Bike vacation? Travel tips to save money and have fun

Tips from our frequent flyer, Sonya Looney

How To Travel
Sonya and friends travel by rail.

Sonya and friends travel by rail.

Cycling is about adventure and personal challenge. It’s the magnet that draws us back to our bike and out the door. Cycling is addicting and once you’ve exhausted the trails or roads close to home, the travel bug clutches at your spirit. Videos or photos of desirable ride locations dance in front of your eyes and you can’t help but exclaim, “I want to go there!” Maybe it’s Sedona, maybe it’s Whistler, could be the Alps in Europe or even as far off as Nepal.

Once you eagerly decide on the travel location and grab your buddies, reality sinks in; the budget. How much is it going to cost? How can you make it more affordable? As a racer and adventure enthusiast who has trotted to the furthest corners of the globe, I can empathize with a tight budget and always find shortcuts to save money during travel. It seems as if once you step into an airport, the credit card winces.

I want to share with you some of my favorite tricks for traveling on a budget. The first most important thing to consider is how much it will cost to travel with your bike. You can usually rent a bike somewhere but let’s be honest, it’s better to ride your own bike. The best tool for your belt is cost awareness. It can be a nasty surprise at the airline counter when you learn that your bike is over the 50lb allotted weight, or that the luggage charge is heftier than you imagined. There have been times where my luggage bill is higher than the actual price of my plane ticket.

Airline tidbits

My recommendation is to always search for flights on airlines that charge the lowest bike fee. Some airlines charge you for a standard piece of luggage but they don’t overtly gouge you. Other airlines stick you with an additional luggage fee leading to many choice phrases of profanity and vowing never to fly with them again.

Baggage Fees

Note that some of these airlines allow your suitcase to fly free. The $75 charge on Southwest and Frontier are balanced out with a no charge policy for the first and/or second piece of luggage. Watch out for airlines like Spirit or Allegiant who have lower base fares, but nickel and dime you with even stricter luggage policies. Another interesting tidbit is that the gate agent can have an influence over how much you pay. I have had gate agents feel guilty for charging me due to moral reasons or were cyclists themselves. They have charged me the price of a regular piece of luggage and sometimes charged me nothing! I have also had the alternative; gate agents trying to overcharge me because they don’t even know their own policy. Another scenario to exercise caution is when traveling with an airline partner such as Air Canada/United. I just learned this one today! This morning I traveled via airplane. I booked my flight through Air Canada, which was a direct flight from Canada to the USA. I had an Air Canada confirmation number, but when I got to the airport, I was instructed that my flight was serviced by United and I had to check in based on United’s policy. If I had booked my Air Canada flight to take advantage of the $50 fee(plus the cost of the first checked bag) and was redirected to United and stuck with the $150 bike fee, it would have been very upsetting. Getting as much information as possible is the best way to protect yourself.

Always search for flights on airlines that charge the lowest bike fee.

Always search for flights on airlines that charge the lowest bike fee.

The next issue? Your bike case. Some hard cases are so heavy that with simply your bike and the case, it’s overweight. You’ll get stuck with overweight fees in addition to the bike fee. You can travel with a cardboard bike box, but I have personally had them ripped open and returned to me with gaping holes! I’ve been using an Evoc case for years and I have never had a problem traveling with my bike. Thule has also recently released a bike case that appears to be competitive with the Evoc case.

Sonya unpacks and builds her Pivot Mach429SL mountain bike after a trip to St. George, Utah for a 100 mile race.

Once you get to the airport, you could face the dreaded moment where your bike is on the scale and it’s overweight. I leave room in my carry-on or I bring a back-up cloth grocery bag as my “personal” item in case I need to remove something small from my bike suitcase. Don’t panic and pay the overweight fee! Take your pedals and rotors out of the box; or stick your cycling shoes in your carry-on bag.

Other travel tips
  • Rental cars: Sometimes it can’t be helped; you have to rent your car from the airport. However, if you can deal with the headache of renting off site, you could save 50% on a rental car. Rental car locations at airports charge a premium. I will opt to take public transportation or a taxi into the city and reserve my rental car from an off-site location. If you book with Enterprise, they pick you up for free if you’re within an allotted radius. So, as an example; I’m traveling to Boulder, CO. I take the bus from DIA to Boulder and get off at the bus stop closest to and Enterprise location. I call Enterprise, they pick me up, and I save big time. You can also usually fit your bike into a standard size vehicle so skip the SUV. Some places are nicely planned so you can get around with no car. If you have your bike, you can even ride to the trailhead!
  • (Note: that if a couple hundred bucks is not a problem, just get it from the airport. It is a hassle to get a car off-site, but if it makes or breaks your budget or is a deciding factor for your trip, it’s worth it!)

  • Download: This isn’t related to budget, but it does relate to riding on your trip. You can find .gpx tracks on Strava if you’re in an unknown area by using the search options. I often use this method to find local routes and put them on my Garmin and voila! I have a ride. Other great options are going to the bike shop and getting a map and ride beta from the employees. Some trail systems have their own smart phone GPS app (Sedona, North Shore, Whistler, Squamish, and many more do!)
  • Use Apps: Yelp, Happy Cow, Trip Advisor. These are all helpful to find healthy options around you. I also highly recommend getting the app and a free internet account on www.TripIt.com. It takes all the travel confirmation emails from your inbox and puts them into a calendar for you. I’m constantly traveling and this is the only thing that helps me keep my logistics in order!
  • Grocery shop: Most hotels have a fridge and microwave. While dining out is a nice treat, it can get expensive very quickly and also isn’t always the healthiest option. I like to save dinners for restaurants, and stock my hotel room with food for breakfast, second breakfast, and lunch. Oatmeal or granola are tasty and easy breakfast options. For lunch, I’ll make sandwiches. Sometimes, I even bring my own coffee and French press because it’s easy to find boiling water. You can also get some tasty premade meals at places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to stick the fridge.

These tidbits will arm you with knowledge and a leave you smooth pedalin’ next time you go on a cycling adventure! Leave a comment to share your favorite travel tips!

Photo Thumbnails (click to enlarge)

About the author: Sonya Looney

It’s energy and attitude that have propelled World Champion Sonya Looney on a mountain bike across the rugged Himalayas, through sweltering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, and through the clammy jungles of Sri Lanka. Sonya Looney is an adventure traveler on a bike seeking out the hardest races in the most remote, beautiful, and interesting places in the world. She believes in pushing limits because that’s when you realize you are far more capable than ever imagined. Sonya is also a professional speaker, keynoting at large conferences and has spoken at TEDx. Don't let her accolades fool you though, she loves craft beer and joking around. Follow her on social media!


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  • Jerry says:

    I have traveled by air with my bike a couple of times. The first time I rented what was clearly a large plastic bike box. I went to the airport and was asked by the agent if there was a bike in the box. I replied “no”, and on it went, no charge. On the return trip I was asked “what’s in the box?”, and I replied “meteorological test equipment”, and on it went with no charge. Apparently they didn’t care what was in the box as long as it wasn’t a bike. Bikes were the only thing they charged extra for back then.

  • Kevin Woodward says:

    Great article Sonya. Any tips on international travel from US to Europe? Last fall did a 2.5-week trip from Bay Area to Whistler and can attest to a few things mentioned in the article and comments. For one, drove my Prius with a stand-up Yakima rack … you can get a great hitch on Amazon for $120 and it will pay for itself many times over in the future. Driving own car not only saved bucks but added freedom and last-minute options on the trip … which we broke up nicely with stops along the way in Ashland and North Shore. Oh, don’t forget Air BNB for lodging! It was great to have our own bikes, for sure. We did rent DH bikes in the park but in addition to the sadly limited options available they were very, very expensive. So if you ride a 29er or a high-end carbon DH/AM bike you should definitely take it with you to avoid disappointment. Also don’t forget to pack your favorite protein bars, nutritional supplements and SportLegs which can often be hard to find away from home.

  • Graham Dickenson says:

    Ref Kevin’s question about flying to Europe check out flights with Virgin Atlantic. I have been coming to the States from the UK over a number of years and the only airline that still takes a bike for free (so long as under 23kg (50 lbs) is Virgin. BA are the next best – £60 each way the last time I looked. Their fares tend to be more though but often OK when they have a sale on.

  • Cooper says:

    What model/etc. toolbox was that she had???? Very cool way to transport tools!

  • Brian Nystrom says:

    There is a significant error in the statement of Southwest’s bike policy. The 50# limit applies to regular luggage, not oversize items like bike cases. Here is the exact language from their site:

    “Effective for tickets purchased on or after December 15, 2012, for travel on or after February 13, 2013, overweight items from 51 to 100 pounds and oversized items in excess of 62 inches but not more than 80 inches (e.g.; surfboards, bicycles, vaulting poles) will be accepted for an overweight and oversize baggage fee of $75 per item.”

    The fee used to be $50, but I guess all good things must come to an end. You pay the oversize fee for a bike case, regardless of it’s weight. We’ve traveled multiple times with a double bike case, which comes in comfortably under 100 pounds (though that will depend on the weight of your bikes).

  • PinkFloydLandis says:

    The article misses an important, and arguably superior, method of getting your bike to your destination: FedEx or UPS ground shipping. If your trip is domestic, this is always less hassle and almost always cheaper. I’ve shipped a 70 pound bike case from Seattle to Phoenix for under $50 via FedEx Ground. Ship to a friend’s house, or the hotel you’re staying in on night one, or even to a bike shop (call ahead and they typically are happy to act as the receiver). On return, ship direct to your home/office. No dragging your bike to/from the airport, no surprises at the ticket counter, etc.
    The one key to this is selecting the right case. To avoid oversize surcharges on FedEx and UPS, you need to stay below 130 inches length + girth.
    And its a useless strategy for international travel.

  • Mitch says:

    I have traveled with my bike for free many times. One can breakdown a full suspension frame easly and fit the wheels in another box. So on Southwest with 2 free pieces of luggage, the bike flys for free. Of course, if they ask what is inside, I tell them bicycle parts to make it easy on them.

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