How I Packed My Folding Bike Into a 29-Inch Suitcase

I am a strictly minimalist, carry-on only, buy what you need when you get there type of packer. But recently I got a folding bike, the Downtube Nova. At $259 it’s one of the cheaper folding bikes available, but delivers on the basics and weighs only 24 pounds. I needed a bike in Portland, Oregon but I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying, so trying out a folder I could potentially take with me seemed like the perfect compromise.

The two main disadvantages of the Nova are 1) it’s imported by a one-man company with none of the accessories or customer support of a larger company like Dahon or Tern, so everything’s pretty much DIY, and 2) it’s really annoying to roll folded. The advantages are that it’s cheap, light, and fast. It’s perfect for someone with bike know-how to stash in the trunk of their car for fun riding.

Unfortunately, that’s not me. First I used it for getting to and from Portland’s light rail system, which worked, but was often a pain - because of stairs, or hills, or weather, or having to carry the bike folded. In pretty much every scenario I encountered, a full-sized bike made more sense.

So I decided to take it bike touring in South Korea.

The 4 Rivers Bike Path is a new, beautiful, well-maintained bike trail that runs from Incheon in the northwest to Busan in the southeast. I really wanted to visit Korea and I really wanted to try traveling with a bike, so it seemed like the perfect place to go. The trouble was, how was I going to get my bike on a plane?

Googling led me to, which has a wealth of information about doing just about anything with your folding bike. I learned that the most affordable, flexible way to fly with a folding bike is to pack it into a cardboard box (possibly the one it came in) and pad the hell out of it. The most discreet way to fly with a folding bike is to disassemble it, pad the hell out of it, and pack it into a rolling suitcase that’s just big enough to fit the bike but also small enough to be standard size luggage (thus avoiding extra baggage fees). That means the suitcase has to measure 62 linear inches (height + width + depth) or less and weigh under 50 pounds with the bike in it.

The Delsey Bastille Lite 29-Inch Spinner ($159 on sale) is one of a number of suitcases that meets these specifications. I chose it because it’s hard-sided and yet, at 9.4 pounds, lighter than a lot of soft-sided cases. I was also hopeful that the body dimensions (29 x 20x 13 inches) would give me enough space to fit 20-inch wheels.

Disassembling my bike to fit it into the case was tricky because I’d never done more than change a flat before (and that with help). Fortunately The Reluctant Cyclist made a great video about fitting a Tern Link D8 folding bike into a 31-inch Samsonite Flight suitcase that illustrates how to remove things and get the frame to fit. I was able to fit the Downtube Nova in a little differently, following these steps:

  1. Release the brakes.
  2. Open the rear wheel quick release and remove the rear wheel.
  3. Remove the bolt that attaches the rear derailleur to the frame. Save it in a small bag.
  4. Open the front wheel quick release and remove the front wheel.
  5. Open the seat post quick release and remove the seat post.
  6. Remove the small screw from the front of the handlebar post so that the handlebars can slide out of the post. Save the screw.
  7. Fold the frame and place it in the suitcase with the chainring on the bottom of the frame and placed in the right front corner of the suitcase.
  8. Place the seat in the right back corner and thread the post through the frame.
  9. Put the rear wheel on top of the bike, disc down.
  10. Put the front wheel on top of the rear wheel so that the quick release levers from both wheels go through the spokes of both wheels.
  11. Add a note with instructions for how to put the bike back in the case, in case security needs to remove it. I included photos and laminated it.

Besides the bike, I was also able to fit: the Tern Luggage Truss and Kanga Rack, my helmet, a portable air pump, a repair kit with tire patches and levers, a spare tube, a light towel, an extra sweater, and a pouch of cosmetics.

Unpacking and re-assembling the bike in Seoul went smoothly until I tried to unfold the frame. The hinge clasp had somehow gotten jammed shut and now prevented the two parts of the hinge from connecting. I took it to a bike shop where the owner got out some tools, banged the clasp out, and refused payment. And voila, I had a functional bike again.

Before tackling the 4 Rivers Bike Path I brought the suitcase to Raon Baggage Storage at Hongik University Station. I picked it up when I got back to Seoul and I was ready to pack up the bike and head to the airport.

On the way back to the US the suitcase ended up at a different airport than me because of Delta’s massive shutdown in Atlanta. When it turned up in the middle of the night a couple of days later it was slightly ripped and one corner was dented, but miraculously everything was still inside. There was even a “we looked in here” note from the TSA, which I took to mean “Holy crap there’s a bike in here! You’re awesome!”

I’m not sure I’ll ever do this again, mostly because the Downtube Nova just isn’t ideal for commuting in the crowded cities I tend to live in, but I’m glad I did it once. I had a bike I was familiar with to ride and repair, and I learned a lot more about bikes and bike care than I would have had I rented.

Tips for Taking Via Rail’s The Canadian, Sleeper Plus and Coach

The only cross-Canadian train, Via Rail’s The Canadian, isn’t anything like Amtrak. Yes, it crosses North America, and yes, it’s constantly delayed, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. For one thing, The Canadian is enormous, with 24 cars, and almost entirely one level (apart from the observation cars). For another, the staff is either actually happy to be there, or much better at faking it. They were so communicative and friendly that it was like being in, well, Canada.

The Canadian shares Amtrak’s need to yield to freight, and it’s subject to some outrageous delays. My westbound train was 10 hours late leaving Toronto because eastbound freight delays prevented the actual train from arriving in time to prep and clean it. We gained a little time back on the westbound journey, arriving in Jasper before 10pm: early enough to give me a good night’s rest before a morning bus trip to Banff, but not early enough to give us a 360-degree view of the Rockies from the sleeper-only Panorama Car.

The Canadian Panorama Car by Ying RL

I traveled in Sleeper Plus class in a berth (a bunk bed) from Toronto to Jasper (2-3 nights), and in a seat in Coach or Economy class from Jasper to Vancouver (1 night). Here are some tips for booking and enjoying your trip in either:

If Traveling Off-Peak, Book Late

Via Rail posts their best deals online every Tuesday morning, but they’re only good for the next month or so of travel. If you need to take a train on a specific date, it’s probably best to book early. But if you’re flexible or traveling off-season (fall, winter, or spring), then it’s a good idea to wait and nab one of these. I paid around $700 USD for a lower berth (Toronto-Jasper) in mid-September and I traveled from Jasper to Vancouver in coach for about $100 USD. Via Rail makes a certain number of “Escape” fare tickets available for each train, and they’re cheaper than the regular economy prices.

If Your Train Is Delayed, Ask for a Room

I booked an extra night at the Bed & Breakfast I was staying in and was compensated, but it turns out that Via Rail will put you up somewhere much nicer and closer for the night if you ask.

Expect to Meet Awesome People

Unlike Amtrak’s trans-national trains, the Canadian isn’t a route anyone would take to get from Point A to Point B. Everyone I met, whether at meals, or activities, or in the berth area, was there for the experience. Most of them were retirees, but there were a few younger people also staying in berths, and everyone was an adventurer, traveler, or outdoors enthusiast.

The Activities Help Pass the Time

Most of them involved alcohol (beer tasting, wine tasting, champagne toasts), and the informational sessions about the cities we were passing through left something to be desired, but the live music was something special.

Get Off the Train When Possible

The station stops weren’t long enough for exploration (a couple of them are scheduled to be, but the train makes up lost time by shortening them), but most of them were long enough to take a short walk, use a stationary toilet, and attempt to connect to the station’s wifi (a mainly futile exercise). At Winnipeg and Edmonton getting off the train is encouraged because of equipment changes (the Panorama car is added at Edmonton).

You May See Wildlife, But You May Not

I saw some deer and some livestock, and heard reports of a bear, but otherwise I had to be satisfied with the often incredible scenery. One car attendant said that on the previous train she’d been scared out of her wits by a black bear that crawled out from under the train just as she was opening the door for a stop.

Sleeper Plus

Wait in the Right Place

I had trouble finding out anything about my train when I got to Toronto’s Union Station early in the morning (we were advised to be there by 6am to board). I found a place to line up, but it gradually dawned on me that because I’d booked a sleeper class ticket I was supposed to be able to wait in the business lounge. I finally found it tucked into an alcove near the front doors, and jam-packed with people waiting. They provided a breakfast of pastries, checked us in, and gave us our meal time assignments.

Berths Don’t Have Outlets

Coach seats have outlets, and rooms have outlets, but the berths do not have their own outlets. This was the single most annoying thing about them. I’d read about this problem before booking but I figured I wouldn’t need much power because I wouldn’t have wifi or be glued to my computer screen. But I forgot about how many photos I’d be taking, and that I didn’t have any physical books with me, so all my reading and audiobook-listening would be sucking up power. I picked up an external phone battery that helped a little, but mostly I ended up in the Cafe or Activity car plugged into the one outlet with a seat next to it. It was like the worst spot ever, with no wifi, one low voltage outlet, and multiple loud card-playing games in session, although there was free coffee and shortbread.

Berths in night mode on Via Rail’s The Canadian train by Ying RL

The Lower Berth is Worth It

The upper berth is cheaper and probably just as comfortable for sleeping, but it lacks a window and isn’t a great place to be when the berths haven’t been made into seats yet. The only disadvantage to the lower berth that I could see is that everyone bumps against it while walking through the train at night. That can get noisy, so earplugs are a good idea.

Berths Turned into Seats on Via Rail’s The Canadian, by Ying RL

Booking a Berth Gives you Access to Everything Sleeper

The berth, like the Amtrak roomette, may be the low-budget option, but it gives you access to everything that is glamorous and cruise-like about sleeper class. The food in the dining car was, with few exceptions, fantastic, but the best perk was having full run of the train. You’re free to walk the entire train, whereas Economy class passengers are limited to the front end. The opposite, back end of the train is Prestige class, which has fancier rooms, plus a plusher lounge with bar and Skyline Dome Car (there are 3-4 dome cars total).

Book the Early Meal Sitting

Breakfast is first-come-first-serve, and I was usually there at opening time (6:30am), because of an early bedtime and the time difference. That also made it convenient to eat lunch and dinner early (at 11:30am and 5pm). There were usually snacks available in-between in the Cafe car: fruit, cookies, juice, and tea and coffee. The best thing about eating first is getting first pick of the meals, although after one dinner the staff changed over at a station stop and the later sittings had a whole new staff and menu for their dinner.

Dining Car by Ying RL

The Bathrooms and Showers are Clean, but…

The faucets are incredibly frustrating because you have to hold them on with one hand. The shower faucet stays on by itself, but only for about 30 seconds. The car attendants provide passengers with shower kits that include towels, soap, and shampoo.

Coach / Economy

Bring or Buy a Blanket and Pillow

I didn’t, and I had a freezing, uncomfortable night. The vents periodically blasted us with cold air, in spite of it being pretty cold outside the train. I felt like I was in economy class on the Snowpiercer train. The seats do recline and have sizable foot rests, and I had two seats to myself, but I still found it difficult to sleep.

Bring Breakfast

I went to get a hot breakfast from the service car (rather than the dining car) on my last day on the train and found that there was none. I had to settle for cold banana bread. They seemed to have run out of everything else edible.

by Ying RL

Overall, I’d highly recommend taking the train if you’re planning to visit the Rockies or transverse Canada and can fork over the cash for a Sleeper Plus ticket.

Trip taken September 2015. A huge thank you to my train buddy Ying RL for lending me his trip photos for this post.

Tips for Taking Long-Distance Amtrak Trains, Sleeper and Coach

These days, long-distance American train travel is for dreamers. And by dreamers I mean sentimentalists, luddites, retirees, writers, readers of historical fiction, train buffs, honeymooners, world travelers, last-minute travelers, and people who feel strongly about security theater. You don’t take the train to go somewhere, because flying would be much faster. Buses are cheaper. Driving is more convenient.

If high-speed rail ever actually happens in the US, long-distance trains will be a different story. But at the moment it looks like Amtrak is embracing the nostalgia. They’re offering writing residencies and partnering with Pullman Rail Journeys to bring you fifties-style train trips (minus the racism, I hope). And there is a lingering charm to dining, sleeping, and listening to loudspeaker lectures on Amtrak.

Here are my tips for making the most of your sentimental journey:

Book early to get the best price.

Amtrak recently changed their refund policy, but it’s still much more generous than the heavy change fees the airlines offer. You have to cancel your reservation 24 hours before you’re scheduled to get on the train to get a full refund. And at the same time, the earlier you book, the cheaper tickets tend to be, so it pays to book as soon as you have a rough plan for your trip. If your travel dates are flexible, even better; you can enter a bunch of different dates into their trip planner to see when the cheapest trains are. You should also sign up for Amtrak’s Rewards program and emails, and check out the latest deals on different routes to see if any apply. As with other rewards programs, don’t expect it to pay off unless you travel regularly.

This is car country.

People really like their cars here. Some American cities were even built with car travel in mind. So while you can easily reach any of the cities on your chosen train route, you need to figure out 1) how you’ll get around that city if its public transit system is less than adequate and 2) how you’ll get anywhere else you want to go, like National Parks and other non-city destinations.

Train travel is slow, but not slow enough.

It takes around 4-5 days of actual travel to cross the country. At the same time, it’s not slow enough — you’re still just watching the country go by through the window. To really engage with your surroundings and get out of the big cities you need a car or bike. Or you could walk.

You can get off and on by booking separate tickets.

On my way west I stopped in San Antonio, Austin, and Tucson. I booked separate tickets for each trip, but ordered them all at once on Amtrak’s website. The only potential problem is that once you get off a train, you have to wait for the next train on that route to come through again, which only happens on certain days of the week.

Coach Class

Expect to get a seat assignment.

Either a few minutes before or at boarding time, you’ll show your ticket (yay e-tickets) and receive a small slip of paper with your seat assignment. The assignment will depend on your destination; everyone going to the same place sits in the same car or same part of the car. When I took the Sunset Limited from New Orleans, Louisiana to San Antonio, Texas this was a good thing, because our car was almost empty and we sat by ourselves for the entire ride. When I took the Coast Starlight from San Luis Obispo to Oakland, California, this was a bad thing, because even though seats freed up the conductor kept us all crammed together in one part of the car.

The good news is that long-distance, “Superliner” Amtrak trains have much more legroom than regular, commuter Amtrak trains. It’s still sort of annoying if someone leans their chair back, but not in the crushing, in-your-face way you have to deal with on commuter trains and planes. There are seat-back tables, two outlets under the window, and foot rests. There’s an upstairs and a downstairs, but the downstairs seating is usually reserved for passengers who might have trouble climbing the stairs.


Yes, there are outlets, but…

If you’re not sitting next to the window and your seat partner has no interest in your life whatsoever, it’s pretty awkward to try to reach one. You might want to reserve your battery power or use an external battery.

Bring your own food, but not your own alcohol.

The dining car prices are outrageous for coach passengers (meals are included for sleeper passengers). There’s also a snack store on the lower level of the Observation Car, but it’s good for snacks and drinks, not so much meals. I brought packets of microwavable vegan/vegetarian food like lentil soup and ate them cold. You can’t bring on your own alcohol though; that’s a sleeper class privilege.

Use the Ladies’ Powder Room.

All the bathrooms are downstairs. I like to use the “Ladies’ Powder Room” option, which is straight ahead and features a little actual powder room area plus what is probably the cleanest toilet on the train.

Take a walk to the observation car.

As on all Superliner trains, there’s an observation car and a dining car in-between the coach cars and the sleepers. I liked walking to the observation car to stretch my legs, but otherwise it’s really just a train car with big windows.

Learn something about your surroundings.

Amtrak teams with the National Park service for their Trails & Rails program. I only caught snippets of a couple of guides giving information over the loudspeaker, but it turns out that you can provide your own guides on some routes with their podcasts.

Sleeper Class

A roomette is basically a private bunk bed with a door.

You don’t need to make your bed yourself, although you can by following the directions on the chairs and retrieving your “mattress” from the top bunk. You basically need to push the two facing seats together until they flatten out. But usually your sleeping car attendant will let you know when and how to notify them that you’re ready for the changeover. Same thing goes for undoing the bed.

The room does include the world’s smallest closet, a carpeted shelf, an outlet, light controls, and temperature controls. There’s one bathroom upstairs and more bathrooms, and a shower room, downstairs. Be careful when showering — you are on a moving train.

Your room or roomette is a safe place to leave stuff, but…

It’s still not a good idea to leave stuff, especially valuables, lying around. It’s not like the door locks from the outside (you can lock it at night from the inside). Also, if you’re not there when the sleeping car attendant makes or unmakes your bed, your things might end up flung in unhygienic corners of the room. I found that Tom Bihn’s Travel Tray came in handy for this, since I could just tie up all the small stuff and take it with me.

Yes, you should tip if you get good service.

In the dining car I usually tipped depending on the price of the meal and the service. I tipped the sleeping car attendant depending on how long the ride was, and how the service was.

The dining car food is decent, but it gets old if you’re a vegetarian.

Oh vegetable pasta, how I now loathe thee. A sleeper class ticket includes breakfast, lunch with dessert, and dinner with salad and dessert. I usually ate yogurt or oatmeal with fruit for breakfast (skip the tasteless biscuit/roll), the black bean burger or salad for lunch, and the pasta for dinner. You can’t eat lunch items for dinner or vice versa, and you can’t order off the kids’ menu (unless you are a child, obviously). By my last train trip (from Chicago to DC on the Capitol Limited) I refused to eat in the dining car and instead brought on dinner from The Chicago Diner.

You do usually need a reservation to eat in the dining car. The dining car manager or your sleeping car attendant will ask when you’d like to eat lunch and dinner, and give you a reservation time on a piece of paper. Breakfast starts around 6:30/7, unannounced and without reservations. If the dining car is understaffed and you don’t get first picks of the times you may find yourself eating dinner at 8pm. If you’re boarding the train at night and you get on by 8pm you may make the dinner service.

The dining car has a “community seating” system, as announcements will constantly remind you. It was nice to eat with people, since I was traveling alone, but since I was often seated with couples, or parents busy with their children, I rarely had the best conversations.

Take advantage of the perks.

The sleeper perks start at the station in some cities. For example, both the New Orleans and Chicago stations have exclusive sleeper lounges. I can only speak to Chicago’s, which was replete with helpful staff, nice bathrooms, free drinks, TV, wifi, and comfy couches. We also got to board before everyone else (not that it matters when you have a reserved compartment).

On board, the perks vary. The sleeping car attendants all provide juice and coffee in each car. You can get room service from the dining car if you can’t make it over there. On some routes there’s a daily wine and cheese tasting (these might be going away, actually). But that’s just the standard service. On the Empire Builder, our incredible sleeping car attendant (Gul, who is apparently famous among regular Amtrak travelers) repeatedly gave us mimosas and candy and provided us with complimentary shower kits. The toilets were somehow always clean and even decorated with air fresheners.

On the Coast Starlight, sleeper class passengers get access to an additional car called the Pacific Parlour Car. It’s basically a dining car with a bar and an alternative menu. It also has wifi.

Trip taken Spring 2014.