Flying with your bike with AirAsia

Words & Photos: Nadiah Aziz

For the travelling cyclist, one of the biggest nightmares would be arriving at your destination without a bicycle, or with a damaged bike. For recreational cyclists, this would be frustrating enough, but for the cyclist taking part in a competitive race, it could mean months of planning and training going down the drain. This disastrous scenario happened right before Ironman Langkawi 2017, when dozens of riders arrived on the island without their bikes, putting a real spanner in their preparations for the race. For 2018, we thankfully didn’t get any such reports from participants.

A missed race also means fairly steep financial losses, since it is highly unlikely normal travel insurance will cover the cost to replace a lost or damaged bicycle. “Bicycles are usually a minimum RM20 - 30,000,” says Ironman Ambassador Rupert Chen. “You want to race in an Ironman it’s easily RM10,000 for each race. You travel overseas like to Europe or elsewhere, it’s at least RM15,000. Just registering for an event is already RM3,000 plus, not even talking about the hotel and flights and everything else. It’s an expensive sport.”

Rupert may be talking specifically about Malaysians competing in an Ironman or multi-sport event, but a bicycle race on its own already involves a portion of that cost. These considerations are the same for all cyclists worldwide. And Rupert should know, he’s been racing for just shy of a decade.

Even if it involves a recreational cycling tour abroad, there’s a lot of money involved when it comes to pre-arranged logistics and other costs like scheduled accommodation. It obviously becomes a massive problem when there is an issue with the most crucial piece of equipment, namely the bike itself.

So what’s a travelling cyclist to do? To get the perspective of an airline, I met up with AirAsia Guest Service Assistant Wilfred Tingkui. He assures that for the budget carrier, their standard operating procedures are simple enough but they ensure checked-in bikes are taken care of properly. In addition, the passenger will never fly separately from their checked-in baggage, meaning no bikes can be left behind. “We run commercial flights not cargo, so baggage is always with the passenger,” says Wilfred.

Whether for leisure or performance, there is no denying that there has been a marked rise in travellers who fly with their bikes, in the past decade. “I don’t really have a percentage, so I cannot say, but there definitely has been an increase,” Wilfred admits. “It’s both foreign and local passengers, and on both domestic and international flights.” With this hike in the number of bike travellers, most if not all airlines will have proper regulations and the accompanying extra charges for checking bicycles for flights.

For a low cost airline, AirAsia is surprisingly fairly easy to deal with when it comes to this issue. As someone who personally makes up a part of the bike travel statistics, I’ve found out the hard way that it pays to be prepared. While that is a general rule when it comes to economy or budget flights, it’s crucial when a heavy and bulky sports item is involved. As long as your bike bag with all its components are weighed properly and the respective sports luggage allowance booked in advance, you’ll have no headaches checking it in.

The next most obvious question is, what is the best method for packing your bikes for the flight itself. On hand with me I have a standard bike shipping cardboard box as well as a proper reinforced flight case for a folding bicycle, which Wilfred has never seen. Different cyclists have different preferences over soft bag, hard case or even a box, which I find tend to reflect their cycling style or chosen activity. The most common for bike travel appears to be the trusty box and the traditional bike cases with the telltale rounded edges to accommodate the wheels.

While there are a lot of options in the market now, will it matter to the airlines themselves? “Preferably it must be in a box. If it’s not in a box it should be wrapped with bubble wrap. It’s much safer,” says Wilfred, indicating that a rigid structure is still the better option.

I’m amazed that bikes can be checked in without a proper case or box, but there are some caveats for this.

“We can still transport it, but the tyres must be deflated, and the bicycle must be in proper condition. We have to make sure it is wrapped properly. It is much safer if it is in a box,” he cautions. Shrink wrapping is optional for AirAsia, but it’s worth noting that some full fledged airlines make this mandatory, which gets pretty expensive if you’re forced to do this for every flight.

As someone who makes up a part of the bike travel statistic, I know that a number of cyclists try to avoid declaring their bikes to avoid paying extra fees for sports equipment, and the dreaded oversized luggage counter. While Wilfred rarely encounters this himself, he assures that it is imperative to check-in a bike properly since it will be labelled as a fragile item.

“You need to declare it and go to the oversized counter,” Wilfred explains. “The normal conveyor belt is very rough, and it goes down several kilometres all the way down, round and round until the exact location according to the tag. There are also different paths, and the conveyor belt pushes the bag fairly roughly into the right path. The oversized conveyor belt goes straight down, one way.”

I have always been a bit skeptical with the fragile tag itself, but I’m assured that it does make a difference for the baggage. “It’s a special compartment in the aircraft as well, because we cannot put a fragile item together with the rest,” says Wilfred. In addition, the entire check-in process is partially automated and partially manual, and the extra fees cover proper care when baggage handlers are involved. To conclude our interview, I ask Wilfred what advice he can give the travelling cyclist.

“Simple,” he said. “Put it in a box or properly pack it, and come early to the check in counter. As long as it is in the weight limit, and if there is an excess you pay for it. It should be no problem.”

Hot Tips

Deflate tyres and pack the bicycle with enough bubble wrap or padding to prevent damage, with all odds and ends strapped down securely and nothing sticking out or exposed.

Weigh your bike and pay for sufficient sports luggage fees in advance to avoid getting charged exorbitant fees for excess weight at the counter.

Check-in with the oversized sports luggage option, because the conveyor belt is a straight route to the plane which a sorting mechanism said to be more gentle on fragile items.

Do not forego your travel insurance, because these will cover any possible damages that will happen in transit. Check your bike immediately upon arrival to be on the safe side.

Ensure you read all the T&Cs and know all your rights before flying with your bike.