Flying a Bike

Flying a BikeIn May I traveled by air with my bike for the first time.    I was meeting a friend to ride L’Etape du California 2011 – the most difficult ride I’ve done yet, but that’s another story.

It all went very smoothly, though there were many logistical details.  I learned a lot and made a mistake or two:   Here are some tips in case you plan to fly with your bike.   (Mistakes in bold)

Bikes Fly Free on Frontier

I didn’t happen to be flying on Frontier, who began accepting bicycles as standard luggage with no extra fees in April of this year.   Quoting from their press release:   “Frontier is removing the flat fee for checked bicycles and will now include them in the standard baggage allowance, meaning customers traveling on Classic or Classic Plus fares can include their bike as one of their two complimentary checked bags and Economy passengers would pay $20 if the bike is one of their first two checked bags. Bikes will be exempt from any oversize fees, but subject to overweight fees and excess bag fees, if applicable. This is similar to the carrier’s current policy for golf clubs and skis.”  You can review their complete rules and regulations, here.  I was on Southwest, who charged $75 each way to transport by bike.

Jackrabbit Bike and Trail Rents Hard Cases

I don’t own a shipping case.  I considered visiting a local bike shop to reuse a cardboard shipping box, but felt I wanted a little more protection than that.   A quick internet search led me to Jackrabbit Bike and Trail in Lakewood.  They rent very nice wheeled hard cases at a very reasonable price, and were incredibly helpful, taking the time to help me disassemble my bike and pack it carefully.   They also taught me how to reassemble it at the other end.     They told me in advance which size allen wrenches I was going to need, so I could bring them along and pack them in the case with the bike.   I took a lot of pictures on my iPhone of the packing process, so I was comfortable I could repeat it on my own for my return flight.

My Trip Details

  • I flew from Denver to Ontario Airport, east of Los Angeles.   My hotel was in Claremont, about 12 miles from the airport.
  • When I contacted the local shuttle bus company, they told me I would need to reserve a van for me and my bike, at a cost of $55 each way.   I chose to keep this as a rainy day option, and to ride my bike between the airport and my hotel.
  • I used Google Map’s bicycle option to figure out a route from the airport to my hotel.    I was pleased to learn there was a bike trail that would take me most of the way.    This worked out well, made even easier by the iPhone:   I mapped the route in MapMyRide, so I had it available to view on my phone when I arrived.
  • I realized I would not be able to transport the case between the airport and my hotel – I needed to find a way to store that somewhere within walking distance of the airport.
  • I tried calling the airport to figure out if they had any luggage storage option for the case.    I never figured out how to talk to a live person, and gave up on this.
  • It took 3 calls before I finally found a hotel about a mile from the airport who had the necessary storage space and weren’t concerned with security or responsibility for the luggage of a non-guest.
  • I arrived at the airport about an hour and a half before my flight – I wanted plenty of time in case there were problems.   This turned out to be a good decision:  I had heard I could be present during the TSA inspection of the case and planned to do that to make sure it went back together correctly.
  • When I arrived at Southwest I first tried checking in curbside.  (The case is fairly bulky, and the sooner I could check it in the happier I would be).    After waiting in line, nobody seemed to know anything about how to coordinate with TSA.   Finally somebody told me I had to take it personally to the TSA inspection room at the other end of the terminal.  (This was wrong).
  • When I arrived at TSA after a long walk, they explained to me that the case must be checked in before they can inspect it, and once checked in, I can’t touch it.   I needed Southwest to bring the case to them, with me alongside.
  • Pessimistically I started the long walk back to Southwest.  This time I chose the inside check-in, which had an even longer line.   Fortunately the inside gate agent knew the procedure very well, and immediately called for somebody to escort the case and I back to TSA’s inspection room.
  • One more long walk, and the case was inspected.   I was glad I was there, as TSA didn’t close the case correctly, and I was able to catch this and show them how to secure it before handing it back to Southwest.
  • Once in California, the biggest challenge I faced was getting out of the airport.  It turns out there is no pedestrian access, and I ended up walking in the traffic lanes to get off airport property and onto the local roads, which did have sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes.    This part was a little iffy, and was a mistake.   On the return trip I realized I could take advantage of the hotel shuttle even though I wasn’t a guest.
  • The bike arrived in perfect shape in its case.   Unpacking and reassembling it took about a half hour.   I had released most of the tire air to avoid blowouts from traveling in the unpressurized cargo hold, and used the floor pump I had packed in the case along with the bike to re-inflate them.
  • I incorrectly assumed I could not ship my CO2 cartridges with the bike.   It’s true they are not allowed in the passenger compartment in hand luggage, but they are accepted in checked luggage.     As a result of this mistake, I purchased a couple of cartridges at a local bike shop but I never needed them, so when I checked back in for the return flight I found a gate agent who knew a cyclist and donated them.
  • Ontario Airport’s TSA has no procedure for observing the inspection of checked luggage, so I needed to let go and trust them for the return flight.   Fortunately everything went fine, and case and bike arrived in perfect shape back in Denver.

Take Pictures

As mentioned above, I took many pictures of the bike in various stages of being packed into the case – these gave me the confidence that I would remember how it all goes back together when I was on my own for the return flight.   I also took one last picture before checking it in for the return flight, just in case something went wrong and I needed to make a claim with the airline.

Here’s my bike, my floor pump, and a few articles not suitable for hand luggage packed and ready to close up and check in: (click to see full sized image)

Bike in Case







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