Friday, November 7, 2008

Bicycles & Airline Travel - The Challenges

Below is a response to a series of posts on a message board that I take part in called The subject was traveling with your bike on planes. It's been a subject of endless debate over the years, but has reached fever pitch recently, as almost all the airlines have significantly raised all of the extra fees that they charge people for extra baggage beyond one checked bag. It has become particularly frustrating and expensive for triathletes and cyclists who frequently travel with their bikes to places to train and to races.

My thoughts on Bikes on the Planes:

1. The prices that we are paying for airline travel these days are a bargain. Many would disagree with me on this, but it is the reality. I recently traveled to Ironman Hawaii (IMH). I paid about $900 for my ticket from Toronto to Kona. Nearly 20 years ago in 1989, I went to Kona for the first time. In '89 I paid . . . . . . . about $900. Name me another high cost business with very expensive deliverables, that has stayed the same price for two decades?

2. What the airlines are trying to do is recover some costs because, they are loosing money on many( all) seats in the planes. So they are starting to charge for all those little extra things that previously had been "free". Most of the airlines have totally overhauled their policies when it comes to extra baggage and come up with completely, and mostly much more expensive fees for overweight, extra bags, over- size and special bags( bikes, skis . etc) . . at least this is what they are saying.

3. Now, historically, the airlines have for the most part had a special fee for bikes. The problem was that this was very inconsistently charged and enforced. In the past, by chance and by luck, or by a bit of friendly persuasion at the check-in counter you could travel a lot with a bike and never get charged! No more - now they are starting to play hard-ball with this and the fees in many cases have gone up significantly AND they are cumulative ie if it's a B-I-K-E, you are charged this, if it's your second bag, you are given another fee, if it's oversize( which just about all standard bike cases are) you are levied another fee, and if it's overweight( again which many standard bike cases can be) you are dinged again with yet another fee. As ridiculous as this sounds, I know people that paid more to get their bike to Kona for IMH then they did for themselves sitting in a seat on the plane!!

4. There still seems to be a variation in which airlines charge what and also in the levying of the extra fees. We flew Delta to Kona and only paid $50 outbound for my wife's bike. The check-in agent said that she was only charging us $50 because it was her second piece of luggage. She had asked if it was a bike and we said it was. It says quite clearly in the Delta Web site that, bikes will cost $175 each way + any extra fees for over-size, over-weight etc . . I verified these charges before the trip, with a phone call to Delta Customer service and also an email to same. On the return trip leaving Kona we paid $100, which we were told every bike leaving Kona is charged. It's kinda hard to fake your way off the Island with a bike when over 2,000 bikes are leaving the Island in 2 - 3 days!! So we paid a grand total of $150 which was a relief because we had been mentally prepared to pay $300+ But again - confusion and inconsistency seemed to reign.

5. What to do? First, choose your airline wisely. Many people book via Expedia or other online agents and automatically pick the cheapest ticket. Before you do that check with that airline on their bike policy. There still is a range. For example, West Jet, still does not charge for extra bags and the bike fee is a set $50. It may be worthwhile to take the more expensive airline ticket up front, and know that you will be paying less for your bike. Second - write the airlines. Tell them that, you understand that paying a bit more for safe and secure transport for your bike is OK, but when the price to transport the bike is more than for your seat on the plane, it's an absurd situation. Third - lobby or contact Race Directors for the events that you are going to and inquire about the race's sponsor airline, if they have one, and use that airline. Only go to races that offer that sort of deal. At some point people can and should start to vote with their pocket-books. Fourth - You can as others suggested use another type of bag - Hockey Bag etc to transport the bike by stealth and try and fake it. Given the security measures with airline travel these days, particularly in the U.S., I would be a bit wary, of out-right lying about the contents of my luggage! But that's a personal decision. Also, significantly more work needs to be done to disassemble and re-assemble the bike and may be only applicable to those with advanced bike mechanics skills Finally - use a service such as Tri-Bike-Transport to ship your bike to the event. This is only offered for limited events and to limited geographic areas, but it is an option. I know that Tri-Bike-Transport's business is booming. No surprise, when you consider the hassles and how uncertain and variable the costs of traveling with your bike as checked baggage is.

No easy answers, but hopefully shedding some light on a problem right now for those that do travel with their bikes - Flyer beware!

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