Whatever route you choose to cycle around the world there are the inevitable flights that you have to take to cross the vast swathes of the planet that are ocean. Travelling by plane is normally not an issue as you can often carry your bike as part of your checked luggage allowance.
Which airline to choose?
Regardless of how often you fly with a bike there is always the odd time that you get caught out by not checking the fine print before arriving at the airport. Last summer, I had entered an Ironman race in Frankfurt, but a couple of days before the race I had to withdraw due to illness. So as not to have wasted all those hard hours of training I entered another Ironman race the following month.
However, I was already booked to fly from Frankfurt to the USA for a few weeks holiday, and this meant that I would need to now train whilst in the states and so I had to take my bike with me instead of leaving it at the hotel to collect upon our return.
Flying with the bike was not too much of a problem as I had flown into Frankfurt with it and so it was already packed. I confirmed with the airline that I would be able to fly my bike to the States as part of my checked luggage and off we went to New York with no issue. We then spent a few days in the Big Apple and flew onto Miami to visit the Everglades and Florida Keys. Again, I confirmed with the airline that I could fly with my bike.
We arrived at the airport to check in for the Miami flight only to be told that there was a £60 fee per leg for the bike as it was in excess of the dimensions that they allowed. What they failed to mention when I had telephoned to check, and I failed to ask about, was that the bikes that they allowed to fly for free were in fact folding bikes and not ‘full sized bikes’. Another expensive lesson learned.
If you are flying with a bike in Europe then the budget airline Ryanair is not always the bargain it first appears as it charges separately for bicycles and does not include them in any checked luggage allowance. The current price charged by Ryanair is £50 per leg to fly with a bicycle. This is not too extortionate but the cost really starts to add up when you then factor in the need to purchase additional luggage allowance for the rest of your kit.
This can turn that bargain £30 return flight into an expensive £150 when you add in all of the bike fees and luggage fees, making budget airlines not such a good choice for cyclists. I think the important message in all of this is that you need to always check the details before flying with a bike as those bargain flights are not always the cheapest option.
Packing your bike for flying
In the 1990’s, when I first cycled in Asia flying with a bike was very straightforward – all you had to do was cycle to the airport, turn the handle bars parallel to the top tube when you got there and let the tyres down. (even though it is a myth that your tyres will explode) Today, the situation is slightly different as nearly all airlines want you to ‘box’ the bike prior to check in.
When I fly to events with my race bikes I like to seal them in a hard shelled bike box for protection as they all have carbon frames. For some reason, a bike box to a baggage handler seems to have the same effect as a red flag has on a bull. At the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, the restaurant area overlooks the main apron where the planes park. I have been sat there and seen baggage handlers literally lift my bike off the loading cart and launch it from over their heads onto the conveyor belt which loads it into the plane. When I later complained at the gate the airline said that there was nothing they could do as the baggage handlers were employed by the airport and not directly by the airline.
Travelling with a bike box is not a problem if you intend to fly out of the airport that you flew into as you can always find somebody to look after it for a few weeks. One time, when my wife and I flew into Lombok in Indonesia, I had my Tri bike with me as I had just completed a triathlon in Malaysia. We were planning on island hopping whilst there and so it was not practical to cart the bike around with me.
When we landed in Lombok, I planned to leave my bike in left luggage for a couple of weeks. However, when we arrived there was no left luggage service of any description. Following a discussion with the airport staff they told me to speak to the police. I did so, and it turned out that the commander of the airport police was himself a cyclist, and so we packed the bike into the back of a car and drove to the police station. The commander was not there but the officers on duty were more than happy to look after my bike free of charge for a couple of weeks.
When cycling directly to the airport, the normal solution for the cyclist is to scavenge cardboard boxes to make a ‘patchwork’ bike box. Some airports, such as Auckland in New Zealand, do make the process easier by selling bike boxes, but it is more often a case of going around the shops to beg for boxes. A different solution to this issue is the CTC bike bag:
You will need to once again check the small print for your carrier but airlines generally state that bikes can be transported ‘provided they are packed in a recognised bicycle bag’. The CTC bike bag can be purchased from many outlets, such as Wiggle, for around £12. The bag folds to 2.5 cm x 15cm x 30cm, so once you get off at the other end you can store it in your panniers, or even secure it under your rear rack, ready for the next airport adventure.
Comments after finishing the bike ride
On the road I had to take a total of 7 different flights (13 if you add in connections!!) and each time I just wrapped my bike in cling film and I never had a problem with any airline accepting the bike.
The only issue I had was at Dubai Airport where they changed their flying rules in March 2017. Now, all luggage has to have at least 1 flat side and be a symmetrical shape. If not, then you need to box the luggage.
However, when I showed the duty manager my website to prove that I was travelling around the world rather than going on holiday they accepted the bike wrapped in plastic.
One question that you need to ask yourself before committing to this option is – will my bike survive the journey unscathed in a plastic bag? Now nothing in life is guaranteed, but after reading online reviews the consensus among tour cyclists, who have used plastic, is that it really does appear that baggage handlers take more care of bikes if they can see what it is. So, instead of just throwing an ‘anonymous’ piece of luggage or stacking suitcases on top of it, the bike is handled with some degree of care.
Apart from the requirement of flying with bikes in a recognised bike bag each airline have their own rules about how much you need to dismantle the bike. Some airlines ask that you only need to remove the pedals and turn the handlebars whilst others may insist that you remove the wheels.
A few tips that I have learned from flying with my bike
- Stop at a mechanics as you cycle to the airport and ask them to loosen your pedals so that you do not need to carry a 15mm spanner with you. (many pedals can also be unscrewed using an Allen key)
- Remove the pedals and fix them ‘inwards’. This keeps them from getting lost or the threads damaged. (The left pedal comes off clockwise and goes on anti-clockwise and the right pedal comes off anti-clockwise and goes on clockwise)
- Leave the back wheel on if you can to protect the derailleur. If you need to remove the wheel, then also remove the rear dérailleur and hanger as one unit and secure them to the frame stay with tape (you need an Allen key to do this)
- Lower the seat (mark the seat post with a pen where it meets the frame before you do this so you know the correct height later)
- One of the main strengths of a frame is that the wheel axles hold the forks and rear frame triangle in tension. When the wheels are removed there is a remote chance that if some thing heavy were dropped on the bike then either the frame or forks could be bent. If you are told to remove the wheels then add a precut 10cm piece of plastic pipe between the front and rear drop outs to reinforce these areas.
- Take the handlebars off by removing the whole stem bracket and not just the handlebar. Then cable tie the handlebars parallel to your frame. (you will need to tighten the top nut back up on the stem otherwise the forks will drop out)
- If you have to remove only one wheel then remove the front wheel and secure it to the frame.
- To help protect your derailleur, stick the airline flight label on the right hand side of the so that your derailleur is always ‘up’ when on conveyor belts etc.
- If using a cardboard bike box, be sure to tape up any handles as well as the top of the box. It’s common for the handles on cardboard bike boxes to tear when staff lift up the bike, particularly if the box is quite heavy.
- When flying with a cardboard box or CTC bag add an information label with your flight number and destination to the frame of the bike on the off chance that the wrapping gets completely torn off the bike during transit.
- If using a cardboard box/plastic then don’t add any loose items just in case the wrapping gets torn off. Put these in with your other checked luggage.
- And finally – to protect your panniers during the flight also wrap them together in plastic. This is especially useful if you are only allowed to check in 1 bag.
The other consideration when planning to fly with a bike is the luggage allowance. As I highlighted earlier, the cheapest flight is not always the cheapest option and this is especially true when you factor in the price that you will have to pay to fly your bike and equipment. For my round the world cycle, the bike and racks weigh in at 19kg and the luggage a further 20 kg. Deduct the normal carry on hand baggage allowance and this means that I will need around 30kg of checked luggage allowance per flight.
The good news for cyclists is that there are a number of ‘budget’ airlines which have very reasonable additional luggage charges. For an overview of baggage allowances and the costs for sports equipment I use SeatGuru as the start point to compare airlines when there is more than one choice on a route. Click on the link – SeatGuru and in the search box on the page type the name of the airline and sports equipment. This will then give you an overview of associated baggage allowances and applicable fees.
For my year on the bike I needed to take 7 flights – Indonesia to New Zealand, New Zealand to Argentina, Argentina to Bolivia, Chile to Turkey, Turkey to Oman, United Arab Emirates to Bulgaria and finally a flight back to the UK. The table below shows the total cost for each flight plus how much I had to pay for the bike.
|Airline||From / to||Price||Luggage Allowance||Luggage Fees||Total Cost|
|Jetstar||Bali, Indonesia to Queenstown, New Zealand||£220||none||£60 for 40kg|
No bike fee.
|Air New Zealand||Auckland, New Zealand to Buenas Aires, Argentina||£200||23kg||No fee as total weight was within baggage allowance.||£200|
|Aerolíneas Argentinas||Buenos Aires, Argentina to La Paz, Bolivia||£100||2 x 32kg||No fee as total weight was within baggage allowance.||£100|
|Copa Airways +Turkish Airways||Santiago, Chile to Istanbul, Turkey (via Panama City)||£300||2 x 32kg ||£50 for bike (but waived fee due to initially being overcharged at checking)||£300|
|Gulf Air||Istanbul, Turkey to Muscat, Oman||£120||32kg||No fee as total weight was within baggage allowance.||£120|
|Wizz Air||Dubai, U.A.E to Bucharest, Romania||£100||32kg||£20 for bike||£120|
Again, be careful to check the cost of flying the bike before purchasing a ticket. Earlier, I mentioned Ryan Air and said to be careful of the price that they charge for the flight once you add on the bike and luggage fees. Ironically though, when I was checking the price of flights from Chile to the Turkey the cheapest flight charged a barmy £100 per leg for the bike – Royal Air Maroc. So it definitely pays to check on the total price before choosing an airline.
For a complete breakdown of the myriad of additional expenses that you may incur if you set about planning your own cycling adventure click on the following links or use the ‘Costs’ tab at the top of the page:
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