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.
- Simple – It’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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.