Cycling in Europe – Part 2

Last week I outlined a few tips for planning your European cycling adventure. Below is more advice ranging from trip selection to gear and everything you may need along the way. Enjoy!

Trip Selection for Easy Route Finding:

  • If you don’t speak the local language for asking directions etc, you should first try a tour along a river so finding your way along the route is less difficult. The most popular of these, offered for over 30 years, is along the Danube from Passau, Germany to Vienna, Austria. This route is so popular that a new tour starts each day from mid-April to mid-October, and they have now developed many alternatives including the ‘standard’, ‘classic’, ‘athletic’, ‘families’, etc. On the standard, you cycle over 30 miles per day along a path, now paved, which was formerly used to tow barges upriver—and it’s slightly downhill with the prevailing winds at your back!
  • There are several locations along the Danube where you could add mileage to visit sights or towns off the primary bike path. In some sections the route is on a bike path, other places a bike lane along a highway, and still other points, in towns, where you ride in the street. It’s almost entirely paved. Most of the route has a choice of riding on the north or south side of the river, and there are many sites to cross the river on bridges, dams or ferries.
  • If you want to avoid cycling one day, rides can be purchased to the next overnight town via either the railroad adjacent to the river, or a Danube river excursion boat. The ‘standard’ self-guided tour is an especially good value of under $800 for seven nights, including bike and half-board in a double room. There is a single supplement for solo travelers, and a supplement for the highest season, but a discount for early booking. The ‘classic’ is a little more expensive but differs on the sixth day, and perhaps on accommodations. The ‘athletic’ has longer daily rides and is completed in five nights, but hard chargers could link this with other river valley tours to the west (Inn River from Innsbruck to Passau) or east continuing along the Danube toward Bratislava, Slovakia.
  • Another alternative for easy navigation is Austria’s pretty Tauern Bike Path, along the Salzach River from the Krimml waterfalls, highest in Europe, to Passau, where you could link with the Danube tour for another week in the saddle. Other easy-navigation tours are following the Main River from Bamberg to Aschaffenburg, Germany, and along Italy’s Val Pusteria, starting in Brunico, then south through the Alps from Dobbiaco (aka Toblach) to Venice mostly on a rail-to-trail path.
  • Turns along the routes are usually marked by unique stickers on signs or lampposts, but sometimes they are difficult to spot, so you should not only be following the narrative instructions but also the maps provided. It’s prudent to carry a small compass, and some cyclists use bicycle GPS computers. For emergencies, you may be able to use your smart phone for directions and map, though this would incur a costly international data charge. You might even take your dismounted auto GPS, provided you upload the proper maps and plan a way to recharge it. If your tour operator does not indicate they will provide a bicycle computer, you should consider bringing your own to temporarily install on the rental bike. They are very useful in measuring the distance to your next turn, information always provided in the narrative course description.
Tauren Bike Path, Austria

Tauren Bike Path, Austria

Getting Around:

  • Many self-guided tours offer ‘upgraded’ hotel options (4 star vs. 3), but we have found that 3 star hotels are quite comfortable and always include en suite bathrooms. Particularly in Germany and Austria, there is often a ‘half-board’ option with supper included as well as buffet breakfasts. Half-board accommodation is usually a good value and saves you the trouble of searching out a restaurant each night.
  • MasterCard and Visa credit cards can be used to pay your tour operator and are accepted throughout Europe in all but the smallest stores. You should notify the bank issuing your credit card of any foreign travel to insure their security system doesn’t hiccup over your initial purchases from unusual locations. Unlike American banks, European credit cards use an implanted ‘chip,’ which requires you to key a PIN number for each purchase, and therefore they are more secure. However, almost all European facilities can still use our magnetic swipe cards as well as the new technology. Your bank may be able to replace your current credit card with one with chip technology, and this new card could then be used for increased security both in Europe and the U.S.
  • You’ll need cash for lunches and incidental purchases, so pick up some foreign cash before leaving home. To avoid high fees for delivery to your home, check your bank for their ‘international tellers’ where you may be able to pick up foreign money directly. There are ATMs almost everywhere in Europe, so there is no need for travellers’ checks. But if you make ATM withdrawals via credit card, that transaction is treated as a loan on which you pay interest, versus withdrawal via debit card, which draws directly on your account at home.
  • If you are not fluent in the local language, you should at least be prepared to ask and understand simple directions in event you get off route because you either miss a turn or take a short cut. Carry a pocket dictionary for such emergencies as well as for help reading a menu.
  • Plan on an average of 10 miles per hour (16 kmph) because you’ll slow down for scenery, photo ops, and map checks, as well as attractive nuisances such as pastry and gelato shops.
Val Pusteria, Italy

Val Pusteria, Italy

Gear:

  • Rental bikes are almost always well-maintained hybrids – 21-speed, fat tires, flat pedals and upright handlebars, not sleek but safer, especially on rare unpaved sections. Each bicycle usually comes with cable lock, tube repair kit, bell, handlebar bag and a detachable rear pannier. Many have fenders and lights; some have no water bottle holder, but you can put your water in the pannier. Sports shoes are better to wear for this type of riding than hard-soled cycling shoes because you’ll likely park the bike often to walk to sights enroute such as monasteries, museums, castles and quaint villages.
  • If you prefer to ride your own bike, you may be able to arrange to ship it to a bike shop at your starting city. But if your ending city is not the same as the start, you’ll have to deal with repositioning your bike-shipping container. All this of course would be much more trouble and expense than the approximately ten Euros a day to rent a bike, albeit a hybrid, from your tour operator.
  • In an outer pocket of each suitcase, you should insert a copy of your itinerary including dates and hotel names, along with a paper copy of your passport, annotated with your e-mail address and cell phone number if you travel with one. That will facilitate recovery of misplaced baggage. Pack a few wire hangers for use in drying your washed cycling clothes each day, and a travel alarm clock because few European hotels furnish them in rooms.
  • Though your baggage will be transferred each day to your next hotel, usually guaranteed to arrive by 5:00 pm, you should carry in your pannier: warm or wet weather clothing, water, small first aid kit, camera, tire repair kit, sunglasses, etc.
  • To stay safe, you should pack your bicycle helmet and be familiar with European traffic signs.

Additional Advice:

  • If you are traveling from North America, you need to consider jet lag, and a day or two of sightseeing prior to start of cycling is both prudent and fun. Research at the US Argonne National Labs revealed that a modified diet greatly assists in overcoming jet lag. As soon as you board your flight, reset your watch and put yourself mentally on the time zone of your destination. I.e. sleep on the flight when it’s sleep time in your arrival location and be mentally active reading, talking or working puzzles at hours of wakefulness in your destination. Once you arrive, stay outdoors in the sunshine as much as possible and don’t nap until it’s normal sleeping time at your new location. Eye shades and ear plugs are useful as well as sleeping medication for the flight across the Atlantic, and these can also help you stay asleep throughout the first few nights abroad.
  • Many European hotels now offer WiFi service, some fee based, others complimentary. So if you have a smart phone or iPad, take it along to check daily weather forecasts, access e-mail, and stay current with news back home. These instruments, as well as laptops, digital cameras and other modern technology can be recharged right from the wall sockets, without transformers, provided you have the appropriate plug adapter. For a tutorial check here.
  • Sometimes your tour will require a short leg to be completed on a train, so be advised that train cars marked with a bicycle sign are where bikes must be loaded. Before boarding you need to have a ticket for yourself and one for your bike, and tickets are required to be ‘validated’, or punched by a clock machine located in each station, so they cannot be reused.
  • Because cell phone technology differs between North America and Europe, your cell phone cannot be used in Europe unless it is a ‘world phone’ and thus compatible on both systems. If you want a cell phone for emergencies, consider buying an inexpensive phone in Europe, like at a Vodaphone store, with a small-prepaid call option, so there’s no need for a service contract.
  • That’s a lot of detail, and hopefully it won’t scare you off, but only serve to reduce your vacation hassle and expense. Cycling in Europe is really great fun, with scenery, people and cuisine that you’ll remember forever. If you have any other questions, please leave comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them!

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