Tips on Flying with your Brompton Folding Bike
Most people who have a "regular" city bike probably paid between $600 and $1000 for it, if they got it new. Coming from that price point, it can be jarring when you discover that many of the high-quality folding bikes you've heard so much about start off at twice the cost of a new 3-speed city bike. Speaking for myself, I remember clearly thinking "No sir... No way" when a friend told us what his Brompton had cost. Then he loaned it to us for a vacation, and when compared to the budget $450 folding bike we already owned, everything suddenly made sense. The Brompton rode like a real bike. It was fast, nimble, and comfortable. Covering more than 5 miles on the cheap folder began to be "clown bike" agony due to the shorter cranks, but on the Brompton we had no trouble crossing a city all day. Even more importantly, folding the Bromptons down was a tool-free, lightning-fast operation that left us with a briefcase-sized rectangle ready to stow overhead on planes and trains, whereas the cheap folder required velcro straps to stay together, took well over 2 minutes to fold down, and required a giant bulky bag. Needless to say the cheap folder is now gone, and we found 2 used Bromptons on Craigslist.
So why not just rent bikes when you arrive at your destination city? Most people would answer that having a high-quality bike that fits you exactly beats renting a low-quality beater hybrid bike. Personally, we would also add that when combined with the aftermarket IT brand child seat attachment, the Bromptons mean we aren't stuck trying to find a bike rental place that offers child seats (many don't, or only have big Burley trailers). Folding bikes like Bromptons are also more versatile in the airport than a full-sized bike that can be "broken" in half with couplings, since those bikes are too large to carry on and must be checked. Now that we've made our pitch for bringing a Brompton with you, some quick guidance:
- It was difficult for us to find out on the internet, but we can now assure you after many flights that the Bromptons will indeed fit through the airport security scanners. Fear not. Put the folding pedal side down, it's flatter.
- In our opinion, the best version of this whole deal is when you pack really lightly, and are able to bike to and from each airport with all of your luggage attached to the bike. Consider it a challenge...
- If you'll be carrying a kiddo, the seat attachment we have (and LOVE) is the "IT" chair by bikefix, available here. It will stow under the airplane seat in front of you. We're still using it with a normal-sized 5 year old girl, and we expect it will still work for another year or two.
Chart: Comparing the 3 ways to fly with your Brompton
Option 1: Bike as Carry-on Luggage
The bike will fit, but you can make the job a little easier with 3 allen (hex) wrenches, which if memory serves are 3mm, 4mm, and 6mm. The 6mm will loosen the handlebar clamp and allow you to tilt the bars into the body of the bike when it's folded up, which squeezes the bike an inch or so narrower. Additionally, you may want to use the 3mm wrench to loosen and tilt your grips (if you go aftermarket and they're fatter / oblong) so they don't stick out, along with the brake levers and shifters. Finally, the seat can also be quickly removed with one of the allens, and I usually stash it in the central space of the folded bike, secured to the frame with a canopy bungee. All of this takes about 30 seconds, and it can buy you an inch or more of width, as well as keep anything from sticking out and getting knocked. I bundle the 3 allens with a rubber band and stash them in my luggage or backpack. If you have the scratch, and the airline offers it, pay extra for early boarding so you can get on first and guarantee overhead space. The bike counts as 1 piece of carry-on luggage, so you can also bring a small bag for the seat under you. If you have a small rolling suitcase that fits on the rear rack of the bike, it can return the favor by becoming the "dolly" for the Brompton at the airport, but you must bring 2 long bungee cords to wrap around the Brompton to secure it on top of the suitcase. Also, we've noticed that smaller regional jets with only 3 seats in each row (2 on one side of the aisle, 1 on the other) don't have deep enough overhead bins for Bromptons, but larger jets do.
Hot Security Tip: Never, ever let the TSA agent checking IDs and tickets at the front of the Security line actually see your bike unfolded. Several times now, we made that mistake, and had heated, pointless arguments that never happen if you roll up with the bike already folded and bagged up. For some reason, as soon as they see a wheel, their brains melt down, their eyes fog over, and they begin speaking in tongues like a snake-handling preacher, with "NO" being the only intelligible word you'll get from them afterwards. It makes no sense whatsoever, since the folded bike is much smaller than everyone else's McMansion-sized suitcases, and since the TSA agents 50 feet away at the security scanners all seem to have no problems with folding bikes whatsoever. Fold it up and bag it as soon as you walk into the airport, well out of their eye sight.
Option 2: Bike as Gate Check
In this scenario, all the previous advice still applies, but you'll want to invest a little more care and attention, if not money, into how you pack up the folded bike, since someone who isn't you will now be touching it. There are expensive hard case options, there are awesome-but-expensive bag options, and there is even a pretty cheap IKEA option that's basically just a shopping bag. You may want to consider folding something stiff around the outside of the bike in one of the bags, to give it a little extra protection. We've heard the little rear rack wheels are especially vulnerable. When someone else will be handling the bike, it's also a great idea to tighten down the frame clamp bolts on the bike so they aren't flopping around, potentially getting bent.
Option 3: Bike as Luggage Check
Clearly this option requires the most care in packing the bike up, since it will be handled by multiple people who aren't you. So assess your own tolerance for risk, gaze deep into your wallet, and decide what kind of packaging makes you the happiest. Our advice is to give the baggage handlers an obvious handle, so they know where to grab your bike-package, and to try to at least wrap some dense foam around the bike. Another concern is the ticket agent... if they catch a whiff that this thing you're trying to check as a $25ish normal bag is, in fact, able to unfold into a bicycle, they sometimes attempt to stiff you for the "Recreational Equipment" upcharge, as though it were a full-sized bike or a bag of golf clubs. The upcharges can be as much as $150, and all airlines have a policy that allows a small folding bike to be checked as luggage for the normal fee, so don't put up with it. Again, the less they can see here, the better.
Airline policies & Costs To check Full Bikes
- Delta - $150 to check bike
- Frontier - $75 to check bike
- JetBlue - $50 to check bike (folding bikes in container under 62 dimensional inches and 50 lbs are FREE)
- Southwest - FREE to check bike
- Virgin America - $50 to check bike
- Virgin Atlantic - FREE to check bike
- Kryptonite Locks - TSA security doesn't seem to like them so prepare to potentially ship your lock or lose it. We were able convince them it was a harmless lock for our bike. But it took some convincing and a 5 year old daughter to help with the innocence factor.