I was recently watching a video about GenCon, and it got me to thinking, with all the games people buy at conventions, how do they take them on the plane when they go home? Would it be better to ship the games, or would that leave you with a smashed up box that is barely recognizable for what it once was? I did some checking, and I want to share with you what I found.
You can take board games on a plane with you either in your checked or carry on luggage, but you may be stopped to have your bag checked by security. You also have to decide if you’re going to take them with you in your carry on luggage, or if you want to check them as both options have different challenges that you’ll need to deal with. Packing your games for travel may not be something you commonly think about, so I'll share some tips with you to help keep weight down, protect your games, and help you get your games to their destination in the best condition possible. And what travel experience wouldn’t be complete without some games that you can play on the plane.
Working with Security
First of all, remember that when you’re flying, security isn’t there to ruin your day. Their job is to try to keep you and the other travelers safe. Now that it doesn’t mean it can’t be a frustrating experience, to say the least. The best way to get through security is to work with the agents.
When bags are scanned at the airport, the agents are looking for odd shapes or things that just don’t show up on their screen. When you have board games in your bag, you can imagine that some pretty interesting shapes could trigger your bag for further inspection. You aren’t being singled out as a threat, the TSA agent just needs to verify what you have in your bag. If you find yourself in this situation, just talk with the agent, show them what they’re asking to see and be on your merry way.
If you’re traveling with miniatures - especially if you’re a tabletop wargamer taking your army with you - the shapes can seem pretty odd to the agent. One user on Reddit pointed out that when he traveled with his war game, they thought his army was actually trays of jewelry.
Also, items with layers of paper tightly packed together can appear as a solid brick on the x-ray, which the agent may want to see to make sure you aren’t trying to hide anything. I’d imagine a single deck of cards is familiar enough that it may not trigger further investigation, but if you’re traveling with a game that has a lot of cards, they may want to see what you’re packing.
Another thing that spikes their curiosity is poker chips. I had a personal experience with this one a few years ago. I had bought a poker set that I was taking home as a Christmas present. When the TSA agent asked to see inside the case, I showed her the stacks of poker chips. She told me that the poker chips appear as solid, cylindrical objects, which they need to check to make sure you aren’t trying to sneak anything past them.
These are some things that TSA may stop you for when you’re getting on the plane, but what about for your checked luggage?
Checked or Carry On?
If you plan to check any luggage, you need to decide if you’re going to take your games with you or pack them in your checked luggage. If you’re taking a larger game, you may not have any option besides putting it in your checked luggage. That being said, which way is the better one to travel with your games?
If you’re taking a large collection of games, you’ll probably end up having to check some of them. The two things that you need to consider are size and weight. Both of these will play a role in where you put your games. Let’s go over some of the pros and cons of both options.
In your checked luggage, you can take a larger bag, but you have weight restrictions on that bag. In fact, if you go over your weight limit, you’ll pay an exorbitant fee to take your bag with you. You also have to contend with your bag being scanned - and possibly searched - without you present. If you have your bags and games carefully packed, let’s just say they probably won’t be that way when you get to your destination.
Having your bag checked without you present isn’t the best scenario, especially if you’re traveling with board games. Your games need to be carefully packed, so your games aren’t damaged, you probably have a lot of small pieces with the games - that you hopefully put in containers or bags - and it’s likely that you have the games puzzled into the bag to help protect and save space. It can be pretty disconcerting to send your games to the underbelly of the beast - I mean plane - without you around to make sure they get there safely.
You also need to consider that your bag may be left on the tarmac or otherwise exposed to the elements, which can also cause damage to your games. A friend of mine left one of his games in the car overnight and came out to find that some of the miniatures had softened enough that small points - like swords and spears - lost some of their shape. These can be usually be fixed, but it's something you probably want to avoid, if at all possible.
To those of you thinking I’m crazy for putting so much attention into how games are packed, you can probably fit several thousand dollars worth of games into a checked bag so you can be looking at a pretty sizable investment. It’s prudent - not paranoia - to make sure your collection travels safely.
Carry On Luggage
When you’re taking your games with you into the cabin, you have a lot more control over the games. What you’re trading that for is no weight restriction. Airlines don’t weigh your carry-on so you can pack that thing as full as you can get it - just don’t try to shove it into the overhead compartment and damage the corners of all your boards.
The most significant limitation of carry-on bags is their size limits. The limits of these bags are usually 22” x 14” x 9”. That’s not a lot of space to pack your games, but you’d be surprised how many games you could pack in that small of an area - especially if you leave the box behind.
How to Pack
When you’re packing your board games for a trip, I found several helpful hints on how to pack them to save space, optimize your bag weight, and level up your travel experience.
Punch out chits
If you’re bringing a new game, make sure you punch out the cardboard chits and throw away the excess cardboard. You’d be surprised how much the weight of these adds up.
Pack paper products in your carry on
Take any of the paper products - boards, rule books, etc. - and pack those in your carry on. Paper products can pack together pretty tight and can weigh quite a bit. Packing these in your carry on will help you save weight in your checked luggage when you’re traveling.
Take a portable hanging scale with you. These use a hook to attach to your luggage, which will let you see if you’re bag weight is over the weight limit for checked bags. Using a scale can help you decide if you want to ship a game to avoid any extra fees.
Take plastic bags, and if you usually store your pieces in plastic containers, replace these with bags for the trip. Plastic bags weigh less than containers, and they’ll help keep your pieces organized and together so you don’t lose any if the box comes open. Basically, anything you can fit in a bag should go in a bag, especially cards. Also, take extra bags for any games you buy on your trip.
These tips should help get your games to where you’re going in as good a condition as possible, but now what should you during your trip?
Playing Games on a Plane
If the title of this section didn’t give this away, try to take some games with you that you can play on the airplane. You won’t have a lot of space, but there are several games that you can play by yourself - or with a friend or stranger if you can convince them to play.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I wanted to list some games that I thought would be fun that could travel well.
Forbidden Island/Forbidden Dessert
These are tile laying games that you can play with 1-4 people that don’t take up a ton of space. Some of you might cringe at the thought of taking these on a plane where the tiles can slide off the tray, but unless you have heavy turbulence - or are sitting next to someone that keeps bumping your tray - you shouldn’t have too much of an issue.
Arkham Horror LCG/Lord of the Rings LCG
These games are straightforward to port as you only need to bring the cards and some tokens. These can take up a bit of table space if you spread everything out, but you can also condense the game down to a small area by overlapping cards. A great game that you can play by yourself or with another person, just make sure you bring the other deck so you can play with someone else if they’re interested.
Tiny Epic Galaxies
This a fantastic game that is always welcomed at the table. This game can be played pretty quickly, and scales from 1-5 players. It doesn’t take up too much space as there are only a few components needed to play the game. Don’t discount its small size, this game is a ton of fun, especially if you like space-themed games. There is some dice rolling, so make sure you bring something to reign in the dice.
Nothing is stopping you from bringing games onto an airplane, but you may be stopped by security so they can check your bag. Cooperate with the security agents, and you should be able to make it through once you show them that you’re not trying to smuggle anything in your decks of Arkham Horror. When you’re traveling, make sure you take care to protect your games and keep in mind that there’s a tradeoff when you’re doing a carry-on and when you’re checking your luggage. Finally, make your travel experience fun and bring some games you can play while you’re on the plane or to make your layover less of a nuisance.
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Do you have anything to add to the conversation, or any board game traveling tips that I missed? Have you had any bad experiences flying with your games? Are you a TSA agent that's had any unique experiences with board gamers? I’d love to hear from you, so please comment below.