Flying with a bike part #3 - which airline?
When it comes to baggage, there are two things that cost airlines money: weight and cubic volume.
Space is at a premium inside aeroplane baggage holds and every kilo of luggage costs more fuel to keep airborne. A loaded bike bag is both heavy and bulky. So it’s not unreasonable to expect airlines to charge you for carrying your bike, but their fees vary from nothing to hundreds of dollars. And no-one likes a nasty surprise when you arrive to check with your regular luggage, plus your bike - it's expensive for you and you won't win any favours with the airline staff if you haven't forewarned of your bike when booking your flight.
So, do your research before you book and save yourself the extra stress at the airport.
One good place to start is: https://www.skyscanner.com/tips-and-inspiration/how-to-fly-with-your-bike
In this article we look policies for some major airlines covering Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, both domestically and between these countries, plus other areas of the world.
We also discuss what you should do to reduce your travel stress, especially if you’re not taking your own bike case, but planning to buy a single use cardboard bike box for each direction of your journey. - See our previous blog covering the various bike bag/box options here.
One more tip: on international flights, particularly to Australia or New Zealand, make sure you clean your bike well, particularly so that there’s no caked on mud, which could cause you problems with quarantine upon arrival at your destination.
How Much Discretion do Airline Staff Have?
Of course, baggage rules are one thing, the discretion of the staff member who serves you at the check in counter is another. Anyone who’s done much flying will have at least a few stories of when they were over their baggage allowance but waived through without excess charges.
One former airline staffer wrote a travel blog citing some key factors that will help you:
Image: airline baggage compartment. There’s a limited amount of space in here and every extra kilogram or pound carried costs the airline more fuel.
Australian Based Airlines
Qantas traditionally charges the highest airfares of the four main Australian airlines. The upside is that they the have the most generous baggage allowances, particularly for international flights, but the excess rates are steep if you exceed these allowances.
For economy to North and South America you can check in up to 2 x 23 kg (50 pound) pieces of luggage, total 46kg (100 pounds) and the total dimensions of the two bags combined must not exceed 270 cm (106 inches). This means that if one of your two pieces is a small panier or case it will give you more allowance for your larger bike box. Excess baggage is both A$175 & US$175 per extra piece (currency depending upon departure country).
For economy to the rest of the world the total allowance is 30 kg (66 pounds) and total dimensions of any bag not to exceed 158 cm. Excess baggage is A$80 per kg for Europe, A$35 per kg for Asia.
For economy domestic flights, one piece of checked baggage not to exceed 23 kg (50 pounds) is provided. Excess baggage is A$78 for the first extra piece.
Qantas sell cardboard bike boxes at most major airports for A$40 if you’re travelling on a Qantas or Jetstar ticket. Thanks to code-sharing rules, provided you’re travelling on a Qantas or Jetstar code shared ticket you can still buy a cardboard bike box, even if you’re flying on a different airline. In the USA, Qantas code shares with Alaska Airlines and American Airlines. Fortuitously these are the best two USA airlines for carrying bikes. In Europe, Qantas partners with British Airways. Of course, details such as these are subject to change, so confirm directly.
Virgin sells cardboard bike boxes at most major airports for A$25, provided you have a Virgin ticket. Domestic flights accommodate one piece of luggage weighing up to 23 kg (50 pounds). Fees are A$70 for the first additional piece thereafter (also up to 23 kg).
Short Haul International, including flights to New Zealand, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands allow 23kg (50 pounds) and then A$130 for the first additional piece (also up to 23 kg).
On Long Haul International flights with Virgin, you can travel with 2 x 23 kg (50 pound) pieces of luggage, to a total 46kg (100 pounds). Excess baggage fees depend upon the destination, but a relevant fee for heavy bike bags to the Americas and Hong Kong is that bags over 23kg but under 32kg are an additional A$100.
For domestic flights excess baggage is A$60 for the first 15 kg and $15 per kg over that.
Jetstar do not sell bike boxes themselves but you can buy a bike box from Qantas if you have a Jetstar ticket. In some airports, it’s a long walk between their respective terminals, so allow time for this.
For Jetstar's most common airfares there is no checked baggage allowance in standard fares. It is purchased via additional cost at six levels: 15, 20, 25, 30, 35 and 40 kg. The fees appear to vary according to the flight because they can only be checked using a booking reference.
Oversize Handling Fee: For any item whose longest side is 1 metre or more (39 inches), which includes almost every bike bag or box, there is an oversize handling fee that is additional, regardless of the weight. For domestic Aus / NZ flights this is A$25 / NZ$25 respectively. For international flights it depends upon the destination.
We don't recommend flying Tiger Air with your bike. A no-frills airline, there is no apparent mention of bikes in the ‘baggage’ section of their website and they do not sell cardboard bike boxes.
Excess baggage over 20 kg (44 pounds) is charged at A$20 per kg for flights under 1 hour 45 minutes and A$25 per kg for longer flights. This means that by the time you have a bike plus luggage, you could be paying more for excess baggage than your airfare on this discount carrier!
Air New Zealand
Standard luggage allowance with Air New Zealand is one piece up to 23kg.
Any bag over 23kg (50 pounds) can still be taken provided an overweight fee is paid and it is less than a maximum of 32kg (72 pounds).
If the bag’s total dimensions add up to more than 158cm (62 inches), which would include most bike bags, there’s an excess baggage charge.
Prices and allowances vary between domestic, trans Tasman and other international routes.
USA Based Airlines
In general the USA is less bike friendly for air travellers than Australia, New Zealand or Europe.
You generally cannot buy a bike box at a USA airline or airport.
On average, airlines charge a US$150 oversized baggage fee for bicycles per one way flight.
Very recently (May 2019) American Airlines eliminated this fee, provided your packed bike bag weighs less than 23 kg (50 pounds). However, beware you are still required to pay $30 per bag up to this weight limit.
Regional airlines including Southwest and Alaska Airlines are considered to be more bike friendly in general that major national carriers such as United and Delta.
Image: Alaska Airlines: If you’re flying in the USA with a bike then Alaska Airlines is your cheapest option.
After the American Airlines policy change, a review in Bicycling Magazine ranked the top USA airlines for carrying a bike as follows:
For each of these airlines, this article provides a great summary of the maximum size and weight for each standard bag, plus the cost per standard bag. Then it shows the amount of any specific bike fee, oversize fee and overweight fee. In some cases, airlines charge all three of these fees!
Finally the article also ads up the total fees that you may be paying for your bike, depending upon its size, weight and the amount of other baggage that you’re carrying. The total cost ranges from US$30 in the case of top ranked Alaska airlines, up to $230 - $550 in the case of United.
Cycling holidays are great! Exploring a destination by two wheels is one of the best possible ways to experience a new place and truly immerse in its culture, landscape, environment and people.
This is our final instalment of our three part blog about flying with your bicycle adn we hope you are now fully armed with all the info you need to book your flight, choose the best and cheapest airline, get your bike to the airport, and have it arrive at your destination intact.
There’s no avoiding the fact that it’s going to cost you some extra time and money to disassemble your bike, buy a suitable box, bag or hardcase and then pay for an airline to carry your bike. But if you follow the tips in these articles, at least you can be more confident that your bike will arrive undamaged and that you can avoid any nasty surprises regarding the costs, especially that unpleasant ‘gotcha!’ moment where you’re suddenly hit up for a large, unbudgeted fee whilst standing at the checking counter. - Yep, been there, done that! Learnt the hard way.