Sunday, March 25, 2007

Getting Started, TdF Travel Basics, Lodging

I find that many people let small details overwhelm them and talk themselves out of planning their own trip. Worries over language, driving, and other misconceptions cloud their minds, but with good planning traveling on your own is very realistic even for first-timers.
Whether you need 5-Star treatment, or budget options, the blog entries are tailored to help you get the most out of what you can spend.

Do-it-Yourself Formula

The details and work you put in can make all the difference. The more work you do yourself the more you can save. Book hotels and rentals yourself, or use a travel agent to help you. The first thing you should do once you decide on travel dates is to start booking hotels as soon as you can—rooms fill up or get blocked off as Tour companies fill the rooms. This info is especially crucial for mountain stages and stages in smaller cities.

Different people plan on following the race in different ways. In my stage-by-stage descriptions that will follow I try my best to present multiple viewing options, as some hardcore types want more Tour and less leisure, others will want the opposite. Chasing the race is not just an everyday French vacation. I suggest that most people trying to actively follow the tour use a method employed by most of the tour companies.

The companies do this by keying on the specific stages they want to see and picking a town that is centrally located to their key stages use as a “base of operations”. A good example is Lourdes in the Pyrenees. Just about every year you can book a room in Lourdes around the Tour and use that room to for 2-3 stages.

The base method gives you time to relax a bit more. If you’re a road warrior moving everyday can be done—just plan on less sleep and in some cases much less sleep. 

But I Don’t Speak French

I am sure you’ve had this thought or perhaps been tortured by it. My travels over the years have taught me travel French but the first day I stepped foot in the country I only spoke Spanish. I survived. In fact I surprised myself in how well I did. The key is being patient and polite. When you walk in a store or shop a polite bonjour (good day) or bonsoir (good evening) is customary. An Au revoir (goodbye) when you leave.

Just following simple steps like this will help ease the blow along with learning some basic phrases. There are lots of great books at the bookstore to help with language and etiquette. The misconception that the French are rude or impolite is just that, a misconception. Their daily lives are often spent dealing with same issues we do—taxes, raising kids, getting to work on time.

I have seen and felt amazing acts of kindness from the French in my years. You’ll almost always get back what you put in so embrace the differences and shrug off issues if you run into someone that you don’t see eye to eye with. While you’re at the Tour you’ll feel a bond I call “The Spirit of The Mountain”. People from diverse backgrounds will come together offering to share their lunch or a drink. Embrace those around you as you can meet amazing people and have great conversations, even if they are in broken French.

During the last few years I’ve heard people worry over safety. The Tour has always been a very safe and comfortable place for me. You’ll see diverse groups of fans so pick a spot to watch where you feel comfortable with the fans and people around you. One great thing about the Tour is people are pretty clear about their nationalities and team affiliations. If you’re the only person rooting for your favorite rider amongst 100 drunken Basque it’s easy to figure out, and usually not hard to fix as you walk around the next turn to find something different.


Most of you will want to stay in as they offer the most straightforward, predictable travel experience. In later pages of Section one you’ll see that alternate lodging choices like camping, RV’s, etc will be discussed. Hotels are fairly straightforward and are priced according to a 5-Star rating system—the higher the number the higher amenities and costs.

A 2 star is a budget minded place that may not have air-conditioning or a private bathroom for that matter. A 3 star will offer more luxury, bigger rooms, more services, and better food. A 4-star should mean a great place to stay with many luxuries, great food, services etc. A 5-Star means “if you have to ask, you probably can’t” ….well, you get the drift.

A straightforward Starting price would be from $40-60 Euros for basic, no frills 2-star without air conditioning. If you have any doubts about the quality of the hotel when checking in ask to see a room first. Don’t assume things like air-conditioning are included in the budget places (called Climatiseur, or Climatisee). You’ll see a lot chain names when you search. I like the Novotel chain, as they tend to be highly standardized and typically 3-star.


As the race travels around France so do tent villages of devotees that follow along. The camping is ample and often free as villages hosting the race turn more of a blind eye to the hordes. When deciding where to camp don’t ever assume you can put your tent just anywhere. Often village’s pop-up and you’ll know camping is okay, but if no tents are up being the first bandit could get you in some hot-water.

Also know that you can count on numerous sanctioned pay campsites along the route—I’ve read that France is the number one camping destination in Europe and has 11,000 pay campsites. You will have absolutely no problem camping and will save a lot of money doing it. The bandit campsites are packed tightly the closer you are to the race so don’t expect acres of camping space to yourself. Know that sometimes the Europeans enjoy all night parties. If you’re a light sleeper things could get rough.

As for temps it will range, in the mountains for example, you can get some pretty cold and foul weather at times and lots of heat at other times. Be prepared for rain, as showers will happen. Basically, just know weather changes fast in the mountains. If you’re worried about taking all your gear on a plane consider buying as many disposable items you can once you arrive.

If you are a true road warrior that plans on using hotels but moving everyday you may consider buying an inexpensive tent to carry in your car. I have been surprised by a road closure when a mountain pass was full of fans and couldn’t make it to my hotel. On Bastille Day 2000 I had to pitching tent in the valley below the Col d’ Izoard. I had one of my most memorable tour experiences ever. Having my tent made my travels much more flexible.

The sites below are excellent resources for planning and can help you pick campsites in advance. It has been my experience and observation though that even without tons of pre-planning camping is one way to always wing-it and come out okay. (English Language Friendly)

When is comes to bandit camping the French authorities look the other way if the Tour de
France is in the area. Here is a campsite on the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees the day before
stage finished at the ski station of La Mongie near the top.

Gites, Hostels, Chambres d’Hotes

Another popular place to stay for those on a budget are called Gites. They are vaguely similar to a hostel (typically much nicer) or bed and breakfast. They are usually family owned and some even specialize by catering to groups and outdoor enthusiasts such as cyclists—these Gites are called Gites de Etape and have their own section on the Gites website. The only trick to the Gites is that you will probably need to be able to speak some basic French. When booking use a google language translator.

A nice Gite that provides breakfast and home cooked dinner will run around $25-30 Euros a night and I’ve had tremendous success staying at Gites-de-Etape. If you are traveling in a group (or alone for that matter) Gites-de-Etape are also good alternatives to hotels because many have large multiple guest bunkrooms. When viewing the site know that Gites are rated with stalks of wheat (one, two, three, etc.).

In Gite-de-Etapes sometimes you’ll have the choice of just using the lodging only and paying for no meals, though from a value standpoint paying an extra 10-12 Euros will get you a simple continental breakfast and full dinner with wine at night. The Tour occurs during peak travel season so many Gites will require the more expensive plan, occasionally though you can get the to owner to waive it.

Some Gites-de-Etape that offer the no meals option have a full kitchen for your use. It is a fun way to experiment if you like to cook. You must clean up after yourself so don’t expect to be fully pampered. This is part of what saves in cost. Most Gites-de-Etape will also have a clothes washing machine that can be used by guests. In 2005 I paid around 3 euros a load. The links below are fine example of a great Gites-de-Etape in the Pyrenees.

One thing to note is a story that may help ease some of your irrational fears. It was relayed to me from a travel partner upon his return trip and had a dinner with some friends. He said the one question that kept coming up was what other kind of people stayed in Gites, noting that one dinner guest had some hang-ups over social class. My experiences have all been great In fact I’ve met doctors and many other professionals in my stays but mostly I’ve observed that the people love the outdoors and in that we have common ground. Staying in Gites is certainly more adventurous than a hotel but I feel like Gites get you closer to the French culture in their daily life because families run them. (close to Lourdes Hautucam, Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden) (a cycling specific friendly British owned B&B in the Pyrenees) (Located on the climb to Alpe d’ Huez L’Ancolie is both a Gite AND a Hotel. Proprietor is friendly, accommodating and speaks English)

To book or for more info go to

Chambres d’Hotes

A Chambres d’Hotes is the French equivalent to a Bed and Breakfast. Often the living space you’ll get is in the house of the proprietor and sometimes it’s a separate house on family property. According to the website, where Chambre d’Hotes rooms can be rented, there are 8500 locations in France. The links below serve as good examples of Chambres d’ Hotes. (Near Pau the owner Jean-Pierre is great host and speaks some English) ( a beautiful B&B about 12k south of Avignon, last 1k of trip to La Dame is on a dirt road but well worth the small inconvenience )  Located in Venosc, near Les Deux Alps and Alpe d' Huez this Gite is english language friendly and very easy to deal with for cyclists.  

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