How to Plan Your Ride Through Europe
In the fall of 2013, we fulfilled two long-held dreams. One was to travel through western Europe. Two was to see it from the back of a motorcycle. We were on a tight budget, but determined to go beyond the museums and postcards; to meet the locals see how people really lived. The only regret we had was not renting two bikes so that Mrs. McQueen could ride on her own. We hope you can use our experiences to plan for your own trip through western Europe. Here's how we did it.
We budgeted $2,500/person including bike rental, airfare, accommodations, food, and souvenirs for a 3 week tour. We ended up coming in way below that due to a few really helpful tricks. We found flights using Google Flights which gave us a nice bar graph of the costs over time, as well as the ability to select the cheapest flights among neighboring airports.
We planned a basic loop through as many countries as we thought we could fit in, in 3 weeks. We added our top cities we wanted to see, but left most detailed planning out. We didn't want to feel constrained by bookings and obligations. We did book a bicycle tour in Paris, and picked out some activities we thought would be fun, but everything was about the ride itself.
The biggest lesson we learned from this trip was not to over plan. We scheduled riding to a new location nearly every day without that much time to explore. This resulted in eventual exhaustion where we had to cut out a few destinations in order to rest. Keep in mind that while Europe looks tiny in comparison to the USA, and the miles in-between countries minimal, you will rarely, if ever, be traveling at freeway speeds. Don't expect to drive 200 miles in a couple of hours and have time to spend at your destination.
You should avoid the freeway at all cost if you want to enjoy your trip, and that means going about 50 KPH most of the time (except for the Autobahn. No rider in their right mind would avoid the Autobahn). We did end up on the freeway a few times due to time constraints and we regretted it every time. We recommend setting aside a day for travel and at least one day to explore.
Google Maps worked for us pretty well back in 2013, but now it's even better. We ran into a few issues with app not recognizing roads, or trying to send us into alleyways, but we got around okay. You do have to have an unlocked phone with a European SIM card, or an international data plan. The SIM cards with basic data are not expensive and we highly recommend it. It got us out of more than a few tight spots.
We made Frankfurt our starting point so that we could end up in Munich during Octoberfest. This worked out pretty well, but we recommend choosing a starting point that's near a major airport like Berlin or Paris, just so you can avoid the short, and often expensive flights to other cities. We rented our motorcycle from a small shop in Frankfurt for about $120/day. We went with a Kawasaki Vulcan 900, as it was the same bike we had a home and didn't want to worry about learning how to handle a new bike while traveling through countries we had never been to.
When to Go
We chose to let the price of airfare (about $700/person) determine our trip and it ended up being the absolute right choice. We left in late September and returned in the beginning of October. This meant that there were no American tourists anywhere. In fact tourism in general is really slow during the fall. We saw a few German tourists in Paris, but that was about it. Another plus for going in the fall was that we were in Munich right during Octoberfest.
The weather is really perfect this time of year. It was never too hot, and only a little chilly towards the end. We were fine with just our motorcycle jackets and thin hoody underneath. It did start to rain the last couple of days in Germany, but it wasn't a cold rain, so we managed with basic rain gear.
If you stay off the freeway and out of big cities, you will avoid seeing another tourist for days.
What to See
This all depends on where your interests lie. If you like food, find great places to eat. If you like history, there is much to choose from. Don't take anyone's word on what is the most rewarding destination or attraction. We went with the "go with the flow" approach and only scheduled a trip to the H. R. Geiger museum and a bicycle tour in Paris. Everything else we did was based on where we were, and what looked interesting. We will say that the more tourist attractions you avoid, the happier you'll be. Nothing says fun like standing in line for hours to see something you've already seen in photographs a million times that honestly looks better than the real thing. That said, if your dream is to kiss at the top of the Eiffel Tower, do it (We sure did).
Where to Stay
This is where the real money saving was at. If you haven't already heard of it, go make a profile on CouchSurfing.com and start hosting. We started Couch Surfing about seven years ago and it has made a huge difference in our traveling experience. We've hosted dozens of travelers and developed some incredible relationships. The main appeal is not the free accommodations, it's the people you get to meet.
Our favorite stories from the trip are of the people who hosted us. They all fed us at least once, some took us around their city to explore, and were always happy to have us stay with them. It may be hard to find someone to host you in the big cities, but if you get off the grid a bit, there a many who have never had a surfer before, and are excited to have you.
When we couldn't find a Couch Surfing host, we stayed at hostels. Europe has some incredible hostels, but they don't come cheap. We paid about $90/person and it wasn't always the best accommodations. They do come with a really good breakfast, so it wasn't too bad of a deal.
Our second favorite place to stay were the agritourismos in Italy. Basically a bed and breakfast in the Italian country side. They aren't too expensive, less than some of the hostels we stayed at, and it was absolutely gorgeous and full of history. They also served us breakfast, so that was a big plus. Seriously, if you ever spend any time in Italy, check out agritoursmo.it and find a location near where you go. This was by far the most relaxing portion of our trip.
What to Eat
Apart from our generous Couch Surfing hosts and other meals included with accommodations, finding places to eat was not easy. We should have done the research before we left so that we were prepared with a place to go instead of aimlessly searching for something that looked good. A few days we skipped a meal altogether because of the language issues making it extremely difficult to find a place, and then having to awkwardly order food.
Our saving grace was the grocery store. When we got to Italy and we ran into the siesta issue, where we couldn't find a single open restaurant. We rode around until we found a grocery store and bought some fruit, cheese, bread, and wine. It was absolutely delicious and very inexpensive. Especially in places like France, we often had way better food from a local grocery than in a restaurant.
It all depends on your budget and taste.
We were not prepared for the amount of difficulties with language. Everyone we spoke to who had been through Europe said that they had no issues finding people who spoke English. As it turned out, those people had really only been to major cities or tourist destinations. On our trip, we were frequently in little villages or on tiny mountain roads. Many of the locals looked at us like we were aliens who had no reason to be there. This was both a highlight and a dreaded experience. Thanks to our SIM card and google translate, we were able to get basic needs met, but it was extremely stressful each time. At the very least you should know "Hello, Thank you, Sorry, and Do you speak English?" in each of the languages you'll be coming across. Luckily Mrs. McQueen knew a bit of French that got us along most of the countries. All of the locals were extremely friendly and helpful, just be prepared to use sign language and drawing in a pinch. And apologies. Lots of apologies.
Europe is incredibly safe. At no point did I feel any less secure than in the United States. Make sure not to fall for the scams near attractions; anyone selling you something from a ring, or a cooler is a bad idea. But other than keeping an extra photo ID tucked away in a place other than our wallets, we didn't take any other precautions.
Driving in Italy was terrifying. It seems like most Italian drivers take the rules of the roads more like guidelines. Just try and stay predictable and at a steady speed. It was equally scary in Paris as there are not always lane lines, so again, just try and be predictable and aware. Funnily enough the only accident that occurred was while we were in a taxi in Germany who didn't stop in time on the Autobahn. So be wary of taxis.
Speaking of the Autobahn, be aware that there are two lanes, the insanely fast and stupid slow. You have to navigate the 50kph trucks in the right lane and the 200kph Bugatti Veyrons in the left lane. It's exhilarating and terrifying trying to gauge how fast those headlights are coming towards you.
When you're not on the Autobahn, it's a good idea to stick to the speed limits, as finding out you received a ticket 8 months later that is now in the multiple thousand euros, is not a good way to remember your trip. There are speed cameras everywhere.
Swiss Freeway Pass
If you plan on driving through Switzerland (which you should because it's incredible), make sure to stop and get the freeway pass. We had no idea we needed one until we got to Lucerne and by then we couldn't find it for purchase anywhere. The fine for not having one is insane, and as a result we had to sneak out of the country so to speak. It turned out somewhat in our favor as we ended up on tiny mountain roads which went through some unforgettable scenery. However it took us an entire day to get to Italy and thus we had to change our original plans and cut out Venice and Rome.
Getting a cold
No one expects to get sick on their vacation, let alone a motorcycle trip where you can't rest while traveling. On day 2 of our trip, Mrs. McQueen came down with a head cold, and while it didn't ruin the trip, it did make for some difficult days riding where she couldn't wipe her nose. That was the other occurrence that drove our decision to cut out Venice and Rome and take a few days to relax at our Agritourismo in Genoa Italy. After just one day of resting, she was up and ready to go again. Just be sure to stay flexible and willing to change your plans.
Last minute accommodations
There were two instances where we had to come up with last minute places to stay. The first is we got Lausanne and Lucerne completely mixed up and ended up in a completely different city than our Couch Surfing host. We didn't realize this until it was late in the evening, and we hadn't picked up any Swiss francs and found ourselves in a residential area with no idea of where to go. Once again our SIM card saved the day and we were able to find a hostel within a few miles.
The second instance was that we hadn't quite figured out where to stay the night before our flight departure, and we decided to wing it. When we arrived in Frankfurt, it was during a book fair and literally everyone was booked. It was a bit surreal actually. We did end up finding a hostel that could accommodate us, but it took an expensive taxi ride to get there and it wasn't near the airport at all.
It's really better to have your accommodations lined up before you leave.
This was our first time traveling internationally and so we weren't really sure what to expect with how to have cash. Most places took credit cards, but when they didn't, we were left in a really tight spot. We ended up getting a cash advance with our Chase Sapphire card which has no foreign transaction fees. It turned out the cash advance fee was way less than the foreign transaction fees of our debit card. Make sure to have a clear idea of what the fees of all your credit/debit cards are before traveling, and that your credit card has a pin number set up. Most places in Europe require a pin number with all credit card payments.
Yes you can get cash from your bank before you leave. However we weren't sure how much cash we'd need and didn't want to walk around with $1000 + in cash on us. It's completely up to you.
Gas in Italy
If your travel plans take you through Italy, make sure you understand everything about the siesta. Usually this meant that everything is closed from about noon to 5 p.m. This got us into a difficult spot when we were riding through the amazing mountain roads in the Cinque Terre and ran low on gas. There were no gas stations to be found anywhere, and when we did find one, it was closed. We ended up having to coast down the hill to the next major town and spending a few hours walking around the city before the gas stations opened again. After this, we just never let the tank get below half full.
This trip was a life changing experience which became our source of inspiration to travel the world by motorcycle. If you've ever had a desire to go, just do it. You don't need the perfect equipment or gear, or the perfect plan. Figure out the basics and have some cash on reserve for emergencies and just do it. It will change your perspective on the world, make you a better person, and breathe energy and passion into your life.