Guide to taking your bike on an aeroplane
Guide to taking your bike on an aeroplane
Although airlines have latterly brought in extra rules and charges for the transport of bicycles, these are generally less problematic than the complex restrictions confronting the international bike-rail traveller. If you’d like to know what CTC is doing to ease these journeys, visit our campaigning pages.
Bags and boxes
Although some people still get away with simply rolling their bike up to the desk, removing the pedals, turning the handlebars and letting some air out the tyres, most airlines insist that a bike is enclosed in a bag or box.
The main reason for this (and the pedals and bars) is to avoid damaging or dirtying other passengers’ luggage or the baggage-handling staff, and to ensure smooth passage through the baggage conveyor system. The rules are also meant to protect your bike, but they don't.
When bikes fly naked, they paradoxically seem to suffer no more damage than when they go covered – usually less. We guess that’s because baggage handlers really are human, and don’t deliberately kick in the wheels!
But a bike in a bag or box is just a package: it can be dropped, thrown, shoved and kicked into place just like any other bag or box. To prevent damage in that case you need a really hard box, which will only be big enough for a racing or mountain bike and yet be heavy enough to make quite a dent in your luggage allowance.
To help you choose the best bike box or bag, take a look at our bike box and bag group test.
Proprietary bike bags are also quite heavy, too bulky to carry on the bike (if you need to ride to or from the airport) and a bit too small for a touring bike, resulting in hours of work to dismantle luggage carriers, mudguards and lighting systems.
Although some bags (including the CTC bag) are big enough to wheel a bike straight into, such a large package is not as acceptable as it used to be, due to the increased use of conveyor systems. Reducing the height of the bike to under 1m will generally avoid any problems, delays or fees for manual handling.
Laid on its side (preferably left side down), the 1m-wide packed bike will generally fit the ‘out of gauge’ conveyor. If you can get it down to 80cm, that’s even better.
Most bikes can be reduced to 1m by removing the front wheel and putting the saddle down. The seatpost may need to be removed from very large frames, or to achieve the even more acceptable 80cm. See the image below for an example of a touring bike prepared in this way: pedals out, bars turned and front wheel toe-strapped on the same side as the other delicate stuff, ready to go in the plastic bag.
Other things to note on this image:
- 10cm piece of metal tube used with the front wheel quick release as a dummy front axle, to stop the forks being squashed together.
- Handlebars not only turned but also twisted downwards in stem so that the levers are sheltered – essential if you have dual controls (easy to break, hard to replace).
- This exposes bar-end controls, though, here protected by pieces of PVC waste pipe jammed on the ends of the bars.
- Rear mech unscrewed from its frame-end ‘hanger’, tethered by a zip tie to the chainstay, so they can’t bend it or the hanger.
- Bike computer mount removed from exposed top of bar, tethered to a brake cable below, and bell rotated under the bar
- Bottles in their cages strapped to the frame with PVC tape, to protect cages and save space in luggage. Pump may be attached likewise, but risk of theft if visible in poly bag or denting if metal.
- Front mudguard stays with safety-release fittings (plastic, easily broken) detached from dropouts and tethered with PVC tape instead.
- Exposed rear lamp should be removed from mudguard, which should be adjusted down against tyre at this point to avoid damage when it is forced down later!
- Saddle cover fitted.
If you’re bothered about scratching the frame, the best way to protect against that is lengths of foam pipe lagging – available from any DIY shop. Bubble wrap is good for components. If your bike has disc brakes it is advisable to remove the discs and pack them elsewhere, for example in the back of a pannier – but not the one you plan to carry into the cabin!
When the check-in staff go to place flight labels on the packed bike, either pierce the plastic so they can loop it around the top-tube (crossbar) or handlebar (closer to the stem than the brake lever, so that stops it sliding off) or a wheel (if the gap between spokes is wide enough).
Or – which they are likely to prefer nowadays – stick the whole long label on the right side of the packed bike. That’s the side with all the sticking-out things: the gears, the removed front wheel, the turned handlebars.
If you’ve used a proprietary fabric bike bag, where you can’t see the bike, try to remember – or tell by feel – which side of the frame all those sticking-out things are and try to get the label attached to a bag handle on that side.
Then, when you take the packed bike to the out-of-gauge luggage conveyor, you can easily ensure that it’s laid onto the belt left (smoother) side downwards, which the staff will probably want to do anyway because that way the label on the right side can be scanned more easily.
This is not really necessary with bicycle tyres, since the maximum possible reduction in external pressure (about 10psi) has the same effect as that much extra inside the tyre at ground level. Bicycle tyres are designed to stand way more than that. And even if one should blow off, it won’t contain enough air to damage anything apart from its own inner tube.
In fact, leaving the tyres inflated helps to protect both tyre and rim from damage when the bike is handled. Some airlines (BA, for example) have realised this and exempted pedal cycle tyres from the usual restriction on the carriage of pressurised gases.
Check-in staff prefer nice simple rules, however, which together with a dose of corporate amnesia means that you’ll often be asked “have you deflated the tyres” even when flying BA.
Always say “Yes”. No need to say when or how much. One advantage of the packing rule is they cannot easily check – but if you argue they will. You’ll have deflated the tyres last time you had a puncture, won’t you? It doesn’t do any harm to let a little air out when you’re packing the bike, though – 10psi is plenty.
The reason they have a rule about this is the amount of energy stored in a big tractor tyre: if it blew, could send the wheel through the side of the plane! And tractor tyres work at such low pressure, an extra 10psi might make it happen.
Which airlines allow you to travel with a bike?
Different airlines have different rules about travelling with your bicycle. In spring 2017, Yellow Jersey Insurance compiled information about airlines and their different rules to help you decide which one to use and how you will need to pack your bicycle.
Cycling UK’s policy and views on cycling and air travel
In short, we believe cycling and air travel requires clear and easy access, a simple booking procedure, clear information and well-trained staff. Find out more in our Cycling and air travel policy document.
British Airways was one of the first to insist on full enclosure and used to give a big polythene bag to any cyclist who turned up without one at Heathrow. These bags were large enough to wheel the bike straight into, and being transparent, the packed bike was no more (or less) likely to arrive with its wheels kicked in than when it travelled bare.
These BA bags had two other advantages: they were big enough to contain a touring bike, and they were not too heavy and packed up small enough to carry on that bike. This is important for touring, when it can be difficult to find anywhere near the airport to leave a large bag, and is essential for place-to-place tours.
The CTC Bike Bag
About the same time as other airlines began to insist on bikes in bags, BA stopped dishing them out as freely. To safeguard the future of cycle touring, we arranged the manufacture of a similar specification bag using the thickest gauge of polythene available for that purpose.
We designed a big (1.27m wide by 2.5m long), heavy-duty (125micron) polythene bag in order to provide a purpose-made bicycle transport bag that’s big enough for a real touring bike, yet also light enough (0.8kg) and small enough when folded to carry on the bike! It can also be posted ahead to point of departure.
These bags are generally available from Chain Reaction Cycles, described as CTC Cycling UK Plastic Bike Bag. If the company is out of stock, you could try using a large sheet of polythene available from a plumber’s merchant or a bedding shop and padding the frame with pipe lagging or bubble wrap.
The bag is accepted by most airlines and several express coach operators. Check with your carrier for confirmation.
Regrettably, in spite of the fact that bikes travel just as well (or badly) like this, some airlines have written their bike carriage rules in terms that cause doubt as to whether such a bag will do and check-in staff occasionally look askance at bikes that are, as they put it “just in a plastic bag”.
Expect to replace this product after a period of regular use, depending on wear and tear of typical handling.
It helps to protect the bike by letting baggage handlers see what they’re handling, but accidents can still happen. Adding your own padding, such as pipe lagging, can help. The means of sealing up is your choice. Parcel tape is not included.
You can always try to elicit the sympathy of stroppy check-in clerks by agreeing that it isn’t much of a bag, but unfortunately it’s the best you can do!
We know it would help to have bike pictograms and ‘CTC bike bag’ printed on the big, but have not yet located any supplier who will print on a bag this heavy – only thin plastic and we will not compromise on thickness.
Have you used a CTC Bike Bag recently or had problems using one when travelling by plane? Please let us know your experience by using the comments box below.
Top tips for taking your bike on a plane
- Read and print out a copy of your chosen airline’s policy on the carriage of cycles (this is normally under ‘sporting equipment’ on the airline’s website).
- Note their packaging requirements – all airlines now insist on bicycles being packaged for transit. Bags specifically for bikes are available from various retailers. They vary in design, from fabric zip-ups to hard-case plastic boxes, and also heavy-duty polythene bags (many people prefer these because baggage handlers are more likely to respect a bike if they can see what it is).
- All airlines will require you to detach the pedals and to turn the handlebars inwards so that they are in line with the frame. Some airlines will also advise you to deflate the tyres either fully or partially.
- Whichever bag you choose, we recommend that you protect all of the bike’s tubing with sponge padding – the type used to insulate pipes, available in most DIY stores. We also advise you to detach the rear gear mechanism where applicable and tape this to the frame of the cycle, or as a minimum put the bike into its lowest gear, so that it is flush against the wheel and therefore less vulnerable.
- Packaging your cycle takes time, so allow an extra hour on top of your airline’s check-in time to package your cycle.
- Once you have collected your bicycle, be sure to re-assemble it before heading through customs control. If the cycle is damaged in any way, report this to airport staff immediately and complete a claim/incident form before heading for customs.