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How to take kids and bikes on a plane
Have you ever considered going on an overseas family cycling and camping holiday somewhere exciting, but got put off by the thought of having to take your bikes (and possibly a bike trailer) on a plane, along with all your luggage, camping equipment and offspring? Where do you start planning how to do this? Is it even achievable??? We asked regular Cycle Sprog contributor, mum of two and family cycling adventurer Kathryn to explain how she manages to take her take kids and bikes on a plane, and still have the energy to pedal at the other end.
How do you manage to pack everything on your kit list for taking on the plane?
It's important to decide what needs to go in the hold, and what you're taking on the plane with you. I try and get as much as possible in the hold to avoid carrying it around the airport. You must remember that you will have to cycle with everything at the other end, so all hand luggage must be able to be either worn or attached to your bike while you're cycling. This is how we split our luggage between the hold and cabin:
Two soft bikes bags – each with two bikes in (one adult bike and one child bike - see notes below about whether this is possible on your airline), plus helmets and the bike maintenance kit
Bike trailer - collapsed down and wrapped in plastic. We currently use the single wheel Topeak Journey trailer for carrying all our camping equipment - we like it because it folds down and is compact. If you need to put a young child in the trailer, then a two wheeled trailer would be a better option.
If you have any kids bike seats, tagalongs etc these will also need to go in the hold.
One large foldable bag (we use the dry bag supplied with trailer) containing tent, sleeping bags, carry mats, wash kit, first aid kit and camping equipment (pots/pans etc)
Bear in mind you may need to place your stove in hand luggage depending on what type you have, and fuel will have to be purchased in-country for obvious reasons!
Hand or cabin luggage
One pannier each – containing clothes, stove and the kids games and activity books.
If you are worried about your helmets getting squashed in the bike bags in the hold, you could always attach them to the outside of the panniers, but this would increase the size of your hand luggage. We've always put ours in the hold.
2 x front handle bar bags which can count as ‘handbags’ containing paperwork, passports, money, camera, book, mobile devices etc.
Do you need to book your bikes and trailer onto the flight in advance?
Each airline has it's own policies about booking on bikes so make sure you understand them fully before you travel. We've always booked our bikes at the same time as purchasing our tickets. We've been happy to put an adult and child's bike together in one bag and so we only booked and paid for two bike bags. (This has benefits of only needing to deal with two bike bikes).
HOWEVER - please note that there is an increased risk of damage to a bike and some airlines and airports are very strict about what is in a bike bag - i.e. one bike - one bag. Some also have a weight limit. We advise that you make contact in advance with your airline and explain that you are putting kids and adult bikes in a bike bag together to make things easier, rather than because you're trying to avoid paying a cost. We've heard that Swiss airports can be very strict about this.
Some airlines let you take bike bags free of charge as sports equipment - check the rules of your carrier well in advance of travelling.
We take our trailer through as one of our allowed items of luggage. However, if you are using a heavier, or larger, trailer then you may incur extra costs so check with your airline.
How do you pack the bikes safely so they don't get damaged in the hold of the plane?
This depends on whether you are doing a circular route and returning from the same airport, or will be flying back from another airport.
The best option for when your flights are to and from the same airport is to use bike bags which are specifically designed for transporting bikes safely. We use DHB bike bags and up until now have been able to fit one adult and one child bike in each bag. Obviously as the kids bikes get bigger we may need extra bike bags (and note our comments above about airline policy on bikes per bag).
When we are packing the bikes we remove the wheels and these go into side pockets inside the bike bag. We loosen the handlebars and twist so they are aligned with the frame, and we remove the pedals (and remember to put them into the bag!)
Before we had children my husband and I would fly into one airport and then cycle to another airport for the flight home. We used disposable cardboard bike boxes from our local bike shop on the outward flight, which we disposed of on arrival. We then sourced similar boxes from a local bike shop or thick polythene and lots of tape from hardware stores in-country for the return journey. This can be quite difficult in some parts of the world, and we allowed over a day for sourcing the plastic, wrapping the bikes and getting the bikes to airport. We haven't done this with the kids (yet!).
Don’t seal your bike boxes before they go through the security scanner and keep some extra tape handy. Security need to be satisfied the boxes just contain bikes.
Where do you store the bike bags whilst you are on your cycling and camping holidays?
We have always found storage for our bike bags at the first night's accommodation. Getting from the airport to the first campsite/hostel/B&B can be difficult with the bike bags, so make sure the journey is relatively short so you're not carrying them too far. We managed to roll the bike bags up quite small, but as you can see they add quite a lot of bulk and weight to what you're carrying. We really loaded the Topeak Journey to it's limit!
We've always asked about storing the bike bikes when we make the booking, and have always been told the storage would be at our own risk. The alternative would be to use left luggage at the airport, but this could get very costly.
Have your bikes ever been damaged while flying?
No. The bikes have always been fine when we get to the other end, but we've never taken expensive high-end bikes on a plane. We make sure the bikes are well maintained and all screws tightened before we set off, so there is nothing that can come loose.
I'd recommend that you practice reassembling your bikes several times at home before your holiday, so you are confident you can do it relatively quickly after the flight.
We always do a thorough check of every part of the bike at the start of each day, in case anything has come loose. We tend to find that pannier screws are the ones that come loose the most and need almost daily tightening.
How do you get all your bikes to the airport?
On the outward flight, we put the bikes into the bike bags and pack up the trailer at home and strap them on the roof rack of our car, and drive to the airport. We check the height restrictions on the airport website before we go, to check we can get to the airport drop off point.
I get dropped off at the airport drop of point with the bike bags, all our other luggage and the eldest child. We will sit and wait whilst my husband goes to the car park and gets the shuttle bus back with the youngest child. We then check in as normal.
On the way home, we arrive at the airport by bike and dismantle our bikes and trailer as close to the check-in desk as possible.
Do you re-assemble your bikes at the airport?
If we're cycling or using public transport straight away, then yes. Once we've cleared passport control the bikes usually come through the out sided luggage point. Some airports (such as Palma, Mallorca) have a specialist bike area or sports equipment area.
We unpack and assemble our bikes and trailer in the airport terminal.
The only time we would keep the bikes in the bike bags would be if we were getting a local taxi company to take us in a mini-van.
What do you do with the children whilst you are assembling the bikes?
I chose not to fly with my children and bikes until they were capable of carrying a bag through the airport and entertain themselves (with a book or an i-pad) while we were sorting all the bikes and luggage. They were aged 6 and 9 and it was just about do-able - before that I decided I didn't have enough hands! We went on cycling holidays to Denmark and Holland when they were younger, using the ferries. This is much easier as you can ride on and off the ferries.
However, it could be possible to fly with younger children if you're able to put them in a bike trailer and use this as a "pushchair" and take it right up to the gate. In my experience it's far more challenging the younger your children are, which is why we chose to use ferries until I knew we could all cope with the flight and airport.
I'd also recommend thinking about the timings of your flights, so you're not arriving at your destination airport late at night. Trying to deal with tired / grouchy kids and reassemble bikes would be too much for me to handle!
How do you get from the airport to your destination with the bikes and children?
We do a lot of research before leaving home on the route we're going to take from the airport to our first night's accommodation. Google Maps and Google Street is really useful for this. In most places the airport is a long way from anywhere, often without safe cycling routes. When you have children with you, you need to be very careful that you're not asking them to cycle a long distance after a tiring flight.
We usually have to take trains or airport shuttles, and have always found that people will help us get the bikes and children on board. Up to now we've never been refused entry, but we do always check up in advance that bikes are allowed on board.
If you can't get to your first night's accommodation by public transport or by cycling then you can book a mini-van from a local taxi company, and assemble your bikes when you get to your accommodation.
If you're having to cycle straight from the airport, keep the distance to your first nights accommodation short, even if it means staying just one night in somewhere you’d ideally rather not! Don’t under estimate how tired you’ll be, and how much your brain is processing as you step out from the ‘safety’ of the airport. You're jet lagged, the climate may be different, and there’s a whole new set of road rules for everyone to get used to.
Research your route (and road rules) beforehand so you know what to expect when you get there, and prepare your kids for it. For example, know which side of the road you’ll be cycling on, agree the order you will cycle in etc ...
Any final hints and tips for something thinking of taking their kids and bikes on a plane?
You need to be very thick skinned! There will be times when you, your bikes, luggage and children are blocking other people's way and there is nothing you can do about it.
You also need to be very well organised both in your travel arrangements and packing. You must be able to carry everything you take, so take the essentials only.
Don't be too ambitious about how far you can cycle - remember it's all about the journey, and not to the end destination.
Finally, only go on an overseas camping and cycling family holiday if you're OK with uncertainty. We've found that everything always sorts itself out in the end, but at times you have to take a deep breath and cope with whatever challenge comes your way.
About Kathryn: Kathryn is from the UK, but in Summer 2015 moved with her family (husband and two children, Alice and Tom) to Montreal. She works as a trainer, facilitator and coach, using her experience of cross-cultural working and cultural transition to support other families with relocation. Find out more about Kathryn at: Up+Thrive and Kathryn Relocated.
You can read about some other Kathryn's family cycling adventures in these other posts:
- Bali family cycling holiday - getting to Indonesia
- Family cycling holiday along the River Danube
- A family cycling holiday to Denmark
- Scottish Island Hopping – a family cycling holiday
- How to carry all your kit on a family cycling holiday
Affiliate disclosure - a couple of the links in this post use affiliate marketing. This means if you buy through that link, Cycle Sprog get a small commission, which helps us to fund the website. Thanks so much for your support
This article was first published in April 2017 and updated in July 2018 to reflect Kathryn's latest advice.
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