Hopefully, an edited version of this will be up on Bikepackers Magazine soon, but until then, here is the longest blog post I've issued to date. This post is all about the best ways to take your own bike with you on your adventure. I won’t go into great detail about bike rentals, except to say that there’s a great website called Spinlister that is like Air BnB for bikes. You select a destination, a person rents his/her bike to you for a specified time, and you pay for it; often, for less than you could rent a bike. You might even make a friend.
Domestic travel is first up, because there are more options. I talk about international travel and tips for boxing your bike at the end of the article.
In my humble opinions, the best way to get cross-country with your bike is through bikeflights.com. Basically, this company has a business account with FedEx, and you’re getting access to those prices, which are significantly less than what you would pay if you shipped FedEx as just your humble little self. They also guide you through the process, which is very helpful.
How it works: You go to their webpage, you fill out details about where your coming from and going to, enter details about the kind of bike you’re shipping, and they’ll give you a cost estimate as well as a shipping time estimate. You pay for your postage through the site and they e-mail you a shipping label. They give you the option to ship to/from a bike shop, a FedEx store, or have a FedEx pickup arranged. Keep in mind that all pick-ups are through the FedEx business; to my knowledge, there are no BikeFlight dudes running around picking up bikes and packing them up for shipment. You specify the date and time you want to ship the bike and when you want to pick it up.
How it really works: You are in control of how you want your bike packaged. If you’re someone who doesn’t trust yourself to pack a bike box, you can bring your bike to a bike shop and have them pack it up for you. Likewise, if you don’t trust yourself to put a bike together once you get to your destination, you can have the bike delivered to a bike shop, and they’ll put it together for you. You must call bike shops at least a week in advance. You can usually tell pretty quickly if a bike shop is willing to help you in this endeavor. Most shops will charge a fee to box a bike; somewhere around $40-60 USD is common. You will want to print out your shipping label from BikeFlights before you show up. Give this to the shop as they’ll affix it to the box once they’re finished. Make sure you give them adequate time to box it up before it gets shipped. You don’t want them to rush your pack job.
If you’re someone who is totally cool with packing your own bike box, or at least willing to give it a try, you rock! If you pack your own box, you can actually use your own clothing or bikepacking/camping gear as padding for the bike instead of that disposable paper/styrofoam/plastic crap that comes with new bikes. This means less stuff you have to carry with you otherwise. Plus, the price per pound is a good deal once you’re shipping with BikeFlights. Toward the end of this article, I list some tips for boxing your bike up both in the comfort of your own home and in the discomfort of some random FedEx parking lot a few hours before your return flight. ::mischievous grin::
Helpful tips: I’ve found that shipping to and from either a bike shop or a FedEx store works well as both are accustomed to receiving large packages. I haven’t tried to schedule a pickup or ship to my house, but it’s an option. (A bike box would look conspicuous sitting on the stoop, naw mean?).
You can ship freight on Amtrak… this goes for bikes as well. If you’re riding the Amtrak yourself, you can put your bike on the train… in some regions… sometimes in a box… sometimes without a box.
How it works: You purchase a ticket on Amtrak, you look on their website to see if bikes are allowed on your trip, and if it needs to be boxed up or not. On Amtrak’s “Special Items” page, you can view which lines allow walk-on or walk-up service and the cost. If you’re not riding the Amtrak yourself, you can still ship your bike via Amtrak freight, otherwise known as “Baggage Express”.
How it really works (IF YOU ARE ALSO RIDING THE TRAIN): Not every rail line allows bikes. The general rule of thumb is that if it’s a commuter train (think busy East Coast corridor), you can’t take your bike, but if the route is more for long-distance travel or leisure, you can probably take your bike. To be sure, go to their website and look up your route or check out the “Bring Your Bicycle Onboard” article; Amtrak will indicate whether or not bikes are allowed. Walk-on means you walk it on the cargo car yourself, walk-up means you give it to the people at the station before boarding the train and they put it on the cargo car.
Important to note: you still need to reserve a spot for your walk-on or walk-up bike. This is best done when you purchase your ticket; the earlier the better. I’ve gotten away with doing this at the ticket counter when I showed up, but it’s not the most reliable method. The reason being that there are a limited number of spots for walk-on bikes on the cargo car. Also, the cargo car is located toward one end of the train, and the conductor wants to know ahead of time if he/she will need to line that car up with the platform for you. Lastly, many of the conductors are not 100% comfortable with this walk-on system yet… it’s just easier if you have all your i’s dotted and t’s crossed.
If a train doesn’t allow walk-on or walk-up service, you may still be able to check your bike as a piece of luggage. When you go to reserve your ticket online, you’ll be able to see if checked luggage is allowed on the train. The general rule of thumb is that busy commuter trains don’t allow checked luggage. Also, if you’re making connections on a long-distance train, you’ll likely need to box your bike.
How it really works (IF YOU ARE NOT RIDING THE TRAIN): You will want to find the counter at the train station that says “Baggage Express”. Why they call it this, I don’t know. Nothing seems express about it. Anyway, make sure your bike is boxed at ready to for the people at the counter. You’ll need to fill out some paperwork. You’ll need to write your address on the box. You need to call Amtrak to find out exact charges as it depends on how far your shipping, but basically it works out to about $0.70/lb. for the first 100 pounds, and about $0.64/lb. for every pound after that. It will be more or less depending on where you’re shipping to and from.
UPS or FedEx Ground
Just don’t do it. As an individual, you will pay WAY more than is appropriate. The only reason to do this is if you have no access to the internet, or did zero preparation before needing to ship your bike.
Shipping to/from Bike Shops
This actually isn’t a bad option if you’re not tech or bike savvy.
How it works: Most bike shops will charge about $50-60 to box up your bike. They usually have business accounts with FedEx or UPS, and they are able to ship your bike for the same cost that BikeFlights would. On the receiving end, a bike shop may charge $30-50 to build up your bike. If you have more money than time or skill, this is probably the most stress-free way to ship your bike domestically.
How it really works: If you’re someone that doesn’t like when other people touch your bike, this could be very stressful. If you usually let other people do the maintenance and repair on your bike, this could be the best option for you. Most bike shops take this task seriously and do a good job. The only down fall to this option is that you usually don’t get to cram as much other stuff in your bike box as you would if you boxed your bike at home (clothes, bags, etc.)
Bikes on Buses
How it works: If you’re using Bolt Bus, you can stash your bike in the cargo area. If you’re riding Megabus, you can’t. Greyhound will let you carry on a bike as long as it’s in a box, but be wary of inconsistencies with Greyhound personnel across the country.
Bikes on Airplanes
We could probably devote a whole second article to this option due to varying airline policies and endless amount of packaging options; I’ll try to point you in the right direction without drawing tears of boredom and frustration. You’ll likely want your bike to fly with you if you’re traveling internationally. I don’t see the benefit of traveling with it domestically unless you’re a pro athlete and you’re on a time constraint.
How it works: You package up your bike, bring it to the airport, check it as a bike, get charged anywhere between $100 - $200, and fly with your bike. The amount charged varies greatly by airline, and policies are constantly changing. You can try to mask the fact that you’re checking a bike, but you’ll need to get your bag or box under the airlines specified dimensions such that you’re not overcharged for bringing a bike. In essence, if your bike can fit in a bag or box that’s small enough, the airline won’t count it as a bike.
How it really works: Where to start? I could start by saying the rules that most airlines have regarding bikes is seemingly ridiculous compared to the policies regarding golf clubs, snowboards, skis, hockey bags, and so on. I could also start by saying that figuring out how to cheat the system will take you a long time, and even after you think you’ve figured out a plan, you could still end up paying the surcharge.
The most expensive, stress-free option would be to buy a special bike box, and then also pay the surcharge as indicated by your airline. The next option is to box your bike in a cardboard box and pay the surcharge. If you want to get around the airline surcharge, read on.
This is really a game of dimensions or disguise. Check out the fine print for your airline. They’ll give dimensions for bikes. If you can get your bike in a protective case that fits or is under these dimensions, you’re golden. How do you do this? The options abound. Here are some ideas:
Couplers - You can get a bike with couplers, or get couplers retro-fit on a bike. This is only worth it if you’re going to be doing a LOT of bike travel.
Soft bags - You can try to put your bike in a soft, oversized bag with padding such that it doesn’t seem like a bike at all. You will want to go with something like the Spack Junk S&S Coupled bag, which is designed specifically for flying with your bike. Don’t try to to stuff your bike in a hockey bag. Myself and others have had zero luck with option; usually the bike doesn’t fit and it’s risky from a protection standpoint as it is -a soft bag.
Plastic wrap- I wouldn’t recommend it, but people have gotten away with it. Save space on dimensions by deconstructing your bike and wrap it a zillion times with plastic wrap (like Saran Wrap) instead of putting it in a box.
International travel is tough, because your bike will need to go through customs. The rules are different - almost backwards from domestic travel.
Your best bet is to just figure out the best method for carryingit on the plane when traveling internationally.
It’s actually safer and potentially more cost effective to carry your bike on the plane. If you ship your bike -even through BikeFlights- you’ll find that it’s actually extraordinarily expensive. For example, shipping Denver, Colorado to Rome, Italy costs roughly $280 USD. To Buenos Aires, Argentina it’s about $800 USD. Even just to go to Calgary, Canada, this will run you about $220 USD.
The other thing to consider is having your bike stuck in customs. I’ve heard stories of bikes shipped to Canada that have not arrived when expected.
Tips for Boxing Your Bike
Tips for boxing your bike (AT HOME): Try to be reasonable with your bike box; don’t make it bulge, protect your hubs, protect your headset. Please, face your cassette inwards, and put some extra padding underneath your bottom bracket. Where points of your bike come in contact with the box (e.g., wheel axle edges, bottom bracket, rear drop-outs), use rigid reinforcement like extra cardboard or books instead of soft things like sleeping bags or clothing that will compress under force. Use tape to make sure your clothes or other soft padding stays where you want it to stay on the bike during shipment.
Tips for boxing your bike (NOT AT HOME): Okay, you just finished your bikepacking trip. If you decided to save a few dollars by boxing and shipping your own bike. You need to think about physical locations ahead of time. You’ll likely pickup a bike box from a bike shop in town. Do you know how far away it is from a FedEx? Look it up. Nothing more awkward than trying to walk or ride several miles with a HUGE box in tow. It sort of defeats the purpose of doing this yourself if you pay for an expensive Uber to get you from one place to another. (But that might be an option.)
Pickup your box from the shop. Try to take your pedals off at the bike shop. If you can’t do it with your multi-tool, get the shop to help you with a pedal wrench. Walk yourself, the box, and your fully rolling bike to the FedEx. ::fingers crossed for low winds:: Make sure you have your multi-tool and tape with you to assist with the breakdown of your bike. Of course, if you have a car at your disposal, you can box up your bike somewhere more comfortable than the FedEx parking lot… but where’s the fun in that?