Passport Control

  • By: Buzz Bryson
Russian Checkpoint - Passport Control - Plywood Cubicle

Q: “I’ll soon take a trip from my East Coast home to Bozeman, Montana, but with the airlines and TSA continuing to tighten restrictions on everything from what’s allowed to the weight and number of bags I can take, I’m worried about what I can carry on and what I have to check. Can you offer any tips on packing, and on making sure my gear arrives when I do?”

From my home in the Raleigh, North Carolina area, it’s 2,200 miles to Bozeman. While I’m not advocating you drive (especially with gas prices in mind), I would note that I was just at a Coastal Conservation Association function in eastern North Carolina, where Flip Pallot was the featured guest speaker. Flip had driven up from his home in Titusville, Florida for the event. Actually, he started in Islamorada, but made a short stop at home on the way. I asked him why he drove instead of flying. After all, it’s roughly 300 miles from Islamorada to Titusville, and approaching 700 miles from there to where Flip was staying—almost 1,000 miles one way. Flip said he added up the hassles with flying: early arrival, parking, checking baggage and going through security; the wait associated with a connecting flight; the wait upon arrival; maybe the cost of a rental car; and finally, repeating the steps in the opposite direction. And after all that, the driving time wasn’t that much longer than the total time if he flew. Plus, he was free to start and stop at his pace, and could pack as much as, and whatever, he wanted. His reasons are exactly those many of us consider when setting and extending the radius we’re willing to drive instead of fly. So, for domestic trips, that’s the first decision. Do you even fly at all? Regardless, for those longer trips, and certainly for any overseas trips, we’re faced with flying the friendly skies.

More travel tips

  • Have your ticket and ID handy. Make copies and store them in an accessible place. In fact, keep your wallet, passport, ticket and other essential papers with you at all times.
  • Put ID tags on the outside—and inside—of your luggage. And put a copy of your itinerary inside your luggage, with contact information. If lost, your luggage might just be delivered, even if a day or two late.
  • Your luggage is black (it is, right?); so is everybody else’s. Make it distinctive. Tie some flagging (brightly colored surveyor’s tape) on a handle, or stencil some contrasting colored logo on the side. Anything to make the bag stand out. Not only is it more apparent to you, it is also apparent to others that it’s not theirs. And sometimes, baggage handlers pay more attention to it, and it’s less likely to get lost. OK, that’s a theory, or maybe just wishful thinking, but it gives me comfort. The same thinking says that thieves are smart enough to know no one would intentionally draw attention to a bag with valuables in it, so they leave such bags alone. Wishful thinking too? Perhaps, perhaps not.
  • Dress comfortably, and in attire that is “scan” friendly.
  • If you insist on locking luggage (I stopped years ago), use TSA-approved locks. Others will be cut off if the bags are pulled for inspection. Don’t be surprised if the TSA locks are missing too, and instead you find a note that your bags were opened for inspection. Alternately, I “lock” my zipper pulls with large paperclips. They’re essentially no cost, and while not secure, they do keep zippers closed. Some use a cable tie.
  • Don’t overstuff bags. In addition to possibly incurring a weight penalty, should the bag be opened for inspection, the TSA staff can’t be expected to have the time to re-pack as precisely as you. Give them wiggle room.
  • Insure valuables. While immediate replacement might be a problem, at least you’ll be able to recover the value later. Don’t double your loss.
  • Before you finally pack your bags, look through your gear one more time for items you probably don’t need. Do you really need to take your tying gear? Is a backup pair of wading boots necessary? As an example, on my first trip to Loreto, Mexico I checked two bags, each right at the 40-pound domestic weight limit. Plus, I carried on camera and laptop gear. By about the fourth trip, I checked only one bag; it weighed less than 40 pounds. In the carry-on, I had an extra flash (with batteries) and one rather heavy lens. And, at week’s-end I found I was lacking for nothing, and rather enjoyed the entertainment provided by those who packed like I used to! —B.B.

There are many ugly, and plenty of real, stories of travel gone awry, but the majority of airline travel goes smoothly. The airlines, airports and TSA do have some less-than-competent employees, but in general they’re staffed by normal folks trying to do a good job. If you follow the rules, and don’t stand out as a malcontent, most air travel goes smoothly. Stick to the middle of the bell curve; fit in. The obvious first steps: Determine your chosen airlines’ allowed number of bags, and weight and size requirements. The more common items are clearly acceptable (or not), while less frequently seen items give security agents pause and force them to make decisions. You don’t want to put them in that position. Almost any fishing gear passes the TSA checked-baggage scrutiny. The issues almost always come with carry-on gear.

First, a few thoughts about baggage. There are some terrific roller bags designed for anglers (and I’d almost never consider any primary bag other than a roller; see Dave Hughes’ story in this issue). Some have rod tubes, some have waterproof sections for wet gear, etc. Designs are great, bags are durable, and almost without exception they are very heavy. If you’re shopping for a new bag, pay attention to the weight. Many airlines have a 40-pound limit on domestic flights, and a fee for the second bag (sometimes the first!); you don’t want to start with an empty 12-pound bag. Look for a quality bag that’s purpose-built to save weight. If the airline says you’ll pay penalties if your bag weighs more than 40 pounds, don’t be upset when they charge you when it weighs 51, even if you only have 38 pounds of gear packed in it.

Back to carry-on luggage: Most anglers want to carry on rods, reels, flies, cameras—whatever gear they consider too valuable to lose, and without which the trip wouldn’t work. I’ve never had a problem carrying on photo and computer equipment, even when the bag contained various chargers, batteries and the like. Again, the checkers see photo and computer gear constantly. So, unless you’re a National Geographic photographer hauling more gear than any three photo shops stock, or are taking your extra-long telephoto lens that exceeds carry-on size, I’d carry photo and computer gear.

Then the questions begin. “Can I pack my rods, reels and flies in my carry-on luggage”? There are generally consistent answers (“yes” to rods), but enough inconsistencies (“yes” to reels, or “no” to reels, “because you could tie someone up with the line”) to make one nervous. And the “yes” at one checkpoint might be “no” at the next. And particularly, don’t blame someone else if the airline says “one carry-on and one personal item” and you’re stopped when trying to board with a backpack, rod carrier and a bag with waders and a vest included.

If you don’t get answers or aren’t satisfied with them, and can’t stand to send something as checked baggage, there are options. Many destination shops, lodges and/or motels accept packages (your gear) shipped to them by FedEx or UPS. To avoid hassle, ship rods, flies, reels, waders and whatever else to your hosts ahead of time. Verify your gear arrived, and then enjoy a relaxed flight.

Alternatively, if flying with companions split gear with them. Put one or more of your rod/reel combos in your buddy’s bag, and his/hers in yours. Ditto with fly boxes. Whatever makes you comfortable.

Do I have any specific tips? While I carry on the expensive and mostly “irreplaceable” items (irreplaceable until after the trip, anyway), I pretty much check all my fly-fishing gear. It’s bulky, heavy and easily replaced. For remote trips (no fly shop down the road), I’ll do the split-with-the-buddy-thing. Do I check the few truly expensive and/or largely irreplaceable items (e.g., the matching set of Charlton reels?) No, but then I don’t even take stuff like that on a flight anymore. Again, how can you enjoy a trip if you’re constantly worrying about luggage?

Your attitude makes a difference when flying, too; be pleasant. Greeting a TSA official with a, “Hi. How ya doin’? Nice day, isn’t it?” gets you a lot further than being a grump. The golden rule applies when dealing with airline and security people; you might be the nicest person they’ve encountered all day, and they might show their thanks. And heck, you’re going fishing! Read the signs, follow the instructions and—usually—your travel will go smoothly. If your carrier or airport suggests arriving two hours early, be there. And if you end up breezing through check-in in 15 minutes, and have most of those two hours to kill, read a book, have a snack, relax. Congratulate yourself on being such a well-prepared, savvy traveler!

Send your question or conundrum to Professor Buzz at [email protected]