Category Archives: Packing bikes

Up, up and away – flying with your bike!

Both times we have gone on long bike tours we have taken our bicycles with us. The decision to do this was not easy and we pro’d and conned for a number of weeks before making a decision. I wrote about this previously in my post on Getting to Paris: box, bag or bubble wrap?

On our trip to France, we had made a bad mistake in our planning – but it was our first cyclo-tour after all 🙂

The mistake we made

We had decided on the time to go (Autumn) and the duration (6 weeks). We then went and booked our flights – taking the shortest route that was available at a reasonable price. Flights from Australia to Paris can take 22 or more hours (depending on the route, stopovers and connections), so this is a very important consideration.

But, instead of booking at this stage, we should have got a list of all the airlines who were in our price/flight duration range and done some homework on luggage allowances. Had we done this, we would not have gone with the airline that we did. As I said previously:

We had made a bad mistake in our choice of airline, not realising that far better options were available. The error had to do with luggage allocations, and too late, we realised that we were limited to 23kg of booked luggage and 7kg of hand luggage. The 23kg had to include a bike, helmet, cycling shoes and tools. That was before considering items such as clothes and other everyday gear! An added problem in our situation was that our mountain bikes were quite heavy on their own. My bike and associated gear weighed 17kg, so my luggage allowance was reduced to a mere 6kg!

KJ watches the bikes at a busy station in Paris. Note the bike bags have no wheels and have to be carried or put on a trolley.

KJ watches the bikes at a busy station in Paris. Note the bike bags have no wheels and have to be carried or put on a trolley. The blue bag contains my 6kg luggage allowance!

avoidING the airline mistake

When we went to the UK the following year, we had wised up considerably. This time, we could purchase proper cycle bags which had wheels (no more carrying the packed bikes) and packing was a comparative breeze compared with our French trip.

Arrival in London, after having been in the air for many hours

A welcome cup of coffee after arriving in London, after having been in the air for many hours. Note the bikes in their great bags made by Tioga. The green bag contained my 23kg luggage allowance!

This was because we flew with Virgin Atlantic and they have a “sporting goods” allowance which is free. So we were able to take a few additional things like adequate clothes; a change of footwear and a spare cycling jersey or three!

What a difference this extra luggage allowance made to our overall tour. We did not have to wash clothes every day. What bliss this was – I hate hand washing clothes, and knicks are not fun to wash and try to get dry! With a few extra items, we could accumulate a few dirty clothes and then use a laundromat. (I lived for 6 weeks in the same jumper (jersey/pullover) while in France, and had to wash it at night, ready to wear again the next chilly day – very tedious :-().

We were also able to purchase a few mementos of our trip, without having to count the excess weight allowance to get them home.

What to do with the bike bags?

We did have a dilemma about what to do with the cycle bags while we were on tour. So we decided to stay at a large international hotel near the airport in London on the first and last night of our tour. We emailed them and asked about luggage storage, and explained about our situation. They were quite happy to accommodate us, or so we thought! When we turned up with our bags all ready to be stored for 5 weeks, we were told that this was not going to be an option. However, we had the email assuring us it was all in order and we had no more problems!

So if you are considering taking your bike with you when you next tour, have a close look at the luggage allowances and conditions for all airlines going to your destination. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that one of them encourages fitness and sporting activities and will take your bike for free.

And if you decide to leave your bag somewhere, get permission in writing – just in case!

Posing in front of an impressive gate in the UK countryside.

Posing in front of an impressive gate in the UK countryside. Cyclo-touring? It’s such a wonderful way to see a country! Worth all the dramas of getting your bike to your destination.

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Getting to Paris: box, bag or bubble wrap?

This post follows on from the previous one, which described how to go about planning for a cycling trip.

To hire or not to hire! That was the question.
The next decision we had to make was whether to take our bikes with us or hire some in Paris. This was not really a very difficult decision, as it had taken a long time to customize the bikes to the point where they were very comfortable to ride. Having to set up a hired bike would not have been that easy, especially while on tour. We liked the fact that the Anthem (and my partner’s Trance) were mountain bikes which meant we were not limited to riding in the road. This turned out to be a good decision on some of the canal trails which were less well maintained.

Having decided to take along our trusty wheels, we then got to what was probably the most difficult part of the tour planning – figuring out the best way to transport the bikes. We had made a bad mistake in our choice of airline, not realising that far better options were available. The error had to do with luggage allocations, and too late, we realised that we were limited to 23kg of booked luggage and 7kg of hand luggage. The 23kg had to include a bike, helmet, cycling shoes and tools. That was before considering items such as clothes and other everyday gear! An added problem in our situation was that our mountain bikes were quite heavy on their own. My bike and associated gear weighed 17kg, so my luggage allowance was reduced to a mere 6kg!

[Tip for Australian and New Zealander cyclists: Had we chosen instead to fly with Virgin Atlantic, bikes go for free as they are sporting equipment :-), and you are still allowed 23 kg of checked luggage (plus hand luggage). So you can take more than a single change of clothing and spend less time at the laundromat! Hooray for great airlines like Virgin!]

We read about other people’s cycle packing experiences and realised that there really is not a single, best way to pack a bike for air travel. Airlines can be quite particular about their ‘rules’, although we have found that if you use common sense, most airline staff are usually happy to help, rather than hinder. But the internet abounds with horror stories of people who have not been so lucky. It can also boil down to who checks in your luggage and whether they are having a good day!

We were in a real quandary. If we used a bike box or proper bike bag (which was our preference) they would consume precious kilograms which we just could not waste. So boxes or bike bags were not an option 😦

‘Orange’ Bags
Luckily, I have some skills with a sewing machine, and made some customised, strong (but lightweight) nylon fabric bags. The only suitable fabric I could find was brilliant orange (!) but we figured it would make the packed bikes very visible, if nothing else! The other advantage of these bags was that they folded up into small packages which we could then carry with us if necessary.

The Anthem, packed and ready to go to France in its custom ‘Orange bag’

Optimistically, we stencilled some “This way up” and “Fragile” images on the bags. I am sure that the luggage handlers took absolutely no notice of these, but they were fun to make and the bags looked very cool!

Stencilling on the Orange bags

After packing the bikes into a neat compact structure, we wrapped them in layers of bubble wrap and zipped them into their bags. Any gaps and spaces were filled with clothes and other bits and pieces to make up the package to 23kg. The only thing missing was pannier bags which were just too big and heavy.

The pannier bag dilemma – solved
We had purchased some large pannier bags for the back of each bike, but that was all our luggage allowance would permit (we took them on the plane as hand luggage).

The Anthem, fully loaded. Note small pannier bags on the front and larger ones (and backpack) on the rear luggage rack. Taken near Orleans, Loire River in background.

So I retreated to the sewing machine again and made some smaller fabric pannier bags for the front of each bike. These rolled up and were easy to pack, adding very little weight to the overall kit.
None of the bags was waterproof (even the big ones), but we planned to line them with plastic bags – this worked very well).

One of my annoyances when travelling and living out of a bag is not being able to find anything. Given that we were going to live out of pannier bags and a backpack for 4 weeks, this had the potential to drive me insane! The solution was to make a number of brightly coloured, lightweight, nylon, sausage-shaped bags (modelled on the humble plastic bread bag). Some of these ‘stuff bags’ had drawstring ties at each end, effectively giving access to the bottom of the bag as well as the top. These sausage shapes were put into the pannier bags in an upright position, so that every bag was equally accessible. This worked a treat and now we use this method to pack for all travel, not just when using pannier bags.

The preparation and packing process for this trip was a big job. But this was largely because we were going to a different country (so were not quite sure what to expect), we had severe luggage weight limits and we had never done anything like it before! We did make sure we wrote down lists of equipment etc as we ticked off each task, so that when we did it again, we had something to work from.
But it was a relief to finally have everything packed and be headed off to the airport!

Getting bikes airborne

Anyone who has travelled with their bike will know that they are easy to move about while they are on their own wheels, but very hard work when they are packed up and need to be carried! Airlines are also quite specific about how one packs bikes and so are some train operators. Coach operators generally don’t want to take bikes at all!

Whilst my ‘go anywhere Anthem’ was great to ride on tour, it was a big and tedious job to pack and unpack at each end. This detracted significantly from the fun of touring. I decided that I needed a more readily ‘packable’ bike, something that would fit easily into a taxi or car when necessary (along with my partners’ bike!). It also needed to be easy and quick to pack and unpack. I spent about a year looking at all sorts of collapsible bikes and was seriously tempted by some of them – the ease and tiny size of some of the packed machines was amazing.

The Dahon Tournado when it first arrived. I have since covered the lagging with coloured fabric to make it easier to pack.

But eventually, I settled on a Dahon Tournado. This bike does not ‘fold’. Instead, it comes apart easily into three bits by removing a clamp and three screws! It is a full sized cycle with it’s own suitcase (with wheels) and plenty of space for peripheral bits such as cycling shoes, helmet and tools.

The Tournado is a touring bike. It took me quite a while to get used to the narrow handlebars and the different location of the brakes and gears after the mountainbike. I also had an annoying recurrent shoulder pain caused by long hours in the saddle, which I hoped would go away with the narrower handlebar positioning.

I commuted with this bike for a few months before I got fully used to it. The bike was a lot lighter than the mountain bike and was therefore a lot faster ride. Despite a bit of jarring on unavoidable stretches of uneven ground (I miss the gentle suspension of the Anthem!), it is now my bike of choice for daily riding. But not only is it a very nice machine to ride, it also has some nice features including a Brooks leather saddle and Brooks leather binding on the handlebars.

My Tournado visits Auckland, New Zealand.

When travelling, the Tournado is very easy to assemble and to pack down. I had to make very few adjustments to the settings when I got it, and each time I pack and reassemble it, the seat height is the only thing I need to get right and that is easily done. Everything else just works! That is my kind of travelling bike!

Unfortunately, Dahon are no longer making Tournados. Such a nice product – this is a real pity. However, I must admit I have never seen another Tournado anywhere, so perhaps there were not very many made.