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Bringing bikes when traveling: The Quandary

Most of you probably noticed that when I went down to the Bay Area at the end of January I brought my trusty Bridgestone XO-3 with me. I’m that bike crazy that not only do I like having a bike with me wherever I go (as it’s the best way to explore a place), but I like to have my bike with me. We all know this isn’t  always an easy thing when traveling. But it’s usually fairly easy for me, as my preferred mode for long-distance travel (besides a bicycle, of course) is the train, Amtrak here in the US. You can ship a boxed bike on pretty much all long-distance routes.* And here in the Northwest we have the Cascades line that runs from Eugene OR to Vancouver BC, and this line has roll-on bicycle service at all stations for a $5 fee.**

While I could take Amtrak from Portland to Oakland,*** the short duration of the trip, only 3 1/2 days, would mean a good half of that trip would be spent on the train, only leaving Monday and Tuesday**** to be in the Bay Area itself. A short time frame is the nature of a work trip, alas. It looked like the viable option would be to fly. I’m not fond of flying for many reasons, one of which is the environmental impact, so I’ve managed to avoid flying for about 13 years. Every cross-country trip since 2000 that didn’t involve bikes or cars was via rail.*****(and)****** But pragmatism beat dogmaticsm, so I accepted the fact I’d be flying.

But bringing a bike on a flight is not easy or cheap. Besides the pain of getting a bike box or a bike in a box to the airport, there are the fees, which are usually pretty steep. So for this trip I looked at the option of bringing a folding bike. Since I didn’t own one, I asked a couple of my Brompton-owning friends if I could borrow theirs. One flatly refused, the other capitulated, with the stipulation, “If anything happens to it…” With that, I decided I’d rather not deal with the fear of airlines mangling my friend’s not-cheap bike in transit, and pondered purchasing a used folding bike.

Of course, the folding bike I would really want to own would be a Brompton, which is way out of my current price range, even if it was used. Most of the folders in my price range were the Dahons and Citizens of the world, and the ones I found on Craigslist were overpriced. (When the price for a used is not much less than retail on a new, that’s overpriced.) And all of them looked to be “project” bikes. There were a couple Raleigh Twentys up there, too, but they’re pretty lousy as a folding bike,******* and would also be project bikes. I didn’t have $200-300 to spare (which was the price for most of the bikes) and I really didn’t want another “project” bike.

Most other people at this point would say, “Screw it, I’ll rent a bike at my destination.” I wasn’t crazy about this option either. Three days of rental fees would probably add up to $100, and most basic rental bikes are mediocre. For that cost, I could figure out a way to bring my own bike. But how?

After a few days of thinking, I figured it out:

  • I would take Amtrak from Portland to Oakland after work on Sunday, January 26, which would get me into Oakland around 9 am on Monday morning. The bike fee would be $25 ($15 for the box, $10 for the shipping.) And all I would lose would be Sunday night in San Francisco, which wouldn’t be much. If I flew in, I’d still be getting into San Francisco around 10 pm or so, meaning all I’d do is sleep at the hostel.
  • I would fly back on Wednesday evening, but I would ship my bike via the little-known service of Amtrak Express, the rail company’s freight-shipping service. The freight charge would be $52 plus $15 for the box. And I would just have to go pick up my bike from Union Station, which is no big deal.

So that scenario is what happened. And it worked pretty well.

Would I do it like that again? Probably not, not for a three day trip. As you probably figured out, the total in bike fees was just shy of $100, just about the same as if I rented a bike in the Bay Area. While I’d rather pay to get my own bike to/from a destination than rent an unknown and possibly unreliable bike, $100 is still quite the chunk of change, especially on top of the basic travel fees. (Thankfully since this was a work trip, I didn’t have to pay for those basic travel fees.)

But thankfully a trip like this only comes up every great once in a while. I don’t look to fly again anytime soon, and any big trips that are outside of the Northwest tend to be linked to bike tours. But if I were to do travel like this more regularly, a folding bike would be the route to go.

*Provided that the train has baggage service, and both your origin and destination stations have checked baggage service.

**Reservations are definitely recommended, as each train has a ten bike capacity.

***I ain’t getting off in Emeryville.

****And because of the timing of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight line, I would arrive into Oakland on Monday morning and depart on Tuesday evening.

*****And when I crossed Canada, it was via Via Rail.

******It’s weird that, as an American, I’ve crossed Canada by train (all the way from Vancouver to Halifax, though not in the same trip), when most Canadians I know have never used Via Rail.

*******Yes, I know that some people really like Twentys, and I wouldn’t mind owning one either. But admit it: a modern folding bike folds a lot more compactly and neatly than a Twenty, and most importantly, the modern folding bike fits the requirement of “folding bike” for most airlines, where the folded dimensions of a Twenty do not.

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3 thoughts on “Bringing bikes when traveling: The Quandary”

  1. I agree that renting a bike at your destination is expensive. I too am considering buying an inexpensive folding bike for our trip out west this summer. Currently I’m looking at folded dimensions for check-in at airline. To appease my husband, who rolled his eyes at my idea, I’d be willing to lug all other stuff as carry on. I’m glad I now have a lightweight sleeping bag and ground pad as we’ll be camping a bit. For those of us who have to ride on every vacation, I think getting a folding bike makes a lot of sense. I’ll be perusing Craigslist too this spring and early summer in hopes of getting a used folder before buying new.

  2. Sorry your “friends” are too protective of their bikes. A friend of my borrowed my vintage touring bike for a family ride. I told him if anything broke, we, would fix it. Thing are just things meant to be used.

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