SECTION TWO—Traveling with coupled tandem
All others can skip to Section Three
8. Lose the attitude
At the time of their debut, proponents of S&S couplers talked about “getting even” with airlines who, barely a decade earlier, had initiated a charge for bicycles. Many who invested in this technology felt cheated when airlines started charging for all suitcases. Even now, we sometimes hear from S&S owners who are still angry over this issue. Unless you want to be hassled, overcharged, or turned away, don’t go to the airport with a chip on your shoulder.
9. Suitcase vs. bike case
S&S-brand cases, designed to meet an old and rarely enforced regulation, have never looked like normal suitcases. After 15 years (and thousands of cases) a significant number of airline employees now realize that these distinctively thin and square cases hold a bicycle. When they spot your S&S bicycle case, an “aware” agent may impose a higher “bike fee” instead of the expected “suitcase fee.”
While this may seem unfair (especially when larger cases that are normally proportioned won’t be spotted) agents who assess this fee are usually correct. While a few airlines have recently made a point of waiving bike fees for bikes that fit in a single S&S case, most haven’t. By their rules a bike is a bike. Their employees are expected to collect the bike fee when they spot a bike, even if the case is tiny.
We’ve now received reports from five couples who paid twice the single bike fee to check a tandem packed into two S&S cases. In these instances (different airlines and airports) the check-in agent spotted two bike cases, charged two bike fees, and failed to be dissuaded.
My advice is to not worry. Most agents won’t levy bike fees for a small cases. If you’re asked to pay, remain calm and question it once. Then pay the doubled fee without further fuss. My clear instruction to ”pay instead of complaining” is covered in Section Three.
10. Pack smart.
Although airline agents won’t bother to measure a suitcase (which is explained later), checked luggage is always counted, and usually weighed. Try to keep each suitcase below the 50-pound limit that (since 2003) can trigger an upcharge. If you need to pack a bit more, the 50-70 pound overweight fee is often waived, and may be cheaper than an extra case fee.
Using one of the ATM style check-in kiosks may save you some money. Just type in the correct number of suitcases. When the clerk arrives with the right number of tags, they’re unlikely to comment if your bag is a bit large or heavy.
11. “Should I expect to pay an extra fee when checking a moderately oversized suitcase?
No. But if you pack your tandem into an older SafeCase with removable wheels, you might get dinged with an oversize fee if you forget to remove those wheels BEFORE you lift your case onto the scale (which is explained below).
12. “I’ve heard elsewhere that airlines charge extra for a “non-regulation” case!”
Decades ago someone came up with the arcane 62-inch rule. Most check-in agents don’t even know this rule exists. Unless you show up late or have an attitude, airline employees who know about the 62-inch regulation won’t bother to enforce it.
13. “Shouldn’t I worry about the size of my tandem SafeCase?”
In spite of stern warnings you’ve heard (probably from someone who’d love to sell you a pair of smaller cases), there’s no need to worry. If you don’t believe me, measure your trusty carry-on case and compare those measurements with the published dimensions of a “regulation” under seat bag. Truth is, thousands of oversize suitcases are traveling through airports every day without causing a hassle or triggering an extra charge.
14. “Others have sworn my case will be measured!”
When someone first warned me of the 62-inch rule, I measured the suitcases Jan and I had been checking for years. Our motley collection of gusseted cordura suitcases (purchased at Wal-Mart and Target) all exceeded 62 inches! Not only had our cases never been measured, millions of others were travelling with dimensionally identical luggage. Later, reacting to tip received from the inventor of S&S couplers, we learned that suitcases sold overseas (and at U.S. swap meets) were exactly the same height as an S&S case—but a few inches longer. Once I knew what to look for, I spotted dozens of these taller “third-world” suitcases every time I went through a large airport. In the mid ‘90s Santana found an importer for these cases and included them with the purchase of a coupled tandem. Once we confirmed that these non-regulation cases didn’t cause so much as a raised eyebrow, we designed our SafeCase with these same “flight-tested” dimensions. Jan and I have traveled with “non-regulation” luggage for over 25 years. In the 15 years Jan and I have traveled with a SafeCase (over 100 check-ins) we’ve had an agent measure it exactly three times. One said “close enough,” another winked and the third charged us $80. On average, we’ve paid an extra 80 cents per flight to check a case that exceeds the 62-inch rule.
15. “Since they already weigh suitcases, won’t airlines start measuring them?”
Here’s why that won’t happen. Because they get you to lift your luggage onto their scale, weighing a suitcase is too easy. To measure a suitcase, however, an agent will have to climb off their stool, find a tape measure, wrestle with your case, write down two measurements, wrestle with your case some more, record the remaining measurement, and then manually add three numbers. Instead of being trained to perform this inefficient procedure, agents are instead trained to use visual “cheat marks” on their scale’s backstop and platform. Agents know through training that items which obscure one or more of these visual cues may jam the conveyor belt system that delivers checked baggage to a remote staging area. When a case obscures a cheat mark (which happens if you forget to remove wheels from an older SafeCase), it is essential that the agent set it aside before paging a baggage handler to cart the “oversize” item through the terminal. The “oversize” fee is totally unrelated to the size of an airplane. It is instead a reasonable charge for the special handling required when an item might jam a terminal’s automated luggage system (which could cause a string of late departures). Since a SafeCase was designed to fit through TSA scanners and terminal conveyor systems, it won’t obscure cheat marks or trigger a fee for special handling. By the accepted definition used in airport terminals a SafeCase is NOT oversize. Because a SafeCase won’t jam their system, if they ask “Is it oversize?” an honest reply will be “No.”
16. “Why would airlines publish a 62-inch rule if they won’t enforce it?”
Instead of publishing a complex set of measurements for each peculiar shape (i.e. suitcases, duffels, backpacks, gun cases, strollers, framed art, etc.) the airlines use 62 inches as a universal measurement that serves to notify passengers that larger items may trigger a fee for special handling. As long as the combined dimensions fall within 62 inches, even an item the shape of a cue-stick or an artist's folio cannot jam the airport’s automated conveyor systems. A normally proportioned suitcase would need to be much larger than 62-inches to jam these same systems.
17. Surprise: a “bike” might be cheaper than checking a suitcase—U.S. Example
A welcome trend from Europe is a reversion to sporting equipment rates (and bike fees) that are cheaper than normal suitcase rates. While this is still rare in the U.S., we note that Southwest charges less for a tandem in a huge shipping carton than they do for a third suitcase. When you go to the web to check fees, you’ll need to dig past “luggage regulations” to find the rates for checked “sporting equipment.” My European example in the following section shows how a bike fee can be hundreds of dollars less than hiding your tandem inside one or two suitcases.