On a recent trip out of state, I decided to surprise some friends at home with bottles of beer that aren't found in Florida. I've done this several times by simply packing bottles carefully into checked luggage and then crossing my fingers as baggage handlers violently slam my bag onto truck beds and various conveyor belts.
My success rate thus far is 100 percent. Well, almost. Upon returning from San Francisco, I found that my bottle of genuine Japanese Sapporo Black Label was bone-dry inside, while my clothes were much wetter and more beer-scented than I remembered. Interestingly, the cap remained firmly sealed onto the bottle. Other than that lone, mysterious incident, there have been no issues to date.
But this time, I was told by the attendant checking my bag that I couldn't simply pack bottles in my luggage and throw it into an airplane. I was flying Southwest, and it has a much stricter policy. Twenty bucks for four inflatable bottle carriers and a nearly-missed flight later, I resolved to be more prepared next time I tried to travel with beer. You should do the same.
The first thing to consider when stowing beer for a flight is your airline's policy. For most commercial carriers in the United States, reasonable precautions to prevent your bottles from breaking and leaking are sufficient. Indeed, Southwest is the only airline I could find with a specific policy on the type of packing materials that must be used. Perhaps it's because they sell these very materials at the airport.
If your airline has a more lax policy, it's still wise to invest in inflatable packaging. A product called WineSkin, which is available at Total Wine & More, retails for $5 for a two-pack. It's an inflatable plastic sleeve that's shock-resistant and virtually leak-proof. Productivity and money-saving blog Lifehacker suggests purchasing inflatable swimming arm bands — floaties! — that can cost as little as $3 a pair. However, wrapping the bottles in plastic afterward is still advisable.
If you're really looking to stretch your money, think old newspapers and my favorite — dirty clothes. With the latter option, simply wrap each bottle in a T-shirt or other soft article of clothing, put the whole thing in a freezer bag, and make sure that it's surrounded by other soft objects inside your luggage and separated from other bottles. This is enough to fulfill most airlines' restrictions.
And in the event that you completely drop the ball and forget to pack your beer safely until after you're already at the airport, fear not — Southwest will sell you inflatable bottle sleeves for $5 apiece, even if you're flying with another airline. Just head to the ticketing counter and tell them that you're trying to ship beer in your checked bag.
The next thing you need to think about is weight. Most airlines have policies on how heavy your bag can be before the price to check it jumps drastically. The limit is usually 40 to 50 pounds. Weighing your bag before heading to the airport is definitely recommended if possible; if it happens to exceed the limit, you can always get creative with the contents of your personal carry-on.
Okay, so you've got your beer packed with enough cushioning to keep a Fabergé egg safe — you're not in the clear yet. Some airlines require that your beers be packaged in the original manufacturer's bottle, with cap in place. This means no growlers. I'm not suggesting you fill up empty bottles with draft beer and use a friend's homebrew capping kit to seal the bottle (ahem); just make sure that you check with your airline beforehand to make sure that no delicious beer goes down any airport drains.
Finally, when you get home, let any bottle-conditioned and/or unfiltered beers sit upright for a day or two before opening. Yeast sediment can get shaken up in the best of conditions, and with the manhandling that your bags go through at the airport, you can expect an extremely cloudy beer if you don't let it relax awhile.
If you even follow a few of these steps when traveling with beer, you'll be fine more times than not. There's nothing like coming home with some Russian River, Deschutes or New Belgium brews to sip between trips. Just one last word of advice: Don't tell the attendant that you have a few bombers of beer in your bag; maybe opt for the word bottles instead.