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Sizing Up Options to Make Sure Your Biggest Packages Can Fly Safely


If you are traveling on a commercial airliner with bulky items this summer, consider the following:

--Bicycles: Among U.S. airlines, United, American, Northwest and USAir all charge $45 to fly a bicycle one way as checked baggage. On Continental and Delta, the fee is $30, according to airline spokespersons. Generally, no charge is imposed on international flights. On Pan Am's and TWA's international flights, you are allowed one bicycle and one suitcase checked free as luggage.

But when check-in clerks are very busy, they often waive the domestic charge rather than handle the extra paperwork, says Bud Reed of Vermont Bicycle Touring.

Some airlines provide boxes and others large plastic bags, but you can't always be sure that the airport from which you are departing will have them available. The advantage of a plastic bag, says Reed, is that you don't have to disassemble your bicycle. The big disadvantage is that the bag provides little or no protection, which is why Reed prefers boxing his bike.

If you opt for an airline box, be prepared to spend up to an hour at the airport disassembling your bicycle and packing it. Typically, says Reed, this means removing the handlebars, pedals, front wheel and rear luggage carrier, and perhaps the seat. A TWA reservations clerk adds a reminder that any bicycle tools should be secured inside the box.

To avoid a last-minute rush, Reed advises picking up a box at a bicycle store. If you ask ahead, most merchants will save a box that a new bicycle was shipped in. Tape the box heavily at both ends because baggage personnel tend to drag the boxes rather than carry them. Some bicycle shops will do the packing for you for a small charge.

On its five-day U.S. trips, Vermont Bicycle Touring charges a rental fee of $89 per bicycle, which is $1 cheaper than the $90 round trip that you would pay if you took your bicycle with you on several airlines. Then again, the rental on Vermont's foreign trips ranges from $139 to $159, and you should be able to get your bicycle abroad for free.

--Camping gear: Most camping gear can be packed in duffel-type bags that are no larger than ordinary luggage, according to Charles Hardy of the Sierra Club's Outing Department in San Francisco. As a result, camping gear--including dried or canned foods that you have boxed--can be checked free as part of your luggage allotment.

If you are shipping a camp stove, all fuel must be drained and the container cleaned and capped tightly. No fuel can be checked, Hardy says, which means you should plan on obtaining it at your destination.

When checking a backpack, Hardy adds, remove all loose items from the outside--such as a strapped-on sleeping bag--and pack them inside the bag or separately. A pack with an internal frame is less liable to damage en route than a pack with an external frame.

--Surfboards and sailboards: Every airline surveyed charges to ship surfboards and sailboards as checked baggage. In each case, the fee quoted was $45 one way for a surfboard under nine feet in length and $75 for a sailboard with mast, boom and sail.

To protect against damage, sailboards should be packed in special bags that have been designed for shipping, according to Wes Ogle of Windsurfing International of Compton, a sailboard manufacturer. A variety of shipping bags is currently on the market.

--Musical instruments: When Washington's National Symphony Orchestra goes on tour, musical instruments are packed in their individual cases and then placed in special trunks for added security, says Kate Haza, assistant to the director of operations. Individual travelers, however, probably can't be so protective of their instruments.

Most musical instruments are small enough to be stored in the overhead compartments in the passenger cabin. But cellos and bass fiddles obviously won't fit. American considers all musical instruments as fragile items and recommends that they not be checked, according to Olson. However, when packed in protective cases they will be accepted as checked baggage. I once checked a flute in a hard case, and when it arrived the case was partially crushed and the flute dented.

For maximum protection, a large instrument should fly in a passenger seat. The fare is usually the same for the instrument and the accompanying musician when both are traveling on an economy-class ticket. The instrument may fly a bit cheaper than the musician in first-class, presumably because it doesn't need a gourmet meal.

One American reservations clerk raised a curious question when I was pursuing this information. A cello occupying a seat flies at an adult fare, he told me. If the accompanying musician happened to be a teen-ager (under 17) headed for music camp, would he or she qualify for a half-price child's fare? A recent promotion allowed children to fly at half-price when traveling with an adult.

Did the cello qualify as the adult? His computer had no answer.

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