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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Armored Hen House Product Feature

Vacations are fun. Racing is fun. Racing while on vacation is like the peanut butter and chocolate of enjoyment. However, the process of getting ourselves and our valuable bike from point "A" to point "B" is anything but fun. Airlines and the TSA do their level best to subtly remind us (whilst unsuccessfuly feigning interest in our complete satisfaction) that we are all sheep, our belongings are worthless, and we all have large green dollar signs tattooed to our foreheads.

The airlines essentially know they have us by the tight pants and they take full advantage of their position. Insane bike fees and lack of care for our beloved equipment are just two of the ways they demonstrate their compassion. Fortunately, many companies have designed bike cases which will protect our gear from the onslaught of abuse laid out by the baggage handlers and TSA. But they don't protect us from the price gauging that occurs when ticket agents find out we're bringing a bike on board which exceeds the 50 lb weight limit or the 62 linear inch requirement.

Enter Ruster Sports. These folks have perfected a design by professional triathlete TJ Tollakson which meets both the 50 lb weight requirement and the 62 inch linear requirement. It's called the Armored Hen House, and the company asserts that these bags will fly free.


I picked up the Armored version of the Hen House after researching a number of reviews online of different bike bags. Most of them were sturdy, and would work just fine, but I was still concerned about the random and seemingly inconsistent bag fees imposed by carriers, some upwards of $150 each way. I did not want to be surprised or even expect to pay $300 or more than the price of the regular fare. It is worth noting that I do take a slight issue with the claim that "bags fly free", as it is misleading. Nothing flies free anymore. While under most circumstances you will not incur additional bike fees, you will likely have to pay the regular baggage fees if the airline has them - for two bags. Still, a significant savings over the price of shipping a bike.

The Armored Hen House is two bags, one for the bike frame and one for the wheels, which each by themselves will fall under the 62"/50 lb magic numbers. Additionally, you can store a lot of your clothes and toiletries within the nooks and crannies of the case. I found this especially true in the wheel case where a) I had more weight cushion to work with, and b) I needed more padding between the wheels. Each time I have flown with the cases (which has been four thus far), I have been under the limit for a weekend trip.

Meeting the linear size requirement requires a significant amount of disassembly for the bike. In fact the company recommends you be familiar with this aspect before proceeding. I tend to not necessarily look at this as a downside. I feel that it is important for anyone who is traveling with their time trial or road bike to get familiar with their bicycles so as to know how to see if something isn't working quite right. This bag is one sure fire way to force that knowledge. But I will say that it is important to take great care to get proper instruction before hand, and even get your reassembly checked by a professional bike shop once you're at your destination. It can provide great peace of mind on the first trip.

Once disassembled, and packed up based on the instructions provided in the YouTube video, your bike will look a little something like this (I will usually bubblewrap the crankset - not pictured):



Once I had it secured up to this level, my confidence in its security went way up. The combination of the foam insulation, velcro straps, and padded interior gave me a great deal of comfort that the bike would survive unscathed after anything the baggage handlers threw at it (literally). The TSA still had me concerned, however, since I knew they would be opening it up and moving stuff around. But even with that inevitable unpleasantness, I knew that with this construction my bike was safe (save for any maliciousness on the part of the agents).

Packed up, here's the wheel bag:


Now confident that my bags were secure, I was still sweating bullets about the interaction with the check in agents. Would I truly be flying with free bags? My first experience was with Southwest Airlines. I don't like to lie about anything, even if I think I'm being taken advantage of. Thus, when asked, I reluctantly told them it was a bike, but added that it was under 62"/50 lb requirement. The bags went on the conveyor, and I walked away with money still in my account - no charge! Success!

The next two flights, on Southwest and Frontier, had the same result with decreasing levels of anxiety (of course on Frontier I had to pay the regular baggage fees for two checked bags). The fourth trip (Frontier Airlines from Devner to Orange County) I was not so lucky. When they discovered it was a bike, they immediately chose to assess the bike fee. Additionally, they wanted to charge me for a second bag on top of the bike fee (despite the fact that both bags were technically one bike). Fortunately, I was able to confuse them on a technicality, and "only" walked away with the bike fee. Unfortunately, my bike did not get waived this time around despite it meeting the dimensions.

I will say that my experience with Frontier was in no way the fault of the bike bag. It's worth noting that in this case a bike is a bike is a bike. I would have been charged the fee regardless. I had read on the web that Frontier was friendly with bikes, and they "were". What I didn't know was that a few days earlier they instituted a number of changes which essentially reinforced their vision of "sticking it to the customers" in which they essentially impose charges on anything that's not attached to the person (and that's up for debate). Bikes were included in this, regardless of how it's packaged. Moral of the story: Do your research!

With the Hen House, you're not necessarily buying an automatic exclusion from bike fees, you're buying an argument. Unfortunately, only the airline determines if our bags fly free or not, however, the Hen House gives you the advantage of forcing the airlines to find a reason to charge you. In most cases, you will avoid the fee and get away with saving some money. Over time and enough flights, you will pay for this case. Add on top of that that this case is sturdy and secure and you can rest assured that your bike will be safe on the way to its destination. It's an absolutely great case and I would recommend it to anyone.

One more perk of the Hen House is that it will fit very nicely into any size car. I even got it into a Toyota Yaris on one of my trips.

You can expect to find one of these bad boys in the case after you arrive at your destination.

This leads me to some small pieces of advice to make your chances of success at avoiding bike fees more likely.

1. Do the cost benefit analysis. Don't always go for the cheapest fare as they are presented on Kayak or Travelocity. The airlines use this strategy to their advantage, so the winners typically lowball the fare and make it up on fees. Consider the extras you're going to pay for and factor that into the equation.

2. Keep the weight limits in mind when packing your Hen House. Use the wheel bag as much as possible for heavier items as you have more of a weight cushion vs. the bike bag.

3. One of the ticket agents in Denver told me (just as she was shaking me upside down by the ankles trying to catch any additional pennies coming out of my pockets) that the reason I didn't get charged for the bike in Orange County was because the ticketing agents at non-hub airports are outsourced, and don't necessarily know of or care about additional fees. Translation: you're more likely to get away with "free" bags at locations which are not hubs for the airline you're flying. A poor excuse for incompetence, but take it for what it's worth.

4. There's something to be said for creating less hassle when traveling. For my money, even if it's reflected as more in the base fare, I would choose to fly Southwest. Their rules with regard to bikes and bags are very clear and you will not pay for your Hen House to fly on Southwest (given their two free bags rule). Again, even if the base fare is more than the competition, it's all inclusive, and I'll pay a little extra for certainty rather than get nickled and dimed. .

Here is a list some of the bike rates charged currently by carriers (taken directly from their websites, often times buried deeply). I simply listed the domestic fees because all airlines have ridiculous and lengthy rules for different countries and situation, which I'm sure even they don't fully understand. I've also listed what the "worst case" scenario would be for a regular bike case vs. the Hen House (keep in mind that worst case can likely be avoided). Note that there are a few airlines where "theoretically" based on the baggage rules the Hen House would cost more because it is two bags vs. one, but I was able to effectively argue out of the second bag charge.

  • American Airlines:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $35 second
    • Overweight - $100 - $200
    • Bicycle - $150 (unless bag is below 62"/50 lb requirement, then regular fees apply)
      • Round trip with regular case - $300
      • Round trip with Hen House - $120
  • Delta Airlines:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $35 second
    • Bicycle - $150 (regardless of dimensions)
      • Round trip with regular case - $300
      • Round trip with Hen House - $335
  • Frontier Airlines:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $20 first, $30 second
    • Carry On Bags - $20 - $30
    • Overweight - $75
    • Bicycle - $75 (regardless of dimensions)
      • Round trip with regular case - $150
      • Round trip with Hen House - $200
  • Jet Blue:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $0 first, $50 second
    • Overweight - $100
    • Bicycle - $50 (unless bag is below 62"/50 lb requirement, then regular fees apply)
      • Round trip with regular case - $100
      • Round trip with Hen House - $100
  • Southwest Airlines:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $0 first, $0 second
    • Overweight - $75
    • Bicycle - $50 (unless bag is below 62"/50 lb requirement, then regular fees apply)
      • Round trip with regular case - $100
      • Round trip with Hen House - $0 (WINNER!)
  • United Airlines:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $35 second
    • Overweight - $100 - $200
    • Bicycle - $100 (unless bag is below 62"/50 lb requirement, then regular fees apply)
      • Round trip with regular case - $200
      • Round trip with Hen House - $120
  • US Airways:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $35 second
    • Overweight - $100 - $200
    • Bicycle - $150 (unless bag is below 62"/50 lb requirement, then regular fees apply)
      • Round trip with regular case - $300
      • Round trip with Hen House - $120
  • Hawaiian Airlines:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $35 second
    • Overweight - $50 - $200
    • Bicycles - $100 plus any overweight charges (regardless of dimensions)
      • Round trip with regular case - $300 - $600
      • Round trip with Hen House - $270
  • Virgin America:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $25 second
    • Overweight - $50 - $100
    • Bicycles - $50 plus any overweight charges (regardless of dimensions)
      • Round trip with regular case - $200 - $300
      • Round trip with Hen House - $150
  • AirTran:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $35 second
    • Overweight - $75
    • Bicycle - $75 (regardless of dimensions)
      • Round trip with Regular case - $150
      • Round trip with Hen House - $220
  • Alaska Airlines:
    • Regular Baggage Fees - $25 first, $25 second
    • Overweight - $75
    • Bicycles - Overweight fee applies
      • Round trip with regular case - $150
      • Round trip with Hen House - $100