For years, I've relied on a modular backpack system by Kinesis for hauling my gear through the airports and cities of the world. To it's immense credit: the bag is 100% customizable and has fit into absolutely every single overhead bin I've ever faced, from the cavernous storage of international jetliners to tiny bins of computer jets that might as well come with a shoehorn.
The downside? It's a backpack. Which, when it's filled with to the seams with camera gear, means that it's more accurately a back-breaker.
Even at a hefty $330 retail, you have to figure that the Think Tank Airport International is a bargain compared to back surgery. Let's take a detailed look at this bag.
On the outside, the Airport International basically looks like your standard rolling suitcase – rolling down an airport concourse, you'd have to be forgiven for thinking it was filled with clothes and the odd vacation souvenir.
Zipped open, however, and the bag reveals its true nature, which is of a gluttonous case that will swallow up your photo gear:
The entire raison d'etre for the Airport International, at least for me, is that it rolls. So, I'm very happy to say that that the wheels on this bag are top-notch. What you get are essentially 75mm inline skate wheels and bearings, which roll beautifully through airport concourses, ramps, city sidewalks and curbs.
The main reason is that the pull-out handle is comprised of four-sections, while competing models like the Lowepro Pro Roller x100 and Lowepro Pro Roller x200 features a two-section handle. Just as with tripods or lightstands, the fewer sections, the stronger and more rigid the support, and this principle applies to collapsible handles as well.
However, it's very important to note that this handle design is a calculated choice.
What Think Tank has done is made an executive decision to give the photographer more storage space at the expense of a more stable handle. This multi-segment handle design is not without its benefits, the chief one being that a four-segment handle collapses more compactly than a two-section handle.
What this means for you, the traveling photographer, is less space taken up in the interior of the bag by the handle and more space for your gear. More on this trade-off in the storage section of this review.
One very nice touch with the Airport International is that it features handles on all of its four sides, so no matter how you stow the bag, you've got grip.
The bag features heavy-duty handles on the top and left side of the bag, while the bottom and right side feature low-profile nylon handles.
The Airport Internation v2.0 features three locks. The main lock secures the main zippered compartment with a TSA-compatible combination lock. Rather than just include a detachable lock that you might lose, Think Tank employs a built-in lock that secures the zippers, so they remained both locked and stationary.
In addition, the bag features a lock in the front compartment for securing a laptop bag. As a nice touch, all of the locks on the Airport International are three-digit combination locks, so you just have to remember one combination. No keys to lose.
Finally, the back of the Airport International features a lock and cable for attaching the bag to stationary objects, so it's possible to lock up your bag unattended if need be.
ID/Business Card Holder
Nothing ground-breaking here, but the Airport International does include a holder for baggage ID – perfect for your business card, naturally.
One pretty genius touch that Think Tank has included is the straps for an optional tripod or monopod holster, which latches onto the existing hardware of the bag.
The straps for the tripod holder feature quick releases, so it's a snap to unlock the tripod for stowing in an airplane's storage bin.
Aside from carrying a tripod or monopod, I like these add-ons because it's easy to strap a jacket to the case. I imagine you could just as easily strap an umbrella or other lighting gear to the Think Tank if needed, too.
The build quality of the Airport International v2.0 is nothing short of excellent. Aside from the aforementioned pull-out handle, the bag itself is pretty exceptionally crafted.
Think Tank has done a great job with the fit and finish of this case, right down to the YKK zippers.
On the storage pockets of the inner flap, all the zippers feature nylon guards, so there's no chance of your gear being scratched up in transit. Again – aside from the lame pull-out handle, Think Tank gets an A+.
Another example of the attention to detail that Think Tank as built into this bag is a kick guard and impact-resistant plastic panels on the backside of the case, where you're most likely to hit it with your heel while pulling it.
Even though the Airport International is technically the smaller of Think Tank's full-sized rolling bags next to the Airport Security, I'm happy to say that this case still features an abundance of room for any sensible kit.
Just as you'd expect, the interior storage area comes with an array of dividers, which you can customize and fit to your exact gear requirements.
As I mentioned in notes on the pull-out handle, the benefit Think Tank gains with the shorter (albeit weaker) handle is increased depth toward the bottom of the bag. Essentially, if you were looking at a cutaway view of the bag, there are two tiers in the depth of the bag.
In the above photo, you can see that the hardware for the handle extends about halfway down into the bag. The handle hardware raises the floor of the bag about an inch, for a depth of about 6.6″ at the minimum and about 7.5″ at the maximum. Gain in space at the bottom might not sound like much, but it's the difference between being able to stow a Nikon SB-900 vertically in the bag or having to make it lay down.
In addition, you can see that the extra space the handle takes up is only confined to the center column of the bag – the outer edges of the bag feature the same 7.5″ depth – again, great for stowing flashes and longer items without having to lay them down in the bag.
Here's an idea of the sort of gear you can fit into the Think Tank
In addition, the Airport International features storage pockets on the large zip flap, with plenty of room for cables, memory cards, and documents.
The front compartment of the bag features room for small items like batteries, pens, and so forth. I like this small front pocket for temporarily stashing my wallet and phone during the x-ray screening.
Overall, the International features a slightly smaller footprint in order to conform to these international requirements.
Here's a comparison of the interior dimensions for these two bags:
Airport Security: 13″ W x 7-8″ D x 21″ H
Airport International: 13″ W x 6.5″- 7.5″ D x 18.5″ H
With these dimensions, you're essentially loosing a half-inch of depth and a couple inches in the height of the bag.
As I generally travel internationally once a year on average, the added comfort of knowing my gear bag meets regulations is a huge bonus for me. What's more, even with the slight loss of storage over the domestic US version, the Airport International v2.0 still features plenty of space for all my essential gear.
If for no other reason, I recommend the International over the Security just as a deterrent from over-packing.
Airport International vs Lowepro x100 Roller Pro
For anyone looking at bags in the same league as the Think Tank International, I think that Lowepro's Roller Pro series bears serious consideration. Why did I go with Think Tank over the nearest competitor, the Lowepro x100?
My main reason, despite Lowepro's great looking handles, is that Lowepro x100 doesn't quite give me the same spaciousness of the Airport International v2.0.
Lowepro x100 Roller Pro: 11.4″ W x 6.6″ D x 15.7″ H (29 x 16.8 x 40 cm)
Airport International: 13″ W x 6.5″- 7.5″ D x 18.5″ H (33 x 16.5-19 x 47 cm)
Lowepro x100 Roller Pro: 14″ W x 11.2″ D x 20″ H (35.5 x 28.5 x 51 cm)
Airport International: 14” W x 8” D x 21” H (36 x 20 x 53 cm)
I do love the ability of the Lowepro x100's main compartment to unzip from the main exterior shell and be worn as a backpack. If you need a bag with this feature and can give up a little space, it might be worth consideration. However, this feature isn't without sacrifice, which comes in the fact that the x100 is over 3-inches deeper by the exterior dimensions, yet essentially only as deep as the Airport International with an overall smaller storage area.
As far as the other bags in the Roller Pro line, both the x200 and x300 are too large to fit my requirements for an international travel case.
The Other Complaint
So I lied. I have two complaints about the Airport Security. One of them, as I mentioned, is the weak support for the handle. The other complaint is, coincidentally, also related to this infernal pull-out handle.
Long story short, the handle is a little tricky to actually pull out of the bag due to the snug fit in its zippered compartment. Again, this decision is to save space and maximize storage, but it means that when it's time to grab the handle, you have to jam your fingers into the bag to pry the handle out.
To remedy this, I made a pull-tab out of electrical tape as an interim solution (a piece of string, ribbon, or a zip-tie would also work just fine, I think).
A simple solution to a simple problem. And not a bad DIY follow up to the speedlight grid and my beauty dish, if I do say so myself. The video tutorial for this one is coming up soon.
My two caveats aside, the Airport Internationalby Think Tank is fantastic bag for the traveling photographer. The bag itself rocks with plenty of storage, padding, and excellent construction.
In fact, the overall build of the bag is so good that if the case had to be gate checked, I trust my gear would make out just fine. Better, in fact, than a night in a photo pit throwing elbows with other music photographers. Of course, having to gate check the bag is going to be a rare instance, if ever, because the bag fits with ease into the flights I regularly take:
I went with the Airport International over the slightly larger Airport Security for the greater travel flexibility, and I'm very happy with that decision. Seeing that there are a few inches of clearance all around in an overhead bin is a beautiful thing.
Long story short, the Airtport International fits an entire pro-kit of f/2.8 zooms and plenty of extras in a super airport-friendly, photographer-designed package.
Thanks to the Airport International, I'm looking forward to my back aching from shooting photography assignments, not from carting the gear around getting to those gigs.
Where To Buy The Think Tank Airport International
The Airport International is available from Amazon.com and directly from Think Tank Photo. I personally bought my Airport International at full price directly from Think Tank. Since I am now an affiliate with Think Tank, if you purchase $50 or more from their online store, you'll receive a free bag with your purchase.
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