Believe it or not, riding high on a hog can be the adventure of a lifetime. Here’s how to pull off a motorcycle trip to remember.
READERS' TOP QUESTIONS
How easy is it to rent a motorcycle?
Traveling by motorcycle is every bit as awesome as you'd imagine, which is a good thing, since it's a bit of a hassle to get started. First off, it's not as simple as renting a car at the airport-chiefly because motorcycles aren't rented at airports. In fact, the whole process can be pretty complicated. Unless you've signed up for an outfitted trip (see our recommendations in "Two-Wheels, Three Ways"), you need to pick up a bike yourself. You can find motorcycles at independent shops or at one of the nearly 300 authorized Harley-Davidson dealers in the country. Eagle Rider, the world's largest motorcycle rental company, has franchises in 12 countries and 75 locations worldwide (eaglerider.com). But finding your wheels is the easy part. At the time of booking, most companies require a deposit (the amount varies), which won't be refunded unless the customer cancels a month or more in advance. No-shows are likely to be charged the full rental amount. Upon picking up a bike, a hefty security deposit of about $1,500 is also required (this is just a hold on your card, in most cases). Beyond that, the bike rental itself costs $100 a day and up, depending on the model. Insurance also costs extra (from $15 daily), though not all businesses that rent motorcycles sell insurance. If that's the case, the renter's own insurance policy usually covers basic liability. (Regular car owner's insurance doesn't cover motorcycle rentals.) Oh, yeah, and to rent any bike, you'll have to demonstrate experience handling a model similar to the one you want. The biggest hurdle of all, though, is that you also need a motorcycle license.
So how do I get a license?
Each state has its own written and road tests, but most offer a basic rider course in conjunction with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (msf-usa.org). The course consists of five hours in the classroom and 10 hours of riding; prices vary widely, but they're often cheap—$25 in Illinois, free in Pennsylvania. Best of all, the use of a motorcycle is included. "All you need to sign up is a regular driver's license and the ability to balance a bicycle," says Ray Ochs, MSF's director of training systems. Don't get too excited: Most likely, you'll practice in a parking lot. When you complete the course, the written- and/or road-test requirements to get a motorcycle license will be waived in most states, but not all, so check in advance with the MSF. Courses are offered in 2,000 U.S. locations during warm-weather months, and autumn is actually the perfect time of year to sign up. "These programs can book up early in the spring, when people are sick of winter and eager to get on the road," Ochs says. "There's rarely a wait for students in the fall. Just remember to take some time to refresh your skills after the winter's over, because you may have forgotten what was taught in the class."
Then I'm all set?
Not so fast: Even riders with motorcycle licenses are sometimes turned down for rentals, if their skills aren't up to par. "Within about 10 seconds of watching someone handle a bike, I can tell if they're proficient enough," says Scott Mindich, who owns California Motorcycle Adventures, which rents Harleys in the Bay Area (800/601-5370, californiamotorcycleadventures.com, from $99 per day). "We discourage novices because our objective is to get the rider and bike back to us in the same condition they left."
What are the most common rookie mistakes?
Picking the wrong bike is a big one. The general rule is that the heavier and bigger the motorcycle, the more difficult it is to operate. "High-speed turns and cornering take time to master," Ochs says. "Newbies are often scared to really lean into the turns, which is necessary." Beyond that, the most common question Mindich receives is: What happens when it rains? "My answer's always the same," he says. "You get wet." Layers, including bike gear designed to keep riders cool in heat and warm in the cold, are best to deal with almost anything Mother Nature will throw at you. Finally, since there's no trunk on a motorcycle, you'll need to fit all your belongings in a bag small enough to strap to the bike. In other words, pack light. "Forget about the curling iron and the hair dryer," Mindich says. "Bring clothes for four days max, and do laundry if you have to."
What should I think about when planning an itinerary?
Gary McKechnie, author of Great American Motorcycle Tours (motorcycleamerica.com), says that the best roads for motorcycles come in two categories. "The 'twisties' are the exciting roads that make you feel alive, with bends and hills like a roller coaster, and lots of downshifting and turning necessary," he says, giving the Blue Ridge Parkway as an example. McKechnie also loves tranquil rides that meander through forests with the occasional small town mixed in (think New England). "When a road parallels a river, that's a good sign. Instead of screaming up and down hills, you're likely to be cruising along the river, with filters of sunlight and the sound of rushing water." In general, it's the same features that make any road trip great—music venues, quirky villages, neat shops, historical must-sees, gorgeous scenery. Some roads, while phenomenally scenic, are too hairy for a novice to enjoy on a hog; zigzagging, cliff-lined sections of the Pacific Coast Highway come to mind. It's also important to steer clear of road delays when the weather's less than ideal. "This is not a climate-controlled environment," McKechnie says. "There's no hiding from the elements with air-conditioning. There's nothing more horrible than being on a bike stuck in traffic on the sizzling blacktop."
Are there ways to get deals on rentals or tours?
The Hot Deals listed for different Eagle Rider locations can offer fantastic values—third day free, half-off rates during off-peak times, last-minute discounts on tours that depart soon, and one-way specials for bikes that need to be relocated. Individual rental outfits regularly post specials for certain bikes and pickup times too; California Motorcycle Adventures was recently renting a few older Harleys (2008 models) for $99 daily, compared to the usual $135. It's fairly standard to get a cheaper daily rate if you're renting for a longer time period, too, and if the company doesn't advertise such a discount, it's more than acceptable to ask for a price break (say, 15 percent) on rentals of seven or more days.
Do I have to wear a helmet?
Technically speaking, not always: It may come as a surprise, but there are no helmet laws in 30 states for riders over 20 years old. But still—is windblown hair really worth the risk? In 2006, some 65 percent of fatally injured motorcycle riders weren't wearing a helmet. So play it safe, and wear a helmet. Always. Your mother will sleep easier.
Two-Wheels, Three Ways: An outfitted motorcycle adventure for every skill set (and budget).
Rent a scooter in Tuscany. They may be laughed off by hard-core bikers, but scooters are the ideal solution for travelers who want to rev their engines but don't have the experience—or license—required to ride a hog. Scooters are lighter and easier to operate than motorcycles (no shifting necessary), and in most parts of the world, you can rent one with a standard driver's license; they're especially popular in the Caribbean and Europe. A classic Vespa is perfect for exploring the rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy. tuscanyscooterrental.com, from $85 daily.
Take a guided tour of the Grand Canyon. Even after you've mastered the basics, you may have a few questions once you hit the open road. That's when it pays to have an experienced guide on hand. Edelweiss Bike Travel runs tours to every continent except Antarctica, including a fully guided eight-day trip around the Grand Canyon. The trip begins in Las Vegas, traces historic Route 66, visits the Hoover Dam, and takes in Monument Valley. edelweissbike.com, from $2,790 per person, with two people sharing a bike and hotels.
Go it alone in the Florida Keys. Besides renting bikes, Eagle Rider also runs tours. If you're a novice, you'll want to stick with their fully guided options—the extra assistance is worth the splurge. But if you're a competent rider with a bit of experience, their self-guided tours are a great fit. All the planning is taken care of, leaving you to simply enjoy the ride. Their seven-night tour through south Florida and the Keys includes bike and helmet rental, unlimited miles, and all accommodations. eaglerider.com, from $1,999 per person.
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