[This article was last updated on March 27, 2017]
If you’re travelling with your bike you need a decent bike bag or box to make sure it arrives safely. Here’s what you need to look for.
Take your bike in the back of your car and, fair enough, you can often just take the wheels off and/or fold down the rear seats and put it in there. But if you want to get lots of other luggage in too, using a dedicated bag will protect your bike from bumps and scratches, and stop oil from your bike getting on anything else.
If you’re flying, you need to take extra measures. Baggage handlers aren’t known for their finesse or delicacy of movement. No disrespect to those guys but they’re not going to move every bag and case as if it contained a priceless Ming vase, are they? Would you, if you were in their position? Luggage often gets flung about, dropped or stacked sky high, and you don’t want your bike to be subject to any of that with anything other than heavy-duty protection.
We’ve heard tales of people who thought they’d take their bike abroad in a soft bag or a cardboard bike box and it all going horribly wrong. You might get away with it, of course. You might get away with it many times. But what about that one time when your bike is at the bottom of a tower of cases being sorted by a bloke who’s already late finishing his shift?
It happens. Really, it does. And arriving in the Pyrenees with your bike frame snapped in two is, let’s face it, a disaster. Aside from needing to replace your bike in the long term, you need to salvage a trip for which you’ve already paid.
Bike bags and bike boxes might be expensive but chances are that they’re not as expensive as your bike or your holiday. Invest in something that’s right for your needs and it’ll likely last you years.
All the bike boxes we know of and a lot of soft bike bags come with wheels that allow you to pull/push them to and from a car, around the airport and so on, and that’s a hell of a lot easier than carrying all that weight.
Wheels that are recessed into the base of the box are less vulnerable to getting broken off in transit and wheels that can be replaced after a mishap might save you needing to buy a completely new bike bag or box.
You can’t drag your bike bag or box everywhere – you’ll inevitably need to lug it up some steps or over some gravel at some stage. That’s when some form of carrying handle or strap comes in useful; More that one option helps. A shoulder strap will save your arms doing all the hard work.
Locks might be useful but, realistically, how often are you going to let a loaded up bike box out of your sight anyway?
Okay, it’ll be separated from you for the flight, but bear in mind that if you check in a locked bike box and the customs officials want to look inside, they’ll bust the locks open. Think about it. They need to be able to check what’s in there and a simple lock isn’t going to stop them (otherwise drug smuggling would be really, really simple).
Get a bag or box that’s big enough to take your bike easily. If you have a 56cm road bike with a normal seatpost, you’re unlikely to have a problem with any of the options out there.
However, if you take a very big frame, have an integrated seat post (an extended seat tube rather than a separate seat post), or if you have a full-suspension mountain bike, things might get more complicated.
Check the minimum dimensions you need before you part with your cash, and allow a bit of wiggle room. You don’t want to have to remove every component and use masses of force to get your bike into a box; you need something that’ll take your bike easily. International travel can be stressful enough without adding to it with bike packing pressures.
You can often fit other stuff inside your bike box or bag, in the spaces between the frame tubes, although this obviously adds to the weight and that might be a consideration when you’re flying.
If you intend to drive to the airport rather than take public transport, remember to make sure your bike bag or box will fit in your car. As long as you can fold the rear seats down, that’s not usually a problem.
Oh, and remember that you’ll have to store your bike bag or box somewhere at home. One of the drawbacks of a hard-shelled bike box as opposed to a soft bag is the extra storage space you’ll need for it.
Ease of packing
Getting a bike bag or box that’s large enough (see above) is the essential first step, but beyond that some options are much easier to pack than others.
You’ll have to take the wheels off your bike, either spin the handlebar or remove it from the stem, and remove a pedal (or both of them). You’ll likely have to remove the seatpost or push it down too (depending on the size of your bike). You’ll have to deflate the tyres for flying too. (Yes, we know tyre pressure is far too low to be hazardous, but as our commenters have pointed out, life's too short to teach airline check-in staff the laws of physics.)
If you have to remove the rear mech and/or the chainset, things can start to get boring. You obviously have to rebuild the bike at your destination, then take it apart for the return journey and rebuild it again when you get home. As long as you have half-decent spannering skills, that’s unlikely to be a problem. It only takes minutes on each occasion, but it just adds to the faff and might shorten valuable riding time.
You need some means of stopping the various bits of the bike from damaging one another. Some wheels attach to the walls of a bike box with their quick-release skewers (we've had a skewer take a knock and get ruined in this way, so you might want to consider using old skewers for the job) and and have some form of cover to avoid harm, others have their own separate wheel bags, as do many bike bags.
Look for other means of storage for removed pedals, the tools you need for rebuilding your bike, and so on.
If you’re ever in doubt, you can always fall back on the cyclists’ favourite, simple pipe insulation from your local DIY store, to protect the various parts of your bike.
There are a couple of things to consider when it comes to weight. First, you have to move your loaded up bike bag or box around so lightness makes life easier.
Second, you have to stick within airline weight limits. Currently, EasyJet allows you 32kg for a boxed up bike and the Ryanair limit is 30kg. Sticking within those boundaries shouldn't be a problem.
British Airways, though, say that items over 23kg may incur a heavy bag charge. Larger items (in dimensions rather than weight) like bike boxes can be carried for an oversized bag charge, although they waive this at the time of writing.
The point is, you need to check your allowances with your airline before you travel in order to avoid expensive surprises.
Scicon have published a really useful article on weight allowances and other regulations covering flying with your bike.
Hard or soft?
Soft, padded bike bags are lightweight, easy to store, and they’ll protect your bike from scratches and scrapes. As a rule, they’re also cheaper than rigid boxes. Some come with aluminium space frames and rigid spacers for the frame and fork dropouts to help avoid damage.
Next, there are boxes made from semi-rigid polymers that offer good impact strength. In terms of weight, they’re somewhere between a soft bag and a rigid bike box.
Then there are boxes with rigid walls that provide loads of protection, although these tend to be the heaviest and most expensive options out there.
Between that lot there are plenty of variations.
Get it! Even the best bike boxes don’t guarantee you against damage to your bike, so get yourself some insurance that covers the value of your bike.
The B’Twin bag has a large bike compartment, two wheel compartments and a rigid base. It weighs 3.6kg and, like most other bags of this kind, it comes with a shoulder strap. That’s an unbelievably low price!
This bag is quick and easy to use. It has the advantage of being large enough to take downhill and long 29er mountain bikes.
An aluminium frame, ABS shell with internal padded walls, and padded wheels protect your bike here. You get four locks and the wheels are replaceable.
You fit alloy crush protection inserts in place of your bike’s hubs in this padded bag, and hold everything securely in place with straps.
This polymer case is moulded to take the vast majority of road bikes without any trouble. You attach the frame to one side of the clam shell design, your wheels to the other, and zip it closed.
Evoc’s highly rated bag comes with a reinforced fork mount, external-loading wheel pockets, compartments for smaller parts, and multiple handles. It’ll even take big mountain bikes and is collapsible for simple stowage.
This robust plastic case has steel catches to hold the sides together and good wheels to make travel that little bit easier. You can even choose your own stickers!
An alloy internal frame provides your bike with extra protection inside this soft bag. You get separate wheel bags inside.
You fix your bike to a frame inside this a nylon ripstop bag, and hold it steady with a strap system. A waterproof polyurethane base and high-density foam padding provide protection for your bike.
We've done half a dozen flights with the Bonza Bike Box. The bikes have come through all those journeys completely fine and the box is looking almost unscathed.
Getting your bike packed inside is relatively straightforward. The printed instructions aren't great but a couple of videos on bonzabikebox.com show you exactly how to do it. It's pretty standard stuff: you whip the wheels off, remove the pedals, take the handlebar out of the stem and probably take the seatpost out of the frame (you might get away with leaving it in if you have a small frame). I won't go into detail, but you won't have too much trouble with any of this.
This ABS hard-bodied case includes an integrated bike work stand that makes taking your bike apart and rebuilding it again super-easy. List price is £494.99 but you can find them for less currently Evans are selling them for £445.49.
The VeloVault is a versatile and secure travel companion for your bike, whatever your bike may be. It's well-designed and strong enough to cope with the rigours of international travel.
This rigid bike box is made from a tough plastic polymer and it provides superb protection for your bike. It’s also simple to pack and rolls on four wheels with proper bearings. The RRP of £700 is a sticking point, but shop around and you will find it for less - we found it on Wiggle for £439.99 when we were putting this guide together.
The Bike Guard Curv is a high-end flight case which gives excellent protection to your pride and joy. At a little over 8kg it's very light for a hard case, but it's also very expensive – costing nearly as much as an aluminium flight case. In our travels, our bikes arrived unscathed, but the lack of bracing could make it vulnerable if a lot of weight is stacked on top.
It's not cheap, but the Buxum Tourmalet is very well thought-out and built to take anything baggage handlers can dish out. In fact it looks like it'll survive anything short of a direct artillery attack. It's very easy to pack, though it's not light at 13.3kg.
Mat has worked for loads of bike magazines over 20+ years, and been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. He's been road.cc technical editor for eight years, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a past winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer.