To take a guided tour or not, that is the question

 

 

And other tips for choosing an organized motorcycle tour

I have been running organized motorcycle tours for almost 25 years now and have trained some guides who went on to start their own touring companies. Wing World’s editor recently asked me if I could come up with some rider tips for choosing an organized motorcycle tour and I’ll do that below.

But I also want to look at why one might (or might not) choose to do an organized tour instead of planning their own trip in a similar area. While I must write from my own experience here, I want to avoid this article being an advertorial for my own company. There are a number of good touring companies out there and lots of places in the world worth exploring by motorcycle.

First we should address the elephant in the room. I’m writing this mid-November of 2020 when COVID-19 is surging in many parts of the world. All things considered, now may not be a great time to do an organized tour. We canceled our 2020 tours because of COVID and we won’t resume offering tours (some of which run in Canada) until it is safe to do so. But we are certainly looking forward to a time (hopefully not too far in the future) when we can safely begin touring again.

I think the best analogy for taking a really good organized tour is that it is something like eating in an excellent restaurant. On our own we can gather excellent ingredients, we can learn recipes and — if we are not me — we can maybe cook a great meal. Imagine making that meal for a group and you’ve got a parallel for planning and leading a tour for friends. It can be a great experience and I imagine a lot of us have great memories of tours we’ve taken that were planned by us or our friends.

But there is something to be said for savoring a really good restaurant meal. Done right, it’s not just about the food but about the whole experience from the time we enter the building to the time we leave. To start with, it can be nice to have professionals planning the menu, sourcing the ingredients, doing the cooking, serving the meals, washing the dishes, etc. For the time that we’re in the restaurant, it lifts certain responsibilities off our shoulders. And that’s a big part of what a good organized tour should do. The tour planners and guides should be creating an experience that allows the guests to relax and enjoy traveling with few responsibilities beyond being a safe rider.

Over the years I have spoken with a lot of tour guests who have informally lead trips for their friends. And, although some groups of friends might be able to travel together on self-guided trips without debating the choice of routes, departure times, restaurants, hotels, distance, breaks, etc., the managing and sorting out of all those decisions (whether they are made by one informal leader or by others in the group) can be a lot of work and can sometimes create a bit of friction. Many tour guests who have been in those situations with friends before have told me that it is a relief (and a nice change of pace) to have a professional guide who is responsible for dealing with all that stuff. Not only have the hotels and restaurants all been carefully chosen in advance but the group ride procedures are also established by the guide at the beginning of the tour: there’s no need to negotiate group start times every morning or debate about how often to stop or when to gas up. A good guide will gather input from guests at the start of the tour, and make adjustments to plans as needed, but that guide should have a lot of experience with managing groups of riders so that things go smoothly and the trip experience is relaxing.

Planning a good tour is not just about knowing the best roads or knowing good hotels, etc. It’s about knowing how to blend all those things together to make a series of days that will be enjoyable and memorable. Many years ago, a British television network did a show about one of our fall tours in which they interviewed a very experienced rider (who, at that time, rode a GL1200) to get his thoughts on the trip. “It’s like being a kid again.” he said, “I wake up in the morning with my wife. Someone else makes breakfast. We ride our bike. We eat lunch, we ride some more. We have dinner and we sleep and then we do it again. All we have to worry about is riding our bike and looking at the scenery.

Speaking of dinner …. In my experience, it can work well to wrap up riding by 5 p.m. or so, get cleaned up and changed and then walk or be driven to dinner. So that’s what we, and some other companies, do on tour. Riding to dinner, eating in riding gear and riding back in the dark can be a bit less fun. And of course, if you are walking a short distance or being driven (instead of riding) to dinner you can also enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, etc. with the meal if you want to.

I think that the mark of really enjoying an organized tour is that — at some point — one stops thinking and worrying about work, the mortgage, the news, etc. and moves into relaxation/vacation mode. To be honest, that was easier in the 1990s, for example, when we weren’t so distracted by our smartphones. So, on tour I really encourage people to put their phones away when they can. One of the great things about being on tour is the conversation that happens at meals — especially at dinner — in which the group is interacting with each other and not with a video screen.

And I suppose that also brings up another advantage of organized tours. You meet people from various parts of the country (and the world) and develop new friendships. Of course, that also happens at events organized by the GWRRA, local clubs, etc. But there is something that can really click when people travel together on an organized tour. I myself have many good friends who I first met as tour guests and I’ve watched decades-long friendships start on tour. In one case, I recall one guest who later performed the wedding ceremony for two other guests he met on tour.

Of course, this all hinges on finding a good touring company and it can be hard to know, in advance, how well a given company does its job. There are a lot of people who start touring companies, and run them for a couple seasons, thinking that it will be a fun way to earn a living riding a motorcycle. But it takes a lot more than riding enthusiasm to run a good tour. Leading motorcycle tours is largely a people skills business. Some people, to be honest, don’t have the right temperament for the task. It also takes strong organizational skills and the ability to figure out what a good motorcycle vacation (in all aspects) should look like.

I strongly recommend choosing tour companies run by people who are fairly local to the areas where they tour and who know those areas very well. That may seem like a given but the reality is that some tours are run in areas that leaders don’t really know very well. I remember once getting a call from a tour leader who was weeks away from running a tour in Nova Scotia for a large European tour company. He wanted advice because he didn’t really know the province. Some large touring companies sub-contract their tours to operators who may or may not know the destination area very well. That isn’t written about often but it’s true and worth thinking about.

So if you want to do an organized tour, how do you choose the company? Word of mouth (especially from people you meet in person and trust) can be very useful. If a respected magazine (print or online) has written about the tours, see what they have to say. Add bonus points if the tour company being written about is not also a major advertising client for that magazine.

Consider how long the company has been in business. It’s quite possible that a new touring company might be very good. But it is not likely that a poor quality touring company will stay in business for a long time. At the same time, keep in mind that a long-lasting tour company may do a better job in some regions than in others. In my experience, touring companies often do their best tours in the regions near their home base.

If possible, have a phone conversation with the tour company owner — who may also be your tour guide. With larger companies, you may not meet your guide until the start of the tour. But with smaller touring companies (in which the owner may be leading some or all of the tours) you may be able to talk with the person who would actually be leading the trip you are considering. Follow your instincts. Would you want to travel with this guide? How well do they seem to know the area? How much experience do they have? What do they see as the most important aspects of their tours? Ask about riding procedures, rider experience requirements, safety procedures, riding pace, etc. A good company will be clear on how they do the things which make trips safer and more enjoyable for riders.

How large are the tours? I keep my own tours at a maximum of 10 motorcycles but prefer to have smaller groups of maybe seven bikes or so. I’ve run larger corporate tours (including a couple for Honda USA that featured a bunch of then-new Wings) but for those tours we split into smaller groups with a guide for each. Different companies have different ideas about what a good and safe tour group size should be.

Ask about average daily mileage. Are there any layover days? Can riders travel on their own if and when they want to? Are maps and ride sheets included for that purpose? Some companies may also provide GPS maps, etc. Are there options to modify a day’s ride to make it shorter or longer? How often does the group take breaks and what other activities, in addition to riding, might happen during the day?

I should note that if the tour is well run, riding with the group can be so enjoyable that you may want to do the whole trip that way. I always have maps and route sheets available for each day’s ride but many riders barely look at them other than at the morning ride meetings. Riding with a good group, there can be a real pleasure in not having to navigate, watch for the right turn, etc. But I think tour riders should have the option to head out on their own if and when they want to. And on a good motorcycle tour, that’s usually quite possible.

The cost of an organized tour should correlate with, among other things, the quality of lodging and meals included. Ask the provider what kind of lodging and restaurants they use? What meals are included? Are those meals, especially dinner, open menu? What is included in the tour and what is not.

If you want or need to carry a lot of luggage on tour, ask if the company runs a chase vehicle. In addition to hauling riders’ clothing and the like, a chase vehicle may also be a place for co-riders to take a break from riding, stay out of the rain, etc. These days my company doesn’t usually run a chase vehicle, because I’ve grown to like the simplicity of traveling with just bikes, but a support vehicle can certainly be an asset if it’s needed.

The tour leader’s motorcycle should carry a first-aid kit, a tire repair kit and some basic tools. There are some tours, typically running in more remote parts of the world, that travel with a mechanic. But for a lot of tours that would be overkill. The most common bike problem we’ve dealt with over the years is a flat tire. Mechanical problems are possible, of course, but they are not common on tour — in my experience. Moreover, many systems on modern motorcycles (certainly including the Wing) are not easily fixed at the side of the road or in a hotel parking lot.

Most touring companies either offer rental motorcycles or work with companies that rent bikes (sometimes including Gold Wings). Some of our guests rent (especially if they live far from New England) but many come on their own motorcycles. On our tours we see riders on a range of bikes but naturally most of them ride touring, sport touring and adventure touring models. If you bring your own bike on an organized tour (which I recommend doing when feasible) prepare it just as you would when touring on your own. Make sure the bike is serviced (keeping in mind the mileage you’ll do on the trip), be sure that you have more than enough tire tread, bring spare cables if needed, etc.

Sometimes, of course, it isn’t practical to bring your own bike on a tour. But the reason I recommend doing that, when possible, is that your bike is likely dialed in for you (and, in many cases, your co-rider). The memories of the tour will then also be associated with your own bike and add to its history.

I have been riding for about 35 years now and, in that time, I have enjoyed many trips that I planned by myself or with friends. But, as a tour planner and leader, I have also met many guests who weren’t sure, prior to taking an organized tour, that it would be worth the money or be something they’d really enjoy. So it’s always satisfying to see these guests discover that they are having the time of their lives on tour.

But just like motorcycles, motorcycle tours vary tremendously and what suits one rider may not suit another. There’s no way an article like this could look at every aspect of guided motorcycle tours but I hope the observations and advice here are helpful to anyone who is considering this kind of adventure. Ride safely and have fun.

 


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