When I travel on my bicycle, one of the most common questions I’m asked is “how did you get your bike here?”
The answer, I’m happy to say, is no. Flying with a bicycle is not necessarily expensive, though it can be if you choose the wrong airline. It’s also not that hard once you know what you’re doing, even if it might seem overwhelming the first time.
It turns out that taking a bicycle on an airplane as checked luggage is fairly easy, and can be cheap or even free if you plan carefully. Whether you’re traveling for an out-of-town race or between continents on a world tour, it’s often cheaper to fly with a bike as checked luggage than to ship it separately.
I’ll be honest, I was pretty nervous the first time I tried taking a bike on a plane! That tense wait by the oversize baggage claim can seem endless. But since then I’ve done it over a dozen times on/between four different continents, and it’s worked out fine every single time. If you’re worried about giving it a try, I promise it’s not as hard as you think.
In this article I’ll explain how to:
- figure out the cost and decode confusing airline policies
- pack your bike so it’s protected from damage
- deal with transportation to the airport
- check your bike in, and pick it up at baggage claim
- magically transform your cardboard box into a rideable bicycle on arrival at your destination
By the end you’ll know exactly what to expect when flying with your bicycle, so you can focus on the fun part: riding it once you arrive!
Can you bring a bike on a plane? Really?
Short answer: yes! Unless we’re talking about the smallest of small regional planes, there is almost always room for oversize baggage like a bicycle. Most airlines even have the policy listed clearly on their website; search for “(airline name) bicycle policy” or look for their sports equipment page. If in doubt, give them a call.
How much does it cost to fly with a bicycle on an airplane?
It depends, which is why you need to choose your airline carefully when flying with a bicycle.
I’ve seen fees from anywhere from $0 to $250+ for flying with a bike. Some airlines make exceptions for sports equipment even if oversize and overweight, some charge a reasonable fee, and some get greedy. Generally speaking, if an airline does charge a bicycle fee, longer routes will be more expensive.
In the United States many airlines are becoming increasingly bike-friendly. As of 2021 Alaska Air, Delta, and American Airlines all allow bike boxes for the price of a regular checked bag (usually around $30).
United still hasn’t joined the club; beware their $200 fee! As of October 2021 United has finally dropped their bike fee, charging only the standard checked baggage fees for properly packed bikes.
I’ve found international airlines to be hit or miss, sometimes charging as much as $250+ for a bike (looking at you, Lufthansa) and sometimes charging nothing at all (thank you EVA Air!).
If you’re stuck with an airline that charges a lot to check a bike as luggage, look at bikeflights.com and shipbikes.com instead. Especially if you’re traveling domestically within the US, their prices may actually be similar to flying with your bike as checked luggage.
Choose Your Airline Carefully
I always hunt for the best deals on airline tickets, but when flying with a bike I have to do this a little differently. While most airlines will accept them as checked baggage, the cost can range from free to a couple hundred dollars! And with more budget airlines charging for checked bags of any kind these days, figuring out the total bill isn’t always easy.
When checking a bicycle as luggage, the total cost of your ticket will be something like this:
total cost = the sum of:
- cost of ticket
- cost of checked luggage (if not included in ticket, which is common on budget airlines)
- cost of an overweight/oversize/bicycle fee, unless specifically waived for bicycles by the airline, or your bicycle container is unusually small and light
A few websites attempt to keep a list of fees by airline, like this one on thepointsguy.com. This can be a good place to start, but I highly recommend checking each airline on your own to understand the fees in detail. Here’s how.
Understanding Airline Policies
1) Find the airline’s policy.
Search google or the airline website for “oversize luggage,” “sports equipment,” “special baggage,” “excess baggage,” “bicycle fee” or similar combinations of terms until you find the airline’s policy. Usually it will be something like this one from Alaska Air, or this one from Eva Air (both have bicycle-friendly policies with no oversize or overweight fees, yay!).
2) Check the oversize and overweight limits and fees.
Many US airlines have standard checked baggage limits of around 50 pounds in weight, and 62 inches combined dimensions (this is the length + width + height of your box, all added together, also known as linear inches). International airlines especially may have different limits, typically in metric units, so check carefully.
Most cardboard bicycle boxes will exceed these dimensions. One typical box I’ve used was 43 x 11 x 32, though they vary in size, but that adds up to 86 inches which is definitely over the limit. Bike boxes could potentially exceed the weight limit too, if you have a large steel bike and pack some accessories in the box with it.
This means your bike box is likely considered oversize and possibly also overweight and you will have to pay those fees, unless there’s an exception for bicycles.
3) Check for an exception for bicycles.
Some airlines waive overage fees for bikes and other sports equipment. If you can’t find bicycles specifically mentioned in their policy, be prepared to pay the fees.
Beware, I have seen airline websites say bicycles are accepted with no extra fees, but only if they’re below size and weight limits that are essentially impossible for any real adult-size bike. Check the size and weight limits carefully!
4) Find out how many checked bags are included in your ticket.
Some budget airlines, and even not-so-budget ones these days, do not include any checked baggage with their cheapest tickets.
If your ticket doesn’t include any checked bags, or if you exceed your baggage allowance, you’ll need to pay for a checked bag regardless of whether the oversize/overweight fees are waived for bicycles.
5) Let the airline know if necessary.
Some airlines request that you contact them at time of booking to reserve space for your bicycle box on the plane. If this is what the policy says, do it. I’ve only encountered this a couple times, usually on a very small plane or an international airline based in a bureaucracy-loving country.
6) Add up the total cost of the flight.
Putting all this together, the best flight may not always be the one with the cheapest ticket.
For example, you’d be better off buying a $400 ticket on Alaska Air (which only charges $30 for a checked bag with no extra fees for bicycles) than a $350 ticket on United (which charges $150 in oversize/weight fees for bicycles).
The Alaska Air cost will come to $400 + $30 = $430, while United will cost $350 + $150 = $500. All else being equal, save the $70 and fly with your bike on Alaska.
Multiple Flights on Different Airlines
Checked luggage fees for multi-leg itineraries can be tough to decode, even without a bicycle along for the ride. It’s complicated, but the most common case is that you only pay the checked luggage fee for the first airline on your itinerary.
One exception is when you arrive in another country and then take a connecting domestic flight to your final destination in that country. For example, you fly from the United States to Santiago, Chile, and then take a shorter flight to Coyhaique, Chile (which is, coincidentally, how you could fly to an amazing bike tour on the Carretera Austral).
In this case sometimes you must pick up your checked luggage during your layover, pass through customs with it, and recheck it. If there’s a place to recheck it near customs, you probably don’t need to pay again.
But if you’re required to recheck your luggage at the airline counter, essentially checking in all over again, then you may have to pay the fee of that airline, regardless of whether you already paid a fee for the bike on your earlier flight. This happened to me in the Santiago Airport, but fortunately the surprise fee was only about $20 on LATAM Airlines.
Avoid Difficult Layovers
A typical multi-leg itinerary – where your luggage is checked through to your final destination – will work fine with a bike too. Do make sure to read the fine print and keep an eye out for these more challenging layover scenarios:
- You must pick up your checked luggage, go through customs, and then recheck it. This can happen when flying through a main hub into a new country and then catching a smaller regional flight. Sometimes they make it easy to recheck your luggage nearby, but other times you have to transport it a long way yourself.
- Connections between different airlines where your checked luggage is not transferred for you, especially if flying in and out of different terminals in a large airport.
- Budget or DIY itineraries that fly in and out of different airports in the same region! Avoid this one with a bike box, for sure.
If you do decide to take on one of these challenges – sometimes they’re inevitable when trying to get to interesting places – be sure your layover is plenty long enough to deal with it.
Pack Your Bicycle Properly
I’ll be honest: the first time I flew with my bicycle I was terrified of this part! The only reason I made myself do it (instead of slinking down to the local bike shop and paying them) was because I was even more terrified of putting it back together again in Vietnam, and I knew I’d never learn if I didn’t jump in on my own.
The most common method for touring cyclists is a cardboard box, the kind new bicycles are shipped in. This is what I usually use and it’s been successful, but there are other options too. Here’s a quick overview.
If you’re flying in and out of the same place and travel with your bike often, it may be worth buying a dedicated bike case for it. They do a good job of protecting your bike, and save you the hassle of having to beg for a cardboard box from every bike shop in town.
The downside is that cases can be expensive and you need a place to stash it while you ride. It also doesn’t work if you’re riding point-to-point.
Cardboard Bike Box
A cardboard bicycle box is the most common way to fly with a bike, especially for touring cyclists riding point-to-point.
So how do you get a bike box? If you have a bike shop nearby, call and ask if they have any to spare. Often they’ll give you one for free, since new bikes come packed in them and the shop just puts them out for trash/recycling. UPS and FedEx locations usually sell bike boxes. Be sure to check the size carefully, especially if you’re on a large bike or 29er. Not all bike boxes will fit large bikes.
If you really can’t track down a bike box, you can order one from BikeFlights (they also provide shipping services) in certain countries, including the US. I’ve also heard that certain airline desks have them available; call ahead and ask.
How to Box Your Bike
I won’t recreate these guides here, but I will give you the general principles behind the process which will help you remember the steps. If you understand the point of each step in practical terms, it’s much easier to remember them when you’re boxing your bike in some humid foreign airport while a crowd gathers to watch.
When boxing a bicycle for flying, the goals are:
- Fit the bike in the box by detaching or adjusting any necessary parts and packing them in where they fit better. This usually includes front wheel, pedals, handlebars, racks, seat. Sometimes rear wheel too if box is too small. Use tape or zip ties to keep detached parts from moving around, potentially causing scratches or tearing the cardboard.
- Protect the bike, especially anywhere that a sudden blow could cause damage. The front fork, rear derailleur, and disc brake rotors are especially vulnerable.
- Protect the box from any sharp bike parts that could cut through it, such as chain rings (if removing the rear wheel), the pokey ends of the wheel axles or quick release skewers, or shift levers pointing at odd angles. A bit of foam or extra layer of cardboard taped to the inside of the bike box is all you need.
A few other essential tips for boxing your bike:
- Take all the small bits – pedals, quick release skewers, bottle cages, etc. – and put them together in some larger container that definitely can’t fall out of the box, even if a fairly big hole were to be ripped.
- When disassembling your bike, use only the tools you’ll have with you on your trip. Then be sure to PACK THOSE TOOLS.
- Be very, very careful to pack everything you took off your bike! Definitely don’t leave anything important sitting on the living room floor. Not that I have any experience with that.
DIY Bike Box
Say you need to fly with your bike out of a small Chilean town, or the capital of Sudan, and you can’t find a bike box. Your next step is to find the biggest, thickest pieces of cardboard you can, and a few rolls of packing tape, and channel your inner engineer.
Will the airline accept this? Most airlines will say your bike needs to be in a hard-sided box. Generally speaking, non-US airlines are likely to be more lenient here. I’ve never tried this in America, but I have flown out of both Chile and Sudan with questionable boxes and no one looked twice.
Where to find the cardboard? It’s time to ask around. Stores that sell large appliances (think refrigerators, washing machines) or furniture are a good bet. Next try grocery stores. For smaller scraps, try scavenging through cardboard people put out for trash pickup. I did this once in Chile, much to the amusement of locals, many of whom helpfully offered me all the cardboard they could find.
With scissors, time, and a LOT of tape, you can figure something out. It could be as simple as a few large pieces taped over the greasy/pointy parts of the bike (important for protecting your bike AND protecting other people’s luggage from your bike, both of which are important to the airline). Or it could be a complete box patched together from scraps. Either way, follow the same steps used for boxing a bike, removing the same parts and protecting both bike and box as best you can.
Unboxed or Bagged
I can’t speak to this one personally, but I know some Canadian cyclists who’ve toured all over the world with their bikes packed only in huge plastic bags, like the kind mattresses come wrapped in. They said they’ve never been turned away by an airline.
Other bike tourists report simply wheeling their bike up to the luggage counter. While damage to the bike is a concern, proponents of this method feel that if airline employees can see it’s a bicycle, they’ll take care to avoid damaging it. Boxes, on the other hand, can be treated quite roughly and buried under mountains of hard-sided suitcases.
If you do this, there are still a few steps to follow: remove pedals, turn handlebars sideways (parallel to the bike frame), deflate the tires, remove any little bits that may come off and get lost (lights, water bottles, etc).
My personal guess is that this method is easier in developing countries with smaller and more chaotic airports. This is good news because those are also the places where you’re least likely to find a bicycle box.
Whichever packing method you choose, make sure the whole package is very clearly labeled with your name, contact info, and if possible the address of where you’re headed (could be the hotel you’re staying at when you arrive, or your home address if heading home). Take a sharpie pen and write this information in big letters on at least two sides of the box.
Personally I also like to doodle a few smiling stick figures and bicycles, draw a big arrow pointing upright, write “fragile,” and sometimes also “thank you” with a smiley face. So far my bike has never been damaged on a flight… Maybe this is why? 🙂
If the bike is inside a box or case, tape your contact information to the frame too just in case something goes horribly wrong.
Including other gear in your bike box is a personal decision.
Reasons to NOT include other gear:
- Airline policies that waive overweight fees for bikes often state that ONLY the bike may be in the box. If you pack it full of other heavy stuff and they catch you, you’ll need to pay the fee. For what it’s worth, I’ve never had anyone check.
- If something goes wrong and the box busts open on the runway, your tent / water filter / underwear are not necessarily going to make it.
- A heavier bike box is harder to maneuver and more likely to tear.
Reasons to include other gear:
- Saves hassle and sometimes extra cost of needing to check a second bag.
- Sleeping bags, clothing, etc. can be useful as padding if the box is large.
Alternatives to including other gear in your bike box:
- Package the rest of your gear in a separate smaller cardboard box and check that as a second bag.
- Pack your gear in your panniers and check them. Tape them together back-to-back (to protect attachment points) and/or combine them in one of those zippered “Chinese shopping bags” (often available all over the world) or a cheap duffel bag that you can leave when you arrive.
- Carry on anything else you can’t fit.
I never travel with more than two panniers or bikepacking bags, so here’s what I personally do. So far, so good.
- Pack bike tools and repair supplies in the bike box, including stuff I can’t carry onto an airplane (pointy metal tools, pocket knife, pepper spray, etc).
- Put one pannier’s worth of light-ish gear into my bike box, with the pannier folded up along the side. This is usually my tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. I try to secure them all to the bike frame.
- Obviously don’t put anything fragile or really valuable into your bike box. Carry that stuff on.
- Take the other pannier as a carry on, along with another small bag if necessary (like a dry sack or small backpack, something I’m bringing for the trip anyway).
- Bring extra tape in your carry-on! You never know when a luggage inspector will demand to open your box, or a weak spot will show up as you drag it through the airport.
Getting to the Airport
This part can be more complicated with a bike box. Public transport is usually not an option, and you can’t just call any old cab and expect the box to fit. Here are a few ideas depending on where you are in the world.
- UberXL, in areas where Uber is available. Usually they can fold down the seats and make room. I always tip at the end (through the app) so that drivers remain open to the extra work of transporting bike boxes.
- Ask your hotel. Usually they can arrange transport in a bigger vehicle, but be prepared to pay more.
- Flag down a minivan or SUV taxi and see if they can fold the seats down.
- In touristy areas with airport shuttles, some shuttles may be able to fit bike boxes, but make sure you ask in advance so you’re not dealing with an unpleasant surprise hours before your flight leaves.
- Bike to the airport with your packing supplies! Never done it, but I’ve heard from people who have.
No matter how you plan to get to the airport, leave plenty of extra time. You may need to switch to plan B for transportation, and you may need extra time to navigate the airport checkin process with your bike box.
Checking In at the Airport
Now you have to get that massive box to the airline luggage check counter. Many large airports have rolling luggage carts. If you can’t find any, you can carry or drag the box by the handles. You may find an employee willing to help you, probably for a tip in many places.
At the airline check-in counter, smile and be nice. It’s up to the person behind the desk to enforce the airline’s luggage policy. Depending on their mood, size and weight limits may be enforced strictly or not at all. Don’t put them in a tough place by asking for favors, but don’t give them any reason to be tough on you either.
Know the airline’s bike policy, and be able to reference it on their website or a printed copy. If you believe an airline employee is misinterpreting the policy, politely ask for clarification and get a supervisor involved if necessary. I’ve found that newer employees sometimes don’t know their airline has an oversize/weight exception for bicycles, but they’re happy to waive the charges once they know it’s ok to do so.
Drop off the box where they tell you. Usually this is right there at the counter, but you might have to wheel or drag it nearby to a special place for oversize luggage.
Keep your luggage claim tag. I sometimes don’t pay much attention to this when checking regular luggage, but with an oversize bike box it’s especially important because they don’t always end up with the other luggage. If you need help finding your box when you arrive, having the claim tag will help.
Once your box is checked, congratulations, the hardest part is done! Take a deep breath, find your gate, enjoy your flight, and get ready to greet your bike on the other side.
Inspections: Don’t be surprised if your box is opened, inspected, and re-taped while it’s out of your possession. This is standard practice for TSA in the United States, and I’ve experienced it in Canada too. They are looking for contraband or items prohibited from checked luggage. In my experience they re-tape the box well enough, but this is another reason to have everything well packed and protected.
Clearing Customs During a Layover
If you have connecting flights, usually your bike will be checked to your final destination and you can “enjoy” your layover in peace.
But, in some cases you’ll need to pick up checked luggage, go through customs with it, then recheck it during your layover. This is common when you have a layover in a new country, followed by a domestic flight to somewhere else in that country.
Sometimes this is easy: you pick up the luggage, load it onto a cart, walk a few yards and then drop it off again. Other times there’s no cart, you’re required to recheck luggage at a different terminal, it’s a mile away and you need to clear immigration first. Try to figure this out (ask Google) before booking your itinerary, or that two hour layover you thought was sufficient may actually be a mad scramble.
If you need to recheck your luggage at the airline counter, be prepared to go through the steps in “Check your bike at the airport” all over again, including potentially paying another bike fee.
Picking Up Your Bike at Baggage Claim
I’ve been there. You’re waiting in suspense to be reunited with your beloved bike, anxious to see whether your pro boxing job held up to the challenge of three international flights. But, the luggage starts arriving and your bike’s not there… Where is it?!
Don’t panic yet. Bike boxes are often taken to a separate Oversize Baggage area, so be sure to check there. I’ve also had mine show up on the regular luggage carousel too, so don’t panic until you’ve checked both.
Hopefully there are luggage carts available, but if not, try the drag method: grab the handle on the skinny end and drag it behind you out to the curb.
In the rare case where your bike isn’t waiting for you at baggage claim, report it to the airline immediately, before leaving the airport. And don’t panic. It’s hard to lose a giant cardboard box! It’s probably just delayed or misplaced and you’ll be reunited shortly.
Transportation From the Airport
Hopefully you gave some thought to this beforehand, because taking the subway or hopping on a motorbike taxi are not good options with a bike box.
One option, if you’re experienced, is to assemble the bike at the airport, leave the box in the trash/recycling, and ride away. I’ll admit the simplicity is appealing, but I’ve only done this once. This is mainly because it takes for-freakin-ever to fly most places from the US and I am always dead tired after 24 sleepless hours of travel.
For those who prefer to assemble their bike in the peace and quiet of a hotel room, look for a van or larger taxi with seats that fold down. It’s usually not too difficult to find, though it will probably cost more.
Assembling the Bike
Congratulations! You and your bike made it to some exciting new place and you’re ready to start your adventure. Here’s what to do next:
- Right away, open up the box and check for damage or missing items. Do this asap because some airlines require you to file a claim within just a few hours of picking up your luggage.
- Eat a good meal
- Take a shower if your flight was long
- Take a nap if you’re jetlagged
- Open a beer or brew a cup of tea
Then, and only then, put your bike together. Hopefully you took it apart yourself so you know how this works. Doing a practice run at home first can really lower stress levels if this is your first time. It’s not actually rocket science though, so have some faith in yourself and give it a go.
I know this might seem like a lot, but I promise, flying with a bike really isn’t that hard. Just use common sense, leave yourself a little extra time, and have faith that you can navigate any unexpected issues that come up. Now that I think about it, these are basically the core tenets of bicycle travel anyway. It’s all part of the fun right? 🙂
More Bike Travel Resources
If you’re looking to fly with your bicycle, you might also be interested in the Bicycle Touring Resources page, or these popular guides:
- Fixing Bicycle Saddle Pain for Women
- What To Pack in Your Bicycle Touring Repair Kit
- 6 US Rail Trails Perfect for Bike Camping
- Cycling Chile’s Rugged Carretera Austral
- Bicycle Touring in Southeast Asia: Is it for you?
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