We did a ton of research on which folding bikes to purchase and ultimately landed on Bromptons for one reason: they fit in an overhead compartment (unless you’re on a tiny plane; more on that later). Yes, Bromptons are more expensive than Bike Fridays, Dahons, etc., but with bike luggage fees running up to $150 (one way), we will definitely save money after just a couple trips.
Airlines known for their focus on customer service are more likely to be okay with you putting your bike in an overhead compartment; however, you might have to be a little crafty because (1) Bromptons do not technically fit within most airlines’ allowable dimensions and (2) the whole “folding bike on a plane” thing is new and it just seems wrong. We’ve had success with Jet Blue and have heard positive stories from people flying Southwest.
Here’s what we did to get our bikes on the plane to San Jose, California with very little resistance from airport employees.
Before arriving to the airport:
Check the size of the overhead compartment when you book your flight. Your Brompton might not fit in a given airplane’s overhead compartments. It’s your job to figure out if it will. When you book a flight, the airline will tell you what type of plane you’ll be flying on. Do a quick search for the dimensions of the overhead compartment of that plane. Make note of these dimensions–as well as the dimensions of your Brompton–to share with the gate employees if they tell you your bike won’t fit. People can’t argue with math. Well, they can, but they’ll lose. It also helps to mention that you’ve carried your bike onto this exact model of plane before, so you know it will fit. We actually had to do this on a flight and the employee just shrugged and waved us on.
Also, some planes have large overhead compartments on one side and small ones on the other. This is a good piece of information to have if the gate employees tell you your bike won’t fit. It goes without saying, but if this is the case, try to board early even if you have to pay a little extra to do so.
Purchase the Dimpa bag from Ikea to disguise your bike, if necessary. Like I said, even though Bromptons are around the same size as a carry-on suitcase, airport employees still tend to be a little wary of people carrying bikes. We brought Ikea’s lightweight, durable, $4 Dimpa bags on our trip to California in case we suddenly got nervous or noticed some suspicious eyes watching our bikes. These came in handy when we needed to disguise our bikes on the Amtrak train in San Luis Obispo (where bikes are explicitly not allowed), and they also made carrying the bikes through the airport super easy. Yes, they’re slightly transparent, but somehow they still worked for us.
At the airport:
Remove the seat and seatpost and put a tennis ball on the seatpost opening. This step is crucial! Your bike will not fit in the overhead compartment with a bike seat. This requires an allen wrench, so make sure you keep your bike tool with you on the plane or remove your seat before checking your tool.
Don’t ever unfold your bike. Fold your bike the second you get to the airport and never unfold it again. People are more willing to turn a blind eye if they don’t ever see that your steel contraption actually does unfold to a full-size bike. It’s one thing to think this is possible, but another to see it happen. Like I said, bringing a bike through an airport is weird and airport employees’ (particularly TSA employees’) jobs revolve around noticing things that are weird and preventing them from happening. Try to fly under the radar.
Be cool. If you act like you know what you’re doing, people will be less likely to question you. We got the most questions about our bikes at the TSA checkpoint, but we just calmly answered people’s questions, smiled, and pretended it was just an everyday thing. All of the TSA employees we spoke to quickly turned from suspicious to curious, and we ended up laughing and cracking jokes with them.
Put the bike in rack/rolling wheels to the front, handlebars up. Once you get on the plane, you want to get your bike in the overhead bin as quickly as possible so as to not raise suspicion and also just to say, “I told you so.” The only way to do this is top first, handlebars up. Memorize this. Do not try it another way. You will waste time, it will not fit, and a flight attendant will approach you to say, “Ma’am, you’ll have to gate check your luggage” faster than you can say, “Holy mother of god, why did I listen to that idiot blogger.” A Brompton without a rack fits very easily, but a Brompton with a rack will still fit as long as you put it in top first, handlebars up.
At this point, you can rest easy! Your bike is on the plane and you didn’t even have to pay $150 to get it there. Congratulations! Now you can reassemble your bike, which should only involve putting the seatpost back in.
A quick note: the most important part of this process is making it past security. Once you’ve done that, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to gate check your bike (definitely not ideal, but still free). This is where your Dimpa bag will come in handy. If you have the time and ability, try to pad your bike in its Dimpa bag with extra clothes so that the luggage handlers don’t do too much damage. Although, we’ve heard stories of bikes without any protection at all going through the checked luggage process and coming away without any damage. This is not something I’m eager to try, but it’s a testament to the quality and durability of Bromptons. So if you’re planning to travel with your folding bike, spend a little extra money and get a Brompton. It will pay for itself after a few plane trips!