Do you remember the movie Planes, Trains, And Automobiles? Traveling has lately felt more and more like this movie. For those of you who have not seen this classic, I highly suggest you watch it and enjoy the laughs. For those who have seen it though, you know all too well what I’m talking about. Traveling to wherever with someone you don’t exactly get along with, let alone tolerate. Now add the fact that we have to do this while carrying our gear, clothes, necessities, and essentials from destination to destination. This can be complicated and at many times trying, especially when jumping from planes to trains, to automobiles.
It’s normal for all of us who are in this industry to travel with our own gear. Unfortunately in today’s world, however, this has become more of a tangled mess rather than an easy way of moving with our work. How are we supposed to move our tools, mixers, headphones, and all the rest we need through the endless regulations that are modern transportation? These are some tips and possibly even some answers you may not have thought of.
A toddler is crying at the back of the aisle, there’s been turbulence for at least an hour, your coworker hasn’t stopped snoring since they sat down next to you, and you just finished a 13-hour load out and have to head straight to the next venue for the load in once you land. Now boarding for planes.
As someone who has spent much of these past few years traveling in some manner, boarding with the tools of the trade has proven on more than one occasion to be a difficult task. Before you say “You can simply check the bag,” yes, you can simply check the bag with your gear. But what about your other bags with tools, spares, clothes, and other essentials? If you check every bag, this gets quite expensive, and too often when we tour or travel for work, the companies don’t always reimburse us and some companies don’t even cover more than one checked bag and one carry-on. “So just pack light.” Well, that’s not always an option in this line of work. Your options often come down to either bringing it yourself, buying it when you arrive (in which case you’ll just have to pack it later), or renting it wherever you’re going. In the long run, it is generally more cost-efficient to bring what you need yourself and rent other items on a case-by-case basis. “Just don’t fly, drive yourself or get on a bus.” I see where you’re going with this as that is the more cost-efficient answer. But, occasionally there are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like working at a huge international festival which requires making the trek onto a plane. When you’re loading out a music festival one weekend on the East Coast, and need to load in a film festival on Tuesday on the West Coast, a bus won’t exactly do the trick and you’re likely to fall asleep at the wheel before you make it to the other end of the country. A plane is sometimes your only option when trying to travel long distances in short amounts of time.
So how do we get all of our shit through the TSA?
1 Bag For 1
For those of us who spend more time in a hotel than in our own homes, it is essential that we bring enough clothes and other items to get us through several months at a time. The 1-for-1 method is something that has helped me greatly when getting through multiple airports in a single day. You bring 1 bag large enough to fit all of your clothes, yes even your steel-toe work boots because getting those off at security is just a pain. Pack tightly, and remember if you roll something up you can DIY steam it yourself later while you enjoy a hot shower in the hotel. When it comes to sanitary and personal essentials, pack liquids in a small clear bag so it doesn’t have to be taken out and inspected through every airport. Typically, you can fit this small clear bag in either your carry-on or your clothes bag. In my gear bag, the largest of the bags, I always put the heavier and sharper objects that I know won’t make it through the inspections and check the bag.
Some of the gear that I bring are:
- 12-channel compact mixer
- mixing headphones
- audio interface
I recommend always ensuring this bag, especially if you decide to put even more gear in yours. Then the carry-on is the smallest bag I have on me but still has a lot in it. Often this is my work bag that I have repurposed for the flight, but still carries much of the same. This holds a lot of my spares, laptop, change of clothes, passport, and other travel items that will require quick access. I always pack another small bag in my carry-on, this is for food. Find the food that you need while working on the road and be sure that you have enough of it to get you through the travel day until you can get more. As long as the food items are unopened, the majority of airports won’t give you any grief about it.
So, we have 1 bag for clothes, 1 small clear bag for liquids that can fit in the clothes bag, 1 gear bag, and 1 carry-on for easy access items. This now allows you to check a bag, and ensure it, without breaking your wallet while still having the normal suitcase and carry-on for the plane.
The infamous “All you could ever need in one!” travel kits. The reason I don’t like to recommend these is that they come with a lot of bells and whistles but not a lot of useful storage. It’s a lot of very tiny pockets. But, as women this is not something we are unfamiliar with. Why do you think we get so excited when we find pants or skirts or really anything with pockets then almost instinctively yell “It has pockets!!” at the top of our lungs? It’s because we don’t get anything with normal-sized pockets, so we are used to compact packing. But, having a travel kit with a hanging toiletry bag is essential when you know you’ll be bunking with someone at your new destination. This way there’s no debate on who brought what, all of your items are in your hanging storage.
Packing cubes are great for organising so you know exactly what is in which cube. These can also keep things like your going-out shoes and work shoes separate so your going-out shoes don’t get ruined as easily by the heavy work boots. Some higher-end travel kits even come with built-in coolers, so you can bring anything you buy at the airport central onto the plane and have as a snack while you wait for your ride at your destination. You also have the ultimate invention of the luggage with the built-in charger. If you’re traveling during some of the busiest times of the year, a free outlet is hard to come by.
It is true that I haven’t met many people in the United States who mostly travel by train to get from one gig to the next. But that isn’t true for the rest of the world. During some of my time in the United Kingdom, it was extremely common to travel long distances by train. Even for some of my gigs on the East Coast, it made more sense to book a train for a quick weekend gig, or even a one-day event rather than justify the cost of a last-minute flight for something that was only a few hours away. “Why not just drive yourself?” Driving for a few hours does make more sense, but the times that I took the train to gigs on the East Coast, I had just gotten done with a different event. There were several times I would be getting done with a concert and jumping on a train late that night to make it to load in a festival the next afternoon. That precious time on the train was used for sleep, even though they rarely turned off the lights.
Leave Everything Except
Honestly, if it’s just a one-day job, how much do you really need to bring and how much can your rent or they’ll already have there? Leave as much as you can behind and bring just what you think is essential. If you’re traveling for a quick trip, you’ll need a small bag for your valued items like your wallet, phone, coffee that you relied on at the airport earlier that day, etc. This bag should never leave your person, especially if you’re traveling overnight.
You should also have a change of clothes and of course the gear you thought essential to bring. For quick gigs, I like to bring my own mixing headphones but not much else of my own gear. Depending on if it’s an outdoor gig, you’ll also want to be sure you have enough room for weather items like an emergency cover for any of your own gear in case of rain, and try to bring your own fan if it’s too hot outside for any normal person to be working. Trains will also allow you to bring your own food and drink on board as long as they aren’t excessive. I constantly have my cooling water bottle when traveling on trains, this can save you waiting on the dining cart for constant refills of your martini while your bunkmate downs their fifth cup of coffee for the day and continues telling you about that one time in band camp.
If you’re traveling overnight, remember to bring a small pillow. This will save your neck after being bent over a console all night and then sleeping upright. If you have the option on a last-minute ticket, try to book a sleeping cabin so you can also have access to the shower down the hall. Keep in mind, the cabins aren’t always available with such late notice but they do allow for extra space to stretch out after a long run and an even longer day tomorrow.
Show Up With Everything
While sleeping cabins can’t always be booked with a last-minute train ticket, they can be booked with even just a few hours notice. This will allow you to bring extra gear that may not be necessary but might be nice to have in case something goes wrong with rented equipment or the equipment the event is providing. For the times you can show with more than just what is required, this can in some ways ease your trip. When you show up with everything, you don’t have to worry about something not working or going haywire.
We have all arrived at a reliable event with just the necessities to find something has broken, and of course, it’s always something we have and purposefully left behind to make the trip easier. When you can bring as much of your own gear as possible, you don’t get screwed over when something decides to die right before the show starts. Equipment from venues can also be outdated, or overused. When multiple engineers and technicians travel to venues, we often don’t get told what state the equipment is in, even during advancement discussions. Walking in the stage door and seeing something in a state of duress is unfortunately not uncommon. What venues don’t always want to tell us is that they work their own technicians so much that their technicians don’t have the time to maintain equipment or get approval to upgrade.
When it’s your own gear that you’re bringing on the train you can also do a quick maintenance job on the ride to the venue, at least when you’re not asleep in your cabin or grabbing something to eat for the first time that day from the dining cart that’s about to close or cramming yourself into a tiny shower installment so you can feel some warmish water while someone constantly knocks on the door. This way you can be extra sure that when you arrive everything, including yourself, for the most part, will be in working order.
“Just drive yourself!” Fine, we’ll drive ourselves.
Let’s be honest, if you can drive yourself to every single gig and venue where you work, then you know how much it can suck. Forget the fact that every major highway in the world will always have traffic and crashes so you’re almost guaranteed to be an hour late, but an automobile is either boring or a constant battlefield.
You have to start the journey by packing the car, and unless you are insanely good at Tetris, that’s not going to happen easily. “It gets easier over time.” Packing and unpacking the car does get easier with every gig you do luckily, but it getting easier doesn’t change the number of things you have to load every time.
You also have to decide who’s going to be the driver, which can start an argument if it’s a small group. The most common solution to this is to take turns driving, which is where the argument of who drives first comes in. “That doesn’t seem too bad, just rotate who has to drive first while touring.” Except when you all have to wake up at four a.m. the next morning, and the person who drove last complains because the person who drives next doesn’t have to do as long of a journey as they did, things can get heated. You also have to address the elephant in the room of the cost of driving yourself, a.k.a. fuel prices. Believe it or not, there are more festivals and live events that don’t pay for the travel expenses of things like fuel. This means having to either split it between those traveling or having one person pay. “It’s ridiculous to ask one person to pay for all of that!” Not entirely actually, especially if others who are traveling are paying for everyone’s meals or accommodations. If expenses are being split other ways, asking one person to pay for fuel isn’t a bad idea.
You finally get on the road, and now you have to not only deal with other people’s bad driving on the road but with everyone that you’re traveling with as well. “That can’t be too bad.” Have you ever been on a long ass road trip with someone for months on end? You eventually run out of things to talk about, and you’re constantly fighting over who controls the radio and where to stop for food. “So drive separately.” Making these long trips alone isn’t really an option, notably when you’re getting paid to travel with these people.
Then you finally get to the venue and everything happens in a blur of unloading, setup, soundcheck, etc. If you’re lucky, at the end of the night you get to stay in a hotel before hitting the road again. But that’s not always the case as we are all too familiar with.
Packing for van life doesn’t really have the same excitement as packing for a cross-country road trip with friends fresh from school, or even throwing in gear with no plan for your first-ever gig. When you essentially live out of a van or bus for months on end, it’s often a pain in the ass. The majority of the space has to go to the essential gear, and even more, space is taken if you’re bringing your own console and sound system so you can be a self-contained show. Now fit people in and all the things they want to bring.
In van life, it’s crucial to plan ahead as much as possible. This means playing the game of van-Tetris until every last inch of space is used by either people or gear. When you have the small space planned out, everything has a spot where it’s supposed to go so you can have as much comfort room as possible to stretch out for the long hours on the road. It’s often helpful to get a shelf built into the van if it doesn’t already have one for luggage and essentials you might need to grab at any moment.
After so many hours on the road, the van or bus can get messy… Especially when you’re traveling with guys who think it’s your job to clean up after them. Well, it’s not. Always have a designated trash bag and air freshener. These can be bags that you buy at a supermarket or the large bag you get when ordering several meals from the drive-through at two in the morning. Either way, make sure everyone knows where it is so you don’t have to constantly deal with a van that looks and smells like you’ve been on the road a while.
Wait In The Truck
As someone who had to drive herself to many many live events with her own gear, a truck is a nice investment to have in this industry. Packing a backseat full of gear in a small car and then having to drive for hours is physically and mentally draining. The last thing you want when you’re on the road all the time is to be crammed into a smaller space than you have to be. Though a smaller vehicle is more affordable, it means storing your gear in places like your back seat and right next to you upfront.
Whenever I would offer to bring my friends to events if they got their tickets, I would always have the backseat ready for them. This can’t happen if that backseat is packed to the brim with mic stands and amps. You also always have that one friend who can complain about anything. Imagine sticking them in the backseat with some of your gear and they gripe the entire time about how they’re being squished with no room while you’re trying to drive with the seat all the way forward, the steering in your lap, and running out of fuel for both the car and yourself.
This is the nightmare that all of us want to avoid.
Several people in this industry who do freelance also have a day job. Going from your day job straight to a gig that night in a small car means that you have to think pretty far in advance so that you don’t have to constantly go back to your place to pack the car, then drive to wherever the venue is. With a truck, you put as much of the heavier gear in the bed and throw a tarp and some straps over it. Especially when working an outdoor gig, a truck is easier to drive over tougher terrain. Being able to drive right up to the stage and unload rather than hauling everything from the parking area saves essential time if something goes wrong.
So When You Travel
Clearly, no matter how you travel, the travel day is messy even with the best of planning and organising. Even for those who have done the travel day for years, it’s not always the relaxing day you intend it to be and need it to be. Having to move not only ourselves but also tools of the trade alongside someone we may not always get along with can clearly be difficult. Every travel situation we find ourselves in with this line of work will have its own complications. Whether we are flying miles high in the sky, speeding across the terrain on a train, or driving with habits that resemble that of a one-speed racer, we can almost always be certain that the travel day will be a hassle.