Tips and tricks to transport a bike on a plane

A cheap alternative, but difficult to carry.
A cheap alternative, but difficult to carry. Photo: Michael O'Reilly

Some of my happiest moments in the past few years have been arriving in a new town or a new country with a bicycle as part of my luggage.

Especially when I’ve been able to go to the arrivals lounge, find a quiet corner, assemble bike and attach panniers, and head off into the hinterland on my own steam.

None of that messing around with hotel transfers, alien public transport systems or possibly dubious taxi drivers.

Pack carefully, excess weight will be punished financially.
Pack carefully, excess weight will be punished financially. Photo: Michael O'Reilly

On the flip side, some of my more challenging moments in the past few years have involved getting my bicycle onto a plane.

Cycling greybeards have told me of times when travel was exotic and baggage rules were rubbery, and transporting a bicycle by plane involved little more than letting some air out of the tyres and having the ground crew wheel it to the luggage bay of the plane waiting on the tarmac.

These days, however, things are more complicated, especially as airlines, trapped in a spiral of competitive discount pricing, need to find other ways to generate revenue  – including air freight, and charging you for excess baggage.

I'm in no way an expert on air travel with a bicycle, but I've lugged a treadly along on more than a dozen trips in recent years, and here are a few things I've learned.

Pick your airline carefully

The basic rule for bicycles on most airlines is that you are free to bring them - if they fit within your baggage weight allowance.

So, study the allowances like a punter studying form, and remember that a cheaper flight means nothing when you get slugged for overweight baggage.

This is especially true of domestic budget carriers. My recent trip to Brisbane was a Virgin no-brainer, as the price for 23 kilograms of checked luggage was negligible.

Internationally, my favourite carrier in recent years has been Emirates, due to their 30kg allowance - crucial if you're lugging a touring bike with the whole catastrophe of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, sleep mat, pots, etc.

Happily, this generosity spilled over to Qantas when they formed an alliance. Long may it last!

Bag choices

The cheapest way to ship a bike is in a cardboard bike box - either a used one from a bike shop, or the larger ones sold for about $25 by airlines. They're a swine to carry, though, and are vulnerable to being squashed, contents included, by uncaring baggage handlers.

Regular travellers often prefer dedicated bike suitcases - but these can weigh close to 10kg.

One bag I've borrowed from a friend a few times is the Evoc, a semi-rigid item that strikes a good balance between weight and protection. Even better, the wheels at one end mean it is quite easy to walk the bag a short distance (I've managed to haul it a few kilometres but my shirt sleeves felt a bit shorter at the end).

Then there are soft fabric bags that offer great ease of use, but little protection. Our Kiwi neighbours at Ground Effect do a good line in these, and they're great for getting a bike on and off a train in Europe. But I've never had the courage to use one on a plane.

Tricks and strategies

Once you've chosen your carrier  and your container, it's often still a challenge to make the weight.

The old trick of getting as much heavy stuff into one's hand luggage can be crucial - not to mention wearing several layers of clothes and stuffing your pockets with heavy items, such as chargers, cameras, spare shoes etc.

Just don't get too clever. I once had security take a very close look at my bike tools - they found the chain whip particularly fascinating - and for a moment I thought my bid to dodge a $20 excess baggage charge was going to cost me five times that in confiscated gadgets.

No such drama this time. I'm sending this from the departure lounge at Sydney, off for some Scandinavian cycle touring.

Here's hoping for a comfy flight, an ummangled bike on arrival and some kindness from the Norse weather gods. Either way, I'll post some pics on Twitter.

Have you ever flown with a bike? Got any tips, tales or tragedies?

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