I'm asked many times per year how I get my bike to destinations. This just came up again, so I'd thought I'd dedicate a post to it and share everything I've learned over the last 15 years. This way, I can just refer to this post, which I might update from time to time. I will focus on continental US travel, although I've been to the Hawaiian Islands a couple times and Europe once.
A Seat For Your Bike Would Be Cheaper
Bringing a bike with you on a plane used to cost little to nothing. Today it is not uncommon to charge more to take a bike with you than for the airfare itself. My preferred airline for domestic flights is Southwest. They recently raised their price for bikes to $75 each way. The is much cheaper than the $200 some airlines charge.
While cost may be a deterrent, it is not the main reason why I avoid taking bikes with me on planes. Back around 2001, just after 9/11 I believe, I had an incident at LAX coming back with my Dean Titanium hardtail. You see, bike boxes are too big to go through x-ray machines. They must be manually inspected. This means the entire contents of the box comes out. You may have spent an hour meticulously layering things up in there, but that is not how it's going back into the box. In my particular incident, the bike box was inspected in front of me while I waited. The pieces did not go back into the box in the right order, and the box wouldn't close enough to get the buckles to catch. So the guys stood on the box, bouncing, with who knows what jamming into what inside there, trying to get the buckles to latch. I called out "Hey, what are you doing! Let me put it back in there." The younger guy came over, got right in my face and yelled "You don't tell us how to do our jobs!" The older gentleman came over, put his hand on the younger guy's shoulder and said "Calm down, I'll take care of this."
He explained passengers are allowed to touch baggage after it's been inspected, and he'll try to re-position the items in the box. Well, needless to say, there was some minor damage to the frame where the rear cassette destroyed the downtube multi-color DEAN decal. Fortunately titanium is pretty near indestructible. Had it been a modern carbon frame, the frame would have been toast.
I've since learned to zip-tie things up a little better, so what comes out of the box has better chance of going back in the same way. I tell this story though, to warn people that they are not the last to pack their box. TSA people in a back room somewhere are. Prospects are not great that it goes back in exactly the way you packed it.
Just like luggage, bikes can get lost in transit. Maybe even more likely, as they often can't go through the standard luggage carousels. I've heard too many stories of cycling trips ruined by lost or delayed bikes. This seems especially true for international travel. These days, I would consider taking my bike with me only on direct non-stop domestic flights.
Besides cost, risk of damage and loss, there's a fourth lesser reason to not take a bike on the plane with you. It is a pain in the ass to haul bike boxes through airports with luggage. This also means on shuttle buses to rental cars too. I've standardize on another means of getting my bike to destinations...
I almost universally pre-ship my bike these days. Exceptions are the islands, where there is no truck route option. You have many shipping company options. The two most popular are FedEx and UPS. I know many riders that use UPS and pay over $100 each way. I do not understand this. FedEx is consistently cheaper and offers another benefit I'll get to in a minute.
Here's a simple case study. You can go to the respective FedEx and UPS websites and check out other scenarios. I travel from Manchester, NH to Denver, CO a lot. I use a Trico Sports Iron Case. It is specified at 30" W x 48" H x 10" T. The sum of these dimensions is 88". This is extremely important. This used to be the absolute max at FedEx before bumping into oversize fees. It appears recently both FedEx and UPS hold the price up to 90" in size now. My packaged full-suspension mountain bike weighs around 65 pounds.
When I plug my dimensions into the estimators, I get $77.30 on FedEx and $89.27 on UPS. This is much cheaper than what most airlines charge now, and nobody is going to rip your box apart at these carriers. However, sometimes the staff use a "generous" tape measure and add an inch or two to a couple of your dimensions. You must always watch out for this. Say you packed your 29er and the box is a little pregnant. They measure the 10" dimension to be 13". Your FedEx $77 fee now jumps to over $155, and your UPS $89 fee jumps to over $170! That is just crazy. What sometimes happens with me is my box is a bit beat up and the seams flare out a little. FedEx will find the maximum of each dimension, and if this adds just 3" to the sum of all three dimensions, my cost more than doubles. I've had to tactfully haggle a few times to get the dimensions to 90" or under. I've yet to pay an oversize fee.
If you use a bike box that is greater than 90", you are pretty much screwed with either of these carriers. Most premium boxes out there are well over 90" in sum of dimensions. Might as well fly with your bike in that case, as your bike probably has a much more comfy fit in the box and more apt to back into the box correctly after inspection.
I have a FedEx shipper account. Anybody can sign up, it costs nothing. It saves you 15%. When you ship bikes a few round trips per year, this really adds up. This brings my cost down to $65 each way.
One downside to ground shipping your bike is you lose the use of it for several days before and after your trip. For someone like me, this isn't a big deal, as I have other bikes I can ride in the mean time. Something to consider though, if you have only one bike.
You will be asked if you want to insure your bike. I always decline. Just like buying extended warranties for appliances and cell phones, there's huge profit margins in this for the carriers. My philosophy on insurance in general is that it is for things you can't afford to cover out of pocket. If you are wealthy enough to be travelling to some exotic cycling destination with a $6000 bike, you can afford to replace it if FedEx backs a forklift over it. You can. You'll be pissed, but it won't bankrupt you. On the other hand, if your house that you owe $300,000 on burns to the ground, and you are not insured, you are probably screwed. Insurance makes sense in this case, not your prized bicycle case.
How to Pack
I can break my bike down in about 20-30 minutes. This includes completely removing the crankset on a full suspension MTB. I find it fits in the box better this way and is not much more work than removing just the pedals. Very important to remove the rear derailleur and hanger. This will usually be against the case and on bottom wheeled side. Leaving the hanger on there is just begging to start your trip with a bent hanger. Mountain bikers should always be taking a spare hanger with them too.
With hydraulic disk brakes, it is important to place wedges in the calipers so inadvertent squeezing of the levers won't close your calipers, making it impossible to mount a wheel, or worse, push out a caliper and spewing fluid. I also put a spacer in rear dropouts with quick release to retain it. This way if crushing force is placed on broad side of your box, you at least have some extra support there to protect your frame. You can use heavy schedule PVC pipe or a piece of copper pipe cut to 130mm (road), 135mm (mtb) or 142mm (thru-axle).
Wrap the carbon bits up in pipe foam and zip-tie it on. Same for handlebar. I remove bar from stem but don't mess with stem on steer tube. Wrap the chain and rear derailleur up in old t-shirt so it don't ding up frame or make a mess. Same for crank if you remove it like I do.
I also remove disk brake rotors. Probably not necessary, but I like to carry cassette tool with me and Shimano center-lock rotors are so easy to remove. This completely eliminates any risk of bent rotor at destination.
Release partial pressure in MTB tires. Box will close further and reduce risk of oversize fee. Don't let too much out that tubeless bead will break seal, spewing Stan's in your box. Wheels go in last. I zip-tie them together so they overlap a certain way, keeping axles from hitting frame underneath.
Where To Ship To, Drop Off At
There are many drop-off and pick-up options. I used to hunt around for bike shops that were willing to receive and hold my bike in the box until I came to pick it up. A few bike shops will gladly do this, and I was sure to stock up on Cliff bars there or throw a ten in the beer funds jar at the service counter. Many shops want a little more in return for handling your bike and will do so only if they can unpack and build it up for you. This may cost as much as shipping your bike. They will also offer to pack and ship your bike at the end of your trip. Some readers no doubt may want full service, especially those not accustomed to doing all of their own bike maintenance.
Besides having trouble in some areas finding a bike shop to hold your bike for you, you are also faced with limited bike shop hours. Say your flight gets in at 10pm. Guess what? You're not riding your bike at 8am the next morning. The shop probably doesn't open until 9am or 10am. The day could be half gone before your bike is ready to ride.
That's where FedEx comes to the rescue again. A few years back, FedEx bought the Kinko's print store chain. It is now called FedEx Office. Every major city has multiple FedEx Office locations. Many are open 24hrs, or at least have late evening hours. Even more recently, most FedEx Office locations offer "Hold at Location" service. There is no extra charge for this. You just check the box on shipping label and ship the bike to yourself at that FedEx Office location. You can find FedEx locations here. It is always good to call to double-check their hours and that the offer hold at location. When you arrive to pick up your bike, it will usually come out of a locked storage room and you'll be asked to show your ID and sign for it.
When I head out on a trip, I drop my bike off at the staffed FedEx counter by the Manchester airport. It's close to work, and I know it goes out that night. I always allow at least two days margin on estimated transit times. If FedEx says it takes four business days, I plan on at least six. Thus if I arrive on a Friday, I want bike there by Wednesday, so I have to drop if off no later than Thursday afternoon the week before. Other riders may cut it tighter than this. I'd rather not risk it. I've never had a bike take more than a day more than estimated ship time. I've probably used FedEx ground for at least 25 round trips now. I've never had an issue.
When I return from a trip, I often use the same FedEx office I shipped out to. There is no surcharge to ship from a FedEx Office. Avoid "Authorized Ship Centers," as these are usually independent businesses that will add a surcharge to your standard FedEx shipping charges. I had no choice but to go this route one trip and paid a lot more to send my bike back home, but still cheaper than a plane and with less risk in my opinion. Make sure the staff do not over measure your box and bump you up into oversize fees.
I always ship the bike back to my house on the return. I live in a decent neighborhood, and we can't count on somebody being home when FedEx comes by. So I request No Signature Required. You can only do this if you declare a value of $100 or less, which means you are also not insuring your bike. No signature allows FedEx to leave the bike when nobody is home. Things are a lot simpler that way. Depending on your neighborhood, it may be better to have somebody sign for it at your house or send it to your neighborhood FedEx Office center.
So that about sums it up. It's really not that difficult. I'll make edits if I think of more. Feel free to comment with your experiences too.