Flying with a bike part #2 - Bike bag and box options
Ever experienced this:
Traveling somewhere exotic and exciting for a cycling event or holiday, having spent many months training hard, ages the day before carefully cocooning your precious bike into a trusty soft bike bag; and then seeing a mate rock up at the airport, wheeling his bike, completely unwrapped and not a bag or box in sight.
Simply "why" is the first question that comes to mind!
‘If they can see how fragile it is, they’ll take better care of it,’ is one explanation. Sometimes, the theory works. And while people have proven it, it's not a method we'd recommend!
With ever busier, more highly automated airports and baggage systems, to the best of our knowledge no airline today would accept a bike that’s not bagged or boxed today. Today’s tightened security rules are also unlikely to allow this approach. And even if they did, it would be a pretty risky approach in our humble opinion!
At the other end of the spectrum, an alternative has become a bit of a 'thing' to pack bikes in boxes labeled as TVs or other similarly-sized digital equipment. Rumor has it that some airlines and freight handlers might be more responsive to delicate handling of a bike disguised as a delicate piece of technology.
Image: Don't let this broken derailleur happen to your bike during transit!
So, how to best ensure your bike arrives in one (working) piece at the other end?
We recommend taking an approach somewhere in between: one that's practical and pragmatic which will protect your bike from rough treatment and hard knocks.
In our previous blog, we gave a range of tips about how to disassemble and wrap your bike. Now we’ll look at the various kinds of boxes and bags you can put your disassembled bike into for safe travels.
Broadly speaking, solutions fall into three categories:
- cardboard bike boxes;
- soft bike bags; and
- hard bike cases.
There’s also a wild card – how to improvise when you can’t source a bike box!
So what sort of protection is best? There's no ‘one size fit’s all’ approach. It depends upon many variables including: how much luggage and storage space you have, both at home and where you’re going; what sort of trip you’re going on; what sort of bike you're traveling with; how you'll be traveling with your bike once you reach your destination/s; how comfortable you are with different levels of bike reassembly required; and more.
Cardboard Bike Box
There’s a lot to be said for the good, ol' humble cardboard bike box. They've been around a while, are pretty readily available and cheap.
First up, if you can plan in advance and give a local bike shop some warning, they’ll generally be glad to give you one for free. It's the easiest and most convenient way for them to discard of - and reuse - boxes from new bikes they've received. If not, it's definitely time to change bike stores and find one that provides a level of customer service!
You can also buy bike boxes at many airports in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, but not in the USA. Buying a box at the airport, means that you can ride to the airport if you want to and pack it there. This will save the expense and possible hassles of trying to fit a packed bike into a taxi, Uber, public transport or whatever other means of airport transportation is available.
We’ll go into some more detail about which airlines sell boxes - and are most amenable to careful bike handling and good baggage allowances - in the next blog.
If you’re going on an unsupported cycle holiday of any sort where you’ll be riding away from your destination airport and especially if you’re returning via another route, then you're unlikely to have any capacity to store a bag at your destination or transport it with you. You may find that your travels are much less encumbered if you can travel with just your bike, assembled, rather than bike and box/bag. This is where a cardboard bike box really comes into its own. It’s a cheap, one-use solution… hopefully you can find a cardboard recycling bin at your destination.
Cardboard bike boxes are also relatively light, at around 4kg (9 pounds), particularly compared to hard shell bike cases.
Some of the cardboard bike boxes that are sold at airports, particularly in Europe, are actually larger than what you might normally need. They’re designed to carry a bike with minimal disassembly, but this may not offer the best protection, particularly for a lightweight bike. You can travel with a lightweight box cutter that has a retractable blade to cut your box down to size. (Of course, make sure you put this cutter in with your bike box as you won’t be able to take it in your carry-on luggage.)
If you’re going to use a bike box, you’ll also need packing tape to seal your box.
And then, remember, there are always cardboard TV boxes!
Soft Bike Cases
Soft bike bags come in several varieties: a full soft case, a soft bag with a hard base and inflatable bags. Confused yet? Let us help you out.
Full soft bags
These are usually made from a tear and water resistant synthetic fabric and often have foam padding between the inner and outer bag fabric.
- Can be packed down into a fairly small volume both for storage at home and for example, if you need to fit it into a hire car, small hotel room or camper van at your destination.
- Usually the lightest option of all.
- Usually less expensive than a hard case.
- Without a rigid base of some sort, it can’t have wheels so you have to carry the bag through the airport – or find a luggage trolley.
- Offers less protection against crushing.
Image: Vaude soft bag: Fully soft bags like this are the lightest, cheapest but least protective option.
Soft bags with hard bases
In some cases the hard base is an internal frame that may even include a bike frame clamping system that attaches via the front and rear dropouts. In other cases the base is a moulded hard shell that forms the bottom of the case plus say 100mm or more up the sides.
- The rigid base usually incorporates small wheels, either two or four pairs to that you can wheel your packed bike down long airport corridors. Four wheeled bags are less effort than two wheel, which require you to lift the other end via a handle.
- Gives slightly better protection than a fully soft case bag.
- Won’t pack down into such a small space.
- Slightly heavier than a soft bag.
- Slightly more expensive.
Image: Thule RoundTrip Pro XT Soft bag with hard base: This Thule RoundTrip Pro XT is a soft bag with a hard base.
These are quite rare but an interesting alternative.
- More protection for your bike
- Packs down small
Image: Inflatable Bike bag: This biknd inflatable bag has two large air cusions, one on either side, that you inflate via a pump that comes with the bag.
Hard Bike Cases
- Best level of protection, particularly against crushing.
- Most durable
- Has two or four small wheels, easiest to roll
- Most expensive
- Heaviest option, might cost more to fly, depending upon the airline.
- Doesn’t pack down when not in use. You’ll need space to store it at both ends of your journey, and throughout.
- Often slightly smaller and there’s, no stretching it or flexing if your bike is too big. So check carefully for size relative to your bike before buying one of these. You also may have to dis-assemble your bike to a greater degree than with other bags.
Image: Scicon Aerotech Evolution bike hard case: Hard cases like this Scicon Aerotech Evolution, but with the highest weight, and cost.
What can you do if you travel on your outward journey using a cardboard bike box, but then can’t buy or find one for your return journey?
This eight minute video shows a great example of improvisation when flying out from Bangalore using items that could be purchased at the local markets. Even if of no practical use to you, you'll be enteratined by this couple's AUD$9, self-declared 'organic' approach to packing their bikes! It's a hoot!
Credit: Vivente bikes
In the third and final blog in this series about flying with your bike, we’ll look into various airline’s policies and fees relating to transporting your bike to help you make the most cost effective and practical choice on your preferred airline - and because we like supporting those who support us