Oenophiles can transport wine worry-free with these airport tips.
If you are a wine lover returning home after a two-week trip around Tuscany or a several-day sojourn in Sonoma, you probably need to know how to pack wine in a suitcase. But flying with wine bottles can be tricky. Between baggage handlers carelessly tossing your baggage in the plane’s cargo hold and then throwing them down the conveyor belt en route to baggage claim, there are lots of chances for bottles to shatter—leaving you with nothing more than shards of glass, stained clothing, and a sticky suitcase.
With the right packing strategies and equipment, you won’t have to worry about your precious Brunello di Montalcino or Russian River Valley pinot noir breaking mid-flight. These tips will help you tote your liquid souvenirs from the tasting room to your dining room intact.
Considering the Wine You Bring Home
Whether you were visiting a stellar wine region or just a cool city where you’ve stumbled across the most amazing little wine shop, you’ll want to be strategic about not only how to pack wine in a suitcase but what wines you pack in a suitcase. Pass over anything mass-produced or widely available at your local neighborhood wine stop. Instead, seek out bottles you like that are harder to find, including those that aren’t exported, as well as ones that can only be purchased at tasting rooms. (Some smaller or boutique wineries only sell their wines on-site.) For example, if you are a cabernet sauvignon fan and a winery you visit makes two cabs that are exported and one that’s in limited production, buy the latter—assuming that you like it, of course. The same goes for snagging a particular vintage of a wine that’s hard to come by or an expression using an interesting blend or a less-familiar grape variety that’s funky, fun, and unexpected.
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If you aren’t sure which (if any) of a winery’s bottles are available in the U.S., ask the tasting room attendant. If you are a bubbly fan who’s traveled to the Champagne region, look for less common grower Champagnes, which are made with estate-grown grapes. If you are in Portugal, you may want to shop for a vintage bottle of Port from a friend or family member’s birth or anniversary year. But remember, a worthwhile wine to bring home doesn’t necessarily need to be spendy, just special or memorable to you in some way.
Airport and Airline Restrictions for Traveling With Wine
Whether you are traveling domestically or back to the United States from a foreign country, you need to understand Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules for transporting alcohol before you think about stocking your wine shelf at home with that Rioja Reserva or white Burgundy. Long gone are the days when you could bring a six-pack cardboard carrier of wine on board. Remember that current regulations limit liquids larger than 3.4 ounces, and all of them must fit in a quart-sized sealed bag, which disqualifies even single-serving size bottles of wine. The only option is to pack wine in checked luggage.
Travelers traveling to, from, and within the U.S. can’t transport bottles with more than 70% alcohol and can only take five liters of alcohol between 24 and 70%. One advantage: alcohol less than 24 percent is not subject to any restrictions in checked bags. Since all wine—even strong fortified styles like Port and Madeira—is less than 24 percent alcohol, your only limitation is the number of bags you are able to check and their size and strength.
If you didn’t purchase any bottles at wineries or wine shops in town, or you just want to bring home more, you have one last chance to buy if the airport has a duty-free shop after the security checkpoint. There, each traveler is allowed to purchase up to one liter of alcohol duty-free; those coming from the U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean countries are entitled to more. While you are permitted to purchase additional quantities of wine duty-free, you may need to pay duty and Federal Excise taxes on them. This will be determined and paid for at your first port of entry in the United States. Generally, duty-free purchases will be collected as you board the airplane and retrieved as you deboard, and they must remain sealed in their bags for the remainder of the trip. Don’t forget that any branded corkscrews you picked up as mementos also need to be in your checked bag, or they will be confiscated at security.
The Best Suitcases for Traveling With Wine
Specialty luggage is a great solution for how to pack wine in a suitcase. Any high-quality luggage will keep your wine safe and secure, but some do a better job than others—especially those that are hard-sided. The Sympatico Large Expandable Spinner from Briggs & Riley, a hard-sided, 360-wheeled suitcase made from matte, scuff-resistant, durable Makrolon polycarbonate, provides ample space for wine in your checked luggage. The brand’s CX system expands to provide 25% more space to accommodate more bottles, then compresses to its original size, while adjustable compression panels will prevent wine from shifting around.
There are also companies that craft suitcases specifically designed to transport wine on a plane, like FlyWithWine. Among the options in their line is the VinGardeValise Piccolo, a wheeled suitcase that securely holds up to five bottles of wine, with enough room for your clothes and belongings on the other side. Bottles fit snugly inside a foam insert, which is covered by an additional foam layer secured by straps and a zippered liner. What’s more, this suitcase adheres to carry-on guidelines, so you can bring it onboard empty on the way to your destination, then check it on the way home when it’s filled with all your white, red, and rosé favorites.
If you often travel with wine, you might want to invest in The Wine Check, a nylon padded case that fits over the top of a 12-bottle case of wine, zips shut, and can be wheeled or carried by its handy strap. Even with a full case, it meets the airline’s checked-bag weight limit.
Preventing Wine Bottles From Shattering in Transit
— If you don’t want to or can’t afford to buy specialty wine luggage, the best free way to pack wine in a suitcase is to make sure that glass bottles are well-protected and that they don’t move around too much. Clothing serves as great padding for packing wine in checked luggage. One strategy is to place the bottle inside a knee sock, wrap the neck with another piece of clothing (a scarf works well) until it’s as wide as the rest of the bottle, and then use t-shirts and other lightweight clothing to wrap the entire bottle.
Another method is to place a bottle horizontally inside the bottom of a t-shirt, roll it up, and then wrap the bottle inside a sweater or jacket. Bubble wrap (usually purchased cheaply at a local mail store or post office) can also be used in place of or with clothing for extra protection against breakage. Placing bottles inside jumbo-sized zippered plastic bags also provides added security. However, if you decide to pack wine in suitcases, remember to place bottles in the middle of a full piece of luggage and use elastic straps or compression panels, if provided, to minimize shifting and vibrations during transport. Remember that wine bottles, especially those that are wrapped in clothing or bubble wrap, can add significant bulk and weight to your luggage, so you might need to remove shoes, sweaters, or jackets and either wear them or carry them onboard for the return trip.
How to Make Packing Wine Easier
If you are worried that using clothing, bubble wrap, or plastic bags just won’t cut it to protect the bottles you purchased—especially if they are expensive, rare, or only available at the winery—there are specially-designed products on the market for packing wine in checked luggage. Place a bottle of wine inside a VinniBag and manually inflate it like a pool float–your bottle is secured by a cushion of air.
Less expensive are reusable bottle sleeves from JIMEI, which cost around $14 for a dozen and can be inflated in three seconds using the included pump. WineSkin bags are shaped like a bottle, with a bubble wrap-like interior and a leak-proof seal, and cost about $16 for a pack of three.
Some airlines also offer assistance for flying with wine bottles. Alaskan Airlines allows its Mileage Plan passengers departing from Washington, Oregon, California, or Idaho to transport a case of wine for free, while Southwest Airlines has wine packaging for purchase for $5 at ticket counters.
Unpacking Your Wine Bottle(s)
Once you arrive back home with your wine intact, you might be in the mood to uncork a bottle while you reminisce. After all, posting some photos to social media and longingly wishing you were back strolling amid the vines is more fun than unpacking and doing laundry. But it’s best to be patient. When wines are transported long distances—especially if there has been a fair amount of jostling and movement involved—they sometimes suffer from what’s called “bottle shock” or “bottle sickness.” This is a temporary condition that can dull a wine’s aromas and flavors, making it seem closed or neutral. The best remedy? Time. Rather than immediately tearing into one of your treasures, transfer your vino from your luggage to your wine fridge, rack, or cellar, and wait a week or so for it to settle.
One last thing when bringing wine back with you: Be prepared to experience what’s half-jokingly referred to as the “Provence rosé effect.” That bottle of pink-tinged, strawberry-scented wine you purchased at that adorable winery in the Luberon may not taste quite as delicious enjoyed in your kitchen on takeout Tuesday as it did in France at a table overlooking the lavender fields in bloom. However, now that you’ve returned with a little taste of your delicious time spent in a wine region, it’s time to swirl, sniff, sip, and create new memories.