I am a huge advocate of taking your bike with you at any opportunity you possibly get. In the last couple of years I have had the fortune to travel to France, Italy, Switzerland and Majorca on press trips or family holidays with my beautiful Colnago AC-R and have ridden on new, challenging and awe-inspiring roads. For the first year I rented bike boxes from my local bike shop and then recently I invested in a SCICON AeroComfort 2.0 TSA bike bag when I realised I loved taking my wheels with me to explore new roads.
When you’re gliding down European switch backs, pushing your limits up alpine inclines and wheeling into a French cafe for a mid ride croissant you realise how worthwhile it was to bring your bike. However, like all air travel, it’s best to be as prepared as you can be for your flight and so here are my tips taken from my own experience.
Factor in more travel time than usual
I recently had the shocker of heading off into rush hour with my bike bag to catch a flight to Italy with Ride25 only to realise that I was on my way to Gatwick instead of Heathrow. Luckily I had factored just enough collateral time in to cover up my logistical nightmare. Even if you aren’t as scatterbrained as me and organise your life to within a second, there are many things that are out of your control when it comes to airport logistics. I always say that you should double your time when you’re travelling with your bike. It just takes that bit longer to pack, organise transport to the airport and check your bike into the hold. There are delaying factors like squeezing yourself and your bike bag onto a crowded train, wheeling in and out of the crowds at the airport. After you’ve checked in at the desk, you will need to take your bike to outsize baggage. Most airports have someone at outsize baggage to help you but I once had to wait 30 minutes for someone to take my bike off me which left it tight to get through security. It’s so worth heading off early and eliminating any risk of missing your flight. Everything is fine if you have enough time.
Choose the right luggage for you
I am not very tall and absolutely hate feeling swamped and laden down like a packhorse when I arrive at the airport so I try to find luggage that is as lean as possible. Along with my bike bag I travel with a KitBrix, a cubic kit bag which, although hand luggage size, seems to pack so much into it and has lots of pockets for travel documents and other essentials you need quick access to. I tend to take less kit and a tube of travel wash so that I can economise on space but still have clean shorts everyday. If you are going with a group it’s worth sharing your cycling tool kit so you don’t all have multiple items of the same stuff clogging up your bike bags or boxes. I also like to reduce the amount of time it takes to pack which was the motivation in buying a SCICON AeroComfort 2.0 TSA bag as you only have to remove the wheels and then pop the bike on an internal frame which literally takes minutes. The only slight risk is that the bag is made of padded fabric rather than the solid plastic casing of a bike box but so far I’ve had no damage apart from a knock at Naples airport that caused the handlebars to shift but I believe this was quite rare and unlucky as I had other issues on that journey too (like my bike never arriving in the UK). I think all bike owners, whether travelling with a box or a bag still have that slight pang of anxiety about what state their bike will come out at the end of the flight but you just have to pack it as securely as you can and hope for the best. Generally it’s fine and in the case of Naples Airport they covered my cost to get my handlebars realigned.
Research the airline
I’ve probably travelled on four or five different airlines with my bike in the past and each experience is really different. You get those that wave you gladly onto the flight with beaming smiles and courtesy for your custom and others that take one look at your helmet and treat you like you’ve just done a poo on their lawn. This is normally because you’ve booked the wrong luggage type for your bike. A lot of airlines, like Easyjet as we found out this week, require you to pay a specific sports equipment luggage fee when travelling with your bike. This costs slightly more as you can imagine but I am also told that it provides your bike with extra care in its handling as they can mark it ‘fragile’. It’s worth checking each airline’s luggage policy and book accordingly and I would definitely take out your own insurance.
Don’t pack gas canisters
This sounds obvious but it’s so easy to forget that spare gas canister you keep in your saddle bag when you pack your bike up. It goes without saying that you will be pretty unpopular at the airport for trying to fly with compressed gas in your luggage. Check all your pockets and nooks and crannies to ensure you’ve not got any stashed away. You can always restock at your destination and take a pump with you for your back pocket.
Keep your tools with your bike
On two occasions I’ve had that dreaded moment when you pass through security and see your bag turning off the conveyor belt and into the hands of the airport staff. I don’t know what it is about that conveyor belt but for no good reason you feel instantly guilty whilst shuffling awkwardly as they rifle through your sweaty jerseys to find the offending item. It’s at that point I remember I’ve shoved my multitool or spanner in with my hand luggage and not with my bike which certainly raises a few eyebrows, normally leads to confiscation and leaves you feeling like a bit of a tool yourself. I’ll never forget the shock of a security guy at Gatwick when he pulled a 10 inch spanner out of my handbag as I passed through in normal ‘lady clothes’. “What on earth do you need this for?!” he cried.
Prepare for odd looks
Cycling still isn’t mainstream enough for people to fully understand what on earth you are wheeling through the airport. It’s quite funny trying to guess what’s going through people’s minds. Someone once asked me where I was going to be performing my harp recital. People may occasionally tut and sigh and make you feel like a nuisance just for sharing an airport lift or a train carriage with you and your bike which you can remedy by firing them a beaming smile because frankly you’re about to have an epic cycling experience. That said, I would definitely recommend trying to travel to the airport at times that allow you to avoid the crowds as much as you can for an easy life which I am eternally seeking. If you are travelling by taxi, make sure you pre-warn them that you will need a car big enough for a bike box. Be prepared for some to refuse you a journey which again brings me back to my first point: factor in as much time as you can.
Don’t roll over your toes
This might just be me and my poor luggage driving skills but for someone reason at least once on every trip with my bike box or bag I wheel it directly over my toes. This is especially painful if it’s in the summer and I’m wheeling through the airport in flip flops. It normally happens when I am really tired, in a rush and already most likely in a bad mood. All I can say is it’s bloody excruciating and totally unnecessary.
To summarise, definitely make the effort to take your bike abroad for some of the best cycling you will ever have. Allow for enough time, travel lean and do all the relevant admin in advance. Then all you need to do is ride.