Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Flying with a Bike

When traveling with a bicycle, one must always consider how best to transport said bicycle. When traveling within the United States, transporting a bike via an airplane is often far more expensive than shipping a bike. If you fly, airlines often charge $150 each way to transport the bike. Shipping a bike, such as with Amtrak Express or BikeFlights, often costs half that amount.

When traveling internationally, however, shipping costs are prohibitively expensive. As such, Shirley, my Surly Long Haul Trucker, flew in an airplane on our recent trip to and from South America. On the way down to Ushuaia, Shirley was enveloped in a frumpy cardboard bicycle box ("The Cardboard Method"). But on the way home, she was dressed to the nines in a revealing, form-fitting plastic gown ("The Plastic Method").

On the left, Shirley is in her cardboard box on her way to South America.
On the right, Shirley is wrapped in plastic on her way home from South America.

Though I've transported Shirley before in a cardboard box using Amtrak Express, this was my first time transporting her in the belly of a plane.

Delta, our airline of choice, has baggage policies specifically for bicycles. Delta's baggage policy states that bicycles must be packaged in a container. It also specifies that the handlebars must be fixed sideways and the pedals must be removed. As long as the dimensions of the bicycle container do not exceed 115 linear inches, and as long as the weight of the container is less than 70 pounds, then the baggage fee is $150. (Extra fees may apply if the linear dimensions or weight thresholds are exceeded.)

Easy peasy. (Gracias, El Mecánico, for your bicycle packaging services.) Packaging a bicycle in a box is convenient when you have easy access to a bicycle box as well as easy access to a vehicle to transport the bicycle box to the airport. For our trip to South America, Brian was able to easily acquire bicycle boxes from his local bike shop, and we were fortunate to have a friend drive us to the airport using his large van.

But, on the way back from South America, things weren't so easy. For one, bicycle boxes (and bicycles shops, for that matter) were hard to come by in Valparaíso. And even if we had been able to easily acquire a bike box, getting that bike box (let alone two bike boxes -- one for Brian and one for me) to the airport in Santiago would have been quite a Herculean task. It was quite a complicated affair to get from our AirBnB in Valparaíso to the airport in Santiago. We needed to walk from our AirBnB to the local bus station, take a bus from Valparaíso to the Pajaritos station in Santiago, and then cycle the final 12 km from the bus station to the airport.

Given all of this, how were we going to package our bicycles for the flight home? We needed an option that didn't involve a large cardboard box. I had heard of people wrapping their bicycles in plastic, but I had never tried it before. Given our circumstances, this seemed a heck of a lot easier than dealing with cumbersome cardboard boxes. And so we decided that our trip home from South America was as good of an opportunity as any to test out The Plastic Method. After all, if the bicycle were to be damaged in transport, we'd far rather have the damage occur at the end of the trip than at the beginning.

Once we decided on The Plastic Method, we measured our bicycles to get an idea of how much wrapping material we'd need. We then set out to find the following materials:
  • 2 mil plastic sheeting (for each bicycle, we used tubular plastic sheeting that was 2.5 meters long and 1.5 meters wide)
  • One 6-ft section of 1" pipe insulation wrap (for each bicycle)
  • One 6-ft section of 3/4" pipe insulation wrap (for each bicycle)
  • One roll of duct tape
  • One roll of clear packing tape
  • One package of 11" inch zip ties
  • Plastic fork spacers 
  • A cardboard box

Once we acquired the materials, we prepped as much of the packaging as we could in advance. This involved taping one end of the tubular plastic sheeting so as to create an envelope, of sort, for each bicycle. That way, once we arrived at the airport and adequately dismantled and protected our bikes, all we needed to do was slide our bicycles into the plastic envelopes and seal the envelopes. In addition, we pre-cut sections of the cardboard for protecting the drive train and crank arms, and we pre-cut sections of the pipe insulation for protecting the bike tubes, forks, stays, and stems.

The array of pre-cut pipe insulation wrap.

So that we could easily match each pre-cut piece of pipe wrap to its intended location on the bicycle, we labeled each piece of pipe wrap.

Each piece of pipe wrap is labeled.

On the day we were to fly home, we packed our packaging supplies in our panniers and then walked, bussed, and cycled to the airport.

When we arrived at the airport, we dismantled the bikes, placed the pieces of pipe wrap around the appropriate sections of the bike, secured each pipe wrap with packing tape, affixed the cardboard to the drive trains using zip ties, put plastic spacers in the forks, removed the front racks and lashed them to the rear racks, moved both fenders to the back wheel, deflated the tires, and attached the front wheels to the frames using toe straps. We also removed the rear derailleurs (which we carried separately in our luggage). I removed my saddle, though El Mecánico left his on his bike. Lastly, we taped our contact information to the stem of the bicycles -- just in case.

Here is the non-drive side of Shirley, all jazzed up:

Shirley's non-drive side.

And here is Shirley's drive side:

Shirley's better looking side.

This is the drive train, wrapped in cardboard:

The drive train.

When we were satisfied that we had adequately protected our bicycles, we then slid the bikes into their respective plastic bags and folded over the loose corners of the bags. We wrapped the bags with packaging tape, and then circled the entire package a few times with duct tape to really secure the wrapping. We placed extra duct tape on the "rub points" -- particularly around the rear rack.

Shirley is all wrapped up and good to go!

"Sure, Shirley looks all nice'n'tidy," you say, "but how did everything play out with the airlines using The Plastic Method?"

Well, we got a little bit of push back at the Delta counter when we checked our baggage; the agent told us that the bikes needed to be boxed. I confidently told the agent that we had packaged our bicycles in a similar manner on our flight to South America and had no problems with the bikes. (A little white lie never hurt anyone -- especially an airline ticketing agent.) The agent bought it. That was easy.

I had a screenshot of Delta's baggage policy, as shown below, on my iPad. The highlighted section reads: "Your bike must be packaged in a container (cardboard, canvas, hard shell, etc.)." I interpret the "etc" in this policy to both include and not exclude plastic. In case it was needed, I would have pointed to the baggage policy and argued my case.

Delta's baggage policy for bicycles.

We were also prepared to offer to sign a waiver assuming all liability for the bicycles, but fortunately we didn't need to play that card either.

So, despite a wee bit of easily manageable pushback, all went well with checking in the bikes.

When we arrived in Atlanta (within the United States, though not at our final destination), we needed to carry our bicycles through customs. We gave a quick look-over of the bikes before passing the bikes back to Delta. The first leg of our trip showed no damage to the bicycles! The TSA agent opened the packaging to inspect the bikes before accepting the baggage for the second and final leg of our trip. The TSA agent made a minor slit in the plastic and adequately retaped the packaging.

When we arrived in Portland, at our final destination, we found our bicycles circling the baggage conveyer belt. We once again gave the bicycles a thorough look-over, and everything looked fine.

I did notice a few new extremely minor scratches on Shirley's rear rack. For what it's worth, Shirley got way more banged up during our ride in Patagonia than she did on her little plane adventure. Thank goodness both Shirley and I don't mind adventure scars. (See Great Weekends are Memorialized By The Knees.) She and I both love this quote from Hunter S. Thompson:
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!"
All and all, Brian and I were thrilled at how well The Plastic Method worked. Though The Cardboard Method allowed us to package a few extra items in our bike boxes (such as our panniers), we're confident that the bicycles were likely better treated by Delta using The Plastic Method.

The next time I fly with Shirley, I'll be wrapping her in a plastic gown once again. If I wish to be super-anal, I might put a thicker layer of duct tape along Shirley's rub points. Then again, it's kinda fun to point to a paint scratch on Shirley and say, "Shirley got this scar on her plane ride from South America."


  1. That was so interesting, Sarah. I'm sure your experience will help others with their travel ideas and dilemmas!

    1. Thanks, MaryJo. It's great to hear from you!

      In case traveling with bicycles isn't your thing, it is, nonetheless, en vogue (at least in South America) to wrap your baggage in plastic. We saw these ginormous saran-wrap-like machines at the airports. For a modest fee, travelers could have their suitcases wrapped in plastic. I'm not sure TSA is hot on this idea, but I suppose it *might* add a layer of protection to one's luggage.

    2. Returning from New Zealand with bike and no bike box -- we wrapped the prepped bike in small bubble wrap - instead of a 'plastic bag'. Then at the airport we had it wrapped by the saran-wrap guy. No problem and 2 flights later the bike arrived with us in Detroit without a hitch.

    3. Glad to hear the plastic wrap worked for you, too! Plastic is so much easier than a bike box!

  2. This was very cool! I have yet to fly with mine, I've always driven. But there could come a time.....

    1. Well, if nothing else, I suppose you could always wrap your bicycle in plastic for a halloween costume or something. Your bike could be disguised as "bicycle baggage."

  3. Excellent post! That is some great information that is not easily found (Well,.... I couldn't easily find it when I needed it....).

    1. ¡Gracias, Señor! I figured that at least one of my cycling friends would benefit from this info. Happy travels to you and your two-wheeled friend!

  4. These are great instructions. Will save for future use!

    1. Thanks, Susan. I hope they come in handy at some point in time. :)

  5. Hello,pleased to read out your informative post regarding flying with bike.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. Thanks for the post really.

    1. Thank you for your note, Alexas. Happy travels!

  6. This was an excellent post. Very informative. Thank you.

  7. Thank you for your comprehensive and thorough blog. Very informative and really appreciated.


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