How to Fly with Special Items, From Formal Dresses to Tennis Rackets

By Carole Braden · April 18, 2023 · 6 minute read

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How to Fly with Special Items, From Formal Dresses to Tennis Rackets

My family is planning a trip to Europe this summer, during which my daughter, who plays cello, will attend an international music camp. A cello is cumbersome, fragile, and valuable. Should we carry it on the plane?

If you’re debating whether to bring your lucky racket or how to transport that gorgeous bridesmaid dress, know that you’ll need packing skills, some room in your travel budget, and a bit of patience at security. But if you’re determined, it turns out that most special items can be accommodated on flights.

Knowing your airline’s policies and planning carefully will help you get where you need to go with your cargo safe and sound. Here are some tips for how to handle many specific items.

Things to Keep in Mind when Flying With Special Items

Before booking flights online, call ahead to find out airline policies about your bulky must-bring thing. Know which of the company’s fare tiers will allow you to carry on an extra item, as well as the cost of checking it. And be sure you understand any restrictions for the ticket you book: Deep-discount airfares often allow for only a “personal item,” like a backpack.

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What Do Airlines Consider Special Items?

The airlines, both domestic and international, have a list of categories that are considered “special items.” When in doubt, call your carrier to ask how your item must travel before heading to the airport.

By the way, traveling with pets is a whole other story.

Here are some of the biggies:

Musical Instruments

My family isn’t alone in wondering what to do with a cello. “When I have students traveling internationally, I encourage them to try to rent a cello at their destination,” advises Erich S., a professional cellist. While he has traveled with his instrument, he says, “I have always had to buy a seat for it.” But that’s not an option that will help us afford family travel.

A fiddle or flute should be small enough to qualify as a carry-on, traveling in an overhead bin. Any traveling instrument should be hard-cased to protect it from bumps, and you should expect an out-of-case inspection at security.

Garment Bags

Some airlines have in-cabin spots to hang garment bags, but not all. Got a big dress to transport? Experts recommend carrying it on — the gown and all accoutrements, including shoes and jewelry — especially if you’re a bride heading to your “I do” destination. (Even the best credit card travel insurance can’t help you if your outfit gets on the wrong flight.)

Most wedding dresses can be contained in carry-on luggage. Place the gown in a clean garment bag, tri-fold it vertically and carefully roll it. You’ll want to arrange for a steaming upon arrival.

Sports Equipment

A tennis racket can be bubble-wrapped and sandwiched between clothing in a suitcase, or just cased and tucked headfirst into your tote. But when it comes to hefty equipment, expect to incur costs. Of course you’d rather shred the mountain on your skis, but bringing them along can be pricey.

“When my kids were little,” says Suman D., a CEO and his crew’s head ski bum, “I threw everything in a box and shipped it ahead.” Now that his children are teens, it isn’t as easy — or economical. On a recent college-scouting trip to Vancouver, the family planned to hit the slopes. Their discount carrier, Porter Airlines, charged $50 for an oversize snowboard bag at airport baggage check-in — less than the cost of a resort gear rental. On other airlines, Suman says, it’s proven cheaper to rent when they arrive.

What other equipment might you bring?

•   A fishing pole: It’s allowed, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website says. (Hooks must be wrapped and secured in a checked bag.)

•   Hockey sticks may be checked in sports bags. First, enclose them in a hard tube or securely tape them together.

•   Surfboards can cost a pretty penny to fly — as much as $300 — but “surfer-friendly” airlines include KLM, Virgin, Qantas, and Singapore, all of which allow boards to go in the hold as normal checked baggage. (Note: if you are renting a car at your destination, that economy car likely won’t do!)

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Computers and Media Equipment

Everybody has a smartphone and laptop these days, and they’re no odd object to travel with. Devices containing lithium metal or lithium ion batteries — basically any kind of computer device and some games — should be carried on. Be sure the batteries are charged, as a TSA agent may ask you to power up to pass security. Some airports have such good tech that you can leave your tablet or notebook in your bag when you go through checkpoints.

Wine and Liquor

The easiest way to transport spirits via plane is to purchase it in-airport at a duty-free shop. Did your summer travels take you under the Tuscan Sun? You can tuck bottles of beverages with less than 24 percent alcohol by volume into your checked bag.

For a whole case, expect a fee (best to have a pro pack the bottles) at the airport baggage check-in. (According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, “duty on wine and beer is generally low, $1-2 per liter.) In your carryon, the limit is 3.4 oz, and the container must be in a sealed plastic bag.

Fragile Items

If you’ve been to an auction or art fair, you’re surely bringing home goodies. Know how to fly with fragile items and carry them accordingly. Place well-padded (bubble wrap saves the day!) glass and other crackable objects in a hard-walled carry-on. Yup, you can bring that painting on the plane — so long as it fits in the seat you’ve booked for it.

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Strollers and Car Seats

Gear for kids gets on every flight free. Breast pumps and accompanying cooler bags are also allowed. To avoid hassles, bring a doctor’s note.

Medical Devices and Wheelchairs

The U.S. Department of Transportation protects your right to travel with medical equipment you require to stay mobile and healthy. You can bring your device onboard if there’s a space to stow it — otherwise, the airline will check it for free.

Recognized assistive devices include crutches, canes, walkers, braces and prosthetics, and wheelchairs. You may also carry hearing aids, portable oxygen concentrators (POCs), and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. Prescription meds are allowed, as well as any implements needed to administer those medications, such as syringes or auto-injectors.

Perishables

Like to rack up credit card rewards at fancy food shops? Many countries have no restrictions regarding edibles, but the U.S. does: Agricultural products including fruits, vegetables, plants, and meat coming from other countries are banned (read: confiscated) at customs, according to their website. Baked goods, cheeses, teas, and spices are generally good to go.

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Tips for Keeping Luggage Safe

The best way to ensure your items are secure is to keep them with you. Check plane seat pockets and bins, and count your bags before deboarding. Tracking fobs, TSA-approved locks or zip ties, cellophane wraps and a sturdy ID tag may keep your checked items safer — but when a bag is out of your hands, it’s exactly that.

The Takeaway

Whatever you take with you, know your airline’s policy on transporting it. Pack properly, and if that item is vital, bring certification or a doctor’s letter of necessity. Beyond that, pack light — you’ll need a spare hand to manage your valuable things.

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Photo credit: iStock/AzmanL

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