How to fly with formalwear, wrinkle-free

8 packing tips to preserve your nicest clothes on a plane, according to wedding experts

(iStock; Washington Post illustration)
7 min

When Sarah Camp got married in Mexico eight years ago, one detail fell to the bottom of her list: How to get her wedding dress there.

The travel blogger ended up toting the gown in the garment bag from the bridal shop, upgraded with a loop sewn on by her mother, and putting it in an overhead bin with two other brides’ dresses on the flight from Toronto to Cancún.

“I remember watching the overhead cabin like a hawk,” said Camp, author of the blog In Search of Sarah.

Everything turned out fine, but Camp has since realized the issue is a common one among brides, thanks to multiple destination wedding forums for which she is an administrator.

“It’s complicated because all the airlines have totally different rules and regulations about what you can do with your bag,” she said. “Some airlines have closets, some don’t. It’s kind of a nightmare honestly. I would research … all these things if I were getting married again.”

Whether your destination is a wedding, black-tie event or other important occasion, flying with bulky, fancy clothes can be tricky. There’s a chance you’ll go to pack and realize it’s not entirely clear how to transport that tux.

Experts in weddings, travel and formalwear offered us their best tips and cautionary tales.

Destination weddings are back. Here's how to save on travel.

Carry on at all costs

Whatever you do, don’t check a bag containing precious, irreplaceable, likely tailored and time-sensitive cargo. Airlines could lose or damage the bag, and getting it back could take days.

“I tell couples don’t ever put your formalwear in a checked bag,” said Brittany West, a destination wedding and elopement photographer. “That’s the last thing you want to do.”

West says her caution is based on experience: She’s had luggage and dresses destroyed while shooting photos for her portfolio.

Hannah Giardino, a social media manager for a tech company, was nervous that the airline would want to check her dress when she flew from Austin to Memphis for her Mississippi wedding in late May. She tried to call American Airlines but had trouble reaching someone who could help; after she tweeted at the airline, she was told she could bring it as a carry-on.

Her concerns were validated after multiple wedding guests had their luggage lost. One person still doesn’t have his back, a month and a half later.

“This could have been a catastrophe for me,” she said.

Spring for early boarding

West said she tells couples to communicate to the gate agent that they have a wedding dress in case it’s possible to move to a seat without a neighbor. She also urges them to upgrade their ticket or pay for priority access to get on the plane sooner. That way, they can communicate with the flight attendant early, get early access to any available closet space or find another nearby spot to stow the clothes.

Giardino said she went straight to the counter at the airport after going through security to make sure she understood her options, and held onto the dress in a garment bag once workers started gate-checking bags.

We asked: Do I have to give a gift if I’m traveling for the wedding?

Don’t count on in-flight closet space

Some airlines have closets where items can be hung. But that doesn’t mean your suit and ballgown will end up there.

“It’s important to note that the coat closets onboard are reserved for customers traveling in our premium cabins,” United said in a statement. “Sometimes a flight attendant may be able to find some available room in there, but it’s not guaranteed.”

Delta spokesman Drake Castañeda said in an email that while formalwear such as a wedding dress must be stowed in an FAA-approved location like an overhead bin or closet, the closet is not guaranteed “as wheelchair and assistive device stowage is the primary reason for these closets.”

Southwest and JetBlue do not even offer the possibility of closets.

Don’t get angry when flight attendants won’t lift your bag for you

Garment bags are your friend

Whether or not the clothes are going in a suitcase, experts recommend putting them in a garment bag for protection. The Transportation Security Administration agrees, “strongly” recommending protective packaging during the screening process.

Both West and Camp recommend WallyBags, which are designed for formalwear, include storage space for other items and fold into a carry-on size. Those can be expensive, however, and Camp said her experience just using the bridal shop-supplied bag was fine.

Mike Cregan, founder of storage accessory company Butler Luxury, said a cloth garment bag is better than a vinyl one, which can cause wrinkles in tight spaces.

Airlines say garment bags still need to meet size requirements for carry-on bags.

Wedding travel is already expensive. Summer prices make it a ‘nightmare.’

The drape-over-luggage approach

While lucking into closet space is the ideal scenario, experts say another option is to fold the garment bag and place it over a small carry-on in the overhead space. Travelers will want to keep watch over the bin and make sure the item doesn’t get moved or crushed.

“You don’t want to fold it in half and put it in there and someone else puts their bag on top,” Cregan said.

The stash-in-bag method

At the Bridal Finery in Winter Park, Fla., near Orlando, shopkeepers have packed dresses for brides getting married in Italy, Mexico, Scotland and other destinations. Co-owner Tali Gallo said their go-to method is placing the dress inside a garment bag, taking the hanger out, removing as much air as possible and rolling it up gently to fit into a hard-shell carry-on bag. Take care not to roll the bodice if it has boning, she said.

Gallo said some brides have opted for a duffel bag or a carry-on garment bag, but the shop suggests a hard bag.

“We just feel like there’s extra protection,” she said.

Cregan said that a suit can also be folded to preserve its shape — detailed instructions are on his company’s website — and then placed in a garment bag and suitcase to carry on. The bag should not be too heavily packed in that case, he said.

You asked: Do I have to travel to every wedding this year?

Use a steamer — or the shower trick

Folding and rolling can result in wrinkles, so travelers should unpack their garments as soon as they arrive.

Gallo recommends bringing a portable steamer and steaming the dress on the morning of the wedding using filtered water. Travelers should check with whomever they bought the garment from to make sure the material will tolerate steam, Camp said.

A steamer is a good idea as long as someone has experience with it and feels comfortable using it, Cregan said.

If not, they should use the shower trick: Hang the suit or dress in the bathroom, put the shower on as hot as it will go and leave the garment hanging for five to 10 minutes as steam fills the room.

One way to save on your wedding: Pick a destination people won’t travel to

Get the clothes their own seat (or jet)

If there’s room in the budget, experts provided some options for splurging.

“One technique that’s even better … you have your own private jet and then you just can do whatever you want,” Cregan said.

Perhaps there’s not that much room in the budget. West suggested that depending on the circumstances — such as a dress with significant heft — travelers might consider buying an extra seat next to them. They should check airline policies before doing so.

JetBlue says on its website that its policy allows passengers to buy an extra seat for a garment bag, “provided it can be properly and safely secured in a window seat by a crewmember.”

Camp said some brides from her Facebook group have done that with “the big poofy dresses that would not fit anywhere else but a seat.” She cautioned that it was an expensive option — but could only be necessary one-way. By the time she was heading home from her own destination wedding, Camp was far less worried about her dress.

“I literally balled it up and threw it in my suitcase,” she said.

More travel tips

Trends: Japan | Cool all-inclusives | Let ChatGPT plan your day | Is it safe to go to Mexico? | How to be a good weed tourist

The basics: Better travel 101 | Cash-free tipping | Should you always book direct? | Traveling with kids | Decide where to stay | A pre-trip checklist of house chores | How to get your passport | Avoid getting sick | Budget for your trip | Do you have the right travel insurance? | How to travel with pets

Flying: Fly like a decent human being | Gear to pack | How to set airfare price alerts | PreCheck vs. Global Entry vs. CLEAR | Can I fly with weed? | AirTag your luggage | Airport parking 101 | Deal with airport crowds | Why you should stalk airfare after booking | Pet flying 101

Driving: 9 tips for road tripping with a baby | Try the Airbnb of rental cars | Rent an EV | Do I need an international license to drive abroad? | Avoid big rental car fees | Alternatives to flying with your pet

National Parks: A comprehensive guide | Where you need reservations | Lesser known parks | Parks etiquette

Greener travel: New rules of responsible travel | Bike to the airport | How environmentalists travel | How to find ‘greener’ flights | Make your travel better for the planet

Go by train: Overnight Amtraks | Grand Canyon | Vietnam | Harper’s Ferry

In case of emergency: | Make a backup plan | Manage airport disasters | Your flight is canceled | How to get a human on the phone | What to do if your car gets stuck | Find your lost luggage | How to get a refund for a canceled flight | Deal with a bad hotel room | When you’re bumped off your flight | If you get rebooked without your family | What are my rebooking rights? | Recover a lost item at TSA, the airport or your flight