Travelling with the bike can be a real hassle, but following some simple basic principles, the bike can survive during the flight. We all know that sometime things can go wrong with the traveler's luggage, bikes don't make an exception. In general, airport workers do pay attention with the bikes (they work in a fishbowl and everyone can see how they are working) .
If you read the statistics just a very small percentage of the bikes are damaged during the flight, and most of the damages are occurring during transfer in the airport, sometimes even before the baggage handlers are touching the bike. Incorrect packaging can damage your bike, external pressure can push components and do great damage to the frame.
- Use foam sleeve to cover your bike
Foam sleeve is very cheap, very light, easy to find in any hardware store.
- Use hard plastic between the bike parts
Something that I have learned on my first flight with the bike, and I learned it on the hard way, use some hard plastic caps between the handle bar and the frame. Same rule apply for the wheels. For example, the EVOC bike travel bag has hard plastic caps between the wheels and the frame assuring the hubs will not push against the frame.
The pressure from outside caused by the other baggage inside the airplane, or by handling, can push the components like the handlebar into the frame. Or even worse, the hubs or the disk brakes can dent your frame.
Some people like to wrap the bike in bubble wrap, but it's heavy and it can't be used many times.
- Use a proper travel bike bag
I see a lot of riders using cardboard boxes when they travel. I think cardboard offers zero protection, and having the bike intact at the end of the flight it's just a matter of pure luck. Also, if the box will stay outside during the airport handling, and it's raining, the box will melt. Good luck with that :)
When I'm travelling I use two boxes, a EVOC bag and a Brand-X Eva Pod, with their advantages and disadvantages.
EVOC bag is very easy to use, easy to move around, wheels are stable, it can be folded, but not 100% convinced it will protect the bike, it's just a soft bag.
The Eva pod, hard to put the bike in, not stable to move around, wheels are not fixed inside (there is an option to use an axle to lock the wheels, but you will damage others bags, or the axle will push into the bike), but the semi rigid case will protect your bike no matter what.
If you can afford a 6k $ bike, buy a proper travel bag.
- Helmet, backpack and small things
All my stuff I need for the trip are in the bike bag. I put the clothes around the frame for protection. The backpack is also used for some protection. Try to put the heavy stuff at the bottom of the case, for some stability. Be sure nothing is moving around and everything is fixed properly. In case the bag's zippers are failing, the content of the bag will not go all over the place.
- Book your bike into the flight
Notify the flight company that you are travelling with your bike. Let them know about it in advance, in many cases you have to pay extra for the bike. Very important, don't forget to specify the size and the weight of the bag. Give them a heads-up, you would like to get your bike at the arrivals in the same time with you. Waiting for a few days to get your bike could ruin for good your trip.
- Be early in the airport
If you are travelling with your bike, the two hours rule doesn't apply to you.
It will take time to move around, to find airport carriages (sometimes you have to pay for it), and after you check in, you will have to take the bike to oversize baggage on the other side of the airport and go again to the check-in and claim your ticket. And yes, and a short visit to the airline company office to pay for the bike.
- Transfer from/to airport
Another thing that I learned on the hard way, if you book a transfer from/to airport, notify the transfer company that you are travelling with big bag.
Book the transfer in advance, calling a taxi two hours prior your flight it's a very bad idea.
Bike bags don't fit well in small cars. Or just ask for a van.
- Be nice with the check-in staff
No matter what is the airport policy regarding bikes, the check-in staff will decide how this policy is applied. Just be nice, no point getting angry with the check-in staff.
Don't fight with them, if they made an error and they overcharged you for the bike call the info-line and you will get a refund later.
- Insurance insurance insurance
Buy insurance for your bike, just in case, you never know. In most cases it will not cover the value of your bike, but anything is better than nothing, right?
I'm flying everywhere with my bike for a few years already, and so far my bike have survived, in part because in some extend the airport baggage handlers do care, in part that I take care when I pack the bikes in the bags.
There are marks of abuse on the bags, they are scratched badly, a small hole in the EVA Pod, but and the end as long the bike is protected, the bike bag did it's job :)
Pack the bike properly, and your trip will be fun.
P.S: don't forget your axles home ;)