Airline travel and full-size folding bikes
October 13th 2020
Every couple of weeks, we get a question that’s a variant of this:
The answer requires some understanding of this unique type of bike–and what it can and can’t do.
What exactly is a full-size folding bike?
It all starts with the wheels–real, widely-available, standard-size wheels with 27.5″ or 700c (roughly 28″) tires. These are mounted on the time-tested, double-triangle frame for maximum rigidity and handling with minimum weight.
And yet, it’s no ordinary frame. In seconds, without tools, a CHANGE 811 folding rugged hybrid can be collapsed down to a more convenient 37″ x 30″ x 15″, able to fit safely and conveniently in a car or condo. No rack needed, either on your car or where you live. This bike is house-trained.
While there are no downsides to the full-size bike riding experience, the size of the wheels and the rigid triangular frame limit how small the bike can fold.
Airline travel and airline math.
Commercial airlines share a very specific definition of “oversize”. Commercial air standard luggage is defined as height + width + length < 62″). Half an inch over 62″ and your package is oversized.
The all-terrain wheels of a CHANGE 811 folding rugged hybrid are 27.5″ in diameter and 5 inches thick at the axle. Put two of those side-by-side and you’re at 27.5 + 27.5 + 10 = 65″. The package is already oversized . . . with no bike!
For this reason, a full-size folding bike is not as convenient for commercial airline travel as a traditional folding bike with pothole-sized wheels and long, collapsible seat post and handlebar riser.
Another way to achieve a standard suitcase size, but with a full-size frame and wheels, is by completely disassembling a bike and frame and packing all the parts around a set of narrow 700c road wheels and deflated tires. The Ritchey Break-Away does this.
This approach offers the nimbleness and speed of a full-size bike, with the airport convenience and lower shipping cost of a bike that fits in a standard suitcase. All you need are spare time, special tools, deep knowledge of bike assembly and tuning, and lots of patience.
Let’s rethink this. Post-airline travel and budget math.
You’re not going to spend all of your time in the plane. Let’s step back a moment and review overall travel goals.
As long as we’re going through the effort and expense of going somewhere, we typically try to pack in lots of varied activity. Maybe several local cities, connected by a train or rental car. Maybe a variety of hotels off the beaten path, as we soak up different experiences along the way.
How much time do you really want to carve out of that excitement to repeatedly disassemble and reassemble a full-size bike? It gets old.
Alternatively, if cycling is a big part of your vacation or business trip experience, how much do you want to limit your mileage or available terrain for riding because you’ve got tiny wheels and a spindly frame that flexes under stress? At some point, instead of enjoying your ride, you’re thinking about missing the bike you’re not riding.
Ultimately, you’re spending hundreds on a memorable vacation. How much do you want to detract from it with sub-par bike experiences?
A full-size folding bike, on the other hand, is your awesome everyday bike. It folds in half in seconds, and you can put it in a carry bag to go all sorts of places. That’s enough flexibility for trains, Lyfts, boats, elevators, tiny AirBNB rooms with narrow staircases, and more.
And now…the really crazy thing.
We’re investing all of this brainstorming effort in an end-run to get around oversize baggage fees and those onerous special fees that some airlines charge for shipping a bike of any size. Exactly how much money are we talking about saving here?
Would you believe $30 or less?
Recent changes in bike handling fees were led by Alaska Airlines. The cost for an oversized case that clearly has a bike in it is just $30–the same cost as if you had a folding clown bike in a standard-size suitcase. Zero penalty for a riding a real bike at your destination. Which would you choose?
Delta Airlines soon followed suit, with no oversize fee, a $30 bag fee . . . and an overweight fee if your bike box is over 50 pounds. American Airlines joined them, with no oversize fee, a $30 bag fee, and a $30 bike fee that is supposed to be instead of the bag fee–although the potential definitely exists for a gate check-in mix-up.
Bottom line… you’ve got options. Take the best bike for the best riding experience.
And here’s how to pack it.
A CHANGE bike originally comes in a sturdy pasteboard shipping carton that’s 35″ x 30″ x 15″. It’s the same carton that we’ve used to ship CHANGE bikes to and from cycling shows, so that’s a low cost, generally effective way to ship domestically. And, since it’s in a box, you can even ship it separately to your hotel at a discounted rate using the BikeFlights shipping service.
We used to stock a 35″ x 30″ x 15″ hard-side shipping carton also, just for CHANGE bikes. It allowed you to ship a bike without taking off the rear wheel, but still didn’t get down to standard size. So as long as we’re oversize, why not select from the best full-size bike cases? Most of the folding advantages of a CHANGE bike are post-flight anyway.
Here’s our current favorite.
The B&W International Bike Case is 47″ x 35″ x 12″ and fits any bike. You’ll need to remove your bars, both wheels, seat post, and pedals–and if you’ve got a CHANGE bike, or have accessorized your bike at Flatbike, you’ve got pop-off pedals anyway, so the only tool you’ll need for the whole operation will be a 4mm hex wrench for your handlebars.
Note that the crank stays on, along with your fork, both brakes, and both derailleurs. It’s really just about wheel removal–with tool-free, quick-release hubs.
This hard case features rolling casters for easy transport. Leave it in your room for local loop rides—or, for longer bike tours, ship it ahead to your final hotel for use on the air trip back home.
And just like that, you’re traveling with your own bike, anywhere in the world.
Where will your cycling adventures take you?
Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike, an
ecommerce company offering full-size folding bikes
and kits to make any bike take up half the space.