Bicycle Tours

Nearly two dozen companies that take you biking to all parts of the world

By , Tuesday, May 10, 2005, 12:00 AM

Franklin Roosevelt did it in his youth, gliding for weeks along the country roads of Switzerland and Germany in the course of an enchanted summer. John F. Kennedy, Jr., did it many years ago, on vacation from prep school. And so have many more from other wealthy, or at least moderately well-off, families.

On the lanes and roads of rural France, on the always-level pavements of cycle-loving Holland, over the softly rolling hills of Vermont, in Oregon, and even in Hawaii, increasing numbers of Americans--of ever-increasing age--are flocking to the group bicycle tour.

But why is this activity is often so expensive--$350 and more a day? Why are bicycle tours more costly, on occasion, than tours by escorted motor coach? After all, it is you and your two legs that provide the transportation, eliminating a costly vehicle.

Or is that the case?

What most of us fail to consider, in scanning the bicycle brochures, is that a vehicle almost always does accompany the group, to carry luggage. Unless you've opted for the most rugged form of tour, carrying nothing but your cycling costume, a van or truck and a paid driver follow the bicycling tour at a discreet distance.

Because that group is usually limited to 20 or so people the cost of the vehicle and driver is also divided among fewer people, than on a 45-seat motor coach trip. Thus bicycle tours, except in a handful of instances (see below), will continue to cost an average of $250/day--a sum that's justified by advantages aplenty: the best sort of exercise in the open air, the closeness to nature and contact with rural people, the scenery, and the relief from urban pressures.

But there are pitfalls. They mainly stem from the ease with which underfinanced or inexperienced people can schedule a bicycle tour. Because so many shaky operators flood the mails each year with ill-conceived programs destined to cause trouble, we've sought to ferret out the firms that have made a substantial, long-term commitment to this travel sport. We'll also warn you about the $350 per day companies, whose prices have no justified basis in reality.

Unless otherwise stated, all tours accept members of any age, provide a supply van, and will rent you a bike (for an extra charge) if you haven't brought your own. We've split our company descriptions into two groups. First up are the bargain operations in "Budget Biking" (and sub-sections--North America, Around the Globe, and Especially for Students), followed by the more deluxe outfits in "Splurge Cycling."

Budget biking in North America
The National Bicycle Tour Directors Association is a network of bike organizations, many of which are non-profit and run by bike enthusiasts, not entrepreneurs looking to make a buck. Consequently, many of the tours are super-cheap, and beloved by diehards and occasional riders alike. The NBDTA Web site (www.nbtda.com) allows users to search for where and when they'' like to ride, and how much they''e are willing to spend. They can pick a specific area of North America, or just plug in a price and time range and see what comes up.

Most tours limit the number of riders, so it is a good idea to reserve early. In most cases, you bring your own camping gear and other supplies, but vans or buses will transport everything but you and your bike for you. Here is a sampling of what we found on a recent search, priced around $400 per person: A six-day, 330-mile tour of Maine, priced at $420; a seven-day cycle called the Legacy Annual Great Bicycle Ride across Utah for $300; a three-day 85-mile ride across North Carolina for only $85.

Look up more bicycle tours at nbtda.com/.

Another inexpensive biking operation is "Bike The Whites" a self-guided bike tour company that specializes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Participants travel inn to inn, choosing their itinerary each morning and traveling solo, or if they desire, with a group of their own choosing. Itineraries are customized to each cyclists needs and desires--they can be tailored to the go-getter who's eager to grind out 50 miles a day, as well as more laid back types interested in seeing waterfalls and lazing by with just 20 miles a day. By emphasizing this self-guided structure, BTW keeps their costs low and passes that savings on to the consumer (they have no group leaders or sag wagon drivers to pay). Tour packages start from $279 in May to $329-$379 from June to September. That price covers a hearty breakfast and three-course dinner each day, your lodgings (at some of the loveliest inns in New Hampshire), customized itineraries and transport of luggage inn to inn. Emergency service is also provided in the event that you or your bike needs first aid. Contact Bike The Whites, 800/447-4345 or Web site: bikethewhites.com/.

An operation similar to Bike the Whites, offered in a similar region of the country, is Country Inns Along the Trail (also known as Inn to Inn), a Vermont-based bike, hike, and ski touring company. Inn to Inn takes care of accommodations at lovely inns and B&B's in the Green Mountain State (with dinner and breakfast usually included), and maps out an itinerary for you. It also provides some limited pickup and drop-off services if inns are spread farther than your legs can carry. Prices vary depending on what kind of accommodations is selected and the time of year, but expect to pay between $135 and $165 per person per night. Inns tend to be family run operations, and meals are usually delicious, many times featuring home-grown vegetables and homemade bread and pastries. For more information, contact Inn to Inn at P.O. Box 59, Montgomery, VT 05470, phone: 800/838-3301 or 802/326-2072, e-mail office@inntoinn.com. Find more details on the Web at http://www.inntoinn.com/. Bike and the Like, a small pedaling outfit run by Suzie and Roger Knable, offers a handful of tours each year along the East Coast. Rides feature accommodations in inns and inexpensive hotels and motels, and usually average well around $70/day. Suzie and Roger test out each route before offering it to clients, and come up with interesting itineraries (usually away from busy roads) in places such as Cape Cod, Cape May, and Lancaster, PA. Bike and the Like's Cape Cod trip, usually offered in early June, is one of its most popular. The trip costs $740 per person with two people sharing a room, and that price includes seven nights' lodging, all your breakfasts and five dinners, luggage transport (so you don't have to pedal with all your gear and clothes), and, of course, guides to lead you around the Cape. Accommodations for this inexpensive adventure are hostels and simple hotels and motels. On most days you'll bike between 30 and 40 miles, but the scenery is lovely and roads are reasonably flat. Ferry rides to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket are included in the package price. Another popular trip is a three-day, two-night tour that usually takes place in mid-April, priced from $220/person in past years. Two breakfasts, a welcome party on Friday night, and a Saturday night dinner are included. The riding is nearly perfectly flat too. If big groups scare you off, take into account that weekend Bike and the Like trips tend to be a bit larger (40 to 60) than typical weeklong tours (around 40). Check in with the Bike and the Like Web site, http://www.bikeandthelike.com/, or call 410/960-6572 or toll-free 877/776-6572 to get the inside scoop. Tour Baja is a California-based outdoor adventure tour company that offers biking, hiking, sailing, and kayaking trips in the famous peninsula south of the Mexico-California border. Owner Trudi Angell has lived in the laid-back Baja region since the mid-1970s, and started offering kayak tours of coastline in the early 1980s. Now there are a variety of tours to choose from: kayaking, bicycling, horseback riding, hiking, sailing, and whale-watching cruises. Most of the guides are transplants like Trudi or natives to the region, all of who know the area and culture very well. Prices are usually decent, $995 for seven- to nine-day trips. A nine-day mountain bike tour, with accommodations in simple hotels and no meals, was priced from just $995 in 2005. In some instances, bike tours can be combined with kayak trips or whale-watching cruises for an additional cost. For bicycle trips in the Baja, contact Pedaling South (Tour Baja's bicycle division), P.O. Box 827, Calistoga, CA 94515, call 800 398-6200, or e-mail info@tourbaja.com. Find Tour Baja on the Web at http://www.tourbaja.com/. Budget biking around the globeCyclevents of Hilo, Hawaii (formerly located in Jackson, WY): The most important reason you'll sit up and take notice of this company is its attitude--it strives to put together the best trips at the lowest cost. Mostly, it keeps its prices down to $150 per night or less (some under $100 a night if you camp). For example, its 14-day ride through the Swiss, Austrian and Italian Alps, called "Tour of the Alps" starts at a lean $1,250 if you camp along the way (opt for hotels and pay-as-you-go per night: prices vary, but expect to pay between $50 and $80 a night). Cyclevents also organizes groups for annual event rides such as a five-night "Spuds: Cycling Around Idaho" trip at the end of August, which starts at a cost of only $400 for camping accommodations. For many of Cyclevents tours, if you stay in hotels, prices hardly qualify as budget. Toughing it out by camping will save you a lot of money. While some of Cyclevents' rides can be handled by a relative novice (albeit a novice who is in very good shape), inquire about all the details before you sign up. Beware that this organization's "easier" trips typically log in over 30 miles per day. For more details, phone Cyclevents at 888/733-9615, or see the Web si¨¾ÐÂÊà)õ\t http://www.cyclevents.com/. For the Benelux countries turn to 4Winds Specialty Tours (formerly known as Bon Voyage Specialty Tours). Why is 4Winds a "specialty" tour operator? Well, instead of coughing up copious amounts of cash for nightly accommodations in hotels or B&Bs, participants sleep on the 4Winds barge. Double cabins with private bath spare the bikers the annoyance of packing and re-packing each night; the barge winds along the many rivers of the region, so bikers have their rooms follow them. Eight days in the famed Loire Valley runs for only $1095 (double occupancy and private bath) between May and mid-September. Many trips start at around $100 per day. Some hotel-based bike tours are also available. Check out the Web site www.4windstours.com or write to 4Winds Specialty Tours, 4500 Victoria Court, West Richland, WA 99353. Call 509/967-3448; fax 509-967-3392; or e-mail st4winds@earthlink.net.Forum Travel International, of Pleasant Hill, California: In business for 40 years, it claims to be one of the oldest and largest of America's bicycle and hiking operators. It achieves that status, in part, by offering -- in addition to the standard forms of group bicycle touring--a non-group method of cycling (self-guided tours) in some of the countries it tours. How does that work? Every morning, you're given a highly detailed map to your next destination, are told when dinner will be served, and then have the entire day to pedal as fast or slowly as you may wish, stopping to sightsee or slumber at the side of the road. When you eventually arrive at your hotel, your luggage awaits, having been delivered there by a van that morning. In this manner, the bicycling tour operator does not need two escorts per group (one to accompany the group, one to drive the van), but only one--the van driver. Non-group tours of this sort average only $70 to $120 a night per person (plus airfare) for breakfast and fine lodgings, and are offered in France, Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Tours in Europe and other parts of the globe are also offered with escorts in the standard group fashion, and tend to cost more. Contact Forum Travel International, 91 Gregory Lane, Suite 21, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523 (phone 800/252-4475 or 925/671-2900, e-mail fti@foruminternational.com, or visit the Web site at http://www.foruminternational.com/). The International Bicycle Fund, of Washington State: For a very special type of traveler, full of adventure and insight, this organization offers two-week-bicycle tours to two, main destinations (Africa and Cuba), and a handful of other spots around the world. The Bicycle Africa program visits countries such as Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Guinea, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo, Senegal, Malawi, South Africa, Mali, Tunisia or Benin throughout the year. Because no traveling van is used, and accommodations are spartan, costs start $1690 for a trip to Guyana. Including airfare to Africa (which can easily cost around $1,100 round-trip to West Africa, $1,500 to southern Africa). "We journey through culture, history, landscapes, cuisines, and lifestyles, close enough to touch them, " says a spokesperson from the IBF. "We enjoy this fascinating and diverse continent on a personal level not usually attainable by tourists." A recent participant adds, "the trip, a month long, is worth four years of college anthropology courses; it was the greatest experience of my life." The IBF's Cuba People-to-People Program, operated in tandem with the "Atenas de Cuba Cycling Club", offers 14-day bike tours starting at $990. A handful of bike tours are offered in other parts of the globe, such as Korea, Ecuador, and North America's Pacific Northwest. Payment for all tours must be with either check or money order (no credit cards accepted). For detailed information and brochures, contact the International Bicycle Fund, 4887 Columbia Drive South, Seattle, WA 98108-1919 (or phone 206/767-0848, e-mail ibike@ibike.org). Or view the Web site at www.ibike.org/ibike. Active Journeys is not exactly a company aimed at the budget traveler, but its set of active and adventurous itineraries are priced reasonably considering the competition. Some of its self-guided biking tours seem to be especially good values. A 17-day ride through Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, for example, is priced from $2,350. Included in the price are all hotels and all breakfasts, seven lunches, a support vehicle, and a bike rental for the trip duration (airfare is extra). Another decent offer is an 11-day ride through Denmark and Sweden, offered from June to mid-August. Prices start at $1,160, and include bike rental, all breakfasts, five dinners, luggage transfers, and ferry transportation around the Baltic Sea. Some Active Journey bike tours are on the expensive side, however. Find out more at the Active Journeys Web site (http://www.activejourneys.com/), by e-mailing info@activejourneys.com, uDPÊàor calling 800/597-5594.