The answer below is a combination of what I have learned over the years from my tour guests, and my personal tour philosophy.
I work hard to address any pre-tour questions or issues in two ways:
- All the information that I can think of that pertains to my tours is presented on my website. I try to lay the whole program right out in the open – “what you see is what you get.” Most of the major and minor questions that people ask about my tours are answered somewhere on the website.If someone asks a good question, or an event happens on a tour that has an impact on the tour specifics I either address it in the “Tour Details” or in the “FAQ” section.
- I will spend all the time it takes before, during and after the tour to personally answer any questions or deal with any issues that are not self evident or easy to find on the website to make sure that the tour will meet or exceed your expectations.
By the time the tour starts you will:
- Know exactly how to get to the European meeting point and the related transfer arrangements
- Confirm the exact model of motorcycle that you want and will ride
- Have a detailed map of the route to be taken
- Have a detailed list of the hotel addresses and phone numbers for emergency contacts
- Have a list of the hotel websites so that you can visit our hotels on-line
I limit my tours to 7 bikes and we frequently have less. This means that I am readily available at your disposal during the entire trip. Do you want to sit down at the end of the day and mark the exact route we rode today on your map? My pleasure. The same goes for planning the next day’s ride. I love to ride. So, if everyone else is a little bushed, but you want to zip out for another hour, let’s go ride. Do you need some help in changing the bike set-up to your liking? Let’s grab a beverage and go out and do it.
As you can see from my Testimonials section, most of the people who come on my tours feel personally looked after, which is how I feel it should be.
I actively encourage you to “do your own thing” during the tour. The fact is that people meet up on my tours for the first time, become friends, hang out together on tour, and then stay in touch long after the tour is over. But, if you’re in love with the Alps and the riding, but want to be on your own – that’s fine too. If after, or during, the day’s ride you want to eat separately, go off on your own, hike instead of ride, then go ahead and do just that. At the end of the day, it’s your vacation and you should feel free to do whatever it is that YOU want to do.
THE “WOW” FACTOR
I still remember those parts of the Alps, either a certain view, stretch of road, hotel, etc. that really struck me when I first saw them from the seat of my motorcycle. A place where I would stop and whip out the camera and go “WOW”, this is something great. Although I have now ridden those Alpine roads many times, I always strive to plan my routes so that my tour guests will get that same feeling of being, and doing something special that they will remember for a long, long time.
NIGHTLY HOTEL STAYS
I make it a point to balance a lot of riding with the convenience of staying put for a day or two at each hotel. Some tour companies move every night, which creates the associated stress of moving each day. Others stay the entire time at the same hotel, which can limit your exposure to the variety the Alps and Alpine riding has to offer.
I pick hotel locations that are in the middle of from 6 – 20 good passes so that we can stay for 2 -3 nights per stop and still have a variety of motorcycle and non-motorcycle activities to choose from. All the hotels we stay at will be from moderate to upscale accommodations.
THE ACTUAL RIDING
Discussed below are some of the key elements of riding with me.
- The number one thing that people comment on about the riding in the Testimonials section is that they enjoyed not having to look at the map.Many of the people who come on my tours motorcycle 10, 15, 20,000 miles a year and clearly know how to navigate on their own. Despite my comments about personal freedom, most people choose to ride with and follow me because it is easier and more accommodating to just follow the tour guide.Because I’ve been touring the Alps for more than 30 years I can pretty much clip along at a fun pace that will keep everyone entertained without stopping to look at the map, all day long.
- As mentioned elsewhere on this site I love to ride. That is why I started Alps tours by Moto-Charlie. What that means for my tour guests is that I’m out there on the road every day, all day sun, rain or snow. If you want to go for a ride I’ll go with you. I remember being amazed when a tour member first told me that I was the first tour guide he has met (on more than six different tours) who actually rode all day every day and obviously loved to do so. Apparently some tours hand out route sheets on layover days, or ride the morning and leave it up to the tour member to ride on their own in the afternoon. Not me, I’m always up for a ride and ready to give you the benefit of what I’ve learned about the roads, neat places to stop and take a photo or have a bite to eat, and things to watch out for or avoid. I characterize my tours as a rider’s ride and I believe that should start with me.
- One advantage of the small group concept is that even if we all ride together we don’t get strung out for miles. I ride at a pace that will keep the speedsters happy and not lose those folks who prefer to take it slower and enjoy the scenery.It’s common for the faster riders to frequently charge ahead. However, we always stop and wait at any turn-off so as not to leave people behind. The time needed for everyone to catch up is usually a minute or two, even when they seem to be quite spread out. No one is ever inconvenienced by this process.Everyone will have my European cell phone number in case we do get separated, as well as the route and the phone number for the next hotel.
- As discussed above, there is usually a lot of pre-tour communication. This helps me to get to know you, and you in turn me, beforehand. A benefit of this interaction is that I can encourage, or sometimes discourage, people about coming on the tour that I don’t feel will get along well together and that don’t have similar riding experience. When it comes to riding, most of my tour participants are good riders who have and wear appropriate riding gear, know how to ride in the rain and are generally a pleasure to be with.
Hopefully the information in this section will give you an idea of how I conduct my tours. If you think a Moto-Charlie tour might be for you, please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you might have.
Should you go with a tour company or ride on your own? Good question.
I did my first motorcycle trip in the Alps in 1973 with several intermittant trips therafter. Starting in 1983 I traveled the Alps for nearly 15 years on my own before starting Moto-Charlie – so I can appreciate the merits of that approach. Things have gotten a bit easier for the first time tour rider since then. More Europeans speak English, there are more road signs, GPS is coming on fast and of course there is the Internet with motorcycle info, hotel info and various forums and websites with experienced riders able and happy to offer advise to first time Alps travelers.
Speaking about Internet forums. Many of the riders who post to these forums are, like me, passionate about motorcycle riding in the Alps. Many are also strong advocates for doing it on your own, thereby saving you money and allowing you freedom from the group mindset and travel issues. As mentioned above I traveled on my own for 15 years and so I appreciate everything they say.
However, it’s easy to be a travel-on-your-own advocate when you have been going there for multiple years and know your way around and have an immediate comfort level when you arrive. I have traveled to Europe so often that the Alpine region is like a second home to me but I know that is not always the case for first time travelers. Europe is still a foreign land with its own language, customs, money, rules of the road etc. and sometimes a little help from an experienced tour guide can help ease your journey towards Alpinitis.
My tours have always been intended to split the difference between tour-on-your-own cost and freedom and some big picture structure to help deal with bike hire, hotel location, route selection and local culture befuddlement. I help with the major issues that may seem difficult or too time consuming to master on your own, thereby taking the worry out of them so you can focus on the best parts – the riding, the scenery, the culture and of course, the food.
If you plan to visit the Alps numerous times and can afford the time to sort out great from good or OK then on your own is a good choice. I did it. If you only plan to go occasionally and want to maximize your riding time and get the most enjoyment for your money while touring then here are a few reasons why I think an organized tour makes sense, especially a small group, experienced rider only, low cost one like mine:
Logistics support – As mentioned above finding a bike, booking hotels, selecting a route, etc. all takes time. You want to make sure you pick a rental source that has a variety of bikes to rent in good condition, at reasonable prices, with ability to offer insurance coverage that fits your needs and a fair policy in dealing with accident damage. I have rented from a half dozen different shops over the years and some definitely treat you better than others. The same is true for hotels. You want a hotel that reflects the local region. But it makes life a lot easier for you if they speak English, are used to dealing with motorcyclists, have parking and a good kitchen, not to mention a great location. I have stayed at more than 100 hotels over the years and am constantly reviewing my choices and reservations. Here again, while they are all good, some are better than others.
Navigation – While all the reasons in this FAQ have merit (notice the unintended sense of self importance) this is the NUMBER ONE reason people say they enjoy my tours.Touring in the Alps is not by route number or by kilometer marker. It is town-by-town, landmark-by-landmark. You can figure it all out as I did over the years (and still do) by stopping constantly to look at the map, trying to sort out unfamiliar names listed in a foreign language. Even basic pass names can be confusing like Glaubenbuelen versus Glaubenberg. Most people with a limited amount of time and an unlimited appetite for riding don’t want to spend an hour or two by the side of the road every day trying to sort out where they want to go or wondering if they missed the small fountain at the last roundabout that was the marker for the turn off to the pass they just traveled four hours to ride. With an experienced guide you can stow the map and simply enjoy the riding.
Routing – Hand in hand with navigation is the importance of routing. I mention several time in this website that there are no bad roads in the Alps but some are definitely way better than others. If you told any experienced Alpine rider that you only had a limited number of days to ride in Switzerland or Austria or Italy the experienced rider would definitely pick his or her favorite roads and leave lots of others off the list. An experienced guide can help you pick the best of the best or you can go on your own and take your chances that some roads will be good and some not so good. I’ve been going there for more than 30 years and still have not found all the really good roads.
Picking the best also goes for choosing a direction too. While you may ride some passes in both directions you will most likely ride most of the passes in one direction only – on your way from one place to another. Every experienced Alps rider will tell you that some passes are much more fun to ride and/or have better views going in a specific direction. Here again you can go on your own and enjoy your ride. Unless you have the time to ride in both directions you won’t know if you got the best of the pass or not. An experienced guide makes sure that you see it from the best direction.
Local Customs – If you go multiple times you will get the hang of it. But it all takes time. There is a lot to learn. Everything from where to stand on the train platform for first class seating versus second class, where the nearest Bancomat is for cash, how much to tip, how to use the self service gas pumps, what time do the kitchens close for lunch, when is it OK to pass on the road, etc. An experienced guide will make learning all that kind of stuff quicker and easier.
Camaraderie – If you are inclined to go on your own you probably don’t care about meeting and befriending other riders who also enjoy riding the Alps. On the other hand my continued efforts to attract truly experienced riders with similar skill and focus have resulted in a number of really great groups hooking up and riding together and sharing a unique experience that they remember for years. This in turn gives you new riding buddies spread throughout North America (and other countries) that you are likely to stay in touch with for years. I am always very pleased to hear three or four years after a tour that somebody hooked up with two or three friends from the Moto-Charlie tour four years ago and they did a ride of the Rockies, or Deals Gap or wherever. Good riders who share a passion for riding tend to bond on tour and ride together thereafter, sometimes on another Moto-Charlie tour.
Safety – If more than 30 years of Alpine riding has taught me one thing it is that “Sh*t Happens”. Usually, when you least expect it; everything from running out of gas, to a flat tire with multiple punctures, to animal collisions to serious medivac helicopter accidents. It is not a matter of if it will happen it is a matter of when. This is particularly true in the Alps where the roads are technical and the weather can be ever changing. I rode for many years in the Alps by myself, sometimes on very isolated roads and realize looking back how lucky I was not to have had any serious incidents while riding solo.
When stuff does happen it is good to be riding with someone else so that someone else can go fetch a can of gas, or take you to the nearest cycle shop to get the needed repair part or, in a worse case scenario, stay behind to look after your bike and gear and police report while you get tended to at the nearest medical facility. Lots of people travel solo all the time and nothing bad ever happens. On the other hand it’s nice to know that someone has your back when you are traveling 4,000 miles from home in a foreign country. A trusted riding buddy is good, an experienced tour guide even better.
The best thing you can do is to research and compare. We ride brand new bikes, stay at great hotels, and go over some of the best roads in the Alps, all for a cost-effective price that you can control.
Either way, the Alps are motorcycle heaven. So, what are you waiting for?
I can personally recommend Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures. Their website indicates that they have been providing motorcycle tours for more than 30 years. John Hermann has been on more than 25 Beach’s tours. I try to stay in touch with Rob Beach (President of BMA) when I visit Europe. He is a great guy, a very experienced Alpine rider, and he puts on an excellent tour.
If you would like to check out Beach’s, their website address is shown below.
- I try to make sure that you have the bike you want and that it will be confirmed directly to you by the motorcycle rental shop. It can be quite a bummer to think you’re going to be riding an R1200R just to find when you get there that the only bike left is a F650GS. That won’t happen on my tours. Plus the bikes are all new and well maintained. No need to worry about getting a beater.
- Some folks like to rent Ducatis from Milan Italy. They then ride north to join us on our tour. A number of Ducati models are well suited for Alpine touring and come with hard luggage.
- You are welcome to secure the rental of a BMW or other model motorcycle on your own from a different rental source than my provider if you so choose.
- You are more than welcome to tour on your own bike if you already have a motorcycle in Europe. If you want to transport your bike over there I can give you the names of several outfits that can help you get the job done.
The bottom line is I want you to have a bike that you want and will enjoy. If I can help you get that motorcycle that’s fine. If you have your own bike, or a bike from a different rental source, that’s fine too. As long as you are happy with the motorcycle that’s all that counts.
First let me say that I have never missed having a luggage van. If you are going to be riding a motorcycle all day, then you are going to be in your riding gear all day. For me this includes either a full set of leathers or an all-weather textile suit with body armor and a pair of comfortable motorcycle boots.
In the evening, I wear a decent pair of jeans (which now-a-days are worn by Americans and Europeans alike in all the hotels we stay at) and I alternate between two different shirts. Add to that a sweater, long sleeve shirt, and light-weight long underwear, and my cold weather gear is covered. A spare pair of shoes, 11 complete sets of daily underwear, a couple of reading books, and a toilet kit round out what you need. All of those things fit in the BMW hard luggage with room to spare.
I use luggage liner bags. The hard bags stay on the bike and the liners are light, clean, and easy to carry into the hotel. I use an Eclipse tank bag for my rain suit, maps, camera, etc. I carry my helmet and tank bag on the plane, or in a roll away carry-on bag that fits in the storage compartment over the seat. The rest of my gear, including leathers and boots, fit into one suitcase. I also pack a set of clean clothes for the flight home.
If you are traveling two up on the bike, the extra gear can be carried comfortably in a waterproof duffel bag attached to the rack behind the seat of the motorcycle.
If you are traveling by car, or have a companion traveling with you by car, then you basically have no luggage constraints other than common sense.
- First, I get the most detailed maps I can find. That way, I find all the great little roads that don’t show up on the general Alpine maps. I provide each rider a fairly detailed map of the alpine region that almost always shows all our routes. I can also direct you to a good source of maps, and their website, here in the states that will have all the detailed maps you might want.
- Next, I bring along a copy of John Hermann’s “Motorcycle Journeys Through the Alps & Beyond”. I had the pleasure of riding with John during my two Beach’s trips in the mid-eighties. He was a knowledgeable and entertaining individual back then, and it is clear from his book that he has become more so since. My favorites aren’t necessarily the same as John’s but his book is full of useful information, local knowledge and is a great referral source.Whitehorse Press also sells a video entitled “Motorcycle Tour of the Alps Video” which can be purchased as a set with John Hermann’s book or separately. The video is taken on a motorcycle while riding through several major passes that we tour in the Andermatt and Cortina areas. I don’t agree with all the commentary but the video, complete with the sound of the motorcycle shifting through the gears, is pretty good.
- Finally, I add my own strong sense of curiosity. I love to explore and have no problem going down a dead end mountain road just to see what’s there. Sometimes, you find some special treats, sometimes just pleasant scenery. Either way, it’s good riding. I try to make it a point to spend at least 20%-25% of my time on roads that I haven’t tried yet. The more I go back, the harder it gets but, not that hard.
If you want to order a copy of John Hermann’s book from Whitehorse Press the web address is shown below.
Rain is one of the reasons we try to keep the hotels approx. 4 hours apart. On a sunny day you might get there a little quicker. On a rainy day you can take your time. The Alps are the only place that I have been, where I willingly go ride in the rain. It makes a great excuse to increase the frequency of stopping to sample the local coffee shops and bakeries.
- I suggest tour members bring a range of clothing that you can layer if the weather turns cold. The weather in the mountains can be unpredictable. Snow is possible even in July. We are able to leave excess gear and clothing at our base hotel. So I usually make a final adjustment to my gear based on the weather forecast issued on the last day at our base hotel. Then I simply leave any excess items at the hotel while away on tour.
- Morning temperatures are generally 20F – 25F cooler in the morning when we head out than they are by mid day.
- The temperature tends to drop approx 10F for every 1000 meters of height we go up. So if it is 70F at the bottom of a pass, it may be 45F – 50F at the top of a high pass at 2400 – 2700 meters. If we start out in the morning when it’s cooler and hit a high pass before the mid-day warmth it can definitely be a bit chilly at the top.
- Certain areas like the lakes region in Italy, at the southern edge of the Alps, or southern France can be 10F + warmer than the full mountains immediately to the north.
- SO – Bring a range of clothing suitable for varied tempeartures
June weather for the last few years has been great. Daytime valley temperatures have been in the low to mid 70’s frequently getting into the low 80’s(F). Morning temps are usually in the low 50’s. Temperatures warm up quickly and we are usually shedding layers by 10:30AM – 11:00AM. Reading daylight lasts until 8:30-9:00PM, perhaps one to two days of rain out of 10.
It’s great weather for kicking back at the top of a pass sans motorcycle jacket, soaking up the rays, and enjoying a cappuccino and apple strudel (my favorite snack). You can frequently go outside after dinner and sit at the cafe table in your shirtsleeve while people watching and having an after dinner drink.
September sees shorter days. Reading daylight ends between 6:00-6:30PM. The temperatures at 8:00AM will be mid 40’s, low 50’s getting up to the mid 60’s low 70’s during the day. It might rain two or three days out of ten (although in 2003 we had 12 days of perfect June-like weather).
Sometimes there is snow at night at the higher elevations, more so on the Swiss or Austrian trip than the Italian tour, which leaves the mountains dusted with white when you wake up in the morning. Occasionally, a rainy day in the valley will be wet snow at the top of a pass. However, the snow is usually just a nuisance and does not accumulate on the road.
The trade-off for going in September (shorter days and cooler temperatures compared to June) is that the tourists and vacationers are all gone. The foliage is changing, the shops and museums are open and you’ve got it all pretty much to yourself and the Euro bikers who are still out in force on the week ends.
I tend to run the Swiss/Italian tour in late June because the high Alps (TOP 10+) can still be snow blocked in mid-June. The Italian Alps seem to open up sooner, usually by mid-May. As I’ve said elsewhere in this website keeping our tour group to 9 bikes or less has several advantages including flexibility.
One September we awoke in Le Prese Switzerland with the intention of doing a loop over the Bernina Pass. However, while it was dry where we were the mountaintops around us, which had been bare the day before, were covered with snow. The Bernina Pass had received more than a foot of snow overnight and was still clearing out from under it. Our small group was able to change routes and hotels seamlessly for that day and got back on track the following morning.
I’ve been riding in the Alps for more than 30 years and I have only changed my itinerary two or three times due to weather.
My tours are for people who like to ride, so we spend the same amount of time in the saddle every day. The riding usually starts at 9AM and goes until 5 – 6 PM. The two main things that will will effect the number of miles per day are:
- The nature of the roads, i.e. a higher mix of high speed sweepers means more kms
- The weather – 0bviously you can get more miles in (if you want) on clear dry roads than you can on cold wet roads.
We go over 4 – 6 passes per day and we usually stop at the top of each one to enjoy the views, perhaps have a coffee, use the rest room, etc. We also stop for lunch, the ocassional photo op, a unique sight seeing stop and sometimes just to take a break – so there is plenty of off-bike time during a riding day, but when we ride we ride.
Keep in mind that most our riding is mountain riding. You can be flicking the bike back and forth, doing your best Valentino Rossi impersonation and still only be averaging 40-60km/hr (24-36mph) for several hours at a time. You feel like you going fast but the nature of the road limits your true average speed and daily kms.
Most of the hotels can be reached directly in approx. 4 – 6 hours. That includes pit stops, espresso breaks, and the like. Four hours equates to roughly 120 miles. That way if someone wants to get to the next town, do a little sightseeing, or just relax they’ll have time to do that. A few days have longer hotel to hotel rides but not many.
The routes are designed so that there are always several multiple day stays in the same location so that people can either relax and enjoy the area amenities or go out and do some all day, in-depth exploration of the local roads.
I personally tend to take the in-direct way so as to stay out all day and satiate my appetite for pass after pass. Whatever your preference I’ll make sure that you have a route and distance that suits your pleasure.
I like roads that give you a great view, or show you a glimpse of the countryside that you don’t get from the main roads. I like pass roads that give me a sense of accomplishment that by getting over the pass I mastered nature and the motorcycle, even if the bike did all the work.
We usually head out by 9:00AM and ride a full day until 5:00 – 6:00PM. We usually stop at the top of each pass for a snack and photo-op, which equates to approx. every 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Obviously we stop for lunch as well. If we are in a town with a 2 or 3 night stay-over tour members can choose to ride all day or split their time between riding and sight-seeing. You might get a small sense of the riding feel of my tours from reading the testimonials.
The fact is that the major tour groups go over the same big name passes that the do-it-yourself travelers use. Sometimes, the tour participants themselves are so intent on getting to the top of a big name pass that they ignore the suggested daily route of their experienced guides, never knowing what they missed.
I think that the difference in the quality of your riding adventure is in finding the awesome little roads and passes that connect you to the big ones. There really are no bad roads in the Alps but, some are definitely better than others.
First of all it’s your trip and your day. So you can decide to ride on your own, or with your friends, or with me. If you want to go on your own or with your friends I’ll be more than happy to spend whatever time it takes each day to give as much, or as little, guidance as you want with your daily route.
We generally have breakfast, pack our gear, and settle our hotel bill such that we are ready to hit the road by 9:00 AM. We stop to gas up anyone who didn’t have a chance to do so the night before. Then off we go.
From Thun it is a matter of minutes before we have fantastic scenery and about a half hour before we hit our first pass.
All our hotels thereafter are located in the mountains or, if lakeside, within minutes of the high country. We stop about every hour to hour and a half, usually at the top of a pass or some other scenic view. Use the time for photo-ops, bathroom breaks, and snack time or just to enjoy the view.
The fact is that some people like to go faster than others and that’s fine. Once we’re on the road heading up the pass the faster riders are welcome to blitz on ahead and wait at the top for the more mild mannered folks.
Motorcycles are able to pass slower moving traffic a lot easier than cars. Bikes are always passing cars, up hill, down hill, in town, just about everywhere that the mobility of the motorcycle allows. But even with cars as part of the group the wait for them to catch up is only a minute or two.
If we’re navigating between towns on the way to a pass we will wait at the corner of a turn-off so that everyone can see where we are heading.
There is a briefing at the start of the day as to the route and we can review it at each break so everyone has a pretty good idea of where we going. In a worse case scenario all the tour guests have my cell phone number, which they can use in the event we truly get separated.
If you want to stop to take a photo feel free to do so. I do. If you’re behind us when you stop we’ll wait or I’ll come back to get you as need be.
I personally ride about mid speed. However, I don’t like to follow anything diesel and I’m not keen on having my scenic Alpine road inhibited by slower moving cars and buses. I tend to pass frequently so as to get a clear road ahead. I’m more than happy to wait at turn-offs, for photo-ops or to slow down after I pass so no one gets left behind.
As mentioned elsewhere in the FAQ section most hotels can be reached in 4 – 6 hours. If it’s a great day we’ll wait till 6:00PM or so to hit the hotel. Dinner is usually between 7:00-7:30PM as many restaurants won’t seat you after 8:00PM.
We have several 2 and 3 night stay-overs depending on the trip. On the second or third day my riding schedule is the same, i.e. out by 9:00AM. If you want to sleep in, walk the town or ride somewhere different feel free to do so. We can either make plans to hook up during the day or meet in the evening for dinner.
I mention several different times on this website that my tours are for “experienced riders”. What do I mean by that?
It means that you have enough riding/touring experience to feel comfortable with anything the Alps can throw at you short of a blizzard, ice storm or landslide and that you have that comfort level from day 1. My tours are designed to ride together as a group. You are more than welcome to go off on your own and I will be glad to help you sort out routes that give you what you want. However, if we ride together we ride together.
The Alps require a certain amount of skill. You will be turning, and braking, and shifting much, much more than you do riding American roads. You’ll be overtaking cars and buses all day long going uphill and downhill, and sometimes the only clear view to pass with the motorcycle will be going through a turn. None of the high roads have any guardrails to speak of, so you need to be careful. We ride rain or shine, especially on hotel-to-hotel days (where we have fixed reservations) and we can frequently end up riding in and out of the rain all day on cloudy days with a little snow or slush thrown in when we crest a pass at the highest, and coldest, part of that road. Temperatures can be in the 70’s – 80’s one day and close to freezing the next – so you need to know your gear and be prepared.
I’ve been lucky over the last 19 years and have only had 1 or 2 riders whose skills did not match their rhetoric. We use the first day of every tour to get acclimated to the bikes and the roads, and each other. I route us over a little bit of everything, back roads, autobahn, gnarly little 1-lane roads, sweepers and villages so that we see what we are in for and how to pass safely. It is not intended to be an “Alps” riding school, but it does prepare you for the rest of the tour all while letting Tour members enjoy some neat, out of the way Swiss back country that most tours never ride or see. It’s some of my favorite riding.
Riding a motorcycle properly requires skill no matter where you ride but definitely more so in the Alps.
If you have any questions or concerns about the skill required, please feel free to contact me and I will be glad to share my experience with you.
Think of your wish list for the perfect place to go motorcycling:
It would be a place where bikers are welcome and where motorcycling is an everyday part of life.
There would obviously have to be great roads with a never-ending variety of twisties, sweepers, switchbacks and straight a ways.
Great roads don’t mean much if you are forced to follow slow moving traffic up the pass road. So, you would want to be able to pass whenever you could do so safely. Also, if there is room to get by, you would want to be able to go to the front of a stopped line of traffic so as not to get stuck when the herd finally gets moving.
You would want to be able to ride these kinds of roads day in and day out and yet have each day be different.
Great scenery would be a must so that when you stop every hour or two to rest and appreciate the ride you’ll be front and center with some of the most impressive views in the world.
You would probably want it to be a place where motorcycles rule. Where on any given day 1/2 to 3/4 of the vehicles on the road are motorcycles. Where a typical parking lot might have 20 painted parking places for cars and 100 painted parking places for motorcycles. Where hotels and restaurants hang out signs that say “Bikers Welcome.”
Heaven, you ask? No, it’s the Alps.
Motorcycling in the Alps is big business. The great roads, fantastic scenery, and rider friendly on-road experience draw thousands of motorcyclists to the Alps. The hotels and restaurants of the region view motorcyclists as the “skiers of the summer” and cater to them just like they cater to skiers in the winter.
This means that no one gives you a second glance when you stroll into the restaurant for lunch in your leathers. If you happen to ride in late at night, and the hotel restaurant is about to close, it’s no big deal. If there’s no time to change into street clothes the hotel will still seat you. You may get a few looks from some of the other diners but the rest of the patrons will be fine with it and the hotel will treat you like the paying guest you are.
It also means that the hotel owners open their garages for bike storage and ask if you enjoyed the riding that day.
Combine the superb riding, breathtaking mountain scenery and inviting hostelries, and you will understand why the Alps are Motorcycle Heaven.
Think of a big round-faced clock. The mountains start at about the 7:00 position near the Mediterranean Sea between France and Italy. They then swing up towards the center of the clock as they flow through Switzerland and Liechtenstein and then head east in the direction of 3:00 as they run through Austria, Southern Germany, Northern Italy and Slovenia.
Some of the highest mountains are in France including the highest one, Mont Blanc at 15,771 feet. Several of the other highest peaks cluster in this area on the border between Switzerland and Italy including Mont Rosa at 15,203 feet and the Matterhorn at 14,692. Generally, the mountains diminish in size as you follow the range from west to east. Many of the mountains in Switzerland and Austria are in the 12,000-foot range. As you go east towards the Dolomites and into Slovenia the high peaks are approx. 10,000 or slightly less.
What makes the area a joy to ride, besides the spectacular scenery, is the abundance and variety of roads. When compared to the Rockies at 300,000 sq/miles there seem to be a lot more roads in the Alps. This is the result of centuries of travel and commerce from north to south and east to west plus a multitude of natural passes through the mountains. Also, the various armed conflicts that have occurred in the region, and the requirement to move men and supplies or to take the high ground for strategic purposes, made it necessary to build roads which have remained in use long after the conflicts have ended.
I live in New England where many of the back roads are potholed, strewn with frost heaves and poorly tarred surfaces. Compared to the roads around here the alpine roads in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy are about as good as it gets. The roads in France are also pretty good but you’ve got to watch out for the piles of crushed stone from road repairs pushed up in the corners and switchbacks.
So, that’s a quick overview of the Alps. You can get on the Autobahn and blast the entire 660-mile length in about 8 hours. Or, you can really enjoy yourself for weeks at a time by riding up and down and all around and still only touch the surface. It’s beautiful, beautiful country.
Unless you get off the airplane at a gateway city such as Amsterdam or Munich your first on the ground exposure will probably be the Zurich, Geneva or Bern airport. English is readily spoken. These airports are not much different from similar sized airports here in the states.
There are various ways to get from the airport to Thun. If you land in Zurich or Geneva you will likely take the train to Thun. I provide some detailed info on how to take the train from Zurich. If you land in Bern you will either be picked up by the motorcycle shop or take a taxi. Either way the ride to Thun takes approx. a 20 – 25 minute. In Switzerland the highway is filled with BMW’s, Audi’s, VW’s, Mercedes, plus occasional American cars and minivans. The countryside is mostly hilly farmland surrounded by mountains with the occasional cluster of industrial buildings, homes, or apartments along the way.
Thun is a vibrant modern city with a mixture of new and old architecture. In the old section of the city you’ll find the European Alpine architecture that you would expect with lots of outdoor cafes, small shops and the occasional department type store.
Once outside the city, be it in Switzerland, France, Austria or Italy, you’ll find it familiar and exotic at the same time. The countryside is gorgeous and loaded with the kinds of Alpine and Tyrolean buildings you’d expect. There are nicely manicured farms within the mountains everywhere you go. Most hotel and restaurant personnel speak English. So while you may not recognize what’s on the menu the server will be able to explain it to you.
The gas pumps work they way they do in the states. You just pay much more for it. The roads in the mountains are generally narrow but well paved and well maintained.
The people in all the countries we travel to are nice to Americans. While they may not agree with American governmental policy Europeans are courteous to Americans and usually just as curious to talk to us as we are to find out about them. Most of the areas we travel in rely on tourism for their livelihood so that alone assures us of a warm welcome.
I have never knowingly been mistreated or felt put out. I enjoy the Alpine region very much. Europeans seem to have a better sense of balance between work and play than Americans do. I could very easily live in the Alps year round.
Most major tour companies leave the issue of personal travel and medical insurance up to the tour participant. The same is true for my tours. Check with your personal health insurance provider to see what coverage they offer for foreign travel. Some health insurance providers have reciprocal agreements with specific medical facilities overseas. For instance, my health insurance company gave me a list of 6 – 8 hospitals for each of the countries we tour in where those hospitals have reciprocal agreements with my insurance carrier.
Additional medical insurance, as well as travel insurance, can be found though your travel agent, credit card companies, various on-line sources, etc.
The insurance issues vary depending on the rental agency and country involved. A general explanation of the potential risk assumed by the tour participant who rents the motorcycle is discussed below.
A deductible deposit, is required by all the rental sources as part of the comprehensive insurance provided by the rental company. The deposits range from approx. $500 to $1,250 depending on which shop you rent from. If you crash the motorcycle and the damage exceeds the deductible you will lose the entire deposit. If you damage the motorcycle to the tune of $200 you will have the difference between your deposit amount and the $200 returned to you. If you return the bike without any damage the entire deposit will be returned to you.
It is a good idea to go over the bike with the rental agent at the time you pick it up and record any pre-existing damage to ensure that you are not held liable for it upon return of the motorcycle. Most rental sources do this walk-around as a standard part of the rental procedure.
A damage appraisal may be required if there is extensive damage to the motorcycle. The rental company may be required by their insurance company to submit an appraisal to support the large amount of the damage claim. If an appraisal is required the person who rented the bike and caused the damage may have to pay for the appraisal.
The cost of transport for a damaged motorcycle that can not be ridden back to the rental company may be charged to the person who rented the motorcycle.
Other charges, can occur for the cost of parts not returned with the motorcycle. For instance, damage to the hard side cases that come with most BMW rentals is covered by the deductible. However, if damage to the side case is so severe that it won’t stay attached to the bike and you decide to ditch it, you will most likely have to pay for the cost of the side case plus whatever other damage is covered by the deductible when you return the motorcycle.
The discussion above covers some of the basics. As a general rule I have found that motorcycle dealerships that rent are the most lenient when it comes to charging for motorcycle damages. Rental agencies that are strictly in the rental business (as opposed to dealers that generate revenues from renting, selling, repairing, and accessorizing bikes) are more apt to be more aggressive in recouping damage costs. Obviously the best thing to do is DON’T CRASH. If you do, it may only cost a couple of hundred dollars, or much more, depending on the circumstances.
In addition to insurance for the motorcycle there is the concern about roadside assistance in the event of a breakdown or accident. Obviously, traveling in a group helps as someone can always go for help.
Car clubs in the U.S. such as AAA (American Automobile Association) have reciprocal agreements for basic roadside assistance with all the major national automobile clubs in the countries where we tour. If you a member of AAA such agreements will cover you for basic assistance.
There is always a cell phone in our group so that we can call for assistance. I’ve found the local Europeans to be very helpful in the event of an accident or breakdown, frequently having already called for local assistance before we have even pulled our cell phone out of the tank bag. Fortunately our need for such assistance has been rare and readily fixable.
I usually go to Europe with my credit cards and approx. $400 in cash. All the hotels accept credit cards, as do most gas stations. I use cash (Euros or Swiss Francs) to pay for my lunch, incidental snacks and the ocassional automated gas pump when there are no manned gas stations available. I convert my cash to local currency as needed. If I run out of cash I go to the bancomat (the ATM). Bancomats are everywhere so there is no danger of running out of cash. The ATM fee charged by my bank here in NH for an international transaction is $5. That’s not cheap but in the scheme of a European vacation it’s small change.
Some of our hotels are used by other American and European motorcycle groups. Others seldom, if ever, see a motorcyclist.
Most are 3 and 4 star establishments. Someone recently asked me if a 3 star hotel was better than a Holiday Inn here in the states. The answer is way better.
All the hotels are family owned and they take pride in their service. All the hotels we stay at have private bathrooms and a shower/bath in each room. They all have good restaurants, which serve both dinner and a full continental breakfast.
The price range varies from $65 – $130 per night per person (including meals) depending on the rating and the country. As you might expect hotels in Italy and Austria are the least expensive and those in France and Switzerland cost a little more. Every now and then we stay at a 5 star hotel just to enjoy the special view or unique location.
I am always trying new places. On every tour I usually try and stay at least one night at a new hotel. These are usually hotels that I have lunched at before or that someone I know and trust has recommended. The majority of hotels we use are ones that I have stayed at before. If I don’t like them I don’t go back.
A quick word about meals. Potential tour guests frequently ask me if they are free to eat somewhere else other than at the hotel restaurants that we stay at. The answer obviously is yes. The thing to remember is that most restaurants are part of a hotel or guesthouse. That is true even for the restaurants that we lunch and snack at during the day. So if you choose to eat elsewhere other than at our hotel, you’ll probably be swapping one hotel restaurant for another. They’re all pretty good.
Most of our hotels include breakfast and dinner, as part of the price so there is some money to be saved by you with a package deal.
A list of hotel names, addresses, and telephone numbers is provided to each tour member prior to the start of the tour. In addition, most of the hotels have their own website and these addresses are also provided along with the regular contact info. That way you are welcome to check out the hotels ahead of time.
Remember you are going to be riding in the mountains where the roads are narrow and the turns are tight. Therefore, a smaller car is probably more suitable. The Audi A4 that recently followed us around had no problem going over all the roads the motorcycles traveled on, even the little one-laners.
It doesn’t matter how you see the Alps; it’s the seeing that counts.
Most tour members fly into Zurich. There are multiple train connections daily right from the Zurich Airport that transport you to Thun in approx 1hr 45 minutes. It’s a relaxing ride. I provide detailed information to Tour members on how to get to the train station, buy your ticket, catch the train and more.
Another option, depending on where you are flying from, is the Bern Airport. The Bern airport (symbol “BRN”) is readily accessible from several major European cities including Amsterdam, Brussels, Florence, London, Munich, Paris and Vienna. From the Bern airport the taxi ride takes about 20-30 minutes.
Thun is easily reached via autobahn. There are also bus and rail connections from Zurich and Bern to Thun. Thun sits on the west end of the Thuner See (“see” is another word for lake). Thun has a beautiful old city center with a river running through it. To the east is the Brienzer See. In between the two sees sits the tourist Mecca of Interlaken. Nearby are the famous Yosemite like waterfalls of Lauterbrunnen and the village of Grindelwald at the foot of the Eiger (the mountain on which Clint Eastwood dallied in the “Eiger Sanction”).
Obviously if your schedule only allows you to go in July and August then don’t let my reasons dissuade you one bit from going. The Alps are great anytime and should not be missed. On the other hand, if your schedule is flexible I believe June and September are the optimal times to tour the Alps.
- Crowds – The mountains are alive with people in July and August. Hiking and mountaineering are very popular during the summer. The Alps attract European, American and foreign tourists in droves. The result is significant traffic, via cars and tour buses, heading up the pass roads in the morning and down again in the late afternoon/early evening. It also means that the little restaurants and refuggios at the top of each pass are crowded which can translate to no seats readily available for your favorite snack or lunch. It can also mean more stop and go traffic in the valleys. For me, this level of congestion detracts from the overall Alpine experience. Especially when there is so little traffic in June and virtually no traffic in September.
- Crowds also have an obvious impact on shops, museums, hotels, etc. There is something perverse about walking through the old part of Munich in July and hearing more English spoken than German as you jostle in line for a seat at an outdoor cafŽ. Not for me thank you. One of the ways I enjoy learning about the local area and way of life is by talking to the people who live there, especially the hotel owners and staff. You don’t get to talk to these folks nearly as much in July and August when they are busy with a full hotel. They have more time available in June and September not only to talk, but to perhaps prepare your food a special way, or cook something not on the menu, or just tell you a story about something special in their village.
- Weather – The temperature in the Alps is similar to New England. July and August are the two hottest months. While daytime temperatures average in the low to mid 70’s(F) they frequently hit the mid 80’s(F), or higher, in the valleys. If you get stuck in traffic on a hot sunny day with your riding gear on you get sweaty pretty fast. When you get to the top of a pass it can be 15 – 40 degrees cooler, depending on altitude, cloud cover, wind, etc. Then your sweaty undergarments become chilled and uncomfortable. Just about the time you’re starting to dry out you’re back in the valley and sweating again. Some riders like to ride in t-shirts and jeans when it gets hot. I’m a firm believer in riding with protective gear on, as are the people who come on my tours, so I choose to go when the weather suits our attire.
- The other weather factor to consider is that most hotels in the Alps do not have air conditioning regardless of whether they are three, four or five star rated. If you hit a spell of hot weather in July or August you might have trouble sleeping, even with the windows wide open. A good night’s sleep is important after a full day of riding. I sleep better when it’s cooler at night, which is another reason I prefer June and September.
- Alpine Ambiance – In June many of the mountaintops still have snow on them which I think enhances their visual appeal. From mid-July through August the snow is usually gone, especially from the lower peaks. In September it frequently snows on the mountaintops overnight, and sometimes during the day, so the visual beauty of snow capped mountains is back.
- Another ambiance factor is that much of Europe goes on vacation in August. This means that some of the little shops and restaurants, particularly in the smaller villages, are closed because the owners are off on their August vacations. If you’re not into little shops it won’t be noticeable. However, if you like to stroll around town during a two or three day layover you will see it. I intersperse my daily riding with occasional bakery stops for cappuccino and local delights. It can be a bummer to pull up to a “backeri” only to find it closed due to vacation.
- Cost – July and August are high season in the Alps. This means that hotel costs go up 10-20%. For me it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium for crowds and discomfort when I can go in June and September for less money and get a more pleasurable experience.
SOME GENERAL COMMENTS ABOUT MY FEE
On my tours you pay your own expenses in order to save you money. This also lets you know exactly what the trip costs. The same goes for my fee. I want you to know what I’m making. There are no side deals with the hotels or motorcycle rental shops to give me a commission, no volume discounts for me to pocket or anything like that. If I do get a price break I pass that along to the tour participants.
As I’ve said elsewhere in this website the main purpose of my fee is to cover my expenses. It cost me the same for my motorcycle, hotels and food as it does you. Add airfare, a little advertising and the website hosting and my break even is not far below the 7 member limit per tour at the current MC fee rates.
I would like to say that there was a scientific method to how I calculated the actual fee amounts. Perhaps a return on investment calculation for the nearly $150,000 I’ve spent on Euro travel since 1973. Or a complicated regression formula tied to fluctuations in the European exchange rate and the USA consumer price index. Instead, it’s easier to think of it as $110 a day for the motorcycle rider. While I am at your service 24 hrs a day during the tour we really spend about 10 hours a day together related to touring (not counting breakfast and dinner times), during which I actively share my knowledge and experience. This equates to $11.00 per hour (approx. what my neighbor made per hour working part-time for Wal-Mart during XMAS season). For a passenger the same rational yields $9.00 per hour.
It would be more profitable for me to charge an all-inclusive price. If I did that and brought 20-40 people to the same hotel every trip or the same motorcycle shop, or ran all my trips for 5 or 7 days out of the same touring center hotel I could get substantial price concessions from the hotels and motorcycle shops which would accrue to me in the all-inclusive price. At that rate it would be a lucrative business instead of a passionate business.
However, I like variety and I like small personable groups. So do my tour guests. With some of my tour member coming back for their second and third tour I want to make sure they have a unique experience each time.
WHY I CHARGE FOR THE PASSENGER
I get asked this question frequently. Everyone understands why the rider pays but not always the passenger fee. There are two reasons for the passenger fee:
The first is that my knowledge is my service. Showing you the roads, the sites, the hotels and providing relevant information about all those things is the main reason you chose to go with me on a “guided” tour. The passenger benefits from all that experience in the same way the pilot does. Booking the bike is no big deal in terms of time. Making the hotel reservation for two, rather than one, is no big deal. The bulk of my time and effort is spent on showing you the beauty and splendor of the Alps and Alpine motorcycling.
The second reason, which is much less a factor, is that I limit my tours to 7 motorcycles or 14 people. If those 14 were made up of 7 couples and I only charged for the pilot I’d lose money on every tour. I don’t want a big group so the 5 – 14 people who come on every tour, and who partake in my knowledge of the local area, pay some fee amount in order for the business side of Moto-Charlie to work.
The rental shop in Switzerland rents nearly a full line of BMWs and KTM models that are suitable for touring. Please keep the following in mind:
- I will help you make all of the motorcycle arrangements.
- It is not as complicated as it may look. The time it takes to walk into the motorcycle shop, deal with the paperwork and leave with your bike is usually 20 minutes or less.
- The major rental details about license requirements, deposits and insurance are outlined below. I’ve rented from a number of shops over the years and researched numerous other rental sources. The terms below are pretty much standard operating procedure.
A valid motorcycle driver’s license is required. I highly recommend that you obtain an international driver’s permit (“IDP”). The IDP makes your license easier for everyone to understand who might need to look at it. Austria and Italy both require that your license be understood in those countries and the IDP fits that requirement. TheIDP is available from your local AAA office or national equivalent, is are good for one year and costs approx. $15 for the IDP and $10 for the attached photo.
There are two deposits involved in the motorcycle rental process. #1 is what I call a booking deposit. #2 is an insurance deposit. Both are discussed below.
#1 – A booking deposit of 500 Swiss Francs (approx. $520) is required at the time a motorcycle reservation is made.
This reserves the specific bike you want for you.
This deposit is non-refundable. A portion of this deposit may be refunded at the discretion of MC depending on how early the cancellation occurs, any costs incurred by MC and other factors.
#2 – An insurance deposit of 1,000 Swiss Francs (approx. $1,040) for bikes up to 125 cc or less, or 2,000 Swiss Francs (approx. $2,080) for bikes of 125cc or bigger is required.
- This deposit will be refunded to you in full if there is no damage to the bike when returned at the end of the tour.
- Obviously, if there is damage some, or all, of the deposit may be retained by the motorcycle shop depending on the extent of the damage.
#1 – The booking deposit of 500 Swiss francs is made through Moto-Charlie at the same time you reserve space on the tour. I forward the full 500 CHF to the rental shop when the reservation is secured.
#2 – The insurance deposit must be paid at the time the motorcycle is picked up. You also pay for the motorcycle rental (less the #1 deposit previously remitted) at the time of pick up. Payment can be made by traveler’s checks or major credit cards (credit cards preferred).
The rates also include collision, comprehensive and third party liability insurance.
Using new bikes helps to ensure reliability and gives you a chance to try the latest models. Click here for the Motorcycle page.
The only thing that you will have to do on my tour that would be covered in an all-inclusive package is to visit the bike shop (which most people like to do anyway) to pick up the bike at the start of the tour, drop it off at the end of the tour and pay for it.
In exchange for that extra effort you can save $750 – $2,600 or more per person.
A side benefit is that each bike is specifically reserved for you in advance. That way you know for sure that the motorcycle that you expect to ride will be there when you are. Every bike is rented to order. If your first choice is not available you’ll know that BEFORE you sign up so that your second choice is one that you’ll be happy with.
Other than the bike rental the daily exercise of paying your bills is the same with Moto-Charlie as it is for the big tour companies.
You have to pay for your daily incidentals (gas, lunch, snacks, etc.) whether you go with the big guys or me.
Most all-inclusive tours include most of your meals (but sometimes not). However, beverages, be it bottled water, beer, wine, coffee, etc. are not part of the all-inclusive price. Neither is the mini-bar in your room. These bills are paid separately by you and are added to your tab during your stay. SO, when you check out of a hotel on an all-inclusive tour you have to settle your beverage bill at the front desk. While you’re there why not pay your hotel bill at the same time. That way you get to see what it really cost to stay there. On my tour that saves you money with no extra hassle.