How and why I checked a huge cardboard box of food for free on my last flight

Sep 29, 2020

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Here in 2020, there are plenty of things happening in travel — on both macro and micro levels — that would have never happened before a worldwide pandemic rammed right into modern-day life.

This year has brought us deserts full of perfectly fine but grounded planes, empty airports and hotels, major theme parks that have been closed for six months and counting, a dramatically constricted air route network, a long list of travel bans, 95% drop in air travel at the peak, mandatory face masks required when traveling and so much more.

Oh, and for the first time, I checked a massive cardboard box of nonperishable food on our last flight — for free. Here’s how and why 2020 brought me to the point of flying with my own personal pantry.

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Travel has changed

Travel is returning now, but in some different ways than before.

While some are going back to their old travel routines, many travelers (including my family) now prioritize safety when traveling above pampering and some conveniences. As part of that trend, whole-home rentals have taken on an all-new appeal of allowing for more distanced and self-contained travel.

My family has rented several vacation homes since travel changed earlier this year, in part to utilize the kitchen to make meals to prevent venturing out more than we need to.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

BYO food

For a recent weeklong beach home rental, we needed to stock the kitchen.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I ordered extra cereal, pasta, snacks, granola bars and more with our regular grocery orders. We were planning to drive to this particular home rental, so bringing along the goods wasn’t going to be a big deal.

We’d need to supplement those travel-friendly items with fresh food when we arrived, but at least we wouldn’t arrive empty-handed. Then (because this is 2020), a hurricane hit in between our home and our destination in Florida right before we were set to depart. As a result, we decided it would be better for all involved to fly instead of drive through the wake of a major storm.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

But — I wasn’t super excited to start the kitchen stocking process all over again, so we got creative. We decided we were going to stuff a big box full of that food, check it with the airline and bring it with us as part of our free checked luggage allotment.

Related: The best credit cards for a home rental 

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Checking a box of food for free

I didn’t have a piece of luggage easily accessible that was big enough to hold all this food, but I did have a big cardboard box saved from a massive Nordstrom Anniversary Sale order. In the end, that disposable box was actually the better plan since I only needed to move the food one-way and could then toss the box before we came home.

While every airline is a bit different, United allows its elite members, credit cardholders and those in first class to check up to two pieces of luggage for free. It’s not just United — having the right credit card can get you out of paying checked bag fees on most U.S. airlines.

There are size constraints, when flying economy with United, the maximum size for a free checked box is 50 pounds and a total of 62 inches (length + width + height) on the outside.

Lucky for me, the weight of the box wasn’t a problem, but the size came in an inch or two under the total. I measured it several times at home, though at the airport it was only weighed, not measured.

Related: Case for checking bags when flying 

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

I felt like a little bit of slub lugging a big cardboard box to the check-in area of the airport, but no one batted an eye in us checking the box for free to the final destination.

Related: Comparing checked bag fees for major U.S. carriers 

Bottom line

The big ‘ole box of pantry items was safely waiting at the baggage claim at the other end of the journey.

While I probably wouldn’t have outlined things this way had we been planning to fly the whole time, it actually worked out perfectly. We arrived at the home rental around lunchtime pretty hungry, and immediately had ingredients for peanut butter sandwiches and chips at the ready. While we did order more groceries for delivery later that day, local groceries were much pricier than we could get at home, so this was a win/win with just a modest bit of extra work lugging the box into the airport on the front end.

Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy

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