The Delta variant of coronavirus slows the return of travel, but with highly effective vaccines now widely available, holidays are still coming back, with much more growth on the horizon. When people were starving after a change of scenery, started planning their first trips in a year or two, one of the hottest parts of the travel industry will be my favorite, active trip.
“We knew there would be a boom in active travel when barriers eased due to pent-up demand and the incredible growth in cycling and hiking around the world – but we did not know how big it would be!” said Tom Hale, founder and president of global active travel specialty tour operator Backroads. “We are experiencing unprecedented demand right now. This year has become one of our biggest years in the domestic market ever, and all signs point to a record-breaking summer season in Europe in 2022. There is such a great demand for travel next year that our business is growing more than 100 percent when comparing 2022 with 2019, the last full travel year before the global pandemic. Much of that growth is concentrated in Europe next summer and fall. ”
Christine Wilson, marketing manager at active luxury operator Butterfield & Robinson (B&R), agrees. “Overall, booking will increase by 80% in 2022. Active travel remains our most popular category, with bike rides taking the lead.”
During the lockout, many outdoor activities boomed in popularity, including biking, hiking, golf, running and just about anything that got us out of the house and moved us in the fresh air. Because many people fell in love with new activities they tried for the first time, some of these gains will last longer than the COVID-19 crisis, and more people will build tours around them. It’s a great idea, but since much of next year has already been booked, it’s time to start planning. Let’s start with cycling. (Part 2 is hiking and walking, here).
The easiest way to plan a great bike ride is to take an experienced specialty company for a variety of reasons. To begin with, they already know the best routes and the best roads or trails in the best bike destinations, taking guesswork out of the equation and greatly minimizing the chance of logistical accidents. They typically have fleets of high-quality, well-maintained bikes, so you don’t have to bring your (a big pain!) Or roll the dice at local bike shops. All the best companies now offer e-bikes, a physically less demanding option that lets inexperienced cyclists follow and enjoy these rides, and in many cases, grandparents allow the opportunity to participate in multi-generational rides. Well-trained and experienced guides make the tours much better, not just while driving, but also by giving you the opportunity to explore and learn about the local culture, one of the biggest reasons to travel in the first place.
But these travel companies are serving an even more vital role right now, because as travel quickly returns, it is very difficult to find accommodation in popular destinations and they already have blocked rooms. They also have reservations at hand-picked restaurants for most meals along the way, throwing in a lot of extras that would be difficult or even impossible to make on their own, such as VIP tours or private visits to wineries, galleries, studios or castles that never open to the public at all.
The really great thing about active tour operators is that these tours usually involve about three different accommodations along the way, and they move all your luggage and take care of all the ground transfers – you just drive. If you get tired or it’s raining and you want to stop riding, hop in the van and head back to the spa. If dinner is outside the place they are driving, you enjoy the wine, and often the airport shuttle or train station is also included. Just enjoy!
There are three main options for such tours. Private is the top level where it’s just your party with fully guided support. This is the most expensive way to go, but in addition to exclusivity and privacy, it offers the benefit of letting you choose your own dates over choosing from scheduled departures. The trips are also more customized, although they are pre-planned routes. Many tour operators let you make a basic trip, e.g. 7 days in Tuscany, as a scheduled group departure or private, but when you go private, you can make changes. If you are not interested in wine but love art, they can swap the winery visit for a gallery tour.
Three of the top tier operators I would recommend, Butterfield & Robinson, Backroads and Trek Travel, do lots of privates. “It’s no real surprise that most of our business has moved from planned small group trips to private bespoke trips, as people will travel with close friends and family and make up for lost time,” said B&R’s Wilson. Luxury travel specialist Gray & Co., another I would highly recommend and who was named the world’s leading tour operator (of any kind) by Travel + Leisure magazine, does nothing but tailor-made private tours.
Scheduled group departures are those listed in the blank catalogs, where there is a preset route and you sign up and travel with a small group of other cyclists. This provides the most value for money. In almost all cases, there are daily activity opportunities, e.g. Two or three rides in different lengths to suit multiple abilities, paired with various tourism or sightseeing activities and most meals included. Some operators offer the same trip with two different accommodation price points, such as mid-range and luxury options. In addition to varied daily routes, each ride is rated for general difficulty, and a bike ride to a mountainous region will usually be more difficult than a flat one. Each company explains its efforts on its website and in its catalog.
The Canadian-based Butterfield & Robinson is credited with inventing the entire category of guided bike rides back in 1966, and more than half a century later is known as the most luxurious with white glove service and top-shelf accommodation. As a result, they are the most expensive. Backroads is America’s oldest active travel specialist, over 40 years old, and offers the largest selection of tours in the industry. Backroads has an eerie ability to pick unique food along the way, and both companies have excellent and highly trained guides (I have traveled with both more than once). Trek Travel is a little more focused on riding and offers more specialized offers on high effort, just like its training-focused “riding camps”, in addition to the normal mix of top destinations, and prides itself on delivering very high quality, high quality bikes. While Backroads and Butterfield offer some gravel road rides, Trek Travel is the off-road choice for true technical mountain bike rides beyond its road bike routes.
Between these two models is the self-directed offer that takes an existing tour, makes it private and loses the guides. But the bikes and luggage transfers and trips and meals are all still included, just as it is called “roadside assistance” by accident. This essentially allows you to take a private style ride close to the price of a group, while still not having to do any serious research, planning or heavy lifting, and any fairly experienced cyclist can handle it. Butterfield was pioneering the self-driving option, and Trek Travel offers it, too. “Other trends we have seen an increase in are single trips (ie villa stays, yacht charters) to minimize the move between hotels as well as increase sales of our self-managed product. Both trends seem to be in line with the desire for social distance and personal space, ”Wilson said.
Traditionally, the world’s most attractive cycling destinations have included Tuscany, number one of many wish lists, Burgundy, Provence, Vermont and Central California. But because you can take advantage of the guides who speak the language and understand local culture, I think this type of tour offers the most in more exotic places that are harder to navigate on your own, such as Japan, Vietnam, South America, and Eastern Europe, who all have fabulous cycling.
Backroads’ Tail says: “Domestic hot destinations are California’s wine country, Oregon, Maine, Vermont and the US National Parks. Internationally popular regions are Croatia, Iceland, France, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland.”
Important gear recommendation: If you ride a bike with any kind of regularity, you are probably already using clipless pedals, which greatly increases the efficiency of riding and gives you more control when riding in turns. But I have found through experience that traditional road shoes and cleats are not good for this kind of ride because you get off the bike and walk around a lot more than you do when you take a ride home when you often would not. do not get off the bike at all. It can be for lunch, strolling cobbled streets in search of gelato or visiting a museum along the way, and for some of these, road shoes are not comfortable.
Instead, after a few bike rides, I invested in a pair of what leading manufacturer Shimano calls a “multi-use Touring Shoe”, the MT3 Women. The recessed cleat and hiking shoe style sole are very comfortable to walk while still giving you the benefits of cutting in. I paired them with a compatible PD-T8000 pedal. But these are just examples, there are plenty of similar casual hiking shoes and pedals on the market, and since riders who use clipless still bring their own pedals on these rides, it’s worth seriously considering a “vacation” pair.
If you do not want to blow up another set of pedals and shoes, an alternative is to take a pair of compact sandals with you on the trip to change into when you are out of the bike.