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4 Ways to Travel the World by Bicycle

Camping in Kyrgyzstan after cycling all day
Camping in Kyrgyzstan after cycling all day, on the shores of Lake Song Kol.

How can you climb the French Alps, wander through Roman ruins in Turkey, cross the United States, or explore the Australian outback on a shoestring budget that would make even the most frugal backpacker blush? The answer is surprisingly simple—with a bicycle.

In this era of high gas prices, fuel surcharges and talk of the next depression just around the corner, the bicycle remains one of the best kept secrets both in order to travel cheaply and to get to know a culture. Outside of a group of diehard enthusiasts, the idea going on vacation by bicycle hardly occurs to most people. If it does, thoughts of “too hard” and “just for the young” keep many from exploring the idea further.

The truth is that bike touring only has to be as strenuous as you want to make it. Don't fancy camping every night and crossing continents at a racing pace? Go instead for a laid-back ride along Europe's canal and riverside paths—no traffic and flat—or a jaunt through New Zealand's vineyards, stopping at a B&B each night. There are so many ways to tour by bicycle. You can pick the one which appeals most to your budget, experience, and sense of adventure.

No matter how you do it, your credit card bill is almost guaranteed to come out healthier compared with equivalent trips using motorized transport. And do not forget the bonus of equally slimming effects on your waistline!

1) Independent Bicycle Tours

Penny Pinchers will be drawn to the most economical form of bike travel—the completely independent tour. Just drag your bicycle out of the garage and head off on your own self-designed trip. You will plan your own route, carry your own bags and avoid restaurants by cooking most of your own food. At night you will camp or use youth hostels and basic hotels. This is how expedition cyclists cross continents on pennies.

Cost: As low as $20 a day in Europe or $10 in less developed areas like the Middle East or Asia.
Rewards: Very economical. Complete freedom with no group schedules to keep up with.
Hazards: Can be intimidating the first time. You change any flat tires. Carrying luggage can be exhausting if you are not used to it. You may need to invest in some gear.
Tips: Pack lightly. Do a trial run before taking on more than a weekend trip. Convince a friend to come along for company and moral support.

Cycling and camping in Morocco
Cycling and camping in Morocco, meeting the local kids, who arrived to "help" us pack in the morning, on their way to school

2) Group Bicycle Rides

A great alternative to independent cycling, especially for newbies. Check out rides arranged by nonprofit clubs and charities. They will sort out the route and accommodations, while helping with any mechanical issues. Registration fees can be incredibly low; close to what you'd spend anyway touring on your own without the planning hassle. How about six days riding through New York State for $250, including luggage transport, vehicle support, maps, camping spots, and more? That's the Great Big FANY Ride, www.fanyride.com, and it's just one of many.

Cost: Starts from $30-50 a day.
Rewards: Ride with others. No need to plan. Backup support. Good value.
Hazards: Groups can grow to 1,000 riders—expect long shower lines! You have to follow the group. You may have to fundraise for charity.
Tips: Bring earplugs for a restful night. Campsites can get noisy. All these sites list rides:

German group in Kyrgyzstan, on a group tour from Europe to Beijing
We meet a German group in Kyrgyzstan, on a group tour from Europe to Beijing!

3) Self-Guided Bicycle Tours

Such tours are the next step up in bike travel and represent a good mid-range option. Tour companies all over the world arrange packages that include rental bikes, a daily cycling plan over quiet roads or paths, and accommodations ranging from farmstays and B&Bs to luxury hotels. All you do is jump in the saddle and start moving. Luggage can be transferred between hotels and reassuringly there is someone just a phone call away if it all goes wrong. It is no problem to stop by a lake for a swim or see a museum because there is no group to keep up with. The Danube River Cycle Path in Austria is one of the most popular spots for these tours, with hundreds of families following it each summer. After one or two self-guided trips, you'll know better if you want to try solo bike touring or not.

Cost: From $100-150 per day
Rewards: Your own private tour at a relatively modest price. No need to buy a bike or transport it to the starting point. Flexibility to stop where you like during the day.
Hazards: No mechanical or vehicle support. You must fix your own flat tires and read your own map. Daily targets are fixed. You must reach your pre-booked hotel each night.
Tips: Bring a phrase book if going to a foreign country. You'll talk to locals often and you need to know the language basics.

Cycling path in Italy
Cycling path in Italy.

4) Luxury Group Tours

Such tours are the ultimate in pampered cycling. If you are focused on getting the most bang for your buck, rather than traveling on the smallest amount of cash possible, check out this option. It won't be cheap, but for the same amount of money you would spend on a bus tour, for example, you should find smaller groups, better hotels, and more perks such as meals included. Everything is taken care of. There's a tour leader cycling alongside, mechanics on call, and a van to carry your bags and souvenirs. You can even get a lift if you're tired.

Cost: At least $200 per day
Rewards: Everything is taken care of. Nice hotels and fine dining after a day on the road. Travel with and learn from other cyclists.
Hazards: Must follow the group plan. Most expensive form of cycle touring. The "group mentality" means that you may not talk to locals as much as you would traveling independently.
Tips: Pack smart clothes for the evenings.

Whichever option you choose, here are a few more tips to consider:

If you need a bicycle, consider buying it used. Take a bike-savvy friend and hunt around thrift shops and yard sales for a sturdy second-hand model. The same applies to gear you might need like panniers, cycling bags that hang off a rack on your bike. Search online sites like eBay and Craig's List for bargains and consider making your own panniers if you're handy with a sewing machine. There are many sites online that show how to make your own bags. Don't even think about trying to use a backpack instead of panniers. It is unsafe because the backpack changes your center of gravity and throws off the balance of the bike, not to mention being uncomfortable. One cycling couple, Amanda and Rich, tell how they funded the cost of equipment through cheap bargains at thrift stores. See: www.vwvagabonds.com/Bike/BikeTales02.html

Look into folding bicycles like the Brompton and Bike Friday. These are particularly valuable if you are planning overseas travel because they pack into a suitcase, making them a breeze to put on trains, buses, or airplanes without any extra charges or the hassle of boxing your bike. The catch is that folding bikes cost a bit more than their run-of-the-mill counterparts but you will see your investment recouped the first time you fly. They're also easy to carry into your hotel room for maximum security.

Skip hotels and use cycling hospitality groups. Traveling by bicycle does not just offer you a cheap way to see the world. You can also hook up with local cyclists in dozens of countries who will open their homes to you for a night or show you around their area. WarmShowers, www.warmshowers.org, is one such organization. Another one is run by owners of the Bike Friday folding bicycles, community.bikefriday.com/clubs.

Explore your own backyard. Unless you are trying to escape winter, there is no need to blow a lot of money on a flight. Bike adventures can be found close to home. Just jump on and start pedaling towards that museum in the next county or the home of a friend living one state away. The journey might surprise you with what you notice from the seat of a bike, even on roads you have travelled many times before by car. Starting out in familiar territory helps calm many first-time jitters.

Train beforehand and start modestly. The longer the tour, the less need there is to train because you can improve your fitness slowly as you go. Still, at least one trial run is a good idea to make sure you can handle the daily distance you plan to cover and to work out any kinks with your equipment. A small amount of training will prevent many sore muscles during the tour itself. And don not let your ambitions run wild when planning your route. You can always add extra miles if you are covering distances easily, but if you set high targets and fail to meet them you will likely be miserable during the journey and come home disappointed.

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