Planning a bike trip for 2021? Here are 6 expert tips on how to plan the perfect European motorcycle tour…
How to plan the perfect European Motorcycle Tour
It’s perfectly possible to set off without a plan. To tour by following your nose, going wherever looks interesting – chasing the better weather or just ambling around exploring. Certainly, that’s how I started discovering Europe. But the reality is that most of us now have a limited amount of holiday and nobody wants to waste it on a dull road when there’s a cracking one running parallel to it, or staying in dull or dirty towns when there’s a beautiful village just ten minutes up the road.
That’s why actually planning a tour will ensure it’s packed with biking brilliance. I’m not suggesting you set off with a schedule for every second of every day and every inch of the route planned out – but a bit of prep with (okay, every inch of) a well-worked route can remove uncertainty and make sure you don’t miss the things you most want to see. Here are six tips to help you prepare – and enjoy – a great European motorcycle tour.
6 Tips for Planning a Motorcycle Trip in Europe
1. Start planning now
It’s never too early to start planning your next European motorcycle tour. There are a few very distinct stages, though – and the first one is the most relaxed and the least demanding. That’s the advanced-daydreaming stage: drawing up your short list of destinations you’d like to visit, finding a bit more out about them – probably just with our friend Mr Google at first but perhaps with a quality guidebook once you get serious and settle on a destination.
Traditionally, the benefit of planning early is that you get a better choice of hotel and you sometimes get them cheaper than if you leave things to the last minute, when the better hotels in the most popular destinations are fully booked. Certain ferry services can get booked up a long way ahead as well – notably the services to Spain around the time of the massive Faro rally.
You may not want to commit to bookings just yet, while we’re waiting to see what’s likely to happen with the continuing coronavirus restrictions. Will there be a vaccine? Will greater travel be allowed to save those economies that rely on tourists? It’s still too early to say – so there’s no harm in staying at this vaguest daydream/planning stage and working up ideas for a couple of possible European trips… Then if we get a better idea of what the touring situation will be, you can develop the one most likely to be do-able in 2021.
After the “ooh, I want to go there” stage you need to address the crucial feasibility stage of planning. This is best done with a bit of Google maps, just working out the reality of whether you can get to your desired area – and have enough days there to enjoy it – within the time you have available for the trip. If you have one week off work, that’s nine days on the road if you go from the first Saturday and return the following Sunday. That’s plenty of time for all of Europe, depending on how you build your route.
Putting in the miles
The big decision here is about how much motorway you’re prepared to put into the first and last day (or days) of any trip. More particularly when landing in Calais, Zeebrugge, Rotterdam or the Hook of Holland, rather than in Spain. My advice is to work out in a fair bit of detail what would be sensible first and last days of any trip – allowing for the time it takes to get from home to the port of your choice, the time spent faffing around making the crossing, plus the time difference when moving between the UK and mainland Europe. Once you’ve established a practical beachhead for the start of the trip and a logical final night for a sensible return run, you can play with possible routes between those points to see what’s genuinely practical.
Decide whether you want to find a base hotel somewhere, so you can stay a few nights and ride loops through the surrounding area, or whether you’ll want to move on to a new place every day. There are pros-and-cons to each approach: it’s easy to have shorter, more relaxing days with a base hotel (and pillions can have a day off the bike while the rider does more riding, if they like); but you can go further and see more if you move on every night.
Even at this daydreaming stage, be honest with yourself about how long you’ll spend in the saddle each day – and remember that 250 miles is a morning on motorways but a long day on mountain roads. Don’t forget to reduce daily mileages if you want time off the bike to go sightseeing – and decide whether you want a rest day (or two) in the trip. You might have to put a couple of hours into pulling these rough-but-reliable routes together, but what else will you do on a wet Sunday afternoon? It will let you rule out the impossible and focus on the achievable.
2. Build realistic routes
A bike tour is all about riding – and that means riding the kind of roads you enjoy. So no 12-hour marathons, no endless slogs down dull motorways, no relentless bumping down goat tracks… unless that’s your idea of a good ride, of course! It’s also important to be able to enjoy the roads: too many long, tiring days can leave you too knackered to make the most of the final half of the holiday.
The trick is not to focus on how many miles you’ll cover in a day. Plan each day’s ride around time in the saddle. Fast solo riders will generally beat a Google Maps estimate by 5-10 mins per hour, groups of four-to-six riders are likely to match the Google Maps predictions, while pillion couples or larger groups generally need six and a half hours to do what Google Maps says will take six hours.
Remember that any Google Maps estimate is just for the time it takes to ride a route… it doesn’t include the stops. As a general rule you can add two hours for lunch, coffee stops and fuel stops – but, again, bigger groups take longer at every stop so allow three hours on top of the route estimate if there are more than six people. A leisurely lunch is all well and good – but it will mean a later arrival at that night’s hotel.
For most riders keeping an unhurried pace, a route that Google Maps says will take six hours usually translates to setting off at 9-9:30am and arriving at 5:30-6pm. A Google Maps estimate of four-to-five hours generally means a relaxed day, setting off any time before ten, having a nice lunch and plenty of stops for coffee or pictures, then getting to the hotel a bit before six.
3. Trust a paper map
Most carefully planned tours these days are done with a sat nav – or even with a navigation app on a phone. They’re great, but if you’re going to be following a pre-planned route then a paper map is invaluable. Especially in a group. Michelin maps are about a fiver each and most routes can be marked down on two maps – or only one if your tour is just in France or Spain. Making a few notes about each day’s planned ride as you finalise the route can really help as well.
It’s best to mark the planned route on your map with a highlighter. You can do this at any point but if you wait until a day or two before you set off you’ll subconsciously note some of the places around the route as you do that and when you’re on the road, you’ll have a much better sense of where you are and where you’re heading. You may barely need the sat nav for directions – and you’re much more likely to spot if it’s having one of those moments when it tries to lead you astray.
Marking up the map shortly before you set off on the tour will also refresh your memory about all those other potential roads you’d considered for the route. If you find a detour is necessary, a quick check of the map should make it easy to include some of those rather than just relying on the sat nav to find a route – which it might do brilliantly, or it might take you round the houses to get on a motorway…
A marked-up map can make a huge difference when a group is touring. It doesn’t matter if one person is leading the group – everyone should be aware of where they’re meant to be going even if they’re just going to blindly follow the front guy. If the group checks the map at breakfast, or in the bar the night before setting off, it can really help everyone enjoy the day – even those who are just following are likely to have a better idea about where they are, what’s coming up and how long it is until lunch. It becomes less of a magical mystery tour and just a magical tour.
Following a sat nav
If everyone in a group has a sat nav showing the route, but your nav suggests going a different way to the man in front… follow the man in front. Maybe try to get his attention and find somewhere safe to stop so you can check he hasn’t gone wrong, but don’t just turn off on your own. Sometimes navs will display different versions of the route when riding, even when they’re ostensibly the same units with the same maps. Sometimes the leader will put in a detour to go to a cafe, toilet, petrol station, Thai massage parlour or something else he knows about – presumably he’s leading the group because he knows the route or the area better than anyone else. It’s fine to stop him to check, but it’s not fine to detonate the group by riding off on your own.
4. Sort your Packing
Don’t pack the night before leaving: if you do, chances are you’ll forget something (I normally forget my sunglasses). If you’re riding through France, make sure you have the Hi-Viz vest and breathalysers that are a legal requirement over there. Make sure you have a suitable GB sticker for the bike. Check you have the adaptors (top tip: take one adapter and a four-gang extension lead so you can charge everything you need with just one adaptor). And the likelihood is that next year you will still need to take face masks with you.
Sort all the paperwork you need to take – including the CritAir sticker needed for French cities, a Swiss motorway vignette. Make sure you have your documents, the bike documents as well as the details (including the phone numbers) for your booked hotels. Also check in good time that your passport has enough life left in it… or replace it if it’s down to its final seven months. Remember that, post-Brexit, you will need to have full travel insurance with medical cover for travelling in Europe – a policy that covers your for motorcycle riding (make sure it includes repatriation).
The game with packing is always to reduce the amount of stuff you have to take. It almost never fits into the luggage on the first go, especially when two people are on the bike, so pack, repack, repack again and when everything closes easily, without huffing and puffing, relax. My system is to pack clothes in individual bundles, with one bag for clean and one for dirty.
Get the bike prepped nice and early. If it’s due a service, get it booked for two weeks before departure (never the week before you go, just in case it has to go back to the dealer before departure). If it needs tyres, get them done then even if the current ones are part-worn and might last… You can always keep a half-decent set to refit later, but it’s better to write off the final £40s-worth of rubber on a well-used set than risk ruining a day of your holiday and spending a fortune getting expensive tyres fitted somewhere in Europe.
If you have any doubts about the mechanical health of a bike, get it assessed well before you set off so any problems can be rectified. Especially if the planning process starts now, there’s no excuse for getting to within a few weeks of departure with a dodgy motorcycle…
What to Pack for a European Motorcycle Tour
5. Stop – a lot
When you finally get to go on tour, don’t spend the entire time just riding. By all means cover a lot of ground, discover brilliant roads and see as much wonderful scenery as possible… and that’s the point. It’s important to take the time to really see the places you’re visiting – and not just as a blur in the periphery of your vision as you focus on the next apex.
A great tour should produce great memories and while the riding should be a memorable part of any bike tour, there’s much more to the best bike holidays. That means stopping to smell the flowers, admire the views and take the pictures… as well as drink the coffee and eat the ice-cream and generally enjoy being on holiday. Even a ten-minute stop somewhere interesting or scenic can add an important extra dimension to a trip – those “Remember when…” conversations you’ll want to have in years to come are rarely about “when you took that third left-hander after the hairpin…” but about the quaint church, or the friendly cows, or the crazy art display… things you see when you’re off the bike.
However, regular stops are important for more than just getting selfies to post on Facebook. Stopping regularly will keep you fitter and more aleart and, ultimately, safter on a long trip. If you’re in the saddle long enough for a small ache to start, it will just get worse as the day goes on and it’ll be with you until you go to bed – and there’s a good chance it’ll get worse with every day of the trip. Stopping regularly – ideally every hour, even if it’s just to stretch and walk round the bike – should stop aches even forming.
It’s also important to stay properly hydrated. Hopefully you’ll be touring in fine weather in a hotter country, so take care to keep your fluids up with regular stops for a short drink. Dehydration leads to a loss of concentration, which is not something you want when riding a motorcycle. The problem can be, ahem, heightened at altitude – so drinking lots of water is especially important when touring in the mountains. Remember that coffee is a diuretic so will ultimately lead to dehydration: always have a glass of water with your double espresso…
6. Go with the flow
The golden rule for making the most of every tour is really simple: relax. Go with the flow. Enjoy it. Touring is meant to be fun, obviously – which is why we put so much effort into planning it carefully. But don’t try to cram too much in at the planning stage and never become a hostage to the schedule – that’ll suck the joy out of it completely.
If you need to change a route, find a short cut, skip a sightseeing stop, do it. Always be ready to adapt the plan and do it with a smile – the unexpected moments, the changes of plan, the detours and surprises are often the most memorable moments of a trip. There are no rules when you’re on tour. Well, clearly there are laws to be obeyed… but in terms of what you have to do each day, you can do what you want – you’re on holiday. It’s more important that you have a relaxing time than that you tick off everything on the plan.
Anyway, if you have miss something off your plan, that’s a reason to come back the following year – right? You could start daydreaming about it that night in the bar…
And if you don’t want to plan it yourself, check out my site for a bespoke tour-planning service or off-the-peg self-guided tour!
About the Author
Who’s Simon Weir?
The author of the best-selling Bikers’ Britain series has been riding bikes since he was 15 and spent 17 years working on motorcycle titles. He quit his job as editor of RiDE at the end of 2018 to ride his Kawasaki Z1000SX to Australia. He now runs a motorcycle-touring website with downloadable routes across the UK and Europe, as well as planning bespoke tours for people.
Read more on Motorcycle Travel in Europe
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