Flying to Japan with a bicycle in 2023

Box, case or bag? It’s a difficult choice that travellers face when flying with a bicycle for the first time. A box allows ease of transport and some safety, but can easily have heavy luggage stacked on top of it. It also involves dismantling most of your bike to fit the required dimensions. A hard case or shell offers the most protection, but is impractical to store at your destination. For my Japan trip, I opted for a clear CTC bike bag.

There are pros and cons to this approach. The pros come with the ease of packing. Just remove the pedals, lower the saddle and turn the handlebar sideways. Then you simply walk it into a large plastic bag, wrapping the ends. Another positive is that baggage handlers may treat the bike with more care, since they can see that it’s a bicycle. The obvious con is that there is less protection for key parts such as the rear derailleur. However, this can be mitigated, either by wrapping the derailleur in padding, attaching the derailleur to the frame or removing the derailleur (and chain) altogether. I opted for the latter.

Wrapped and ready to fly

So, how was flying with a clear plastic bag/CTC bag?

Well, admittedly a stressful experience first time through the airport. Despite any advice or assurances you may find online about the approach, a first journey with the bike is going to be an unsettling one. I started from Heathrow bound for Haneda, flying with British Airways. Lugging the bicycle to check-in, the BA attendant gave me an unamused glance and asked “Are you sure about bringing it like that?”. Once I confirmed the airline itself has said it’s okay on its own website, he simply shrugs. Carrying onwards to the oversized baggage counter, staff confirm that the bike is too large to go on the automatic conveyor belts. They decide it will have to go through manually… at the other end of the terminal. So, balancing my oversized bicycle on a trolley, I traipse over to the other oversized baggage counter. The staff suggest adjusting the handlebars and to try again on the conveyor belt, else it will end up being ‘swabbed’. Tired and sweating, aware of the time left before my flight, I agree and begin to unpack the bicycle. But before I can do anything more, the baggage handler takes pity and agrees to walk it on manually. He even offered to tape it back up if any secondary inspection took place (apparently staff will swab anything that is brought onto the aircraft manually). This was the end goal all along, but it took some heavy hauling and convincing. A lot of confusion but, finally, the bicycle was on its way.

What about the panniers/tent/other luggage?

Ideally, if your bicycle counts as one piece of luggage, you want to check in the majority of your other gear as one piece (and avoid the dreaded extra fees and charges). The solution I used was a large canvas-type bag to fit all the panniers, plus the tent, sleeping bag and groundsheet. Then my handlebar bag came on as hand luggage, along with a shopping bag with some bits for the flight. Altogether, no extra fees. Just some sweat and moments of panic.

Partially unpacked, ready to push to the hotel

What about at the other end? How did the bicycle arrive at your destination?

As per most internet advice I’d read beforehand, the bicycle arrived in fine condition. Maybe a little scuffed, but ultimately fine. The airport staff at Haneda even wheeled it over on a trolley for me. Say what you like about baggage handlers or airport staff, but I’d say they were pretty understanding at both ends. The bike seems to have been treated well and so I can ride on.

Getting to the hotel

I’m writing this article in a cozy hotel room, where I can finally change out of three day old travel clothes. The journey from the airport to here was also a bit unfortunate. Since I intend to fly on to Kagoshima in a few days post-jetlag, I’d rather not unpack the bike. So what to do? It would be difficult to take the bicycle on a train or bus. At first I attempted to take advantage of the airport’s short term luggage storage, but each area claims to be full, and there are size/shape limits to what they accept. Staff recommended I take a ‘jumbo taxi’ and, after a struggle trying to locate the taxi bay, I discovered the jumbo taxi is too small to fit the jumbo bike. Without many options, I decided to partially unpack the bike. No pedals, chain or derailleur. I would be pushing it, fully loaded and half-covered in bubble wrap, two miles to the hotel.

Following a cycle path from the airport

Can you cycle from Haneda airport into Tokyo and beyond?

Yes you can. There are cycle paths and pedestrian walkways leading from the international terminal outwards. Pushing a fully-laden touring bike rather than riding it, I’m no longer sure which I am. But at least the weather is nice, and there are some nice, relaxing spots along the Tama River to sit and recover.

The Tama River running alongside the airport

In any case, I’ve now made it and can rest up, ready to repeat the experience all over again for a domestic flight. Fingers crossed it goes as well again…

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A Japan-enthusiast from the UK, with a particular interest in history and the language, as well as cycling, writing and rock climbing.

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