Jan and I have checked tandems onto over 250 flights. We often fly with multiple tandems and have never missed a flight or left a bike behind. Since 1986 we’ve coached thousands who have flown with their tandems to Santana’s events. The 1000-plus couples who flew to our 2010-2013 events posted a perfect 100% success rate for flying with their tandems.
Are you afraid of being hassled, overcharged, or even turned away? This guide’s for you!
As will be explained more fully below, airline rules have changed and will continue to evolve.
While some of us wistfully recall when bike fees were lower, it’s usually less expensive to fly now than when bikes were checked for free. Although bike owners tend to agonize over the cost of flying with bikes to a cycling vacation, it’s generally cheaper to take bikes than to rent a car. Better yet, flying with a tandem costs half as much as flying with two singles.
SECTION ONE—Traveling with a normal tandem
If your tandem fits in suitcase-sized containers, skip to Section Two
In spite of horror stories, there is no reason to imagine that you can’t fly with a full-sized tandem. While newer coupled tandems have made it easier to get to-and-from airports, full-sized tandems continue to be accepted as checked luggage. Couples who use my time-tested tips continue to report a 100% success rate.
1. Don’t phone the airline.
Airline phone operators will needlessly scare you by reciting the luggage limitations dictated by their smallest prop-liner or regional jet.
2. Ignore a website’s size restriction.
These days, when Jan and I finally convince insecure tandem owners to NOT phone the airline, their immediate response is to run to the web. Although we’ll explain later why this is much safer than using the phone, please don’t expect reassurance. Because the big airlines don’t want you to avoid their “feeder flights” using teensy sub-contracted planes flown by non-union crews, they’ll never tell you that full-size tandems are easily accommodated on all of their normal planes (and by competitors who use normal planes on the same route). Instead, they’ll publish the too-small limitations of the tiniest plane they subcontract.
The only airline that publishes different dimensions for different airliners (United) welcomes larger sporting items on flights with a Boeing 757, and then claims these same items won’t fit on a Boeing 737—which has an identically roomy baggage compartment! If your reason for web research is to feel “safe,” please don’t waste your time.
The airline employees who write bicycle size regulations don’t work at an airport. The airline employees who work at the airport ignore stupid regulations. The real issue is explained below.
3. Don’t phone the airline.
If enough cyclists bother them, the airlines will respond by making it tougher and more expensive to fly with a bicycle. While the existing system is unpredictable and confused, it works just fine for tandem enthusiasts who learn how to avoid the pitfalls. Keep reading.
4. Book the right flights.
Because the largest tandem cases won’t fit in the smallest “regional” airliners, the size of your tandem case dictates your choice of flights (and may limit your choice of airports). Even the largest tandem case or box easily fits within the luggage bays found on airliners big enough for 5-across economy seating. Tandem cases from BikePro USA and Crateworks barely fit in planes with 4-across seating, which may cause your bike to be delayed if your case shows up after the plane is partially loaded. Unless your tandem stows in a suitcase-sized container, you must avoid flights on planes with 3-across seating. Jan and I research our flights on Orbitz.com, a website where seating charts reveal everything you’ll need to know in order to book appropriate flights.
5. Should you worry about a 70-pound (32kg) limit for bike cases?
In the “Good Old Days” suitcases could weigh up to 70 pounds and everything else could weigh up to 99 pounds. Since 2003 most airlines have imposed a surcharge for suitcases weighing over 50 pounds. Since 2006 we’ve seen a growing trend to limit all checked items to 70 pounds. If your tandem case needs to exceed 70 pounds, find the “sporting equipment” rules on an airline’s website. While I would not worry about a weight limitation specific to bicycles, a published ban on all sporting equipment over 70 pounds would cause me pack a tandem differently.
London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports are trying to stem injury claims of their luggage handlers by not allowing “sporting equipment” over 70 pounds to be checked at either airport UNLESS 24 hours notice is provided AND the item cannot be “broken down.” (Checked baggage arriving and transiting through these airports is unaffected).
Until recently, the BikePro tandem case was a best seller. Today’s #1 seller is the uniquely light-and-durable CrateWorks tandem box (which weighs nearly 15 pounds less). If you already have BikePro case (or find a used one at a great price), and are booked on an airline that no longer accepts items over 70 pounds, you can use a BikePro case by packing your pedals, seats, posts and rear bars in with your other luggage.
In the past three years I’ve received panicked calls from three couples caught by surprise when an airline counter agent wouldn’t accept their overweight BikePro case. My first advice was to remain calm. I then told them to unzip the case and remove the wheel bags. In all three instances the agent was happy to check the lighter case AND then allowed the wheels to be carried aboard, where they were stowed in a first class coat closet. Here’s the important lesson for everyone: If you’re calm, considerate and flexible, airline employees will mirror your attitude AND try to find a way to take care of you and your bike.
6. Check-in super early.
Our single most important tip for flying with a tandem (or any bicycle) is to show up a FULL HOUR earlier than requested. This means arriving at the check-in counter 2-3 hours before your flight. Because airlines and their employees are graded for getting planes dispatched on time, showing up late with luggage that can’t go through a terminal’s conveyor system may cause check-in agents to find any excuse to delay you or your bike until the following flight—which may not leave until the next day. Arriving at check-in with a large bike case less than 120 minutes before your flight is asking for trouble.
7. Don’t phone the airline.
Even if you obtain some sort of reassurance (and you won’t), the check-in agent at the airport is free to ignore it.