Motorcycle touring in Europe – Preparation and Packing Tips
By Colin Irvine
Motorcycling on the continent is not as daunting as you might think. There’s plenty of advice and checklists on the internet to help ensure that you have a stress-free holiday in Europe. To help those new to touring in particular, however, I’ve put together a few personal tips that my wife and I have picked up in seventy thousand plus miles of motorcycling over the last seventeen years.
Planning your motorcycle trip
If you like the certainty of knowing that your bed is guaranteed and that you will be staying somewhere nice plan ahead! You can always ring your hotel if you are running late. Any unexpectedly interesting places can be revisited another time. Some people, however, prefer not to be tied down and relish the freedom of motorcycling somewhere at the last minute.
Don’t try to go too far in one day. Roadworks and traffic jams will slow you down. Pick places to stay that are nice in their own right, are not too far from each other, and make the getting there itself a fun part of the holiday.
A single night stay can be useful to break up a long journey. However, two or three single-night stays in a row, especially with long distances in between, may be wearing. Spending a couple of nights in one place will allow you to dry out gear, wash clothes and, if desired, take a day off the motorbike.
To take it a step further, consider spending 4-5 nights in each of a couple of different places. This will give you the opportunity to walk or to ride without panniers as weather and mood dictate.
Expect hot weather, even in late spring and early autumn. Learn to embrace the sweat pouring off you! It will make the evening shower and cold beer all the more enjoyable. Well vented motorcycle clothing does make a huge difference, particularly on the move.
Ideal destinations for your first motorcycle trip abroad
The French love motorbikers. It is not uncommon for hoteliers to empty a garage for your motorbike, or at least point out where it will be dry and safe. In fact, motorcyclists seem to be tolerated everywhere.
The scenery in Austria is stunning and the roads are windy. The Krimml waterfall has lockers for motorcycling gear (€1) and maps showing recommended biker routes.
Assuming you’re going to end up in mountains at some point, you will find plenty of bends. All too often, however, they are hairpin after hairpin. This will become tiring so plan rest stops. As a rule, if coaches don’t use a road, neither do we. Roads to ski resorts, for example, often make good biking roads. That still leaves plenty of sharp bends!
Having said all of that, for a good mixture of tight and sweeping bends Scotland is as good a motorcycling destination as any!
The motorways can be a nightmare, but the Bavarian scenery is equal to Austria's. Germany is full of pretty towns; Miltenberg for example.
The Eurotunnel and most ferry terminals have covered areas/cafés, meaning you have somewhere dry to wait if you’re too early. The exceptions are Newcastle and Calais ferry terminals. When you arrive at Dover or Calais they’ll let you catch an earlier ferry if there’s room.
When taking a ferry we always pack a ratchet strap, although the ferry companies nowadays invariably supply them. The bike needs to be in 1st gear and on its side (not centre) stand. The strap goes over the rider's seat, protected by your gloves if the ferry company doesn’t provide padding. Do that yourself if there are no crew around. More often crew will be there, and know how to do it without damaging your bike.
If you're on an overnight ferry and you have lockable panniers and top box, pack your overnight things in a separate carrier bag. You'll then be able to quickly offload and carry the bag up to your cabin, leaving the rest of your stuff on the bike.
Day one of your motorcycle tour
The following destinations are a 1-day motorbike ride from the ports of Ijmuiden, Zeebrugge or Calais:
- Ypres – stay there to see the Last Post played at the Menin Gate
- The Ardennes – Givet, Bouillon (try the Hotel de la Poste)
- Rheims, Epernay – Champagne country
- Dieppe – it's Saturday market is worth a visit
- The Seine – Caudebec-en- Caux, Honfleur
- Eifel Mountains – Nideggen
If you’re prepared for higher mileage and roadworks:
- Baden Baden
- possibly Ulm
For a completely different experience, Groenedijk Bikers' Loft is just a few miles inland from Ostend.
Apart from the ferries to northern Spain there are three principal routes to the continent–
- Newcastle to Amsterdam (Ijmuiden)
- Hull to Zeebrugge
- Channel ferries including Dover to Folkestone-Calais, Newhaven to Dieppe and Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Caen and Le Havre.
Depending on your ultimate destination, you need to look at the costs and relative distances in the UK and across the Channel. Motorcycling through France tends not to be difficult. However, traffic can be heavy and unpredictable in Holland and Belgium. Consider if the equivalent mileage can be ridden in England instead.
One option is to ride the initial miles in England and go out via the Eurotunnel, possibly staying the first night in the Coquelles Ibis, returning via Ijmuiden to Newcastle. It is worth anticipating that by the end of your motorcycle trip you may be tired and just want to get home relatively quickly!
A final word of caution. If you're a poor sailor and taking one of the longer ferry crossings, think about staying your first night close to the arrival port. Just in case the crossing has been a bit rough and you can't face a long ride after it!
Things to watch out for
Germany is a cash economy. Many hotels won’t take bank cards, but will direct you to the nearest cash point.
In France, the boulangeries shut at noon, as do many shops. Buy your picnic lunch early!
The distance between motorway service stations can be variable. Occasionally, the one you’re counting on will be closed. On one journey, we rode 90 miles between Germany and Luxemburg before reaching the next service station. This problem doesn’t occur on French motorways. There the Aires are regular and well signposted (including distance to the next fuel). Do note that some Aires are just laybys with toilets but most will have all the services you need, including decent food.
Pre-pay petrol pumps are becoming more common, particularly in France and Belgium. The pumps will often share a single card machine, which may not be easy to spot! These machines will take normal British credit cards, but occasionally will want to reserve more than a pre-loaded card might have on it.
Roadworks have to take place during the (sometimes short) summer, which can occasionally lead to long traffic jams. German motorways are particularly bad. You either filter or wait for hours. Choose your narrowest bike if possible as lanes can be narrow, particularly on three-lane carriageways.
Accommodation, food & drink
Hotel chains – Ibis usually offer good mid-range accommodation. In France, the Logis de France, a chain of independent hotels and restaurants, offers more variety. We’ve also really enjoyed staying in a couple of the Motorrad hotels.
Vegetarians will find limited choice. Inevitably you will be asked “do you eat fish?”. In France, you can often get an omelette, or even a simple assiette de legumes. In Germany, flammkuchen or spätzle with a cheese sauce are options (until you tire of them). Most countries are used to vegetarians, even if they don’t cater very well for them. In France be prepared for your potatoes to be livened up with lardons, and your asparagus wrapped in bacon!
Switzerland is expensive. Going half board in hotels often costs little more than bed and breakfast.
In Austria, many supermarkets will make up sandwiches for you. Go to the delicatessen counter and see if they have rolls (brötchen) there.
Language and Phrasebooks
Do try to learn even just a few words of French (also good for parts of Belgium and Switzerland, and for getting by in western Italy) and/or German (also good for Austria, parts of Switzerland and for getting by in western Czech Republic).
If someone starts speaking English to you, let them – they’ll relish the chance to show off! But ask before you start speaking English yourself. It’s their country and it’s impolite to assume they speak your language.
All the tourist hotels speak English, ditto tourist information.
The best language courses we’ve found on CD, particularly French, are from Michel Thomas.
Legal requirements for motorcycle touring in Europe
Vignettes for Austria and Switzerland can be bought in advance over the internet, although you may then forget to take them (DAMHIK, IJDOK?). In Austria, you might risk going without one for short distances. The Swiss make you buy one at motorway borders.
Documents: carry the original V5C and your insurance certificate.
In France, carry or wear reflective gillets. All towns and villages have a 50kph limit between the entering and leaving signs. Keep to these, as the Gendarmes can be active. You can be fined on the spot, and taken to a cash machine if necessary. Speed cameras are increasingly common, many of which will catch bikes.
Don’t ride like an idiot in Germany. It’s not unknown for an armed road block to be set up just for motorcyclists reported to be riding dangerously. Filtering (lane-splitting) is illegal, although it appears to be increasingly common. Overtaking static traffic is fine, but you shouldn’t cross a single white line and mustn’t cross a double one.
Packing for a motorcycle trip
Only experience will tell you what you’ll need. It’s actually surprisingly little. A few changes of underclothes, and periodic washing of the same, will see you able to tour for weeks.
If you care about keeping your motorbike clean, consider taking a collapsible camping bucket and a little motorbike shampoo. You may well find that your bike will get filthy on day one of your trip and that there is nowhere to wash it for days! A chamois leather or similar is a must. Your motorbike will need drying at times.
Don’t forget a puncture repair and inflation kit.
Take a SatNav if you have one. It can be used to plan routes in advance. Also, it can be a life-saver when trying to locate your hotel in the rain and/or in a large city at the end of a day’s motorcycling. They are useful for finding fuel as well. In France (possibly elsewhere) it is illegal to have speed-camera locations on your sat-nav. You may think it’s worth the risk.
Do it, even just for a day or two. It’s a lot less scary than you think!
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Do you have any recommended destinations or motorcycle touring tips to pass on to new adventurers? We’d love to hear about your experiences.