If you love to roam around on two pedal-powered wheels, it can be hard to resign yourself to leaving your favorite bike at home when you travel. But lugging a bicycle around the country–or the world–is a daunting proposition.
For the uninitiated, flying with your bike can seem overly costly, complicated, and technically challenging. But according to Marley Blonsky, pro cyclist and co-founder of the non-profit All Bodies on Bikes, “It’s a lot easier than it first appears,” so don’t let the logistics intimidate you. Instead, grab the right gear, your tools, and get to it.
Why not just rent a bike?
Why go through all the hassle of transporting your own carbon fiber or aluminum steed if you can just rent one once you arrive? For one, if you need a bike on the smaller or larger end of the spectrum, rental shops may not stock your size, leaving you struggling through an uncomfortable experience.
Rental fees also quickly add up, especially if you plan to ride multiple times during your trip or prefer higher-end mountain bikes, which tend to come with costly daily rates.
Finally, if you’re participating in a race or major bike-related event, you, like Blonsky, will probably be more comfortable aboard the same bike on which you train.
[ Related: “How to fly with film” ]
Things you need to know before flying with a bike
Start by familiarizing yourself with the airline’s bike policies. Fortunately, most major airlines treat bikes like any other type of luggage. As in, the cost to check one is typically the same as for a traditional suitcase. But peruse their website before buying a flight ticket to find out if there are any special requirements or extra charges. Airlines tend to classify bikes as “sporting equipment,” so start your search there.
Depending on the size and shape of your case, you may have to take it to a dedicated oversized drop-off area when you arrive at the airport. And you’ll almost certainly have to pick it up at the oversized baggage area at your final destination.
Finally, the whole package, bike, tools, packing material, case and all, need to weigh less than 50 pounds or you’ll likely incur an overweight luggage fee, which can be hefty.
How to pack a bike for a flight
Before you take your bike on a jumbo jet, you absolutely must consider how you’re going to get it from Point A to Point B without damage. For that, you’re going to require dedicated luggage purpose-built for your specific type of bike (road, gravel, or mountain) with straps to keep everything in place.
There are several options available for those who plan to check bikes as luggage: A hard-side bike case, soft-side bike case, or a bike box—the kind in which bikes are shipped from the manufacturer.
A hard-sided bike case is the most protective but depending on the style, may not be the easiest to pack and often weighs more, meaning if your bike is on the heavier side, the weight of a hard case could push it into the overweight category. We suggest something like the Thule RoundTrip Transition case, which retails for $999.
Blonsky prefers a soft-sided case, but one with a frame that keeps your bike upright and makes it easier to load and unload. Hard or soft, she recommends getting one with wheels to make it easier to pull through the airport. The Evoc Bike Travel Bag Pro rolls for easier transport.
In a pinch, Blonsky recommends a dedicated bike box. These are comparatively affordable and you may even have one from when the manufacturer shipped your bike. If you no longer have that box, fret not: Most bike shops have a handful in their back rooms, so if you call or pop in a few weeks before your scheduled travel and ask nicely, employees will almost always save you one from a recent shipment.
Make sure to note the measurements of the box and any airline size restrictions for sporting equipment so you don’t incur a hefty fee.
Grab your tools and pack with care
Once you have your travel case, it’s time to disassemble your bike and start packing. You’ll have to remove both wheels, pedals, and the handlebar, which you’ll twist and nestle between the fork stanchions. Blonsky says many cyclists even remove their rotors and derailleurs (the mechanisms that push the chain between gears as you shift) to prevent them from getting bent in transit.
As you take your bike apart, set aside the tools you used and make sure to pack them all up to take with you so you can put everything back together again when you arrive. You’ll also need a pedal wrench and a torque wrench for reassembly. If those tools don’t make your bike case too heavy, you can stash them all in a bag inside the travel case for transport.
Before you seal everything up, take extra care to secure every part of your bike. “You don’t want things moving,” Blonsky says. If your case has straps to secure parts, use them. If not, use bungee cords or painters tape to make sure everything stays put. Then use extra clothes or rags to act as protective cushioning if your case didn’t come with any or cut up cardboard to wedge in the gaps. Components can rub together as the box gets jostled during transit and cause serious damage.
Let some air out of your tires so a tube doesn’t blow as a result of the pressure changes involved in air travel. Pack a small hand pump to reinflate them once you arrive or take it to a bike shop, most of which are often happy to air up your tires for you. Just make sure to leave C02 cartridges at home. They’re not allowed on airplanes and TSA will confiscate them.
If you’re nervous about taking your bike apart and putting it back together, don’t be. It’s easier than you think, says Blonsky. Plus, there are plenty of how-to videos online with instructions. Blonsky says most brands who make travel cases have instructions on their websites for how to disassemble and pack your bike in their products.
As for packing, while it can be handy to keep all your bike gear with your bike, if you have multiple connections and tend to be unlucky when it comes to luggage arriving at the same time you do, Blonsky recommends packing things like your helmet, pedals and shoes (especially if you use clip-in or clipless pedals) in your carry-on. That way, if your bike doesn’t arrive in time for an event, you can still rent a bike and use some gear you’re comfortable with.
Dropping a digital tracking device in your case, like an AirTag, can also bring peace of mind.
Then, “take it one piece at a time,” Blonskey says. “You can do it. It’s pretty darn simple.” And spending 10-30 minutes taking your bike apart and another 10-30 putting it back together again at your destination is a small price to pay for the joy of riding your own beloved bicycle wherever you roam.