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Flying with your bicycle can be a real gutwrencher.
By Torrey Pass
Flying with your bicycle can be a real gut-wrencher. Aside from the handling surcharge that can sometimes rival your airfare, there’s also the risk that your baby will get mangled in transit. Every time you fly, it’s a roll of the dice. The airline employee who checks your luggage and the baggage handlers at either end are the variables. You can stack the odds in your favor, however, by doing a little research and packing your bike with care.
Read and compare each airline’s baggage policy before you book your flight. The fine print will likely help you decide which company to fly with.
Most major US and Canadian airlines will accept a bicycle in lieu of a checked bag and won’t add a surcharge. You just have to stuff it into a box smaller than 62 linear inches (length + height + width). Given that a standard bike-shipping box is roughly 90 linear inches, the 62-inch standard is effectively going to leave you with a hefty oversize luggage fee. Unless you have a folding bike, the only workaround is to put your wheels and your frame (with seat post, pedals, stem, bars and fork removed) in two different boxes. Consider this option if you have the mechanical expertise to strip your bike down and build it back up again.
How to Find a Box
You should be able to get a free box from your local bike shop. Have one set aside about a week before your flight; boxes are usually broken down and stuffed into the recycling bin as soon as they’re emptied. Ask for a pair of plastic braces that snap into your dropouts (every new bike is shipped with them). These will keep your fork legs from puncturing the cardboard and prevent your frame from being bent due to side impact or stacking.
Ask for some plastic inserts that snap into your hubs. They’ll protect your wheels and keep your axles from punching through the box. If you decide to go with two small boxes, grab one designed for shipping wheelsets – a perfect fit for your hoops. The box should also include some anti-crushing cardboard sections.
Many shops will box your bike for a fee. This is a good option only if you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself and if you’re sure someone can assemble your bike for you at the other end.
* Your ride will fit into a standard bike box with pedals removed, handlebars turned or removed and one or both wheels removed. If you remove both wheels, place your frame in the box upside down. Never rest the frame on the derailleur hanger.
* Deflate tires to about half the max PSI written on their sidewalls so they don’t explode at altitude.
* Turn or remove the handlebars. To turn, loosen the stem bolts that clamp onto the fork steerer. To take the stem off, remove the headset adjustment bolt, loosen the stem bolts and work the stem off the fork. Have someone show you how to adjust your headset upon reassembly if you aren’t sure how to do it yourself.
* Remove pedals, remembering that the non-drive side pedal is reverse-threaded (clockwise to loosen). Using an Allen key, remove your rear derailleur from the hanger, first making sure there’s no tension on the chain; this will keep the hanger from getting bent or snapped. Zip-tie or tape the derailleur to the inside of the chainstay.
* Remove quick release skewers from the hubs to save space and prevent damage; tape or zip-tie them to your spokes. Snap the plastic inserts into your hubs.
* Snap the plastic braces into your fork (and frame) dropouts.
* Keep all parts separate and organized. Make sure there are no loose bolts rolling around in the bottom of the box.
* Wedge sleeping pads, clothes, shoeboxes or cardboard inserts (shipped with new bikes) between the frame, parts and box to prevent crushing due to impact or stacking. Your boxed bike should be able to withstand a karate kick or a kung-fu punch from any direction.
Unless you plan to bag your bike, take a taxi to the airport. Specify that you have a boxed bike and ask for a van.
What to Expect at the Airport
To avoid problems, print the airline’s baggage policy and keep it handy when you check your bike. Make sure you’ve measured and weighed your boxes so that they meet the airline’s requirements. Be nice!
Preventing Damage and the Unthinkable “What If?”
Some airlines require that you sign a limited release form that prevents you from claiming damages incurred during handling. If you refuse to sign, your bike simply won’t be accepted. Again, read before you book.
Take photos of your bike going into the box. Pack with care to prevent crushing. “This Side Up” and “FRAGILE” stickers can’t hurt.
Putting the Pieces Together
If you’ve boxed your bike yourself, putting it together again shouldn’t be a problem, assuming you’ve remembered your tools. All you should need is your set of Allen keys and a pump.
* Carefully thread in the rear derailleur with an Allen key, making sure it’s snug. Reinsert the quick-releases, put on your wheels and reconnect the brakes. Turn stem, make sure headset is properly adjusted and tighten stem bolts. Insert seat post (of course you remembered to mark the height with some electrical tape!) and thread in pedals (clockwise for the drive side, counterclockwise for the non-drive side).
* Inflate tires, hop on and ride!
Want a bag with that?
Some airlines (such as Air Canada) provide a big plastic bike bag. Some recommend placing the bag over the box on the assumption that a baggage handler will treat a bagged bike with more care. These airlines will definitely have you sign a release form.
Handling Fees for Bicycles/
+ Continental: Baggage over 62 linear inches and/or over 50 pounds (23 kilograms): $100 each way
for domestic (US) flights, $200 each way for international flights.
+ US Airways: Baggage over 62 linear inches and/or over 50 lbs (23 kgs) $200 each direction.
+ American Airlines: $150 each way if over 62
+ WestJet: $50 oversize baggage charge if over
62 linear inches.
+ Air Canada: $50 each way regardless of box size.
Reinforcing you box: a great guide on how to reinforce your bike box: members.shaw.ca/boxyourbike