Touring abroad and foreign adventures are the ultimate ambition for many bikers. The cramped, congested and pot-holed roads of our captive isle are fine for the Sunday morning ride out to the local bikers café, or even the extended weekend trip around the coast, but all of this pales into insignificance when compared to the true freedom of the seemingly endless, meandering, open roads that await us across the water in Europe... and beyond!
Motorcycle touring has long been seen as a pastime of the wealthy, seasoned adventure traveller or those fortunate enough to fall upon the backing of a television company and film crew. I’m pleased to say this is something of a myth. There is no reason why anybody with enough ambition and the right organisation can’t embark on an adventure all of their own.
This brief guide aims to provide a starting point for those considering travelling abroad by motorcycle, and outlines some of the key factors to think about when planning your trip. Whether it be a few days in France or a few weeks exploring further afield, the principles are the same; the only differences are budget and time.
The three most important things to work out before you begin are:
- Numbers: Who are you going to be travelling with? There is little point putting plans together if you don’t know how many people or vehicles will be in your group. This doesn’t seem like a huge problem right now but will as soon as you come to make train/ferry/hotel reservations, etc. These won’t always be easy to change at the last minute if your group size keeps changing. Work out who is going on the trip early and stick to it.
- Duration: Most people will be taking time off work to make such a trip, so it is important to make sure everyone is agreed on its duration. You may find that some are confined to strict departure/return dates whereas others may have more freedom. This will need to be considered when you choose routes/destinations so as to allow for potential delays, adverse weather, etc.
- Budget: Nobody likes talking about money but everyone in your group needs to set and agree to a budget for the trip. Ferry/Euro tunnel fares, fuel, accommodation, food, drink, etc. All need to be planned for on top of each person’s own bike preparations. For longer trips it is advisable (once accommodation, destinations, routes, etc. have been calculated and their costs split evenly between all members of the group) to open a joint bank account within the group and have all members make monthly deposits to contribute to their share of the costs. This has two functions: firstly it ensures that all those who say they want to go are actually committed to the trip, and are unlikely to pull out at the last minute without a very good reason. The second is that it provides the funds to pay deposits for certain bookings that may require them without any one member of the group being “out of pocket”.
All other decisions left to be made will be controlled by at least one of the three elements set-out above, so it is important to have these in place before you continue. For example, your chosen destination will be determined entirely by whether or not you have the time necessary to reach the location as well as whether you will have the funds to support such a journey. In other words, be realistic in your planning. If you only have a few days then you won’t be able to reach southern Spain and get home again. Similarly, if you will be travelling on a limited budget consider camping or hostels and cook basic meals with camping equipment rather than eating in restaurants for the whole trip. Ultimately, it’s your holiday so it should be whatever you want it to be, just don’t lose perspective otherwise the trip may flop before you’ve even left Blighty!
Now that the boring, albeit necessary, stuff is out of the way, you can get on with the finer details and really make the adventure come alive. With dates and durations in mind it’s now time to get the maps out and decide where you are going to go. Knowing how many days riding you have available will allow you to plan your route properly. Ideally aim for between 150 & 250 miles per day. Remember, it’s not a race; be comfortable and take in the scenery. 200 miles a day doesn’t sound like much but when you consider you will be on roads you don’t know, following maps and directions, stopping for photos, getting lost and generally having a good time, I’m sure you’ll find it plenty. The last thing you’ll want to do on your trip is get to your accommodation each night after a bone rattling 400 miles and realise that you haven’t seen anything of the country you have just passed through. Think about taking a coffee break every 60-70 miles; stretch the legs, chat about the last leg of the journey and check the maps for the leg ahead. Arrive at your accommodation in daylight.
There are 3 main options when choosing a route for this type of trip:
Always check local road and vehicle laws before you depart and ensure that you and your vehicle comply. Take multiple copies of your V5c document, Insurance and MOT certificates. Also obtain an international driver permit from the Post Office or The AA before you travel. All of this may save you time and money at border crossing or if you are stopped by the authorities. A European Health Insurance card is also recommended alongside personal travel insurance for you and your bike.
Check speed limits and remember that they are likely to need converting from KPH to MPH if your odometer doesn’t display both. Also make yourself familiar with local driving customs if you can. Many countries in Europe have lower driving standards than the UK so be aware of this and be prepared. Drink drive limits also differ from country to country so if you plan on celebrating your achievements, make sure you are fit to drive in respect of local laws before mounting up. Driving under the influence of any substance is not recommended or encouraged in anyway.
Some countries may require documentation such as a ‘Vehicle Bail Bonds’ (Spain) which must be obtained before travelling to the country. It is also wise to make a record of local emergency numbers for each of the countries you are visiting along with those of your travel companions. A spread sheet of contact number circulated to each member of the group may be useful.
GB number plate stickers are still required when riding abroad. Some number plates now include them but GB stickers can be purchased in most automotive stores or contact a number plate maker to obtain one.
Obtain the correct insurance for your bike if you don’t already have it. Make sure you are covered for European travel and that this cover is valid for the whole of your trip, both in duration and the countries you will be visiting. Most insurers also offer international breakdown/recovery packages. If you don’t already have international breakdown and recovery it is highly recommended that you buy a suitable policy for your trip. In the unlikely event that you breakdown or have an accident while aboard it can be very expensive to repatriate a vehicle without assistance.
Travel/medical insurances are advisable. Not all countries accept European Health Insurance cards and they only provide for basic care. In the event that you have an accident abroad you will want the reassurance that your medical bills will be taken care of and, if necessary, you will be repatriated.
Prepaid credit/debit cards are the safest method of taking your money with you when you travel but it is also important to make sure you have a good amount of cash with you as well. It is likely that you will be travelling through some fairly remote areas at times, and not all fuel stations across Europe will accept debit/credit card payment. Similarly, smaller cafes, restaurants, hostels, etc. may not accept card payment. If you intend visiting areas where travellers are known to be vulnerable or where crime rates are higher than normal it is wise to split the cash equally between the group.
You will be driving as many miles in just a few days as most people accrue in 6 months, so bike maintenance is essential! Make sure the bike is fully serviced and any faults rectified before departure. New tyres are highly recommended- or at least make sure you have enough tread to last the whole trip with some left for after your return. Headlamp covers are recommended for European cover to align the headlamp beam to the right hand side of the road and avoid blinding other road users. Some spare parts may be carried but keep these to a minimum unless you have a support vehicle following you. Spare light bulbs, tyre sealant in case of a puncture, spare levers and foot pegs in case of a drop should be plenty. Anything more serious will require the attention of a garage or bike shop. A basic tool kit is also recommended for fixing simple issues at the side of the road. Based on the stock tool kit that is supplied with the bike but bolstered with electrical tape, cable ties, lock wire, etc.
Clothing is important. Make sure your bike gear is up to scratch and replace anything that is worn out or unsuitable for the trip. Spare gloves are a good idea in case 1 pair gets wet or torn. Check the weather forecast for your trip and pack accordingly.
Luggage will be a major consideration when preparing your bike for the trip. There are many quality manufactures of motorcycle luggage and many different types of luggage to choose from. Hard luggage is best for this type of travel due to its durability and water resistance, however it doesn’t suit all types of bikes- Sports bike for example will accept a top box on a rack but not solid panniers; soft luggage will be more suitable but you need to think about keeping your kit dry inside. Don’t be tempted to pack too much though. Lay out what you think you’ll need and then discard half of it. Extra luggage is extra weight which will make the bike less stable, harder to control and less fuel efficient.
A basic first aid kit is a good idea. One kit between a group of 4-6 is normally sufficient. Larger groups may like to consider taking more than one kit and sharing them around the group. Local Language phrase books are also useful and again can be split between the group members to carry.
Whether you are using maps or satnav equipment as your primary navigational tools it is always wise to carry a back-up. Every member of the group should be carrying their own maps and route cards detailing the agreed route, agreed stops, agreed timings and accommodation details. It can be easy to get split up, especially in towns and cities, so if everyone has a map they can find their way to the next meeting point.
In summary, it’s actually quite simple to organise a foreign adventure on your bike and it doesn’t have to cost a small fortune or last a whole year. Be clear about how long you have for your trip and how much you have to spend after preparing the bike for the trip. Be realistic about your limits and set achievable aims. Don’t over estimate your ability or willingness to put in long distances; keep your daily mileage sensible and conservative- this will aid with any delays you might incur and heighten the overall enjoyment of the trip. Careful route planning and prior preparation of paperwork and bookings will take the stress out of the actual journey and allow you to relax. Proper preparation of your bike will minimise the chance of breakdowns and accidents. All that is left now is for you to round up a group of friends and get planning!
- There and back again! Simply choose a single destination point (and overnight/rest stops along the way), ride to it and ride back again along the same route. Not particularly adventurous but it really depends on the purpose of your particular trip- if you intend to undertake some kind of pilgrimage, to Le Mans for example, and have a limited amount of time to spend on the road then this may well be the best option for you.
- The Loop: The journey starts and finishes at the same location, typically a ferry port or international train terminal on the other side of the water. You will plan your journey from your chosen departure point and select a route that will take you out in an arc, full circle, in the time and mileage available to you. This is a great option if you want to tour one specific country which is immediately accessible from Britain or loop through a few smaller countries in close proximity, although it can sometimes be difficult to include all of the places you want to see in just one trip.
- Globetrotter! For those with a little more time to spare and who really want to rack up some serious miles and explore new places. In essence this is a ‘Loop’ but on a larger scale. The start and finish point is your own front door but you never travel the same road twice! Picture this if you will; Heading out of your driveway towards the docks at Portsmouth where you muster with half a dozen of your closest biking buddies and together you board a ferry to Bilbao, Spain; from here the ride takes you East towards Barcelona before turning north and crossing the boarding into France. Skirting round the south coast, past Marseille and Monaco and on towards Italy. Here the terrain changes as you rise up into the Alps and for the first time it feels less like a holiday and more like an adventure! The choice is now yours; north further still into Switzerland, Liechtenstein or Austria and the rest of Western Europe or deepen the adventure by pressing on into Slovenia, Croatia or Hungary. This journey so far would be somewhere in the region of 1200 miles and would probably take around 7 or 8 days of leisurely riding (3-4 days if you don’t intend stopping for any sightseeing and really want to get the miles down). Rounding off this trip back through Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands is another 800 miles which would be the best part of another 4 days riding. On the face of it, this looks pretty daunting; traversing 8 different countries in a little under 2 weeks, but it is in fact entirely possible. With a little careful planning this could easily become the adventure of a life time. But, before you run off and book a ferry, there a few more things to think about before you set off.