Group versus Solo Travel
With the vast choice in tour operators organizing bike trips to all points of the compass, your choices have never been better. The only limitations today are the depth of your pockets and how much time you have available. However, other considerations should be taken into account before laying down big bucks on your dream trip.
In researching how we should go, Greg and I both attended Horizons Unlimited (HU) meetings to speak with other overlanders and learn from their experiences. These meetings are great venues in which to consult with those hardcore riders who have ridden to far off corners. Having always travelled solo, I decided to give an organized trip a go; Greg, who had never gone on a long ride, decided to go it alone. This set the stage for this article.
Both Greg and I undertook a 40,000-kilometer (24,855-mile) ride from Canada to Patagonia in 2011. We both left in August following the same general route from Orillia, Ontario, Greg riding a 2008 Honda Varadero while I rode my 2006 R1150GSA. Both group and solo travel have definite advantages and disadvantages. We will try to compare and contrast the two methods so you can make you own educated choice to ensure your trip meets your expectations. These comments are based on our specific experiences; no two operators are the same or offer the same itinerary or support. You still need to exercise due diligence in making a final selection of whether to go it alone or with one of the many fine companies out there. Greg and I have presented this overview a few times at HU meetings over the past year, and folks seemed to like hearing the two sides. This summary is a brief snippet of our presentation.
Group Travel Pros
No worries – they have it under control!
• Pre-arranged hotels, daily breakfasts, weekly group supper
• Daily suggested route, both on paper and GPS downloads
• The schedule must be maintained.
• Always leave before the support van and arrive before the evening meeting.
• Border crossings facilitated as a group
• Daily evening meetings
• Local worthy site visits are pre-arranged, for an extra cost.
• Border money changers might be crooks; be careful.
• “Facilitators” at the border are pre-arranged where necessary.
• Once you hit the road, stop where you want, go off-route, be adventurous, don’t be a bus tourist, but don’t be a pain for the tour leader either.
• Hotels are pre-selected for secure parking, Wi-Fi, showers and cleanliness (for the most part).
• One or more in the group will likely be compatible.
• Cultural differences emerge in riding styles, drinking preferences/quantities and language because clients will come from around the globe.
• Some will simply be completely out of their element and slow the group down.
• You will make lifelong friendships from around the world.
• In emergencies, others will come by, and the support truck always follows for confidence, if you remain on-route.
• A handyman with tools is never far off.
• Injury or death is around the next bend; a paramedic is with group. Unfortunately, our group had one fatality.
• Lifting a 600 lb. bike six times a day wears one out; help is welcome.
• Always people to go out with
• Group meals
• Always someone who speaks the language
• Rooms are shared, unless you snore or smell; then you will be on your own!
• Stay in 1–4 star hotels, sometimes less.
• Good food
• Safe water
• Lots of videos and stills are taken and shared.
• It’s hard to kick back at a roadside café if alone surrounded by gauchos who don’t speak your language; company is welcome.
• Multiple blogs are posted so family has many information sources.
• SPOT locators are always on.
• Multiple SAT phones with the staff
• Three staff, one van driver and two outriders
Solo Travel Pros
Freedom to decide; ride your own ride
• Sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry.
• You decide your own route.
• No pressures from others
• Leave when you want, stay as long as you want.
• Inviting one person to your home is easier than inviting a group, also less threatening, therefore more local interactions to learn the culture
• Easier to find parking for one bike than several
• No personality conflicts
• When you meet other riders, and if there is a personality conflict, you can simply move on and go your separate ways.
• You don’t have to wait for someone else to get ready to leave – no last minute problems or cancelations, e.g., your riding partner could have an emergency back home during your trip and leave you alone.
Group Travels Cons
Know your riding partner.
• Just because they have taken an off-road course does not mean they know how to ride off-asphalt! Nothing can replace seat time. Some riders will be in way over their ability and will put you at risk. You will encounter challenging conditions; know your abilities.
• Cliques develop.
• Personality differences will last the whole trip.
• Always waiting for someone else
• Be sure to know the tour operator, as a company that advertises a lot and is well known may not be the best for your particular needs.
• Confirm what they really mean when they advertise “adventure,” “epic,” “expedition”; flowery words may be just that.
• One person’s idea of an adventure may be another’s daily commute.
• Tours are there to make money; they will rarely say no to anyone.
• Say no to group rides for company photo purposes; crashes will inevitably happen.
• Delay at borders, transit points, services due to the number in group
• What should be an hour process to get across a border alone can be 8–10 hours for a group.
• Everything takes time—servicing a whole group of bikes can take a week, time that could be spent riding rather than hanging around a hotel.
• Don’t be fooled; the support van carries little and what it does costs the local equivalent, despite being brought over from the U.K. in this case ($40 inner tube).
• The mechanic is really a Mr. Fix-It, with no training in BMW-specific issues.
• Limited spares are carried for only the majority bikes; the 1200 series, 1150s and 800s were out of luck. No spare tires, no roof cargo rack; however, they had lots of parts for the staff bikes!
Don’t count on the service truck to be your valet!
• Carry what you need.
• Rinse clothes daily, launder weekly.
• Bring three of everything wearable, excluding boots, helmet and riding suit.
• Carry lots of tools, gas, tires, tubes, patches and air.
Costs – you will need to pay for the following items:
• Gas, repairs, parts
• Tolls, fines, entry fees
• Most evening meals and all lunches
• All beverages
• Passports, visas, carnets
• Insurance for you and your bike
• Trip cancellation/interruption
• Gratuities, tips
• Group rounds at bars
• Expect to spend twice the advertised cost of the tour for incidentals.
Solo Travel Cons
No one to help you when there is a problem
• Making repairs and finding supplies are easier when there are two people.
• Injuries – some could be serious and, if alone, life threatening.
• No help to pick up your bike
• Hard to find a good travelling partner
• Bring a good book.
• Not every day is an adventure.
• Skype is often your only friend
• Horizons Unlimited (HU) communities are few and far between.
• Can go days without talking to people
• Language can be a big barrier.
Costs – you will need to pay single supplement rates.
• Hotels charge by the room, not by the person.
• Stay in cheaper places.
• No one to share costs with
Photos and Sharing Experiences
• I have few photos of me and the bike together.
• Some great places or events would be more fun to see and do with a friend. Use HUBB (Horizons Unlimited Bulletin Board) communities to reach out to other riders. However, if your contact is local and has to work, then you may not get to spend time with them.
Having to be 100 percent self sufficient means carrying more stuff.
• If there are two of you, you can divide the things you carry, i.e., one carries tools, the other cooking supplies.
• Be self sufficient.
• Group of two, but no more than three, is ideal, so point rider can see each in the mirrors.
• Be prepared to separate.
• Organized tours are usually not needed, but can be nice if you can afford it; dangers can be greatly exaggerated.
• Take all the stories with a grain of salt; often the author makes himself out as a hero for effect.
• People are generally good and friendly; just stay out of strip clubs and inner cities where criminals gather.
• If you do decide that an organized tour is best for your needs, support those supporting the MOA!
• Since life is short, just do it!