Folding Bike Buyers Guide (Sizing, Handling & Travelling)
This is a buyer’s guide designed to educate you about folding bikes (or foldable bikes) so that you can make an informed decision and get the right bike for your needs at a minimum cost. If you are on the search for a bike to travel the world, a folding bicycle might be right up your alley since it is so easily transportable when you are not actually riding it.
First of all, this is unbiased advice from my personal experience with folding bikes. It’s not a list of bikes I want you to buy, but rather an informational piece to help you find what’s most optimal for you before you go out and look at “best-of lists”.
My only goal is to promote bike commuting and bike traveling which I have been a long-time fan of. By helping you find the right bike, I hope you will end up loving biking for a lifetime as I have.
Currently, I own four bikes, one of which is a travel bike. My car and a bike rack are the most frequent mode of transportation, but I am looking into getting another quick-fold travel bike to take on trains and planes which is the reason for this buyer’s guide. It’s the perfect time to write down my experiences as I go through the process myself to help others choose the bike right for them.
For a more general guide on how to decide on the best bicycle for you, check out this article.
What is a folding bike?
There are many names we could use here: folding bike, foldable bike, quick-fold bike, suitcase bike, packable bike, and travel bike. A good place to start in a buyer’s guide like this is stating what separates these bikes from regular bikes.
A folding bike is a bicycle designed to fold into a compact form. Because of its small form factor, the advantages a foldable bike has over a regular bike are transportability and secure storage. These quick-fold bikes generally have 16″ or 20″ wheels to allow the tiny footprint that can even fit in a suitcase for airline travel.
All the bikes I am talking about in this buyer’s guide are ones that can be stored and carried in a space much smaller than a normal bike which is about 2 m (6 feet long) and 1.5 m (4 feet) tall. There are lots of practical use cases where this form factor is invaluable. It might be to fit a bike into a tiny trunk of a hatchback. It might be so that the bike can be taken free on an airline trip. It might be because you want to take it on public transit with you. Or it might simply be because you don’t have room in your tiny apartment to store a full-sized bike and it would get stolen if you left it outside.
Let’s talk about the list of similar-sounding terms above. “Travel bike” is an overall term that applies to all these bikes, but there are two different categories defined by the methods these bikes transform into a smaller, travel-friendly package:
- By folding (foldable bikes)
- By packing (packable bikes)
A foldable bike, a quick-fold bike, and a folding bike are all basically the same thing. They all do basically the same thing: you flip a few levers and in 10-60 seconds the bike is tiny so you can pick it up and put it in your trunk or take it on the train with you.
Foldable bikes have 16″ or 20″ wheels, which give them their distinct look. They also allow an incredibly small form factor when folded. In comparison, current trekking bikes like man have regular 700C or 29er road bike wheels.
What’s the big deal with those small wheels you ask? First off, wheels are the biggest component on any bike, besides the frame itself. So a folding frame wouldn’t be useful with regular-sized wheels. And the second big deal is actually riding small wheels.
Try to ride 20″ wheels over uneven terrain like gravel or rough pavement and you will know. Tiny wheels not only have much higher rolling resistance but also generate less gyroscopic force resulting in twitchy handling. You can do cobblestone roads in Europe (very common) with 700c wheels but with 20″ wheels you have to get off and walk. Don’t even try to ride 16″ wheels on gravel. Any obstacle is much bigger in relation to smaller wheels than to larger ones.
The second type is the packable bike. It tends to look like a normal road bike, with the exception that it has connectors in the frame so you can take the frame apart in two pieces. So far, so similar. But make no mistake, this is not a quick fold bike. It’s a slow take-in-half bike – or something along those lines. Basically, it’s a bike that can be dismantled faster than a regular bike and stored in a small suitcase if needed, but doing so can still take a long time.
Instead of the 10 to 60 seconds that a foldable bike takes, calculate 4 to 6 hours for disassembly and packing. Out of the suitcase, unpacking and assembly take the same amount again.
With those numbers in mind, why on earth would you even consider a bike that required 6 hours and bike mechanic skills to pack or unpack? Glad you asked! As I said, this is a real bike that happens to fit in a suitcase. With a folding bike come advantages (folding time) and disadvantages (handling), so depending on your intended use you might lean either way depending on what is most valuable to you.
Okay, I withheld the third type of travel bike. But it’s not a distinct one, rather a fusion of the first two. I am talking about quick-fold, packable bikes. And it does exactly what you’d expect it to do: You can either quickly fold it in 30 seconds to take it into your office or you can spend 3 hours to make it tinier and pack it into your airline suitcase so that even the rowdiest baggage handlers can’t destroy it.
The best foldable travel bike
Despite the fact that the google search term “best foldable bike” returns hundreds of pages, there is no such thing as the one single best folding bike. The best foldable bike … for which purpose? … for which cyclist?
There is a reason I have four bikes at the moment and it’s because no one bike does everything just as just one motor vehicle does not do everything. Also, there might also be a hint of enthusiasm and love for different disciplines of biking. Next to my enduro MTB, which technically could handle a downhill track, I also own a dedicated downhill mountain bike. Why? Because I like to have purpose-built equipment that is the best for the type of riding I’m going to do. No annoying compromise that’s half-assed in all areas but not great in any one area.
Sometimes a compromise can’t be avoided. Do you want to carry a roof box, a roof tent, or big construction materials with a roof rack – or do you commute 80 miles a day and need to get 55 mpg? You can’t get one vehicle that does both as these expectations are opposite of each other. Roof racks are known to decrease gas mileage.
The more you list, the more expensive the bike. List too many “must-have” features and there will be no bike available to tick all the boxes, even if you had $15,000 at your disposal. Buy the bike you need now, not the one you think you might need later. By the time you actually need that futureproof feature, your bike will be worn out and needs replacement anyway. And by that time you will have gained more experience that will influence your decision. We will talk a lot more about these criteria in a bit but first, let’s talk about the basic step-by-step process of finding the best folding bike for your adventures.
Once you know exactly what you need from a travel bike, Codey over at Cycle Travel Overload can show you what’s out there on the market. He knows his travel bike stuff and got you covered with an extensive list of proven bikes and equipment to help you select one specific setup.
Choosing the right foldable bike for you
Enough background info, I don’t want to make your head spin anymore so let’s talk about how to choose the right bike for you.
First, look at the following list of important bike features and chose the ONE feature that is the most important to you in your bike buying decision.
Then chose your second most important bike feature, that you will use to decide in the case of a tie.
If you extend your list of “must-definitely-haves” anymore, you will never own a foldable bike because you will not be able to afford it, if it exists at all.
Here are the five bike features to choose from:
- My bike must fold quickly. If you take the train to work every day and need the bike for the last miles from the train station to work, or take it with you into the office then it’s clear you need a quick fold bike. No more than 60 seconds. If you don’t plan on folding the bike that often then its not a “must-have” to fold in little time.
- My bike must be inexpensive. It’s generally true, that the more you spend, the better of a bike you can get. A better bike goes faster and is lighter. Just remember that you may need to cross items of your “must” list to get a bike you can afford. Your final setup including additional equipment and acessories may depend on the base bike build. Set a price limit.
- My bike must have high pedal effeciency. By “pedal efficiency” I mean how fast the bike goes with a given pedal effort. No matter how powerful you as a rider are, it’s a matter of how much the bike moves forward for every watt of power you put into it. A cheap, heavy bike will barely go at a jogging pace with strenuous effort whereas an efficient travel bike can hold a steady traveling pace. To help you with this ask yourself: How fast to you need to go? If you are just going from the train station to work, pedal efficiency isn’t going to do you much good on those 2 miles. On the other hand, if your primary purpose of the travel bike is to do long distance bike treks then pedal efficiency is your #1 priority. The biggest factor in pedal efficiency is wheel size, which we will discuss in a bit.
- My bike must be ultra compact folding (to meet airline regulation). By this I mean that the height + width + depth of the bike case is less than 62″ (157cm). If your bike case is bigger than that, you are paying an extra $400 – $600 round trip to take your bike by plane. If you plan on taking your bike on a plane journey with you often, then a bike that does not meet the 62″ rule will quickly rack up airline fees far in excess of the bike’s purchase price. To my knowledge, there are no quick fold bikes that fit in airline-legal suitcases. Note, that although I’m using the term “airline legal” you might choose this as your first criteria even if it never sees the inside of a plane. With airline legal I mean that it folds as compactly as possible. A perfect example of this is if you own a hatchback of sedan with a tiny trunk and no bike rack. Even a quick fold bike with 20″ wheels and only one frame hinge can get crammed in those same trunks. Just like with being airline legal, for a fold bike to fit in a small trunk requires two frame hinges rather than one.
- My bike must be a custom fit. This is not only for the bling, but even mroe so for the correct bike fit and comfort. One of the cool things about custom frames like from Bike Friday (no affiliation) is that they can custom make you any frame geometry you want. The way it works is that you go to your local bike shop that deals with bike friday and either have you measure you for optimal fit or you bring in your favorite bike and they duplicate that. Bike Friday builds you a custom goose neck handbar stem that makes it all work.
Got your number #1 and #2 features? Great! Let’s go in-depth on what to look for in a folding travel bike.
A wheel on any bike is the single largest component. And there are two of them. The size of a bike’s wheel has huge implications not only for its entire form factor but also for handling and efficiency.
A 29″ wheel is the most efficient, but there are no quick fold bikes with wheels this big. This is why a small wheel size is the staple of small footprint travel bikes. With a regular bike, you need to spend around 4-6 hours assembling and disassembling. Without any built-in quick packing mechanisms, this means a complete strip and rebuild of the bike.
Remember what I said at the top: With folding bikes, you can‘t have your cake and eat it too. You can either have a quick fold or you can have a high pedal efficiency, but not both. Those two characteristics are directly opposed to each other because of wheel size. Foldable bikes are the greatest types of bike in some aspects, which comes at the cost of other characteristics.
Other important criteria for pedal efficiency is the tire pressure and the quality of the drive train components. This is a really important point to me personally as I tend to spend a lot of time and energy on my bikes.
Wheel size is everything.
In any case, the first decision you need to make when buying a travel bike is wheel size. You can get either:
- 16″ wheels for transportability
(brand recommendation: Brompton)
- 20″ wheels as compromise between packability and handling
(brand recommendation: Bike Friday)
- or 29″ road bike wheels for pedal efficiency and stability
Wheel size and performance:
As far as performance goes, the bigger the wheel, the better. A bigger wheel will have less rolling resistance and better braking ability. And with a larger circumference, it means more leverage on each individual pedal rotation.
Wheel size and comfort:
The bigger the wheel, the smoother the ride. I have ridden European cobblestone streets with 20″ wheels and can tell you that it’s possible if you must, but it will only make your dentist happy.
The small wheels follow every contour of the cobblestones or any other uneven road surface for that matter which causes the handlebar to go up and down like a jackhammer. A larger wheel smooths out road imperfections by simply having more surface area on the ground at all times. A 16″ wheel over cobblestones would require walking the bike in most cases.
Wheel size and route options:
Here’s a fun fact: When bike touring, despite the fact that the map shows pavement, you will encounter gravel. I use a 29″ tire on my road bike when doing most bike treks and I can tell you that while not as ideal as a mountain bike, they can handle gravel well enough to ride it.
With this setup, I have full flexibility in the routes and detours I take. When bike touring, you are often presented with a choice of a 50 mile stretch of smooth pavement with horrible traffic or a shorter 25 mile stretch of beautiful gravel through woods. With 29″ road tires, I can take on a forest. A 20″ wheel with wide tires can work on gravel for short stretches – as long as it’s not loose. But a 20″ wheel is twitchy and nervous in the best case and will “trench” on loose gravel will. Making walking easier than biking.
The smaller the wheels, the more you need to pay attention to even the smallest obstacles and pick your line constantly. For some more considerations regarding equipment and route planning, here is a list of factors that affect how fast and far you can bike on long days in the saddle.
Wheel size and transportability:
Up until this point, you might wonder why you would consider anything other than a big 29″ road bike wheel. After all, they are more efficient, more comfortable, and allow you to choose all route options.
There’s one thing a big bike can’t do: Folding and packing!
It’s easy to make a 16″ quick-foldable bike that fits into an airline-legal-sized suitcase. To my knowledge, there are no 20″ quick fold bikes that fit into an airline-legal-sized suitcase, but you can disassemble them fairly easy to fit in a case that small with an hour’s work. They’re “packable“.
A full-sized road bike with 29ers like mine technically could be made to fit into a suitcase an airline would take on board, but it requires complete disassembly and rebuilding with hours of work and tools.
There is no one bike that is best for everything.
You need to decide what characteristics are most important to you.
Thoughts on electric folding bikes
On a bike designed to have a small footprint, putting a motor and battery on there is no small feat. With so little real estate available, the mounting locations are even more important than on a regular e-bike. The center of gravity is already so far to the rear because of the small form factor and the short rear end.
I got to test an e-foldable bike once that had one major design flaw you noticed instantly: the heavy battery was located on the rack right on top of the rear wheel. That was enough to make the bike wheelie uncontrollably. Not because of the huge amounts of power the motor produced, but because the weight was so far back by just sitting on it.
Even without motor assistance, cargo distribution is something to keep in mind on any travel bike – and especially so on a smaller framed folding bike.
If electric assist is something important for you to have on a fold bike, make sure the bulk of the weight, especially the battery is in front of the rear wheel.
Batteries may also pose another issue if you ever plan on taking your bike with you on a plane.
Plane travel with a bike
How to actually travel with a small form factor bike may also influence your buying decision if you plan on doing long treks in faraway places. Let’s start with probably the most difficult mode of transportation with any sports equipment: Airlines.
Airlines generally accept bikes in hard-shell cases or padded bags designed for bicycles. In any case, it’s recommended to remove pedals and handlebars as well as add padding on the inside for secure transportation. There are folding bikes that fulfill airline guidance and fit into a regular airline-legal suitcase, making it normal luggage.
There are lots of great quick fold bikes out there and they can be really cheap as well at prices between $300 to $700. You might think that since bikes at that price also “quick fold” it would be a no-brainer to check them in as luggage on an airline. I hate to disappoint, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The first problem is that any old quick fold bike is larger than the maximum size allowed for normal luggage, thus requiring an oversize baggage fee. The second issue is that they are totally unprotected without a bike bag or better yet a suitcase they fit into.
There are three ways you can take bikes on airplanes:
- Extra Luggage (protected): A hard shell bike carrier to put your packable bike in with pedals, handlebars taken and wheels off.
Cost: $150 each way domestic US, $200 each way international.
- Extra Luggage (exposed): A duffle bag or bike bag to fit a packable or folding bike into.
Cost: $150 each way domestic US, $200 each way international.
- Free Luggage (protected): An airline-legal-sized suitcase and a fold bike that can reduce to that size.
Cost: Free or normal baggage charge.
The 62-inch rule
Virtually all airlines use the 62″ rule (157cm). Measure the length, width, and height of the bag and add them up. If its over 62″, pay $300 (domestic) or $400 (international). For any baggage under 62″ you pay nothing or the minimal normal fee.
As you can see there is a big financial incentive here. Most of the folding bikes out there far exceed the 62″ rule by measuring around 70″ to 74″. If you spray and pray you might go under the radar at check-ins sometimes, but the odds are not in your favor because airlines love baggage charges as revenue. They know they got you in a corner – what are your alternative options?
This is why getting a more expensive bike that fits into an airline legal suitcase can end up saving you a ton of hard-earned cash.
Again, there’s a caveat. Not paying for bike fees on a plane is not entirely free. It comes at the cost of time. As I mentioned above, if a bike does not quickly fold to its 62″ form factor in 60 seconds (as 20″ bikes tend to do), it can take 4-6 hours to disassemble and assemble despite much lower times quoted by the manufacturers.
The consideration you need to think about is: Are you willing to spend 8 hours to save $600 per round trip on a plane?
How to find an airline-legal fold bike
You can quickly tell if a quick-fold bike will be airline legal by simply looking at it.
One frame hinge means not airline legal.
Two frame hinges mean it will most likely satisfy an airline’s 62″ requirement.
The reasoning here is simple math:
There is an optimal geometry for bicycles depending on discipline, which is why all road bikes look basically the same overall. With 20″ wheels, it’s the same thing. These bikes are about 60″ long.
So, with just one hinge on the bike frame (most common) when the bike folds in half it will be about 30″ long and you have already lost the battle. There is no way to get the sum of height + width + depth to under 62″.
To beat the 62″ requirement, you have two options: The frame must have two hinges or the wheels need to come off. If the wheels have to come off, it’s not a quick folding but an airline legal bike.
Again, for a headstart on your search for the optimal folding travel bike, reputable brands are Brompton for 16″ and Bike Friday for 20″ wheeled bikes. Both brands have offerings designed to fit this 62″-rule.
Bike protection on a plane
Once you hand your bike over at the check-in, it’s literally and figuratively out of your hands what happens to it. From this point forward you need to trust a row of baggage handlers and conveyor belts with it.
But trusting isn’t the end of it. Of course, there is a lot of preparation and protection you can do when packing it up. This way you can prevent the worst case of them all, damages so bad that your bike can’t be ridden on your bike travel.
If you just shove your foldable bike in a duffle bag and had it over to the airline at the checking counter, what you will find at the luggage carousel at your destination is a bag of very expensive scrap metal. Airlines are not gentle with luggage and if you are going to have a reliable and serviceable bike at the destination it has to be packed very well.
Let’s set the expectations here. There is no way to completely 100% keep your bike, or any luggage for that matter, scratch-free when traveling by plane. Scratched paint happens all the time. Dings in rims are quite common too. If you pack your bike right and anticipate everything that can and will happen, you are fine.
Pay special attention to fragile and exposed components.
For example, if you have disc brakes then the discs must be removed from the wheels or they will get bent. The rear derailer needs to be removed from the frame or it will probably not work when you get there. Everything needs to be cable-tied firmly together so nothing is able to move at all. Your bike with all of the components dangling from it needs to be one firm block. Anything that can move will move and be scratched, dented, or bent.
Airline suitcases for bikes
One surprising thing is that many manufacturers who make folding bikes have discontinued offering their airline check-in suitcases. For example, Dahon used to have the “Airporter” suitcase for their bikes but it is no longer available. Tern, who makes folding bikes, also has a case called the “Airporter” but buyer beware: it is not airline legal because its dimensions total 72″ instead of meeting the 62″ limit. They claim that simply smiling and being nice at check-in has always let them avoid the excess-sized baggage fee. That might be true if you are a frequent flyer on that airline but I can guarantee you that if you have to fly a European-based airline or an Asia-based airline that they will slam you with the full price.
To my knowledge, Brompton does not make an airline checkable suitcase either. Even if you search for a “folding bike suitcase” on Amazon, you are hard-pressed to find one that actually meets the 62″ limit.
Having taken bikes on dozens of flights I can tell you why this is, it’s because of customer complaints. They probably just got tired of people demanding their money back because the suitcases did not protect their bikes. And no wonder. Unless you are meticulous about packing your bike and use cable ties to turn the dozens of loose parts into one solid, immovable block, it will get damaged.
No fancy, hard-shell suitcase is going to protect your bike if it rattles around in there for hours on end.
If you want to take a bike on an airline as regular baggage, this leaves you with just two manufacturers to my knowledge: Bike Friday and Co-Motion. Like any suitcase on a plane, they too will get scratched. They too will get dings and dents. They will be functional though. And so will your bike if packed properly.
The last option is to design your own packing system for a Co-Motion, Dahon, Tern, or Brompton. You would be wise to study carefully the way a Bike Friday is packed and the precautions they take when you design your system. They have this stuff figured out.
Bike rental abroad
You might think this is all too much trouble. Why not just rent a bike when you get there? If you decide to go on an organized group bike tour, the provided bikes are usually good ones.
But best of luck to you when trying to rent one on your own. You’ll need it with plenty of patience. How much of your vacation exactly do you want to waste looking for a quality bike that fits you? Do you really want to have it a requirement that you fly in and out of the same city?
This is the theme throughout this whole buyer’s guide. There is a balance to strike on a scale between multiple options. None of them is necessarily right or wrong. Just more or less optimal for your needs and expectations.
It’s the same cost-benefit analysis again with organizing rental bikes in advance and designing the trip around the freedoms and constraints that come with it. To give you a better idea of the overall types of bike travels there are, let’s dig into adventure travels.
Multi-day bike treks
This is a topic I’m truly enthusiastic about. I love bike touring because think it is the best way to see the world. There’s nothing like it when it comes to experiencing foreign cultures. With reliable offline navigation, you get away from the tour busses and tourists to see the real people and the real country. Whenever you are going solo and bringing your own bike, this raises a very important question: Loop trip or one way?
Are you going to start and end in the same location, or are the arrival and departure in different cities?
It’s often easier to come up with nice routes that are one big loop but are still easy to organize. Even when you bring a lot of bulky stuff with you. All you do is stay in the same hotel on the first and last day of your bike trek and ask them nicely if they will let you store your suitcase, all the packing material, and optional tools necessary for the assembly for free. This works most of the time. If not, store it at a train station for a small fee.
One-way trips let you choose the most scenic routes and let you see a lot more of the country rather than just a loop around a big city. But, a one-way trip is a lot tougher to plan and complete. The extra effort is worth it in my opinion and there are two ways to do it.
The most time-efficient way is to fly into one city and fly out the other. Now here’s the caveat: To be able to do this requires that you carry the suitcase, the bike came in, with you on your bike. There are two clever ways to do this.
The first is the Bike Friday approach: The hard shell suitcase the bike is shipped in becomes a trailer that you tow behind the bike and store all your gear in. There is no free lunch though as this is additional weight you need to pull along. This trailer with its 12″ wheels really slows you down. Worse than that, its width makes it rather stressful to use in many places. If there are even bike paths, they’re often narrow; especially city bike lanes.
The second approach is the one Co-motion offers. They sell two cases for their bikes: a wheeled suitcase and a cloth duffle bag. That duffle bag easily fits in most panniers and on a rack to take with you at as little excess weight as possible. You might want to reinforce it though (with some foam), as it doesn’t offer much protection in transit.
The kind-of-one-way trip:
The second way to do a one-way trip is really a pseudo-one-way trip to get the best of both worlds. It allows you to get a roundtrip airline ticket in and out of the same city so you can store your suitcase in that city. This starts off the same as the first option for the loop route method, except we help ourselves a little to make it a one-way bike trip.
That help comes in the form of a train from the destination at the end of the bike trip back to the starting city. This method requires you to only take with you on the road whatever packaging is necessary to take your bike onto that train.
Again as with the round trip, store the big airline bike suitcase at the airport, train station, or hotel of your first night, if they allow it. Getting back to that location can be tricky as you might suspect. Taking your bike by train in its fully assembled state sounds practical, but can get problematic simply because not all trains allow for bikes to be taken on board. Also, you usually cannot store it near you and it’s subject to damage or, even worse, to prying hands. So I would recommend eliminating all those potential issues by taking a softshell bike bag with you and zipping it up for the train ride. It’s a small price to pay in extra weight to save you a lot of headaches and worry along the way. Back at your starting location, simply put that folded bike and the bike bag into the suitcase.
Carrying Gear & Accessories
When bike touring you will need storage, even if you are going from hotel to hotel. At a minimum, you need clothes to handle both heat and pouring rain as both can happen on the same day. You also need at least 8 hours’ worth of food and water because when you are on the best (=scenic) bike routes, you are often in the middle of nowhere and restaurants or stores are few and far between.
There are three ways to do carry your stuff: backpack, panniers, or trailer.
I suppose it is theoretically possible to get by with a backpack, but I can guarantee you will be miserable. Your back will hate you for it. And you will hate your backpack for holding not enough stuff.
The best option I find is to have a rack and panniers. With this option, you need to choose a bike that is built with bike touring in mind. Look for threaded lugs in the frame (especially rear-end and sometimes forks) that allow you to attach a rack. For my racking-and-packing, I like the old-fashioned Ortlieb roll-up bags (amazon link).
You can try to get by with just two bags on the rear or you can opt for better weight distribution and get front packs too for up to four. Generally two front racks are recommended simply to get the center of gravity further to the front and help with stability on smaller wheels.
No matter how many packs you decide to go with, make sure that all packs get filled up to the brim. If not, this is a sign of excess space (and weight). I tend to go with just two packs, no matter how long the trek. With considerate packing, you can carry everything you really need.
The final option is a trailer. Obviously, this will make your bike twice as long, so it wouldn’t be my first option for a city trip. But on long, self-sufficient bike treks the amount of equipment you can bring with you is unparalleled.
Again, the folks at Bike Friday have thought their bike traveling through with their very clever option of a trailer kit that converts the suitcase, that the bike comes in, into a trailer to tow behind your bike (as mentioned earlier).
That’s it as far as information goes that I can provide you with to help the beginning stages of your bike traveling. If you are left with any questions or want to share your experiences, let me know! Ride on.