The Ins and Outs of Flying with a Bike
Since I was 14, I’ve been traveling with a bicycle almost every time I leave home. Its a means to explore, exercise, and interact with a new place in a more vivid and intimate way. And as of the past 3 years, the bike has been the sole purpose of my travel. However, until I moved West, I had only flown with a bicycle three times… Now, it seems as if I fly with a bicycle at least 20 times a year! One thing I’ve come to realize: knowing the “ins and outs of flying with your bike” pays off over time, so I hope this helps those of you who are embarking on a bicycle adventure in a new, and far off land in the near future!
What Airline is Best for My Bicycle Adventure?
First things first: What airline do you choose? I try to book tickets with airlines who I’m confident will charge me either $25, or nothing at all! Southwest Airlines charges $75 for a bike, unless your bike bag is under the size and weight parameters. But even if this is the case, it can depend on whether or not the representative has a good rapport with you. I would say my bike has flown free 75% of the time, and I’m convinced its due to being friendly. So smile, be kind, and you’ll usually have an easier time (this can be said for life in general). I highly recommend either American Airlines or Alaska Airlines for their customer service, low fees, and wide range of options for flights. Every time I’ve flown with either of these airlines, I’ve been charged $25 to check my bike, and neither t ime were they misguided by what was in my Pik-A-Pack bike bag.
If you can’t find something from those three, or they simply don’t go to your destination, my recommendation is to look into flights that are usually a guaranteed $75 bike check. (I will have none of this $150-$200 bike-flight-flat-rate business. Yes, I’m talking to you United and Delta...) If you are set on flying with your bike, sometimes it can be cheaper to purchase a $100 flight and pay $75 for a bike, than buy a $200 ticket and pay $25 for a checked bike. If you’re anything like me, you might prefer to save that $25 if you are given the opportunity. Just weigh your options to make the best choice for your net expense of travel.
Example: While Frontier Airlines charges $75 for a bike, which rocks because they often have some of the cheapest flights to Denver, they also charge for regular checked bags. And if you have a “personal item” that exceeds their “tiny box test”, they require you to check it. I sweet talked my way out of paying $40 to check my backpack at the gate because the person at ticketing had not charged me to carry it on. Read the fine print. It could save you $.
Bag, Box, or Coffin?
I am sure you’ve seen the myriad of bike travel cases in bike shops before. Every shop has the dude who rolls around on a Colnago C60, and brings it into the shop before his trip to Europe. Usually, you’re playing carbon fiber tetris with his $800 rolling bike Escalade, which is equipped with climate control, a mini bar, and two oompa loompas to keep his Colnago entertained on the trip. Although that’s a great experience for the bike, there’s not a lot of benefit to having a gigantic bike case that more closely resembles a gun safe for your travel. They’re often heavier than a bag or cardboard box, and require the same amount of disassembly of your machine. So you’re really only creating more work for yourself, and again… if you’re like me… not a lot of upper body strength going on.
Pull Apart, Put Back Together
If you have a lot of experience turning a wrench, this part will make you yawn. However, if you are relatively new at disassembly and reassembly of your bike, take notice. This part is important.
STEP 1: REMOVE PEDALS
Remember, pedals loosen towards the BACK of the bike. So do not refer back to your “righty tighty, lefty loosy” mantra. Your LEFT pedal is reverse threaded! Place pedals in a ziplock bag on their own, with pedal washers in tow.
STEP 2: REMOVE WHEELS, DEFLATE TIRES, REMOVE SKEWERS
You don’t need to deflate tires entirely, but dropping them to 65psi will provide less rigidity to them. I have forgotten to deflate in the past and contrary to popular misconception… they don’t explode when you hit 35,000 feet. Pop the wheels off and remove skewers. It is helpful to have wheel bags so you know exactly where your skewers are, but a plastic baggie for small parts like skewers and pedals is just fine.
STEP 3: REMOVE DERAILLEUR FROM HANGER
Most derailleurs require a 5mm allen wrench to remove. Simply take it off from your hanger and let it hang by the cable housing while you prepare to wrap the frame for protection. After frame is wrapped, do the same with the derailleur and secure it to the chain stay on the inside of the frame to prevent it from getting damaged.
STEP 4: REMOVE HANDLEBAR
Most folks like to remove the handlebar from the stem. Some prefer remove their stem from the steerer tube and replace the stem space with spacers or a piece of cardboard tubing that fits the 1-⅛” cylinder. I opt for the ladder, but regardless, if you are removing anything, you should mark its location so your fit is the same when you arrive at your destination, as it was when you departed! Apply a piece of painter’s tape across the front of the stem and handlebar, and draw a line on it before removing bar. Cut the tape so that when you remove the bar from the stem, part of your line is on the handlebar, and the other part is on the stem. Using the line as a cue, you can match them back to the correct position when you reassemble!
STEP 5: SECURE FRAME AND REMOVE SEATPOST!
More important than the handlebar position is your seatpost! Again, use your painter’s tape or electrical tape to lay a section EVENLY around your seatpost, marking its exact position. Secondary to knowing this specific measurement is having a physical marker so you can simply place the post back in its original position. It even helps to have a small 4-5nM torque wrench to ensure that you’re applying the proper torque to avoid damaging your frame.
After removing seatpost, wrap it in bubble wrap, newspaper, or whatever packing material you have and place it in the bottom of your bike bag, box, or rolling bicycle coffin. Next, finish wrapping the frame, handlebar, crankset, and secure any loose items. The handlebar should be rotated to align the curved part of your bar around the fork and steerer tube. If you’re packing a mountain bike or TT bike, this can be even easier as you just need to secure the bar against the padded frame! ALWAYS make sure there is a layer of material between your components and your frame.
STEP 6: TETRIS TIME! BOX EVERYTHING UP!
Finally, you’re ready to put everything in place! If you’re using a bike box, the wheels could fit on one side of the frame. But however the wheels fit, make sure that the hubs are not contacting anywhere on the frame. There is some benefit to using hub covers (flat plastic pieces that keep the hubs from either rubbing the frame, or busting through the side of the box). You can acquire these at your local bike shop - usually they will save them for packing purposes.
Add any necessary packing material to provide an extra layer of protection. Finish up by taping, zipping, or snapping everything in place until you reach your destination! Remember, the weight limit is 50 lbs - so as long as you’re under that, feel free to throw a few extra amenities in there like helmet, shoes, and food. I like to add my drink mix so I’m not hauling around bags of powder. TSA will find any excuse to pull you aside and make an example of you.
About the author - Pat Casey
Pat Casey, CSCS is a USAT Level 2 and Team USA Coach living in Salt Lake City, Utah. Pat owns Peak State Fit with his wife and fellow coach Heather Casey. Peak State Fit specializes in triathlon coaching, bike fitting and corrective exercise training. PeakStateFit.com