Make sure your bike is protected if you're planning to fly and ride this summer, says David Prosser

Cyclists looking forward to flying off on a summer holiday over the next couple of months don't have to leave their bikes at home. Most airlines will carry bicycles as normal luggage, as long as they are properly packed, and you may not even have to pay extra to take your trusty steed with you.

What you can't do is simply turn up at the check-in counter wheeling your bike and assume that the airline will carry it. Most carriers expect you to warn them in advance that you're bringing a bike and all have strict rules about the dimensions of the baggage they will accept without special arrangement.

British Airways, for example, is overhauling its rules on luggage limits and allowances next month: the maximum size for checked-in baggage will change to an envelope of 75 x 75 x 240cm.

In practice, that means you'll have to take your bike apart - a typical front wheel will have a diameter of 70cm, for example, so you'll need to remove and pack it.

However, Yannick Read of the CTC, the cycling group, says BA is actually making it very easy for cyclists to take their bikes with them. "With this change, BA will now class bikes as a piece of luggage, within the general allowance of two pieces of luggage and one piece of cabin baggage, without weight penalties," he says.

That means that if your bike and its packaging weigh less than 23kg, BA's baggage limit, you won't have to pay a penny extra to take it with you.

It's not just the established airlines that allow passengers to travel with their bikes - the budget carriers do, too. On easyJet's website, for example, there is a very clear section explaining that passengers can pre-book bike carriage for a £15 charge, as long as it meets the airline's packing requirements - essentially that your bike is properly packed up, with the handlebars and pedals flush to the frame. You will need to book it in advance, though.

Bear in mind that even properly packed bikes can get damaged in transit - luggage handlers may be much less precious about your bike than you. Airlines are aware of this and often take steps to protect themselves against claims from angry cyclists.

The CTC warns members taking bikes on a plane that they may be asked to sign a limited liability waiver, which will exempt the airline from its duties to pay compensation if your baggage gets damaged in transit - not that these duties are particularly onerous in the first place.

One option is try to bypass the most dangerous parts of the luggage handling system. In some cases, you may be able to take luggage such as bikes - in the same way as bulky items such as wheelchairs or musical instruments - straight out to the plane, where it is then loaded directly into the hold. You may also be able to pick it up straight off the plane at the other end - check with airline staff whether this is a possibility.

However, the best way to make sure that your bike is not damaged before you even reach your destination (and to comply with airlines' packing requirements) is to ensure it is properly protected.

One option is to keep the flat cardboard box in which your bike was originally delivered, and use this to transport the machine, though you may need to find a way of adding handles to the package. You will also probably have to take the pedals off and loosen the headset so that the handlebars can be rotated so that they sit parallel with the frame.

Alternatively, most decent bike shops sell bike bags that are custom-designed to help cyclists transport machines on planes, trains, ferries or anywhere else.

"Bike bags are designed to protect bikes. They have separate compartments for wheels and places to keep your tools," explains Evans, the bike shop chain. "Once your bike is in, there is enough room to put your riding kit around the bike, which adds to its protection." Evans tells customers that a bike bag is one area where compromising on price may prove to be a false economy - if the machine turns out not to be sufficiently well protected.

Its range starts at around £40, for which you get a lightweight canvas bag that will be relatively easy to carry but which has no padding to protect your bike from knocks.

If you're planning to hand the bag over to an airline or ferry company, you'll almost certainly want something more durable, in which case the choice is between a soft, padded bag and a hard case.

At the top end of Evans's bag range is the Elite bike travel case, which costs £299.99. It's a hard case that's so durable, even the clumsiest baggage handler will struggle to sabotage your holiday.

The only drawback with this sort of protection is the extra weight: the Elite bag weighs 14kg even before you put the bike in, so there's a danger you'll end up exceeding your airline's baggage allowance.

There's also the issue of moving a heavy bag once you've packed it. Look for a bag that comes with built-in wheels to make transporting it easier.

For cyclists who can't decide between a soft or hard bag, Wiggle, the online sports equipment store, suggests that your destination may be the key.

"Generally speaking, a bike bag is sufficient for airline travel within Europe when you're taking a direct flight," it advises. "If you're flying further afield or if your bags are going to get transferred, a hard case is a safer option.

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