Bike Travel 1130x600
Training Tips

Tips for Traveling with a Bicycle

By: Jim Rutberg  December 02, 2021

Whether you are traveling home for the holidays, taking a cycling trip through the wine country, or flying to compete in a USA Cycling National Championship event, getting your bike to your destination on time and in one piece is of the utmost importance.

USA Cycling athletes and staff fly around the world with all types of bicycles, and here are some insider tips to successfully traveling with your bicycle.

Invest in a bicycle-specific carrier

Specially-designed bike cases – either hard sided or soft sided – are more expensive than the used cardboard bike boxes from the local bike shop but are worth every dime. If you rarely travel with a bike and decide to use a cardboard bike box from a bike shop, make sure the box is big enough for a bike of your size and choose a box that is in near-pristine condition. If you decide to invest in a bike-specific carrier, choosing the right one for you comes down to three things:

  • Carrier Size: Think about the vehicles you will be using to transport your packed bike. Large cases may be easier to pack and could be more protective but may not fit in your car or – more importantly – the mid-size sedan rental car you got stuck with. Larger carriers may also be subject to oversize baggage fees on airlines.
  • Mechanical Competence: Almost all bike carriers require some level of disassembly in the packing process. If you are comfortable with extensive disassembly and reassembly, a smaller carrier might be a good option. If you’re not, then a larger carrier that requires less mechanical work is a better option – or utilize a local or mobile bike shop to get the job done by professionals.
  • Protection: Sometimes sacrificing protection is the tradeoff to get a smaller, lighter, and more easily portable bike carrier. If maximum protection is your priority, be prepared to deal with a larger, heavier case that may cost more to transport and require bigger vehicle.

Tips for packing a bicycle

First, decide whether you want to handle packing and unpacking your bike yourself or have it done by a professional. View a tutorial on packing a bike from THRU, the Official Bike Transport Sponsor of USA Cycling. If you decide to use a shop, make arrangements ahead of time. If you’re comfortable doing it yourself, keep the following in mind:

  • Disc Brakes: Insert brake blocks in disc brake calipers to keep the pads apart. Remove disc rotors to minimize the chance of bent rotors.
  • Drivetrain: Bent and broken derailleur hangers are common consequences of roughly handled bike carriers. If you have an electric drivetrain and your chain is connected with a ‘quick link’, consider removing the chain and rear derailleur entirely. Wrap, bag, and secure the parts in a pocket within the carrier.
  • If the carrier doesn’t already come with padding for the frame, or you just want to use more, foam pipe insulation tubes can be cut to custom lengths and shapes.
  • Keep it tight. Bike cases are routinely opened by security and customs officials. If your bike parts or frame padding shift as soon as the carrier is opened, there’s a greater chance for subsequent damage.

Tools and Spare Parts

Although it’s impractical to carry a shop-quality toolkit every time you travel with your bike, always pack the tools required to reassemble it at your destination. Also pack spare parts (even if you don’t know how to install them). This includes ‘consumable’ parts like tubes, brake pads, cleats, chain connectors, and spare derailleur/brake cables (if applicable). Buy a spare derailleur hanger, seat post clamp, and stem to always keep in your carrier. If your bike has proprietary parts, like a uniquely shaped seat post, consider bringing a spare because you may not be able to find a bike shop that stocks those parts where you’re going or that can order them fast enough to save your trip.

Carry Essentials with You

Many races have been won on borrowed and rented bikes, but when luggage goes missing it’s often easier to find a bike than it is to find a spare cycling kit, helmet, and shoes and pedals. It’s tempting to stuff these things into your bike carrier, but it’s safer to keep them with you so you have more options if the carrier doesn’t make it on the same flight.

Ship it or fly with it?

THRU has made shipping bicycles to and from events and destinations easy and reliable. (USA Cycling members get discounts on both one-way and round trip transport as well as access to THRU’s Fully Assembled service.) It can sure beat wrestling a bike carrier through a busy airport. You can pack your bike and have it picked up and delivered straight to your destination and track the shipment the whole way. Shipping your bike to a local bike shop can be a great option if you want them to handle reassembly and packing/shipping for your return trip. If you are shipping your bike to a hotel, check with the hotel ahead of time to make sure they will accept the shipment if it arrives before you check in. Shipping your bike can also be a preferred option is your trip requires several modes of transportation (planes, trains, and automobiles…).

Putting your bike on the plane with you requires less planning, but there’s always the risk your bike might not make it on to the flight. Flying with a bike is also more economical than it used to be, now that major airlines like United, Delta, American, and Alaskan Airlines have eliminated exorbitant bicycle-specific baggage fees. In most cases you will still be charged a normal baggage fee, plus overweight and/or oversize fees if applicable.

Confirm all connecting flights

If you have connecting flights – particularly through partner airlines – make sure they will all accept your bike carrier. Your itinerary may require you to register the bike bag separately for individual flights or claim and recheck it for certain connections. Airlines may also limit the number of bike cases they’ll put on an individual flight, which can be a concern if you are traveling to a popular destination event (like National Championships). Even the size of the planes can make a difference. For instance, if the first leg is on a large plane, but the last leg is on a ‘puddle jumper’, your bike carrier might not get all the way to your destination.

Don’t leave your bike at home!

It has never been easier to travel with a bicycle. Bike carriers are more protective, airline fees are lower, electric drivetrains can be conveniently disassembled, and there are even specialty shipping options. If you’re not flying, the range of bicycle racks for cars and trucks has never been greater, either. Even route-planning at your destination is easier than ever with apps like Trailforks. So go ahead, take your bike with you on your next trip!