flying with gifts

Do you know how to keep your gifts safe when flying? Photo by Kevin Dooley.

If you’re flying home over the Christmas break, one thing is almost certainly on your packing list: gifts. You probably spent a ton of time planning and shopping for your Christmas presents, but have you given a thought to how you’ll pack them?

It’s something you ought to consider if you want to avoid having your carefully selected – and possibly expensive – gifts being damaged, stolen, or even confiscated by airport security. Have I got your attention? Great, well read on, because I’m sharing my best practices for flying with gifts.

1. Ship gifts rather than pack them

If you can, it’s best to avoid traveling with gifts at all. If you put presents in your checked luggage, you risk them being damaged or even stolen (especially if we’re talking about electronics or valuables) and if you put them in your carry-on, you don’t leave yourself much room for clothes and other stuff you actually need for your trip.

The best way to get around this is to ship gifts directly to the recipient – this is really easy to do if you’re ordering your gifts online.

If you’ve bought your presents in a brick and mortar store, or are gifting a homemade item, ship the item using a service like Fedex or UPS. Shipping is a great option if you’ve got any oversize gifts as it usually works out cheaper than paying excess baggage charges. In fact, shipping can work out cheaper than checking a bag at all. And best of all, you can insure and track your packages to make sure the items arrive at their destination.

2. Buy gifts that are easy to carry

I know a lot of people think gift cards are impersonal, but I love them since they allow me to purchase the specific product that suits my taste. If you stick to retailers with a broad selection, for example Amazon or itunes, then the recipient is bound to be happy.

Another type of gift that doesn’t require any type of packing is an experiential gift. This is where you buy someone a hot-air balloon ride, a dolphin-watching cruise, surf lessons, a wine tasting, cooking classes, and so on. Gifts like these are great for people who already own a lot of things and are hard to shop for; they’re great if you’ve left your Christmas shopping ’til the last minute since you can buy them online; and they’re great if you’re packing lightly since all you have to carry is a voucher.

3. Leave gifts unwrapped

Your Christmas presents are subject to airport security just like anything else, so if you pre-wrap them, you may be forced to open them for inspection. Save yourself the hassle and pack the wrapping paper and ribbon separately – or even better, use a gift bag and tissue paper so there’s no wrapping involved at all.

4. Watch out for restricted items

If you’re taking the gifts on board with you, remember they’ll have to meet all the carry-on restrictions. This means gifts like snow globes and some sporting equipment are out. See here for a full list of carry-on rules.

5. Be prepared to gate check your bag

I think this is the most important tip, because even if you do everything right (meet the restrictions, leave your gifts unwrapped, carry-on valuable gifts etc.) it’s all for nothing if you’re forced to gate check your carry-on bag. Remember that overhead bin space is limited at the best of times, but at Christmas, when everyone is traveling with gifts, it’s beyond ridiculous. Some passengers will have to gate check their bag, and it could well be you, so you need to be prepared. Here’s how:

If you’re told to gate check your bag, the first thing to do is to remove any valuables or fragile items. Take your time and do it – even if the flight staff are rushing you – because you’re the one that’ll have to deal with any damaged or lost items. It’s a good idea to keep a packable bag or foldable tote like the one here handy for this purpose.

Lock your bag. As much as we wish it didn’t happen, stuff does get stolen out of luggage, including gate-checked bags (see this article about a passenger who had his camera stolen after gate-checking his luggage). Locking your bag is no guarantee that the contents will be safe, but it does act as a deterrent – an opportunistic thief will presumably go for the unsecured bags first.

Make sure your carry-on has a luggage tag on it. I know they give you those little colored tickets with a number on them that corresponds to a tag they put on your bag, but you really don’t want that to be all that’s on your luggage (what if it rips off in the fray?). Always ensure you put a proper baggage tag on your carry-on and include your phone number and email address in the information.

6. Plan for the return journey

Of course, if you’re bringing any gifts back home with you after the holidays, all of the same principles above apply – but here’s one more thing to bear in mind: if you packed gifts in your luggage on the way over, you’ll have empty space in your bag to fill with the presents you received. But if you happened to ship your gifts to their recipients, remember to leave a little room in your suitcase in case you end up bringing some goodies home.

What do you think? Have you ever had problems when flying with gifts? Do you have any other tips to share?