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How to Take Beer on a Plane

How to Take Beer on a Plane
How to Take Beer on a Plane (Photo Courtesy WineVine Imports)

We all love a good beer vacation. But what about bringing home some of your favorite beers that are not available in your home state? If you’re traveling by air within the U.S., there are several options. One is legal and the rest are a mixed bag.

The not-so-legal route – and more expensive – is to ship yourself the beer in a package by the usual carrier services. Although many give a nod and a wink to this particular law without repercussion, it is illegal to ship alcohol via the U.S. Postal Service without a license. That’s why people rely on UPS or FedEx, where it’s merely against the company policy to ship alcoholic beverages without a license. (Don’t ask and don’t tell.)

The biggest drawbacks of this method are the cost and treatment packages can get, making it more likely bottles or even cans could be damaged despite efforts to protect the contents during packing. The best rule of thumb is to use the same Styrofoam inserts used by those who ship wine. Otherwise, given company policies, imagine making an insurance inquiry about those rare 750-milliliter bottles of barrel-aged sour beer that failed to make the journey…

The legal, cheapest and best option to bring beer home is via checked luggage. (We should pause here to acknowledge sometimes people like to take beer from home to their destination. We know of at least one craft brewer who lives on the East Coast who packed a couple of cases of his own canned beer for a family vacation to Hawaii – because the beer on the islands is relatively expensive and his own brand wasn’t available.)

Wine lovers have been flying with bottles for years, which has spawned a variety of special luggage made expressly for carrying up to 12 bottles in a checked bag. Manufacturer of hard-sided luggage generally create padded foam inserts, such as the VinGarde Valise, or pre-established compartments such as WineCruzer. There are makers of soft-sided roller bags with special inserts to protect the contents such as Lazenne.

Vingarde Valise

Wine lovers have been flying with bottles for years, spawning a variety of special luggage made expressly for carrying up to 12 bottles in a checked bag. (Photo Courtesy VinGarde)

But do you really need special luggage for bottles? Maybe so, if you’re intent on bringing back shelf whales in bomber bottles. A more practical method is to ship your favorite beer in cans inside your regular luggage. Of all the advantages that cans bring to craft beer, the portability on airplanes may be the least appreciated.

The regulations for U.S. flights limit alcohol in checked luggage that exceeds 24 percent ABV to five liters. Beer doesn’t fall into this range, so the only limit is the 50-pound maximum on weight per passenger – and even that is negotiable if you’re willing to pay an additional fee. Not only are cans manageable, aluminum is lighter than glass.

There’s risk in all things air travel and cans are no exception. While luggage compartments are generally pressurized, they undergo some pressure changes during flights. Those who pack cans in regular luggage report some crinkling around the top of the cans. Wrapping cans to protect other contents in the luggage in case of a leak is a bit impractical, since the idea is generally to bring as many cans as possible. There are some semi-reliable methods such as plastic wrap or cardboard.

Can leaks result from poor seams where the top is affixed during the canning process. A poorly seamed can is far more likely to leak during air travel. But most craft brewers or companies that offer portable canning lines now use tiny cameras to check the overlapping aluminum to be sure the seals are proper to prevent the loss of carbonation during distribution. (If buying directly from a brewer, you may want to inquire about how the seams are checked during canning.)

There’s risk in all things air travel and beer cans and bottles are no exception... Thanks TSA!

When it comes to bottles, homebrewers are the pioneers of shipping either via checked luggage or by the package delivery method. In either case, they always advise plenty of cushioning and wrapping in plastic in case of breakage. The product known as The Jet Bag is the most reliable method to prevent leaks or breakage. It can absorb up to 750 milliliters of liquid without spilling and may be re-used for at least 12 months before the zipper function might begin to wane.

Because it is hard-sided and potentially modular, the VinGarde Valise is very reliable and useful, if relatively expensive at more than $200. We know of one frequent beer traveler who uses his to transport various containers of beer by re-arranging the foam inserts – traveling with different bottle sizes and 16-ounce cans. Bear in mind, too, that this bag is easily divided into sections for clothing as well as beer.

One word of caution, whether transporting bottles or cans in checked luggage. The law allows the Transportation Security Administration to check the contents of any luggage before it is put on a plane. It is not unusual for checked bags with bottles or cans to be inspected. As long as they are in the original packaging, beer is not a problem. But if you are unsettled by those TSA notices that your bag was opened and looked through, then perhaps it’s best to try another method. (A traveler we know once found a TSA notice among his packed cans and some peanuts irreverently tossed into his bag as well…)

What about bottles in checked luggage when returning from a foreign country? The packing methods still apply and the rules are only slightly different when bringing back beer from other countries to the U.S. The maximum amount of alcohol in checked bags is the same for any FAA flight. After landing, the customary response from U.S. Customs is to allow up to a case of wine, i.e. 12 bottles, for personal use – hence the usual capacity of specially manufactured luggage. This rule of thumb for duty free alcohol also applies to beer, i.e. up to 12 bottles. Regular travelers to Europe report good results at Customs with the special luggage designed to hold 12 bottles.

Sending beer home from Europe in packaging sold by brewers is also an option. In Brussels, for example, Cantillon sells a shipping container that holds three bottles. It can be dropped off at a nearby postal station and beer lovers report excellent results according to one of our friends in the beer tour business.

Whatever your chosen method, do not attempt be bring a packaged beer on board a plane in carry-on luggage. You’re most likely to lose it during pre-boarding inspection. If you are amazingly clever and lucky enough to get it on board, flight personnel are the only ones allowed to open and pour an alcoholic beverage by FAA regulations. Given recent events with airplane security personnel, it’s highly advisable to put that beloved beer in checked luggage so both you and your favorite beverage arrive safely!