Packing a Bicycle for Air Travel

Update, December 2014: For the last two years I have used a soft case from Pika Packworks. It seems to protect the bike at least as well as a rigid case, but it is far lighter and more compact, to the point that on several occasions I have not been charged a bicycle fee by the airlines. It is now my bike transport method of choice, except in situations when the bike ride is point-to-point (in which ase the large plastic bag method still wins).

A friend asked me how to pack a bicycle for air travel. There are many ways, and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Rigid plastic cases offer the most protection, but they are expensive, don't fit large frames (anything over 62cm is trouble), and essentially force a loop itinerary, since they cannot be shipped easily. Furthermore, they are heavy to lug around on public transport.

Cardboard boxes are the most common choice. They can be had for about $10 at bike shops or from international airline counters, so if your itinerary is not a loop, you can discard your box upon arrival and find a new one at the final departure point. (Though that generates a lot of trash, of course.) But cardboard boxes are still heavy to lug around, and they provide poor bicycle protection. They aren't rigid or well-padded, but luggage handlers throw them around as if they were.

A large plastic bag is an unconventional but effective option. It costs next to nothing and can actually be carried on the bike, placing no constraints on one's itinerary. Surprisingly, it protects the bicycle reasonably well: luggage handlers see that the item is a bicycle, and appear not to throw it around as much.

I first learned about the plastic bag technique from Jobst Brandt's legendary Alpine travelogues. He writes:

My suitcase also contained my bicycle saddlebag with [...] the cranks, QR skewers, chain, and rear derailleur together with tools necessary for assembly. The bicycle, partly dismantled, had its forks turned backwards with the fork tips toward the rear, the wheels strapped to either side of the frame and the bars rotated and hooked up through the wheels. Spreader bolts (5/16 x 16 thread) were used to protect the front and rear dropouts from being bent. I inflated the tires hard with my floor pump [...] I covered the bicycle with a clear plastic bag and taped it shut.

After more than a decade of bike travel, I have evolved my own variation on Jobst's techniques. In a nutshell, I don't dismantle the bike quite as much, but I pad the tubes to prevent dings and scratches.

Packing materials required:

All this stuff can be squeezed into a medium-size saddle bag, and it fits into a messenger-style shoulder bag with room to spare.

The procedure:

  1. Remove lights, bike computer, and any other fragile accessories. If a light is difficult to detach completely (for example, the wiring is connected to a generator), simply remove it from its mount, cover it in bubble wrap, and tie or tape it loosely to the frame. This trick protects the light by giving it some play and reducing its exposure to impact.
  2. Remove the pedals. Optionally cover the chainrings in bubble wrap.
  3. Unbolt the rear derailleur from the derailleur hanger, slide it forward along the chain a little bit, and tape or tie it to the inside of the right chain stay.
  4. Loosen the stem and turn the handlebars sideways under the top tube.
  5. Cut the foam insulation to fit all the tubes of the frame: both fork blades, head tube, top tube, down tube, seat tube, and both chain and seat stays. Slide the insulation over the appropriate tubes and secure it with electrical tape.
  6. Wrap the entire bike in the plastic tarp, and use duct tape (stronger than electrical tape) to keep the tarp closed.

If you pre-cut all the insulation at home, you can fit everything in your saddlebag or pannier, cycle to the airport, and do the packing there. Both the tarp and the insulation are very durable and can be reused for many trips.

This technique has worked for me on American Airlines, Delta, British Airways, Aer Lingus, Alitalia, Lufthansa, and Air France, among others. Sometimes airline attendants will want you to remove the front wheel to reduce the size of the package. In that case, tie the front wheel to the side of the main triangle, and protect the front dropout with a spreader bolt. Personally, I always try to keep the front wheel on, since I've seen spreader bolts knocked out of the dropouts in transit.

Whatever packing method you choose, visit your airline's web site to check the latest rules regarding bicycle transport, and carry a printed copy of those regulations with you. Check-in attendants can be poorly informed and hostile to cyclists. Know your rights.