By Maggie LaCoste
One of the first decisions to make when planning a bicycling vacation to France is whether you want a guided, self-guided or “on your own” trip. The alternatives are as different as day and night, so you need to evaluate each, and determine which option gives you the features you are looking for, at a cost that you can afford. Don’t assume that spending more money will give you a more rewarding experience, very often, nothing could be farther from the truth.
As for me, I love biking in France for the adventure that comes from never knowing what lies ahead. I like being out of my comfort zone of totally planned days, events and vacations. I love the spontaneity of slow travel, stopping when I want, taking photographs, having more than one cup of coffee, visiting quirky attractions along the way, savoring every experience. I love the vulnerability of being an “on-my-own” bicycling tourist because it makes me more approachable, enabling me to experience the country and its people in way not possible for most tourists. I love choosing where I stay and where I eat. And I love taking trips that cost a fraction of what major bike tour companies charge. If you are looking for adventure, independence and flexibility like me, and you want to save money, choose your option carefully.
Guided Bike Tours
If words like pampered, luxurious, indulgent and upscale describe the kind of bike trip you are looking for and money is no object, then a guided trip may be right up your alley. Michelin-starred restaurants, private wine tastings, Relais and Chateaux hotels are just a few of the splurges common with top-of the-line guided bike tours. Tour operators make it very easy for their customers: you choose where you want to go, pay for your trip and show up. Everything about your trip, from route maps and local attraction briefs to hotels and restaurants are taken care of by the tour company. Tour group sizes vary from 10-20 people, but depending on the season, could be smaller. All major guided tours offer van service, so if you get tired during the day and don’t want to complete the ride, you can hop a ride to the hotel for the evening. If you don’t feel like riding at all, you can ride in the van to the night’s hotel. Daily distances can run from 25-50 miles a day, depending on the tour. The leading guided bicycle tour companies include Butterfield and Robinson, Backroads and Duvine Adventures. Most guided bike tours include everything for your trip except for personal spending: hotels, breakfasts, some lunches, most dinners, luggage transfer, bike rental, maps, daily briefings, a support van, the services of a guide 24/7 and bikes. Butterfield and Robinson and Duvine Adventures even include wine with dinner each night in the package price.
Prices vary dramatically, so if you are considering this option, evaluate carefully. Butterfield and Robinson seems to be the Cadillac of the group, at least as far as price is concerned. Their guided trip to Burgundy for 6 days/5 nights runs about $900 per person per day, with pretty much everything included. The comparable Backroads tour runs about $750 per day per person. Duvine Adventures is the “bargain” of the group, with a daily rate of about $665 per person per day. Remember that these rates assume double occupancy, so the cost for a couple would be $1,500/day with Backroads, $1,800/day with Butterfield and Robinson, and $1,330/day with Duvine Adventures. All three of these major American tour operators feature lodging in deluxe inns and chateaux. Lodging in luxury chateaux is one way to see France, but don’t expect to experience the charm and warmth found in small local inns run by local residents.
As with any group tour, flexibility on a guided bike tour is limited. You’ll have as much flexibility as is possible on a tour with 10+ people. You will be spending the day with a group of people you’ve never met before, so make sure this is the kind of vacation you are looking for.
Self-Guided Bike Tours
Self-guided bike tours share some of the features of guided trips but offer the independence and freedom of traveling on your own, with the security of support if you need it. Self-guided bike tour operators also make it easy for customers: you choose your trip, you choose the date you want to start, you choose your desired level of accommodations, you pay for your trip, and you show up at the starting point on the agreed date. Basically the tour group operator functions as your personal trip planner. At the beginning of your trip, a local representative of the tour company meets with you to review your itinerary and fit your bikes. They provide local guidebooks, maps, route descriptions and instructions, your emergency contact, baggage transportation between hotels and make all lodging reservations. Bicycle rental may or may not be included, so be sure to ask. In some instances, some lunches and some dinners and/or special events like wine tastings may be included, be sure to ask.
The biggest challenge in self-guided bike trips is selecting the tour operator that you will use. There are limitless American and European tour companies specializing in self-guided bike trips in France, with the American-based companies generally more expensive than France-based outfitters. Many of the American tour companies actually sub-contract customers out to local French-based tour companies, so eliminate the middle man and choose a French company to begin with. Slow Travel Adventures will be featuring more information on regional bike tour companies, so look for this information in the future.
Several companies to consider in the meantime are Discover France, Cyclomundo and Detours in France. The largest of the three, Discover France, is actually an American-French company, it has been in operation for more than 15 years, offers a large number of biking trips to France, and has received awards from publications like National Geographic Adventures. It is one of four licensed VIP tour operators of the Tour de France. A seven day deluxe tour including GPS, map and route information, lodging, luggage transfer, two dinners, all breakfasts and emergency support runs about $155 per person per day. Bikes are not included, so you would need to add another $130-$150 per person for bikes for the week. A seven day Cyclomundo self-guided trip to Burgundy with accommodations at 2 and 3 star hotels, all breakfasts, one dinner, maps and cue sheets but not bikes runs about $140 per person per day. A seven day, six night self-guided bike trip in Burgundy with Beaune-based Detours in France, including hotels, a wine tasting lunch, 3 dinners, tour of Beaune Hospice, maps, route information and Trek hybrid bikes runs about $175 at the classic level and $320 at the deluxe level, per person per day. As you can see, each company includes different things in their prices, so if you choose the self-guided tour option, be sure that you carefully evaluate what is included in the price of the tours you are considering.
If you can read a map and follow road signs, are not afraid of adventure but like the security of someone to call in an emergency, a self-guided trip may be for you. This is a great option for people contemplating their first bike trip and are a little nervous about the idea of going totally on their own. It provides a perfect way to get some experience and learn more about biking in France. Since luggage transfer is included, you won’t be weighed down by panniers on your bike. This will definitely make your cycling experience more pleasant. With this option, you are in charge of your schedule. You can start your day when you want, cycle at your own pace and decide where you want to stop during the day. You have the freedom to choose the level of accommodations you want–luxury or local bed and breakfasts. And you can choose the outfitter whose tour options and features best meet your needs.
“On your own” Bike Tour
Going it alone bike touring is the only thing that I know. My husband and I took our first bike trip in Austria and Germany over 15 years ago because it was a very inexpensive way to travel. That’s the way we’ve traveled ever since! Planning trips is close to as much fun as taking them, so I cannot imagine letting someone else do this. We always have a great time seeing how inexpensive of a place we can stay at and still get a good night’s sleep–I decided this summer that it is 60 Euro. And I love searching for local inns with star chefs; we have been known to deviate quite a few miles to stay in these inns! And, depending on the time of year we are biking, we love finding a hotel along our route for the day. So for me, this has always been the way I’ve traveled.
This is definitely the cheapest way to bike in France, especially if you stay in very low cost inns and bed and breakfasts. But depending on how much you spend for lodging, you might find a cheaper deal with a self-guided bike tour company. A local bike tour operator knows the local hotels so their hotel options are often more affordable than ones you might select. If you go it alone, your biggest expenses will be lodging, bike rental and food. On our trip this summer, we averaged about 110 Euro/day for lodging, 110 Euro/day for food and wine, and 25 Euro/day for bikes, which comes out to about $300 a day for 2 people. In past years we averaged as low as $125 a day for two people. When you choose this option, you basically can set whatever budget you want to follow. If you are willing to stay just outside of larger towns and cities, lodging can easily be found for as little as 50 Euro a night for 2 people, and you can put together a great picnic lunch and dinner for less than 25 Euro. The biggest disadvantage of the “on your own” option is that you carry all your own gear. While we don’t travel with our own bikes since September 11 (too expensive and too much hassle), we do bring our own panniers for our rental bikes. If you don’t like the idea of carrying 25-30 pounds of your own gear, then a self-guided option might end up being the best idea for you. Some of the very popular routes in France are starting to have bag cartage services, but this is still very rare and quite expensive. The best, most affordable baggage service is that offered along the Burgundy Canal by Bag Transfert, a company I wrote about in September.
Hopefully I have given you some things to consider when you are planning your bike trip to France. I am excited about planning my trip for 2011, so I hope that you will come back and read about how I choose my destination for next year!