Traveling With Wine by Plane, Train, or Automobile: Get Your Wine Safely from Point A to Point B

traveling with wine

Take care to reduce vibration that can cause breakage when traveling with your wine. Photo Credit: Flickr CC user Sylvain Kalache

A couple of years ago, I attended a huge summer tasting event at a Washington winery with two friends. One of my friends brought along a wheeled wine carrier, tucking each new bottle he bought into its own little cubby inside. My other friend lightheartedly teased him about his paranoia, joking that his wine carrier had more tools than a Swiss army knife. She had shown up to the tasting with a plain canvas tote tossed over her shoulder. Later that night, as she was unloading her car at her house, the canvas bag slipped off her shoulder, crashing onto her cement driveway below. One of the bottles inside was completely shattered, and the formerly-white bag was permanently splattered in deep red Pinot Noir.

While my friend was upset about her broken bottle and ruined tote, she would have been far more upset if the bottle were exceptionally rare and valuable. As much as you might want to bring along a bottle of Grand Cru DRC for your honeymoon in the Caribbean, if anything goes wrong in-transit, you could be out more than $10,000 when that bottle breaks. Whether you’re traveling just a few blocks from your house for a picnic, or you plan on trekking thousands of miles with your bottle, you need to know how to keep your wine safe every step of the way.  

Traveling by Foot

The safest trip for your wine bottles is a leisurely walk down to the neighborhood park or a short car ride over to a tasting party. Although these trips are simple when you’re transporting a cheap wine, they become more complicated when they involve top-tier, rare wines. The number one tool for short trips with a high-end bottle is a bottle guard, according to sommelier David Glancy. When you combine a bottle guard with a wheeled wine carrier or backpack, you prevent your bottle from shattering, even if you accidentally drop the bag. This isn’t an entirely foolproof method, so you should still treat your wine carrier with care, but bottle guards are the closest thing collectors have to a guaranteed safe trip for their bottles.

When you travel by foot or drive short distances, you don’t need to worry about temperature control unless you’re carrying a bottle of fine white wine. Most high-end wine carriers already have specialized seals inside that keep bottles cold. If it’s an especially hot day, or if you expect your bottle to sit in a hot car for more than half an hour, you’ll want to pack ice inside of the cooler to keep your bottle chilly before serving.

The choice between a wheeled wine carrier or a backpack in these situations depends primarily on your surroundings. Sommelier David Glancy suggests using a sturdy backpack for short-distance wine transportation, putting bottle holder inserts inside of the backpack. The inserts keep the wine bottles from jostling around too much during the trip, while carrying the bag on your back prevents excessive vibration. However, wheeled wine totes also prevent vibration when you use them on smooth, paved ground. If you anticipate walking on sand, gravel or uneven terrain, choose a wine backpack instead of a wheeled carrier. Remember to let sediment-heavy wines, such as biodynamic wines, rest upright for at least one hour after you arrive at your destination to allow the sediment to sink to the bottom.

Traveling by Car

Long car trips involve many of the same precautions as short trips around town, but the difference is that you will almost always want to account for temperature when you bring your wine on a road trip. Generally, you should use a temperature-controlled wine carrier when you expect to be in a car longer than an hour or two for the duration of the trip. Your fine white wines won’t do as well without temperature control as reds, which means you need to be extra careful with white Burgundy such as Leflaive Montrachet.

Once you account for the temperature inside of your car, you’ll need to think about your wine will be stored once you reach your destination, if you don’t plan to drink it right away. Ask whether your hotel has storage specifically for wine bottles, or if the room has a standard mini fridge. Wine Spectator points out that storing white wine in a standard fridge is perfectly alright as long as it’s a short-term solution. Generally, fridges are not ideal for wine because they are kept far too cold. Your red wines will likely be better off tucked away inside of a dark closet, as long as you can keep the room relatively cool. A dark space and air conditioning will work in a pinch if you’re not particular about precise wine temperatures. However, if you’re bringing along a special vintage, consider bringing your own mini wine cooler. If you’re traveling to a cabin or a house with limited amenities, a wine cooler allows you to keep your wine at the perfect temperature and humidity until you’re ready to drink it. All you need is access to an electrical outlet and space to store a two-foot-tall mini cooler.

Traveling by Train

Did you know that most train conductors allow you to bring your own bottle of wine on multi-day train trips, and drink it right there in your seat? Most multi-day train routes don’t require passengers to stow their wine away in checked baggage, and are completely open to passengers opening and drinking their own wines during the trip. You will need to check with the train company to ensure that wine is allowed on-board, since some trains have specific rules against alcohol. For example, Eurostar trains allows you to take up to three bottles of wine on board, and you’re also allowed to open and drink the bottles en-route (as long as you are not intoxicated or disrupting other passengers). However, you’re not allowed to bring any alcohol on night trains.

While relatively loose alcohol rules are good news for wine collectors planning a train ride, the bad news is that trains, much more so than planes, cause vibrations that can damage fine wine bottles. There is no foolproof way to fix this problem, but one possible solution is to pack your wine in a sturdy shipping box. If you don’t plan on drinking your wine on the train itself, you should store your bottles in a hard container (like a wine suitcase) to protect your bottles from contact with heavy pieces of luggage. If you plan on drinking your wine during the trip, store your bottles in a simple wine backpack, and keep an eye on it at all times.  

One tip for traveling with wine on a train is to keep your sediment-heavy bottles at home, as the vibration of the train will kick up the sediment resting at the base of the bottles. Unfined, sediment-heavy wines are perfect for a quiet dinner party in which you can decant the liquid for hours at your leisure, but during a train ride, you’ll be stuck sipping on grainy wine. If you insist on bringing a sediment-heavy wine anyway, let your bottle rest upright for at least an hour or two after you reach your destination.   

Traveling by Plane

Unfortunately, you can’t get as up-close and personal with your wine bottles when you travel by plane. If you want to personally ensure that your rare bottle of Sine Qua Non Grenache makes it safely to your destination, you might want to travel by ship or train instead (alternatively, you can take your own private jet to avoid strict luggage rules). If you don’t have a private plane, you’re stuck storing your bottles in your checked baggage, since wine is never permitted as a carry-on item. For a collector, this is a terrifying rule; I’ve watched more than one airport employee throw luggage 10 feet or more into a plane’s storage compartment. The best way to keep your wine safe if you must travel with it by plane is to invest in the best safety equipment on the market.

Your first choice should be a custom wine suitcase, preferably with a temperature-control option. Not only does the hard case protect the glass inside, your bottles are placed in a depression in the foam which keeps them from rolling around in the suitcase. If you have magnum bottles, the next-best option is to buy inflatable bags for your bottles. These bags are designed to wrap around fragile items, then inflate, absorbing the shock of any major impact. If you can’t store your wine in its own separate suitcase, make sure your bottles are at least separate from your clothes. It’s tempting to wrap your fragile bottles in a soft t-shirt as protection. However, not only does this provide little protection, it will also ruin your clothes should the bottle break.

For bottles that are worth more than $1,000, consider investing in travel insurance, and check that your existing wine collection insurance policy is up-to-date. There is no way to guarantee that your wine will always be safe when you travel, which is why insurance is an essential tool for wine collectors. Wine Enthusiast suggests having your bottles shipped by a professional third party service, rather than trying to travel with your finest bottles by yourself. Although it feels safer to have your bottles with you at all times, far more can go wrong than if you hand the task over to the professionals. Vinfolio offers white glove shipping services to collectors in the Bay Area, and has safe shipment options for collectors in other parts of the country. The wines are packed in temperature-controlled conditions, and ship safely to customers either by van or by air, meaning collectors never have to worry about their wine bottles not making it home in one piece.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.

Leah Hammer is Vinfolio’s Director of Cellar Acquisitions, guiding private collectors through the selling process. When not on the hunt for amazing cellars, she competes in marathons and rehydrates with Champagne and Burgundy.