The bike + plane formula
The train is an ideal complement to the bicycle, as I demonstrate on the The train + bike formula page, when one wishes to make longer day trips or if one wishes to take a longer bike trip to more distant regions or countries.
But the greater the distances the more difficult it becomes to rely on trains. The situation has worsened in recent years: there are fewer and fewer international night trains that still have adequate space for bicycles, while the EC, IC and high speed trains don’t have spaces for bikes at all; from Venice there are direct connections only to Munich, Vienna and Geneva on the EC trains with spaces for bikes, but the number of spaces is limited and require reserving them way in advance. The situation from other Italian cities isn’t any different, and often even worse.
As an example: to take a bicycle by train from Venice to Berlin requires a trip of 16 to 24 hours with numerous train changes. If one wishes to go to Paris, London, Copenhagen or Stockholm it would require more than a day of travel. In recent years I have had to give up on certain trips because it was impossible to find a combination of trains with available places for bicycles. If one wants to go overseas the train is simply no longer an option.
What are the options? Either rent a bicycle at your destination, or use planes. Although a great consumer of fuel, and therefore a less sustainable means of travel than the train, the plane has a greater range and the time savings increase the further one goes. Costs are not much more than trains and often are lower, especially if one books well in advance. Plus the view one gets from being up in the air is a priceless experience.
Almost all the airline companies allow for transporting of bicycles as bulky baggage, but conditions vary a lot which makes it rather complicated. Take a look at this guide [in Italian] of the major companies or check out my page on airline companies. Different from trains, traveling by plane involves many restrictions: factored by weight and number of bags, factored by the policy that the cyclist is not permitted to carry the bike onto the plane, as one can with trains, but must rely on airline staff, with the possibility of damage.
I tried for the first, and so far the only, time to try this kind of bike transport during August 2014 in a trip from Venice to Berlin on Air Berlin. The photos to the side and their descriptions document this trip and the unforeseen surprises I had to deal with.
Based on this limited experience, I have developed some general guidelines, leaving the majority of information to the websites listed at the bottom of the page.
Almost all the airlines require that the bike be disassembled to some degree and packed in some manner. Only Lufthansa presently accepts bikes that are not disassembled.
The two primary options are:
Disassemble the bike to the bare bones (wheels, pedals, handle bar, saddle) (*) and pack everything in a box or in one of many cases that are now available (see for example this guide on how to disassemble and pack a bicycle [in Italian] and this list of packaging for bikes [also in Italian]). One has to take the bike to the airport by some means, and after having it weighed at check in take it to the bulky baggage counter; upon arrival retrieve your bag or carton, open it, reassemble the bike (as demonstrated in the photos to the side).
Ride your bike to the airport, disassemble the least amount required by the airline, wrap the bike with plastic sheeting (this service is available in many airports) and bring to the baggage counter; upon arrival retrieve the bike, cut and throw away the packing material, reassemble whatever is required and resume your trip on your bike.
Two solutions that represent pros and cons:
The carrier case, especially if it is rigid, provides a better form of protection and allows for the possibility of inserting bags with clothing, helmet, hardware, thereby reducing the total amount of baggage. But the bike, once disassembled, loses the advantage of having its wheels and becomes a very heavy piece of luggage and
difficult to transport. The best bags are rigid and have wheels like a suitcase which mitigates the problem a lot, but they are rather expensive, hundreds of Euros, and very heavy and bulky. Once at your destination there is the question of what to do with the case. The lighter cases without wheels could be folded up and put on
the bike rack, but since inevitably there will be other baggage this is not that easy either. For the hard cases, or those with wheels, there is no option but to leave them in a luggage room, which is practical only if one is making a round trip.
Packaging with plastic sheeting is obviously less secure than a hard case, since at airports baggage transfer is beyond the control of the cyclist. Also for this solution, you need to verify that the airport provides the packing service (*), or do one’s own packing (*). Finally, pack your luggage efficiently considering the limits imposed by airlines in terms of number and weight of all baggage.
I have seen cyclists at airports wrap their bicycles with rolls of cling wrap, such as Domopak [Saran Wrap], the kind you buy in supermarkets, or the kind for wrapping packages, available in specialty stores; obviously one would need a lot. I haven’t tried this approach and only mention it as information.
It is often recommended to completely deflate the tires to avoid their bursting, a rather dubious suggestion: tires and inner tubes are designed to a pressure from 2 - 3 bars (fat tires of the mountain bike type) to 8 - 12 bars (narrow tires of road bikes); flying at 10,000 meters/33,000 feet causes a reduction in atmospheric pressure from 1 bar to .25 bar; so even if the baggage compartment was completely depressurized, which is usually not the case, tires inflated to 4 bars (for example) would inflate a maximum to 4.75 bars. As a better precaution avoid tires being inflated to the maximum (as indicated on the sides of the tires); in that case deflate them a bit; but there is no need to deflate them completely.
At the bottom of this page there are some links to packing services for baggage and and/or bicycles.