How To Fly With A Bicycle

In June, I’ll be traveling to California for nearly a week of bike riding around Lake Tahoe and the California wine country. As much as I’d love to ride to the Sunshine State from my Hoosier home, my wife would be so angry after so many weeks away, I probably wouldn’t have a home to go back to. So it looks like I’ll be taking my bike on the plane.

For touring cyclists, flying with your bike is often a necessary evil, much like airport security searches or flossing. It can be fairly expensive, costing $50 or more each way for a domestic flight and more than double that for an international trip. I’ve had friends who spent more money transporting their bike than they did on their plane ticket. Although it would have been cheaper to buy a separate ticket for their Specialized Roubaix – not to mention a quieter traveling companion than the screaming baby in 12E – in no way is it going to fit in a tiny coach seat.

I travel enough that I bought my own bike box. If you decide to go that route, expect to pay at least $400 for a hard-shell bike case. I was able to find one used at a swap meet, splitting the cost with a buddy. We’ve never needed to use the box on the same weekend, but have an arrangement in place in case we do. (Google Amok Time, then imagine two middle-aged dudes duking it out instead of Kirk and Spock.) Many bike shops will rent bike boxes, starting at about $10 a day.

Traveling with boxes can be a hassle. For most bike boxes, you need to remove the pedals, handlebars and sometimes, the rear derailleur. If you have minimal maintenance skills, it’s a fairly easy process, assuming you have the right tools. When putting the bike back together in your hotel room, double-check everything, even parts you didn’t dismantle for your journey. When it’s time to ride, slide a good multi-tool into your jersey pocket, just in case. During a recent trip to San Antonio, my stem came loose mid-way through the ride. Although I didn’t have my multi-tool with me, we were close enough to a bike shop that I was able to pick one up to fix my oversight.The boxes themselves are big and bulky, a massive pain to transport to and from the airport. I can slide my bike box into the rear of my Subaru with no problems, but if you drive anything smaller, you may need to beg a ride from someone with a truck. When you get to your destination airport, you’ll need either a larger rental or cab to get to your hotel; many airport shuttles don’t have room for a box of that size.

One more thing: before leaving baggage claim, open the box to ensure nothing was damaged in transit. Although Homeland Security agents are known for their delicate nature, they’ve been known to be fairly haphazard when repacking things. After one recent trip, I noticed the agent had closed the box lid on my wheel skewer and the tip of my cassette. Luckily, no real damage was done.

There are ways around the hassle, although not the expense. If you travel a lot, a coupler bike might be your best option. Coupler bikes break down into smaller sections, allowing you to fit a full-size bike into a regulation-sized suitcase, thereby eliminating the oversized luggage fee. A custom frame builder, like Tim O’Donnell of Shamrock Cycles, can build a steel-framed travel steed or retrofit your current steel bike. Expect to pay more than $3,000 for a fully equipped custom bike with S&S Couplers or $500-plus for a retrofit. The case will be additional $400 or more.

Renting a bike at your destination is also an option, especially if you’re headed to a major cycling destination. Just be sure to reserve the bike well in advance if you ride an uncommon size or plan to attend a popular event. My tiny wife rides an equally small bicycle, think one size bigger than a Barbie fun bike, and it can be challenging to find one the correct size. In San Antonio, we spent nearly $200 on a four-day Trek Madone rental for my wife, while my Cannondale SuperSix from home cost me $100 in total airline fees.

If you’re planning to ride just one or two days, pack your gear and pedals and rent a bike. Anything longer – or if you’re very particular about your bike fit – bite the bullet and bring your own.

[Photo by ActionSteve via Flickr]