I'm visiting Chicago, right now, a city where the weather is as aggressive and unpleasant as the drivers and the roads. Despite that, I am a cyclist, so I though it would have been nice to tow my bike to the Windy City 2,126 miles away.
After landing in Chicago, I did some research and -- much to my surprise -- found that flying with your bike, especially out of SFO is actually easy.
Alas, there is a simple way for you to bike from wherever you are in the city (using the BART if necessary) to the airport, disassemble your bike, throw it into your bike bag, and fly away -- all for no more than what you'd pay to check your luggage.
We know what you're thinking: How much is that gonna cost? It might seem daunting to haul your bike onto an airplane, but lucky for us locals, SFO does its best to make all aspects of air/bike travel smooth.
I asked Doug Yakel, spokesman with the San Francisco International Airport, to tell me what cyclists could expect trying to cart their two-wheels to the airport. He said, "with designated bike lanes on the frontage roads around the airport, assembly stations, and free parking, we hope to provide passengers with some good reasons to take their bicycle to SFO for their next trip."
Getting to the Airport
That's the easy part since BART lifted the rush-hour ban on bikes. If you want to pedal your way to the airport, it's about 15 miles from downtown San Francisco. Google says to take Bayshore to Airport Boulevard to McDonnell Road. Much of the route has bike lanes, including the crazy frontage roads that SFO's spokesman talked about.
Getting Ready to Fly With Your Bike
Since most airlines aren't going to consider a bike your carry-on luggage, you're going to have to disassemble it. Luckily, SFO has bike stands in the International Terminal Courtyards (A and G) and at the Rental Car Center. There are also tools available for rent at The Airport Travel Agency on the G side of the International Terminal where you can break the bike down.
If you don't know already, most airlines charge a flat fee to check your bike. Those fees vary dramatically based on the airline; for instance, U.S. Airways charges an absurd $200 one-way while American and Delta Airlines will tack on a $150 each way. Frontier will charge the normal $20 bag fee and like the luggage, Southwest is free. But there is a way to check your bike without getting saddled with fees. Keep reading.
How to Fly
The people that I know who travel with bikes are more often than not serious bike polo players, who might fly a dozen times, both domestically and abroad, in the course of season. I asked a couple of the best players in the world, Eric Kremin and Brian Dillman, who both live in San Francisco, to tell me how they manage it.
They told me that the cost to bring your bike on board really depends on the airline, so make sure you do your research. But most importantly, "never, ever, ever, ever tell anyone in an airport you're traveling with a bike," Dillman said. "I've heard or used anything from 'art project' to 'wheel chair' to 'my little brother,' but personally my favorite is: vague trade show materials."
What You'll Need to Bring
These guys generally travel with their bikes in this bag from Milwaukee Bicycle Company in lieu of a bulky cardboard box or bike specific case. Kremin says in the blurb that he's, "Been flying with it since 2010 and [was] charged only once for an over sized bag, but not a bike." The bag should fit a 62-cm bike (which is big) along with other gear -- and you can check it just like any other luggage. The major drawback to this method is that it requires you to take your bike apart completely -- but that's where the bike-stands and tools come in handy.
Other Good Tips
Dillman says his most important suggestion is to use curbside check. "These people work for an independent agency. They are not with the airline so they don't give a shit about whether they charge you for a bike. Just make sure you're under 50 pounds and that you tip those guys well."
The major catch here is that you're trusting your friendly baggage handlers to treat your bike with care -- and they might not care the way you want them to. It works best for a bike that can handle getting tossed around a bit.
There are other solutions, including carting a folding bike, or a bike with couplers that allow it to split in half, but those are expensive options -- and require another bike.
I know that the next time I fly anywhere, I'm going to ride out to the airport, I'm going to stuff my disassembled "trade show supplies" into a bag, and you know I'll have a $5 bill ready for my friendly curbside bag checker.
Leif Haven is a writer and cyclist living in the Bay Area. He's can be spotted dragging himself up a hill -- literally and metaphorically.