You've decided you want to take a big trip with your bicycle, and you will most likely be flying and/or taking a series of trains. One thing is certain; you are going to need a bike travel case to haul around your precious bi-wheeled fun wagon. There are plenty of manufacturers producing travel cases these days, and it can be challenging to navigate the differences of each. Each brand boasts different features and widely varying price tags. Rest assured, we are here to help you make sense of all of this nonsense and help you determine which bike travel case is best for you, your needs, and your wallet.
Buy, Borrow or Rent?
The first step in choosing a bike travel case is determining whether or not you really want to buy one. Sure, it can be fun to research and shop for a travel bag, but buying may not be the best option for everyone.
It is important to evaluate how frequently you plan on traveling with your bicycle. If you suspect you may only be flying with it once or twice a decade, it might be worth considering borrowing or renting one. Many bike shops rent bike bags for a reasonable weekly rate. Otherwise, there is a good chance that one of your friends, or a friend of a friend, has a bike travel case that you can borrow. Simply put, if you are only traveling with your bike once or twice, it might not justify purchasing a case.
Now, if you plan on taking a riding trip every year or perhaps every other year, it certainly makes sense to think about purchasing a travel case. These things can get quite expensive, but it is worth remembering that they should last you a well over ten years. It isn't unreasonable to think you could get 20 years of service out of one of the nicer cases; this, of course, depends on how well you, and the airlines, treat it.
Style of Bike
It is important to consider your style of bike before making a purchase decision. It is critical to read the details and understand that not all travel cases will fit a modern mountain bike. In addition, none of the cases we tested will work with a fat bike, and e-bikes can be tricky as well.
If you are carrying a road/gravel/touring bike, you definitely have more options. These bicycles are generally more compact and have shorter wheelbases. As a result, they tend to fit better in these cases. These bikes have smaller wheels, which also occupy space in your travel case.
If you are traveling with a mountain bike, things can get tricky. Not all cases work with mountain bikes. Our reviews will clearly point this out, and the manufacturer website will generally make this clear. There are a couple of main reasons a mountain bike won't work in a road bike case. First, the longer wheelbase might not fit on the mounting track of the rack. If you have the fork in the proper position, the bottom bracket will be hanging off the mounting stand. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the bike's axle standards are different. A mountain bike uses a thicker and wider axle that will not be compatible with the mounting system.
If you have a mountain bike compatible case, there should be little concern that your particular bike will fit. We tested these bags with an extra-large bike with 29-inch wheels; this is quite a sizeable bicycle, and it fits in all of our mountain bike-approved travel cases with a little persuasion. It was sometimes a very tight fit, but it worked. If you have a super-aggressive bike with slack geometry, things could get a bit touchy.
Level of Concern
It is important to consider how concerned you are with your bike; this will determine how much protection you desire in your travel case. This may sound like an odd consideration, as of course, nobody wants their bike to get damaged, but there is some variation here. It goes without saying that nobody wants mechanical damage; that's a hassle. But it is worth considering how important a minor scratch on your frame is.
If you have a triathlon bike or carbon road/gravel bike, there is a higher likelihood that it is in immaculate condition. These bikes aren't used to taking impacts or getting banged up. Owners tend to care far more about frame scratches and scuffs with these types of bikes. In this case, frame protection is of critical importance.
Mountain bike owners are more of a mixed bag. There are a huge number of hyper-concerned mountain bike owners who don't want a ding or scratch on their bikes. This is particularly true of riders with newer bikes. That said, there are plenty of riders who may be taking a trip to a bike park or to a freeride zone who may not care as much. If you're going on a trip to Whistler Bike Park, a 1-inch chip on your frame isn't ideal, but it is probably less of an issue given what you are about to put your bike through in Whistler. Riders who may not be as concerned about frame protection are likely a little more worried about the packing process and ease of use.
It can be pretty easy to get hung up on the features that companies push in marketing campaigns. Super-cool pockets and materials are nice and all, but we don't put a tremendous amount of value in them. The main goal of your travel case is to move your bicycle safely, and the number of pockets or reflective materials on your bag are far less important.
One thing that is worth considering is how easy or difficult it is to roll and carry your travel case around. Traveling can be stressful, especially in a foreign country, at a busy airport. We feel it is critical to have a travel case that rolls well and isn't tipping over while you're trying to navigate the crowds. It is important how well the case rolls in the airport, but you might also be walking on junky sidewalks, train platforms, and old streets. Having a bag that is up for the task is of high importance.
Weight is an interesting consideration that may vary by what kind of bicycle you own. If you are flying with a road or gravel bike, you likely will not approach the weight limit set by the airlines. This number varies by airline, so we cannot provide a hard and fast rule here. Mountain bikers, particularly those with aggressive aluminum bikes, may get pretty close to the weight limit. In this situation, the weight of the travel case can come into play quickly.
The bags we tested all ranged from about 17.5 pounds to 29 pounds. If you think your bike may be very close to the weight limit set by the airlines, it could be worth going with a lighter travel case. Even a five pound weight difference can be the difference between having the chance of packing some extra clothes in your travel case or being over the weight limit and paying extra for an overweight item.
Unless you are incredibly lucky, your travel case will spend far more time sitting in your house, apartment, or garage compared to time spent traveling. We would all love to load up our bikes and head towards warmer climates to ride our bikes. The reality is that we all have busy lives, and the huge majority of the time, your bike travel case will be stored at your residence.
There generally isn't a huge amount of variation between how small these travel cases pack down. The difference is generally less than 5-6 inches in soft cases. These bags can pack down into themselves and turn into a burrito-shaped item that can be stuffed on a high shelf or into the corner of a closet. Unless you are living in a studio apartment with very little space, we don't recommend hinging on the differences in the collapsed size of the soft cases.
If space is at all an issue, we suggest avoiding hard cases. These use a hard plastic shell that does a great job of protecting your bike but is quite bulky. It is far more difficult to store these cases, and we would suggest avoiding them if space is tight.
There you have it. There is a lot to consider when choosing which bike travel case to purchase. The best guideline we can offer is to be realistic about how often you will travel and how concerned you are about your bike getting a scratch or a ding. These travel cases are expensive, but this is certainly a piece of gear that should last you well over ten years or a couple of dozen bike trips - provided the airline does not thrash it too badly. Enjoy.