Going on holiday and plan to ride bikes while you’re there? Taking off on an epic two-wheeled adventure? You can get bikes in far away places but, often, not a decent helmet, much less leathers or dirt bike armor. Here’s how to fly with motorcycle gear.
This is something that, like other bike journalists, I’d like to feel I’ve gotten quite good at. Press launches, feature trips and other travel require that I do dangerous things on a variety of exotic bikes, a long way from home. So, I need to take heavy duty, specialized gear with me. Whether that’s Ducatis in Tenerife, BMWs in Moab or sidecars in Siberia, it means I’m flying with thousands of dollars of difficult-to-replace stuff that’s also crucial to both my job and survival. Losing it or damaging it could render the trip worthless.
So, here’s some tips and practices I’ve picked up on the road. Hopefully they can help make your trip a little easier, whether you’re going carry-on only or checking it all in.
All this came with me carry-on. Well, not the bike.
Carry-On vs Checking A Bag
Going carry on will save you the baggage fee and ensure that your stuff arrives in the same destination at the same time as you. But, it leaves you very little room to work with.
I’ve made this work before, even with full, head-to-toe gear. Flying to Moab for the BMW F 800 GS Adventure launch last summer, we had a very tight connection in Salt Lake City–which I feared a checked bag wouldn’t make it. Believe it or not, I managed to get dirt bike boots, a Dainese Teren two-piece, armored shorts and vest, a back protector, gloves and even my laptop and a few clean pairs of undies into a carry-on bag. Won’t lie, it was very tight.
This Maxpedition Fliegerduffel works as well as a carry on as it does strapped to a bike.
Pick The Right Carry-On Bag
Don’t try to fudge this one. Carrying larger-than-permissible bag onto a plane is likely to result in you gate-checking it or, at the very least, inconveniencing your fellow travelers.
In an effort to maximize volume, you probably also want to go without wheels and telescoping handles. A plain old soft shoulder bag is going to give you the most volume for space.
I use (and love) a Maxpedition Fliegerduffel. It’s been purpose built to fit in even the tiniest overhead compartments of regional commuter jets and gives you access to its full volume, free of any wheels, widgets or handles. This is the bag I carried to Siberia and the one that hauled all my stuff to Moab. It’s also easy to strap to the back of a bike and converts from shoulder to a surprisingly comfortable backpack thanks to hidden straps. The 1000 Denier Cordura exterior is rugged and water resistant, protecting your gear from negligent handlers and difficult travel conditions. External compression straps are strong and effective. When I don’t want to risk busting a zipper, I just heave down on them to compress the contents before zipping the bag closed. Never once has this been too big for an overhead or turned away at a gate.
To save space, I often wear my motorcycle jacket on the plane.
What To Do With Your Helmet
The single most expensive item of gear you’ll take with you and the one essential you can’t go without. Even flying to Key West to spend a week with a former girlfriend, I brought a helmet along to wear on the rental scooter. Jamming your head into an el cheapo rental helmet full of other people’s sweat just seems like a bad idea.
So how do you get it on a plane? You carry it with you as your personal item. Just throw it in a helmet bag (Bell makes the best ones, they come with any new helmet purchase) and tell anyone who asks that it’s your murse. Airport security apparently isn’t aware that these things make excellent blunt impact weapons; I’ve only been hassled once, in Heathrow, immediately following a terrorist attack in that country. It’s never once raised an eyebrow elsewhere and even makes a great conversation starter if you happen to sit next to a pretty girl...or guy. Just keep in mind that it likely won’t fit under your seat and needs to go in the overhead.
What To Take With You
You’ll want to travel light, but you’ll also want to take everything you need. Particularly if you’re doing anything dangerous like a track day or going off-road, you’ll need head-to-toe equipment.
Take stuff you’re used to and comfortable with and know works. There’s no point in hauling a new one-piece all the way to a foreign trackday only to find that it’s so uncomfortable it limits your riding.
For changing weather and diverse riding, there’s nothing more versatile than a good leather two-piece. That’ll get you on track, across countries and through most weather, with the aid of a few layers. You can also wear the jacket on its own and even make it double as your main travel jacket, wearing it on the plane, out to dinner or walking around town. That’ll then save space in your bag for all this other stuff.
The same approach can apply to the rest of your kit. A nice sweater you can wear to dinner also doubles as a good mid-layer for insulation on the bike. If you’re only planning casual riding (say scooter rental), then your boots can go double duty too.
Pare it down to a minimum, but make sure you also take anything you might need. Check the weather not just in your destination city, but also across any areas through which you might be travelling; it can vary widely.
If you're checking your gear, it doesn't get any better than this Alpinestars Transition bag.
Pack It All In
The full gear shebang can require a large bag and often weighs enough to command an excess baggage fee. You’ll want a large roller bag to make transporting it through airports and train stations easy and, if you’re doing this regularly, you’ll want separate compartments for your boots, helmet and the rest of your gear. Boots get stinky and dirty and you don’t want them fouling the other stuff. Helmets require a little extra protection and go on your head, so you don’t want them getting stinky or dirty. If you are putting a helmet in your checked bag, make sure its in a location where it’s adequately protected; luggage gets beat to hell in airports.
I use a ginormous Alpinestars Transitions that’s more than capable of swallowing even multiple riding outfits. It’s also overbuilt, so it can take the weight and has all those dedicated pockets. If you’re not flying with gear as much as I am, your regular roller bag should work just fine.
Make Sure Your Gear Gets There
Know how they tell you to arrive an hour in advance for domestic and two hours ahead for international? Well, they mean that. Plan on arriving even earlier to ensure you don’t run into any extra problems or long lines; you want to give your bag the best possible chance of making it to its destination.
Remove any extraneous external gew gaws from the bag you’ll checking. Clips and snaps can snag on conveyor belts, potentially ripping or opening your bag or even sending it off-course. You can’t lock zippers anymore, but you can put a zip tie through them to prevent them from opening up. Somewhere on the bag’s outside, affix a clearly legible business card or just write your name, address and phone number on it.
If you're booking a trip with flight connections, pad in a little extra time between them, doing so may add an hour or two to your trip, but tight connections can result in lost luggage.
Two-Wheeled Travel Tips
Take a set of earplugs with you on the plane; they’re a god send if there’s a screaming baby.
If you’re wearing your motorcycle jacket on the plane, first remove the back protector and put it in your bag. Sitting with it for hours on end can get really uncomfortable.
Double check any pockets on anything you’re taking with you on a flight. Tools and such have a habit of sneaking their way into bike gear.
Armor is fine at security, I’ve never even had it commented on.
If possible, don’t pack wet gear back into your bags before it’s dried. Sitting squished up all wet for hours and hours can cause mildew to grow, ruining your kit.
Many airports have free bike parking or just forget to charge for it. If you can ride to the airport and fit all your needs in a backpack, it’s a faster, more convenient way to fly.
What are your two-wheeled travel tips?