Fragging The Friendly Skies

Fragrance aficionados will be relieved to know that the skies are once again friendly for traveling with our precious frags.  However, that friendship has limits – and it’s good to know what those limits are, so that you can plan accordingly.

You will recall that, in the wake of a rather large terror bust a while back, we were forbidden from bringing liquids onboard planes.  At first, this caused huge problems for just about everybody, but within days, as fear started giving way to reason, things got sorted out.  Still, it was rough sledding for a while, as everybody seemed to be uncertain of policy – even the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  Because of that, many people are still under the impression that airline passengers are completely forbidden from bringing liquids onboard – in carry-on luggage, in checked luggage, and maybe even both.  Fortunately, this is all just an urban legend now, and the truth is much nicer.  It is important to know the truth, because it will set you free to travel with your fine fragrances without worry.  Well – maybe just with less worry.

There are two ways to take your frags with you – checked baggage and carry-on baggage.  Each has its plusses and its minuses.  Checked baggage means no fuss, no security trouble, and (essentially) no limits on quantity.  But it also means risk of breakage, risk of theft, and risk of being lost or delayed.  Notice that I haven’t even mentioned the risk of being overheated.  If you’re not willing to take that risk, you may be looking at the alternative – carry-on.  Taking your frags in carry-on baggage eliminates (pretty much) the risk of breakage or theft, as well as the possibility of your frags being lost, delayed, or roasted in the midday sun, but it almost ensures that you will run into security issues.  If your greatest fear in life is having somebody paw through your stuff in a busy airport, then you may want to go back to the checked baggage option.  In either case, you may want to know more details.  I’m happy to oblige.  I just tried both methods of carrying my frags on an airplane trip.

Checked Baggage

Let’s start with checked luggage.  There are limits to the amount of alcohol that you can ship in your checked luggage, but it’s very high, so this is really just a hazardous substance limitation.  Unless you are traveling with your entire wardrobe, you don’t need to worry.  If you are traveling with a really large wardrobe, you may want to consider an alternative, such as ground-shipping your frags to their final destination.  In any case, you will need to talk to your airline before you even book your flights.  Bringing gallons of juice in your luggage is bound to cause trouble.

There are more important considerations for checked luggage.  The most important is using hard-sided luggage.  Airlines seem to promise less and less these days, but they never, ever, promised your luggage a smooth ride.  I know from hard experience (no pun intended) that soft-sided luggage will receive blows which will puncture aluminum cans, break bottles, dent steel cans, and otherwise destroy about anything that can be shipped.  Unless your frags are packed in bubble wrap inside metal boxes inside more wrap and then inside cardboard boxes, and could survive being tossed out a second-story window onto a cement driveway covered in metal spikes, they will most likely not survive a trip in soft-sided luggage.  Sure, some frag bottles are build like glass-block window material, and will likely survive blunt trauma.  But airlines seem to have ingenious mechanisms of impacting your baggage.  I’ve had baggage – hard-sided baggage, mind you – come back looking like it ran into Vlad the Impaler.  Trust me – if your frag is at the end of his pike, it is bound to lose.

So – what do you need to do with your frags, once you’ve elected to use hard-sided luggage in checked baggage?  You need to wrap them – that’s what.  Bubble wrap works, as do many similar alternatives.  This is really a personal preference.  Some people cram their bags to their physical limits, while others prefer to hear the shaking of loose items in their bags.  I’m not going to get into that debate.  If you don’t mind creating dead space in your luggage, then use of real wrapping materials solves the problem – end of story.  But for those of us who like our bags filled to the brim, that’s simply not an efficient way to fly.  In that case, the smart alternative is wrapping your frags in (1) their original packaging, if you still have it, and (2) your clothes.  Make sure that there is absolutely no glass-glass contact, nor the possibility of sliding, shifting, or any other way that glass-glass contact could occur.  Still, even if you make a mistake, clothing has the added advantage of being able to contain a disaster, should one occur.  I’ve shipped a minor wardrobe of full bottles, wrapped in clothing, in my hard-sided luggage, with no damage whatsoever.  The same could not be said for the luggage itself, which arrived with some rather awe-inspiring scuffs, dents, and burns.

Still, the idea of sending some vintage frag in a crystal bottle on an amusement ride is probably not amusing to many of my fellow perfumaniacs.  It is true that you will probably get adequate reimbursement for most frags, since the baggage replacement limit has been raised from its former, shockingly paltry value of $500, to a more reasonable $3000.  Nevertheless, your limited edition Creed simply should not be shipped in checked luggage, in my opinion.  When the only people who would properly appreciate your fragrance are you, a fellow Basenotes member, a fence, and maybe a thief, you are better off taking it with you as carry-on.

And I haven’t even mentioned delayed luggage.  Did I mention that my wife’s checked luggage was delayed for over a day?  Far worse than having no clothes, other than what she was wearing and a swimsuit (yee-hah!), she was completely without her frags.  She had to make do with loaners from my unisex scents.  She really, really wished that she had put them in carry-on, as I had.  When the lost luggage finally arrives, it’s easy to forget how scared and angry you felt when you thought it was lost for good.

Carry-On Baggage

Which brings us to carry-on luggage.  Although you probably don’t have to wrap your fragrances as thoroughly as you would for checked luggage, you must still watch out for things like glass-glass contact, crushing bends and folds, external impacts, etc.  Remember that carry-on bags can receive brief and brutal treatment by those good stewards and stewardesses who need to get the overhead bins closed promptly, and who will gladly contain your spilled frag after you reach cruising altitude.

But that’s not the real danger of carrying your frags onboard.  As in other parts of life, it is generally not isolated individuals who we need to fear – it is large, impersonal groups of them.  E.g., terrorist organizations and governments.  Now, personally, I’m happy to subject myself to security checks in the interest of preventing misanthropic religious fanatics from hurling both my frags and the children in the seats in front of me into a skyscraper.  Indeed, I blame said fanatics entirely for this mess.  But bear in mind that this is now serious business, and that throwing a hissy fit about TSA regulations in the airport will result in you getting a trip to stinky places.

So let’s look at the rules.  If you are going to carry frags onboard, you are limited to a single, 1-quart, zip-lock, clear plastic bag of them.  That is all.  The idea is that you can pull the zip-lock bag out and set it in a bin on the conveyor belt, along with your shoes.  And we need to talk about the containers that go into the bag, too.  Each container can only be 100 mL (3.4 fluid oz) maximum.  Which is, not accidentally, the usual large-sized fine fragrance.  So if you plan to bring seven large frags in their original containers, you are likely S.O.L. already.  You are probably looking at a maximum of four large frags, and more likely two or three.

What, you say?  Surely a zip-lock bag holds more than that!  Well, if you think so, then you’re probably thinking of the much larger 1-gallon size, not the 1-quart size.  The 1-quart size holds a Japanese sandwich, meaning two slices of Wonder Bread with the crust shaved off.  In my case, I was able to get a 50-mL Terre d’Hermès, a 50-mL Bulgari Aqua Pour Homme, a Bulgari Black mini, a small box(1’x2”x3”) of 2-mL samples with some padding inside, and 4 10- and 15-mL atomizers of assorted scents, without undue crowding.  Plus padding.  Tokyo by Kenzo – the big, honkin’ 100 mL (3.4 oz) size – had to ride stowaway in checked luggage.

Here are two photos of the real McCoy.  The first bag is what I actually brought in carry-on.  Note that I only have two real bottles of fragrances.  The rest are samples, minis, and atomizers, as described above.


The second bag is a demonstration of the even worse situation for big bottles.  In this case, a 4-oz Creed Original Santal (illegal!), a 100-mL Tokyo by Kenzo (barely legal), a 15 mL mini of Banana Republic Black Walnut, plus a few samples.


But here is the truly, and even worse, bad news.  Just because you follow the rules, doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get specially searched.  If you bring enough frags to fill your 1-quart bag, there is an excellent chance that your frags will get pulled off of the conveyor belt for a special search.  On my outbound trip, loaded exactly as in the first picture above, I got special-searched.  On the way back, when I packed only my small box of 2-mL samples in carry-on, I was still very nearly searched – meaning they did a very long take at my bag in the scanner.  And the reason, I was told on the outbound trip, was specifically that I had a lot of cologne.  Fortunately, honest answers will get you through the interrogation quickly.  I won’t go into what it was that I said or did, exactly, that ended the interview, because I refuse to enable jihadists.  Suffice it to say that the true Basenoter or perfumaniac has nothing to fear.


What did I learn from my trip?  In no particular order:

  • Samples and minis are damn useful when you travel.
  • Aftermarket atomizers are damn useful, too.
  • Full-sized frags are nice in the hotel, but a pain in the butt to move around on airplanes.
  • One quart is a lot of samples, but not a lot of full-sized, or even mid-sized frags.
  • Just because the government says you can bring it, doesn’t mean you won’t get “special attention”.
  • Luggage gets lost.  Plan on it.

And last but not least, this important point.  It is truly terrible to be away from your wardrobe.  In fact, it is so horrible, that you may very well be forced, almost certainly against your will, to buy more fragrances on your trip.  Lord, help us.  To make a good selection.

Appendix:    More information about rules for liquids in luggage

I won’t guarantee anything.  Even the TSA doesn’t guarantee anything.  Luggage rules can change at a moment’s notice, as people discovered on the day that liquids were first banned.  But what I can do is to cut through the confusion – a little bit – at the moment that I’m writing this.  Still, you must be prepared to deal with TSA staff who are not scientists, lawyers, or hydraulic engineers.  Some of the horror stories on the internet from wrongly screened passengers read like bad jokes.  Example:  total cosmetic limit of 3 ounces – enforced.  Everything else in the trash.  Example:  every single item taken out of the plastic bag and placed in a separate bin for scanning.  Etc.  One of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen is this one.  Be prepared to say “I want to speak to the supervisor”.  But be kind about it – everybody has a first day on the job.

The most important point is this.  The real limit is 3.4 ounces per bottle, even though TSA always says “3 oz”.  TSA didn’t think Americans could handle the internationally agreed limit of “100 mL”, for whatever reason, and they also decided to round off – possibly so their little “3-1-1” thing would work.  But in any case, if you look at TSA’s international brochures for the 3-1-1 program, you’ll see that they equate 3 ounces with 100 mL.  TSA employees (off the record, on various forums) also swear that it’s 3.4 ounces, which is almost exactly 100 mL.  So stick to your guns on your 3.4 oz Amouage, but know that you can’t win on your 4 oz Creed, so don’t even try packing it.  And yes, there are reports on the internet of people getting by with 3.5 or 3.6 ounces, but don’t count on it.  The same human error that lets 3.5 ounces go by, may demand that you dump 3.2 ounces, and while you will win if you take 3.2 ounces to the supervisor, you will lose on 3.5.  And don’t even think that any “used” portion will be prorated for your benefit.  It won’t, if they follow the rules.  Your near-empty 4-ounce Creed will get tossed, but 3.4 ounces of unused Paris Hilton Can-Can will sail on by.  Ah, there’s no justice.

Now a smart-ass is likely to say something like “what if you put the 15 mL of Creed into an atomizer?”  My advice on that score would be “good idea, but at your own risk”.  You see, original containers just seem to pass security checks more easily, and there are still stories of non-original containers getting zapped.  A nice Sephora purse atomizer may get a pass, but it may not.  My atomizers went by.  Yours may not.  I will not guarantee cologne out of its original container.  My guess is that it will usually fly, but if it’s close to 100 mL, or you’re far from your home country, where you don’t want to make a big stink, you could be in trouble.  Off the record, TSA personnel say that you can use your own, non-original containers, but that new or confused agents may think you can’t.  Be prepared to take the issue to the supervisor if need be.

So, there you have it.  I’ll just add one final disclaimer.  This is only what I discovered.  Your miles may vary.

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