Prague to Berlin bike trip methods

August 13th, 2007  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  6 Comments

The plan was to ride bikes from Vienna to Budhapest and then from Prague to Berlin.  Plans changed, and we only ended up doing the Prague to Berlin ride.  But, I wanted to make a few notes about the way that we did things in case anyone wanted to travel similarly in Europe.

Flights

We flew from the US to Europe on British Airways.  They actually let you take bikes as one of your checked bags for free!   In Europe, we originally planned to take trains, but bikes were officially prohibited on some of the routes (e.g. from Milan to Prague), though Chiara was pretty certain that you could get away with it if you tried.  We didn’t have any problems with traveling with the boxed bikes on any of the regional railways that we used to get to/from the airports in Italy and Germany.  To travel between European destinations, we ended up using low-cost airlines.  Easyjet seemed to be consistently cheap and have lots of destinations.  They also let you take boxed bikes (in lieu of your checked bag) for a small fee (around 15 euros I think). It was more difficult to find the policies of other discount airlines regarding bikes, so I’m not really sure what the others offer.  It was crazy how much cheaper the discount airlines were than trains, and it sort of makes it scary to think that the day of rail travel might be numbered, even in Europe, where the system is so much more culturally integrated than in the US.

Trains/Public Transport/Bike Boxes

For the plane, we just re-used the large cardboard boxes used to ship bikes from the manufacturer to bike stores.  My dad got some free from a bike shop in PA to go to Europe, and to return, a bike store in Berlin also gave us some for free.  We had to ask around at a few places in Berlin because, although there are bike stores as numerous as the cyclists themselves, many seemed to just carry used bikes and didn’t have the boxes.  Lugging the boxed bikes, or bikes around along with boxes was a pain.  For our trip from Chiara’s mom’s house outside Milan to Milan-Malpensa airport, Chiara’s brother built some ingeneous simple rollers that we fit on the boxes.  It was still taxing to pull around the heavy boxes, but it would have been nearly impossible to do it without a car otherwise.

A quick note on the regional trains/public transit.  The one from the station in Milan to the airport was like 11 euro (+ maybe 3 euro to get from the town where we were staying to the city.  If you were taking the subway, it would be about 1 euro).  Amazingly, in Berlin, we got tickets for the bikes and us (clearly marked on the automatic ticket machine in the stations) that worked for both the metro (u-bahn/s-bahn) and the regional train to the airport for under 4 euro each.  In Prague, there was no way to get the bikes from the airport to the city center other than taking a rented van.  The bikes cost the same as a person, so the total was going to be pretty expensive.  So, we just put the bikes together, packed our paniers and rode to the airport.  You can take bikes on the metro in Prague, however, and we used this to get out of the city more quickly.  It wouldn’t be a problem without heavy paniers, but it was pretty difficult to carry bikes down metro station stairs.  Also, in Prague, many of the metro stations were accessible mainly by very long escalators.  The info points in some metro stations will be able to tell you which stops have elevators, though they’re still a tight fit.  You put the bikes on an extended seatless area on the last car of the metro that is reserved for bikes and strollers.   In Berlin, metro cars that can accept bikes are marked with a bicycle symbol.

Stoves

This isn’t that important, but I wanted to note it  because it was something that brought out my obsessive tendencies.  Before leaving the US, we bought a stove to use while cooking at campsites.  We got the multi-fuel MSR Whisperlite Internationale because we were concerned that fuel canisters would be hard to come by.  This turned out to not be the case as they were available at the grocery store at the more developed campground in Barcelona, and at specialty camping stores close to where we stayed in Prague.  Finding fuel for the multi-fuel stove ended up being more difficult than expected.  The directions for the stove said that it could use White Gas, Diesel, Kerosene, or Unleaded Gas.  We tried to use Diesel in Barcelona, and it was a disaster, with the fuel burning really inefficiently, producing gross black smoke and fumes, and leaving a sticky, oily residue on the pots and stove.  In Prague, I got a tip that white gas (the recommended fuel for the stove) was called “technicky benzin” and could be found at hardware stores.  We tried a few small hardware stores in the city center without luck before heading for the Hornbach store (like a Lowe’s or Home Depot in the US) outside of the city where we found the fuel in the paint section.  It worked much better with less smoke, fumes, and mess than the Diesel.  We saw signage for a number of hardware stores on our route, so it seems like it would be much easier to find en route, if you didn’t want to carry around fuel canisters.  Still, if you have a canister stove, it seems like it’s no problem finding fuel.

Routes

We picked the Vienna to Budhapest route from a book, but the Prague to Berlin route we picked more because of the destinations that we wanted to visit.  Because of this, we couldn’t really find a route on the Internet or in books.  We also had a hard time finding road maps with detailed depictions of small European roads from the US.  So, we used a combination of different Internet sites to figure out a route.  viamichelin.com is a European map and direction site similar to google maps or mapquest.  One important difference is that it lets you pick what kind of vehicle you’re traveling in and lets you select a route accordingly. One of the vehicle options that it lets you use is a bicycle!  However, the maps that it provides for directions are either too zoomed out or zoomed in to be useful for navigation.  So, we used Google maps and followed the via Michelin route, printing out a series of maps from Google and highlighting the route with a highlighter.  The via Michelin routes were very good, and I feel like all the roads that it selected were appropriate for bicycles, and many of them took us through very beautiful parts of the countryside.   However, I wish that we could have had a larger map in Germany as many of the roads were unmarked and at junctions, only gave indications in the direction of cities that were off our maps (which were usually only about 15 km wide).  If I had it to do over again, I would try harder to get a roadmap, or print larger maps from Google.  The place where the narrowness of the maps was a  big problem was on our second day, riding over some tough mountains from Usti Nad Labem in the Czech Republic to Dresden in Germany.  After reaching Dresden, we were trying to reach a campsite in Radeburg, but accidently followed signs in Dresden towards Radeberg which was about 25 km away from Radeburg.  The neighbor of the woman that we stayed with in Milan also rode from Prague to Berlin, but followed a route that was closer to rivers and that was comprised of more car-free bike paths.  In Germany, there were tons of bike paths, not just in Berlin, but between even many of the small towns in the former East Germany.  It was a nice surprise as many of the roads were narrow and had no shoulder.

Lodging

For lodging, in Prague we stayed at a hostel/apartment place that Chiara found in hostelworld.com, which she says is a useful site.  Along the way, we stayed at a cheap hotel in Usti Nad Labem (390 Czech Crowns for a double room), two campsites in the former East Germany (9-11 euros for 2 people and a tent), and a hotel outside of Berlin that seemed very American-like (65 euro for a double room including a nice breakfast).  Other than the Hostel in Prague, we didn’t really plan for lodging.  There were a lot of forests with hiking trails through them where it seemed like it would be possible to camp easily (though perhaps not legally).  I think that along with the aforementioned network of bicycle paths, there are numerous hiking paths crisscrossing the area, and both campsites (one which Chiara found via Google, and another which we just came upon) seemed to be near the convergence of some of these trails.

In Berlin, we stayed with a woman who we met via a site called Couchsurfing.  This site is very cool, and is essentially all the framework of a social networking site like MySpace (profiles, friends, comments, messaging, etc.) but with a point.  The point of the site is to connect people in far off places with each other for the purpose of offering travelers a place to stay on each-others couches.  I can’t say enough about this site.  It was so nice to actually stay with someone who lived in Berlin rather than being surrounded  by a bunch of other tourists.  Moreover, I feel like in our conversations with Marion (the woman that we stayed with), we were able to get such a perspective on Berlin and Germany which might not account for the majority perspecrive, or the “local” perspective, but felt so much more sincere and authentic than what you would find in a tour book or in most situations oriented around tourism.  I stay with relative strangers a lot, so the situation is pretty comfortable to me, but Marion was really good about setting boundaries and expectations, so it was even more comfortable.  I think that the Couchsurfing site does a good job or providing users with tools to build trust and a background of communication between all the people.  Also, it’s so nice to stay with someone local, just because finding little needed resources or ways of navigating the city is so much easier.  And of course, staying on someone’s couch is free, but I don’t think that’s the point.  I think of the zero-monetary-cost place to stay as the impetus to think of more real ways to return someones kindness, like small gifts, or making dinner together.