You just found out that there’s a huge orchid show a few states over, and it’s promoting international orchid sellers. Before you can even think, you’ve made reservations for flights and hotels, and your bags are half-packed. As in a slight hesitation, the thought crosses your mind:
Can you travel with orchids on airplanes?
Traveling with orchids is permitted on all flights within the continental United States. For domestic travel, you do not need any special permits or legal paperwork to cross states boundaries when you are transporting plants as a personal hobby.
Some restrictions apply to California, Florida, and Arizona. If you are traveling to or from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, then international regulations may apply.
This article only applies to the United States, and you will need to check the laws within your country to know specifics about them.
If you are traveling domestically by plane, then you probably won’t have to go through customs. All domestic flights are free of customs and border control, so you don’t have to worry. In any case, if they have an out-of-the-blue inspection, you might want to be ready and follow the guidelines below.
Which Airlines Allow Orchids?
According to the TSA, each domestic airline is responsible or not for letting you embark with orchids as you travel. They give the airlines a hands-off approach. I called each airline, and there were no restrictions on plants for domestic travel, whatsoever.
They did, however, warn me that the orchids had to go either in the overhead compartment or as checked luggage. You can’t just walk on board with a plant in your hands (as in a floral arrangement or in lose roots out in the open).
Just so you have an idea of how much space is allowed, I called each of the airlines. My focus was what qualified as an extra item, how big the overhead storage was, and how heavy (or big) the checked luggage could be. That would determine how many orchids I could bring back—well, that and the cost, of course.
When the airlines specify checked baggage, they commonly use linear inches. I had no idea what that was, but it turns out to be easy to measure. Add the length, the width, and the height in inches, and that’s how ‘big” your bag is in linear inches.
This is what they told me: (best viewed on a computer screen, not on a phone)
|Airline||Personal item||Carry-On (Maximum Size)||Bags|
|Qualifies as a Purse, Briefcase, or a Laptop||22 x 14 x 9 in||62” linear|
|Allegiant Air||7 x 15 x 16 in|
17 x 38 x 40cm
|22 x 14 x 9 in |
22 x 35 x 56 cm
|American Airlines||No answer||18 x 14 x 8 in|
20 x 35 x 45 cm
|2 bags – No size limitations that I could find|
|Delta||I didn’t find dimensions, but the personal item qualified as a 1) Purse, 2) Briefcase, 3) Camera Case or 4) Diaper Bag||45” linear in |
22 x 14 x 9 in
23 x 35 x 56 cm
|Frontier||14 x 18 x 8 in||24 x 16 x 10 in and under 35 lbs||62” linear|
|Hawaiian||No answer||22 x 14 x 9 in|
25 lbs (11 Kg)
|Under 62” linear |
|JetBlue||17 x 13 x 8 in|
8 x 13 x 43 cm
|22 x 14 x 9 in |
Limited and Not guaranteed
| Southwest||18.5 x 8.5 x 13.5 in||24 x 16 x 10 in||50 lbs|
|Spirit||18 x 14 x 8 in|
45 x 35 x 20 cm
|22 x 18 x 10 in|
56 x 46 x 25 cm
|United||9 x 10 x 17in |
22 x 25 x 43 cm
|22 x 14 x 9 in OR 22 x 35 x 56 cm||50 lbs (23 Kg) – Economy |
70 lbs (32 Kg) – First Class
Don’t just rely on my chart. Please call the airlines to verify the size limits, because I put this chart together on November 3, 2021. Things change all the time. If you have different flights but they are all connected to your itinerary, the rules of the first carrier will apply throughout the entire trip.
One thing that you can notice in the chart is that Allegiant Air allows the largest checked suitcases, and Frontier allows the largest carry-ons. On JetBlue, there was no guarantee that your carry-on could go with you as a carry-on. If there wasn’t room (first come, first served) then you might have to check your carry-on in as checked baggage.
So, if you’re planning on flying with tons of orchids, go with Allegiant. (I’m not affiliated—it’s just an idea.)
How to Pack your Orchids for The Flight
Please note that your bags will have to go through the x-ray machine at the airport. This will not hurt the orchid in any way, but if you don’t want the hassle, avoid wrapping the roots in aluminum foil. I like to use zippy bags that are well-sealed. Inside the bag, the orchids can retain any moisture they need to survive the trip even if bare rooted.
Bare rooted is best since Murphy’s Law is a real thing. You shouldn’t have to go through any airport service terminal as far as customs or USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) goes, but they might have a random check. If the potting media is doubtful, they can confiscate your orchid.
Another point to consider is that if you checked your baggage in, then the orchids will experience the local weather as they run on the conveyor belt to the airport terminal. Not all conveyor belts are totally internal to the airport temperatures. If the temperature is too hot or too cold, the orchids may react badly to that, even if it is a short period.
I like to place each individual orchid in a zippy bag, then place it snugly inside a bigger box, so they don’t flop around and get damaged by my items—the hairdryer is the worst.
Traveling with Orchids to/from California
According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, you cannot bring live plants in the state without an inspection. There are a few rules that apply and knowing them will save you a hassle in the long run.
Upon inspection, California will allow houseplants, but not any that are grown outdoors. This is because pests and insects are more likely to inhabit outdoor plants than indoor ones.
They also must be for personal enjoyment and not for resale. “Personal hobby” is a bit hard to define because I can personally enjoy 50 orchids in my baggage, yet my limit according to law is 12.
Ok, I’ve got an orchid addiction, but nonetheless…The rules are a little loose. And how do they know I won’t turn around and resell my 12? So I believe that this rule is just to limit the number of live plants.
The orchids must be pest-free, including insects and snails. This rule applies to the plant and makes perfect sense. Each region has its own ecosystem. If there is a pest that is not common to that area and is later introduced to the environment, it probably won’t find a predator. Sooner than later, that pest will take over the entire ecosystem, causing harm to what was perfect before.
This happened in Brasilia, Brazil. Some idiot wanted to open a French restaurant and decided that the local snails were too costly. In order to cut costs, he then decided to bring in a snail from some other region, but the moron brought over a non-edible one. Once he realized his mistake, he threw these large snails out in the wild.
In a matter of 5 years, the snails had populated so vastly that they were eating all the natural fauna. They would eat gardens, plantations, flowers, and even the paint on the outside walls.
The snails were not the problem, per se, but the fact that they carry parasites.
A widespread breakout of Schistosomiasis, Fasciolosis, Eosinophilic meningitis, and Abdominal angiostrongyliasis killed mainly children and elderly patients in 10 years. When I left in 2018, they still had not controlled the problem. This could have been an innocent mistake made by a Ratatouille wanna-be, but the lives it cost were (and still are) uncountable.
Therefore, the airport control at customs should inspect your orchid to see if there are any visible signs of pests, fungus, or bacteria on your plant. I am in favor of this procedure since you must look through the worldwide lenses of mutual benefit. I don’t want an orchid, no matter how pretty, if it will bring harm to someone else.
If your orchid is rare or has some sentimental value, then you can try to negotiate with the officer on the state line along these lines: they do not have to destroy the orchid. They can quarantine it for up to however long they would like. This will at least get you one foot in the door when it comes to saving your plant. After quarantine is over, you can hopefully pick it up. Fingers crossed that they watered it properly though…
The next rule is hard to draw a line when it comes to orchids—packed in sterile, commercial potting mix. If you have any other plant, that is easy, but with orchid bark that’s a bit hard.
I advise to travel with bare-rooted plants. Take out all the media. Since most orchids are epiphytes anyway, they won’t mind the one or two days without the media. Pine and oak are prohibited, but what’s to say the kind of bark my potting media is? How do you argue that the media doesn’t have pine or oak?
Traveling with Orchids to/From Arizona
According to AZDA, (Arizona Department of Agriculture) the same rules apply to California, but they are more worried about the spread of imported fire ants or harmful nematode pests.
The problem in Arizona seems to be more focused on the wood that these orchids are mounted on. This quote from their website states that “Firewood from nut-bearing trees (pecan, walnut, hickory, butternut), emerald ash borer infested areas, or federally regulated areas for other pests that may infest firewood (such as imported fire and gypsy moth) is prohibited from entering the state without proper treatment and certification”.
When buying orchids online and having them shipped to Arizona, verify that the package can be sent to Arizona. Sometimes the package will stop at the border and be destroyed at the customers’ expense—that’s your wallet they’re talking about. The vendor will know if shipping is allowed or not, so ask before you buy.
Other States Within the USA
California and Arizona are the “strictest” (if I can call them that). If you are not moving/traveling to one of these 2 states, you might want to check out this site at National Plant board ORG, that has all the rules and regulations from the 50 states, including Guam and Puerto Rico. It’s best to be sure than sorry.
Most of the states listed in those documents are straightforward—you should have any problems.
There are several specific regulations if you are traveling with orchids to/from Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Hawaii. For these, you may need special permits, such as a phytosanitary certificate, a CITES document, or others. In these specific cases, it’s best if you look at international travel and follow those rules.
Preparing for Airplane Travel with Orchids
According to the TSA (Transport Security Authority), it is perfectly fine to travel with plants on board. They have no restrictions such as live orchids. There are other restrictions which you can read about here. The link is for page 5, since it’s where I found plants.
Of course, what I do not like about this entire document is that there is a little red triangle, in a much smaller font that reads (and I quote), “The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.”
So, it’s arbitrary to say the least.
In doubt, smile and wave, and act like there aren’t 58 newly purchased orchids in your carry-on. I believe the limit on domestic flights is 12 orchids… I couldn’t find written proof of that though. Maybe it’s just an old wife’s tale.
The potting media cannot be damp as in soaking wet with water. If you are carrying flasks, that is another story, and the media can be in a sealed jar with agar jelly. If the ajar is translucent or clear, there shouldn’t be a problem. There are no restrictions as to traveling with orchid seeds.
Orchids in the Carry-on or Checked Luggage?
Where do you pack your orchids? In the suitcase or your carry-on? I’ve read both—carry-on and checked luggage—as to being the best and both had adequate reasons in their favor. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each.
If you place the orchids in your carry-on, at least one that can fit under the seat in front of you, you have better control whether they get smashed, bent, bruised, squished, or squeezed. In the overhead bin, the bags can move/slide around a bit, and if they aren’t packed well or in a hard-sided carry-on, all those listed above can happen.
As for in your suitcase, the orchids are given to chance. You have no control over what is going to happen to it. The best you can do is pack the orchids securely and place them inside cardboard boxes to guarantee that they’ll make it ok, even with the rough handling.
If you overspent and came home with more orchids than your carry-on can handle, then this part is fundamental: pack them tightly. Do not let their box flow freely inside your suitcase. If necessary, fill your bag with newspaper, but do not let that box slip and slide around with your shoes, sunglasses, or any other personal item that can cause damage.
Traveling with Orchids by Truck (Moving)
If you are moving by truck, advise the movers to label the box with orchids as “house plants” on the inventory. This will usually make the process a bit faster and easier when it comes to crossing state lines, as each state will have its own laws.
If your orchids happen to have a pest and the border control finds it, then they have every right to keep the plant and destroy it. There is nothing you can do about that. Make sure there are no snails, mealybugs, ants, scale, or any other visible pest on your orchid.
Last Minute Advice:
This article does not apply to international laws and flights. Use this as your first basic rule, but then refer to this other article (not yet finished) about international travel and the permits you’ll need to fly with your orchids or import them from another country.
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In all, I hope this answered your questions about traveling with orchids. If you are wondering how you are going to keep your orchids watered while your gone on vacation, this article I wrote might help.
I wish you the best and Happy Cultivating!