Flying with a Brompton in Japan: Why Can’t it Always Be Like This?
We’ve written about flying with Brompton bikes before (we even wrote this guide). There are lots of different ways to take your Brompton on a plane – check it in a suitcase, get a dedicated Brompton soft bag or hard case, make your own bike box, gate check it, or even carry it on as hand baggage and put it in the overhead (only works on big jets). Each method has its benefits and drawbacks.
Bringing the bike as cabin carry-on is our preferred method, but there are risks. An airline rep could decide you shouldn’t do it (we had this problem with Air France), or security has a problem (never happened to us), or they run out of overhead room by the time you board. The other option is obviously to check the bike as baggage. You’ll want to protect your bike from baggage
destroyers handlers, so you’ll want a case – but if you’re bike touring, what do you do with the case when you arrive? Making your own box is a decent solution, but it takes time, and you can’t ride your bike to the airport. The really brave among us may try to just check the bike into baggage “naked” – no case, no cover. Maybe you’ll luck out and the bike won’t be damaged, but more likely than not the airline will want to charge you a couple hundred bucks for a “bike fee” – even though those fees were obviously not implemented with compact folding bikes in mind.
All this leaves one wishing for a different world: a magical place where Bromptons aren’t discriminated against; where you can ride your Brompton to the airport, fold it up, bring it to the airline counter, hand it over, and expect it to be treated with care and respect. WITHOUT any bogus “bike fees”.
What if I told you we’ve been to that world? It’s called…
We’d spent a few weeks in Japan cycling through Shikoku island and elsewhere, but we desperately wanted to see Japan’s sparsely populated northern island, Hokkaido. We could have gone by ferry as we did before, but time was getting tight, so we decided to travel from Tokyo to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, by plane. We’d read online that Japanese airlines are friendly to folding bikes and decided to put this to the test. It also presented an opportunity to try what I was calling a “varsity-level” folding bike touring feat: Ride your Brompton to the airport, check it into baggage, pick it up at your destination, and ride it out.
And so we found ourselves, at 5am on a Sunday, riding our loaded bikes through the empty streets of downtown Tokyo en route to Haneda airport, where we planned to fold up and hand our naked Bromptons over to the mercy of Air DO, one of Japan’s regional airlines.
The streets may have been devoid of cars, but many walks of shame were in progress:
Japan doesn’t do daylight saving time, so it was full light but completely quiet in normally bustling Toyko.
Tokyo’s Narita airport way out in the burbs, but Haneda is not too far from the center. Before long, we were in the right neighborhood.
Haneda’s international terminal is very easy to cycle to – in fact this is where all the airport employees who cycle-commute lock their bikes. But we needed to ride to the domestic terminal, which involved a sketchy stretch of road and tunnel where bikes were technically not allowed. But we made it, folded up the bikes, and plopped them down on the luggage scale with a casual air that we hoped didn’t betray our trepidation, borne of so many experiences with Western bike-unfriendly airlines.
The desk agents, not batting an eye, put baggage stickers and FRAGILE tags on our bikes and checked them in, along with four of our other bags, with no baggage or bike fees (they charge by overall weight, not individually for each piece. Humane, isn’t it?) Emboldened by their confidence, we didn’t even ask how they would be handling the bikes. We figured they knew what to do.
All that was left for us was to board the plane and hope we didn’t make a huge mistake.
As we flew over Tokyo, we wondered how the Bromptons were doing in the cargo hold…
And drank out of typically adorable polar bear cups.
Upon arrival in Sapporo, we headed to baggage claim and awaited the moment of truth, doubting ourselves, and fearing we were about to see a mass of mangled steel and broken spokes riding out on the conveyor belt.
Instead, we saw this:
Our Bromptons rode out in style: Individually wrapped in cellophane, each one in its own dedicated plastic tub.
They had clearly been handled with care.
Success!! All that was left now was to ride around 55km from the airport to our hotel in the center of Sapporo.
Hokkaido struck us right away as quite different from the rest of Japan. Even the light and vegetation weren’t quite the same.
We rode past this mysterious sign, which we later learned was the legacy of William S. Clark, a 19th century American botanist who established the Sapporo Agricultural College, which later became Sapporo University. “Boys, be ambitious!” was his catch phrase of sorts.
The headwind was something awful so the ride took much longer than anticipated. But, fortified by lunch and drinks from a life-saving convenience store, we finally made it to the city of Sapporo. It was time to celebrate with a Hokkaido-only version of the famous local brew:
And to eat amazing ramen:
And to take selfies with bears
And to generally enjoy life, because how can you not, when you have access to CHEESE ICE CREAM!?
Japan, you truly are a land of wonder.