How to Travel Carry On with Oversized Bags

By Shawn Forno

I’m awakened by a vicious bump that slams my head against the window.

I’m traveling south on the night bus along the Ecuadorian coast on the hunt for the epic mile-long waves of South America. Groggy and dazed, I glance at my phone. It’s 3:30 am, and I can’t help feeling that something’s not right.

Then it hits me. I slept through my stop. 

I manage to stop the bus. The driver apologizes, but assures me it’s a short walk back to town. I nod my relief and thanks and prepare for a quick hike. Unfortunately, during this leg of the trip I also had a surfboard bag and a guitar. Lucky me.

Five miles and two hours later I stagger into town as the sun rises. The morning sea air is cool, but my shirt is drenched in sweat. My shoulders burn and all I can think about is sleeping the day away in a sagging bunk bed. Sometimes no matter how hard you try – your trip just doesn’t fit in the overhead compartment. 

So until collapsible surfboards and folding guitars become more affordable, here’s how to travel with three common oversized items – skis, surfboards, and a guitar – without them weighing you down:

Skis & Snowboards: Bundle Your Gear Together

Most airlines count boot bags, pole bundles, and ski bags as three separate checked oversized bags – each with it’s own $25-$35 fee. Snowboards, while easier to pack, face the same restrictions for boots and helmet cases. Avoid excess fees and bundle everything into one bag. As long as your bag weighs less than 50 pounds most airlines only charge the normal $25 checked bag fee.

Pro Tip: Ski bags less than 50 lbs. are often free to check on international flights. Forget Aspen. Go to Murren.

surfboard travel

Surfboards: You Must be This Short to Ride this Plane

Surfboard oversized bag fees and restrictions vary widely depending on the airline and the destination, so don’t assume that every surf safari is the same. Seriously. The difference in specialty item fees on flights to Costa Rica vs. Brazil is mind-boggling, so be safe and check your destination ahead of time. United for example, charges as much as $200 each way for a checked surfboard bag, and won’t check longboards over 115 inches (9’6”) at all. Another something to look out for is the “excess bag embargo” that might limit your ability to check a surfboard bag. Lima, Peru for instance, is on the permanent excess bag embargo list for United flights, meaning that they never allow checked bags over 70 pounds. Ever. That’s a bummer if you want to surf the legendary 4km long break at Chicama, considered by most to be the longest wave in the world. The list of seasonal destinations on the excess bag embargo list is daunting and changes every few months, so stay on top of it. Now for the good news. Aside from these dozen or so excess oversized bag embargo destinations, the weight restriction on surfboard bags is usually 100 pounds. That means you can easily cram two boards, extra skegs, wax, leash, sunscreen, rash guard, wetsuit, and a spare puka shell necklace without going near the limit. The bad news is you still have to carry it. Pro Tip:Some surfboard bags feature heat-reflecting insulated material (to keep your board from melting in the sun) and watertight zippers which means they double as a fantastic sleeping bag for campouts on the sand. Seriously. I’ve done it, and it’s amazing.

soft guitar case vs hard guitar case

Travel Guitars and Soft Cases

In my years of traveling with an acoustic guitar I’ve learned two things:

  • No one wants to hear your John Mayer covers
  • It’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission

No matter how good of a musician you are, you have to board every flight with complete confidence that your instrument is a personal item. Never waver and you’ll never pay to check your old six-string. The best way to ensure this is to carry your instrument (when possible) in a soft case

 Hard cases – especially for guitars – scream “Check me I’m an oversized bag!” They don’t travel well on public transit, are significantly heavier than soft cases, and can’t be worn like a backpack or duffel bag. Leave the hard case at home. Pack a soft guitar case you’ll be halfway to a hostel serenade that at least three people will totally appreciate. Just don’t forget to practice your John Mayer mashups before you leave for your trip. Forgetting the lyrics to “Why, Georiga, Why” is a personal hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Pro Tip:Never forget that your body really is a wonderland.

Specialty Item Bags: General Tips

Good Straps are Super Important

It’s easy to get caught up in the special features when choosing an oversized bag for your gear. Surfboard bags for example, range from $50 thread thin canvas to wheeled multi-board “coffin” bags that could survive a nuclear apocalypse. The selection is overwhelming, just keep in mind that you are going to be carrying this bag. A lot. Padded shoulder straps are a must. If you have padded shoulders, you can hike like a soldier.

Keep One Hand Free at All Times

This is especially handy *rimshot* for traveling musicians. If you’re loaded down with a guitar in one hand, a daypack in the other, and a bag on your back, you’ll be slow and awkward at best, and a target for theft at the worst. Bad things happen when you put everything down to walk through a door or check your phone for directions.

Think Shrink

Which one of the instruments pictured below is the best travel instrument? Obviously, the harmonica, but if that’s not your style, at least be aware that guitars (and ukeleles) come in all shapes and sizes. You don’t need a vintage Gretsch to rock out on the road.

If you said harmonica, you get a gold star.This whole article is about how it’s ok every now and then to travel with an oversized bag, but I still urge you to consider alternative carry on-sized solutions to your checked bag woes:

  • Travel guitars are getting cheaper (and better) every day
  • Rent scuba gear when you get to the Bahamas
  • Learn the harmonica instead of the upright bass
  • Buy a surfboard at your destination from a local shop and sell it when you leave

Carry on travel is more than just a list of TSA restrictions and weight limits – it’s a state of mind. When you travel light, you force yourself to interact with your destination in a whole new way. When you leave “everything but the kitchen sink at home,” you make room for the unexpected, and isn’t that the whole reason why we travel? Keep calm and travel carry on, my friends.