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Anecdotes on Shipping Bikes to Tours

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Going on an out-of-town tour? Your bike might travel with you. You might send it separately. Or you might rent or borrow a bike after you get to the tour. Choices. Choices. Any or all may be economical or expensive, easy or stressful. Research choices on the internet. Ask friends for anecdotes. Maybe just roll the dice.

Renting a bike when you get there can be a mixed bag. The best experience we witnessed was last summer in Italy when an outfitter met those in our BAC group who didn’t bring their own bikes and fit top-of-the-line Trek bikes - very expensive but very good. The worst was in summer 2007, scouting DBC’s French tour, where we met a couple who had reserved name-brand road bikes at a shop in Avignon only to have been baited-and-switched to cheap town bikes. DBCers have met with mixed success when renting on tours.

Travel by train? Our California commuter trains are unbeatable with roll on, roll off. In Washington and Oregon there is no disassembly, but you have to pay a nominal amount to have your bike carried in the baggage car. In Europe, trains in most but not all countries have space for roll-on bikes at no charge. Check amtrak.com or bahn.de (good for all of Europe, click international for English) before making plans. Marilyn and I have more than 20 years of positive experience with trains here and in Europe.

Long distance US trains require boxes - I really like Amtrak’s large boxes. Just remove the pedals, turn the bars 90 degrees and roll the bike in. I also shift the rear derailleur to the largest cog and remove the computer for added protection. All over the US, we had careful handling, no damage, and easy packing and unpacking. The extra cost is in the neighborhood of $10. If you are flying, check out Amtrak’s express service, which is much more expensive but still takes those great large boxes. Caveats: Amtrak boxes must go between manned stations. Bring a wrench for your pedals and bars.

Shipping to almost anywhere by UPS or FedEx must be in medium size boxes, where the front wheel, pedals, saddle, and bars must come off, but the drive train and cables remain intact. Local bike shops can do the packing and set up - recommended for the mechanically challenged. If you ship store-to-store, the rates are better. To save money, ask for a free box and do your own. Check with your friendly bike dealer. Caveats: Allow extra time at both ends of your tour. Take tools you’ll need if you are DIY.

Travel by air? Our friendly-sky carriers have different charges and policies. At one time, bike boxes were free. Now bike box charges are up to $300 each way on one carrier - yuck - a deal-breaker. I’ll choose another airline. Commercial cases are UPS legal and the built-in rollers are great to have. Like bike-store boxes, packing and reassembly takes perhaps half an hour per bicycle. These boxes are too large for x-ray baggage inspection equipment in many airports, with the result that inspectors may peek and poke inside - and then may not repack the bike properly. I’ve found that zip-tying the wheels to the frame helps. Caveats: The plastic hard case and bicycle weigh about 55 lb which may lead to overweight charges in addition to oversize charges. Extra stuff in the bike case may lead to even more trouble.

In addition to increasing charges, two incidents caused us to rethink how to take bikes. On a self-contained tour in 2006 to Copenhagen, our Trico cases just sat at the desk in SFO and didn’t make our flight. Of course we complained and the boxes arrived a day later. (As a part of “special handling” the oversize baggage must be carted from the airline desk instead of immediately going on a conveyer belt.) At the Marseilles airport on our 2007 scouting odyssey, the agent declared that our Trico cases were too large for the plane going to Frankfurt. Of course the cases got to Marseilles on the same size aircraft. After a big fuss and an eight-hour delay someone decided we and our cases could go anyway.  So that winter, we invested in Ritchey BreakAway bikes, an investment we don’t regret.

A BreakAway case is just large enough to contain 700C wheels, but requires breaking the frame in two. Ingeniously, the case is just small enough to travel as normal-size luggage. However, we twice have had airline agents who glare at the Ritchey case, smirk, and ask “is this a bicycle?” After paying the special handling fee, we watched our bike cases go down the conveyer. Other cyclists with Bikes Friday and bikes with S&S couplers have had similar experiences. Small cases weigh about 15 lb less, are easier to move around the airport, pack in rental cars, and so on. A caveat:  Set-up and packing take a fair amount of skill and about an hour per bike. If you are interested, watch www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPmgChjTW98

Here are my best tips. You’ll enjoy your tour more with your own bike. Your friendly local bike shop people can help in many ways, including packing for air travel. Carefully research the baggage and bicycle policies of carriers before you select one. Know the rules and costs for the various shipping possibilities before you go to the train station or airport. If you are unfairly charged, keep your receipts and complain after you arrive. We have been very happy with the “directional” carrier that dominates SMF. Most important of all: When checking your bike at the airline desk, be super nice to the agent!! You might just get a good surprise. Happy touring!

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