If you spend enough time in the sport, you’re bound to reach the point where can you no longer drive where you need to go with your bow.
At this point you’ll need to pack up your bow for air travel. Many of you will have heard a few horror stories, so how can you avoid delays and issues with your equipment when flying?
Box it up
The first thing you’ll need is to make sure you have a travel-worthy case. The small soft sided case or backpack you bring with you to your local range isn’t going to cut it as baggage. You need a case specifically designed for air travel. Most archers choose either a hard case or hybrid style case, which are soft sided with support beams.
As your bowcase usually rolls along the ground, it may be easier to use a large rucksack as your carry-on bag as its less of a pain than trying to roll two cases.
It’s worth remembering that a recurve bow or two with a minimum of spares will fit in a cheap roll case, and that and a 28″ longrod will usually fit diagonally in a large suitcase. This is a way of taking both a bow and enough luggage for a holiday while only having to check one bag, if you’re away for a few days but still want to shoot. Pay careful attention to packing everything well.
Lock up carefully
If you choose a case with locks, or plan to add your own, you will need to make sure they are TSA approved locks (Google for these) as it is highly likely your bow case will be searched by the airlines. Many archers avoid this by simply not putting a lock on in the first place, or using zip ties to keep it shut. Make sure all of your info is written in the case.
It’s helpful, before purchasing any case, to check the dimensions against those allowed on your preferred airlines. Most archery cases meet size requirements on most airlines, but it’s to your advantage to know the rules BEFORE heading to the airport (airlines have a habit of changing their policies over time).
The same applies to weight restrictions. A bow case that is too large or too heavy will drive up the cost of your air travel fast (and not by a little bit). Always weigh your case before travelling. If you already have a bowscale for measuring poundage, that will do the job nicely.
Probably the most important thing you can do when traveling by air with your bow is to pack well. What does this mean? First, you will want to pack things in a way so everything is protected and there isn’t space to fly around. This means tying down your bow with straps, putting smaller items in zip up pouches, etc.
In addition, use things like shoes, binoculars, etc to wedge between spaces between bigger objects to hold everything together. Taking clothing that doesn’t crease easily is important here. Imagine your case being dropped from five feet off the ground. It happens.
Another lesson to apply to your packing is to make it as simple as possible. Because you can expect airline officials to go through your bag and they don’t want to spend a lot of time, your best bet is to make it easy for them to locate items that may show up on the scanner and put everything back in quickly. Great at ‘packing Tetris’? Awesome, but as a rule of thumb, don’t expect airport workers to be.
Sometimes whoever might be looking in your bowcase might decide to dry fire your bow (this DOES happen, so don’t tempt fate). It’s a good idea to zip tie compound strings/cables to make sure this is impossible. Always pack smaller items into boxes and pouches, you don’t want whoever is opening things up to have things spilling everywhere. Chances are they might not make it back in.
If you decide to use a cover for your case, be extra sure you have contact info inside your case. Cases definitely do get separated from their covers, which is where all the flight info is located.
Many archers use luggage tags or info cards, but these are typically connected to the cover, not the case itself. When the case loses its cover, it becomes almost impossible to track it down without your personal information inside, and it’ll be bye bye bow.
Keep some things close
Always pack your release or finger tab in your carry-on luggage or bag. This is the ONE piece of equipment that is hardest to borrow if your luggage doesn’t show up. The chances of your bow not appearing or arriving a day after you do get greater with distance, the number of connections you have to make, and the shortness of those connections.
If you do make it somewhere and have to borrow equipment, it helps to have made some friends first!
Unfortunately, archery is still a mystery to a lot of people, including most airline workers. Many employees will be unfamiliar with archery equipment, so they can be overly cautious or mislabel it. I have heard of entire national teams having their baggage initially refused carriage as they contained ‘firearms.’
Some airlines, including the better-known carriers in the Middle East have refused to take bows at all, even in the hold, as they are classed as ‘weapons’ and forbidden by the conditions of carriage. (This can catch you out even if you booked with a different airline if they code-share).
It’s best not to say anything about it unless asked, but when asked what is inside your case by airline workers, it’s best to say sporting equipment, rather than archery equipment – with a little luck they might assume it is golf or hockey gear. As mentioned before, make sure you know the airline rules and regulations; and get it in writing in an email if you can.
By knowing the policies, you can avoid mistakes that can be costly or delay your travels. Feel free to (nicely) ask for a manager, especially if they are insisting you pay an unnecessary fee, or you are told you can’t fly with your bow.
If you are heading to a REALLY important tournament, and you are nervous about a tight connection, it’s a good idea to find a friend or teammate who is also going, so you can pack up together.
This entails packing your backup bow and equipment in their bow case with their primary equipment. Then they would pack their backups in your bow case with your main gear.
This gives you better odds for at least one case arriving on time to shoot the tournament, which would allow you both your own bow to shoot.
Other cunning ideas
Now that airlines have made extra bags a significant revenue source, another option, if you can make it work, is to ship your bow in advance using FedEx or similar.
This might just work out cheaper than travelling with it yourself, and is worth investigating as an option at least. (Of course, you’ll have to ship it back, too.)
Most airlines have standard rules for hard golf bags, and sometimes they are more lenient than the rules for oversize baggage. Archers have even been known to pack bows into golf hard cases, with a couple of old clubs and a golf ball or two!
Once you get there
The first thing you should always do after retrieving your luggage is to check your bow case. Do a quick visual check to make sure there is nothing missing or broken. Try not to skip this step – most problems are an easier fix while you are still at the airport.
If anything is missing, make sure to document everything, and to hold on to the inspection tag inside your luggage (many times these are stamped with info such as who inspected your bag, what airport, and in some airports – even the video of your case being opened).
It’s always good practice in life, but especially when traveling with a bow, to be courteous to airline employees and give them a smile. They work long days, dealing with a lot of miserable customers, so a little warmth towards them can go a long way in helping you avoid trouble.
Finally, you will want to enjoy your tournament – and then repeat the entire process for the trip back home!
Thanks to everyone who contributed tips for this story.