Flying with my Brompton (folding bike)
Why buy a folding bike if you don’t plan to travel with it?
I have been getting more adept at using my Brompton for errands and happy hours but a year after buying my Brompton, it was time for our first flight together.
One of my main justifications for buying the Brompton – a brand of folding bicycle – was that airline travel would now be free for the bike. I just needed to get through the ‘first time’ and then the Brompton could go on ALL my trips.
Of course, I was stressing about every aspect of the trip.
Flying with anything expensive or breakable can be risky. (Have you seen the video for United Breaks Guitars?)
I’ve flown with bicycles before but always packed in specialty luggage made for airline travel. Now that I don’t race, it has not been worth the cost or effort to fly with a personal bike. Airline fees for “specialty sports equipment” run between $75 and $150 per flight so it is usually cheaper for me to rent a nice bike at my destination.
To avoid the hefty airline charge, the bike must go carry-on or be under a certain size limit when checked. The plan for this trip was to bring the bike as carry-on luggage since a Brompton will fit in most overhead compartments.
My friends all made it seem so easy. “Just walk around like you do this all the time and no one will question you.”
This type of swagger is not my forte. I am more comfortable asking for permission so I won’t have to ask for forgiveness. I needed to have all eventualities covered so down the interweb rabbit hole I went, searching for advice.
THE definitive guide to flying with a Brompton.
It doesn’t exist. Thus I had to create one of my own piecing together info from various places.
I did find a snarky comment in Bicycling Magazine about Brompton owners posting photos to social media every time they fly with their bikes. (Of course, I tagged them in a twitter photo…of my bike in the overhead bin)
For readers here without any burning interest in flying with a folding bike, the short version is that all my neurotic preparations made the trip a breeze. With all our travel, I’m finding that sweet spot of preparation and venturing out beyond my comfort zone.
Everybody’s Doing It
Ironically, near the boarding gate I ran into a friend traveling to Atlanta with his Brompton – chatting with a flight attendant about his bike. Turns out she was working my flight and curious to see how well the bike would fit into the overhead bin.
Sweet Ride of Success
I’m really glad that I took the bike since it allowed me to travel freely throughout downtown Austin for all my meetings and errands. The hotel valets were fascinated with my bike and couldn’t believe how often I used it. Best of all, I even ventured out for a long-ish ride (15 miles) with my former racing teammate around our old training ground on Austin’s Shoal Creek loop.
For the Brompton-curious
Read on for the nitty gritty details so your bike can fly along on your next trip!
- I’d highly recommend buying the telescoping seat if you plan to fly with your bike. From the looks of it, the saddle height would have been a problem for the x-ray machine and in the overhead bin. Not looking to be arrested, I skipped asking the TSA agents probing questions about the width of the belt or taking measurements myself.
- I flew Southwest Airlines on a direct flight from LAX to Austin Bergstrom on a Sunday morning in April, 2015. The flight was not full so overhead space was not an issue.
- I chose Southwest for my maiden trip primarily because they are known to be folding bike-friendly. Through 2016, we have a companion pass that allows me to fly for pretty close to free (taxes only) which means that I expect to repeat this adventure. JetBlue is also a favorite with my LA Brompton friends.
- I own the Brompton padded travel B bag that looks to be just within the Southwest checked bag limit without the specialty bike charge. I purchased this bag for storage in our Honda Element to reduce the risk of damage when packing gets tight. I intentionally didn’t use the bag to check the bike so I could use this as a test flight for carry-on. The Southwest website states that you would need to sign a damage waiver if a bike is not packed in a solid box. I don’t know if this is true in practice.
- TSA pre-check didn’t seem to have any real benefit for getting the bike through security. Although keeping my shoes on and toiletries in place was nice. The TSA agents weren’t that interested one way or the other in the bike.
- I completely removed the saddle since I don’t have the telescoping seat post. One blogger had put a tennis ball on his bare seat post. I resorted to taping on an old sock. Not elegant but it worked.
- I also put old socks on the pedals to protect against scraping. (I have the standard pedals with the sharp teeth on both sides.)
- I placed the bike into a clear IKEA Dimpa bag just to make the bike easier to carry around the airport vs rolling it (I don’t have the rack or easy roll wheels).
- I had left the Dimpa bag on through the x-ray machine and the handles hung up a bit. My friends had recommended putting it through bagless but the TSA agent said to go ahead and leave it in the bag.
- Once I got to the gate, I took the bike out of the bag so it would appear smaller and it would be easier to handle down the jet way.
- I kept the rest of my carry on simple and lightweight to make walking down the airplane aisle and the lift to the overhead faster. It helped to have my laptop in hubby’s carry-on bag. We checked a bag and that’s where I put my helmet.
- I missed the deadline to purchase early boarding but that didn’t seem to matter with a low capacity flight. For $12.50, it’s highly recommended to buy the preboard to ensure plenty of overhead room when boarding. Seems like this would be true for airlines with assigned seating as well.
- Place the bike in the overhead with the wheels and/or rack facing out. Handle bars up.
- As I said above, the flight attendant was actually very interested in the bike and was not at all hostile.
- I had a back up plan to gate check if necessary. Basically put the bike back in the Dimpa bag for ease of handling and ask to have it delivered back to the gate after the flight just like it is done for strollers.
Any other tips from you folding bike owners?