Motorcycle Touring | Professional Tour vs. Going it Alone?

Why take a tour when you can plan and ride it alone or with your buddy? And even if Covid has decimated many of the tour operators out there, how do you make the best choice among the many offers? At Native Moto Adventures, we’ve done both ourselves and here are some thoughts on that lingering question, mixed with some answers from our friends at Motourismo from an ADV Rider article.

Ride Native Moto Adventures touring Virginia City Nevada Lake TahoeWith the right leadership, motorcycle tours can be a great occasion for camaraderie and fun. Pictured above, a Native Moto Adventures tour in Northern California & Nevada.

SCENARIO 1 : I don’t need a baby sitting tour. I can plan and ride it myself, thank you very much!

Motorcycle touring how to pick a tour operator California USA
Lake Tahoe forest Emerald Bay motorcycle riding tour Ride Native Moto AdventuresDoing a solo tour can be a great way to ride at your own pace. Pictured above, Jen from Native Moto Adventures riding above Lake Tahoe.

SCENARIO 2: I’m no fan of pre-planned tours, but I’m willing to give it a shot with the right local operator.

Native Moto Adventures motorcycle touring or doing it alone

Maybe I’m uncomfortable riding solo, and I’d rather have the camaraderie that can be found on an organized moto tour. Or, perhaps I just don’t want the hassle of trip planning, but I want to ride in California like the locals do.

Great. But how do I choose which tour operator to select? There are many things to think about when it comes to choosing a tour and tour operator. With all the available choices, it can get confusing trying to pick the operator that’s right for me.

Here are a few things to think about when choosing your moto tour operator.

How long have they been around? The first thing you want to check is how long the operator has been conducting tours. Running a moto touring company is capital and labor-intensive. Tour operators come and go. Some are quite large, while others are quite small. Be wary of operators that are just starting out or don’t own or at least lease the bikes from a reputable company.

Also, what kind of tour company are they? Meaning, what is their style? All things held equal, what differentiates them from others out there? Is it your run-of-the-mill “older rich white guy” tour or is there some diversity of age, gender, skin color, etc? Are there women present as riders or leaders? This might sound superficial to some, but just like in any environment, a different array of perspectives makes for a vastly more fun and enriching experience.

Does the operator have significant experience in the area and type of riding you want to do? Do they concentrate on a particular type of tour and are now just branching out into the area you want to ride in? An operator with lots of experience in Europe is not necessarily the best to lead a tour in California for example.

Are the tour leaders local or do they fly in from another country? Having someone local is crucial not only to stay up to date with the roads, but more importantly because of the cultural connection and authenticity of the whole experience.

It’s essential that the operator has skilled staff. Beyond beyond being good riders, how long have they been leading tours? That requires a different skill set as well as a deep knowledge of the area and country they’re focusing on.

Do they have good mechanical skills, and do they have certified basic medical training such as CPR, and other skills that will support keeping the tour going. You don’t want to be on a tour where the ride leader gets lost, or where there’s no-one that can help you with a mechanical problem or patch you up until professional medical assistance arrives.

The larger the group, the more tour personnel is necessary. Make sure the tour has at least one group leader and a sweep for no more than ten people. You always want someone from the tour to make sure everyone arrives safely. Also, a sweep vehicle with a spare motorcycle is a good thing to have on longer tours.

April and her boyfriend opted for a personalized day tour to celebrate his birthday.

Group or Private Tour?

Most tour operators allow for some customization, especially with small groups? Many also offer private or custom-built tours based on your specific needs. The advantage of each is clear, with the private being a little more expensive, but totally worth it if you’re seeking a more personalized experience.

What kind of bikes are available

The fun part. You’ll want to know the make and model bike you’ll be riding before you go on the tour. Also, you should ask about the bike’s general condition, how old it is, and the average number of miles/kilometers on the odometer. Is it their own fleet or do they rent it from a third party? If you want/need a lower/higher seat or suspension, ask if they are available and if there is an extra cost for them.

Size of the operator — You do not have to go with a big tour operator to enjoy your tour. But there are some things that larger tour operators can do better than small operators and vice versa. So consider the size of the tour operator and the resources they may have to make your tour a success.

Size of riding group(s) — Ask how many people will be on your tour. The size of the group you want to ride with is a personal preference. Lots of people can result in more camaraderie and friendships but can also result in complicated interpersonal and group dynamics. Smaller groups can provide more personalized attention.

Type of riding — Ask the operator how they lead the tour and what the maximum tour size is. Must you ride with the group at all times? Can you ride with just the people you want to ride with? Can you ride on your own? You should consider all of these types of riding conditions before choosing your tour.

A 5 day tour up and down the iconic California Highway 1 provides hours of uninterrupted beautiful scenery.

You should know what kind of support you can rely upon during the tour. Some tours just offer the bike, motorcycle luggage, and a leader for the route. But there are many levels of support available, so you’ll want to know what you can expect. Ask about the following if they are important to you:

Does the tour operator bring a backup bike in case of a breakdown or crash? If they don’t what happens if your bike breaks down or you crash?

Will a support vehicle be available during the tour? Does it carry your luggage, or do you only have space on your bike?

How will the tour operator get help for you in case of injury or illness? Do they carry emergency communications equipment like a satellite phone that will work in remote areas? This is important even in countries where there is good cell coverage.

Does the operator provide panniers, top boxes, soft luggage, etc. as part of the bike rental, or are they available at an additional cost?

It’s important to know what is and is not included in the tour price. Add-ons can quickly and substantially increase your tour cost. Ask whether the following are included in the tour cost and, if not, include an estimated expense in your overall tour cost.

Meals — Are all meals included? If not, which are not? You’ll need to plan for the added expense.

Fuel — Depending on where you are riding, fuel can be inexpensive or expensive. Ask whether the fuel is included. If it’s not, you’ll need cash or an acceptable credit card.

Currency and ATMs– Ask what currency(ies) are acceptable during the tour. Credit cards may or may not be accepted where you are going. As a result, you may have to have local currency or currencies like USD or Euro to pay for extras. You’ll need to plan for payment AND have the means to pay for it when you need it.

Insurance — Ask about what insurance the tour provides, if any. Most tour operators offer coverage for the bike (generally expensive). Depending on where you plan to ride, your own motorcycle insurance may cover the rented bike. But you must check with your insurance company to make sure. Most do not provide motorcycle coverage outside of the country of issue unless it is specialized insurance. You should also consider personal health insurance as well as liability insurance in case you injure someone else. Finally, consider evacuation/repatriation insurance if you are traveling far from home. One helicopter ride can cost ten’s of thousands of dollars.

Accommodations — Make sure you know what kind of accommodations will be provided. Tours range from posh accommodations to wild camping. Do you prefer hotel chains or like to try boutique and B&B’s? You need to know what the accommodations are so you can bring appropriate gear.

Alcohol — Alcohol is generally not included. If you want to bring some, ask whether it is permissible under tour rules and local regulations.

The famous Bixby brigde on California’s Highway 1 that links San Francisco with Los Angeles.

At the very least, get a decent idea of the route you will be taking with the tour. It’s good background information and you’ll be able to give family members a general idea of where you’ll be riding and when you will be there. Once you have an idea of where you are going, you should pay attention to the following route concerns.

Roads — Understand the types of roads/tracks you will be riding. What are the surfaces going to be like, as well as the difficulty of the planned terrain? Make sure that you have the capabilities to ride on any surface the tour may cover.

Length of the ride day — Sure, you want to ride a lot. Twelve-hour days in the saddle on less than perfect terrain can be adventurous, but you’d better be in shape and ready to get up early the following day. Remember, you’re traveling with a group. Ask how many miles and hours of riding per day.

Time to enjoy everything around you. — In the vein of long days, if you don’t have enough time to enjoy the sights and people around you, you have to decide whether you are OK with only having the ride experience at the expense of having the time to enjoy the views and people in the place you are traveling through. Make sure you define your objectives and share them with the tour operator beforehand.

Cancellation terms — Make sure you understand the terms regarding cancelation, not only if you cancel, but if the operator has to cancel. If the operator has to cancel, make sure you can get a refund, not just a credit. Also, make sure to plan your flights accordingly if you plan to fly to or from your tour’s departure/arrival point(s).

Homework — Always do some homework before signing up for a tour. Give them a call or schedule a video call. If you are traveling internationally, have an idea of what the country is like. Gain an understanding of local customs and habits. Use the internet to find information from sites you trust. If you are traveling domestically, your homework is much easier, but you should still do it.

Online Reviews — Read reviews about past tours from people that have taken the tour. You can check the operator’s website, but also consider checking other sites and forums to get a feel for other people’s experiences.

All the above may seem like there’s a lot of homework to do before you leave. But knowing what to expect and how much it will cost can make your tour more enjoyable, affordable, and safe. Have fun!

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us with any questions you may have about motorcycle touring in general, or specifically about motorcycle tours in California and the Western USA.