Bike Tour More, Spend Less

We recently discovered that it cost us just $23 U.S. a day to travel the world on our bicycles.

Friedel getting bored

Friedel cycling through the Middle East.

That’s a cheap price for the adventure of a lifetime but looking back on our trip, we could have done it for even less.

Why bother? Alistair Humphreys says it well.

You have a choice – spend loads of cash and have a short trip, or eat cheap, sleep in fields and travel for a long time.

Every penny saved can go towards another day of travelling. With that in mind, here are a few things we learned about budget travel.

Tip #1 – Travel Under Your Own Steam

68-Turtle on the road.jpg

One of the best thing about bike touring is travelling at a turtle’s pace. Don’t rush it. Going slowly also saves money on transport costs.

We took 5 flights on our trip around the world and a variety of other transportation. Despite shopping around for the best deals and often taking our bikes along for free, the total cost added up to over $7,000 –  14% of our overall budget. Had we avoided other transport, we would have easily been able to afford at least another 5 months of bike touring. Flying is the biggest budget-eating culprit, since you have to consider not only the price of the ticket and any excess bike charges but also transportation to and from the airport (you usually can’t bike there if your bicycle is pre-packed in a box). Of course, it’s not practical to always pedal the whole way but there’s a lot to be said for planning trips closer to home or ones that can be done primarily overland.

Tip #2 – Forgo Expensive Gear

If you’re planning a lengthy expedition with expectations of waiting out storms and riding over rough tracks for days on end then, by all means, buy the best equipment you can afford. For more modest tours however, you’re unlikely to get full value out of the most expensive bikes and accessories.

Our Hilleberg tent served us well but for many bike tours a cheaper tent might do the job just as well.

Our Hilleberg tent served us well but for many bike tours a cheaper tent might do the job just as well.

Take our Hilleberg tent as an example. We spent about 400 nights in our Nallo 3GT before we bought a new one. If you take a month-long tour every year, that’s 13 years worth of bike trips. Chances are you’ll want a new tent before that anyway so save yourself a bit of cash and buy something cheaper (that’s what we did when we needed a tent for family touring), or get a well cared for used model.

The same goes for other things, including bikes (check out this experience with a mid-range touring bike) and especially Ortlieb Panniers. Even after 50,000km of use, our Ortliebs are still serviceable so any used ones you find on eBay should be good for a few bike trips yet.

Tip #3 – Take Showers, Not Campgrounds

It was often the overwhelming desire for a shower that drove us into a campground. With experience, we got a lot smarter about washing up and finding unique places to get clean like truck stops and swimming pools. If we’d employed these techniques from the beginning, we would have saved a lot of money on accommodation.

Tip #4 – Write Companies When Things Break Down

It’s not always easy to get sponsorship when you’re first starting out but, in our experience, companies are surprisingly responsive when you’ve already bought something from them. If something stops working or just wears out, drop the manufacturer a line. For the time it takes to write an email, you might get a complimentary total replacement or a discount on the latest model.

Tip #5 – Skip Cities & Tourist Traps

Anytime you see something gracing the cover of a glossy brochure or advertised as a must-see in the guidebooks, steer well clear unless you’re prepared to pay. Famous destinations come with prices several times the going rate elsewhere, often with the bonus of aggressive salesmen and heavy traffic to boot.

And, as our experience in Thailand shows, usually you can find something just as nice on the less traveled routes. Big cities hit you where it hurts because they’re not only full of major attractions, but you often have to take a hotel so you have a safe place to leave your bike and luggage while you’re out sightseeing.

Of course, if it’s your dream to cycle through all of Europe’s capital cities and take a ride on Switzerland’s Matterhorn cable car with its hefty $90 price tag, who are we to stop you? Just don’t think it’s going to be easy on the wallet.

Tip #6 – Be Cheap But Not Unhappy

Penny pinching can go too far and travelling on a budget only works as long as you’re still having fun. Don’t let saving money become such an obsession that you never allow yourself an occasional treat – especially the first time you try to get used to living a slimmed down lifestyle. Strict budgeting that consistently takes you beyond your own personal comfort levels is pointless if it only makes you miserable. Also, don’t let penny pinching go to such an extent that you are hurting local people. Bargaining for the last 10 cents in a market where most people make less than $1 a day has a cost bigger than your daily budget.


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    26th May 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    I wholeheartedly agree with tip #6.
    I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively over the past 25 years. A great pastime for me is bargaining the locals right down but then paying them their original asking price.This lets me engage with them a bit and they seem to appreciate the gesture!

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