Going on a golf trip only to be the last empty-handed soul at the baggage claim with no sign of your sticks is a horrible feeling. And not all airlines are created equal when it comes to avoiding these nightmare scenarios.
The U.S. Department of Transportation just released their latest air travel report, which includes their full 2019 data on such travel nuisances as mishandled baggage, delays and oversold flights. If you are a frequent flyer, these reports are absolutely worth geeking out on and may dispel some preconceived notions you had about certain carriers.
We golfers want to know which airlines will take the best (and worst) care of our own precious cargo.
First, let's applaud the (surprising!) winners. The best major U.S. carrier is Allegiant Air with just 1.75 bags mishandled per 1000. That is pretty impressive and leads the pack by a solid margin. They fly to plenty of big-time golf destinations like Myrtle Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, Honolulu and San Diego. In second is another low-cost carrier: Frontier, at 4.20/1000.
In terms of the major U.S. carriers, Southwest is hands-down the best. They handle the most checked bags (no surprise since the first two remain free) and keep their rate very close to the regional discount carriers that handle far fewer annually.
The worst airline for handling checked luggage
In 2019, it was American Airlines. They were second to Southwest in total bags enplaned (119,659,117) and mishandled just over 1 million bags for a rate of 8.48/1000.
Only the small Envoy Air had a worse rate than American at 9.53/1000, and they are a large regional carrier for American. Not too far in front of them was United Airlines with a disappointing 6.80/1000 rate.
According to a Fox Business article, American Airlines partially blames their unions for their poor 2019 performance. They also cite the grounding of the new Boeing 737 Max as hurdles to better bag delivery.
It is surprising the budget airlines like Frontier and Allegiant are in many ways performing better than the big carriers. And - color me shocked - Spirit Airlines performs pretty admirably with a mishandling rate just behind Delta.
As reward programs have consolidated and grown more diluted, I'm more loyal to direct flights than any single airline. But I fly a lot of Southwest because not only do they offer the most direct flights out of my home airport, you can check two bags free and they are great with families. I also appreciate that they offer fewer fare classes; I've had a hard time deciphering what basic economy-type fare classes get you depending on the airline, especially since they are prone to change.
As for the other major carriers, I have enjoyed recent app innovations from Delta, whose mobile app will send you push notifications about the status of your checked bags. I've had some tight connections, and the alert to my phone that my clubs in fact made it onto the plane is a fabulous feeling.
Is the mobile app feature worth the $30 they and most other carriers charge these days to check your first bag? It's still tough to stomach that fee. That's why Southwest is still the golfer's airline unless you have a credit card that gets you a free checked bag, or you are a larger human than I and prefer a premium economy seat.
So, how can you put the baggage odds in your favor? The obvious start is to fly direct as often as possible. Also, pay attention to the type and size of aircraft you'll be flying. When flying smaller, regional aircraft, if the plane is too heavy, large suitcases and golf clubs are usually the first thing to be offloaded. This is well known at golf resorts near small airports like Bandon Dunes, who handle a staggering number of shipped clubs every day.
One other curious nugget in the data is that codeshare partners in some cases have higher rates of mishandled bags. It's most notable with Hawaiian Airlines, whose codeshare partners have the highest rate (10.16/1000) of any airline listed.
Alternatives to flying with your golf clubs: Shipping or renting
I typically only fly with my clubs if I know there will be two or more 18-hole rounds on my trip. Otherwise it's too much of a hassle.
One alternative to shipping is club rental. But the price and quality of the rentals at the golf course or resort can vary greatly. They could be brand new and included in the green fee or sketchy and $100. Another option is third-party ClubHub, which has straightforward pricing of $69 for the first round, $20 per day after, shipping included. You can also select exactly what model you want, and they may even have the exact same set you have at home. Or if you're in the market for new clubs, you can use it to start the auditioning process. We've partnered with ClubHub to offer our readers an exclusive %15 off your next rental. Just use Golf-15 at checkout.
I've shipped my clubs ahead of times a few times over the years with ShipSticks - in particular when I squeezed golf into a family vacation where I had no free hands in transit - and have had good results. Shipsticks and Luggage Forward will generate quotes for you. They use bulk bargaining tactics with companies like UPS and FedEx, so your quote from them should be lower than going to the shippers direct. Ground domestic shipping usually starts around $39 each way, so it's pricier than flying with them, but consider it a premium service.