During my recent Bike Touring 101 presentation, there was a question asking what Warm Showers is. And then there was another question coming from my own personal Facebook account from an old co-worker of mine asking about Couchsurfing and it’s legitimacy. Since we will be using some of these services on our Trans-Euro trip, I thought a quick reference blog post about this topic will help provide a good overview of all the options that are out there.
One thing to note, I am not going to mention the hotel and motel options as I know that is something most travelers should be familiar with even if you haven’t bike toured at all. These options are usually more expensive than the options I am listing here, but they are readily available in most towns if you have the budget for it. All the accommodations I touch upon will most likely be cheaper than hotels or up to par with some motel prices if they are available.
If you have been following my site, you’ll notice that I take advantage of and also enjoy camping when I am on a bike tour. I prefer camping at established campsites where there are designated spots for you to set up your tent. You normally pay about $6-$20 per night. Some sites may be very primitive, where they just provide you a spot for camping, while other campsites might give you a bench, fire pits, WiFi, bathrooms, and showers. The only setback to camping is that some campsites may not be readily available in more populated areas. You’ll need to venture into the various county, state, or national parks to find accommodations.
This doesn’t mean you can only camp at campsites. Some smaller towns may allow you to camp near a church or other locations (based on what I’ve read) once you get permission from the owners or local law enforcement. If you’re in a serious bind in terms of money, you can always “wild camp” or “stealth camp.” Just make sure you are well-hidden, leave no trace (which you shouldn’t do anyway), and leave early. I personally like having my tent and camping gear on trips so that having shelter is never an issue.
Look for camping options by a quick Google search for “camping” in the area you plan to go to or hard copy of maps showing camping options. In the US, call local law enforcement agency prior to your arrival so that they can help you find a place to camp. If you don’t want to wild or stealth camp, plan ahead. Other places, like along the Pacific Coast, you don’t need to worry too much about camping as most state parks down the coast offer hiker/biker campsites that guarantee to have a spot for you. If not, asking people who are already there to allow you to camp with their group is also a possibility.
Camping is Ideal For:
- Nature lovers.
- Bike tourist who is prepared with the proper equipment.
- Bike tourist who don’t mind crawling in and out of tight quarters.
Recreation Vehicle (RV) Parks
One step up from camping at a park is camping at RV parks. In the US, there are about 13,000 privately owned RV parks and 1,600 state parks with RV accommodations. RV parks are great if you want to camp and have bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, WiFi, and outlets to charge your electronics. There are also parks that operate like a timeshare or members-only organization, where you need to pay annual membership fees on top of the cost of stays. I try to avoid those and look for the ones that are open to the public pending space availability. RV parks are a good compromise because you’re camping in your tent, but have amenities close by. The cost usually ranges from $10 to $40 per night of stay.
As they are for RVs, the place can be a bit overwhelming with noise from RVs running, generators, and kids playing. Be sure to have ear plugs handy on those occasions when you’re in a full RV campground. Most RV sites have a separate area for guests that don’t require hook ups (car campers). Some even offer hiker/biker areas.
While I was traveling down the coast last summer, we stayed at 4 RV parks, 3 of which are from the Kampgrounds of America (KOA) chain. They are the largest privately owned RV park company in the US and Canada with 500 locations. They are our favorite chain to visit as their campsites are usually very clean and are located in convenient locations, most have a great general store to restock on food and snacks, some have pools and jacuzzis to enjoy, and the camp hosts there are usually very friendly and accommodating. The KOA at Bay Center / Willapa Bay was one of our favorites as we took a day off there. The hosts gave us insights about the local oyster industry and the campgrounds were right next to the warm bay. I highly recommend anyone to go there and enjoy your stay. Well worth the price.
RV Park is Ideal For:
- Bike tourists who enjoys camping, but needs some more amenities.
- An alternative to a dirty motel.
- Needing a place to take a day off for laundry.
- Bike tourists who are not sensitive to noise.
RV Parks Resources
I briefly covered this in a past blog entry on How to Bicycle Tour Affordably where I mentioned 2 services I use most – Warm Showers and Couchsurfing. There are other sites, like Global Freeloaders, and Hospitality Club, both of which are much more popular outside of the US. The idea of hospitality exchange is to open up your home to host travelers and when you need to find accommodations elsewhere, you will be hosted free of charge. When you’re like me, where I can’t host at the moment, I can only take advantage of being hosted by others. These sites rely on reviews and other information to prove that you’re a human being. Most of these services goes through a validation service to help protect folks on both ends. Most people would want you to include a photo for your profile and have your entire profile filled out. Having rating(s) from other people will also improve your chances of being hosted.
I prefer Warm Showers because it was specifically created to host bicycle tourists by other bicycle tourists, so there is a common theme between both parties. There are 33,000 hosts on WarmShowers. I like Couchsurfing because of the sheer amount of members at 9 million. Chances are you will find someone on couchsurfing wherever you are. I also like them both because they have mobile applications that you can use on-the-go. Couchsurfing also takes it to another level to offer MeetUp-like events to get people to join and meet others who are in the community.
Other than the safety aspect, you have to be on your best behavior, meaning respecting others and their homes while you are being hosted. It’s best that you offer to cook or buy them food. Be sure to give them enough notice in advance to decide on hosting you. The best way to reward hosts is to talk to them about your journey. Most people who host are fascinated with your travels and would love to hear about it. It is almost expected. That can be a negative if you are hoping to get some quiet time.
All my experiences with Warm Showers and Couchsurfing has been very positive. People share their homes and their showers. When they didn’t have enough beds, they allowed us to camp in their back yards. Everybody has been so friendly and kind.
Hospitality Exchange is Ideal For:
- Bike tourists who have energy at the end of the day to chat with the hosts.
- Getting into the local culture and experience.
- Multiple bike tourists for safety reasons.
- Lay-over day where you can safely leave your stuff and bike and explore the local area.
Hospitality Exchange Resources
Another option for accommodations for bike tourists are hostels. These are shared living quarters for travelers who are traveling into town for a brief stay. Hostels are great for bike tourists as most would have a place for you to store your bike during your stay. There are usually laundry facilities, WiFi, and even complimentary breakfast at some places. Most hostels provide a locker for you to store your things, but you’ll need to bring your own locks. They may also provide clean sheets, pillowcases, blanket, and towels. Some offer dedicated rooms for 2 guests or more, while some just offer dormitories for the same gender.
Hostels are great to meet other travelers who are also in town visiting. Many people like the intrinsic social dynamics where people are almost forced to be social. It’s kind of nice if you’re traveling alone to step into a hostel and find people to go to dinner with or to go sightseeing with. The benefit of having a social environment is also prone to social issues. People coming in and out of the hostels at various times can really disturb your sleep. Bring a pair of earplugs and something to cover your eyes (like a Buff). I remember one time being completely overwhelmed when this guy who had been hiking on the road for a few weeks, without a shower, came into our dormitory. He quickly stripped down to his skivvies and gathered all his clothes for the laundry. He was filthy and smelly. His body odor was so bad that it lingered in the room for hours after he left it.
Don’t let the social issues and the movie “Hostel” deter you from using hostels. They are usually located in very popular parts of town, where hotels and motels can easily cost 3 or 4 times as much. One of the larger organizations, Hostelling International (HI) is a not-for-profit organization that consists of 90 Youth Hostels associations representing 4000 youth hostels in 80 countries. You will want to join HI to take advantage of their discounted rate of at least 10% savings. We used them twice on our Pacific Coast tour in Vancouver and Victoria. I also used HI last November when I went down to San Diego. Prices vary based on location, but you can bet that they are cheaper than your average hotels.
Hostels are Ideal For:
- Bike tourists who are not sensitive to distractions.
- Finding companions to socialize with.
- Lay-over day where you can lock your stuff in lockers and explore.
- Staying in the heart of all the action.
The rise of short-term rentals has been well-documented in the recent years with AirBnB taking the brunt of attacks much like how Uber is taking similar attacks from the car sharing industry. What does that mean to you? Nothing at all (for now). I still plan on using AirBnB whenever possible. These are people’s home or room that they rent out for other people to stay in. The prices are usually double that of hostels, but still cheaper than hotels. You usually get access to your own private room, bathroom and kitchen. This will further reduce your costs by giving you the option to cook without wasting fuel from your camping stove. You’ll have other amenities like WiFi, laundry, or charging your own electronic devices.
Most of these accommodations are found in bigger locations. They may not be at the center of popular destinations like hostels, but they’re close enough for you to spend some time walking over or taking public transportation. Some rentals may require a multi-day stay, so be sure to check out the terms before your reservation.
Short-term Rentals are Ideal For:
- Multiple bike tourists to reduce cost.
- Bike tourist who needs some private space.
- Bike tourist who wants a kitchen to prepare meals.
Short-term Rentals Resource
The next two accommodation options, I have never had any experience with, but I came across these while researching through a popular travel blogger, Nomadic Matt in his article, “How to find Cheap Accommodation”. There are actual farmers who will offer you a place to stay at their farms without the labor unless you want to give them a hand. According to Matt, it would cost about $40 USD for some places and are good options if you want to learn about farming. If you’re really strapped for cash and have time on your hand, you can jump into WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and pitch in to volunteer at organic farms to get food and a place to stay in exchange for your volunteer labor.
Farm Stays is Ideal For:
- Bike tourists who want to learn about farming.
- Rural traveling in the US, UK, and Australia.
- Bike tourists who want to eat healthy.
Farm Stays Resources
This accommodation was something I had heard through reading James Chassee’s blog when he biked across Europe. He had mentioned that you can stay at monasteries for free while traveling across Eastern Europe.
Nomadic Matt also covers this possible accommodation in his blog post, “How to find Cheap Accommodation”. He says that private rooms start at $50 USD, but dorms are usually free or on a donation basis. They provide just a bed and desk with meals provided by monks and nuns. There are strict quiet hours so it’s great if you are just looking for a place to rest for the night. Amenities will be scarce as they may not have WiFi or television. You don’t have to be religious to be able to stay in one. They’ll most likely not accept credit card payments.
Monastery Stays are Ideal For:
- Bike tourists looking for a whole new experience.
- When no other accommodations are available and you don’t want to wild camp.
- Bike tourists who just need a simple place for peace and quiet.
Monastery Stays Resources
(All links repurposed from Nomadic Matt’s blog)
Getting accommodations while you’re traveling on a bike can seem daunting sometimes. I hope that this guide will help provide you with different options that are out there both in the US and outside as you’re planning your next adventure. If you find this article useful, please share this with as many people as you like.