Logistical Tips and Techniques for Air Travel to Hunting Destinations

woods89

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Having flown to and from elk hunting twice, and having learned a lot from various threads on here and elsewhere, I wonder if we could have a centralized thread for this topic. I know there are a bunch of you on here that have lots more experience than I at this.

I don't intend for this to be about pros and cons to driving vs flying. That varies from person to person and trip to trip. I'd prefer to keep this to info around getting guns, gear, meat, and antlers to and from the hunting destination.

Having said all that, I will briefly explain why I have flown when I could drive. I have a family vehicle that my wife needs while I'm gone, and an older work truck with quite a few miles that I hesitate to take a long way from home. My hunting partner lives a couple hours from where we hunt, so if I drive I have to drive solo, which I have done in the past. I simply prefer to keep my travel time down, and don't particularly enjoy long solo drives. Driving is likely cheaper in most cases, so often it comes down to the intangibles.

Like I said, I have done this twice. I was not successful the first time, and killed a nice bull the second. I did a ton of research before attempting this and was quite nervous the first time, as I don't do a ton of flying outside these trips. I'll go over my system for both trips, and maybe someone can give me some pointers to make it go smoother next time.

I drive about 3 hours to STL and fly Southwest. They have a baggage policy that is very hunter friendly, in that you get 2 checked bags and a carry on item free. I can fly non stop to Denver from St. Louis which is always preferable. My rifle goes in a Pelican Vault single rifle case, my clothes and gear go into a big duffel, and optics and electronics, as well as a change of clothes, etc. go in my backpack. My backpack is technically slightly oversize for a carry on, but I don't pack it full and other than having to gate check it once, it hasn't been a problem. I also typically ship some extra gear via Fedex to my hunting partner a couple weeks prior to season to take a little pressure off. 1 decent size box costs me anywhere from $30-70 each way, depending on weight. I lock all points on my gun case with combo locks, and carry copies of both airline and TSA regs pertaining to firearms with me, as sometimes you will know those policies better than the agents you are dealing with. All that said, I haven't felt that my firearm ever subjected me to anything less than polite treatment.

As anyone who has seen baggage be handled can relate to, I'd stress that scopes and mounting systems should be robust if flying. My scope lost zero on my first trip, luckily we checked before hunting. Second trip I had a Nightforce on a picatinny system on my rifle, and it was perfectly zeroed when I checked.

My first trip I was picked up by my hunting partner, and we used his vehicle for the hunt, so I didn't have to deal with a rental. Last fall we decided we should split up some to cover more ground, so I rented a little AWD SUV from Turo. For those flying into Denver this can work really slick. The car owner dropped it in Park DIA, locked the keys in a little lockbox that attaches to the trailer hitch, and texted me the combo. I grabbed a shuttle at the airport out to the lot, found the car, grabbed the keys, and was on my way. Make sure if you use Turo that you get adequate insurance coverage, as most liability policies and credit cards will not cover Turo. Most people will have to purchase coverage from Turo. Return was the reverse, I dropped the car in the lot, locked up the keys, took a bunch of pics to document vehicle condition, and took the shuttle to the airport. Turo has a wide variety of vehicles available to be delivered to the Denver airport, from some fairly affordable older rigs to some tricked out Tacomas. I will definitely use them again in the future. I rented for about 5 days, cost was a little over $100 a day total.

Last fall as noted above I killed a nice bull, and was then faced with the logistical challenge of getting meat and antlers home. There are several options here. You can cancel the return leg of your ticket, rent a car, and drive your stuff home. I believe some people have got meat frozen and overnighted it home with one of the freight services. Or you can fly home and check meat as extra baggage. I elected to do the latter. I killed my bull early in the hunt in mid November, so we were able to hang quarters outside, and the day before I flew home the internal temp of the quarters was in the mid 30s F. The day before I flew home I purchased 2 70 qt Coleman coolers at Walmart, boned out all my meat, except shanks, and filled both coolers to 95 lbs. total each. I also packed as much of my gear as possible into a couple tubs and dropped them off at a Fedex store to be shipped home. This left a bit of meat, so I packed some in a soft cooler that I put in my duffel, and still left a bit with my hunting partner. I also lined the coolers with heavy plastic, which I taped shut before closing the lid. I duct taped the coolers shut rather generously to keep everything nice and tight. At the airport I checked my rifle and duffel as my free checked bags, and my coolers as extra oversize/overweight baggage. I dealt with a very nice lady at the Southwest counter, and I believe she knocked some fees off, as it cost me $225 to check the 2 coolers home.

Most people will tell you to get meat frozen before doing this. There is really no downside to doing so, but in my meat handling experience a big chunk of meat in the mid 30s in a sealed cooler will keep for a long time. It's worth noting that I had one nonstop flight, if a person had connecting flights and with that the possibility of lost luggage for a day or two, freezing might be better. All my luggage came through, and we packaged the meat the following evening at home. It was in perfect shape. It's worth noting that September temps might require a little different system. I also didn't fill those 70 qt coolers to get them to weight, next time I'll buy something in the 55qt range and completely full they should be right around the 100 lb limit. I think it's usually cheaper to buy coolers after you're successful than flying both ways with coolers, and you can sell them on Craigslist, Facebook, or a garage sale to recoup some cost after you get home.

CWD regs kept me from bringing skulls into MO unless they are clean, so I left my head and antlers in CO and had a euro done with dermistid beetles out there. Luckily my hunting partner was traveling through the area where I live a few weeks ago and dropped them off for me. This is probably one of the most cumbersome aspects of this. In the future if I kill a raghorn I'll probably just saw antlers off the skull and bring them home that way. If it's a nice bull I'll likely do as I did. I have read where guys have checked skulls and antlers after putting tennis balls or garden hose on the antler tips, and maybe stretch wrapping the antlers, and it has worked well for them.

Long post, I know. This is what has worked for me. I'd love to hear from some of you that have experience, as I'm sure my system can be streamlined a bit. I wrote this up because I feel it's a viable alternative for those for whom driving is not a good option, and maybe we can help someone out.
 
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What’s your time worth? Do you have time to drive ? Or will it be a rush ? Dependable vehicle ?

I’ve done both. Also buy travel Insurance or use a credit card that provides travel coverage.

It’s nice to have a professor flash freeze meat for trip home. And dry ice works for about 24-48 hours. Wild meat holds up better than domestic processed meat. So if it thaws a little and still stays relatively cold, you’ll be fine.

Trip home baggage can add up to a lot of $$ for items you didn’t take out, i.e. meat, antlers. Those two things alone can add several hundred dollars in baggage fees.

Hope I helped out a little with my .02 cents
 
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One thing that I like is TSA Precheck for flying. Depending on the airport this can save you a boatload of time. It's good for 5 years as well and lets you skip all the long security lines. I flew out of Chicago on Christmas Eve one year(non hunting related) and bypassed easily 500-1000 people.
 

Rich M

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I drove the first 2 hunts at 30+ hrs each way. Just tired when get home.

Gonna try flying this time. Abot $600 plane ticket +extra for gun im sure. Splitting a rental to drive to hunt area from airport. Will cost as much as vehicle rental and gas.

Not an elk hunt so meat isnt as much of a worry.

The idea of not being exhausted after a long drive home is pretty appealing. Dealing w airport folks and rifle not apoealing…
 
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Something I discovered while shopping for a pelican case - choose your case based on the airline with the strictest size requirements. I was looking at the pelican 1755 air until I realized that Southwest places an 80-inch limit (length + width + height) on baggage (I confirmed that there is no exemption for guns). If it’s over 80, it must be sent via air cargo, which you do not want.

The 1755 is a few inches over 80, but pelican makes several other cases that are just under 80 linear inches.

An airline might not make a fuss over a few inches, but better to be safe than sorry and avoid a disaster at the airport.
 

MattB

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No reason to have a single rifle case when you could get something like a double bow case and have a ton of extra space inside for clothing/gear. I’ve flown a bunch of different airlines over the US and Canada over the past 20 years and have never been charged oversize fees with archery gear, rifles and pistols. Sporting goods are typically exempt per airline policy.

Appreciate what the guy above me posted, but that isn’t reality. At least not in my experience of 30-40 flights.
 
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woods89

woods89

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It would be a bad deal if you ran into the wrong person who made an issue of it, but in my experience with Southwest, no one has ever measured my rifle case.
 

dtrkyman

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I'm am archery guy so I use a SKB double bow case and pack the chit out of it with clothes.

Always wear my primary hiking boot to the airport, and definitely carry on optics and electronics. Have also worn some hunting clothes as well if I was loaded down.

Best trip ever was when a friend was already in Colorado so me and another friend flew out with small carry on pack and met him out there! We all drove back together.
 
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No reason to have a single rifle case when you could get something like a double bow case and have a ton of extra space inside for clothing/gear. I’ve flown a bunch of different airlines over the US and Canada over the past 20 years and have never been charged oversize fees with archery gear, rifles and pistols. Sporting goods are typically exempt per airline policy.

Appreciate what the guy above me posted, but that isn’t reality. At least not in my experience of 30-40 flights.

I called Southwest today to confirm what is on their website - and there is no exemption for firearms. I agree that in most cases they probably won't check, but all it takes is one agent who wants to go by the book and limit the case to 80 linear inches, and the trip is ruined (it takes a week to ship something via SW air cargo). In any case, this shouldn't be an issue for most people as most Pelican rifle cases are less than 80 linear inches.

I've flown with a handgun countless times over the last 10 years, and while most agents are cooperative, I've encountered a couple who were either clueless, or wanted to be jerks because they didn't like guns. One actually requested that I take the gun out of the case, pick it up and show her that it was unloaded. After I repeatedly told her that I was not going to handle a firearm in the airport, and that this was not their airline's policy (or any airline's policy), her supervisor's supervisor corrected the situation. This lady wouldn't have the slightest clue what an unloaded firearm looked like anyway.

Point being - if it's between a case that measures 83 linear inches or 78 linear inches, and you don't need the extra room, I would buy the one that's less than 80 if you fly Southwest a lot.

Both the 1750 Long and the iM3300 Long are less than 80 linear inches.
 

MattB

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I called Southwest today to confirm what is on their website - and there is no exemption for firearms. I agree that in most cases they probably won't check, but all it takes is one agent who wants to go by the book and limit the case to 80 linear inches, and the trip is ruined (it takes a week to ship something via SW air cargo). In any case, this shouldn't be an issue for most people as most Pelican rifle cases are less than 80 linear inches.

I've flown with a handgun countless times over the last 10 years, and while most agents are cooperative, I've encountered a couple who were either clueless, or wanted to be jerks because they didn't like guns. One actually requested that I take the gun out of the case, pick it up and show her that it was unloaded. After I repeatedly told her that I was not going to handle a firearm in the airport, and that this was not their airline's policy (or any airline's policy), her supervisor's supervisor corrected the situation. This lady wouldn't have the slightest clue what an unloaded firearm looked like anyway.

Point being - if it's between a case that measures 83 linear inches or 78 linear inches, and you don't need the extra room, I would buy the one that's less than 80 if you fly Southwest a lot.

Both the 1750 Long and the iM3300 Long are less than 80 linear inches.
How many times have you flown SWA with an oversized weapon case? How many times did they charge you for the bag being oversized? I am guessing never based on your insistence regarding what someone told you over the phone. They will virtually always quote the most conservative interpretation over the phone and that often does not align with reality.

I’ve flown SWA 20 or more times with an SKB double bow case with no issues or oversize baggage charges.
 
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How many times have you flown SWA with an oversized weapon case? How many times did they charge you for the bag being oversized? I am guessing never based on your insistence regarding what someone told you over the phone. They will virtually always quote the most conservative interpretation over the phone and that often does not align with reality.

I’ve flown SWA 20 or more times with an SKB double bow case with no issues or oversize baggage charges.
Go back and re-read my posts. It is not a matter of being charged for an oversized bag. If the case is over 80 linear inches, per their policy, they can deny the case altogether. Meaning your case is not going to your destination unless you ship it through SW air cargo, which cannot be done on the spot at the airport. In other words, your trip is ruined.

Also, it is not an "interpretation" of some ambiguous policy. Their policy is clear - 80 linear inches.

How many times I've flown with an oversized rifle case is meaningless (the answer is zero, by the way). You and I have already agreed that it's unlikely SW is going to deny the case if it is say 85 linear inches - unlikely being the governing word.

It is a simple cost/benefit analysis. The vast majority of Pelican rifle cases are less than 80 linear inches - so it's pretty straightforward:

- do you absolutely need more than 80 linear inches? The answer will be no 99% of the time.
- are there cases that measure just under 80 linear inches that will work for most people? Yes.
- it is possible that a SW agent could go by the book and deny your case if it's over 80 linear inches? Yes.
- given the consequences of having them reject your case, even if it's very unlikely, should most people opt for a case that's less than 80 linear inches? Yes.

How many linear inches is your case?
 
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NRA4LIFE

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Since your buddy is close to where you hunt, have you considered storing a rifle there so you don't have to fly with it? That's what I do for the Missouri deer hunt. Have had a rifle at a fiends house for 25 or so years. It's nice when I come back as I can then check my meat cooler for free.
 
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woods89

woods89

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Since your buddy is close to where you hunt, have you considered storing a rifle there so you don't have to fly with it? That's what I do for the Missouri deer hunt. Have had a rifle at a fiends house for 25 or so years. It's nice when I come back as I can then check my meat cooler for free.
That would work sweet, but I don't want to be separated from that rifle, lol.....
 
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