While flying around the globe to ride your bicycle may sound exciting there is inevitably one hitch in this dream of perfection: getting your bike there. Anybody who has spent enough time flying with them will have horror stories to share. Whether it's lost bikes, damaged bikes or credit card-melting charges, there are more than enough things that can go wrong, and the odds are that sooner or later they will happen to you. While your bike may be your pride and joy, to the airlines it's big, heavy and awkward to fit in the cargo hold and to the baggage handlers it's just an exceptionally heavy item among the hundreds that need to be hauled onto the plane in time. So here's our top tips for making flying with your bike as painless as possible.
1. Book your bike onto the flight
This may sound obvious, but it's not quite as simple as it sounds. Because bikes are so big there are only limited space for them in the cargo hold for them, so you need to make sure the airline has space for them. If you are booking your flight directly you can probably add it onto your booking at the same time and it is no stress. However, if you are using a third party site like Lastminute, Opodo or any of the other cheap flight sites out there, then the chances are you cannot add a bike as you book. If this is the case you need to call the airline directly and reserve a space for your bike. It's a pain in the ass as you inevitably have to navigate the obtuse menu system and pray that the person on the other end of the phone speaks something approaching your own language. It is always worth doing though, as nothing ruins a biking trip faster than arriving at the airport to leave and being told there is no room on the flight for your bike...
2. Pack your bike well
Your bike is your pride and joy, right? Well the person who will be handling your bike once it is checked it doesn't care - it's just a big, heavy piece of luggage that needs moving and not every luggage handler is going to pay attention to those fragile notices and treat it with the same finesse you do. Fortunately these days there are some great options to protect your bike, but, inevitably, good protection costs money. Arguably the best bike bag out there is still the Evoc bike bag, which has been round for a good few years now and is the choice of a good proportion of professional riders and the media who travel frequently with bikes. It makes packing your bike easier with convenient attachments for the handlebars, separate wheel compartments and an aluminium skeleton for protection. These kind of bike bags are also good for the inevitable security inspections your bike will go through once you have checked it in. In the USA you are pretty much guaranteed that the TSA will open your bike, and they are far less careful than you are at putting it all back in - with a dedicated bag they are far more likely to put it all back somewhere close to how you left it. There are some good, newer options too, like the Bikind bags. However, they are not cheap - if you fly regularly they are a worthwhile investment, but if you are only going to fly once or twice a year then it might seem like a big cost. If that is the case don't scrimp and buy a cheaper bike bag - you get what you pay for and there are a whole raft of really bad bike bags out there that will do little to keep your bike safe. Instead, if you don't want to fork out the money the next best option is getting your hands on a cardboard bike box. Usually waving some beers at a local bike shop will be all it costs, then you just have to take the time to figure out how best to fit and secure your bike in there.
3. Arrive early at the airport
Don't you hate it when you have 32 things to do and then someone drops a dirty, great problem onto your desk in the middle of it all? Well that's pretty much how it feels for the check-in staff when you are trying to check your bike in, in the middle of the rush to get several hundred people processed and onto the flight in time. If you arrive at the airport a good couple of hours ahead of your flight they should be less busy, so have time to deal with you. It also means that when there are the inevitable complications you have time to sort them out before the doors close.
4. You are going to have to pay
How much it costs to fly with a bike changes from airline to airline. If you have taken the time to call the airline to book your bike onto the flight they should have told you how much it is going to cost. Here is a quick list of the current prices for a few airlines. These can and will change, for instance Air New Zealand used to take bikes free of charge back in 2009, then started charging in 2011 or so. Some of these airlines publish clear, simple costs and flying guidelines which makes life easier, yet some (hello BA, Emirates and Quantas!) make it very difficult to get a clear quote, so be careful. If in doubt, it is always best to call the airline and check.
|Lufthansa||32kg||$70 continental, $150 intercontinental|
|United||23kg/32kg||If under 23kg qualifies as checked baggage, if over $150/$200 depending on destination|
|Air France||23kg (32kg if flying business/first class)||$100 + overweight fee of $150 if over 23kg|
|British Airways||23kg||If bike is over 23kg but below 32kg there may be a baggage fee but no precise details on their website - have been told that if check-in staff are friendly fee waived.|
|Emirates||32kg||$50 if second bag (two bags already in allowance, so pay for 9kg excess weight)|
|Qantas||23/32kg||Depends on destination, US - Aus is $123AUD per piece, between other destinations it is $122-$280AUD per 5kg over 23kg. Base allowance for economy is 30kg, so if taking a checked 23kg bag, a 32kg bike would be 25kg additional.|
|Ryannair||32kg||£60 if booked with flight, £70 if booked after|
|Easyjet||32kg (but main bag cannot exceed 20kg)||$50 if booked with flight, $60 if booked after|
|Air New Zealand||23/32kg||$150|
|Aer Lingus||32kg||50 Euros|
To put these allowances in context - a lightweight, carbon all-mountain bike with no excess equipment in an Evoc bike bag will just scrape through a 23kg limit. However, that limit is basically designed with road bikes in mind and you're going to struggle to get a burlier bike through. For a mountain biker, 32kg is a good weight - it is enough for a bike, a helmet, shoes, a backpack and maybe even a few spares. As a general rule most airlines seem to limit all baggage to 32kg and anything over that is going to need to be shipped cargo. Cargo is expensive. Several thousand dollars to get a bike there and back kinda expensive. You also need to be very careful with any airline that does not charge baggage at a piece rate - paying per kilo can also become cripplingly expensive very quickly. We have also heard reports that Emirates confusing policy can mean you have to pay multiple fees for your bike if you pas through several of their designated zones. Also, avoid Air France - aside from the strikes and the fact that French baggage handlers have one of the worst track records for getting your baggage to your destination with you, their baggage policy is ridiculous. A 32kg bag costs $150, a 23kg bike costs $100. However, a 32kg bike costs $250 - go figure...
5. The check-in staff are god (as far as you're concerned)
Regardless of what any airline's baggage policy may or may not say, the reality is that when you arrive at the airport the check-in staff decide if and how that policy is applied. In other words, in terms of getting your bike onto that plane they are god. You need to be nice to them (point three helps here). If they are in a good mood they may wink at you and tell you that "your bike weighs 23kg, right..." despite clearly weighing enough to pull the moon out of orbit, or at the other end, if they are in a bad mood they may completely misunderstand the airlines baggage policy and hit you with hundreds of dollars of excess fees. For example, in their baggage policy British Airways have a pretty bad policy for mountain bikers, but tend to come off well in peoples experiences when they actually fly with them. If you do find yourself in a situation where you feel you are being overcharged your best bet is to suck it up and call the airlines customer services after. There is no point getting angry with the check-in staff, they are applying a policy and know that you don't actually have an alternative (unless you're happy to pay cargo charges or not get on the plane). If the check-in staff have made an error you will get your money refunded to you later.
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