Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.
This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!
Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules, I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.
I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?
Hopefully this guide will ease your troubled mind because this journey IS EASILY DONE.
London to Paris by Eurostar, with a bike
If you book in advance and don’t mind what time you arrive, then book with snap.eurostar.com for only £25 each way. That’ll mean your bike costs as much or more than you do!
To book a bike space, call Euro Despatch before you leave. I was pleasantly surprised I got my bike on the same train as me by calling only the day before. It cost £30 – but you can save a fiver if you don’t mind waiting up to 24 hours for your bike to arrive.
As it happened, I might as well have saved that £5 because the registered baggage office in Paris was closed by the time we arrived and I had to pick up the bike the next morning. The office closes at 10pm, so don’t count on being able to pick up your bike if you arrive late.
I managed to get one of the spaces for fully assembled bikes, which saved me the job of pulling the bike apart and putting it in a box. But if you do have to dismantle your bike, don’t fret – there are all the tools and even bike stands at both ends of the tunnel.
My bike arrived safe and sound, with the lavender still tied to the handlebars. A good sign.
Paris to Milan by TGV, and Milan to Brindisi with TrenItalia, with a bike
These journeys are a little more complicated because neither the TGV nor the TrenItalia Intercity trains allow fully assembled bikes onboard so you’ll need to acquire a suitable bike bag.
The only issue is that I couldn’t for the life of me find a suitable bike bag in the UK. Most bags I found were larger than the officially permitted dimensions and would not have fitted in the luggage racks. Yes, I might have been able to get away with one of these larger bags (security is lax), but I can’t carry anything too big on my bike.
Luckily, from an earlier trip, I knew there was one bike bag sold in Paris that was perfect for the job: the Hapo G Housse Transport Vélo for €79.
The housse transport can be found in various Go Sport shops in Paris. Your best bet is to go into your closest one and, if they don’t have the Hapo G in stock, ask them to look it up on the system and find out where does. That’ll save you a tour! Your other option is to order online and pick it up in the shop – but that was much too complicated for me.
The Hapo G is plenty big enough for a touring bike, including a rear pannier rack (I ripped off my front pannier rack before leaving London so can’t vouch for that). It’s also small enough that I can squeeze the bike onto the onboard luggage rack, and packs down nicely so I can bungee it to my pannier rack when I’m cycling.
To get the bike into the Hapo G, simply remove the wheels and the handlebars and lower the saddle. I didn’t even need to take off the pedals. Pack your bike into the bike bag ‘upside down’ so that the saddle (rather than the chainset and rear mech) rests on the floor. It takes me about 30 minutes to dismantle and remantle my bike so allow plenty of time at both ends.
NEEDLESS TO SAY: YOU’LL NEED THE TOOLS YOU NEED TO TAKE YOUR BIKE APART.
I had no problem slinging my packed bike onto one of the larger baggage racks – but you might want to make sure you’re on the train early enough to secure your space.
In terms of transporting everything around the station once you’ve dismantled your bike, I found that I could carry the bike quite easily over my shoulder using the handles. I also managed to carry two backpacks and a pannier. It was bloody heavy, but manageable.
I didn’t see any trolleys, which would have made the rush for the train more comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. On reflection, I’m sure they must do. Drat.
It’s worth saying that there is ample space in the bike bag to chuck various other bits and bobs. Obviously don’t put anything that might damage the bike, or anything that might be damaged by the bike. I had great success with stuffing the free space with my sleeping bag and other soft furnishings – inside my spare pannier so they didn’t get oily.
My only other piece of advice is to make sure you bring plenty of food for the journeys – it’s not cheap onboard. €3.20 for a tea is criminal, but still superb value when drifting across the Alpine border at dusk. A wonderful journey, easily done with a bike if you know how!
Brindisi to Patras by ferry, with a bike
This stage of the journey was easily the most relaxing. Ferries are HUGE, right? Surely there would be no problem finding a space for my little old bike on there! No, indeed there wasn’t – it was simple.
I chose Brindisi-Patras for two reasons:
- At 16 hours, it’s the shortest crossing from Italy to Greece. Boats are SLOW: I could cycle faster than a ferry (if only I could cycle on water). I thought I’d rather spend the time on a train / in a gelateria than on a boat. I may have been wrong about this predication.
- Other ferries didn’t seem to accept fully-assembled bikes. Weird.
The ferry port is about a 15 minute cycle from Brindisi and I got there about 2.5 hours early, envisaging a huge wait. There wasn’t one.
I checked in, zipped to the front of the vehicle queue, went through passport control, wheeled my bike into a miscellaneous goods cabin, unpacked, checked into my cabin, took some pretty photos of the sea and settled into a prime seat for the Russia-Croatia World Cup quarter final. The whole thing took about an hour.
The bike survived exactly as I left it, propped up against the wall of the miscellaneous goods cabin – I didn’t even bother lashing it to the bulkhead as I sometimes do.
At Patras, I waited until most of the cars and lorries had vanished into a noxious haze of their own making, and cycled straight off the ferry and into town for lunch. No customs, no passport control, just a Greek salad and a grilled fresh fish.
So that’s Italy-Greece dealt with as far as the bike’s concerned, but where the ferry really shone was in terms of my personal comfort. Which leads us on to your final question…
Where to sleep?
I timed my trains so that I was travelling during the day, and thus booked cheap hostels in Paris and Milan. This meant I could enjoy a pleasant crêperie lunch in Paris, and a couple of hours to see Milan.
In Brindisi I got in touch with Dario, an excellent host on WarmShowers. He not only agreed to put me up on his sofa bed at ridiculously short notice, but later revealed it was his birthday and gave me cake as we watched the football. If I’d thought about it earlier, I might have planned similar hostings in Paris and Milan, but there we go.
The final night of my Odyssey was spent on the ferry, of course. I splashed out on a 4-berth inner cabin – a £20-30 upgrade that was devastatingly good value for money.
For why, I hear you ask. Well, for one, I had my own shower and my own toilet, particularly useful because at least two of the others on board were out of order.
I also had the luxury of my own full size bed, and the inner cabin meant no windows so it was gorgeously dark, while the thrumming of the engine created a lullaby of white noise. There was also air conditioning, which is just beyond luxury.
These all conspired to create the perfect conditions for sleep, and I snoozed for a solid 12 of the 16 hours I spent on board – roused only at midday by the announcement that we would not long be arriving at Patras.
Previously I’ve gone for the cheap seat-only option, which means sprawling out on the floor or fighting for one of the sofas. Neither are comfortable, and from multiple trans-Mediterranean voyages I recall fitful sleep interrupted by cold, heat, noise, light and nausea.
The only downside were my garrulous companions, who noisily and mercifully disembarked at Igoumenitsa at about 4am. The public address announcements for the ship’s arrival and departure at Igoumenitsa were deafeningly loud and punctuated the blissful quiet in four different languages at regular intervals over the course of about 2 hours.
Aside from that nightmarish interruption, I can only reiterate: the upgrade was worth every penny.
So there it is: London to Greece, over land and sea, with a bike, without (much) hassle. This journey was utterly exhausting at times and undoubtedly thrilling at others. Which is exactly what journeys should be, in my eyes.
At no point did I regret bringing my bike along for the ride: being able to dash about Paris, Milan and Brindisi helped me feel like I’ve seen more of the cities than I would have done on their public transport systems.
Everything is easier when you’re travelling on a bike, and it needn’t be too difficult when you’re travelling with a bike either.