Smart Traveler: Flying the Mother Load

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

Smart Traveler: Flying the Mother Load

How to get big gear on board
By Mike Steere

Taking along your own equipment can turn a mere vacation into a honeymoon: oneness in paradise with an expensive thing you love. But love, when you're flying, is often a captive of airline baggage regulations.

Some items, such as skis, snowboards, scuba gear, and climbing and hiking equipment, are no problem at all, though they may put you over checked-baggage limits--typically two or three items of up to 70 pounds each. These are all slam dunks at the airport check-in counter. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are objects longer than about 15 feet, such as a two-person sea kayak. You have as much chance of getting these on the plane as you do a suitcase marked DANGER: EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE. The good news here is about the stuff that's in between: bicycles, surfboards, sailboards, and whitewater kayaks. With forethought, canny packing, $90 to $150 in round-trip supplemental charges, and the gift of gab, all of these things will fly.

First, a rule of thumb: Label your plaything FRAGILE, largely and luridly, on every surface, in both English and the language of your destination.

Checking in early is also a good idea, but it won't always save you from the Airport Uncertainty Principle, which holds that policies that seem perfectly clear on the phone can be grossly (and perhaps deliberately) misunderstood and distorted by check-in agents. If a company representative tells you that the airline accepts kayaks up to 12 feet long (as United supposedly does), don't assume you'll waltz through check-in. On the other hand, an official no (like the one you'll get from American Airlines) doesn't necessarily mean your beloved equipment will have to stay behind. Usually the hassle you'll face is directly proportional to size: The bigger the object, the more you'll have to rely on charm. But you must also pay attention to the model of the plane when you make your reservations, since size limitations vary not only from carrier to carrier but also within each airline's individual fleet. For example, American's policy is to allow 14-foot-long sailboards onto Boeing 727s, but not onto its slightly smaller McDonnell Douglas Super 80s.

There are two major schools of thought regarding flying with bulky gear. One, the They Said I Could Bring It School, is most effective when company policy gives your equipment the thumbs-up for the type of plane to be flown on your route. Get an explicit OK when you make reservations and have it entered in your record, along with the name of the person who gave it. The other, the Stealth School, says to call no preflight attention to yourself--just show up and bank on your luck and your powers of persuasion, which may be your only hope when the rule book says your item is a no-go. Either way, here are some sport-specific tips for getting your gear on board.

There's no challenge in getting bikes onto planes: All the major airlines take them as long as they're bagged or boxed. The trick is to pack your bike so that it will survive the trip.

The most indestructible option is a hard-sided bike case, which you can buy at a bike shop for about $300; soft, padded bags sell for around $200. Cardboard shipping boxes, available free from many bike shops or for $10-$15 from the airlines, will also keep a bike out of harm's way. With bags or cardboard boxes, protect the bike by removing the quick-release skewers from the wheels, sleeving the frame in foam plumbing insulation (available at most hardware stores), and applying tape to immobilize everything that moves. Swaddle the wheels in bubble wrap. Scrounging around a bike shop can yield other clever packing goodies, such as little plastic braces that fit into dropouts to keep the fork and chainstays from being compressed.

Supplemental charges for bicycles on domestic flights generally range from $45 to $50 each way. On international flights, many airlines accept bicycles in lieu of one piece of checked baggage at no extra charge.

Your success with these will depend on the airline, the plane, and your destination. United, for instance, substitutes boards for checkable luggage--at no extra charge--on international flights. But on domestic flights, boards up to nine feet long will cost you $50 one-way, and longer ones (up to 12 feet) are $75. On 737s, they don't fly at all.

To protect your board from dings, wind bubble wrap all the way around, then remove the fins before dropping it into a padded traveling bag. (If the fins are not removable, brace them with plastic-foam blocks.) A number of companies make soft-sided board bags; expect to spend $200 for a good single-board model, $250 for a two-board bag. A cheaper alternative is a multiboard packing carton, which can be ordered from a surf shop for about $25.

Not much different than surfboards, except that they usually cost more to transport. For instance, both American and Delta fly surfboards domestically for $45 but charge $75 for sailboards. Again, surround the board with bubble wrap and pack it in a padded travel bag. You will, however, need a separate quiver-style bag--about $80--for the sail, boom, and mast.

New, shorter whitewater designs have opened up possibilities for bonding with your boat in far-flung places. Nevertheless, the inclinations of airline personnel typically loom as large as the company's policies. If you're able to sweet-talk your boat's way on board, expect to pay a supplemental baggage charge of $75 each way.

Since there are no commercial carrying bags for kayaks, many paddlers make their own. If your sewing skills aren't quite that developed, wind the boat in bubble wrap and then cover it with cardboard. While the toughest whitewater boats on the market can travel bare, fiberglass and Kevlar boats call for very careful packing.

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