How To Check Your Panniers In At The Airport

January 26th, 2011 20 comments

Detail of Chinatown Grocery BagA few days ago, we showed you how we pack our bikes for a flight. The next question many of you asked was “How do I pack the panniers?”

It’s a good question. How do you get 4 bicycle bags on a plane, when most airlines only allow 1-2 checked bags?

Here’s our secret: the Chinese shopping bag.

We call it Chinese because we normally buy these sturdy plastic bags with plaid patterns in Chinatown. It turns out the Chinese shopping bag has a variety of names around the world, including the “Ghana Must Go” bag and the “Guyanese Samsonite”. In the UK, we’ve found they’re often referred to as “zipped laundry bags”. (read an interesting history of these bags).

What’s so great about these bags? They’re…

  • Cheap. Expect to pay $1-5 U.S. depending on the size and where you buy your bag.
  • Universally available, from the dollar stores of America to the markets of Kyrgyzstan.
  • Robust. For us, these bags last years. We never worry about them giving way, even when packed with luggage.
  • Multi-functional. Use it for a clean place to sit when you have a picnic, as a water-resistant back bag on your bicycle (great for covering tents) or as ‘extra storage’ when you need to carry a little more food and water.
  • Light and foldable. They’re easy to stick in your bags or under your luggage racks when not in use.

Spot The Chinese Shopping Bag

Spot The Chinese Shopping Bag

We typically travel with 2 of these bags in the biggest size we can find. At the airport, we unfold them and stick 2-3 Ortlieb panniers in each Chinese shopping bag plus the dry sacks with our tent, sleeping bags and mats inside.

We then carry any remaining luggage with us on the plane. Usually we just have 1 handlebar bag (this counts as a purse for ladies!) and 1 pannier with valuables. Voila! Packing your panniers for a flight doesn’t have to be complicated.

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17 Responses to “How To Check Your Panniers In At The Airport”

  1. woollypigs says:

    We call them “Gypsy” bags and have used them on every tour we have done. And used them just as you said, great thing to have with you.

    Though be prepared to go hunting for them in Christchurch, NZ. Peli spent 2-3 hours wandering around town asking in every shop for them. Only to be told “yes we do know what you are looking for but we don’t have them”. Only to find the last one in one shop who at first said we do not have.

  2. Mine didn’t even survive one flight :-(

  3. Becky says:

    We bought ours in Thailand – we call it the oo-ah bag – it is amazing how much stuff you can get in it, and it is pretty sturdy.

    • friedel says:

      Laughing… the “oh-ah bag” – I love it! Helen, what in the world happened? I’ve never heard of one of these bags falling apart on the first flight. Our bags have lasted several flights plus plenty of wear and tear inbetween (as a bag on the bike, picnic mat, etc…)

  4. Oops, that last word should be ‘worse’. My bad typing!

  5. Mandy says:

    but how safe are they to check in? I assume you can’t lock them?

    • friedel says:

      At some point you just have to take a chance. We don’t worry so much about theft. All our real valuables go with us as carry on and the bags look pretty poor. I’m not sure anyone would want to steal them. We often wrap a bit of duct tape around the outside so they’re not easy to just zip open.

  6. Sam says:

    Tried to find some in Canada but haven’t so far (dollar stores visited mostly). Any idea of what store could carry them? Tks!

  7. Jane M says:

    Just finished my hunt ALL around LA for one of these. I was starting to think Americans didn’t use them, because no one knew what I was talking about. But finally found one in a 99c store (the 4th 99c store I went to). Hooray.

  8. Wes Groleau says:

    I just lifted my panniers off the bike and voilá—they magically became carry-ons. Too bad I had to leave the bike behind.

  9. Alaine says:

    Hi. I found your reference to the oversized “Chinese” shopping bag and, while I haven’t gone out to my local dollar store yet, I’ve been searching online for ANY reference to one to review dimensions and/or order online. Do you know of any outlets that carry so I can check it out? Thanks!

    • friedel says:

      I’ve never tried to order them online; it’s always something we pick up at the last minute at a local shop before going to the airport. They are available in many different dimensions. That said, I did a quick search for you. On eBay UK, I see them listed as “zipped laundry bags”. Hope that helps!

  10. TRiSS says:

    I got something like these from HEMA (in Belgium), hoping to use thse to put my bags in when taking a train with the bike. I’m usually travelling solo, and here in Be it can be hard to load the bike on some trains, so you need to take everything off, and then these bags would come in handy to also get my lugage on the train a bit easier. I’m not too happy with this versio nof the bag: one of them ripped in the side AND lost a zipper on the first use :-(

    Maybe I need to look for the “real” immigrant version, instead of the slightly more “uppermarket” clone 😉

  11. Chris Holt says:


    I’m just about to book to outbound flights for my summer tour across Central Asia, and we are going with a quite budget airline – Pegasus Airlines (we’re students after all).

    May seem a silly question but will 20kg of check in luggage be enough? It would include 3 panniers and a tent, as we would put heavy/valuable stuff in our carry on pannier

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