Friday, July 4, 2014

Room at the Inn? Accommodation Strategies for Bicycle Touring

Approved Farm House Accommodation
Some years ago, an Austrian friend of mine planned a lovely bicycle tour around the west of Ireland. She put together a scenic route, booked rooms in B&Bs and hostels, took a week off work, flew overseas with her bike, and… had a miserable time! It rained every day, with visibility so poor she could hardly make out any of the scenery, and winds so strong she struggled to complete her daily milage. After a few days of this and with the forecast promising more of the same, she decided it might be better to stop and hang out locally instead of continuing to tour. So she tried to extend her stay at the B&B she'd last spent the night and cancel her other reservations. Unfortunately the B&B had no room for her to remain there for extra nights, and some of the places she'd booked ahead would not allow last-minute cancellations. She was essentially locked into continuing her tour. And she did, returning home with a pannier full of soggy clothing and pictures of blurry rainscapes. Now whenever someone mentions touring in Ireland, she grimaces and tells this cautionary tale. It was in fact what influenced me to pick a place and use it as base-camp for day trips, instead of touring from point to point, when I first visited in 2012. 

The thing about bicycle touring in Ireland, is that you have to be kind of flexible. There are stretches of beautiful, sunny weather here. And there are stretches of stormy, miserable weather. If you plan too far in advance or too rigidly, you might be committing yourself to a trip consisting entirely of the latter. And while normally I don't mind cycling in the rain one bit, with touring it's more than about being cold and wet. It's about wanting to experience the local scenery by bike. If all you are seeing is mist and sheets of rain, that rather defeats the purpose! 

Luckily for me, I do have some flexibility. What working freelance lacks in income, it makes up for in allowing for a degree of scheduling freedom. And so this summer I'd love to take advantage of this and try a little mini-tour. Nowhere far or exotic, but maybe to this little spot I like in County Sligo, just over 100 miles away. One day last month, when the forecast for the next few days looked good, I thought "Great, this is it!" and began to phone up B&Bs and hostels. But my spirits were quickly deflated when it turned out that most of them were booked, with the ones that weren't either costing a fortune or inconveniently located. Planning has its perils, but apparently so does spontaneity. 

There are other options of course, such as camping and asking around for contacts of people to stay with. One friend has even told me that he's toured all of Ireland, making no plans in advance what so ever but simply knocking on farmers' doors every evening. They would usually have a spare room where they'd let him crash - sometimes for a modest fee, and sometimes free of charge. I don't think I'd be quite comfortable with that, but it's nice to know that people can be so hospitable. 

For those experienced in touring, what are your strategies for securing accommodations? Do you book in advance, or take off and hope for the best? Do share your stories!

25 comments:

  1. I did a solo bike tour in the Republic for ten days in 1995. I experienced one day of very slight drizzle. I stayed in B&B's booked in advance but only the day before. My experience was unforgettable wonderful! Sometimes you get lucky.

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  2. my personal strategy for cycle-touring in Ireland involves the bike rack on the back of my camper-van, but I would say that if you are going a bit off the beaten path and carefully avoid bank holiday weekends it sin't usually too hard to find a B&B on the fly

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  3. To be completely flexible you need to carry camping gear. You can always find somewhere to stick a tent for the few hours between dusk and dawn.

    I camp around 6 days a week on 2 month tours. I have a rough idea of my route but decide how far I'm going on the day. So it's worth me carry a 2kg tent 800g sleeping bag, and a sleeping mat.

    Knowing I have the tent I can see what happens. On my long tours in the USA I've been invited to stay in people's home after meeting them on the road, stayed free in a hotel that had closed for guests just before the winter shutdown, motels obviously, and hostels.

    For camping it's various official sites, fields, forests, deserts, beaches, parks, cornfields, radio station front lawn, etc.

    I book the first and last nights and go random in between. Touring in a drier climate like the USA helps of course.

    Using camping as a backup you can go lighter with a smaller tent and lighter more borderline sleeping bag.

    Iain


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  4. Last summer on a tour around Cape Breton, we did not book or even plan ahead as we had ample time that permitted lingering along the route if desired. The trip was a couple of weeks ahead of "the season" so we were confident we'd have lots of accommodation options. We brought along all of our camping gear and expected to use it and to stay indoors too.

    We loved our trip though where we stayed turned out to be a mixed experience. On the plus side, we really liked the freedom to move along w/o having to get to a booked spot. We took advantage of that several times by staying put or pushing on ahead.

    On the other side, we found that we ended up in a couple of places that were just a few miles from somewhere really sweet -- had we planned or booked ahead, we'd have possibly known more about the relative quality of the destination.

    Being there off season was critical to our flexibility. One surprise: the campgrounds weren't open yet in some places so while we had our gear, we used it less than we'd anticipated. Our most pleasant night was camping... so we were really glad to have brought it all along.

    Great topic; looking forward to hearing what others have to say.

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  5. I haven't used it myself as a guest but hosted a bunch a cyclists touring around the world / Europe. https://www.warmshowers.org

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  6. My bike touring events have either been camping very rough or staying in expensive B&Bs or cottages. I've toured with people so rebellious and unwilling to spend money that we'd camp illegally which I never felt good about. One night we got caught in the rain, had to set up the old not waterproof tent asap and went to a park with sacred pictographs on Gabriola Island. Giant banana slugs everywhere. I am a terrible camper. I love being outside, but sleeping in tents is torture. I never sleep, I have a terrible back, so turn into a zombie by day 2. I'd have to have so many things that one could not really carry by bike, it would defeat the purpose of light touring. I'd have to haul a trailer. Needless to say I have not done any bike touring in years because I cannot bear sleeping in tents, nor can I afford the extortionate B&B prices.
    Where I live all accommodation is very expensive in much of beautiful glorious British Columbia, it is assumed you are rich and want to spend over $100 a night for the privilege of sleeping. Except maybe hostels or Wwoofing(willing workers on organic farms). My husband will not do either because it would involve talking to somebody and perhaps doing something. The thought of sleeping in dorms is appalling to him, and the private rooms are always too expensive or yucky(we did try).
    He will not do farm stays because work might be involved that would offend him like killing weeds, or worse pruning(he is vegan). But I bet if you call up some organic farms on the list and say you are coming through, will pay if there is space, and maybe do a bit of help before or after doing day trips around. I am sure they would be than happy, money is always nice. I would love to do a farm stay, especially with cute animals. We did stay at a farm that had a cottage rental with a blow up bed in a shack, next to goats. There was an autumn storm, it was scary, did not sleep. The people were really nice and made us yummy breakfast.
    However, if you look up 'farm stays' many an organic farm has a high priced B&B suite...
    There is couch surfing or that online thingy where people are renting out rooms, beds whatever, but that is for the adventurous.
    I'd like to see a network of cyclists who have the space willing to put up touring cyclists, an informal network of nice people.
    Alternatively, if I could afford a van type thing where I could set up a bed, do all the outdoorsy camp stove stuff, I would take bicycles, set up camp and take day cycling trips around, see some sights, find a nice beach, swim, move on a bit, but that would be more village/ rural/nature trips.

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    1. Exchanging farm help for shelter is great if you're staying a while, but god for short stops it would be hard work on top of cycling 60+miles a day! You'd be in great shape at the end of it though.

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    2. Also re B&Bs and pricing: Similarly to what you describe in Vancouver, in New England I've gotten used to "B&B" meaning expensive. But here they are actually some of the most affordable options. Some are essentially private houses where the spare rooms are rented out at flexible prices.

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  7. Well, it's not much of a vacation if you have to adhere to a schedule. Pack a tent and ask permission to camp. Half the time you'll be offered accommodations (especially if you're female) and if not, you'll camp in some secure and very interesting places.

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  8. Warm Showers is a community of cycle tourists and people willing to give them hospitality - https://www.warmshowers.org

    Last time I toured I stayed with some Warm Showers hosts and it was great, though mainly I camped, sometimes in pretty out of the way places. Sometimes random people just offered is hospitality un asked which was pretty awesome. :-)

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  9. Dresden to Prague. 5 days in May. Credit card tour. Bella Ciao 3-speed bikes. One pannier each with a few change of normal clothes and a Canon S100 camera. Cold and cloudy on morning of departure that cleared before noon, then glorious weather until last day. We were 30 K outside of Prague; had run into two Germans biking the other way that said the final route was so bad at one point they fell into the river. The day was cold and miserable, so we hopped a train (4 bikes) into the city, reducing the travel time to about an hour. Prague was not a bike-friendly city, so we packed the bikes for an airplane ride home and spent the rest of the week on foot. We had sent out luggage ahead, so when we got to Prague I switched over to a Canon 5D camera for better photos when weight is not a consideration. The whole trip was ridden at about 18 kph average if that and 30-50 k per day thanks to frequent stops for coffee, pastries, great food and side trips to castles, gardens and sacred sites. No hotel reservations, just looked for the bike friendly hotels and cafes and each night was very different, but very comfortable... some old and funky, others newer and comfy. Strategy? None. Simply presumed the patron saint of bicycle tourists would look after us and indeed it was one of the finest of holidays.

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  10. I like the "patron saint of bicycle tourists" thought, relying on him is our strategy of choice as well. Bring a tent for emergencies (or for that amazing outdoor spot you would love to wake up at in the morning) and arrange for your accommodation on the way.

    On a recent 3-week trip to Japan, we used a booking app on our smartphone to book budget hotel accommodation around noon as we were able to estimate the daily distance based on weather, fitness, attractions. We ended up using our tent three times, once for an "emergency", once for saving some money and once because there is nothing better to crawl out from a tent and see Mt. Fuji in the morning.

    I recommend everybody to try the strategy once for a short, low-risk trip (like a long weekend). It takes a bit of time to get used to the thought of going with the flow like that, but when reading the journals of long-distance cycle tourists, I am convinced that being at the mercy of the weather, other people and aforementioned saint patron is what makes cycle touring so special.

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  11. I use to ride few years ago for monthes in balkan area, Italie, France, switzerland, turkey,only savage camping, appart some small motels to have showers and a rest every 5-6 days, nothing booked in advance, and sometimes a lot of rain (Croatia 2006, huge floods). My only advice if you finally decide to camp : having very good material (a least two ortlieb bags), and no fearing rain or being wet, it takes part of the trip.
    best
    vf

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  12. We've found the best time for touring is after students have gone back to school in September. The weather is more temperate and accommodations are easy to find.

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    1. Very true, I try to do that, at the very least enjoy the empty beaches if I cannot go further. I tend to see older people out on holidays in late spring before end of June or after sept 1st when weather is still fine, in fact often better than July or August. Right now my local highway is so busy, endless ferry loads of families loaded down in vehicles with boats, bikes, camping gear with the frazzled goal of having a good time no matter what.

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  13. If you want spontaneity carry a tent and embrace it's possibilities. Otherwise WarmShowers, churches, or the generosity of strangers always add to the experience. I've invited different tourists into my home for showers, food, and clean sheets. Each time the experience is different but all times the gratitude is worth it because it's payback to all the times I was taken in/offered hospitality. Really, I ended up staying in places much better than I could have afforded, even if I had money. Met a guy on the road going the opposite direction who arranged to have the keys of his house available if I was interested in visiting Marblehead, which was still a couple weeks away! Another stranger on the road talked of his travels and friendships made and offered his house on the beach in Santa Barbara. Two coasts, two great experiences and a lot in-between.

    Your trip is really too short to make too much of it all. As you know, one can't base too much on one's first experience of anything. But learning to be nimble and resourceful is certainly part of the richness of traveling by bicycle. Enjoy.

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  14. You'll do fine. Just do what thousands have before you and make a plan and go with it, the results and insights are why we live and grow.

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    1. i half agree (only caveat is "...if we survive, emotionally and otherwise")

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  15. For holland, Vrienden op de Fiets is fantastic for flexible cycling and walking tours. I would like to find a similar organization in the US, France and/or Denmark.
    http://www.vriendenopdefiets.nl/en/

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  16. I've never been refused hospitality. Never. In war zones people will be nice to you if you are nice to them. Being the least bit interesting guarantees a good reception.

    The danger is your host may wish to talk to you all night about Jesus. Or try to sell you bridges. Or think you are offering weird sex. The chances these untoward occasions will occur on tour is slightly higher than in normal everyday life. But not by much. If you can handle the uncertainty and vicissitudes of everyday life you will be fine on the road.

    Stranger danger is everywhere all the time. All the bad things that have happened to me connected to cycling have happened in places that were supposed to be really very extremely safe. Couldn't possibly have avoided them.

    Good to have ready money as a backup. Better still to offer prospective hosts what money cannot buy. As genial and social and reasonable and entertaining as you have shown yourself on this blog you should have no problem.

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  17. Out of curiosity, what bike and set-up are you planning to use?

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  18. Just my regular roadbike with saddle & handlebar bags; similarly to how I set it up for this brevet.

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    1. Okay, more credit card touring. So, arranging accommodations in advance seems to rise up in priorities as one makes plans.

      I remember your Sam H. burdened down with so much for what seemed like a simple travel experience and was wondering if your thoughts about bikes required/preferred may have changed.

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  19. I'm heading out on a relaxed four day (120 miles one way) loop with my son and our plans are minimal. We know where we're staying one night and the others we'll figure out as we go. We've got tent and coffee so all will be well.

    Happy travels.

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