Tips for travelling with a bike bag or hard case

Travelling with bike bag at train station

There are plenty of detailed how-to guides about packing your bike into a bike box, bike bag or hard case before a flight. This isn’t one of them. Instead, here are a few quick tips about travelling with a bike bag or hard case.

1. Use the space

Bell on wheel hub when packing to travel with a bike bag
Find every little way to save space when packing your bike bag for travel.

After packing your bicycle into your bag or case as per the manufacturer’s instructions, there should still be some room to spare.

Fill up that extra space with clothes, towels and bike equipment. This will help reduce the weight of your other baggage while functioning as additional padding for your frame. Pyjamas, jumpers, t-shirts and beach towels – all wrapped in plastic bags to protect from chain muck – can fit snugly between the front forks or rear stays. Sometimes, I even throw my helmet in.

You can think of myriad other ways to maximise storage space. My favourite trick is to shove energy gels into a bidon, which then goes into the bottle cage.

Gels in a drink bottle (bidon) save space when travelling with a bike bag
What tricks can you come up with to save space?

Be aware, however, that some airline policies don’t allow you to leave accessories attached to the bike. For example, Virgin Australia’s website states, “When packing a bike, remember to place any loose accessories such as pedals or water bottles into a bag then place in the box. Ensure that only bike parts are packed in the box.”

I’ve personally never been held up for this (even when flying with Virgin), but be prepared to strip down your bike at the check-in counter.

Also, don’t be tempted to overload your bike bag. It’ll become too heavy to lift and drag during transfers.

2. Plan your transfers

Speaking of transfers, make sure you plan ahead of time. Bags and cases are great for transporting your bike by aeroplane, but getting those bulky bags to and from the airport can be tricky.

A private car is the most convenient option, but airport parking is extortionate (at least in Sydney). You’ll have to make sure your fully-loaded bike bag actually fits in your car. If you’re travelling with more than one person or more than one bike, you’ll probably need to find another option.

Squeezing bike bag into a car when travelling with a bike bag
Not much space in a family car.

A taxi suffers from the same problem. An ordinary sedan-style taxi likely accommodates only one bike bag across the back seats, which means only one passenger can travel with the bike. If you’re travelling with others, you’ll need to book a maxi taxi or mini-van.

Using a maxi taxi when travelling with bike bags.
A maxi-taxi is great for transporting multiple bikes.

In Sydney at least, don’t rely on ordinary public buses. You’ll have difficulty hauling your bike bag through a bus’s narrow aisles and staircases. Even if you’re fortunate enough to board an “accessible” bus (the kind with low floors and wide spaces for wheelchair access), travel is at the driver’s discretion. If the bus starts getting full, or someone with a pram or wheelchair needs to board, you and your bike will be the first to go.

Trains are a viable option. They’re my go-to choice when flying by myself. If you can avoid the peak-hour crush, Sydney’s suburban train carriages can comfortably fit a bike bag. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. you have to get yourself and your bike to a train station in the first place. I’m fortunate enough to live near a station with unlimited car-parking, so I drive and park for the duration of the trip;
  2. check ahead for planned trackwork. If the trains aren’t running, don’t even think about trying to get your bike bag onto a replacement bus; and
  3. prepare to lug your bike bag around from car to station, platform to platform, and station to check-in counter.
Dragging bike bag through Tokyo Central Station when travelling with a bike bag
Be prepared to drag your bike bag through train stations.

3. Elevators are your friend

At 20+ kilograms, you really don’t want to lug that misshapen lump of a bike bag up and down staircases.

I mean, you can, and sometimes you’ll have to – but it’s best to avoid it.

Carrying bike bag up stairs in Kakunodate, Akita, Japan when travelling with a bike bag.
You can carry a bike bag up and down stairs, but it’s not ideal.

Escalators are even worse. They’re narrow and potentially dangerous – you can imagine what happens if your bike bag clogs up a moving escalator with dozens of people behind you. If you must use an escalator, load and unload your bike bag firmly and confidently, and pray that it doesn’t get stuck. Once you’re on the escalator, watch your footing and keep a firm grasp on your bag so that it doesn’t fall.

By far, the best option is the elevator. But elevators are a rare species. At Sydney’s Central Station, platform 23 to the airport has only one small lift, which is at the far northern end. When you get to the airport, you have to ascend from the platform to the departure level through a series of three lifts.

Queuing for the elevator at Tokyo Central Station when travelling with a bike bag
Be prepared to queue for the elevator.

Ready yourself to trundle slowly from elevator to elevator; to queue up behind wheelchairs and over-laden suitcases; and then to wait even longer when the doors open, revealing a lift stuffed full of disgruntled passengers, meaning the doors close and the lift departs while the queue behind you grows and grows.

Whenever you’re travelling with a bike bag or hard case, you’ll have to be patient.

4. Find the oversized counter

Bike bag at the oversized counter when travelling with a bike bag.
You’ll have to drop off your bike bag at the oversized counter.

After checking in and dropping off your regular luggage, you’ll invariably be directed to the oversized baggage area to drop off your bike. Allow extra time for this. At Sydney International Airport, the oversized baggage drop-off point is at the far end of the departure area, so prepare to drag your bike bag from one end of the terminal to the other.

Upon arrival at your destination, you’ll have to collect your bike bag from the oversized baggage claim, which is usually in a separate location to the baggage carousel. Prepare for an additional wait before the oversized baggage becomes available.

5. Clean your bike

A clean bike being packed for travel in a bike bag
Clean your bike of obvious mud before returning to Australia.

You might remember the old Steve Irwin (Crocodile Hunter) advertisements: “Quarantine matters, don’t muck with it!”

Australia remains a world leader in super-strict biosecurity measures. Therefore, before you return to Australia, give your bike a good hose-down to remove any soil, mud and stray organic matter.┬áPay special attention to the tyres. If you can’t find a hose while overseas, a thorough going-over with baby wipes will do the trick.

Upon arrival in Australia, customs officers will ask you if the bike is clean. They may even want to inspect the bike for themselves. Road bikes tend to attract less concern than mountain bikes, but either way, getting your bike impounded at customs is not the best way to end a trip.

6. Prepare for the worst

“Expect the worst, but hope for the best.”

The internet is rife with stories of cyclists arriving at their overseas destination only to find, to their great sadness, a broken bike. Airport baggage handlers aren’t exactly known for their delicate touch. Snapped carbon frames, broken shifter levers and damaged rear derailleurs are some of the most common issues. Bubble wrap and even the sturdiest of hard cases can only do so much.

Bicycle wrapped in bubble wrap in preparation for travelling by bike bag.
Bubble wrap all you like, but it can only do so much.

Whenever I travel with a bike bag, I half-expect my bike to disintegrate in transit. One of these days, it probably will. I breathe a sigh of relief every time I find my bike intact.

It’s not such a big issue if your bike is damaged on the return trip, but if it’s broken before you’ve even had a chance to pedal it overseas, be mentally prepared to deal with the anguish, and to search out a rental bike in a foreign country.

What’s your top tip for flying with a bike? Let us know in the comments below.

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