On most of our trips to France we used a bike travel bag and were more than comfortable with how to pack them and the protection they offered the bikes. When we decided on our last trip that we would cycle tour for 4 weeks the option of our large travel bags suddenly disappeared. Why? We didn’t have anywhere to store them for 4 weeks in France and there was no way they could be carried on our bike packing set up. So the solution was to use a cardboard bike box that we would discard on arrival and then get another one for the trip home. The purpose of this article is to share some of the lessons we have learnt about using a cardboard bike box for air travel. We have now used them on 4 different flights across 3 different airlines and learnt plenty along the way.
Many people ask if it is safe to put their bike inside a cardboard bike box to take it on an airline or ship it somewhere. Using a cardboard bike box is a perfectly safe option to transport your bike providing you prepare and pack the box correctly. There are two critical steps you will need to do to make sure your bike arrives in the same condition it left in. The first is to prepare the box correctly and the second is to prepare the bike properly. It is important that you do not simply place your bike in the box, tape it up and expect to see it without a scratch at the other end.
In this article we will discuss:
Before you can use a cardboard bike box you need to get yourself one. There are a few different options you can consider depending on where you are and what is available to you. The key piece of advice for sourcing a cardboard bike box is not to leave it to the last minute and give yourself a bit of time.
The first point of call should be your local bike shop as they receive all their new bikes in boxes. Most bike boxes end up in recycling so bike shops are more than happy to offload one to you for free for your trip. Make sure you don't leave this to the last minute as shops don't necessarily get new bikes all the time and don't generally leave used boxes in-store. We have never had a problem getting a bike box but have had to visit multiple shops before getting one. This could be an issue if you live somewhere that only has one bike shop.
Bike boxes from a bike shop come in different dimensions depending on the frame style and size of the bike that was in it. You will need to make sure that your bike will fit in the box that is available. The bike shop will be able to assist with fitting your bike and making sure your bike and the box match. This is another reason to leave plenty of time before your trip to source a bike box as shops may not have the right size immediately available. Bike shops can also help with little things like frame protection, brake wedges and fork blocks.
If you do not have a local bike shop nearby or they don’t have boxes available then courier or packing companies are the next place to try. This option will not be free but they are generally not too expensive. You could expect to pay somewhere around €20, £15 or US$30. Boxes that you purchase generally come in one size and will fit a wide range of bikes. A quick search online will reveal companies that supply bike boxes in your country. Some of these can be ordered online and delivered from the likes of Amazon and E-Bay.
If neither of the above suggestions are available for you then the last option is the airport. Many, but definitely not all, airports will be able to sell you a bike box. These typically come in one size and will fit the vast majority of bikes. We used this option coming back from France and it cost us €20 for each box. Air France states on their website that bike boxes are available at most Air France airport check-in counters. Again don’t leave this to the last minute. If you do plan to pack your bike at the airport allow plenty of time before your flight.
If the nature of your trip means you will need to find a new cardboard bike box for the trip home we recommend a little additional planning before you leave home. The last thing you want to do is spend the final days of your trip running around looking for a cardboard bike box. Don’t assume it will be easy to do and that they will be readily available. The three options we have already outlined are all still valid and the forward planning makes everything less stressful. Contact local bike shops well ahead of time and see if they can put boxes aside for you or check and make sure there is somewhere you can at least buy a box. It is far better to find out what the situation is before you leave home rather than discovering at the last minute there is nothing available.
Our first trip using cardboard bike boxes was with our gravel touring bikes from Australia to Paris. It was our first time using a cardboard box for air travel and we simply prepped and protected the bike and popped it in the box paying no attention to the actual box itself. When the boxes arrived at the oversize luggage area in Paris we could see rips and tears on the sides and on further inspection the bottoms as well. Thankfully the bikes were all fine and nothing had come out of the box. Still it was a lesson learnt and we now spend some time preparing the boxes before we put the bikes inside. The key areas we focus on are the bottom, handles and any places the bike could puncture the side or bottom of the box.
From that first experience we determined that bikes in cardboard boxes are generally dragged across the ground by baggage handlers rather than being lifted by the handles. As such we make sure we reinforce the bottoms of the boxes with packing tape to cope with dragging, paying particular attention to each of the bottom corners. We also make sure we reinforce the handles on the sides of the box both inside and out as these will be used by baggage handlers. Make sure you purchase a good quality packing tape which is thicker and provides more protection and is less likely to come unstuck.
We also learnt that anywhere the bike comes in contact with the box can be prone to rubbing through the cardboard. This is especially the case for pointier parts like front forks, handlebars and the front wheel hub. We now spent a little bit of time putting some additional protection on the inside of the box to prevent this happening. We simply place the bike in the box with the wheel and see where it rubs against the box and pad as necessary.
These few measures don't take too much time and make a big difference. The condition of the boxes on subsequent trips have been much better with much less damage observed. We still have the boxes from our last trip ready to go again for the next one, something we would not have been able to do previously.
The bottom of the box showing tape reinforcement. This is after it came off the flight from Australia.
Additional padding for the fork area. We used an old carpet tile and taped it to the bottom. Cardboard on the side protects handlebars and brake levers.
Spending a little bit of time getting the bike prepared for travel is an essential step and something you can't afford to cut corners on. We would suggest to allow at least an hour per bike from start to finish which includes getting the box ready as well. It always takes a bit longer than you think, especially the first time you do it. Our advice is allow plenty of time for this step and make sure everything that could possibly be damaged is well protected.
Lesson number 1, the rear wheel stays on! We learnt this the hard way and couldn't get everything to fit inside the box with the rear wheel off no matter how hard we tried. After a bit of head scratching the penny dropped and we put the rear wheel back and everything fitted nice and easily. So, leave the rear wheel on and remove the front wheel and handlebars. The handlebars will fit down along the forks and should be taped into place while the wheel will slot in towards the front of the bike and secured with tape.
A bike stand makes the whole process of preparing the bike much easier but it can be done without it. We got our bikes all prepared and packed in a quiet walkway outside Geneva airport.
Handlebars secured neatly along the forks
Undo these four screws on your stem to remove your handlebars.
All ready to go. Bike on stand ready to be put in the bike box.
On our latest trip we used pipe lagging to protect the frame which we purchased from a plumbing supply store. It is tubular in shape and you simply need to cut the pieces to size, cut down the middle and slip onto the bike. This can be purchased in a range of different sizes and shapes. One of the benefits of this is that it can be used over and over. We have marked each of the pieces so we know where it belongs on the bike.
We were comfortable leaving the rear derailleur on the bike as it is relatively well protected from impact by the chain and seat stays. Shifting into the large cog at the back moves the derailleur cage out of harms way. We added some additional protection as you can see in the photo above. It is easy to remove the rear derailleur if you would prefer that added safety factor.
Once both the box and bike are all prepped the hard work is done. Lift the bike into the box and slide the front wheel along the side. Make sure nothing is rubbing between the frame and wheel and if so place padding in between for protection. Double check that all the puncture points that you previously protected have lined up correctly. If you are putting anything else inside the box eg. Clothes or cycling gear place them in and make sure they are not going to rub against anything on the frame or wheel.
Before you close the box it is a good idea to weigh it to make sure it is within your luggage allowance or to advice a courier service. Once you are happy that everything is nice and secure and within required weight limits you can close the top of the box and tape it up. Make sure you label the box well with phone number and address and you are good to go.
We hope that answers some of your questions about using a cardboard bike box for air travel. After being initially cautious about using one we are now very comfortable and have used them multiple times. All it takes is a little bit of planning and preparation and you have a free bike case at your disposal that will provide ample protection for your bike. Best of all it can be recycled when you get to your destination or when you get home. This means you don't have to worry about finding a place to store it.
If you are looking for a different style of bike travel bag we have a table with over 60 different bike travel bags that are currently on the market. Here you will find a range of hard, light or soft bags to suit your budget and travel requirements.