Packing A Bicycle In A Cardboard Box For Flying

It’s crucial to pack your bike well for a flight. How best to do that is a source of great debate among cyclists.

There are 3 basic options:

  • Clear plastic bag. Simple and quick but arguably not the most protective and not accepted by all airlines. (See our experience flying a bike in a plastic bag)
  • Hard case. Very sturdy but expensive to buy, heavy to carry and awkward to store.
  • Cardboard bicycle box. Available most places in the world. Generally free but sometimes sold at airports.

This article focuses on the humble cardboard box.

Cardboard Box

Our two bikes, packed in cardboard boxes and waiting to be checked in. Panniers are in the chequered bags next to the boxes.

Why Use A Cardboard Box
Here are the main advantages to using a cardboard box:

  • It’s easy to find. Almost any bicycle shop should be able to give you one. Sometimes they charge a small fee
  • The box offers some protection for your frame and other fragile parts of the bicycle like the derailleur
  • You can put other things in the box (we always throw in our sleeping bags, camping mats and tent)
  • Because it’s cheap and easily replaceable, you don’t mind throwing it out on the other end of your journey or passing it on to another cyclist

People who prefer other methods of bike packing will point out that luggage handlers may not treat boxed bicycles with as much respect as one wrapped in clear plastic. Heavy things could get piled on top of the bicycle. Boxing your bike also takes more time than just wrapping a bit of plastic around it and a boxed bicycle is cumbersome to transport. You may have to take a taxi.

What You’ll Need
The final choice on how to pack your bike is up to you but if you do choose to use a cardboard box, here’s what to gather beforehand:

1. A Box – Call your local bike shop a few days ahead of time and confirm that they have a box to give you. Get the biggest box you can, especially if you have a touring bike (as opposed to a road bike or mountain bike) because touring bikes tend to have a longer wheelbase, making it harder to get everything in place. Just 2 inches of extra length can make a huge difference. Ask as well for the plastic spacers which go into the empty forks and help prevent them being bent if the box does get knocked about.

2. Packing Materials – Have plenty of packing materials (bubble wrap, foam, newspaper, string, packing tape) on hand to protect your bike and close the box up securely.

3. Patience – This may take a while. Give yourself a bare minimum of 3-4 hours to pack your bicycle into the box the first time you do it. Once you get the hang of it, you can probably do this in an hour or so but until you do it once, you won’t know how much squeezing and manoeuvring will be required to get everything in the box.

No box? No problem.

Even if you can’t find a box, you can still pack your bike in a similar way. Use local packing materials such as string, foam and bath mats to hold everything together and add plastic wrap as a final packing layer. Photo by Vivente Bikes.

Disassembly
Here’s how to take your bike apart and prepare it to go in the box.

1. Take the pedals off. This can be tougher than you think, especially if you don’t have a large pedal spanner to generate enough leverage to make those pedals pop off. Make life easier on yourself by putting a bit of lube on the pedal threads the day before you try to take them off and letting it soak in overnight.Even better, get your local bike shop to loosen the pedals for you. If you do try this at home, remember: the right-sided pedal unscrews counter-clockwise and the left-sided pedal goes clockwise.

2. Remove your handlebars. This is done by unscrewing the clamp that holds them in place, allowing the handlebars and all the attached brake and gear cables to be slipped neatly into the box, inside the triangle of your frame. Note that you are just taking the handlebars off. Do not play with the stem!

3. Take the wheels off (an easy job if you have quick-release wheels) and you can release a bit of air from the tires. This isn’t strictly necessary in our experience but some airlines recommend it.

Wheels Ready To Be Packed

Wheels demounted from the bike and with the hubs protected.

4. Remove racks and mudguards. Reattach the screws to the racks and mudguards as you go, so you don’t lose the screws and so you remember which one fits which hole.

5. Protect your bicycle. We usually wrap some foam or bubble wrap around the frame and use cardboard to encase our back cassette and derailleur. To protect the derailleur, we remove it from the main part of the frame and make a cardboard box to go around it.

6. Remove the seat. That’s another easy job. Just make a mark so you remember how far to put it back in and maybe wrap a bit of foam around the tube so it doesn’t scratch anything.

Fitting It In
Finally! You are now ready to put your bike in the box.

Frame ready to go in the box

How our bicycle frame looks, before it goes into the cardboard box.

  • The frame goes in first. Ours goes in upside down, resting on the seatpost and the stem of the handlebars.
  • Your back wheel should slide back into its normal position or at least roughly in the same location. Because the mudguards have been taken off, the wheel can be repositioned back in but with slightly more headroom between the wheel and the frame.
  • Your front wheel should be able to slide beside the triangle of your bike frame. You may need a helper to hold the sides of the box out as you slip the wheel inside.
  • Everything else (pedals, seat, lights and maybe your helmet, lock, water bottles or air pump) can go into the various crevices of the box. Fill up any big holes or places where things may be rattling by putting your sleeping bag and mat in there too. Crumpled newspaper is fine too if you’re travelling light.
  • Close the box up with a healthy dose of packing tape and string and write your name and contact details on all sides with a big, black marker. Patch up any holes in the box from its previous life with tape.

IMPORTANT: When you go to the airport, bring extra tape in case you need to open your box for inspection and reseal it again. Hopefully the airline will reseal the box for you but sometimes they aren’t prepared.

Check in your bike and go for a well-earned drink at the airport!

Comments

  1. Ann Wilson
    12th November 2009 at 3:52 pm #

    Hi Andrew,

    Just one thing about packing your bike (and I’m going to have to do that in a couple of weeks when I fly from Iran to India) – why do you have to take the back wheel off it you are going to put it back in its normal position? Can you not just take the chain off the cogs?

    Ann

    • friedel
      12th November 2009 at 4:23 pm #

      Hi Ann, I’ll try to clarify for you. Because you’ve taken the mudguards off, the back wheel can slide into the same position (roughly) but a little more efficiently and leaving a bit more space than before. At least that’s the way it works with our bikes.

    • Tommie Freke
      13th October 2011 at 10:18 am #

      Hi Ann,
      I’m looking for airline that will take our bikes from Iran to India. Could you five me some info on which airline you took.
      Cos it seems to us now that it is all a bit difficult with dimensions allowence. At least on the websites of airline companies.
      thak you so much for your response

  2. Timbo
    23rd March 2010 at 7:22 am #

    Actually, it isn’t necessary to remove the back wheel for most boxes. Also,many airlines can provide bike boxes. This is a much better option than getting your bicycle boxed at a bike shop as you don’t have to work out how to get your bike to the airport in a huge box, or how to lug a huge box to the airport…

    • friedel
      23rd March 2010 at 7:35 am #

      Hi Tim, good tip about trying to get a box at the airport. We did try that, but weren’t successful. We were told ‘maybe we’ll have one, maybe we won’t’ and once the airline wanted to charge us $25 each for the box, although arguably if it saves you a taxi fare it’s worth it. We always had to remove our back wheel, but I think our bikes are a bit longer than most.

  3. fay jansen
    24th July 2010 at 1:38 am #

    Hi, we are flying into Munich Airport to do a cycling trip, would you know if Munich Airport have boxes to purchase for our return trip? They wanted to charge us 13 euro a day for each box to store ..5 weeks..too expensive!! Cheers Albert & Fay

    • David Piper
      6th August 2010 at 9:37 am #

      Hi Fay, I’ve travelled all over with my precious bike and think a cardboard bike box well padded out with more cardboard is as good as an expesnive hard or soft case (tried all three).
      Any bike shop will be glad to give you the box for free, so just pass it to recycling when you arrive and the day before you leave pop into a bike shop for a new one

  4. Hutzelbein
    20th August 2010 at 3:07 pm #

    Here is an easier way to box your bike: http://www.jimforeman.com/Stories/boxbike/boxbike.htm
    I tried it and it worked a treat.

  5. DennisSommers
    20th April 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    =

  6. carpinteyroark
    21st April 2011 at 1:37 am #

    Frame point to you you scour beg after of this blog. That’s all I can say. You most once be dressed made this blog into something thats visual acuity rift and important. You unmistakeably studied of so much with charge to the feigned near, youve covered so multitudinous bases. Uncalled-for attributes from this corner of the internet. Again, obey you with a spectacle this blog.”

    • John
      15th March 2013 at 7:53 am #

      Bablefish has a lot to answer for.

  7. Radka
    2nd July 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Hello,

    I am looking into taking a flight from Iran to Vietnam with our bikes. It requires about 5 change overs, with various airline companies. The websites are not very friendly to use and info about taking bikes on planes with various airlines companies is difficult to find.
    Does anyone know of an easy way to do this?

    Thanks

    Raka

  8. Sergio
    18th January 2012 at 11:52 am #

    Well… I have flew several times with my bike around Europe and alto to and from the United States.
    You only need 2 things: The biggest garbage bag roll you can find on any supermarket (Usually are in group of 10 bags) and tape.

    Unroll the bags and put tape in the dotted lines where divides the garbage bags. Put the chain into the 1st gear. Remove left pedal only, if your bike is big also remove the seat. Apply the brakes on to the rear wheel. Remove the front wheel and attach to the frame, as well lock the moveable parts with tape such as traction and wrapt it reverse side (for the bike dont get sticky (if you have some card or foam or other leftovers apply on the pointy areas). Wrap it, be generous on the tape (better 2 rolls) and thats it! Safe and sound!

    Regarding flights try to get direct flights (so the bike will not suffer too much.

    And when unfold you may be able to reuse the gargabe bags for protect against the rain for example!

    • Sergio
      18th January 2012 at 12:01 pm #

      And I also inform that on many trips I biked to the airport and folded the bike there (With my previous bike just took me 30 minutes), With my current one takes like one hour ad there are more stuff to pack! Also the toolbox will be with the bike. There is no weight measure when carrying the bikes for many airlines! So once again: Tape and 120 liter garbage bag! Simple, light and cheap!

  9. gerardo
    28th February 2012 at 9:03 pm #

    I never remove the back wheel.Now I am planning to get a bag(iXS TranZBag Evolution)it is not so heavy 850g and I think I can put some cardbox inside and fly like this if I can t find a box,also I think I can use the bag as a footprint and use it in buses and trains too

  10. Cherwin
    15th November 2012 at 6:07 am #

    Hey there,

    Planning to fly to the Phillipines from Japan with my trek-bicycle. Can you put all your luggage in the carton-box as well? Are will they make problems about it? I read that you always put your sleepingbags/tent etc. in it, ever had any problems with it? Ofcourse I know it’s probably more difficult to fit but I was wondering.

    Thanks
    Cherwin

  11. Tommie Freke
    15th November 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Hey Cherwin,
    No problem if you can fit it in. What we’ve done a couple of times is getting all our panniers in the boxes and bought a separate bag to put in all our our luggage. Have that bag sealed at the sealing desk on the airport and you’re good to go. That gives you 2 pieces of luggage to go into the hull and one handluggage.
    All the best

  12. Alyssa Sankey
    6th April 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    Thank you, very helpful!

  13. Tony Man
    10th February 2014 at 2:38 am #

    We packed our bikes using a bike box, took off the front wheel, both pedals, turn in the handle bar straight and removed the seat, tie up all the parts using plastic tie wraps – also put our camping tent inside the box with some tools. Some airline charge $50-US as a large luggage

  14. Jase
    11th July 2014 at 7:35 am #

    Nice guide here. I’ve been packing bikes for a while now and can’t agree more – cardboard boxes are where it’s at. This next trip I’m hoping to get two mountain bikes, minus one set of wheels into one bike box. They are dual suspension so I can break them down, but who knows if this cunning plan is going to work out!

  15. Jack
    16th July 2014 at 8:05 am #

    We have Enviro Bike Box,made of plastic twin board, water proof. it is same weight as cardboard 4kg only, standard size for Qantas 1400x300x800 mm. Cycling Aust has been using these boxes since 2007 without any problem. It is very good price too. For this size of box you can keep back wheel on and fill up with your all personal items inside and get both hands free. It is free if weight is under limit of airline.More detail see http://www.envirobikebox.com.au

  16. LJ
    18th August 2014 at 5:10 pm #

    And what about the racks? How do you guys pack up the racks? Is there a way to place them inside the bike box? We’re on the process of packing up two bikes to travel from the US to Europe and do not know what to do with the racks as we don’t have enough luggage space outside the bike boxes to carry the racks. Any advice please. Thank you.

  17. Mawi
    25th September 2014 at 1:05 am #

    Hi I bought 2 mountain bikes in amazon they are still in their boxes but I am taking them to Honduras and I am flying with American, is it ok to take them in those boxes? Or will it cost me the $150 fee for transporting a bike ? Or it’s considered an extra bag?

  18. Charles@PackingBoxesAdelaide
    11th May 2015 at 6:25 am #

    Remove your pedals, tri-bars or anything else that will leave part of the bike hanging out of the case.Keep the weight of your bike bag down, and not just so you’re inside your weight limit.If you are going to fill up the bag or box, make sure rigid items like bike pumps aren’t free to move around the bag, potentially scratching the frame or damaging the components.

Leave a comment