Shipping a bicycle from one country to another (or from one region/state to another) is a typical occurrence for any self-supported bicycle traveler. In my 13+ years of self-supported bicycle touring, I have transported my bicycle by either airplane or train on all but one of my long-distance tours. But never, until recently at least, had I sent my bicycle from one country to another through the post.
In this article I will explain why I recently decided to ship my expensive touring bicycle from Poland to South Africa (rather than have it transported with me on my airplane – which is the typical way to ship a bike) and I will share with you the results of this long, strange and complicated transaction. I will even share some tips with you that you can use in the future to help you figure out how to transport your bicycle from one location to another with minimal effort or expense.
The Standard Approach: Taking Your Bicycle On The Plane
The typical approach when flying a bicycle from one country to another is to take the bicycle with you on the airplane.
The rules and regulations for flying with a bicycle vary from airline to airline, but this usually involves bringing the bicycle to the airport with you when you check in for your flight. The bicycle usually has to be boxed up in some type of cardboard bike box or packaged in a professional bicycle carrier. Some airlines don’t require that the bicycle be packaged up in any way (although they may ask that you remove the pedals and turn the handlebars to the side). Other airlines simply ask that the bicycle be wrapped in some type of plastic.
At the airport you will be told that the bicycle either flies for free (which again depends on the airline and the rules that that company has for flying with a bike) or that the bicycle can be shipped with your regular checked luggage for an additional fee.
Once your bike is checked in at the airport, you then board your flight as you normally would and pick up the bicycle again at your destination (sometimes receiving it as part of your normal luggage. Other times it has to be picked up in a special sporting goods or over-sized luggage area).
With the bicycle back in your possession, you walk though customs (explaining that the bicycle is yours and that you have no intention of selling it while you are in the country) and then enter your destination country, where you then pull the bicycle out of its transport box and put it back together.
Why I Decided To Mail My Bicycle Instead Of Taking It With Me On The Airplane
After bicycle touring in Europe for 10 whole months, I decided to travel to South Africa (with my bicycle in tow) for three months of warm-weather cycling in Africa’s southern-most country. Of course, I needed to bring my bicycle with me.
I booked a flight with Lufthansa Airlines (checking the airline’s website before purchasing my ticket to ensure that bicycles were indeed allowed on their flights for an additional fee of $150 USD per direction).
A week before my flight, I did as the Lufthansa website recommended and called the airline to let them know that I would be flying with a bicycle (this is to ensure that they have enough space on the flight for your bike). When I called, the woman informed me that “Yes, it will be $150 USD for the bicycle to fly with me.” She put me on hold and told me she was going to make a note in the system that I would be flying with a bicycle. A few minutes later she came back on the line.
“Darren, we have a problem.”
As it turns out, I was taking three separate flights with Lufthansa to get from my current location in Poznan, Poland to my final Lufthansa destination in Johannesburg, South Africa. My first flight was from Poznan, Poland to Munich, Germany. The second flight took me from Munich to Frankfurt. And my final flight took me from Frankfurt, Germany to Johannesburg, South Africa.
“Flying with your bicycle on the last two flights isn’t a problem,” the woman at the airline told me. “The problem is with your flight from Poznan.”
She went on to explain that my flight from Poznan was on a small airplane that (the computer said) did not have the room for bicycle transport.
“Are you sure you want to travel with your bicycle?” the woman asked me.
I explained that the bicycle was the main reason I was going to South Africa and that the bicycle MUST travel with me.
She went on to explain that as far as she could tell, there was no way the company would let me fly with my bicycle on the airplane.
I was shocked. I had less than a week before my flight to South Africa and now the airline I booked my ticket with was telling me they wouldn’t let me bring my bicycle on the airplane. What was I going to do?
Then I remembered that I have a very special bicycle – a bicycle equipped with S&S couplers.
S&S couplers allow you to split a bicycle in half when it is not in use and transport it in a box that is equal to the maximum dimensions allowed by most airlines as regular checked baggage. I had recently flown from Switzerland to Turkey with my bicycle split apart like this and hadn’t had any problems.
I explained my bicycle’s unique characteristics to the woman at Lufthansa, but she didn’t seem convinced. She continued, “As long as it is a bicycle, we’re still going to charge you $150 USD. And there still may not be room for the bicycle. I suggest you find another way to get your bicycle to South Africa.”
Not knowing what else to do, I thanked the woman for her time and hung up.
“Damn it,” I thought to myself. “I need to find a way to get my bicycle to South Africa… and I need to do it fast!”
My first thought was that I would simply package the bicycle up in the same way I had done on my recent flight to Turkey, taking advantage of my bicycle’s S&S couplers to split the bicycle in half and then cut a cardboard box down to the smallest size possible, so the airline would have no choice but to fly my bicycle as standard checked baggage.
There was only one problem. I would need to find a large cardboard box that I could use to cut up and create the container that my bicycle would be transported in.
I had already collected a free cardboard bike box from one of the local bicycle stores in Poznan, Poland several weeks earlier and my first thought was to cut that box down to size and use it for transporting my bicycle. But I had some fears about doing that.
First of all, I was afraid that transporting my bicycle (in several pieces) inside a fragile cardboard box that had been pieced together with glue and tape and taking it on four separate flights (3 to get to South Africa and 1 more to get me from Johannesburg to Cape Town, South Africa (my final destination)), the box might not survive the trip. If the cardboard box were to break open at any point along the way, I’d surely lose part or all of my very valuable bicycle. My bicycle had arrived safely in Turkey when I transported it this way several months earlier, but just barely – and that was on a non-stop flight without any layovers, connections or transfers. I was fearful that my patched up bicycle box simply wouldn’t survive the four long-distance flights and multiple stops along the way.
My other fear was that I would cut up the bicycle box I already had in my possession, that the patch-worked bike box wouldn’t work out for whatever reason, and then I would no longer have the quality bike box I once had to transport my bicycle in. In other words, I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good bike box without having at least another bike box on hand as a backup – in case my pieced together bike box didn’t pan out.
Therefore, the next step was obvious. I would simply return to the bike shop in Poznan where I got the first bike box and ask for another box to use as a backup.
But when I got to the bike shop and asked for another box, they informed me that they didn’t have any more. I went to three other bicycle shops in the Poznan area and they all told me the same thing. There were no bicycle boxes anywhere in the city! I had the only one. (This was in February (the dead of winter), so the bike shops were not yet in the process of ordering new bikes… and did not have a pile of bike boxes lying around, like they might during the spring, summer and fall).
Now that I knew I had the one and only bike box in Poznan, I really didn’t want to cut up the box. If I decided that shipping the bicycle to South Africa was indeed a better option than taking the bike with me on the plane, I would need that bike box to remain in tact. I couldn’t cut it up!
The next logical step was to find out how much it might cost to actually mail my bicycle from Poznan, Poland to Cape Town, South Africa (the starting location for my self-supported bicycle tour across South Africa). The good news was that the post office was just a two-minute walk away from where I was staying in Poznan. The bad news was that I only knew a few words of Polish and no one at the post office spoke English.
However, I went to the post office prepared. I used Google Translate to write a few short words of Polish on a piece of paper. The paper read:
Can I mail a bicycle to South Africa?
Moge wyslac na rowerze do Afryki Poludniowej?
If so, how much does it cost?
Jesli tak, to ile to kosztuje?
When will it get there?
Kiedy to sie tam dostac?
Without saying a word, I passed the woman behind the counter my prepared piece of paper. She put on her reading glasses and spent a few moments scrolling over the document before calling to a nearby co-worker.
The two postal workers spoke for a moment and then said to me in Polish, “Yes, you can mail your bicycle to South Africa. What city?”
“Cape Town.” I told them, “Postal code 8001.”
The women opened up a large book they had stored under the office’s main desk and turned through several hundred pages before stopping on a page that looked to display the prices and regulations regarding packages sent to South Africa.
After looking through the pages for a moment, the woman asked me (again in Polish), “Does the bicycle weigh less than 20 kilograms?”
Honestly, I had no idea how much my bicycle weighed (especially when I factored in the extra weight of the front and rear racks, water bottles and cages, fenders and the bike box itself). I told the woman “Yes, it weighs less than 20 kilograms.”
She then pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down “680 ZL” – the price for mailing the bicycle. I did a quick conversion in my head. That was about $213 USD – only $43 more than it would cost me to transport the bicycle with me on my flights to Cape Town ($150 USD for the first 3 flights with Lufthansa and $30 more for my one-way flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town with South African Airways).
Finally, I pointed to the third question on my piece of paper and asked again, “When will the bicycle get there?”
She looked at the large book she had just pulled from her desk moments before and told me, “Two to four days.”
I didn’t believe that for a moment, but I thanked the woman and said “Goodbye!”
Back at my apartment I tried to decide what to do. The way I saw it, I had three options.
1. I could show up at the airport on the day of my flight with my bicycle packaged in a cardboard box (ignoring what the woman on the phone at Lufthansa had told me about not being able to fly with my bicycle) and just hope that the people at the airport would be able to figure out a way to get the bike on the plane. If they said the bike couldn’t fly with me, however, I would be in serious trouble.
2. I could cut up the one and only bike box in Poznan, Poland and try and piece together a smaller bike box to transport my bicycle in, as I had done just a few months previously on my flight from Switzerland to Turkey. But I was fearful that the pieced together bike box might not survive four long-distance flights… and if the box fell apart in transport my bicycle tour in South Africa would be totally ruined.
3. My third option was the safest choice (but still terribly risky in its own unique way) and the most expensive – I could mail my bicycle from Poznan, Poland to Cape Town, South Africa and hope that the bicycle would actually show up in time for me to use it.
In the end, I decided to send my bicycle in the post.
I packaged my bicycle up inside the one and only cardboard bike box in all of Poznan and then walked it back over to the nearby post office. The workers behind the counter seemed surprised to see me. I don’t think they believed I was serious about mailing my bicycle to South Africa.
I asked about insuring the bicycle (my bicycle is worth about $5,000 USD retail), but they quickly informed me that I could not insure the bike. If I mailed it with them, there was a chance I might never see it again… and there would be nothing I could do about it later. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I felt it was still the best choice to make.
I handed over the bicycle and it was put on a scale. It was overweight! 21.5 kilograms.
“Oh no!” I thought to myself. “Now what am I going to do?”
I could open the box and try and remove an item or two, but the man at the post office was sympathetic. On the paperwork for my bicycle, he listed the weight of the bike as exactly 20 kilograms.
Thanking the man in my very best Polish, I paid 680 Zloty for the delivery of my bicycle and then crossed my fingers, hoping that I would see my bike again once I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa.
What Happened To My Bicycle After I Mailed It In The Post?
After mailing my bicycle with the Polish Post Office, I boarded my Lufthansa flight just two days later.
Traveling to the airport without my bicycle in tow felt great. It was so much easier to take the bus to the airport carrying just a small backpack and a medium-sized cardboard box containing all my other worldly possessions (clothes, camping gear, toiletries, bike tools, etc).
Checking in at the airport was a breeze as well. I didn’t have to pay any extra fees or explain to the airport officials that I had a bicycle with me. I just checked in like all the other passengers, boarded my flight and quickly made my way to Munich, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, and eventually, Cape Town.
I had arrived in South Africa (which was great), but according to the tracking number I had been given by the Polish Post, my bicycle was still in Poland.
Luckily, I still had time to wait.
You see, I wasn’t planning to begin my self-supported bicycle tour the moment I arrived in Cape Town. Instead, I had signed up for a two-week mountain bike tour with a company called African Bikers. The tour would start just two days after I arrived in South Africa and the company would be providing me with a full-suspension mountain bike to use for the duration of the tour. After that, I planned to return to Cape Town (where my bicycle would hopefully be waiting for me) and I would remain in the city for approximately two weeks before I would begin my self-supported bicycle ride across South Africa.
This meant that I had as many as four weeks for my bicycle to arrive in Cape Town after mailing it from Poznan, Poland. So I wasn’t worried about the bicycle not having left Poland once I arrived in South Africa. I would, however, be worried if the bike had not made it to South Africa by the time my tour with African Bikers was over.
I had the bicycle sent to the African Bikers office in Cape Town, so it was to my delight when on the last day of the guided mountain bike tour I received word from Doreen in the African Bikers office that my bicycle had arrived in Cape Town and that once I got back to the city a few days later I would need to go and pick it up from the customs office in an area of town known as Epping.
I felt relieved knowing that my bicycle had made its way all the way from Poznan, Poland to Cape Town, South Africa. But I was still a little worried now that my bicycle was being held by customs officials and had not been delivered straight to the African Bikers office as I had requested.
I’ve had to deal with customs officials in other countries when sending and receiving packages and I know that interactions with these people can sometimes be a real nightmare.
In some countries you have to pay a customs or import tax for any items you receive in the post. The tax is typically based on a percentage of the total value of the item purchased/delivered. For example: If I bought my bicycle in Poland for $5,000 USD and had it shipped to me in South Africa, the customs officials would ask for the invoice proving that I had paid for the bicycle. They might then charge me a customs/import fee of 17% of the total value of the bike (the percentage will vary from country to country). This would mean that I would have paid $5,000 USD for the bicycle, $213 USD to ship the bicycle from Poland to South Africa and $850 USD more in customs/import taxes. The total cost of getting the bike to South Africa would therefore be in excess of $6,000 USD.
I was sincerely hoping that when I went to pick up my bicycle in customs, there would be no customs/import tax added to the cost of shipping my bicycle to South Africa.
I wasn’t sure where the customs office in Cape Town was located, so I was extremely grateful when Anthony (the driver from the African Bikers mountain bike tour) offered to drive me to the customs office on his day off from work. He picked me up at my hostel in Cape Town and drove me (with his girlfriend, Martha) in his own car to where my bicycle was being held at a large industrial complex on the far side of town.
As I stood in line, waiting for my turn, I knew that the next five minutes would be crucial. I would either get my bicycle back with little or no problems, or I’d be fighting my way out of paying some ridiculously high customs/import fees.
When I was called up to the counter I handed the heavy set woman at the desk my paperwork and she ran into a back room to retrieve my bicycle. A few moments later I could hear her dragging my boxed-up bicycle across the floor of the store room.
With my bicycle box now in view, the woman asked for the bicycle’s invoice.
I told her I didn’t have an invoice, but that I did have the paper showing that I had mailed the bicycle to myself from Poznan, Poland. She went and grabbed a uniformed customs officer and with them together I explained the entire situation. I told them how Lufthansa said I could not fly my bicycle with me on the airplane, so I had shipped it to South Africa instead. I told them I was not going to sell the bicycle, but that I was going to ride it across South Africa for the next two months and then fly it back to Poland with me at the end of my stay. I even had pictures of me riding the bicycle stored on my iPod, just in case they required more proof that the bicycle was mine, but I never needed to show them the pictures.
In the end, I paid 31 Rand (about $3.50 USD) in processing fees, signed a single document, and the bicycle was mine. I nearly jumped for joy!
Anthony helped me carry the bike box out to his car. We unloaded the bicycle there (because the box was too large to fit inside his vehicle), and then we returned to my hostel, where I later put the bicycle back together and prepared it for its two-month long adventure across the country of South Africa.
Summary: Mailing Your Bicycle To A Foreign Country Is An Option
In the end, shipping my bicycle turned out to be a relatively easy approach to transporting it to another country. Mailing the bicycle in the post did cost a little more than simply taking it with me on the airplane, and it certainly took longer to arrive at my final destination (it took about 2.5 weeks to get from Poznan, Poland to Cape Town, South Africa), but it arrived safely and I was able to avoid any extraneous import/customs fees upon delivery of the bike.
This was the first time in my life I have ever mailed a bicycle from one country to another… and if I ever had to do it again, I would certainly feel better doing so now that I have a little experience under my belt. However, I will continue to try and bring the bicycle with me on the airplane on most of my future travels (including my flight back to Poland at the end of my travels here in South Africa).
The one major lesson I learned from this experience is that mailing your bike takes time. If you plan to mail your bicycle (rather than take it with you on the airplane/train), be sure to schedule as many as four weeks or more for the bicycle to arrive. On top of that, you might want to create a back up plan (for either buying or renting another bicycle), just in case your bicycle never arrives.
If you have any questions about flying with your bicycle, sending your bicycle in the post, customs or import fees, etc… leave a comment below. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.