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My wife and I are planning a cycling trip through Europe. This will be our second, and we're planning to build a pair of dedicating touring bikes for this (and other) adventures. We'd like suggestions on how to most cheaply and reliably get our bikes from the United States to Europe.

On our previous trip, we ended up having to change carriers, as Delta wanted to charge us a total of $1,600 ($200 per leg per bike, with two bikes and four legs round-trip) to get our bikes back and forth. We switched to Continental, who thankfully only charged an extra $400, but the experience makes us worry about future travel. What we're most worried about is the uncertainty: we may expect the fees to be one amount, but a change in oversize baggage surcharges or a disagreement over the policies with airline personnel could result in us being charged far more than is reasonable. And we may only find this out at checkin, which would be far too late to alter our plans. Thankfully, after getting conflicting information from two Delta staff members over the phone, I confirmed the excessive bicycle surcharge in time to change our flight. Next time, we might not be so lucky.

Since we've decided to build our bikes, my first thought was to spend the extra money for S&S coupled frames (the awesome Surly Trucker DeLuxe) and a matching S&S hard case. This right now seems like the best approach, but it might be annoying with hub dyno powered lights. Two problems come to mind with this approach: 1) I ride a 62cm frame, which still may not fit into a regulation-sized case, and 2) airlines lose baggage all the time. I can't think of a more depressing situation than to wind up in Europe ready to go, with our bikes nowhere to be found.

Another option is to skip the couplers and simply our bikes. From what I've seen, this is simply prohibitively expensive. For instance, Bikeflights quoted us over $2,000 to round-trip our two bikes in standard hardshell cases.

Neither of these seem great, so I feel like we're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Does anyone with experience in traveling with bikes have suggestions?

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Air Cargo on the airline you travel with is usually around 350 each way, and that's the most I would consider paying for a US to Europe trip. –  zenbike Jul 12 '11 at 19:40
    
For business I traveled with over-sized equipment to same destinations and same airlines. The amount I was charged was not consistent. Get a number quoted up front. Hopefully they have a set price for a bike. –  Blam Jun 29 at 16:07
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4 Answers 4

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So, I'm a US Expatriate. That is, a US citizen, living in Dubai. We travel. And we travel with our bikes.

There is no need for stress regarding traveling with a bike. It just requires preparation. When you buy your tickets, tell them you will be checking a bike case. It legitimately falls under the sporting goods exemptions for oversized luggage. Most airlines have a flat fee. American, who we're flying with in 2 days, charges 150 USD each way.

Print the airline policies regarding bikes to take with you to checkin. Many airlines employees don't know their own policies, so you need proof for their sake.

Use a hard case. Some airlines require it no matter what, and others won't guarantee the condition of your bike without one.

S&S couplers are a good idea, and the electrical issues can be worked out. A 62cm frame will fit most boxes, especially if you have couplers. And if you're unsure, look at B&W Bike cases. Good quality, plenty big, and airline safe. As for losing or breaking your bikes, nothing to be done there. Except check the bikes thoroughly before you leave the airport, and make them pay. They must replace or repair a damaged or missing bike. While it will be unpleasant, it won't be the end of the world.

Mostly, it's not too big a deal. Delta's policies state that their 200 USD fees are not supposed to be for each leg. It's supposed to be for The whole distance, city to city, unless you booked each leg separately.

That's the average, about 200 each way. Be prepared, and don't back down. You'll be fine.

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$200 each way still ends up being about $800. Think with the S&S couplers packed into a regulation 62 linear-inches case, we could avoid the fees? After all, at that point it would simply appear to be normal luggage. –  Stephen Touset Jul 12 '11 at 19:46
    
In a S&S case, yes, you should be able to check as normal luggage. But then the weight and size restrictions apply, and I would expect to see at least a heavy baggage penalty. These vary, between about 70 USD and 150 USD per bag each way. –  zenbike Jul 12 '11 at 20:08
    
While I understand wanting to keep these costs to the minimum, if you want to travel to ride, you will pay the piper. For 2 people, $800 to bring bikes is not that bad. Of course, less is better. But ou just have to plan it in. It's only the unexpected surprise increases that will kill a trip. –  zenbike Jul 12 '11 at 20:10
    
I think we can likely get under the heavy baggage penalty. An S&S case is 17lbs, leaving us with 33lbs worth of bike. I think we can probably make that happen. –  Stephen Touset Jul 12 '11 at 20:11
    
Check your limits again. They are different for international flights. For us, 35lbs/20kg was the cut off on our last Etihad flight, which was run through American. If yours are higher, that's good. But don't bet on it. And don't forget the wrapping, and extras in the case, like shoes and helmets and tools. Also, don't forget to leave out your CO2 cartridges. Not permissible. –  zenbike Jul 12 '11 at 20:14
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One disadvantage of flying with an S&S bike and hard case is that you need to store the case while you are out riding - depending on your travel plans this could be inconvenient.

When I went to Europe from the US last summer I flew with Air France - they count bicycles under 50lbs as normal checked baggage. They also sell cardboard bike boxes at their major terminals (i.e. CDG) for 5€, so we were able to discard our boxes upon arrival and pick up new ones when we were ready to depart. They seemed to be extremely comfortable handling bicycles as baggage and had we had no issues with damage.

Bicycles.SE also has an excellent answer explaining how to pack your bicycle for travel.

We did have an issue with lost baggage - the handlers at SEA failed to load our bikes onto the plane we were on, so we had to wait for the next plane to arrive for them to be delivered to our lodgings in Paris. No matter how you are travelling with your bicycle by airline, you'll probably want to leave a window of ~48 hours at the start of your trip to allow for a variety of delays.

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Leaving extra time is a really good recommendation. Lost luggage is usually recovered, but it's probably wise to plan some buffer time in case it takes awhile. –  Stephen Touset Jul 12 '11 at 20:26
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Choose your airline carefully. Fly British Airways (or Air France, apparently). Bicycle Touring Pro has a good page with major airline policies laid out. It is from 2008, so perhaps a bit out of date, but a good starting point.

This summer (2012) my wife and I flew with our bicycles from San Francisco to Dublin, rode around Europe for the summer, and flew back from Copenhagen to SF. We used British Airways, and they were complete rock stars about it. Free, no hassles. My bike has Ritchey Breakaway couplers in it, similar to (but better than, IMHO) S&S couplers. But I just left it together because it was more of a hassle to have to deal with the Ritchey case at our destination and the additional disassembly/reassembly.

In Dublin, we put our bikes together in the airport, discarded the boxes there, and rode off on our trip. We mailed the packing material -- pipe insulation, dummy axles -- to a friend in Copenhagen, which just cost 10 euros or something. If you do this, however, make sure you let your friends know it is coming. We didn't, and our friends (my wife's relatives actually) almost threw it out because they thought it was a joke, or that some "actual" item we were mailing was stolen in the mails.

At the end of the trip, in Copenhagen, we just took our bikes to a bike shop near the airport to have them pack them. It cost $60 per bike or so, but it was easier than schlepping a box on the metro twice (once from the shop, again to the airport), and we had another day to be tourists in Copenhagen. The bike shop was 2 miles from the airport and drove our bikes there as part of the deal.

To avoid having to pay for a second checked bag -- BA only allows one checked "bag" per person, which was the bikes -- we stuffed panniers and other gear into the boxes to the limit (23 kilos, I think), and each took a pannier as a carryon.

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Most advice I've heard or read contains some form of "shop around" combined with white lies and omissions when dealing with the airlines about the contents of your bags.

First, the white lies.

I know BMX racers who've used the "Golf" bike bag from DK. Golfers sometimes get discounts on their golf bags from airlines. I don't think the bag would be large enough for a road bike, though. That, and it's pretty shady, considering some airlines actually give discounts for golf luggage.

Along those shady lines, I've heard racers say that their bags contain a "wheeled chair" or another large item that doesn't include a secondary surcharge ("Sporting goods") to avoid bicycle surcharges. Lots of traveling cyclists simply refuse to use bike bags that advertise their purpose.

Then there's the shopping around.

As you mentioned, some opt to ship their bikes to their destination in advance of their flight.

USA Cycling members get a 10% domestic or 15% international discount when flying United.

European airlines tend to have less stringent bicycle policies, so if you're traveling internationally, take a good look at the airlines of the country to which you're flying.

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+1 for the recommendation for European airlines. British Airways and Air France (from a cursory examination) both accept bicycles of any dimensions as standard luggage, no fees attached. I think a combination of S&S couplers and an airline with bicycle-friendly policies might be our best bet. –  Stephen Touset Jul 12 '11 at 20:09
    
Definitely true that euro airlines are less stringent, but don't forget that you usually fly a US partner to get there, and they don't always comply with the Euro airlines regs... –  zenbike Jul 12 '11 at 20:16
    
Again, BA seems to be perfect for us here in Atlanta. They serve most of Europe by going through Heathrow, but all their flights are exclusively serviced by BA themselves and not a partner (e.g., Air France and Delta). –  Stephen Touset Jul 13 '11 at 3:19
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