Flying with a bike – how to do it for the first time

Flying with a bike for the first time can be a daunting experience but it does not need to be. We have now flown multiple times with our bikes and have learnt a lot along the way. In this article, we will cover a range of topics about flying with a bike including how airline baggage rules work, bike-specific baggage rules, the cost of taking a bike on a plane, what you can pack in your bag, dangerous goods and tips for navigating at the airport. The article is based on our own experience of doing this over the last 10 years travelling between Australia and France as well as domestic flights within Europe and the UK.

Flying with a bike is permitted by the majority of airlines either free as part of your existing luggage allowance or by paying an additional fee. Each airline has its own rules in relation to bikes and other sporting goods which you will find on their website. All bikes must be properly packed in a travel bag or case and have handlebars turned sideways, pedals removed and tyres deflated. As a rule, e-bikes cannot travel on aircraft due to the size of their lithium battery. Some airlines do allow e-bikes on board but you must leave the battery at home.

Collecting bikes in cardboard boxes at the airport

Our top tips for flying with a bike

Here are 14 quick tips that we have learned over the years flying with a bike on airlines to help you for the first time. We go into more detail on many of these things in the article below.

  1. Not all airlines charge additional fees for your bikes. Many will include them as part of your luggage allowance.
  2. Fees for your bike, where charged, are cheaper at the time of booking than at the airport.
  3. More airlines are requiring you to pre-book a bike before you travel. In some instances, it is not a given that your bike will be allowed on.
  4. Make sure you know what the allowance, size and weight of bike with your chosen airline before you book the tickets. If necessary call and confirm with the airline.
  5. All airlines require you to pack your bike in some type of covering. This can range from a simple plastic bag to a hard-sided travel box. Some airlines require you to sign a damage waiver if the bike is not packed in a hard-sided case.
  6. Bike lube is allowed on aircraft as long as it is not a flammable liquid. Check your bottle before you fly.
  7. Co2 gas canisters are permitted by some airlines but not others. You will need to check directly with the airline you are flying with to see if they are allowed.
  8. Lithium batteries with a capacity greater than 160wh (watt-hours) are not permitted on any aircraft. This rules out all electric bike batteries and many airlines simply ban electric bikes altogether. A few airlines will allow an electric bike with the battery removed.
  9. Checking in to your flight is easy with a bike and generally takes no longer than without a bike. You will often have to take to your bike to an oversize luggage drop yourself.
  10. Collect your bike from the oversized luggage area and not the usual luggage carousel.
  11. Know the luggage rules for your airline and ticket as excess charges are high. Your luggage allowances are always printed on your ticket.
  12. Make sure you have travel insurance that covers damage to your bike while it is transit.
  13. Allow yourself some extra time to get to the airport and around the airport.
  14. Pack as lightly as possible, bags that seem light at home get heavier the more you carry them.

Will my bike get damaged if I take it on a plane?

One of the first things most people ask about flying with a bike is whether or not it is safe to check in and whether it could be damaged. If you search online there are plenty of stories of damage to bikes when they have been collected after a flight. Our own experience, and that of people we know, has largely been a positive one and undamaged bikes. We have travelled with our two bikes on numerous airlines from Australia to Europe and within Europe and they have always arrived in the condition they left.

Transporting your bike will never be totally risk-free but there are things you can do to minimise the risk of damage while in transit. Selecting an appropriate travel case for your bike is a key component and there are lots of options on the market you can consider. Making sure vulnerable areas of the frame and components are well protected is another important consideration. Rear derailleurs, brake discs, forks and rear drop-outs can all be well padded and protected to make sure there is little to no risk of damage. It is also important to make sure that there are no loose items within your travel case that could move around and cause damage.

While we were initially nervous about taking our bikes with us on flights, nothing we have experienced would stop us from doing this again in the future. Yes, taking a bike on a plane could risk damage to it, but with the right preparation, you can minimise the risk. We have always made sure the bikes are covered by insurance in the event of anything untoward happening. Ultimately the choice is yours but I suspect far more bikes travel as luggage undamaged than those that are damaged.

Airline luggage rules explained

Before we dive into the rules that apply to taking a bike on a plane, it is important to first understand airline baggage rules generally.

When you book a flight you will either be given a “free” baggage allowance as part of the purchase price or you will need to book and pay separately for the luggage you wish to bring. This is generally self-explanatory throughout the booking process. The amount of baggage you are allowed for free depends on the ticket type you purchase. If you need to purchase baggage it is cheaper to do this before you fly rather than waiting until you check in at the airport.

Your baggage allowance will always be printed on your ticket once you have purchased the flight. It is important that you note the rules that apply to your ticket and double-check they are as you expected.

Airline baggage allowance

When you fly with an airline that includes a free baggage allowance, the amount of baggage you are allowed to bring will depend on the class of ticket you purchase. In essence the higher the class of tickets the more baggage you can bring.

The industry standard is that an economy ticket will get you at least 23kg (50lbs) in a single bag as a minimum with some airlines offering up to 30kg (64lbs) for economy fares. Some sale or saver economy fares may have an allowance which can be as little as 15kg (32lbs).

The baggage allowances for premium, business and first vary greatly between airlines but you can expect a much more generous allowance with the best first-class fares giving you 3 x 32kg (70lbs) bags.

Weight vs piece baggage allowance – what’s the difference?

Your baggage allowance will be based on either the weight or piece concept regardless of whether your baggage is included in the ticket price or you pay for it separately.

Under the piece concept, you are permitted to bring a specified number of bags (pieces) up to a set weight per bag as baggage. The weight limits apply to each individual bag and cannot be combined. For example, if your ticket states 2 bags with a maximum weight of 23kg (50lbs) each, a total of 46kg (100lbs), you cannot bring one bag at 30kg (65lbs) and the other at 16kg (35lbs).

Under the weight concept, you can bring as many bags as you like up to a defined weight. So if you are allowed 23kg (50lbs) then you can bring 3 bags as long as the combined weight does not exceed your allowance.

Maximum allowable weight of baggage

The standard across all airlines is that no single piece of baggage can weigh more than 32kg (70lbs). This limit applies to everyone regardless of allowance and cannot be exceeded in any circumstance. As an example, if your ticket allows you 46kg (100lbs) then you must pack at least 2 bags so that no one bag is greater than 32kg (70lbs). Items over this amount must travel as cargo and will be treated separately.

This rule exists primarily to protect airport staff from having to handle bags that are too heavy. Note that some airlines have a lower maximum limit when it comes to bikes and other sporting equipment.

Linear length vs the actual length

Airlines set limits on the size of the bag you can bring. For normal check-in baggage, the industry standard is 158cm (63in). What this means is that you need to add the length, width and height of your luggage and ensure it is equal to or less than the limit. Airlines do this given the wide range of shapes and sizes of bags available and it means the allowance is based on everyone having the same volume. If your bag is 80cm(l) x 20cm(w) x 40cm(h) then you simply add the 3 number together to check. In this instance, it would be 140cm which is below the 158cm limit. (32in x 8in x 16in which is 56in and less than the 63in limit)

Wheeling cardboard bikes boxes through the airport

When it comes to oversize baggage, including bikes, things can get a bit more confusing as some airlines apply the same concept as above while others look at the total length of the item only. For example, it may allow 200cm (80In) in length and as long as your bag is no longer than that the other dimensions do not matter.

Airline rules about taking a bike on a plane

Now that you have a better understanding of luggage rules generally, we will turn our attention to the rules that apply specifically to bikes on a plane.

Do bikes travel for free on airlines?

The cost of taking a bike on a plane is determined by the airline you are travelling with and the route you are flying. Many airlines will allow a bike as part of your normal checked luggage at no cost, while other airlines charge fees that range from US$50 to US$400 per leg.

Each airline applies its own set of rules in relation to weight and size limits for bikes. It is important that you are aware of the rules that apply to your airline as you will be charged excess baggage fees if your luggage is outside the limit. If necessary call the airline and confirm your understanding of the rules.

To help you work out which airline provides the best option we have complied a list of over 100 airlines with their rules for taking a bike as check-in luggage. Standard baggage rules are also included in the table and there is an option to view the table in either metric or imperial measurements.

Pre-booking of bikes before you fly

A number of airlines require you to pre-book a bike so that they know how many bikes will be travelling on any given flight. It is important to check and make sure you do this and do not get caught out at check-in.

If you are travelling to a cycling event where lots of other people will be travelling with bikes make sure you get in early otherwise you may not be able to take the flight you want. If you are travelling with a group on the same flight you should also contact the airline and let them know you will all be travelling with bikes. Some airlines specify that you must do this but regardless it is a good idea to do well before travelling to save any hassles.

Bike cases and packing

All airlines require that bikes are packed in some sort of case or a protective covering. A number of airlines will not provide cover in the event of damage to your bike unless it is in a hard case or cardboard box. Some airlines will require you to sign your rights to damage away if you have a soft case.

All airlines state that handlebars must be turned sideways, pedals removed and nothing protrudes from the case. There is a mix of advice regarding tyres and whether they need to be deflated or not. Check with the rules on the airline you are travelling with to make sure you know what is required.

Can you pack other items in a bike case?

Airlines may specify that only a bike and nothing else should be in the bike case. This means you should not include clothes, helmets, shoes or anything else. In our travels, we have never been asked to open our bike cases to show what is included and have generally had shoes, helmets and some bike gear in with the bikes.

What cycling items are classified as dangerous goods?

There are certain items that are not permitted on aircraft under any circumstances and some of these impacts what bike-related gear you bring. Anything that is flammable is prohibited without exception. Some bike lubes may be flammable so check the side of the bottle to make sure before packing it.

Another item that comes up regularly are co2 cartridges for tyre inflation. While air travel regulators allow up to 4 co2 cartridges as long as they have a capacity of less than 28g many airlines still do not allow them. Bike co2 cartridges come in 16g and 20g sizes so are under the 28g limit. Even still it pays to double-check with your airline before you fly to see their rules.

Lithium batteries are treated as a dangerous good as there have been instances where they have caught fire on aircraft. Many airlines require you to carry all lithium batteries in your cabin baggage so you will be aware of any issues.

Any lithium batteries with a capacity greater than 160wh (watt-hours) are banned outright from commercial airlines. This is why e-bike batteries are unable to be carried.

IATA is the body that governs dangerous goods on all airlines. You can check their guidelines here.

Baggage rules when flying with multiple airlines

If you will be flying on more than one airline, make sure you check the baggage rules for each of the airlines so you do not get caught out. This usually becomes an issue if you book separate flights yourself with different airlines. It does not apply to codeshare arrangements where a particular leg of your trip is operated by a different carrier to the one you booked with.

The easiest way to think about it is as follows:

1 ticket from A to B = one set of luggage rules even if multiple carriers are involved

2 or more tickets from A to B = luggage rules on each ticket apply

Taking an e-bike on a plane? Think again.

With e-bikes becoming more and more popular it is only natural you may want to consider taking your bike with you on holiday. Unfortunately, the batteries in e-bikes are above the size allowed on regular commercial airlines and as such cannot be carried. Any lithium battery over 160wh (watt-hours) in size is banned from aircraft, primarily due to the risk of fire.

At the moment some airlines simply ban e-bikes outright while others allow them on board but with batteries removed and left at home.

Navigating the airport with oversize baggage

Overall our experience at airports has been relatively straightforward when travelling with our bikes. This would equally apply to any oversize baggage such as surfboards or golf clubs. Like anything it can be a bit daunting the first time you do it but all in all, it is really no different to travel with normal-sized baggage.

How do I check a bike in at the airport?

Check-in procedures with a bike are the same as with any other baggage with one exception. Once you have completed the usual check-in formalities and the bag has been weighed and tagged you will need to take it to an oversize baggage area as it will not fit on the standard luggage conveyors. Counter staff have always explained where the oversize baggage area is and it is usually well signposted.

Where do I collect my bike?

Bike bags and boxes are too big for the usual luggage carousels so you do not need to line up at them. Instead, the airport will have a specific oversize baggage collection area where you will need to wait. These have always been well signposted in our experience and finding them is easy. Oversize baggage arrives usually at the same time as other baggage and will come out as it is unloaded from the aircraft.

Moving around the airport with oversized baggage

Busy airports can be a bit more difficult to navigate with oversize baggage but it is all part of the experience and only a minor inconvenience. We have never had any significant issues in getting from the plane and out of the airport or checking in. It is worth allowing a little bit of extra time though as it can be a bit slower getting around.

What are excess baggage fees?

If you find yourself in a situation where you are over your weight or size limits you will have to pay excess baggage fees. These are not cheap so it pays to make sure you know what your limits are and stick to them. Typically slightly over the limit is not an issue but we have always aimed to be right on the limit or below it.

Excess fees are charged as a cumulative amount. If your bag is both oversize and overweight, you will be charged an excess fee for both infringements as if they were individual infringements.

Many airlines give you the ability to purchase additional baggage prior to travel which is significantly cheaper than excess charges so keep that in mind. We have always managed with a 30kg check bag limit and a 7kg carry-on. Note that many airlines also weigh carry-on at check-in.

5 Tips for navigating the airport when taking a bike on a plane

Listed below are some tips we have learnt along the way about navigating airport terminals with oversized luggage.

  1. Think about how you will carry all the luggage you have. Backpacks can come in handy to spread the load and free up a hand
  2. When packing be mindful of the weight of your bag not only from an airline point of view but actually having to carry it yourself. What appears light at first gets heavier the longer you have to actually carry it around.
  3. Weigh everything before you get to the airport. A set of scales can save you a lot of stress once you get to the airport. We usually aim to be a little bit under our allowance to allow for any inaccuracy with the scales.
  4. Airport trolleys can be really helpful even if your bag/box has wheels. We have also found putting bikes in a cardboard box on their end makes life much easier.
  5. Get to the airport and check in early especially if you are going to a big event or it is a busy time of the year. This helps ensure your bike will be on the same flight as you.

More information when flying with a bike

We have a range of other articles about travelling with your bike to assist. Be sure to have a look.

  1. Bike box basics helping you select the best type – an article all about bike boxes designed to help make sure you source the right one for you.
  2. Airline luggage rules for bikes – a list of over 115 airlines and their rule about flying with a bike. See which airlines charge a fee and which do not.
  3. Bike travel cases – our list of over 60 different bike travel cases currently available. We include weight and size to help you compare.
  4. Useful tips about using a cardboard bike box for air travel – lots of handy information about using a cardboard bike box for the first time including where to get one, how to prepare it, and how to pack your bike.
  5. Shipping a bike: learn how to get the best deal – you may decide that shipping your bike is a better option for you. Learn about how the whole process works and make sure you get the best deal in the process.