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By: Zdenko Kahlina
How to fly with a bike: The cheap and easy method
If you plan to travel internationally with a bicycle like I do, at some point you will be required to put your bike on a plane. Taking a bike on an airplane as luggage can be a gut wrenching proposition. You need to pack it in a way that means it can withstand the baggage handlers’ manhandling, and make sure it will come off the plane in the same state that it went on…
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” ~Ernest Hemingway
In addition to the various and variable fees imposed by the different airlines, there is the matter of packing and unpacking your bike for air travel, sourcing packaging materials and protecting your bike during transit. These days you have to carefully select your air travel company as they all have different fees for the bike. Within America I usually fly with Canadian WestJet. It’s best to be aware in advance that sporting equipment will count as a piece of checked baggage. WestJet will only charge you $20 CAD + GST (one way) for the bike. Basically, they just charge you for a second bag. Other companies, like ‘Air Canada’, ‘United’ or ‘Delta’ airlines might charge you as much as $200 USD one way. So, make sure you do your homework, and check before the trip, how much they will charge you for the bike in addition to your ticket.
Tips for packing a bike bag when travelling with your bike
When flying somewhere, bicycle in hand for a cycling vacation is in equal measures thrilling and scary. It’s thrilling because there’s nothing more exciting than riding through strange and foreign lands. Not to mention when you leave a snowy weather during the cold Canadian winters for, let’s assume, a Mexico’s warm climate. It’s scary because the airline might damage or even lose your bike. The latter is far worse than simply losing a suitcase. As much as it would upset me, I could get by for a few days without my bespoke tailored pyjamas and my kangaroo-skin slippers, but I simply couldn’t enjoy a cycling holiday without my bike.
But it’s not just the actual loss of the bike that can afflict the cyclo-tourist. The packing of the bike inside the box is fraught with dangers. If you are planning to bundle up your bike for a big cycling vacation, make sure you check out the following tips so your machine travels well.
What to pack your bike in
Most airlines require bikes to be either boxed or bagged for travel. A decent bike bag can cost anywhere between $100 to $500 CAD, which I’d say is a worthwhile investment if you intend to holiday with your bike more than once. It’s also an excellent option for long-term storage.
Recently I purchest a ‘Polaris’ cargo bike bag for my travels (see picture above). The Polaris Cargo Bag has a semi rigid base with the upper bag made from robust 600D polyester fabric, fully foam padded and lined. The Cargo Bag features wheels, skids and carrying straps for ease of transport. It comes with 2 internal padded wheel bags, internal accessory pocket, a tool roll and luggage tag. It can be rolled up for ease of storage.
The size of this bike bag fits within regular lagguage measurements for most air companies, so they will not charge you ‘oversized’ lagguage fee. Dimensions are: Length 126 cm, Height 77 cm, Depth 22 cm. Weight: Approx 4.8kg (including wheel bags).
Cardboard boxes are a cheap way to pack your bike
A cheapest option is to pack it in a cardboard bike box, which should be available for free from your local bike shop (although some charge). These are cheap and offer good protection, but there’s a limit to how many times you can fold them down and build them up again. These boxes are handled with appropriate care at the airports and are very secure for bike travel. And you can just toast them at your destination and get another one on your next trip. Although, some air companies might charge you additional fees for oversized luggage.
With multiple benefits over packing a bike in a cardboard box, sometime this is my preferred method for flying with the bike on an airplane. At first I was skeptical, and honestly if I wasn’t forced into using this technique by the lack of bike packing resources during my trip to Sydney, Australia few years ago I would have never tried it. It does feel a little like stepping off a cliff, until you realize that your bike will be treated much more carefully when packed in a big cardboard box, that has word ‘bicycle’ written all over it.
Hard bike cases offer good protection, but are a real pain to stash in the back of a hire car or hotel wardrobe. They are expensive, don’t fit large frames (anything over 62cm is trouble), and essentially force a loop itinerary, since they cannot be shipped easily. I never owned one, but I am wondering how much people have to pay to check in at the airport with a big and heavy bike box these days. Furthermore, they are also heavy to lug around on public transport. They are just not practical for me.
Make your ride a good flayer
I prefer to use a soft bike bag because it’s cheaper compared to very expensive hard cases and it’s easy to store it away after arriving at my destination. My Polaris’s Cargo bag doesn’t have a massive volume, but it makes up for this with plenty of decent features. The semi-rigid base has plastic runners along the bottom to help it slide up kerbs and steps, while two rear wheels help when you’re pulling it along. Removable wheelbags are a nice touch, and are well constructed too. Its weight is approximately 4.8 kg (including two wheel bags).
Inside there are a number of pockets, which provide space to store bits and pieces such as quick-release skewers and pedals. The internal volume is smaller than some other bags offer, which may mean having to remove or lower your bike’s seatpost, but all we had to do to fit a bike inside was twist the handlebar in the stem. The size of this bag is 126 x 77 x 22 cm, which is well within regular allowed baggage size for most airlines and additional fees do not apply. For example any piece of luggage exceeding the size (158cm x 203cm) or weight allowance (23kg or 50lb) is subject to all applicable oversized weight and size restrictions and fees.
Packing a Bicycle for Air Travel
To pack your bike, you’ll need the relevant bike breaking-down tools, pipe lagging/bubble wrap, zipties/toe straps, a rag, some spare cardboard and duct tape. If you can get the plastic fork/rear end spacers from the local bike shop then all the better. Pay attention to the following steps you have to take:
It is always a good idea to dismantle your bike few days before the trip. Don’t start at the last minute, as it always takes a bit longer than you think. It usually takes me about one hour to prepare my bike for travel and the same time to put it back together once I arrive at my destination.
Pedals, seatpost and saddle
First I remove pedals, before taking the wheels off the bike. Both pedals are removed by turning the wrench toward the back of the bike. Invest in pedal wrench or pedal Allen key that has a long lever, which makes it much easier to remove the pedals. Apply a small amount of grease to your pedal threads to ensure they are easy to remove again the next time around. After removing your pedals, tape them together and tape the threads, then carry them in your regular luggage if you don’t have a bag with side pockets. Don’t leave these items loose in the bike bag. Remove your seatpost and saddle, or lower it to its minimum height (as long as this doesn’t scratch the post). Make sure the clamp is either lightly tightened or removed and carried in separate pocket. I keep pedals and quick-release skewers together in a plastic bag which is taped between the rear stays. I actually don’t use plastic travel skewers. Instead I use old Shimano hubs and their quick-release skewers as they serve the same purpose.
Remove the wheels, deflate the tyres slightly (don’t deflate them too much as this can cause rim damage if the bag gets dropped). Take out the quick-release skewers and tape them to the spokes, or stash them safely in any bag pockets available. As I mentioned already, I keep them in a separate plastic bag, together with pedals inside the bike bag. If you have plastic fork/rear triangle spacers (which come with new, boxed bikes and forks – your local bike shop might let you have some) put them in place.
Remove the rear derailleur (and hanger if you wish), and then tighten the hanger bolts so as not to lose them in transit. Wrap the derailleur in bubble wrap or a rag and strap it between the rear stays, so that it doesn’t get bent or the chain slap around against the frame.
Cut the foam insulation to fit all the tubes of the frame: both fork blades, head tube, top tube, down tube, seat tube, and both chain and seat stays. Slide the insulation over the appropriate tubes and secure it with electrical tape.
Depending on the size of your bike and bag, either turn your stem sideways and turn your bars downwards and under the top tube on the chain side (padding the top tube and strapping the bars against it), or, if the bag is too small, remove the bars and strap them in that position (try to leave the stem on or strap/ziptie your forks and head set together to prevent the loss of headset parts).
Cranks and chainrings
Turn the cranks parallel (horizontal position) and pad the bottom of the chainring. I use old toe-straps to tie cranks in this position. For the chainring I use homemade piece of wood build to protect the bottom of chainring and never had any damage done to the chainring. Add foam padding (pipe lagging from your local DIY store) to the main tubes and anywhere else likely to get scratched in transit.
Bag it up
Unless your bag has a hard base then the bike goes in the bag upside down to protect the chaining. If the bag has padded wheel bags as mine does, use these and place the wheels on either side of the bike, staggered for less bulk. If you have no wheel bags then follow the padding procedure as with the box, but strap the wheels one on the each side of the frame. It does not pay to padlock the bag, as security may wish to open it – they always do, but a ziptie between the zips will aid security and can easily be cut when you arrive.
Box it up
If you are using a box then place the bike inside, chaining downwards, and then put in both wheels, one to the front and the other towards the back of the bike (both chain side) with sprockets in the gap in the frame. Pad the contact points/or put cardboard sections in-between and ziptie/strap the wheels to the frame. Seal the box with duct tape and be sure to write your contact/destination details and flight info on the box.
Place a towel or soft clothing between the frame and rotated handlebars to make sure there are no hard surfaces touching one another. This setup will prevent your frame from getting scratched or demaged. Don’t forget to put travel skewers in the front and rear dropouts to protect the fork and rear stays. Or instead use old wheel hubs like me as they can serve the same purpose.
Don’t travel with CO2 cartridges. They are considered hazardous materijals and are banned from flights. At the check in counter, the first question about the bike will be if you deflated the tires and if you carry CO2 cartridges with you.
Take advantage of some extra space in your bike bag and pack items that won’t damage your bike, such as your helmet, shoes, clothing and nutrition. I even puck my steel floor pump after it is wrapped in the bubble wrap. I had enough room in the bag, for all my tools packed in a small tool box, necessary for bike assembly. I carefully packed these extra items in the open spaces between the frame and wheels at the bottom of the bag. I marveled at what a tidy job I do when packing my bike in a first place. When all the bits and pieces are where they should be I close the bag and tighten the straps. Bike is ready for my next trip…
After more than a decade of bike travel, I have evolved my own variation on ‘packing your own bike’ techniques. In a nutshell, I don’t dismantle the bike quite as much, but I pad the tubes to prevent dings and scratches. So far (knock, knock on the wood) I never had any damage done to the bike during my air travels.
Whatever packing method you choose, visit your airline’s web site to check the latest rules regarding bicycle transport, and carry a printed copy of those regulations with you. Check-in attendants can be poorly informed and hostile to cyclists. Know your rights.
The first time I combined bike touring and air travel I tediously and meticulously removed and bubble wrapped every single piece of my bike, right down to water bottle cages. I packed the pieces in re-enforced cardboard bike boxes, marked FRAGILE on every possible surface, crossed my fingers and was generally tense throughout the entire experience. The whole process took me about 1 hour on each end of the journey. Other than the time and labor and stress involved, all went well. I’ve done it lots of times since… It always works, but it can be expensive, time consuming and stressful. Isn’t there a better way to fly with a bike?
A final tip
Always check your bike for damage/loss before clearing customs, otherwise the airline’s liability is limited. Be sure to get written confirmation of any damage from baggage handlers too.
Have a good and healthy season.
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