As a cyclist or triathlete, chances are that you have to travel for your races. If you’re a business or frequent traveler, getting a workout in remote places may be challenging and you prefer to bring your bike with you. I’ve done both and though the task of traveling with a bike can appear daunting, a few tips will make it much easier and possibly save you financially as well.
I’ve used two main packing boxes in the past. The first one I used is the Thule 699 bike case and I thouroughly enjoyed it. The case is sturdy and easy to use and carry with the help of the wheels on the case. These wheels help alleviate the weight of the case itself. There is complete peace of mind using this bike case that your bike will be safe and arrive without problem to its destination. Over time, I discovered to potential drawbacks to this case however (these problems are not specific to the Thule box but to bike cases in general):
- The first is that there is no way to avoid bike fees with this case. The case is a well recognized case by most ticketing agents and they will spot it a mile away thereby requiring you to pay whatever bike fee the airline company will charge you.
- The second is its size. It is a bit bulky and likely won’t fit into a regular trunk. As such, getting to and from the airport may be a challenge with this bike case depending on the car you have. This can be a particular problem if you travel outside the United States where cars and taxicabs aren’t necessarily equipped to take on such a large case.
As I started travelling more often, those airline fees and transportation of the bike case issue became a real problem. After much research, I found the best kept secret in the bicycle packing industry. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one frustrated with bike handling fees and that one man had decided to build a case specifically to avoid these fees by making a light and soft case yet strong enough to prevent damage to your bike. Pika Packworks is a discrete company (as you can tell by their bare website) managed by one person named Mark who won’t spend much time with you on the phone other than to get your credit card number. But as it turns out, the cases he makes sell themselves and I doubt that he’ll ever need to spend a penny on marketing or advertising. It appears that his customers include top pro cyclists around the world. When I contacted him for my own, he had several weeks worth of backlog and I must admit the experience of giving my credit card number to a person without a website who appeared to filter his phone calls for a product which wasn’t exactly mainstream was a bit unnerving. The result however was a soft yet sturdy case weighing at under 10 lbs and unmarked allowing me to skip every airline fees thereafter – the case paid for itself in two trips. To top it off, it fits in the trunk of my Audi and was able to fit in Taxis in Europe provided their put one of their rear seats down. Though at around $350 it may be an expensive item, the protection of your bike and the savings on airline fees (more on that later) makes the purchase a no brainer if you plan on traveling a few times.
Now another option for those who would prefer not to invest in bike cases would be to use regular cardboard boxes. Most cycling stores will give them to you for free so the cost will definitely be minimal. There are two main challenges that I see with this approach. To start, it’s a cardboard box and I’m not sure that I trust a cardboard box to keep my expensive bike protected in the hands of baggage handlers at airports. We’ve all had horror stories about our regular bags, let alone about a device that is often worth several thousands of dollars. The second important thing to remember is that even though you will put the best of efforts in packing your box properly, TSA agents will open your box and inspect it manually. Since large boxes and bags cannot go through X-Ray machines, they will be inspected manually. Unfortunately, TSA agents – though full of great intentions I’m sure – won’t put back your bike in the way you carefully prepared it. This problem will often be compounded by the fact that the bike won’t always fit exactly to the cardboard box you plan to use leaving the inspectors no choice but to jam the bike back in there…not something I really want to even think about.
Packing the bike
Now that we’ve talked about bike cases, there are a few tips to packing your bike which can both increase the odds of your bike getting there safely as well make sure you have everything you need to put it back together later.
- Foam: Putting some foam around the major components of your bike will help protect it. Any bike store will be glad to get rid of their old foam if you ask them. I put some foam around each of the major tubes of the bike including the fork as well as the crank arms and the handlebars. There is usually no need to tape these pieces of foam as they all come in different sizes. If you grab a sufficient variety from the store there will be a piece for each of your component.
- Tools: It’s happened to me to get to my location only to find out that I forgot one of the major tools to put it back together. As a way to remember all those tools, I make sure that I pack everything in a segregated area. Once everything is packed, any tool or spare part in that area goes in the box – I don’t even ask myself whether I need it. That way there is no question whether you need it for later or not. Remember as well that in some cases you may not need a certain tool to put the bike together but you will need it to break it down for the return trip. I’m thinking specifically about pedals wrenches.
- Bike pump: Always bring a bike pump with you! For traveling I’ve purchased a small pump just in case there isn’t one at my destination. While it’s difficult to pump a bike with a small pump at times it’s better than nothing. I’ve shown up in locations that didn’t have bike pumps or at races where the line was simply too long to use before the event. Even if you are like me and you rely on CO2 cartridges, those run out quickly.
- CO2 Cartridge: Speaking of those, do not pack them with you bike. Since TSA will make a manual inspection of your bike, they will always find those little things and remove them from your bike case. You’re better off to leave a $5 tip for TSA than to leave a CO2 cartridge. However – if you pack your CO2 cartridge in a regular checked baggage or even a bag that you take with you in security, invariably it will make it through without a problem. So take your cartridge with you, not with your bike.
- Wheel side. One problem I faced the first time I travelled with my bike is which way to put my wheels back on. You see, once you’ve removed the skewers, it’s not always evident how to put the wheel back on. An easy trick taught by a friend of mine at ATP Endurance System is that when you look down on the wheel, you should see the sticker on the wheel hub facing you. Alternatively, most tires will have a rotation arrow but that assumes that you installed them facing the correct way to begin with.
- Spare parts & equipment: Don’t forget your equipment of course. I tend to try to put most of the important parts in the bike carrying case itself. Helmet, shoes, gloves, shorts, jersey, glasses, water bottles, bike computer in the case itself. I like to have everything in one spot and it prevents frustrations later as in cases I had forgotten to pack something in my suitcase thinking it was in the case or vice-versa.
Traveling by Air (and avoiding Airline Fees)
Now that’s we have a case and we’ve packed our bike, it’s time to head to the airport. Just like with any oversized bags you will likely be asked to check into a specific kiosk along with the owners of golf bags, kayaks, and other similar type of travelers. With the pika packworks bag I actually try to check in with the normal bags. This raises fewer suspicions about what’s in in and the bag is technically legal from both a weight and size perspective. Once at the counter, the key is to avoid mentioning the word Bike, Bicycle, etc… Invariably, the agent asks me what’s in it. ”Sports equipment”, “running gear”, “athletic material” are all acceptable answers. If you have to, you can say “bicycle parts”, but never, ever, ever admit to having a bike in that box. That will guarantee you to pay an extra fee (yes, even if you bag is within acceptable dimension and weight standards).
The fees themselves depend on the airlines and at times can depend on whether you travel regionally (intra-US) or internationally. I’d recommend checking your carrier’s policy. I fly United Airlines and love them and I’ve been able to escape the extra fees with my bike bag. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a frequent flyer and as such I get a second luggage checked in for free. Most airlines these days only let you check in one bag for free unless you’re on their frequent flyer program.
To set expectations clearly, once your “oversized” bag has a sticker on it, in many cases they will set it aside for separate pick up as the bag can’t make it through the regular conveyor belt system (technically the pika packworks can, I’ve tried). This is the same for pick up by the way. If you purchase the same case as I, you may see it come out through the regular system or via the “odd size” pickup areas. In the cases of hard cases, you’re sure not to see it along with the other bags but in the separate pick up area at each airport.
Other Transport Methods
There are of course other transport methods available. Cars, boats and biking itself are perfectly fine but one option often overlooked are shipping companies.
Many races have partnerships with bike shipping companies and these can have great value. For the Chicago Triathlon I used TriBike Transport and was extremely pleased with the experience. I dropped off my bike at my local tri store (Tribonzai) and TriBike Transport picked it up a few days before and it was there two days before the race. Of course, the positives are that you don’t have to worry about travelling with your bike or whether it’ll be damaged. In addition to that, most of these companies offer a little extra in terms of mechanical support. When I picked up my bike, the staff was incredibly nice and made sure the bike was pumped and greased and they had the tools necessary to put back my bottle holders. This service pretty much paid for itself considering there was no stress, no airline fees and they were right outside the finish line to take my bike and a gear bag away from me. I can’t speak highly enough about the folks at TriBike Transport.
Of course traveling by car is a no brainer. I’ve been very satisfied with Thule bike racks both hitch-mounted and rear mounted. I have both to fit my Nissan Armada my Audi and I’m quite satisfied with them.
Regardless of your mode of transportation or reason for traveling, I hope you will bring your bike on your next trip. It may allow you to see places and things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. Save travels!