All Bags Aboard!

by Graham


Gear for a normal surf trip...

Traveling with board-bags sucks. Every step is a hassle—it’s basically like traveling with a set of living room furniture. Getting from point A to point B requires negotiation skills and a comfort with the absurd. The lessons learned apply to traveling with any kind of baggage or to any situation requiring negotiation—whether flirting at the bar or freeing hostages.

“You can fly with that?” Is the question I get asked when people see me with my windsurfing bags. Yes, yes we can. (Unless you want to fly British Airways… They don’t accept any kind of windsurf-board so do not fly them.) Note: Sometimes the airline agent behind the counter will say that your bags are too big for the plane—this is not true. But more on that later.

The first rule to learn is that there are basically no set rules on what surf bags are allowed and how much you should be charged for them. Suuuure, the website might be pretty clear on what the airline allows. And the agent’s computer behind the check-in desk is clear too. And so is the book of rules next to his computer. Buuuut, they all say different things.

In practice then, the size allowed and the cost charged depend on the kindness of the agent and how well you negotiate. Both are variables you can change. If the agent isn’t nice, find a new one and hope for better luck (ah! That’s why it’s important to arrive 3 hours before your flight). At first, you might think that newly hired agents are nicer or easier to negotiate a lower price with. This is not always true. Remember that niceness correlates with confidence. Often, new agents are insecure and don’t want to mistakenly allow a prohibited bag or undercharge.

Sometimes, two agents behind the same counter will have different interpretations of the baggage rules. I had an experience in Paris CDG airport 7ish years ago where the agent (~40 years old male) did not want to accept any of my boardbags. He said they were too big to fly on Air France.

I asked the woman (similarly aged) at the computer next to him if she knew about checking in windsurfing gear. She said in a thick French accent, “Yes! We do it all the time. It should be 200 euros.” The man was not happy with this.

They argued in French in front of me for a solid 15 minutes, after which the woman stormed off and the man told me that I could check in the bags but only if I paid 12 euros for every extra Kilo over the allotted baggage allowance. I was 95 Kilos over… That comes to 1140 euros for the excess baggage. All this for a nonstop flight to Lisbon that cost less than 300 euros roundtrip.

He printed the charge, and I was about to pay (what other choice did I have?) when the woman came back with a book of rules. Ah hah! She pointed out that the cost for sailboard bags was 200 euros.

The man was not satisfied (a reminder that logic/reason rarely works against someone who has made his mind up about how matters SHOULD end). The man and the woman argued in French for another 45 minutes. The boarding time for my flight came and went, and the line lengthened behind me.

When it seemed I would miss my flight, the man threw up his arms. Now it was his turn to storm off. The woman apologized to me for his behavior. She hurriedly charged me the 200 euros, handed me my boarding pass, and told me to run. I kept the original baggage charge as a souvenir.

Absurd baggage receipt

A lessons learned? If the first agent you encounter is not reasonable, find another… don’t expect him to change. Applied to negotiation: 1) reason is not king; work with the person who is willing to make a deal, ignore the person who has already made up his mind.

But all this mess can be avoided in the US by using porters (unfortunately, porters are much rarer in European airports).

Porters are your new best friends. Sometimes adding a middleman is best—as is the case with Porters. Slip them a 20 upfront (or more depending on the number of bags you have). The first benefit is obvious: they relieve you of dragging those coffin bags through the crowds. The second benefit is less obvious but way more important: they can negotiate a better price for your gear. For a 40 dollar tip, I’ve avoided hundreds of dollars in excess baggage fees.

Be up front about it. Show the porter your bags, offer the tip, and say that you only want to pay X amount. These guys check in bags all day long—they’re pros. Mr. Porter knows the agents behind the counter and thus how to score a deal that you can’t.

A strange bit of human psychology: I’ve seen people who are too cheap to tip the porter, so they struggle with their massive bags through the airport, and then end up paying hundreds extra after a half hour hassle with the lady behind the counter.

Enter negotiation rules 2 and 3: 2) Familiarity matters; ie liaisons help. 3) Generosity given (an upfront tip, for example) generally leads to much better negotiations. (Gift giving is a sacred ritual in many cultures. Giving a gift creates an implied debt owed to the gift-giver.)

At the end of the day, persistence wins. On the way to a World Cup in 2009, Alex Mussolini and I were flying from Lisbon to Cabo Verde. We had checked in fine, but out of the plane windows we could see Alex’s bags lying untouched on the tarmac. Alex raised the issue with the head flight attendant. She told him that the bags were too big to take (I believe her… there must have been 20 pro windsurfers on that flight and all with mountains of baggage). He told her he needed the bags for a competition. It took some pleading on his part, but they eventually loaded the bags into the cabin, securing them over unused business class seats. < That is definitely not in any rule book, online or otherwise.

If the taxi or car driver says that your bags won’t fit, politely say, “Let’s just try” and proceed to show him how it’s done.

(And I should add: Playing the airline loyalty game helps a lot. The 3 free bags I get from being Gold status on Star Alliance carriers is gold. A lot of windsurfers find that United is the best option. )

Some Perks to Big Bags
Is there any plus side to carrying such plus-sized bags? Yes! They are a pain to steal.

What thief has the initiative or know-how to get away with the bags that I can barely lug around? If someone manages to carry my bags to a car and then fit them inside that car to drive off, more power to him. I can barely get around with my windsurfing bags and it’s my job.

Some years ago, a friend of a friend had his car parked in Manhattan overnight with all his windsurfing gear in the car. Thieves broke into the car. They stole the contents of the glove box, the stereo, and everything else in the car except his windsurfing gear. Ironically, the gear was probably more valuable than the car!

(However, the Canary Islands seem an exception; there, unwatched boardbags disappear.)

All Bags Aboard!
Everyone has baggage of one form or another. Sometimes that baggage isn’t in bags. I have a friend who learned how to surf before she knew how to swim. In the ocean and amidst swells, not knowing how to swim is as heavy a weight as any bag.

Having grown up in India before moving to America, she did not have swimming culture all around her, as is the case in most western countries. Yet, she was in Santa Cruz on a vacation and wanted to try surfing. And surf she did!

She booked a lesson from a local surf school—never letting slip that she didn’t know how to swim (I don’t advise anyone to try this). Without letting go of the board for fear of drowning, she fell in love with riding the waves and whitewaters.

Upon returning home to Boston, she promptly enrolled in swimming classes and bought a surfboard. She then trekked 2 hours each way on weekends in the summer for a chance to surf.

Eventually she moved to Maui. It’s a lot easier here.

I think of her story every time I grumble to myself about lugging around 200 pounds of windsurfing gear. My bags weigh nothing compared to the weight of not knowing how to swim during your first surf lesson.