The most difficult part of your international white water kayak adventure may be the very first step: flying with your boat. Some airlines allow kayaks, others charge money, others flat out deny you. In many cases, it simply depends on which ticket agent you talk to! Here are some tips to simplifying your travel plans when you’re in search of foreign rapids.
1. Choosing an Airline
Before choosing a flight, go online and review each airline’s baggage specifications. Some companies include kayaks on their “blacklists”. This airline will simply not allow you to fly with your boat, even if it is a small playboat. Steer clear of these airlines!
The companies that do allow you to travel with your kayak will classify them as oversize luggage and charge you a set fee, usually between 100 and 200 dollars. It will help to know the weight and dimensions of your boat. Beware that a maximum limit on weight and size is usually in play on all luggage.
2. Packing your Kayak
Make sure and allow yourself plenty of time to pack up your boat and gear, especially if this is your first time. It may take some material and, maneuvering! First, remember to label each piece of gear you will be packing in your boat, and keep a thorough list of what that gear is. It’s not unheard of for gear to go missing during travel, and this list will help with insurance and airline policy.
Pack lightweight gear such as fleeces and neoprene into the bow and stern compartments. Pull your spray skirt or cover over the cockpit to keep everything secure.
If you plan on packing your paddle, brace it against the front of the kayak, then use your PFD, sandals, sleeping bag or any bulky item to support and cushion the blade. Firmly tape the paddle to the cockpit rim. If you are traveling in a group, bundle all the paddles together into one bunch and send them as a separate piece of luggage. Remember, paddles are breakable! Depending on your destination, consider leaving your paddle at home and buying one upon arrival.
Wrap the kayak, paddle and all, in a plastic tarp, and secure the tarp in place with packing tape. Adding a duct-tape handle to both ends will be a big help to you and also to the Skycaps.
Some people travel with kayak bags, but they are difficult to find and add a bulky piece of gear to haul around for the rest of the trip. I’ve never used one and always had great success flying with my Jackson Star.
Finally, clearly label your boat with your name and information as well as your flight number. You cannot label to large or clearly or too much!
3. On the Day of Travel
The best advice I can give you for checking in the day of your flight is to arrive extremely early. Ticket agents are much happier to work with you if neither of you are in a rush and there is no line to hold up. Also, if you arrive after your fellow passengers, the plane could be at its quota of luggage weight and refuse to allow your oversize luggage. Give yourself three hours, at least!
Experienced international paddlers have learned to avoid the word “kayak.” Most airlines (most people in general) do not know the difference between a small whitewater boat and a long, cumbersome sea kayak. Saying the word Kayak may lead you to be refused immediately or doubly charged. My friends and I have found that “Surf Ski” is a magic word. “This is a surf ski, something I take on the ocean” is a great line. Most check-in agents will assume it’s a surfboard, or related to a surfboard. Surfboards are no problem for airlines and they see them all the time. (And, just so no one gets in trouble, it’s not a lie! Kayaks are great fun on the ocean!)
If you’re very lucky, you’ll be allowed onto the plane with no extra charge. Most of the time, you’ll be asked to pay a fee up to 200 dollars. If this is the case, pay the fee, say thank you, and continue on. If you cause any problem, the airline can decide not to fly your kayak whatsoever. Often, it depends on which ticket agent you have. I’ve been on flights where I flew with my boat for free while my fellow passengers were charged large fees. Being polite, friendly and easy going is always your best bet!
4. If the Airline Refuses
If, despite your best research and clever packing, the airline still refuses to fly your kayak, try and stick it out. Stories of people being denied and eventually getting their boat on board are quite common in the kayak community. Your best bet is to appeal to the generosity of your ticket agent. If at any time you become snappish, rude, angry or unfriendly, you’ve just cemented your fate of flying sans kayak.
Instead, continue to earnestly discuss your big “surf-ski vacation” and say, “Thank you so much for helping me. I know you understand how important it is for me to fly with my surf ski. Is there anything within you powers that you can do to help me?”
In my experience, asking to go over their head and speak to the manager is never a good idea. Remain sincere, remain grateful, and be persistent.