How to Choose a Motorcycle Tour Operator
Why it Pays to Research Your Next Motorcycle Tour Operator Carefully
This advice applies to both operators who run guided group and private motorcycle tours, and rental companies who hire their own motorcycles out tourism purposes. Some companies, like Motolombia, do both.
It applies whether you’re dealing with companies in developing nations, countries where motorcycle touring is still a new industry, and in developed countries where slickly branded motorcycle rental chains dominate the moto-tourism industry.
It may seem obvious, but a motorbike is a piece of life support equipment. If it fails, bad things can happen.
Carefree motorcycle travel is unsafe motorcycle travel
As a “professional pillion rider” and trip planner for my rider boyfriend for many years, we’ve rented all kinds of motorbikes on our travels. Back when we were young and naïve, we’d stumble across some ragtag mechanic working out of a roadside shack and convince him to rent us a bike. We didn’t see the bike until it was delivered to the front door of our hostel, the day after we agreed to a “blind” rental.
At first glance, the bike had noticeably square tyres, a broken speedo and the tattered helmets he’d promised would be “our sizes” were so ill-fitting they were essentially useless.
The random mechanic guy barely charged us, the entire exchange was almost certainly unlawful and we were presented with exactly what we’d expected from an illegal transaction in a nation known for its relaxed stance on safety regulations.
Long story short, us and the bike survived, but had we chosen to tackle a more remote and challenging route, things could have been quite different.
Arguably, this may have been the only way to secure a rental motorbike in a developing country 15 years ago.
But times have changed. Motorcycle touring is becoming a more popular way to see the world, riding alongside the locals instead of peering down on them from an oversized tour bus.
Many popular tourist destinations now offer motorcycle tours and rentals, and you may now have to find yourself choosing between several competitors offering various price points and inclusions.
Why do prices vary greatly between different operators?
Even though motorcycle travel is gaining in popularity, it’s still very much a niche business. Operators are competing over a very limited pool of customers, sometimes in countries that still trail behind in overall tourist numbers.
Never chose a motorcycle tour or rental company solely on price. As new companies crop up, low prices str one way to lure customers away from more established businesses. But, to make these prices viable, some companies may resort to using older, cheaper bike models, less regular servicing, less experienced bike technicians and tour guides and larger numbers of guests per tour.
Tour prices can also be influenced by things like the quality of accommodation and included side activities on offer.
Many highly reputable companies offer lower priced trips that cut down on the creature comforts, without compromising on bike quality and safety.
Narrowing Down the Choices: Before you Leave Home
Start by researching online all the companies based at your intended starting point, looking out for reviews and testimonials, particularly from dedicated moto touring communities like ADVRIder.
A good website will have to-date-specs, images and approximate ages of the bikes in their rental fleet. Ideally you wouldn’t want anything much older than two years, simply because rentals take far more punishment than regular weekend playthings. Look for bikes with lower mileage, but remember these bikes are made to go long distances daily, and their odometers will reflect that.
What to look for in a guided tour
If you’re looking to book a guided tour, the website should have detailed information on itineraries, local road and weather conditions (including how much of the tour will be on sealed vs unsealed roads), riding experienced necessary and a full list of inclusions.
Some higher-end tours (such as many of Motolombia’s “luxury” group tours) might promise 3 star or higher accommodation, coverage of all fuel and road tolls and entry fees for group activities and side excursions.
The tour price should at least cover any mandatory 3rd party insurance for the countries you’ll be visiting
The next step: talk to them in person
If a particular company’s website impresses you, it’s time to dig deeper. E-mail them. Call them. Sus out whether they’re knowledgeable, professional and take the time to talk you through any concerns.
A checklist of things to ask might include:
- Who does the servicing? It’s vitally important that rental bikes are maintained to the highest possible standards. A place like Motolombia does their servicing in-house, with its own team of mechanics who specialise in the European adventure bikes in their fleet. Other companies may not have their own fully-equipped garage, in which case your best bet is to go with a shop who’s bikes are maintained at an authorised dealer.
- What does the insurance cover? Third party damage insurance is mandatory in many countries. Fire and theft cover are usually optional. For your own peace of mind, we recommend shelling out at least for theft insurance.
- What happens if the bike breaks down? Provided your bike is relatively young and properly serviced, breakdowns are rare. However, when they do happen, they can quickly turn fun into frustration. With minor problems, your guide should know how to do basic repairs or if necessary, send for a trusted local to repair the issue quickly.
If you are covering remote and challenging terrain, you should strongly consider joining a tour that includes a support vehicle with tools, spare parts and (if suited to the conditions) a trailer capable of towing a broken-down bike to the nearest town.
- How much will an accident cost? The operator should be upfront with you about these costs, which will vary depending on the insurance policy taken out. We strongly recommended a policy with maximum coverage, which will significantly lower your excess in the case of an accident.
- I’m joining a guided tour. What are the guides like? Ask how familiar your guide is with the region you’ll be exploring, as they are likely to lead you on side trips down cool backroads only the locals know about and take you to little-known landmarks and attractions. You might be crossing through regions where several languages are spoken. How well will your guide be able to communicate with the locals? One of the best parts of having a native tour guide is increased opportunities to interact with local people, whether they’re admiring your ride or convincing you to try their favourite regional delicacy.
- I’m riding independently. Are one-way rentals available? This often depends on the distance travelled. Moto rental businesses aren’t like Budget and Avis chains with offices all over the map. It’s generally expected that the rider will return the bike to the starting point, or pay the cost of shipping the bike back home.
- Do you have riding gear available for rent? Helmets and jackets are bulky things to carry around in your luggage, so some riders prefer to rent their gear once they arrive. A well-equipped, well-established shop should have gear in various sizes for rent, but there’s always a chance your size is unavailable, or the gear just doesn’t “feel right”. From a safety and comfort perspective, it’s better to bring your own gear, if you can.
Before you embark on your adventure
Get you bike set up with the company’s mechanic. Before you get ahead of yourself and go riding off into the sunset, don’t forget every great adventure begins with paperwork!
Take plenty of time to inspect the bike together with the mechanic or shop owner and cross off the following checklist:
- Test all safety devices such as the horn, indicators and lights
- Note the fuel level
- Check the front and rear brake for lever travel
- Inspect the chain tension
- Verify that the tyres are in good condition and ask when the tyre pressures were last checked
The rental company should ask you to mark down and/or photograph all pre-existing damages.
Familiarise yourself with the bike’s mechanisms and electronics while still on the shop floor and ask all the questions you like. Only sign the paperwork once you’re satisfied everything is in working order.
Handing the bike back
Once your adventure is over and it’s time to hand the motorcycle back, you’ll go through the same damage inspection procedure you dd at the stat. If they bike has taken some knocks, be honest about it. The staff will soon see through any cover-ups. Assuming you’ve bought insurance that covers at-fault accidents, you’ll then only be up for the excess.
A final note on costs
A rental company that doesn’t adhere to all these fairly run-of-the-mill procedures may well be a sub-par operation.
You may have gotten a laugh out of that story about renting a banged-up scooter from a random guy in Thailand one time, but when it comes to serious, long-distance motorcycle touring, safety is no laughing matter. So, before you decide on a rental company, remember, in a way, you’re entrusting them with your life.
You don’t necessarily have to go with the most expensive company with the fanciest bikes and the most luxurious extras, but at least go with one you can be sure is serious about the safety and quality of its fleet.
(extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)