Bikes are generally designated 'sports equipment' and on many airlines that means a hefty charge or oversized baggage fee. How much your bike weighs may be the difference between a £50 and £150 charge! Some airlines (thank you United) include it in your checked in allowance meaning that if you are economical ( saw off toothbrush handles, take no spare clothes etc) then bike and kit will make it in without an extra fee. Aside from the expense though there is a far bigger problem.... what to put your bike in???
If you like your bike and want it to get to the other side injury free then this is a very important consideration, complicated by the type of ride you are doing. If it is a round trip ride, the box you take your bike in, may be left at the hotel or airport (maybe for a fee) ready to collect on the way back... if your ride is from A to B and you are flying out from a different airport then that is not a possibility and a different solution must be found.
There are different things that a bike can be packed in for air travel... all of which have their plusses and minuses.
1st up is the simple plastic bag... cheap being its main attraction but also with the added bonus of being able to be folded up and stuffed at the bottom of a bag on your bike ready to haul out at the end of your trip. The problem.is.. it gives no protection whatsoever to your precious steed and you may find upon arrival at your destination that the heap of junk which comes out the other end is not repairable.. let alone rideable! Not good if you are reliant on it to leave the airport on! Some people say that being able to see that it is a bike means that the baggage handlers will treat it with respect but that is a gamble I dont want to take...EVER!
The humble cardboard box... definately the cheapest to procure as most bike shops will have a spare one they will give you for free. Packing the bike into these takes a bit of practice and reams of pipe insulation and bubble wrap is required to keep the important bits of your bike free from damage. The handkebars come off and are taped the underside of the top tube... the pedals likewise are removed and taped somewhere securely... the front wheel is removed and squashed down the side (with some of the air removed from the tyre) and then as much kit as possible is stuffed around the bike to protect it from the baggage handlers. This means that you are left with a small carry on bag but be wary of baggage weight limits as the kit might tip it over the edge and you will find yourself paying a ransom fee at the airport.
The downside to cardboard boxes is they aren't portable on a bikepacking set up and therefore you will have to disgard this one and find a replacement at the end of the ride. They offer a bit of protection but you need to add the bubble wrap to ensure safety for your bike and you may find a brake lever sticking out of the box at the other end. For a round trip.. the box can often be left at the hotel for you to pick up on the way back.
The third option is the soft bike bag. Mid price range (£80-£150 ish) they will have a pocket for the wheels... some have a bit of extra padding... some have restraints to hold parts in place. I haven't found one that will assure acommodation of 29 inch wheels though they may exist and depending on padding they may be able to fold down small enough to be able to carry it on your bike... 'may' being the operative word. It seems a bit of a half-way house that is a bit like a hybrid bike... it does neither well! Again for a round trip ... you could leave it at the hotel but it would add to the weight you needed to haul up the mountains if you could take it with you... not to mention reducing space on your bike for other, more vital bits of kit.
For me the only reason to buy a soft bag would be it's price (cheaper than a full on hard case)... although the fact that a cardboard box is free would make me lean towards that option anyway for a non-round trip.
The final option is the full-on hard case. It offers guaranteed protection for your precious cargo. No use if your trip end with a flight from a different airport than the one you started as there is no way to transport this on your bike. However if you are doing a round trip cycle or can transfer by taxi or bus from your end point back to your start point then this form of packaging is well worth considering.
There are downsides....
Weight! This box in itself could tip the bike well over the scales of the plane company baggage limit... forcing you to pay a copious amount of money for exceeding weight limits. Im also not sure you could fit any extra kit in here either... weight limit or otherwise. Finally... these cost a few hundred pounds... making it by far the most expensive option. Hiring one of these is a slightly cheaper possibility or talking to your friendly local bike shop to see if anyone has one you could borrow could be an option as well.
But at least you would know your bike would be rideable out of the airport!
So my choice for the upcoming Ecuador Challenge...
Well.. given that I will be flying in and out of Quito... I do not necessarily need an option that I can fold up and take with me. I am planning to leave it at the hotel I stay in the first night and then pick it up when I get back to Quito.
Usually I go with the cardboard box option because I tend to do A to B rides and although this is not a circular route, I will be transferring back to Quito by bus or taxi, making the hard case a viable option. My only concern is the weight of a hard case and the inability to fit more kit in it. That said... because AW Cycles (highly recommended) have indicated that I could borrow a hard case, cost won't be the consideration and the increased protection for a nice new shiny steed may win the day in the end!