Recent conversations on the merits and demerits of using motorcycle tour operators have prompted me to write this blog post. I have done long rides with and without tour operators. I believe there are times when it makes sense to use a tour operator and there are times when it makes sense to ride solo or with a group of friends.
The first time I ever rented a motorcycle was in The Netherlands. That too a humongous Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. I had ridden a Softail before. But that was a friend’s Harley in Maui, Hawaii. It was a short distance on wide smooth roads with hardly any traffic. But I was too scared to ride alone. In Hawaii it’s considered quite gay for a man to sit pillion with another man. And since my friend was straight as an arrow, he chose to follow me in his Corvette.
In spite of this short Harley experience, I just couldn’t bring myself to rent a Fat Boy and ride around The Netherlands all by myself. So I opted to take a guide from the rental company. I ended up paying for the guide and his Harley, which turned out to be quite a bit. But I rode without any tension. The guide led me through all the in roads of the gorgeous Dutch countryside and skipped all the highways. I didn’t need to consult a GPS or stop to sift through maps. All in all, it was worth it and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Incidentally, that was also the day I decided to buy a Fat Boy.
After the guided tour of The Netherlands, I gained some confidence in renting and riding a motorcycle in a foreign land. Thereafter I rented motorcycles in the US, Europe and Sri Lanka all by myself. I used a GPS extensively to plan my trips and even safely deviate from the planned route. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted and it felt good not to have to follow someone else’s itinerary.
On one ride I rented a KTM 1050 Adventure in the Netherlands and rode around Europe for four days criss crossing through five beautiful countries. At the start of every day I didn’t know where I would sleep that night. I would wander around the beautiful countryside, taking random exits off the main highways. Stop at villages for a coffee at a local cafe. Stop by an ancient church or wind mill. Then during a rest stop in the afternoon I would decide on a destination city for the night, book a hotel room using an app on my mobile phone and continue wandering through the countryside, but in the direction of the destination city. Finally as sunset approached I would ask my GPS to take me to my hotel. Then do the same thing all over again the next day. It was an amazing experience. The sense of freedom was truly liberating. This was very different from using a guide to take me around like the previous time. But I could do this only because I had the confidence which came from experience.
Then last year I decided to explore Mongolia on a motorcycle. I started doing my research and the more I read, the more I figured that using a tour operator would be the more sensible thing to do. There are very few roads in Mongolia and if you really want to experience the vast open steppes you need to get off the tarmac and literally wander like a nomad. The problem is there are rivers and streams criss crossing the steppes and they don’t always have bridges where you need them. So it’s quite possible at you could ride all day and reach the place you started because you came full circle.
Even with the experienced riders in the tour company I used and all their fancy GPS equipment we still got lost a few times. We had to back track and search for alternate routes to reach our destination for the night. The decision to use a tour company was a good one. I lost the freedom to do whatever I wanted and had to stick with a routine and an itinerary. But at least I knew for sure that I would get to a certain place before sunset and be taken care of in a warm Mongolian ger with steaming hot Mongolian food instead of pitching tent in the middle of nowhere and getting frozen into a popsicle. Nights in Mongolia can be very unforgiving. People who drink themselves silly and stumble out of bars don’t wake up the next morning in a gutter with a hangover. They die of cold before the sun rises.
If I decide to ride around Mongolia again I will again use a tour company. I won’t do it alone, or even with a group of friends. It just doesn’t make sense unless I decide to stick to the tarmac and not venture out into the steppes. Which defeats the whole purpose of riding a dual sport motorcycle in Mongolia. The point is to have fun and explore new places. Not get lost and ride around in circles. At the end of a riding day I want to be sad that I have to stop riding. I don’t want to be relieved that the ordeal is finally over.
So in my opinion, there is no hard and fast rule that tour operators are useless or useful. It largely depends on the place that you are touring. In developed countries like the US and Europe, it doesn’t make sense to use a tour operator if you are confident of renting and riding a motorcycle and finding your way around using a GPS or maps. Rental motorcycles are in top condition and help is just a toll free number away. Accommodation isn’t a problem and the best way to experience these countries is to wander around with or without a plan.
But if you are renting a crappy old Royal Enfield from Manali and riding to Ladakh, it’s not a question of whether the motorcycle will give way. The question is how many times it will give way and whether you want to be the one to fix the damn thing and continue your ride.
Are you willing to work on your motorcycle while touring? Some people are willing. Others aren’t. I love working on my motorcycles in my garage at home. But I hate doing the same thing on the road. For me time is precious. I don’t have enough of it. The last thing I want to do is waste it by the side of a road instead of exploring new places.
Do you mind riding with strangers? I don’t actually. The guys I rode with in Mongolia were a jolly bunch of people and we had quite a bit of fun among ourselves. I believe while riding with a group of people you know or don’t, like minded people always find each other and stick together.
Do you have time limitations or are your plans open ended? People like me who have a regular job and take a fixed period vacation really can’t afford to go with the flow and stretch the duration of a ride. I do keep a spare day or two for contingencies in my long rides. But for short two or four day long rides there is no leeway. All said and done, I will need to be back at some airport by a certain date because I have a plane to catch back home.
Do you enjoy uncertainty? Let’s face it, uncertainty is a major component of adventure. If you know about everything that’s going to happen on a ride, then the ride really doesn’t become an adventure. But where do you draw the line? I don’t mind getting lost in some jungle on a day long trail ride. It’s part of the adventure. But do I want to roam around in circles in a place like Mongolia and see a fraction of what I wanted to see after spending a ton of money to fly there, rent an expensive dual sport motorcycle and fly back? I don’t think so.
Regarding money, an organised tour is almost always going to be more expensive that something you do on your own. But you need to decide whether the extra cost is adding enough value for it to make sense. For my first Fat Boy rental in The Netherlands, the extra cost of a guide and his motorcycle made sense as it gave me peace of mind and truly enjoyed the ride. But the next time I rented the KTM 1050 Adventure in The Netherlands I was confident of myself and figured that the extra cost accompanied by the lack of freedom didn’t make sense. So I did it on my own.
So as you can see, it really depends on you.