Useful tips about using a cardboard bike box for air travel

A cardboard bike box is a great option if you need something to put your bike in for air travel or shipping. You can typically pick one up free of charge from your local bike store or they can be purchased relatively cheaply from a range of suppliers. Cardboard bike boxes will protect your bike from damage but it is important to prepare both the cardboard bike box and bike before transport. If you are considering using a cardboard bike box for the first time this article will provide you with all the information you need to get you started.

We also have a range of other articles related to traveling with your bike that you may also like to read.

  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. What you need to know about taking your bike on a plane – lots of helpful information about traveling with your bike on a plane based on our own experience. Make sure you are well prepared for your journey and know what to expect at the airport.
  3. Airline baggage rules for bikes a table with over 100 airlines and their requirements for checking in a bicycle. It includes applicable fees, size restrictions, and weight restrictions for each airline.
  4. Shipping a bike: learn how to get the best deal – Learn about how the whole process of shipping your bicycle works and make sure you get the best deal in the process.

Cardboard bike boxes

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 learned about using a cardboard bike box for air travel. We have now used them on 4 different flights across 3 different airlines and learned 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:

  • Where to obtain a cardboard bike box
  • How to prepare the bike box for travel
  • How to prepare your bike for the box and,
  • How to pack your bike in the box

Summary

  • get a cardboard bike box from your local bike shop, some airports or packing companies
  • don’t leave getting a bike box to the last minute or you may struggle to find one
  • bike boxes come in different sizes so make sure the box you get fits your bike
  • purchase a good quality packing tape
  • reinforce the bottom of the box, handles and anywhere the bike touches or could touch the box to prevent holes
  • prep the bike ensuring everything is well protected and secured within the box
  • allow at least 60 minutes to get the bike and box prepped

Where to find a cardboard bike box

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.

Your local bike shop

The first point of call should be your local bike shop as they receive all their new bikes in a cardboard box. 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 bike 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.

Courier or packing companies

If you do not have a local bike shop nearby or they don’t have bike boxes available then courier or packing companies are the next places 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. Bike boxes that you purchase generally come in one or two sizes 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 eBay.

Airports

If neither of the above suggestions is 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.

Getting a bike box for the trip home

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.

How to prepare a cardboard bike box

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 prepared 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 learned 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.

The bottom of the bike box and handles

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 that is thicker and provides more protection and is less likely to come unstuck.

Puncture points

We also learned 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 from 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 has 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 shows 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. The cardboard on the side protects handlebars and brake levers.

How to pack your bike in a cardboard bike box

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 allowing 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 to allow plenty of time for this step and make sure everything that could possibly be damaged is well protected.

Leave the rear wheel on!

Lesson number 1, the rear wheel stays on! We learned 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 be 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.

Our step-by-step bike preparation process

  • clean bike and deflate tires
  • pedals – remove
  • front wheel – remove
  • brake wedge – insert between front disc pads (hydro discs)
  • forks – insert fork block in drop-outs or between through-axle
  • handlebars – remove by undoing the 4 screws on the front of the stem
  • position handlebars down the fork taking care not to kink brake lines or gear cables
  • frame – wrap in foam or cardboard (or anything you have available)
  • seat post – reduce the height so that it fits when the box when closed
  • rear derailleur – place additional protection around it or remove and secure
  • front wheel disc – protect disc or remove

Pipe lagging as frame protection

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 them 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.

Rear derailleur

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 harm’s 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.

Packing the bike in the bike box

Once both the box and bike are 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 advise a courier service. Once you are happy that everything is nice and secure and within the required weight limits, you can close the top of the box and tape it up. Make sure you label the box well with your phone number and address and you are good to go.

Conclusion

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.

More information

Check out our other article about transporting your bike.

  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. What you need to know about taking your bike on a plane – lots of helpful information about traveling with your bike on a plane based on our own experience. Make sure you are well prepared for your journey and know what to expect at the airport.
  3. Airline baggage rules for bikes a table with over 100 airlines and their requirements for checking in a bicycle. It includes applicable fees, size restrictions, and weight restrictions for each airline.
  4. Shipping a bike: learn how to get the best deal – Learn about how the whole process of shipping your bicycle works and make sure you get the best deal in the process.