Rough notes on using European trains for bicycle touring

  • Denmark trains:
    • There is a separate region for trains in the northern country with different logistics
      • Usually small.
      • Quite easy to roll your bike on and stand next to it.
      • At some stations you will need to exit the small train and transfer to another one to continue in the direction you want.
    • Stations are relatively small and easy to navigate
    • Buy a ticket in their app or at local kiosks, which take credit cards.
    • Tickets are collected by a conductor
    • In south Denmark, trains are larger.
      • There are designated bike cars. When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
      • There are nominal location numbers given for your bike but it does not seem to matter much.
      • You may not realize it at first but the larger trains have electrical outlets over the seats.
      • It is casually acceptable to just find an open seat and sit in it, until someone with a ticket for that seat comes along.
  • German trains:
    • These are usually double-decker trains.
    • A conductor will come around on the train and check your ticket.
    • Certain cars are designated for bikes.
      • When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
    • German train stations are much busier, often much dirtier and more confusing.
    • You can buy regular tickets at a kiosk but you will need to go to the ticket counter to purchase a ticket for your bike.
    • On the bike cars, the bike goes into the lower deck. Find an open spot and strap your bike in place.
    • The competition for spaces can get pretty intense. People will try and pile their bikes on any which way.
    • To make room you may need to remove your bags.
    • If you have a first class ticket, you can go upstairs to a really nice work area with desks and outlets.
  • Germany-to-Netherlands trains:
    • A conductor will come around and ask for your ticket.
    • Certain cars are designated for bikes.
      • When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
      • It’s usually the car on the end of the train, but be aware that the train can change direction in the station.
    • You will need to drag your bike up two steps to get it onto the car.
    • This can be a huge pain and you will probably need to remove your bags.
    • Your bike needs to go in a designated numbered holder in the bike car.
      • Refer to your bike transport ticket.
    • To fit the bike in the holder you may need to remove your bags and place them on the shelf above.
    • If there is space you can just hang out in the bike car. Otherwise, find your numbered seat and claim it.
  • Netherlands trains:
    • Often a few minutes late.
    • Google Maps has incomplete information for local trains.
      • Use the official app instead.
    • You use your ticket to badge-in and badge-out of the platform area.
      • Nobody will check it on the train.
    • To get your bike through, badge your ticket at the gate for handicapped access. It’s wider than the others.
    • You can buy tickets at kiosks, which accept credit cards, contactless payment (Apple Pay), and euro coins.
    • You need a ticket for yourself and a separate one for your bike.
    • Take care to buy a ticket for your bike that is designated for your entire trip – within the Netherlands or international.
    • If you need an international bike ticket you may need to buy it at a counter.
    • Certain cars are designated for bikes.
      • When the train approaches, look for the symbol of a bike on the outside of the car.
      • It is almost always the last car in the train.
    • Bikes are not allowed on trains at all during commute hours. Confirm when those hours are.
      • This is a huge pain for bike tourists.
      • But it explains why there are hundreds or thousands of bikes locked up outside all the major train stations.
  • Belgium trains:
    • Larger stations can be confusing because they will merge unceremoniously with other businesses.

Staycation in Reykjavik

If it wasn’t clear to me already from riding through the towns on the outskirts of Reykjavik, it would be clear now: The capital city is a different world.

If these buildings weren't painted so nicely, the city would look quite different.

It’s mostly cement and steel, but to my eye, it sometimes looks like a little toy lego version of a city. In fact, I think the relationship goes both ways: If a child was given a heap of legos and told to build a city, they would probably create something that looks suspiciously like Reykjavik to an Icelander.

Now that I was established in my room, I reconfigured my bike for around-town touring and set off in search of food. I didn’t have hard data but I was sure I’d burned a ludicrous amount of calories getting here, and it was time to eat, sort photos, and catch up on work.

I put on my pants and Hawaiian tourist shirt – to be like Twoflower – and rode downtown to the trendy tourist area. Well, the area that was even more touristy than the rest of the city. For the first time since arriving in Iceland I entered an actual crowd. The bike got the usual distracted stares of course. I planned to spend many hours on the laptop so my destination was a cafe that claimed to be open late, and when I arrived I found a bike rack only 20 meters away, which pleased me. I can get right to work! Great to be in the city!

Catching up on the hackery

The cafe served sandwiches, cake, and various kinds of coffee. So I got one of each. Again the price was only slightly less than what I would have paid in San Francisco. Appalling to the tourists, just another day for me.

Look familiar, science fiction fans?

I was very pleased to see a crafty science fiction reference decorating the walls.

The cafe turned out to be a great place to hang out, and just like the cafe in Keflavik, I decided I would go there regularly. I know it seems stupid for a person visiting a huge city for a limited time to spend more than one day in the same place, but routine is an important part of my well-being, and the theme of my journey – the thesis if you will – is that it’s just as valuable to spend a lot of time absorbing the detail of one place, as it is to get a surface impression of many places. Perhaps even more valuable.

Yes, it's a real place.

Yes; it's the Lebowski Bar.

I had other options of course. The Big Lebowski Bar and the Chuck Norris Grill, to name two.

Yeah, I ain’t kidding! These are real places, and very self-aware.

Along with the photos and the work, I also answered some more curious questions from friends:

Question:
How does the perception of the US and of Americans feel over there?
Answer:
I don’t yet feel qualified to say, but I can at least make a guess.

Right now my best summary is, three years of Trump have not displaced three generations of slow immersion in American pop culture, and money, and military presence, with both good and bad influences.

A little bit of history here to set the stage.

Iceland was mostly populated by subsistence farmers and fishermen, of varying cultural origins, for many centuries. After World War II that all changed, and the US had a heavy hand in directing those changes, giving a big chunk of money to Iceland through the Marshall Plan and establishing a military base there as part of NATO. Iceland leapt forward and despite being the most sparsely populated country in Europe, also became one of the wealthiest and most modern.

The money was welcomed, the military protection grudgingly accepted, but Americans personally were not. Almost all the contention was over American soldiers mixing with Icelandic women. Soldiers were given curfews, women were put in jail, et cetera. The view back from the present is not a kind one: Icelanders said they were protecting culture, but what they were doing was policing their daughters. Just another case of men trying to control women for the sake of their bloodline.

Modern concerns about Icelandic culture are much more thoughtful and empathetic. It’s not about controlling women’s bodies, it’s directly about preserving history, attitudes, and the land itself. And these concerns are valid: Over the span of 70 years and two or three generations, the attitude towards Americans gradually shifted and the cultural influence of films, books, and most especially music emanating from the military base radio station has slowly but inexorably permeated Iceland and extinguished a lot of traditions. Plus, Iceland integrated very tightly with the world economy, and the American economy especially. The economic crash of 2008 was devastating for Icelanders, and a lot of their recovery has been centered around tourism, which is a further threat to their individuality.

(As an aside, the military base was shuttered in in 2006, and Iceland now has no standing army of its own.)

So, how does this translate to the reception of Americans on the ground?

Like anywhere, it’s a love and hate thing.  People from politically liberal or affluent families in the US make good tourists of Iceland, and are well received.  Their instincts are similar. Those who show up and are loud, crass, ignorant, and messy, because that’s how they are back home, are thoroughly disliked.

For example:  I came downstairs from my hotel room, on my second day in Iceland, to ride my freshly assembled bike around town and I passed by the bar area in the hotel lobby.  There were eight or nine American servicemen there getting drunk and talking crap to each other in loud voices.  One of them took a drink and bellowed:  “Okay guys here’s a question, how many of you would fuck a midget?”

His shouted question got a pile of shouted responses from his friends, all of them just as crass and stupid as you can imagine.

The woman behind the desk who had been so pleasant to me in our interactions over the past few days had a look on her face like, “I wish all of these people would catch fire and die.” And I felt exactly the same way.  I wanted to make some comment like, “on behalf of Americans, I apologize for those jerks over there,” but she was less than 15 feet away from them and I didn’t want them to overhear it and punish her.  So I just hoped I was a counterexample.

I’ve been friendly, thankful, and straight-forward, and every one of my conversations has gone well. But of course open conflict over anything is highly discouraged in Icelandic society, so, how would I really know what people think?

Question:
How’s the wireless connection?
Answer:
It’s been great everywhere except inside or just outside large buildings, and most of those are establishments that offer free wifi.

To compare wireless coverage for Americans, I think it makes sense to compare Iceland to the state of Idaho, which has several massive mountain ranges threading across it. Iceland has about 40,000 square miles of land area. That’s about half the size of the state of Idaho. Its highest peak is Hvannadalshnjúkur, about half the height of Borah Peak in Idaho. It has about 330,000 people in it. That’s less than one fifth of the population of Idaho. The land mass of Iceland has 95% wireless coverage. In Idaho, two competing cell networks give Idaho about 85% land coverage, reaching 99.4% of the population. So, in real terms, it’s about the same.

Question:
Has it been hard finding places to stay?
Answer:
So far, no. Between AirBnB, hotels, hostels, and various campsites, so far it’s easy. And definitely easier than New Zealand was.

Plenty of folks out and about at 1:30 in the morning. As it should be!

Pssst... Wanna buy some Nordic crap? Don't look too closely at the lettering. Obviously not made by native speakers.

To my Bay Area eye, this looks like someone is making a weird cultural statement by dressing up a perfectly good house so it looks like a barn.

Laundry day!

Shipping business

Today I wrestled my bike boxes down into their folded state, wrapped some tie straps around them, and booked a shuttle ride back to the airport.

This handy wall-size collection of information is hanging in the airport.

My intention was to drag them over to the DHL shipping office and send them back to the US, and that was what I did, except it took almost four hours instead of one because the DHL office is not actually at the airport. It’s four long blocks away.

Luckily I could make this long trek easier by swiping one of the luggage handcarts from the baggage area and chucking my boxes onto that. I felt pretty silly pushing a stack of boxes down the sidewalk, around the industrial area next to the airport, but I didn’t care — as long as I didn’t get any attention from the police. If they searched me they would find a wallet, a passport, and a big pile of candy bars. Highly suspicious!

Good thing there are handcarts sitting around at the airport, or the walk to the DHL shipping depot would have taken forever, dragging those big boxes along...

This map on the wall of the DHL shipping depot shows how Iceland is in the same time zone as the UK, even though it's a good distance west.

The clerk at the DHL office was surprised that I was trying to ship boxes with nothing in them. He took measurements of the boxes, weighed them, then told me to wait as he got on the phone with the central office and argued with them in Icelandic for almost half an hour, transferring to three different people, all of whom he knew on a first-name basis. When he hung up he announced that he could cut almost 80 dollars off my shipping fee, which was quite a relief to me since the original quote was well over 300 dollars. It would cost twice as much for me to ship these boxes back home empty as it cost me in baggage fees to fly them into Iceland fully loaded.

Stats about the bike boxes:

  • The large box weighs 14kg empty.
  • The small box weighs 10kg empty.
  • Both boxes are the same size folded: 134cm x 79cm x 12cm.

Bike boxes all taped up and ready to go! The cost of shipping was insanely expensive, but they sure got to their destination fast...

I borrowed some packing tape from the clerk and since he didn’t have anything else to do, he held the boxes closed while I applied the tape, and we chatted a bit about travel.

Him:
“I visited America last year. I have some relatives in New Jersey.”
Me:
“Oh yeah? What did you do in New Jersey?”
Him:
“They took me to see Wrestlemania.”
Me:
“That’s … A very American sort of thing to see.”
Him:
“Yes! And we went on a road trip. I saw Washington. I parked in front of the FBI building by accident and some people came out and asked me a lot of questions, then they told me to move.”
Me:
“Hah! That’s pretty cool. Not very many people can say they visited America and got hassled by FBI agents.”
Him:
“Yes. I want to go back. I would like to live there.”
Me:
“Oh? Why?”
Him:
“Everything is so inexpensive!”

I laughed and told him I could see what he meant, but my experience was the opposite, because I’m from San Francisco. Things in Iceland actually cost less for me. He seemed surprised by that. I encouraged him to visit again, because his accent would be very popular with the ladies. He didn’t say anything to that but his face turned a little red.

Now this is service. Some poor traveler left their car in the long-term parking lot at the airport with their window halfway down. Since the windows are all electric, the airport staff have no way to raise them. Instead of just ignoring the issue and letting the car interior get destroyed by the constant rainstorms, they got plastic and airport packing tape and sealed over the partially-down window. Very thoughtful!

With the boxes taken care of, I pushed the luggage cart back to the airport and waited for the free hotel shuttle. Once again I was the only person riding it. Isn’t this the height of tourist season? Shouldn’t every hotel be bursting at the seams? I wonder if they over-built…

Iceland Planning Notes

If you like rugged snowy mountains, fresh cold air, tempestuous rivers, geothermal springs, and the challenge of regular camping, then go to Iceland. Iceland is a great place to start a bike tour through Europe, and also a great place to tour in itself.

  • The crime rate is spectacularly low.
  • Pollution is nonexistent.
  • There are good modern services at regular intervals, and plenty of nature in between.
  • Most of the people are conversant in English.
  • People are friendly to cycle tourists without being intrusively curious.
  • The country is isolated and relatively small, making a tour through it feel self-contained.
  • The main international airport is very supportive for flying in bicycles.

All this, and my favorite weird thing: During the summer, it is light out even at midnight. If you are able to sleep during the day, you can avoid the majority of car traffic by riding on an upside-down schedule.

Entering

You’re most likely to be flying in via Icelandair. Icelandair has a good policy for bicyles.

  • A bicycle counts as sporting equipment, so a single bicycle in a single box costs as much as a standard checked bag.
  • The weight limit for a standard checked bag is 50lbs, or 22kg.
  • Maximum weight of an oversize sporting equipment box: 70lbs, or 32kg. If a box is heavier than this, you need to contact Icelandair Cargo to arrange transport for it.
  • The maximum size of an oversize sporting equipment box: 87in x 22in x 40in, or 221cm x 56cm x 102cm.
  • Only 25 bicycles are allowed per flight, so it’s recommend that you contact Icelandair in advance to pre-book the box, and ensure space for your bicycle. After booking your ticket you can call the airline directly at 877-435-9423.
  • Bicycles can be paid for during check-in at the airport, but it costs 20% more than pre-booking.

Once you arrive at the airport, a shuttle will take you from the tarmac to the terminal. Inside the terminal, after a great deal of walking, you’ll go down an escalator and through a few doors to a baggage claim area.

Your bike boxes are undoubtedly larger than a standard suitcase, so they will come sliding into this room from a short ramp set in the wall between the luggage carousels. Grab a hand cart and collect them.

Your next move depends on your style. If you’re dead tired and just want to check in to your hotel, you can usually catch a free shuttle near the information desk in the lobby. If you’re feeling awake enough to work, you can wheel your bicycle boxes over to the “bike pit”, a special building a short distance from the terminal that is set aside just for assembling your bike.

If you can get your bike assembled here, you can fold up your bike boxes and put them back on the handcart and haul them directly over to the DHL storefront in the airport, and get the boxes shipped back out of the country, or shipped ahead to your last touring destination.

If you decided to go straight to a hotel and assemble your bike later, note that your hotel shuttle usually runs both ways and you can arrange to take the shuttle back to the airport with your folded-up boxes, mail them out, and then take the shuttle a third time to return to your room. It’s a bit of an abuse of the shuttle system, but very handy.

A few random notes:

  • Getting In And Out Of Iceland With A Bicycle
  • Set up accommodations for the day you arrive, then use AirBnB to book something longer.  Just open the app, enter Iceland in the search, edit the rent range to 100 or less, and press the location marker when the list appears to get a map.
  • Remember to check WarmShowers as well, just in case.
  • Get a camping card

Crossing

Before heading to Reykjavik, how about checking out VIKING WORLD?  They have a campsite too.

Iceland’s winter is the most severe of anywhere in Northern Europe, including Norway and Sweden.  Live through Iceland, and you’ll be able to manage the others.

  • Temperatures drop drastically between July and October.
  • In November the nights will drop well below freezing.
  • In December the sun will not come up at all.
  • In January it will be well below freezing, all the time.

On the other hand, you’ll probably be able to arrange to sit in plenty of hot springs along the way.

Use Iceland’s “Iceland’s 112 survival app”, and the official road conditions site.

Snaefellsness peninsula is well paved and worth going around. It’s the long skinny arm poking out from the west side of iceland, northwest of Reykjavik, with a National Park at the end.

Route overview

A very useful overview, though 14 years old, is MasterlyActivity’s Iceland page.

SimplyCycling overview and impressions, what to know about Iceland.

The most ambitious version of my route crosses through the center of the country and takes 31 days at 30 miles a day (with no days off.)

With the six-day middle crossing included, and the ferry cross up from Vatnasafn, plus time to prep gear and sightsee, touring Iceland will take at minimum 6 weeks (42 days), and most likely approach 8 weeks (56 days).

Central crossing

The central crossing will take six days during which you’ll need to carry at least four days of food, and there is a whole lot of elevation climb.

Camping outside designated areas is basically illegal in all of Iceland now without written permission from landowners, which is not likely to be granted as you’re passing through. So plan to go from one official camp to another in the interior.

Refer to the cycling map for nearby accommodation markers, and for crossing the interior get permission from hut managers.

Exiting

You can exit the country on the east side, by taking the ferry from Seydisfjordur, Iceland to Hirtshals, Denmark. It runs on Tuesday or Wednesday every week.

  • 250 Euros for one person with bike + 530 Euros for a single-person cabin or 95 Euros for a bed in a shared room
    • Example itinerary:
    • Depart Seyðisfjörður at 8:00pm day 1
      • Booked a 1-person cabin with a window
    • Pass by Faroe Islands day 2
      • Breakfast 8:00am – 10:0am
      • Dinner 6:00pm – 8:00pm
    • At sea day 3
      • Breakfast 8:00am – 10:0am
      • Dinner 6:00pm – 8:00pm
    • Arrive at Hirtshals at 10:00am day 4
    • 3 nights total on the ship, total 397 EUR, or ~$470
  • There are a number of hotels in the town, as well as a camping site:

Comparison of three Heimplanet tents

Small tent (The Fistral)

  • About 2 minutes to inflate with small pump.
  • Makes its full shape only after using at least two guy lines.
  • Great for single-night stays and time spent mostly on the bike in unpopulated areas.
  • More risky because far more equipment needs to stay outside under the tent flaps.
  • Not good for remaining indoors during rainy days, due to low ceiling and lack of room.
  • Great weight-to-space ratio.
  • Not great for rain or snow.
  • Line of pockets at front is good for small items but additional after-market hanging storage should be added.

Medium tent (The Cave)

  • About 3 minutes to inflate with small pump. Can easily be inflated and then staked down after.
  • Least reliant on guy lines, keeps its full shape without any.
  • Easy to move and reposition even for one person.
  • Four pockets, two on each side, make a division between sleep gear and outside gear.
  • Poor weight-to-space ratio. Almost twice as heavy as Fistral with 2x the space.
  • Single round door is small and very awkward to use.
  • Relatively poor ventilation.
  • Vestibule area is relatively small but reasonably secure from rain.
  • Good in rain and wind and snow without using guy lines.
  • Extremely good performance in high wind when staked down.

Large tent (The Backdoor)

  • About 3.5 minutes to inflate with small pump.
  • Decent weight-to-space ratio. Twice as heavy as Fistral with 3x the space and a higher ceiling.
  • Pocket arrangement has indoor/outdoor division, same as Cave.
  • Large enough to deploy a large bed, unpack gear, and comfortably use a chair at the same time.
  • Almost enough vestibule space to enclose an entire bicycle!
  • Semi-reliant on guy lines.
  • Good in rain and wind and snow if guy lines are used.
  • Has a very large footprint:
    • Too large for almost all indoor deployments.
    • So large it may upset other people competing for space.
    • Difficult to find a patch of flat ground this large.
  • Color scheme matches my bike!

Based on the above, it seems to make the most sense to travel with the Fistral through remote areas, use the Cave for more rural camping, and use the Backdoor only when traveling with two or more companions.

This is a little disappointing, since the Backdoor is luxurious to use. Lots of ventilation, tons of space, room to work inside, a giant vestibule for cooking… It’s too bad it weighs so much, because if I’m going to be living in a tent for months at a time, I’m going to need a place that can feel like a home.

Since my first few rounds of using the Fistral I’ve discovered that it’s possible to clip a small lightweight tarp to one side of it and use the tarp to cover a bicycle parked parallel to the tent. By tying down the tarp on the opposite side of the bike, it creates a large semi-indoor area safe from rain that is easily accessible through one of the doors in the tent.

It also conceals gear a little better, and is still ventilated enough for cooking. Plus, with the bicycle visibly concealed and staked down it is far less likely to be snatched by thieves. With the tarp attached, the Fistral is basically a good-sized one-man tent with a rear vestibule that’s larger than the living space — just what a cyclist needs.