Staying with locals can be good for your cycling holiday budget and also put you in touch with grassroots France, says Emma Philpott. Here's how cyclists can go about finding free accommodation in France.
What stands out from my six-month cycle tour of Europe? Sure the cycling was great, but visits to tiny bars filled with traditional musicians, kitchen table language lessons and tutorials in cherry picking have been encased just as firmly in my memory as the best roads of the trip. The moments I vividly remember came from encounters with local hospitality.
France is amply supplied with hotels, B&Bs, rural gîtes and municipal campsites that can all offer great accommodation, but if you want a deeper insight into the places you are cycling through, consider using local hospitality on the road.
Thanks to some useful resources, you don't have to rely on chance meetings with outgoing individuals to meet people in the region you are cycling through. Homes offering hospitality to cyclists are found on websites including Warm Showers and CouchSurfing. These can also save serious holiday cash by giving you a free bed, often a meal and a place to wash your clothes before cycling on.
It's not all about accommodation: you can arrange to meet up with a local for a guided tour, a coffee or a cycle ride while you're on their patch. Volunteering can also fit into a cycle tour and, likewise, a cycle tour may fit into plans for a volunteering holiday.
“I started using hospitality sites because I find the best way to get to know a place is by hanging out with people who live there,” says Goinglocaltravel's Vicky Baker, who has had first-hand experience of an extensive range of travel networking sites. “I wanted to reassess the way I travelled and make more of a connection with the places I visited. Instead of standing in a line with hundreds of tourists to see a so-called 'must see', it can be much more interesting to have an experience that is more 'every day', but, at the same time, is both personal and unique.”
Travelling through France in November 2010, Australian cycle tourers Nick Geard and Oanh Tran stayed with four hosts to have a break from chilly autumn camping. A night with organic wine producers that allowed them to see how the wine was produced while cycling through the Loire valley was just one highlight.
Staying with hosts who had extensive cycling knowledge also helped locate a problem on one of their bikes: “Our final hosts in France gave us lots of useful tips about the local area and touring generally, as well as detecting that my headset was loose and giving instructions (and a note written in French) for getting it fixed at a bike store on our route,” says Tran.
Will local hospitality suit your cycling tour of France?
Local hospitality is more accessible to those travelling independently, as you will have more flexibility as to where you stop each night. It can be an ideal break from sleeping under canvas for campers, and hosts often provide welcome company for solo cycle tourists.
Don't think you need to entirely discount on-the-road hospitality when on an organised group tour. To extend your trip, consider staying at a local host's house for a few days before setting off on your tour or flying home.
Be aware that you will need a reserve of energy to be a guest, so consider a local bed as just one of your accommodation options. “I think there always comes a time - particularly on longer trips - when we feel like a bit of time on our own,” explains Vicky Baker. “If you are being hosted by someone, you need to be feeling sociable and you can't really lock yourself in the spare bedroom. Personally, I like mixing hosted days with stays in hotels or hostels.”
For safety's sake, let a friend know your plans before you meet with a potential host, especially if you're travelling by yourself. Most hospitality websites encourage feedback from hosting experiences, so check recommendations from other travellers before you agree to stay with someone. Also ensure you contact your host by email or phone before your arrival to confirm your arrangements.
If you haven't used hospitality websites before, read other people's experiences first. Going Local Travel is a good place to start – check out its frequently asked questions on travel networking. To get a feel for what's involved, consider signing up to be a host while you're planning your trip. And if you're cycling with someone else, don't forget to make sure they're happy with any arrangements you make to stay with locals.
By choosing to see France by bike, you've already chosen to see the country at a slower pace – why not see a little more of it by visiting someone who lives where you are headed?
Cyclist-specific hospitality websites
Warm showers is an international resource for cycle touring hospitality with 14,000 members across the world.
How to use: Registered members can view active member listings via a map and contact hosts to request hospitality using a web-based email form.
Pros: Warm Showers members will expect you to have a bicycle and won't be surprised if you have a lot of luggage. A common interest in cycle touring will ensure you have something to talk about.
Cons: With only 600 members in France, some regions aren't covered by many hosts.
Other web-based travel hospitality networks
The two biggest websites are CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club, but there are many alternative and niche sites online including those for female travellers, peace networks, teachers and policemen. Going Local Travel runs regular updates on the various options.
How to use: Registration allows you to search an online list of members to find those who are available to host. Some sites will allow hosts to specify what form of hospitality they can offer; ie a room, couch, meal or coffee.
Pros: CouchSurfing alone has more than 200,000 members in France, while Hospitality Club has almost 50,000, increasing the likelihood that you'll find a host on your planned route.
Cons: Response rates can be lower if you're a first-time user of more popular sites. Put some work into your profile before sending requests. Not all hosts will be in a position to offer safe and secure bike storage – particularly in larger towns and cities. Advise potential hosts you have a bicycle to ensure they'll have space to store it somewhere safe.
Cost: CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club are free of charge. Other online hospitality clubs may have a registration fee or charge a fee for a list of local hosts.
Volunteer for a roof over your head
Help out in a community as part of your trip to France through organisations such as Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and Help Exchange. There are also websites for specific interests including historical restoration, environmental volunteering and language volunteering.
How to use: You can usually see some information about volunteering options before registering with a website. You may arrange volunteering directly with a host or through an external organisation.
Pros: Can provide a social break from cycling and a chance to learn new skills while being involved in a small community. Rural volunteer placements may provide bicycles so you can explore the surrounding area if you are volunteering before or after an organised tour and don't have your own bike.
Cons: Some placements will have minimum stays which may not work with a shorter cycling holiday. Start dates may be fairly fixed, which may affect other parts of your planned tour.
Costs: A one-year membership of the French branch of WWOOF starts at £15 for an individual or £20 for a couple. Basic membership of Help Exchange is free. Other volunteer opportunities may have charges to cover accommodation and food.
Ask your friends
Another way to find a bed in France is to try close to home by using your existing networks of friends. This is made easier by websites like Facebook and Twitter where you can easily ask everyone you know in one go.
How to use: Advertise via your wall, twitter feed or blog where you are going and where you would like to stay and you might strike it lucky. You can always leave a note on the Freewheeling France Facebook page or on our messageboards. Talking about your trip with family and friends may also shed light on connections in France.
Pros: You might find someone to stay with who at least knows someone that you know.
Cons: Your connections may not be as reliable as someone who has signed up to a hospitality network.
Asking on the road
If you're carrying a tent, don't let your route be restricted by the availability of campsites. If we couldn't find a suitably discrete wild camping spot we would ask if we could camp on someone's land.
How to use: Keep an eye out for likely places to pitch the tent with someone working nearby. Often if a farmer is checking crops or working on their land, they'll be happy to grant permission for you to spend the night. Families in rural areas may also be happy for you to pitch on a lawn – just be prepared for conversation and don't outstay your welcome.
Pros: Having permission can feel safer than camping without and if your host is friendly, it can turn into a memorable night.
Cons: Can be a bit daunting to ask, especially if there's a language barrier. Often not as discrete as wild camping. If you don't speak adequate French, consider having a note detailing your request to camp translated before you leave home.
Costs: Usually free, though some farmers may ask for a token payment.
Emma Philpott is a world curious New Zealander who packed up London life to cycle back to New Zealand in March 2010, boyfriend in tow. After a winter in Istanbul, they are travelling east towards Russia, Mongolia, China and South East Asia in 2011. You can read about their ongoing adventures on their Rolling Tales blog.
See Emma's other articles for Freewheeling France
- Cycle camping
- French gastronomy: Eating on the road
- Campsite recipes
- Basic cycle camping kit
- Cycling in wet weather
- Mastering campsite cooking