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Traveling for the holidays? Here’s how to take your bike along

Posted by on December 9th, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Separated cycle track, Baltimore
Riding in other cities can be fun
and fascinating — like this ride in Baltimore.
(Photo © Elly Blue)

The holiday travel season is coming up. If you’re leaving Portland, maybe you’ve thought about bringing your bike along for the trip this time.

A bike doesn’t make sense for every trip or every destination. But if it does fit in with your plans, the experience of traveling with a bike comes highly recommended. A bike can give you independence, flexibility, adventure, and a surefire way to meet people wherever you go.

How you bring the bike, what kind of bike is best to bring, and how much it costs all depend on whether you’re flying or taking the train. Here’s the rundown:

By air:

National Bike Summit
A Bike Friday on its way through security
at the Nat’l Bike Summit.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Flying with a full-sized bike can be an expensive proposition. Here’s a rundown of different airlines’ bicycle baggage policies, but there isn’t much by way of good news there.

If you have a bike with S&S couplers that can be dismantled and fit into a regulation size and weight suitcase, you may be able to check your bike as a regular piece of luggage. Veterans of this method recommend that you avoid extra fees imposed by literal-minded airline personnel by saying, truthfully, that the suitcase contains “bike parts.”

Another way around the highest airline fees is to take your bike apart and ship it. We’ve never done this, but there are some good tips gathered in this Bike Forums discussion. Some bike shops will pack and ship your bike for a fee.

By train:
Besides being an amazing, rare opportunity to work, sleep, read, and think without distractions or stress, train travel also makes bringing your bike along a breath of fresh air compared with flying. The best part is when you get to your destination — train stations tend to be in the middle of the action, rather than in industrial wastelands outside of town like airports — you can just hop on your bike and and go.

Bike parking at Union Station, DC
Many bikes parked at the DC train station
(before the new BikeStation was built).
(Photo © Elly Blue)

Amtrak charges a $5 fee for bringing your full sized bicycle along. Some trains, including the Cascade line that passes through Portland on the way from Eugene to Seattle (and since this fall, straight on to Vancouver, BC), have a limited number of bike hooks in the baggage car — you’ll need to buy a ticket for your bike in advance.

On other lines, you’ll need to box your bike. Amtrak stations sell a roomy, $15 box that’s big enough to roll your bike straight into after taking off the pedals and loosening and turning the bars (bring tools!).

You can often find a free box by calling around to bike shops to see if they have any lying around. Regular bike boxes require more serious dismantling of your bike: bring tools, and know what you’re doing, or find bike shops who will box and unbox your bike at either end of the line.

Some stations will not allow you to check bikes and other luggage. Calling the central information number won’t always yield accurate information. As with all matters on Amtrak, it’s best to call or go to the station in advance.

Folding bikes:

Me and my tikit in DC
Travel lock-free with a folding bike.
(Photo © J. Maus)

If you can buy, borrow, or rent a folding bike, they erase much of the hassle of traveling with a full sized bike. You can also often get away without traveling with a heavy lock or worrying about your ride getting ganked, as with a bit of chutzpah and elbow grease you can just take the bike inside with you wherever you go. Folding bikes are also the best ambassadors.

If your folder fits in a suitcase that meets the airline’s baggage requirements, you can treat it as a regular piece of luggage (again, if you’re asked, the suitcase contains “bicycle parts”). Some airlines will still try to charge you the bicycle fee if they determine you’re carrying any kind of bike. (See this instructive tale of how a Portlander got one airline to change their policy to let folders fly free).

It’s a little iffy, but you can in theory just walk right through TSA and up to the plane with your folding bike and check it at the gate like a stroller. I’ve done this with a Brompton (just take the seatpost off to fit it through the x-ray machine), and Jonathan has made it work with a BikeFriday. I’ve found TSA staff to be friendly, while airline personnel have sometimes been reluctant to deal with the bike.

I’m a huge fan of the train and folding bike combination. It’s hands down the easiest, cheapest, and least heavy-and-awkward way to travel with a bike.

Bike Friday Tikit
Bike Friday offers a hard-shell case that doubles as
a trailer. This one is on the way to the airport.
(Photo © J. Maus)

Amtrak allows folding bikes on board as carry-on luggage. Tales of staff who object to folders are few and far between, and most will go out of their way to help you. You store the bike on the luggage racks at either end of the cars, or on the lower level of the distance trains.

[Note: Amtrak appears to have recently changed the language in their policy, saying that folding bicycles are allowed on "certain" cars -- we'll look into this and let you know what we find.]

Of course, you can skip the whole business of transporting your bike if you have one waiting for you at your destination, or are planning to rent or borrow one while you’re there. Readers have reported good luck riding to the Portland airport with luggage in a backpack or trailer and leaving their bike locked to the staple racks at the entrance.

A final word of advice while traveling by bike — don’t forget to bring all the things you need for riding at home: weather-appropriate clothes, helmet, lights, flat repair kit, and lock (though one of the best things about using a folding bike is being able to travel without the latter).

Do you travel with a bike? Share your own tips, tricks, and stories in the comments below.

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Comments
  • rev December 9, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    bringing a lock is a must if you are planning on borrowing a bike. It shows the owner that you are serious about returning said property.

    i really wish “the league” would do something to make flying with a bike easier. How airlines can charge a fee for a bike but not for art the same size is bizarre.

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  • Sue December 9, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    I love my folding bike! I own a Montague folding bike and it’s the perfect travel companion. It folds down to take on any train or bus, and when I reach the stop I just unfold it and go. The best part about my bike is that Montague makes only full-size folding bikes, so once unfolded it rides easily through city streets. Definitely a great investment.

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  • Paul Johnson December 9, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Just avoid flying unless there’s an ocean crossing involved, it’s not worth the Fourth Amendment violations and cost for domestic service. And I wouldn’t bother calling 1-800-USA-RAIL or going to amtrak.com unless you have a whole lot of time on your hands or are a frequent rider, respectively. For fastest, easiest booking and the right information, go to your local Amtrak station. Note that Oregon City Halt does not have checked baggage service, ticketing or overnight trains (as this station is currently oriented towards commuters headed to Salem, Eugene, Portland or Vancouver): Go to Salem Station, Portland Union or Vancouver Union instead. These stations have ticket counters and truly efficient ticketing agents that get it right the first time, and can help you get your bike on and off the trains.

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  • GLV December 9, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    And I wouldn’t bother calling 1-800-USA-RAIL or going to amtrak.com unless you have a whole lot of time on your hands or are a frequent rider, respectively.

    I once booked a ticket on amtrak.com from the comfort of my home in about 45 seconds.

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  • Paul Johnson December 9, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    The thing about amtrak.com is that the default routing is rather screwy if you have to transfer. In some cases, you might wind up making far more transfers and spending more time in transit than you need to if you book through the website. For trips along Coast Staright, Cascades or Empire Builder from Portland to stops directly served by those routes without transfer, the website is probably faster.

    Either way, I still don’t recommend it to first-time passengers traveling with a bike. If you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the facilities involved and the quirks of the online ticketing system, you’re going to save yourself a lot of heartache by spending 20 minutes at the train station to book in and get all the information you need directly from someone who deals with exactly those kind of details all day long.

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  • Joe December 9, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    PERFECT timing, Im heading out from Portland to San Jose, Ca. got a bike bag
    and train ticket. cant wait to do this :)

    Thanks for perfect timing.

    rock on!
    Joe

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  • Bent Bloke December 9, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I took Amtrak to Davis a couple of months ago, and brought my bike with me. It was easy. Just roll your bike straight into the Baggage claim and tell them you want to check it. They’ll bring you a bike box, ask for $20 ($5 for checking it, $15 for the box), and you’ll need a 15mm wrench to get the pedals off, and an allen wrench to loosen your handlebars so you can turn them.

    At Davis, on the return trip, the station master (or whatever they’re called) located a used bike box that was turned in by another person, and didn’t charge me anything. Not even the $5 checked baggage fee!

    A great way to travel! But next time, I may opt for a sleeper, I didn’t sleep well in the coach seats (but they are still more comfortable than a plane seat).

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  • Paul Johnson December 9, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Stationmaster is the guy with the walkie talkie making sure everyone’s clear of the platform when the train departs and lets the engineer know it’s safe to leave. Easiest way to identify Amtrak employees and their function are by their hat and uniforms. “Red Caps” are station personnel (stationmaster, ticket agents, porters, boarding gate agents, etc). “Blue Caps” are onboard cabin personnel (cabin crew conductor, train bartenders, cooks, waiters, cabin attendants, etc), and the “Black Caps” are powercar personnel (locomotive crew conductor, technician, engineer, etc; some wear pinstripe caps though I don’t think this is part of their uniform).

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  • cgunn December 9, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    we took our bikes to Vancouver B.C. last summer. what a FUN place to ride!

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  • Carl December 9, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Interesting note about locks: I’ve been told by airlines that my Krypto U-Lock is a “club-like device” and have been forced to check it. Chains, however, haven’t caused any problems for me, even big huge ones. A chain seems like a more serious potential weapon to me but what do I know? I don’t work for the TSA.

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  • Bjorn December 9, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Having recently had United charge me over 200 dollars for a flight that they had told me would cost only 60 I have two pieces of advice for anyone considering flying with a bike.

    1. Ask how much it will cost before buying your ticket.

    2. Get it in writing.

    I battled with United for about a month but was able to get a refund for the amount over the 60 dollars I was originally quoted. However my per hour pay for recovering that money wasn’t that awesome because it was not easy. I’m stubborn so I made it happen, but if I had the quote in writing it would have been easier.

    Bjorn

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  • Alan December 9, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    I second (third?) the folder advice. Once you have one that works for you (Brompton for me) you’ll take it with you everywhere. It goes into the overhead (United and Southwest) without a complaint or a charge or a wait. At the other end it connects me to…everything!

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  • Barney December 9, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    I shipped my bike across the country twice in the past couple months with no problems. I did both Fedex and UPS, Fedex was cheaper at about 60 bucks. BUT…you need to really watch your dimensions, otherwise you could pay $150 or even more.

    Here’s the cheapest way I know to ship your bike:

    Call around to bike shops to grab a used bike box. This should be pretty easy to find. Take the pedals, handlebars (you can leave the cables attached to the bars and the frame), seat post, front wheel and fork off the bike. Arrange everything in the bike box with a bit of packing material, using good sense to pad the things that seem to need padding. (There’s some amateurish but informative youtube videos to help with all this.)

    NOW. Take the measurements of the box. Call 1-800-GoFedex and plug in your numbers. If you’re getting anything above 70 or 80 dollars, try your dimensions again but with one inch shaved off the length or the height. Fedex and UPS price their rates in dimension tiers, and one inch too much can double your price. Once you find the ideal dimensions, cut the box down to that size and tape it really well. I did this with a 58cm touring frame and got the box down to the lowest possible pricing tier. You may have trouble with a frame bigger than that.

    I shoved a lot of extra gear in the bike box and brought it to just under 50 pounds, and the total cost was about $60 after insurance with Fedex. UPS was about $80.

    This process is a little time consuming on both ends of your trip, and shipping takes longer than putting it on the plane, of course. If you can, I recommend taking your bike on the train. For 20 bucks, they handle it and give you a HUGE bike box where you simply lower the seat, take off the pedals and turn the handlebars.

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  • Bjorn December 10, 2009 at 8:42 am

    One other note about airlines. When we discovered that United had decided to charge us more than triple per box 2 of my friends managed to stuff both of their bikes into one box, it wasn’t easy but it did save them 50%… So remember United’s charges are per box not per bike…

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  • mbsf December 10, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Last time I went to Germany I actually decided to travel without my trusty folder since I had a stay-over and son in tow. But I googled my hometown, found a nice rental place and had the pleasure of riding a compact bike around for 10 days…
    I also heard from even more adventures friends that they just bought beaters for the time of their stays in Europe…

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  • CL December 10, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Bike Friday + Hardcase= Perfection
    I travel much(not as much as before the “crash”) for work, both international and in country, and have never been charged extra for my Bike Friday. A phone call before the trip(yes- that requires patience)has never not resulted in waiving any (if applicable) fees. And every time , much to my surprise, that plastic hard case comes rolling off the belt- no damage.
    Im a believer.

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  • Larry Lagarde December 10, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    I always travel with a folding bike. It really cuts the hassle and stress of traveling when I can jump onto my bike and explore.

    I know people that fly with a Brompton but I prefer the CarryMe. It fits better in the over head bin above my seat and is much lighter. For trips when I plan to ride off pavement, I check my Montague folding mountain bike. In fact, I took one on the fast ferry from Seattle to Vancouver Island and did some riding there. I took a Strida on a Carribbean cruise and that was great; it really helped that I could roll the Strida when folded through the crowded corridors on the cruise ship.

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  • Tom December 10, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    I flew, with a bike, to NYC last month. When I researched the checked bike fees, the wide range suprised me. Southwest & jetBlue qouted 50.00, Continental 100.00 and Delta 200.00 (the agent seemed a bit embarassed about the price) these prices are each way!

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  • [...] your bike along on holiday travels? You’re a fool, you know. Here’s BikePortland.org to wise you up. I may well take my bike on my holiday travels. It will be on a Thule rack atop my [...]

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  • jv December 11, 2009 at 11:08 am

    I travelled to LA in October with a Brompton Folder and hard case that I rented from Clever Cycles for a week. The setup was perfect – I used a flatbed Burley trailer to carry the hardcase and my luggage, then packed the Brompton and traler in the case and checked as normal baggage. It was about half a pound overweight, but I never got charged extra for it, just the standard checked baggage fee. It was a great trip, and would highly recommend this route – rental and everything was much cheaper than taking a cab to/from the airport to where I needed to go.

    Also, I would say that riding Amtrak is great with bikes – just be sure you don’t get on your bike until you are out of the terminal, they really don’t like that…

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  • John Shewmaker December 12, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Traveling with a bike is always a good idea.
    However, if you are not too crazy about the low performance most folding bikes deliver, there’s a bike shop in Portland that sells bikes for travel that come in kit form.
    Disassemble, pack, travel and reassemble is the process. Real high performance bikes too. I circled Australia on one, worked pretty good.

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  • Mary December 12, 2009 at 11:02 am

    I flew to Copenhagen on Delta with a Pacific Cycles Carry-Me in October. It didn’t seem worth risking the $300 (!!!) fee each way by having it at all visible, so I packed it inside a duffel bag with clothes around it. The small wheels were a bit tricky on cobblestones, but I took some seriously long rides through the city and had a great time.

    However, we rented from Baisikeli for my husband, and I would strongly recommend that as a better alternative. Baisikeli supports bike sales, repair, and manufacturing start-ups in Africa by renting a tremendous variety of good bikes to ride around Copenhagen. They are terrific people and fun to deal with.

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  • Mo December 12, 2009 at 11:04 am

    I agree with 19: a rack is the way to go. A good rack can cost as much as some of these airline fees ($200 at Delta – yikes!), and a carpool/road trip can be a great way to go: you could even bring along more than one bike!

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  • Peter December 14, 2009 at 8:24 am

    What about inter-city buses (Greyhound & other private carriers)? Much more of the country is accessible by bus than by train or airplane. What are the costs & experiences that people have had?

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  • Paul Johnson December 14, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Greyhound doesn’t cover anywhere, and charges 3-4 times as much as Amtrak does. Even if there’s no railroad tracks, there’s a good chance Amtrak serves it anyway. If Amtrak and Greyhound serve both ends, Amtrak will, invariably, be cheaper and nicer, without exception.

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  • Elly Blue (Editor) December 14, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I haven’t taken Greyhound since I was 17, though I have to say it was an amazing social experience. If anyone’s traveled Greyhound via bike I’d love to know.

    I did take a Brompton on a packed Megabus between NYC and DC. It took some doing to wedge it into the packed luggage hold with all the other baggage (there was no employee helping load-in the baggage, it was a complete free-for-all) and the load shifted audibly on every turn — I was glad the bike is built like a tank. Megabus was not particularly comfortable, and the wifi and bathroom were both out of order, but wow it was cheap.

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  • John W. December 21, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Good article on transporting your bike. Also, you can try sending your bike ahead of time with a luggage delivery company. It is so much easier, and I have been doing it for the past few years. And sometimes it is cheaper too. I avoid the long check in lines, waiting at baggage claim, and get to travel a bit more relaxed.

    The company I like the best is MadTravelers, http://www.madtravelers.com, because they are easy to use and very reliable.

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