A Look Into the Changing Tides of Airline Surfboard Baggage Fees

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If you were to fly to California for a three-day surf weekend, you could potentially pay $400 just to get your boardbag there and back. And if an airline agent is in some kind of a mood, they might ask you to open your boardbag and bang you for two or three sticks. It would seem the airlines didn’t care if we patronized them or not.

There has been more than one waverider who has quietly thought or downright shouted, “But I could buy a board for that!”

Well, you can’t buy a Channel Islands Biscuit Bonzer with FCS B5 quads and a royal blue airbrush for that. But yes, you could essentially score a decent board with fins from Used Surf in San Clemente and have a few shekels left over for tacos at Pedro’s.

And before flying out of John Wayne Airport, you could leave the board somewhere safe for your next trip to Orange County, sell it, pass it on to a friend, or donate it to the YMCA on Calle Puente. No matter what you do, it probably beats giving your money to a company that made $730 million last year.

baggage fees
Courtesy of Nrd Woev/Usplash

But for the first time, there seems to be a change in the tide as airline companies recognize the situation.

Surfers have long been gouged on board fees. And many of us have looked for creative ways around paying them. For years, surfers took heavy charges while things like golf clubs flew as any other baggage. But airlines started putting fees on all manner of odd-shaped luggage and many raised the rate on surfboard bags. Along with charging for meals and smaller seat space, the last few years have seen airlines charging more for any checked bag. It’s rare that a single duffle bag is even included in the base air fare anymore.

And here’s the one line of this article you should remember – U.S.-based airlines now collect over $4.6 billion in baggage fees each year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The travel website Ann’s Cottage released findings of their research for the best airlines for adventure travel. Topping the list was Singapore Airlines, with companies like Asiana, China Southern Airlines and Korean Air topping the list.

Well, unless you’re regularly doing boat trips to Indo, you’re likely not flying those airlines very often. They cited the best airline for surfers was Wizz Air, which is fantastic, if you’re jetting between Tuzla, Katowice, Varna, Kutaisi and Chişinău. Otherwise, not so much.

Migra boardbag

But are there finally positive signs for North American surfers who want to take the occasional surf trip? There are indicators like select W Hotels reimbursing their guest’s board bag fees in the form of amenity credits, although it’s not clear how many shredders are looking to be paid back in spa treatments and room service. But there are now shared-economy apps that hook up traveling surfers with locals who have boards for them to rent. And some surf shops are specifically reaching out to traveling surfers with their inventories of used boards to rent or buy.

But the biggest sign that things are changing is the announcement that some carriers are dropping rates on surfboard bags.

In 2017, Alaska Airlines (which doesn’t just fly to and from the 49th state) announced it would treat a surfboard or other gear bag up to 99 pounds, as any other checked luggage and charge $25. A price this low for a boardbag has been pretty much unheard of in recent memory.

In 2018, United made the decision to waive fees for surf, paddle, kite and wakeboards on a direct flight to (or from) California. It was a perfect storm of California naming surfing its official state sport and United’s partnership with Sustainable Surf.

Then American Airlines announced in late May that surfboards (along with other oversized items) would be charged as a checked bag, a change from $150 down to $30.

So why all the change of heart?

According to United Airline’s press release, “California made it official: surfing is our state sport. We want to make it easier for customers to surf our beautiful beaches, whether they’re visiting or call the Golden State home.”

Pauline Ado, Trestles

While that is a nice sentiment and may be true, the fact is surfers collectively spend millions on surf travel. It’s possible that corporations outside of our industry no longer see us as the broke, shiftless wanderers they once did.

But sadly, yes, there are some that are still almost charging your board more than they are charging you on certain routes (we’re looking at you JetBlue, Delta, Aero Mexico and Hawaiian.) Surfers take board fees into account when choosing airlines and someone is noticing.

Apparently, they actually do need our business.

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