How to Pack Gifts for Holiday Travel

Nov 9, 2019

If you come bearing gifts this holiday season, how bummed will you be to find them broken, smushed or otherwise travel-battered at the bottom of your suitcase?  From the handcrafted terra cotta candelabra you spotted for mom that time you road-tripped to Marfa (when you apparently thought you’d be heading home for the holidays with a steamer trunk?) to the deluxe fragrance sampler you picked up for your sister (love her, but would it kill her to pick a signature scent?) almost any item on your packing list could benefit from a smart strategy or two. 

For some of the best, read on—then pack your bags. We can all but guarantee the goods will survive the journey intact. And though we wish we could say the same for your sanity, we can promise you this: You’ll never (again) be the person who’s unzipping and rejiggering everything in a panic at the front of the check-in line—the travel equivalent of slapping a scarlet A on your inflatable neck pillow.

While you might think you’re saving time by wrapping your gifts before you head to Grandma’s for the holidays, keep in mind that TSA can and will undo all your careful folding and taping if an item gets flagged during screening. And you probably won’t appreciate the agent's less-than-artful re-wrap job. If the artisanal soaps in the adorbs dancing-reindeer paper are in your carry-on, you might at least be allowed to unwrap them yourself (prepare to weather the ire of the exasperated traveler behind you), but we have two words for you: gift bags. No tape, no tearing, no heavy sighs from the peanut gallery.

Wrapped gifts are less likely—less, not un—to trigger security’s gimlet eye if they're in your checked luggage, but experts suggest not putting anything too valuable in an unsupervised suitcase. If the item is stolen, damaged, or lost, there is little recourse. “The moment your suitcase leaves your hands at the airport is the moment you lose control of all that is inside,” says Erica Gragg, co-owner of Escape to Shape, a company that crafts superb wellness vacations that always feature local shopping (along with yoga and healthy eating because, balance). “Between being tossed around, inspected, and piled onto a plane, a lot can happen,” she says. “Eliminate that risk by either having your gifts professionally packed and shipped with a large FRAGILE sticker on the box, or hand carrying the package yourself.”

To save airport hassle altogether, have UPS professionally pack and ship your pièce de résistance. (If you and the gift are traveling internationally, the store will also do all the customs paperwork.) Note: While lots of services tout two-to-three-day delivery, do yourself a favor and ship holiday goodies by mid-December.

If shipping ahead sounds good and all, but, um, busy over here!, then you’re back to hauling your gifts on the plane. So let’s up the odds of intact arrival. For fragile and hollow items that aren’t super pricey (think mugs, vases, and the like) stuff them with soft goods like socks, lingerie, or rolled up t-shirts for extra support , then cushion the exterior in a double layer of bubble wrap (don’t be over-zealous with the tape, see cautionary TSA tales above).

With liquid gifts—say, a stellar Cab from Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyard or dad’s limited edition Johnny Walker Blue Label Year of the Pig—you have no choice but to entrust them to your checked luggage. Purchase bottle-specific protectors from JetBag or WineSkin designed both to cushion and—if your precautions are somehow thwarted by overzealous baggage handlers—reduce the possibility of spillage. For extra security, wrap the bottle in a soft sweatshirt, and make sure the bundle is packed in the middle of your suitcase. Also helpful: surrounding that little “gift nest” with sturdy shoes or other rigid items like your hair-dryer to create a crash-protective barrier.

Meanwhile, two TSA rules to be aware of: Your checked alcohol can’t be over 140 proof (this shouldn’t be a problem unless you’re a moonshiner), and the bottles have to be unopened (this also shouldn't be a problem, unless you’re a remarkably unashamed regifter).

As for another gifting favorite—food—it can get even trickier. If you’re flying internationally, you’ll have to declare any food item that you bring in from abroad. And while those dried lemons seemed an exquisite gift idea when you spotted them at the shuk, Customs will beg to differ. So best read these Customs and Border Protection guidelines before you pack (or better yet, before you spend your shekels in the first place). Once you've decided an item is good to go, carry on or check is the next question. Some things are fine to carry on (family-sized bars of chocolate or tiny bottles of gourmet spices), but anything that has an even plausibly gel-like consistency (think jams, nut butters, or homemade cranberry sauce) must go in checked luggage. Pack these as you would a bottle of wine: sealed in a plastic bag and swaddled in a sweatshirt or two. 

Of course, whether you're carrying on or checking, adding the extra insurance of hard-shelled luggage never hurts, says Gragg, who favors Rimowa and Away. “I always wrap the odd-shaped item in my clothes and place them on top of the first layer of clothing in my case,” she says. “Then strategically fill in the space around it with more clothing.” 

Even if your gift isn’t breakable—who’s the lucky winner of that 12-ply cashmere scarf?—be sure to keep it free from anything that can spill or smear. Put the item in a reusable plastic travel bag (Ziploc makes good ones), and make sure all your toiletries are sealed in their own, spill-proof containers (GoToob silicone bottles, for example) inside a spill-proof pouch. Because you never know.

OK, so you’ve packed that candelabra from Marfa, and all your other tricky-to-transit gifts. Maybe you’ve stashed them in your carry-on—under a layer of bubble wrap—and placed the bag under the seat in front of you to guarantee that in case of “items shifting in flight,” your loot won’t be crushed by the concrete blocks that guy in 17A is apparently hauling home (maybe they’re artisanal?). Or maybe you've placed your gifts in your checked luggage, inside layers of sweatshirts and shoes. Whichever way you've gone, send up a small prayer to the transit gods, then kick back with some pretzels and an in-flight cocktail, secure in your packing prowess. In fact, at this point, you could probably help Santa up his game.  

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