Ride UK Tech Columns

#78 Flying Tonight?

(This article first appeared in Ride UK issue No. 78 and is reproduced here by kind permission of Ride UK.)

Nobody really likes public transport. We would all rather drive ourselves to our destination. Door to door with our own timetable and agenda.
Unfortunately there is a flip side to this. I am not talking about congested roads or the coming apocalypse of global warming. No. Simply that nobody likes public transport and public transport doesn’t like us…. If you don’t believe me go down to the railway station and ask for a ticket to say London. You may at first think that the guy at the counter is trying to guess your mobile phone number but no, that really is the price he expects you to pay! Now turn to him and tell him you want to take a bicycle with you. He may openly laugh in your face so brace yourself and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
To you this seems illogical. Even if you weren’t an obsessive BMX’er who is probably only travelling to ride your bike, the chances are the place you want to visit isn’t actually Euston station so you need some transport on at the other end anyway. Bikes and trains SHOULD work well together but the train companies don’t want a bar of it…
Before I got my own car I spent many an afternoon arguing with British Rail guards to get my bike on to trains, I also spent a while on platforms waiting for a train that wasn’t too futuristic to let a bike on, or simply giving up and riding instead. Many’s the tale I have heard of half a dozen riders trying to get back from say Nottingham to Barnsley and in the end setting off riding roughly northwards the 40 miles home.
So now I have a nice big car and the railways can go fuck themselves (which is one thing they do seem to be very adept at). But sadly my car can’t cope with large bodies of water like the Atlantic ocean. Trust me, I have checked through the manual and although it does have such essentials as heated wing mirrors and a turbo pressure gauge it doesn’t have a retractable hover skirt or hydroplanes.

So for overseas trips you are pretty much at the mercy of the airlines, and they too have quaint little rules and regulations to follow. The first of these is that if you want to take a bike they are most likely going to want some more money off you. No matter that fat bastards the size of Mongolia can book a single seat at the same price as less cumbersome passengers and that babies under 2 travel free despite making the flight a living hell for everyone within earshot. If you want to stash a little bicycle in the hold they want another random amount of money off you. They will also probably keep this fairly quiet until you come to check-in. So this months technical column is a how-to on getting your bike from A to B without getting stung.

As with any successful military campaign, preparation is everything, though the element of surprise is less important… (Whipping your bike out of your arse at the last minute is more likely to get you shot these days than help dodge an excess baggage fee… so maybe scratch that bit about military tactics…)
Many airlines WILL let you take a bike for free on international flights, but you don’t know which ones until you check, and you probably don’t know which is going to be cheapest until you come to book. So you are left with a dilema. You can either tell the travel agent that you are taking a bike and have her (let’s face it it’s nearly always a girl) check and pre-book for you or you can keep quiet and try to blag it later on.
My recommendation is to play it cool and say something like you MIGHT want to take a bike with you and if so would it be a problem. Being a travel agent they may just make it up on the spot so double check later. Most airlines should say on their websites what the policy is and if it says it’s free then print it out so you can brandish it later on if you have problems.

Having said all this the best bet is for you to pack your bike so well that they will never know it’s there. Specialist bike bags are available with padding in all the right places but they aren’t cheap and they might give the game away by having “Bike Bag” written on the side in big letters. Another alternative that is rumoured to be good is a keyboard case but this and the bike bag can be very unwieldy and if you need to connect by tube or walk far with it then you are in for an epic struggle.
My own bike bag was something I made in advance for a difficult journey I knew was coming. I had to get a bus to the bus depot, then a coach to London Victoria coach station, then walk to the tube and take it to docklands, then another bus to London City airport. The prospect of packing a bike well enough for the coach (let alone the plane) and then manhandling it across London was enough to make me take the problem seriously and make this thing.
In essence it is a plank with skateboard trucks bolted to the bottom, and two blocks of wood to bolt the dropouts to so it stays solid. This plank is stapled into the bottom of a big bag and that’s about it.
You take your wheels off the bike, bolt the dropouts to the wood with some old bolts, zip tie all the bits ,like wheel and bars, to the frame and zip it up.

Once packed you can then sit on the seat and push the bag along with your feet and steer by leaning just like a skateboard (see picture at the top) YES, you get some funny looks but travelling any distance is a million times easier …
If you are taking your bike apart to pack it then make absolutely certain that you also pack all the tools to put it back together and don’t leave your wheel nuts or some other vital part on the kitchen table…

If you really cant be arsed to pack your bike away so it’s invisible then be prepared for a few problems. If you just push your bike up to the counter the check-in staff will probably tell you that you simply cant take a bike on the plane. If you have checked it out in advance then brandish your printout at them. If you don’t have a printout then being as polite as you possibly can, confidently assure then that you can. Chances are they have no idea what the real policy is so if you sound sure of yourself you have a very good chance of bluffing your way through.
The next obstacle is that they may well try to rip you off some cash for taking it. Again if you have proof use it, but if not bluff it out. Insist that you don’t have ANY spare money until you get to the other end and get met by your sick relative etc etc. Alternatively if you look too old to be totally without credit cards then claim it is just a “kids bike” for your nephews birthday present etc etc. We get enough stick for riding a kid’s bike we might as well try to use it to our advantage once in a while…
If they are still pushing for cash then agree to pay but say you will be writing a letter to the airline to complain (because it was so clear on the website that it was free) and ask for their name so you can put it in your letter. Do all this BEFORE they get your cash and it might swing it.
Even if you hide your bike entirely in a big bag then they are eventually going to X-ray it and realise what it is. This may make them think that they should screw some cash out of you. It is therefore vital that your answer to the question “What is in this bag?” should always be “Bike PARTS”. Not “A bike”. This may give you some useful room for dispute later on if things turn expensive sounding…  Remember at ALL times to be polite and keep your voice as reasonable and light hearted as possible. With modern air-rage powers they can probably shoot you on the spot if you look even vaguely threatening.

SO lets assume that you have permission to take a slightly unusually shaped bit of luggage on the flight that cost you so much cash. Regardless of how well packed it is you can bet that they are going to be throwing it most of the way from the departure lounge to the plane. If you are going to be upset by some new scratches and dents then you better buy a pack of tissues before hand.
If you don’t run a gyro, but do have a back brake, then it’s a very good idea to disconnect your back brake cable at this point. The baggage handlers will probably do 20 or 30 barspins and if you don’t disconnect it before hand you can bet it will be well shagged by the time you get to the other end.
They are also going to moan like hell about things like pegs and bars without bar-ends because they reckon they will damage other people’s luggage. This also gives you some idea of what goes on down below in the hold. Don’t expect your bike to be neatly stowed in a luggage net like in films. It seems more likely it’s a free for all down there…

All airports will also tell you that you must let your tyres down completely. This is a great rule and they will swear blind it is a civil aviation rule and they can’t do anything about it. But just for the record here are the facts.
If you put a bike on an un-pressurised rocket and sent it all the way into space. The tyre pressures would only go up by 15 P.S.I. !!! The worst possible scenario is that your tyres are within 10 psi of bursting, the plane sets off for America but takes a wrong turn and ends up on the moon. Your tyres EXPLODE and you arrive at your destination with flat tyres… To save us all from this terrible terrible possible outcome the civil aviation authority therefore needs you to let them down. Not just down by 15 P.S.I. but all the way to flat. This takes all the doubt away. You definitely WILL arrive at your destination with flat tyres… so take a pump…
Interestingly you will notice that they don’t make the pilot let the aeroplane’s tyres down…. But I am keeping quiet about it in case they just haven’t noticed….

Post Script:-

In the last 20 days I took my bike, in its bag, on 7 flights. For the first 4 there was no problem and I probably saved about $150 in charges. But the last of my “free” flights was with Alaska airlines who managed to break the board part of the bag in transit. Luckily I was able to “mend” it with some manky old bits of wood and some screws, but at the same time I acquired a few new possessions which I also threw in the bag bringing the total weight to something like 62 pounds. This extra weight didn’t sit well with the check-in scales and questions became more probing. My rely to the question of “what’s in the bag?” was; “Some bike parts, pads, a bike pump some tools and some other bits and pieces..”. Unfortunately this sentence contained the word bike too many times and stirred some interest, the guy on the desk ended up asking his supervisor if “bike parts” were charged the same as a bike and she decided they were so I was stung $50. For the last two flights I managed to blag my may through but the weight issue was definitely what caused the problems.
So my amended advice would be to keep the weight down and put some other stuff in there too so that the answer to the question of “what’s in the bag?” can be more vague; something like:- “Oh, some odds and ends, clothes, pads, tools, some bicycle wheels…” let the sentence trail off and they may not push it too much…
Oh and avoid Alaska airlines if you can…..

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