Eight steps to follow for budget biking on your own
Nothing in travel is more outrageous than the $400 to $500 a day that many prominent bicycle tour operators charge for a trip on wire-and-spoke wheels through the rolling countryside of Europe. Imagine! You are utilizing yourself-your own legs, your own feet, your own stamina-as the means of locomotion, and yet you are paying five or six times the price of an escorted motor coach tour of the same area. I have to confess, my husband and I contributed to the success of the High-Priced Harrys. The first three times we took bicycling vacations in France, we enjoyed ourselves on organized tours. But as prices rose, so did our expertise. We thought we could do it by ourselves for a fraction of the cost. We did, and so can you.
Per person, we now spend a maximum of $125 per day on our trips, and that includes everything. For a bit more, we could stay at the most luxurious places available, although as budget travelers we actually prefer smaller inns or farm stays. But when you compare $125 to the $400-$500 tab per day per person for a luxury bike tour, you might prefer to do it our way. After four self-planned trips, we consider ourselves experts. And we've had a great time working out all the details.
Here are eight steps to follow for budget biking on your own.
1. Begin by finding compatible companions
Four to six people work well. The reason you travel with a small group is to provide one person a day in alternation who will drive the "sag wagon" (a rented car) that carries your group's luggage from place to place (or occasionally carries a member of your group who might be too tired to bike on a particular day). You'll find that four people is an ideal number for such a car - you and your luggage can fit in any medium-size auto equipped with a bike rack. Or if all of you prefer to bike every day, you can spend two or three days in one location doing cloverleaf routes, and then drive together to the next stop.
2. Pick a destination
Start in a place where others have blazed a trail. For instance, when we decided on France, we read every bicycle tour brochure we could find to get ideas from their itineraries and hotel choices. In fact, you ought to compare the itineraries offered by several bike tour companies. In some cases, we chose the same inns/chateaux as the tour groups. I recall with delight the time a bunch of envious cyclists on a luxury tour asked us how we managed to be in the same places they were at a fraction of their cost.
We've come a long way since our first attempt. On a recent trip, we biked without a tour to emulate because we couldn't find one for the region we were interested in, and we did just fine. Although we have the most experience in France, we've also planned great trips to the San Juan Islands (off the coast of Washington State), Vermont, and Denmark. (For your information, Denmark is flat. The San Juans and Vermont aren't.)
3. Decide on the length of your trip and the approximate number of miles you want to ride each day
Then buy a detailed map of the area. Michelin maps are excellent, and the smallest roads are well marked and virtually car-free. However, even Michelin maps can let you down, like the time we took a road down a huge hill to a river we had to cross. There was a road on the other side of the river, but alas, no bridge. So we had to pedal back up and find a different way. (That, admittedly, would not have happened on a name-brand tour because someone carefully checks out the routes.) Then there was the time the road we chose was exceedingly deforme, as the French put it. We endured about ten kilometers (61/2 miles) of near-misery, and our bottoms had a difficult recovery period.
4. Make a tentative list of towns where you might stay
Be flexible because you may not find good places to stay in your preferred choices.
5. Buy a hotel, inn, or bed-and-breakfast guide
We sometimes use Karen Brown's guides to exquisite country inns, and have stayed at several of her recommendations in France, England, Ireland, Italy, and California. (To save money, we have also used the appropriate Frommer's guide, which recommends not simply upscale inns but also standard hotels and budget properties.) The Internet is another increasingly useful source, and it is easy to e-mail for reservations. Be sure to make reservations in advance. You don't want to have to go from town to town on your bicycle looking for a place to stay.
6. Decide how much time to spend per town
Staying more than one night in the same place once or twice is a good idea. It's easy to cover quite different sights from one location, and you will appreciate having a morning or two without packing, not to mention having enough time for your hand-washed laundry to dry.
7. Decide whether or not you want a car
The answer should probably be yes. One time a car was helpful was when one of us had a bad fall. Another advantage is that you don't have to bike to dinner, which can be an inconvenience if you are staying in an isolated area. Of course, a car makes it possible for you to take plenty of clothing rather than be limited by handlebar panniers. On the other hand, we've done fine on trips carrying our belongings in panniers with no car. It's amazing how little you need to bring if you don't mind dressing in the same clothes every other day.
8. Decide whether or not to take your bicycle
We have taken our own, and we have rented bikes. We find renting convenient because, although the quality of the bicycles can vary, there are times when having your bike with you is a big pain. Others wouldn't dream of renting a bike. It depends on how comfortable you are with preparing your bicycle for boxing (to be checked onto airplanes) and putting it back together upon arrival at your first destination. And you are probably going to have to store your carrier (or box) at the airport. (If you do bring your bike, bring an air pump. Foreign air pumps may not fit your tires. We learned that the hard way.)
In France, we have been pleased renting bikes from Bourgogne Randonnees (terroirs-b.com/br/index.htm). Located in Beaune in Burgundy, it will deliver bikes and pick them up wherever you may be in France (and in some other parts of Europe) from 13.72 euros ($12.50) a day to 152.45 euros ($138.89) monthly, plus a reasonable pick-up and delivery charge. Also try discoverfrance.net/France/Paris/Paris_intro.shtml, which lists ten bicycle rental sources in Paris with phone numbers. Prices range from 12.96 to 22.87 euros ($11.80-$20.83) a day. Finally, in Tuscany, try tuscanytravel.com.
If you follow these guidelines, you will find that the best part of your own trip is the tremendous satisfaction in finding each destination, despite a few wrong turns or extra hills. A lovely surprise or two might await you in the evening's accommodations. Nothing's more exhilarating than a made-on-the-premises cognac aperitif or the after-dinner coffee offered in an antiques-filled parlor. Even the occasional small disappointment can make all the rest so much better.
And just think of all the ways you could spend the money you save.