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!