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Flying With Your Bike: Hacks and Tips From A Seasoned Traveller

You’ve planned the trip of a lifetime for you and your carbon companion. However, while your travel arrangements are limited to getting to the airport on time, your bike’s transport takes time, money, consideration, and until now, a dash of experience.

Photos by Ian Matteson

And while the least expensive method of transport is to get a used cardboard bike box out of the dumpster, when your bike arrives on the conveyor belt in a crushed box, you’ll know that you should have reviewed your case options. Cases run the gamut of prices, but so long as they feature a semi-rigid or solid frame, handles, and portage wheels, it’s easy to safely pack your bike so that it arrives intact and at your destination.

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There are two main rules that you need to adhere to when flying with your bike: Make it as hard as possible for security to lose any components, and as easy as possible to repack in the case. I’ve learned that “closing a case” and “securing a case” are not mutually exchangeable phrases in TSA-land.

If you’ve traveled with your bike at all, basic packing should be familiar. You’ll have to complete a simple disassembly—remove the handlebars (at the stem), the pedals, the seatpost, and the wheels. Make sure that the entire frame is covered. I use one of two different pads, depending on the geometry of the bike that I’m packing. Pipe insulation, available at the local hardware store, works for most frames. It cuts to size pretty easily. And if you have a full-suspension frame or another slightly awkward geometry, you need to invest in a roll of bubble wrap. I use masking tape, rather than packing tape, because I know that I’ll need to reuse the padding on the return trip.

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My case features two integrated locks. They don’t function to keep anyone out; so much as they keep the contents in. I’ve also written in white permanent marker on the case, and made the combination a very stealthy “111” in order to make sure that the TSA is able to re-secure it. I also have very clear instructions on “how to close the locks” written on my case; I’ve learned over the course of 20 years of flying with my bike that “one, two, buckle my shoe” was apparently not taught in all preschools.

One additional trick to keep your frame intact is to use zip ties to secure the frame and handlebars to both each other and to the case. This way, even if your case is opened for inspection, the contents remain inside. Wheels should be packed with equal care. Remove your skewers and make sure that you slightly deflate your tires. If your case does not feature a separate compartment for the wheels, make sure they’re attached to the inside of the case, too.

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Finally, there are two points on the frame that should be protected from crush forces, the fork and the rear stays. The easiest thing to do is to ask friends who’ve bought new bikes online for the plastic inserts that are shipped with frames. After all is said and done, the final touch is to ensure that your bike case is emblazoned with your name and phone number. If you’re going to be traveling once you reach your plane’s destination, put your final destination’s address on your bag.

A few years back, I flew from Kona Ironman directly to Australia. As I didn’t need my triathlon bike Down Under, I had it shipped directly, or so I thought, to my home. About a week after returning home, I received a call from the shipper that an unaddressed box was waiting for me to pick it up. While in transit, it had lost all shipping tags. The only way the shipper knew who to call was because I’d dropped a few business cards inside before I sealed the box. Lesson learned, almost the hard way.

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Make sure that you pack a small pair of scissors to cut the zip ties, as well as additional zip ties for the return trip. Additionally, pack a frame pump as CO2 cartridges are not allowed on flights, and they may be difficult to find at your destination. Along the same lines, some airlines frown upon tire cement, so make sure that you glue your tubulars before you leave.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that I ever learned flying with my bike was when I arrived at the Detroit Six-Day without a bike or a kit. A decent track bike was simple to find. However, much to my horror, I was stuck wearing a used kit that an older rider had with him. In fact, it was so old that it featured a real chamois leather insert. Never, never again will I travel with my shoes, helmet, kit, and pedals in anything other than my carry-on bag.

If you choose to learn from my mistakes, you’re going to reduce your potential for headaches when you should be having the time of your life. Feel free to share any of your tips, hacks, or advice in the comment section below.

Love the DAKINE case in these photos? Learn more about it here.