Adventure Motorcycle Tours: Guided versus Independent
Adventure motorcycle tours – book up for a guided tour or go solo and organise everything yourself? It’s always the hot question across the motorcycle forums – and it divides the community like Marmite.
The purists will say that the only way to explore is to go it solo and tackle the world single handed, while the pragmatists will favour guided tours, whether with mates or alone, as the most rewarding and sensible way to approach adventure motorcycling. But who is right?
So we’d thought we’d look at the merits and downfalls of both opinions. Of course you could say that we’re bound to favour organised tours as that’s what we do, but don’t forget we’re all motorcyclists at heart. The only reason we run tours is that we love adventure motorcycling and have done plenty of independent travel ourselves – how do you think we plan the routes? We think there’s room for whichever floats your boat, but to help you decide, let’s have a look at how they stack up. That way you can choose which suits your wanderlust!
GUIDED TOURS VS INDEPENDENT: THE FIGHT IS ON
ROUND 1: COST
OK so maybe this shouldn’t be the first consideration, but for many the cost of a planned trip will be at the top of the list. For most of us, there isn’t a magic money tree in the garden and we don’t have a well-stocked trust fund – it’s great if you do, but the reality is that the majority of us don’t. So money is bound to be a consideration.
At first glance independent travel is bound to come out on top if you look at going to a country, hiring a bike and setting off. But before you pack the tank bags and head for the airport, you do need to consider all the additional costs that you will incur that the tour companies have usually costed and included. So that’s hotel costs, food, fuel, internal travel permits, bike insurance – the list goes on. Don’t forget to cost your own time – organising these things will take time and if your time is precious, then paying someone else to do this makes sense.
If you do decide to go the independent route, you need to bear in mind that if the bike breaks down while you are hundreds of miles away from where you hired the bike, don’t think they’ll bring a replacement and take back the broken one. All the costs of repairs and return of the bike could be yours and could be extremely expensive. There are good hire companies out there – there are also plenty of bad ones but the bottom line is that things can go wrong.
A major plus as regards an organised tour is that you know will the final cost of your tour from the moment you book. With independent travel, it’s harder to estimate that figure, and if things go pear-shaped, your budget may soon become a distant memory
As far as taking your own bike and touring foreign climes, the costs are incredibly variable depending where you are going, the bike you are taking and how long you are going for. With shipping, carnets, import taxes and all manner of other charges, then to cover the intricacies in one paragraph is impossible. Suffice to say that you need to do your research and with few tour companies offering this type of trip, comparisons are largely impossible.
ROUND 2: RISK
So talking about risk when discussing bike riding tours is a little bit tricky. Given that motorcyclists have the highest risk profile of any road users, except maybe badgers, then it’s inevitable that we start any trip with a certain amount of inherent risk. Add in the fact that you are riding unfamiliar bikes on unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar country, then that risk factor is heading into stratospheric numbers.
However, there are ways to reduce the potential risk that are worth consideration. Travelling with an organised tour company will mean that you ride with experienced riders that know the roads you will be travelling on and will more than likely have travelled then dozens of times before. They will know where the potentially dangerous routes are, they’ll know wherewhere petrol stations are – a major plus in remote areas – and will have planned the overnight stops.
If you are travelling independently, then the most you will know about the routes will be what you can find out online and what you can see on a map or Google Earth. For many, that’s the adventure and if that does it for you then we can’t disagree with that.
But again as with the cost factor, the increased risk for those going it alone comes into play if things go wrong. We all know that even a small off on a bike can lead to significant injuries, and should that happen, then being without any medical back up is a problem. Tour companies often travel with medics – Ride Expeditions certainly do – so they will get immediate help, organise on-going care and sort your bike out.
If you are on your own or in a small independent group, a small incident can escalate relatively quickly into a major problem, and you are going to have provide a solution. Do you know the emergency number? Will anyone come to help? Do you know where exactly you are?
ROUND 3: EXPLORING
Now let’s not focus too much on the practical stuff, let’s look at the point of these trips – having fun and exploring on motorcycles. And for both the independent traveller and the organised tour rider getting saddle time in an entirely new country is always going to be time well spent. You are reading this because you love bikes, so riding them under vast skies and while experiencing epic landscapes has got to be a good day.
If you are going solo, then of course you get to decide where to go yourself and how long to stay in each place, both of which are not necessarily under your control with a tour company.
But on the flip side, local knowledge will mean the tour companies do know the good places to go to. There’s no signpost to Komic – the highest village in the world, so it would be a shame to drive past the turning without even knowing. The more remote the destination, the more likely that you’ll need local knowledge to get the most from your trip, so if you are going the independent route, be prepared to do your research and talk to locals.
Also bear in mind that in remote places like the Himalayas, there are very few roads so the ones you ride as an independent traveller will be no different to the ones the organised tours are on! Going off-piste in these areas is not much of an option as the terrain is quite so unremitting.
Undoubtedly the solo traveller has the most flexibility to control their own route, it’s just that when you get somewhere truly amazing, there’s not necessarily anyone to share that achievement or excitement with. If you travel with a group, the sense of shared endeavour from fellow motorcyclists from all over the world is indescribably good.
If you are an independent traveller, you may have to high-five yourself!
ROUND 4: BREAKDOWNS
We all ride bikes, so we know that things can go wrong. In our own countries we can usually rely on mates or recovery companies to come to the rescue, so roadside repairs are not really too much of a consideration.
But if you are riding in different countries, you need to bear in mind that this may not be an option, and if so, you may need to sort the problem yourself. So just consider – how good are you at roadside repairs? Have you ever changed a tube or mended a puncture on a road bike at the side of a busy road? Have you ever drained water out of the engine when it’s become drowned in deep water.
If it’s no to both, then maybe you need to get Googling and maybe give it a try in your garage before you head for Nepal solo? Both problems are regular issues and extremely likely to happen on unpredictable foreign roads, so knowing how to help yourself is essential.
And on the same ticket, you need to bring sufficient tools with you to allow basic repairs – hire bikes might just have the OEM toolkit which is commonly fairly poor and made of cheese. If there are no tyre levers and no pump, then a puncture is going to bring your adventure to a swift stop, so plan ahead and pack what you might need.
For the organised tours, these issues should be far less of a problem. If a bike has an issue, then a decent tour operator should have someone with them to sort it, and if they don’t, maybe you shouldn’t have booked with them. Ride Expeditions will swiftly swap your bike for one of the mechanics machines so you can continue while they get busy with the spanners – simple.
ROUND 5: TIME
One of the major advantages of organised tours is that there clear and reliable schedule means that you can know exactly how long you will be away. For the majority of us with regular jobs and 25 days holiday days a year this is important – it allows us to book in a trip and know when we are going and when we are going back.
Independent travellers tend to have a more flexible schedule to their tours. This may be just through taking more time off to allow for a less structured and laid back trip or maybe because they’ve stepped off the work treadmill for a while to allow for life-affirming adventures. And again we can’t argue with that if you have the opportunity and the funds to support the trip.
But even if you are planning a short solo trip, you need to be able to change plans to cope with any eventualities. While a tour company will, by and large, keep to the planned schedule, if things go wrong while on a solo or independent tour then a carefully thought through trip can soon need substantial alterations. Allow yourself a contingency of enough non-riding days in case you need to ride those days to keep on schedule. Missing flights can lead to large and unforeseen costs!
ROUND 6: PERMITS, PASSES AND PAPERWORK
If you are used to travelling in Europe, Australasia or the US then you are probably used to travelling freely without needing any more paperwork than the usual driving documents and maybe a passport if moving between countries that have borders controls. You can ride from the North of France to the South of Italy without any additional permits.
But it’s not so simple in other countries. Look at a map of India and you’d think that you could drive all over without being stopped, but that is far from the case. The country is littered with checkpoints and district borders to frustrate the plucky traveller on a motorcycle adventure tour. And OK it might be a soldier or policeman with a rope across the road, but if you don’t have the paperwork, you won’t be going through and don’t think about riding through – he’s got a gun and a job to do …
Now this would be fine if there were clear information about what you need and where to get it but this is not the case. You will have to do plenty of research and asking around to find out.
Don’t be put off because it’s not impossible but don’t make the mistake of trying to blag it – if you don’t have the correct paperwork– they will simply turn you back.
Organised tours come out on top here as they will know what you need and will organise it in advance, usually without you even realising it. And as they will usually travel with a local guide / fixer then there’s somebody to do the talking at the more officious border crossings. When you are miles away from home, avoiding hassle from gun-toting jobsworths is a good plan!
AND THE WINNER IS …
The bottom line is there is no winner in this fight. Both guided tours and independent tours have merits and disadvantages and for anyone to say otherwise is disingenuous. For some, the thrill of doing it all yourself, taking on an entirely new continent and all its challenges on a motorcycle is the best holiday in the world. We are certainly not going to fight that view – it’s a great way to spend your time.
For others, organised tours provide all the experiences they want, wrapped up in a no-hassle package where all the tricky bits are handled for you – all you have to do is turn up and ride. From our point of view, we’re happy to help motorcyclists from all over the world experience new countries on our tours. As a first experience of adventure motorcycling, guided tours give a wealth of experiences but with the added advantage of a safety net if you pick the reputable companies. If you get the bug you might continue using tour companies and allow them to do all the leg work, or maybe take the plunge and fly solo.
The choice is yours, but don’t just think about it – there’s a whole world ready to explore.