“How do you manage airline travel with fire equipment?” (Staffs, poi, hoops, clubs, torches, wicks of any kind)
I’m asked this question a lot, and in fact there’s many people who have worries about or trouble traveling with equipment.
This is for you, whether you’re a professional or not, to clearly know how to pack and travel with fire toys.
This article covers:
- Do’s and Do Not’s: steps to take to ensure proper prop packing
- People’s personal experiences with trouble traveling with equipment
- What to do if your prop gets confiscated
- What to do if you absolutely must carry-on used fire wicks instead of shipping them through
- Additional resources provided at the end.
There are a number of dangers of traveling with fire props, as airlines do not allow on board anything that has been used to make fire or fireworks of any sort. In addition, many countries will not allow you in if their customs officers believe you are entering to work without a working-type visa.
You might like to know that fire props are not banned as part of any governing body’s rules (TSA or international passenger flight laws), but allowance is at the discretion of the airline company you are flying with and the employee searching you. You are technically allowed to bring them, but airline employees are trained to stop anything they think is suspicious, and are more inclined to do so if you seem rushed or rude.
Important: I always recommend sending used fire props through as checked luggage – carry-on has many more restrictions and gets checked more thoroughly.
The Do’s & Don’ts of Travel with Fire Props
- Keep things looking professional.
- Air-out smelly parts, burn off excess fuel. Let your props burn till they go out themselves gently waving them through the air. Then let them air out, uncovered, for a day or two before wrapping them. If you’re really worried about fuel smell, burn them in isopropyl alcohol – this removes other fuel smells and the alcohol residue will evaporate off.
- Clean your props as best you can. Get rid of soot or burnt-looking parts. I use wet-wipes as mild solvent helps break down excess soot. Alcohol works too.
- Keep burnt looking parts under wraps. This includes any parts (in addition to the wicks) which may have soot on them. Wrap them tightly in plastic/saran-wrap or ziplock bags. Seal with packing tape to reduce smell.
- Label it juggling or sporting equipment, it provides an idea of what it is for to the authorities inspecting the props. Specifics beyond that are almost never needed. Adding contact info helps the professional vibe.
- Ship through props as luggage, not carry-on. For professionalism, put equipment in its own box or bag, or section of your suitcase. For staffs, I use large magazine tubes from FedEx, long architects’ blueprint cases, or golf club or ski/snowboard bags. Home of Poi makes a bag specifically for Fire Fans.
- Be ready to explain that none are objects on the “list of unacceptable items.” They are not flammable, do not contain fuel – they are equivalent to an empty lamp, require an external ignition source, are not used for fireworks, are not sharp, do not contain contents under pressure, etc. Do this in a calm informative tone, as you would to any person that approaches you in other daily scenarios.
- Make sure your props look nice. Props made of questionable materials and shoddy construction may appear to inspectors’ as weapons – and it’s their job not to let that on board. You can use colorful tape over your plastic wrap to make it look fun!
- If questioned, listen carefully and respectfully. Only state what you have if they ask. If they only ask a yes or no question, answer “Yes” or “No.” Avoid indirect words like “maybe” or “kind of.” There’s no need for further explanation unless specifically asked.
- Do not use something blocking X-rays. Metals such as aluminum foil require inspectors to open it to look inside, risking disallowance. I cover my plastic-wrapped wicks with brightly colored NEW socks, latex balloons, or serious circus covers to add to legitimacy of “Juggling equipment.”
- Do not try to get on a plane with fuel beyond one small BIC-style lighter. Most airlines allow a lighter as a carry on but not in checked baggage.
- Do not mention fire, fuel, burning, or anything of the sort when asked.
- Do not bring dirty, smelly or sooty equipment. This can trigger alarms and will prevent it from being allowed.
- Do not bring sharp, jagged, or broken equipment. This can look weapon-like and dangerous.
- Do not mention teaching, volunteering, or paid performances in foreign countries, for then you may get into a customs issue about your visa type.
- Do not look nervous. Remember, you do this professionally, this is all normal.
- Do not try to bring used fire-equipment as carry-on (stuff that’s been on fire, or smells like fuel). Carry-on bags get searched more thoroughly than checked luggage, and have many more restrictions.
- Do not explain what is in your bags unless specifically asked. Do not ask airport staff “Is it alright to bring X.” (It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and likely they won’t even ask what “X” is). Rambling, over-explaining or offering more information than necessary can just dig you into a hole.
The goal is to create the impression these are your practice props, you’re not getting paid for doing what you’re doing where you’re going, but you do it professionally back home. I have had friends get turned down entering certain countries for mentioning “volunteering” and having a ton of non-fire hula-hoops, so personal practice props you’re bringing on vacation is a safer impression to give for international travel.
Experiences of equipment not being allowed:
Drex (Drex Factor Poi) had Short Fire Staffs confiscated flying home from Burning Man. He was running late for his plane and his shipped-through luggage had to be carried by hand to the plane with 2 staffs attached to the outside. The sense of urgency and extra hands-on time lead to them removing his staffs and keeping them grounded in Reno.
Valentina Martin (Unity Hoops, Twisted Orbit) got turned away from the UK and had to end her Europe tour at Customs. She had many hula-hoops with her, and said she was going to volunteer teach at a festival. Apparently the customs agent did not believe she was not getting paid, or volunteering there requires a work-type visa, so she was not allowed into the country (I believe she didn’t even have fire equipment)!
Andrew Campbell Walls: “I’ve had wicks confiscated a few times. wrap them! or risk losing them! I’ve done all sorts, like soaking in dettol to get rid of the smell, anything! carry a means of removing your wick and replacing it just in case… it really does depend on where you are going/coming from.”
Davis Morrisroe: “Recently while flying with Aerlingus out of Dublin my fire clubs in my check in luggage were not allowed to go on the plane so I lost them.
I asked some other players if they had any similar experiences and got this info about flying with fire clubs. This is what I’ll be doing from now on.
I have traveled a lot before with my toys but this time I had 7 clubs including Gora’s fire juggling swords which have very large wicks so you don’t need to do this always but I’m going to because I lost over €300 of toys. …they told me that it’s a level 4 security risk and the airport police may have destroyed them.”
Dave hadn’t done enough of one of the above steps: burn off excess fuel, let wicks air out, clean off soot, and wrap wicks properly. He learned his lesson, he’d love if you’d learn from his experience!
Shawna Ze, “I had to argue with a greyhound [bus] employee in Charlottesville that my fire staff was not capable of spontaneously bursting into flames and catching the bus on fire while its being stored beneath the bus. I almost wasn’t allowed to take it, but a kind young woman nearby who just happened to know about fire props sided with me and reassured the employee.” I don’t recommend “arguing,” but kindly explaining works.
Max Stuart (my own personal experience): Years ago, when I was a novice spinner, I went to the airport to fly with my home-made contact fire staff. Though I had done my best to clean it and cover the wicks, it was too oblong of an object and I did not have it in any sort of case to be able to ship it through. It appeared as a weapon and obviously was a fire prop – they wouldn’t let me carry it on. The airline staff was in no mood to help me with any alternatives. Luckily, I was able to call the friend who’d dropped me off at the airport. He drove back and held the staff for me until I returned to that city. I’d wished I’d gotten a case for it, or made a collapsible staff, or knew about the “musical instrument” trick (below)! Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot since then.
What To Do if Equipment gets Confiscated or Held Off the Plane:
Drex later got his fire staffs back by investigating the law on what exactly is allowed or not, and being very persistent in calling the airport and airline. He tracked down an employee who could help, who then shipped his staffs to him.
This might seem lucky and far-fetched, but remaining positive and determined can get it done. Personally I wouldn’t risk taking unpacked props to the airport again, but if your luggage gets refused here’s some options…
If your stuff gets turned away at the airport:
- You can smile and politely ask “Why is this not allowed?” Calmly listen to the answer, then patiently explain the misconception if it is believed to be dangerous or flammable. Allow for dialogue and feedback, and ask to talk to a superior if the inspector is unwilling to budge. Appear patient, kind, and knowledgeable and you can get your way.
- If you have spare time (which is always a good idea – especially when taking fire props to the airport), and it’s not absolutely necessary the props fly:
- a) You can leave the props at home if your airline won’t allow them.
- b) Go to a store to get cleaning & packaging materials and fix your tool arrangement so it’s fit for travel.
- c) Call a friend to pick them up & ship them to you later.
- Ditch them. Easy if it’s an expensive flight, you’re in a rush, and they’re cheap props. Even if expensive, or if you’re “sentimental” about the item – it’s just a state of mind. Having now traveled for over a year straight, I believe there is no object that is irreplaceable or truly necessary for remembering a person, event, or experience – it’s all online! Let it go J
- Make new props everywhere you go. I met a fellow who traveled more than I do and made juggling staffs (a set of 3 or 4 short fire staffs) everywhere he went. He carried some of the essential building materials (fresh, un-sooty wick and grip), got the sticks & screws wherever he was, and left the staffs whenever he departed. He avoided the hassle of cleaning, packing, questioning, etc., and in exchange he also was able to leave his mark wherever he went – friends really appreciated the gifts!
- If confiscated, and you’ve already left, you can try what Drex and others have done. Kindly yet relentlessly call the airport, airline, and TSA and arrange to have them shipped to you. If it’s of extreme value and an international issue, consider calling your government’s foreign embassy for assistance.
If you Must Carry-On your Fire Props…
There’s only a few good reasons you can’t send your stuff as checked baggage. If you have very small props (poi, palm torches) and like taking risks; you are traveling light, low-budget, & can’t afford to upgrade to sending your bag below; the plane is short on room below and you must carry-on; or your tool is too large and fragile to send below – here’s a few recommendations (as a last resort):
- Follow the same packing rules as above.
- Additionally, disassemble the prop as much as possible, and separately clean & plastic wrap the pieces to further reduce fumes.
- Do not wrap with aluminum foil. Do use something to cover the visual of black used wicks like colorful tape, new baby socks, balloons, or special covers.
- Explain you are a performance artist, and it is your instrument! This is your way to bring extremely large or odd-shaped props aboard. Many airlines have a pro-artist policy and special rules for letting “instruments” (music or otherwise) aboard as carry-on. Say you are an artist (dancer, you dance to music), and this is your prop. Of course, make sure you’ve burn off excess fuel, aired out your props, and packed it professionally. (I have a friend who travels with humongous, fragile, 1.3m (4ft) fire fans and this is how she gets them from Europe to South Africa to Burning Man, Nevada!)
Example Copy: Checked Fire Props Letter (an option if you’d like to inform inspectors what’s inside should it be opened without you present to explain)
Whatever method you’re using, when passing through security points remember to remain calm, and nice! Patience and a sincere smile will get you a long way. Don’t blurt out any more information than asked for.
What do you think? Have you had anything confiscated at an airport? Do you have a cool way of packing your props to get them through?