I probably won’t be traveling with film anymore

This trip has so far been somewhat film-unfriendly. I’m sitting at the gate for my flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai/Smoke City and although this time was OK, I’m considering whether I’ll ever fly with film again. 

The problem with film is that the faster the film, the more sensitive the film is to the x-ray scanners. For instance, Kodak recommends that ASA 800 film only go through a maximum of one time and only then if it is absolutely unavoidable. Obviously, that’s not exactly ideal given that you typically have a return flight (or you buy film at your destination) and then if you’re traveling through multiple regions you cannot always assume that every airport has the same guidelines regarding film. 

In the past I’ve only ever traveled with 400 or 200 speed film (this time two rolls of Ektar 100) and usually it’s been no issue whatsoever at the Vienna airport to have someone hand-check my film. This time around, however, security was quite gruff and said anything below 1600 had to go through the scanner (in direct contradiction to Kodak’s own recommendations and I’d like to think Kodak knows film better than airport security). After arriving for a connecting flight in Dubai, you have to go through security again (despite being shuttled from the plane directly to the airport) and if you were horrendously clever like me, you have to send the loaded camera through the machine, although I understand it. It took some convincing for the guard whose English was not the best to let me go simply through the metal detector with the other, unloaded roll in my hand. The best part, though, was when the guard asked me to open the camera and show him there was only film inside – he didn’t quite understand that would ruin the roll of film. Admittedly, loading the film before reaching my destination was unwise but I thought I would have the chance to get some nice shots of Dubai airport and also had not expected a security check during transfer. Ah well. 

Don Mueang (DMK) here in Bangkok was relatively harmless, though. Some of the scanners even have stickers on the machines denoting them as “film safe”, although I still took the rolls through the metal detector. Maybe the security guard didn’t quite understand what I held in my hand (she was quite young), perhaps domestic flight regulations are very lax, maybe she knew exactly what I was talking about or maybe I got very lucky – no idea. 

Traveling in the USA is another story altogether, though. While it seems most countries other than the USA invest some training into their airport security, the TSA seems consistently to be an absolute train wreck. I’ve flown through Atlanta and Chicago multiple times and when you ask someone to hand-check film, the reaction you often get is at best exasperation and at worst hatred for your special request. Prepare to wait, too, because I’ve always had to get a supervisor of some kind. Usually the older supervisors are perfectly fine and are old enough to know what film is but everyone else doesn’t and treats you with absolute disdain. I’ve never had a positive film experience with first-line support at TSA, at least not in Chicago or Atlanta. I suppose I can understand since someone traveling with film is not part of the standard system and upsets the flow but the negative reactions I get are simply not necessary, especially when I am extremely polite whenever requesting something from anyone in a high stress job. 

I suppose that most times you can get by without any issues, especially within Europe. What bothers me, however, is the inconsistency. I would rather buy my film at my destination and at least avoid security checks on one leg of the trip but that’s not always an option. Film is very much a niche product nowadays and while you might still be able to find some Kodak Gold 200 at drug stores (not seen a single roll here in Bangkok), anything else is definitely a special item. In addition, having to make an extra trip for film is annoying, too. 

It would be nice to see airports around the world, or at least within the “first world” and those developing countries with large numbers of tourists, harmonize their regulations but given the differences in culture, training and the small market that is film I don’t see it happening any time soon. If film is that important to you, then by all means, travel with it – but be aware that it can be a hassle and you run the risk of ruining a roll due to scanning it too often or having it scanned at all. 

It’s a shame that quick turnaround on developing film is largely a thing of the past (wish I had been able to experience those Kodak networks of yore) and it has become a niche product but I suppose that makes it all the more special. If you can travel somewhere and bring back negatives or slides from your trip, you’re definitely in the minority, especially if you’re traveling somewhere exotic. 

For me, though, I will definitely be reconsidering traveling with film in the future. I’m definitely leaving my “specialty” cameras at home and only traveling with something with a modern built-in meter in addition to my DSLR. That’s my personal limit for the future.