Last month the American Transportation Security Administration eased some sporting goods restrictions, including allowing golf clubs, hockey sticks and even knives in carry-on luggage, but the airlines haven’t changed their policies towards bicycles. If you're planning on traveling with a bike, expect to pay between $50 and $100 — unless you're flying on Frontier, West Jet or Alaska Airlines, which take bikes for free — and make sure your bike box doesn't weigh more than 50 pounds.
“I’ve checked bikes, golf clubs, and skis on commercial flights. While I wish I could check a bike without charge, I understand the difference from the airline’s perspective,” said Tim Blumenthal, president of the Bikes Belong Coalition.
One reason is that one size doesn’t fit all with bicycles.
“Both golf clubs - in a bag with a cover - and skis - in a bag with a cover - are pretty durable, standard size, linear, and take up a lot less space than a bike in just about any container,” said Blumenthal. “I think airlines would be more willing to carry bikes without charge if, A) all bike boxes were made of hard plastic and were exactly the same size; B) bike-checking customers were willing to completely absolve airlines for damage in transit - or show proof of insurance that would cover all claims; C) airlines perceived that bike-carrying customers ranked among their best customers, which is more likely to be the case today.”
This comes down to the fact that airlines really want predictable luggage that they know how to handle and don’t stress about. This is why Denver’s International Airport for one has special luggage belts for skis. The Mile High city gets skiers and the handlers know how to handle skis.
What is more stressful for traveling cyclists is that fees vary so much. Here is a breakdown of the current fees on major carriers.
United Airlines charges $100 each way, while American Airlines and Delta Airlines require $150 each way. US Airways charges the most of the American domestic carriers at $200 per way, however a folding or coupler bicycle that is less than 62 inches in total luggage size can go free.
The price amongst the smaller airlines varies as well. Hawaiian Airlines charges $100 with a limit of 50 pounds (or a $50 overage fee). Discount carriers JetBlue Airways, AirTran and Southwest Airlines charge $50 each way, while Spirit Airlines – the airline that charges for overhead bin space – will charge $75 for a bicycle each way, as will Sun Country Airlines.
Party airline Virgin America charges $50 per way, with a limit of 50 pounds (or a $50 overage fee).
West Jet, Alaska Airlines and Frontier Airlines allow bikes to fly free. Just make sure your box is not over 50 pounds, or expect a $50-$75 fee.
United Airlines charges $200 or roughly double that of domestic flights, but American Airlines and Delta charge the same $150 fee whether a flight is international or domestic.
German carrier Lufthansa charges $200 (150 Euros) each way for flights from North America to Europe, but just $100 (70 Euros) for flights within Europe. In the case of Lufthansa it is also necessary to register sports bags within 24 hours of the booking to ensure that space is reserved for the bike case.
Scandinavian Airlines requires prior request and charges $85 for bicycles. Sun Country Airlines charges $75. Virgin Atlantic charges $50 each way, provided the bike is still under 50 pounds.
Air France must approve of people traveling to France to ride high-end bicycles as it doesn’t charge any fees for bicycles under 50 pounds, but does charge $75 for heavier bikes. This policy is mirrored by British Airways, which also has no fee for sporting goods. However British Airways charges $60 for bikes from 51-70 pounds doesn't accept anything heavier than 70 pounds.
In some cases, those aforementioned fees could be higher if the airline decides to charge for a baggage fee as well. In other words, if you show up at the airport with a checked bag and a bike case, then the bike case could be charged as a “second bag” and then charged again as “oversized luggage.” It is advisable to check with the airline in advance.
Often it's just the luck of the draw, said Rick Hill, board chair at the Bicycle Adventure Club, reporting on the trends among his club's members. "Seems charges are very inconsistent and hit or miss, depending on the crowd, the clerk and the carrier," he said.
Some of these airlines will also wave fees to those priority or premium members, so business travelers can get rewarded even during their vacation travel. The other option is to see what it costs to ship a bike in advance. If you have the time, FedEx or UPS Ground can be considerably more affordable.