Travel advice: how to ride a motorcycle in America

Nathan Millward
By Nathan Millward
NateThePostman Round the world adventurer Nathan Millward rode home to the East Midlands from Australia on a 105cc Australian postal bike (he didn’t like flying). He’s since ridden across America to Alaska, writing two brilliant books about the experience. www.nathanmillward.com

 

Irrespective of the politics, as a place to ride a motorcycle, America remains as tempting as ever. I’ve crossed it twice now, once heading east, and once heading west – the beauty of the country is that it’s ever changing… from mountains to deserts to flat lands to natural wonders that in states such as Utah and Nevada are so densely packed together you could spend a lifetime just roaming around taking them all in. And still not see it all.

It’s also an easy country to ride by motorcycle. Away from the cities the traffic is thin, the road conditions decent and the infrastructure of motels, hotels and campsites means you don’t need to plan much in advance if you don’t wish to. Just see where the road takes you. The people are generally friendly as well.

Here are a few pointers to help you on your way…

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

How to ride your own motorcycle in America

Taking your own bike to America is as easy as it gets. Unlike many countries you don’t need an expensive and complicated Carnet de Passage (effectively a passport for the bike); instead you just need to get a free-to-apply-for letter of exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency, sort out some insurance cover for the bike as your UK policy won’t cover it, and finally find a way of getting it there, which, with the help of vehicle freighting companies such as James Cargo, Motofreight and Shippio, is as easy as dropping your bike off at their depot and meeting it in on the other side of the Atlantic. Sea freight is cheaper than air freight, but it takes longer, and it can be more complicated getting it out from the docks.
Air freight is more expensive, but quicker and more predictable. You can fly a bike into any major city, have a couple of hours process collecting your bike, dealing with customs documentation and then be on your way. Price wise you’re looking at around £1,800 return for sea freight, and approximately £2,200 for air freight in and sea freight out. Air freight out of America is vastly more expensive than air freighting it in for some reason, hence why you usually fly the bike in and boat it back out. Air Canada often does tempting rates if you’re looking to fly your bike in and out of Canada.

If you’re going for less than a fortnight then it makes no sense to take your own bike, but go for longer and the cost of taking your own can soon work out cheaper than rental. It’s also your own bike, meaning scuffs and drops won’t incur rental repair costs, and it also adds to the story of your bike once you get it home. You can also set it up how you like before departure, and bikes are usually freighted with all luggage mounted and panniers packed. Just pick it up at the other end and ride away.

Important tip: If you get pulled over by the police and queried about the foreign licence plate, the rule is that if your bike is taxed, registered and road legal in its native country then you are legally allowed to be doing what you’re doing. Not all police officers know and understand this rule, so they can on rare occasions cause you grief. But if you have any problems contact the Department of Motor Vehicles HQ in Washington directly at https://dmv.dc.gov or on (202) 737-4404.

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

How to rent a bike in America

Bike rental in America is set up for the incoming tourist, with most of the main tourist hubs having shops with bike rental facilities. Most offer only Harley Davidsons or Indians, with few other options for sports or adventure-style machines. Las Vegas BMW rents out GSs, as do a few others, but if you’re after a GS on the east coast, forget it. EagleRider is the most commonly used rental shop, with branches across the USA. Booking through them is straight forward, with prices from around £200 for a day or £1,300 for a week by the time you’ve added the insurance options.
As with all rentals, check what the insurance covers you for, and importantly check what it doesn’t. Most places require a credit card deposit on a bike to cover the excess in the event of a prang. Bikes usually come with comprehensive break down cover, making it an easy, if not always cheap, way of exploring the US on two wheels. One-way rentals even allow you to start in one place and finish in another. Use a flight broker such as www.skyscanner.net to book a multi-city flight, allowing you to fly into one city and out of another, usually at the same price as a regular return.

If you’re after an effortless and efficient way of riding the States, then rental is the way to go.

Do this: One fun event to take part in – and which is cheaper than most options – is to go with the guys from the Lost Adventure who every spring run a fleet of rental Harleys back from Florida to the West Coast. The bike costs £999 for two weeks with a 4000-mile allowance. In 2019 the dates are March 23rd to April 6th.

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

How to buy a motorcycle in the USA

This is not something I’ve done myself, but I know others who have. Usually this works best if you have someone in the States – a family member or friend – who can locate, buy, store and insure a bike before you arrive, adding you as a named driver. Be mindful that some States don’t allow a non-US national to buy and register a bike, with it often difficult to find out which State allows what. Speaking directly to their Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is your best way to go.

The upside to buying a bike in the States is that for a trip over three weeks it can work out cheaper than rental, it also avoids the ‘hassle’ of taking your own. The downsides are making sure you buy a solid reliable bike, and the issue of selling it at the end. With time on your hands this could be a good option, and if you like the bike you could always export it back to the UK at the end.

The forums over at www.advrider.com are a useful source for finding people who can help if you don’t currently know anyone in the States. That site also has a list of people happy for two-wheeled travellers to stay at their place as they’re passing through – almost like a motorcycling version of couch surfing – which is a great way of saving money and meeting the locals. Find out more here.

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

Guided motorcycle tours in America

There are options galore for guided tours in the States, and these are obviously the easiest way of making a trip to the US happen.

Everything’s done for you; you just turn up and ride. You also get the knowledge and reassurance of a guide, and often the support of a backup vehicle. The guide will – or at least should – take you to all the best bits, and for riding popular routes such as Route 66 it can be a very good way of getting the most out of your trip.

The downside is that you lose the freedom to do what you want, when you want to do it, and you might be lumped with people you don’t particularly like or wish to ride with. A guided trip also costs more money. A good compromise could be a self-guided trip, where all accommodation and routes are marked out for you, except you ride it alone and at your own pace. Finding a good company to go with mostly comes down to reputation and word of mouth. Do your research and where possible speak to people directly, either on the phone or at the big bike shows where many of the tour companies have stands, manned by the staff who will be giving the tours. It’s about making sure your personality fits with that of the company and what they’re offering.

Here are some companies to have a look at:

Hadrian V-Twin Tours

HC Travel

The Lost Adventure

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

Insurance for riding in America

Medical horror stories abound from America, with cost of treatment in the event of an accident not to be taken lightly, so good travel insurance is a must. Check the small print: a lot of companies exclude the riding of bikes over 125cc, and most insist on you wearing a helmet, irrespective of State laws – whoever you choose, always check everything’s covered. Motorcycle specific policies should cover costs incurred if your rental vehicle breaks down, as well as costs of any damaged gear in the event of a spill. Also look for off-road riding cover to avoid any grey areas if you do wish to ride the trails.

If you’re taking your own bike, then you’ll also have to insure it with a broker out there. Popular is Progressive Insurance, although the company require a US address  –  some people give the address of friends and acquaintances, but this shouldn’t be done. Fernet and Motorcycle Express are more expensive but do explicitly cover a foreign vehicle for fully comprehensive with breakdown cover included. Expect to pay a few hundred pounds for a month’s cover, depending on your vehicle’s size and age.

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

The USA’s rules, laws and paperwork

• Americans drive on the right-hand side of the road, and you can often make a turn on a red light as long as nothing is coming.

• Instead of roundabouts they often have four ways stop signs, which you must come to an actual stop at, irrespective of whether other traffic is around or not. It’s an offense not to come to a dead stop and the police will pull you up for it. The person first to the junction gets right of way.

• Driving standards in America are generally pretty good, although city riding and interstates can be fraught, with most journeys unfortunately starting and ending at a city.

• Don’t cross a solid white line, even to get to a lay-by or turning on the other side of the road.

• Don’t park against the flow of the traffic.

The best advice is to always take your time. Familiarise yourself with the bike before setting off and have a route in mind to get you out of the city and into quieter landscapes. Be confident, hold your position on the road and take your time.
In terms of paperwork, you will need your regular UK driving licence, with it advised that you also get an International Driving Permit, available from the Post Office; some insurance companies require one, and Florida made them mandatory in recent years. In terms of a visa, you can get an ESTA online from the American embassy site, costing $14, with an instant to three day confirmation. If you’ve had any prior convictions or arrests, then it’s worth applying for a proper six-month visa at the embassy, as failure to do so could have you turned away on arrival. Applying for an ESTA is easy, so do not be lured by sites that look very similar, but charge you a fee for ‘assisting’ you.

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

How much will it cost to ride in America?

Travelling in the States can be quite cheap once you’ve paid for your flights and either bike rental or bike shipping. Fuel is approximately half the cost it is in the UK, food is reasonable, and cheap motels can be found in every town and community, meaning that a daily budget of £60 is manageable, especially if you’re camping.

Obviously you can spend a lot more, but you don’t have to, especially with camping on the National Parks being much cheaper – and more scenic – than any of the privately-owned campsites. An effective way of saving money is to buy an annual pass for the National Parks, which costs $80 and allows you into as many as you want. With each individual park usually around $20-$30 it can save you quite a considerable amount of money over the duration of a trip, and you can buy them from the ticket booth of any National Park.

The cost of a motel room can range from $40 a night for a budget room, to $100 for a decent standard, up to much more for something fancy, especially in popular tourist attractions. www.Booking.com is a good way to plan a trip on the move, booking your next night’s accommodation in the comfort of the night before. The wealth of accommodation options in America make this a manageable option for people who don’t have or want a strict itinerary.

Top tip: Pick up a local sim card for your phone once there to avoid any roaming charges. WiFi is available in most places these days, with tourist information centres not only a useful source of information, but also offering free WiFi, coffee, and sometimes even biscuits.

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

Where to ride a motorcycle in America

America is a big place, and even in a lifetime you’d still struggle to cover all of it. The obvious riding area is Route 66 and the region around the West Coast, taking in Route 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and then inland to Utah, Nevada and Colorado, taking in the main tourist sites of Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Las Vegas and Monument Valley.

America is a big place, and even in a lifetime you’d still struggle to cover all of it. The obvious riding area is Route 66 and the region around the West Coast, taking in Route 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and then inland to Utah, Nevada and Colorado, taking in the main tourist sites of Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Las Vegas and Monument Valley.

Starting in Las Vegas is never a bad option as the city is relatively small and accessible by US city standards – certainly compared to LA – and gives you immediate access to the quieter roads to the mid-west region. In a two-week trip you could cover most of the tourist places in that region, especially as most are within a 100-mile ride of eachother. Travelling in this region is also easy, with plenty of motels and fuel stops, and the pace is quite laid back and easy going. The scenery is also spectacular, and even if you only had a week you could still see a lot of different things. A fortnight could be considered more than ample.
Route 66 remains popular. If you’re pushed for time then maybe it’s wiser to focus instead on the region from Colorado and west, as the stretch across the middle – from Chicago to Colorado – can be a long haul and relatively uninspiring compared to what lies beyond. But the road remains iconic and out to the east you have the Appalachian Mountains in and around the Tennessee and West Virginia area. This is all accessible from Washington DC and New York and contains famous routes such as Tail of the Dragon and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

From New York you can also venture North to Boston along the coast, or south to Florida. The west coast, north from San Francisco towards Seattle is also spectacular and much quieter than Route 1 to the south of San Francisco.

Ultimately, travelling in the USA is very easy, and with use of the interstate you can cover a lot of ground. Personally, I’d aim for fewer miles and more back roads, as that’s where America comes alive. To me, 200 miles a day is ample on any US road trip.

Lastly, if you enjoy your off-road riding, then consider doing the Trans America Trail; a nigh on 6000-mile route from coast to coast, almost entirely off-pavement. https://www.transamtrail.com/

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

What to wear in America

What to wear on any road trip can always be tricky, limited as you are by storage space and variable weather conditions. Most bike trips in the USA are likely to be in spring through to autumn, when temperatures are middling to very high, depending on where you go. Generally, the further south you go the hotter it will be, and in or around August it can get uncomfortable through the middle. At higher altitudes, such as in the Appalachian Mountains or at the Grand Canyon, it can also drop quite cool, even in summer, so it’s having enough variation in your kit to cope with the changing weather that’s crucial.
To remove the need to wear bulkier waterproof textiles, consider taking a simple cagoule that you can easily slip over your leather jacket or riding jeans. Consider getting some mesh clothing, which is ideal for hotter climates, with jumpers or pullovers on hand for if it drops cold. Remember that there are Walmart and other discount clothing outlets throughout America, so if you get there and your clothes don’t suit the conditions then just find your nearest store and pick up what you need. It’s impossible to pack entirely the right clothing for any bike trip.

Taking your own helmet is never a bad idea, and while some States don’t require one to be worn, your travel insurance company almost certainly will, and if you crash without one your cover could be null and void.

Carrying helmets as hand-luggage is a very grey area – they don’t fit in the size constraints, but typically it’s allowed. As journalists, many of us put them in the hold (surrounded by other kit), but 95% of the time it’s not a problem. The issue is sometimes with the security staff, not the airline, and some countries consider helmets to be a weapon (no, really!).

Know this: If riding in hot conditions, be sure to take plenty of fluid onboard. 

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

How much will it cost to ride in the US?

A trip in recent years involving taking my own bike, two flights for myself and my wife, plus the cost of fuel, food and lodging (two nights in a tent to every one night in a motel) for just under six weeks on the road cost approximately £6,000. That’s £2,000 for getting the bike there, £1,000 for flights, £500 for sundries, then the rest on a daily budget of around £70, or around $100. Ideally a slightly bigger budget would have been better.

A rented bike for that length of time would have cost around £2,000 more than taking our own, and a guided two-week trip would roughly have cost the same price as six weeks solo. There’s no doubt about it; riding a bike in the USA – as a visitor – is never as cheap as renting a car or even a camper van. A Harley Davidson or BMW R1200GS can easily cost upwards of $250 per day when you’ve added in all the costs. But fuel, food and lodging is cheap, so you make it back once you’re there, and the feeling you get from leaving Monument Valley and heading towards Grand Canyon via Page and Lake Powell is worth every penny.

 

How to ride a motorcycle in America

 

"I’m going to America for the first time!"

23 year old travel virgin Jack Cooper from Northampton already has his trip across the States booked, riding a Royal Enfield Himalayan from coast to coast with 15 other UK riders in August of this year. It’s his first trip abroad on a bike.

Why the Himalayan?

“It’s a new bike and I just wanted to prove that it can do the miles. It’s nice and comfortable and should have enough power for the ride across, although we’re planning on avoiding interstates and main highways so it should be ideal.”

Have you ever done this before?

“No, it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done on two wheels. The furthest I’ve ever ridden to date is Farleigh Castle near Bath on a sportsbike, so riding across America should a bit more of a challenge, but I’m looking forward to it.”

What’s your route?

“We’re starting in New York and finishing in LA. It’s taking around four weeks and covering about 4000 miles. In that distance we’ll head down through the Appalachian Mountains, into Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, before crossing Texas, into New Mexico, then up through Colorado, Utah and Nevada before arriving in LA.”

What have you done to prepare the bike?

“I’m going to keep the bike as standard as possible; just put some panniers on it, perhaps a sheepskin cover to make it more comfortable. I’ve also fitted some handguards and some knobbly TKC80 tyres as we plan on doing some trails along the way.”

What are you looking forward to the most?

“The adventure and the exploring. It might sound soppy, but waking up and just getting on a bike and riding on some amazing roads with awesome scenery is what I’m looking forward to the most.”

What are you most apprehensive about?

“I’m probably most apprehensive about leaving family behind and the unknown, as I’ve never done any big trips before. It feels like I’m definitely throwing myself in at the deep end!”

Nathan Millward is an experienced adventure rider and journalist. He rode a 105cc posal bike from Australia to England, then across America and up to Alaska. His books are available online, along with dates for his next guided tours in the UK and beyond… www.nathanmillward.com

 

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