Why the Best Bike Trips Start on a Train

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Travel with your bike on a train. Getty Images

Ever tried to take a bicycle on an airplane? You’re faced with ridiculous fees, annoying disassembly and boxing, and inconsistent interpretation of confusing rules. By comparison, taking your bike on a long distance train ride is like spreading warm butter on a fresh piece of toast, or getting a shoulder massage while drinking a cold pilsner by the pool.

Unlike airports, train stations are in the center of cities. You can roll down to the station, board your train, and enjoy the ride and the view as you read, listen to a podcast, or catch up on work. Arriving at the station by bike helps the whole trip feel more relaxed — the exercise, the chance to unwind from hectic pre-travel preparation, the feeling of mobility and self-sufficiency.

Amtrak has been making a big push to become more bike-friendly in the last couple of years, and has been adding roll-on bike service on some lines. Of course, inconsistently enforced rules, mysterious fees, and material inconveniences can still be found on Amtrak. But once you’ve figured it the bike-on-a-train process, it’s totally manageable. I’ve been taking different bikes on different trains for years. Here’s everything I’ve learned.

Find Out How Your Bike Will Travel

Amtrak’s website is the best resource for finding out how to bring your bike. Unfortunately, information from the 1-800 line or by calling a station is often inaccurate, leading to awkward conversations on board the train with the conductor — whose word is law. Print out the website page with the policy and bring it with you to be safe.

The basics: Regular, two-wheeled mountain, road, touring, and hybrid bikes will need to be boxed and checked on most lines. If you’re on one of the 11 lines with bike hooks, buy a ticket for one as early as possible, they can fill up. Cargo bikes, tandems, and trikes are too big and not allowed. Folding bikes, however, can come aboard as carry-on — as long as they fit the carry-on dimensions. You can get the dimensions here.

How to Box

You have two options for getting your bike in a box. You can use a regular bike box and dismantle it and reassemble your steed at home (or have bike shops on either end do it for you). That’s fine, unless you plan to actually ride the bike to and from the station, in which case it becomes a giant pain.

Your second, easier option is to buy a large bike box from Amtrak at the station. To use these boxes, you only need to remove the pedals and rotate the handlebars. Some stations (shout out to Portland Union Station) have a pedal wrench and a multitool that you can borrow, and they’ll let you use their tape gun to close up the box. Most don’t. The procedure is not complicated, but try it at home to save yourself a panicked moment in the station.

Or, Invest in a Folding Bike

If you’re a frequent train traveler, this will change your life (check out Brompton Bikes). So long as it folds down to under Amtrak’s maximum dimensions for carry-on luggage, you can carry it right on board. Be aware that not all trains will have a spot for it, and on-train staff seem to hate folding bikes and sometimes try to find a reason to not let yours on. You can also use your folding bike as a luggage cart as you get around the station, and fold it up trainside.

Bring Your Bike to the Train, but Not on the Train

One of the best things about long distance train travel is that the stations are right in the city center, and you can ride straight there. If you’re going somewhere like Washington, DC or New York City, you can get a bikeshare bike right at the station, or avail yourself of public transportation. Most train stations have bike staples right out front; a well-locked, not-too-precious bicycle parked for a day or a weekend has as good a chance of still being there to welcome you on your return as it would anywhere else in your city.