Making the final pedal strokes into the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul, Turkey was both exciting and significant. I had successfully cycling across Europe, all the way from England. The first leg of my bike adventure around the world was over. This guide will explain how I made it, and show you how YOU can do the same, whether you want to cycle across Europe entirely, or just within a part of Europe like Switzerland on a budget.
One disclosure to make is that this guide will demonstrate one of many ways to cycle across Europe. I did it fairly slowly and cheaply, stopping in different countries to hike in Slovenia, or work on a farm in Austria. There is no set way; people have even cycled on penny farthings and on unicycles across Europe, and even the world! So, here’s the guide. Choose the bits you like, and ditch the parts you dislike! Make it your own ride!
Who can cycle across Europe?
The chances are you can definitely cycle across Europe. It won’t necessarily be easy (but if it wasn’t a challenge, everyone would be doing it!), but if you want it enough, you will get there! It’s likely there are many reasons you think you can’t do it. Maybe you’re not ‘fit enough’.
Maybe you’re not ‘brave enough’. Maybe it ‘costs too much money.’ Perhaps, you ‘don’t have enough time.’ In some cases, these are genuine reasons, but often, they are just obstacles, which seem much larger than they really are. The best thing to do is to go and write down a list of everything which would stop you from leaving on your bike trip tomorrow. Do it now. I did this about six months before I left, and it was a very long list, ranging from not having a bike, to finding out what visas I’d need, to simply being scared about certain parts.
This will help show you exactly what obstacles you need to overcome, and then you can start to actually work on them! Some will be easy to solve, others will be harder, and sometimes you will need to make compromises. If you want to cycle across Europe enough, you will find the answers. You may need to think outside the box; if time is a problem, break the cycle down into several parts. I met some people cycling across Europe over several years, one or two weeks at a time in their holidays from work. Alternatively, you could use trains/buses to skip some of the sections which hold less appeal. If money is a problem, you may have to resort to cooking more of your own meals, or camping more than you otherwise would. Be completely relentless, and don’t let any obstacle stand in your way. It is very easy to get bogged down in all the planning, and get very stressed.
This is why many people’sdreams don’t actually become a reality. There is an easy way to make sure you actually get out there; Set a date and tell EVERYONE you are cycling across Europe. Go on. Be brave. Put it on Facebook, and Twitter now. Send your mum an email. Send me a tweet @JosiahSkeats telling me you are doing it. Your friends, your mum and I will hold you accountable, and make sure you actually leave. If you don’t, your friends will joke about it forever. Next, begin to put some money on the line. Buy your train/plane/ferry ticket if you need it, or instead buy your insurance. Once you’ve done this step, and the last, you will feel fully committed, and won’t want to back out! You may notice I haven’t gone into any of the detailed specifics. This is because you shouldn’t stress too much about every detail. Do the planning you need to do to ensure you will be safe and are actually going to get out there and hit the road. Much can be left to solve once you’ve actually left. You don’t need to be super-fit, or have done loads of training for example – when I left I hadn’t even cycled in about a year.
What can you expect when cycling across Europe? Europe is an exciting and unique place to bike tour. Here’s some of what you can expect:
- Rapid cultural diversity. With lots of small countries, yet high population density, cultures and traditions change quickly, even by bike;
- A continent with a relatively old and interesting history;
- While Europe may not be the first country you think of when it comes to hospitality, and friendly people, you can still expect to have your faith in humanity restored;
- You can expect bustling, grand and extravagant cities…
- … And yet, at the same time, serene, peaceful and stunning landscapes;
- Great route choice, and very cycle-friendly. Particularly in the west you can expect a plethora of cycle routes, cycle shops and will meet many other cyclists.
- Expect to learn a lot. A result of being so diverse, as mentioned above, is that you will probably learn lots about it. I was confronted with culture shock in Bosnia, and then again in Albania, the types of lives and places I didn’t realise existed in Europe!
What you need to cycle across Europe? This is a super important question; worrying about not having the best gear is another reason why many people don’t ever get started. Sure, many people use very expensive gear to cycle across Europe, but don’t be fooled, this is not a requirement. While it may make your time slightly more comfortable, many people cycle across Europe with the type of gear you probably have lots of at home. It’s very easy to find thousands of packing lists online for bike tours, so I won’t list anything here, but I will add that it may be useful to think about what you would take with you for two days of cycling, with a night camping in between. The stuff you would take with you there will comprise 95% of what you want to take on a longer tour. It may sound simple, but a longer adventure across Europe is merely a series of small biking and camping trips. You really can cycle with a guitar! Once you have those essentials, you can add on any luxuries you want, whether it’s a laptop, a DLSR-e at the expense of extra weight.
That small solar panel may seem worth its weight when you’re at home, but you may be questioning bringing it when you’re 25 km into lugging it up a challenging 50km climb! From speaking to other bike tourers, it seems there is generally a propensity to over-pack, and bring more than you need. Of course, you can refine what you take over your trips, or even during your cycle, but it is worthwhile when packing to question whether you really need something. If you’re unsure, the chances are you don’t! If you are really missing something you wish you’d brought, the chances are you will be able to find it in Europe and buy it on the go, much easier than many other continents.
If you are worrying now about not having the highest quality gear, the following may help reassure you a little; In Slovenia, after just 5 weeks cycling, my tent broke. It was rather frustrating as I couldn’t buy another one. I certainly got bitten by mosquitoes more than I otherwise would, and on the few occasions it rained, it wasn’t much fun, but it was certainly do-able! Often it can lead to more adventure than you would normally have – one night because I didn’t have a tent a group of friends in Albania invited me to sleep on top of the roof of the local petrol station. Such generosity was repeated on many occasions!
When to cycle across Europe
Cycling across Europe is possible at any time of year, but when you decide to go will have a profound affect on your experience. I was cycling through Europe in late spring and summer, and there were many times I saw ski lifts over green meadows and towering mountains, with no snow in sight, which served a real reminder that cycling here would be something of a different experience 6 months later!
Most people will choose the most pleasant and easy conditions to cycle in Europe, which largely means sticking as close to the summer months of June, July and August as possible. Cycling in April, and September can also be perfectly pleasant, but is liable to be unpredictable. Generally, the further south you go in Europe, the hotter the weather, meaning winter cycling may be better in the southern parts of Europe such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
It’s not just cold weather, but also hot weather that may be worth a little consideration. In the height of summer, you may find it uncomfortably hot to cycle in some places. I had a few really hot days in Croatia and Bosnia and later, Greece and Turkey. I quite enjoyed cycling still, but had to ensure I had sufficient water, and I would invariably wake up earlier, and take a long break from the midday heat. During these hotter months, you may encounter a lot more tourists as well. I was cycling south to Croatia, on the day the summer holidays for most of Europe’s schools began. The roads were busy, and I was caught up in unpleasant (and dangerous) traffic, as seemingly half of Europe, made its annual migration to the hot summer coastlines.
Where to cycle in Europe?
I’m currently looking at the route ahead for my Asian leg where there are vastly fewer options, and I will be confined to one road for hundreds of miles. I now realise that I took for granted the massive amount of options for cycling in Europe.
When cycling in Europe, you really have the ability to pick and choose your cycling route, personalizing it to you, whether you want to hop from city to city, take on some mountain passes, or simply cycle along leisurely keeping the coast, or a river on your right/left. The road less travelled. Didn’t pass any cars. The first place to check would be the Eurovelo cycle routes, which recognises 14 long distance cycling routes, and indeed, you could cycle from north to south, or east to west, or virtually anywhere you want in Europe without leaving one of these cycle paths.
I spent a couple of weeks on Eurovelo 6 cycling beside the River Danube; it was easy, and leisurely cycling, generally traffic-free but it tended to be much slower, less dramatic and bring me into contact with fewer people (although I did meet more cyclists) than I otherwise would. As a result, I’d suggest mixing it up, and combining a mixture of these established routes with your own on-road routes. One of my personal tips would be to take on some of the more unknown places and roads, away from the tourist destinations you can real all about on google. The best experience of my entire trip was in Albania when i took the road less traveled, and discovered the country at its most authentic.
The best thing to do is to go to a map, or the internet and work out exactly what you want to see, and where you want to explore. You have permission to enjoy this bit, and have some fun with the research, working out a variety of possible combinations. Don’t set your plans in stone though. Your plans will change, and one of the most exciting things is having the power to be spontaneous.
Keeping it cheap cycling across Europe
When you think of Europe, you may not think of it being cheap in the same way as many other destinations such as South-East Asia, or South America. It doesn’t have to be super expensive though; if you take advantage of some of Europe’s benefits, and some of the following tips and tricks, you will find it can be very cheap.
My 5,155 mile, 5 month adventure from England to Georgia, came in at only £404, or £2.70 per day. Compared to other places, visas are generally easier and cheaper to get. Many readers will have free travel to many European countries, or may need only gain access to the Shengen-agreement countries to unlock a vast amount of countries. This certainly helps keep it cheaper.
Staying healthy is relatively cheap in Europe. Of course, the doctor, or hospitals may be rather more expensive than elsewhere, but you generally need less vaccinations prior to travel than other destinations, and also won’t need to fork out for anti-malaria pills. One of the biggest costs usually encountered when travelling is on finding accommodation. This can be reduced, or cut out entirely however. This is going to require some camping. Camping wild may seem intimidating and scary, but once you have done it a number of times, this fear will disappear, and may even be replaced with excitement. There are a number of rules I tried to follow when wild camping:
- Firstly, I would camp somewhere I am unlikely to be seen or discovered. There are plenty of places you can walk just 5 or 10 metres off the side of the road or trail, and you will be hidden from view.
- Next, if I am spotted, the person who finds me won’t mind. This means not camping on anyone’s land, or near where people live where you may be perceived as a threat.
- If I did need to camp near someone, I would ask for permission to camp there. I was often invited into their house to sleep for the night, and even given a meal or a cup of tea.
- If anyone objected to me being there, (which never happened), I would have apologised, and offered to move on.
As well as camping, being relatively well-populated, generally wealthy, and largely technologically competent, internet sites such as couchsurfing and warmshowers have proliferated successfully, and can be a great aid to travelling cheaply. I must add however, that travelling cheaply should not be the main motivation for using these resources. If that is the case, both you, and your host will not benefit from the experience. At the heart of resources is facilitating engagements with a local and helping you get to know the area from their perspective. Another cost when travelling, especially so when burning lots of energy cycling is buying food.
To keep this expenditure low I cut down on eating meals in restaurants, which I generally only did when I was with other people (which made it more of a special treat), and when I wanted to try a specific food for that country (I believe trying different foods is a good way to travel and understand an area). The rest of the time, I used my simple stove and one pot to cook meals with pasta, rice, porridge and bread as staple ingredients. This may not appear the most exciting diet, but it was cheap, and allowed me to travel longer. I did however make sure I kept a balanced diet – I found when I didn’t eat properly my cycling began to suffer immediately. I ate tinned tuna instead of meat, which I found cheaper and easily accessible.
Outside Western Europe, I found prices of vegetables and fruit to vary, according to what is grown locally. This was great as it meant I could always eat the cheapest food, and I was always eaten food which was grown in-season and locally; good for the environment and my pallet! I always embraced getting food for free. In my last year of University, I took out-of-date food from the bins behind the supermarkets for one year, and I had expected to do so again when cycling across Europe. I tried a few times, but sadly, to no avail. What I did enjoy doing though was picking fresh fruit. I remember the delight of spending an hour picking fresh figs, and gorging myself on them until I couldn’t cycle, or gleaning fresh apples and pears from the edge of farmer’s field. There is something satisfying about getting food in such a way.
Stained hands after a morning picking wild blueberries.
Now, all that’s left to do…
… Is actually cycle across Europe! I hope you’ve found this guide useful, and you feel prepared for the adventure that lies ahead of you. The most important step is confidence, which hopefully you have more of now. But, most importantly… enjoy it!
Amazing cycling story! If you wanna read another cycling story, check here. You will read my story cycling from Spain to Norway (North Cape).
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Josiah Skeats had been to quite a lot of adventures, from working as a cowboy in Upstate New York to working a ski season in the French Alps. With love for cycling and extreme sports, he stands for doing things you're passionate about. Follow his adventures on JosiahSkeats.com and on social.