There is an art to getting on the plane 100’s of kilos of windsurf equipment, dragged through airports and carparks around the world. I’m going to share with you the tips and tricks I’ve learnt from over 12 years of life on the road as a professional windsurfer; tips that you can apply to any sports goods or excess luggage.
Getting to that illustrious 50,000 miles club (only 40,000 with Turkish Airlines on Star-Alliance) and receiving a Gold Card with your airline of choice can seem like an impossible achievement, especially when you only have 12 months to accrue the miles. If you’re serious about being an international traveller with sports bags it’s an absolute must, as the benefits far out way the costs. First and foremost, with a gold card you get an extra free bag, which saves you some pennies but really the most beneficial feature is being able to check-in at the Business Class counters. You see, airline check-in staff are directed to look after their Business and Gold Card fliers so when you are a few kilos overweight you have a much better chance of getting through without extra charges.
Tip: the first thing that comes out of your mouth when you arrive at the counter should always be “Hello, how is your day going?”. It takes 3 seconds to brighten a person’s day and it will help you immensely if you are trying to get extra bags on for free.
The other benefits include, getting free flights with miles (yeah!), using the Business Class lounges at all airports (free food and internet), using the priority lanes through security and whilst boarding and having your bags come out FIRST from the plane.
How do you get to 50,000 miles without spending a fortune? The trick is to pick an airline partnership with as many airlines in it that you would usually fly. I recommend Star Alliance in Europe as it includes Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, United and TAP, who are the best airlines to fly from all of the major hubs and have the best deals for windsurfin equipment (or any sporting goods). Miles are calculated by the actual miles (not kilometres) you fly, so it’s all about ‘distance’, not ticket price. Pay attention to the ticket class you are purchasing to make sure they accrue miles (sorry, but usually the super-sale cheap tickets only give 50% miles or even zero miles, which is not useful). Forget trying to accrue miles with these short flights around Europe. Amsterdam to Barcelona is only 700 miles, which will take you millions of years to get to Gold. Aim for discounted flights to faraway locations. Brazil, Maui, South Africa are a long way from Europe by plane. If you fly off season (like the typical winter escape to Cape Town for us windsurfers) you can save a lot on tickets and get the miles up. When there is an option to take a longer route stopping through a few more countries; TAKE IT.
I’m a little lucky (and unlucky) in that my real home in Australia is so far away from Europe and where I have been basing myself the past few years, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Exactly 20,000 miles (or 25 hours flying) to be exact. This means in only 2 flights to Europe and back and I am almost a Gold Card straightaway. It takes some planning to make sure you get on the right airlines, and for sure you might spend a little more here and there to get the right flight that has the most miles, but when you’re a Gold Card holder your life will change; everything at the airport becomes easy – and you end up wanting to check in earlier so you can eat the amazing food in the lounges and put your feet up.
What makes all this easier is living near an airport that is a major international hub. The bigger airports have more variety of airlines flying so the prices/times can better help you fly with airlines that you are accruing miles with. This is actually one of the reasons I have based myself in Holland (but now, Warsaw, Poland) when I’m in Europe each year, as there’s only a small amount of airports that do direct flights to Asia (then on to Australia) and Amsterdam is one of them. As well as the big airlines, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport services the smaller, cheaper European airlines for quick and cheap escapes to the Canaries or Italy with sports equipment. It also happens to be quite a nice looking airport (especially compared to the horrible old terminals in Heathrow, Frankfurt, Milan or Paris – yuck!!).
Weight can play a big role in how damaged your sports equipment gets when you fly. The magic number is around 20kg. A 20kg surfboard bag is easy to be picked up by one person and should get looked after, a 32kg is quite heavy for one person so it usually gets dragged along the ground and thrown in to the baggage chutes with no care whatsoever. The times I’ve had damage to my boards have often been when they are packed heaviest. It can be better to split it in to 2 bags rather than make a sports bag 30kg even if you are allowed 32kg for one bag.
If weight is an issue for you, select sports bags with no wheels. Wheels weigh a lot because of the reinforcement needed around them to keep the bag stiff. I don’t own any windsurfing gear bags with wheels (that’s what the trolleys are for).
Once you’re packed you need to get your bags weighed at the airport. Wider bags like surfboards and windsurfing booms are usually too wide for the airport scales, so you can usually scam a few kilos per bag by resting the boardbag against the sidewall of the scale, reducing it’s weight. For this reason, I usually make my boombag the heaviest bag (packing extra sails/extensions/fins in there) as booms don’t damage easily and you can sometimes save 5kg by leaning it against the wall. Long, skinny bags like windsurfing sails and small surfboards fit perfectly on the scale so they usually weigh correctly.
With any airport adventure, it pays to be polite and it also pays to DRESS WELL. Someone once told me you should dress down to go to airports so if they ask you to pay extra for your bags you could claim you have no money. This completely doesn’t work. Check-in staff respond better to well dressed, clean shaven business people so if you wear a nice shirt, be polite, smile and make a joke when you arrive they are in a good mood and they will often waive that extra 5kg of weight you have.