How to Fly with Your Bike

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 Up!

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.

DIY?

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.

How To

* 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.

Getting There

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.

Some Numbers:

Handling Fees for Bicycles/

Oversized Baggage

+ 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

linear inches.

+ WestJet: $50 oversize baggage charge if over

62 linear inches.

+ Air Canada: $50 each way regardless of box size.

Bag vs. Box: travellingtwo.com/resources/flying-with-a-bicycle-in-a-plastic-ctc-bag

Reinforcing you box: a great guide on how to reinforce your bike box: members.shaw.ca/boxyourbike

10 Comments

  • Erin Dresden

    I noticed that you all are attempting to get around bike fees as well all are. I have a suggestion for you, a very small company located in Des Moines, IA manufactures a bike case that flies as a checked bag! Only one to do so! I have flown with mine numerous times and sure enough it works. The best part, TSA never messes with my case because it meets the requirement!

    Check out http://www.rustersports.com

    You will not be disappointed with what you find!

  • Trey

    Airline baggage check in can be expensive and inconvenient. Why haul your heavy bike case to and from the airport? Bypass long check-in lines, skip the wait at baggage claim and have your bike case waiting for you at your destination. Contact High Country Shipping and let us simplify your life. http://www.highcountryshipping.com

  • Ted

    in several trips with a folding bike in a large suitcase, TSA has opened and inspected (and repacked, sometime incorrectly) the package most times.

    They appear to be looking for those CO2 inflation canisters, which are not airplane legal, even in checked baggage.

  • dean sprague

    a better option – full size bike – not bike fees,.may tiake a bit of time to take apart and rebuiold but save the $$$$s http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPmgChjTW98

  • violaine

    yes, i do agree with you ch1, folding bicycles are praticals. we actually make an experiment in Nantes (France) about folding bicycles http://blog.bid-nantes-france-velo-city2015.com/post/2012/05/03/Cyclo-Tan%3A-Folding-bicycles-!

  • Alan M

    The notion that tires need to be deflated lest they explode at altitude is bunk, although baggage-check clerks don’t seem to get it. Dogs and cats travel in the same cargo hold area as the baggage; that area is pressurized just like the passenger cabin. Dogs and cats don’t explode, or get the bends, and neither will your tires.

  • Sarah

    Brian, ch1 and Davey, you are very right, train travel is less expensive than taking your bike on a plane. Here are some more tips about how to travel with your bike by train: http://momentumplanet.com/articles/how-to-take-your-bicycle-on-the-train

  • Davey

    I agree with Brian. You can’t beat a $5 bike charge if you box it yourself. And Amtrak’s more fun, anyway, just pack a sandwich or two!

  • ch1

    I really recommend a folding bike, if practical. VIA Rail in Canada takes a folding bike as regular luggage if it is in a bag.

  • Brian Lehman

    Amtrak is a great alternative to the airlines for cyclists if you have enough time. Last year I traveled via Amtrak from San Francisco to Denver. I took my bicycle with me. I bought one of Amtrak’s bike boxes for $20.00. It is significantly larger than a conventional bike box. The great news was the $20.00 covered everything – NO handling or extra baggage fee!

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