Friday, July 20, 2012

We Go By...Plane

This summer, my (Katie's) family embarked upon an unusual kind of bike trip: one that involved flying with bicycles to our destination! With a friend's wedding scheduled in sunny Southern California, we planned to fly from our home in Portland down to San Diego, attend the wedding, and then utilize public transit and our folding bikes to travel to a campground and relax on the coast for a week.  We spent quite a while preparing for this trip, including a practice camping trip with the Brompton folding bikes, to ensure that our small-wheeled rides would be able to carry all three of us plus camping gear. We made sure that our small stove and fuel bottle were empty and dry to comply with TSA regulations, carefully selected which items to check and which to carry on, and assembled the necessary tools for small bike repairs or flat tire changes.  It was our first time traveling by plane with the Bromptons. Months ago, we'd caught wind online of a cheap plastic bag sold by Ikea that was large enough to fit the bikes all folded up, and had sturdy nylon handles to hoist the bag over your shoulder (we think they are intended for bed comforters?), so we bought two. These bags made the bikes easy to carry, protected, and also slightly disguised as you move through airport check-ins.  In the picture below, Alton and Andy pose proudly (and blurrily, sorry for the poor photo quality) next to the two bike bags after we've passed through TSA security.
"Slightly disguised," you ask?  Well, having never traveled with bicycles before, Andy and I were made anxious by the stories we've heard of airline employees eager to slap you with extra fees. In most cases, airlines will require that bicycles checked as luggage be partially disassembled, boxed, and charged a one-way fee of $50-100 extra.  In order to try to avoid these fees, Brompton owners who carry-on or gate check their folding bikes will not refer to it as a bicycle, and will instead call it "mobility equipment," "exercise gear," "camera cargo carrier," etc. Since Andy and I were checking our large duffel bags, but bringing our bikes on board the plane as carry-on luggage, we did not want to pay bicycle fees on top of checked baggage fees, so we disguised our bikes by placing them in pouffy plastic bags and removing the seats and pedals with a wrench. We practiced our party line a couple of times before entering the airport: if asked, we'd refer to our bags as "sports equipment," and if really pushed, as "bicycle parts," a label that was technically correct since the Brommies were unrideable without saddles and pedals.
Once at the security line, we were momentarily split up, and I found myself alone as I hoisted my bagged bike up onto the conveyer belt to the X-ray machine. "What is that?" asked a TSA agent. "Sports equipment," I robotically answered. "Oh," he said, "I thought it was one of those folding bikes." His undertone hinted at admiration of this type of transport, and I was not so paranoid that I thought he was trying to trap me into admitting that I was packin' a bike (and I know he couldn't charge me a fee, anyway), but I moved on. To the gate and airplane we went, where the bikes fit easily side-by-side in the overhead bin.
To attend our friend's wedding north of San Diego, we rented a car for two days, wisely deciding that cycling around semi-rural roads in the wee hours on a Saturday night post-nuptials would be pretty dicey. But after returning our vehicle to the SD airport, we hopped up on our bikes and rode a few miles to a depot station, where we collapsed our gear as much as possible and purchased our tickets for a commuter train headed north, up the coast.
Once on the train, we shuffled all of our stuff out of the aisle and squeezed in together: one seat for Alton, one for me, one for Andy, and one for all of our stuff! Plus more on the floor.
We disembarked at the end of the line in a town called Oceanside, a coastal city that is the gateway to a very large military base. The military owns much of the immediate surrounding land, including the beach bluffs, so the way for us to continue north to our campground destination was actually to display our civilian driver's license I.D. and ride on the roads through the base itself. We saw very few other vehicles, one or two other cyclists, and an amusing sign that you don't see every day.
We were besieged by headwinds and uphill climbs as we pedaled slowly through the base, making terrible time and causing me to worry that we'd arrive at our campsite after dark, still needing to set up the tent and eat some dinner. Luckily, I'd printed out all of the pertinent bus and train schedules ahead of time, and we happened upon a bus route going in the right direction with a pickup time in only ten minutes. Done! Our friendly bus driver was glad to help us get our bags on board, did not charge us a fare for the ride, and even drove us a little ways past the stop to get us right to the gates of the campground. He saved us a lot of time and what probably would have been a very late night for our arrival and dinner.
We had made it to San Clemente, CA, which is technically Orange County, but an environment more similar to San Diego area, where sandy desert scrub pervades the land almost right up to the ocean--no lush orange groves in sight here!  Our campground was in a dry little gulch, with a dirt bike/hike path going right up and over the surrounding hills and down to the ocean. In the picture below, we are at the highest hill summit on the path looking down into the campground; our tent is the little orange blob right in the middle of the picture.
Once we were at the beach, the trail ended with a few porta-potties and a bike rack, a perfect spot to lock up our bikes and head onto the sand. We always rode our bikes from camp down to the beach, because it was an easy 10-minute pedal with some fun downhill coasting, instead of a 30-minute walk while giving Alton a piggyback ride and carrying beach gear.
At the beginning of the week on our first full day in town, we rode to the only major grocery store, which happened to be on the other side of both the city and some pretty steep hills. After pushing the bikes much of the way there and getting wind-whipped on the downhill on the other side, we found an alternate, less-steep route home that unfortunately had us cranking the pedals as fast as we could to stay out of the way on busy streets with no bike lanes. Here at home, we live in a suburb where the cycling culture is not as prevalent as in nearby Portland, and I often find myself grumbling at drivers passing me too closely on the street, seemingly unwilling to take the time to drive around me with ample space, and I mentally sulk that the Portland cyclists must have it so much better than I do. On our bike vacation in California, however, I put my pouts in check and realized that my hometown drivers are far more courteous and knowledgeable of how to relate to cyclists on the road than the car-happy Californians. It's not that the SoCal drivers were all incredibly aggressive or rude, but most of them seemed to not be paying very much attention to us (we paused at every intersection to ensure that we weren't cut off by someone taking our right of way and turning in front of us), and it appeared that they didn't know what to do with a cyclist that was (following the rules of the road and...) riding in the driving lane. You would have thought we were cheerily clippity-clopping down the street on Clydesdales painted green for all the "huh?!" attitude we got. Well, when in Rome, you do as the Romans do, so we followed the lead of most of the cycling surfer dudes we saw and rode on the sidewalk instead of the street. Most of places we needed to ride, we could hop onto an older thoroughfare street with wide, unused sidewalks, or ride parallel to the freeway on a street with a bike lane.  I have appreciated my local Oregonian drivers much more after this trip!
Despite needing to become accustomed to riding on sidewalks, we really loved being able to get around this unfamiliar city on bikes. We'd take the bikes to the beach on our daily visits, drop in to mini-marts for the occasional snack, enjoy a few meals out, and never, never have trouble finding a parking place in the super-touristy and busy downtown. Not only was this a slow-paced way to explore San Clemente, it gave us a chance to exercise amidst our beach lolling, and saved us money in rental car fees. Midweek during our trip, we perused a local newspaper to find details on where we could celebrate Independence Day and watch fireworks, and were pleased to hear an announcement that our campground was providing decorations for the campers to use in bedecking their bikes, scooters, and strollers, and then join in a parade around the park. We happily scurried over to claim our streamers and American flags, and pedaled slowly in a herd of kiddos while smiling, dinging our bike bells, and singing patriotic songs.
That evening, we headed into downtown for an early dinner before riding back to our nearest beach to watch the fireworks.  Concerned that revelers in the dark might feel emboldened about stealing our sweet little folding bikes off the bike rack, this evening we rolled them right onto the sand with us and propped them on rocks. We pulled on sweatshirts, watched the sunset, and waited for the sky to light up!
After a lazy blur of days sunning at the beach and playing at the campsite, we were ready to move on. The campground would only let us reserve our site for seven days, so for the last two days of our trip we relocated to a campground in San Diego, much closer to the airport when the time would come to fly home. My parents live a few hours away on the Central Coast of California, so they decided to drive down with my brother for a visit. After camping alongside us for a night, we all packed up to prepare for relocation to beautiful Mission Bay, San Diego. My parents offered to take our son Alton south with them by car, to spend extra time with him and to lighten the load that Andy and I would carry on our bikes as we rode to the next destination. So while Alton was taken out to lunch and to the Model Railroad museum in Balboa Park, Andy and I had a breezy, not-too-hot few hours' ride and train trip back down to meet up with them.  Below, we break for map check and water at a state park along the coast: you can see our bikepacking setup, which is a backpacker's pack on the rear rack and tethered to our saddles, and a Brompton-specific touring bag on the front mount.
A nice protected, paved road and beautiful vistas for half of the ride...
...then we passed through this tunnel to turn away from the ocean and inland toward the military base, where we had a very quiet ride and very little traffic passing us once again.
Once at our campground in Mission Bay, we had one more fun evening with grandparents and uncle before they had to leave to head home. The facility had lots of distracting recreations available, however, so we consoled ourselves with playground and pool time. Alton even decided that he'd see if he could ride one of our Bromptons! He can't ride a two-wheeler alone just yet, but had fun balancing on the pedals with the handlebars tipped waaaaay back.
Our final full day of camp was also our wedding anniversary, so we made plans for a decadent dinner out in downtown San Diego that night. We rode our bikes to a nearby bus stop and hopped aboard a city bus to get within a few blocks of the restaurant...and Alton fell asleep on my shoulder! He was out cold and we didn't want to poke the sleeping bear and wind up with a cranky dining companion, so Andy lifted both bikes off the bus and I hoisted Alton onto my hip to step down onto the sidewalk. With a little bit of walking to do to reach the address, Andy secured my folded Brompton onto the back of his unfolded one and rolled the two bikes alongside him while I carried the little guy. Now that's cargo biking!
The next day, we broke camp, packed everything up, went to the airport, checked our duffels, rode to the mall and watched a movie, then returned to the airport for our uneventful trip back home. The bikes fit on the plane again with no problem, and we learned that "we've put them in the overhead bins before" is a door-opener with airline staff. It was a great trip, so much fun seeing these cities from the seat of a bike, and really nice having no schedule and nothing to do but apply sunscreen. We'll definitely bring bikes along for future plane travel. Many thanks to We Go By Bike co-author Fabi and friend & neighbor Marinda for rides to and from the airport, dog-sitting our dog Minerva while we were gone, and watering our plants!

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