I need to mail a bike from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas. I know that you can get free bike boxes from many bike stores, but how do you pack a bike to ship by mail or to check as baggage on a plane?
I've never shipped a bike, but I moved from Canada to Europe with my Surly Cross-check in a box last year. When the box came off the plane it looked like it had been run over by a truck and left out in the rain, but the contents of the box were 100% undamaged.
Hold on to your pants, this is gonna be long!
Shipping a bike is cheap and easy, but make sure to do it right.
As I'm sure you have found out airlines require you to have your bike in a box or a case. Cases are expensive. Most bikes are shipped to bike stores in a cardboard box in various stages of assembly from just a frame to a full bike with some parts removed for transport. When they unpack new bikes they have to get rid of the boxes so hopefully you can find a nice store that will give you one for free or sell you one really cheap, like 10 bucks or less.
If bike stores are no luck then furniture and appliance stores and bed stores like Sleep Country are great sources of large, strong, and free cardboard boxes and large strong plastic mattress bags, both of which you'll need. These stores are also usually overflowing with bubble wrap, styrofoam peanuts, little air filled plastic bags, and all sorts of other packing materials and are usually willing to give the stuff away if you want to root through the dumpster. Also recycling depots are always overloaded with cardboard, all free. Just think creatively and you should be able to find all the materials you will need for free in our mega-packaged and plasticized world.
So here's how (I think) you should pack your bike:
You have three options: a) leave the wheels on the frame and make a box big enough for the whole bike, or b) remove the wheels and package them in a separate box, or c) a combo of the two, which is what I did (remove front wheel, leave rear wheel on and pack it all in one box).
Check with the airline for fees per box and weight restrictions on the boxes to decide.
I am going to assume you are using one box but if you decide to ship the wheels separately then just don't put them back on the frame.
After this your bike should be pretty well padded, time to put it in a box or build a box around it.
Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, stick and jab... oh right, cycling. This kind of depends on whether you have a bike or mattress box that is already close to the right size and whether you are leaving your wheels on or not. I will assume you are building a custom box and leaving the wheels on.
IF YOU ARE TAKING YOUR WHEELS OFF, PUT A SPACER of some kind between your forks and stays where the axle would be to keep them from getting squished together if the box is compressed for some reason.
ALSO - MAKE SURE YOU EITHER REMOVE AND/OR PUT A BLOCK, SPACER, OR SOME KIND OF PADDING around your rear derailleur (if you have one, fixie riders can ignore this bit), otherwise you risk having it broken or damaged by careless airline tossers.
A block of wood like a piece of broomstick taped in place works fine, or perhaps you have (buy or scrounge from an old bike) a couple of solid axles that you can just pop into the dropouts, with one set of nuts inside the fork screwed out gently against the fork and the other on the outside screwed in gently against the fork, sandwiching the forks/stays in place.
Scenario 1 - you have a mattress box or bike box that is the right height and length and just need to drop the bike into it.
Styro peanuts, those air filled spacer bags, and bubble wrap are great for this. Loosely balled newspaper is excellent padding too. If your bike is in a clean(ish) plastic bag then extra clothing is good padding and space filler, and might cut down on the size of your checked luggage or carry on. Bulky items like jackets and pants for example. Or put your clothes in bags as well perhaps.
When the box is full of packing to the top, close the top flaps and tape every single edge and seam closed. More on this later
Scenario 2 - you have a large box like a fridge box or mattress box that is way too big and you need to custom make a box.
Creasing and folding these large strong boxes can be difficult to do in a straight line. One way is to pick the box up on edge and use the corner of one of your walls as a straight edge. Stand the box up flat against one wall with the line against the corner and fold the box around the corner. This should give you a good fold and not take too much effort. If you have a big table or long counter top you could use that too.
I recommend making all of your top flaps and end flaps the full width of the box. This makes each end a double layer of cardboard and also makes taping the edges together much easier because you can just butt the folds together and tape tightly. True, the sides and bottom are still a single layer but... meh.
So now you have made a box just the right size for your bike with the top flaps still open. Proceed as above under Scenario 1.
A Note on Taping
Here's how I tape closed a box that I want to be strong and secure for shipping.
Check with the airline again regarding any restrictions (or requirements) on labeling but I put my name on the box in big black sharpie as well a safe 'return' address. At least if the bike got lost it would get back to my folks place and I could have it shipped again. If you know your destination address then put it on there too, kind of like you would address an envelope.
Add labels like 'This End Up' with arrows or 'Do Not Lay Flat' to keep the box upright so they won't lay it flat and pile stuff on top of it.
'Do Not Squish' 'Do Not Bend' 'Fragile'
may also be useful.
Well, that's all I can think of. If your bike gets damaged after packing it this securely then I think you will have a pretty good insurance case against the airline.
Oh and on that note get insurance on the bike for the trip, possibly through the airline, and take pictures of the bike during various stages of packing to prove your efforts and show that it's really yours.
Good luck and Bon Voyage!
ps. If you're traveling with the bike, remember to pack the tools needed to put your bike back together.
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I checked with YouTube and found this really great video:
I followed the instructions in the video and shipped my bike from Vancouver to Frankfurt and it was flawless.
I have had great success with my local bike shop shipping to another bike shop. You can call around your destination and see what options there are, but this allows you to rebuild the bike easily at your destination without your whole workshop of tools. In addition, your local bike shop will often have the proper packing materials.
While I like to tinker on my bike myself, I simply don't have the proper shipping equipment, and my local shop does.
Greyhound freight also will ship bikes. You'll also need to box the bike for this approach. You'll have to pick-up at the destination bus station.
I just shipped my bike via REI -- they're willing to ship between any two REI stores if you're a member there. The cost breakdown was:
for a total of $111. In addition, I wasn't a member, so I had to pay a 1-time membership fee; with tax, it came out to $133.10.
It sounds like I'll have to pay another $30 or so for reassembly on the other end; I'll update this post after that happens.