Traveling with a Brompton

Readying the Bromptons for the train. Boarding Amtrak’s Empire Builder at Portland Union Station, 11 May 2022. Camera: Minolta XD5 Lens: Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7 Film: Kentmere 400

It’s been over a half year since Emee and I have purchased Bromptons. We’ve fallen in love with these unique bicycles and have done some tweaks and upgrades. Most impressive is how well they ride, mostly like normal bikes. The ride is so good that it’s been my primary bike since I’ve owned it.

But let’s be honest: Outside of a few eccentrics who like owning quirky, look-at-me bikes, most people buy Bromptons because they fold into a compact package. There’s plenty of other bikes with bigger wheels that can be had for cheaper if “nice ride” is what one is concerned with. No, you get a Brompton because it folds up small and can be brought into places where “big bikes” can’t go. They are the ultimate travel bike because of that.

Emee and I tested out the Brompton’s travel-ability not long after we got them. A trip to California actually convinced us to buy them, since we’d be gone for two weeks and could neither bring our own “big” bikes nor wanted to be beholden to local offerings, whether rental or bikeshare. We flew down and took the train up. The Bromptons passed with flying colors. Here’s a breakdown by type of carrier:

Train/Amtrak: Over the past five or so years bringing a regular sized bike on Amtrak has gotten a lot easier, and the increase of “roll-on” services has meant that boxing a bike for the train is rarely needed. (Rarely, but not completely: If you want to take the Empire Builder from Portland east, you will still need to box.) But unfortunately there are still stations in the network where either getting on or off with a full-size bike is not possible–there are still plenty of unstaffed stations on long-distance networks where you’ll be out of luck if you want to use a bike. Unless, of course, it’s a folding bike.

For as long as I’ve been attending the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour, I’ve wanted to use the Amtrak station in Red Wing, Minnesota, where the ride starts and ends. But it’s one of those unstaffed depots, so the past four times I’ve attended I had to get off at St. Paul’s Union Depot and figure out a way to and from. But this year we finally got off at Red Wing! We simply folded up our Bromptons in Portland and walked off with them in Red Wing. As long as you have a true folding bike that folds up to 34″ x 15″ x 48″ (860 x 380 x 1120 mm), you can carry it onboard and stow it either in the lower-level luggage stowage (on two-level Superliner long distance cars, as found on the Empire Builder) or in the luggage stowage at the end of a single level coach. And we didn’t have to pay anything extra!

Our Bromptons in Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner luggage rack. 8 Nov 2021. Camera: Olympus XA2. Film: Fujicolor C200.

Air. This is where the Brompton really shines, as there’s no such thing as “roll-on” bike service on an airplane. But there are a few different ways one can get their folded bike on-and-off a plane. Some people use either hardshell or softshell cases and check the bike as luggage. But neither of us have shells for the Brompton, nor do we want them for now. We don’t want the extra hassle of another item that we need to figure out how to get to and from an airport, nor do we want to find things like “foam pipe” to put around frame tubes. We want to either take transit or ride to or from the airport. Surely there must be a way to do that?

I checked out The Path Less Pedaled for guidance. Russ and Laura have used their Bromptons for many years, even touring on them. They normally check-in a “naked” Brompton at the luggage counter, the only thing extra done is some straps to make sure the frame stays locked as it passes through the airport. (Russ’s reasoning: If baggage handlers see that it’s a bike, they’ll handle it more sensitively than an anonymous suitcase.) We tried that when we first flew with our Bromptons back in November. Even though we were using Alaska, the same airline Russ and Laura use for their travels, the person at the baggage balked.

Instead, they told us to “gate-check” them at the plane when we board. Of course! That’s what people with strollers and wheelchairs do. It does mean having to get the bikes through TSA (pro tip: don’t fold them for TSA, keep them unrolled, otherwise an agent may try to get it through the X-Ray conveyor, which isn’t possible). But I feel that it’s worth that hassle. You just fold the bike up before boarding, leave it in the jetway or before you climb the steps to the plane, then pick it up when you get off. And yep, no extra fee for bringing the bike this way!

Yes, there is the risk with a “naked” bike of having something happen to the bike. But so far we’ve been lucky. And gate-checking means that the bikes get put on the plane last and off first, so there’s not a lot of opportunity for damage. We strap our Bromptons with Jon’s Irish Straps so they stay locked and take off all bags and bits (including the clamps and the tool kit that fits into the frame).

So there you have it folks. Traveling with Bromptons is pretty easy–not easy easy all the time, but easier than with any other bike. I love being able to just bring a bike with me, wherever I go.

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5 thoughts on “Traveling with a Brompton

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  1. Alas – I’ve been doing it wrong! I too have been able to circumvent fees, but I’ve been claiming the bike is a stroller. While in it’s ripstop transit cover, it possesses approximately the same shape and size (but not weight) as the Graco travel stroller we used to bring. And of course (before now) I would rarely tell anyone, in order to hide my shame. So yet again, honesty really is the best policy.

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