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How to Choose a Bike Tour Operator

Go to: Guidebooks | Literature: what to read | The Bike | Your Body: getting ready for the trip | Life in Italy | Bike Friendly Hotels

Larry Theobald of CycleItalia sent me a wonderfully objective essay on selecting a bike tour company. Like the bike you ride, fit is also impartant in choosing who is going to take care of your during your dream vacation. This piece is full of good advice from a long-time pro who has worked for other operators and now owns his own tour firm.

Selecting a Bike Tour Operator

Once you've made the wise decision to take an organized cycling vacation, how do you figure out which one of the hundreds of offerings available is best for you?

I believe the most important part of any enjoyable bike tour is the "fit" between the desires and philosophy of the client and those of the tour company. Beware of "one size fits all" operators who claim to have something for everyone or rate their tours as suitable for "athletic beginners, intermediate and advanced". Few businesses in any field do a good job trying to be all things to all people. Since you're reading this on bikeraceinfo's website I'll assume you're an avid cyclist in good shape looking for challenging routes, so most of my suggestions will be based on shopping for those types of tours.

Look closely at the photos on the various websites sites you visit. If everyone pictured is a rail-thin 25 year-old male with shaved legs, a high-end carbon fiber bike and wearing a team kit, you can probably figure this is a company catering to guys who ride hard and are probably competitive, even in the confines of the tour group. If getting dropped or racing to the top of each and every climb is not to your liking you might look elsewhere. Conversely if the photos show riders wearing t-shirts while riding hybrid bicycles you can assume the company caters to casual riders and is more of an "active vacation" than cycling tour.

Don't get hung up on the "X days @ X dollars" at this point as this takes a bit of sleuthing to compare accurately. Spend your efforts on this only after you've narrowed your interest down to two or three potential choices.

First, ask for detailed itineraries for the exact tour you're interested in if they're not available on the website or brochure. Don't be satisfied with "TBA" as that can be code for "haven't figured it out yet". While no operator will want to simply give away enough proprietary information to allow a client or competitor to steal the fruits of their labors, they should be forthcoming with specific details and information about the challenge, location and length of the rides as well as the places where you'll eat and sleep.

Ask questions about support on the route. "Fully-supported" is a vague term and could be limited to a van with driver hired to haul luggage to the next hotel and a company tour guide riding with you on his/her bike. You may never see either if the van goes directly to the next hotel via the shortest distance or you're too slow (or fast!) to ride with the tour guide. Think about your ideal sized group, then ask about the tour's maximum number of participants (and perhaps the minimum!) and the number of guides provided. Ask how they handle the ever-present differences in their groups when it comes to energy and desires. If the answer is "hang in or get dropped" you can make your own decision about how much fun you'll have with them. Making you wait for the slower riders can be just as frustrating so try to get a feel as to how they support the daily rides.

After these inquiries, which can usually be done via email, you can narrow your choices down to two or three possibilities. Next, make a phone call to each operator you're still considering. Ask any questions not covered by the website's FAQ section or your email inquiries and clear up any confusion you may have. Don't be afraid to ask how they compare to the other operators you are considering. How they handle these questions and what (if anything) they say about their competitors speaks volumes about how much they know and how much they care. While larger operations will have special sales/customer service staff answering the phone rather than the person who'll be your tour guide(s) you can still get an idea of the company attitude and philosophy. Beware of those who seem eager to answer any question with a scripted response or what sounds like what they think you want to hear. Any responsible tour operation should be as concerned that you are right for them as much as they are right for you.

Get references. Phone or email these contacts. While no tour operator in his/her right mind will hook you up with someone who'll provide a less-than-glowing review, you can find out a lot about the kind of people who enjoy tours with this operator by contacting these references. If a reference is one who loved visiting each and every church on the route to admire the artwork, what he/she enjoyed about the tour could be very different from the experience you're looking for.

Once you get your choices down to two or three operators who offer tours of the appropriate challenge, attitude, length, etc. in the area you want to visit, you can then compare "days vs dollars". Carefully note the activities listed for each day now that you have the detailed, day-by-day itineraries. Look especially closely at arrival and departure day itineraries--is major airport transportation provided or must you figure it out (and pay for it) on your own? Does the group meet in the afternoon or morning of the first day and start cycling right away? If so, where will you sleep the night before and what might it cost? Does the operator provide bicycles as part of the tour or must you bring your own? Are quality rental bikes available if you choose not to bring your own? Does the tour end at 6 pm on the last day? If so, where will you sleep that night? How many meals are included and what style?

Finally, it's time to read the "small print" section of the websites or brochures. Review the cancellation policy and the "What's included" and perhaps more importantly, "What is not included" if they list this. You may have to make additional contacts for details on things like; Is wine included with meals? Are tips customary/expected for the guides, if so, how much?

Once you have these details you can make a valid, accurate comparison of "days vs dollars" as it seems no two operations include the exact same things. All this sounds like a lot of work but it's effort well-spent. Once you've made a decision after doing this much work, it's unlikely you'll be unpleasantly surprised by the tour experience. Most quality cycling vacations are not inexpensive endeavors so it pays to shop wisely.

Once you've done your homework and selected the best tour company for you, your only regret should be (as our clients most often tell us) " I wish I'd discovered how much fun these cycling vacations are years ago, I wasted too many years just dreaming about it before deciding to join one."

Larry lives in Sioux City, Iowa and owns and operates (with wife Heather) CycleItalia LLC. The website for the firm is www.cycleitalia.com


More travel chapters:

Guidebooks | Literature: what to read | The Bike | Packing your bike | Your Body: getting ready for the trip | Life in Italy | Bike Friendly Hotels