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How to fly with a bike: The cheap and easy method

How to fly with a bike: The cheap and easy method

If you plan to travel internationally with a bicycle, at some point you will be required to put your bike on a plane.

Taking a bike on an airplane as luggage can be a gut wrenching proposition.  In addition to the various and variable  fees imposed by the different airlines, there is the matter of packing and unpacking your bike for air travel, sourcing packaging materials and protecting your bike during transit.

The first time we combined bike touring and air travel I tediously and meticulously removed and bubble wrapped every single piece of both bikes, right down to water bottle cages.  I packed the pieces in re-enforced cardboard bike boxes, marked FRAGILE on every possible surface, crossed my fingers and was generally tense throughout the entire experience.   The whole process took about 1.5 hours per bike, on each end of the journey.

Other than the time and labor and stress involved, all went well.   We’ve done it few times since…  It always works, but it’s expensive, time consuming and stressful.

Isn’t there a better way to fly with a bike?

Pack your bike in a clear plastic bag.

With multiple benefits over packing a bike in a cardboard box, this is now our preferred method for flying with our bikes on an airplane.  At first we were skeptical, and honestly if we weren’t forced into using this technique by the lack of bike packing resources at the southern end of our Destination Dubrovnik tour last summer we would have never tried it.  It does feel a little like stepping off a cliff, until you realize that your bike will be treated much more carefully when packed in a clear plastic bag.

4 reasons why we like this technique.

  1. SimpleIt’s a plastic bag.  Think a big sandwich baggie for your bike, hold the mayo.  The CTC Plastic Bike Bags is specifically designed for this purpose.  If you order one before your trip, you can carry it in your panniers and it’s reusable.  No need to source anything at the last minute.   If not you can make your own.  In Dubrovnik we used a home-made version by doubling over clear plastic sheeting and duct taping the edges.  Slide the bike into the bag, fold down the top and tape it.  Natch!
  2. Quick- Total packaging/unpacking time including removal/reinstallation of pedals etc.. is about 15 minutes on either end of the trip.  This is fabulous compared with the one hour minimum build/pack time per bike when using a bike box.  With the plastic bag method almost the entire bike remains intact.
  3. Cheap – If you plan ahead. (Not our strong suit) then use the CTC Plastic Bike Bag or similar.  At present it retails for $13.50.  Not bad.  If you need to make your own, then the price is a little more variable, since you have to run around, find plastic sheeting and duct tape, which depending on your location at the time, may or may not be simple to locate. Still you shouldn’t have a problem.  Our homemade bags, sourced and made in Dubrovnik from plastic sheeting from the local garden shop cost us around $35 for two bags, not counting bus tickets running around town to find plastic.  Still a bargain when you consider how smooth the whole thing works.
  4. Your bike is handled more carefully when packed in a plastic bag- First, If bagage handlers can see that there is a bike in the bag they are more likely to handle it with care.  When we deposited our bikes at the luggage desk in Dubrovnik two baggage handlers carried our bikes to the loading area.  Since there were no easy hand holds on either bike they carried them one bike at a time.  Each man taking an end of the bike and lifting it on to the cart.  Second, the odd shape of the bike when in a plastic bag makes it unlikely to be stacked underneath the other luggage in the cargo hold or on the luggage carts to and from the plane.  Therefore your bike is less likely to be crushed.  Our bikes emerged at our destination in almost perfect condition, despite two connections and an overnight lay-over (don’t ask…). The only problem was a slightly damaged fender stay.

How do you pack your bike in a plastic bag?

Surprisingly using a clear plastic bag to transport your bike on an airplane requires only basic disassembly.  First, check with your airline as carriers have differing regulations.  Most carriers will accept a bike packed in a plastic bag and require only the handlebar be turned parallel, pedals removed and tires partially deflated.  That being said, I like to take a bit more precaution adding padding to the front derailleur, removing the rear derailleur from the frame, lowering the saddle and securing the front wheel from flopping about.

1. Remove your pedals and turn the handlebar parallel to the frame.

remove the pedals; air travel with a bike; flying with a bicycle; cycle touring; turn the handlebars

Turn the handlebars parallel to the frame and remove the pedals. NOTE- lowering the saddle is a good idea.

2. Secure the front wheel from flopping around.  I used some spare line that we always carry.  You can use just about anything as long as the front wheel is secured before placing your bike in the plastic bag.

air travel; flying with a bike; bicycle touring

Secure the front wheel.

3. The rear derailleur is an achilles heel of the bike.  Carefully remove it from the frame to prevent any damage to the frame or derailleur.  I’ve used duct tape and a ‘disposable’ water bottle to secure and protect the rear derailleur in transit.

remove the rear derailleur; bike touring; cycling; air travel; flying with a bike

Remove the rear derailleur from the frame and protect it.

4. Once you place your bike in the plastic bag simply fold over the top and secure it with heavy tape, like duct tape or packing tape.  I’ve wrapped the bike end on end as well just to secure the bag and prevent snags.

flying with a bike; plastic bag; air travel; bike touring

Once the bike is in the plastic bag fold the top over and secure with heavy tape.

Will my bike survive?

It seems that baggage handlers are actually human beings after all.  If they can see there is a bicycle in the bag it is more likely to be treated with respect.  Instead of tossing and dropping an anonymous cardboard box and stacking hundreds of pounds of suitcases on top of it, the plastic bag is handled with some amount of care.  As I said above there is the knock-on effect of not being able to stack it squarely and no easy hand holds from which to toss it onto a luggage cart.  This requires the bike to lifted and placed.  Bikes like that. We like that.

While nothing is fool-proof, our experience and the experience of others indicates that flying with your bike packed in a plastic bag is at least as safe as using a box.  When you factor in the time and effort put into the box method the plastic bag reigns supreme.  Again, always check with your airline as there are differing regulations depending carrier.

Have you ever used the plastic bag method?  Would you even consider flying with your bike packed in a plastic bag?

Tell us about your experiences flying with a bike.

About Tyler Robertson

Passionate about bicycling, photography and great tacos, Tyler is always happiest when in the saddle. Now living in and exploring Eastern Europe by bicycle, he often spends time analyzing how bicycles can change the face of travel and the economic landscape while planning his schedule around bicycle trips (instead of the other way around). If you would like an opinion or contribution on any of the above, please connect on Google + or contact Tyler .

41 comments

  1. Nice post Tyler. We’re planning a trip to France in May. Perhaps we’ll try this technique. I certainly don’t enjoy the last-minute scramble to locate bike boxes the day of the flight home.

    • Hey James,
      I recommend it. Super simple and quick. Where are you headed in France? Maybe we can cross paths… :)

      Thanks for the kind words.

    • I recently travelled to the Pyrennes on United / Lufthansa. UA charged me $400 to fly the bike to France and Lufthansa charged $100 to fly it back. I complained to UA, stating that their own policy is to charge $200 and they refused to refund me. I will never travel internationally with my bike on UA again and encourage others to do the same. They are not bike-friendly at all.

  2. I used a Ground Effect Tardis bike bag. It’s great because it packs the bike down small so it is easy to carry around the airport, but ultimately it’s a pain in the rear as you have to totally disassemble the bike to get it to fit correctly and the bag doesn’t offer much protection. I had two buckled wheels after the first flight and it took me a day to re-assemble it and get the wheels fixed. Next time I’ll try the plastic bag method or just buy a good quality folding bike for touring instead.

    • Sorry to hear your wheels were buckled. That stinks.
      Our thinking here is bike bags, like the Tardis, which aren’t transparent, get treated just like the bike boxes + tossed, thrown, dropped. The advantage of the plastic bag, besides being simple, quick and cheap is it transparency. Suddenly the baggage handler sees that there is something fragile inside. Add to the fact that wheels and most other pieces stay in place thereby maintaining the structural integrity of the bike, you’re less likely to end up with damage. Let us know how it works when you use the plastic bag.

  3. A long time ago (it’s been over 20 years), American Airlines used to provide bags instead of boxes when flying with your bike. I did have pretty good luck with this every time I used it. I much preferred it and would select AA in preference to other airlines for just this reason. (Though there was the time my luggage made a connection and I didn’t and they left the bike sitting out for anyone to walk off with, while my panniers were locked up in the (closed, it was late) office. Fortunately, this was on the return trip.)

    • Hi Chris, thanks for the feedback. It’s interesting to know that AA used to provide bags for bikes. Seems like a good thing to continue, especially since they charge such a high fee now to bring a bike aboard the plane. Surprisingly on this trip the desk agent in Dubrovnik forgot/neglected to charge us the €100 fee per bike. We thought we were lucky until the gate agent at our connecting flight called us on it. :/

  4. I would use this method, however my primary airline Qantas, will only accept bikes of they are presented in a box. Worth looking into if I fly international with other carriers.

  5. Thanks for this post Tyler, it is very helpful. A group of us will be using your bag method this June. We will be posting our packing materials ahead of us to our destination in the South of France (dont want to carry it for 700miles). I am having trouble assessing what guage plastic to buy. All of my sources seem to be on the internet. Options seem to be 300/500/1000 guage. Any suggestions please?

    • for anyone else who follows this thread, I have just found the CTC polly-bike-bag spec is 125micron (500Gauge) polythene.
      So here is a link to a reasonably priced source :-
      http://www.qvsshop.co.uk/clear-polythene-500-gauge-140-c.asp

      • Thanks, Collin for your question and your update.

        Just like there are two wheels to this blog, there are two thoughts on this approach. Our recent trip to Italy was the best example. T was in charge of packing materials on our way to Italy. He went to our local market and picked up a very, very lightweight plastic, made as a furniture throw for painting. Probably even lighter than the 300 gauge. (Think old GLAD sandwich ‘baggies’) T assured me that the plastic wasn’t really protecting anything–it just ensured people took extra care with the bikes. And he was right. The lightweight plastic didn’t survive very well on the other end, but we had a chance to see the luggage crew carrying our bikes ever so gingerly, two persons for each bike, off the plane. Not a scratch on the bikes, so T was right. But the plastic wasn’t salvagable, so we tossed it.

        On the return trip from Italy, we opted for my preferred plastic. We first found it when we searched for some time in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and ended up at landscaping/garden store where they sold heavy-duty plastic on the roll, about 2 meters wide. Probably closer to the 1000 gauge plastic. Certainly more expensive, but more protective from scratches and incidental contact. It just makes me feel better. So in Rome, we found something similar at a neighborhood hardware store quite easily. Now the heavier it is, the less easy it is to carry with you on your bike. But the lighter the weight, the easier it is to tear. (Of course, the 300 gague doesn’t seem as light as our ‘sandwich baggie’– which still worked just great!)

        So, in sum, our recommendation is don’t bother sending it by post– you can buy it when you get there!! (I take it from your post you are riding to the south of France and only flying back.) As long as you’ll be somewhere that you can find a hardware store or a landscape/garden store, you’ll be able to find some plastic you can use to make your own bag to bring your bike on the plane home!
        ~Carolyn

  6. What a cool idea, tempting to move my bike from Ottawa, Canada to Frankfurt, Germany…only snag is that it’s a bamboo bike from Ghana, so although care is very much desired, visibility is not. Too much risk of it getting ‘lost’ along the journey I’m afraid. Happy trails!

    • Hi Jen, Yeah, Id say I agree with your opinion about the bamboo bike. I think this technique works best with sturdy steel touring bikes, Fragile materials and exotics probably should go the box route. Have fun on your journey! :)

  7. I use a ‘no bling’ Aerus Biospeed Bag (HumbleOutdoors $320), all but on time the airlines have charged me a excess baggage fee and the crazy bike fee.

  8. What does the airline charge you for checking a bike packed like this? For most, the big expense is what the airline charges you to check it. As much as $200 per bike one way for the bigger airlines in the US.

    • It depends on the airline. But you’re right. Some charge as much as a couple hundred per flight, yet some are free or close to free. The images in this article were taken before we boarded a Finnish Air flight that charged 100€ total for the 2 bikes. We’ve also flown on El Al to Israel, because they carry bikes for free. I seem to remember some carriers in the US recently lowering baggage fees for bikes, Jet Blue I think, but I can’t find a link right now. You have to check it out with each airline before buying your flight.

  9. Last year we travelled to Malawi from the Netherlands and next week we’ll be leaving for Cambodia. We use special plastic bike-covers. They only provide basic protection, but it’s obvious the bikes are handled with more care. Using plastic bags or covers has the advantage of being able to take them with you on your tour, so you won’t have to look for packing material on your way home ! Another advantage is that we can travel tot the airport by train.
    Instead of using tape to secure the covers, I’m now making reinforced holes (rings) so we can loop a thin rope through them and tie everything together. Should be great … :-)

    • Sounds great Alan. Have fun on your trip! :)

    • hi Alan,
      It does sound great. I’m based in Melbourne and Chiangmai Thailand. What are your experiences so far at the Airport check in with the plastic bagged bike? Can it be included in your check in weight, i.e. Thai gives me 30 kilo? Both wheels off and duc tapped together would constitute a s reasonable size?

  10. Hi! We (mom, dad and the 3 kids) are planning ” bike-and-camping” a trip to Europe and will probably use that method. However, our problem is the part where we have to travel from Paris to Amsterdam . The Thalys train company is asking that the bike is either folded or put in a travel bag with no front wheel. Any suggestion?

    • Cathie, We hope your kids appreciate how cool their parents are! (Although they rarely do!) Trains and bikes go together pretty well in Europe, but there are still some restrictions. In Western Europe, high speed trains (like Thalys) are not always so bike-friendly. Rest assured they will enforce the rules, too. You might be able to get by with taking off the front wheel, using some zip-ties or something similar to keep it attached to the frame, and re-using your plastic bags to wrap it up good.

      The other option is to find a longer train route that will let you roll your bicycle on. When we came back from Naples to Rome, we took the slower regionale rather than the hi-speed so we could roll the bikes on and off.

      A quick look at the Dutch train system shows that for a steep ticket price (12 euros!), but you can easily take your bike on the Intercity Brussels train that goes to Amsterdam. (http://www.nshispeed.nl/en/before-you-go/taking-your-bicycle-with-you) It seems you can also pay to take your bike on the TGV line in France (that goes to Brussels), but with at least one change and its not so easy to figure out (http://www.velo.sncf.com/?velo-voyager=tgv).

      That being said, it all seems like a lot of extra work when removing the front wheel and keeping it in a bag with the proper dimensions (120cmX 90cm) should satisfy the regulations!

      Hope that helps!
      Carolyn

      • A bike is much easier to handle when you can roll it on its wheels. Plastic bag method means you can unpack bike, fit panniers, and ride away with all packing materials in about ten minutes. Much easier than having a heavy bike in box plus seprate panniers. I’ve used it on Singapore Airlines between Christchurch NZ and Paris/London with no problems and no charge ( within free baggage allowance).
        You can take an operational bike on some french TGV trains. You need a reservation that seems hard to get from outside france. In my experience the bike spaces are not heavily used. France is a very bike – friendly place. People generally go out of their way to be helpful.

  11. This is a really interesting idea….it would make me a bit nervous though! Questions: do you still get charged the over size fee?? And would you do this with a carbon frame bike? I travel with armored bike bags from Ruster Sports (retail: 600 USD for the pair), one bag for the frame and one for the wheels. Takes up your two free bags, but no extra fees, so that’s awesome (I’ve already made back the money I spent on it!) and the bikes are very well protected. Much more so than a cardboard box, which is what I used to use…

    • Hi Syd,
      We always get the bike fee, so no savings there. Never tried it with a carbon framed bike, but I imagine it wouldn’t work as well. We have steel framed touring bikes. They’re built for abuse. After doing this on at least 8 flights, the only damage so far has been slightly bent fender stays and some scuffed bar tape.

  12. We’ve used the plastic bike bag method a few times with steel MTB tourers and Al and Ti road bikes. Usually take front wheel off and tape it on drive side of bike, also remove dérailleur and rotate bars. Have one CTC bag and one sheet of polythene picked up on the road side in Corsica. No harm come to bikes so far, but wouldn’t use for a carbon racer.

  13. I’ve used a partial plastic bag arrangement on Air New Zealand (they have since become strict about wanting boxes) and Singapore Airlines. Bag is a single mattress bag. Used cardboard to sit bike on and fold up to about axle height. Handlebars pedals, front derailleur off. Arrange so top tube is visible, make the whole thing easy for one person to carry.
    On each of 4 occasions bike arrived undamaged.
    Having read this page, I’m thinking of using cardboard only in strategic places.
    I have an issue getting bike from baggage pickup to train at CDG airport in Paris, where you cant use baggage trolleys between terminals. May aim to get bike so I can remove it from bag in order to wheel it rather than carry it and panniers.
    Ed

    • That’s what I did. Had bike operational within about 10 mins of receiving it. And I took all the packaging with me, so I can use it for the return journey.
      Ed

  14. Hi All just bought a Mattress Bag , King Size one to Bag My Bike, $10, Cheap and Easy to Find.

  15. hi, would you know if this method would work with a bmx bike.

  16. Thanks! This got me by for my trip from L.A. to London. I flew Virgin Atlantic. No issue in LAX. But my bike almost didn’t come home with me from Heathrow. They did not like clear plastic bag and made me disassemble way more than on my trip to Heathrow.

    • hi Thomas, not good! We are all helping the environment and potential congestion here. My experience on Thai Airways between Melbourne and Bangkok-Chiangmai are great, they don’t even raise an eyebrow. I feel it can also come down to the assistant at the time and the current mood.

    • When you succeed in taking a bike in a clear plastic bag, take some photos and have them with you. Showing the photos should help convince staff, esp if its the same airline. For my return trip from London, I had with me photos of the bike on the outward leg, just in case. In fact there was no problem
      Ed

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