lessons from shipping a road bike cross-country for the first time

Passenger Jet Landing
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velojoy presents a primer on shipping a carbon-fiber road bike crosscountry by commercial airline -- including a couple of lessons learned the hard way. video links and threads about packing a bike are included.

America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride around Lake Tahoe wasn’t my first century, but it was my inaugural long-haul trip with a bike box. So I learned a couple of lessons, some the hard way. Sure it’s a schlep, but once you reach your destination, it’s all about the joy of the ride.

Shipping by air: Shipping options abound, but I chose commercial air — both because the bike shipping services I investigated required long lead times and because it was cheaper. American Airlines charged me $100 each way. Read about their baggage allowances here. Bike box charges and availability of cargo space vary, so check with your airline.

Bike containers: I shipped my bike in a Serfas hard case. Since I didn’t feel ready to commit to an expensive purchase, I rented the box for $10/day from a local bike shop. If you prefer to use a carton, most bike shops will give you a free cardboard box and discarded packing materials from shipments of new bikes entering inventory.

Packing: While I pride myself on self-sufficiency, I think I made the wrong call in disassembling the bike and packing it myself. Prime takeaway: Pay a bike shop to pack the bike first time out. Watch and learn how an experienced mechanic does it. The quotes I received from bike shops were in the $50 range for this service.

The box came with instructions, and I studied plenty of resources on the web (links below), but I will always wonder whether or not my first-time packing job contributed to the cracked top tube that we discovered just before the event. Did I hear, “Duh”?

Airport checkin: Give yourself extra time when departing for the airport. American advised me that oversize baggage may be accepted on a first-come-first-served basis.

TSA: On both legs of my round trip, a card placed inside my bike box notified me that it had been opened for inspection by the Transportation Security Administration. I used zip ties (which were removed), but here’s a list of TSA-recognized baggage locks.

Note: Remember to let the air out of your tires and to remove the CO2 cartridges from your saddle bag.

Baggage claim: In San Francisco at mid-day, my bike box was available for pickup at the airline’s luggage office. On late arrival in NYC, I was paged to an attendant near the baggage carousel.

Ground transport: Stick a wad of dollar bills in your pocket before departure. Job One, especially if you are traveling alone, will be to grab a luggage cart from a dispenser in the baggage claim area or to hail a porter.

Pushing the box around is a bulky proposition; allow extra time to find elevators. For example, at San Francisco International, several elevators were required to transport my cart to the tram for the rental car center.

Car rental: If you’re traveling as a group, arrange in advance for an SUV. Since I was meeting up with friends in Tahoe, I chose the cheapest premium car rate, shoved the bike box in the back seat and stowed my luggage in the trunk.

Pre-event assembly and tuning: Contact a reliable bike shop near your lodging — in advance of your trip — to make an appointment for bike re-assembly and light tuning. You can count on something being a little out of whack from time served in the travel case. The quotes that I received for this service ranged from $50 to $65. (Parts extra.) Most bike shops also want advance notice to break down and pack the bike for your trip home.

Hang onto all your packing materials; secure a plastic bag containing zip ties, packing tape, electrical tape and some wet-wipes inside the bike box. (I save the little packets from take-out deliveries for this purpose.)

Edification and entertainment:

Bikeforum.net threads:

Thread 1

Thread 2

Have you got bike packing tips, adventures or misadventures to share. Please comment!

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1 Comment

  • now i know why i don’t ride a bike that actually goes anywhere.

    i can barely set up my spin bike properly, plus i’m usually half asleep.

    and susi…tell me where i went so wrong when i wished you a fun trip to tahoe….i thought that the trip was going to be about the BIKE taking you out into the lovely california countryside…i didn’t realize that really the trip was about YOU taking the BIKE on a cross country odyssey.

    i usually feel sorry for the mothers with the toddlers and the strollers and the sippy cups and the elmos under their arms trying to get on planes, but now i am going to keep my eyes peeled for people in bike shorts and maybe even give them my upgrade–

    frankly, the bike gets the only first class service left in the airline industry.

    you pack for it, get a trolley for it at the airport at both ends so it doesn’t have to roll on its own two wheels, get it through security without it having to keep pulling its driver’s license in and out of the holder, rent a car for it, get it nice accomodations….

    that bike is a prima donna!!!

    i’m going to see if i can use some of my air miles to go BIKE class next time i fly.

    now i totally get what you mean by velojoy!!!

    congrats on making it to tahoe susi…an amazing accomplishment….all around!!!

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