap to redeem points that it’s a no-brainer. Southwest has a very easily attainable companion pass—meaning that if you reach 110,000 points you can bring a companion with you for free on every single flight you book with Southwest. Now, 110,000 sounds like a lot of points, but if you sign up for a personal credit card as well as a business credit card, you can rack up to 90,000 of those points in one swoop.

Southwest also offers free Media Boarding. Show up early to the gate with your camera gear and business card, and ask the agent to check-in for Media Boarding. You should be a shoe-in to board the plane first, store your gear overhead and get the best seats on the plane.

•• The Extensive Traveler
If you’re traveling more than once a month, there are a lot more options for airline loyalty plans. It might be tempting to become a frequent flier with a local airline, but these airlines are so small that the perks they offer rarely pay off. Free TV on your flight? Meh, no thanks.

The downside of the bigger airlines over the local airlines is the price. You can book a flight on Frontier round trip to most U.S. locations for $150 or less. That same ticket on United would likely be an extra $100 or more. At some point, you’re going to need to pick a local airline (fewer amenities and often cheaper) or a bigger airline (more amenities but more expensive). Of course, the type of travel you do and the places you go should be a big decider in this element, but everyone is going to have ?a different solution.

••• The Road Warrior
If you’re traveling more often, especially internationally, there are still more options. At that point the airlines still matter, but the alliance they’re part of matters more. If you fly American, booking a flight on oneworld still helps you accrue points toward American flights, plus you can use oneworld lounges and can still earn upgrades on international flights. If you’re putting on more than 80,000 miles a year and you’re not building status on an airline, you’re literally throwing away upgrades, lounge access and opportunities to travel much more comfortably.

3. Go for TSA Pre-Check and Global Entry

If you’re a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, travel more than once a month and aren’t signed up for TSA Pre-Check, you’re crazy. It allows you to skip the big lines at security, you get to keep your shoes on, keep your laptop and liquids in your bag, and head straight through the scanner. It costs $85 for five years of benefits, and you’ll also need to go to an enrollment center to apply (check tsa.gov for what to bring and which center is nearest to you). Application approval can take anywhere from one day to 45 days, so it’s better to tackle this sooner than later to be safe. Since signing up, the longest I’ve waited at security is 7 minutes.

If you travel internationally fairly often and your port-of-return has a Global Entry kiosk, sign up for it (you can also apply online). It’s $100 for five years of benefits, and eligibility is open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as citizens of Germany, the Netherlands, Panama, South Korea and Mexico. Global Entry automatically includes TSA Pre-Check and when you return to the U.S., you can skip all the lines at customs, go to a kiosk and enter the country in less than 10 minutes. From the time the plane first touches the ground to the time I’m through customs, I’ve been able to get out in 8 minutes. Enough said.

4. There is a not-so-fine line between cheap and comfort.

I’ve traveled hard for the last decade. Red-eye flights, cheap hotels, crappy meals, budgeting too little and lack of sleep—it’s easy now when I’m young, but I can already feel the wear.

On our most recent trip, I was one week into a four-week stretch and I was already exhausted. The remaining three weeks only added to the exhaustion: nights staying up past 1 a.m., 6:30 a.m. wake-up calls, then unventilated train rides, biking around cities and driving hours upon hours. When I got home, I felt like I could sleep for a week straight. But since I hadn’t planned well, it was immediately back to the grind. Doing this week after week rips you apart. Quickly.

It’s important to know your limits. What things bring you rest? Take those into account and factor (and budget) them in. Spending more on better hotels, paying to upgrade your seating option—it’s easy to see these things as a waste, but trust me, they’re not. That $138 extra to upgrade your seat by 4 inches of extra space on a 17-hour flight to Hong Kong is not a big sacrifice if you want to arrive feeling more rested and in better physical shape.

5. Gear up for travel the smart way.

The determining factor for what I bring on a trip usually depends on the kind of transportation (and length of time) I’ll be on the ground.

If I’m shooting a wedding in the U.S., I tend to bring all of my gear with me. In my Pelican 1510, I can fit two camera bodies, two flashes, a video light, batteries and my 24mm, 35mm, 45mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses. I use the TrekPak to make sure it all fits neatly. For my shoulder bag, I bring an Ona bag, which carries my laptop, memory cards and hard drives. I usually check a duffel bag with all my clothing and a monopod for the video light.

For my simple setup, I carry everything in a camera backpack: two camera bodies, two flashes, batteries, my 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses, AA batteries, memory cards, hard drives and my laptop. I also bring a very small roller bag that stores my shoulder bag and my clothing. Since it’s a pretty light setup, this usually allows me to bring two button-up shirts, two t-shirts, an extra pair of pants, personal items and that’s about it.

It gets trickier if you’ve got a longer trip with a mix of different locations and weather. Last year, I had my first wedding in Estonia, where the weather was 70 °F, the second wedding in Italy where it was 95 °F and finally, a wedding in Iceland where it was 45 °F. Invest in clothing you can layer and have a multi-purpose jacket that can endure harsh cold but also be adapted to work in more mild temperatures.

Ultimately, the gear and other items you use to travel with aren’t as important as having a system in place for how to get it all there. If you don’t have good bags or luggage, it can make every trip to the airport seem like a scramble.

6. Local SIM cards and Skype credits are the way to go.

One of the hardest things about being in a new country is navigating. I’ve spent a lot of time getting lost and taking wrong turns that end up costing hours of delays. On top of that, it can be difficult to run a business effectively while traveling when you’re dependent on Wi-Fi. When you’re out in the wilderness of Iceland, where Wi-Fi is shoddy at best, and you’ve got emails piling up, you need a better solution than café-hopping.

A great solution has been purchasing a SIM card, which comes with a local data plan. It winds up being a much cheaper option than buying an international plan. Typically, you’ll end up paying about $15 for the SIM card, 1 to 2GB of data, 100 text messages and 100 minutes. This allows me to use the GPS navigation on my phone, keep up with emails, text friends and clients, book an Uber, FaceTime my wife and, in general, keep a normal work schedule.

You’ll need to have your phone unlocked to have the SIM card work. Your phone should be able to be unlocked for free by your carrier once your two-year contract ends, but otherwise you’ll need to pay a fee for your carrier to unlock your phone, or you can use an older phone. By default, all Verizon 4G LTE phones are unlocked at the point of purchase.

At the beginning of the year, I also buy $10 of Skype credit to make calls from Skype directly, about 7 cents a minute to call anywhere in the world. It works off of data or Wi-Fi, so coupling it with the SIM card’s local data plan is best practice. This has saved me a lot of headaches and has been great in a pinch.

7. When it comes to money, mix paper and plastic.

If you’re like me, you pick and choose your options based on where you’ll be traveling. Heading to a less-developed country? Bring cash. Staying in Europe? Keep the debit and credit cards on hand.

Recently, however, I got a kick in the pants for not making smarter choices. We were hitting up mostly Western European countries, with the exception of Morocco, and I had with me one personal debit card, one business debit card, one personal credit card and one business credit card. Plus we had brought with us $200 (to exchange in Morocco).

We made it through about 15 days traveling through Iceland, Scotland, Spain and Morocco without many problems. But when we landed in Denmark, my inbox blew up. My personal credit card had been attempted to be used for fraudulent purchases in the U.S. The card was immediately locked down.

A day or two later, my business debit card kept getting declined. I made a phone call (via Skype on my Danish SIM card’s local data plan) to my bank. This card also had fraudulent activity in the US. It got shut down. Now all I had was a personal debit card and a business credit card. I opted to use my personal card only for personal purchases, which left me with one credit card. Everything went on that card for a week and a half. In the end, everything worked out fine, because I had a backup option and at the very least I wasn’t left stranded in Morocco, but I held my breath every time I swiped my card or booked something online.

The old adage is true: Cash is king. The only thing to remember is to try to get the crispest bills possible because foreign banks may not accept old or wrinkled bills.

I’ve begun implementing two rules for myself when I travel for more than a few days: 
-Always bring all my cards–credit and debit–for emergency situations.
-Bring $50 USD for each day I plan to be gone.

Side note:
If you have status on an airline, your best bet is to go for their premium credit card. If you’re looking to redeem points for all kinds of travel, I would suggest Chase Sapphire. I used it often enough to get one free round-trip flight to Asia, and another one-way flight home from Copenhagen to Denver. The points add up quickly, there are no foreign transaction fees, plus you can mix miles and money when you purchase tickets. I was not paid to say this, I just think it’s a great card.

8. Understand rental car rules and stipulations.

There are a lot of ways to save money on rental cars—third-party sites like Priceline often show you all the prices side-by-side so you can book the cheapest option—but my biggest pieces of advice is for those under the age of 25.

For a long time, I was shooting weddings while being under the “rental age” of 25. Companies like Avis, Hertz, Budget and Enterprise end up hitting you with fees that are up to $27 a day, simply because you’re between the ages of 21 and 24. It seemed ludicrous to me to pay that extra money just due to my age.

The best workaround, in my opinion, is through a gem known as USAA. It’s a bank but you don’t need to be a veteran or related to one (their target customers) in order to sign up and receive benefits. If you book through their code, they waive the young driver fee. You also get discounts on companies like Enterprise, Avis and Hertz. If you’re under 25 and paying young driver fees: stop. You’re throwing money away.

I’ve saved upwards of $2,000 and additionally, if I can, I do my best to rent with Budget due to their FastBreak program. The program is entirely free, You reserve your rental car online and they basically do all the prep work beforehand and have your car ready upon arrival. That means that in major U.S. cities, like New York City and San Francisco, I can head straight to my car, hop in and go. No lines or human interactions—just immediate access.

Side note:
Most rental car companies will allow you to use your reservation as a way to gain mileage with your preferred airline. If you have airline status, remember to book with your mileage account number.

9. Back up files on the road.

Backing up your content is essential no matter where you are, but it’s even more important when you’re traveling. And it’s important to have a repeatable plan of how to do it. Your backup workflow should be just as dialed in as your travel workflow.

I have a 15-inch MacBook Pro that I edit and work on when I travel and a 27-inch iMac at home. I always use accounts that sync up, whether it’s iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc. Make sure your essential content can be accessible from all your essential devices. My first line of backup is to shoot with dual slots on my camera, one copy to SD and the other copy to CF. Once I finish a shoot, I try to immediately download the files to each of the 2TB hard drives. I keep these devices in separate baggage when I travel. I also don’t format SD/CF cards when I travel and these cards are always kept on my person.

After I download my cards to my hard drive(s), if I can, I immediately cull the selects from each shoot. Then I import them into an individual Lightroom catalog (one for each shoot). I build Smart Previews and Standard Previews in Lightroom. Then I technically have five backups of all my content: two copies of the RAW files on the hard drives, two copies on my SD/CF Cards and Smart Previews of my Selects in Lightroom (that I can export to almost full-size jpegs).

I keep my Lightroom catalogs saved on Dropbox (hence the need for a business account—1TB is $99/year) so that the catalogs are immediately synced up to my iMac at home.

When I get home, all I have to do is open my computer, access the Lightroom catalog and start editing. I copy the files back to my main hard drives when I’m home; I can immediately start editing at home since my catalogs are up to date because of Dropbox. If I started editing on the road, my edits will be available on my iMac without ever plugging anything in. Ah, the magic of the Cloud.

The Spyder system is there to calibrate my monitors so that they both show the same colors. I calibrate before every long trip.

I often travel for long stretches, two to four weeks at a time, with five to seven shoots. I have:
– two 2TB hard drives
– one computer
– four 64GB SD cards
– four 64GB CF cards
– business account with Dropbox
– one Spyder calibration system

10. Scout a location.

If you’re shooting in a brand new location and it’s abroad, scouting specific areas in advance can get a bit complicated. I always leave a buffer of 24 hours for domestic weddings and 48+ hours for international weddings so that I can make sure to land on time and get to the locations I need to (and attempt to get at least one good night’s rest before a wedding).

Oftentimes, when I’m shooting a destination wedding, it’s the very first time I’ve ever been to that place before, which can sometimes cause some stress when you’re trying to know where to even begin scouting. If the wedding is a “standard” wedding (versus an elopement) I usually try to head to the venue to see how accessible other areas are from that venue. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out to leave the venue and you really need to make the venue work for you. Exploring the light around the venue, seeing how it falls, which areas are shaded and what architectural details are important can go a long way on helping ease your time and pacing on the wedding day itself.

11. Understand different light in different settings.

Before I became a photographer, I really had no idea that the quality of light vastly depends on where you are geographically on the globe. The Western U.S. coast has phenomenal light that tends to be softer, whereas if you’re shooting in the mountains of Colorado, you can sometimes get this really harsh, direct light.

This became really apparent to me one year when I shot weddings in both Iceland and Tanzania. Icelandic light can actually be surprisingly harsh, but because of its location in the North Atlantic, you tend to get a plethora of cloud coverage that ultimately turns the entire country into a softbox. Add in the wind and landscapes, and oftentimes it feels like you’re shooting on set. On top of this, if you’re shooting in the summer, even on the brightest of days, you can get a golden hour for nearly two hours, from about 9 to 11 p.m.

Tanzania, on the other hand, was an entirely different beast. Northern Tanzania lies pretty close to the equator, in an arid climate, and I happened to be shooting there during the dry season at the beginning of summer. Because of this, the sun tends to stay fairly high in the sky throughout the day and sets fairly rapidly. Without a cloud in the sky, it was a real struggle, with a pretty large lack of brush, greenery and trees to find great light that illuminated the couple well. This wedding was an elopement, but even with that factor in my favor, it certainly created some new challenges.

In Colorado we have a lot of evergreens, which results in a bunch of trees that don’t tend to offer a lot of shade, with thick branches that don’t really allow a lot of light through them. In a lot of other places in the world, however, there can be a lot of deciduous trees. With these kinds of trees, their leaves allow a lot of light, which can often mean that you’ll get a pretty heavy green cast or fight against a lot of dappled light.

When you’re always shooting in different locations, it’s important to know a fair amount on how light works in each environment because ultimately, your images will reflect your understanding of the changing environs.

A few great tools for keeping on top of these things are the Golden Hour and Sun Seeker apps. These help you track the exact times the sun will be setting anywhere in the world, can help you track the exact location of the sun across the sky and help better gauge where the light will be coming from as you’re scouting a location.

Levi Tijerina is a wedding photographed based in the rugged wilderness of Colorado. His focus is to create visceral imagery that relies more on emotional process and compelling light versus technical proficiency. Levi is heavily influenced by narratives in literature and cinema as well as well-executed design and illustration. This article was adapted from his blog on levitijerina.com.

See the original article in the May 2016 Digital Edition.