As we are spending a year bike touring, we will have flown with our bikes as baggage six times, which means we would have set them up and broken them down twelve times as follows:
Sydney to Amsterdam
Rome to Luton
Madrid to Singapore
Bangkok to Singapore
Singapore to Fukuoka
Tokyo to Sydney
We have read horror stories of derailleurs getting smashed, boxes being dragged open, wheels getting bent. This hasn’t happened to us but knock on wood. To date we have flown Emirates (carry-on plus 30kg baggage allowance included) and EasyJet (carry-on only, extra baggage allowance charges). Below is how we pack our bikes ready to fly. To unpack at the destination is just the same in the opposite order. Some airlines do accept bikes in plastic bags, but to minimise issues at check-in we’ve stuck with cardboard boxes.
First we need packing material. Bike shops usually have a few cardboard bike boxes lying by the bins, you just need to turn up before the garbage gets collected. Depending on your luck this could take a morning of visiting bike shops or just a few minutes. In Rome, a bike shop promised they would have boxes available for the day of our departure flight. They didn’t. Which led to a panicked ride across town to another shop, staring longingly through the gates until they finally opened at 10.30am. Italians don’t rush. But they did save the day with a whole mountain of boxes awaiting recycling. In Madrid we readied ourselves to a morning of hunting, pinning three shops to our map for starters. Our first store was conveniently down our street, and the exchange went like this:
“Dos carton, por favor?”
And two minutes later we were done! It’s just the luck of the draw. If they’re nice now’s a good time to ask for extra cardboard, for padding. While the boxes have always been free, we have usually been buying something anyway, like brake pads, bar tape etc. Otherwise heaps of other stores or even recycling bins will have normal cardboard boxes. You could even frankenstein a bigger box out of a bunch of smaller ones. It’s also good to drop into a hardware store, for packing tape, and a dollar store, for permanent markers or nylon shopping bags. Then all we do is walk them back to the guesthouse. Annoying your partner is optional.
On the day of departure we flatten the boxes, stomp them into thirds and fix them to the top of our panniers with occy straps. It’s good to scrub down your bikes, getting rid of mud, dust and general gunk. Depending on the country you might have to stringently clean every crevasse and joints of both bikes, panniers, even shoes. We’ll have to do this for Sydney as Australian customs laws are mighty strict. Then we ride out. Arriving early to the airport is key.
At the airport we find a quiet spot to break down our gear. On our first go this took over two hours, by now we have both bikes done, taped up and everything bagged in under an hour. In Amsterdam this was under an escalator, in Rome the outside courtyard, in Madrid inside next to some closed shops, Luton by the arrival gate. Granted the last one was at 1am in the morning.
If they’re nearby its polite to ask a security officer or cleaner where to put your rubbish and to be neat and courteous with your gear.
Most airlines state you need to:
Deflate the tyres
Remove the pedals
Turn the handlebars
Release the chain to drape over the smallest cogs
Pad the derailleur with cardboard
Remove the front wheel
Pad the front forks with cardboard
Lower the seat to the frame or off completely
We fill up spaces with helmets, camping gear, tent, and tools but try not to put any pressure on bits like the spokes. Our handle bar bags and panniers get put into nylon shopping bags so everything stays together. We try to group things into plastic bags and tie them to the frame, pedals etc, so if the box does rip open there will be less chance of losing things. Then tape, lots and lots of tape, circled length-wise and width-wise.
Ending up with two bike boxes, two nylon shopping bags and two panniers to use for carry-on. Boxed up the bikes weigh about 18kg each, giving the total weight for all our checked gear at just under 60kgs, plus carry-on.
A trolley is a necessity, we don’t wheel it through the zig zag maze at check-in, rather I stand in line and Cleave stands by the side with the trolley until they’re ready to weigh them. The boxes and nylon shopping bags are checked in and all we’re left with is two panniers for carry-on.
A couple of movies, snoozes and bad airplane meals later we pick the boxes up from Oversize, or Odd-size here in Singapore, ready for the next country!