Flying with a bike: That’s how they get ya

I got a disgruntled text from Byron yesterday about Delta Airline popping him for $175 to send his bike to South Carolina…one way. Normally, he flies with the Modal bike from Davidson Handbuilt Bicycles, but he wanted to have his lightest bike with DA 7900. And unlike the Modal, that bike doesn’t have S&S couplings so he had to fly with a full Scion soft case.

Ask about and everyone has a tale of how a friend of theirs flew a bike for $5 blah, blah, blah…. Let me tell you, there was a period of time where I logged 100,000 frequent flier miles over two years. I know about flying with a bike. Nothing beats the S&S system for flying a 700C wheeled bike, but there a few extra things you can do to make life easier.

First, what is the S&S system? S and S makes precision fittings for steel and titanium bicycle frames that allow you to separate the frame into two pieces. Once that is done, the largest items are now the wheels. S&S also markets a stout hard cases that will fit two wheels along with the bike frame and other pieces. So what you have is an otherwise conventional bike that fits into a case that squeaks under the airline surcharge for oversize baggage.

S&S isn’t cheap. The couplings typically add $400-600 to the cost of a frame ($600-900 for titanium). The couplings can be retrofitted on some bikes (sometime I’ll detail the process and requirements). The S&S case costs $400-500 nowadays too. Still, it doesn’t take many $175 surcharges to make that pay for itself. One of the great things about S&S (vs regular bike in a full case/box) is that it makes life so much easier all the along the way, from taxis to trains to bellhops. I cannot emphasize enough how satisfied I am with the system.

It is worth noting that the case comes in 3 sizes, based on depth. The smallest case is 26x26x10”, and as such defines the 62 linear inch maximum of domestic airlines. There is a 12” deep case which makes packing the bike MUCH easier, since typically less disassembly of the bicycle is required to fit it into the case. A really big bike might require the 12” case anyways, since the wheels and the fork might be competing for the same space in the case. There is a 14” case, but that is probably overkill for anything but a tandem bike.

But Mark, what happens if I fly with the medium case? Won’t I get jacked?

Most likely no. This is because the airline check-in staff usually don’t have tape measures on hand. Plus, human nature is such that they don’t want to power trip on you unless there’s no chance that you can prove them wrong. If they’re willing to let a case that’s 26x26x10” fly without an extra charge, they’re not gonna care about another 2”. They will care about weight and they always check it on a scale, so keep in mind that most domestic carriers have a 50 lb limit per bag and don’t be tempted to cram everything possible into the case. And while we’re talking about the check-in staff, they can count, so if the airline charges for a 2nd bag, you’re gonna pay (but usually just $25, not $100+).

But Mark, what if the airline says that they always charge extra for a bike?

Well, dumbass, why did you tell them it was a bike? Seriously, they don’t really need to know what it is unless it’s hazardous, liquid, or breakable. When asked, be evasive. Tell them it’s “recreational equipment” or travel supplies or something boring. You gotta sell it, so sound like you do this all the time. Here’s where it pays to have people skills. Don’t invite a power trip, and you can probably sneak past their radar. Hold back the attitude until it will serve a purpose. The staff just want to make it to the next coffee break without having to call in their supervisor, so help them to help you. However, if all else fails, ask to see a document detailing the policy. Chances are that the surcharge for a bicycle does not apply if “the bicycle is presented in a case 62 linear inches or less”.

Um, Mark, I’m flying next week, so getting a bike with S&S isn’t in the cards. What can I do?

Besides reading about mine and Byron’s posts 6 to 12 months ago? You better check the airline ahead of time, since I have talked to people at the bike shop who couldn’t get the airline to take the regular bike at all. Maybe print out the policy so you are well-armed when you step up to the check-in counter. And assuming that the airline will take the bike, I guess you’re gonna get charged. But let’s hope you can get your bike there and back safe. Airline baggage handlers are different from the check-in staff: their job requires neither interpersonal skills nor brain cells, and they are mostly unsupervised. They are not going to treat your baby with the gentle hand I’m sure it so richly deserves. Whether you’re using a full bike hardcase or a cardboard box, pack it well. Obviously, you’re going to need to disassemble it to some degree. If you aren’t comfortable with doing this yourself, you may want to consider hiring a shop at both ends of the journey to pack it and reassemble it for you. If you are doing it yourself, bring the proper tools. Make sure small items aren’t just bouncing around loosely in the case or box. If using a cardboard box, pad anything that might rip through, like axle ends and cranks.

Make sure that you don’t give the airline staff a reason to open up your bike package, so no banned items in the luggage. And on an X-ray scanner, a dense clump of metal looks suspicious, so I often pack my tool kit with my clothes in my suitcase. I don’t care if my pants are wrinkled but my whole trip could be ruined if my bike got damaged after the TSA roots around my bike case and improperly repacks it.

Mark, how do I pack my bike?

Dude, please don’t ask me. The only thing more tedious than packing someone else’s bike is telling them how to do it themselves. If you’ve never done it yourself, the day of or even the day before the trip is too late to start. I will give you a few pointers, though. If you need to drop the fork out of the frame to pack it in your vessel of choice, pay attention to the stack order of the headset/stem and be very careful not to lose ANY of the parts. Demount the rear derailleur; a bent hanger is a disaster waiting to happen. If you have hydraulic disc brakes, definitely use some sort of caliper block, since you don’t want the pistons being popped out. Whenever you unbolt something, put the bolt back into place if possible.

Don’t bring any tools on your person or in your carry-on. I’ve had to abandon 2 Surly Jethro tools ($25 each) at the security line before I finally remembered to put my keychain tool into my checked bags.

One other option is to send your bike via UPS or Fedex. This might be the way to go, since Fedex and UPS often have better tracking systems than some airlines. The weak link in this is the destination. You have to follow the itinerary, and hotels can/have misplaced packages. You’ll need an exit strategy; the morning of your flight home is the wrong time to start thinking about how and by whom your bike will be shipped back. Also, shipping a large package internationally is a lot more iffy than in the contiguous US (and involves a lot more paperwork); I’d roll the dice with the airlines if going overseas.



10 Comments

Agreed on all of the above. I’ve flown with my S&S bike quite literally all over the world, never had a charge for it. If asked what’s in the suitcase (and I almost never get asked since it looks like a regular sulitcase) the answer is “trade show equipment.” I take bikes to trade shows, so that’s the truth.

Shipping also works great, and one of the great things about traveling to a name brand hotel is that you can ship packages there well in advance of your arrival, they’ll hold it for you. I’ve also had hotels nice enough to store my boxes for my bikes while I’ve been out on work trips with the bike, then I come back to the hotel the night before I fly home, pack it all up and leave it with them. Fedex will come get it.

I’ve shipped my touring bike twice via UPS, once it cost me $90 including $3000 worth of insurance and the second time I had a shop ship for me and it cost me $150 including the same insurance. 

I’ve also heard from a couple of friends that Amtrak is the cheapest way to go (sub $50), even if you don’t travel with your bike and they’ll hold it for you if you let them know in advance.  I’ve also been told that they’re easy to use… as long as there’s a terminal at your destination.

Thanks Mark—we’re still upset about it and somehow Pam’s bike got “abraded” on the chainstays.

@carl,

UPS is viable, but our schedule doesn’t permit it. End of season and we’re racing back to back.

The <a >Ritchey BreakAway frames</a> look even spiffier than S&S, and given the costs laid out above, it’s almost like getting the frame for free.

Can a motivated thief pry the couplings open?

+1 on the Ritchey Breakaway.  I raced the Ti-Carbon one a couple times and it rides amazingly. If I only owned one bike - it’d probably be that one.

I’ve heard a couple friends with S&S bikes getting charged lately. The “bow” in the case is >10” deep.  It’s BS, but the airlines are getting rediculous.

well, if S&S bikes are getting charged on the 10” deep case, you’d be totally screwed with the Ritchey Breakaway case.  It measures 29x26x9”, ie 64 linear inches. 
On my S&S case, I wrote in Sharpie, “This case is 26 x 26 x10 inches= 62 linear inches, NOT oversize”.  As I said, make it easy for the staff.

You cannot pry open an S&S coupling; it is bombproof.  You need a lockring wrench to open it, but it’s not like those are difficult to come by.
Ritchey Breakaway is both lighter and cheaper than S&S, but it places significant design restrictions on the frame, and it cannot be retrofitted to an existing frame.

I fly from Italy on average twice a year via Delta Airlines. I use my thule 699 hard case to carry my Daccordi Carbon Fiber and always tell them what’s inside. I have never been charged over $80 (one way) yet. I have to open it at security and let them hand search it, but it is no problem. The Thule does an excellant job of securing the frame inside to minimize damage from movement and the wheels lets me roll in and roll out of airports. I paid $325 for the Thule from my local bike shop before relocating to Italy for my job. All factors considered I would not travel any other way.

Little known fact that Dahon manufactures the Breakway for Ritchey and while we prefer the S&S, lots of cyclist travel with the Breakaways. They have a Cross version as well for fenders and all. I also travel with Dahons and a [Brompton](http://bikehugger.com/2009/05/moso-aea-seattle-action.html). Of all my bikes, including the Modal, I dig the Brompton for it’s [Inspector Gadget](http://www.flickr.com/photos/huggerindustries/3845936956/in/set-72157621986477629/) attention to foldingness.

Depending on the riding I’m doing, I’ll choose the Dahon, Brompton, or Modal. If it’s a business trip and a flat City it’s the Brompton (2 speed, heavy). For a business or short trip with hills, it’s the [Dahon Mu EX](http://bikehugger.com/2009/05/dahon-mu-ex.html) (18 pounds, with SRAM Red, a folder that climbs). And for racing our touring, it’s [the Modal](http://www.flickr.com/photos/huggerindustries/2128820237/). You can follow the packing [here in this photoset](http://www.flickr.com/photos/huggerindustries/1812583274/in/photostream/).

As Mark wrote in this post, we’re in Greenville SC to climb and race and I wanted my Hotspur with me. I won’t do that again and that brings me to the point of racing S&S. I talked at length with a Trek designer about carbon folders and building high-performance travel bikes.

Hi,

I’m a frame builder and make light, take-apart aluminum road bikes that fits 62” linear inch suitcases (S&S cases) to avoid oversize bike case charges by the airlines.  I also make take-apart road tandems.  My proprietary coupler design allows me to use any shape of tubing, not just round.  And I also can retrofit aluminum, carbon or steel road bikes to turn them into two-piece travelers.  You can check out my work at www.ravellobikes.com .

Brian Myers
Ravello Bikes, Tucson

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