Most of our extended trips have begun and ended with a logistical move by plane. At other times during journeys, moves by train, boat, or bus have also been necessary. We share here what we’ve learned about protecting our beloved bikes during these moves.
Bikes on Planes
Whether or not to box a bike for air travel is a much-debated question. The British national cycling charity Cyclists’ Touring Club recommends the bike be minimally dismantled and covered in a plastic bag, as per their instructions. Their rationale is that baggage handlers who can see it is a bike will be more careful, and a cardboard bike box offers only minimal protection against damage. We agree with their policy for single leg flights to smaller airports; their recommendations are well-suited to Brits flying to continental Europe.
We’ve usually flown from Canada on intercontinental flights, and our bikes are transferred between flights. For these trips, we prefer to box the bikes. Get boxes ahead of time from your local bike shop. Follow roughly this procedure. A cardboard bike box can be strengthened with corrugated plastic for significant extra protection at a fraction of the cost of a hard-shell bicycle case. We’ve also used two cardboard bike boxes of slightly different sizes – one inside the other- for better protection than a single layer of cardboard.
NOTE: Take extra tape with you when going to the airport to check in with a boxed bike. Airline staff sometimes insist on cutting the box open for a security inspection, and though they may provide tape for resealing the box, it may not be good tape.
For loop trips which start and end in the same place, we’ve managed to store bike boxes and duffel-bags for panniers, and reuse these for the return flight.
If you return from a different city, try to get a box from a bike shop at your end point. If you cannot get a bike box, try to find some packing materials to protect the bike. The Adventure Cycle-touring Handbook details a method of reducing a standard bike to a compact bundle, both wheels removed, and protected with scavenged materials. You may prefer to ship the bike homeward unboxed, since minor damage on your return is less serious.
Check baggage allowances, rules, and charges with individual airlines. Within Europe, low cost carriers Easy Jet and Ryanair have taken our bikes.
Panniers on Planes
When travelling by bike, we each have six small bags: four panniers, a handlebar bag, and a rear rack bundle. The number of checked bags allowed (in addition to a bike) is usually only one. The lightweight backpacks which travel on our rear racks become our cabin baggage (You can also use one rear pannier.) and the rest is consolidated to create a single checked bag.
If returning by air from your arrival city, you may be able to store a suitcase or duffel bag somewhere along with your bike box.
If you’ll return from a different city, there are several options to prepare panniers for check-in.
- For shorter trips with a known end point, use a duffel bag for the outward journey, and mail it ahead to a hostel at your end point, asking them to hold it till your arrival.
- When outbound, use a suitcase nearing the end of it’s life, then donate or discard it as you begin your bike travels.
- When homebound, buy a cheap sports bag, second hand suitcase, or zippered plastic hold-all. Note: Cheap hold-alls are easy to find in the developing world.
- Wrap panniers together in cardboard or plastic sheeting and secure with strong tape or string.
A bit of ingenuity may be required, but there is always a solution. Wear your helmet as you board to make sure it doesn’t get damaged.
Bikes on Trains
We’ve used trains in Europe. Sometimes this is the safest way to exit a major city. The European Union is moving towards having all trains equipped to carry as is bicycles, although faster inter-city or overnight trains still may not take your bike, and policies vary from country to country.
Our experience so far:
In Norway and Finland we wheeled our bikes to the baggage car where a handler secured them or placed them on a hooks. In Finland, we left the bikes loaded.
In Germany we wheeled bikes fully loaded into spacious purpose-built cars through specially signed doors.
In Latvia and Estonia we placed bikes on hooks at one end of a passenger car.
In Switzerland in 2007, bikes in regulation bags became regular baggage and in theory were accepted on any train.
For the first segment from Constanta, Romania in 2007, we wedged bikes vertically into our two berth sleeping compartment.
In Spain in 2007, we used buses since trains were not yet accepting bikes.
European rail journeys with an as is bike are best planned by going to the German railways site, which covers more than just Germany. Tick the box for “carriage of bicycles required.” Check RailEurope for fares or to get a rail pass.
In the USA, Amtrak now accepts bikes in large boxes which they provide, and has hooks for as is bikes on some trains.
Bikes on Buses
We’ve taken as is bikes on buses in Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Serbia, Spain, Turkey, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The key is to cultivate a good relationship with drivers and/or baggage handlers to ensure bikes are secured in a vertical position (it may be necessary to remove the front wheel) and other luggage isn’t thrown at them or piled on top of them. There may be a small extra charge, and a tip to handlers is sometimes appropriate. In Turkey, our fully loaded bikes rolled straight into the under-belly of a huge Mercedes bus. In Spain, we were required to put plastic bags over the chains.
In North America, Greyhound now accepts boxed bikes. The boxes have to go on their side in the luggage compartment under the bus because there isn’t enough height for them to go vertically. Luggage is then piled on top, but due to the limited height of the compartment the risk of this damaging the bike by crushing is limited.
Bikes on Boats
Ferry crossings and other boat rides make an enjoyable change of pace and perspective during a bike tour. You’ll probably be directed where to secure your bike on the car deck, but position your bike defensively!! Park it with the derailleur side against the wall so that it cannot be knocked by shifting freight or luggage.