I am obsessed with developing the perfect quality carry-on Grab and Go telescope kit for my travels to dark skies. My solution has been a Stellarvue 80 mm APO triplet, which I love, with the dedicated Stellarvue carry-on bag. The Stellarvue bag is big enough to hold the scope, diagonal, eyepieces, finder, multiple accessories and even a pair of binoculars. I have flown domestically to Arizona, Maine, and Utah (for the eclipse) and had no problems with TSA or the airlines. However, the tripod (a Berlebach wooden one) and the Vixen Porta II mount are heavy and don’t fit in a carry-on. So, I have been checking an oversized suitcase – aptly named the Kelty Zeppelin– where I put the tripod, mount, and my clothes. Because I have plans to fly internationally, and don’t like risking the Stellarvue 80, I have wanted a more compact kit, understanding that it will sacrifice some optical performance. My goal is a reasonably good quality, portable observatory in a carry-on.
My solution has been to buy a Skywatcher Skymax 102 mm Maksutov with an AZ-GTi mount. Both the OTA and the mount are remarkably compact and the package sells for the mid $500s. The AZ-GTi is a cool mount controllable by your smartphone. The only negative in terms of size in the package is the tripod, which I replaced with a Manfrotto Element Big Aluminum Traveler Tripod, which collapses to under 17 inches and has over 17 lbs in capacity. For eyepieces, I have chosen a Televue 32 mm Plossl and a Baader Hyperion 8-24 mm. I also have upgraded to a Williams star diagonal and bought a Celestron f/6.3 reducer and Celestron back to reduce focal length as needed. Finally, for a bag, I have bought a Tenba Cineluxe 21, a camera bag designed for larger video-cameras instead of DSLRs, which makes a great telescope bag. The 20.5 x 10.00 x 13.75 inch carry-on bag fits all my telescope gear plus a pair of 10x42 binoculars, laser pointer and flashlights, notebook and field guide. (The bag probably would fit a Skymax 127, but I prefer using the weight and capacity for the binoculars. Something like an AWB OneSky also would work as an OTA.) The total package weighs in at about 30 lbs, but the Tenba Cineluxe works well with a collapsible plastic dolly to navigate the airports. (The Tenba Cineluxe 21 also comes in a wheeled version.) My total carry-on telescope kit (without binoculars) costs approximately $1500, so it is not cheap. But neither is air travel to dark skies. Overall, my carry-on kit is not perfect, but I believe I am getting close. I will see how it works in the field.