Travel with a bike: Essential Tips for Flying with a Bicycle
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You are planning a holiday that involves flying with your bicycle, but this is something you have never done before. You have many questions swirling around in your head. Do all airlines accept bicycles? How much will it cost? How do I pack my bicycle? Will my bicycle get damaged? How do I check in with a bicycle? This is how I felt the first time we headed from Australia to France to spend a month cycling in the French Alps and Pyrenees, so I understand how you feel.
When we arrived in Paris for that first trip, we waited at the oversize luggage collection point, joking about what would happen if the bikes did not turn up. Guess what? They didn’t. At first. Thankfully, the customer service person discovered they were at the airport but had ended up in a transit section. Within 30 minutes, we were reunited with our bicycles, and off we went and enjoyed a great holiday on two wheels. Since that first trip, we have flown with our bicycles many more times and learned a lot along the way. Thankfully, the bikes have arrived safely on each trip since that first one which is always a huge relief.
In this article, I will guide you through the necessary steps and share my expertise about flying with a bicycle to take the stress out of it. From airline policies and packing tips to arrival and assembly, I will provide you with a detailed plan of action that will help you overcome any challenges you may face. So, let’s get started and ensure that your next cycling adventure is a success!
The truth about flying with a bicycle
Before I delve into the steps to prepare you for flying with a bicycle, I wanted to quickly share my thoughts on what it is really like when travelling with a bike. When friends have asked us for advice about whether to bring their own bicycle or simply hire one, our advice is always as follows: If your holiday is all about cycling and riding your bike, then take your bike on the plane with you, but if you only plan to ride your bike a little bit, just hire a bike at your destination.
I will be honest here: flying with a bicycle can be a pain at times, and everything seems that little bit more difficult and requires additional planning. For example, getting to and from the airport is not as simple as when you have standard size luggage. Many taxis will not fit bike travel cases in them, so you need to find a taxi that will. Using public transport is much harder when you have a large bike case to get up and down stairs at stations and finding space on crowded trains among the daily commuters can be challenging.
But once you are riding your own bike through a new destination, the tricky parts of travel quickly fade into the distance, and it is all worthwhile. I don’t want to suggest it is all too hard and you shouldn’t bother, but rather be honest about what it is really like. It is important to understand what you might need to consider so that you can be prepared as possible and have no surprises on your first trip.
So now onto the important stuff and the steps you need to consider when flying with a bicycle.
Airline policies for a bicycle
In my experience, understanding the airline policy is probably the most important thing to consider when flying with a bicycle. If you get the airline’s policy wrong or don’t understand it correctly, you could be up for costly excess baggage fees or, worse, find out that your bicycle cannot travel with you. So my tip here is to make sure you fully understand the policy for taking your bicycle on the airline you choose.
Firstly, the good news is that all airlines, with the exception of one or two, will allow you to fly with your bike as luggage. The not-so-good news is, that every airline sets its own policy when it comes to checking bikes, so there is no single rule to follow. There are really only 5 things about the airline policy for bicycles that I think you need to be mindful of, which are:
- What is the booking process? Do you need to advise the airline that you are checking a bike as luggage? Many airlines don’t require you to let them know, but I have observed that more seem to be asking people to advise them about bikes.
- Is there a fee for your bicycle? Lots of airlines will allow you to include your bicycle as part of your standard luggage allowance and charge you no additional fees. Other airlines, however, do charge a fee for your bicycle, and it is often cheaper to pay this at the time of booking rather than when you check in.
- How much weight are you allowed? Each airline sets its policy for weight allowances for a bicycle. In my experience, most economy tickets will allow 23 kg (50 lbs) and some up to 30 kg (66 lbs). Premium economy, business class and first class usually have higher weight allowances.
- What is the maximum dimension for a bicycle travel case? Each airline quotes the allowable dimension as either a linear measure or a length measure. If it is a linear measure, you need to add the length, width, and height of your case together and ensure it is less than the airline’s policy. For length, you just need to measure the longest side of your case and ensure it is within the airline’s policy.
- What are the packing requirements? Airline policies all set out their requirements for packing a bike. The standard for all airlines when bringing a bike is handlebars turned sideways, pedals removed, and tyres deflated. Airline policies will sometimes state what type of travel case is allowable, although this is not too common in my observations.
If you understand each of the 5 components listed above, I think you are much less likely to turn up at the airport and have a nasty surprise. I have read through lots of these policies and find they are often quite confusing and sometimes poorly worded. As such, I strongly recommend that if you are not quite sure about something, you contact the airline and double check with a real person.
As an example, on our second trip to France, flying Emirates, the wording in their policy about bikes had changed to suggest the dimensions for a bike case had decreased. I called the airline and spoke to them to confirm my understanding of their policy. In the end, there was no issue; it was just a poorly worded policy and we were good to go. But it gave me peace of mind that all would be fine as I checked in my bike at the airport.
Help is at hand
This may all sound very daunting and time-consuming, especially if you are trying to choose the best airline for you and your bicycle to fly on. But rest easy; I have done the hard work for you and researched over 120 different airlines to summarise their policies and fees for bicycles in a handy table. The table includes all the information you need to know as well as a link to the airline’s website. I have created two versions of the table, one in metric measurements and the other in imperial measurements. So no matter where you are in the world, I have you covered. I check the data in the table regularly throughout the year to ensure it remains as accurate and up-to-date as possible.
A newer trend for flights with bicycles
One trend I have noticed over the past few years is that more airlines want you to notify them that you will be checking in a bike as part of your luggage allowance. For some airlines, it is simply a notification process, whereas others have to grant you permission to check your bicycle as luggage before your ticket is confirmed.
As an example, we booked tickets with Air France in 2021 and had to have our bikes approved by the airline before the ticketing process was finalised. It took 24 hours for the approval to come through, and we were fine to proceed, but had we simply turned up at the airport, we may have had problems.
The cost of taking bicycles on planes
Flying with a bike is not necessarily an expensive undertaking. Many airlines allow you to check your bike as part of your standard luggage allowance, meaning your bike costs nothing. The fees on airlines that do charge for bicycles range from US$30 to US$350. Fees are charged for each leg of your flight, so a return ticket will mean paying the fee for the outward leg as well as the return leg. You need to make sure your bicycle is not overweight or oversize; otherwise, excess luggage fees will apply. Excess charges are very expensive and should be avoided at all costs.
In my experience, flights from Australia to France have always included the bicycle as part of the standard allowance, and there have been no fees charged. When we have flown internally within Europe, though, all carriers seem to charge a €50 fee for each bike.
My tip is to research the airlines that service the route you are flying and see which one offers the best deal to bring your bike on the plane. It is important that you look at the ticket price plus any fee for the bike when comparing. As an example, I had the option of flying a budget airline or a full-fare airline within Europe. While the ticket prices were much cheaper on the budget airline, by the time we added in the cost of luggage, it was actually cheaper to book the full-fare airline, as their ticket price included the bicycles as part of their luggage allowance at no additional cost. So shop around and look at the total cost, not just the ticket cost.
How to pack your bike for air travel
Once you have navigated your way through the airline policies and booked your tickets, the next step is to think about how you will pack your bicycle. Each airline policy sets out the requirements for bringing a bike as luggage, but they are all very similar and require that the bike be in some sort of cover or case; that the handlebars are turned sideways; that the tyres are deflated; and that the pedals are removed. I will delve into each of these in a bit more detail.
Types of bike cases and travel bags
When it comes to covering your bike to check it in as luggage, there are 4 options available: a plastic bag, a cardboard bike box, a soft-shelled bike case, or a hard-shelled bike case. I have used both a cardboard bike box and a soft-shell bike travel bag and would recommend either depending on your situation and cycling plans at the end of the trip.
Plastic bag: it is possible to purchase a strong plastic bag to use when checking in your bike as luggage. This is a cheap, simple option, but you will need to make sure your bike is well protected within the plastic cover. While this is not something I would personally do, I have read lots of accounts of people who swear by this method. The theory is that airlines take better care of the bike because they can see what it is. Handy if you are cycle-touring and don’t have anywhere to store a bike box or case while you travel.
Cardboard bike box: this is something I have used on numerous occasions without issue. Cardboard bike boxes are generally available free of charge from a bike store but can also be purchased from shipping companies and at some airports. Again, these are handy if you are cycle touring and you don’t have anywhere to store a case at your destination.
Soft-shelled bike travel case: I have also used this style of bike travel case, and you can see my EVOC Bike Travel Case review for some more information. Soft-shelled bike travel cases typically have a hard base with rollers or wheels and soft, reinforced nylon sides. The benefit of this style of bike travel case is the ability to fold it down somewhat when not in use. These typically cost around US$400–$500 on average.
Hard-shelled bike travel case: This style of bike travel case consists of a rigid shell that is made of reinforced plastic or aluminium. They offer maximum protection for your bicycle, but there is no ability to fold it down for storage during or after your holiday. These typically range in cost from US$400 to $1 000.
My tips for choosing the right bike travel case
In my experience, there are five things you should consider when selecting the right bike travel case for you: the type of bike you have, the weight of your bike, your budget, the frequency and type of travel, and how easy it is to pack. I have put together a separate page about bike travel cases and bags that goes into more detail about each of these points.
Preparing the bicycle for air travel
Once you have selected your travel bag or case, the next step in preparing for your holiday is to actually pack your bicycle inside the bike travel bag or case. My top tip here is to have a practise run well before your holiday starts and allow plenty of time. Based on my own experience, it will take a lot longer than you think to prepare the bike and have it ready to go the first time. On our very first trip, it took me about 1 hour per bike the first time I packed the bikes, and now it takes about 20 minutes for each bike.
What you need to do to prepare your bike will differ slightly depending on the bike travel case you use. As an example, when we use a cardboard bike box, we only take the front wheel off, whereas when we use our EVOC bike travel case, we take both the front and rear wheels off. This is the list of things that I do when packing my bicycle for air travel based on my own needs and experience:
- Remove the handlebars: these must be turned sideways, according to many airlines. For both a cardboard bike box and our bike travel case, we remove the handlebars completely and secure them to the front fork.
- Remove the wheel(s): remove the front and rear as necessary. Protect disc rotors or consider removing them completely. Airlines stipulate that tyres should be deflated. I reduce the pressure but don’t deflate them completely.
- Insert disc brake spacers: insert spacers between the disc pads. This prevents the levers from being pulled and impacting the brakes while the disc rotor is out. We were given some of these spacers for free from our local bike store.
- Remove the pedals: Airlines also stipulate that pedals must be removed, and I always remove ours as they create a pressure point.
- Remove the rear derailleur: I usually remove our rear derailleurs and simply tape them to the rear seat stays with some padding around them. I have travelled with them still on and protected them well, but I think removal is the safest and it is easy to do.
- Protect the frame: I purchased some pipe lagging or insulation from our local plumbing supplier and used this to protect our frames. I cut each piece to length, marked which bike it is for and where on the bike it belongs, then taped a reusable zip tie to it. This way, each time I use it, they are ready to go, and I can identify what goes where.
- Remove or lower the seat post: for my setup, I have to remove the seat post for my bikes, but for my wife’s bikes, I can simply lower them.
Once I have the bikes packed in either the travel case or cardboard bike box, I always make sure that there are no parts rubbing against each other that should not be. If there are, I will place some additional padding to protect them. I also recommend checking that your brake levers and/or shifters are not in an awkward position. I discovered a broken shifter lever that we had after a flight that could have been avoided had I noticed it was against the fork in an awkward position in the bike case. Thankfully, this was on the return trip, and it did not impact our holiday.
Packing a bike in a travel box or case will require some disassembly. If you are not comfortable doing this yourself I recommend you contact your local bike shop for some assistance. Many bike shops offer a packing service for those who need it. They may also be able to teach you how to do it yourself so you are prepared for the return journey.
Other luggage in the bike travel bag or box
When looking at airline policies about bringing a bike on a plane, many airlines stipulate that only the bicycle must be packed in the bike bag or box. I usually pack some cycling clothes and other soft items when we travel with our bikes on planes, as I think it adds a little extra padding around the frames.
To date, no airline has questioned us about what is in our bike travel case or box, and it has never been an issue. We always make sure it is a few kilogrammes under the weight allowance to avoid problems. When I read online forums about this topic, the general consensus seemed to be that most people pack some gear in their bike travel boxes, but I wanted to highlight it as something you should be aware of. Ultimately it is your decision.
Damage to bikes when flying
My biggest fear when taking a bike on a plane for the first time was that it would be damaged. It doesn’t take much searching on the internet to find stories of bicycles that have come out worse for wear at the other end of a flight. Thankfully, my fears have never been realised, and the bike has always turned up in great condition at the other end. I suspect there are far more people who fly with a bike and have no issues than those unfortunate enough to experience damage.
There are a few things I do, though, that I think help reduce the risk of damage to my bikes when I fly. The first is making sure it is well packed and that there is plenty of protection within the case. Secondly, I make the bike travel case as light as possible and always aim to be a few kilogrammes lighter than what is allowed. Finally, when using a cardboard bike box, I make sure I reinforce the actual box, especially the bottom and handles. This has worked so far, but to some degree, there is always some risk, which is why we make sure our travel insurance covers any damage to the bike if it does go wrong.
Navigating the airport with a bike as luggage
Once you have your tickets booked and your bike packed, the next consideration is getting to the airport and getting checked in to the airline with your bike. If you are booking a taxi, remember that it will need to be large enough to fit you and your bike box. Many standard-size cars will not fit a bike travel case or box in them, and you may have to order a small van or find someone who can drive you there.
My biggest tip when navigating airports is to allow yourself plenty of time and get to the airport as early as possible. Getting around the terminal building may take a bit more time with your bicycle and oversize luggage than it would otherwise. The check-in procedure with a bicycle is essentially the same as without a bike. The only difference is that once checked in, you will usually have to take your bike to an oversize luggage counter, as it won’t fit on the standard conveyor. I always aim to get the check-in process out of the way as soon as possible, so we can relax and get ready for the flight.
At the end of your flight, your bike will be sent to the oversize luggage area and will not be sent down the normal luggage carousel. I have never had any issues finding the oversize luggage area at any of the airports we have flown into; they are always well marked. I also recommend grabbing a trolley for your bike travel bag or case, even if you have a bike travel bag with wheels. I have found that it makes life much easier, especially when you have multiple bags.
If you are arriving at an airport and need to assemble your bike, there are always quiet spaces available to do so. I have assembled my bike in the terminal and then found a bin to discard the cardboard bike box. I have also used the under cover car park and there are usually out of the way places to build or pull apart your bike.
Other considerations when flying with a bicycle
Now that we have gone through the steps to choose the right airline, book tickets, prepare your bike for air travel, and navigate the airports, here are a few other things I think are worth noting when it comes to flying with a bicycle.
Flying with a bicycle on connecting flights
Something that can be confusing is what happens when your journey is with more than one airline to your destination. In many instances, you may find yourself on connecting flights operated by different airlines. I have read accounts of people getting caught out by this one, and again, I recommend you confirm with the airline what the policy will require. As a rule, your ticket will state what the baggage policy is, but you want to find this out before you book not find out after it is too late to change.
My understanding and experience of connecting flights and different airlines are as follows: If your entire journey is on a single ticket, then the policy of the airline that you booked the ticket through applies, even if you are on a different airline for part of the journey. By comparison, if you book each leg of a trip with the individual airlines and have multiple tickets, the baggage policy of each airline will apply.
As an example, we recently flew from France to Australia and booked our tickets on Qantas. The first leg of our trip was with British Airways from France to London, and then from London to Sydney on Qantas. For our trip, the Qantas baggage policy applied for both legs. Had we booked the France to London flight with British Airways and then the London to Sydney flight separately, the baggage policy of each individual airline would have applied.
Label your bike travel bag or case
It is important to have labels on your bike travel bag or case with your contact details for your flights. When I travel with my bike I include a mobile number, email address, and home address. When writing your mobile number remember to include the international dialling codes if you are travelling internationally.
If I am using a cardboard bike box I always use a thick marker pen to write our details on the outside of the box. I also include details on a label attached to the bike in the event the cardboard bike box gets wet or damaged. If I use the bike travel case I have luggage labels with our details on it.
While I have not used them myself yet, I have friends who use Apple Air Tags and place it on the bike so that they know where it is at all times. This is something I will consider for future flights.
Flying with bicycle lube and CO2 canisters
A couple of other points that often come up when talking about flying with a bike are taking bike lube and CO2 canisters on your flight. Bike lube can be brought on board an aircraft as long as it is not flammable. Check your bottle to see if it has a flammable mark on it. If there are no marks, then it is fine to take with you.
CO2 canisters are a little different in that some airlines allow them and some don’t. The regulators for air travel allow up to 4 x 28g CO2 canisters on passenger aircraft, but not all airlines accept them. Again, it comes down to checking the policy of the airline you plan to fly with.
Travel Insurance for bikes
I highly recommend that you make sure your bicycle is insured in case something happens to it while you are travelling. We have been lucky in that our Australian home contents insurance has covered our bicycles on our overseas visits, so it has cost us nothing.
Prior to realising our home contents policy would cover the bikes, I did look at regular travel insurance policies and discovered they are not all that great when it comes to insuring a bicycle. The devil is in the details, and I recommend you look through this carefully. Some things that I discovered are that the old for new policy may only apply to newer bikes, you may be limited to the activities you can undertake, and you may be limited to a certain altitude where you plan to ride.
I am planning to do a deeper dive into insurance for bikes when travelling and will link to it once it is complete.
Shipping a bike vs flying with a bike
Something I considered before heading off overseas was shipping our bikes rather than taking them on the plane with us. The quotes to ship our bikes from Australia to France were quite expensive, especially when the airline was not charging us anything to fly with them. We decided that this was not a feasible option for us.
Our research has found that in most cases, even when an airline charges a fee for your bike, it will be cheaper to take it on the plane rather than ship it. That being said, there may be circumstances where the extra cost is worth it from a convenience viewpoint, especially if you compare it to hiring a bike at your destination. I explore this in greater detail in our article all about shipping a bike.
In conclusion, I hope this article has helped answer the questions swirling around your head about flying with a bicycle. Each time I have taken a flight with a bicycle, I have learned something new, and I have reflected on my experiences in this article. The important points to remember are to research airline policies, prepare your bike properly, pack it correctly, and give yourself plenty of time at the airport for checking in and any other formalities.
Flying with a bike opens up a world of possibilities for cyclists, and I have always enjoyed exploring new destinations while riding my bike. So pack your bags, prepare your bike, and get ready for an unforgettable cycling journey. With the knowledge and skills gained from this article, you’re well on your way to flying with your bicycle like a pro. Happy travels!
If you have any other questions about flying with your bicycle, leave them in the comments below or send me an email at [email protected] and I will get back to you as soon as possible.