This is part two in a series about photographing destination weddings. See part one for tips about flying first class for free, building loyalty with airlines, and more.
After photographing destination weddings for the past 11 years, I’ve learned the ins and outs of traveling. Traveling for fun and traveling for work are quite different. Learning how to pack, price, and prepare are completely different than planning for a vacation. Here are a few answers to questions that I regularly receive from other photographers. Hopefully they will help those of you that want to shoot more destination work.
If you are interested in learning more, I offer mentor sessions locally and online. Here is a link for more info.
Should I discount?
There are many photographers that will discount packages so that they can book destination weddings. However, if you’re new to destination weddings, know that it is two extra days of work (at least), and a lot of extra stress…especially if you’re traveling out of the country. I’m not raising this point to cast blame or start a pricing debate. Ultimately, I believe that you should do what is best for your business and your family. But, it can become exhausting and expensive very quickly if you don’t plan a proper budget and time for destination weddings.
Early in my career, I discounted rates (and covered my expenses) when I really wanted to photograph in a particular place, but I rarely do this anymore. Traveling is one of my favorite things to do in life, and I find that shooting in new locations is inspiring. After 11 years of photographing destination weddings, I find that more often than not, I’d rather take on an extra wedding and use that money to book a vacation vs. book a discounted destination wedding and have to work the majority of the time. This is especially true with a baby, when every minute of time away is limited.
In summary, destination weddings do not equal vacation. If you’re looking to build your portfolio, it can be worth it to discount, but this is not sustainable for a profitable business long-term.
How should I charge the travel fee?
List the type of expenses that you will incur (flight, hotel for two nights, rental car, per diem for food/parking/gas), and confirm rates with your clients before you book. If I go this route, I will usually offer a range so that they have an idea of the expenses for their budget. The benefit of this method is that your client will be covering every single itemized cost instead of having to pay out of pocket if you budget incorrectly*. If you’ve never travelled to a particular city before, it might be hard to gauge what to charge a year out when rates will certainly change over the following months. I’ve found that it can also be less of a sticker shock when you quote words (flight/rental car/hotel) vs. a number ($2000).
*I have a clause in my contract that my couples are responsible for travel costs no matter what. However, I feel like it is bad business to quote a flat fee and then go back on your word a few months out from the wedding.
Quote a flat fee
This is a great method if you travel to a place frequently. For example, I travel to NYC fairly often and know how much expenses run for a weekend. The benefit of charging a flat fee is that you can book at your convenience without having to confirm details with your couple. I’m really picky about which airline I fly (see previous blog post about building loyalty) and about schedules, especially since having a baby. I know that I will not be the best photographer if I have to wake up at 3:00a and fly for 12 hours with two layovers. I would much rather pay $100 more to have a better schedule and a direct flight. Thankfully, my couples are usually on board with paying for a better experience, but I’ve had to sometimes cover that extra expense when they didn’t want to pay for it.
Should I book my travel? Or, should my client?
Always book your own travel. I had many uncomfortable experiences early in my career when I let my couples make the arrangements. I know that they were only trying their best to fit the expenses into their budget, and they meant no harm whatsoever. However, I’m sharing these examples so that you can see that best intentions don’t always work in your favor and can even be dangerous in some situations:
-I’ve was stuck at the hotel desk, trying to get a hold of my couple the night before their wedding because they needed to confirm their credit card info (couldn’t charge it to mine because reservation wasn’t under my name). I felt awful. This has also happened with rental cars.
-Having to ride with a questionably intoxicated guest because they wanted to save on a rental car. (My couple had no clue, of course!) But, I was in the middle of nowhere (this is before Uber), and I didn’t have any other option.
-Shady hotels from lack of research. Not the greatest option when traveling alone.
It is also important to book travel in your name for liability reasons and for travel delays. If a client books your flight, you will not be able to access your reservation with a flight cancellation/delay. I’m sure that the last thing they would want to do the night before their wedding is to be on hold with United, trying to get you on another flight! I like to make it my responsibility so that they don’t have to worry about a thing.
Last, the other benefit of booking travel is to build loyalty and rewards with airlines and other companies. See previous post for more info.
When is the best time to book flights/rental car/hotel?
Domestically, I’ve found that flights/rental cars are the lowest three to four months out. For some destinations (particularly California), it can be beneficial to look five to six months out, but you have to get lucky. Hopper is a great app to track flight patterns. Internationally, it’s best to book four to seven months in advance.
For hotels, it entirely depends on the location and time of year. If you are traveling during spring break or peak tourist season, expect higher prices. Otherwise, hotel prices generally don’t vary too much, unless you are booking the week of travel.
Hotel Tonight is a great site for last minute hotel bookings.
What are some ways to prepare for travel delays?
Let me just say, you will have flight cancellations. You will have delays. It’s inevitable if you travel enough. For this reason, I always make sure I have at least an hour layover. A 1.5 hour layover is my sweet spot. Anything less really stresses me out, especially flying through big airports like ATL, LAX, DTW, JFK, ORD.
Don’t book the last flight of the day. I’ve had flights cancelled mid-day and was able to jump on a later flight and make it to the wedding.
Always fly in the day before and leave the day after. I want to give myself at least 24 hours before the wedding on the off chance that my flight is cancelled. I tell my couples that will give me enough time to drive if I had to (for east coast weddings, at least!).
Try to book seats towards the front of the plane, and try not to plane-side check bags if you have a really tight layover. These two things can save you 15 minutes, which can be make or break if you flight is delayed, and you’re trying to make a connection.
Should I check my gear?
Do. Not. Check. Your. Gear. I should preface this advice by saying that I don’t bring a ton of lighting equipment. I know some photographers will check light stands and unnecessary pieces. However, I don’t check anything. And, I will not let my gear bag ever be plane-side checked. Why? I’ve seen (on multiple occasions), bags dropped from 10 feet off of the conveyor belt. This is obviously not good for glass and electronics. Sometimes, plane-side bags are checked all the way through for weight/balance issues or random airline problems.
Don’t let your gear out of your sight! This includes keeping it under your seat. I’ve heard horror stories of people dropping bags from overhead bins on accident, bags being stolen, etc.
Which bag(s) do you recommend for carrying on gear?
Ah. This a great dilemma. I have yet to find the perfect travel bag. I’ve gone through rollers and backpacks, and both have pros and cons. Here are a few that I’ve used over the years that have been reliable:
+Better for your back/shoulders
-Will always be flagged by flight attendants to be checked, even if it will fit under the seat
-Tough for destinations that don’t have paved roads (think beach weddings or third world countries)
-Heavy to lift for overhead bins
+Can always fit under the seat on a plane.
-Can’t fit as much gear
-Rough on your back
Currently, I use a Langly backpack, and I bring a roller bag (from TJ Maxx) for my personal things. Sometimes I will throw unnecessary gear in my roller to limit the weight on my back (camera straps, battery chargers, etc.)
How do you pack your gear? What do you bring?
I always shoot with two bodies, so I will bring my two main cameras and a backup. I will pack these with my lenses, CF cards, and flashes in my backpack. I also bring a laptop for backing up files and writing emails on the road. The rest (card reader, video light, camera strap, extra batteries), I will throw in my personal bag.
Other necessities: two pairs of shoes, layers (especially for cold destinations), extra clothes if rain is forecasted. In general, I try to pack as light as possible. I also recommend bringing an AUX cord and car charger for the rental car.
Do I need to obtain a visa for international weddings?
In short, it depends.
Do your research before booking international weddings. Some countries are very lax about wedding photographers, and others are strict. For example, Canada is extremely rigid about U.S. photographers (especially in BC). I’ve heard stories of friends being banned from the country, having their phones searched for email records, being detained just because they had camera gear for a personal vacation. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it to your couple to not have a wedding photographer, and it’s not worth the stress on your end!
Some countries will require a permit/visa fee to work in their country. The Caribbean islands are notorious for this (Anguilla, Turks & Caicos require permits that range from $700-1000). Yes, you can lie and say you are on vacation. But, illegally traveling/working in another country can get you in serious trouble and negate your contract with your couple.
I will do a lot of googling before booking a destination wedding, and I’m in several destination Facebook groups that have lots of experienced travelers for asking questions.
Have multiple backups
I will carry around a hard drive with me at all times so that I always have a copy of the files just in case. Backup at least three times. If you’re going to be gone for a long time or are traveling really far away, it might be worth it to ship a hard drive home for safekeeping.
Don’t leave your gear in the car. Take it with you.
Insurance is essential.
Make sure you have insurance that covers your gear in rental cars, other countries, other states.
Book directly with the airline/rental car/hotel.
Try to avoid third party bookings, as their warranty and reservations are not as reliable. I will usually look up rates with Kayak and then book directly. Nine times out of ten, it will be the same price.