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.
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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.