Cars are great for driving, but not always the best way to transport bikes. While car bike racks can be pricey, they are a great way to transport bikes without having to put them inside your car, which definitely helps to keep your car clean inside and saves a lot of space along the way.
There are many different car bike racks available which differ in size, shape, weight capacity, costs, etc., so it is important to do research before purchase so you can find one that suits you best.
Moving to the point, there will be two global decisions you will have to make:
- Choose the right bike rack type since they are not created equal,
- Choose the right bike rack model as there are dozens of them on the market and they can be very different as well.
How to choose the right car bike rack type?
Choosing the right bike rack type is a very important decision-making point. It will play a crucial role in what experience you will eventually get so let’s go through the main things you need to consider:
- What’s your budget. If your budget is $300-$500 or less then trunk racks are the only option you have (read more about how much car bike racks cost),
- Type of bikes you would like to transport. Bike racks are not universal in the sense of which bike types they can carry. It is true that a standard bike will probably fit on most racks, but you still have to keep in mind that, for example, fat-tire bikes or e-bikes can cause some troubles (do all bikes fit on car bike racks?),
- Weight of your bikes. Some bike racks can carry heavy bikes, no problem, though others can not (for example, trunk racks),
- How many bikes you are planning to transport. If you are planning to transport no more than three bikes, then all rack types will be ok. However, four and more bikes can only be accommodated on roof and hitch racks (read more about how many bikes you can put on a bike rack),
- How often you will need to open the trunk (learn more),
- Is it a problem for you to perform some lifting. Lifting up a heavy bike on the roof (or on the trunk) can be a real issue for people with certain medical conditions (is it easy to put a bike on rack?),
- Some bike rack types significantly impact fuel efficiency. All bike rack types will reduce your mileage (5-25%). Nobody will argue that whether it will be 5% or 25% makes a big difference,
- Some bike racks cover a license plate and taillights,
- All bike rack types are fairly easy to install so it won’t be our criterion.
With that being said, let’s go through each bike rack type and see how they perform regarding the above-mentioned points.
Trunk-mount bike racks
Trunk bike racks are getting installed directly on your car. There are normally two arms that will interact with the rear window and the bumper. Moreover, there are usually six straps (sometimes only four) that will be attached to different parts of your car with hooks (or without).
- Much cheaper than other types (Starting from $30 for the cheapest models and up to $300-$400 for premium models),
- Getting installed directly on your car so they do not require a trailer hitch or roof bars (will save you $300-$700),
- Can carry basically all bike types so the size of the wheel won’t be a problem. To carry women’s or kids bikes you will need an adapter,
- You will experience the lowest mileage reduction in comparison with other rack types,
- Noise won’t be a problem when it comes to trunk racks.
- Directly contact your car, as a result, have the highest potential to damage your car (leave scratches, dents, or even destroy the rear window),
- Can carry no more than three bikes,
- The weight per bike is also limited to 30-35 lbs so you won’t be able to carry heavy bikes, for example, e-bikes,
- To open the trunk you will have to take off the bikes which can be quite tedious,
- To put a bike on this bike rack type you would have to lift it up, which might be a problem for people with medical conditions,
- Some models (especially cheaper versions) can wobble so you might not feel secure while driving on a highway,
- Can cover the license plate and the taillights,
- This bike rack is very easy to steal,
Summing up, the main advantage of trunk-mount racks is their price. They are much cheaper than roof and hitch racks.
For whom I would recommend trunk racks:
- If you will be using the rack very occasionally,
- Not for long distances,
- You are on a budget,
then it will be a decent choice. Just don’t go for the cheapest versions and properly install the rack, and you are going to be fine.
For whom I would not recommend trunk racks:
- You just have bought a new car or your car is rather expensive. The chances are high that you will get some scratches no matter how careful you are,
- You are planning to cover long distances. These racks might wobble which can be very annoying,
- You are sure you are going to use it a lot. Then I would highly recommend investing in a more expensive rack (you can buy a used one getting a very good discount).
The main things to consider buying a trunk bike rack:
- Make sure it fits your car’s model (for example, if your car has a spare tire, it might be a problem),
- Make sure it does not cover the license plate and that your taillights remain visible,
- Make sure the wheel of the bike will be at least 18 inches away from the exhaust horizontally and at least 8 inches higher vertically. Otherwise, the bike can be damaged,
- Be aware of load capacity since you can not carry heavy bikes on trunk racks.
Roof bike racks
Roof bike racks are always installed on a roof bar system so you will have to get one (compatible with your roof bike racks). The installation process is not hard and won’t take longer than a few minutes.
- The frame type of your bikes won’t be a problem. Only very long bikes might not fit on,
- You can easily accommodate up to four bikes on the roof (can be possible even up to five bikes),
- This bike rack type does not block trunk access which can be a problem with other rack types,
- You can have a roof box and two bike racks on the roof of your car at the same time,
- Bikes will be properly secured (no wobbling, rattling, etc.),
- Harder to steal as most of them include a lock,
- Does not cover the license plate and the taillights.
- Can be pricey since each bike place will cost you $100-$400. Moreover, you will have to buy a roof bar system (bike racks will be attached to it), which will cost another $200-$800,
- It might be hard to put a bike on a roof rack for some people (especially relatively heavy bikes) or even impossible for people with particular medical conditions,
- Roof bike racks will reduce your mileage in the biggest way (15% less mileage on average, up to 25% less),
- Some roof rack models can be noisy. This problem can be solved with the help of a windshield faring though,
- You must always be aware that your car is now twice higher (for example, while driving in your garage, etc.).
There are two sub-types of the roof bike rack:
It is easier to put a bike on a wheel-mounted roof rack since you don’t have to remove the wheel. However, the fork-mounted roof rack definitely has some advantages: the size of the wheel won’t be a problem since it will be removed anyway, fork-mount racks weigh twice less (10 lbs against 18 lbs which an average wheel-mounted rack weighs).
For whom I would recommend roof bike racks:
- It is not a problem for you to lift up 20-30 lbs,
- You would like to carry a roof box, a kayak, a snowboard, or skies. They all can be carried on the roof (even at the same time), not only your bikes so roof racks are more flexible in this sense.
For whom I would not recommend roof bike racks:
- You should not perform lifting (or your bikes are too heavy) due to your health condition.
The main things to consider buying a roof bike rack:
- Make sure that the roof rack you are about to buy is compatible with the roof bars system. Most of them are universal, but some of them are not (for example, Thule roof racks can be installed only on Thule roof bars in most cases),
- Make sure that the size of the bike (its length) won’t be a problem,
- Make sure that the size of the bike’s wheel (both diameter and width) won’t be a problem,
- Be aware of the load capacity your roof bars system has.
Hitch bike racks
All hitch bike racks are getting attached to a hitch receiver. So in order to install a hitch rack, you will have to install a trailer hitch before.
- The frame of your bikes (for example, women’s bikes) won’t cause any problems,
- Can carry even very heavy bikes, up to 60-70lbs. This rack type is the best choice in this sense,
- You can transport up to four bikes on a platform (tray) hitch rack and up to six bikes on a hanging hitch rack (remember that bikes can be very heavy),
- Basically all hitch racks can be tilted away so that you can easily access the trunk without having to take off the bikes from the rack,
- Hitch bike racks are the easiest ones to put your bikes on. Mot much lifting required. Moreover, some platform rack models come with a lift-assist system,
- You will experience reasonably mild mileage reduction (10-15%) in comparison with roof bike racks,
- Makes it harder to steal since most of them will be locked to your car (come with a pre-equipped lock),
- Hitch bike racks won’t cause any notable noise,
- The bikes will be properly secured on the rack (no annoying wobbling),
- This rack type has the lowest potential to damage your car.
- All hitch bike racks are rather pricey and cost $400-$1000 (for the whole rack that can carry up to six bikes). Moreover, all hitch racks require a trailer hitch to be installed. It will cost you another $300-$750 (including the installation cost),
- Some models can cover the license plate and the taillights (though many models include an additional license frame and taillights),
There are three sub-types of hitch bike rack:
Platform (tray) racks
Vertical hanging racks
Horizontal hanging racks
Platform (tray) racks are the best ones in comparison with hanging racks. They have a much higher load capacity, and the bikes will be much better secured on the rack. However, platform racks can only accommodate no more than four bikes. If you need to carry five or six bikes then a tray rack won’t be an option, and you will have to go for a hanging one.
In my humble opinion, the hitch rack is the best rack type. The main disadvantage it has is its price (starts from $800-$1000 including a trailer hitch). Other than that they are absolutely perfect and check all boxes: the safest, not noisy, low mileage reduction, easy to put bikes on, bikes are secure.
The main things to consider buying a hitch bike rack:
- If your car has a spare tire, make sure that there will be enough space for the rack,
- Make sure that your hitch receiver and the hitch rack are of the same size (both can be either 1-1/4-inch or 2-inch). Even though it can be solved with the help of an adapter, it is always better to have them compatible out of the box,
- Make sure it does not obscure the license plate and the taillights. Some models come with an extra license plate frame and taillights,
- Make sure the wheel of a bike will be at least 18 inches away from the exhaust horizontally and at least 8 inches higher vertically. There are many stories of how bikes (which are quite expensive) were damaged,
- Make sure that the size of the bike (its length) won’t be a problem,
- Make sure that the size of the bike’s wheel (both diameter and width) won’t be a problem.
How to choose the right bike rack model (general tips)?
Once you have decided which bike rack type suits you best, it’s time to carefully choose the right bike rack model. Here are the things you have to keep in mind:
- Make sure it fits your car’s body type,
- Make sure it fits your car’s model. For example, even it fits SUVs in general, it might not fit your SUV if it has a spare tire,
- In case you are about to buy a roof rack or a hitch rack, make sure it is compatible with either your roof bars system or your trailer hitch,
- Make sure it does not obscure the license plate and the taillights. Different models will be positioned differently on your car so some of them will cause such sort of issue whereas others won’t,
- If you have decided to go for rear racks (trunk or hitch), make sure the wheel of a bike will be at least 18 inches away from the exhaust horizontally and at least 8 inches higher vertically,
- Make sure that the rack you would like to buy can carry the weight of your bikes,
- Make sure that the size of your bikes won’t be a problem,
- Keep in mind that not all bike racks are compatible with fat-tire bikes.
Summing up, if you are not on a budget, just go for a platform hitch rack as this is the best bike rack type in my opinion. I guarantee you won’t regret it. Hitch and roof racks are very similar in terms of their price. However, hitch racks are easier to use most of the time.
Trunk-mount racks are also fine, just don’t buy the cheapest models (that cost around $30) as you will be disappointed. A decent trunk rack starts from $100.