Bicycle being wrapped for a flight

Transporting Bicycles On Ferries, Boats and Trains

Transporting bicycles around the globe on trains, boats and planes is at best a chore and at worst an expensive and stressful endeavour likely to decrease your life expectancy. But, it’s a necessary evil for many cycle tourists and you only have to try it once to realise that not everyone is as thrilled with your cycling plans as you are. Here’s what you need to know to have a smooth journey when transporting a bicycle.

Transporting Bicycles on Ferries

The simplest and most hassle free method of transporting bicycles, especially when heavily laden with panniers and touring gear, is to use a ferry.

Transporting Bicycles onto a ferry in the Greek islands
Cycling onto a ferry in the Greek islands

Ferries, in some form or another are found nearly everywhere and any ferry that takes cars and even those that don’t, in my experience, will also take bicycles and typically there is no weight or size restriction. On large commercial ferries that go from country to country you ride on with the cars, tie the bike up at the side of the car deck with some kind of rope (usually provided, but often some extra bungee straps are useful). During the voyage the lower decks are closed so take what luggage you need with you up to your seat, cabin, etc. Once the journey is complete you go back down to the vehicle levels, find your bicycle and roll off the other side, just like a car. No hassle, no fuss, perhaps a slight extra cost for taking a bike, but usually far less than the price the charge for cars.

Transporting Bicycles on a ferry
Bicycles strapped up inside a ferry

Transporting Bicycles on Trains

More complicated than ferries is trains. The safest way to take a bike on a train without being refused passage after buying a ticket or being fined once aboard is to pre-book the bike onto the train, if the booking system allows it! If you’re trying to book passage on trains that allow bikes but there’s no way to pre-book the bikes then it’s a gamble and the most reliable option would be to take a night train. Germany, for example, has an excellent night train service called City Night Line that operates in most neighbouring countries too. The carriages have ample room for transporting bicycles and have cheap and comfortable 6 person cabins with bunk beds; the ‘6 berth couchette’ option. Night trains are often slower but have more storage space for luggage, which is why they’re more suitable for transporting bicycles.

Transporting Bicycles -  City Night Line trains in Germany
City Night Line trains in Europe

Fast trains such as France’s TGV service don’t allow bikes, and if you try to cram a bike on board, as I did a few years ago, you’ll end up sitting in the corridor apologising as people squeeze by to use the facilities. If you survive the entire journey without being thrown off you can also expect a hefty fine upwards of €80. I think I managed to persuade the ticket guy to reduce my fine from about €200 to €80 but it still made for an expensive journey.

Transporting Bicycles on Planes

Planes are the ultimate challenge to transporting a bike, I suspect it will continue to hold that title until we start taking our bikes into space and to other planets, then that will have the title of biggest logistical pain in the ass. If unprepared flying with a bike can be very stressful and easily break your travel plans but with some preparation you will be fine. The first step is to book the bike onto the plane as an item of ‘sports luggage’. Surprisingly, this is usually quite cheap. For example, within the EU it usually costs an extra £20 to fly with an item of sports luggage, when you consider the cost you would incur if you were to turn up at the desk and ask them take 25kg of bike and bike gear onboard, it seems like a good deal.

Transporting Bicycles - loading onto plane
My bicycle boarding an airplane

My advice on packing for a flight is this:

  • Pack one large pannier with the heaviest items you have and designate that as your hand luggage.
  • Pack the bike bag or box (see below) with all the items you can’t buy at your destination, don’t take food items or consumables that will be used up on the tour and can be bought when you land.
  • If you’re really struggling to meet the airlines weight requirements strap your tent, or other heavy items, with bungee straps (be careful not include ground pegs or dangerous items!) to your hand luggage pannier and cover it in a rucksack rain cover, or anything that makes it look more like a single item.
  • Be bold, push the boundaries, but have a contingency plan for last minute weight reduction if it looks like you might be not be able to fly.

The airlines ask that your bike be packaged appropriately when you arrive at the airport, this rule has proven to be quite flexible, but more on that in a moment.

Fancy Bike Bags and Boxes

If you have the chance, the best way to package a bike for air travel is to use a specially designed bike bag that encloses the entire bike, usually with the front wheel, handlebars, seat and pedals removed.

The pedals are especially important as this rule isn’t just to save space but is considered a part of the airlines safety procedure for transporting bicycles and is mandatory.

Possible Myth?

I have heard it’s a good idea to lower the pressure in the tires to avoid them blowing out when the plane reaches high altitude and the pressure in the luggage compartments are decreased. I’m still looking for a scientific explanation as to whether that’s true or not. Atmospheric pressure at sea level is only about 14.5psi, so I don’t see how it can make a big difference?

Cheaper More Flexible Bike Box Option

A much cheaper, and more flexible, option is to visit a bike retailer and ask them for the cardboard boxes that they have their bikes delivered in. Partly dismantle the bikes, place them inside the box and use copious amounts of packaging tape and some bubble-wrap to secure it. This method has worked for me many times in the past.

Transporting Bicycles - boxed bikes at airport
The most bikes I’ve ever tried to cram onto one flight – luckily we had no problems.

It has the advantage that you can discard the bag when you land and so you don’t have to return to collect your fancy, made for purpose, bike box.

Risky But Possible

At a push you can simply turn up with your bike, and ask for help packaging it up. This is a risky approach, there is a chance you will be turned down and that your bike might not be permitted to fly.

Transporting Bicycles - bike ready for boxing
Bicycle ready for boxing or wrapping

I tried this once flying out of Prague to the UK, there was two of us and we managed to get our bikes on board but had to be quite pushy about it, we managed to obtain some industrial sized cellophane sheets and wrapped the bikes up like cocoons. Sometimes you have have to make it up as you go along, in those cases I just try to balance assertiveness with politeness and hope for the best but you may have your own strategy for that.

I hope this sheds some light on the art of getting places with a bicycle. If you liked this post please consider sharing it or leaving a comment.

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