I’ve only planned three trips that involved traveling by bike (the third coming up in September), but I want to share what I’ve learned so far. Whether you should travel by bike is a secondary question to whether you should travel at all. But for me, it’s allowed for a very different type of experience than it would be practical to have otherwise.
What do I mean by traveling by bike?
I’m going to focus on using bikes to get from place to place. But there is a spectrum of what this could entail, depending on how much you’re willing to spend, vs. how much your willing to do yourself.
At one extreme, you can find all-inclusive bike tours arranged by travel companies or bike companies like Trek. These will typically arrange food and lodging, and transport your bags for you, leaving you unburdened while you ride. They may even ferry you to the start of a day’s ride, or pick you up at the end, and you might have a guide riding along with you.
At the other extreme, there is the option of planning your own route, cooking your own meals, pitching a tent anywhere you’re allowed to. If you were going to spend a long time traveling by bike, this way of doing it might be a necessity.
But for the trips I’ve planned so far, I’ve been aiming for a middle way: planning the route, finding reasonable hotels/hostels/AirBnB places to stay, carrying the bare minimum on the bike.
Planning this kind of trip can be a fun challenge of balancing numerous constraints, leading you to learn a lot about where you’re planning to go. I’ll start by going through some considerations to keep in mind, and then share some strategies I’ve used.
The first day of the trip ought to be a short one for multiple reasons. If you’re going to stepping off a plane first, that could take longer than expected. If you’re going to be renting a bike, that could eat up time too. Basically unless you’re going to able to prepare the night before and be ready to go first thing in the morning, then you’re going to be starting later on the first day than you would be able to once you get going. Physically, you should also plan to go easy on yourself the first day.
How far you can travel in a given day depends a lot on you. If you typically bike infrequently, slowly, or only in short trips, then you might have a shorter range. If you get home after a 15 mile ride and want to pass out, then going 30 miles in a day is essentially like doing that twice in a row. You can plan to push yourself a little once you get going, but don’t commit to something you might not be able to handle.
The other constraint is that you might not want to spend all day biking, even if you physically can. You might be traveling through a region that has other things to see and do. Or you might just want to take it easy, because we’re talking about a vacation here. One way or another, you’re probably going to want to take some kind of break every hour or half hour.
This is also very personal. If you google “best biking routes in X country”, you might find a lot of posts about the spectacular views from the top of this certain mountain, and the excellent climb getting up there. For hardcore bikers, maybe that is in fact the best route. But for me, more elevation gain per day means going slower and being more exhausted, and probably making that day shorter in distance. So it’s important to pay attention to what the terrain of a route you’re considering is, before deciding whether you’re up to it.
Want to avoid unnecessary elevation changes? This is why “rails to trails” is popular: trains tracks typically stay relatively level. Following the course of a major river can also be a gentle slope.
Smooth pavement is where you’ll be able to travel the fastest and thus the furthest. But it can be limiting. There are some trails that switch back and forth between pavement and gravel, so it helps to be prepared for that. In certain places, you can also find single-track trails that might be geared towards hiking, but allow mountain biking as well. This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, but the route you plan should match what you’re going to enjoy (and the type of bike you bring).
A highway might be the most direct route between two places, and might also be the flattest. But traveling via highway can be taxing in other ways. They’re often unshaded. They may lack frequent, convenient stops. You may be breathing diesel smoke and biking through debris or roadkill. The traffic may be loud and fast and close by. Time spent on a highway can wear you out more quickly than a longer, hillier back road.
Though dealing with any vehicle traffic can also be a combination of your personal tolerance level, and local conditions. Are you practiced at riding near vehicle traffic? Is drivers in the region known for being cautious and courteous towards cyclists? How narrow is the shoulder? What’s the visibility like? For some of this, it helps to read other people’s accounts (with a grain of salt). You can also try to scope things out as much as possible. Google Street View is one way, or if you can find YouTube videos, even better.
Of course, getting away from traffic entirely can be ideal. But looking for long-ranging bike paths can limit your options.
Unless you plan to camp, or perhaps even if you do, you’ll want to plan out where each day will start/end. Spending the night in a city or town makes it more convenient to find food and lodging. Or if you can find at least a lodge or resort to spend the night at, maybe that suffices.
As I mentioned earlier, you might want to plan for things other than biking. Are there historic sites or museums along the way? Getting off the bike and taking a short hike might be a nice change of pace.
For a shorter trip, this might not even come up, but a good rule of thumb is that you should also consider stopping for at least one day for every five that you spend going from place to place. Just as a way to recharge, rest, and sort out anything you neglect while you’re on the move, and to avoid letting the journey itself get too monotonous.
It’s worth considering, particularly if the route you’re interested in doesn’t begin in a major city, how are you going to get there? If you’re going to bring a bike, what will it take to bring it with you?
Many places allow bikes on trains, but they may have different rules about it. In many places, they aren’t allowed during rush hour. Sometimes they’re only allowed in certain cars of the train, and must be strapped in. Sometimes they need to be boxed or bagged up.
If you can get to or from the route via bus, then check whether the bus can handle a bike. Some buses might have a bike area inside, or a rack on the front. For longer-range Greyhound style buses, you might be allowed to put the bike in the luggage compartment. It all depends on the type of bus, and the policy of the company or government operating it.
If you’ll be renting a bike, then you might have to consider how to get the bike back to the rental shop. Though certain places may also allow one-way rentals.
This might be tie-breaker compared to the other considerations, or it might be the entire point of traveling to a certain place. But it’s worth considering: what is the route actually going to look like? If you’re going to just be passing cornfield after cornfield, that might be calming, but it might be dull after multiple days. If you’re going to be near a dramatic waterfall, maybe it’s worth a slight detour to bike past it.
Where to, then?
Balancing these considerations can be a fun challenge. I’ve got a couple dozen ideas of trips I’d like to do. For sticking to established bike routes, check out the Eurovelo system. Those are all much longer than I’d be able to do in one trip, but they serve as a starting point to find a smaller section that would be achievable. Individual countries, including Canada and much of eastern Asia, often have their own national bike route systems. This is something that the US is lagging behind in, as well as any kind of national transportation system to help with the start/end of a trip.