Saturday, July 11, 2015

So, You Want To Ride In Europe.

So, You want to ride in Europe?

Mittenwald, Bavaria Germany.  Along the Austrian Border north of Innsbruck.

Since returning from a recent 21-day European riding trip, questions have been asked of me, almost daily.  What's the cost? What are the best locations? How to do it? These and much more are among the most common queries regularly received. 

Here is what you need to know.

Arguably, a motorcycle is simply the best way to travel around Europe.  You can go everywhere, park the bike nearly anywhere, and the cost of fuel makes it very economical.  Besides, motorcycling will open opportunities to make friends, discover lesser-known roads and see the ‘real’ Europe outside of the tourist centers. 

Fortunately, it’s not difficult or outrageously expensive.  In many ways, Motorcycling through Europe enables it to be less expensive for lodging, meals, and entertainment.  All you really need is your license, passport and credit card.  Some countries may hassle you if you don't have your International Drivers Permit.  Just bring a passport photo and your state drivers license to a AAA office (if you are a member) and pay the $15USD to have them make it up.  It's quite simple and is done in minutes.  If you are not a member of AAA, you should be.  Especially with their +Plus RV Motorcycle Premium Membership.  The first time you use it, will pay itself off for the year.

There are four ways one can go about doing some motorcycling in Europe.  Curiously, it’s similar for Europeans who want to rent or use a bike in the US.  Riders coming to the US have the option of buying a motorcycle here and selling it when finished.  In the EU, this is not really an option.

1)    Organized Motorcycle Tour

2)    Motorbike Rental

3)    Use of a friend’s bike.

4)    Air or Sea Cargo Transport of your motorcycle.

Unless you work for BMW Motorrad North America, a major Motorcycle Magazine or are invited on a press junket, these are your choices. 

One by one, the pros and cons of each will be illustrated and broken down.

Organized Motorcycle Tour
If you have a limited time (around one week) and don’t know Europe very well, it is probably best to book an organized Motorcycle tour.   There are several excellent tour companies that service all parts of Europe.  Edelweiss Bike Travel is the best known and has been a leader for over 30 years.  You arrange round-trip airfare to a starting point and just show up.  Everything is included in the price except drinks and souvenirs. 

The routes are often interesting, but the riding, per day, is fairly short.  Bear in mind, there is a limitation of the slowest person in that group.  Though you may not have to ride in a group formation, you’re still part of a group. 

Friends are easy to make as you all have similar mindsets. Extra days can be arranged, for a fee if you wish.  

Now, that’s the good.  Motorcycle tours are very expensive.  Someone is paying for the guide, to bring and return the motorcycles, and the tour company isn’t a charity.  They’re in it to make a profit.  None of this is wrong and the value to have peace of mind and to be led to beautiful sights is certainly there for many.

Unfortunately, if you wish to travel to a destination other than the route, you can’t. You can often make arrangements to rent the bike for additional days, at a premium.  Lastly, when one is in a tour group, most of the socializing remains in the tour group.  Sure you can talk to and get to know people, but when it’s time to leave, you’ve got to say goodbye. 

Motorbike Rental
If you are going to use a bike for less than three weeks, rental is probably the best and most economical option.  A variation of this to consider is a self-guided motorcycle tour.  One such company with a great reputation is Adriatic Moto Tours.  They will plan an Itinerary and arrange hotel reservations for you based on your desired destinations. 

Most major cities also have at least one agency that rents out motorcycles.  BMW is the principal brand offered for rent and to a lesser extent, H-D.  As in the US, there are smaller agencies that rent Ducati, Goldwings, and Triumph, but that’s it. If you're looking to rent a sportbike, a BMW S 1000 RR is your only practical choice. 

Motorcycle rentals are not quite like car rentals.  They start around €95 (currently $105USD) per day for a G 650 GS.  The prices go up to €221 ($244USD currently) for a K 1600 GTL.  The R 1200 GS is €166 per day.  The rate does go down if you rent it for a week or more.  Also luggage, tank bags, and GPS are all extra, ranging from €3-8 per day. 

A huge mistake Americans often make, is in believing that ‘bigger is better’.  It isn’t!  A smaller bike is advantageous in many ways.  Being light and maneuverable is a tremendous advantage when hitting switchbacks, city traffic and tight areas.

A BMW F 700 GS is truly a perfect bike for traveling Europe.  It’s nimble, fun, good looking and sips gas. Fuel prices range from $6-13 per gallon, depending on the country. 

Be advised, you’ll have to leave a €1000 insurance deposit on your credit card to cover the deductible should you return a bike that has any damage.  Also, a rental agency will usually need to have a deposit left on it of €1000 used toward the rental price that is non-refundable 10-14 days before the scheduled rental. 

To find a reputable rental agency, Google the closest major city and Motorcycle Rental. 

Use of a Friend’s Bike
If you are a personable person and have a good friend in Europe, you may be able to use his or her bike. 

That person must be one great friend and one that you would also gladly let use your bike when they visit the US. 

Send a copy of your state drivers license and passport so your friend can add you to insurance. 

Insist on paying your friend, in Euro, for the added insurance and wear and tear on the bike.  €200-€250 per week. 

If you are going to do a lot of traveling, arrange to get it serviced or have the tires replaced if they are getting worn. Also check if your friend needs any BMW parts, accessories, or apparel from the states.  It's typically much less expensive in the US. One can pick them up or order items at Irv Seaver BMW and bring them in your luggage.

The major benefit of using your friend’s bike is that since he or she rides, they can show you some of the best roads in the area and introduce you to other riders.

The danger is that, in the back of your mind, there is a constant awareness that you do NOT want to crash your friend’s bike.  A rental is no big deal.  You have insurance.  Your friend will have a more personal attachment to their bike, just like you.

Truly, do unto your friend, as you would have them do unto you.  Be very gracious!

Air or Sea Cargo of Your Personal Bike
If you are planning on doing a Round the World trip, this is probably your only option.  The exception would be that you will buy and sell one as you travel from continent to continent.  This tactic is particularly useful in Russia and China. 
If you plan or riding for several months or longer, this may also be the the best option for you, financially.  You will have to source your own European insurance.

If you have a specially modified bike to accommodate a disability, this is likely your only option. 
Otherwise, the cost of transport, customs, potential customs delays, temporary import permits and legal paperwork is probably not worth it. 

Let’s say you are moving to Europe.  It’s probably best to sell your bike in the US and get an EU based bike in Europe. 

The primary focus of these options is cost and convenience.  Sometimes a situation will make one option more attractive versus another. 

Thoughts on Riding in Europe
Getting the bike is the easy thing.  Once you have it, there’s quite a bit one needs to be aware of when riding throughout Europe.

European Streets were built around horse-drawn carts rather than Cadillac super cruisers.  They are often narrow and one-way.  Lane sharing, in various forms, is legal and practiced by most riders. 
Parking is also a blessing for motorcyclists.  You can, without anyone blinking an eye ride onto a pedestrian area and park the bike where the bicycles are.  Just don’t block a walkway. 

Please note that Europe has graduated motorcycle licenses.  It is very expensive for most Europeans to get a full, unrestricted license.   Upwards of €1000 is spent on motorcycle training, licensing, and fees to ride a full-size bike. 

For this reason, most motorcyclists are exceptional riders.  They love their bikes, and they truly appreciate other motorcyclists.   Be sure to say hello to other riders and don’t be afraid to ask for advice or directions.

Unlike the US, most Europeans speak two, three or more languages.  Many will be able to speak at least minimal English.  It’s all on the approach.  It’s recommended that unless you are in Britain, Ireland or the UK, that you politely ask if you may speak in English.  If they don’t, they will try to find a friend who does.  If you don’t act as though everyone should bow down to you as an American, you’ll do just fine in all of Europe. 

It is highly advisable to learn a few phrases in the language of the country you will be spending the most time.

Surprisingly, if you know a little Spanish, you’ll be much closer to communicating with people in Portugal, Italy and, of course, Spain.

Learn the standardized road signs of the EU.  Many signs are similar to the US while others are more difficult to work out. 

In Europe, like New England, the towns are fairly close together.  Most have a town center with a church.  Many even have a castle in various states of decay.  Remember, Europe is much older than the US.  Movement of goods was limited to waterways and horse-drawn carts.

Unless you are in a tremendous hurry, avoid the Motorway, Autobahn, AutoStrada, Autopista, or Toll Roads.  Smaller highways and roadways connect all of the towns.  These are much more interesting.  Before you ask, yes, it’s true, throughout many parts of the German Autobahn, there is no speed limit.  If you are there, go ahead and give it a go.  Just be mindful of cars that wish to overtake you.  The BMW K 1200 R Sport had done 230+ Kph (145 MPH), with a passenger, before prudence brought me down to a more reasonable speed.

If you are riding or driving on any European equivalent of a freeway, there are a couple of things one must know.  First, it is forbidden to pass on the right side.  This rule is true, no matter how many lanes of travel there are.  Always pass on the left.  If you are in Ireland or the United Kingdom, just use your common sense and reverse it.  Don’t stay in the fast lane.  Leave it for passing unless traffic is heavy.  Make your pass and go back the one of the other lanes.  If traffic is heavy or backed up, and you are going to split lanes, do it between the Number one (passing) lane and the number two lane.

The result of going 124kph in Austria.
Most of Europe has speed cameras on the highways.  They are often set to go off at 5ks (kilometers) over the speed limit.  Be mindful of this.  Traffic stops by police are fairly rare.  If you are stopped, most countries will have you pay the officer right then and there.  Yes, they do accept credit cards.  If you have the cash, many country’s police officers will allow you to negotiate a little if you are respectful.  Humbly admitting fault and thanking them for their duty to safety helps you, when negotiating. 

Switzerland, in particular, takes their speed laws extremely seriously.   You will spend more time looking at your speedometer than the beautiful scenery.  DON’T SPEED in Switzerland!  The ticket will cost you about $300USD payable right there and then.  They do accept credit cards for your convenience.  If you can’t or don’t want to pay, your vehicle will be impounded, and you will be left on foot. It's even worse for Swiss nationals. 

If you get ‘flashed’ by a speed camera, just remember what country you were in when it happened.  Let the rental agency, tour company, or your friend know.  Be sure to make payment arrangements. 

Europe is quite beautiful and steeped with rich history.  If you’re racing through, you are missing most of it and being a jerk.  There are plenty of open highways and moto-awesome roads that draw locals.  Much like our Snake, Dragon, and Angeles Crest Highway.  Ask other motorcyclists.  They will tell you where and usually tell you where cops like to hide with their speed guns.  

Maps do exist of some of the best motorcycling in Europe.  They are much like our outstanding Butler Motorcycle Maps.  Some are available on paper while others are available online.  FIM-Europe has some excellent maps, by region, available for free. Alpentourer is also a great resource.  Unlike the US, most Europeans and Germans, in particular, have similar spirited road tastes to motorcycles.  This means a good auto-touring map will also be great for motorcycles, too.

Certain countries have certain driving cultures.  Though incomplete, this should be a pretty good picture of what to expect.

Austria-  Beautiful scenery. Very good drivers and riders.  Cops like to use radar on the side of the road at the main entrance and exit of towns near the border.  Police negotiation is possible if stopped.  You need to purchase a special pass to use their Autobahn. 
Belgium-  Pretty mellow.  Usual speed cameras on freeways and in major cities.
Czech Republic-  Gas is much less expensive.  Though many places accept Euro, the currency is the Krona (or crown).  Few speed cameras mostly in Prague.  Much fewer people speak English outside of Prague.
France-  Lane Sharing is widely accepted.  You must carry a hi-viz vest and wear it if you are broken down on the side of the road.  Roads leading to Paris are typically very boring.  Southern and Western France and the alpine region is where it typically gets much more interesting.
England and the United Kingdom-  They love their speed cameras on the motorway.  London has a congestion tax/fee for cars.  Bikes are exempt.  It’s best not to have a car/bike in London until you are ready to get out of the city.  Riders are excellent.  Drive on the left side of the street.
Germany-  My favorite!  Germany is one of the most beautiful and interesting countries in Europe.  Certain towns like Stuttgart have a saturation of speed and traffic control cameras. Excellent drivers.  It’s fairly easy to spot speed cameras.  Technically, lane sharing is not legal.  If traffic is backed up, there is no problem if you ride at a reasonable speed.  Just be respectful.  10-15KPH over the flow of traffic should be your maximum.  If you are involved in an accident on the autobahn and you are traveling over 130Kph, you will be automatically deemed at-fault.  Many insurance companies will not cover you if you are traveling over 130Kph.  Bavaria is a rider’s paradise. There are extremely few toll roads in Germany.  One, in particular is just outside of Garmisch.  It's a great moto-road. 

Holland-  Amsterdam has many speed and traffic control cameras, but the rest of Holland is pretty mellow.
Ireland-  Drive on the left.  Roads can be very narrow.  Mind the truckers.  Pretty mellow.  Parking in Dublin can be a challenge.  Read the signs and park where other motorcycles are parked.
Italy-  My second favorite.  There are many speed cameras that don’t even work.  It’s somewhat a free-for-all.  Traffic signs are mainly suggestions, especially the further south you go. There is a method to what seems like chaos.  It works.  Don’t be timid.  Other drivers see you.  The AutoStrada is a toll-road.  Use the local roads.  Gas is much more expensive.  Here's a video of a typical intersection in Italy.
Luxembourg-  It’s very similar to France.  Don’t blink or you will miss it.
Portugal-  Laid back.  Cops are pretty cool.  Just don’t be jerks in the cities.  Expect beautiful riding, all over.  Perfect for wandering.
Spain-  You must have nerves of steel to enjoy Spain.  Toll roads everywhere.  Do not be alarmed if you are tailgated.  That’s how they drive there.  The drivers are typically very good, but will be less than 2 meters from your rear tire.  Very mountainous in the north.  Be very wary of pickpockets in Barcelona and a little less so in Madrid.  They are often attractive teenage girls or children.  Anything that can be stolen off of your bike will be.   Make sure it’s secured and try to park in paid lots or big hotels near an attendant.

Switzerland- Very strict speed laws.  Do Not Speed in Switzerland.  Switzerland uses the Swiss Franc.  It's the most expensive country, by far.

This country guideline is nowhere near comprehensive, but it gives you an idea of what to expect.

Every country you travel to will have a sign that indicated the speed limits for the motorways(freeways), highways and within towns limits.  They do vary from country to country.  

The average daily cost was between €70 and €100.  The figure includes lodging, meals, drinks and fuel.  Surprisingly, to most Americans, most of Europe is quite inexpensive, once you are outside of the major cities.  This is not to say, "Don't visit major cities."  Rather, it's better to stay in smaller towns.  The experience is much more interesting and authentic.  Most Europeans don't hang out in the city centers.  Instead they live, work, eat and drink much like you probably do, in the US.   Do enjoy the rich history of major cities, just realize that it's primarily other tourists you will interact with.

Europe is a wonderful place to ride.  To be mindful that they do have seasons and it gets very cold in winter and parts of fall and spring.  Despite some commonality through the European Union, the countries are largely very different.  Enjoy yourself and make lots of friends.

Again, a very huge Thank You to Irv Seaver BMW Motorcycles in Orange County, CA for sponsoring this blog.  When looking for a motorcycle, parts, apparel or service, those in the know travel to Irv Seaver BMW.

Festungruine Hohentweil Singen, Baden-Württemberg, Germany

Biberwier, Tyrol, Austria

Bruges, Belgium

Salzburg, Austria

Crossing into Germany near Strasbourg

Organized chaos of Italy

What's left of Ceasar's Forum in Rome.

Riding through the Bavarian countryside with Laura Ruddy.

When in Munich, one must pay a visit to BMW Welt adjacent to Olympic Park

Innsbruck, Austria

A Bavarian moto hot spot where bikes and riders constantly go up and back.

There are tunnels everywhere in Europe.

Cabra Castle and Hotel north of Dublin, Ireland

Do read the parking signs.  It cost €85 to pay to have the boot removed for a simple parking violation.

Adare Castle in Ireland

British Parliament and Big Ben

In Paris at the Arc de Triomphe looking toward Defence

Breitenwang, Tyrol, Austria

Cihelny, Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Italian Adventure Rider
Many service stations in rural Europe have Biker Sections as meetup places.  Much like the Shell Station at ACH.

If one needs a more colorful diversion from a long ride, places like this are nearby.

Any bike can be an adventure bike.  In this case a BMW S 1000 RR.

Some great friends made while riding in Italy.  Team Drink N Ride from Germany.

One of the dozens of Alpine passes you'll want to run.

Reschen Reservoir Curon Venosta, Trentino-Alto Adige/Sudtirol, Italy

Looking out at Switzerland from Germany

Pink wigs means it's a hen party.  Quite spirited women.

Guess who's getting married?  A Stag party in Munich.

One of the many biker spots in Austria.

The Wassenfalls of Triberg in the Black Forest with Jim Foreman and Laura Ruddy.

A Black Forest Castle Ruin in Schenkenzell, Germany  Notice the streetbike in the left corner.

Riding through the Dolomites with team Drink N Ride.
©2015 Words and Photos by Jim Foreman.  All rights reserved.