A multi-day bike tour can be a fantastic experience: On a crisp, quiet morning in France, you might find yourself drifting alongside glorious fields of sunflowers. But you must consider the flip side--changing a flat in the rain with a sore behind and chafed thighs--before planning a vacation spent mostly on a bike seat. If you pay $400 or more per day to a high-end operator, you'll never have to worry about getting stuck in the rain, making a wrong turn, or changing a tire. There are also options if that's out of your budget, or if the idea of paying someone to refill your water bottle, adjust your brakes, and plan your every move doesn't seem like much of an adventure. Make the wrong move, though, and you'll need a few days' respite after your "vacation" ends.
DIY and big-group rides
Obviously, a bike tour costs less if you bring your own bike, skip hiring a guide, plan your own route, tote your belongings in saddlebags, and sleep in tents, hostels, or simple hotels. The rewards are unlimited freedom and a drastically reduced vacation tab--even with today's exchange rates, you can get by in Europe on $60 a day. Still, the trade-off that comes with having no one else to rely on, not to mention the exhausting workout your body takes from carrying all the extra gear, scares off everyone but the diehards.
One way to ease the burden of biking with no support is to team up with a few buddies. Rent a van, remove the backseats to make room for bikes, and have each person take a turn driving. Use walkie-talkies when someone gets a flat or becomes tired.
Another option is to join one of the group rides arranged by nonprofit cycling organizations; they're even less expensive than going it alone. The Georgia Bike Fest, a three-day ride in October, costs just $50, while the entrance fee for the Tour de Wyoming, covering 400 miles over a week in July, is $140. The National Bicycle Tour Directors Association's website (nbtda.com) lists dozens of group rides--they're annual events with hundreds of people that include luggage transportation, to get your gear to a new spot each night, and fees for camping in tents or in high school gyms. Meals, showers, mechanical and medical support, and a T-shirt are often included, and there are options to upgrade to nights in B&Bs or motels.
Inns and outfitters team up to offer cyclists packages with lodging and well-researched bike routes and maps, but not necessarily guides. In terms of price and hand holding, these packages are a middle ground between doing it yourself and going with a deluxe tour. The outfitters are often local operations, such as Country Inns Along the Trail in Vermont or Suffolk Cycle Breaks in En-gland. A few operators, including Diverse Directions and Blue Marble Travel, arrange self-guided trips throughout Europe. The tours offer flexibility in terms of lodging, itinerary, and extras such as bike rentals, meals, and baggage transfer. Since you're your own guide, there are plenty of opportunities to be spontaneous. "You might ride by a public pool," says Ed Hayduk, founder of the bike tour search site bicyclingworld.com. "On a self-guided trip you can go for a swim. You might not be able to do that on a tour with a scheduled itinerary."
What doesn't come with a self-guided tour--and this is the deal breaker for many riders--is a support-and-gear (or SAG) van to follow you and help out if you get a flat or a cramp. Most of the packagers give you a number to call when something goes wrong, but having someone come and pick you up may take time and cost extra.
Cycling and pampering
Top dollar buys top service, including a SAG van, five-star hotels, delicious meals, and knowledgeable guides. Tours often include wine tastings and castle visits too. You can expect all of these perks, as well as a fresh slice of lemon in your water bottle and nearly unlimited flexibility, when paying $500 or more per day with Butterfield & Robinson, the crème of the bike tour world. The company's eight-night ride in New Zealand costs $5,000, not including airfare. If B&R is the Ritz of the cycling world, the Hyatts include VBT and Backroads (from $250 per day). The two outfits' tours are plenty plush, though they might not come with as much flexibility, or as many extras. With any bike tour, it's up to you to ask what's included (and what's not).
Biggest little mistakes