Whether you’re an amateur or professional racer planning for your next competition, or a cycling enthusiast hoping to bring your bike with you on your next trip, you’ll need to decide whether to ship your bike to your destination ahead of time, or to take it with you when you fly. In our decades of traveling and racing, we’ve done both countless times.
As the creators of the Airport Ninja travel case, I think it’s no secret which method we’ve decided we like more - but the truth is that shipping and flying both have distinct advantages and disadvantages. What works for one individual might not be the best option for another, and the cost and convenience of each may well change depending on the specifics of one's travel plans.
In this article we will go over some of the potential pros and cons of shipping vs flying with your bike, and give you some tips about what to keep in mind when planning your next trip.
Shipping your bike ahead of time
(Image courtesy of Mike Mozart via Flickr)
Potential advantages of shipping your bike:
Overall Cost -
Depending on the distance to your destination, and the size of the box or case you pack your bike into, and whether you opt for shipment insurance to the value of your bike, shipping your bike ahead of time can be cheaper than than paying excess baggage fees to fly with it.
Cost is more dependent on size than weight -
We’ve found that for parcels larger than a set of wheels, the cost of the shipping is more heavily dependent on size than it is on weight. This means shipping in an Airport Ninja, for example, can be significantly cheaper than shipping in an unmodified bike box. It also means that if you have extra room in the box or case (highly likely) you can add quite a bit of extra equipment, tools, and race food without significantly impacting the price. This is particularly important for many hard case users, as the weight of the case and bike combined is often already pushing airline weight limits.
No such thing as TSA for ground shipments -
We love TSA. It’s a very important and noble job they do; keeping air travel safe for you and me. However, we don’t get to be there as they inspect and repack our bikes. We designed the Airport Ninja to be easy for a non-cyclist to use (separate compartments for each component, simple zipper closure), but the clamshell closure system and unpartitioned interior of certain hard cases has been known to be a stumper. For ground shipments, at least you know for sure your bike will arrive in the same configuration as you sent it off (as long as you packed it properly in the first place).
You can travel fast and light on the day of your flight -
Maybe you’ve already got a lot of luggage, and would rather not deal with your bike when you’re traveling to and from the airport. If you’re not racing and won’t need to ride in the meantime, this might be the most convenient option for you.
Disadvantages of shipping your bike:
Down time without your bike during shipping -
This factor may weight more heavily in the decision of racers. Really the only economical way of shipping your bike is via ground service, which takes a minimum of 3-5 BUSINESS days within the contiguous 48 states of the U.S., and transit times are not guaranteed. All-inclusive services require you to drop your bike off 10 days to 2 weeks in advance, and often to drive to a participating shop or shipment depot. This means you won’t be able to ride your bike for anywhere from a week to two weeks before and after your event.
Dealing with a Cardboard Box -
You can ship your bike in a bike case instead of a cardboard box - in fact it’s significantly cheaper to ship in an Airport Ninja than in a bike box - but for those without a bike case, a bike box might be the only option. This means hunting one down from your local bike shop, digging one out of their dumpster, or buying one online. Some services charge as much as $60 for a cardboard bike box to be shipped to your house, or over $200 for the reusable kind. Once you arrive at your destination you will need to find a place to store the box, which won’t easily collapse flat like an Airport Ninja.
As an FYI, if the cardboard box gets damaged during transit, the carrier might not accept it for return shipment. I have had a carrier refuse a pickup because of a small hole they themselves had put in it on its way there.
Can be prohibitively expensive depending on destination -
The cost to ship your bike - no matter the size of the package - depends on the distance from the point of origin to the destination. Overseas shipments are simply not economical, and they can be delayed in customs no matter how they are labelled. In a country as big as the United States, shipping costs can easily match or exceed airline bike fees. If you pay for insurance that would cover your bike in the event of any damages, the cost advantage of shipping goes away entirely.
Flying with your Bike
(Image courtesy of Lucas Jackson via Twitter)
Advantages of flying with your bike:
Your bike travels with you-
When you fly with your bike, it travels on the same plane as you do. You can pack your bike in the box/case the day before or the day of - no need to spend several days not riding while your bike takes a slow ride in the back of a truck next to someone’s subscription delivery of kitty litter.
Less overall handling -
When you ship a bike, it will be loaded onto and off of several trucks, and passed through as many distribution centers on its way to the destination. When you fly with a bike, it is only handled as many times as there are legs in your journey.
Pay no additional fees -
Depending on what bike case you use and which airline you fly, you might not have to pay anything extra to fly with your bike. The Airport Ninja is the world’s smallest and most discreet bicycle travel case - designed and tested to avoid excess baggage fees. If you are traveling with a different bike case, or with a cardboard box, there are some airlines you can choose to minimize the additional fees you will be responsible for. Southwest and Frontier airlines charge $75 each way to travel with a bike, while JetBlue charges only $50. Just keep in mind that Southwest and JetBlue only accept bikes under 80” in combined L+W+H, so many larger cases still won’t qualify. Alaska Airlines beats them all at $25 each way, with no specific size requirement.
Certain non-US airlines actually have no bike fee, or have slightly larger dimensional limits than US airlines. See our Airline Guides section for more information.
Potential Disadvantages of Flying with a Bike:
You need to carry your bike with you to the Airport -
For some this will be seen as an advantage, but if you already have a lot of luggage it can be cumbersome, especially with a bulky hard case.
Dealing with the bike case or box at your destination -
This is true of bike cases and boxes alike: many are quite large and heavy, and don’t collapse when empty. We designed the Airport Ninja to fit in even the smallest rental cars even when packed with a bike, and to pack flat when empty. But for hard cases and non-Ninja soft cases, you’ll need plenty of space to store them once you arrive at your destination.
The fees -
Some airlines will charge you to fly with a bike whether your case is within the standard 62” limit or not. These fees can be as much as $200 each way on domestic routes, and even more for international flights. This simply doesn’t make sense when other sporting equipment such as golf clubs and skis/snowboards are so often exempt from these dimensional requirements. It pays to fly with the world’s smallest and most discreet bicycle travel case. See our Blogs and Airline Guides to see how you can choose the most economical and bike-friendly airlines, as well as tips for how to avoid excess baggage fees.
The Bottom Line
Whether flying with or shipping your bike is the better option depends on the specific details of your travel, as well as personal preference. Flying with your bike means no time when you can’t ride while the bike is being shipped, but it also means you must carry the bike with you to the airport instead of dropping it off beforehand. Both shipping and flying require additional equipment/materials beyond just the bike itself. Neither option is less expensive under all circumstances - total cost will depend on your destination, the size of your case/box, the airline/carrier you choose, and whether you opt for shipping insurance. Regardless of which option you choose - if you are going on a trip and your bike is coming with you, you’re doing something right!