For Mandy Manley, there’s something enchanting about motorcycle travel. Sure, she loves traveling by train and car, but when she’s traveling by motorcycle, there’s nothing between her and the stars, she says. “When it rains, you’re wet. When it’s windy, you get blown around. You smell all the smells and can touch and taste things to really experience your environment in a way that you never could behind glass,” she says.
I had never heard of motorcycle travel; I didn’t know you could book motorcycle tours. Until I chatted with Mandy L. Manley, who has taken several motorcycle trips. I asked Mandy everything about motorcycle travel: how to plan a motorcycle trip abroad, what to pack, her European itinerary and beyond.
What are motorcycle travel tours?
On the fancier end, you fly to your destination, meet your group and are chauffeured to your beginning hotel. The company will have your pre-selected motorcycle in the parking lot gassed up and ready to go. Depending on the size of your group, they usually have two guides riding, and a third tour company employee who drives a support van with everyone’s luggage and snacks for the journey. The van goes ahead on the most direct route, and by the time your group arrives, they have lunch set up on a beautiful vista, near a lake or in a park.
Your tour guide in front takes care of ushering the group across any international border crossings. In the evening, you end up at a hotel where your bags are already in your room. The next morning, there’s another riders’ meeting with maps, and they outline the plan for the day before departing. It can be a very “mint on the pillow” experience.
At the either end of the spectrum, there are companies that simply rent bikes and offer to rent a GPS with a handlebar mount.
Tell me about the motorcycle travel you did in Europe.
Because I had experienced an Edelweiss Moto Tour in 2009, I felt confident to plan a 10th anniversary trip for just my husband and me in 2019. I reviewed all my journals from the trip a decade earlier, as well as some websites that touted the best Alpine mountain passes to ride. We made a “hit list” of the 15 or so passes that we wanted to complete, and I created a little spiral-bound travel itinerary for us. The books I made for our trip in 2019 featured daily routes, maps, points of interest, history, restaurant suggestions and space for notes. For more travel journaling tips.
It’s so helpful to have at least three choices for places to grab lunch or dinner when you roll into town tired after a long day of riding. It’s much easier to research these options before you leave home.
Tell me about your motorcycle trip itinerary. Where all did you travel in Europe?
Munich and Bavaria
In 2019, we flew into Munich and spent the first two days exploring BMW World and the city. We rented two motorcycles from AllRoundRent in Munich and headed to the BMW Motorrad Days in Garmish-Partenkirchen, the global celebration of BMW motorcycles in a ski-resort town in Bavaria that was reportedly a favorite of Hitler for its beauty. And we stayed in a super-clean Airbnb in Garmisch.
Ryan and I spent a couple of days at BMW Motorrad Days exploring the vintage display and socializing with other BMW Motorrad fans in the Biergarten. Think Oktoberfest but on a smaller, cleaner scale. Then we took off on our bikes headed south, deeper into Bavaria.
Austria and Italy
We were just starting to ride into the beginning of the Alps as we rolled into Seefeld, Austria. After a night there, we rode our first passes and crossed into Italy. We spent the night in Bolzano. The next day we left the bikes safely in the hotel parking garage and took a train to Venice, spending several hours exploring on foot before taking an evening train back.
The next day, we crossed over into Switzerland, exploring Pontresina and St. Moritz. We had a lovely dinner on a rooftop that evening and enjoyed the amenities of the spa hotel. A hot tub soothes the aches of a day of riding difficult roads!
Next we were off to Andermatt, but we split up after the first two passes. I took a more direct route so I could go do some “sink laundry” while my husband took on the most difficult passes of the trip, namely, the Passo Stelvio in Italy; the “Queen of the Alps” that has been featured in James Bond movies and is a spot where they test race cars.
We spent two nights in Andermatt in an Airbnb, and I took a day off to do some hiking while Ryan rode some of the “out and back” passes from town. It gave me a chance to rest, shop, buy Swiss chocolate and talk to locals. I hiked to Kolumbankirche, a 13th-century church, and across the Teufelsbrücke (Devil’s Bridge), part of which goes into the mountain.
Andermatt ended up being our favorite town of the trip; it’s a little village nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains. We fell asleep with the window open, and we could hear Swiss cows moo-ing while their herder played music for them. The people were super friendly, the air was clean, and the village looked like something out of a Thomas Kinkade painting: super tidy, little stone bridges over babbling brooks, adorable boutiques.
The final leg of our trip was a long day from Andermatt to Innsbruck (about 225 miles) through some rain. Days like this are the price you pay for getting to ride somewhere cool; you just have to get back.
Do you need your motorcycle license?
Yes, you’ll need a motorcycle endorsement on your U.S. driver’s license to be allowed to ride in most countries overseas. I recommend that you get an international driver’s license as well. AAA sells them, and if you do happen to get pulled over and they take your identification, you’ll still have your passport so you can get home.
Additionally, many countries require that you purchase a pass before your ride on certain major highways; check before you go. Many of these can be purchased in petrol stations and aren’t that expensive, but if you get caught without one, the fines can be several hundred dollars.
How did you pack for this motorcycle trip?
I created several lists to keep us organized; what we chose to leave home was every bit as important as what we chose to take. We rented panniers (saddle bags), top cases (that sit on the tail end of the bike behind the rider) and tank bags (I think of this as the bike’s purse). But that still leaves very limited space. Since we decided to venture out in the Alps on our own, it was essential that we also bring a few tools along. My husband is a BMW master-certified technician, so he knew what necessities he needed to bring such as a few wrenches and a tire plug kit.
I also created a list of the mountain passes we’d be completing and a list of the patches and pins that we wanted to add to our collection. Because Ryan and I created our own tour, we could stop at the little chalets on the tops of many of the passes, have a coffee or hot chocolate and grab a pin, patch, and sticker for our collection. These are tiny, nearly weightless souvenirs that are perfect for motorcycle travel. They pack down flat and serve as “proof” and “bragging rights” that you were really there.
When you fly with a motorcycle helmet, it is imperative that you bring it with you as a carry-on. If it’s going to maintain structural integrity, you do not want it getting banged or crushed in checked luggage.
We bought special undergarments for riding that are wicking and help mitigate chafing and wash/dry quickly. We also had special wicking socks and shirts. Very important when your tush is in a saddle for 8 hours per day. We wore the same outfits every three days or so and employed the old trick of bringing clothes that you don’t care about so you can toss them to make room in your luggage before you come home.
It was easier to pack light as well because we could share things like shampoo, soap, deodorant and other toiletries – we’re married and both have a low gross-out tolerance. We both used packing cubes and treated our saddlebag liners, which are waterproof bags that roll down from the top and are designed to fit perfectly in a saddlebag, like duffels.
If I want to plan a motorcycle trip, what should I do to prepare?
When I began planning, I dug out my old journals from the Edelweiss trip in 2009 and used them as a starting point. I purchased a few giant paper maps of Switzerland and Austria that encompassed the entire area that we’d be covering. And I used a lot of tape flags to mark potential mountain passes. I had flagged all the potential passes that we might like to ride based on online reviews from other motorcyclists as well as my previous trip. Ryan dug in doing research to see what they actually look like to ride.
If it’s your first motorcycle trip to an unfamiliar place, I recommend trying it with an organized tour company. If you’ve done one before and are feeling adventurous, consider using that trip to form the basis of another trip.
What are your pro tips for planning a motorcycle travel tour overseas?
Get in good riding shape.
This means treating it like a Couch to 5K and creating a training schedule. Your wrist will get tired from twisting the throttle, your bottom will get sore, your joints will ache. You will experience fatigue. Treat the actual trip as “race day,” and you’ll be glad you did all that prep work at home.
Test your gear.
Ride in all weather conditions, and test your gear while you’re only an hour from home. It’s better to decide not to take a pair of leaky gloves before you’re in Egypt and can’t easily swap them for something better.
Add 10% to your trip budget.
Anticipate that you’ll spend more than you imagined at first, so you don’t have to freak out when you find that perfect souvenir that you don’t want to pass up. Or that you have to pay for an extra tire or damages to the bike you’re renting. These things happen. Take my free travel budgeting course.
Don’t make your trip a test ride.
Figure out what model bike you’ll be riding, and make sure you’re comfortable on it. A two-week motorcycle travel tour of the Adriatic is not the time to try out a bike that’s biting off more than you can chew.
Bring the proper tech gear.
Have a way to charge your phone off the bike’s battery while you ride. Figure out how to use your heated gloves, jacket, pants or socks before you go. If you use a communication system, which we did, test it with your riding buddy before you leave home to make sure you can pair your Bluetooth and hear each other well through your speakers.
Be picky about your riding buddy.
Motorcycle trips are almost always more fun with a good buddy. Make sure you pick someone whose riding style and level of experience is similar to yours or else plan to split up and meet later.
Roads will be closed because of weather. It will snow on top of the mountain and be 80 degrees in the valley below. You’ll need to plan alternate routes. It’s more about how you handle these curveballs than anything. Try to enjoy the ride no matter what seems to upset your plan. This is true for motorcycling and life in general.
Mandy Langston Manley is the owner of Skeleton Key Organizing, a professional organizing business in St. Louis, Missouri. She is a published author, motorcycle and scooter rider and journalist who is a proud native and Duchess of Paducah, Kentucky. She lives with her husband, Ryan, and their rescue dog Molly.
All photos courtesy of Mandy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.