Heading to Europe? Then take to the roads in the cheapest way possible – with a European bike share scheme. They’re convenient, affordable and a great way to get to know a city without blistered feet and all the hassles and confusions of dirty, crowed public transport. With bike share schemes you just sign up, ride until you’re tired, and then bid your trusty bike goodbye forever at the docking station in the certain knowledge that another just like it will be waiting around the corner when you need it.
Many European cities and towns now have excellent bike sharing schemes so look out for them wherever you travel. But if you’re visiting any of these major centres you’re in for a treat because these are five of the best bike share schemes in Europe.
1. Paris, France – Vélib
In true Parisian style, the Vélib bike sharing system has become the icon of the continent’s non-motorised transport solutions. While Parisians initially turned their noses up to no longer being able to swear at foreign map carriers sauntering through the Metro, these days it seems everyone and their baguette is taking to the streets in one of the 23000-odd available bicycles.
It’s also the perfect way for visitors to get around town. Much of Paris is pleasantly flat, there are more cycle paths than you’ll be able to ride on and 1800 stations at which to dock your bike. Drivers may not exactly respect cyclists, but at least they no longer seem to actively steer in their direction. It’s also significantly cheaper than any other mode of transport in the city, and there’s a handy Vélib app to make sure you find the nearest station before your 30 minutes of free time runs out.
Vélib rides go further than simply being a functional way to get around town – scenic routes abound, and with stations every few hundred meters in the inner-city you can easily lose yourself in a ride along the Seine and still stumble across a station before your legs call it a day. If you’re feeling a little timid, there’s even an option to go on a guided Vélib tour, but that’ll require you to wear a brightly coloured vest and will definitely earn you the scorn of the pressed-for-time Parisian bikers who will identify you as a soft target.
2. Warsaw, Poland – Veturilo
Poland’s capital city is home to the country’s largest bike share scheme. This still means it’s considerably smaller than other European cities, but it’s fast become one of the most popular – and enjoyable – ways to get around town. In 2015 the Veturilo system rented out two million bicycles, and there are currently 200 stations to abandon your bike at when the going gets tough. The system usually halts over the harsher winter months, which is probably to save the extremities of over-eager tourists who don’t know any better.
Occasional uphills aside, Warsaw is a cyclist’s dream – beautiful green spaces like Łazienki Park offer pathways wide enough for you to embarrassingly practice that no-hands-on-the-handlebars manoeuvre without taking out too many babies in strollers; roads are chaotic enough to get the adrenaline flowing but are still manageable; and there are also a few kilometres of cycle paths and pedestrian corridors in the Old Town where you can bump along in true suspension-free bike share style.
3. Berlin, Germany – Call a Bike
The initial appeal of Berlin’s bike share scheme may be to avoid the costly public transport system that seldom seems to go where you want it to when you want it to, in an acceptable amount of time. And also to cover distances that are simply impractical on foot given the sprawling mass that is Berlin.
But the Berlin hipsters also seem to be onto something – when you hop on a bike in the German capital you’ll feel a sense of freedom and satisfaction that gives you a whole new appreciation for the city. It seems the flat whites and craft beers simply taste better when you reach the hole-in-the-wall, by-invite-only establishment on two wheels. And while a bespoke matt-black fixie would be first choice here, as a tourist you may just have to settle for one of the clunky but functional Call a Bike beasts.
There are hundreds of kilometres of cycle paths throughout the city, a large percentage of which are bike-only, and cycling will get you across the city and closer to where you want to be than most public transport can. And if you’re feeling touristy, there are few better ways to see the Berlin wall than by cycling alongside it all the way to the iconic Brandenburg Gate. Call a Bikes are common throughout Germany, which means you only have to fumble your way through the application process once.
4. Vienna, Austria – Citybike Wien
While at times it may still feel as if the only suitable way to get around Vienna is on regal horse and carriage, when you hop aboard one of Citybike Wien’s 1500 bicycles you’ll realise just how great it is to explore the city on two wheels.
Most tourists head straight to the cycling path on Vienna’s Ring Road to almost lose control of their bikes as they gawk at the grandness of the Vienna State Opera, Academy of Fine Arts, and the Austrian Parliament Building. But there are also cycling routes through the City Park (the English-style, 19th-century-styled green lung), Heldenplatz, and even along the famous Danube.
There are also 121 stations throughout the city – perfect for docking your bike and heading into one of the seemingly unending noteworthy museums and palaces. And if you get the urge to board one of the dozens of horse and carriages waiting to clip-clop you around town, stuff that fistful of euro bills back in your pocket and remember that you’re only paying a single euro to get red-faced and sweaty in the most graceful of European capitals.
5. Budapest, Hungary – BuBi
Fantastic name aside, Budapest’s BuBi bike share scheme is a great way to get around one of Europe’s most picturesque cities, although if you asked residents, you wouldn’t know it: thanks to its astronomical start-up and upkeep fees, many people have dismissed it as an overpriced white elephant. Which is great news for visitors – you can snap up a bike easily at one of 98 conveniently located docking stations and cycle the sparkling Danube to your heart’s content.
And, provided you avoid the hills of Buda, your heart will most definitely be content – the flat land lining the Danube and on the Pest side of town is perfect for cycling. Venture onto the non-motorised heaven that is Margaret Island to get away from the hustle and bustle, and if you get carried away, steer your clunky BuBi to Széchenyi fürdő, where you’ll find a docking station directly outside the city’s most popular thermal baths.
The Fine Print
It should be fairly obvious by now that bicycle share schemes are the best and cheapest way to get around European cities. And for the most part, they are free of complications and excessive fine print. But these are some points to keep in mind:
- They will charge a hefty deposit to your credit card. Sometimes this is just a pre-authorisation, and they may only reverse it when they get around to it a few weeks later. So be prepared for the heart palpitations when you get your bank statements or SMS notifications.
- The good news is, they will reverse the deposit if you return your bicycle, so calm down.
- Just make sure you dock it correctly when you get to the station. Follow the instructions carefully – most stations have a coloured lighting system that notifies you once the bike is back in the system and no longer your responsibility. If in doubt, yank as hard as you can on the handle bars just to make sure – looking like a fool at the time is better than feeling like one when you find out you’ve involuntarily purchased a bike somewhere in Central Europe.
- Never leave the bike unattended. If you don’t need it for a while, rather find a docking station and return it securely. While you have them, guard them like they’re worth the €1000 deposit that is hovering above your head.
- Don’t get carried away and ride them for the entire day without docking them. Most bike share schemes offer a free initial period, and then charge by the hour.
- If you’re running out of time, dock your bike and simply take out a new one. Smirk at your ability to beat the system and then ride away embarrassed when you realise what a cheapskate you’ve become.
And that’s really all there is to it. Now all that remains is for you to get to Europe and hop on the back of a clunky heavy-duty bicycle, if only to snap the ultimate Instagram shot to make you look like the adventurous, sightseeing bus-avoiding traveller that you want your friends back home to think you are.