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I have a road bike that I want to bring with me to the place I will be flying to.

I know that there are bags that are designed especially for this kind of situation: the bike travel bags such as the one shown on the picture below. But, as they are expensive (that one costs £250 for example) I would like to evaluate all the alternatives (if any) before I go ahead and spend so much money with something that I would use once in a blue moon. How could I prepare my bike to be taken on a flight if I don't own a bike travel bag?

enter image description here

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    Not really an answer, but I have read many horror stories about bicycles being destroyed by the airlines. Bicycles are strong for their intended use, but (for instance) stacking things on top of your wheels, while they are laying on their side, can bend and break perfectly good spokes.
    – Jack M.
    May 16, 2011 at 17:31
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    It's not just airlines. I had a beefy touring rack bent out of shape when train staff put the box on its side and stacked luggage on it.
    – Мסž
    May 16, 2011 at 22:09
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    Check with your LBS, mine rents hard shelled bike travel cases! Maybe yours does too!
    – GuyZee
    May 18, 2011 at 15:30
  • @Jack - This question is now the seventh item on that search! :) (And that's why we're not taking our bikes with us this summer to Portland.) May 19, 2011 at 2:56

11 Answers 11

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I recently flew to Europe with my wife, and we brought along our bicycles. Our solution was to disassemble them the night before and place them into cheap Nashbar bicycle bags. We wrapped pipe insulation foam around just about everything to avoid damage from handling. For extra protection, we then stuffed these into the standard bike boxes provided (at a minimal cost) by the airline. I would highly recommend the internal bags, as the TSA opened both our boxes during each flight, and did not bother to close the boxes back up. Wheels or other components could have easily fallen out in flight had we not used canvas bags inside the larger boxes.

Also, be very careful about which airline you choose to fly on. Most airlines have a surcharge for checking bicycles, and this can vary wildly between carriers. Our tickets were initially on Delta, who wanted to charge us $200 per bicycle per leg. With a 2-leg trip to Amsterdam and back, this would have cost $1,600 to ferry our bikes, which was ridiculous. Thankfully, we discovered this within the 24-hour cancellation window and switched to Continental, who only charged $100 per bicycle per itinerary, costing us only $400.

At the end of the day, though, transporting your bike via airlines is expensive and annoying. Our next touring bikes will absolutely have S&S couplers to allow us to fit the bikes in regulation-size checked luggage, which should help us avoid airline surcharges and additional TSA inspections.

Good luck!

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normally your LBS has spare boxes from sold bikes and they are more than happy for you to take them (always ask first) I use these boxes to pack my bike into - after all they are shipped in them in the first place.

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Not only will your local bike shop have quality 'virgin rainforest grade' cardboard boxes going spare they will also have the plastic braces that fit inside the front fork, the plastic plug to fit into the top of the seat tube, the plastic spacers to fit on the rear q/r and the foam 'pipe wrap' tubes that go around the three main triangles. They may even let you have a few zip ties that you can use to tightly bind the handlebars to wherever they fit in the box. The aim of the game is to not have anything that can fall from the bike or any paint that can be rubbed off, e.g. from the front hub knocking on the down tube.

Try to pay attention to the gears, if the chain is on the outer chainring and on the big sprocket then it is less likely that the rear mech or chainset will get damaged. As for the pedals, you may need to have some lightweight pedal spanner that actually works, or a big 6mm hex-wrench (if your pedals support it). Ideally you want nothing to rattle.

Bear in mind that boxes come in different sizes, you will most likely want the larger size as these boxes are fairly optimised - you won't get a 23" frame to fit into a box originally designed for a 17.5" frame.

If you are doing a cycle tour you can also use some of your clothing items, towel and other soft items to pad out the box. Get this right and you will have one big box and a manageable amount of hand luggage. Get it wrong and you will have a box that you can barely lift and the airline will not take.

Which brings me on to the next point. Not only do some of the 'proper' boxes cost a minor fortune, they can also weigh a metric tonne (or thereabouts). Hence the cardboard box has a lot going for it, not only is it disposable, it is light too.

Remember that baggage handlers will need handles for handling your baggage, use tape to strengthen the hand holes that are already in the box and tape up the top and bottom so there is no chance of your precious cargo bursting.

Before now I have re-assembled the bike in the airport and dumped the big cardboard box in one of their bins. On the return hop I have also managed to find a not-so-local bike shop, obtained a box and packaged accordingly for the journey home. This is less stressful than relying on the airline having a box. Negotiating the airport is always easy enough because they have little trolleys everywhere.

If you have travel insurance take pictures of your bike before departure and write down the frame number. Also make sure that the bike is completely clean as some countries do object to mud being 'smuggled in'.

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All of these are great suggestions. Here are some supplemental thoughts on how to save money:

  • Some airlines will waive the bicycle baggage surcharge if you are a member of a cycling organization. Check ahead to see if this is the case. Often the membership is lower (or free!) than the cost of the baggage surcharge

  • If the surcharge is really high - it might be less expensive to mail or courier (FedEx/UPS/DHL) your bike to the destination.

  • It also might be less expensive to rent

  • Some folding bikes will fold small enough to fit in regular suitcases and won't attract the surcharge. Some are even comfortable enough to tour in.

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You should seriously consider a hard case. Baggage gets some rough handling and your bike could get damaged. Me, I once had to flatten the chain wheels on a bike after shipping it.

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This is a late answer to a travel problem which is most likely already solved, giving an alternative to people who look at the same problem.) If you are willing to take your bike apart and reassemble it on arrival you can often fit it in a standard big hard shell suitcase.
There should be some space left for a moderate amount of clothing.

My cousin used this method to transport a bike in France, back in the days when it was not allowed to take a bike on a TGV train.

This is not a 'ride to airport and ride away on the other end' solution.
If you need to take your transport case with you, look for the few bike trailers that are able to use a hard shell case as part of the set-up.

-On a side note, I am told that a Flevo recumbent trike can be transported in the hard shell case which is usually on its back. It is a 100 liter case, to give an indication of size. (Picture in this question)

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CTC Cycling UK Plastic Bike Bag

I managed to take this on a trip in 2022 between Bologna Italy and Heathrow on British Airways and it worked well.

The huge upside is that you can fold it and take it with you on your touring trip, no need to find a storage place at the airport.

My bike is a sturdy/cheapish/heavy-ish touring bike, and it arrived without damage.

Folding the bag is slightly annoying as it is a bit hard to get all air out. You basically should start from the back, make it narrow, and push air out with forearm on ground, then fold a bit to prevent air from coming in, and so on. It does not become minuscule, but definitely small enough to carry on the a pannier rack.

How to pack your bike

While the airline guidelines at https://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/baggage-essentials/sports-equipment https://archive.ph/lKvkZ were useful:

If it’s a non-rigid bag, please make sure the handlebars are fixed sideways and the pedals removed or fixed inwards. It’s also best to reduce tire pressures.

they cannot possibly be accurate for every airport, because it is the oversize luggage security people that decide what flies or not, not the airline. Even the check-in people don't necessarily know the oversize details, and in both airports gave me wrong indications, so do get there early.

I would better phrase as:

  • turn handlebar
  • definitely deflate tires
  • lower saddle
  • remove pedals. I put my pedals in a plastic bag which I tied to the bicycle, together with the small wrench I used to undo the pedals. Definitely something you don't want to try and take on cabin.
  • ask security if you have to take off the front wheel. This was required in Bologna but not Heathrow. The possible problem with removing the front wheel is that the front part of your front mudgard will be destroyed as the bike tumbles around, so you will have to undo the front mudguard as well to prevent that.

Also, you will need some tape to close the bag. I just took some 24 mm wide transparent packing tape https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0772RLVNW , and it worked perfectly. You don't want something wider or stickier than that, as it might be hard to remove afterwards.

Also, obviously you have to train the packing in advance. My pedals and handlebar were a bit stiff since I hadn't removed them since forever, awesome bicycle shop people to the rescue.

Heathrow mode:

enter image description here

Bologna mode:

enter image description here

I had already broken the mudguard when testing it at home myself, so "no problem removing it" there.

Road mode, with bag folded on top of a pannier rack bag. I don't have a better photo, one day maybe:

enter image description here

At the airport

So what you do at the airport is as follows. Take the bicycle unpacked to check-in. Pray that the check-in person doesn't require you to pack it, because if they do:

  1. you will have to take the packed bicycle all the way to the oversize luggage point, which might be a bit of a walk with the heavy package
  2. the security people might ask you to unpack it for their chemical security checks

But if they ask you to put in the bag, you do it, what can you do.

Next, go to the security people, and ask them what they want you to do before you do it.

This is what happened in both airports for me:

Heathrow:

  • check-in lady didn't ask me to put it into bag immediately, gave me stickers, and told me to put it into bag and take to security people
  • I found oversize luggage point, talked to a guy, and he said I could pack it
  • I started packing, but then another security guy came and said, don't pack it yet
  • they took me into their chemical security check part
  • the guy passed a test cloth over every single surface of the bicycle. Just making a hole on the bag as some people suggested would not have satisfied him
  • he also asked me to deflate tires, presumably because you could put explosives in the tires
  • he also asked me to open my saddle bag, and a plastic bag where I stored the pedals to scan that too
  • then he asked me to pack the bike right there at the security area. It was a small space, but with the help of the three Hindi speaking guys, it was easy. You can't go back out of the security room after the check for security purposes
  • they put the sticker on the bicycle hand, inside the bag. I asked: "are you sure, how will people see it properly?" He said it's fine. When it arrive in Bologna, they had made a hole through which the handlebar came out with the stickers...

Bologna:

  • check-in lade insisted I put into the bag because she didn't believe it would be small enough
  • I put into bag, she's happy, I take it to the security people, a bit of a walk
  • security person says I need to remove front wheel, so check-in lady was wrong about size which she insisted in checking by making me put it into the bag in the first place...
  • I unpack, remove front wheel, repack, security guy is happy
  • in Bologna, I didn't even see the security person, everything is done through an intercom and conveyor belt making communication much harder. The security guy even asked "Why didn't you remove the front wheel?". "Because the check-in lady didn't tell me to!"

Getting to the airport

As of 2022, it is currently impossible to "legally" cycle or walk into Heathrow terminals 2/3. There is a tunnel that goes under some runways, but the pedestrian path is closed, and there's a huge sign saying that you cannot walk or cycle on the car lanes. I got there without knowing it, and thankfully I found the place where they park the buses, and the driver took me with my bicycle in the trunk in as he was going there anyways. He also said that there are cameras, and sometimes the police comes pick up cyclists who ignore the sign. The easiest way is without doubt to take the train, which allows taking your bicycle in them unpacked. This terrible situation is due to the works ongoing in the tunnel, and it should be solved when the tunnel is ready:

I would do similar research for any other airport before trying to cycle there.

In Bologna they don't take bicycles on the airport train. But I had checked that the roads were cyclabe in advance on Google Street View

Muhammad saving my life on the bus in Heathrow:

enter image description here

In UK and Italy

Be careful with large cities if you're not used to them! Lots of cars! Danger!

In Italy

The Alps can be dangerous. Doh!!!

  • I had a 900m vertical downhill of switchback on semi crappy roads. And this was part of an Eurovelo route!
  • I met a guy that had gone through snow in parts of the alps, in late May. He said he basically skied downhill. And he couldn't break because his hands where too cold. When he reached a village, local people though he was mad.

Make sure you have appropriate insurance. Make sure your insurance covers cycling accidents.

Snow, see:

enter image description here

The payoff:

enter image description here

Bibliography

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  • How in the world is a plastic bag going to protect the bike from damage?
    – FreeMan
    Jun 8 at 16:52
  • @FreeMan my bike wasn't damaged, and many other people also recommend this approach. Would I put a super expensive bike in it? Maybe not. But it is good enough for my type of bike. Jun 8 at 17:32
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11 years later and this question has made it to the top of the active questions list.

I can happily report that i've been flying with my bike for the last 11 years using the exact bag pictured in the question. The bag itself has picked up a few minor scuffs, but the bike inside has always arrived at destination (and home again) safe and sound.

My dad also picked up the same bag in a different colour that has been in use for ~7-8 years and again has performed great.

I believe that particular brand of bag has also made a number of minor improvements over the years so buying a similar bag today would be even better.

So my conclusion from my sample size of 2 is that an upmarket soft bike bag is a great investment for travelling with a bike and is roughly half the price of many hardshell options.

From my experience of a now fairly large number of cycling holidays with around 20 clients per trip, I see a roughly even split between cyclists with hard/soft bike bags and of the hundreds of cyclists I have seen travelling i've only seen a couple with an 'alternative' like a cardboard bike box.

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Airlines are not going to let you take a full size bike on a plane with the possible exception of a folding bicycle. If you want to transport your bicycle you are going to have to pack it up. Some airlines sell boxes for this purpose. If you don't know how to do it yourself you can always bring it to a LBS and have them do it for you.

Rather then take it on the plane you can send it through the mail to wherever your destination is and assemble it when you arrive there. Better yet you can send it to a LBS on the other side and have them resemble it for you.

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  • Actually, a lot of airplanes will take bicycles as long as they are packaged appropriately. If you take the front and rear tires off of a standard road bike, it can fit into an oversized bike box or case. The airline will then charge you an oversize or bicycle fee.
    – RoboKaren
    Dec 30, 2017 at 6:41
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I don't think you need a hard case, that may just encourage the baggage handlers to treat your bike more roughly. Read this article on the Guardian by Helen Pidd on an economical way to transport a bike. Of course, she may just have been lucky!

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Another alternative to the options mentioned is to use a specialised bicycle shipping company (google for 'bike shipping company')

I only became aware of these a couple of years ago and suspect they were not so common when the original question was asked.

The idea is you pay a courier service to transport your bike as freight and therefore bypass the usual airline fees and baggage system. If using this method a cardboard box sourced from your local bike shop is perfectly adequate. Some of these companies will even sell you a specially designed cardboard box to package your bike in.

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