|Determine how much time (money) you have available
|Select the country or countries you want to visit
|Determine a rough itinerary with start/finish points
|Purchase airline tickets (price depends on your flexibility)
|Purchase and fully equip a touring bicycle
|Plan your detailed route and itinerary
|Purchase panniers and ride with projected load
|Make at least one ride of your intended average daily distance
|Reserve any critical lodging (first/last night, major cities)
|Determine how you'll get your bicycle to the airport
I love maps. I can sit for hours looking at maps of places I don't know, imagining what the locale looks like and deciding what areas I want to visit. Understanding maps - even non-topographic maps - is not a universal skill or pleasure. You'll want an overall map of the country you want to visit - the larger scale the better. If there are several brands available, look at each of them to determine which has the most detail, is the clearest to read, or that is printed in the colors you like best. This map will be used for general itinerary planning and fixing locations mentioned in guidebooks. Since the roads shown on this map will not be the ones you'll be riding on (or you're in trouble), find a map where the roads don't obliterate the whole landscape. The Michelin series is generally the best in this regard.
Detail maps for actual route planning (1:200,000 - 1:50,000) may or may not be available in local stores based on the country you're visiting. If they're not in stock, ask if they can be ordered. If the store can't help, try calling the country's tourism office in the U.S. The detailed maps may be less expensive in the source country, but I feel it is valuable to have them ahead of time. First, looking at and evaluating your potential route will help to keep you interested in and excited about your trip. Second, you want to make sure there are acceptable roads to cycle on your chosen route.I usually get good quality, detailed maps (say Michelin 1:200,000) before I go, because I like to do my actual route planning in advance. I then photocopy them, generally enlarging at the same time for more clarity, with one day's ride on each sheet. I highlight my route, sometimes using different colors for alternate routes that I want to evaluate in the field.
These are then used in my handlebar bag for basic navigation, although I take the original along - safely wrapped - to look over the next day's ride each night. This protects the expensive original from all the folds necessary to get the appropriate section to display in the handlebar bag. I also look at the original during the day if I can't get enough information from the copy - the colors do help in deciphering small details. If only I had access to a color photocopier! Bringing the originals adds a good few pounds to my kit, but I consider map browsing terrific entertainment as well as a tour necessity.
This can also be used for tour planning - highlight several alternate routes on the photocopies for evaluation without marking up your original. When I toured the Dordogne I marked the suggested itineraries from three different books and combined what I liked best from each into my final route - with my own modifications.
These come in several flavors - guides to budget travel for all of Europe and specific countries, focusing on attractions in major cities, lodging and food; or more general travel guides for a country or a region in that country. In most cases you will not want to bring these guides along with you on the tour for space and weight reasons. You might want to photocopy some pages or make notes from these sources. What I do recommend for bringing with you is the Michelin Green Guide for your chosen country, or region if you"re touring in France. These are reasonably compact and provide useful information about the region's geography and history, and info on each town arranged alphabetically. These guides are also helpful in that they have maps for most cities and towns, so you often won"t need a separate city map. The city maps also tie into Michelin"s road maps for city entrance/exit routes, although these may have heavy or moderate traffic. These guides do not provide lodging and dining info, so you're better off with the budget guides for this type of data. If you're staying in hostels a lot, you will want the international hostel guide for Europe.
The guides most helpful to us are cycling guides for Europe or specific countries. This last category is a good beginning point for your trip, although you have to use them with some caution. The routes shown are those actually taken by the authors, and are not necessarily the best in terms of attractions, roads suited to cycling, or your preferred daily distance. There is much variation in the nature and quality of these guides, as illustrated by the three guides I've brought for France. Sometimes a cycling organization for the country will publish their own guide, such as the British Cyclists Touring Club. However, a similar guide published for any other country will not be so easy to use. My best advice is to use routes in the guides when there is a close match to where you want to go, and create your own route at other times. I feel the best book for European touring in general is Europe by Bike: 18 Tours Geared for Discovery, by Karen and Terry Whitehill, published by the Mountaineers.
When you go on your tour can be impacted by many things. Your job may mean you're restricted to certain months, or in some jobs you're forced to take your vacation at a fixed time. You may have favorite times of the year for traveling - spring or autumn. All other things being equal, I usually try to travel right around the summer solstice for maximum daylight hours. Generally, Europeans take their vacations in July and August - specifically August. It's often said that Paris closes down for the month of August, which might make it an excellent time to be there! Particularly for the popular tourist areas, going at the height of the season means that you'll have more company than you want, and that you'll spend lots of time looking for lodging and seats in restaurants. June and September can also be busier than the rest of the year; it's best to check with the tourism board of each country regarding the region you'll be travelling in.
Weather is also a strong criteria. Some countries and regions have known rainy seasons, while some countries (England, Ireland) are known for grey skies and rain just about anytime at all. I went to Holland in late April and early May primarily for the tulips, but I was surprised to learn that spring is actually the driest season there - and experience confirmed that. However, European weather - like our own in New England - can be very changeable, and two weeks of near-perfect weather can easily be followed by two weeks of rotten weather. I've come to believe that some people are just lucky when it comes to vacation weather and others are unlucky. You also have to be aware of and plan around prevailing winds. These are notable around the North Sea and the Mediterranean (the Mistral), but can occur elsewhere. Check guidebooks for the specific country you plan to be in - if possible, a cycling guide book.
As mentioned earlier, a perfectly fine way to plan a tour is choosing specific places you want to visit ("must sees") from a coffee table photographic travel book, and then trying to connect them. Usually I'll have an idea of a region I want to visit for excellent scenery and good cycling conditions: lack of both excessive climbing and traffic. I may choose several regions that can be connected easily by trains, as I did in England and Scotland. Some folks may want a more 'relaxing' vacation experience than I tend to choose, and prefer to thoroughly explore one region instead of attempting to visit several. I want to see everything - or at least as much of it as I can - and try to visit several areas that interest me. I also believe that my experience will help guide me if I decide to return to the country or region for a longer visit in the future. But part of me suspects that there are so many new places to visit I may not ever get back again, which is all the more reason to sample as much as I can.
I enjoy exploring urban areas on bike, and what often works well is to take a train to a city you want to see, cycle to another major city on a pleasant route, and then take a train somewhere else. An excellent example of this would be a three or four day bike ride between Luxembourg City and Koblenz, Germany, largely on bike paths along the scenic Mosel river.
It works best to have several levels of areas you want to visit, from the "must sees" to the "if at all possible" to the "not essential, but if it works out". If you have the Michelin green guide, in the front of it is a map showing attractions at three levels: Worth a journey, Worth a detour and Interesting. In my experience these are a good guide to the relative value of destinations, and might well serve as the basis for planning your route. However, you have to modify these to your individual taste; I have no interest in tramping through 100 rooms of some restored palace.
Make photocopies of the overall map for the country, mark your three levels in different colors, and try drawing possible connecting routes. One approach would be to draw the most logical path connecting the "must sees", then selectively adding places from the other levels that seem to fit in smoothly. At this stage you're not looking for the actual roads you'll be riding on, since they won't likely be shown on this scale of map in the first place. However, you should begin to determine your overnight stops, and verify that they"re a day"s ride from eachother (less necessary if camping). Mark the map"s scale on a piece of paper and use it to measure the rough distance between locations.
You want to look for more-or-less straight lines connecting places, and an overall loop shape. Another option is the make the whole trip a single line connecting two major cities with a scenic region in between, or an arc shape, and use a train connection to complete the loop back to where you flew in to. If you find you have to make choices between multiple 'non-linear' places you really want to visit, you have to determine how much out of the way it would be, or perhaps look at the guide books again to help decide if you really need to go there after all.
You're best off if you've had your touring bike for a while before you go and ridden it on a full-day ride with your anticipated load. If you've done this several times, or on a weekend mini-tour, you should have a good idea of how far you like to ride each day. There are many factors which can impact this, even for a given rider. Weight of the load, state of conditioning, terrain, weather, attractions along the route, and to a surprising degree: psychology.
Even if you're not used to touring and have done little training, after a few days you will start getting used to riding all day with a load, and after a week it should feel totally comfortable. The weight of your bike goes hand in hand with the terrain. In Holland, my heavy bike (over 100 pounds) was only a minor hindrance. If I was touring in the Alps I would have been one sad puppy. Rain and headwinds can make you disspirited and just want to find a dry and warm room for the night in the next town you come to. On the other hand, an unexpected downhill or sudden sunshine can get you psyched to cover more miles in one hour than you've gone in the prior 2 or 3.
I usually try to plan overnight stops in decent sized towns to give me variety in lodging, dining, and evening activity if I feel up for it. Particularly if you're traveling in the high season and haven't made reservations, you should make sure you end up in a town or city with multiple lodging options. I generally know each night's stopping point before I begin a tour, but will try to pick out a back-up in case I'm tired or hit bad weather and can't make it to my original destination.
One other thing that can change your plans is encountering something unexpectedly wonderful, and deciding you want to spend more time exploring it; or, riding into a charming town and making up your mind on the spot that you're going to spend the night there. Several times on my Dutch trip I had planned to just spend one night in a city, and then decided that I wanted a whole day there instead. If you're planning to stay primarily at hostels for budget reasons, their locations could have a large impact in determining your route and where you stay.
After you have a rough idea of your route and where you want to spend your nights, it's time to start looking at your detailed maps (1:200,000 to 1:50,000) to select the actual route. Sometimes you'll discover that there is no acceptable route between two chosen points, and you have to decide between heavy traffic for all or part of the day and changing your planned route. If you've selected all of most of your route from published cycling guides, then your task is easy. To do this process, I recommend making copies of the sections you need from your maps (use 11" x 17" paper if you can), then use highlighters to mark your planned route. Use a different color to indicate possible options or side-trips. Save these maps and use them on your actual tour.
One note here: some European countries have special maps (usually 1:50,000) with bike paths and preferred cycling routes marked on them. You're not likely to find these in the states, and they're going to be expensive if you try to get a whole set for the area you're covering. You may want to purchase these selectively upon arrival for sections where you couldn't find a good route from a smaller-scale map, or just look at them in bookstores to confirm the routes you've planned. Very often these will point you to a less-traveled road than the one you selected. However, following these preferred routes will often require much more navigation than simply taking a numbered road. While riding through the Black Forest to Strasbourg, Dana and I found ourselves on uncomfortably busy roads. We stopped at a bookstore in a decent-sized town, and I bought a cycling map for the region that soon had us on quieter and far more scenic roads.
If you don't want to spend a lot of money on maps, my recommendation is the Michelin 1:200,000 series sold widely in the US. These will not show every back road that may be of interest to you, but they will meet 90% of your needs. Where these - and often even larger scale maps - fail, is in navigating around large cities. Usually the best bet is to look for signs to the next town you want, but be careful when heading toward large cities, since these signs will invariably point to the fastest route for cars - just where you don't want to be. Always look for a sign pointing to the next small town on your route - ask if you have to.
Many European maps, including the Michelin's, use a green line along a road to indicate that it's scenic. In my experience these roads also generally have light, or at the worst moderate, traffic. Use these roads whenever they come even remotely close to connecting where you want to go between. However, there is a major caution associated with the green lines: they will sometimes indicate spectacular, mountainous roads which will make your day longer and more difficult. If the whole region is mountainous there isn't much you can do, but your best bet is always to look for roads following rivers or railroad tracks (which usually follow rivers in rough country). Most non-topographic European maps use the chevon symbol ( > ) to indicate grades on roads. A single chevron might be less than 8%, two together 9-17%, and three together mean you'll probably be walking with the bike.
Sometimes the route you want will be wonderfully close to a straight line, but other times it will seem like you have to zig or zag at every country crossroads. On these occasions it may be best to look for a possible path that goes out of the way in one direction, then bends back towards your goal, in each case following a straighter line than the zig-zag alternative. This might expecially help if the 'detour' is on lightly traveled numbered roads, since following short sections of unmarked roads will invariably mean stopping to look at your map and ask directions all day long.
Each of these components should be an element in your final itinerary planning. After you put the whole trip together, 'walk' through your route to make sure everything works. Make sure you haven't bitten off too much mileage for a day early in the tour when you aren't in touring form yet. Have you allowed enough time for attractions that you want to visit in an area? Try to plan in at least one non-cycling activity every day: a major museum, a hike, a boat trip, perhaps a leisurely two-hour lunch in a good but economical restaurant. Have you considered elevation changes for each day to ensure you can cover the necessary miles in the alloted daylight? If you're not a 'map person', consider asking a friend who is to go over your planned route with you to help make sure it will work.
Our 1990 tour was meant to be a European sampler, with each of us contributing places we wanted to visit. We chose to fly in through Amsterdam largely because of the generally awful ride we had cycling into London from the airport two years earlier. We figured that the Netherlands would provide good bicycle access to the airport from Amsterdam, and this turned out to be the case.
One interesting note on the train trip to Luxembourg: for some reason we could never uncover, we weren't allowed to have our bikes cross directly from Holland to Belgium on the train, so we had to get off at the last stop in Holland, cycle across the border and then reboard another train. Luxembourg is an interesting city to visit, and the ride from there to Koblenz, Germany is highly recommended. We were on bike paths most of the way, particularly along the Mosel River where there is a signed path virtually the entire distance beginning in the ancient Roman city of Trier.
The section of the Rhine we took the boat on is the most scenic and storied stretch, with vineyards climbing the slopes on both sides and castles perched seemingly every few miles. I had spent a very enjoyable time in Heidelberg while I was in the army, and wanted to show its many charms to Dana. From there we took a train to the south of Germany, where we cycled around Lake Constance, or the Bodensee. This is a large lake which joins the borders of Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and has a bike path along much of the shore.
In the early planning stages, Dana saw a photograph of Innsbruck on a colleague's desk, and announced that she wanted to go there. It would have taken many days of hard cycling through the Austrian Alps, so we decided to spend two nights in Bregenz - at the Austrian end of the lake - and rent a car for the day. This was by no means cheap, but we had some amazing views as we drove through and over the Alps to our lunch in Innsbruck. This was a very special day on our tour.
We were heading for Paris next, but since I had heard horror stories of how bikes were treated by the French railways, I was determined to make sure the bikes were on the same train as we were, and thought that might be easier if we didn't cross the border on a train. We took a train to the top of the Black Forest so we would have a largely downhill run to Strasbourg. This is an interesting city itself, but we were using it mainly as a departure point for Paris. It took a fair amount of effort to make sure we were on the same train as the bikes, and we were aided by several sympathetic natives who intervened on our behalf.
Dana didn't want to cycle in Paris because she doesn't like city traffic, so we explored by foot. Leaving Paris we took a commuter train we could wheel the bikes on to get us to the suburbs. We called the section of northern France we rode through ìthe pits of Franceî because it wasn't particularly appealing from a scenic standpoint and we spent one night in a sad room in an unpleasant town. There were some very nice stretches, but a lot of the towns looked as if they hadn't changed much since the war.
Our original plan was to train from Mons, Belgium to Rotterdam, but someone we met on tour told us we should visit Brugge, so we made a detour which was very worthwhile. Brugge is sometimes called a ìcity as museumî, and is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in all of Europe. It is highly recommended for anyone who can get to it. Rotterdam was very different; it is the world's busiest port with an average of 200 ocean-going ships passing through every day, not to mention the barge traffic on the Rhine. It has the most urban pace of any Dutch city, and some fascinating contemporary architecture. Also, it is the original departure point for the Pilgrims, and we visited the church in the old port where they held their last service before sailing for England.
The city of Alkmeer has held a cheese market for hundreds of years, and with both of us being cheese-heads this was a natural target. It only takes place on Friday mornings in the warmer months, and we had to ride 20 brisk miles to make it on time. Lots of round cheese are stacked on sledges and auctioned off for a certain price per kilo. Then, teams of guildsmen dressed in varying colors lift the sledges and carry them to the weighhouse to determine the total price for the entire lot. From Alkmeer we followed small, tree-lined roads along canals and rivers back to Amsterdam for a final day of sightseeing. We visited seven countries in 23 days; this may seem a bit hectic for some folks, but the train connections allowed us to sample a wide variety of regions in a limited timeframe.
|evening - take bikes to Logan and pick up boarding passes
|8:50 PM leave Logan on NorthWest (# 42) to Amsterdam
|9:35 AM arrive Shipphol Airport, bike into Amsterdam
|Amsterdam in AM - noon train to Luxembourg
|tour Luxembourg City
|cycle to Trier
|cycle halfway to Koblenz
|cycle to Koblenz
|Rhine boat to Bingen - train to Heidelberg
|train to Constanz - tour Mainau, Rhine falls?
|cycle to Bregenz, Austria around Lake Constance (Bodensee)
|Bregenz - rent car & tour Austrian Alps - lunch at Innsbruck
|cycle to Meersburg along Bodensee - ferry to Constanz
|train to summit of Black Forest - cycle down to Strasbourg
|train to Paris - arrive mid-day
|RER train to DeGaulle airport; cycle to St. Quentin ?
|cycle to "pits of France"
|cycle to Mons, Belgium; train to Brugge
|train from Brugge to Rotterdam, harbor tour
|ride thru Delft, Hague, Leiden - stay in Haarlem
|ride to Alkmeer, AM cheese market - on to Amsterdam
|12:45 PM Leave Shipphol Airport on NorthWest 2:30 PM Arrive Logan Airport
I must admit that whether I use hostels or not depends largely on if I'm traveling alone or not. When you are touring by yourself, there is certainly no less expensive way to go, and the hostel can provide company after a day on the road by yourself. Some European hostels do have assigned chores, which may be a surprise if you're used to big city hostels with professional staffs. I used hostels for about half the nights I was in Holland and Belgium - basically, whenever there was one where I wanted to be. It was a very mixed experience.
The locations varied from enchanting stone and brick 'castles', to inner-city contemporary. Some were neat and clean and relaxing, other poorly-run, crowded and noisy. Perhaps the worst was being in a room with 16 other 'singles' of mixed gender, while the best was being the only person in an 8 bed room with a private bath. A number of the hostels were joint operations with budget travel housing, although often the rooms were identical. What was different (besides the cost), was the quality of the food and sometimes how you were treated by the staff. Since the budget travelers, often busloads staying for the night, or some sort of overnight organizational 'retreat', paid more than the hostelers, I frequently felt like a second-class citizen. If you're going to be traveling in the high season (June-August), you should try to get reservations in hostels (many countries have a system for booking ahead the next night), especially in the most popular cities. There are also international reservation postcards you can buy to make reservations before you leave for Europe. However, this means you need to know in advance when you're going to be where. You can contact Hostelling International - American Youth Hostels in Boston at (617) 536-9455; they're located at 19 Stuart St, Boston, MA 02116.Address: 19 Stuart St, Boston, MA 02116 Phone:
These are going to vary in availability, name and what you actually get in each country. In England they are B & B's and widely available. You can also expect a filling - if heavy - traditional British breakfast. In other countries they have different names, and may or may not include a breakfast. In Germany there are houses with a 'Fremndenzimmer' (stranger's room) sign out front, usually indicating a housewife (or widow) with an extra bedroom to let for the night. There are many variations, and it is best to read general guidebooks for your chosen country to find out what options you have. If two people are sharing a room, you can often find a place in this general category where it will be about the same or not too much more than staying in a hostel, with the added benefit of privacy (some hostels do have couple/family rooms available).
This category includes a wide range of lodging choices, again differentiated by the country you're traveling in. The large popular guides (Let's Go, Frommers) are very helpful here, but with the proviso that they generally stick to the large and/or 'touristy' cities and towns, and may not have listings for every burg you plan to stay in. You can frequently get info on B&B's and hotels from the tourism boards of your chosen country, most of them are located in NYC. Lower-cost lodging is often combined with a restaurant which has rooms for overnight guests. This combo is particularly helpful when you're forced to stay in a lightly populated area, since it means you can satisfy your two basic needs under one roof.
About all I'm going to say here is that I've never camped on an extended bike tour. One bias I have against it is that you have to carry at least 10 pounds more gear, and even more if you plan to cook. As I said, I like staying in the center of the city so it"s easier to explore. Also, camping will mean you have to get to your destination an hour earlier than you would otherwise, and will also require more time to depart in the morning. If you're not cooking for yourself, you'll probably have to ride to town to find a restaurant or eat in a miserable campground snack bar. European campgrounds tend to consist of a single large grassy area, with cars and caravans set up for the week or summer next to you. There may be some with spots reserved for bikers and hikers, but I haven't researched the matter. However, the authors of my favorite European bike touring guides appear to have camped exclusively, and campground locations are featured in their tour descriptions.
This can be one of the best (or worst) parts of your whole European tour, depending on where you go, what you tend to eat, and how fussy you are. Of course, luck will also enter into it. I will break this discussion down by meals:
Several times last year I tried having dinner in hostels, which must be reserved upon check-in. Twice I had wonderful experiences, and once it was dismal (although that was in a budget-travel hostel, and I think by now you know my general attitute toward them). The best experience was in my favorite hostel of the tour, where I was brought more shiny stainless steel bowls that you'll see on a table for four in an indian restaurant. There was a high quality piece of tender beef, and easily a half-dozen bowls with good-sized helpings of various vegetables, applesauce and gravy. If the hostel does have dinner available, do ask what it is when you arrive and make an informed decision.
Last Updated: by Harriet Fell