What’s the Best Way to Fly with My Surfboard?
Don’t get skunked when you’re flying to score
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
There are myriad excuses for going on that next surf trip. It’s August in Jersey, and the waves have been flat for two months. It’s February in Maine, and the 35-degree water turns your hands into clubs. It’s May in California, and you’re sick of wetsuits, onshore winds and crowds. It’s January in Washington, and you really want a boardshort tan. However, flying with a surfboard can be a daunting task since every carrier has a different policy depending on destination, time of year and the size of your stick.
With so many considerations for surf travel, I called professional surfer and frequent globetrotter Dane Gudauskas just before the 29-year-old Californian boarded a plane headed for a big south swell in Tahiti. Gudauskas has spent the last ten years chasing swells and contests around the globe, and by his estimation, he takes between 30 and 50 trips per year. This equates to what he calls, “lots of donations to the airlines.”
Before You Go
When researching ticket prices, pay attention to the wording of each carrier’s baggage policy. Some airlines charge per bag, while others, like US Airways, charge per board. That means what you think will be a $150 purchase at check in for one bag with three boards can become a $450 shocker. Know the policy before you go. Additionally, be aware that the size of your surfboard can impact the final price of flying it. A bag of three, six-foot short boards can actually cost less than one, 10-foot long board based on the dimensional charges. Some airlines will only fly boards of a certain length as freight, which is a whole other quagmire.
Additionally, be aware of luggage embargoes on certain airlines. From June 1 through August 31, United has an oversize baggage embargo on most flights to and from destinations in Mexico and Central America. This means they will not accept your precious surfboards when you’re trying to get to those sand bottom barrels in Oaxaca.
For Gudauskas, the best carriers are the ones with the most consistent policies. “I fly American just because in the past they’ve been very standardized, and they always charge the same amount every time. It’s not like one time you’ll get it for free and the next time you get charged an exponentially high amount. It’s always the same, 150 bucks. That’s why I like it. There’s no questions asked. Just hand them the card. Swipe that thing and forget about it. You don’t have to stress about if they’re going to open it up, and you don’t have to worry about lying. It doesn’t get really awkward.”
While Gudauskas prefers consistent policies, the astute traveler can find great deals. The best carriers won’t even charge extra to bring a board along. Virgin Atlantic allows travelers one free surfboard bag under 9’1” in addition to their checked luggage allowance. Air Tahiti Nui offers one free board, per bag as long as it is less than 8’2”. When I spoke with Gudauskas, he had just checked his board bag on this airline for free.
If one of these surf-friendly carriers is not headed to your dream break, consider another airline with low rates per bag like Alaska ($75), Frontier ($75) and Southwest ($75). Virgin Atlantic and Jet Blue are good options if you’re only bringing one — they charge $50 per board. Occasionally, prepaying the baggage fee over the phone leads to a solid deal. On Aeromexico, a prepurchased surfboard bag costs $40 instead of $50 when paid at the counter.
When flying on airlines with variable rates, Gudauskas explains, “I just try to give them my credit card quicker than they can ask what’s in the bag. I just go up and tell them I want to check this and not try to act like I’m hiding anything.”
The Bad and the Ugly
While there are several airlines that offer reasonable rates to fly boards, some are downright rough. Gudauskas says, “Air China is gnarly (with variable rates between $85 and $225) and Japan Air too ($200 per bag international). Those both will just get you.”
Of course, paying a high fee isn’t the worst-case scenario. Gudauskas recalls, “The worst is when you pay for them, and then they never arrive at baggage claim. That bums me out. I’ve had so many boards not show up.” Should your boards wind up in the baggage-handling vortex, be prepared to rent or borrow some equipment. While it may not be your magic board, there’s no reason to abstain from wave riding when the swell is pumping in paradise.