12 Aug A First Timer’s Survival Guide to Self-Guided Bike Tours in Europe
We recently did a one week self-guided bike trip from Bruges to Amsterdam through the towns and countryside of Belgium and The Netherlands. It was our first biking tour, and we really enjoyed the balance of pre-arranged logistics with the flexibility and autonomy to take each day at our own pace. You can read more about the trip and check out the photos in our recent blog post.
As newbies to the self-guided cycling tour world, traveling with two couples (my parents and my aunt and uncle) who had done self-guided tours before, we learned as we went. We thought other first time travelers would benefit from our lessons learned, so here are a few tips we picked up along the way.
You’re in a new country, the language is foreign, you don’t know your way around, you’re at the whim of climate, construction, missing signs, GPS batteries failing, etc. You’re going to make last minute decisions without all the necessary information and then be able to roll with the consequences. As the cliche goes, it’s not so much about the destination but the journey, with an extensive problem-solving process included.
Do your homework.
As much as you need to be flexible and go with the flow, planning really does help, too. Look at the map ahead of time each day. Familiarize yourself with the road signs (a blue circle with a bike and a diagonal red line through it does not mean bikes are prohibited!).
Know some basic bike skills, especially how to fix a flat. We learned how to put water in the tube to find the source of the flat so you can then patch it up. Learn how to take off the wheel, fix a chain, and make adjustments to the seat and handlebars.
This post covers a lot of the nitty-gritty practicalities, but don’t forget why you’re on the trip in the first place. Plan to stop and take breaks. Enjoy the sights, take photos, and give yourself a chance to rest your legs.
Lessons We Learned the Hard Way
Dutch Bike Tours provided us with four different methods of navigation: Number cards (see explanation below), print out directions, regional bike map, and GPS. At first I thought this was over-kill, but each system seemed to work better at different points in the journey.
About the number system in Belgium and Holland: The network of bike routes in these countries can be navigated by going from one intersection to the next, and each intersection has a number. Signs posted at each intersection will tell you which number you’re at and which way to go to reach other numbered intersections nearby.
Using the intersection numbers method was relatively effective once we knew what to look for. There were a couple instances, however, when we reached one intersection and saw no signs for the number that was supposed to follow. There were also a few time where the intersection sign was missing or we just never found it.
Early on, we were mistaking some of the signs – thinking we had arrived at intersection #4 (for example) and looking for the next number on our list, when in reality, the sign was directing us onward toward #4. The critical difference is that an arrow next to the number indicates that you’re not yet there- pretty straight forward.
Ironically, when the numbers system was working well, the GPS were often telling us to go a different way. Trying to use these two systems at once is not a good idea since the GPS is primarily concerned with your final destination, whereas the numbered signs are taking you on a specific route. I recommend using the numbers system first along with the printed directions. Then, when you don’t have enough information from the road signs or you’re doubting the path, consult the printed map and the GPS.
Another hiccup we had early on was not realizing that the number sequence on our card was slightly different than our printed directions for the day. It turned out that there were two route options for that particular leg of the journey, which had us very confused when we came across the discrepancy mid-route. From then on, we made sure to check our number card against the printed directions so that everyone would be on the same page.
We learned quickly that surprisingly few places accept credit cards, even those that have the required chip and travel notification. In Belgium, we were able to use our cards at the supermarket and about half of the restaurants. Otherwise, it was cash only. In Holland, we found that even the supermarkets wouldn’t accept credit cards (only ATM/debit cards from MasterCard, not Visa). We used credit whenever we could (to rack up miles, of course!) and then used our no-fee Fidelity ATM card to withdraw euros as needed.
To save money along the way, pick up food at a supermarket when it’s available. We had a few great picnics with pre-packaged salads, baguettes, sliced meat, sliced cheese, grapes, apples, strawberries, and chocolate. (Be sure to pack utensils you might need.) Usually you can look ahead on the printed map for the day and see where there will be towns along your route. Sometimes you’ll pass through a place with a supermarket before you’re ready to eat, but that’s a good time to make use of your pannier until you find a nice picnic spot down the road. We also think it’s wise to research the hotel you’re heading to and whether it’s in a town or city where other dining options are available. We didn’t do this and ended up staying in two hotels where the hotel dining room was our only option. If you’re budget-sensitive, you probably don’t want to get stuck with only one, expensive option.
As a newbie to the self-guided bike tour world, it was definitely a great way to see a new region in depth. We really enjoyed being active every day, covering a lot of ground, being on our own schedule, and having our luggage transported for us. For flat trips in areas like Holland and Belgium, it’s a very approachable way to travel for people of different ages and abilities.
If you have any questions about this kind of tour or if you have your own advice to share, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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