Flying these days, with or without a bicycle, is a frustrating endeavor. Along with all the traditional hassles and stressors of flying, there is a new trend of hidden or additional fees – $25 to check a bag, $35 to check a second bag, $11 for an extra six inches of leg room, etc…. Some airlines even charge for a carry-on bag. I recently saw a family blown away when they were told that it would cost them an additional $600 for their luggage to travel one-way!
So, imagine my anxiety when I recently traveled from Detroit to Austin, Texas with a big bike box. I traveled to Austin to attend a Bike Law Summit where bicycle lawyers from around the country met to share information and help each other better represent cyclists. Of course, there would also be group rides at the Summit and, since the Summit corresponded with the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships, it was also an opportunity to race. So, rather than rent a bike, I decided to bring my bike with me on the plane. In the process, I learned something worth sharing with others who are planning or considering a trip with their bike.
The day before my flight, I received an email from the airline – “It is time to check-in for your flight to Austin.” I logged on and was given a birds-eye view of the plane’s seating chart. Most seats were jammed together making it appear as if there would be no leg room (an accurate depiction) – with the seat I had been assigned highlighted in red. You guessed it – back row, center seat! So, I searched for other options and saw there were open seats in first class. I thought, “Maybe this is an opportunity for a free upgrade.” I clicked on the big, plush seat and a message popped on the screen “$90.” No way was I giving the airline another $90!! So, I kept searching and saw there was an exit row seat (aka “poor man’s first class”). I clicked on the seat – “$11.” Hell no, I wasn’t going to give the airline another penny!
Still, in the back of my mind, I knew I would be paying more. I had this huge bike box sitting on the floor next to me and knew there would be a hefty charge to check it. I took a quick look at the baggage fees and learned it would be $150 (each way) for the bike box. But wait – I recalled seeing something from when I clicked on the first class seat. I went back to the seat and was right – “3 free bags.” Could this really work? Could I be allowed to make the bike box one of my free bags? Quickly, I navigated back to the airline’s baggage policies. I read laws, rules, policies and contracts every day, but there was absolutely no way I could make sense of the airline’s policies to determine if my bike box would be considered a free bag with a first class ticket. Still, I decided to give it a try.
The next day, I arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, schlepped my bike box from the parking structure to the terminal, and saw a huge line snaking from the check-in counter. As I approached the line, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a separate line for first class passengers! I forgot about that perk, but now recalled seeing “those people” cut the line and secretly hating them! However, this time I was on the other end of the equation. I walked straight past the line and could feel the proletariat scowling at me, but I didn’t care – it felt too damn good being one of “those people.” Better yet, the ticketing agent informed me that there would be no charge for my bike box because was flying first class!
From there, it was smooth sailing. I boarded the plane with the other first class passengers, enjoyed free snacks and beverages, more leg room than I ever could have imagined, and when I arrived in Austin my bike was waiting for me at baggage claim. Lesson learned, right? Not quite.
At the end of my stay in Austin, I received the standard airline email telling me it was time to check-in for my return flight to Detroit. I logged onto the airlines site and, of course, saw I was again seated in a middle seat toward the back of the plane. No worries, I knew what to do and clicked on one of the many available first class seats. But, this time, I received a message stating that I was unable to change my seat online. I would have to try to make the upgrade at the check-in counter in the morning.
The following morning, when I arrived at the check-in counter, the agent looked at my bike box and said “Is that a bike? It will be an additional $150 for the bike. How would you like to pay for it?” I replied, “I think I want to upgrade to first class, but just for the first leg of my flight – Austin to Dallas.” With a smile, the agent said “Sure, that will be $40 and there will be no additional charge for the bike – you just saved $110 by flying first class.” Presumably, the upgrade for a 40 minute flight from Austin to Dallas is in lower demand and therefore, significantly cheaper than a first class seat on a longer flight. But, once the airline has your bike box in their possession, it is going to your final destination without any additional fee.
So, what did taking my bike to Austin teach me? First, fly first class and you will save some money and enjoy all the extra privileges granted to the traveling elite. Second, if you can arrange your travel so there is a short connecting flight at the beginning of your journey, your bike will fly free and you will join the bourgeois in the front of the plane, for even less cash.