I like to have a bicycle wherever I travel. And my recent five-day conference trip to Mexico was no exception.
And with many airlines offering free carriage of bicycles as sports equipment, often there’s no need to pack them into a box. Just put them into a bag of some description (either padded or not), and check them in. So long as the final package doesn’t exceed the weight limit (often 23kg for international flights), you’re good to go. Airlines I’ve flown recently that accept bicycles as free sports equipment include Air New Zealand, ANA (Japan), Austrian Airways (pre-registration required), Lufthansa (pre-registration reguired), and Air China.
Some airlines, however, still charge exorbitantly for bicycles that exceed the regulation size (157 linear cm for most flights). Some recent airlines I’ve flown recently include United Airlines and Aero Mexico. For airlines like this, you’ll either have to pay up to US$200 one-way for the bike, or try to fit the bike into a regulation-sized package.
This is where a small-wheeled folding bike comes into it’s own. Even a long-wheelbase, touring-oriented Tern Verge S27h folding bike (see my review here) fits into a regulation suitcase in less than 30 minutes. You can have your cake and eat it too.
Fitting a folding bike into a suitcase for the first time, however, is sort of like doing a jigsaw puzzle. So here, I’ve outlined how I managed to fit Tern Bicycle’s flagship touring folder into a cheap, very run-of-the-mill suitcase.
Mine was a 75cm x 31cm x 50cm semi-rigid suitcase. To be honest, the size was less than ideal. A few extra centimeters in width would have been helpful. Being a semi-rigid case, however, I was able to force the case to accept the bike. The suitcase weighed 4kg when empty. Other options for suitcases include Tern’s Airporter, but the total linear dimensions of that case are 192cm, and this makes me reluctant to use it. It would only take one over-zealous check-in staff member to cost you US$200. That said, the Airporter option is super attractive, as there is much less disassembly required. Bike Friday also produces an awesome suitcase-tralier option which would allow me to ride away from the airport (I love being able to do this after a long flight), rather than having to lug the heavy suitcase to accommodation. The wheels etc add weight to the entire package though.
Total package weight
Including the suitcase, padding (tarp, cardboard, and foam pipe insulation), bike (Shimano Alfine 11-speed internal gear hub equipped) with no rear rack, tools, pedals, and locks, the total weight was 23.3kg. Add the collapsable Tern Cargo rack, and you’re probably looking at something around the 24kg mark. Remove the locks and add them to carry-on baggage, and you’ll be within the 23kg limit.
Step One – Remove the rear wheel, front wheel, mudguards, front and rear racks, kick-stand, seatpost, seat, handlebars, stem, and front forks. Collapse the Tern Cargo rack. Deflate the tires to reduce the diameter of the wheels; the Schwalbe Big Apple 2.15 tires are big! With a slightly wider and deeper suitcase, I think I would not have needed to remove the saddle from the seatpost, nor the handlebars from the stem, nor deflate the tires. If you’re using the standard (and in my opinion sub-optimal) DualDrive setup, you’ll need to remove the rear derailleur also. To avoid the rear triangle being crushed, make sure to insert a pipe secured by a quick-release or something similar. My pipe is made from cheap PVC tubing cut to the right length.
Step Two – Place the saddle, padded seatpost and stem, and Spartan rack on the outer bottom of the suitcase. Next place the rear wheel on the bottom right-hand-side of the suitcase, with mudguards around the tire. It is highly recommended to remove the disk brake rotors, to avoid them getting bent. To protect the bottom of the suitcase, a plastic axle disk is recommended.
Step Three – Fold the tarp over this layer. Place the handlebars at the top. Place the folded main frame into the suitcase top-tube down, with the rear triangle at the left bottom. Slide a piece of cardboard between the top tube and handlebars to protect against rubbing. The forks can now be slid into the rear triangle. Make sure to pad all metal-on-metal contact points with cardboard or foam. In particular take care to pad the area where the axle on the rear axle protrudes; I missed this point on my first try and ended up with some serious gouging on the seat tube.
Step Four – Fold the tarp over this second layer, and lay the front wheel down. Once again, better to remove the disk brake rotor to avoid it getting bent. Make sure there’s a generous layer of cardboard or other padding between the bottom of the wheel and top of the wheel.
Step Five – Cram that suitcase closed, and use a suitcase strap to reduce load on the zippers, and to keep everything in place.
Step Six – Fly to your destination store that suitcase somewhere, and go for a rice (in my case this was southern Mexico).