How To Travel By Plane With Your Bike (and make sure it arrives alive)
Bike adventures in far off foreign lands are life-enhancing!
In fact, nothing tops it! (My personal opinion, of course)
And if you’re anything like me, you definitely want to take your bike on your adventures. Renting is okay, but it’s not your bike.
However, traveling with a bike can be super overwhelming. You may not know how to take your faithful steed over vast blue waters or mountains of earth.
I totally understand your anxiety. I’ve taken Skid Mark (my Surly Karate Monkey) halfway ‘round the world and back.
It’s why I created the following list of tips on how to fly with a bike.
Cool. Let’s dive right in...
Bike Bag Research
There’s a TON of bike bags out there ranging in price, size, and variety.
And choosing the right bag totally depends on your budget, adventure, and airline regulations.
I’ve used a soft compact bike bag on a bike tour trip when I was arriving and departing from two very distant airports.
These bags are cheap, compact, and tear easily. But the keyword is compact.
And since I was biking across New Zealand, I couldn’t carry my bag with me.
The bag was so compact I mailed it with ease to the Airbnb I was staying at afterward.
A more expensive bag is definitely worth the investment if you plan to do a lot of traveling with your bike.
Some of these bags even have wheels and make a heavy load easy to transport.
And then there are the super deluxe ones that have a separate compartment for the wheels.
Whatever you do, make sure you buy the right bag for your bike.
Don’t buy a road bike bag when you have a 29(+). It won’t fit and that would be a BUMMER!
If you decide not to invest in your own travel bag, you can always use the DIY method and grab a cardboard bike box at a local bike shop -- before it hits the recycle bin.
These boxes are usually free and offer a temporary solution -- they last one flight but can be used roundtrip if there’s no damage to the box.
But, in my experience, bike shops are more than willing to get rid of them.
Extra Tip: It’s always reassuring to know there’s a shop for any last-minute items or bike fixes. I recommend you do a little research and find a bike shop in the area you’re traveling to. It’s easy to take a screenshot or write down the name, phone, and address.
It’s good to have this info beforehand just in case you don’t have wifi or there are problems with your phone.
I usually reach out to shops via email before my travels to let them know I’ll be in the area, what bike I have, and what I’ll be doing.
Not only is this a great way to meet new people but it also lets you know a bit about the shop. They may be a shop that specializes in road bikes instead of mountain bikes.
This saves time and unneeded temper tantrums while traveling. The shop might even hold on to your bag while your venturing.
Weigh & Measure
Each airline has a weight and measurement requirement for baggage.
It’s usually a max of 50 lbs and 62 linear inches (a total of the three sides, H+W+D). Going beyond these requirements may lead to some steep fees.
And keep in mind, there are different regulations for domestic and international flights.
Domestic flights are generally stricter. While International airlines can be more lenient and more concerned with weight vs size. But be sure to do your due diligence and check with your airline!
The best way to find the airline info is to go to their website. Or one step better, be old school and actually CALL them.
Extra Tip: Not sure how to figure out if you’re over or under 50 lbs? Use a normal scale at home to weigh yourself then bear hug your packed bike and weigh yourself again.
Clean Bike & Gear
A lot of countries are strict about allowing items in or out of the country that have been exposed to mud, dirt, or insects.
If your bike and gear have been in dirt, which they probably have, clean them up. They don’t need to be spotless, just not dirty.
Take a brush, wipe down the wheels and use a rag on the other parts of your bike.
Make sure to brush off your shoes and clean out any camping gear before packing it up.
TAPE!! CARDBOARD!! TAPE!! BUBBLEWRAP!! TAPE!!
Before you start the big event -- packing up your bike, that is -- take a photo of your bike first.
You’ll have to break it down a bit to pack it -- like take out the seat post, the handlebars or forks and the pedals. And sometimes you may even need to remove the water bottle cages and more.
When you’re at your destination this photo will come in handy if you can’t quite remember how something fits. Trust me on this one! I had to do this when I realized I had my bars on backwards.
The upside of some hard cases is that they usually have padding inside. I sometimes add a little bubble wrap around the more delicate parts of the bike, like the derailleur or disc brakes.
If you opt for a soft-sided compact bag or box use bubble wrap, packing tape, and old cardboard boxes to pack your bike really really really really well. Did I mention you should pack it really well?
When using a soft-sided bag, I even recommend you get a bike box (or two) from a shop, cut it up to create a box inside the bag then put your bike into the makeshift box. This gives a lot more protection.
Here's a breakdown of what to wrap up:
Wheels: disc brakes, cog, wheels covered in bubble wrap (letting some air out helps to fit wheels in the bag).
Bike Frame: rear & front derailleur, rear brakes, chainring
Fork: front brakes, valves
Bars: shifters and breaks
Extra Tip: Keep tools with the bike! Once packed up, put all the tools you will need to reassemble your bike either in the bag or box.
When flying with a big-ass bag (or boxed bike) it will usually end up in the oversized pickup, not on the usual luggage carousel.
Oversized bags have their own section and area, in the baggage claim.
Look for the parents with kids strapped to their bodies looking for strollers and you’ll most likely find your bike.
If all else fails, ask an attendant.
Some Assembly Required
Once you have arrived at your destination, enjoy a good beer in a local pub and celebrate because you are now on a grand adventure!!! YAY!!!
But don’t forget to get a good night’s sleep.
The next day, assemble your bike. I recommend you keep any packing material with your bag or box for the return flight. If you have room, of course.
Step one: check over your bike to see if there is any damage during travel. (If there is, you’ll find out what to do below)
Step two: reference the photo of your bike. And remember, don’t force things into place. Be Patient.
Step three: take your bike for a test ride and make any adjustments needed. If you need anything hit up the local bike shop since you already know where it is.
On a trip to New Zealand, I was grateful that nothing happened to my bike on the way there, but I wasn’t so lucky on the trip home.
My bike bag was checked in from New Zealand to Los Angeles. In LA, I went through customs and was supposed to recheck my bag, but my bike was lost!!!
After a lot of confusion from the baggage claim attendant, I was told they didn’t know where my bag was.
No one was really helpful with how to place a claim and I didn't know what to do.
Time was running out. I was going to miss my connecting flight, but where is my BIKE!
Finally, I overheard a couple who were placing a claim for a missing stroller. So I stood in their line, waited my turn, then placed my claim before running to grab my connection.
I tell ya, the stroller parents always know what to do!
3 days later my bag arrived at my doorstep. The bag was ripped to shreds and taped together!
My derailleur was broken, seat post bent, and two spokes were broken.
I took photos of all the damage before taking my bike to the shop to get fixed.
I saved my receipt from the repairs and found the receipt for my bag then placed a claim online with the airlines.
Once again, every airline is different. Make sure you check or call the airline you’re flying with to see their claim procedures. And don’t hesitate to be persistent to avoid falling into the cracks.
I was persistent and emailed or called every week. This paid off. A few weeks later, I was given a reimbursement option for a travel voucher or a check.
Obviously, the travel voucher was a lot more than the check.
- Keep or find ALL receipts of purchases: bike, bike bag, etc.
- Photograph damage
- File Claim
- Be persistent
Alright, Jane… now you’re ready to book your next wild bike trip!
Just remember the most important things when flying with a bike:
- Know what the airline’s regulations are
- Pack your bike up really well
- Sit back and relax, ‘cause you’re about to have a freaking BLAST on your badass bike adventure!