• JetBlue Airways

  • AirTran Airways

  • Southwest Airlines

  • Frontier Airlines

  • Virgin America

You may be headed to the best biking trails, ski runs, surf breaks or golf courses in the world, but if your trip starts off with a gauntlet of extra fees and restrictions at the airport, your vacation buzz will be killed before you even hit the fresh air. It may not sound glamorous, but picking the right airline is a key part of making your trip a good one.

Not all airlines, it turns out, are created equal—especially for active and outdoors sports travelers. Sure, everyone’s bummed if their bag gets lost or a bit beat up in transit. But what about a brand new, $2,000 kayak? Or your custom skis? Or your trusty touring bike? If the very item you planned your whole trip around goes missing, it’s a heckuva lot worse than a business traveler going a day without an extra suit and tie.

Mishandled baggage is probably the biggest concern for active travelers, but it’s worth taking a closer look at other airline policies, too. United Airlines may offer the cheapest fare from A to B, but by the time you pay $125 extra each way to check your bag and bike—and shell out another $15 on sustenance at the airport, since United provides no free snacks en route—it may be a smarter option to pay for the pricier ticket with, say, JetBlue.

And, of course, you'll have to pay careful attention to your particular sport. Most airlines, for example, will allow you to bring a surfboard for a reasonable fee ($50-75), but Qantas allows you to bring one free, as long as it's no longer than nine feet. US Airways, on the other hand, charges $200 each way. The same variations tend to apply to—in order from least restrictive to most—skis and snowboards, fishing poles, bicycles and, finally, canoes and kayaks (several airlines prohibit them altogether).

In our quest to suss out the best airlines for carrying your prized gear, we looked at baggage policies—including fees and prohibited items—mishandled baggage rates and, of course, destination offerings. It's great to have great baggage policies and no fees, but if it means you can't get where you're going, then you're out of luck. We also perused forums where disgruntled passengers report their busted gear, where we discovered horror stories of ruined $700 skis and $3,000 carbon bike frames somehow snapped like twigs, and even found people who'd gone so far as to start Facebook protest pages. Delta, United and US Airways were the most common culprits, but that's partially a product of the millions of customers they serve. Either way, we dug deep to help guide you.

Here, we take a look at airline policies with outdoors sports and adventure traveler in mind. Study it. It could save you cash—and your gear—on your next big travel adventure.

  • 1. JetBlue Airways

    JetBlue Airways

    Good news for gear-hounds: If you fly JetBlue, your first checked bag is free. That means you can take along all those bulky hiking boots, ski helmets and photography gadgets without trying to stuff it all into a carry-on. You’ll also get some tasty free eats onboard. Its limited destination list, though—JetBlue’s routes are concentrated primarily in the eastern U.S. and Caribbean—makes it less appealing for West Coasters.

    The verdict: Bad for paddlers and West Coasters—great for everyone else.

    THE FINE PRINT
    Carry-On: One free bag, includes fishing poles and parachutes
    Check: One free bag, includes SCUBA equipment, skis, snowboards, golf clubs, fishing poles; extra fees apply for bicycles under 100 pounds ($50); surf, kitesurfing, and windsurfing boards under 100 pounds ($50)
    Prohibited: Canoes, kayaks and SCUBA tanks
    Fees Range: $0-50
    Mishandled Baggage Rate: 1.88 per 1,000 passengers
    Destinations: 81 in the U.S., Caribbean and Latin America

  • 2. AirTran Airways

    AirTran Airways

    In 2010, AirTran was bought by Southwest Airlines, but it continues to operate independently—for now. If the well-run, customer-friendly way things are run at Southwest is any indication, the merger will only mean good things for AirTran.

    The verdict: A solid option that’s likely to get better as it streamlines with Southwest.

    THE FINE PRINT
    Carry-On: One free item, including fishing rods that fit in the overhead
    Check: $25 for first and $35 for second item, including boogie boards, camping, golf and SCUBA equipment, skis, snowboards; extra fees apply for bicycles, surfboards, windsurfing boards and kayaks ($50)
    Prohibited: Nothing.
    Fees Range: $0-50
    Mishandled Baggage Rate: 1.58 per 1,000 passengers
    Destinations: 97 in the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Jamaica and the Bahamas

  • 3. Southwest Airlines

    Southwest Airlines

    Although it doesn't have quite the soft touch of JetBlue or AirTran (see 3.08 mishandled bags per 1,000 pasengers), Southwest scores big for its diversity of destinations combined with a generous baggage policy. And while its snack options aren’t quite as exciting as those on rival low-cost carrier JetBlue—generic chips and the like—but kudos to them for at least providing some free eats so you'll be fueled up when you arrive.

    The verdict: Generous baggage policies + huge list of adventure-friendly destinations = quality pick.

    THE FINE PRINT
    Carry-On: One free bag
    Check: One free bag, includes fishing rods, golf bags, kiteboards and skis; extra fees apply for kayaks, surfboards, windsurfing boards and bicycles ($75)
    Prohibited: Nothing.
    Fees Range: $0-75
    Mishandled Baggage Rate: 3.08 per 1,000 passengers
    Destinations: 97 places in the U.S., Puerto Rico and six nearby countries

  • 4. Frontier Airlines

    Frontier Airlines

    This Denver-based budget carrier has a limited destination list, but the baggage policies are decidedly generous. However, we’re a bit scared away by the number of scathing online traveler reviews.

    The verdict: Convenient for Rocky Mountain-based travelers, with good baggage policies—but don’t expect friendly service.

    THE FINE PRINT
    Carry-On: One free item, including boogie and wake boards, fishing equipment, parachutes, ski or snowboard boots and SCUBA gear, so long as they fit in the overhead
    Check: $20 each for your first and second checked item, including bicycles, camping, golf, hang-gliding equipment, kayaks, canoes, skis, snowboards, surfboards, wave skis, kite boards and windsurfing boards; extra fees apply for items bigger than 62 linear inches ($75) or heavier than 50 pounds ($75)
    Prohibited: Items heavier than 99.9 pounds or bigger than 109 linear inches
    Fees Range: $0-$75
    Mishandled Baggage Rate: 1.88 per 1,000 passengers
    Destinations: 80-plus destinations in the United States, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico

  • 5. Virgin America

    Virgin America

    According to the 2013 Airline Quality Rating report, Virgin America is the highest-quality major airline in the U.S., ranked according to punctual arrivals and departures, baggage handling and customer service. Not too shabby for an airline that’s only been in operation since 2007. Then again, it is owned by brainy billionaire Sir Richard Branson. For now, Virgin America’s flight routes are limited to major U.S. cities, but they partner frequently with Virgin Atlantic for other destinations, so you can book one ticket for many destinations on their site. As an added—and might we say, very Branson-esque—bonus, if you’re flying out of Los Angeles’s LAX, Washington-Dulles, New York City’s JFK, or San Francisco International, you can while away your layover in a swanky, exclusive Virgin America Lounge—cocktails, first-class-style food, and WiFi (from $40 for a day pass).

    The verdict: If you’re sticking within the major U.S. cities, Virgin’s stellar customer-service rep and generous baggage policies make it the clear go-to. Too bad they don’t fly many places—yet.

    THE FINE PRINT
    Carry-On: One free bag
    Check: Up to 10 bags for $25 each, includes skis, snowboards, and fishing, SCUBA and golf equipment; extra fees apply for bicycles, surfboards and windsurfing boards ($50 each)
    Prohibited: Kayaks and canoes
    Fees Range: $0-50
    Mishandled Baggage Rate: 0.87 per 1,000 passengers—well below the industry average of 3.07 (ouch!)
    Destinations: 20 in the U.S. and three in Mexico

    See more gear-friendly airlines at The Active Times

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