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 lost or 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 airlines have a surcharge fee for flying with a bicycle, but those can range anywhere from $50 to $200 in each direction, so you’ll want to choose your carrier wisely. If a boxed bike is the approximate size of another non-bike piece of luggage, many airlines will charge more simply for the knowledge that it’s a bicycle. It’s a bit of normal-pricing/wedding-pricing syndrome unfortunately. Many people who fly frequently with their bikes prefer to claim the luggage is something else (trade show booth, work materials) in order to avoid paying the inflated fee, but in doing so you’ll forfeit any possible liability claims if the bike is damaged.
Box, Bag, or Case?
Deciding whether or not to pack your bike in a cardboard box, bike bag, or rigid bike case is basically a matter of weighing your required protection against how much you’re willing to spend. A cardboard box is definitely the cheapest option (free), and has the added benefit of being able to be recycled upon arrival so you don’t have to deal with it anymore. Unfortunately, it also does leave your bike more vulnerable to mishandling by baggage carriers.
Rigid bike cases are definitely the most secure option, but also the most expensive, and present you with the problem of figuring out what to do with them once you get to where you’re going. Chances are you won’t be touring with that thing.
Bike cases strike a nice balance between the two, offering more protection than a box but for cheaper (and much lighter) than a case.
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 your bike shop doesn’t have inserts available, there’s a company called bopworx which makes rubber guards for all sensitive parts of the bike, specifically to protect your ride when in transit.
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.
* An old myth suggested you need to deflate your tires to about half the max PSI written on their sidewalls so they don’t explode at altitude. Since your bike will be traveling in the same pressurized cabin as dogs and cats, this isn’t actually true, but to err on the side of caution you may want to deflate them a bit.
* 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. Alternatively, the aforementioned Bopworx will play the same role as a variety of household items.
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!
This article was originally published in 2010 and has been updated.
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