Notes on Flying with a Bicycle Jul 30, 2013

NYC_Day-01-2

If anyone can tell you about traveling on an airplane with a bike, it’s me. I spend just about every other week flying with my bike, all over the country and the world. In doing so, I’ve established a routine that works without issue but it takes a little bit of planning before you even begin to pack.

Check out more below.


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First of all, forget about buying a hard case, or a soft case. Just go with a cardboard box. Trust me. I’ve used many cases and yet, I keep coming back to the trusty (and free) cardboard box method. There are a few reasons.

Storing a bike box, or a case when you get to your destination can be a pain. No one wants a house guest with a bunch of extra shit in tow. With a cardboard box, you can just trash it, or leave it outside. If you do throw it out, guess what? There’s a bike shop in town that has another one, just like it, for free!

The size of a bike box is perfect for, yep, you guessed it, shipping a bike and the best part is, unlike most hard cases, you don’t need to remove your rear wheel, cranks, derailleur, stem or fork to do so. Simply remove the pedals, bars and front wheel, pad your frame, secure the wheel and bars to the bike and drop it into the box. When you land, it’ll take you 5 – 10 minutes to assemble.

The weight of a cardboard box is negligible, so if the airlines do weigh it, you can bet it’ll be under the 50lbs max. Every single hardcase I’ve used (even internationally) either comes in over, or just under that mark with a bike in it.

So, what about the cost? Look, airlines suck. Most of them anyway but there are a few I choose to fly with…

Frontier, Jetblue, Virgin and Southwest all only charge $50* for a bike (Southwest now charges $75 and Frontier has various fees, all in under $50, depending on your ticket plan). You don’t have to tell them it’s “art supplies” or a “massage table”. Just tell them it’s a bike and they’ll take it. Now, $50 may seem like a lot but when you consider that your bike box should be your only checked bag, it’s a deal. You just have to make sure you pack everything you associate with your ride in it.

Shoes, kits, extra tubes, tools, helmet, etc can and will all fit in your bike box. Also claiming it’s a bike will give you the airline’s insurance for damaged goods. Not that it’ll cover your $8,000 Parlee but it’s better than nothing. Renter’s insurance plans should protect your bike if it’s damaged in flight as well. But it won’t be damaged because unlike hard cases, airline baggage “throwers” won’t lay a cardboard box on its side, or stack baggage on top of it because it’s a cardboard box. Now a hardcase and even a softcase, yes. They will stack, toss and manhandle it.

I have had friends with high-end, high-dollar cases have their bikes destroyed because of this and in the four years I’ve been traveling extensively, I’ve never, ever had an issue.

What if you can’t fly the above-mentioned airlines? If one of those airlines won’t take you to your destination, it’s probably a shitty city anyway… Joking aside, bite the bullet. American, Delta, United all charge $125 – $150. That’s around $250 – $300 round trip. Ask yourself, is that amount of money worth flying with your bike? Can you rent or borrow someone’s instead? Personally, I do it anyway, because it’s a business write off for my taxes (another valid point).

S&S, Bromptons and other folding options are great but as I said, I like to check a bike with minimal disassembling. I had an S&S bike and I never took it apart. Why? Because it’s still $50 to check the damn thing! Besides, those S&S boxes barely fit the bike, much less my riding gear, so I still had to check a duffel bag with it. That’s another $25… S&S is all the rage but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Another note, most international flights will take bikes for free! Just check with the airline.

Bottom line: plan. Before you even book your flight, does Jetblue, Southwest, Virgin or Frontier go to your destination? If so, you’re good to go. Get a bike box from your local shop and always make sure to bring a roll of packing tape with you.

  • Mehdi Farsi

    As of 2013 Southwest is now $75 each way.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Weird. I just flew them and was charged $50.

      • Mehdi Farsi

        You lucked out, that’s pretty much all we fly around and it’s been $75 all year.

        • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

          :-

      • ringcycles

        Mehdi is correct. I’ve flow SW twice this year with a bike. As of January their fee is $75. I had an argument at the baggage check because they wanted to double charge me for a bike case that weighed 52 lbs.

  • Mark Steffen

    I’ve been doing this exact method for years, as well. I’ve never had a problem.

  • Agleck7

    What’s your method for padding/securing the wheel/bars?

    • Auaebothiabathabaithobeuee

      Foam roll and duct tape.

      • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

        Packing tape doesn’t leave a residue.

        • Vernon6

          I use zip ties

          • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

            also good! I have straps with a plastic clasp I got from REI.

    • Sean Curran

      Bike shops know how to secure it all pretty well. I’ve shipped a lot similar to the way they are received new at a shop but with a bunch of extra foam and cardboard. I’ve also taken rear mechs off to ensure. Always make sure the fork is solid, make something or stick an old hub in there, leave the stem on or make a spacer. Ask bike shops if they have any bigger boxes, full suspension mtb boxes are wider and then you can add an extra layer of cardboard on the drivetrain side. The plastic axle protectors do a fine job at dispersing the weight so the axle on the front wheel won’t poke through, same on the rear dropouts with qr’s.

  • Ion Feldman

    Great write up, but I’m excited to try this new cycle sharing service next time I’m on the road: https://www.spinlister.com/

  • tommy

    any one ever use spinlister.com to find a bike on a trip?

  • Tom

    With some of the expensive bikes I’ve seen on here, I think I’d be hesitant to be shipping a custom Bishop or Argonaut around in a carboard box (that’s just me), I am just not sure I buy baggage handlers being more gentle with carboard. I get the saving on airline fee’s because of weight, but is it not worth it to save a few bucks to protect a $6000+ investment? Sounds like you have had good luck at least. I’ve had good experiences with my Trico Iron Case. It is heavier but the plastic has seen a lot of abuse and never had anything even remotely close to being damaged. I think it would make more sense if you needed something disposable if you were leaving from a different airport or something. I think it would be annoying to hunt down packing materials and a new cardboard box before your return flight though! If you are nice with the check-in staff, often they will charge you the “bike fee” and allow you to use any leftover weight allowance from your checked bags to avoid overweight fees.

    On the topic of airline fees, fellow Canadians, for a budget friendly cycling trip, consider some of Sunwing’s destinations. Flew to Costa Rica earlier this year, my box weighed a couple kilo’s over their bike limit, and it still only cost me $30 round trip!

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      The Trico is the worst. TSA has a hard time closing it and it weighs more than the bike! Also, a few friends have had their bikes crushed because TSA didn’t close it right….

      • Eric Baumann

        I used a trico on a recent international trip without issue…but I will definitely agree that it is a pain in the ass to close up. that said, i would also have a really hard time trusting a cardboard box (depending on the destination and the bike in question).

        • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

          You’ve used it once, I’ve used it over a dozen times. To China, Indonesia, Australia and other parts of the world. It sucks. From Indo, they duct-taped it closed. From AUS, they used gaffers tape to close it. From China, they tied the straps together.

          • Eric Baumann

            Guess buckles and straps are too complex a system for some haha

          • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

            Trust me. We have one. I’d rather use the cardboard box. Most people don’t exactly love their jobs and closing a bike box when you’re slammed appears to be too much of a hassle. A non-closed Trico case = cracked frame.

          • Eric Baumann

            I do trust you and I agree, the trico is definitely not the best case around, I used it because it was free, and i bubble wrapped the frame inside of it. If I were buying a case I would definitely get something better or probably go s&s. A cardboard box just doesn’t really sound any better than a poorly closed trico case to me but that’s cool that you’ve had good luck with it so far.

          • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

            I’m dead serious about the visual message a cardboard box sends: don’t stack heavy shit on me. I’ve talked to baggage tossers and airline attendants a lot over the years and they literally handle that shit with kid gloves, as compared to a hard or soft case.

            Again, my airline miles are insane…. :-)

          • Tom

            I am surprised people find the Trico hard to close? TSA has opened mine too w/o issue because they were curious about a large bottle of hammer gel. You just tighten the straps. The last time I travelled with it, I would have had no choice but to have people’s bags piled on top (bottom of a coach bus). There is no where else to store it in a situation like that. Wheels are key too.

  • daveaugust43

    Best solution is the Gavilan BFF bag designed by the collective effort of poor local pros in NYC (prior to this it was $20 china town suitcases). It is below the minimum oversize limit and doesn’t look like a bike case. You’ll never be charged and your bike will be protected. Search for it on Facebook.

    • daveaugust43
      • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

        Also, requires you to disassemble your entire bike and you can’t fit more gear in it…

        • daveaugust43

          You do have to take fork and rd off. My seatpost is seized and it still fit. Not sure about a 62cm frame. The case is wide so there is a lot of room for more gear. I had two duffel bags in there in addition to the bike.

        • Nathan

          I would say that paying to check a bag (if you even need it, I never have), $25 maybe $50 max, beats paying a bike fee every time. Simple economics.

          • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

            Checking a bike is $50 on Jetblue and I never check a bag. Sometimes, it’s $25, if the people at the gate like me.

    • Vernon6

      That thing looks sweet!

    • STAY FED

      Where can I get one of these? I need one for a trip on the 21st. Any leads would be appreciated. Chris@stayfed.tv

  • recurrecur

    completely agree. I use a cardboard box every time.

    the only thing I’d add is that I make 3d cardboard triangle tubes whose length is the depth of the box, and stuff those in the big spoke gaps of the rear wheel. I do this with the hope that the rear derailleur won’t get squished/bent.
    VIrgin Atlantic & British Airways are free.

  • disqus_KZD2FBYTyQ

    unless southwest has changed their policies, the last time i flew with them i checked my bike for free as my free checked bag since the box was under their size restrictions. i had to take my fork off, but with a sealed CK headset on a track bike, it wasn’t a hassle. bummer if they’re up to $75 now.

    you didn’t go into much detail on padding it, but a couple lengths of cheapo foam pipe insulator from home depot are the best.

  • A.M.

    Good overview. More posts like this! I’ve used both hard cases and the cardboard box method is the best from the weight with airlines to the pricepoint.

    However two thoughts. 1) Wheels. I have the Thule case and having wheels has been pretty useful after a long flight, especially if you have to catch a train or do some walking to get to your location. 2) A couple times I’ve gotten to do a tour where I start in one area and end in another place. Something really handy was to have a fresh change of clothes, a bottle of whiskey and other essentials packed into the Thule case. I shipped it to the hotel where I was ending the tour. Had them hold on to it. After a while on the bike it was a nice to have all those things waiting for me. Done that a few times and it worked really well. Also I found two giant pieces of 2 inch foam that I cut to the exact dimensions of a bike box. Nice protection/POM for the shipping + saves on packing materials.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      1) I’ve never felt burdened by getting a free cart from an airport. They have wheels. 2) getting a bike box is easy and yes, pipe insulation works great! :-)

  • Jorge Hernandez

    Wow, prices seem to be ridiculous on some airlines! I was going to take my bike to Hawaii, did a little research and they charge $75…it’s not a whole lot, but an extra $30 for my clothes, etc. by 2!? No way. I was better off renting a nice carbon spesh over there.

  • Ian Stone

    Frontier considers a bike a “checked bag” and will only charge you $25 if it’s under 50lbs. If you’re planning on checking another bag too, you can upgrade from the Classic to Classic Plus for an extra $20 which gives you 2 checked bags free. Saves you $30 each way!

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      No, they don’t. If you use an airport that follows the rules. Sometimes, you can convince the clerk, and it’ll be $25, but if they’re by the book, it’s $50.

      http://www.flyfrontier.com/customer-service/travel-support/baggage/special-fragile-items

      A bike fee is $50 when you purchase the “Economy” ticket. Classic, it’s still a bike fee…

      • Ian Stone

        I read over the Bicycle portion of that link and it doesn’t mention a $50 fee for a bicycle. Just says it’s considered a checked bag if it does not exceed the overweight charge, which is 50lbs. I’ve flown from KC to DEN 3 times this year with my bicycle in a bike box and it was always the same price with no haggling. It was actually $20 to check it as a bag up before they changed it to $25 in July. Where did you find the $50 bike fee with insurance? I’d like to make sure my stuff is covered. No one was ever able to give me any solid information about what happens if they lose my bike at the airport when I asked. Thanks!

  • Crihs

    Me > You any day. How much have you spent on bike fees in the last two years?

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Crihs, I know you. You know me. Are you really asking that question? You travel with a track bike… I travel with a road or a cross bike…

  • Vernon6

    I like to cut a piece of wood to fit in the fork as a spacer, keeps it from bending.

    • Ian Stone

      You can ask the bike shop when picking up the box if they can throw in any packaging bits and that usually includes the plastic spacer for the fork.

      • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

        I have dozens of fork spacers. They’re free from a local shop. Or threaded rods and 15mm bolts.

  • phlatphrog

    I have a surly trucker deluxe (aka long haul trucker with s&s couplers) that I’ve flown many times. I typically fly United (going between Hawaii and San Fran), which charges a lot for a “bicycle”. I always pre-check my bag (online check-in) and since I have the United credit card, I get my first bag free. I’ve never been charged for a “bicycle”. Essentially it costs me nothing to take my bicycle. Except the frustration and time it takes to disassemble and reassemble the bike, and the difficulty of hauling a 45 lb, awkward bag to and from the airport. I’ve done it several times (10?), but it’s always frustrating to get everything into the bag.

    I’ve thought about getting a folding bike, but whenever I test ride one, I just am not happy.

  • Alan

    Have you ever shipped your bike using UPS or FedEx? I’ll be studying abroad in Hong Kong this fall but I’ll be making a stop in Tokyo for a few days before hand. It won’t be worth it for me to bring the bike to Tokyo so I was planning to ship the bike separately so it meets me in HK.

    Also, has the TSA ever opened your box for inspection? I’ll probably be taking it on the plane with me when i come home

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      TSA always opens the box. Without a question. I would be more worried about shipping a bike to HK than carrying it with me a few extra days, IMHO.
      Shipping to HK will / could run you around $250 ish…

      • Nathan

        I will be going to china too in a month for a year or so. I would like to bring my touring bike along with my mtb. Should I bring both on the airline or just one and ship the other? Also wold you still recommend a cardboard box for shipping to china?

        • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

          Yes. I would.

  • ElCapitaineDuderino

    A musician, I’ve yet to have a reason to fly with a bike and without a guitar or synth. Having nice skb and calton cases for my $5K+ instruments I figured that these highly reliable pieces would have analogues for items like bicycles and other non-AV equipment… One of my synth cases sure appears like it would fit one of the newer lowww top-tube touring or mtn bikes with only pedals, bars and front wheel removed plus gear and tools, it is for a really big synth though. The poor design of flight cases for bikes is strange given the durability and idiot-proof-ness of instrument cases having been made for over fifty years.

  • Jamie McKeon

    Remember when you had something green in your Pentabike bar end i think the first time you flew into Sydney? So good.

  • Rama

    Not worried about carbon cracks or is this just for your bishop and geekhouse? I am flying to Aus soon but terrified i’ll arrive with a box full of splinters

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Pad your frame with pipe insulation and bubble wrap / cardboard.

  • Finn E Zygowski

    i flew united last year and got my bike on 50 bucks round trip

  • Wasaaaaaaabi

    +1 for Alaskan, only $20! Especially to and from Hawaii!

  • Joshua Meinrath

    Hey John, so im currently travelling around america with my bike, and my bicycle suitcase is falling apart!! Is a cardboard box good enough to use for bike AND a small amount of clothing etc.? For some reason im under the impression a box would get punctured and smaller things may fall out… what do you think? Thanks mate!

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Put all clothes and small items inside bags and even if a large hole gets ripped in the box, they’ll be fine. Secure parts to the frame to keep them from rattling around.

      • Joshua Meinrath

        amazing!! thanks john!! much appreciated!! shame I missed you in nyc recently, hopefully one day (maybe in melbourne) ill get to meet you.

  • Lloyd Lemons

    Thanks John. Great post. I’ve been researching case after bag after crate. I’m going to the skinny tire festival in Moab and CA after that. I often rent a bike when I travel, but I really like my own Serotta. I’m going to get a cardboard bike box from the LBS and give it a shot.

    Are most boxes all the same size?

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Yes, most box boxes are. Frame boxes are smaller.

  • STAY FED

    Flying from New York to San Francisco then back to New York and off to Bangkok. Unfortunately I went with United and looking at some hefty fees. Bummedddddddddddd.

  • Eric Baumann

    http://velonews.competitor.com/2013/08/news/cervelo-founder-calls-for-industry-wide-fork-steerer-test_299307

    something worth considering…carbon failure caused from impact damage that is nearly impossible to detect…until it fails.

  • http://rochesterfitnessequipment.com/heres-hope-to-keep-peddling-as-we-approach-the-icy-gates-of-winter/ bicycle service rochester ny

    Great post thanks…..

  • Jordan Heaney

    what about travelling with 2 bikes. As in moving to another city?

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      two boxes. Get a cart at the airport… I did it with three when I moved from NYC to Austin.

  • Michael Rock

    I recently took my bike to France. United Airlines automated machines cannot check a bike box so they charge the max ($400 one way). Lufthansa charged $100 to bring it back. UA’s website says that the fee should be $200. I complained but they refused to refund me the difference. I will never travel with my bike on UA again and encourage all others to do the same.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      I’ve never had that happen before, you should call their customer service line. They’ll refund you.