A folding bike with a suitcase strapped onto it, leaning against a tree among fallen leaves.

Bungee Cords, Mobility Devices and Pink Tags: Or How I Found Adventure on a Boring Business Trip!

A Brompton bike with a suitcase strapped to it, parked by a park bench.

Our nation’s capital and its sprawling surroundings have a lot to offer. Pedestrianized (read: old) streets, top-tier museums, parks, iconic eating and drinking establishments, architecture and numerous accessible landmarks. Washington, D.C. is an outstanding place to visit.

One caveat: How do you get where you’re going, especially in the middle of the city? Because, from experience, I know that driving there should be a last resort.

Last October I was able to attend a three-day work conference at shiny-but-isolated (car-dependent) National Harbor in Maryland. If you love chain restaurants and copy-pasted New Urbanism, you’ll love National Harbor!

Washington’s WMATA transit system includes a robust (by U.S. standards) network of heavy rail transit lines. In many cases, the lines lead to the places you want to go, provided you’re willing to walk a little to get to your specific destination. But there are exceptions, especially in newly developed and outlying areas, which have contributed to the sprawling and fragmented geography of the Washington metro area. National Harbor is one of these exceptions.

Having had no work travel in years, I was eager to rekindle my love for one of my oldest friends I met in … London?

The Challenge of the ‘Last Mile’ While Traveling

Uber/Lyft-style ride hailing has mostly supplanted the traditional taxi model as the default last mile option for business travel. At this point, it’s all but assumed that you’ll rent a car or take an Uber between airport and hotel. Maybe it was having been cooped up for years, but I started to ask: Why not consider a non-motorized option?

Later, when I submitted invoices to our accountant at work, she asked, “Will you be taking an Uber to the hotel?”

I smirked a little. “Nope, I won’t need one. I’m taking my bike.”

“You’re doing WHAT?”

Oh yeah, I should mention: I’m a folding bike enthusiast and evangelist. Check out Perennial Cycle to learn more! I bought my used Brompton M3L folding bike for cash in a dark street in London back in 2011. It was love at first ride! I also lived in the Washington area for a year, during which I commuted 15 miles daily on my trusty British friend.

A folding bike with a suitcase strapped to it, leaning on a picnic table.
Am I crazy to try this?

Washington’s DCA (Reagan National Airport) is one of my favorite airports. Not because of its namesake or its amenities. Location, location, location.

The Washington metro area has a renowned network of off-street trails and bike infrastructure. As with many places, there are weak points or “gaps” in the system, crumbling and rutted paths overdue for maintenance, and some comically narrow sections where a sidewalk masquerades as a high-traffic trail. However, one gap it doesn’t have? It connects directly to the centrally located Reagan airport.

Airport Security

TSA security was my biggest “question mark” for the trip. A brief search for precedent, especially among Brompton enthusiasts, promised me that not only could I fly with a Brompton bike, but that I could do so for free. Provided some key steps were taken.

First, pack your bike in a bag and never utter the word “bike” unless absolutely necessary. It’s a mobility device from now on. Airlines often add a surcharge for checking bikes as luggage. This, however, assumes a typical bicycle. Folding bikes exist in a gray area in many ways, but the spirit of the surcharge stems from the large, bulky nature of a typical bike.

Second, be ready to remove your bike and potentially unfold it for the TSA agents. Expect to be directed to another/empty security lane once they notice something unusual. Unloaded from its bag, the bike just barely squeezes through some metal detector conveyors, but don’t count on it. Twice, I had to remove the bike in its folded state so it could be run through the metal detector.

Third, as someone who’s flown with small children and strollers, the “pink tag” is your friend. You just gate-check the mobility device (in its carrying bag) and don’t ask unnecessary questions.

A rolling suitcase and a folding-bike bag at an airport gate.
Fun fact: The newer version of this carrying bag removes all “Brompton” logos. Presumably, this was to garner fewer inquiries regarding its contents. I wasn’t hassled about it.

Getting Out of the Airport

Airports don’t make it a priority to cater to bike riders. How many people do you know who would even consider biking to or from an airport?

To its credit, DCA has a section on its website to help guide you and does offer a somewhat useful map of the terminal’s bike trail connections for download.

The parking ramp at Reagan National Airport.
The bikeway access from Reagan parking ramp.

Signage and wayfinding are generally lacking, to no one’s surprise. Unless I missed something, you’re required to lug all your stuff through a very full parking ramp (shown above), after which you can unpack and start your ride.

A sidewalk next to a busy road, with a sign reading "To Mount Vernon Trail."
Here’s your first indication that you’re entering a non-motorized route. At the end of this walkway is a sharp 90-degree right turn into a very creepy tunnel that pops you out onto the other side of this road.
A rolling suitcase and a folding-bike bag on a sidewalk; the bike bag has a pink tag on it.
That little “pink tag” you see on the mobility device bag is the key! Simply ask for a pink tag at your gate to avoid paying to check your item. I never got asked follow-up questions here.

Time to Ride!

Each airport is different. But eventually, you’ll want to find a place near your starting point to get organized and get loaded. Again, expect questions from curious passersby in the process.

A rolling suitcase and a folding-bike bag on a sidewalk; the bike has been removed from the bag but is still folded.
Pull your bike out and get your suitcase strapped on for the journey!

Packing light and compactly is your friend. With large luggage, your transportation options would be significantly reduced.

The unfolded bike has the suitcase strapped onto its front rack with bungee cords.
Ready to ride! I later slung the bike’s carry bag (shown at very front here) over my shoulder to reduce the load on the front rack. Packing for the return was far easier.
The folding bike with a suitcase strapped onto it, leaning against a tree among fallen leaves.
A typical scene along the Mount Vernon Trail, which goes roughly north-south from DC down to … Mount Vernon. Note suitcase strapped onto the provided aluminum frame, which itself mounts to a small block on the front of the bike’s frame. Bungees are great because they absorb bumps without loosening. As it turns out, this trail was badly cracked and overdue for maintenance, so this was critical.
A bike trail with a trail-specific stop sign and a yellow sign that reads "Dismount Before Crossing."
The DCA-Mount Vernon Trail connections are easy to follow — provided you already know where they are!
Note the “Dismount Before Crossing” sign.

The return trip was significantly easier since I knew where to go, where to turn and more importantly, where not to turn!

A screenshot of a Google Map showing the bike route from Reagan National Airport to National Harbor.
The route! Virtually all on off-street trails, as seen on Google Maps.

The actual ride was the easiest part, aside from the navigational challenges. I barely noticed the extra suitcase weight on the bike. Passing through Old Town Alexandria was a joy. It’s filled with low-speed streets with lots to look at. I also got lots of stares there.

View from the paved bike trail, approaching a wooden-plank bridge, with the Potomac River in the background.
A very pleasant — if bumpy — ride!
A view from the bike looking down a long ramp.
Impressive infrastructure like this “on-ramp” is everywhere in and around the capital.

The Arrival!

The shoreline path approaching National Harbor, with the Potomac to the right and a Ferris wheel in the distance.
Approaching National Harbor.
The Capital Bikeshare station at National Harbor.
Capital Bikeshare Station at National Harbor.

One “oopsie” moment and sidebar: There are Capital Bikeshare stations at both DCA and my destination. I might have considered using those instead, but transporting the suitcase might have been complicated. If you’re flying with just a small carry-on, though, taking a bikeshare is worth considering.

The bike, still loaded with the suitcase, leaning against a wall outside the hotel entrance.
Arrival at the porte-cochère of the hotel. I definitely got more looks and bemused comments when packing up. For better or for worse.
The rolling suitcase and the bike bag outside the hotel; the folded-up bike is in the bag now.
I’m now back to covert status.

Conclusions: I’d made it! I’d checked in to my hotel. It worked! So what’s the downside? I can’t find many.

The bike bag was pretty bulky and heavy, but it has wheels. All I had to do now is take the elevator and roll the bike bag into my hotel room’s closet, ready for use at a moment’s notice when my stay was over. That’s it!

The bottom line: You’ll save cash, but mostly I recommend taking your bike if you have a penchant for adventure. Or really like getting attention. Now I just need to drum up more work travel ASAP!

All photos by the author

Scott Berger

About Scott Berger

A suburb-raised, but city-awakened, multi-modal enthusiast proudly based in St. Paul. Year-round cyclist, rider of Bromptons and E-Bikes. Scott is secretly also a car enthusiast and purist who has somehow lived car-free through the Minnesota winter and in rural France. Union Park District Council Board Member.

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