While I own a full set of camping equipment, I have learned over the years that I don't like sleeping on the ground or in a tent. Since I have to find a place to sleep every night, this "no camping" restriction dictates that I find a place indoors at the end of each day.

In the bike touring community, this is known as "credit card" touring. Often, it is portrayed as an "easier" way to travel via bicycle. While it saves on carried weight (about 10 pounds of camping gear and 5 pounds in racks and panniers, in my case), procuring a room every night creates its own challenges.

Weight, Weight, Don't Tell Me

Before I get into the difficulties of "credit card" touring, let me talk about the benefits. For me, I have been able to greatly reduce the weight of gear I carry on my bike. In addition to camping gear, I also have decided to leave my cooking equipment at home. Eliminating these two things has allowed me to reduce the gear I carry in half.

Here is what my fully loaded bike looked like.

Here is my "credit card" touring set-up.

By not carrying camping and cooking gear, I also am able to eliminate the need for a rear rack and two panniers. I'd estimate a total weight reduction of 20 pounds. Thus, the difficulty of finding a room each night is offset by much easier bike riding!

Finding Room

Requiring a room every night presents three problems. First, I have to create a route that ends each day at a place to stay. Second, it makes my tours more expensive because I often have to rent a room for the night. Third, it greatly reduces my "on-road" flexibility as I can't simply stop for the night any place I can pitch a tent.

It might be a bit easier if all I did was rent rooms every night. But, I prefer to meet people willing to host me for the night as often as I can. I use both couchsurfing and warmshowers, as well as other hospitality sites, to try and find potential hosts. When that isn't possible, I use booking.com to procure a room for the night as cheaply as possible.

The need to find a place to stay makes planning my rides much harder. I've always been obsessive about planning my rides. But, having to find overnight accommodation every night makes day-by-day planning critical. I once had to sleep on the hard rock floor of a ski resort because I wasn't carrying camping gear and the resort night manager didn't answer the phone (full story here). This isn't an experience I want to repeat.

Since I don't carry cooking gear anymore either (I do carry an immersion water heater), finding places to buy food is another challenge. I pack dehydrated food, hearty fruits like oranges and apples, and other ready-to-eat things. My preference is to buy fresh food every day and either stop at restaurants along the way or buy sandwiches. While not a showstopper, riding through places without cafes, stores, or sandwich shops requires even more planning. It also means I have to carry a bit more weight in extra food, though not enough to make much of a difference.

Plan Your Ride, Ride Your Plan

To some, "credit card" touring is the simplest way to travel. Ride somewhere, flash a credit card, have meal, find a room, rinse and repeat. But, I have found just the opposite: "credit card" touring requires much more upfront effort to be successful.

I've always been a planner and my bike tours are no exception. In fact, I enjoy researching routes, places to see and where I might stop as much as actually doing the ride itself.

It is common for me to create a detailed, day-by-day itinerary for my rides, even those lasting a month. While I don't always follow these schedules precisely, they do allow me to look for hosts and motels well in advance, which helps a lot.

While many bike tourists would find planning this level of detail stifling, I don't. It gives me confidence that I actually can ride each day's segment and find what I need at the end. If, for some reason, I need to alter my schedule, I can rearrange my rest days to gain some flexibility. I've also learned to add an extra day or two at the end of my ride's to a) allow for additional itinerary changes and b) provide me some time to adapt to a non-biking mindset.

There are times when I have to completely redesign my route so that I can find a room at the end of the day. While I haven't had to turn down a route because I couldn't find a place to stay somewhere, I have had to completely redo known routes. Occasionally, I have to be willing to ride further than my daily desired distance of 50 miles to reach accommodations.

I'll Take A Pass

I recently visited good friends in Bellingham, Washington. At the end of my stay, I planned to ride east toward Missoula, MT. The obvious route is the Adventure Cycling Association's (ACA) Northern Tier Route, which passes about 20 miles south of Bellingham and has connections into Missoula.

One problem with that route is the 70 mile stretch where it crosses the Cascades at Rainy and Washington passes. There are few services and no places to stay along the entire ride. Planning to ride 70 miles over 2 passes on a loaded touring bike is outside my comfort zone. I searched for other routes through the mountains. I discovered this very helpful article describing the various ways to cross the Cascades. I realized that none of them fit my needs.

A bit more searching, led me to this thread at crazyguyonabike.com that mentioned Hwy 3 as a way to ride across British Columbia, the section of Canada just north of Bellingham. After some map work, I found that not only could I get over the mountains on this route, but that Manning Park, a BC Provincial Park, has a lodge at just the right distance in the middle. As long as I could get a reservation there, I could ride without camping gear.

While I was still hoping to use the Northern Tier route, the ACA's route stays south of the Canadian Border. By riding up into Canada, I would have to map my own way for a couple hundred miles before I could meet up with the Northern Tier in Eastern Washington.

There aren't many roads that traverse the Northern Cascades, so I was quickly able to click together a potential route. I knew that I would have to spend the night at Manning Park. Using a combination of Warmshowers, Couchsurfing and Booking.com, I was able to find places to stay from Bellingham, WA to Manning Park the right distances apart. So, I could get through the Cascades without camping gear after all!

Get Down Tonight

The Northern Tier route doesn't go to Missoula. I wanted to end there because it's airport has easy connections to San Francisco, where I live. After little more than 150 miles, I have to leave the Northern Tier route and head south, again making my own route.

There aren't many roads in this part of Western Montana. The low traffic route went through a sparsely populated area with few overnight options. I did find two Warmshowers hosts 100 miles apart but with nothing between them.

I even signed up for AirBnB (couchsurfing with rental fees, in my view) to see if I could find anything on there. Amazingly, I discovered someone with a one-bedroom cottage between the two hosts! While I'd have to carry a couple days riding food, I did manage to find a place to stay for every night along the road. I created a detailed itinerary of this route, for those interested.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

One key to making all this advanced planning work is flexible motel cancellation policies. While reserving a place to stay for every night of a bicycle tour might seem rigid, if every place can be cancelled a day in advance, then nothing has been set in stone and can be redone on the fly. In fact, I often have rearranged my night's accommodations while on tour and have never paid a no-show fee to a motel. It is worth noting that when I make reservations, I always contact the motel personally and let them know I am riding a bicycle, might not be able to get there on the specified date, and ask for their flexibility. I tell them I will contact them the day before to insure I will be there. Unless it is some corporate hotel chain (which usually have a one day cancellation policy anyway), I have found most motel operators more than happy to give me all the flexibility they can.

For the Bellingham to Missoula ride, all the places I reserved could be cancelled without penalty the day before with the exception of one place. The Manning Park lodge has a 30 day cancellation policy. Since it is the only place to stay in about 100 miles, I had no choice but to lock myself in.

Due to the death of a close friend, I cancelled this trip. It took some time to contact every warmshowers and couchsurfing host and reserved motel to let them know I wouldn't be showing up. I even managed to cancel the Manning Park reservation before the 30 day limit hit. While none of the motels cost me anything, AirBnB charged me $12, their fee, to cancel the place I'd reserved through them. This is another reason I'd prefer not to use them ever again.

Your Money Or Your Life

I am aware that many, if not most, bike tourists would find the level of planning I do onerous and restrictive. I've ridden tours carrying camping gear, slept on the ground, and would do it again if the route I wanted to take required it. The issue isn't that I won't camp. It is that I'd rather not camp and I definitely don't want to carry the extra weight.

Some riders have a limited amount of money to spend while on tour. For them, camping is as much a way to lowering costs as a way to sleep in nature. I am not one of these types of riders and do not place a limit on my touring expenditures.

Even on the tours where I have carried camping gear, I've stayed in motels some of the time. My preference is to meet people along my route who are willing to host bike riders in their homes (for free). I only choose motels if I can't find a local host. I'd say I succeed in getting hosted between 25% and 40% percent of the time while on tour.

For me, this isn't about money. It is about enjoying the journey as much as I can. It is as simple as this: I enjoy bike touring carrying 20 less pounds on my bicycle way more than trying to save money by camping.
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Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz