10 Minute Read

Traveling With Your Bike by Plane

Bringing your bike with you on an international trip is easy with some careful planning and some basic knowledge. Image contains: BikeBoxAlan bike box, packed bicycle, stickers.

Oh, plane travel. What we all used to do.

I write this post with a bit of nostalgia, as I am living in the US and the great pandemic of 2020 is still in full flux. Unfortunately. So, by my own way of reliving some fond memories, I wanted to write a few things about traveling with your bike on a plane.

Overall, it’s worth the effort

At first, doing all of the below is going to seem daunting. It certainly was for me the first time I did it. Like, anxiety inducing level of daunting. Luckily I had a buddy who had recently gotten a bike box and had done all the mechanical stuff to get it prepared for a trip he did, so I had some level of confidence to offset my trepidation.

Get a good bike box

This is my number one point. There are a ton of bike boxes on the market, from soft shell bags like the EVOC bike travel bag and the SciCon Aerocomfort bag to the hard shell cases like the infamous BikeBoxAlan, and even newer products like the Airport Ninja that Phil Gaimon is a fan of (or so he says).

I prefer a hard shell case

Let’s just get this out of the way early. A lot of people are fine with the soft shell bags, and they have their own pros and cons, but I’m personally a fan of a hard shell case. The main reason? Liability.

Liability?

Airlines, when you read the fine print, all have various baggage requirements and fees and, most especially, fine print when it comes to what they will hold themselves accountable for and to when it comes to transporting your bags. Unfortunately, a lot of this is very much buried in unclear language and “legal-ese” that you may not be familiar with.

My main reason for pointing this out is that in my experience in reading some of this fine print is that the majority of carriers only technically hold themselves liable for bikes boxes in a hard case. Yes, they specifically enumerate it.

I actually know a couple who frequently flies with their matching 3T Strada bikes and one of them was broken in transit one time. The carrier said they weren’t liable because their case, which was literally made to work with the TSA and was sold specifically as such because it was not a hard case. It was a soft one. One of the nice ones that don’t require you to take apart your bike as much to pack it. I’m not sure exactly what came of the dispute, but it caused a lot of post vacation grief and frustration!

Read the fine print when choosing an airline

Look for the bike specific fees for your airline as early as you can, even making it a main point in choosing which airline you want to use. The fees there can be very high! And they seem to change every so often, too. A great link to refer to, while a bit old now, is this one from bicycling.com. The highlights, from my experience:

  • Fees are often an extra $50-$100 each direction for trips from the US to Europe. Local flights are typically a little less, although not by a lot.
  • Look for not only the weight limits of the carrier, but also the physical dimensions (they usually do a combined inches / cm for length, width, depth)
  • You will need to sign in at the counter (no online check in with these), and then likely walk your bike box elsewhere to the oversized luggage area.
  • If you’re flying from within the US, expect the TSA to open your box and inspect your bike. This has basically happened to me every single time I’ve traveled. They leave a courtesy slip of paper in there for you. Gee, thanks.
    • This doesn’t happen in the European airports that I’ve been to, unless you happen to be a bit unlucky and get randomly selected for whatever reason.

My bike box recommendation

If you’re really serious about transporting a very nice road bike, get a BikeBoxAlan. They’re wildly popular over in Europe, where pros and non-pros alike transport their bikes a ton using the local airline carriers, and their design has been copied over many times by other brands. It’s an expensive first time purchase, and while it does have its quirks, it’s a great case.

  • Pros:
    • Hard shell case
    • Good size (fits an integrated seat post if that’s a requirement of yours)
    • Reasonable price
    • Great add on options (get the anti crush pole and the pull strap, as well as some fun stickers)
    • Easy to wheel around
    • Peace of mind when traveling (don’t underrate this one!)
  • Cons:
    • A big item to store when not in use
    • Casters sometimes need oil or they won’t rotate well
    • Box sometimes doesn’t close evenly (due to a big, flexy shell), which shows if TSA has to open and then re-close your case (it’s funny to me actually how it confuses them)
    • A bit heavy compared to other boxes (so you can’t carry a bunch of extra stuff in it)
    • Previous iterations don’t play nice with larger tires
    • Requires you to use an extra tire skewer to attach wheel to case lid

Oh, and a small thing I did with my case - I wrapped a couple layers of electrical tape on the end of the anti-crush pole. On its own, it wobbles a bit inside the cap it fits into, so in case someone opens the case to look at your bike, it’s very likely they will pop that thing off and suddenly not know what to do with it. At least with the tape, it stays in place a bit better!

Learn a bit about your bike

This part I think is more due to my personality type, as I like to be more keenly aware of what’s going on with my bike than most. Basically, you’re going to have to disassemble parts of your bike to get it to fit into your box / bag. No way around that one! Some bags sell themselves on having to do less of this, which is great, but that story above of my friend’s bike that was broken? It was one of those bags that didn’t require you to take off the handlebars.

Take some time to watch some videos

Like this one from BikeBoxAlan itself, or perhaps the slightly more generic one from GCN. Both are pretty old, but still very relevant.

A few key points I want to emphasize here based on my personal experience:

  • If you have a nice carbon bike, it’ll be worth it to get a small, adjustable torque wrench like this one. This will help you put things back to proper spec after taking it apart to fit into the box once you get to your destination.
  • Following up on this first one, know some (or know where to find them) of your bike frame’s manufacturer’s torque specs in case you have issues with internet at your destination.
  • Get some kitchen towels or thick shop rags that you can use to wrap things up. This protects the finish in places you think may rub over time.
  • Get a small bag to put any tools you need to bring with you - the torque wrench, other allen keys, and any small parts that may need to use depending on what things you have to remove.
  • If you’re using a BikeBoxAlan, try to get a tool bag that has a loop on one part, and put one of the velcro straps through it underneath the big foam pad in the box so that it stays put. You don’t want your heavy tools floating around your bike frame in transit!
  • Don’t forget things like charging cables! This is especially the case if you have power meter pedals like the Favero Assiomas.

Recommendation: take off the rear derailleur

It’s not hard to put it back on, especially if you have a DI2 set up like I do (make sure to bring a di2 tool). Take a photo of what angle it’s at if you’re concerned about getting it right yourself, too. It’s worth doing so that this doesn’t happen to you:

Hanging rear derailleur because derailleur hangar broke off

The rear derailleur on your bike connects to your frame via a small derailleur hangar, which is basically designed to break off if there is stress in the chain or your frame. This way, your frame isn’t destroyed simply because of this small connection between it and your rear mech. Instead, the inexpensive derailleur hangar breaks and you replace it instead.

Hangars are specific to your frame, though

I’ve known people to bring an extra one because of this. If you ride a specialty frame that isn’t one of the big manufacturers out there like Trek, Cannondale, or Giant, this may be tricky depending on where you are riding.

Luckily, the above happened after I had gone on a hard ascent up Rocacorba, and I attribute it to not taking off the derailleur while traveling, as the hangar itself was likely stressed with the extra weight of the derailleur mid-flight. I actually had to wander around Girona for an afternoon, visiting a few bike shops without knowing any Catalan, showing mechanics my hangar and hoping that they had one I could purchase from them. I finally found one, but this was after one of the Trek Travel guides had to take me (and my bike) all the way back to the hotel that day. No more riding after the climb, I guess!

Be prepared for something unique to your bike

On a later trip, coincidentally the first one with my Factor O2 VAM, I initially felt pretty confident packing it up as I had done this previously with my Giant TCR. I didn’t anticipate, however, the larger 28mm tubeless tires that my Factor has! I didn’t want to deflate them completely for fear that the tire beads would come off the rim, leaving me a mess with no way to remount them. I actually had to deflate them a bit (not all the way), and had to take off the disc rotor from the wheel. This required me to bring a few extra tools (particularly a lock ring) so that I could put them back on when I got to my destination.

  • Pro tip: not that I’m actually a pro of course, but when packing up your bike, make sure that any tool you use to get it into the box is a tool that you bring with you on your trip. It’s safer to assume you won’t be able to get access to a local shop to do things for you.

Anecdote from my last trip

I brought a bunch of tools with me on the last trip I did out to France in July of 2019. It was with a small group of people who didn’t all know each other, and one of them was designated the “mechanic” of the crew. They kept laughing with me because I had managed to bring many more tools than the mechanic did, several of which were used quite regularly at the chalet at which we stayed (especially the torque wrench). It’s great to be prepared! Must be the old Boy Scout in me still.

Perform a trial (packing) run

Do this at least a day or two before you leave for your trip. In case you forget anything, you still want some time to run out and grab something from your local bike shop. It’s basically the same thing most people who travel frequently do anyway, but just…with a bike.

Furiously Packing at the last minute for a bike trip abroad

Now just sit back, put your tray tables in their upright position, and enjoy your flight. You have cycling to enjoy!

The Latest