Editor: xcskiworld has developed this resource of airline policies with regards to the specific needs of XC skiers traveling with ski gear. International readers are asked to note that the information presented is specific to North American based airlines and may or may not translate to international carriers. All readers with recent experiences or information on this subject to contact our offices so that we can continue to keep the XC community up-to-date with info on the subject.
Very General Tips
Remember that airline security rules are firm when it comes to flammable wax supplies -- most notably wax cleaners, spray klisters, and some spray fluoros. It is exceptionally wise to study the containers if in doubt and simply plan to buy supplies at your destination when you know something like a wax cleaner is going to cause problems.
Nearly everyone we've talked to in the airline industry advises contacting specific carriers before you travel to make sure of baggage limits and requirements. Unfortunately, since so many airlines officially state one thing and practice another "in the field", the best advice is to actually contact the airline counter of your departure city and find out what their policy is on the ground. This might not mean you'll get the same treatment when you return from your destination, but it's a better bet than talking to a faceless customer service rep reading from a computer screen.
Seasoned XC travelers will tell you that the very best way to avoid hassles and fees is to pack only what you need on ski trips. An Olympian might "need" a whole carload of skis but even for major citizen races, most skiers will do fine with a max of 1-2 pairs of skate and/or 1-2 pairs classic. If you are on a holiday trip, just take one pair of each and plan on adjusting techniques to fit the conditions. Same goes for waxing gear (which often can weigh much more than skis). Stick with the essentials and borrow or rent gear on the ground when you can.
In terms of packing, a good tactic for keeping skis not only compact but also safe is to tape all your skis together before slipping them in your bag. To avoid getting tape residue on the skis, wrap first with a piece of cloth. 3-4 pairs of race skis nestled together are not that far away in width from downhill boards. The tape also has an added benefit of preventing slippage which often is the worst culprit in scratches during air travel. Make sure to have a travel coat of wax on your glide zones and do not forget your ski ties! A light coat, jeans or other tough piece of clothing stuffed in the ends of your bag will help prevent damage when the bag is put on one end or the other. Finish things off with clothing wrapped around the sides of the skis and poles to help cushion the bag throughout the trip. Be aware that if you get too carried away with the clothing wrap that it can raise the eyebrows of airline personnel if your bag looks enormous. Compaction straps can help reduce the sheer width which can avoid getting your bag flagged as "too big".
For poles, a good lightweight PVC or cardboard pipe to protect the shafts is usually all you need. Try to get a tube that isn't too big to help with the overall width problem. If you have an actual hardshell ski tube carrier, you skip the need for the poles to have added protection so that saves weight and room.
Good ski bags are worth their weight in gold and well worth the cost if you plan on traveling by air quite a bit. Many of the nicest bags come with wheels on one end which is a huge help especially when you have a long walk thru airports or train stations!
Even better than really good ski bags for some folks (and not all that more expensive) is to opt for one of the hardshell ski cases you can find at some XC retailers. The hardshells come with wheels for easy transport but what really makes them valuable is that many airlines will often only pay up on broken equipment claims if you use a hardshell. You often can't get as much extra stuff like clothes in a hardshell without making packing a huge pain...but they do provide a measure of safety for your gear that almost no soft ski bag (no matter how well packed) can match. Note that it is always a good idea to toss in a small ski bag so that you have something to use for short to/from trips to skiing once at your destination.
Talking with a few airport personnel over the years, the biggest things you can do to make sure your bags are checked without hassle are to be nice to the gate agent and keep the weight of the bag well within limits. If the agent won't pull a back muscle picking up your bag, they are less likely to enforce even the most stringent of official rules.
SPECIFIC POLICIES WITH VARIOUS AIRLINES
Once upon a time, xcskiworld.com maintained a list of all the major U.S. airlines ski-specific baggage policies. However, these days policies are changing literally every few months with added baggage fees and new restrictions. So your best advice is to visit the airlines you are traveling on and print out their policies when you buy your ticket. Actually, in some cases you may want to price in the cost of the bag fees BEFORE you decide on a ticket since some airlines can be so spendy with added fees you are better off buying a slightly more expensive ticket on another airline with better bag policies!
If you have particularly complicated travel with different airlines, it will pay to map out when and where you'll face bag fees before you lock in any itinerary. Whereas the actual airline tickets might be a couple hundred dollars cheaper with one scenario, if you jack up your bag fees versus a more expensive ticket -- you might be better off with the latter option. So always factor in the bags with any air travel these days.
Traditionally, skiers have been allowed one ski bag AND one boot bag to count as just one piece of checked luggage with most airlines. This was in place specifically for alpine skiers -- but it was a huge benefit for XC skiers. We could put several pairs of XC boards in the allowed ski bag and then put both CL and FS boots in the allowed bonus boot bag plus some clothes. Now that policy seems to be on the chopping block with some airlines so take advantage of it when an airline still has the old rules in place. Also note that on some carriers skis are now getting a mandatory extra-extra fee similar to oversize luggage. Again, it will pay for you to shop around to see where you are hit with the highest fees. Weight as well as length are both considerations in the various policies.