So you want to send your Motorcycle to Europe
You’ve obsessed over your motorcycle. Showered her in farkles. You trust her. You could ride any motorcycle for your adventure, but you’d prefer it to be yours.
How the hell do you get it there?
Listen up folks in the northern United States and Canada… well, actually, if you’re this determined, this applies to all y’all folk in the USA. And if you’re in Europe, it works much the same way in reverse to North America.
Air Canada Cargo. The holiest of holy services.
Each year, Air Canada Cargo typically offers their Fly Your Bike program from Spring to Fall. 2019 is no exception. Check out their program page. This is their map from 2018.
How does it work?
This is one hell of a simple process, it can be broken down to:
- Identify a good starting point
- Contact Air Canada Cargo and find a flight sequence that works
- Get your Dangerous Goods Certificate
- Reserve your spot
- Drop your bike off with Air Canada Cargo
- Pick Up, get pitted
I should note: this is all anecdotal and my personal experience. Actual logistics, costs, regulations, etc. could be very different. When in doubt, contact Air Canada.
Identify a good starting point
I begin with this step because sometimes it isn’t obvious where you should “start.” What city seems good to start in? Where do you want to be geographically? For instance, I was hoping to drive through the Balkans and head to Tbilisi, so starting south of the Alps seemed like a good fit. I narrowed it down to Venice or Rome. Identifying a couple of possible starting points for step 2 is a good idea.
Read Air Canada’s program PDF from last year to get an idea of what you need.
Contact Air Canada Cargo
…. By phone. Yes, phone. Don’t waste your time with emails. Call them. Have some dates lined up, an origin airport, and where you want to go. The rep will look into what is possible.
Why have a couple of choices? Some destinations are seasonal, such as Venice. Others, like Zurich and Rome, are well frequented. You want to have a solid itinerary when you go to the next step, which is…
Get Your Dangerous Goods Certificate
You can’t (or at least I couldn’t) reserve your cargo shipment until you have your Dangerous Goods Certificate (DGC). You’ll want to know that your itinerary works before doing this step.
DGC…. sounds difficult, eh? No… no, it’s not. The really intrepid may try to do this part on their own to avoid the ~$132 CAD, but just don’t. I would recommend just sacking up and paying the money for an agency to whip one up for you. It’ll save you endless time with fruitless Google and forum digging, plus it actually works.
Air Canada recommended The Compliance Center to me. If in doubt, ask when speaking to Air Canada.
My experience was smooth and simple: call them up, they email some forms that you fill out electronically, provide payment information, email it back to them, and a few hours later they email you your DGC.
You can pick it up at their office or just simply print them out in color. Heed any advice they give you about the number of prints or how to print them. Be safe, bring more copies than you think you’ll need.
Reserve Your Flight
With your DGC acquired, call up Air Canada Cargo again. This time to reserve your flight. It’s quite simple. There is always a chance your original flights are no longer viable, but that’s unlikely.
Caveat: you can only book 30 days to 2 weeks in advance.
They may ask for an approximate weight of your bike when it flies out. You’ve been obsessing over it. You know how much it weighs… It doesn’t really matter how much it weighs (I think) because the cost is based on where the bike is going. And it doesn’t really matter since you’re on a nice, nimble and light <650cc… right????
In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t need to be non-stop, it just has to travel on widebody aircraft (A330, 767, 787, 777, etc.). My motorcycle would take a happy journey from Vancouver to Toronto and then onward to Rome.
If you fly as a passenger with Air Canada, they give you a bit of a discount on the cargo fee. In my case, it was still significantly cheaper to fly as a passenger one-way with Norwegian, including checked baggage, plus the slightly higher cost with Air Canada Cargo than personally flying with Air Canada and the discounted rate. Your mileage may vary.
Drop off your bike to Air Canada Cargo
Here’s the skinny: this shit is easy. Almost freakishly easy.
This is a play by play of what I experienced.
I arrived at the Air Canada Cargo office at Vancouver International Airport (YVR).
I filled out some paperwork and provided my DGC copies.
They’ll probably have you roll your motorcycle into the cargo facility. Here, they weigh it on a giant scale.
After that, it is inspected. What are they looking for? Well… mainly extra liquids.
You’re allowed to have:
- ~A gallon/4 liters or less of fuel (about ¼ my tank)
- Oil in the motorcycle
- Other fluids, such as brake fluid
What you can’t have
- Extra liquids in sizable amounts. I had a big extra bottle of brake fluid. No bueno.
- Explosives, exotic animals, etc.
You’re also allowed to pack up things that are “essential.” This may vary depending on the people working that day, but for me it included:
- Tank bag
- Tools and tool roll
- A whole bunch of spare parts
- Motorcycle clothes
- Motorcycle boots
I was even able to secure my helmet (with some netting) to my tail rack.
My inspector quickly glanced in my fuel tank (random note: my fuel light kicked on right when I pulled into the parking lot – that was sick). Quickly looked through what was in my bags. Told me I couldn’t bring the brake fluid, and that was it.
After, I paid. My guy printed out all the forms.
We decked the bike in waybills, put a spare key in the ignition, and she was rolled out of sight. My battery remained connected.
No crating. No convoluted bs. They put it on a cookie sheet later, but you aren’t involved.
That’s it. In and out in under one hour.
Pick Up, Get Pitted
Air Canada Cargo will send you emails with updates about your motorcycle’s progress. It’s a bit of reassurance to know that your bike is actually on its way.
Now you have to pick ‘er up. You usually get 24 hours of free storage at the destination.
Huge note: this will probably vary a lot depending on which airport you send your motorcycle to. Some airports, such as Zurich and London, have dedicated Air Canada Cargo facilities and staff. Some, such as Rome, contract these services out to other agencies.
I received an email in Italian from a freight forwarder when my motorcycle arrived. Never heard of them, but I’m glad I received it because it gave me some indication of where to go when it arrived.
Cargo facilities hum along, and if you’re unfamiliar to the process and don’t speak the language, it’ll be an interesting experience.
My process was simple, but a bit convoluted, mostly because I was carrying heavy bags like an idiot.
The tl:dr is:
Arrive at the cargo facility. Scratch your head for a bit to find the entrance. Sign in and hand over passport for a visitor card.
Find the freight forwarder that first emailed me in a very nondescript office in a loooooong, almost eerie corridor. Ask people in broken Italian for help finding it. Wait till they open.
Fill out some paperwork. Pay a much smaller fee than originally quoted. Autostrada here I come.
Go back to the other side of customs to the customs office.
Mess up and go to the wrong window until somebody realizes this American is helpless and brings me to the right place
Sit in an office, fill out some paperwork, get the paperwork back stating I’m good to go.
Cross back over to the other side, go to the cargo dock number they told me to go to. Do not go inside, otherwise the man gesturing me to go inside gets upset. Hand over the papers. Gesture motorcycle, and wait.
And like… 30 seconds later, out rolls your motorcycle. It happened so fast I didn’t even get a ceremonial video or photo, but I was delighted all the same.
Roll the bike out of customs (was not allowed to start her up)
Pass over the paperwork to the customs guys. Go and drop off the visitor badge for the almighty passport. That’s it!
Experiences at different places I’m sure will vary greatly. But people know their systems, so ask if in doubt (or use Google translate and make sure to include some self-deprecating humor).
For those interested in cost, this too will vary depending on where you are shipping from, where you are shipping to, and if you fly as a passenger with Air Canada as well.
Air Canada Cargo
$1,650 CAD YVR to FCO – with USA buying power, that was pretty close to free. For those curious, it would have been $1,400 CAD if I also flew on Air Canada.
Air Canada told me to expect a 150 Euro freight forwarder fee to pay when I picked up my WR250R in Rome. My notes are a bit fuzzy, but I believe I paid less than 50 Euros total.
Under $1,300 USD.
Drop off process at YVR took under 1 hour.
My motorcycle was ready for pickup in Rome the NEXT evening.
Pick up at FCO took about 90 minutes (mostly due to waiting for an office to open).
All told – looking at the ease of use, simplicity at drop-off and pick up, and speed – this was a bargain.
If you arrive the night before you pick up (as I did), try to stay at a hotel near the cargo facility so you can leave your bags behind (at Rome, for example, there was a hotel a stone’s throw from cargo). I schlepped some heavy bags like an idiot in the process, which made it far more awkward and sweaty than it needed to be. Don’t do that.
The Air Canada rep should tell you what you need to bring with you, but just in case, I brought: original copies (yikes!) of my motorcycle registration and title. Having these laminated may not be such a bad idea because they will 100% get trashed. I brought plenty of scans, too. It isn’t a bad idea to include a print out with some common information that might be hard to find on the registration: Your Name, Year, Make & Model, VIN, and plate number – translated into the local language.
Also, and this is obvious: your passport. Have your green card handy (mentioned further down) just in case..
Some customs offices take credit card, some only take cash. Be ready with plenty of both.
Plan for the Unknown
Be ready for some unexpected. I was stoked when my bike was wheeled out. I packed my bags, dressed up, got the tunes ready, aaaaaand my bike wouldn’t start. I had a small parasitic draw during transit and my battery was juuuust low enough I couldn’t start my bike. Talk about a bloody buzz kill. Nobody was willing or able to jump the bike, but I eventually got a couple of Italian ricks to give me a bump start. Bravo!
A Word on Green Cards
In my experience, I was never asked for a Green Card to pick up my motorcycle. But since you need it for much of Europe, I would highly recommend arranging it ahead of time.
I used the services of Lobagola for my green card. They were quick, friendly, sent me a digital scan within a day of purchase and mailed the physical copy to the hotel I would be staying at in Fiumicino. The only time I was asked for mine was crossing into Bulgaria, but don’t skimp on the green card.
Shipping your motorcycle with Air Canada Cargo is absolutely one of the easiest ways to get it to Europe. Shipping by boat (see the Rick’s draw out process in Dakar for a taste) opens up some ports of entry but can be exceptionally time-consuming; it’s generally regarded as a pain in the ass. So simplify things with air cargo.