No Stupid Questions: How To Fly With Bike Boxes & Bags For Touring & Bikepacking?

A reader writes:

We are in the planning stages of a bike trip in Europe – Oslo/Stockholm – Rotterdam-ish in the fall of 2024. We are experienced cycle tourers, so we are good on a lot of aspects of touring.

One thing that I am looking into is the best plan for logistics to and from airports, especially when returning. I can figure out how to get to our departure airport (Toronto) and I know all about how to pack a bike for an airline trip. But here are some questions:

  • Is it better to end your trip at the same airport as you arrived? In other words, as in our case, go back to Oslo/Stockholm by train from Rotterdam.
  • Is it best to somehow store boxes and extra bags on arrival in Europe and come back and get them? Should we expect that there are places to store stuff?
  • Do we reassemble/disassemble bikes at the airport? Haul them (somehow with all of our kit) to a downtown location and start there?
  • Where are there resources for finding bike stores, etc, if we need help on reassembly? (BTW, we did this once by train in Canada and we had to get bike store help as my wife’s derailleur was bashed in transit.)

So I know about airlines and once I am at the airport, but I am interested in best practices about getting to and from the airport itself. BTW, cycling to the airport with kit would be dicey here in Toronto…

Thanks for the question! The truth is that flying with a touring bike and gear is rarely simple, but it’s always possible… somehow!

It sounds like you’ve got plenty of experience packing your bikes for flying already. But your concerns are more specific, so let’s get right into them right now.

‘Is it better to end your trip at the same airport as you arrived?’

All airport baggage handlers deal with bicycles in much the same way (basically, they’re classified as oversized baggage), as do all check-in staff for a given airline. So I doubt there’ll be a huge difference between your experience at one airport or another, especially if we’re talking about international airports in Europe.

But I can think of a couple of reasons why you might want to end a cycle tour at the same airport as you arrived at:

  • return airfares might be cheaper than open-jaw tickets,
  • a return ticket also simplifies airline bicycle carriage policies,
  • you might want to store a few items at the start of a trip and collect them at the end, eg: bike bags or boxes, additional luggage items, clothing for a different climate, your house keys (!), etc.

Which brings us neatly to the second part of your question:

‘Is it best to somehow store boxes and extra bags on arrival in Europe and come back and get them? Should we expect that there are places to store stuff?’

If you really, really want to use the same bike boxes and bags on the return trip – perhaps they’re commercial bike bags you’ve paid a lot of money for, for example – then it’s probably worth looking for somewhere to store them. There are a few ways you might do this.

First, check if the airport has such facilities. Oslo airport appears to have luggage lockers with special rates for long-term use. While researching this question I found out there’s at least one app for finding luggage storage near major transit hubs, including Oslo airport.

(Anecdote: A friend of mine once rented a small storage unit in a warehouse near Heathrow Airport so she didn’t even have to bother going home between one trip and the next!)

It may be easier (and possibly cheaper in the long run, even with how expensive Norway is) to find accommodation near your arrival airport and make arrangements in advance for them to store your leftover items – obviously on the promise you’ll stay with them when you return. A similar strategy might work with a WarmShowers host (other hospitality exchange networks exist).

However! Many cycle tourers go through this thought process, realise how expensive/complicated it will be to store a simple bike bag or box, and decide instead to get a disposable cardboard bike box, abandon it at the arrival airport, and pick up a new one for the return trip. 

I call this the “big cardboard box” method of flying with a touring bike. Land in Europe in the summer and you’ll often see abandoned bike boxes lying around in baggage reclaim halls. It’s quite a popular approach.

These boxes are almost always sourced from nearby bike shops. They’re the same boxes in which bike manufacturers ship part-assembled bicycles to retailers, who then complete the assembly in-store and discard the boxes, so there’s rarely a shortage of them.

It’s usually easy enough to find local bike shops via your preferred search engine and to contact them in advance to check they’ll have leftover boxes when you get there. Most bike shops are eager to dispose of surplus boxes quickly due to the space they occupy, often on a regular schedule. Staff are used to being asked for them and are usually happy to give them away to fellow cyclists, usually for free, and (if you ask) with various bits of packing material thrown in (drop-out spacers and protectors are particularly useful if you’re taking wheels off).

One potential benefit of the big cardboard box method is that you can often throw a few bulky luggage items into the box along with the bike itself (you aren’t technically supposed to, but we’ve all done it). 

A third approach – and this is the one I’ve eventually landed on (no pun intended) as my preferred way to deal with the logistics of flying with a touring bike – is to use the “big plastic bag” method of packing a bike for flying. 

Having packed the bike thus, I then combine most of my remaining luggage in a laundry bag or holdall, carry my handlebar bag as cabin baggage, and then pack these transportation bags at the bottom of a pannier until I next need them.

Which brings us neatly to the third part of your question…

‘Do we reassemble/disassemble bikes at the airport? Haul them (somehow with all of our kit) to a downtown location and start there?’

I have in the past packed my bike into a big cardboard box and taken it to the airport by car when I was lucky enough to have someone drive me to departures, where racks of luggage trolleys stand waiting. (Usually this isn’t the case and I have to get more creative.)

I have also, in the more distant past, cycled to an airport with a big cardboard box strapped to the rear pannier rack, sideways, and also on another occasion carrying it under my arm and riding one-handed. I don’t recommend this for what I hope are obvious reasons of safety!

And I have also, in the past, packed my touring bike into a big cardboard box and hauled it to the airport on public transport. 

Granted, this was when I was younger and my body could take the abuse involved in singlehandedly dragging about 40kg of bike and luggage through the public transit system, but I did at least discover that airport and railway station floors are polished for a reason.

After all of this, I again realised another benefit of the “big plastic bag” approach, namely that you can take the bike to the airport fully assembled and packed for touring; complete the entire disassembly and packing routine somewhere near your check-in desk; then reverse the procedure at arrivals. This works whether you’re cycling or using public transport to get to the airport.

If you do it this way, then – whether you choose a box or a bag as the receptacle – some advance preparation is useful. It helps to know what tools you’ll need and make sure they’re easily accessible, and you may need to check up on what public transport options or cycling-friendly routes there are for getting to and from airports with a fully-loaded touring bike.

And I was going to say that there’s usually at least one public transport option in developed countries. But then, in regard to your specific circumstances, I noticed that the UP Express in Toronto now only allows bikes that are already packed into airline-regulation boxes, which seems like quite the backwards step. I don’t know how flexible this rule is in reality, but it sounds like you would either have to pack your bikes at Union Station or cycle to Viscount station and hop on the free LINK to the airport from there (although you did mention you’d solved this conundrum already).

Forward-thinking Norway, of course, allows bicycles for free on both the Airport Express to/from Oslo International and the slower, cheaper Vy regional trains that run between downtown Oslo and both airports. And the Netherlands being the global capital of cycling, you’re likely to find bicycle-accessible infrastructure wherever you eventually fly out of.

Very occasionally, airports and airlines actually provide bike boxes at the point of departure, either for free or for a nominal fee. It’s worth running a web search for “bike boxes at Rotterdam The Hague Airport”, or wherever applicable, as someone will invariably have tried it before and started an online discussion about it. Checking your airline’s bicycle carriage policy may also throw up additional suggestions.

I guess if there’s one way to summarise all of this, it’s that your best general strategy for getting to or from an airport with a touring bike and luggage is to familiarise yourself with the overall options, do some research on the specifics of your journey, and then decide which option best fits that particular scenario.

There are so many routes, airport, airline and personal preference/ability combinations that it’s very hard to pick one that’ll work in every situation.

Perhaps this isn’t quite the answer you were looking for, but I hope it helps you solve the problem for your particular set of circumstances this time.

Hope this helps!

Comments (skip to respond)

4 responses to “No Stupid Questions: How To Fly With Bike Boxes & Bags For Touring & Bikepacking?”

  1. On a trip to India this year I added small wooden wheels to one end of my cardboard bike box — which was lucky as my train to Heathrow had problems due to flooding and I had to change trains 3 times! The wheels made things much easier, even though the box with a steel MTB inside was only 26kg.
    I planned to leave the bike in India but the hotel I used in Mumbai would have been happy looking after the box.
    Taxi from airport to hotel was not a problem — with the bikebox on the roof rack — but thankfully I had 4m of thin rope with me as the taxi driver had no way of securing the box (the thin rope was also very useful on the trip as washing line).

    1. This is a cool idea. It reminds me of a friend of mine, who took a pair of skateboard wheels, bolted them to a piece of plywood, and Gaffer Taped that to one of the bottom corners of a bike box. He managed to get it across Europe on trains that way, along with a full set of panniers stuffed into a giant drybag and slung over his shoulders!

  2. J Ian Tait avatar

    I’m pleasantly surprised the polythene bag option seems to work well. I’ve tried it as well as the cardboard box and bike bag approaches, but am always nervous my bike will get trashed. My bikes usually get at least partly trashed. I’m thinking if the handlers can see the bike, they might respect it.

    My biggest failing is I’m pretty near useless technically, but where I have managed to screw the bike back together after a flight, I’ve found re-assemble on arrival (at the airport) works really well. It saves lugging a big box around, saves on taxi fares, saves on grief from non-cyclists that I would be inconveniencing. In fact, I’ve often quasi-assembled the bike — just enough to get by — then gone to a bike shop to get it fixed / approved. The freedom and confidence of being able to ride when you land at a destination is special, I think. 

    If you’re using the cardboard box / plastic bag method, it doesn’t matter where you start and finish, I think, and with the plastic bag method, you can carry the bag on your trip which also reduces hassle overall. And if you hit a blizzard, you can climb inside the bag too. 🙂

    Happy cycling, and bye!

    1. Thanks – I’d forgotten about blizzard protection ?

Something to add?