Everyone has their favorite foods from certain places, whether it’s bratwurst from Wisconsin, kielbasi from New Jersey or Aunt Mary’s famous lasagna. They taste great while you’re visiting, but bringing them home with you on a plane could be difficult because of the need for refrigeration for all those hours. For Joe and I, a perfect example is when we bring home meat from our favorite barbecue place in Texas, The Salt Lick. For the first several years we did this, we always worried if how we packed it would keep the food cold enough for several hours to still be safe to eventually eat. But by now we’ve pretty much perfected our technique, and we’re happy to share it with you.
Oh, and the cool thing is that the same technique works if you need to bring medication on the plane that has to stay cold!
- Ice chest or cooler that fits under your seat or in the overhead
- Several gallon-sized plastic bags with zip-type closures
- Hotel refrigerator with freezer compartment (I suggest you confirm with your hotel that you’ll have a fridge in your room before arrival). We’ve had rooms with small dorm fridges and extended stay/suites with full sized fridges. Although we prefer the full-sized refrigerators for ease of use, the small ones will also work in a pinch.
We bought our Coleman 18 Can Snap N Go cooler about 8 or 9 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s no longer in production but hopefully the description will help you find something similar. It has an adjustable strap and measures 9″ H x 18″ W x 8″ D. It’s soft-sided so it weighs less and is a little more pliable than a hard-sided cooler. It has 3 compartments, which all have zippered closures – a large 8.5″ H x 11″ W x 6″ D storage area with a removable solid plastic insert, a medium 8.5″ H x 6.5″ W 6″ D area that’s insulated, and a rather large cloth/poly front pocket. If we take the plastic insert out, the cooler can fold down and take up relatively little space in our suitcase (the insert, of course, takes up volume but we just stuff it with socks, underclothing, etc.), which is convenient for when we’re on our way to Texas.
Bottled water shown for size
While we’re done eating at The Salt Lick (and don’t think we’ll be able to eat another thing for a week), we buy some meat, separately, to bring home. In the case of our most recent visit, it was 1 pound of brisket, 1 pound of smoked turkey breast and 1/2 pound of sausage. Each kind of meat comes wrapped in butcher’s paper and is still hot when they give it to us. When we get back to our hotel, we place the packets in our room’s freezer and keep them in there for the rest of the trip so they become frozen solid. If we’ve brought home any leftovers (we usually do…their portions are HUGE), we’ll transfer them to a zipper bag, squeeze as much of the air out as we can and put that in the freezer, too.
When we’re ready to go to the airport, we fill up two gallon bags about halfway each with ice from the ice machine (if our hotel doesn’t have machines because we have an ice maker in our freezer, we make sure we’ve been making ice for the whole trip so we have enough, or we just buy a bag of ice somewhere) and try to get rid of as much air from the bags as possible. We put in 1 layer of ice, then the frozen meat, then 1 more layer of ice. If the trip to the airport or the plane ride itself is going to be particularly long, we bring a large towel from home and wrap everything in that to add an extra layer of insulation. The cooler then becomes one of our carry-on pieces (we can use the other compartment and the pocket for small items we would want to have with us).
When we get to the airport, we can’t bring the ice through TSA because it’s invariably started to melt a little bit (BTW, as per TSA’s website, frozen or partially-frozen ice is OK if the ice is for medications, but unfortunately, we have yet to find a TSA worker who would believe a pound of smoked turkey breast is for medicinal purposes). So just before we go through TSA Pre✓® (you have signed up for Pre-Check by now, right? This and this cover reasons why you should and here’s what to do when you have it), we disposed of the ice in the restroom (but keep the plastic bags).
The cooler of still-pretty-much frozen meat, without ice, goes through X-ray with no problem and as soon as we have successfully gotten through TSA, we re-fill the plastic bags with ice from one of the vendors inside the secure area (we’ll also usually buy a drink or something from them so we’re not just asking for free ice). We then re-pack the layers of ice/meat/ice (with towel as needed) and fly home.
To give you an example of how everything holds up…when we most recently went to Texas, we bought, as I mentioned, 1 pound of brisket, 1 pound of smoked turkey and 1/2 pound of sausage. We did not use the towel method. We left our hotel around 10:00am CT, and had brunch before going to the airport (Note: we kept the cooler with us inside the restaurant, because outside temperatures were already in the 90s and we didn’t think it was safe to keep it in the car. Our technique is good, but it’s not THAT good). After arriving at Austin-Bergstrom Airport and dumping the ice to get through TSA, we re-loaded the ice at roughly 2:00pm (CT). The flight loaded at 2:40pm (CT), we landed few minutes after 6pm (ET – that’s 5pm CT) and were home by 7:25pm ET (6:25pm CT). At that point, the top layer of ice was still roughly 80% frozen (heat rises and there’s a “grab a can” access hole in the top of our cooler than never fully closes, so the top of the cooler is always a bit warmer), the bottom layer was still about 90% frozen and all of the meat was 90-95% frozen…this was after over 8 hours of not being in the freezer. Obviously, your mileage may vary based on cooler, travel duration/temperature, type of food (most big chunks of food would stay frozen longer than small or thin items) and willingness to eat food that’s been through something like what I just described, but for us, well, we’re looking forward to eating BBQ from The Salt Lick in a month or two.
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