Beer Suitcase Best Practices
December 31, 2013 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Other than the 50 lb weight limit for checked luggage, what should I consider when attempting to take back as many exotic midwestern delights (aka 12 oz bottles or pint cans of beer) as possible to the west coast? It would go in a roller suitcase with my clothes as padding.
posted by mandymanwasregistered to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of feedback on this located on the Beer Advocate site.
posted by HuronBob at 6:52 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was traveling to Germany for work every few months for awhile, and I would just wrap each bottle in a piece of dirty laundry like an undershirt and made sure they were packed tightly enough that they couldn't jostle around. I don't think you need to be much more careful than that.

One trick I learned from a coworker (and maybe this doesn't apply to you if you're already traveling) - before you leave home, pack a lightweight duffel bag in your suitcase. You can then fill the suitcase with beer/tchotchkes/whatever and the duffel becomes the overflow for your clothes that no longer fit in the suitcase.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:58 AM on December 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have done this just as backseatpilot said, with the added barrier of putting each bottle in a ziploc bag with some tape around it. This was unnecessary, as they never broke, but it made me feel better. If the TSA goes through your bag they may not pack everything back as well. I once checked a jar of delicious relish in the middle of my bag but when TSA rifled through they packed it back in the corner of the suitcase, the jar shattered, and my clothes smelled amazing(ly like relish) for the entire trip. The added plastic bag would have mitigated that a bit.
posted by troika at 7:11 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are traveling with cans, and your luggage is delayed on the tarmac or on a plane for a long time, your cans could freeze and explode/leak. Here's someone who froze some beer in cans and bottles in a freezer to see what would happen:

This isn't likely to be a problem most of the year, but if you're traveling in below-freezing weather like most of the midwest is today and could face a delay, or your luggage sits on the tarmac for a long time... you take your chances.
posted by juniperesque at 7:20 AM on December 31, 2013

Best Paranoid practices would be to wrap the top of each bottle in either vinyl tape, or for extreme paranoia self fusing silicon tape. You would then place the bottles into a sealed bag or other container to prevent any liquid from escaping.

Re: Freezing. A good rule of thumb is that freezing temperature for a beer is 32F - the ABV of the beer.
posted by nulledge at 7:33 AM on December 31, 2013

My experience is that the TSA person rifling through your luggage could not care less about repacking your stuff, and you should assume that the most fragile things will wind up on the outside edge, getting smacked on the pavement with every move. (I packed a laptop wrapped in a winter coat the other day before I fully grokked this. I grok it now.)

I wouldn't pack anything in checked luggage that couldn't survive if it were un-padded, because it will be.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:42 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

The rule for packing chemicals are typically: Impermeable seal around the primary container (a plastic bag), enough absorbent to soak the liquid should the inner seal break (kitty litter of fabric sorbents) inside a secondary container (a metal can or a plastic-lined cardboard box). That's the gold-plated commercial standard for packing small bottles of hazardous liquids. The airlines won't have a problem if the bottle breaks but doesn't leak containment---they will be mad at you if your bag is dripping alcohol on other peoples' bags.

What I do for beer or wine, is what most here have suggested: heavy freezer ziploc, wrapped in old t-shirts, packed in the center of my bag. Pack each separately (it's own bag), so they can't bang against each other. I've never had a bottle break this way. No problems with temperature damage either.
posted by bonehead at 7:45 AM on December 31, 2013

My strategy is to avoid baggage charges from airline as well as sloppy TSA re-packing by sending stuff home via USPS bulk rate priority mail. They supply the box, the price is very reasonable, and the only issues are:

1. It's technically against the rules to send beer, so you need to be discrete, and

2. Freezing could still be a problem when it's super cold out.

Lots of bubble wrap - for each bottle, plus filler.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:55 AM on December 31, 2013

I don't think there's a way to 100% guarantee that they will make it through OK. Several things could go wrong, as others have mentioned: they could be poorly repacked after a TSA inspection, they could freeze, you could have a bottle with a bad seal that pops in the cargo bay, etc. I would put the beers in my carryon, except of course that TSA won't let you bring liquids in your carryon in case you try to use them to explode the plane.

I've had to fly with biological specimens before, which is a bit of a nightmare as there are oh-so-many things that can go wrong if the TSA don't do their jobs properly (as they so often don't). Here's what I would do in your case:

I would skip the roller bag and invest in a rolling cooler that's big enough to store all the beer you want to bring back. I would then wrap the bottles in bubble wrap, taping the necks of the bottles closed in case you have one with a bad seal that wants to pop at lower pressure, and stack them up in there until it was full or I was at the 50lb limit. (Weigh your bag! You don't want to have to do the ol' check-in luggage shuffle, not with this cargo.) I would tape layers of bubble wrap around the insides of the cooler and the underside of the lid to give some additional cushioning. As an alternative to bubble wrap, you could use simple corrugated cardboard dividers like you find in a box of wine or liquor, which you could probably get free from the back of a liquor store.

Put some absorbent material in there (like some clothing or towels that you don't care about) so that if something does break it doesn't pool in the cooler and spill out. Bungee cord the cooler shut so that it can't come open during flight. (You could also use tape, but the TSA will probably see that as suspicious and cut through it. They might re-tape it afterward but they probably won't do a good job.) If I were very concerned about freezing, I would put a hot water bottle in there to help keep the temperature up. I would put a packing slip inside the cooler, at the top, explaining the contents.

This will provide lots of impact protection, insulation from freezing temperatures, and will provide the TSA with only one way to repack the cooler so that they can't do anything really stupid. Plus, you'll get a cooler out of it at the end of the day and a cooler is always useful.

That's what I would do. Now, if you're set on using a regular suitcase, here's the alternative game plan:

Wrap the bottles and cans in clear bubble wrap as above, with clear packing tape. That way the TSA, if they inspect them, will probably just look through the bubble wrap, see that it's a beer, and then haphazardly shove them back in the bag any old way without bothering to remove the bubble wrap. At least that way they'll still be protected.

You could also try to work up some kind of padded liner for the suitcase, so that if they end up on an outside edge they'll still have some protection -- think styrofoam panels, which will also provide a bit of insulation to help prevent the bottles from freezing. A hot water bottle is still an option.

Put the bottles in ziplock bags as well, so that if they do break the spillage will be contained. (This is not necessary with the cooler option.) Make sure the bags have plenty of extra space, since if the bottles break you are going to get tons of foam. Maybe even seal the tops of the bags with tape. Put some absorbent material in there again, just in case -- definitely don't pack them with anything that you aren't OK with possibly getting beer all over, though. Again, put a packing slip inside which clearly explains the contents and politely asks the TSA to use care in repacking if they have to inspect the bag.

That's how I would do it. I think a cooler is definitely the way to go, but if you don't feel like buying a cooler or if it would be logistically unfeasible (extra bag, whatever) then I think you can still do it in a suitcase. I would advise against using your clothes as padding though, because a) they could be ruined if a bottle breaks and b) there isn't a way to pack them that won't encourage the TSA to rearrange your packing job in an inappropriate way.

Oh, and your packing slip should have an inventory of exactly what beers are in the bag, in what kind of containers, and in what quantities. It should be signed and dated. You should keep a copy of this yourself, also signed and dated. You should also photograph your packing job. That way if there is significant damage or anything mysteriously goes missing, you will have documentation that will help you in pursuing a claim against the TSA. I've had things stolen and damaged by the TSA before, but I've always been able to get compensation for it after filing a claim. Having documentation will really help you there if you have to do that.
posted by Scientist at 10:44 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I bring back wine from pretty much everywhere I go if it's a wine region and I have a special case I use for the purpose.

If you really want to do this right you want either a hard side case with foam inserts cut for the bottles/cans or you want a styro shipper box. Either is far superior to a suitcase/clothes for padding. The TSA are really, really not your friend when it comes to things in your bags and as others have noted they have a bad habit of just shoving things back in - and having liquid in your bag is a pretty good invitation to rummage through your bag.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:47 PM on December 31, 2013

Just keep in mind how heavy your suitcase will actually be, in practical terms.

I once made the mistake of giving my three brothers craft beer for Christmas, which I carried in my luggage rather than signing them up for some kind of subscription. Oy. So heavy. Granted I don't use a wheeled suitcase, but even so, you may want to put 50 pounds of stuff in there and schlep around with it to make sure you're really comfortable with such a heavy suitcase. Can you lift it into the trunk of your car, for example?

(FWIW none of the 750 ml craft beer bottles broke, and I've packed wine similarly on trips back from Europe and not had any breakage. But oy, the weight.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:52 PM on December 31, 2013

My spouse and I have carried many glass bottles of beer between Europe, the US, and the Caribbean. If we have a lot of bottles, we wrap each one in a few layers of bubble wrap, and then wrap them in clothes. If we don't have all that many bottles, we rely on clothes. The key, I believe, has been our hard-shell suitcases. Much better than soft-sided, and not necessarily much heavier.
posted by neushoorn at 3:09 PM on December 31, 2013

My fiance and I do this regularly since he loves craft beer and I love traveling. We've tried many different methods. What has worked without any failure is wrapping bottles in clothes. Duffle bags and rollies with beer wrapped in clothes have survived up to two layovers/plane transfers.

The only method that was a total failure was putting bottles in a cardboard 6-pack holder and wrapping that package in bubble wrap. Individual wrappers for beer bottles is the way to go, for sure.
posted by thewestinggame at 5:03 PM on December 31, 2013

Oh! I meant to add that if you go with the shipping separately route the old wives' tale is to ship "yeast samples."
posted by thewestinggame at 11:34 AM on January 1, 2014

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