Getting a bike to a tour's start and/or home from the tour's end usually means packing it into a case or box, getting it to an airport, train or bus station, and then getting it home from there. Even with a bicycle designed for travel (such as an S&S coupled or folding bike), there are unwieldy cases to transport to and drag through a station. If stairs are involved, the difficulty factor goes way up! Is this simply what a bicycle tourist has to do or might there be another way? I believe there is: renting a touring bicycle.

While the costs and effort involved are not insignificant, the benefit is clear: riding your own trusty bicycle on tour. How might the costs and effort involved with renting a touring bike compare? This is what I try to explore in this article.

These days, with the interest in bicycling growing, more services are being offered to help people take bike rides. Many larger cities throughout the world offer local bike rentals. Most tourist towns have business that rent bicycles by the hour, day, week, or longer. The obvious problem with renting a bicycle for a tour is getting back to the starting point to return the bike. This won't be a problem for loop routes, but returning the bike presents a problem if the tour is one-way.

As usual, you can solve this problem if you are willing to spend a bit of money. There are now bicycle shipping services, such as Shipbikes.com or bikeflights.com that charge reasonable amounts to ship packed bikes. In addition, you can do a one-way car rental and drive back to your starting point, or take a bus or train, if that is what you need/want to do.

Taking your own bicycle with you has certain benefits and costs. Renting a bicycle one-way and shipping it back to your starting place has a different sets of pluses and minuses. The purpose of this article is to compare these two options.

Take It or Leave It

Let me start by saying I have never toured on a rented bicycle. Thus, some of this discussion will have to be theoretical on my part. But, I have taken my S&S-coupled bicycle on planes, trains, buses, and in cars dozens of times over the past 10 years. While, I have personal experience traveling with a bicycle, I have never done so with a full-size bike packed in a cardboard box. My S&S-coupled bicycle can be packed into a hard-sided case that meets the (current) airline limits of 62 linear inches (26" x 26" x 10"). I've only ever paid normal checked bag fees on it, instead of the more expensive bicycle fees, when flying.

With all these disclosures out of the way, let me try to estimate the cost of getting a bicycle to a starting point and home from an ending point. This is further complicated depending if you are flying nationally or internationally, as international flights have more liberal checked baggage rules but also much higher checked bag fees.

For our pricing example, let's consider someone living on the East Coast of the US (assume New York) riding from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This should take a reasonable bike tourist no more than two weeks to complete.

According to this article, flying with a bicycle will cost between $50 and $150 dollars, one-way, depending on the airline. Let's assume $100 for a total of $200 round-trip. Given the weight limits, it should be possible to pack most of the other gear needed for such a tour in the bicycle's box.

In addition to the baggage fees, the bike has to be packed into a box. If you do this yourself, you will have to get a box (often free from a local bike shop), pack the bike, get the box to the airport, unpack the bike at your starting point and then do all this in reverse at your destination. I'm going to assume an hour for each operation or 4 hours total (not including the time it takes to get a box and bring it home). That is 1 hour each for putting the bike in the box before you fly, getting the bike out of the box when you arrive, putting the bike into a box when you get to your destination, and then reassembling the bike at home.

Another option is to take your bike to a shop and have them pack it and ship it for your starting point and home from your shipping point for you. I estimate $80 each time a bike shop does this packing and reassembly or $320 all in.

Instead of taking your bike on an airplane, you can have the bike shops do all the shipping for you. According to shipbikes.com's website, shipping a bike from New York to San Francisco and from Los Angeles to New York would cost (as of November, 2015) $45 each way or $90 total. Thus, having all the packing done at a bike shops and shipping would be around $400.



Let's Recap:

Taking a bike packed in a box on an airplane (round-trip) $200
Packing the bike yourself 4 Hours
Having a bike shop pack/unpack your bike $320
Shipping your bike with shipbikes.com from New York to SF and back $90


So, bringing a bicycle with you from New York, riding it from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and then returning with it to New York can cost

$90 4 hours, if you pack it yourself and ship with shipbikes.com
$200 4 hours, if you pack it yourself and take the bike on an airplane
$400, if you have bike shops handle all the packing/unpacking and use shipbikes.com

Money Flying Out The Door

How do these costs compare to renting a bike in San Francisco? Since this is a one-way rental, the cost of packing the bike up in Los Angeles and shipping it up to San Francisco has to added to the cost of the bike rental to get a figure to compare.

San Francisco is rife with bicycle rental businesses. Most of them rent clunkers by the day for tourists to weave their way over the Golden Gate Bridge. Some of these places offer better bikes and longer term rates. I called around and found Bike Hut, a non-profit that rents bicycles. They rent Fuji Touring bikes along with racks, spares, tools, and a lock for about $250 for 2 weeks.

Since this is a one-way rental, the bike has to be sent back to San Francisco. According to shipbikes.com, it would cost $35 to send a bike from Los Angeles to San Francisco and take 2 days. Adding in the $80 cost to pack the bike, the total fees for renting a bike and returning it would be about $385. Note that you could save the $80 by packing the bike yourself. Note that the renting company may charge you a fee to reassemble the returned bike, though, Bike Hut said they wouldn't if the rental was more than 10 days.

Another option for returning the bike would be to rent a car in Los Angeles and drop it off in San Francisco. One-way rentals between these two cities are common and, when the cost of gasoline is included, can likely be arranged for close to or under the cost of having the bike packed at a bike shop and shipping it north. Though, it will take you 8 hours to do the drive.

Pros and Cons

In addition to the cost of transporting your bike, there are other, non-monetary, issues when bringing your bike with you:

First, you have to get your boxed bike to and from the airport. Traveling with a large heavy box might require you to use a more expensive connection to/from the airport.

When flying with a bicycle, there is the risk of damage to the bike or of the whole thing getting lost. You may be able to pay extra for insurance, but who knows if it would even pay off if needed?

There are also significant benefits to touring on your own bicycle. The most important is that bike will fit you. In addition, you be more familiar with your own bike, it's idiosyncrasies, and likely know how to repair it.

Lastly, the problems of flying with a bike can likely be mitigated by sending the bike ahead using a service like shipbikes.com. The downside of this is that you have to pack and send your bike ahead of time, leaving you without the use of that bike for some time before and after your tour. You also have to arrange for a place to receive your bicycle and hold it for you. If it is a local bike shop, you will likely be charged a fee for this service.

Renting a touring bicycle has a different sets of pros and cons.

Depending on the rental company's bicycle selction, you might have a hard time finding a rental bike that feels right or is in acceptable condition. The rented bike might also have different equipment than you are familiar with, such as disc brakes or brifters. This would make riding, adjusting and repairing the bike on the road more challenging.

You will likely have to bring some items off your own bike anyway. One obvious example is your saddle. You might have to bring pedals, lights, and other equipment, as well. This may require you to check a bag, incurring airline fees in order to transport metal items not allowed in carry-on luggage.

Take My Bike. Please!

There are lots of variables to consider when deciding on renting a bicycle for a use on a tour. The most obvious one is if it is even possible to rent a suitable bicycle at or close enough to your starting point to even consider it. For most of us, the rental option will end right there. However, in more and more cities and towns, quality bike rental options are becoming available, making renting a touring bicycle a real option.

Should renting be available, the next question is your personal preference for the hassle of packing and traveling with a bicycle. No matter how much trouble it is, riding a comfortable, well-known bicycle for hundreds of miles is worth a great deal. On the other hand, getting a bicycle to your starting point is a drag, often literally!

The length of your tour will also play a part. Taking a bicycle to do a tour of a few days might not be worth it. Renting a bike for a multi-month tour would likely be cost prohibitive. My guess is the sweet spot for bicycle touring rental would be about 2 weeks.

For some people, say those traveling on business, with family, or those without a suitable touring bike, renting could be the best option. For those for whom every dollar counts, renting won't even enter into the picture. But, for the rest of us, it is possible that renting a bicycle for a tour might be worth considering.
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Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz