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How to travel with a bike

Having access to your own familiar bike when traveling can help you enjoy a much wider area in even greater depth. But first, you’ll need to overcome some logistical challenges, whether you’re doing a day trip, shipping a bike to a destination, or full-on bike touring.

Why travel with a bike?

No doubt about it, many elements of traveling are easier without the added complications of bike transport. And yet, the value from that extra logistical investment shows up many ways.

See more sites. When you’re on a bike, you cover more ground than by walking. It collapses your point-to-point time, allowing you to fit in more sites than walking tourists do. Yes, for longer distances, walkers can always take a bus, but then you see one just side of everything flying by, compared to a cyclist who sees all and can stop at any site to learn more.

relaxing by a folding full-size bike in india

Explore more. A bicycle is the ultimate in freedom. You don’t have to adhere to bus routes and schedules, or limit yourself to roads and parking lots the way you would in a car. You can go far away from the standard tourist traps and see other countries from a totally new perspective.

cyclist among the ficus trees

Connect with more people. Get outside the tourist-heavy areas and suddenly you’re meeting people where they live and work, making new connections person-to-person. Take time to listen, enjoy, and make real friends.

Folding full-size bike by an Italian cafe

One thing to mention early… e-bikes and planes don’t mix well. If you want to take your e-bike on your next international vacation, you will need to ship your bike ahead with a bike shipping service such as Bikeflights (more on that later).

What should you pack?

Excited? Great trips start with great planning. Remember to pack anything that would ruin your day by its absence, for example if you run over a nail, want to change your route, or need to secure your bike while you stop in a store or pub for a while. These apply even for the smallest of day trips:

  • Helmet
  • Bike lock
  • Chain oil.
  • A clean-up rag
  • Tools as needed (hex wrench set, tire lever, pump or CO2 cartridge if allowed, small screwdriver)
  • Parts as needed (spare tube)
  • Maps

Local day trips

You can be a long-time resident of a city or region and still not know the area. A bike helps you see more, especially if you are able to combine various travel methods.

Look for a map of bike trails in your local area, safe to explore without dealing with cars. A bike-and-car combination can get you to a lot of extra destinations, if you have a bike rack, a car large enough for a bike inside, or a bike designed for easy car use.

Also, don’t overlook transit systems. If your bus system includes bike racks on the front, as they often do for bike & bus commuters, then you’ve just greatly expanded your ability to roam car-free, even where buses don’t go. Just get to your nearest bus stop, and something within safe biking of where you want to go, and have fun exploring.

bikes traveling with a bus

Visiting Seattle with a bike, or maybe even live there? This will help you explore the whole metro area more easily. And there’s no extra cost.

Bikes and commercial airlines

Between security checks and baggage requirements, commercial air travel is always more complicated that other travel methods, and adding bikes into the mix doesn’t simplify anything.

To make it a success, you’ll need to do a bit more planning than with a simple day trip. There are a lot of ways to travel successfully with a bike, domestically and internationally, involving thoughtful choices in your basic approach, and choice of airline, case, and bike.

If done right, the rewards can be well worth the efforts.

Choosing your approach

There’s more than one way to travel with a bike; choose the one that suits you best. Here are five:

Spontaneous rental. Just decide, one day while traveling, “Let’s spend this sunny day on bikes exploring local parks!” It’s super easy, but your enjoyment of the ride depends upon how much you’re willing to spend on rentals. (When vising the center of the commuter bike universe in Copenhagen, we were unable to find four completely working bikeshare bikes and needed to rent one. Excellent choice.)

foreign bike rental company

Swoop-in bike tour. You’re going to be doing a lot of bike riding, and you want one already set up by the company taking you lovely places. Brilliant! Just remember that you’ll be spending a lot of time on an unfamiliar bike, for better or sometimes worse. If you have a super-favorite comfy seat, that would be a smart thing to pack. Today’s seat rails make them interchangeable.

Ship it. If you want to enjoy the biking, but bypass all the kerfuffle of bikes on planes and at airports, just ship your own bike directly to your hotel or AirBNB—with prior coordination. It’s not the cheapest option especially internationally, but may well be among easiest ways to enjoy your own bike. Bikeflights specializes in shipping bikes, and is especially good with ground shipments (under $100USD coast-to-coast US), while intercontinental shipments can cost $400-500.

Bikeflights box

Oversize luggage. Airline regulators actually have a precise definition of this term: Length + Width + Depth = 62 inches or more. To bring this into the bike world, consider the average 700c commuter bike rear wheel: 28” + 28” + 135mm (6 in) = 62 inches. Your package is oversized even before you add the bike. This is the norm for bikes.

Airline bike size requirements

Suitcase luggage. Some folding bikes are small enough to fit in a suitcase that is under 62”. Characteristics that they have in common are small wheels, tall seat posts, tall handlebar risers, and gearing optimized for making small wheels go faster. While this certainly beats walking, it also may feel like riding a small-wheel bike on flexing posts, especially when going up or down steep hills. But if it’s your everyday bike or you’re just riding in flat areas, why not take it?

Planning your tour: Hub or linear trip

Now that you will be biking, you’ve got a big decision to make: Are you coming and going from the same spot?

If you’re flying in and out of the same city, that’s your hub. Whether you take time to explore the local area with a lot of short trips or take one long loop trips, the effect is the same from a transportation standpoint—you don’t need to carry your packaging material with you. You can save it, stash it, and save both the money of getting packaging again and the time of looking for the right stuff to buy.

bike touring map (loop)

On the other hand, if your trip is linear, with different arrivals and departures, you’ve got some choices to make, and some of the m can be a bit creative…   Do you:

  • Rent a bike as part of a tour package. Don’t worry about any logistics. It’s someone else’s issue.
  • Send your bike packaging on ahead to your destination, either by local mail or with a friend who is not doing this bike ride with you?
  • Throw away your packaging and commit to the time and expense of finding suitable replacement packaging at the end of your ride?
  • Sell your bike. Maybe you’ve been planning on getting a new one anyway, and this was the old one’s last hurrah?
  • Buy a used bike on this trip and sell it. This approach is super-tricky, because it assumes availability of an acceptably sized bike on the right schedule for your needs, along with the ability to sell it in the available time. But if you know the local area well enough…

bike touring map (linear)

Choosing your airline

Cyclists don’t yet travel with their equipment as much as golfers do, so there is less negotiating power to avoid fees. Nevertheless, there has been progress in this area. Alaska Airlines has led the way in opening affordable access to the skies for adventuresome cyclists, and they lead the list for top airlines.

Alaska Air logo

Best airlines for traveling with a bike:

Airline to avoid when traveling with a bike:

  • United Airlines stands in a class by itself when traveling with a bike. After reducing its fees in 2022 by eliminating the sports equipment fee, the airline now charges “just” the $25 checked bag fee, a $200-400 oversize fee depending upon location, and if the box is over 50 pounds, an overweight fee of $100-$200. Care to total that up?

Of course, each airline has its own policy. Transfers will add complexity, so single-airline flights will help streamline your logistical planning.

Another observation, that we’ll dive into in a moment, is that getting under the 50-pound weight limit can carry substantial financial benefits.

Choosing your carrying case

You basically have four options when choosing a carrying case. With any of them, you will be doing some level of disassembly, although it may be minimal.

A hard case consists of two shells that fit together, can withstand any suitcase that lands on top of it catawampus, and may even have four built-in wheels for rolling around the airport.

Bike Box II carrying case

  • Pros: The ultimate in protection, and super-easy to transport over flat ground
  • Cons: Stays large when your bike is out (so now you have two big things to manage, and often weighs 20+ pounds, pushing your box over the 50-pound overweight limit.

 

A soft case consists of a semi-reinforced rugged bag that folds in on itself. It can withstand a lot of impact, but airlines will often mark it FRAGILE.

Dakine soft case for bikes

  • Pros: An excellent combination of ruggedness and portability. Relatively light weight.
  • Cons: Stays large when your bike is out (so now you have two big things to manage, and often weighs 20+ pounds, pushing your box over the 50-pound overweight limit.

 

A thin nylon or canvas bag, such as a bike carrying bag, can be used for international travel when combined with a lot of bubble wrap.

Nylon soft cases for two bikes

  • Pros: The ultimate in portability, the folded bag can fit easily into the very bottom of a knapsack when not in use. Very light weight and carriable. Excellent on trains or buses.
  • Cons: Requires additional packing, such as bubble wrap and a helmet in sensitive areas such as the derailleurs, for airline use. Typically available only for folding bikes.

 

A standard, pasteboard bike shipping box, such as the BikeFlights box shown above (but not reinforced on the top and bottom).

  • Pros: Inexpensive, often easy to find, replaceable if damaged or thrown away.
  • Cons: Can still be damaged with the corner of a tossed suitcase. May weigh up to 20 lbs, affecting ability to stay under 50 lbs.

At the destination airport…

  • If you have a hard case, you’ll need some help getting your bike bag to your hotel, such as a big taxi or a train that goes to the airport.
  • If you have a soft case or bike bag, you may be able to ride out to your hotel, if you can find safe roads or paths that exit the airport.
  • If you have a box, you may also be able to ride to your hotel, provided that you can find a place to dispose of a giant bike box first!
  • If you chose to ship directly to the hotel, it doesn’t matter what carrying case you chose; just get yourself to your hotel.

Choosing your travel bike.

If you are planning to choose a bike you already have, these questions can help guide your choice:

  • Is there a function you have, such as a race or particular style of riding (MTB, road, etc.) that is best served by one specific bike?
  • Is there one bike that is more rugged—in case suitcase lands hard on your bike while traveling?
  • Does one bike require less maintenance—so you don’t have to do repairs on the road?
  • Does one bike require less specialized extra equipment, such as CO2 cartridges, liquid slime, or hydraulic brake fluid?
  • Is one bike easier to disassemble as needed, including removing the handlebars, wheels, and pedals?
  • Is one bike simply easier to take lots of different places?

After all this, it may seem tempting to just take a folding bike when traveling, and plenty of people do that. But then you’re trying to go lots of places on small wheels and tall seat posts and handlebar risers.

Another option is a full-sized folding bike. It’s large and rugged when you need to ride it, and small when you need to fit in in elevators, stairways, hotel rooms, taxis, buses, and all the other challenges you encounter when traveling.

The maps shown earlier in this article are from tours with full-size-folding bikes like the CHANGE 812 folding MTB above. This is how they fit in the bag when folded…

CHANGE folding MTB in carry case

 

…this is how they transition from luggage to transportation at the train station…

Unfolding a CHANGE bike in the train station

 

…and this is how you fit two touring bikes, six bags, two humans, and a driver into a typical European sedan taxi with no bike rack.

two touring bikes, six bags, two humans, and a driver in a sedan

Starting your adventure.

OK, maybe it’s been an adventure all along, but this is when the fun starts. First, you don’t want your excursion to start with a stolen bike, so find a safe place to keep your bike at the hotel. Sometimes the concierge can help with this, or if your bike folds into a carry bag it can go straight to your room.

Folded CHANGE bike in the room

A bike that stays inside overnight is less likely to get stolen.

Travel in most of Europe and Asia is very bike-friendly. Expect to find trains with dedicated spaces for bikes, and buses with enough room to include a bike except at rush hour. Turnstiles are optimized for rolling a bike through. And even entire cities may be designed such that biking is a faster way than a car to get from Point A to Point B.

gelato

Enjoy life like the locals do.

Meanwhile, you’re seeing more of what’s around you. Immersing yourself in local culture and going beyond the typical tourist traps. Seeing the world from a whole new perspective.

This is the real adventure biking.

If you have planned a hub-style set of day trips, you’ll get really familiar with the check-out and check-in procedures to ensure that (1) your bike is safe and secure overnight and (2) you’re not tracking mud and sand all over the carpet and tile flooring.

If you’re on a linear tour, or even a long loop tour, you’ll get really familiar with the routine of being self-sufficient on the road, whether that’s all on bikes or a combination of bikes, trains, buses and taxis. Just remember that most taxis will not have a bike rack, so plan accordingly.

 

Wrapping up your adventure.

You and your bike have been great for each other; keep it up until the very end. Regardless of what bike, and bike box, and method of travel you have chosen, do not short-change your bike packing time on the last day.

  • Sufficient packaging. If you tossed your bubble wrap or pasteboard bike box, get new packing of equal or better quality. After all this success, you don’t want your bike to get dinged up on the ride home.
  • Clean and dry. Your bike will be enclosed in the same air for possibly days. You don’t want this to be humid air that corrodes your chain and rear cassette. Apply chain oil after cleaning and drying your bike.
  • Don’t throw your sweaty clothing in there. It’s so, so tempting to get that laundry bag out of your suitcase. But don’t . . . do  . . . it. Not only will you push yourself closer to that 50-pound overweight limit, but after getting your bike so nice and dry, you’re introducing another source of corrosive humidity.

And before you know it, you’re back home, sharing photos and videos of all the exciting places you got a chance to visit because you were on a bike.

Full-size folding bike in India

What else did we miss? What amazing bike travel memories do you have?

Bob Forgrave

flatbike-logo

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.


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