5 Tips for Flying with Your Kayak

A guide to getting on the plane with your whitewater kayak

Words by Aaron Mann
Illustrations by Querine Wegman

As airlines continue to impose stricter and stricter baggage restrictions, flying with your whitewater kayak has become almost as difficult as carrying a firearm in your checked baggage. The number of air carriers that accept kayaks has dwindled in recent years, leaving the jet-setting boater with limited options. If you’re flying on an airline that doesn’t allow kayaks, you might sometimes get lucky by checking your bagged boat as another type of bulk sporting equipment (e.g. surfboard or windsurfing board), but it’s best not to bank on getting a clueless ticket agent when checking in.

Here are some tips to make sure your next kayaking adventure doesn’t end in disappointment at the ticket counter.

1. Know which airlines accept canoes and kayaks

Unlike 10 years ago, only a few domestic airlines still will accept boats. Two of the biggest, American Airlines and Delta, specifically state they won’t accept them. As of November 2014, United Airlines no longer takes kayaks, but they do grant an exception for canoe/kayak national team athletes to travel with their equipment since they are “official airline” of Team USA.

The current list of major domestic air carriers that will accept boats include:

Alaska AirlinesFrontier AirlinesSouthwestVirgin America

And there are a number of international airlines that still have more open-minded baggage policies. Some don’t specifically say they will accept kayaks but do accept large sporting equipment with similar length/weight specifications. Here are a few that will accept kayaks:

Air CanadaAir New ZealandAir FranceAll Nippon Airways (ANA)Austrian AirlinesAviancaBrussels AirlinesEmiratesEVA AirLufthansaSingapore AirlinesSwiss AirThai AirwaysTurkish Airlines

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2. Become an expert on airline baggage policies, restrictions, and fees

Make sure to thoroughly read through your airline’s baggage policies because it will save you a ton of hassle and stress later on. Besides making sure they allow kayaks, find out how the airline defines them. Some have policies that treat boats and paddles as one piece while others count them as two pieces.

Most air carriers that do take kayaks likely have an associated oversized baggage fee. Since checking a boat is generally a first for ticket agents, it is not a bad idea to have a copy of their airline’s policy on hand. This is the best way to ensure that a confused agent doesn’t reject your boat or try to charge you outrageous excess fees. In some instances, you save money by prepaying the baggage fees prior to the flight.

Also, familiarize yourself with the length and weight (both metric and imperial) restrictions. While many say they’ll take kayaks, usually the length limitations exclude anything longer than 9.8 feet (300 cm). Disregarding these restriction could easily result in trouble at the airport. For example, Emirates says they will allow kayaks on their flights only if they meet specific total dimensions and will pull out a tape measure to make sure the item complies. For other carriers, like Singapore Airlines, weight limitations are a greater concern. When flying with them, they’ll treat a boat as part of your overall baggage allowance unless it weighs more than 32kg, in which case they say it will have to be sent as cargo.

Lastly, check if the airline has oversized baggage restrictions for certain types of planes. The cargo doors or compartments on smaller aircraft, such as regional jets or certain narrow-body aircraft, might not be large enough to accommodate a kayak. The general rule of thumb is to book flights on aircrafts no smaller than a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. If no information on this topic is listed online, pick up the phone and call the airline.

3. Beware of codeshares

Codeshare flights can sometimes be a disaster if you don’t do your research. You may have booked your flights on a kayak-friendly airline, but if the flight is a codeshare operated by another airline (e.g. UA342 Operated by Luftansa), your luggage is subject to the operating airline’s baggage policy. In these instances, if your itinerary includes codeshare flights, it is essential to look up the baggage policies for the operating airline before booking. When flying internationally, check if the airlines are part of a global airline alliance (e.g. Star Alliance, OneWorld, or SkyTeam) and whether they have a universal baggage policy across the entire network.

4. Pack your kayak in a bag or boat sock

While some airlines require kayaks to be bagged or wrapped, doing so regardless of policy makes sense because it adds an additional layer of protection. The odds are pretty high that the baggage handlers are going to drag, bang and throw your kayak around, so you might as well save it from the extra wear and tear. Furthermore, if the boat is somehow damaged during transport, damage to the outer bag will serve as another piece of evidence that your baggage was mishandled.

Another bonus to bagging your boat is that it will allow you to safely and securely pack it with gear. As long as you stay within the weight restrictions, there is no reason not to utilize the extra storage space, especially if you’re already paying for the excess.

5. Be prepared in case your boat and paddle are broken or lost

After you’ve received your bag tags, don’t leave the check-in area until a baggage handler has taken your boat. Since kayaks are generally too big to go down a luggage chute, someone will most likely have to take it down to the loading area so it gets put on the plane. Make sure that happens!

Hold on to your bag tags until you’ve reached your destination and collected your belongings. If the boat doesn’t make it on the plane, is lost, or broken/destroyed, those tiny pieces of paper are the only things that will hold the airline accountable for their mistake. Things may work out even if you don’t have the tags, but it’s best to assume the carrier will try to find some technicality to weasel their way out of any liability.

If your boat or paddles are truly lost or destroyed, you may be in for a fight but you’ll be compensated. Thanks to the Montreal Convention, airlines are required compensate travelers for lost or damaged baggage based on an internationally agreed upon formula.

Most importantly, don’t abuse or attempt to game the system. Airlines are not stupid, and considering how few passengers travel each year with kayaks, will change their policy without hesitation if they consider it a liability.  A litany of frivolous claims and forced payouts to boaters for scratches or existing damage to their equipment will quickly result in less airlines that will allow kayaks.

Enjoy your travels!

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Bren Orton’s advice on flying with a kayak

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