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Some people have nightmares about being late to an important meeting, or showing up to school in their underwear, but I, however, wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming about abandoning my surfboard bag at foreign airports. I’m sure there are thousands of other surfers that experience this same sense of dread before going on surf trips, because traveling with boards is always a bit of an ordeal. Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of difficulties in this department, especially when flying with my longboards. Through my experiences, I’ve picked up some tips and tricks to air travel with board bags. This advice should be taken with a grain of salt, since there is no way to predict exactly what will happen when you’re in that baggage check-in line. My main points of this article may seem obvious, but I emphasize them due to a personal experience I recently went through. Following this story, I’ve tossed in some general suggestions for surfers who may not have traveled with boards much, but keep in mind, these are also not a 100% guarantee for your fiberglass babies’ safe arrival in vacay-land.
CHECK THE BAGGAGE POLICYThe first step to getting your board to your destination is making sure that the flight you’re booking will allow the bag! When you’re looking at flights, its a natural response to go for the most affordable option, which sometimes, seems almost impossibly low in price. These cheap flights are usually operated by budget airlines, and often, their policies are strictly no-frills. Generally, you’ll have an extra charge just to check in any bag, let alone an oversize surfboard bag. If they allow surfboards at all, there is nearly always a huge fee involved, with some airlines charging per board, even if they’re all in one bag. I find that most of the time, choosing a slightly more costly flight on a reputable airline with a generous baggage policy will result in a cheaper journey overall. Your best bet is take a look at the airline’s website (even if you’re booking through a third party website), to view their baggage policy, and then find a “sports equipment” or “oversize baggage” section. Some airlines have a flat fee for surfboards, and others allow surfboard bags up to a certain weight or length for free! If you’re a longboarder, you’ll also need to make sure that the specific plane your flight will be using will have a big enough baggage hold for your monstrous board bag. For most larger airlines that have fleets of different-sized planes, they will specify this information on their baggage policy pages. If the website is unclear, just call the airline and ask them to email you the information as to have it in writing, in case you run into a pickle at the airport, which, I shall discuss in the following tip.
My experience: When I was headed to New Zealand earlier this year, I made a bit of a mistake. I booked my flight through Virgin Australia, an airline that is well-known in the surf community for being kind to board bags. Their generous policy allows boards up to 9’8, and can be included in your overall baggage weight allowance (which is usually like 50 pounds or so) along with your one free checked bag, at no extra fee. However, the flight I’d booked was to be “operated by Air New Zealand.” Air New Zealand has similar surfboard bag rules, but unfortunately, some of their planes won’t fit any surfboards larger than 9’2. I realized my error a week or so before embarking, but after a million phone calls to both airlines, and a scouring of their websites, I found the following statement: “With the Virgin alliance it’s easy. For flights between New Zealand and Australia, the baggage allowance of the airline you book through applies, even if a flight is operated by the other airline.”BE NICE
Say you’ve been working your little booty off for six months to get ready for your upcoming surf trip. You booked flights with supposedly surfboard-friendly airlines, your board bag weighs in just under the limit, and you have packed your precious quiver with the utmost care. You’re at the airport, attempting to check in to your flight, and somehow, your hours of research have failed you. The airline is not going to allow the board bag onto the plane. Now, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to stay calm, but if you want your boards to make it overseas with you, keep it together. Losing your cool will most certainly not make the employees want to help you. This all seems like it should be common sense, but I can envision a number of times in which I have seen wild-eyed travelers letting innocent airline representatives totally have it over surfboard issues. Sometimes, the airline has made a mistake. Other times, the customer is wrong, despite the age-old adage, “the customer is always right.” Either way, finding a solution will always be a million times easier if both parties are cool and collected, and ultimately, your fate lies in the hands of the airline counter worker who is just trying to do their job. Take, for example, the outcome of my New Zealand experience.
My experience (continued): Armed with this information, I confidently marched into the Gold Coast Airport, ready to scoot over to New Zealand for the Single Fin Mingle. When I tried to check in at the Virgin counter, everything was fine, until I got to the surfboard stuff. Then, I was sent to the Air New Zealand counter, where I was told that my 9’6 bag, would in fact not even fit on their plane, despite the website’s statement. They explained that the website didn’t cover oversize baggage, and that this problem has been run into many times prior. I explained that I booked my flight through Virgin for this exact purpose, and thus, was sent back to their counter. I did my very best to stay calm, and I had a lovely chat with Wendy, a representative of Virgin Australia. Instead of forcing me to say goodbye to the watermelon at the airport, Wendy, switched me over to a new flight that was actually operated by Virgin, and because I managed to not blow up at anyone, she didn’t even charge me a fee for switching flights! My bag was even a teeny bit overweight, and Wendy (such a legend), let it slide.PACK YOUR BOARD WELL
As seen fairly regularly on the social media accounts of various professional surfers, surfboards to do not always make it through a flight in one piece. Most of the time, there are just a couple dings or scratches, but in more extreme cases, there will be boards completely totalled, broken in half, or covered in tire marks. It’s easy to point fingers at the airport employees carelessly handling our bags, but I’ve come to expect my bags to be mistreated (to be fair, if I worked at an airport, I’d be annoyed having to deal with a gigantic, heavy bag that says ‘top load only’ too). Thus, I’ve just found some ways to pack my boards to be as idiot-proof as possible. First things first, get yourself a proper travel board bag. So many times I’ve seen fellow surfers crying over their bits and pieces of their former boards, that they’d simply tossed into a thinly-lined day bag with hardly any padding. A good travel bag might not be cheap, but investing in something of higher quality that will last you for years to come will be much less than ding repair / board replacement money in the long run.
Once you’ve got a solid bag, you still need to wrap your boards up as carefully as possible. Home Depot covers almost everything on the board packing supplies list, but I highly recommend getting the legit foam nose and tail protectors from the surf shop. I’ve had some for ages that have never let me down; I actually consider them my secret weapons against the inevitable evils of air travel! In addition to those bad boys, go for the bubble wrap, and line your rails with pool noodles (sliced lengthwise) or PVC protector. Use painter’s tape to make sure your board is tucked in nice and tight, and strap it into the bag so any jostling is kept to a minimum. If you follow the mantra: there’s no such thing as too much padding, you should be golden.SNEAKY WEIGH IN
Okay, I’ll be honest, this one definitely has not had a 100% success rate, but it never hurts to try. Most of the time, the surface area of board bags are larger than the scales at check-in, so they have to be held up as to not lean against the floor whilst being weighed. Well, when the very nice counter workers are going to put the bag onto the scale, why don’t you just lend them a hand? You know, hold the bag for them, to make their job easier. If you subtly pull the bag up just a tiny bit, you have a much better chance of getting away with a bag that is slightly overweight. If the bag is absurdly heavy, the employees will notice the ‘I’m lifting something’ strain in your facial expression, and the jig will be up, so just try not to push it.BRIBERY
If all else fails, you might as well resort to bribery, but if anyone asks, I’m not the one who told you to do it.
If you Google “surfboard airline policies”, you’ll find a bunch of websites listing the board bag allowances for major airlines, but often the information is outdated or incorrect, so it’s important to do your own research on the airlines’ websites. A handful of airlines I’ve flown with that allowed my 9’6 bag (some with fees) within these past few years are: Singapore Airlines (included with baggage allowance up to 32KG), Virgin Australia (included with baggage allowance up to 32KG), Garuda Indonesia (included in addition to baggage allowance up to 23KG), Aeromexico (flat fee $75 for domestic flights, $150 for international flights), and Japan Airlines (flat fee $200... yikes).