Hauling boats round the world
By Marc Musgrove
Published in Canoeist, June 2001
Marc Musgrove and Emma Woods spent much of 2000 and 2001 on a World Tour.
Simon Wiles in Columbia.
Travelling around the world with your boat can be a tricky affair. There are no real hard and fast rules that work all of the time, and airlines don't seem to have concrete rules about whether, and how much, they charge. It basically boils down to two options: either blag it on somehow or cough up for the privilege. Seeing as kayakers tend to fall into the tight-fisted category, the blagging route seems to be the preferred option.
People will reel off all kinds of intricate scams to get your boat on the plane for free including boat bags, pretending it's a large plastic suitcase or a surf-board, phoning up marketing departments or bursting into tears at the check-in desk. The most effective method I've found so far though is simply packing your boat as light as possible, hiding a large part of your heavy hand-baggage and smiling sweetly. Whatever airlines will tell you in advance about their policy on carrying boats on planes, the only person who actually matters is whoever you speak to on the check-in desk. It's always worth a reccy in advance to assess who looks the friendliest and least hassled before you rock up with a large collection of plastic.
Once you've sussed that, bring them round and let other people go past you in the queue so you end up with your selected check-in girl. They're the ones who decide whether to let you on without probs or to call over the supervisor and start citing the rule book. Keep smiling and drum up as much small talk as you can muster - keeping it on a friendly basis increases your chances of getting it on for free and helps all boaters in the future. Throwing a wobbly invariably gets the supervisor involved and once that happens you're paying.
The way I tend to pack everything is to only put light but bulky items into my boat. Thermarests seem to fit best squashed right into the tail (which works well for river running as well) with the sleeping back stuffed into the dry bag just behind the cockpit. If you shove the foam around in the back you can usually move it enough to squeeze a helmet and possibly a PFD into the other side. I broke a helmet into half doing that in a fit of enthusiasm in Peru though so go easy.
It might be worth keeping your sleeping bag stuff sack handy so you can compress down clothes to squeeze them into your hand baggage. Airbags, themarests and drybags tend to react badly to being put in a low pressure hold in the aircraft so remember to open the valves and only seal things loosely. You could look into getting a rectangular bag that conforms to 'maximum allowable cabin baggage' standards to help get the rest of your stuff in as a carry-on. Patagonia do one that has zip away shoulder straps and a hip belt to make it into a rucky once you get to the other end. Sure there are other cheaper ones available.
As long as your hand baggage doesn't look out of the ordinary to the airline staff on the departure gate you shouldn't get stopped and have hassle with the scales. If you find you can't get the rest of your paddling kit and clothes into one bag, you probably need to ask yourself if you're going to wear more than two pairs of boxers or if the restaurants you'll be eating in will expect you to wear patent leather shoes. I go Teva.
Before you get to the check-in desk, stash this mega-heavy hand baggage in the left luggage department at the airport, and pick it up once you've checked in. It's probably worth taking your peli-case or a small day sack as your decoy hand luggage - most airlines don't put stickers on your hand luggage, but if they do you've got a bag to hold out. Stickers can always be peeled off and applied to the correct hand baggage at a later stage anyway. If you get any hassle at the departure gate, just apologise, plead ignorance and let them check your hand luggage into the hold. Airlines tend to do that at the gate anyway when flights are full and Japanese tourists turn up with three bags of shopping each.
You can get travel agents to get written confirmations in advance from airlines that they will take your boats on for free, which could be worth looking into. Asking for that before you hand over cash is probably the key. It doesn't necessarily mean they will get on for free though if the check-in staff are having a particularly jobsworth day - unless you have a piece of paper saying you've already paid to take your boat. Bus companies in South America incidently seem to work in a similar way - they'll write anything you like in order to sell you a ticket, but then deny all knowledge of it when you turn up with boats the next day. Getting the bloke who agreed to take them to actually load them on the bus seems the only way to semi- guarantee you won't pay.
The only spanner in all of this comes from the Yanks. Airlines in the States now seem to routinely charge paddlers to transport kayaks, and the attitude seems to be filtering out to other airlines. If you've only got one return flight to do, you're probably best off taking your chances with the blagging route and not paying before you fly. If you've got multiple connections though (such as a round the world ticket), you might be best off sorting something out in advance. Mark Rainsley and Simon Wiles managed to cut a deal with Qantas to get boats taken on all the RTW flights they take for free. There's a fair amount of haggling involved to cut that deal - we didn't bother and are now being stung on a fairly regular basis.
Check-in staff will sometimes try to sting you twice for two flights if you've got a transit connection - just insist on paying for the first leg and say you'll pay at the next airport for the next leg. Invariably you won't see your bags until you get to your final destination.
Airlines can try to charge you a number of ways - either for simply the excess weight you have (for which hiding away heavy items in concealed hand baggage is best), for carrying 'sporting equipment' or for 'oversize' bags. Paying for excess weight can get very expensive as it's on a per kilo basis, whereas 'sporting equipment' or 'oversize' tends to be a fixed charge. LAN Chile for example have a flat fee of 6 kilos of excess for carrying a kayak as 'sporting equipment', and other airlines have charges ranging from around 50- 90 dollars as flat fees. Getting them to agree to take it as 'oversize' can bring the cost down.
Given that the charges are all dependent on the person you talk to on the desk, there's no real point in going through a list of which airlines are or aren't kayaker-friendly. One that might be worth avoiding though is Continental who I know have simply refused to take boats on their planes in the past, and KLM/Northwest who almost invariably seem to charge. If you get to the point where you're discussing the intricacies of luggage policy, it undoubtedly means that the airline is going to charge you. Getting arsey with the staff probably means you'll end up paying the most expensive option, whereas being friendly can sometimes get them to give you a cheaper price. If they come up with something lower than their first offer, I'd take it rather than hold on in the hope of getting it on for free.
A final thing to bear in mind is that many airline loyalty schemes allow you an extra amount of baggage, but only if you're travelling with them (benefits don't necessarily get transferred to partner airlines). You usually get 10 extra kilos for basic membership, 20 for Silver and 30 for a Gold card. If you're going to be doing a round the world trip, getting hold of a swanky silver card and travelling on your 'preferred airline' might just ease the boat onto a couple of planes.
Marc Musgrove and Emma Wood would like to thank sponsors Playboater, Werner, Bomber Gear, AS Watersports and the International Association of Baggage Handlers.