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.