Letting your tyres down in the middle of Heathrow may not be the most glamorous way to start a holiday but, says Jane Drinkwater, it's worth it to have your own bike
WE ALL know what a good idea it is in theory to work off our holiday sloth by hiring mountain bikes while on holiday. The problem, in practice, is the standard of bikes on offer. They are usually clapped-out boneshakers that send us straight back to those drinks round the pool.

If you like cycling, one feasible solution is to take your own bike with you - on the plane. With a good set of panniers and tools, a minimalist wardrobe (Ghost frocks for girls are good) and a decent map, it can be a highly liberating experience. If you are heading for a smallish Caribbean island such as Tobago or Barbados you can travel round entire islands over a two-week period with stopovers at different hotels in between. If it is somewhere closer, such as any Mediterranean resort, what better way of working up a robust appetite before tucking into hearty local cuisine?

The first problem is how to get your bicycle to the airport. The answer for most British airports is to ride it there. If you are flying from Gatwick, you could alternatively take your bike as far as Victoria station and catch the Gatwick Express or the Connex train, both of which take bikes free. Heathrow is trickier although one option is to put your bike on a train at Paddington and get off at Hayes and Harlington. The train journey takes around 20 minutes and from there it is a 15-minute ride to the airport. Any trepidation about getting through that busy Heathrow tunnel is unnecessary as there is a separate lane where cyclists get priority.

There is something incongruous about pedalling up to one of the world's busiest airports, knowing that shortly you and your bike will be travelling through the air at 600 mph and later you will be cycling off the plane in a foreign country. It adds to that sense of holiday adventure.

Don't be surprised to find a few raised eyebrows from fellow passengers in the check-in queue as you get your bicycle into flying shape. Most airlines require that you deflate your tyres to prevent them from exploding mid-air, that handlebars have to be turned into the frame and secured, seats have to be lowered, and occasionally pedals have to be removed. Some airlines also insist that the bike is placed in a large plastic bag which they provide. As your bike is wheeled away there is nothing left to do except pray that those baggage-handlers are giving your bike the kid-glove treatment it deserves. Before flying, call the airline for specific bicycle regulations.

Don't expect your bike to be the first thing to come whirling around the carousel at your destination, as it will invariably get hauled out at the end, but not to worry. You will be disappearing over the horizon as your fellow passengers wait around for taxis and tour buses.

It is essential to have a good pump to inflate your tyres, a decent range of bicycle tools, and a couple of spare inner-tubes. On arrival at Tobago airport, my pump failed and so I had to limp to the nearest local garage in a tropical rainstorm, which was not an ideal start to a holiday with a new husband.

Take a good map and plan your route well because it is important to know how many steep hills come between you and your first night's accommodation. On a trip to France I had over-ambitiously planned to cycle 44 miles to a B&B with a fine view of the Vercors mountains. After a good start from Lyons airport criss-crossing sunflower fields I was faced with a steady climb which gave me a dire hunger, but there were no shops or restaurants around. Eventually I had to make do with a rural branch of McDonald's where a cheese royale with fries put me in a better mood.

Plane delays are also a spanner in the works: a delayed arrival in Barbados at Christmas meant that we had to cycle down the lonely east coast in the dark, double-guessing where the potholes where. Almost every car that passed us stopped to ask if we were okay with expressions that said "Are you sane?" It was a good job our bike lights were operational. Neither should you rely on other people's "guesstimates" of how many miles it is from A to B. After being told that it was not very far and not very hilly from one side of Tobago to the other, my husband and I dehydrated rapidly as we found ourselves climbing 600m from sea level in 90-degree temperatures with 90 per cent humidity. Luckily, there were a couple of women selling home-made lemonade and coconut cakes at the top of the mountain who were not the optical illusion we thought they might be.

Minimalist packing is necessary but if you are going somewhere hot then sandals, shorts, T-shirts, sunglasses, and swimming costume are all you need. Keep books to a minimum and if you are cycling with someone share items such as suntan lotion and toothpaste.

Practicalities aside, you can now focus on the huge advantages of having your bicycle with you. You can move around at your own pace, go off the beaten track, stumble on deserted beaches, find out-of-the-way hotels and bars - and get back to the airport for your return journey.