Planning a bike trip to France for the first time can be a daunting experience. I remember the first one I planned. It was before e-mail and before most hotels had web pages, so all of my reservations for hotels was done via fax. The only resources for hotels were travel books and a few bicycling books. Much has changed since then, but there are still few resources available to help with overseas bike trip planning and decision making, at least in English. There are plenty of web sites to tell you how and what to pack, when to go, and if you should take your own bike, and some that even provide route suggestions. But if you have never taken a bike trip overseas before, how do you know what to expect, how to plan out a day, how many miles and days should you bike, how much money will it cost, what different routes are like and if you will be riding on major roads? Should you take an independent(on-your-own)trip, or a self-guided or guided trip from one of thousands of outfitters? How do you evaluate bike tour companies, and what is the difference in US-based companies and French companies? Over the next couple of months, I will be discussing these and many other issues as I plan my bike trip to France for next summer.
Planning a bike trip to France can be overwhelming, but a few simple questions will get you started on the right path:
How much money do you want to spend?
If you’re like me, and want to bike in France because it’s fun, affordable and a great way to experience the country, then an independent bike trip that you plan may be the best for you. With this option, you can stay in small inns for as little as 35-40 Euros/night or camp for as little as 10-15 Euros/night. If you have a bigger budget, you might opt for a self-guided package through a regional French bike tour company. And if money is no object, you may opt for a guided trip with one of the well-known tour companies like Butterfield and Robinson or Backroads.
How much time are you willing to spend on planning?
Bike tour companies make it easy, that’s what makes them so attractive to many people. And they are safe. You don’t need to worry about making a bad decision with a hotel, or choosing the wrong bike path, everything is planned out for you. Sometimes this is the best alternative, especially for first-time bicyclists. But if you want adventure and flexibility, are willing to invest the time, can access helpful resources, and are not afraid of winging it a bit, you definitely can plan a great biking adventure, and save a lot of money in the process.
What is your adventure tolerance?
Biking in a foreign country, even one as bicycle-friendly as France is an adventure. When you wake up in the morning, you really don’t know what kind of challenges the day will hold. You will be responsible for reading maps, following the route plan, biking to your new hotel for the night. Sometimes things go perfectly, sometimes not. It’s possible to make a wrong turn, even on well-posted trails, sometimes it rains, occasionally you run out of water when it’s hot, or can’t find food when you are hungry and sometimes you’re tired or you just can’t bear the thought of getting back on your bike. We all have different levels of tolerance regarding adventure and there is a bike trip for every level. The only problem is not understanding what your adventure tolerance is. If you are totally adaptable, flexible, easy going and can handle anything that life throws at you, then any kind of bike trip would work for you. If, however, you are at the other end of the spectrum, and you have the money, a guided trip may be your best solution. Bottom line, if you want to insure a great bike trip, know your adventure tolerance!
How many days do you want to bike?
If you’ve never biked in France before and are thinking about combining some biking with a visit to Paris, Provence, Burgundy or the Loire Valley, then a long weekend excursion may be perfect for you. It’s very easy to plan a weekend trip biking along the Loire River, taking day trips from a town like Blois. As a matter of fact, there are over a dozen easy itineraries accessible from Blois. A new bike trail from the Onzain train station makes it possible to take a train from Paris, rent a bike at the train station and quickly begin to explore the Valley of the Kings for the weekend.
If you want to combine a biking adventure with wine tasting, hop the train from Paris to Beaune, walk down the street to Bourgogne Randonnees, the best bike rental in town, and before you know it, you are in heaven on the Vineyard Trail. Weekend excursions like these are very easy to plan and do without the expense of a tour operator. If you are contemplating a longer trip, then you have to carefully weigh all the other factors in choosing the option that is right for you.
How many people are you willing to spend your vacation with?
If you can’t imagine spending your bicycling vacation in France traveling with a group of people you’ve never met before, then a guided group tour may not be for you! On the other hand, if you like group dynamics and the comfort of traveling with a guide and other Americans, and you have the budget, a guided group tour may be perfect. Once again, just be sure to ask the question so that you choose the option that is right for you.
Panniers or no panniers?
No matter how well you pack, you are still going to have 20 + pounds of clothes and miscellaneous to transport during your trip. If the idea of hauling your possessions on your bike for a week or two does not appeal to you, this is an important thing to consider when choosing the kind of bike trip you will take. There are some popular bike routes that offer luggage transfers from one hotel to the next but except for the program on the Burgundy Canal, they can be expensive. If baggage transport is something that is important to you, then a self-guided trip with a regional French bike tour operator may be an option to consider.
Thinking about these questions will definitely get you thinking about the alternatives and which one will be right for you. Planning a bike trip to France is my favorite fall adventure! Stay tuned over the upcoming weeks for more tips and ideas to help plan your next bike trip to France!