There comes a point in time when your cycling adventures get a little routine—the feeling that you could ride local roads with your eyes closed creeps in. It’s time to pack that bike up and take a little trip. Maybe there is a destination that has been calling your name for years but you’ve never quite pulled the trigger due to the logistics of transporting a bike. However, with a little prior planning and the proper equipment there is no reason we can’t make this getaway happen.
Booking air travel is the first step. Although airlines all offer deals on shipping bicycles, the details are often complicated. You might also be limited to specific airlines based on your origin and destination points. For instance, here in San Luis Obispo, California, United and US Airways are the only airlines that service our quaint little airport.
Most airlines use similar rules for transporting bicycles. If the bike meets the first set of criteria, it will be checked luggage with the same standard baggage fees—meaning it could fly for free if it is your first checked bag on many airlines. Your bicycle has to be disassembled with smaller parts stored and every component secured. The bicycle box must weight less than 50 pounds and measure less than 62 linear inches (length + width + height). United, US Airways, Delta and Southwest all follow this fly-for-free rule if it is your first checked bag. Our problem however, lies in the fact that it is very difficult to pack a standard bicycle within these dimensions, even a road bike, not to mention a mountain bike.
Usually, packing a bike to meet these dimensions requires packing the wheels separately. I cannot say I’m a big fan of the smaller soft cases that are used to minimize packed size. While they are great for transporting bikes in many other situations, air travel usually requires something that offers hard-shell protection. A friend of mine recently checked a bike in a soft case with an airline and was unfortunately greeted with a broken carbon frame at her destination. Don’t let this one story discourage you from traveling with your bike, however; it can be done safely if the right precautions are taken.
Assuming that our bicycles will be over the listed dimensions, let’s look at how the airlines charge. United and US Airways add a $150 fee for bicycles if their packed size exceeds the limits. This fee applies each way, so plan on spending an extra $300 for your flight. Delta lists an extra fee of $50 each way for the same dimensions and weight. Southwest does not list service fees on their website if the bicycle box exceeds the listed dimensions. Experience with Southwest varies from person to person. I have heard stories of people not getting charged for bike boxes and others that have. It seems that you should plan to spend $50 each way with Southwest, but it may be your lucky day.
There are many different bike box options depending on your size requirements. For the purpose of this article, I have chosen the Thule Round Trip Sport Bike Transport Case for its more economical pricing and hard-shell protection. With a multi-tool and some patience you can break down your bicycle in a few minutes.
Start by shifting into the smallest chainring and smallest cog, giving the chain the most amount of slack to facilitate removal of the rear wheel. Open the cable quick release on the brakes to allow clearance for the tire to pass through the brake pads. After removing both wheels, mark the seat post position for later reinstallation and remove the saddle and seat post. After noting the position of the handlebars, loosen the stem bolts and remove the bar from the stem. Note: the cables and housing can remain connected. There is enough play in the cables to allow for placement of the bar in the box next to the bike. When packing the bike, rotate the fork 90 degrees for a narrower overall profile in the box.
Although the box includes foam to protect components from each other and the hard plastic case, plan on buying additional foam, bubble wrap and cardboard. The handlebars, seat post and frame all have the opportunity to rub against each other unless properly secured. I would recommend wrapping components in bubble wrap and cardboard for protection and then securing them to each other to limit movement.
Patience is a necessity in this situation. You will want to take the time to pack your bike carefully and correctly. An extra 20 minutes of preparation could save you from a very costly and frustrating situation. Pictures in this article show a bicycle packaged with the included Thule foam, but I recommend adding more material as you see fit and interior case dimensions will allow.
After exploring options and airfare, you can also look at shipping quotes to your destination. If you have an address at the destination to ship to, this could be more economical if facing $300 in baggage fees.
Although the airlines don’t make this process easy, it helps to know your options and be able to plan accordingly. After packing a bike your first couple times, the process will only get easier and you will be a professional in no time.
Rubber Side Down is a weekly column dedicated to the fledgling cyclist in all of us. Art’s Cyclery Web Content Editor, Brett Murphy is not a professional cyclist, and doesn’t try to masquerade as one either, but he does love to ride bikes. Whether you are clipping in for the first time or counting down the days until your first race, read on, learn from his mistakes, and keep the rubber side down.