Summary Of My 12th Long-Distance Bike Tour

The last 12 months have been amazing. I attended the Sundance Film Festival, saw some of my favorite musicians perform live (including A Fine Frenzy and Nellie McKay), rode a motorcycle across the Western United States and conducted a 10-month-long bicycle tour across 20 European countries. In this article I aim to summarize my thoughts and impressions of my multi-month long bicycle tour across Europe.

The video below is a slideshow of everything I did during the year 2012.

A Quick Summary Of Where I Went In Europe This Year

This was my third long-distance bicycle tour in Europe and my twelfth long-distance bicycle tour ever. I started in Iceland at the beginning of May and spent twenty-five days cycling around the island with one of my old college roommates, Brandon Roesler.

Then I jumped on an airplane and flew to London, England, where I saw the queen during her Diamond Jubilee celebration and spend about 10 days touring around the city.

I then took the ferry to Dunkirk, France, cycled north through Belgium and the Netherlands before turning east toward Germany.

I stayed with my friend Fee and her family in the tiny village of Ludorf, before heading back into Belgium for the start of the Tour de France bicycle race. I saw the first three days of the race in Belgium, then cycled south through Luxembourg and north-eastern France where I caught up with the Tour de France racers once again in the city of Metz.

I caught a train from Metz to Geneva, Switzerland and spent the next ten days cycling across the country with Bike Switzerland on their guided Challenge Tour.

Darren Alff's 2012 Bicycle Touring route

After the bike tour was over, I went and stayed with my friends Adam and Gabi Rybicki in Bazenheid, Switzerland. While I was there, they took me on a weekend trip to Livigno, Italy where we hiked in the mountains and ate lots of pizza.

Then I flew from Zurich, Switzerland to Istanbul, Turkey. I rented an apartment in Istanbul and stayed there for an entire month!

Then I cycled north out of Istanbul, cycling for nearly a week before crossing into Bulgaria and pedaling downhill toward the Black Sea.

Cycling along the Black Sea was beautiful and surprising inexpensive. I spent a week in Varna, Bulgaria and then cycled north-west from there before crossing into Romania.

Romania was incredible! I felt at home in the mountains of Transylvania. I rented an apartment in the beautiful city of Brasov, took a two week paragliding course while I was there, participated in a paragliding competition, made lots of friends and fell in love with the country.

After more than a month in Brasov, I cycled north-east for a week or so, crossing through remote Romanian mountain villages before cycling into the tiny country of Moldova. The temperatures had dropped dramatically by this time (it was November now) and I had a hole in my left cycling shoe.

In Chisinau (Moldova’s capital city) I bought myself a new pair of boots to ride in during the winter, before pedaling east through Transnistria and the then crossing into the neighboring country of Ukraine.

I spent three weeks in Ukraine and it was freezing cold the entire time. A dog followed me for two days, I hardly ever saw the sky, and I quickly fell in love with the people in the city of Lviv.

From Lviv I jumped on a sleeper train (they nearly didn’t let me on because of my bicycle) and arrived on December 5th in beautiful Krakow, Poland – which is where my year eventually came to a close. But my travels in Europe didn’t end there.

After spending a month in Krakow, I cycled south through the cold and snow and crossed into Slovakia. I went skiing in the mountains and then cycled west into the Czech Republic. Taking the train on some days and bicycling on others, I toured the northern region of the Czech Republic before taking a train back into southern Poland.

I stayed with my friend Karol for a few days in Wroclaw. Rented an apartment for a week in the city of Lodz and finished my 10-month European tour in beautiful Poznan, Poland.

Here Are My Thoughts On…

Iceland

Iceland was one of my favorite countries that I visited this year. Touring Iceland with Brandon, my ex-college roommate, certainly made the trip more fun. But I would have liked Iceland whether I had been alone or with a friend.

Iceland is the type of place that is made for bicycle touring. I don’t think you can really appreciate Iceland in a car the same way you can on a bicycle.

It was super cold in Iceland (we were wearing snow gear almost every single day) and there were some incredibly rough moments, but I would go back in a heartbeat.

The people in Iceland were so laid back, friendly and fun. If you go to Iceland, you can’t just go for a couple days. I think you need to spend a good two months or more there to really get a taste of everything that the country has to offer.

England

I was only in England for about 10 days, so my impressions of the country are admittedly superficial. However, my initial thoughts on the city of London were that it was incredibly beautiful (I loved the architecture) and the people were terribly kind. But (and this is a big BUT) there were WAY TOO MANY PEOPLE. I am not a people person, so I felt trapped and overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in London. When I finally got out of England, I felt a big sense of relief.

France

When I crossed the channel from England to France and got off the ferry in Dunkirk, I had never felt so good in all my life. France felt kind of rough and dirty, but at the same time, so incredibly warm and welcoming.

One of my favorite moments of in the last year occurred in the city of Metz, France, where I saw the most amazing street performance of my entire life.

This was my first time in France… and for some strange reason, I felt at home there. I can’t wait to go back and see more of the country!

Belgium

Belgium really surprised me. I didn’t know what to expect when I cycled into Belgium, but the place quickly grew on me. I had expected the country to be small, flat and boring. But it wasn’t that way at all.

From a cycling standpoint, Belgium is phenomenal. Western Belgium especially, has bicycle paths all over the place. The paths are well marked, well-maintained and super interesting. They take you through small towns, over bridges, along canals and all over the place. In eastern Belgium, the landscape becomes more mountainous and the bicycle lanes largely disappear, but this part of the country is breathtaking in its own unique way.

That’s what I liked about Belgium. The country is really very small, but it didn’t feel that was because of just how diverse its terrain and its people tend to be.

Netherlands

All my life I’ve been hearing great things about the Netherlands – about how it is a cycling paradise. And it’s true. The Netherlands does have tons and tons of bike paths. But I also found cycling in the Netherlands to be somewhat boring because of the sheer number of paths that cover the country.

The Netherlands is flat, which is fun for a while, but gets a little boring after several days. Even though I appreciate cycling on dedicated bike paths on occasion, I think cycling on them all the time takes some of the adventure out of your travels.

My biggest regret about being in the Netherlands is that I did not go to Amsterdam, but opted instead to go to Utrecht. Utrecht was nice, but the next time I am in the Netherlands I’d like to go and see the capital city.

Germany

This was my third time in Germany and my second time in the area around the city of Koln. Arriving in Koln felt strange, because I was familiar with the place, and yet things looked a whole lot bigger than I had previously remembered them.

I spent the majority of my time in Germany with my friend Fee at her family’s home in the tiny village of Ludorf. While I was there, I ate like a king, toured some nearby castles and museums, took a car trip with Fee to the city of Bielefeld and ate lots and lots of ice cream.

After having spent the last month on the road primarily by myself, it was great to be part of a family once again. I enjoyed getting to know Fee on a deeper level while at the same time meeting her friends and family.

One of the things I realized when I was at Fees was that I am not very good at sitting at a table and eating with a big group of people. My family didn’t do that very often when I was growing up, and now I get super uncomfortable when I have to sit and eat at a table, use the proper utensils, etc. I need to work on that.

Luxembourg

After watching the first three days of the Tour de France bicycle race in eastern Belgium, I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled south toward Metz, France – crossing through the tiny country of Luxembourg while on my way there. I only spent two days and one night in Luxembourg, but it was another place where I really enjoyed the scenery. Long rolling hills all day long, with a beautiful campsite and largely traffic-free roads.

Switzerland

I spent more than two months in Switzerland during the winter of 2009, so I was familiar with the country, but I had never seen it during the summertime. Switzerland was spectacularly beautiful during the winter, so I knew it was going to be amazing during the summer. That’s a big part of why I signed up to participate in the Bike Switzerland Challenge Tour during the middle of July.

The Bike Switzerland Challenge Tour is a 10-day guided bike tour from one end of Switzerland to the other… and if you ever get a chance to go to Switzerland, you should really try and participate in this tour. It was amazing!

There were about 10 people on the tour with me (and two additional guides) and together we cycled from Geneva in the west to the Bodensee in east. Along the way we slept in beautiful hotels, ate spectacular food and saw some of the most breathtaking scenery ever. Switzerland is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Liechtenstein

During the Bike Switzerland Challenge Tour, we cycled through the tiny country of Liechtenstein. It was my second time in the country, and like Switzerland, I had never seen it before during the summer months.

For such a small place, Liechtenstein was super busy in July. There were people and cars all over the place, but there was also a small network of bicycle paths that went all across the country (something I had not see in 2009 when I came to Liechtenstein for the first time).

Italy

I drove to Italy with my friends Adam and Gabi Rybicki and together with their son and his fiancee we stayed in the tiny ski town of Livigno for a few days. This was my second time ever in Italy, but my first time in this particular region. It was mountainous, cold and beautiful! We hiked, ate pizza and ice cream and did lots and lots of shopping (Well, they did. I just hung out with them while they shopped).

I’ve been to Italy twice now, but I still haven’t seen much of the country. I’ve kind of been saving Italy, if I must be honest. I want to come back to Europe sometime soon and spend a good three months riding my bicycle all over Italy. It’s such a big country with so much to see and do. I think it deserves three months entirely by itself. Hopefully that will happen sometime soon!

Turkey

I spent an entire month in Istanbul… and now that it’s over, I think that was a big mistake. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Istanbul. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of positive things going on there. But one month in the city was just way too long.

I liked Turkey a whole lot more once I got out of Istanbul. The smaller cities and towns north of Istanbul were lovely. I found the people to be incredibly nice and I enjoyed the fact that even though I don’t speak Turkish, I could communicate in German with a lot of the locals.

Prices for food and drinks in Turkey are relatively cheap, but it is incredibly hot there during the summer months and I was often times carrying 6 or more liters of water of my bicycle in order to stay hydrated.

Bulgaria

I’ve never seen as many prostitutes in one country as I did in Bulgaria. They were everywhere… and the sex industry is big business.

That said, the bike ride up the Black Sea was beautiful. I loved every minute of it. The people were nice, the prices were cheap (a hotel room, for example, cost $10-$15 USD) and the cycling was easy.

Cycling into the interior of Bulgaria was boring (lots of flat, brown farmland), but the Black Sea route was wonderful and I would highly recommend it.

Romania

I had no plans on staying in Romania for as long as I did. I thought I would cycle straight through the country as quick as I possibly could, but that certainly did not happen.

Southern Romania was difficult and boring. It was flat with few paved roads and few resources in the smaller towns and villages.

Cycling into the region known as Transylvania, however, everything changed! Romania is spectacular – from a bicycle touring standpoint and from a lifestyle standpoint!

I rented an apartment in the center of beautiful Brasov, Romania, planning to be there for just a week or two. Instead, I stayed for an entire month.

While I was in the city, I signed up for a 2-week course where I learned to fly a paraglider… and it was the best thing I did this entire year (More on this in a moment).

I loved Romania because it is such a mix of the old and the new. There are modern, fashion friendly people who speak English, drive fancy cars and live very modern lives… and there are people who live in wooden homes, have no electricity or running water, drive around in horse-drawn wagons and speak a language that only a select few in this corner of the world can understand. That’s what I loved so much about Romania – the diversity. No matter where I went, the place was warm, friendly and downright interesting.

I could live in Romania. That’s how much I liked it.

Moldova

I crossed into Moldova kind of near the center of the country and then cycled south from there into the capital city of Chisinau. My first day in Moldova was bizarre. It was freezing cold, the towns were very remote and ill-maintained, and I couldn’t find food, water or an ATM machine anywhere.

Once I reached Chisinau, however, my spirits grew. I am usually not a city person, but Chisinau was small enough that it didn’t feel like a massively overpowering city. I liked Chisinau for its size.

Also, the people in Chisinau were the best looking people I have ever seen. I had heard that the women in Ukraine were beautiful, but the best looking women (and men as well) that I saw in Europe this year were in Moldova.

Transnistria

I had planned on cycling for three days in the tiny breakaway territory known as Transnistria, but the official at the border allowed me only one day in the country, so I had to quickly change plans and cross into Ukraine a whole lot sooner than I had hoped.

That said, cycling through Transnistria was not nearly as scary as I had thought it might be. Despite the small military presence at the borders, the officials were kind and welcoming. They even showed some interest in my trip by bike.

I had heard a lot of things on the Internet before going to Transnistria that this was a dangerous place to go, that I might have to give a bribe of some kind at the border, and who knows what else I might encounter once inside the country. But my time in Transnistria wasn’t like that at all. Both border crossings in Transnistria went very well and my only regret was that I wasn’t able to stay in the country longer.

Ukraine

My first day in Ukraine was the last day I ever saw the sun in Ukraine. I spent more than three weeks in Ukraine and most of the time it was dark, gray, cold and foggy.

I was followed by a dog for two days, which was both fun and emotional at the same time.

I actually enjoyed my cycling experiences in Ukraine. It was cold and dark, but the roads were great for cycling and if it had been summertime, I think I really would have enjoyed myself.

Unfortunately, I was cycling across Ukraine in the winter and it was freezing cold… and I was sleeping in a tent.

Once I reached Lviv, Ukraine, I knew that I could not sleep in a tent any longer. I rented an apartment in the city and stayed there for a couple weeks to get warm, do some work and enjoy the city.

Lviv is a beautiful place and I would highly recommend it. There isn’t really a lot to do there, but you can easily spend a few days walking around the city, looking at the beautiful architecture and watching the people. The people watching in Ukraine was my favorite. The people dress so well and are incredibly interesting to watch.

Slovakia

I rode my bike into Slovakia from southern Poland and when I got there, the place was covered in snow. I spent a good 10 days in the city of Cadca, where I went hiking in the mountains, skied at a nearby resort and finished the first draft of my book about Winter Cycling.

This was my second time in Slovakia and, to be honest, I really like the place.

Slovakia is kind of expensive (probably due to the fact that they are now using the Euro as their main currency), but many things there still cost far less than what I would normally pay for the same thing in the United States (such as a day of skiing, for example. In my hometown of Park City, it costs about $125 USD to rent skis and buy a lift ticket. In Slovakia I paid half of that.)

Czech Republic

bicycle touring in the czech republic

Like Slovakia, this was my second time in the Czech Republic. However, I did not travel to Prague this year. Instead, I stayed north of the capital city and explored some small remote towns and villages that you’ve surely never heard of.

I got a lot of experience riding my bicycle in the cold and snow. I went on long hikes during the day and I enjoyed cheap food and lodging.

The northern Czech Republic was another part of the world (like Ukraine) that I enjoyed traveling through (despite being there in the wintertime), but secretly wish to return to during the warmer months. I think a bike tour across the Czech Republic during the summer would be an incredible experience.

Poland

withkarol

Finally, entering Poland felt like entering the modern world again. While Ukraine did have many modern conveniences, going from Ukraine to Poland felt like going from third class to first class. In Poland there were massive supermarkets, modern vehicles, and trains going in every direction. People in Poland spoke English… and suddenly I could communicate with many of the people I met on the street. And there were other tourists (something I had not encountered for months).

Poland is a very flat country (and therefore kind of boring from a cycling standpoint), but the mountain region in the south is wonderful… and once again, my experience with the people in Poland has been nothing but extremely positive.

My Favorite Places In Europe

Of the 20 countries I visited over the last 10 months, my favorite place (by far) was Romania.

Romania

It’s difficult to explain why I liked Romania so much. However, I think it might be as simple as these three things:

  1. Beautiful landscapes & scenery (especially in the Transylvania area). I could play for months in the mountains of Romania. It is such a beautiful part of the world. But Romania is more than just mountains. It has lakes and farmland and rolling hills as well. It’s a relatively small country, but it has a very diverse landscape… and I like that!
  1. The people. Unlike some places in the world where it can be difficult to tell one person apart from the next, Romania has a healthy mix of different types of people – from wealthy English-speaking aristocrats on one end to some of the poorest people in all of Europe on the other. While I did get a sense of the mistrust that seems to exist between the various classes of people in Romania, I found that no matter who I spoke with personally, everyone in Romania was friendly, helpful and curious.
  1. Finally, Romania has lightening fast Internet – some of the fastest Internet in the world actually. While this might seem like a silly reason to like a country, I am on the Internet a lot and rely on my work on the world wide web to make money, continually update this website and continue my travels. So having access to fast upload and download speeds while traveling through the country made my stay in Romania even more enjoyable.

I liked Romania so much that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the possibility of living there at some point in the future. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but it could!

Out of all the places I’ve been to in the world, I have felt most at home in Romania. Honestly.

Switzerland

I would place the country of Switzerland as a close second on my list of favorite places in all of Europe. Before visiting Romania, I told myself that Switzerland was the one place in the world that I could truly see myself living. And I still would like to live in Switzerland if I had the opportunity.

Switzerland has some of the best scenery in the whole world. There are bike trails and hiking paths all over the place. If you like to ski or generally be outdoors, then Switzerland is a place you absolutely must visit.

I had lived in Luzern, Switzerland for a couple months in 2009 and had spent some time traveling around the country by train and by bike before my return visit this past year, but every time I come back to Switzerland I am continually blown away by the beauty of the place.

Participating in the Bike Switzerland Challenge Tour made my time in Switzerland this past year even more memorable. It was fun to see and experience the country with new people, get their perspective on places I had been to before and places I had even lived in the past. Plus, being able to say that I have now ridden a bicycle all the way across Switzerland is certainly something few people in the world are able to say.

The only thing I don’t like about Switzerland is the high cost of living. It’s probably the most expensive place I have ever been to. And while it is possible to see and travel in Switzerland for a low amount of money (as I did in 2009), it is not easy. If Switzerland were as cheap as Romania, it would be one of the most amazing places in the world to live, work and travel.

Iceland

Finally, my list of favorite places would not be complete without mentioning Iceland.

I knew when I started planning my bicycle tour this year that Iceland was going to be a place that I either fell in love with or absolutely hated. The former, however, is certainly the case. I LOVE ICELAND.

I think I liked Iceland so much simply because of how remote so much of the country is. You can go to Iceland and truly be by yourself. You can camp almost anywhere you want and you can go for days (if you want to) without seeing another person. Personally, I like that!

In fact, I think that’s why I like Romania, Switzerland and Iceland so much. All three countries are kind of wild – each in their own unique way. If you like to be outdoors, to explore new places, see new things and camp for days on end, then Romania, Switzerland and Iceland are three must-see destinations.

My Least Favorite Place In Europe

While I had tons of great experiences this year, I did have a few negative moments along the way. While nothing REALLY bad ever happened to me, I look back on my time in Istanbul, Turkey with a bad taste in my mouth.

There are two main reasons I didn’t like Istanbul.

First of all, it was just way too hot. It was so hot on some days that I didn’t want to come out of my apartment. Walking around town I would start to sweat, my shirt would get wet, my pants would stick to my legs and it was downright uncomfortable. And to make matters worse, everyone in Istanbul wears long pants and long garments that cover them from head to foot (it’s a religious thing). Even when it wasn’t that hot outside, I felt hot just looking at everyone in their hot, sweaty clothes.

While the heat was miserable at times, the main reason I didn’t enjoy my time in Istanbul had to due with the apartment I rented while I was there. I found a 1-bedroom, 1-bath apartment in the European district of Istanbul on www.airbnb.com and paid approximately $900 USD for a 1-month rental. The apartment was kind of dirty and run-down, but it was large and had everything I needed: Internet, a shower, a toilet and a place to sleep. Little did I know when I booked the apartment online, however, that the place was also home to thousands and thousands of fleas!

It actually took me two days to figure out that the apartment had a flea problem. I would go to bed at night and wake up in the morning covered in red bumps. At first I thought it was the heat outside that was giving me some weird kind of rash. But after I found a half-dozen fleas on my feet and ankles, I realized that the apartment was swarming with fleas.

The woman I rented the apartment from had a guy come in and spray poison in the apartment to kill the fleas, but I think the poison nearly killed me as well. In the weeks that followed the poison being sprayed into my apartment, I began to get progressively more and more ill. I was getting headaches (I never get headaches), I was having balance problems (I couldn’t walk for a few days and suffered with balance issues for nearly three weeks after the incident), and I was tired all the time. Again, I thought the problem might have been due to the heat (or the flea bites), but I think it had more to due with the poison than anything else.

As you can imagine, this whole experience made my time in Istanbul the opposite of enjoyably.

Lessons I Learned From Traveling In Europe This Year

There are so many things I learned this year. However, here are the three main lessons I learned that I think will be of most interested to you:

Finding A Travel Partner Is Tough

I was lucky to have my ex-college roommate, Brandon Roesler, join me for 25-day in Iceland. After that, however, I was entirely on my own. For more than nine months I’ve been traveling around Europe and I’ve been primarily by myself.

People often ask me, “Why don’t you find someone to go with you?”

But these people don’t realize that I have tried. In fact, I’ve tried very hard to get someone (anyone) to travel with me – even if just for a few days or weeks. But finding a travel partner can be difficult.

I’m nearly 30 years old now and most of my friends are married, have kids and 9-5 jobs, house payments, car payments and a ton of other responsibilities. I’ve purposely avoided most of these things and constructed my life in such a way that I have more freedom than most people will ever dream of having. This is how I’m able to travel for months on end, go pretty much wherever I please and even make money along the way. But it also means making some rather large sacrifices.

In 2002 I conducted my second long-distance bicycle tour. The summer before I had conducted my first bike tour down the California coastline with three of my best friends joining me for different legs of the trip. But when I began planning my 2nd bike tour for the following summer, none of my friends could make the time or financial commitment to the journey. So I was forced to make a difficult decision: I could go on the trip by myself… or I could wait to go on the trip once I found someone else to join me.

Most people would probably wait around until they found someone else to join them. The problem with that approach, however, is that if no one ever commits to the trip, then that prevents you from ever going.

So instead of waiting around for one of my friends to join me on my second long-distance bicycle tour, I went by myself… and I’ve been taking that same approach with my travels ever since. I do make an effort to invite those friends of mine who might have an interest in joining me on an exciting bicycle touring adventure, but if no one commits to the adventure, I never wait around. I go! That’s my secret to having done 12 long distance bicycle tours in the last 12 years. I commit to making the trip, I invite my friends to join me, and if no one wants to come along, I go on the trip alone.

People ask me all the time, “How do I find someone to join me on a bike tour?”

The answer, however, is probably not what you want to hear.

You can try to ask your friends and family members to join you. But finding someone with the time, money and interest might prove to be difficult.

Finding a stranger online to join you in your travels can prove to be difficult as well – especially if you’ve never met before your journey begins. You might have different goals and expectations. You might have differing personalities. You might both want to go on a bike tour, but you might want to go to different places. There are so many things that could go wrong!

I don’t have the answer to finding an amazing bicycle partner… because frankly, I’m still looking for that person. But I do know that I’m not going to wait around for someone else to get their act together. If I set my mind on going somewhere, I’m going to go there  – no matter whether I go with a friend or entirely on my own.

Language Learning Takes Time

One of my goals when I started planning this 10-month bicycle tour through Europe this year was to really concentrate on language learning. I was hoping that by the end of the year my German (which I am already pretty good at) would be a whole lot better and that I would have picked up the basics of a few other languages as well.

The truth, however, is that language learning takes time… and when you cross into 20 different countries in 10 short months, you don’t have the time to properly learn the local languages the way you might like to.

When I was in Romania, for example, I was after just one month of being the country, just starting to get to the point where I could listen to people speaking on the street and I could understand the basics of what they were saying. But just as soon as I had gotten to that point, I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled out of the country – soon forgetting all of the Romanian I had just learned.

And that’s the way it has been pretty much all year long. I learned some basic phrases in Icelandic. Then I left Iceland and I forgot it all. In France I learned a few basic words, then I crossed into German-speaking Switzerland and forgot all the French I had picked up. Same in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland. I’d pick up a few words and as soon as I was out of the country, I’d quickly forget it all.

Even though I have not become fluent (or anywhere near) fluent in any of the foreign languages I encountered this past year, I have become more comfortable with languages as a whole. I’ve learned which words I need to learn first. I’ve learned to use sign language to ask for just about anything I might need. And I’ve learned to converse with people who I can’t understand and who usually can not understand me. And I’ve had a lot of fun in the process.

When I was in high school and college I viewed language learning as a pointless skill I would likely never benefit from. But now I see language learning as a fun, educational tool that I can use to not only ask for directions and buy food and drinks, but further get a sense of the people, history, and background of the places I am visiting.

However, language learning takes time. That’s what I’ve learned this year. It’s difficult to jump from one language to the next. Instead, it’s probably best to stick with just one or two languages and come back to those same languages time and time again.

While I spoke more than 12 different languages this last year, I’ve decided that I am going to continue trying to learn German, Spanish and Polish. The rest will have to wait until those three are mastered (or nearly mastered).

Traveling In Europe Can Be Done With Very Little Money

I said this in 2009 after completing a 9-month long bicycle tour across Europe in that year, but I think it needs to be said again. Traveling in Europe is really not that expensive.

Yes, some countries in Europe are expensive and you can spend a small fortune if you choose to travel in a high-class way. But bicycle touring in Europe can be done for very cheap. In fact, you might find (as I have over the last several years) that bicycle touring in Europe costs less than simply sitting at home and doing nothing.

I’ve found that I spent approximately $50 USD per day while traveling in Europe. That covers food, lodging, entertainment, transportation and everything else. Which means that over the course of a month, I’m spending about $1,500 USD for 30 days of bicycle travel in some of the most amazing places on the planet.

When it comes to money, everyone has a different idea of what’s cheap and what’s expensive, but for me personally, $50 per day is the same (or even less) money than I spend when I sit at home in my condo in the United States and do nothing. Which means it is actually cheaper to travel in Europe and have incredible, life-long memories, than to sit at home and do nothing of significance.

With European travel costing so little, and with all the amazing experiences I’ve had this year, I’ve realized that I don’t want to stop traveling any time soon. The world is a big place and even though I have been to more than 20 countries in the last year (21 if you count the United States), I still have so much I want to see, do and experience. And if the cost of doing that is $50 or day or less, I’m even more determined than ever to keep living a fun, interesting and educational lifestyle that allows me to follow my passions, challenge my current way of thinking and travel to new places all around the world.

The Best Thing I Did This Year (Was Not On A Bicycle)

Believe it or not, but the best thing I did this year has nothing to do with bicycle touring.

Don’t get me wrong, there were some incredible moments this year as I slowly made my way by bike across 20 different European countries. But the best thing I did this year (by far) was participating in a 2-week training course in Brasov, Romania that taught me how to fly a paraglider.

Before I arrived in Romania I had never once flown in a paraglider (either as the pilot or as a passenger), although I had seen paragliders on my previous travels around the world (such as in Miraflores, Peru) and thought it looked like a lot of fun. So when I began planning my bike ride through Romania, I did a little research on the cities I planned to ride through and in the city of Brasov I came across a website advertising a beginner’s paragliding course.

Unsure as to whether or not I would have the time or the skills needed to complete the course, I sent the instructor (Robert) an email and he responded a short while later asking me to call him.

I called him a couple days later via Skype and we spoke for nearly an hour. He explained to me how the course worked, what I would learn from the course, what equipment I would need, how much it would cost, etc. Then, a few days later I emailed Robert back and told him I was going to do it! I was going to take his basic 2 week course and learn to fly a paraglider (on my own – solo).

It took me about ten days to ride from my location at that time (Varna, Bulgaria) to the city of Brasov. Once there, I started my paragliding classes almost immediately.

As you can imagine, I was not only afraid of learning to fly on my own, but I was also a bit nervous about interacting with my instructor because I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to understand all of his instructions.

Luckily, Robert’s English was really good (not perfect – but pretty darn good!) and I was usually able to understand just about everything he was telling me to do. There were times when I think certain things got lost in translation, but I went with the flow and did my very best.

On the first day of the course Robert took me on my very first tandem flight and I just about puked when he started to do some sharp turns in the air and then handed the controls over to me after no more than five minutes in the air. But steering the paraglider was remarkably easy… and when we landed after that first flight I thought to myself, “I can do this!”

Later that day I learned how to take off in a basic running position and by the end of my first day of training I had already taken five short flights on my own (only getting about 20 feet up in the air at the most).

After a week of training, I was able to take off and land on my own. I could turn and land close to a target placed on the ground far off in the distance.

A few days later Robert dragged me along to a local paragliding competition and with no more than 10 days of flying under my belt I entered the competition.

Flying next to professional Romanian paragliders was nerve-racking, but it was so much fun! On my first flight during the competition I nearly crash-landed into the judges table. On my second flight I landed in the parking lot (far from the target landing spot) and after my third flight I was interviewed about my paragliding experiences in Romania by a national TV news station.

The first take off during the paragliding competition was by far the most difficult. It was just downright scary. But after that I began to have more and more fun. By the end of the day, I didn’t want to stop! I was nowhere close to winning the competition (I surely came in dead last), but I was having a blast!

That’s how I think most things are – like bicycle touring. The first time you try it, it’s downright scary. But you do it once and you realize that you can do it and survive. Then you try it again and again and you get a little better. And after a little practice, you begin to have fun with it, almost forgetting about that fear you had at the very onset.

To complete my paragliding course, my instructor Robert had me conduct two high-altitude solo flights from the top of a local ski resort near the city of Brasov. For these two flights I was going to be completely on my own, flying higher than I had ever flown before, and I would need to land on a target in the middle of a field far off in the distance. I was a little frightened, but I knew that I could do it.

And I did! I completed my two high-altitude flights and landed like I had been flying all my life. I was a paraglider!

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“So, why was this paragliding class the best thing you did this last year?” you might be asking yourself at this point in time.

Well, I think the paragliding class was the best thing I did this year because it was something new, fun and challenging. I had never even imagined learning to paraglide before this year… and yet I had on an impulse decided to learn to do it. And not only did I make the decision to learn to fly a paraglider on my own – I learned to do it in a country on the other side of the world from where I normally live.

During the paragliding course I became good friends with my instructor (Robert), I made friends with a lot of the other people in the paragliding school (and at the paragliding competition), I became pretty good at understanding the Romanian language, and I pushed myself to do something that at the beginning was terribly uncomfortable for me to do.

It is for all these reasons that I got into bicycle touring so many years ago. Because it was fun, because it was outdoorsy, because it allowed me to meet new people and because it pushed me to become a better person. Nowadays, after 12-years of long-distance bicycle touring, the cycling part of bicycle touring is really easy for me. I no longer worry about that…. or meeting new people… or trying to communicate with people who speak another language.

And because I no longer have those things to worry about, I’m realizing that I need to continue pushing myself in new and interesting ways.

This year, I pushed myself by taking this paragliding course. And looking back on it now, realizing what a great experience that paragliding course really was, only makes me want to take part in similar experiences like that in the future.

In fact, as I’m writing this article, I’m sitting in a small studio apartment I rented in Poznan, Poland (the final stop on my tour this year). I have two more weeks in Poznan before I fly off to Africa for my next bicycle touring adventure, but while I’m here I have signed up for professional table tennis lessons… and sometime next week I will be participating in my very first table tennis tournament! Like the paragliding competition, I will surely be the worst person at the table tennis tournament, but I don’t care. As long as I score a couple points and do my very best, I’ll be happy. And I know that the skills I learn here in Poznan at the table tennis tournament will be skills I can carry with me for the rest of my life.

Maybe I’ll do some more paragliding in Africa while I’m down there? Or maybe I’ll make it a regular part of my travels to seek out table tennis tournaments? I don’t know, but the possibilities are endless.

I think that’s the main thing I learned this year: I learned that even something you have done dozens (or even hundreds) of times before (in this case – bicycle touring) can be fun and interesting if you simply make the effort to look at it from a new angle, add a new twist and try something new!

The last 12 months have been amazing, but I’m determined to make the next 12 months even more incredible – both on and off the bike!

What Advice To Do I Have For Someone Planning A Bicycle Tour?

If you are even thinking about participating in a guided, self-guided or self-supported bicycle tour, my main piece of advice is this: DO IT!

Don’t wait. Make it happen this year.

Start small if you have to. Conduct a weekend bike tour near your home. Or try participating in a week-long guided bike tour, like the kind you find on www.gobicycletouring.com. Once you’ve gotten a couple shorter bike tours under your belt, try a self-supported trip in a location around the world that you are most interested in visiting.

I promise you that if you simply try it, bicycle touring will be one of those experiences that you remember for the rest of your life.

DO IT… and DO IT NOW!

If there is anything I can do to help you plan, prepare for or execute your own bicycle touring adventure, please let me know! Leave a comment below. Send me an email. Peruse the hundreds of free how-to articles on this website, devour the resources I’ve made available to you… and then get out there!

About Darren Alff

Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder of BicycleTouringPro.com - the world's most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the author of "The Bicycle Touring Blueprint" and three additional cycling books. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.

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29 Comments

  1. Stephen McKenney Steck

    February 18, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Darren, You are to be roundly applauded for your accomplishments and your blogging. I have been reading most of what you feed. It’s marvelous. Thank you for taking us all along on your journey!

  2. Quinn

    February 18, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Hi,

    I have been following your whole European trip and I always wondered, 1.) how far did you cycle/how many hours per day were you on the bike? and 2.) what did you typically eat/ how many calories a day did you consume?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      February 20, 2013 at 5:46 am

      Quinn,

      I’m not really sure how many miles/kilometers I did per day. I don’t keep track of that kind of thing. However, I can make an estimate. I would guess that on the days when I was actually cycling, I was doing about 50-60 kilometers per day on average. This is a short distance per day compared to what some bicycle tourists do, but I have found that I enjoy shorter days much more – that way I can stop and take pictures and enjoy things along the way (rather than rushing past a bunch of interesting things just so I can reach my destination)

      As for how many calories I consumed each day, I again have no idea. However, I don’t think I eat all that differently on tour than I do when I am at home. I drink a lot more, but I don’t think I really eat that much more. A little, but not a lot!

  3. Dan Post

    February 18, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed following your adventure this past year. I bou
    ght your blueprint this past summer and started planning my own little adventure along the southern tier route from my home in El Paso, tx to visit the kids in Alabama. Converted my mtn bike and bought a bob yak trailer. Did a few overnights and trained pulling the loaded trailer. I felt comfortable on the bike and never worried about that aspect. After about the 3rd week I started loosening up a little and started camping for little to nothing and beginning to really enjoy the whole experience. The blueprint was a great planning tool and inspiration, so thanks. My wife doesn’t think taking off for months by myself is such a great idea, but but I’m still planning shorter 7-10 day trips closer to home. It’s a shame I waited till I was retired to do this.
    See ya, Dan

  4. Randy Klein

    February 18, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Darren,

    I love following your travels. I always dream of going again on a long tour. My dad and I went on a week trip every summer growing up including a trip in the Netherlands when I was 13. I bicycled across the US in 1993 with a friend from High School. He quit part way through and I was also comfortable by myself. Our ridings styles were different and still are. I agree it would be difficult to find someone to go with for long periods of time. I am married with kids, job like you said but I would love to spend time taveling with you. Your knowledge and experiences are amazing. Keep up the good work and I can’t wait to hear your stories from Africa!!!! My dream would be Australia and New Zeeland. Ever been there??

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      February 20, 2013 at 5:43 am

      Randy,

      No, I’ve never been to Australia or New Zealand, but I want to get there sometime soon!

  5. caroline seegers

    February 18, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I would first like to say I am in awe of you, your guts your life everything.
    I have enjoyed reading about what you have done and believe me I would love to have cycled with you. Like yourself I am an outdoor person with little time for crowds and love the open space.
    You are a great inspiration and sometime soon I plan to try something like this. I have cycled a self guided tour relying on a map that was supplied through Austria a couple of years back.(After talking my sister into it .)
    First I need to know how do you make a living while touring? Do you work your way round or are you just made of money lol.Also I have a problem with getting a travel partner, no likeminded people around me, obviously mixing with the wrong crowd for my personality. Please email me with info your fan Caroline

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      February 20, 2013 at 5:43 am

      Caroline, I’m working on a detailed article that explains how I am able to travel for such long periods of time. The short story, however, is that I work and travel at the same time. That’s how I do it!

  6. Deb

    February 18, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Love your adventures and journaling! Glad to hear great things about Iceland! I’ll be biking there this summer!

  7. David Panton

    February 19, 2013 at 2:17 am

    Just to say how much I enjoyed your blogs as you travelled through Europe. Last summer I cycled from the west of England down to the start of Euro Velo 6 and then followed this route to Vienna. I hope to return in the summer to continue to the Black Sea before returning via central Romania so your comments on parts of the route have been really useful. I was amused about your comments concerning Bulgaria when I was last there the main concern was packs of rabid dogs and some crazy motorists, not prostitutes!

  8. Roelof

    February 19, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Darren

    When you summarize the last 10 months, it’s amazing how much you did into a relatively short period of time. Great to read your insights and experiences.

    Good luck in SA.

  9. martin

    February 19, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Hi Darren
    Nice article! If you are looking for contacts for paragliding in SA or anywhere in fact, then check out PGforum.com (paragliding forum.com).
    It’s a shame you only stayed in London on your England trip, there is so much more in this country to enjoy especially by bicycle, unfortunately you only got to see some of the worst parts of the United Kingdom.
    Good luck with your next travels
    Martin

  10. Anne Kessler

    February 19, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Thanks so much for this summary. I’m going to save it and share it with others planning trips to Europe. You are amazing and a wonderful role model. Your insights are so valuable and instructional. I enjoy reading your blog even if I only get to experience a very small portion of the experiences you are having. Keep safe and enjoy Africa.

  11. Piero

    February 19, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Great article. I did my first self-supported month-long bike tour down the coast of Oregon and California on May of 2012 and I have been thinking about doing another one this year. Your article just infused me with enthusiasm. Let’s do it! Just Do It!
    Thank you.
    Piero

  12. Cem

    February 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    What an amazing tour. I followed your tour by your e mail. Hope you will go on a new tour as soon as possible. Best wishes.

  13. dinesh

    February 19, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    All the best

  14. Yael

    February 19, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    I enjoye your traveltales and I want to start soon with my own tour. Just need to kick myself in the butt. Because I am scared that it might be very unvomfortable for instance in a tent ouside when it is freezing. I need to start in a way that is feasable. I also look for a companion, I am female of 50 yo., so assume that you’re not interested to go with me. In case it’s otherwise you are invited to contact me per email. I wish you lot of succes and enjoyment. .

  15. david nall

    February 19, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Your comments about a riding partner are especially insightful. I am fortunate that my son-in-law is my main riding partner and an avid touring guy. We are riding the BRAN in Nebraska this June and have done several shorter self-guided tours as well. I will be sure to remind and thank him for this rare partnership.

    Enjoyed your summary and look forward to hearing more from your future adventures.

    Be careful.

    Dave

  16. BARRY NERNEY

    February 19, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Amazing! simply amazing! The courage and determination to endure that bitterly cold weather. Well done Darren .I loved your photographs. I need to find out if it is possible to stop each one to enjoy the details. Barry.

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  18. Ken

    February 20, 2013 at 5:22 am

    Hi Darren,

    Just want to say congratulations on your accomplishments this last year. I am cycling again just this last two summers and plan to do a short self supported tour this year, probably in Ireland first, but I really want to get to France. Your trips have been inspirational. Best of luck in Africa (I know I could not go there on a bike) and I look forward to reading of your travels there.
    Ken, Donegal, Ireland.

  19. Doug Walsh

    February 20, 2013 at 9:02 am

    What a great read. I’ve been following along on FB all year and really admiring your travels. Thanks for taking the time to write all of this up and to be so honest about your experiences (especially that part with the dog). Great luck in South Africa…. looking forward to following along.

  20. Mike Withers

    February 20, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Darren – I thoroughly enjoyed reading this summary of your travels in Europe. I love how you laid it all out. It’s been a pleasure following your progress over the months. Thanks for writing and sharing it with us!
    Mike

  21. Jim

    February 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Hello:

    It’s always great when I see an email about your travels.

    A question about clothing: When you were biking in the colder weather, how did you avoid generating a lot of sweat, which essentially can make you colder? I find that even with the short route that I take when commuting lately that my jacket is damp when I get to work.

    What type of changes did you make in clothes when you started biking in colder weather?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      February 20, 2013 at 5:57 pm

      This is the sort of thing that my new book about WINTER CYCLING is all about. How to ride and not sweat, but still stay warm enough that you are comfortable and don’t lose a finger or a toe. The short answer is that it’s all about the fabrics you wear and the manner in which you layer them based on the temperature outside and your current rate of physical output.

      You can see here as well that I have one set of clothes for summer riding… and another set for riding in the winter: http://bicycletouringpro.com/blog/europe-bicycle-tour-packing-list/

  22. Tim M.

    February 21, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    Fantastic write up of your year! Hearing the stories and seeing even simple pics of you sitting in your tent inspire me to do a self supported trip (some time). I do “club riding” and weekend special events/charity rides, but I too enjoy the human scale of interacting with our world the way cycling allows. And, I would even say I relish the chance to be out by myself on a long day in the saddle. Thanks for posting so often and keeping your readers up-to-date, Darren. Ride well, man, ride well.

  23. cheryl ibarra

    February 23, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Hi,

    I was wondering about how you found the apartments you rented. I looked at airbnb. The lodging seemed to be pretty expensive for those trying to travel on a budget. Do you use other websites to help you find apartments when you want to hole up for a month or longer? Thanks

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      February 23, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Cheryl,

      The prices just depend on where you are going in the world and what you are looking for. There are some great deals to be had. I’ve never paid more than $35 USD per night for a place to stay. Also, something that is cheap to one person is expensive to another, so it’s hard to say what you think a good deal is for a month or longer stay. I consider anything that costs the same or less than what I pay for my condo back in the United States to be a good deal. But it’s going to be different for every person.

      I’ve also rented apartments from Craigslist.org and from private rental companies, etc.

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