traveling with bikes

Do’s and Don’ts of Traveling with Bikes

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By Syd Schulz
CTS Pro Athlete

I recently got back from a three-week trip to Europe for the final two Enduro World Series races. Between my husband and me, we had two giant bike bags, two checked bags and carry-ons. All told, something close to 300 pounds of gear (luckily the airlines forgot to weigh our bike bags on both the outgoing and return trips, phew!). Over the past four years, we have traveled with bikes to races on four different continents and ten plus different countries. It’s been a whirlwind, and we’ve made every possible mistake you can make when trying to haul expensive bikes to far off lands. But you know what? It’s been worth it, every single time. Riding or racing your bike internationally is an incredible opportunity, and hopefully with these tips, your trips will be smoother than some of ours.

DO shop around for lower baggage fees.

Most major U.S carriers charge $200 (United) or $150 (Delta and American) for checking bikes internationally. You might be able to game this system a bit, say if you check in with Alaska Airlines, you may only pay $25. Or, if you get a really gullible check-in agent you may be able to convince them your bike is a massage table (massage tables travel for free!), but for the most part you’re stuck with the fees.

If you’re flying domestically within the US, you have a lot more options. Southwest, Frontier and JetBlue all charge $50-$75 and you can also use BikeFlights for domestic destinations to avoid the bike checking hassle entirely. While you can ship bikes internationally, it will probably be more expensive than airline bike fees, and possibly by a large amount. Far worse than the cost, your bike can get stuck in customs and incur large fees. If you’re going on a cycling tour or to a race, that delay could ruin your trip. I have one international bike shipping experience, and it was a $700 fiasco I do not want to repeat.

DON’T try to dodge baggage fees with ridiculous packing schemes.

This is personal opinion and I’m sure someone on the “frame in one regular checked bag, wheels in another” team will take me to task in the comments and tell me all about how much money they’ve saved. But look, I did it for YEARS and while I did occasionally save money, more often than not I got burned. For example, it is very hard to get both of these bags under 50 lbs (remember you have to pack ALL your gear into these bags too because you only get two checked bags). Some airlines now only allow you one free bag to international destinations anyway, so you are still going to pay, AND you won’t have any room to pack normal human things like clothes that aren’t chamois. Oh, and your carry-on will weigh nine million pounds and if you end up on a picky European airline on the way home, you’ll have to pay for that, too. Cut your losses, and budget the bike fees in when you’re planning your trip.

DON’T fly on European budget airlines.

Just don’t do it. Rent a car. Take a train/bus/magic carpet. Do anything – LITERALLY ANYTHING – before you try to get on a Ryanair flight with a bike. We were once seduced by disturbingly cheap tickets from France to the UK, and ended up paying close to $400 dollars in baggage fees — and spending an enjoyable hour packing and repacking all our bags at the check-in kiosk, and then nearly missing our flight for our trouble.

DO weigh your bike bag before you go to the airport.

Okay, fine, I almost never do this, because I’m usually shoving more things in my bag up to the very last minute, but it’s a really good idea and can potentially save you a lot of stress and hassle. You don’t need any fancy scales. Just stand on a bathroom scale holding your bike bag and subtract your weight. (Hint: If you can’t lift and hold your bike bag, it’s probably a bad sign.)

DO check baggage requirements if your return flight is serviced by a partner airline.

If you’re checking in with American or United on your return flight, you will be subject to the same baggage fees as your outbound flight. However, if you are checking in with a partner airline (say, British Airways for Lufthansa), it pays to know their baggage rules. Often, they are less strict than the US airlines or they forget to charge you entirely, as happened on our most recent return flight from Europe. Occasionally, however, they might have different weight allowances or (I’m looking at you, Air New Zealand) absurdly low weight limits for carry-on. Nothing ruins your morning more than finding out your backpack is twice the allowed carry-on limit.

DO be cautious about long layovers.

In the US, TSA regulations state that you must collect your bags on any layovers over 12 hours long for “security reasons.” I have no idea what the security concern is, but if you were planning on exploring a new city during your long layover, having to pick up two bike bags can really mess that up.

DON’T overcomplicate life with crazy logistics to save a few bucks.

Most people, I’ve realized, are way smarter about this than I am, but it’s worth saying. Don’t take a train and two busses to get to your final destination if you can possibly avoid it. Rent a car. Yes, yes, it’s more expensive, but you will wish you spent those few hundred dollars when you are strapping your $5,000 carbon fiber bike to the top of a chicken bus.

DO invest in a real bike bag if you’re going to travel regularly.

If you’re going to do a lot of bike travel, real bike bags are worth the investment because they definitely increase the ease of packing and you can store all your padding materials in it between trips. Which reminds me, no matter how great a bike bag is, use additional padding around frame tubes. With a little practice, packing is pretty quick. We can pack two bikes and all of our gear in about 45 minutes. There are instances where a cardboard bike box is advantageous. Lugging around a bike box and your fully reassembled bike can be difficult or impossible, depending on the logistics of your trip. Cardboard bike boxes can be recycled when you arrive, and you can get another from a bike shop for the trip home.

DON’T pack your own bike if you don’t know how.

Some people love being their own mechanic, and others should never be left alone with tools and a carbon fiber bike. It is perfectly fine if you don’t know how to take apart or reassemble your bike, but if that’s the case, then plan ahead to have a bike shop pack your bike and contact a bike shop at your destination to reassemble it. There will be a fee, but if it keeps you from over-torqueing bolts and crushing your carbon fiber seat post, it’s money well spent. If you do plan on being your own mechanic, invest in a torque wrench.

DO use copious amounts of zip ties when packing your bike.

TSA likes to rummage through bike bags, and if, say, an end cap falls off one of your wheels, they might not bother to put it back in the bag, even if it is an end cap on a pre-production set of wheels you’re testing out, and literally no other end caps exist for the wheels, and your bike is completely useless without it. I’m speaking from experience here. Zip ties, zip ties, zip ties. The fewer things that can fall off or out the better, and the more likely your bike will arrive in working condition. (Remember to pack clippers to cut the zip ties, as well as new zip ties for packing on the way home.)

A special note for mountain bikers with dropper posts. It’s convenient to pack your bike with the post down (instead of removing it!), but make sure to zip tie in the down position. Before learning this lesson, a the TSA agent hit the button on my bike, couldn’t figure out how to put the dropper back down and my bike arrived with the seat sticking out of the top of the box.

DON’T lose your mind if your bike doesn’t show up immediately.

For starters, bikes usually come out at the oversize baggage carousel, not the normal baggage carousel (although this is not always the case). Second, considering the huge amounts of baggage that airlines deal with daily, very little actually gets lost (something like less than 1%), much less lost permanently. If you bike doesn’t show up, most likely it missed your connecting flight and will arrive on the next flight from that destination. Every time the airline has lost my bike, it has been delivered to me within 24 hours. This can really work out in your favor, because then you don’t have to shove your hefty bike bag into your rental car or onto the bus/train/whatever. It will be delivered straight to you. So stay calm.

Last and certainly not least, DO enjoy the pants off any opportunity to ride your bike in a new, and most likely totally rad place!

[Syd Schulz is a CTS athlete and professional enduro racer. You can find more from her on her blog or on Instagram]


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Comments 28

  1. Make sure if you have a bike shop pack your bag, make sure that the person doing the packing is knowledgeable and has done it before.
    When we traveled to France with our tandem our bag got ripped in transit. We when to make a claim and the person in front of us had their son’s single bike packed (in a cardboard box) by a bicycle shop and it seems that some of the parts fell out of the box.
    We did not see the box but if the bike was packed correctly, the smaller parts would not have been loose and fallen out.

  2. This B & W International Bike Case is a really nice travel box. It is extremely lightweight and has an incredible lifespan. My racing bike fit easily into the case and was very well protected because  its self-reinforced curve structure is suitable for road and gravel bikes, mountain bikes, and downhill bikes. The best feature of this bike case is that it is impact-resistant, abrasion-resistant, and tough, even at low temperatures. Also, this bike case is so hassle-free when walking, as it is designed with four easy-rolling wheels. For my trip, I was able to easily roll my bag with one hand and pull the bike case with the other, which was really nice.

    1. The bottom line is, this is the most affordable bicycle travel case I have. And I highly recommend it for riders to experience the best bike case ever.

  3. Syd,
    Great article and legitimate information. I worked for a major airlines. I FedEx’d (because of reciprocal deals) my bike 6 days prior to IM France. Between several round trips in the U.S. (watching the daily tracking), a semi annual French air traffic controller strike, delivering the bike to Germany (close…), customs wanting import fees (I’m not selling it!), and ground transport to the venue. My bike arrived at 9pm the evening before the race. After reassembling, a night test drive, the race commissaires allowed me to check it in at 4am race day.

  4. Before going to your journey always check for rental availability. Some places have very good rental places with high end bikes and it could be cheaper than hauling yours. You can save the hassle and money. Places like Mallorca, Girona, Tenerife and Switzerland have rentals than will deliver to your hotel. In some places not so much. As a solo bikepacker it is also important to take in to account storing fees for your bike box also. Malpensa airport has a good left luggage storage and it only charges 5€/day for your bike. If you decide to rent remember to take not only pedals and shoes but also the saddle. Hard lesson learned the hard way.

    1. True, it’s probably always cheaper to rent but since I’m usually racing I need my own equipment. (Plus for very tall or short people, it can be difficult to find appropriate sizes, especially in mountain bikes, so it would be critical for someone to check availability in advance!)

  5. Just two things
    1 carry 1 kit shoes and helmet with you in your carry on (worst case scenario if your luggage is lost you will ride)
    2 take some air out of tires especially tubeless.

    Nothing else

  6. Check your bike immediately after you pick it up from baggage claim. I made the mistake of not checking my bike until after I arrived home in a taxi. The baggage “handlers” had mishandled my bike bag and my custom carbon frame was cracked in two places. You must report damage claims within 2hrs of landing and it has to be in person at the airport. Fortunately, I had bike insurance…

  7. Disconnect your electronic shifting when you pack. Screening agents may completely disassemble equipment and break cables in the process. TSA in Boston recently damaged a friend’s Di2 so the bike was unrideable. I’d also check to make sure any damage is covered by insurance with the carrier or your home policy.

  8. Check the baggage policies for International carriers; some carriers include bike boxes as part of checked baggage. Traveling to UCI World Masters’ Road Cycling Championships in Varese, Italy we found an Emirates flight to Milan Malpensa where bike boxes counted as part of the policy of 2 checked bags per person. Since there were 2 of us traveling & I had a TT bike, a road bike and a wheel bag, we put all our clothing in one large suitcase so the two of us each had 2 checked bags. We also loaded our carry-ons as much as possible.
    Also see if a cabin upgrade will allow bike boxes to travel for free. You don’t have to go all the way to first-class fares for benefits like more checked luggage, etc. Last year going to UCI Masters’ Worlds in Albi, France, we upgraded to an economy fare class on British Airways called “International Traveler” for $119.00/person that gave us more leg room & a better seat and allowed us to fly with 3 bike boxes and a large suitcase at no additional charge. Otherwise, we would have paid $200.00 for each bike box. These fare classes are not available on all flights, so shop around & see which routes offer these plans.
    It is helpful to put all small parts in containers to avoid losing them if TSA opens your bike box; the sturdy plastic food containers with clear lids from restaurant take-out are great!

    1. Good ideas! We’ve flown British Airways a few times and they always forget to charge us for the bikes even in economy class. Great airline, ahaha 😉

  9. I suggest always have a spare rear derailer hanger and perhaps a seat post clamp if it’s non-standard. It sucks having your bike when you can’t use it.

    1. Agreed – I broke my seatpost clamp a few years ago when putting my bike back together. Thankfully, Mellow Johnny’s had a replacement that worked pretty well but I had to order the correct one when I got home.

    2. Good ideas! I carry a spare hanger every time I ride so I didn’t think to mention it specifically for this article, haha.

  10. Very timely article. My friends and I just flew from Boston to Austin for our 10th Livestrong Ride. JetBlue is the best!! While they only charge $50 for traveling with a bike, because we’re doing it for charity, they waive the fee entirely!! Obviously, I am in no way advocating gaming the system (they actually did verify that the Livestrong ride is occurring this weekend), I wholly advocate supporting this airline as much as possible. I’m also curious if you have an opinion on deflating your tires when flying. My friend insists you have to but as an engineer my position is that when you hit a pothole, you’re putting a lot more stress on a tire than in an unpressurized storage compartment.

    1. You want to deflate slightly, but not for the reason you might think. I once read that in worst case – airplane somehow goes into outer space – tire pressure will only increase by 15 psi. No, the reason you want to let a little air out of the tires is in case the bike/case is left out on the hot tarmac. On a hot day (and especially with a black bike box/case), the heat could expand the air in the tires enough for them to blow off the rims, destroying the inner tubes. Not sure how tubeless would react.

      1. Interesting. I’ve had friends who’ve blown tires by not pulsing their brakes on a steep
        downhill when the temperature’s in the 90s, so you bring up a good point.

    2. I usually deflate my tires down to around 15 psi (enough to hold the bead on for tubeless MTB tires). This is mainly to get them into the box, to be honest. I have never had issues with anything blowing off the rim, but I suppose it’s better to be on the safe side. No need to deflate completely.

  11. If you use automatic shifting, take note: the lithium battery should not go in your bike bag or with any checked baggage. Pack your seat post containing the battery in your carry-on bag & be upfront with TSA when going thru security. Many bikes get thru without inspectors checking them, but should yours be the box they check, you do not want them trying to remove the battery. Be smart, a fire in the hold could take down the entire plane!

  12. There is only one rule, hard case. If you are serious about traveling a lot then S&S couplered frame, carbon or Ti are now readily available you don’t get many problems. Also,Mig you can afford it,must fly business class…

    1. Totally agree on S&S couplers. I’ve used coupled bikes since 2009. Must have gone on about 30 round trip flights (mostly for work, but I always take the bike and pay the extra baggage myself because I like riding in new places), and the most I’ve ever paid for baggage is $25. The $750 fee to install the couplers, and the $450 for the hard shell S&S travel case have paid for themselves many times over, even with two coupled frames and two cases. Calfee will sell you a VERY nice carbon fiber frame with Ti couplers. The only downside is the extra time required to pack and unpack, about 1.5 hours each end, much of it wrapping padding around the frame tubes.

  13. Another important tip (goes along with knowing your airline): Lufthansa requires that you reserve space ahead of time for your bike as well as yourself! I’d missed this until this Spring when we had to scramble at the last minute to get our bikes shipped or we would have had no bikes on our 2 week cycling vacation to Mallorca! They didn’t have room on the final leg to Palma and wouldn’t allow the bikes to follow us on the next flight! Fortunately, I noticed the “fine print” a week before we left and BikeFlights got our bikes there on time (and for about half the cost of other international bike shipping companies!). Just a caution though, a friend’s bike was significantly delayed coming back from Italy when using BikeFlights; it eventually arrived intact, but he missed an event in the US that he’d planned to do due to the delay.

    1. This is interesting– I’ve had this issue when flying out of smaller airports (Rotorua New Zealand after a big mountain bike event when every one had a bike! eek!) but didn’t realize some of the bigger airlines need to know in advance as well.

      As for BikeFlights, I think they do a really good job but are unfortunately subject to international shipping/customs issues that can cause serious delays and expenses depending on where you’re going. Hence my preference to fly with my bike!

  14. My old Ibis Tranny 26er packs in a conventional 62″ bag from S&S, does not get charged internationally or on Southwest, and has been raced and toured in NZ, ridden hills in Scotland and Pennsylvania, mountains in Utah and Colorado, and is still going strong. Takes a bit of time to set up the bike, but so worth it…

  15. Great article, but you forgot one very critical thing about travelling with a bike . Know your aircraft and check the equipment for each leg of your flight. Commuter aircraft like those manufactured by Embraer or Canadair may not have a hold large enough to take a hard bike case – and they won’t tell you when you check in or board, but your bike will be bumped to the next flight with a hold large enough to take it. A good idea is to present the luggage tag for your bike to the gate attendant when you arrive at your gate and ask them to have the Load Master confirm your bike is on board before you take off. Luggage is scanned…the Load Master will know and can confirm this to the lead agent. The Load Master is one of those ramp people you see coming on board the aircraft to convene with the cockpit crew before push back….know your Load Master! There may often be only one flight daily to your international destination, if your bike does not make the connection because it was bumped for space, you end up wasting a day for the next flight to come in with your bike….so make sure the aircraft for each of your legs is big enough for your bike – i.e. a Fokker 100 will take a bike an Fokker 70 will not.

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