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Have Bike, Will Travel: The Pitfalls of Flying with a Bicycle and How to Avoid Them

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I am standing in line at the airport, waiting to check my bags and head for my flight. My palms are sweating, and I nervously rehearse the question-and-answer session in which I know I will shortly be engaged with the check-in agent. No, I’m not carrying any contraband, nor do I have any evil designs on the airline or my fellow passengers. I am simply trying to smuggle my bicycle onboard without paying up to $100 in excess baggage charges.


The case I am using to transport my bike (along with my helmet, bike shoes, and a few other accessories) weighs less than forty pounds. Paying $50, $80, or even $100 for the privilege of bringing it on board offends my sense of principle. It’s not like my bike gets its own seat and complimentary beverage service! Golf clubs weigh as much but are not charged simply for being golf clubs. Why this bicycle discrimination? My resolve to escape an unfair charge thus bolstered, I step up to the check-in desk. I lift my large bag as if it weighs nothing and set it confidently on the scale. Now here come the questions, inevitable, given the bulk of the bag.


“What do you have in there?” This is the moment I’ve rehearsed. A good answer, and a little luck, will see me on my way without having to pull out my wallet. I try for a nonchalant tone and reply, “Oh this? Just conference materials.” (What is a bicycle race but a sporting conference? I feel secure in the veracity of my response.)


If I’m lucky, and the check-in agent is either preoccupied, lazy, or simply in a good humor, the questioning will end here. My bag will be tagged and I will heave a sigh of relief and head for my gate. If, however, it’s a bad karma day, there will be more hurdles. “Conference materials? What exactly is it?” My palms sweat more and I stall a bit by rifling through my handbag for my passport. “Oh, the bag? It’s sporting goods,” I toss out cagily, and immediately go on the offensive by asking her a few questions. “Is the flight on time? Is it full? What’s my seat assignment again?”


Generally, once I walk away from the ticket counter, I’m golden. Once, however, at the airport in Puerto Rico, a ticketing agent who had neglected to charge me for the bike sent someone to the security line to find me. Sheesh. But this was at a small airport in the middle of the night, and that’s the only time it’s happened.


This is always the most stressful part of my trips. It’s not only the principle of paying extra to fly my bike that makes me cringe—it’s the money! When I travel to races, I try to at least break even on the venture. Having to pull out a Benjamin just to get my bike on board the plane could break the bank pretty quickly. Considering I flew with my bike nine times in 2006, that’s a potential cost of $1800 on the least bike-friendly airlines.


Luckily, I managed to get through the season with only a few excess baggage charges. I used all the tricks I knew or had heard from other cyclists. I have a friend who’s a physical therapist; she always says her bag contains a “wheeled chair.” Said fast, it sounds like “wheelchair.” (“It’s got a seat and wheels, hasn’t it?” she asks with wide-eyed innocence.) Then there’s the teammate who always uses the massage table line. Why an airline would charge for a bike but not a heavy massage table, I have no idea, but it works for her.


For those contemplating traveling with a bike, here’s a synopsis of my recommendations on how to avoid extra charges:


1) Consider the airline carefully. Continental is by far the most miserly when it comes to bikes, and I’ve never had good luck with its agents. United used to offer a bike voucher program through USA Cycling, which was useful. Now that they’ve ended the voucher program, though, they’re probably not a good choice bike-wise because the agents have a lot of experience recognizing bike cases. Usually foreign airlines don’t have the bike-gouging regulations that US airlines do, so they’re a good bet. I thought that US airlines didn’t charge on foreign flights, but Continental proved me wrong on that one. Jet Blue has been the friendliest domestic airline I’ve encountered. Although technically they charge a bike fee, too, in my experience they concern themselves mostly with luggage weight and don’t whip out the tape measure to check dimensions.


2) Use a case which doesn’t advertise its purpose: it’s pretty hard to hide the contents of a case which has “BIKE PRO” or some such emblazoned all over it. In the same vein, disguise your sporty nature as much as possible. Wear something businesslike if you plan to use the “conference materials” line. Definitely leave your track pants and “Wildflower Triathlon” sweatshirt in your carry-on bag and choose something more buttoned-down for the airport. Ponytail is out! Think Ann Taylor as opposed to Adidas.


3) If you’re comfortable with how well your bike is protected, try using a soft-sided case instead of the hard plastic kind; they are less conspicuous. For the best bet at avoiding a charge, get a big suitcase or make a custom one just barely big enough for your frame with fork and cranks removed. Unless you’ve got a huge frame, you should be able to fit your partially disassembled bike plus wheels in a case not much over sixty-seven inches length plus girth (the airline limit is sixty-two inches, but if you’re close no one will think to measure). Removing and re-installing the fork and cranks is easy once you’ve learned, and requires only basic tools.


4) Wrap the tubes of your bike in plumber’s foam tubing or bubble wrap. Not only does it protect your frame from surface scratches and chips, but it also makes it a little less obvious what you’ve got in there should the airline employee open it at the check-in counter (unlikely but possible). Also, get some “Fragile” stickers beforehand and put them on your case. If you have to ask for the stickers at the check-in counter, this may prompt more questions.


5) Pack as lightly as possible. In case the ticketing agent is reasonable, you can always try to squeeze out of a charge by pointing out that you only have one checked bag and one small carry-on. “Look! I’ve only got one forty pound bag to check… can you give me a little break?”


 


6) Regardless of what kind of case you have, remember to rehearse your lines in advance. Pick a strategy based on your comfort level with half-truths and/or omissions, and get familiar with your answers so you don’t hesitate under pressure! Decide in advance how desperately you want to avoid the charge, and let this desperation guide you if the questioning turns aggressive. Most of all, remember that your bike weighs less than the suitcase full of shoes that the fashionista behind you in line is toting. Don’t give up, and don’t give in!


Good luck and happy traveling.

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