I began touring Europe by bicycle in 2017. Exploring Europe has been high on my bicycle touring bucket list. Retirement made that possible. I toured Hungary in 2017 and the Czech Republic in 2018. Both of these tours were guided tours.
Touring Europe by bicycle is quite popular. There are many tour operators that offer options to suit any cyclist’s abilities and desires. I find these commercial tours to be a good option for my style of cycling. The operators are generally locals who choose routes that highlight the culture and most desirable places to visit.
Commercial tours are commonly offered in two flavors. Guided tours, such as the ones I explored Hungary and the Czech Republic, have a guide who leads the group on the tour route. Self-guided tours do not have a guide. The operator provides the cyclist with maps and other materials to guide the cyclist on the route. Both options generally provide luggage transfer and handle hotel accommodations.
Feeling more confident in European touring, I chose self-guided tours for this year’s Germany/Switzerland adventure. I booked the Radweg Reisen Lake Constance Classic 11-day tour and 2 segments of Eurotrek’s Mittellland Route Zurich to Solothurn tour. Below are my thoughts on touring self-guided as opposed to guided.
- You set your own pace. You tour on your own terms. Want a coffee and cake in the morning? Are you an amateur photographer who likes to stop often? Do you enjoy spending time exploring quaint villages? You can easily do this on self-guided tours.
- It is cost-effective. You are the guide and are not paying for that service. I found the tour operator guidebooks to be pretty valuable. Radweg Reisen did an excellent job on packaging their materials in spiral-bound guidebooks that fit nicely in the handlebar bag map holder. I chose my personal dining options. I often grabbed a quick lunch at the local grocers.
- You are touring light. The tour operator is hauling your luggage. Both of my tours had my bike equipped with a pannier for my raincoat and daily supplies. Rental touring bikes are heavy but lighter than a fully loaded touring bike.
- There are more options for tours. Tour operators offer a greater variety of tours that are self-guided. It is cost-effective for the tour operator. This means that you might be able to choose from many options on the same route. Self-guided tours also venture into areas less touristy.
- You get a sense of adventure. You are on your bike charting your own course. I like the sense of adventure in bicycle touring. Self-guided tours allowed me to venture off the path and explore. I did just that on the Mittelland route and visited the village where my mother was born.
- It’s all about your style. You are not dependent on other’s wishes and abilities. You travel at your own speed. Your tour sets your origin and destination for the day. What you do with that day is entirely up to you. Be adventurous or be cautions; it’s your choice.
- You are reliant on the tour operator. Both self-guided tours that I cycled had maps and directions provided. The route was well mapped. This lured me into believing the tour operator provided the complete and thorough mapping. I soon learned I had to research the next day’s route.
- The quality of tour operator documents varies. I found the tour documentation thorough and complete at times. I also found myself lost due to confusing or missing directions. I realize that the tour was self-guided. My expectation was that the tour operator guides the cyclist through confusing and ambiguous parts of the tour. That was not true at times.
- You are on your own. I touted this aspect of touring in my “the good” above. I place it with “the bad” to note that you must research the route. Use the same methods you plan your personal tours. The more you know about your route before you embark on one of these tours, the more prepared you will be.
- There are times of loneliness. I love to tour solo. It gives me solitude to enjoy my surroundings. I also like touring in a group. My prior two European tours had me touring with a nice group of people. I enjoyed the camaraderie. I was comfortable with cycling this tour solo.
My personal experience
- I enjoyed the flexibility. Most of my days were under 40 miles giving me time to do what I wanted to do. I made the tour my personal tour. I stopped for coffee and photo-ops.
- The tour operator materials were mostly good. I found little problems in the tour operator documentation. They were designed to get me from the origin to destination with little effort.
- Materials varied by the tour operator. I had the opportunity to see tour documents from two tour operators. I found them to be somewhat similar. Each had their strengths and weaknesses.
- Documents lacked final destination details. Tour documentation was largely generic to the destination city. I relied on Google Maps to get to my hotel. It would have been nice to have directions to my accommodations.
- It was cost-effective. The cost of tour and food was much more cost-effective than guided touring. That is hard to quantify when cycling in Switzerland where food costs are more costly. I was able to control where I dined according to my budget.
- I would do it again. I was comfortable with this style of touring. I gained experience in what to expect and how to prepare for these tours in the future. I would not hesitate to book one of these tours.
What to look for
- Do the research and read reviews. Many of these operators are small local companies. It is in your best interest to read reviews. Don’t hesitate to contact the tour operator directly and ask questions.
- Ask for GPX files. Mapping, directions, and tour documentation is important. If you use a Garmin, you can use it in Europe. Ask for GPX files of the route. It might be a longshot but will save you while at busy or confusing intersections. As the tour progressed, I began building GPX files in the evening for the next day.
- Investigate the operator support. Self-guided is just that. However, find out what support the tour operator offers when you are on the road. Eurotrek excelled in this area. I was given a support person and their personal mobile phone number. I did not use it but found it comforting.
- Review the tour materials if possible. Find out how detailed the tour documents are. You are most likely unfamiliar with the area. Good operators highlight must-sees, as well as problem areas.
- Find out what bonuses the tour operator offers. I found that Radweg Reisen provided many admissions to attractions along the tour. I availed myself to most and found them a definite bonus.
- What local advice is available? It is always nice getting some inside information. Radweg Reisen did a good job of this in the printed materials and not much in-person insight. Eurotrek did an excellent job of this in their in-person orientation.
- Biketours.com is a good starting point. I used this website to find and book my Lake Constance tour. It is a valuable website for the European bicycle tourist. It is thorough and offers many customers reviews. It does not reveal the tour operator, but that is relatively easy to find. Most tour operators on biketours.com do not change the tour name and details. A little Googling will lead you to the tour website. Check out the details on that site. There are generally more details and reviews. Most importantly, you get a better view of the operator’s business.
- Don’t overlook local resources. The Swiss have an excellent website, Switzerland Mobility. This website and app is a must-use for the cyclotourists in Switzerland. I used the app’s map religiously on tour. It showed where I was on the Swiss route. It made it easy to make a decision at a confusing intersection. It quickly got me back on course when I veered off course. Five stars for the Swiss!
I hope you found the above information helpful. It is my perspective on self-guided touring. I tried to be as impartial and open as possible. I would appreciate your thoughts and insights into your personal experiences with self-guided touring.
Get on your bike and explore!
Good info! Thanks, Tom.
Someday, I’d like for Eileen and me to ship our trikes to somewhere in Europe and tour. Although, it might be easier to purchase used e-trikes there and resell them (or something – maybe they could be rented?)
Anyway, as you know, I have generally designed my own routes, done all the planning myself, and carried my gear. After reading this, I think I might like to put together a combination of unsupported and self-guided tours. Or maybe ONLY a self guided tour or two.
Great read Tom! You should have been an author.