11 Minute Read

Getting around with a Bike Box

Getting around with a bike carrier can be tricky in some international destinations like Europe, but with some planning, it doesn't have to be difficult. Image contains: Giant TCR bicycle, BikeBoxAlan bike box case, hotel bedroom, tool bag, charging cables.

The gift of gab around the water cooler

Whenever I write posts, I like to keep them relatively short. Usually about 10 minutes or less. Unfortunately, I also have a tendency to be wordy in my every day life, and I’m very passionate about biking and travel. So of course, I have more to say!

I mainly wanted to mention a few more things about traveling with a bike box once you’ve arrived at your destination. This is typically after you’ve taken some kind of longer distance flight somewhere.

Getting around

Despite not doing nearly as much traveling as I wish I have had by this time in my life, I do feel like I’ve managed to come across a few things I’ve learned that others could potentially benefit from.

Paris baked goods at a small cafe across the street from the Gare de Lyon train station

Wherever “there” is for you, of course. This is what all the build up and pre-work has been leading up to!

And those baked goods aren’t going to eat themselves, you know. France definitely knows how to do it.

Once arriving at the airport

There are a few things you’re going to want to do at the airport, once you’ve arrived at your destination. Some of these I feel like I’ve gotten a bit less strict about on my subsequent trips, but I think they’re still great to mention here as a general rule of thumb.

  • Check your box for any damage or anything out of the ordinary upon arrival
  • If you can, open up the box a bit and make sure everything is there and in a good condition
    • I like to find a location with some space away from others to do this to make sure no one gets too close to my things. Some places can be rife for opportunistic thievery. It’s also good to be respectful with the amount of space you’re going to take up!
    • If you have an issue, find the carrier’s baggage / customer support area and go speak with someone, especially if you think you’re going to have to file a complaint or a claim for damage
  • Note that your bike box may come out of the main baggage claim, but more often than not, it will be rolled in separately by an attendant, usually last. Expect to wait a while to get your box.

Pre work is helpful

A lot of airports (and train stations) have helpful maps, not only in person when you’re there, but posted online. While I’m very good at directions and visualizing where things translate from (virtual) paper to real-life, things can still be a bit disorienting once you actually get there. You have to be aware of your own level of jet lag, anxiety, handle of a foreign language, all of that stuff.

Paris Gare du Nord train station map

Spend some time reviewing maps before your trip and save images of them locally on your phone if you want them handy once you land. Remember, even if you have internet in the foreign country, you may not have service 20 meters underground. Saving the map locally will save you from last minute frustration in finding the link, hoping it loads, signing up for a free airport wifi after jumping through ten ads, or paying money to either your carrier for international fees or local ones.

Other luggage

I include this here after your arrival because I think it’s important to visualize what things are going to be like at your destination when it comes to initially packing.

  • How easy are things to get to?
  • What sorts of things do you need more immediate access to?
  • How many bags are planning to bring with you?

All of these are pretty normal questions that people already have their own rhythm to, so I won’t belabor them here. Just make sure that you’re thinking this one through well ahead of time.

Bring another rolling suitcase

Depending on how long you’re going to be gone, or how heavy of a packer you are, chances are that you need to bring with you more than simply a carry on backpack.

At the CitizenM hotel in Paris, France with a BikeBoxAlan and my Samsonite 4 wheel rolling suitcase

You can do the backpack only option, but

On my trip to Mallorca in 2017, I had plans to visit London, Edinburgh, and Cardiff after the Trek Travel ride camp, and I managed to get away with only bringing a larger-ish carry on backpack. I also had to bring a small duffle bag that I was able to bring as my “personal item” on the plane. While this worked out surprisingly well for me, I did find myself needing to spend a lot more time on laundry (hanging them in hotel rooms is a pain to me) and having to be very self-regulating when it came to anything I wanted to pick up as a souvenir.

Not to mention anything when it comes to liquid. I had to check that duffle bag in on my last leg home out of Gatwick airport in London simply because I had bought my father a nice jar of local honey from Wales. Rather than throw it away then and there, I had to go back through security a second time to check the bag. Luckily didn’t miss my flight.

So yeah, bringing a separate rolling bag certainly makes the trip more enjoyable.

Rolling meaning 4 rolling wheels

I want to stress this point especially when it comes to traveling with a big bike box. As great as the BikeBoxAlan may roll, it can still be a bit unwieldy. The box can be top heavy and is prone to tilt around certain turns, or if a rock catches one of the rotating casters when you least expect it.

Having a nice, 4 wheel rolling suitcase allows you to push it in front of you while pulling the larger bike box behind you. I found this out when I went to Girona, Spain the following year.

Long term storage at the airport

If you’re doing a separate, side trip in a foreign place, where you don’t necessarily need your bike, you can always just pay the money for a short / long term storage for your extra items at one of the airports that is most central to your travel itinerary.

I did this in Barcelona in 2018, using Excess Baggage Company, and while it was an expensive choice (€15 a day for the bike box, €10 a day for my other large suitcase), it was nice traveling locally to Nice and later on to Paris with only a backpack for a shorter period of time before catching my main flight home from Barcelona.

Transport to/from the airport

In Europe, this is a pretty common affair, actually. There are a lot of companies that will come to get you at the airport with a large van or trailer in tow to get both you and your oversized bike box. It’s best to set something up ahead of time with the local options that are available, as prepaying for this service can usually save you a lot of money.

Carpool if you can

If you’re riding your bike in some kind of organized riding event or camp, see what options they already may have for you. Or any local company recommendations. Otherwise, you can coordinate with them or with other riders to potentially share costs, as a lot of the vans that perform this kind of service can typically provide the service for more than one rider at a time. It certainly helps save on costs.

Cyclists unloading a van full of suitcases and bike boxes at the Grand Hotel Central in Barcelona, Spain

Similarly, if no reasonable service is available, you could potentially rent a van yourself and help offset that cost with others that you’d be willing to drive around. Up to you!

Public transit

When outside of the US (because our public transit here is generally terrible), taking trains is an awesome option. Sometimes it takes a bit longer, and you need to scout out your destination(s) a bit more clearly and ahead of time, taking the time to mind any language gaps or barriers, but I’ve found that personally this can be a very rewarding experience. In France, for example, their train system is wonderful. Italy’s wasn’t too bad, either.

Train platform with train cars and people walking at the Milano Centrale train station in Milan, Italy

My most recent trip to the French Alps and Italy in 2019 really taxed my threshold for navigating all kinds of situations when taking public transit with a large bike box. From a vast number of escalators to muscling a bike box in one arm down 4 flights of tightly turning stairs, there are a few things you definitely need to think about ahead of time.

Getting through any turnstiles or stairs

While this may seem like a small thing now, it can very quickly become quite a pain. Luckily I’m strong enough to pull my bike box along with the strap I purchased, but it’s certainly awkward when also rolling a suitcase and carrying a heavy backpack.

The BikeBoxAlan I have does have a handle to grab on the opposing side of it, giving you the option to muscle it against your side and lift it up and over things, but it’s not really the easiest of options. Especially, again, if you’re also trying to lift up your suitcase in your other hand.

Fun story, somewhere in France, I got stuck in a turnstile. This was because I was pushing my upright suitcase ahead of me and rolling my bike box behind me. I went through a turnstile with my ticket, leading the way with my bag. Except that the turnstile closed just behind me but before my bike box! I couldn’t re-use my ticket to open it back up, and I didn’t exactly want to turn my back for too long on my other bag while I tried to muscle up my bike box over the orange arms. Luckily, a Frenchman was kind enough to notice my plight (as I was holding up a very busy queue) and helped me lift the box up and over with me. Despite not saying a word to each other, it was a nice gesture.

Extra time waiting for elevators

Or even just the time it takes to FIND one. This is also a little thing that you’ll forget about until you’re actually there with your stuff in tow. Often times there is only one of them, and they may be small, meaning that you have to take your own trip up / down and you have to wait for others.

As an example, in Milan last year, I had to get down to the RGV connecting terminal to get back to France (I had flown in to Paris), but the local station I was nearby to get to that station didn’t have an elevator. Luckily, I had scouted this out ahead of time and found another station not too much further away that had an elevator. I walked to that one instead with my bike box and rolling suitcase and had no issues getting to where I needed to go.

Boarding a train

This is going to require you to find an open car and lifting up your bike box on to the train car floor, then separately grabbing your suitcase and doing the same there. Usually there is more room in the entry way of the train car for your larger items (some have actual storage for them), and depending on how long you have to be on the train, it can be a pleasant way to hang out during the duration of the trip, taking in the sights and sounds of where you are.

View out over the Switzerland countryside from a train window, going from Geneva to Montreux with BikeBoxAlan case

At one point, earlier in France, I had a conversation with a few loud 20-something-year-olds from one of the northern African countries. They liked that I was from California and had a bike with me.

Escalators are actually quite nice

When going up one, you can just set your rolling suitcase on the stair in front of you, and then pivot your bike box on the edge of the stair behind you while you hold it up with the strap. It just balances there until the stairs go flat again and you continue on your merry way.

Another shoutout for maps

The screen grab shared above was actually for a station in Paris that I knew I would have to change over tracks to board the right train going to the Charles De Gaulle airport. I had remembered from my previous trip getting quite confused in this particular station and certainly didn’t want to unnecessarily do that again. With the map in memory, I went directly across the same level of the station to my connecting train and didn’t have any issues.

FIN

I think most of this was just another excuse of mine to reminisce about my recent travels, but I have certainly learned a lot and wanted to put what i’ve learned to writing in case others found it useful. After a few rounds of learning these things above, mostly from the most recent trip, things became easier and more obvious to me.

Instructions being given to a group of cyclists by a Trek Travel guide

Group photo of several cyclists in Girona, Spain

Some of this may sound daunting at first, but take it slow and keep the excitement up! Traveling is a wonderful experience that people (myself included) need to do a LOT more of!

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