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Touring solo vs. a guided group tour

by Tim Walker
Are you the adventurous type?
Touring solo vs. a guided group tour

If you ride a motorcycle, the answer is clearly yes because you know — and accept — the risk that comes with riding on two wheels. But how adventurous are you when it comes to long-distance motorcycle touring? Are you confident enough in your skills to ride solo in unfamiliar places, thousands of kilometers and maybe an ocean or two away from your home? Can you fix a flat tire? Replace a broken clutch cable or lever? Are you physically and mentally capable of long hours of riding, even in bad weather?

Serbia off the beaten track

Or would you prefer the comfort and safety of a guided group tour with a rider guide, a support van, and all logistical details taken care of for you?

For the longest time, I snubbed my nose at motorcyclists who chose guided group tours. Who needs all that pampering? Why give up the freedom to set your own path and set your own pace — and instead surrender to someone else’s pre-determined ideas of what to do and when?

I no longer have that attitude, and it’s because of a handful of incidents — two in particular — that happened to me on solo rides. Both were life-threatening and probably would not have happened had I been with a guided group.

I’ll briefly recount those incidents and apply what I’ve learnt from them to help you make up your own mind about which kind of touring is right for you.

Whatever you decide, AMT can accommodate you. Rent a bike and head out on your own, and accept that the freedom you’ll get might come with some hassles. Or make a safer choice and sign up for a guide group tour, and enjoy the pampering I used to disparage. Or choose from among the hybrid options AMT offers, combining the best of both worlds, such as their self-guided tours.

Adriatic Coastline, Tour Group

Close encounters and lessons learnt

First off, a confession. In my six solo motorcycle trips in Europe, beginning with my 2008 tour of Tuscany, I have gotten lost on every single trip. Sometimes only a little bit lost, but several times I got so lost that the delay in getting back on track caused serious problems.

So, here are the two promised serious incidents illustrating some of the real dangers of touring solo.

On a 2018 solo trip starting in Zagreb, Croatia, where I rented a BMW F 850 GS ADV, I got so lost that I was riding after dark as I approached my planned destination, about halfway down Croatia’s beautiful Adriatic coast. I was tired from an extra two or three hours of riding that I didn’t plan on. Plus, I was still suffering from jet lag after my trans-Atlantic flight from the States, where I live. The almost tragic result? Sometime about a half hour before reaching my destination, I briefly fell asleep while riding about 100 kph. It was pure luck that I survived that harrowing experience.

Adriatic Coastline, Croatia

My second life-threatening experience occurred the next summer on my solo trip on a 650cc Kawasaki Versys I rented in Budapest, Hungary. Yes, I got lost again, which again added several hours to my planned riding time, and I again ended up riding after dark. This was made worse because the whole day was spent riding in a cold September rain in northern Europe. My rain gear was good, but not good enough. My clothes were getting wetter and wetter as the day went on and turned into night. I could feel my hands cramping up. I could barely operate my brake and clutch levers. My legs and feet were also slow to respond to the signals my brain was sending them. I knew I was suffering from hypothermia, which is especially dangerous for motorcyclists. But I kept it together, barely, and arrived at my hotel in the Bieszczady National Park in southeast Poland barely able to drag myself and my luggage to my room, where I collapsed on the bed. Luckily, I had planed two nights there, because it took me a day of rest to recover. Again, it was pure luck that I survived that harrowing experience.

GPS Routes, planned ahead and uploaded to the GPS

And just briefly, I’ll mention just one other aspect of solo riding that can be very problematic.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I twice dropped one of my rented bikes. It was the BMW I rented in Zagreb in 2018, which I took all the way to Albania. Both drops happened on the treacherous, very rough, and narrow road down to the Theth valley (see photos) and the beautiful national park there. (I suggest you put this on your bucket list!) Both drops happened at low speeds, fortunately, and so I was not hurt. Equally fortunate was that I did not break or bend any foot or handlebar levers, as I was about 800 kilometers from the rental shop, and probably without cell service anyway.

On the way to Theth, Albania - Tim Walker, the author 

Solo vs. group touring? Both!

Despite my close calls with disaster, I’m not giving up solo trips altogether. In fact, I took a solo tour of Slovenia and the Istrian peninsula in the summer of 2022, which I will write about in a future blog. But I’m now certainly more cautious and thoughtful about how I plan my solo rides, and I hope my experiences and advice can help you decide how you want to ride on your next tour. (By the way, I sure hope my wife doesn’t read this blog, or she will never let me ride a motorcycle in Europe again!)

If you prefer to ride solo, you have to be more cautious about your safety — think jet lag, hypothermia, and getting lost! You have to stay alert, be aware of your surroundings, avoid conflicts (stay calm), and avoid any unwanted help from strangers. Although you have more freedom when you travel alone, it also means you and you alone must deal with all the bad things that might happen, including:

  • getting lost
  • getting injured
  • developing mechanical problems or a flat tire
  • suddenly finding yourself on a really bad road
  • encountering an unexpected detour adding hours to your trip

In addition, riding solo can mean that you may unknowingly miss fun roads and attractions that a guide would know about. You’ll face any language barriers alone, plus carry all your own luggage, which should include extra safety gear such as a flat-tire kit, air compressor, tool kit, emergency blanket, and more. Riding in a guided group tour, all those worries fade away. Like I said, you’re pampered. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it keeps you from getting into some serious trouble like I have gotten into.

Italian Dolomites

So, in large part due to the dumb, unsafe things I did riding solo (I haven’t told you all of them!), I’ve since taken two guided group tours with AMT: Intriguing SE Europe in 2021, and Sardinia and Corsica in 2022.

And, briefly, here is why loved them.

  • Oh man, having a van that carries your luggage is sweet! After a long day of riding, the last thing you want to do is lug all your belongings to your hotel room.
  • Group travel also offers you an increased level of safety and immediate help. You can reach out to your tour guide or fellow riders if you run into trouble.
  • And if you have a mechanical issue with your ride, you’ll have help close by, too. AMT vans are stocked with tools, replacement parts, and a mechanically savvy guide, plus they usually carry a spare bike or two.
  • If you fall sick while on the road, or get food poisoning from a restaurant meal, you’ll always have help at hand.
  • You’ll get a pre-programmed GPS mounted on your handlebars, paper maps, too, to stash in your top case as back up, plus a tour book describing the sights on your tour.
  • Simply put, you’ll never get lost on an AMT tour unless you really try!
  • And when you stop for breaks along the way, or for lunch and dinner, you’ll have the company of your new friends to talk with and swap stories and photos from the day’s ride.

France, Gorde de Verdon

On my most recent trip with AMT, we had Anže as our riding guide, and because he teaches at a motorcycle racing school in Ljubljana, we also got expert cornering advice to help us to better navigate the twisties on Sardinia and Corsica!

Options, option, options

If you want to ride solo, head to AMT’s headquarters in Ljubljana and rent a current year or late-model motorcycle, choosing from among BMWs, Suzukis, Ducatis, Yamahas, and Harley-Davidsons. You can even have your chosen motorcycle delivered to a European city that fits into your travel plans.

Happy Riders in Italian Dolomites

If you want the guided group touring experience, AMT is the European leader in that regard, with a packed calendar of tour options ranging from the Alps in central Europe to Greece and Turkey in the south, and everywhere in between.

Swiss Alps

If you desire something else, check out an AMT self-guided tour, which come in two flavors. You can pick one of AMT’s already existing guided tours, rent an AMT motorcycle, and follow the same route solo or with a group of friends. You’ll get pre-programmed GPS units, and tour maps and books, plus hotel and restaurant reservations if you want — everything but a riding guide and van support. Or, tell the experts at AMT where you want to go and they will custom design a tour for you and as many friends you want to bring along.

Sardinia, Castelsardo - Tour Group

The choice is yours — make your own decision. I will only say this: If you take a guided tour, be sure to tip your guide(s)!