Bike Bag vs. Cardboard Box: Is a roller bike bag worth the money?

Here’s a post I never thought I’d write! Over the years I’ve stuffed my bikes into dozens of cardboard boxes while flying to and from bike trips. Boxes are (usually) free and can be found or improvised in nearly any corner of the world. When I was all about long-term budget bike travel, I never considered another option.

But things eventually change… I guess that’s life, right? These days I have less room in my calendar for multi-month trips that end in a different country from the one they started in. I’ve been scratching my bikepacking itch with shorter trips, more often flying into and out of the same airport.

Makeshift cardboard bike box sitting on the floor
You can usually find a cardboard bike box, but if you can’t, you can always make one! (Shown here heading home from a bike tour in Khartoum, Sudan)

Back in November while planning for just such a trip (Baja’s Cape Loop) I spotted an awesome deal on a Dakine Bike Roller Bag. After some reflection on my future bike-related goals, I snapped it up. It felt like a luxury for sure, but one that will hopefully support my adventure aspirations for many years to come.

How did it work out? Really well, actually! I have high standards for getting my money’s worth out of pricey gear, so I was not expecting to be convinced so quickly. Despite the two most glaring downsides — cost and the infeasibility of point-to-point routes — I already prefer my bike bag to cardboard boxes. Before I grow too accustomed to the luxury and (heaven forbid!) start taking it for granted, this post shares my impressions of the tradeoffs.

Side view of a bike packed inside a Dakine roller bag
Everything in its place inside my new bike bag
A cardboard bike box next to a Dakine bike roller bag at the airport
Side-by-side comparison of a bike box and bike bag on my recent bikepacking trip. Spoiler alert: I was glad to have the bag.

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Cardboard Bike Box Pros and Cons

Cardboard bike boxes are a great option for flying with your bike, and you could live an entire adventurous bike-ful lifetime without using anything else. They’re the mainstay of long-term bike travelers, budget-minded cyclists, and anyone who doesn’t travel with their bike often enough to want a dedicated bike bag sitting in their garage.

Top view of a bicycle packed inside an open cardboard box for air travel

Here are the main advantages:

  • Point-to-point friendly: If you’re flying out of a different city (or country, or continent) from where you started, it’s easy to leave your bike box behind and find another at your endpoint. This rarely works with bike bags, unless it’s a short route and you can arrange to have your bag shipped for a reasonable price.
  • Free or cheap: I’ve gotten almost all my bike boxes by asking local bike shops for their leftovers from the recycle pile. When that wasn’t an option I’ve built my own from cardboard scraps. The most I’ve ever paid for a cardboard bike box was $10.
  • No need to remove rear wheel if the box is big enough for your bike. This is convenient, especially since removing the rear wheel introduces more ways to rip through your box (reinforce below the chainring!) or damage your drivetrain.
  • Semi-rigid sides provide fairly good protection for the bike, though not in all cases (hard blows to the sides are a concern).
  • No need to store long-term: Bike boxes can be flattened for storage, but it can still be hard to find a spot for such a large expanse of flat cardboard. If you don’t travel with your bike often you can just recycle your used box and track down another when you need it.
  • Potentially less attractive to thieves? This is speculation, but a fancy-looking bike bag could possibly attract more trouble at the airport and is easier to open without detection (you should probably lock the zipper).

Related: Bikepacking Abroad: Common Questions Answered

Downsides to cardboard bike boxes:

  • Awkward to move through airport: Unless you’re really strong, you’ll probably need a luggage cart. It can be unwieldy to get a box through narrow doors and long zig-zag queues. If you’re traveling solo and have other luggage, doubly so.
  • Don’t last forever: I patch my boxes between trips, but often after 2 or 3 uses they are damaged enough that I retire them.
  • Can be ripped or punctured due to packing mistakes or rough handling, which can lead to bigger failures or small items falling out. (Tip: reinforce vulnerable spots with extra cardboard and tape!)
  • Inconsistent sizing: If you ride a big modern mountain bike, many standard bike boxes won’t fit it. E-bike boxes are a good option, but they can be inconveniently large. Each box is a unique packing puzzle and requires thought to position the bike and protect it from damage.
  • Tape needed. So much tape.
Woman pushes luggage cart with two bike boxes through an airport
Luggage carts are essential for getting bike boxes through the airport, but they make for a wide load and are sometimes hard to find.

Bike Bag Pros and Cons

So boxes work, but they do have drawbacks. Is a dedicated bike bag really enough of an improvement to be worth the cost? Here’s what I learned when I first tried a bike bag after years of using cardboard boxes.

Side view of bike packed inside roller bag
Despite the bag’s soft sides, my bike feels very secure once strapped into place with all this padding.

Advantages of soft-sided bike bags:

  • Wheels and handles: This one is BIG! I’m a small person, and I have sweated cumulative buckets over the years wrestling my bike boxes through busy airports and down rough sidewalks. Especially when traveling alone (no one else to watch the bike while you hunt for a luggage cart) a box can be a real hassle. My roller bag navigates airport queues more gracefully, fits through narrow doorways, and allows me to be totally self-sufficient when I travel solo with my bike.
  • Smaller size: Most bike bags require removing the rear wheel to fit the bike in a smaller space. This makes it easier to fit the bag inside an airport taxi and other tight spaces.
  • Consistency: My bike bag has designated compartments, straps, and pockets for all the pieces. It’s the same packing process every time, and everything has its place. This saves time and mental energy while packing, because I don’t need to solve the puzzle anew every time I use a different box.
  • Doesn’t wear out after a few trips: I patch and reuse my cardboard bike boxes, but after 2 or 3 trips they are often too ratty to trust again. My bike roller bag, hopefully, will not have this problem.
  • Brake rotors can stay on! At least in my case, bike boxes require me to remove my front brake rotor for safekeeping. My bike bag has specially designed wheel sleeves with foam padding around the rotors (up to 180mm size).
Closeup of bicycle wheel inside padded sleeve for bike bag
I hate removing brake rotors, so these wheel sleeves are a big win!
  • Potentially easier to store: Bike boxes can be broken down flat but still take up a lot of width. My bike bag rolls down to a third of its full size and can be stored vertically in a footprint of about 1.5 x 1.5′, which might be a better fit for some spaces.
  • Baggage handlers are more careful? This is speculation, but I’ve heard that airline baggage handlers are more likely to treat a bike bag carefully when it looks like expensive sports equipment instead of a ratty old cardboard box.
  • Easy to access even once packed. With a box, once you tape it up you don’t want to open it again. With a zipper bike bag you can add and remove items up until the very last minute.

Downsides of bike bags:

  • Infeasible for most point-to-point routes (though it is possible to ship a bike bag from start to finish in some cases, especially if it packs down small).
  • Expensive: My Dakine Bike Roller Bag is one of the more affordable options from a reputable brand, and it retails for $485. Not unreasonable if you plan to use it a lot, but still a sizeable chunk of change.
  • Usually need to remove the rear wheel, though I found this less annoying than I expected since my bag has a support block for the chain stays.
  • Soft sides may be less protective than a cardboard box, though I feel my bag is fairly safe. The frame is sandwiched between the two wheels in padded sleeves, and straps keep the bike solidly in place.
  • Heavier when empty, making it hard to clear airline weight limits with some bikes. My Dakine bag weighs 17 pounds empty, and even with just my bike (a rigid mountain bike) and a few bags it flirts with the common cutoff of 50 pounds. This makes it more likely that you’ll end up paying overweight fees on airlines without bike-friendly luggage policies.

Note that I’m talking about soft-sided bike bags here, not hard-sided cases. The pros and cons of a hard case are fairly intuitive: better protection than a bag at the expense of heavier weight, bulkier storage, and higher cost. For my needs a soft-sided bike bag was the best compromise.

My First Bike Roller Bag Experience

When my husband and I flew to Baja for the Cape Loop we did a side-by-side comparison: I used my new Dakine bike bag and he used a cardboard box we had sitting around from a prior trip. Here are my impressions of flying with my bike bag versus his bike box.

For context, we were both packing fully rigid 29er mountain bikes with wide tires (2.6″ and 2.8”) and carbon forks, in frame sizes small and medium. In other words, toward the larger and heavier end of the bike spectrum but could be worse.

Packing up: Initially my bike bag seemed complicated with all the pockets and sleeves, but I quickly figured out what went where. All the bits fit in their places and the finished product felt surprisingly solid with the bike sandwiched between both wheels and everything strapped into place. I finished packing before E did, and I definitely wasn’t jealous while watching him reinforce parts of his box with more cardboard and remove his brake rotors for safe transport.

At the airport, roller bag for the win! E had to pay for a luggage cart and struggled to wheel it through the checkin line. We had loaded up my bag with heavier stuff to keep his box from ripping, but I still had an easier time wheeling my bag through the airport. At the checkin counter they asked how heavy his box was and seemed worried that it didn’t have handles. My bag was even heavier, but no one cared. (We flew on Alaska, which doesn’t charge extra for bikes over 50 pounds. Both our bike containers were over 50lbs, and mine was closer to 60lbs).

At the airport in Cabo we had trouble finding our shuttle driver, leading to a frustrating misadventure down several blocks of rough sidewalk. Neither of us loved it, but my wheel bag worked far better. E tipped his box upright on the luggage cart so he could fit through narrow spaces, but it blocked his vision and the cart was unwieldy. He was a trooper but again, roller bag for the win!

We left our bike containers at the hotel in Cabo while we spent two weeks having a blast on the Cape Loop. My bike bag folded down to a third of its size and was a bit easier for them to store, but they had room for E’s box too. At the end of our trip we had to find a hardware store to buy more packing tape for his box, a minor inconvenience on our way into town.

Enjoying the sunshine in Baja while our bike bag and box wait for our return.

Packing up the bikes again was fairly straightforward for both of us. E had to repair a couple minor scuffs to his box from the trip out. When he wanted to add something after taping up his box, we easily slipped it into mine thanks to the convenience of zippers.

Our airport shuttle was a minivan, and it was helpful that my bike bag was a bit smaller than E’s box. It might have worked with two boxes, but it would have been tight. At the airport to fly home, I again loved that my bike bag was easy to roll and I didn’t need a luggage cart.

Both bikes arrived home undamaged (phew!) but E’s bike box is looking pretty ratty. We might need to retire it and find another for the next trip, which will require some phone calls and a trip to a bike shop. My bike bag, on the other hand, still looks like new and is sitting in the gear shed, ready to go any time.

In summary: no one needs a bike bag for flying, so if the price doesn’t sit well with you don’t worry about it. I used cardboard bike boxes for years and dozens of flights, and it always worked out.

But now that I’ve used a bike bag, I do see the advantages. If you fly often with your bike, typically in and out of the same airport, a bike bag adds luxury and convenience to a process no one loves. If you have the money to spare I think you’ll appreciate the upgrade.

I’m happy with my choice, the Dakine Bike Roller Bag. Another popular option is the Evoc Bike Travel Bag, which is more expensive and a bit heavier but said to be a bit more premium-feeling.

More Bike Travel Resources

If you love flying to cool places with your bike, you’ll also like these posts:

Or visit the bikepacking and cycling sections for lots more.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 19,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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