cyclist travel guide

Cyclist Travel Guide for International Trips and Cycling Tours

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

The travel industry is starting to experience a post-pandemic boom, even though COVID variants and problems with vaccine accessibility are still problematic in some areas of the world. Cycling events in the US are selling out and breaking records for participation, and we’re seeing a significant increase in the number of CTS Athletes who are getting ready for international cycling, running, and triathlon trips. Although my international travel was disrupted just like everyone else’s in 2020, I’ve been traveling the world with a bicycle for decades and have picked up some valuable tips and tricks.

Minimize clothing, but prepare for cold

If you’re heading over to Europe to ride Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders sportives in the spring, then you will almost certainly know to take warm riding clothes. But even if you have a summer trip planned to the Alps, Pyrenees, or Dolomites, take some essential rain and cold weather gear. Because luggage space is typically pretty limited during cycling trips, you can’t take everything. Take a thin waterproof rain jacket and one warm waterproof jacket. Then focus on small but important items: warm waterproof gloves, neck gaiter, skullcap, knee and arm warmers, and shoe covers. These items go with me everywhere, even if I’m headed to the tropics or the desert. The easiest way to accommodate them is to create a small “weather bag” that has a complete set of these items in it and can just be tossed into your luggage.

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Take proprietary parts with you

Travel can be hard on your bike, and there’s nothing worse than being stranded in an iconic cycling destination with a busted ride. Every cyclist should have a derailleur hanger, brake pads, two quick links, and an extra set of cleats – with bolts – in their bike bag. If your bike has a proprietary seat post or binder bolt, invest in an extra. If you have an extra battery for an electronic shifting setup, take it (and don’t forget your charger). If you have cable-actuated shifting or braking, take one rear derailleur cable (can be cut down to be used for front derailleur) and one brake cable. Yes, you’ll probably be able to find a bike shop, but bikes have become less standardized and the chances are somewhat slim that a shop will have a brand-specific part you need. When it comes to tools, a modern multitool is a necessity and it’s worth the weight to invest in a larger, more complete tool. Check your bike for Torx bolts and make sure you have a tool or multitool with the appropriate size Torx bit or driver.

Check your phone/data plan

If you’re a globe-trotting executive you probably have your international data plan dialed. If you hadn’t dusted off your passport for years–even before the pandemic–spend some time researching your phone plan. If you have a 4G phone, it will work in Europe but depending on your US carrier you could pay a fortune for international calls, texts, and data. One option is to take a spare phone with you and purchase a prepaid European SIM card for it. Keep your primary US phone turned off, or turn off the cellular service and data roaming to it. Use it as a Wifi-only device for Whatsapp, email, or messenger when you are connected to Wifi in a hotel or café.

Fly with your bike (customs) or rent one

Traveling in the US, I love using a shipping service like BikeFlights. When traveling internationally, I recommend flying with your bike. When you ship a bike overseas, there’s a risk it could get stuck in customs, particularly if you assign it a high value. Your $12,000 bike raises eyebrows in the customs office, and it can take days to get it back.

Similarly, research airlines before you book. Delta, American, and Alaskan Airlines recently eliminated special luggage fees for sports equipment. Even United Airlines, which was a holdout on bicycle charges, treats bicycles as standard luggage if the weight is under 50 pounds and within their standard baggage size. As of June 2021, the aforementioned airlines charge $100-$200 for bicycles when the weight is 51 pounds or more and have varying policies on oversize fees. If you have multiple connecting flights on partner airlines, check to make sure all airlines in your itinerary will put your bike on the plane. And because the Transportation Safety Administration is going to open your bike box before it gets to the plane, pack your bike securely enough that it won’t shift around and get damaged by the box being opened and reclosed by people who care far less about your bike than you do.

Requirements for renting a bike

Renting a high-end bicycle at your destination can be a great way to reduce the stress of traveling with your bike, and it can be an extended test-ride of a bike you’ve been thinking of buying. If you go the rental route, take very good measurements for your cycling position and think carefully about the frame size you need. You might ride a 54-centimeter frame in one brand and a 56 in another.

Take your own saddle, particularly if your trip will entail significantly more hours on the bike than you’re accustomed to. Many cycling tours and camps end up being at least twice a cyclist’s normal weekly training volume. The hardest part can be the effect on your rear end. And check with the rental organization. Most will let you (or encourage you) bring your own pedals.

Dealing with Jet Lag

Finally, there’s the jet lag. Getting your circadian rhythm back in sync with the clock takes some planning. First, get on the plane well rested and stay hydrated during the flight, but eat lightly. To help you get in sync with the time zone when you touch down, eat at normal times for your destination. That could mean eating as soon as you land, or waiting until the next traditional mealtime. If you arrive in the morning, get outside into the light and get some light exercise, then try to stay awake until going to bed a bit on the early side of normal. If you land in the evening, minimize stimulation and try to get to your hotel and to sleep quickly, even if it’s just a nap until a normal wakeup time for your destination. Then go outside to get some natural light, and get some exercise.


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Comments 8

  1. Carry an extra skewer just in case. You only need a rear skewer with a piece of tubing to adapt it to the front. Remember – broken skewer and you go now where except by walking,

  2. Chris. Amazing article as always. Taking proprietary parts is the best suggestion people have never heard. I would add bottom bracket and proprietary tools needed to your excellent list.

    One word to the wise and suggestion below.

    I have flown over 3 million miles in my career. Hence, unfortunately I know airlines too well.

    Regarding the bags being considered standard luggage. This is true. However, many gate agents were around prior to these rules and dig in too often. At least twice I have had to pay for bike handling fees to the tune of $200 overseas only to have to spend a LOT of time getting reimbursed. My suggestion is that people go to the carrier’s website, print off the company’s policy and carry it with them. It saves a lot of hassle and traveling is stressful enough.

    Suggestion, how about an article or link to an article about how to best pack a bike in a bike case? I have found that most damage comes to a bike due to not using common sense while packing and assuming that handling your bike properly might be the first thing the baggage handlers are thinking about. Most commonly I have seen friends of mine bikes literally ruined when the hubs on a wheel come in to contact with either the bottom tube or seat tube.

    Thanks again Chris and take care.

  3. If your international trip requires a connection and you have a choice of flights, consider an itinerary with the connection in the country of, or at least on the continent of, your destination rather than in the U.S. That way, if your luggage & bike miss the connection for some reason, at least they are on the right continent and there likely are more options for quicker retrieval.

    1. Totally agree. Plan your flights carefully. For years, every summer, I flew from Brussels to Vancouver via Amsterdam and EVERY year my bike came a day late, missing the Amsterdam connection…..until I figured out, the cargo hold on the particular commuter aircraft that flew me from BRU to AMS was too small for my bike case. Here’s some additional advice. If you have checked a bike, when you arrive at the gate, explain your situation and ask that the Load Manager confirm your bike is on board. Nothing like having the flight attendant confirm your bike is safe as she/he hands you that first glass of champagne. And finally, as Chris noted….NEVER travel without a derailleur hanger! As a part time (I’m retired) bike shop employee….there are NO parts out there right now.

  4. Good info, tho would have liked more info on how to organize international rides. Why doesn’t CTS offer them?

    1. We have taken groups all over the world, but we’re focusing on domestic camps in 2021 due to uncertainty around international travel restrictions. We hope to organize international trips as soon as possible. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Media Director

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