Mark on Monday: Flying with Bikes

FLYING WITH BIKES 

In this first column of the pragmatic triathlete, I’m going to address something that a surprising number of people will be doing this year, including me, flying with bikes.

Travelling with bikes has changed a huge amount since I took my first overseas trip with a bike back in 1999. Back in those days there were few discount airlines, the Transport Safety Administration (TSA) didn’t exist, and honestly, there were not so many people travelling with bikes. With some careful planning, arrival early for check-in and knowing the rules, you could often check your bike for free. Now days, no such luck.

My first exposure to people flying with bikes was a short trip from London to Montpellier in the south of France. While waiting for my suitcase to appear on the belt, and the baggage handlers bought out a couple of touring bikes, literally just wrapped in clear plastic. They’d removed the pedals and taped them to the top-tube; and turned the handlebars sideways and that’s it. Lots of people taking short trips still say this is a safe way to travel since the baggage handlers know they are dealing with a bike and take appropriate care. I’ve never tried it.

Over the years since then I’ve taken more than 40-trips with a bike, including a round the world race trip that culminated in the 2001 ITU World Championships in Edmonton Canada, but started in London, went via Germany, China, Australia and that didn’t go well for my bike. It was left standing on the tarmac at LAX Airport. I had to fly from there to Banff, and Banff to Edmonton. By the time we got confirmation the bike was on its last leg to Edmonton, 2-days later, transition had already closed at the race.

Add to that, standing watching my bike box get pushed out of the front luggage hold on an American Airlines flight in Chicago, when there was no conveyor belt, and it dropped some 40+ feet to the floor; standing waiting for more than an hour for a TSA inspection on an international connecting flight in Miami, and over the years seen and experienced it all.

OPTIONS, OPTIONS.

We really have choices these days, but for some trips you will have only the carrier you are travelling with. I’m going to give you some tips for stress free travel, but first a look at some of the options. For a good description of the options, see bikepacker.com.

Custom Shipping: Defined as the Do-it-yourself method. You pack your bike into a box, go via a freight shipping company like FedEx or UPS, or go with a specialty freight forwarding company.

Specialty Shipping: ship your already packed bike with Bike Flights, Ship My Bike or similar.

Bike courier services: Pick up or drop-off your bike, plus optional gear bag and they’ll deliver it usually right to a race or event. Afterwards they’ll return it the same way. Pro Bike Express, Tri Bike Transport, Race Day Transport etc.

Travel with your bike: You book tickets, usually flights, and check your bike as baggage.

For the remainder of this column I’m going to assume that you are travelling either with a standard road bike, or triathlon bike. There are some fascinating alternatives like fitting a S&S Couplers to your frame so it breaks down into a much smaller space; Bike Friday folding bikes, and special problem of travelling with tandem bikes. Also, I’m not going to cover travelling via train. Frankly I find the options, rules and availability of Amtrak travel with bikes so confusing, I’ve been exhausted trying to work out if it is practical.

BIKE BOXES

My Cannondale Multisport 4000 in 1999 on its way to Italy.

With the exception of “Bike courier services”, all the other methods of travelling with bikes almost certainly require a bike box of some sort. Most bike shop will give you a used cardboard box for free or at a nominal fee. FedEx sell a specialty cardboard bike box for $24.99. I currently own 3-types of bike boxes, a SciCon hard-shell box, a SciCon Aero Comfort bag, and a Thule Roundtrip Pro XT soft shell case.

I used a cardboard box for my first trip, but cardboard boxes are really not very strong and often won’t survive a return trip. However, don’t overlook cardboard boxes. I was a sponsor of professional triathlete Jocelyn Wong. Jocelyn not only created her own boxes, but was also creative enough to get them shipped with her for free.

My ITU race bike packed post a trip to St Petersburg

The Scicon hard-shell came with me around the world twice, and without a doubt was the most rugged. I finally stopped using it when American Airlines dropped it 40ft+ and the front of the box ended up with a hole big enough to get your helmet through. My bike though arrived undamaged for my race.

The Scicon Aero Comfort bag was easy to pack, and easy to transport, but I cannot recommend the Mark II bag as it came with cheap wheels that have been easily broken on every trip I’ve taken. SciCon just announced the Mark III and tell me they’ve replaced the wheels with a different design, but that’s not much comfort when you spend $599 on a bike bag.

 

My road bike on its way via Miami to the first ever St Lucia Triathlon.

CUSTOM SHIPPING

Deciding to custom ship your bike will depend on a couple of key things. First is your bike going domestic only? Second, are you comfortable doing the bike packing yourself? If the answer to both of these is yes, then this is much more practical now than it used to be.

When shipping this way, the cost will be largely dependent on two factors, size and weight. While it’s tempting to drop everything into the box, don’t. It will cost you a lot more. The biggest challenge you have with custom shipping is where to ship the bike to. Your choices will range from a friend, or bike shop, to a hotel. The one I’ve used when shipping with FedEx, is to ship it to a FedEx location and have it held there until you collect it. There will be no additional charge for this, as long as you collect it within 7-days. Hotels are a good option if you are staying there either before or during the race.

Bike shops are the easiest option. You can pay a bike shop to pack and ship your bike. Colorado Multisport charges $100 to disassemble your bike and pack it into a box, shipping fees vary depending on where you are shipping to.

Custom shipping can be difficult and confusing if you are travelling overseas to a ride, race or training camp. You have to be clear on custom shipping forms that the bike is your “working” or “professional” equipment and will not remain in the country, otherwise it’s likely you’ll also have to pay import duty.

Prices are between $150-$300 depending on the size and weight of the box, and take from 3-10 days. Prices don’t include bike box, or packing fees which will be extra. If you are shipping to a bike shop or hotel they’ll likely also charge additional fees.

SPECIALTY SHIPPING

This is pretty much the same as custom shipping, except you can use a company that has all the logistics experience and uses their service to negotiate discounts with the major shipping companies. It’s worth checking with your bike shop if you are using their services to pack the bike, if they have discounts with the likes of FedEx and UPS. As with custom shipping, the challenge you have is to find somewhere to ship your bike to. If you are lucky enough to get a homestay for a race or ride, that is an ideal place to ship your bike to. Otherwise, it’s a hotel or bike shop.

Prices vary between $140-$280 for domestic events. Prices don’t include bike box, or packing fees which will be extra. If you are shipping to a bike shop or hotel they’ll likely also charge additional fees.

BIKE COURIER SERVICE

By far the easiest way to travel with a bike, is not to travel with it at all. For both the 2015, 2016 ITU Championship races in Chicago, I elected to go this way. I dropped my bike off with a partner bike shop, they took care of removing the pedals, and I picked it up at the race, raced and dropped it back with the courier service post-race. This seemed expensive at first, and only serves a limited number of races, but is by far the best option.

Compared to airline fees, bike packing and boxing fees, it often works out cheaper in total. PRO BIKE EXPRESS is a local partner and bike courier service for many Colorado stores and athletes. You really have to do very little, beyond delivering your bike to a partner bike shop. The only real downside of this option is the time you have to be without your bike. It’s likely to be gone for 3-weeks or more. Prices are in the range of $260-$350 depending on the service used and the race.

TRAVEL WITH YOUR BIKE

Often, taking your bike with you seems like the easiest option, sometimes it’s the only option. My experience though is it’s the most stressful, and even more so if you are taking a connecting flight. When it comes to what you pay, it’s much simpler than you’d think. BIKES NEVER FLY FOR FREE.

Sure, there are lots of references and claims on the Internet that say people have not been charged to travel with bikes, but the key thing to remember is that is discretionary. Yes, I’ve checked my bike for free more times than I’ve paid for it, and yes, as per Jocelyn Wongs blog posts, there are things you can do to help with this, but for the most part expect to pay $75 with discount airlines (Southwest, Frontier etc.), and $150 with the major airlines (American, United etc.) to check your bike.

The reason the major airlines charge double is that it is more likely you’ll be travelling international, or using connecting flights. Their charges are per trip, not per flight. When I flew from Sydney Australia to Edmonton Canada, it was actually 3-flights, and three airlines and would have been $150.

This brings up another interesting point, the 1929 Montreal Convention. Seriously, it’s a major treaty that unified many of the rules of today’s airline travel. It’s no accident that ALL airlines base their checked baggage fees on two things, weight, 50lbs and under; and size, 62-linear inches and under.

If you can, check your bike under 50lbs and in a box.  Length, width, and height added together must be less than 62-inches. If you can, then it can be a standard checked bag. However, for the most part you won’t be able to do this. Even the frame alone for anything more than a very small bike will require a box bigger than this. This is where the S&S Couplers come in as you can break the bike down to fit into standard size luggage.

With all that said, here are my 20-Top Tips for flying with your bike:

  1. Do your planning – find out about luggage allowances and shipping fees. Don’t forget about getting to/from the airport. No point in emerging from the airport only to find your bike doesn’t fit in the cab or rental car. Find out the names, locations of bike shops near your destination.
  2. Things can and do go wrong, no matter how well planned; have a backup plan.
  3. There are strict rules governing the carriage of luggage on planes including size, weight and liability – make sure you know how to use these to your advantage.
  4. Check insurance. Most home insurance policies will cover some amount of damage and loss under certain conditions. The afore mentioned Montreal convention limits airlines liability to about $1000 and under strict conditions.
  5. Where you can, book or reserve space for your bike in advance; where you can’t understand your baggage allowance and show up as early as possible!
  6. Check with your local bike shop and friends to see if they have a hard-shell bike box you can borrow or rent.
  7. Choices for packing your bike are cardboard box, bike bag, bike box – bags are good, bike boxes are better.
  8. Use plastic cable ties and foam pipe insulation on the frame and forks for protection; anything that rubs will rub a mark on paintwork on an 8-hour flight. If using a bag or cardboard box, make sure you use a plastic bridge for the front forks and rear stays.
  9. Don’t forget to leave CO2 cartridges behind; you cannot legally take them on planes hand luggage or the hold.
  10. Use an old race t-shirt to cover the chain ring down to the rear mech., ties the shirt arms together to hold in place.
  11. Don’t over pack your bag or box with stuff; as tempting as it is, over weight at the airport can lead to a refusal to check it, or asking you to remove items, then what will you do?
  12. Don’t forget ALL the tools to re-assemble your bike; take an extra set of cables ties for the return journey.
  13. You can take a small knife to cut the cable ties, just don’t put it in your hand luggage.
  14. Keep your luggage tags and boarding pass safe, you absolutely need both of these in case of problems.
  15. Make the most of your luggage allowance if travelling on a budget; take heavy things in your hand luggage to keep your checked bags under weight. You can train for a week on just a bike box, sports bag for hand luggage. I never do though.
  16. If you are on a connecting flight, wait and watch your bike offloaded from the plane. If you have an international connection that requires going through security before the 2nd flight, stand to one side and watch them check and close you bike/bag.
  17. Inspect your box/bike at the airport; any visible damage other than scratches, file a passenger information report (PIR) with the airline or their handler at the airport before leaving.
  18. If you need help assembling your bike, or with minor repairs/parts don’t be afraid to ask – call the bike shop numbers collected during planning.
  19. When re-assembling your bike, don’t over tighten things in your excitement, it may break and you have to re-pack your bike in a few days!
  20. As Frankie said, Relax! Have a great race, ride or tour. Flying with bikes opens up some great places.

Other Links.
American Airlines
Frontier Airlines
Southwest Airlines
United

About Mark

Mark Cathcart took up triathlon in the late 90’s to get fit for adventure racing, which to this day he has never done, and has since taken part in 170+ events. His pragmatic approach to training, racing, and life have led him from Chairman of one of the bigger UK Triathlon clubs 15-years ago, to British Triathlon volunteer of the year, to a sometime race organizer, to the organizer and ride leader for Austin, Texas award-winning Jack and Adams triathlon shop, to doing sometime Sports Management for development and professional triathletes, to attending all the Triathlon Business International and Triathlon America conferences (where he usually asks the questions others won’t), to Colorado in 2016. Mark is also a co-owner of Boulder Bodyworker.

2 thoughts on “Mark on Monday: Flying with Bikes

  1. As an addendum. We are travelling to California a bike tour. 2-people, 2-bikes, tent, sleeping bags and ride gear for 6-days.

    I’ve not priced out the bike part yet, but flying Southwest to SJC included 2 checked bags each. Airline tickets for two came in just under $300. Bikes are $75 on Southwest. Flying back from San Francisco with Frontier, flights were $104+$15 for seats, checked bag each $30, and the bikes are also $75. So, Frontier is about the same but one less checked bag. My next project is to price out the best way to get the bikes there and back. First stop FedEx and see what it costs to custom ship them, then try specialty shipping and compare prices.

    I’d prefer to ship the bikes separately to avoid the airport hassle. I’ll update here when I’ve worked the details.

    Are you shipping a bike this year? What did you decide, why, and what did you pay?

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