How to escape surfboard baggage fees at the ticket counter

Earlier this year, Kelly Slater and Bob Hurley louded out Hawaiian Airlines on Instagram over the pervading issue of pricey surfboard excess baggage fees. It created quite the buzz.

It’s an issue every single traveling surfer, as well as riders in the snow world and beyond, can relate to. Depending on the airline, one-way fees at the counter can run you anywhere from $50 to more than $300.

Many times, they’ll even open up a board bag and charge you a price per board.

RELATED: Kelly Slater blasts Hawaiian Airlines over board bag fees

Sure, there are some airlines that don’t charge for boards (very few), but some of those airlines just don’t go to places surfers travel to.

Thus, your only option becomes your experience at the counter with a ticket agent who may or may not enforce the airline’s rule. How does one navigate that crucial, unpredictable zone?

Here are some tips I’ve used over many, many years of traveling for surf with huge board bags.

Choosing your mark

You can lose your patience, dignity and a few Benjamins to get your surfboards on a plane. Let's reimagine that, though...Photo: Aaron Barnaby
You can lose your patience, dignity and a few Benjamins to get your surfboards on a plane. Let’s reimagine that, though. Photo: Courtesy of Aaron Barnaby
I’ve found there are a few ways to go about doing this when choosing a ticket agent.

First off, observe if there are any other surfers/boardriders who have checked in bags before you. Watch their process (or the ending thereof) and see if they got nailed with a charge. If so, shoot for another agent to help you (if multiple agents are available).

I’ve found results are often more fruitful if you wait for the line to get longer and more chaotic.

This usually makes the ticket agents want to blow through the customers to alleviate the line. They’re less likely to hold other people up by processing a sports equipment fee. The more chaos, disruption and length of line, the better.

If you’re the first one in line with no one behind you, they have the time to think about the fee and nail you with a charge.

Charm the ticket agent

An old Chinese proverb says, “A man catches more flies with honey than flypaper” — i.e., kill ’em with kindness.

Whether it’s TSA staff, tardy flights or stricter airline rules, the airport — specifically ticket counters — can be testy, emotional danger zones. That, and customers can be real jerks.

Break the cycle and tell the agent her/his hair looks awesome. Keep the convo flowing; level with them: “How much longer on your shift?” or “Yeah, my aunt works for Delta too.”

Schmooze the hell out of them — heck, develop a relationship within the first two minutes. I’ve found they have more mercy on you if they feel for ya.

Pack light

If you’re going on a surf trip, pack as light as possible. Sometimes — just sometimes — if you check in only a board bag and have a sturdy carry-on for the rest of your crap, you can avoid the charge.

This logic is based on the “one big bag versus two slightly smaller bags” theory: If you’re flying internationally and one or two check-in bags are included in the ticket price, don’t check two bags plus a surfboard bag.

Try to check just the board bag and transfer all the heavy stuff (chargers, books, fins, etc.) into your carry-on.

Tip the scales

This is sneaky, but when the ticket agent asks you to place the board bag on the scale (and you’ve got a girthy one), don’t put that thing directly on the scale, bud. Have some of the bag covertly hanging on the frame, or shift some forward to the conveyer belt.

I, myself, have placed a horizontal board bag on the belt scale and pretended to stabilize the tail of the bag by secretly lifting it up to lessen the weight. Do what you gotta do to skirt the charges.

Smaller looks lighter

If you’re bringing two 6’0″-ish surfboards on a surf trip, don’t pack them in a huge 7’2″ triple board bag. Find or borrow a smaller double board bag.

It’s that added optical illusion that draws attention to your load. Make your baggage as inconspicuous as possible in order to give them less reason to nail ya.

Pray for a winner

A photo posted by Heidi (@meerdavon_com) on

From personal experience, I’ve been on hundreds of flights with surfboards, and while very few airlines have a “no charge for board bags” policy, most do.

The real question is whether you’re going to get an agent who knows and enforces the rule. And I don’t care what people say: It’s totally at random. A roll of the dice. Destiny’s child.

I literally had a ticket agent look at my board bag last week and ask if they were “ski boards.” To my knowledge, there is no such thing as a “ski board,” although I imagine she meant surfboard.

I said “No.” I was not charged.

Sob story

Basically, how much does your dignity cost you? Mine’s certainly less than $300 at the ticket counter when I budgeted that very $300 for room and board for a week in Indonesia.

So what’s your story? If you’ve been as nice as possible, told them their hair looks great, that their nails are friggin’ fabulous, and they still want to nail you on the board bag?

My wife can attest: Things have surpassed awkward and gotten downright pathetic.

Begging, pleading, crying a little? Sure, I’ve done it all — including telling them that I was bringing these very surfboards for poor children without surfboards in far-flung villages, so how could you do this to them?!

I’m sure they’ve heard it all. Sometimes they have pity, and sometimes not.

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