Airlines change gears on passengers flying with bikes


David French remembers the first time he flew with his bike, in 1977. Back then, Continental Airlines didn’t charge him to check his Gitane 10-speed from Washington to Paris, where he spent a month cycling through central Europe.

Ah, those were the days.

Today, French is mindful of his bike’s size, lest he violate an airline’s onerous height and weight standards. And no more free rides: Air carriers routinely charge between $100 and $300 each way for transporting a two-wheeler.

“I realize that the bicycle-touring public is probably not a large — or even important — segment of airlines’ customer base and thus carries little, if any, weight,” says French, who’s now retired from a nonprofit organization and lives in Washington. “Is this a lost cause?”

Maybe, maybe not.

Airline attitudes toward bikers have been called into question by several recent damage claims and by increasingly restrictive policies toward bikes, and have been brought to the forefront by this number: $3.3 billion. That’s what U.S. airline passengers paid last year in luggage fees, according to the Transportation Department. Bikers argue that they shouldered more than their fair share of those expenses.

A review of the major airlines’ sports equipment policies, which will be of some concern as the summer travel season kicks into high gear, suggests that biking can be an expensive pastime.

American Airlines, which recently merged with US Airways, charges $150 per bike, unless the height, width and length add up to less than 62 inches and the weight is less than 50 pounds, in which case you’ll pay the applicable first-checked-bag rate. Delta Air Lines also charges $150 per bike, with extra fees for bikes heavier than 70 pounds and an outright ban on anything heavier than 100 pounds. At Southwest Airlines, bikes cost $75, with certain restrictions. United Airlines applies a service charge of $100 for a bike over 50 pounds.

“It has gotten insanely expensive to fly with a bike and has become cost-prohibitive,” says Jason White, a bike racer who works for an Internet company in New York. “I remember when fees were $75 each way, which have quickly grown to $200 and up each way.”

It would be one thing if passengers were getting their money’s worth, which in the case of cyclists would mean special care in the delivery of their equipment. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Consider what happened to Cheri Rosenthal and David Weinberg, who flew from Miami to Malaga, Spain, last year with two bicycles, paying $300 to check them on American Airlines and AirBerlin.

The bikes were packed according to airline standards with bubble wrap and a cardboard cover, according to the couple. But when they arrived, one of the bikes was missing. When it turned up two days later, it was damaged beyond repair, with a large crack in the frame. Claims filed with both airlines were unsuccessful, as each airline pointed the finger at the other. Rosenthal learned a hard lesson: When you surrender your bike, “you can only hope you might see it again,” she says.

Bill Borkovitz had a similar experience when he flew on US Airways. Somehow, his $3,700 specialized carbon-frame bike was crushed by baggage handlers, even though it was packed in a professional case. He didn’t discover the damage until he brought the bike to the shop after suspecting that it had been mishandled. Borkovitz, who works for an executive search firm in Wynnewood, Pa., returned to the Philadelphia airport to file a claim.

“It was like something out of a movie,” he recalls. “A 400-pound woman glowered at me from behind the counter and laughed, saying that I was beyond the four-hour time frame for filing a claim. I explained that the bike shop noted the damage and I informed them immediately after. She gave me the paperwork and said, ‘Good luck.’ ”

After I inquired about Borkovitz’s claim, US Airways agreed to cut him a check for $1,700. Rosenthal’s case remains unresolved.

To bikers, this seems like the worst of both worlds: They’re paying for something that was once included in the price of their airline ticket — some might argue that they’re being punished for bringing a bike — while airlines seem to make no special effort to accommodate their pricey luggage.

It’s no surprise that serious bikers have gone to extremes to avoid this scenario. Dana Fort, whose husband, Brian, is a former Team USA triathlon member, says that she has stopped checking the bike. Instead, they send the bike by overnight delivery service. “It’s cheaper to send it by FedEx from New York to Chicago than paying Delta,” says Fort, a dentist who lives in Hinsdale, Ill.

Another unorthodox strategy: checking in late. “I know this seems like backwards advice,” admits Dave Gill, who runs a bike blog called Vague Direction. “But it works wonders for me.”

The trick, he explains, is to arrive just before the cutoff time for boarding. The airport staff, in its effort to get you to your gate quickly and to check your luggage, will sometimes cut corners. “It often means that they’ll overlook weight constraints, saving you money in overweight charges, since they just want to get you on the plane,” he explains.

And there’s one last option, which guarantees that you won’t be charged for your bike. You can leave it at home. Steve Griswold, a travel agent from Canton, Ga., used to fly with his bike, but on his latest trip to Paris, he decided to rent. The community bike stands all over the city are easy to use.

“You can ride all day and drop it at any of the other bike stands in the city,” he says. “It’s a great way to get from place to place.”

Perhaps the days of bringing your bicycle with you are numbered. The final day may come sooner than you think, if the airline industry continues down this bike path.

Are airlines biker-friendly?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • backprop

    “A 400-pound woman glowered at me from behind the counter and laughed,
    saying that I was beyond the four-hour time frame for filing a claim.”

    By virtue of that extraneous information added by the OP, US Airways can tell the customer exactly where to shove his bike.

  • frostysnowman

    The airlines are friendly to no one but the airlines these days.

  • PsyGuy

    While i have not traveled with a bike, I did travel with my scuba equipment, however compared to the cost of luggage and that the airline would have no liability (compared to the cost of the equipment), unless I’m flying a charter I rent at the destination.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I wondered about that comment. Did he weigh her? I suppose he could have asked her to step on the scales.

  • AJPeabody

    Airlines are designed to carry people and ordinary luggage. Fedex and other shippers are designed to carry all sorts of goods. Airlines break bikes (and guitars, for that matter). Airlines charge a lot for carrying non-luggage items and can carry them poorly. Shipping companies charge less and do it better.

    The solution requires little thought: Ship the bike; take the luggage. And buy third party insurance.

  • TonyA_says

    Fitness snob.

  • Ribit

    Are airlines biker-friendly? I voted YES, but not to be contrary. The questionable service, poor attitude, and haphazard handling of the bikes (or other unusual baggage) are red flags. Like a recommendation from a good friend, the airlines are signaling, “Don’t check anything except travel bags.”

  • Stephen Pickford

    Airlines are not friendly with regards to sports equipment, period. Customer was charged by UA for having a hockey bag AND sticks, separate charges…whereas every other carrier ex YUL considered a sports bag and 2 sticks as being ONE piece of equipment. He received a brush-off from UA, and, needless to say, he won’t be flying with them again. Ironic, in that they have naming rights to a hockey arena. Hypocrites.

  • Silver Fang

    Airlines are anti-passenger and need to be boycotted.

  • Alan Gore

    How dare a mere passenger insist on his premium charge baggage arrive not smashed up!

  • $16635417

    That’s strange. United’s website states the contrary:

    United accepts one hockey or lacrosse bag plus up to two hockey or lacrosse sticks taped together per customer as one piece of checked baggage.

  • TonyA_says

    On the other hand, I suggest we ask a§§hole§ that can afford 3700 dollar bikes and who insult obese airline employees to check their attitudes at the gate.

  • TonyA_says

    I guess the same way a 400 lb. mere airline employee expects some courtesy.

  • Pooh

    The hockey policy changed to two sticks very recently.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Google “Pearls Before Swine Jeff the Cyclist” for a great occasional series of comic strips about cyclist attitudes. An example: Jeff is on a kick to reduce the weight of himself and his gear to streamline his cycling, so he drops the last “F” in his name to become “Jef”. Enjoy!

  • Nigel Appleby

    With the condition my checked luggave has arrived in at times, I think the airlines are saying don’t check anything!

  • backprop

    Oh not at all. But when you only hear one side of the story, and that comes out, you have to wonder what kind of truths are being omitted.

    Think of all the snarky DYKWIAs who claim the service rep “was extremely rude and hung up on me.” There is absolutely no doubt that there is a totally different side to the story. Other than Rachel from Cardmember Services, I don’t think I’ve ever had a service rep hang up on me. It’s a huge no-no unless the customer is being egregiously abusive.

  • TonyA_says

    Thanks. Awesome. Found one so fitting.

  • Rebecca

    The same attitude of “cars need to share the road with bicycles, ” yet seem to think the actual rules of the road, like stopping at a stop sign, don’t apply to them.

  • Jeff Kolker

    If they are willing to accept money to carry the items, then they need to make sure those items arrive promptly and in undamaged condition. If they truly don’t want to carry these items, they just need to flat outright refuse to carry them. At least then everyone will know what to do.

  • Jeff Kolker

    Probably doesn’t change the main facts, regardless of the way he describes someone.

    1) Money was given to transport the bike
    2) Bike was damaged in transport
    3) Airline doesn’t want to pay damages

    Seems that is the gist of the story….

  • Christopher Elliott

    I never realized the level of animosity between motorists and bicyclists. Had I known, I might have written this story differently.

  • TonyA_says

    It was like something out of a movie,” he recalls.
    From the CDC:

    Percent of adults age 20 years and over who are obese: 35.1%
    Percent of adults age 20 years and over who are overweight, including obesity:

  • TonyA_says

    Sure, file a claim and wait (just like everyone else) :-)

  • MarkKelling

    Quite a few motor vehicle drivers share the same attitude about stop signs being more of a suggestion than a rule.

  • MarkKelling

    I have no animosity toward bikers in general. I bike on occasion using my really cheap mountain bike style bike, I like it and where I live the roads are designed to be very bike friendly. I stay out of the way of motor vehicles and follow the rules of the road.

    But I have animosity toward bikers who feel they are in some way superior to everyone else simply because they dress like they are in the tour de France and ride $10,000 bikes and want everyone to know.

  • Rick Cricow

    I’ve never had a problem with scuba gear. I have a large suitcase everything packs into, and I use the wetsuit to cushion delicate parts. To the airline, it looks like one more bag. I get free luggage, but even at $50 per trip, it’s cheaper than renting, and safer to have your own gear.

  • backprop

    Not in the same way. Many cyclists go full speed through stop signs. Not speaking for Rebecca, but that’s my concern. When I use my bike and approach a stop sign, I come to a crawl at the fastest. Many (not all) do not even slow down.

  • Raven_Altosk

    And yet, whenever I fly my favorite route, they check all the chubbiewagons for free.
    (Yes, yes, I know they are “medical devices” as I am constantly reminded by the TV ads suggesting you can get one FOR FREE*)

    *At the expense of the tax payer

  • Raven_Altosk

    Hey bro. I could buy a bike like that, but I spend my money on more important things–gaming systems, games, and electronics.

    Don’t judge.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I saw one run a red light today. I was kind of hoping he’d get spluffed.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Around here, they travel in packs of 20+. They don’t stop at stop signs or red lights. They ride 3 and 4 across.

    And then they whine and complain that they get no respect from motorists.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Yeah, but the CDC uses whacked out figures. According to them, a skinny 9 year old in NYC is “fat” and was even sent a letter about it.

  • backprop

    is this JFK-MIA by chance? :)

  • backprop

    Agreed. But in the court of public opinion, how you approach the problem sure makes a difference ;)

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    A county sheriff’s deputy was at the small town festival I was at yesterday, being a community liaison and answering questions. I started to ask a question and he started answering the question he *thought* I was going to ask – about the many rude bicyclists that ride on one particular narrow two lane road. Evidently, he’d had that one question posed to him around 50 times before I ran into him.

    When folks like Mr. Borkovitz pass judgment on others’ BMI in the course of pursuing a legitimate claim or like Mr. Gill, show other cyclists how to get special waivers on shipping, yeah, they tend to generate some animosity.

  • omgstfualready

    Lived with a bicyclist (competitive) for decades. They don’t think they should share the same oxygen with the rest of us. I stopped hosting his team for pre and post race lunches/dinners because I couldn’t stand a single one of them on the team. I then stopped going to the races because not one single person there was anything but an elitist condescending selfish jerk. Maybe it’s the biker shorts showing off ‘everything’ (good and bad) that makes them feel the need to compensate…………………………

  • pauletteb

    The OP sounds like the cyclists who flipped me off when I tapped my horn to get them to move over (they were riding three abreast) on the Blue Ridge Parkway last month. Unfortunately, that entitled attitude seems to be the norm among cyclists.

  • MarkKelling

    Stop means Stop. There is no almost.

    I remember my driving instruct making that point. He was having difficulty making some of us understand that gliding through a stop sign was wrong. One student said “It’s the same if you completely stop or just slow down enough to see nothing is coming.” Teacher’s response: “When the cop pulls you over for gliding through the stop sign, drags you from your vehicle, and begins beating you with their night stick, would you rather he stop or just slow down?” The student replied “Stop!” To which the teacher replied “But you said slowing and stopping is the same thing, so why should he stop completely?” That seemed to sink in. At least I remember it after all these years.

  • MarkKelling

    The tight biker shorts must be cutting off the blood flow to the brain. Either that or the silly helmets do.

  • omgstfualready

    I’ll concede the helmets look silly but the technology to prevent serious injury are worth it (and the money, they cost a LOT). The shorts, oh my, the shorts. Just google ‘why bicycle shorts are black and not red’ and see.

    It was disappointing to see my ex descend deeper and deeper into the cyclist way of thinking. The conversations after the daily rides stopped being about the fun and seeing sights but was only about statistics and complaining. I know many people that are quite successful and serious in a few other athletic sports and none have even the come close to the airs that the cyclists carry about themselves.

  • backprop

    Kind of a derp example.

  • bodega3

    There is a lot of animosity between motorists and bicyclists here in the wine county. We have groups come here from all over the world to train for world wide events, including our own Tour of California and the GrandFondo. It gets very ugly out on our rural roads between auto drivers and bike riders.

  • Miami510

    I voted “no,” but to put a $3,700 bike in luggage without private insurance is like leaving a very expensive gold and jeweled bracelet in your checked luggage. Haven’t we all
    read enough unfortunate stories to not take such risks? The idea is to learn from other’s

    We live in a litigious society and some people with a legitimate loss treat it as an occasion as if “their ship has come in.” No wonder air lines are cautious about accepting responsibility. If I had a gull-wing Mercedes, I wouldn’t ship it to Europe to drive on my vacation… I’d rent a car… even with all the problems we read about.

    Note: I don’t have a gull-wing Mercedes :)

  • Cybrsk8r

    If I had something I needed to be sure wouldn’t get busted up, I’d never give it to an airline. The Tourister commercial with the gorilla is actually pretty accurate.

  • AH

    i think the point he was making was that the woman had no idea about bicycling, or that a bicycle could cost that much.
    maybe he was a “fitness snob”, but i certainly could understand why he made that point.

    had it been a custom wheelchair which had been damaged, and the woman behind the counter was able-bodied, there may well have been the same, “tough luck”, you’re past the time limit to file a claim. (and what’s with the 4 hour time limit, anyway?)

  • AH

    tony, you’re getting a bit too snarky, again. play nice, ok?

  • Raven_Altosk

    IAH-MCO, actually.

  • TonyA_says

    Ha ha, I wasn’t the one who insulted the 400 lb woman. He deserved the reaction.

  • TonyA_says

    That’s what the USAirways website says:
    If your bag is delayed, please talk to a US Airways representative before you leave the airport and within 4 hours of arriving at your destination.

    If your bag is damaged, please notify a US Airways representative within four hours of arrival when traveling in the U.S., and within seven days of arrival when traveling outside the country. You must report damages in person at the airport.

  • oregoncycle

    Let’s get back on the actual subject of flying with bikes. As
    someone who tours on a bike and have done so on every major continent with the exception
    of Antarctica I have been forced to use
    only certain airlines due to the restrictive policies of some airlines. When
    planning a trip I first look to find out the fees from each airline and then
    plan accordingly. A big German airline tells us they want us all to enjoy our
    sports when traveling but then want $300 each way for a bike. With just two trips on that airline I could have bought a new touring bike First rule of traveling with a bike is one airline, no code shares. No changing airlines period. If it takes two airlines to get to my destination then I collect my bike from the first and then recheck it with the second. When my bike was lost after flying from Seattle to Frankfurt to Madrid the airline told me to just go on and they would get my bike and catch up with me. I had to explain the without the bike I was stalled as it was my transportation to continue forward. I fly with a
    professional hard shell bike case and you have to get to the airport early as
    TSA hand inspects it in the oversize area. But the nice thing is you do get to
    be there and TSA has asked me more than once how to repack it properly.
    I also found that an email to the headquarters of the airline to confirm the bicycle fee policy was handy to have as several times that copy of the official emailed policy saved me from paying more at the counter from check in personal who had a different way of charging for bicycles.

  • LadySiren

    Yup. I live off of a beautiful, rural two-lane road (shades of dappled green in spring and summer; absolutely glorious when the leaves turn). The entitled bikers out here couldn’t care less about the “share the road” rules. Two abreast, three abreast, hell, taking up both lanes on occasion…it’s a very common occurrence. And heaven forbid they think your car is too close when you go around them – hi, the road is double-yellow almost the whole way and yeah, I’m going to move as little into the opposite lane as my car’s bulk and your asinine attitude will allow. Is it any wonder that the rednecks out here sometimes pitch cigarette butts and empty (non-beer) cans at them? (ASIDE: I don’t condone this but understand why it happens.)

    Knowing my neighbors and the community in general, I feel fairly confident that these aren’t locals who feel that the road is there exclusively for their use. I get it. These self-entitled bikers have a right to ride on the road, and it is very pretty out here. But they need to remember that it’s “share the road” not “push everyone else off the road so I can enjoy my bike ride”.

    Sorry, rant over now.

  • Lindabator

    But he LEFT the airport without making a claim, and THEN returned – that is not how to submit a claim – how are they to know he didn’t have that bike, but another one? the FACT is there are rules in place regarding damages – he didn’t follow them, and now expects them to play by his rules.

  • Lindabator

    Can honestly say – had a bag SEVERELY damaged, walked it into the claims department, and walked out with a new bag.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    To each his own, but the stories of people like David French make me scratch my head. If he was already flying with his bike in 1977 he isn’t some young bike racer who’d need his specialized bike with him. So, why isn’t he simply renting a bike wherever he goes? They’re readily available most places.

    And as for the fees, nobody likes paying them, but I can give the airlines a pass when it comes to bikes and things of that nature. They’re oddly shaped, hard to handle, and are pretty delicate if mishandled. That’s simply not the sort of cargo a commercial airline operation likes.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    That’s hilarious.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’ve had friends who bike get forced off the road by drivers who were outright trying to kill them–talking about cases where they were biking on the shoulder on a wide-open road and the driver veered onto the shoulder trying to hit them–yet I’ve also seen cyclists who seemed to get their thrills out of tempting death by playing chicken with automobiles by taking up the entire road, etc. Best to avoid the extremists on both sides.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    It is an odd war. Cyclists hogging the road is something that is easy to understand but other gripes are much tougher for me to follow.
    I’ve seen people get upset when the cyclist is able to use the shoulder to pass stopped cars. I heard somebody recently complain about dedicated bike lanes for that same reason. The fact the bike could go places their large automobile couldn’t really seemed to bother them for some reason.

  • TonyA_says

    Notice that he was given a form (paperwork) by the so-called 400 lb woman (only imaginable in the movies). He missed the 4 hour deadline to make the claim at the airport. He has to file that form by fax or mail. What is he complaining about?
    Looks like he himself saw no visible damage while at the airport and only found out AFTER his bike shop told him. I wonder how the bike was taken from the airport to the bike shop. Strange that he said he suspected it being damaged. Suspected Crushing? Why not open the case in the airport and see?

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’ve volunteered at several charity bike races and it’s pretty comical how often the most expensive bikes are owned by total novices. I have an old cruiser and barely bike myself, but I know plenty of cyclists and it’s quite easy to tell when somebody is a newbie, yet they’re on top of a race machine that is doing them no good since they don’t have the skills to use it. Kind of like learning to ride a horse on top of a Kentucky Derby winner.

  • Tigger57

    The airlines are “nothing friendly”! If you have to travel by air and take along a bike…best to ship the bike by some other means.

  • Lindabator

    True – the psychic traveler? :)

  • oregoncycle

    When you tour via bicycle there are not many shops that rent touring bicycles in the off beat places we end up touring in. Even in a major city like Athens Greece can you rent a fast racing style bike or a heavy mountain bike but when I tried to find a touring bike and yes they are different in gearing and shape no one had any for rent. My Pannier bags have to fit the rented bikes rack and that rack has to be overbuilt to take the weight of the panniers. I have touring kevlar tires to help avoid flats and also take the extra weight that cost the same as my cars tires. I have a bike gear head tune my bike prior to taking a trip making sure that the bike is in top shape. I ran into a lady inTasmania on a rented bike who said she had no lower gears and was forced to walk up the hills pushing that rented bike. Not the trip she had in mind when renting that bike. These are just a few of the problems with trying to rent a bike and why we bring our own.
    The real issue here was not about taking a bike but for years it flew as a free second bag. Then when the flurry of bag charges started happening it went from a small fee to some out of sight fees. I paid $500 to fly my bike back from Australia last year and that was only after a long conference with three checkin clerks who tried their hardest to make it extra bag fee + bike fee + size fee + weight fee. I had flown to Oz paying the $200 bike fee as it should have been and after going round and round just got them to agree on $500. the lowest they were willing to go. My plane was loading and an extra day, missed connections made me pay the money and run to get on my plane.


    For myself, a cyclist who also drives, it’s really about keeping myself alive when I’m on my bike. It’s terrifying watching a driver weave in and out of the bike lane while he’s texting. Drivers hate us because they think that we think we “own the road”. We have the same rights and responsibilities on the road as cyclists do. We BOTH need to follow the rules of the road.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    What would it cost to ship it via Fed Ex or UPS?

  • MarkKelling

    That was a very graphic image that showed up. Ugh.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    bikes are VERY fragile. Leave them at home & buy one when you get there. Plenty of places you can buy one under $100. You can buy a bike cheaper than the fees. Give it away when you leave.

  • Bill___A

    Any expensive item needs extra insurance. The airlines seem to like to not pay for damage they cause. My bag was damaged on a UAL flight out of ATL recently. At the baggage counter, the rep seemed to be more interested in undoing the bag more as she told me they don’t fix that. I had to stop her. I am not surprised that they charge for bikes. If you are planning to go on a European trip that costs thousands of dollars and are complaining about $150 for a bike to be shipped, you might as well stay home. Europe is expensive and so is getting there.

    It is extra, over sized, and fragile baggage. That’s how it is.

    Welcome to the real world.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I gotta agree, many bicylists have terrible arrogance problems, no doubt worse when confronted with someone “unhealthy”. This is not a prejudicial comment, it’s based on my experiences with them. I’m amazed to read all the other postings verifying my experiences. Putting your uber-valuable bike on an airplane is just not very smart. Rent a bike when you get there.

  • oregoncycle

    Once again WOW!! Touring via bicycle is or can be very inexpensive. 3 weeks touring in Spain less then $1000. for meals, lodging and gifts. Airfare was around $1000. to get there. Greece was even less than that. $150 is a bargin to fly your bike and following the main post it is not the 150 it is the now 300 hundred each way. When you fly to Europe and if you have to fly from one US city to another there could be another airline fee of 75 to 150 each way. My bikes insured then packed in a protective case. But some folks reasoning is like me saying going on a Golfing vacation in Hawaii just go ahead and leave your own clubs at home the rental shop will have what you need and heck do not trust you expensive clubs to the airline as they Will damage them.

  • Bill___A

    Well, if it is so cheap then one shouldn’t complain about having to pay for their bike to fly over. It is an awkward package that is usually larger than the specified dimensions for checked in luggage.