Bikes by Air
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 the bike is enclosed in a bag or box. The main reason for this (and the pedals and bars thing) is to avoid damaging or dirtying other passengers' luggage or the baggage handling staff, and to ensure smooth passage through the baggage conveyor system. These rules are also about protecting 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 etc! But a bike in a bag or box is just a package: that 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 case, that 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.
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.
But bikes cannot usually fly naked nowadays. 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, 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, CTC arranged the manufacture of a similar specification bag using the thickest gauge of polythene available for that purpose. These bags are generally available from the CTC Shop, or in case of difficulty from CTC National Office.
Some airlines’ bicycle carriage policies are couched in terms of a “purpose-made bicycle bag”. To avoid problems of interpretation at the check-in desk, we have prepared a document describing the CTC polythene bike bag in those terms, that you can print out and take with you.
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 etc. Reducing the height of the bike to under 1 metre 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. Below is a picture 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 picture:
- 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.
You’ll find lots more packing tips etc. in the CTC information leaflet Taking a Cycle by Air, but note that the leaflet may be less up-to-date than this page.
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 (e.g. BA) 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, with 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 “I have deflated the tyres”. 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, but it doesn’t do any harm to let a little air out when you’re packing the bike. 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 really make it happen.
CTC views on cycling and air travel
For information on CTC views see our Cycling and air travel policy document