We'd rather climb a 7,000' pass or do 10% grades than fly with our bikes. Compared to flying without them, it is expensive, time consuming, and just plain hard work. It's like planning 2 separate trips, with the segment off of the bikes having a whole separate set of problems and solutions from the segment on the bikes.
The preplanning for a flying leg of a trip can require days on the internet and phone to develop a workable plan. Airlines don't like bikes. Most will take them, but they'd rather not. Golf clubs, surfboards, and skis get more consideration and fewer charges than bikes. And worst yet, it is extremely difficult to nail-down packing requirements and pricing schemes until your moment of departure. Even going to the airport a day or 2 before your flight to chat with the counter clerks who make the decisions is no guarantee of a predictable outcome.
Careful consideration must also be given to getting the bikes to and from the airport, especially when in boxes. And jostling the boxed bikes through the various stages of the journey is hard on our bodies and baggage handling practices can take its toll on the bikes themselves. Some years we pay to stash our bikes in Europe when we return home to avoid the hassles. Here is some of the issues to be alert to when flying with bikes:
Unfortunately your flight plans have to be in the final stages to determine if your specific flight or series of flights will accept bikes. That's never been a problem for us on the large, international flights, but it can be on the smaller, short-hop, domestic flights. Some planes are just too small to accommodate bikes in the hull. Especially if you are changing planes to a smaller airport or smaller service, make sure all legs of your journey will accept bikes on the flights you are considering.
Luggage Allowances: By the Piece or By Weight?
The bad news about the airlines standardizing their pricing schemes is that the wiggle room has gone out for bike owners. With most airlines, if your international ticket includes starting or stopping in the US or Canada, your luggage for all legs of your journey go by the piece system, which is the good news. That usually means 2 pieces of luggage weighing no more than 70 lbs each on international flights. Our bikes, bike boxes, and luggage weigh a bit over 100 lbs per person, so the piece system was a breeze. We just make sure we each only have 1 piece of checked luggage plus the boxed bike and we are set.
But nothing is constant, especially in the airline industry. In 2006 the 70 lb rule was modified by some airlines. The 70 lb limit was still in place, but the rising fuel costs meant that luggage weighing between 50 and 70 lbs incurred an extra fee. Not officially the excess baggage fee, but a sort of "lot of baggage" fee. All of a sudden, we were working hard to squeeze in under the limit, shifting some of our load into our carry-on allowance. (Of course, when the price of oil plummeted back down to where it had been, this extra fee structure didn't go away.)
Almost all tickets in which none of your flights nick North America have luggage allowances based on the weight system instead of the piece system. That usually means you are limited to 44 lbs plus about 15 lbs carry-on. Anything over the 44 lbs gets dinged for the official excess luggage fee.
Excess Luggage Charges
We learned the hard way that excess luggage charges can be trip-stoppers and cancelled a trip because of it. Ten dollars or more a pound is not unusual for excess luggage charges and they can easily be double that or more. So our excess luggage of about 40 lbs when traveling with the bikes becomes $400 per person per leg of the flight. Some excess baggage charges are at successively higher rates for longer flights.
If you catch one of those budget airline one-way flights within in Europe than only cost you $20 or $50, you can afford to pay the excess baggage charge but for most other flights it rapidly becomes prohibitive.
For big trips, we've heard that 'around the world tickets' can ensure you more generous baggage limits, though we've never purchased such a ticket.
Sometimes we have had to pay an extra $100 or more per bike per flight just because they were bikes, even though we were under the weight limit, though usually on US domestic flights and not on international flights. It is extremely difficult to nail down the rules before you fly so keep your credit card handy (they don't like cash at the check-n counter).
Airline Packing Requirements
There is 1 constant in the 'flying with bikes' routine and that is that all airlines require you to deflate the tires, remove the pedals, and turn and secure the handlebars: your box, their box, or no box, these rules apply.
Determining a given airline's requirements for packing your bike is another nightmare. If you are lucky, you'll find specific requirements on the airlines webpage. If you do, print it out and follow the instructions. Take your hardcopy with you to the ticket counter when to check your bike in because usually the check-in clerk's understanding of the requirements will not match what you have done. Having the hardcopy can make the difference between getting your bike on the plane or not.
Even worse are the airlines with no written policy available to you and they say call an agent. Of course, you will be lucky to get the same answer twice and usually the longer the agent talks to you, the more convoluted the requirements become.
Once I was able to email an airline and get a written
policy back but now that airline has dropped that contact point.
The packing requirements are a moving target. When flying Lufthansa from Madrid one year, we went out to the airport a few days before departure to discuss the boxing requirements. They sold boxes at the airport, boxes were required--no exceptions. Of course, when we arrived at the airport, they only had one box. We scrambled to protect the second bike with wads of plastic bags and cardboard we'd brought for padding the bikes within the boxes and they begrudgingly accepted it. Now the same airline, Lufthansa prefers that the bikes not be boxed.
Weight and dimensional restrictions will be your main obstacles but some airlines will not allow bikes with compressed nitrogen shocks on board. And US security agents may confiscate your tiny tube of vulcanizing agent for tire patches.
Types of Packing
The kind of container you use when flying with your bike is usually determined by your ability to store your packing supplies. Unfortunately, we've near had the luxury on an overseas trip of storing bike boxes, so have been limited to disposable products like cardboard boxes and plastic wrap. If you have the ability to stash a fine bike bag or sturdy, reusable container while you tour, take it.
We did buy folding Bike Friday bikes that fit in their own suitcases that converted to a trailer and hoped to travel overseas with them, thereby circumventing a number of luggage-related problems. We weren't satisfied with the bikes for long-term, loaded touring and also preferred using panniers over trailers so went back to conventional bikes. For shorter trips, they are probably a great solution so less of your trip is consumed by the packaging/airlines problems.
Packing Up Your Bike
Of course, your packing options at home and when returning home are wildly different. At home, we take days to pack the bikes and make sure every thing is just so. When abroad and returning home, we do what we can to protect the bikes in the available time and hope for the best.
Weeks before flying either direction in the trip, we
establish what we are going to pack the bikes in. Usually that means either free
bikes shop boxes or purchased, airline boxes. Once while at home we purchased
boxes designed for another purpose and once while abroad we purchased bike bags.
And now with Lufthansa's new "no box" rule, we'll be bundling them up
with some padding but without a
About a week before flying home with the bikes, we start trolling at large hardware and home improvement stores en route for packing supplies we can carry with us on the road. Split lengthens of foam pipe insulation provide light-weight padding and carton tape is invaluable for securing wadded plastic bags used as padding and closing the box. Long cable ties are an easy way to hold wheels and other parts secure in transit. Budget-priced rolls of kitchen plastic wrap (not waxed paper) allow securing padding and parts without the gumminess of tape residue. Small pieces of cardboard and discarded styrofoam chunks are also handy to use as spacers inside a bike box. Every packing job is different depending on the box being used, the weight restrictions, and the supplies available.
And about a week before you fly, make sure you can crack your pedals. We carry a short pedal tool with us on the road, but it isn't always sufficient for releasing the pedals that must be removed regardless of how the bike is packed. If we can't loosen them ourselves, then we still have time to stop in at a bike shop to get them cracked.
Whether flying from home or at the end of a biking trip, we clean-up the bikes before packing as it makes the bikes infinitely more pleasant to handle, both in disassembling and reassembling. And should you end up without a box when you expected to have one, a clean bike will be much better received by everyone involved. If we are on the road, we try to find a do-it-yourself car wash with power sprayers to clean off the excess grease and dirt. When a car wash doesn't materialize in time, we do what we can with a roll of paper towels and some water.
A favorite trick when flying from home with generous weight allowances was to get 2 free bike boxes from the local bike shop for each bike, getting a matched pair of the biggest boxes they had. The bike would be packed in the upright position as bike boxes with top opening demand. The second box would then be inverted down over the open top of the first box like a sleeve. This system accomplished 2 things. First, almost the entire package was double-boxed, making it much stronger and less susceptible to crush and puncture damage. Equally important, the bike didn't have to be dismantled quite as much and could stick out the top a bit, being covered by the second box. But getting the boxes you want from a bike shop is always a chance thing and weight restrictions may make this approach less attractive..
We recently bought a dozen light fixture boxes (pictured above) from a local box seller that open from the big side of the box. In some ways these boxes are more awkward but they just meet the airline's requirements and are incredibly easy to pack as you can see inside the box once the bike is in it.
Airline boxes are quite large (some of them are even larger than their stated size restrictions.) They require the least amount of dismantling for the bikes to slip inside, but offer the least protection as the bike flops around. Bring your own tape to the airport if buying one of their boxes and some padding materials to protect the more vulnerable parts.
Reusable bike bags are great if you have a place to store them while you tour but the bikes still benefit from some extra padding from cardboard or styrofoam if you can manage. We even partially lined one bike bag with the box for a children's bike to give the bag some rigidity and the bike extra protection.
When packing the bike, plan for the worst. Don't assume it will be carefully handled and travel "This End Up". No, it's going to be slung, heaved, dropped, and stacked upon and perhaps left out in the rain for awhile. Use tape, plastic wrap, and cable ties to ensure that the relationship you've established between the dismantled parts remains constant regardless of how the box is turned or jiggled. Also think of protecting vulnerable areas from rubbing damage, like your saddle and handle bar tape. And pack defensively for crushing impact on delicate parts. And don't have any small, loose parts that can fall out of tears that occur in transit or through the hand-holds you cut into the box. The challenge is to find the perfect balance between the time you must spend packing and unpacking the bike and giving it ample protection from damage.
The front wheel usually must come off for boxing, creating some special hazards for the bike while in transit. When it comes time to actually turn the bikes over to the airlines, these are the parts of our bikes that Bill has tried to give extra protection in the latest packing strategy:
-the drop-outs on the front fork from impact damage (or slicing through the box)
-the front wheel spokes, rim, and brake rotor from being smashed against the bike frame
-the front axel is also vulnerable to damage if it pokes through the box
-the rear derailleur
-the bottom brackets from force through a pedal that has moved from the horizontal position
When the packing job is complete, including name tags on the inside and outside of the box, cut several handholds if the box lacks them. Put a couple on each side near the top so 1 person (often you) can carry the box while standing at its center. Experiment to find the balance point for the weight and comfortable spacing for your arms, with 1 hand on each side of the box. Reinforce the hand-holding with tape. This will also make it easier for the baggage handlers to carry your bike, possibly improving it's treatment while in their care.
Luggage for Your Other Gear
We usually abandon our luggage and bike boxes when we arrive at our departure point for our biking trip, so have delved into the fine art of disposable luggage. One extreme was packing our panniers and their contents in giant paper bags designed for curbside garden debris disposal. Three panniers neatly fit in 1 leaf bag which we lined with a construction-weight plastic bag for extra durability. The system worked well except that the airlines hated it.
Our leaf bags were more durable than cheap luggage but they weren't luggage. We had to sign special releases and disclaimers at check-in. After September 11 and the institution of greater security checks, it became more of a nightmare. Our leaf bags attracted too much attention and the inspectors did a terrible job of repacking them.
Just for the acceptability factor, we switched to budget-priced luggage. That's ranged from cheap wheeled suitcases to duffel bags to second-hand store purchases. The trick is selecting a piece durable enough to survive the journey yet cheap enough that you can bear to throw it away after a single use. Just like when using the beefy paper bags, we stuff our belongings into a construction site-weight plastic bag that's inside the suitcase or duffel incase the luggage bursts open in transit.
We don't check bare panniers with the airlines, we always wrap them in something. We use either Vaude or Ortlieb waterproof panniers which have rigid plastic backs and discovered that the corners of the backs are vulnerable to chipping and cracking. We always make sure these plastic backs are protected in our soft-sided luggage.
And if you think you might be overweight on your luggage, try packing 'expendables' together in a plastic bag in the corner of your luggage. That way if you are just a few pounds overweight, you can quickly ditch those items to avoid the penalty. We do that with some books, toothpaste, hand lotion, snacks, and other little items that can be easily replaced for far less than the excess baggage fees.
Transporting Boxed Bikes To And From The Airport
Make sure your logistical planning includes hauling boxed bikes to and from the airport. The problems involved at the home-end of the trip are generally the easiest as you are more familiar with the resources. You may be able to call upon friends with trucks or station wagons to haul your bikes around and if not, you know more of the in's and out's of the local public transportation and taxis. You may be able to make test runs or careful measurements of hauling capacity days before you go to the airport. And it's easier to sit at home with the yellow pages in front of you to explore all the options than when in a hotel in a foreign country.
The other end--flying in and out of your destination--is trickier. Every city's fleet of airport transportation vehicles is a little different. Some airports are served by vans with seats that fold down, others don't seem to have them at all. And driver's temperaments vary on how much effort they will expend to get the bikes into their vehicle. Some intercity trains set-up for wheel chairs are easy to drag boxed bikes onto; others with narrow entrances, steep steps, and tight corners are all but impossible.
We generally try to fly in and out of foreign cities during regular business hours on week days as that gives us the greatest access to transportation services. We usually also check for holidays before we schedule our flight so we aren't competing with crowds for services or are looking for help when only a skeleton crew is working.
We've even gone as far as flying with a luggage cart just for wheeling our bikes around between legs of public transportation and then mailing it home afterwards. Of course, the cost of the cart has to be weighed against the considerable mailing charges. And we are reluctant to use a cheap cart and throw it away at the end of the journey as we are fearful that cheap ones will fail prematurely, leaving us in a bind.
Sometimes riding your bike to or from the airport is an option. Biking to the airport with your luggage or putting your bike and luggage on public transportation works well if you can buy boxes from the airlines and then pack the bikes there. That of course works best with flights later in the day and starting from a nearby hotel. With flights that arrive fairly early in the day, we've also reassembled our bikes at the airport and biked off the grounds with our luggage transferred into our panniers. Be sure to check before hand if the airport has roads on which you can bike as some are only served by freeways that exclude bikes.
When leaving Frankfurt, Germany for the US, we took advantage of the earlier luggage check-in policy. The night before the flight we packed up the bikes at the airport, then checked them in. That solved a number of logistical problems and took all the pressure off our our early departure the next morning.
The difficulties in schlepping boxed bikes around town are a good reason to keep your travel plans simple and eliminate stop-overs.
Australia/New Zealand - November 2006/March 2007
The blind alleys and "gotchas" with going down under are the same, it just that coming from the States you have fewer airlines to choose from. At least from the west coast, Qantas and Air New Zealand are the 2 main choices.
Qantas absolutely requires bike boxes. In Auckland, they sell them for $30NZ ($20US) each and say they keep a good supply--which they did have when we were there. Air New Zealand on the other hand doesn't sell boxes, nor do they require them.
Our tickets from Portland to Auckland were with Qantas, but the Portland to LA leg was actually on Alaska. So, unfortunately for us, Alaska's 50 lb weight limit applied for the domestic leg and didn't allow us to capitalize on Qantas's 70 limit. Our beefy 40 lb bikes with racks and other attached items and our extra heavy boxes at 12 pounds put us over limit for Alaska. Had we been under Qantas's rules, we would have left our panniers and locks in with the bikes rather than tote them in our carry-on and checked luggage.
And when flying into New Zealand, be sure to thoroughly hose all the dirt off your bike. New Zealand has severe biohazard restrictions and mountain bikes get extra scrutiny when you arrive (scrub up your hiking boots and tent too.)
Please e-mail us at this site if you have questions about our packing or transport experience or if you have some great ideas we've missed.