Monday, June 20, 2016

Air travel with a bicycle - To box or not to box.



Loading bikes at Málaga Airport
Pic - We are Cycling UK



If Shakesphere was riding a foldy, his words may very well be, "To box or not to box, that is the question"...

I have been asked many times what is the "best" way of travelling with a bicycle or foldy on a flight. Do we box it, put it in suitcase (if it fits) or just use a stuffed soft bag and hope for the best? It really isn't that simple to answer as we have to balance many factors such as bike protection, investment cost in a hard case, flight check in limit, whether your start and end point is the same and even what type of bike you are transporting.

Let us start with what type of bicycle you are seeking to transport. A full size bicycle is usually best transported in a box. It offers very good protection and that is why factories deliver their un-assembled bicycles this way. Very easy to box - remove pedals, front wheel and loosen the handlebar stem so that it can fit nicely in.  The plastic fork protector that keeps the fork from being crushed in is also highly recommended. Make sure too that the Rear Derailleur is shifted to the biggest cog and thus away from the frame. For best way of avoiding a bent RD, remove it and bubble wrap it, then tape it inside of frame. Foldies can of course also travel like this and can usually be put straight into the box unfolded. Pedals, handlebar and maybe front wheel needs to be removed/adjusted. Being a foldy, there will be lots of room in the box for panniers, helmet etc.


The disadvantages of boxing are of course, acquiring the bike box which is easy in big cities but not so easy in a remote city/town overseas. Transporting the huge box can also be a challenge as not all cars/taxis can fit them in and transporting the box in MRT/subways is a near impossibility. Then there is the weight of the box (3-4kg) which can cut significantly into your 20kg weight allowance.

I believe this is the most popular option of air travel with bicycles and my guess is 90% of people travel this way.  Best to opt for 25kg check in allowance to be safe here as they usually sneak past 20kg with bits thrown in.

For foldies, travelling in a hard case is my preferred option. They travel like regular luggage, no questions asked, easy to fit into the boot of cars, wheeled into trains/MRT etc. They won't ask if your tires have been deflated! They also offer excellent protection and I have had zero damage to my bikes in over 10 years of travel this way. Bike Fridays for example are made to be fit into regular 29" Samsonites and they fly stealth.

This is an advantage especially when flying airlines like Air Asia who still charge the silly "Sports Equipment" fee. Bromptons too have their own unique travel case (or Lojel used to make one that fits the Brompton) and I use this as well. Not all but some Dahons/Terns can fit into Samsonites - their challenge is the headset fold which is quite complicated to remove.


For full size bikes and especially roadies, they have full size hard case available but this is also not cheap. The professional competitors seem to travel like this.

The disadvantages for using a hard case are firstly the cost. A Samsonite 29" can cost close to US$300 and the original Brompton made in England hardcase is priced around there too. Then, they are also quite heavy - weighing from 5-8kg! So unless you have a generous check in allowance, this can be a non-starter. Fortunately full service airlines like SQ etc now offer 30kg. Some foldies like Bike Fridays and Dahons/Terns require more work dis-assembling and that can put some less technical people off. A Brompton on the other hand is dead easy, just remove seat post and chuck it in. Lastly, travelling with a hard case is only ideal if your starting and ending destination is the same. For most of my tours when I start at one place and fly off at another, we usually box them.

Another way of transporting foldies is to use soft zipper foldy bags that hide the folded package. They are fantastic in shielding the foldie from unwelcome questions from train conductors etc and keep the interiors of cars/vans clean. They also weigh next to nothing! They are also cheap to buy, ranging from $30-80 only. However to fly with them, they need to be extensively strengthen with cardboard inside for protection. Even then, care must be made to make sure all bits are properly protected with bubble wrap and packing materials. When unused, these bags can be packed into a small package too, able to carry it along on tour with the bicycle. When flying off, cardboard can be found easily anywhere for the "necessary stuffing".  The main disadvantage I have experienced is that the protection it offers is good but not excellent. I have had bent and damage bits happened travelling this way unlike a hard case or even a proper box so proper and precise packing is key.

Vicinti semi soft bike bag - Pic Berenda

The last option is something that is relatively new and introduced to me by Mike Khor of Wheelosopher and a method that my buddy George Kee normally uses. This is to cling wrap the whole bike like how you would wrap a piece of roast beef.


The theory is because they see it is a bicycle, those handling it will hopefully not throw it around and extend to it some carrying courtesy. Those who use it seem to be have positive feedback. "We are Cycling" UK quotes...

When bikes fly naked, they paradoxically seem to suffer no more damage than when they go covered – usually less. We guess that’s because baggage handlers really are human, and don’t deliberately kick in the wheels etc! But a bike in a bag or box is just a package: that can be dropped, thrown, shoved and kicked into place just like any other bag or box. 

The cost advantage of this is of course its cheap, it adds no additional weight to your bike when transporting and truly, when people know its a bicycle, they actually do handle it with more caution. But the risk is always there if your precious bike meet with some crazy handler who had a bad day. Cling wrap protects your bike like a Christmas wrapper against a hacksaw! So if you are one of those who don't mind a scratch or two and willing to take a calculated risk, this could be a great option worth considering.


This is by no means the complete story of the end all and be all to bicycle packing and I would certainly welcome you to share your stories and experiences with us. We are after all, a learning community. I would love to hear your answer to the question, "To box or not to box?" How do you pack your bike?

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