If you’re taking your bike to an island in the sun during the next few months, or maybe heading off to ride one of Europe's big sportives, you need to choose your airline carefully.
In mid-September, keen cyclist and regular road.cc reader Dan Kenyon was checking the cost of flying himself and a bike to Majorca. Among the airlines, Monarch had some good deals. As with most, fares included 20kg of normal-sized hold luggage, with Monarch charging an extra £23.50 each way for an additional allowance to carry sporting equipment. But then Dan discovered that Monarch had lowered the weight limit for bikes to just 13kg, charging another £7.50 to £9 for every kilogram over this limit.
Of course, not many bikes tip the scales at 13kg, but if you’re using a solid flight-case (and by the time you’ve chucked in a few spares) the chances are you’ll be nudging 18kg, looking at an extra cost of at least £100 for putting your bike on the plane. Even more galling, Monarch’s weight limit for other sporting equipment, such as golf clubs, remained unchanged. As Dan put it, “If you’re waddling round a golf course you’re allowed 20kgs of equipment in the hold, but if you wish to keep fit by taking your bike you’ll get fleeced."
Dan wrote to the airline with a similar comment, as did many other cyclists, and it seems their campaign was successful. According to Monarch's website, the weight limit for bikes on scheduled and charter flights is 20kg once again.
So is 20kg a standard weight limit across the airline industry? And just what are the other rules for taking bikes on planes? If you’re planning to ride abroad, what do you need to look out for?
Pound for pound
A trawl round the airline websites reveals a wide range of terms and conditions - and an equally wide range of costs.
Ryanair’s weight limit for most sporting equipment is 20kg, and a more generous 30kg for bikes (which must be boxed), for an additional £40 per flight if booked online. This goes up to £50 if you pay on the phone or at the airport, and the Ryanair website is at least refreshingly honest about why these charges are applied: “Sporting equipment including … golf clubs, bicycles … snowboards and skis … are inherently unsuitable for carriage by airlines operating fast turnarounds such as Ryanair.”
In contrast, EasyJet’s weight limit for bikes is the same as for all sporting equipment: an additional 50kg, with no item being more than 32kg. This costs £18.50 per item per flight (if you book and pay online), rising to £26 if you pay at the airport. The EasyJet website, rather enigmatically, says: “Bicycles are subject to the sports equipment fee and exempt from any excess baggage charges relating to the weight of the bicycle.”
British Airways does not impose specific weight regulations for bikes. Passengers usually get a luggage allowance of one bag weighing up to 23kg, which you can increase to 32kg for an extra £30, although this varies according to destination. (If you go first or business class you get 32kg without paying extra.) If you take two bags, you have to pay extra for the second bag. Usually, luggage needs to be less than 90cm x 75cm x 43cm in size, but according to BA’s website: “You may take bags up to 190cm x 75cm x 65cm… this allows you to take items such as sporting equipment… at no additional cost”. Note, however, that if you’re using BA for only part of your journey, and switching to another airline to complete the trip, if the weight restrictions imposed by the second airline are lower than BA’s they will still apply.
Among the holiday airlines, Thomsonfly (now the largest charter airline in the world) seem to have a very straightforward policy. Their website doesn’t specify charges for sports equipment carried in addition to the standard baggage allowance, but a phone call to their very friendly help-desk revealed that bikes can be carried, in a box, for £30 return – apparently with no upper weight limit as long as it’s just a bike inside.
With such a range of rules and charges, you have to choose carefully. But, as with so many other aspects of life, it’s not just cost you need to look at. There are other aspects to consider, such as reliability. Sometimes it’s worth paying a bit more to get a better service. It’s no good saving 20 quid if your bike arrives late, or not at all.
So which airline is the most reliable when it comes to carrying bikes? There’s some anecdotal evidence that the full-service carriers such as British Airways are more reliable than the low-cost airlines. Chris Cammish from Swindon has carried his bike on planes around the world for many years.
“In August this year I went with my wife to Lake Garda and took our bikes for 2½ weeks of cycling,” Chris says. “We flew from Gatwick to Verona with British Airways. We paid for an extra bag – the bike box counts as your main bag – but they didn’t weigh our bikes. At the other end, the bikes came out on the luggage belt after everything else but were not damaged at all. The two extra bags cost £28 each per flight, so the total for taking the bikes was essentially £112. Not an unreasonable price but just enough to make a big hit on the holiday budget.”
For more anecdotal evidence, it’s time to turn to someone in the tour business. Andy Cook is an experienced bike rider, recently passing the major lifetime milestone of 300,000 cycling miles. He is also an experienced tour-organizer, taking large groups of cyclists to training camps and European events such as the Etape for over a decade, initially for Sports Tours International (www.sportstoursinternational.co.uk) and latterly for his own company, Andy Cook Cycling (www.andycookcycling.com).
“I’ve had first-hand experience of thousands of bikes on hundreds of planes, and in my view Monarch is one of the most reliable airlines in Europe," Andy says. "As long as bikes are well packaged, and clearly labelled, they usually arrive when and where they should. Problems seem to arise when a very large number of cyclists and their bikes all get on one plane at the same time.
"Taking groups to the La Santa training camps in Lanzarote we usually use Monarch, or charter carriers like Thomas Cook Airlines or Thomson Airways. Because they fly from many different regional airports around the UK, it seems to spread the load and we don’t have many problems.”
Know the ropes
Whichever airport you fly from, it’s important to understand the airlines’ responsibilities.
“Even if you book long in advance, no airline will guarantee to get your bike (or, in fact, any luggage) to your destination airport on the same plane as you,” advises Tom Hall, spokesman for Lonely Planet guidebooks and author of the weekly Ask Tom travel advice column in The Guardian.
“While the airline is responsible for getting your bike from A to B, an international agreement called the Montreal Convention allows airlines not to carry any item of luggage for reasons of space or safety.”
Tom also knows his bikes, with recent exploits including various sportives and audaxes, and a two-week stage of the Tour d’Afrique.
“I took my bike on BA and their subsidiary Comair when I flew to Victoria Falls before cycling through Botswana and Namibia. I was concerned it wouldn’t arrive, but I had no problems. The bike box was so big and eye-catching that I reckon it was first on and off the plane, although unfortunately my other luggage went missing on the way home as I transferred through Johannesburg.”
It’s undoubtedly easier taking bikes on long-haul flights on big planes with plenty of room in the hold. Hardy mountain biker Paul McCormack recently took a bike to Nepal.
“I flew on Gulf Air with a change in Bahrain; smooth as silk at the airport and the bike arrived unscathed.”
At the other extreme, a short flight, a small plane and a large number of bikes is the perfect storm. Paul continues: “This summer I went to the Etape on EasyJet from Bristol. The plane was full of cyclists, and there was almost a riot as we taxied to take-off, leaving a trolley loaded with bikes standing on the tarmac.”
Andy Cook’s experience is similar.
“Of all the airlines I’ve experienced, we seem to get the most problems with EasyJet. Having said that, when bikes are delayed, EasyJet is very good at making good the error. They don’t just put your bike on the next plane. Once at the destination airport, they’ll put it in a van and deliver it to your hotel. I’ve had clients biting their fingernails the night before the Etape, waiting for the EasyJet van to arrive – and it usually does.”
The moral of the tale so far: Do some careful research before booking your flight, check the various airlines, read the small-print, and be aware that every airline has different regulations. Sometimes the same airline has different rules for different locations, or for charter flights and scheduled flights, or even on outbound and inbound flights between the same two points – and the rules change frequently.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the airline you used last year will charge the same for your bike this year. And just to keep you on your toes even more, many airports seem to impose their own rules, or at least have different interpretations of the airline regulations. So, once you’ve picked your airline (and your airport), it goes without saying that good insurance is essential: something that covers the full-value of your bike if it’s lost.
No fly zone
But if you don’t want to chance your beloved machine to the vagaries of the airline industry, what are your other options?
First, you can hire a bike at your destination. In many popular cycling spots, the quality of rental bikes has improved massively over the years. For example, at Pro Cycling in Majorca (www.procyclehire.com) you can hire a top-notch steed for €110-180 per week. In the same way, many of the Bike Hotels in Italy (www.italybikehotels.it/en) have good rental options.
If you’re just taking your bike on holiday, rather than heading for a specific event, another possibility is European Bike Express – luxury coach transport for cyclists and their bikes to various destinations in France and Spain. (www.bike-express.co.uk/) And then there are folding bikes – Bromptons, Mezzos, Airnimals and the like – that you can pack down and get on the plane as standard-sized luggage.
Simon Calder, travel editor of The Independent, takes his Brompton on assignment all over the world.
“The feeling of breezing away from an airport on two wheels rather than crammed into a bus or train is exhilarating indeed," he says. “I can particularly recommend the Amsterdam and Jersey airports, and even Paris Charles de Gaulle.
"Also, I tend to cycle to Heathrow from my home in London because it's far more reliable than the Piccadilly Line. But the airlines, ever keen to cut costs, are cracking down and making it trickier. My Brompton weighs 13kg, and BA are always helpful, but EasyJet and American Airlines have been beastly in the past, even when it's in a box and unidentifiable as a bike.”
While folding bikes are fine for touring or pottering around, they’re perhaps not ideal for a sportive or training camp – although Airnimal riders are occasionally spotted in the Etape. Packable bikes with conventional frames and full-sized 700c wheels that might do the trick include the Ritchey Break-Away (www.ritcheylogic.com) and the Dahon Tornado (www.dahon.com).
The Road Won sportive bike from titanium bike specialist Qoroz is available as a standard bike, or as a packable bike with the optional addition of two neat couplings on the frame, meaning you can put the whole bike in a suitcase measuring 650x650x250mm. If you opt for 650cc wheels the case is even smaller, and Qoroz (www.qoroz.co.uk) can supply that too.
One final option is offered by some UK tour companies: a van to carry bikes to your final destination while you take the plane stress-free. This service might cost £70 to £100 for the return trip, but that’s comparable with airline charges, and there’s much less chance of your bike arriving late.
The last word goes to Andy Cook: “We use a van to take client bikes to the Etape and other Continental events, and it works well. Our van driver is a cyclist too (he’s done the Etape three times) so he treats the bikes with a lot more care than they’d ever get on airport trolleys and conveyor belts.”