Flying with bicycles: the USA to Nicaragua

The first stage: Buffalo to Toronto

Overall the flight to Nicaragua was a bit of a nightmare. This was the first time we had ever tried flying with bicycles, and unfortunately it didn’t go completely smoothly.

First, we caught the greyhound from Buffalo to Toronto. This was probably the only part of the trip that went smoothly. There were only 4 people on the bus and the Greyhound staff didn’t even charge us extra for the bikes – score! We had no issues headed back through the Canadian border. They didn’t even want to x-ray our bike boxes, or any of our bags – double score! At this stage, I was quite hopeful and thought the smooth bus trip was a positive sign for things to come…

Toronto Airport: Flying with bicycles!

It was all downhill from the moment we arrived at Toronto Airport! Once we arrived at the airport, we started to make our way to the departure hall. This turned out to be unnecessarily difficult, when we discovered that the elevators aren’t actually wide enough for our bike boxes. This meant, holding the elevator open while Michael pushed each box into the elevator along with all our bags. Taking up the lift for so long, doesn’t make us too popular with the other passengers. It also turned out we were departing from a different terminal, so we had plenty of small elevators and a train to overcome.

When we finally made it to departures, we checked in then proceeded to the oversized luggage. Now being oversized, you think that would mean they have x-ray machines large enough for oversized baggage. Well, they don’t! The customs officer actually tried to squeeze our bike boxes through the small x-ray machine. Mine managed to fit through. Michael’s on the other hand got stuck. We then spent the next 30 minutes trying to push Michael’s bike out of the x-ray.

Flying with bicycles
Michael attempting to push the bike box out of the x-ray machine with another smaller box, at the “oversized” baggage check in at Toronto Airport. I kid you not – this is the oversized x-ray machine and Michael’s box got stuck inside.

At one point, Michael had the end of a broom, and was pushing the box from one end, the customs officer was messing around with the belt… reversing it and then moving it forward again, and another lady was trying to pull the box from the back. It almost seemed to comical to be reality, and part of me was waiting for the “You’ve Been Framed” camera crew to appear around the corner. After 30 minutes had passed, I was convinced that they would have to dismantle the machine to get Michael’s bike out… but, finally, somehow the box was freed and popped out the machine.

After all this, the officer then told Michael he had to open the box to search it – so much for the 4 rolls of duct tape we used to tape up the box. Finally the officer was happy and our bikes disappeared along the conveyer belt. We hoped the next time we seen our bikes would be in Nicaragua – this turned out not to be the case!

Connecting in Mexico City

We were flying from Toronto to Managua via Mexico City. Originally, when I booked the flights I thought that since it was all with Aeromexico, our bags would be checked all the way through. There was no mention ANYWHERE on the ticket on website, that this wasn’t the case. During check out, we were informed that we would have to pick up the bikes and re-check them in for our next flight. Bummer!

When we arrived into Mexico City, we proceeded to the baggage claim and collected our bikes and bags. FYI in Mexico City you need to pay for the baggage carts – great when you are only planning on being in the airport for 2 hours and have no Mexico pesos on you. Luckily, a local came to our rescue and gave us money for a cart – seriously, an amazing random act of kindness, which put me in a good, positive mood.

The airport staff told us that our bike boxes would need to be checked at customs, so after collected our boxes, we headed to departures! Luckily, Mexico Airport has wider elevators, so getting around the airport wasn’t so much of a drama as it was at Toronto. Once we arrived at the oversized luggage check in, we were told we had to wrap the boxes in plastic wrap. Even now this makes no sense to me, as we were told they would have to open the boxes up and check inside – so wrapping them in plastic before the check really seemed pointless and wasteful. Regardless of our attempts of reasoning with the customs officer, we paid $50 (no joke) to get each box wrapped in plastic. Then we headed back to the oversized baggage, and said “goodbye” to our bikes, once again.

Later, when I did open my bike box, I discovered a piece of paper inside informing me my box had been checked by security – so I guess they just paid for the bike to be rewrapped again? At least I didn’t have to pay for the “plastic waste” again.

Flying with bicycles: the last leg

The flight from Mexico City to Managua was extremely rough and I was extremely happy to be on the ground when we arrived in Managua. On the plus side, the views flying over El Salvador and Nicaragua were amazing. Lots of volcanos, lakes, mountains and beaches greeted us as we made the descent through the clouds.

Flying into Managua, Nicaragua
Flying into Managua, Nicaragua

Clearing border security was easy – we weren’t even asked about an onwards flight (which is great, as we didn’t have one)! We headed over to baggage collection to pick up our bikes – hopeful that our bikes made it ok!

I think from being wrapped in plastic, the ground staff couldn’t tell what were in the boxes and they had been thrown around A LOT! The boxes were extremely beaten up, with several metal parts protruding from the box.

Initially we had planned to put the bikes together at the airport, and then ride to the guesthouse we had booked. I don’t know what we were thinking. It was stinking hot, we hadn’t slept for over 24 hours and we weren’t 100% sure that our bikes were going to be functional ever again! Eventually, we decided to jump in a taxi, squeeze the bikes and all our gear in, and head to the guesthouse to deal with the situation there, instead of in the arrivals hall, with hundreds of touts harassing us.

I had booked a guesthouse that was only 2km from the airport. Our boxes were squeezed into the back of a taxi, and tied down with some rope! After a 5 minutes ride, we arrived at the guesthouse and paid our overpriced taxi fare (got to love that “gringo” tax – man, I hate airport taxis!) We ended up spending 2 days in Managua to put the bikes together and sort our shit out!

So that was our first experience flying with bicycles! Did our bikes survive the trip? Was I well enough to start cycling again? How was it going to be cycling in Nicaragua? You’ll have to wait until the next post to find out.

Lessons Learnt from our experience flying with bicycles:

  • Don’t use a cardboard bike box when flying with bicycles! I think next time we’re going to just try wrapping it in plastic (though my environmentalist instinct hates this wasteful idea).
  • Try and get a direct flight, if this isn’t possible, double check with the airline whether the flight will connect your baggage, or whether you will need to collect it during transit.
  • Riding from the airport when you haven’t slept for 24 hours is never a great idea! Don’t fool yourself!
  • Aeromexico has shit customer service – no way around this!
  • Don’t count on being able to put the bikes together at the airport! Even if you want to try and put them together, have a back up plan in place, in case it’s not possible.
  • If ground staff can’t tell it’s a bike, then they will probably toss it around, A LOT!

If you have some tips on flying with bicycles, then let us know! We definitely appreciate any advise to help make our next experience not so stressful.

2 Replies to “Flying with bicycles: the USA to Nicaragua”

  1. We use padded flight bags and usually ride in/out of airports, without problems. (Currently on tour, where flying took close to 24h and one connection).

    Great thing about flight bags is that you can carry them with you on open jaw tours, or arrange to store them somewhere on round trips.

    WRT size, flight bags are oversize luggage, but well within the 100-inch LxWxH that some carriers impose.

    Have a great trip

    1. I’ve not heard of them before… but, they aren’t really an option for last minute travel. We only decided to fly with the bicycles 48 hours before, and there was no way we were going to arrange flight bags in that time – arranging a cardboard box was a mission enough lol. We’ll be leaving Nicaragua with the bicycles again soon, but I don’t think we’ll be able to buy flight bags here. Might be something to consider in future though, when we have a bit more time for planning our trip 🙂

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