Choosing a Commercial Tour

by Larry Diskin with updates from the Tours Department

It can be quite difficult to choose a commercial tour. Fortunately, we here in Missoula have heaps of experience to share and we've had our eyes on trends for the past three decades. I'll categorize the different styles of tours that are most commonly available, and give you some tips on how to select one that you'll enjoy.

Start by visualizing your idea of a perfect tour and then put those thoughts on paper. I have included a list later in this article that will help you do that. Be ready to spend some time at it, there is more to decide than you may think.

There are not many established norms in the bicycle tour industry. Tour operators use terms such as "event", "van support", "self-contained", "water stop" and "camping" to describe services they offer on their tours but the meaning of these terms can vary dramatically. One tour might advertise all those services for $250, another might advertise the same services at $800. There is usually a reason for the price difference.

What to ask?

You need to pry deep into the details to determine if the service being offered is right for you. For example, "camping" could occur at anything from a cattle ranch to a KOA. It could be on a football field with no shade or in a gorgeous state park near a lake, a city park, fairgrounds or even in somebody's back yard. If it rains, is there anyplace indoors to hang out or will you be roughing it in your tent. Will you have to use a port-o-potty for a week or are there flush toilets available? What about during the ride, is there any places to "go" or to wash your hands at the water stops? How are the meals handled? Does a local fundraising group, a professional catering service or at a nice restaurant prepare them? What is the menu? Where are the meals served? Is there a table and chair for you at dinner or a picnic table, will it be indoors, or will you be outside sitting on the ground?

What suits you?

It is very important to investigate the structure of a tour in order to determine if it will meet your needs and that you not make any assumptions, even if you are a veteran of a tour you deem similar. Many of us have very comfortable lives at home. If you want to take a high level of comfort with you as you travel, be pampered by experienced service professionals and have everything on time and just so, you'll need to consider tours that are $400/day and maybe much more. If you are willing sacrifice a few creature comforts and can handle lunch being 20 minutes late once in a while, you might be happy with tours that cost far less. Are you willing to make some sacrifices to participate in Cycle the Moon because there is only one company offering that tour, or are you hoping to have an equal or greater level of comfort than you do at home? Be honest with yourself!

What does adventure mean to you?

In order to fully understand the different type of experiences that are obtainable, I think it's important to explore meaning of "adventure" as it applies to bicycle touring. If the activity you are involved in does not include any bit that makes you uncomfortable, it's not an adventure. You can't get the highs without some lows. That's life, and you should be ready to embrace some adventure on all but the most expensive bicycle tours. For example, if you can somehow find the will to smile when you get caught in an unpredicted rainstorm, you might actually be a person who enjoys adventure. For me, knowing that I will soon be enjoying a comfortable reminisce in my tent is enough to incite a smile and induce what I call my "adventure zone". A pleasant state in which I envision a lot worse things that are happening to people around the world thereby causing me to feel pretty good about what I am able to be doing right now. I'm wet, uncomfortable and can't see the spectacular view I bargained for, but I still know I'm doing something most people wouldn't or couldn't even if they wanted to. If you can make the most of the actual adventurous moments, you are truly a person that enjoys adventure. I feel best about myself if I know that I enjoyed, or at least tried to enjoy, the adventure during it, not only after.

If you don't fall into my narrow definition of a person that enjoys adventure, that does not make you bad or inferior to anyone. It may just means you don't want to be uncomfortable during your tour. You should keep that in mind when choosing a tour. In order to truly enjoy adventure, one must be able to get past the few things that challenge or make them a bit uncomfortable and focus on enjoying the good parts. If you are not comfortable experiencing a bit of adversity during your next bicycle tour, shy away from all but the most expensive tours.

When touring, a scenic view comes with adventure.

Regional Differences

As mentioned earlier, there are not many standard norms in this business. Keep in mind that regional and cultural differences affect the decisions that are made when planning a commercial tour. These differences will affect the services that can be provided. For example, when planning a tour in Vermont, I was able to use luxurious state parks. Those parks are forested, on a lake, and designed for comfortable camping. Here in Montana, we ain't got nuthin' like that. Towns are often far apart and luxurious camping facilities are not always available. We often have no choice but camp on a school's football field in order to plan a good route that showcases the grandiose Montana scenery people came to see. Some find a bit of camping discomfort to be a small sacrifice in order to experience the grand scenery. Others will be less flexible. There is nothing wrong with either view. But if you want to travel, explore and truly experience new places, be ready for some adventure. Things vary from place to place, that is the attraction of travel. But this applies to more than just the scenery. It applies to the way people interact, the services that are available, the lifestyles people lead and even the tour planner's personal perspectives.

I'm hoping you don't take what I've said here as a defensive rant. I'm really just trying to use my experience to steer you in the right direction. On every tour, there will be something you can point to and say "This tour would be better if...". I call those "What you could dos". You'd often be right, that would make things better, but if the tour operator implemented one thing from each participant, they might have to charge a lot more for the tour. Most bicycle tours I'm familiar with are worth the fee. Your happiness during the tour is mostly a matter of picking the right tour to suit your needs. And please remember that in order for that to work, you must be honest with yourself!

Choose Your Type

Below is a description of the three most common types of tours in America. Remember, services will vary even within each category so make sure to get the details in advance.

  1. Luxury Tours:

    Least adventurous. In addition to the cycling, the emphasis is equally or more on nice hotel accommodations or B & Bs, restaurant meals, comfort, and off bike activities, such as wine tasting or shopping. One such company's slogan I read recently was "luxury is mandatory, mileage is optional". That is a good description of the nature of luxury tours. Group size is typically less than 20. The small group size allows for a high level of service and personal attention. Prices range start at $400 per day. There is usually one support van and one or two highly trained leaders. These tours are ideal for people who want to treat themselves to pampering and luxury while doing some biking. Most participants will be couples but there are some similar tours designed for singles.
  2. Events:

    Moderate level of adventure. These trips typically follow a "mobile city" model. Group size can range from 30 to thousands. The tour fee is usually $50- $125 per day. The focus is mainly on bicycling and sometimes these are quite challenging rides. Volunteers often staff events. The tour operator will provide water stops along the route and luggage transport. Meals are either provided by local group, a professional caterer, or on your own. Events are typically designed for tent camping in large open spaces, but there are often some rooms near the camping facility that can be reserved for an additional fee. Most fundraiser and state rides use this format. Events are the most popular style of tour in America with over 200,000 participants each year. Events are socially and financially ideal for fairly independent cyclists looking to explore by bicycle and have basics needs met along the way.
  3. Independent Touring:

    Most adventurous. This can mean a lot of different things, but implies that an individual or group plan their own tour and go for it. They often use resources such as Adventure Cycling maps and Cyclists' Yellow Pages to research routes and locate services. Some choose what we call "self-contained" touring, meaning that each person carries all of his or her own gear on their bike in panniers or a trailer and there is no motorized vehicle supporting them. Some like "credit card" touring, meaning they ride from motel to motel, eat at restaurants along the way, and carry only a light load of essentials and clothing with them. Others get a group of friends together, and take turns driving a van that carries everyone's gear or recruit someone to drive the van that doesn't want to ride but enjoys the travel.

Ask Yourself

Answer the following questions and then look for a tour operator that provides something close to what you had in mind:

  1. Where do you want to travel?
  2. How many days?
  3. How much riding per day/ Difficulty level? Terms like "beginner" and "advanced" are subjective so you need to be objective about what you can do and ask the tour operator specific questions regarding the mileage terrain and road conditions. Itineraries and elevation profiles are good indicators.
  4. Camping or Motels? If motels, are you looking for high end B & B's or simply a basic motel room? If camping, what type of camping environment? Are you really eager to camp or are you camping to save money or because there are no motels on the tour you are interested in?
  5. What is your budget? Are you willing to spend a bit more to tone down the adventure element? (That might be wise if you do not enjoy adventure)
  6. What is your group size preference? (Tour group sizes range from 5 - 5000+)
  7. Do you want a nature, service, history or bicycling oriented tour? Or all three combined?
  8. What are the meals? Do you want to pay more for real nice meals or are you willing to make do?
  9. What level of adventure am I comfortable with?
  10. What are the average demographics of the tour participants on the tour you are considering?
  11. How is the support on the route handled? How many vehicles are doing this? How much personal attention do I need?