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 Alpinitious.
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.