Biking with the Europeans
Biking with the Europeans: Lower Cost, More Options
By Stephen Hartshorne
Everyone knows that bicycle tours are one of the best ways to experience Europe, but there are many different kinds of bicycle tours, and many different ways to book them.
Many US tour companies will make all the arrangements for your travel, lodging and dining and see that you cover the scenic and cultural highlights of a region -- with a group of your fellow Americans.
Cost Savings and Greater Flexibility
But you can generally save money and find greater flexibility by booking a tour with a European company because their volume is so much greater. Europeans average about a month of vacation every year, and consequently they do a lot more traveling, and especially a lot more bicycling.
Because they have so much more volume, European tours companies can charge as much as 70 percent less than tours booked with American tour companies, and they can offer a wider selection of tours and departure dates.
Another benefit of a European tour company is the chance to make international friendships with your fellow cyclists, many of whom will be Europeans.
Finally, European companies offer several different ways of touring -- in a group or self-guided, point-to-point or home-based -- which makes it easier to design a tour that suits your goals, your abilities and your travel preferences.
One way of finding the right bicycle tour with a European is to go through Bike Tours Direct, which represents more than 40 European bike tour companies in 30 countries to offer nearly 200 different tours. President Jim Johnson says he started the company after taking several bicycle tours himself.
Passion for Touring
"BikeToursDirect started with my own passion for bike touring in Europe," he says. "I didn’t want to pay the prices charged by many American tour operators, so I made direct contact with overseas companies. I found I could enjoy the same experience at a fraction of the cost.
"Often the experience was even better, since the European companies attracted clients from around Europe. As much as I love Americans (our company is based in Tennessee), I didn’t want to ride exclusively with Americans. Riding with a multi-national group was much more fun."
"After each trip, I shared my experiences with friends and ride buddies from our local bike club, who asked, 'Can we come along next time?' So, over the next few years, I took them along to the Black Forest, to the Austrian Alps, to Tuscany and Provence, and along the Danube. In every case, we used local bike tour companies."
"During one of the tours, one of my friends said, 'Why don’t you do this for a living?' Five years ago, I left corporate America and BikeToursDirect was born."
Reaching New Markets
The company has a unique concept: It doesn’t operate its own tours but represents European bike tour operators. It’s a win-win: The tour companies are reaching new markets, and travelers gain the benefits of riding with local tour companies.
BikeToursDirect presents its tours in a single website, helps clients choose and plan their tours, and takes care of the entire booking and payment process.
The site also includes a "TourFinder" to help travelers determine which tours suit them best, as well as a "Quick Links" section with links to tours that are "Especially Leisurely" or "Family Friendly."
Last year, more than 1,300 clients booked tours through the company.
Arthur Frommer, the dean of American travel writers, included Bike Tours Direct in his column (March 23, 2008) on his list of "top travel bargains."
"Shunning the high-priced escorted, group bicycle tours for nonescorted, do-it-yourself biking has become a major, budget-price vacation activity," he wrote.
Choosing the Right Tour
Johnson says there are a lot of factors to consider in picking a tour that's right for you. First, of course, is your level of fitness. Some tours cover about twenty miles a day on mostly flat ground. Some cover much greater daily distances with more ascents.
Another factor is whether you are comfortable on a tour where English may be a secondary language. Tour guides will almost always offer English translations, but dinner conversations might be primarily in French or German, depending on where other riders reside. Of course, this international mix is a primary appeal for many travelers.
Johnson gives a very candid view of the pros and cons of riding with European tour companies in the "Pros and Cons" section of the Bike Tours Direct website.
Balanced against any 'cons' there are a lot of 'pros' to booking with European companies: cost savings, lots more options, tours designed by local experts, and, last but not least, international camaraderie.
Savings for the Intrepid
Many people are most comfortable with guided tours that have a local guide traveling with the group and a support van to pick up the weary or to 'bridge' difficult sections of terrain.
But if you're more intrepid, you can save a good deal of money by booking a self-guided tour -- which isn’t to say you’re self-contained. The hotels are still booked for you and your luggage will be transported to the next hotel. You’ll have detailed maps and route information, and a service "hotline" number in the event of equipment problems, injuries or other mishaps -- or if you get lost.
But you’re riding on your own, and if you hit bad weather or run out of steam, you still have to make your way to the next hotel. You have to change your own flat tires, but tour companies will help if your bike breaks down.
While most people like to go from point to point on a bicycle tour, this means packing up your luggage every day. Some people like the 'home-based' option of staying in one place and taking day trips from there.
"Since most bicycle tourists enjoy traveling each day, tour operators generally offer only point-to-point tours." Johnson says. "Still, there’s something to be said for staying overnight in one town and doing day trips; you don't have to pack each morning, you can settle in, and you can really get to know a location. And, if you don’t feel like riding, you can rest or pursue another activity."
Home-based tours are often just right for families; everyone can decide what they want to do.
Another option: bike and boat tours, where you ride every day, and your “hotel” follows you to the next town.
Since they started in 2003, Bike Tours Direct has arranged tours for more than 5,000 clients -- many of them repeats or referrals. You can find feedback from people who have taken specific bicycle tours with Bike Tours Direct on their feedback forum.
These are candid reviews where people share their experiences. Some mention a lack of information in English and other minor difficulties. But the vast majority use words like 'fantastic,' 'memorable' and 'amazing.'
"My husband and I did the self-guided tour in Tuscany and it was spectacular," writes one happy customer. "The hotels were nice. We had superb meals and wine the entire time. I loved the challenge of the Tuscan hills and the beauty of the region. I recommend this trip for those who like good cycling, food and conversation with the one you're with. We never had a honeymoon -- until now!"
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Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.