European parents seem to have a gene that enables them to plan and take perfect family bicycle trips. Bike paths are full of young parents with one, two and even three kids under 10 in tow, some camping, some not, but all of them seemingly in a state of bliss at the wonder of exploring new areas by bike.
Each trip we watch these family dynamics with amazement, wondering if the harmony is a result of fundamental cultural differences, or if European families simply appreciate the adventure of traveling by bike more. How else would you explain the Austrian couple happily traveling EuroVelo 6 from the Atlantic to the Black Sea with three kids under the age of 8, complete with camping and cooking gear? Or the German family with three teenagers who, after preparing a picnic lunch, wrote in their diaries about the morning’s adventures? These families definitely embraced the adventure and excitement of traveling by bike, providing their families with a treasure chest of memories from their time on the road.
Over the last several years, I have come to understand that to most Europeans, it’s not about the bike, or covering a certain number of miles, or accomplishing some amazing physical feat. A bicycle is just the means to a great vacation experience, a chance to step off the fast track of everyday life and enjoy a slow-paced, old-fashioned adventure. I’ve learned a lot about slowing down and savoring the vacation experience on a bike, and as a result, I enjoy my vacations so much more. Here are my top 10 tips for planning a successful family bicycling adventure. Hopefully they will be of some help to you if you are thinking about a family bike trip overseas, or maybe they will encourage you to consider one in the future! Even if you are planning a bike vacation on your own without kids, they may help you plan a more enjoyable trip.
1. Make your trip an adventure vacation that just happens to take place on a bike. A bicycling trip is all about fun, adventure and discovery, not how many miles you are going to cover on a bike. Adventure and discovery are exactly what makes bicycling the perfect vacation for kids: never knowing what lies around the next corner, different adventures every day, new people to meet every day. The more you focus on the adventure, the more you will engage your children.
2. Do your research and choose your route carefully, searching for car-free or low-traffic bike routes and loop rides.
France is the home to hundreds of kilometers of voie verte, car-free bike paths often located along rivers and canals. These are perfect routes for safe family bicycling. You can explore sections of the Loire River, the Burgundy Canal, the Atlantic Coast Route or canal routes like the Ille et Rance or Nantes-Brest, each offering a once in a lifetime experience for your family.
There are also many centrally located towns where you can take daily loop rides to explore different parts of the surrounding countryside.
3. Set realistic mileage goals, always bicycling less than more. Depending on the ages of your kids, 25-30km is a realistic distance to travel, especially if you are carrying your own panniers. If the kids are younger and are traveling in a carrier, a longer distance may be reasonable. The more attractions in a particular area, the less daily mileage you may want to do, allowing more time for sightseeing.
4. Plan time to experience the culture, the history and the countryside. Traveling by bike isn’t a race, it’s about discovery. So build time into your itinerary to just explore the many things to see and do along the way. The slow pace of traveling by bike is perfect for learning, and the kids won’t even realize it.
Whether a planned visit to a castle, an abbey, troglodyte caves or Roman ruins or a spur of the moment stop along the road to look at the world’s biggest haystack, cows from a local farm or some funny local attraction, this is what makes traveling by bike so special.
When you travel by bike, you’re able to enjoy many attractions and features of France normal tourists never experience. Take time to smell the roses and your trip will be greatly enhanced by it.
5. Take detours. Some of our favorite experiences have involved taking the fork in the road. So follow the sign to the troglodyte caves or to the machinery museum or to the oyster museum. It just might be the favorite part of your trip!
6. Go to local markets. Whether you’re young or old, markets seem to be everyone’s favorite part of a French vacation. Kids love the vibrant colors, bustling crowds, music and general frivolity. In addition, there are always plenty of great treats to sample and buy for the perfect picnic lunch.
7. Plan picnic lunches. This is definitely one of my favorite’s on my cycling trips to France, and kids love picnic lunch planning too! Begin the day at the local market or grocery store and let the kids oversee the lunch selections. A side benefit is getting their help on computing weight and costs! When it gets close to lunch time, you can have a contest for finding the most perfect spot for the Aire-de-Pique-Nique.
8. Take time for special treats. What is a vacation in France without a lot of special treats? Whether stopping for a mid-morning pastry and hot chocolate or picking up a special treat at the market, French treats are something that you and your kids will remember a long time after your vacation. I love looking at photos of some of my favorite treats, so make sure that you take the time each day to have at least one special indulgence. After all, there should be a special benefit to all the fresh air and exercise you are getting!
9. Stay in small towns, stay in small hotels or gites and give campgrounds a try. Small towns are much easier to navigate at the end of a day, especially when traveling with children, and you can usually find charming accommodations for a fraction of the cost of larger towns.
My favorite places to stay are small owner-operated hotels, logis or gites as they offer the most authentic French experience and offer the best value for the money.
Another great family option is renting a cabin at a campground. This option is very popular with French families because of all the amenities there are for kids including swimming pools, tennis courts and night time activities. French campgrounds are rated similar to hotels, and I am constantly amazed at the number of 4 and 5 star campground options. Many of the larger campgrounds have fully furnished cabins that are a steal during the off months, which is normally any time other than the months of June, July and August.
10. Expect the unexpected….and plan for it. Cold weather in August, hot weather in March, fog so dense that you can barely see ahead of you. Cyclists need to be prepared for all conditions and circumstances. True to any adventure, you always need to be prepared when you are traveling by bike, especially if you are traveling with kids. This includes all the ordinary things like emergency medical supplies, foul weather gear and most important, food and water. When you are traveling in the summer time, you can never have enough water. One year we were biking along the Indre River in early August. It was about 95 degrees and we did not pass a place that was open to buy water for more than five hours. All of the stores along the route were closed for the French summer holiday! So in the summer time, always make sure that you have enough water. If you are traveling with kids, make sure that you have more than the amount of snacks/food that you think you might need.
There you have it, my top 10 tips for a successful family biking trip in France. There are of course many others that could be added to the list, but if you want to enjoy a family cycling vacation like the Europeans do, this top 10 will get you pointed in the right direction.
Be sure to send along a note on any of your favorites!