Travel Week: Flying With Fountain Pens (and other options)

Kaweco Guilloch 1930 EF

One of the last, but in my opinion most important, issues to cover for traveling is how to travel with fountain pens. I’ve had lots of people warn me about it so I thought I’d find some research and share it here.

The biggest myth around flying with pens, fountain or otherwise is that they will explode. All my research suggests that the worst fate you might face is that the pen would leak. According to Penspotters:

The cabin pressure on the typical jetliner is maintained at about 10psia (0.7 atm), corresponding to the air pressure at about 10,000 feet of altitude. Although you reach this lower pressure within 30 minutes or so of takeoff, the air inside your pens is still at the ground-level pressure of 15psia (1 atm), and will take a very long time to equalize. This puts some pressure on the liquid ink, and can cause it to blot as you write, or to ooze or spurt from the pen even if you don’t use it.

Whenever you fly with pens, whether in checked baggage or as carry-on, you should make sure that the pens are either completely full (so that no air is trapped inside), or completely empty and clean (no ink to leak out). If possible, make sure the pens are kept points-up, which will make cleanup a bit easier should they leak.

So, if you are concerned that a pen might leak, store them upright (tip facing up) in a plastic bag during the flight to protect the interior of your bag. I plan to carry my Kawecos empty for the flight and pack a few cartridges and/or some sample ink vials and a syringe to refill (C’mon, my April Ink Drop samples just arrived!).

If you are not a fountain pen user but are concerned that other writing instruments might revolt on you mid-flight, you may want to consider a pen that has been designed specifically to tackle the challenges of the pressurized cabin like the UniBall Vision Elite or RT, Pilot Precise V5/V7 RT or the Pilot VBall RT. Ballpoint pens seem to be a good choice for many people in-flight and handling the rigors of pressurized cabins. A Fisher Space pen is a good option as it was designed to handle the pressure of space travel, so it can probably handle a domestic flight. And, of course, you can’t go wrong with a pencil though I would recommend packing a travel sharpener to keep pencil shavings neat or a mechanical pencil.

(Sites referenced in this post: Moleskinerie, Richard’s Pens, Budget Travel, The Pen Addict, Pen 4 U, Writer’s Bloc,, Levenger)

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11 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I’ve never had a fountain pen leak on a flight, ever. Cheap no name or branded. If anyone else has please comment.

  2. I fly with my fountain pen, whichever one it happens to be on that day, clipped in my shirt or vest pocket, nib up. I don’t make sure to empty it or fill it first. I do this on airliners (pressurized) and also when flying for fun (unpressurized small plane). I’ve never had one leak.

  3. The best way to make sure your fountain pen won’t leak on a plane is to fly with the pen either completely empty or completely full. The air in a half full pen may expand at some point and (burp) leak.

  4. When I went to France last year, my fountain pen leaked significantly into the cap, so that when I opened it to use it in the train station after I landed, there was quite a mess. Maybe it was the length of the flight that was the problem? Longer times at certain pressures may give more time to leak? I don’t remember if it was completely full, but had filled it up for use during the trip, so it should have been close. That was the only time I traveled with a fountain pen. Now I make do with other pens that are less likely to make a mess because I’m a walking stain to begin with! Let us know how your adventure goes!

  5. David and Stefan are correct.

    Airliners at normal cruise altitudes between 30,000′ and 40,000′ have the cabin, which includes the cargo compartment and the inside of your pen, at about 7500′. (not 10,000′)

    So on a flight from O’Hare (667′) to Denver (about 5431′) the cabin would start at 667′. During the airplane’s climb to perhaps 36,000′, which would take 20 to 30 minutes, the cabin pressure controller would decrease the pressure to an equivalent of about 7500′ and keep it there until the plane began it’s descent, when the interior pressure would be increased slowly until it was at 5431′ before the plane landed in Denver. If halfway there the plane climbed 2000′ to 38,000′ the cabin would also go up perhaps 100′. If the plane went East instead and landed at LaGuardia, the cabin would descend to 10′. When you got there if you took a cab to the Empire State Building and then an elevator to the observation deck; the pen in your pocket would go back up to 1224′.

    Ink, a liquid, doesn’t expand or contract. Air, a gas, does. As the “altitude” increases the pressure decreases and air expands. Inside an upright pen the ink is down and the air is up. As the air inside the nib-up pen expands and contracts to match the air outside the pen it will leave and reenter the pen around the nib/feed with no drama. If the pen tip is down the ink will be between the air and the nib; and any expanding air will push ink out of the pen. The quote above says this “will take a very long time to equalize”, which is not true. The air in your pen goes in and out more easily than the air in your ears.

    I have never had any of my fountain pens leak. I keep them upright in my shirt during the climb and never write with them until the plane has reached it’s cruise altitude. Once the pressure stops changing you can turn them over and write with them. You can also write with them during the descent since the increasing pressure is pushing the air back in not out. Of course in the Captain’s seat it is very easy to know what the cabin pressure is doing. As a passenger, when you feel the air stop leaving your ears, when the Captain announces “Always keep your seat belt on, whenever you are seated.”, or when the flight attendants bring out the carts to serve beverages, then you are at cruise altitude.

    If your pen is in your carry-on or purse you have to position the bag and pen inside it so the pen will be upright or it will leak. Ballpoints and Gel pens don’t have air in the reservoir so they don’t leak. Rollerballs use liquid ink and have air in the cartridge. Sometimes they leak and sometimes they don’t, but I gave up trying to find a brand that wouldn’t. The international style rollerball refills seem to leak sooner or later no matter how you carry them. If they leak the ink usually ends up inside the pen barrel, so they may or may not trash your shirt, white or not.

    I would not put an inked fountain pen in checked baggage, since there is no way of knowing which end will be loaded pointing up. It could be done with an airtight non-crushable container. Perhaps padded inside a tightly closed peanut butter jar? If you decide to experiment with this, remember to point the nib up when you open the container. Particulary if you fly to La Paz, Bolivia, where you would be at 13,325′.

    Sorry this was so long, but I kept seeing links to this blog post and wanted to add a bit more background. If you haven’t learned anything else you should at least now know why the clip on a Namiki Vanishing Point pen is on the nib end.

    Go and fly with your pens, full or not, just keep them nib up until the plane or elevator stops climbing.

  6. More than once…with both fountain pens and rollerballs…I have ended up with a handful of ink upon uncapping after an airplane ride. I now travel with Uni Lakubo ballpoints–fantastic grip, nice thin line from the .5, long writing, non smearing, and economical to boot!

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