Consider a Cycling Tour for a Unique Vacation Experience!
If you’re a cyclist, a cycling trip in Europe is probably on your “to do” list. A bicycling trip can be a ton of fun if the weather is great and the riding is good; or it can be pure misery if it’s raining and you have to ride over slippery cobbled streets for the next 40 miles. (See , “It’s Raining…Now What?") Either way, you’ll have great stories to tell!
One of our adventures was a week long, self-guided bike trip from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary and it was, to put it mildly, fantastic! We chose a self-guided option since we wanted to go at our own pace. While a self-guided tour may not be for everyone, there are many ways to structure your trip – guided or self-guided, varying degrees of difficulty and length. You can even do bike and boat tours where you ride during the day and stay on boats or barges at night! You’re only limited by your bike handling skills and your desire to ride…. oh yeah, and time and money…. So here’s our trip and how we did it. Hope it inspires you to plan your own two-wheeled tour!
Selecting a tour company
We selected our tour company based on a number of factors, including: location, price, departure dates, trip length, ride profiles, whether self-guides (doing it on your own) were available and tour reputation. Our tour company put together the ride package – hotel, equipment, transfers and other options. Breakfast was included, but airfare wasn't. Some dinners and transfers from Budapest to Vienna were optional. The tour company was a U.S. consolidator that was connected to a local tour company in Austria. We were happy with the Austrian company overall, with a couple of exceptions which are covered under each heading.
We brought our helmets and rented bicycles. Bringing your own bike can be really expensive, and nerve racking, and inconvenient apart from the actual riding. I recently read that it can cost anywhere from $50-$150 to bring your own bike, and if you have a nice bicycle, damage in transit can be a concern. Sure, rental equipment is not the same as having your own, and the rentals we had weren’t anything special. For example, my husband, an excellent bike handler, had a problem with his chain repeatedly coming off. We debated bringing our shoes and pedals, but ultimately decided against it for no other reason than luggage space. The bicycles came kitted out with saddle bags, spares tubes and tire pumps. As luck would have it, I rode the entire week without a flat until the last 5 kilometers riding into Budapest!
The cycling tour company transferred our luggage from point A to point B every day, and it went like clockwork.
Since we were on a self-guided tour, there was no guide to turn to or support vehicle following us in case we got tired or had major equipment issues. We did get a list of telephone numbers to call if we ran into mechanical problems. Fortunately, we didn’t need to use it.
Your level of accommodations may depend on the tour company, but the tour companies we looked were all roughly similar in price and in what they offered. The company we used offered a choice of either (A) 3 and four star hotels or (B) cozy inns. We chose the 3 and 4 star hotels and for the most part, they were nothing fancy, but the people were wonderful. The accommodations in some of the rural areas were uhm, shall we say, a bit more rustic than I was hoping for, but when you’re in the middle of nowhere, you need to be a bit more flexible. Again, the people made up for any shortcomings in the hotels.
So the food was surprisingly… good! I had no expectations, which probably was better. Also, everyone was unexpectedly accommodating of my vegetarianism, but I’m also not fussy. I just eat around whatever meat may be in a dish. We had traditional dishes like goulash and others that I had no idea what they were, except delish!
Everyone along the way was wonderful. It may have been helpful that I taught myself enough Hungarian to ask directions, order food and read basic signs, and Hungarians were genuinely curious about two Americans pedaling through their country. Austrians were also very friendly, oddly mistaking us for German not American, which probably worked in our favor, even though our combined German vocabulary is about 20 words...
The Ride Profile
You don’t need to be a Tour de France rider to go on a cycling tour. Our tour from Vienna to Budapest was classified as “leisurely” since the profile was mostly flat and it only covered about 25-40 miles per day. We live at sea level and are far from mountain goats, so we thought “leisurely” was our best option. The path in Austria was mainly paved, while the route in Hungary ranged from country roads to dirt paths through farmlands. From time to time we had to ride a bit on well used roads, but the great thing about riding in Europe is that cyclists and motorists seem to coexist in relative harmony.
How did we know where we were going? Did we have GPS? As part of our trip orientation, the tour company provided directions or “cue sheets”. While directions were detailed and included maps and specific mileage, they were sometimes hilarious and occasionally hard to understand because they were direct translations from German to English. We didn’t have GPS, and I don't recall it being an option, but we had a compass which we take on trips and it proved very helpful.
The actual cycling was more fun than you can even imagine! Not just because we were riding in great weather, but also because we got to stop in places we might not have otherwise seen - tiny villages to get coffee at a local cafe, roadside stands to buy fruit, neighborhood markets and bakeries to buy snacks or stuff for a picnic. The sights and scenery were spectacular. In rural Hungary, we saw a family riding in a horse drawn cart and on the outskirts of Budapest we passed a former communist military base – very cool to see. In Bratislava, Slovakia, we crossed the “UFO” bridge into the uncrowded capital to have lunch. In Austria, our route took us through a nudist area along the Danube that left us wondering how no one was sunburned!
So, there you have it! Remember: (1) Cycling tours come in many shapes and sizes. (2) You don’t need to be an Olympic cyclist to go on a cycling tour. (3) The journey is the point so have fun!