This page was last updated 4 May 2013.

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Tour Preparation



Packing list

This packing list is definitive. It has been proven on many trips. Every item is essential even if it may look marginal. I never carry cooking gear, you may choose to. Travelling with as little weight as possible is essential. The list adds up to about 11 kg, plus 1.5 kg for the optional tent. The clothes list requires a laundromat about once a week. It includes one non-bicycle outfit. The list also assumes that you, like me, prefer to stay in campgrounds (avoid those without hot showers) or hostels.

The best maps for France are yellow Michelin maps. For Germany, use blue ADFC maps. Both are widely available in book stores. For the U.S. west coast, you must have the bible: Bicycling the Pacific Coast, Kirkendall and Spring, The Mountaineers, ISBN 0-89886-232-9, $12.95. This book is absolutely essential. You might make scaled-down xerox copies of the relevant pages of the appropriate Let's Go, published by Harvard Student Agencies.

Also check out my Exotic Travel Guide for a detailed packing list for non-bicycle travel.

Immigration and Customs

EU members do not need a passport for EU countries and most European non-EU countries. I am told that non-EU members should check the visa requirements for each individual country. Entering the USA requires a visa. Germans and others get it at the first destination airport, make sure you get the green form. Bring a pen. Beginning in 2004, the US can't rush fast enough to turn their teetering democracy into a police state and demand fingerprints and other degrading procedures; for me that means I will not visit the US anymore. If I want to visit a police state I can at least pick one that is nice about it.

The immigration officer will ask for your U.S. address, give him one even if you only stay the first night there. On the customs form, declare food (fruit, sandwiches, anything) correctly, they are very strict about this. You will have to check you baggage at the first airport even if you have a domestic connection flight. By all means avoid New York's JFK airport, it has never worked and never will. Once my non-stop Delta flight made a stop in JFK and promptly got stuck in the take-off line for four hours. I was lucky.

Beware of Tokyo. Most countries have a baggage weight limit of 36 kg. Japan has a weight limit of 20 kg. Easy to get in, extremely expensive to get out. I once paid $280.

If you buy parts during the trip, think hard before trying to smuggle them past customs back home. I have once imported a bicycle frame, and the customs officers knew precisely what kinds of frames Cannondale makes and what they cost, they had all the catalogues. They do not believe shop receipts. You wouldn't believe some of the things I have seen in the customs offices. I am really glad that I properly declared that frame...

Good and Bad Airlines

Airlines to use: KLM, Lufthansa, Air France.

My preference is KLM - punctual, competent, friendly, with good connections and good prices. I also like Amsterdam; it's easy and fast to go from Schiphol airport to Amsterdam Centraal station. I hate being stuck in some boring airport in the middle of nowhere. Lufthansa and Air France are efficient and work well, they just don't manage to give me quite the same feeling that I am welcome as KLM does, and Frankfurt and Paris aren't easily accessible from the airport.

I am sure that there are more airlines that fall into this category, but I have not used them, or not often enough to generalize here.

Airlines to avoid: British Airlines, Delta, TWA.

An unreliable, incompetent, and unfriendly airline can ruin your trip before it starts. British Airways, for example, is lucky if it predicts the departure day of its flights correctly. Expect to sit for the better part of the day in some cramped departure area because they can't rebook, can't let you leave (or they will remove your baggage "for security reasons", funny how the other airlines do it), can't give you any information, or, usually, can't be found. You need some enormous amount of business class mileage (the only kind that counts) before you get a card that entitles you to decent treatment, and until then you have to suffer their abuse. Flying Delta is similar, except that in addition to not knowing when you arrive you get the additional thrill of not knowing where you arrive, absolutely free. TWA does their best to compete, they consider their responsibility for you over when the plane touches the runway. These three airlines are on my blacklist because each delayed me for over 24 hours at least once and I got the feeling the problem is endemic.

The common denominator here is that employees may be friendly but have no clue what to do if something goes wrong, and consequently prefer to disappear when you need them most, and things go wrong frequently. Who cares if you stay half of the night in the airport, dodging cleaning crews in poorly lit halls, trying to figure out where the bus to the hotel leaves. Any airline can run into a problem, what counts is how the airline staff handles the problem and get you to your destination efficiently.

Generally, don't use U.S. airlines because they will want to shuttle you through their hubs, which frequently means missed connections. I had to stay overnight in airport hotels several times already. And, I do not warn about an airline here if a mistake happened once, only when it happens more often than not and I become convinced that it's a systematic problem.

General advice: Do not forget to ask the airline - not the travel agent - whether the flight uses aircraft large enough to hold a bicycle. Most airlines (not British Airways) accept advance seat reservations. Order a vegetarian meal if you fly economy because while the other passengers try to eat their rubber chickens or rancid lasagna you'll get (more or less) fresh fruit and vegetables. Don't do this in business class; the food there is ok and if you order vegetarian you may get economy fare! If you fly economy, bring earplugs and eye covers, and get a window seat so you can sleep. I always stay the night before a west-bound intercontinental flight awake to avoid jet lag. Exit rows are spacious, but do not get a window seat in an exit row of a widebody jet (Airbus 320, Boeing 747) because the emergency slide box will leave you almost no space for your legs. Several times already I had to repair the video screen of my (business class) seat because some connector shook loose, so bring tools and some spare wires or paper clips :-)

Shipping Bicycles by Train

You can usually take bicycles with you on the train, except on many ICE (high-speed) trains. In theory space is limited but in practice this has never been a problem for me. For trains that cross borders it's more complicated: some trains (usually the slow ones) accept a limited number of bicycles (between 4 and 60 depending on the train; reservations are strongly recommended) but many won't, so you will have to send them ahead a week earlier. They will tell you it takes three days but always multiply by two. I have once lost a day in Paris because a bicycle was late.

German Railways (Deutsche Bundesbahn) has a very helpful brochure (``Bahn&Bike, Fahrradmitnahme im Fernverkehr'') that lists all international trains that you can use with bicycles (as opposed to sending them ahead), conditions and prices for various European countries, bicycle rental at train stations, and lots of other useful information. German Railways also has a hotline, 0180-3194194, normal business hours only. Their website is quite helpful, I now always book my train rides there.

I have twice used a train in the US. Prices are unreasonably high, travel times are enormous, and service is very spotty. It's just not an option. I used Amtrak on my Crater Lake and Oregon Cascades tours, where we went from San Francisco to Klamath Falls in Oregon because only small planes that do not carry bicycles land there. It was painfully slow and not very comfortable for sleeping but otherwise a pleasant surprise. On the Cascades tour they switched us to cramped buses after a tunnel fire; very uncomfortable but the staff did their best to make it work.

Shipping Bicycles by Air

To ship bicycles overseas, I used to use a fiberglass box. It has made some 40 trips now and it is cracked in many places. Baggage handlers have managed to bend the 1/2 inch steel rods inside and smashed all four wheels. I have also shipped bicycles in airline-provided cardboard boxes, which seems to work surprisingly well considering the damage to the fiberglass box. I always take off the pedals and the seatpost with saddle, on the theory that this makes it harder to ride it off. I also take off the rear derailleur and tape it to the frame, a bent dropout would be the end of the trip. The handlebars must be turned sideways. (Bring tools to do all this.) Always let most but not all of the air out of the tires or some physics-impaired baggage handlers might do it for you when you aren't looking. If you ship bicycles with the wheels removed, put spacers into the dropouts, you can get them for free from bicycle stores.

Recently I have been sending bicycles without a box because my tours began and ended at different airports. The airline usually requires you to box the bicycle in a cardboard box that they are supposed to have in stock but often don't. If they don't you'll have to ask other airlines or talk them into accepting the bicycle without a box. Bring a wide felt-tip marker to paint the destination address and your name on the side of the box. There is a risk of having wheels bent, paint scratched, and dents in the tubes, but so far I have been lucky. Allow at least one hour at the airport for boxing! Two in the US because they'll put you through some extra silly security checks. Believe me, you'll need it.

International flights allow two pieces of baggage, one of which may be a bicycle, if the combined weight does not exceed 36 kg. Tell the airline that you have a bicycle with you, some shuttle flights use small aircraft that don't have room for bicycles.

Panniers

Panniers are bags that hang to the sides of the rear or front wheels. Make sure they are reasonably waterproof and have side pockets for things you'll need frequently, such as maps. The only perfectly waterproof bags I know are Ortliebs, but they have no external pockets to avoid seams. I have agusport Quorums, which come with waterproof covers. My bags are fairly large but can be compressed or expanded by adjusting the straps.

Avoid zippers that are too small, or better, avoid zippers altogether. They tend to tear after a while. Also avoid straps sewn into the bag that hold it to the rack; no seam should carry any load or it will tear eventually. Bolted-on hooks work better. Make sure there is a clamp that holds the bag to the rack; a pothole might otherwise throw off the bags.

Some rear panniers are attached to each other, forming an upside-down U shape. This makes them much easier to carry over one's shoulder. My previous bags (Robens 1000 Kilometer) were of this kind, and also included a detachable backpack (a *very* good idea), but unfortunately they had lots of flimsy zippers and seams and so only lasted some 15,000 km. Choose the bags large enough so one remains at least one-quarter empty when fully packed. You'll need the space for food when riding.

I do not like front panniers because I do not like weight on my front wheel that makes steering more sluggish. I prefer packing less instead. If you ride very long distances (>2000 km) in cold or wet areas where doing laundry is impossible, you may need to pack so much that you have no other choice though.

Unless you decide to buy Ortlieb bags, pack everything into plastic bags. This makes it easier to find things, too. I usually pack all clothing into the right bag, and tools, maps, and other items into the left bag. This leaves space in the left bag for food, and it ends up smaller than the right one, allowing a better view from my bar-end mirror.

I always travel with an extra cylindrical Ortlieb bag on top of the rear rack that holds my sleeping bag and other things that absolutely must stay dry.

Tell me if you found this information interesting or useful, or if you have comments.