Family holiday in Brittany by bike, train and ferry
As a family who love cycling, we’ve dreamt about taking bikes with us on holiday abroad for a little while now. But as we don't own a car, we have had to get a bit more creative than simply loading them onto a carrier and crossing the channel.
Family: 2 adults and 2 children aged 5 and 8 years old
Method of transport: bike, train and ferry
Bikes: Bike43 and Tern GSD longtail cargo bikes
Time of year: Summer holidays
Start point: Bath
Destination: North coast of Bretagne, France (15 miles East of St Malo)
Taking a cargo bike on holiday to France
Being able to take a cargo bike on holiday was actually one of the reasons we got a longtail bike, as research suggested they were more train- and ferry-friendly compared to a box bike.
So this summer we took not one, but two longtail bikes to Brittany, France (we borrowed one from friends).
We were meeting some friends in Brittany, and it was important we would be able to carry four children, so they could come along for bike rides too.
Thankfully as we were booked to stay in self-catering accommodation in Brittany, we didn't have to transport camping equipment with us, just four people and all their luggage for a week’s holiday!
How we chose our summer holiday destination
When choosing where to go on holiday we looked at ferry ports that we could easily get to by train from Bath. Portsmouth was the obvious choice, with a direct train connection, so we checked the Great Western Railway website to find out about bicycle reservations.
Brittany Ferries offer four different ferry routes to France from Portsmouth, and we looked for accommodation near those four ports. We found a holiday home about 15 miles from St Malo, which we decided was doable by bike in terms of safety and hills.
Brittany (and all of France) is well-served by cycle routes, and we used the French cycle tourism website to look for good destinations for cycling. The Eurovelo route 4 goes all the way from Ukraine to the Western tip of France, including the coast line of Brittany.
We used the free route planning website Cycle.travel to plan our route from the ferry to our accommodation. I actually plotted out three different routes, so that we had options to choose from depending on how we were feeling when we arrived.
Taking a longtail cargo bike on the train in England
Taking bikes on a train can be a bit of a challenge depending on where you live, let alone with a longtail cargo bike, two kids and luggage. Thankfully our train journey from Bath to Portsmouth was a direct one, so there were no changes.
We did our research and decided to do a test run a few weeks before we were due to catch our ferry to France, so we knew we’d fit and how long we'd need, before having the time pressure of a ferry to catch.
To cut a long story short, the test run didn’t go well! We spoke to the station staff before the train arrived and they told us our bikes wouldn’t fit on the train. They also told us tandems were not allowed on trains - cue a conversation about a longtail bike not being the same as a tandem.
They said we could try, and it turned out there was no way our bikes could make the turn to get into the carriage, so we gave up - good job we did a test run!
We did learn from the very helpful staff that on any given day there were two trains running to Portsmouth with the type of carriage that would very likely be suitable for our bikes. What we also found out from our test run is that our slightly longer Bike43 fitted in the lift and we could easily get onto the platform.
The train manager gave us his phone number and suggested we call him on the morning of our travel day to check which train would be suitable for us to take to Portsmouth.
Our ferry didn’t leave until the evening, so we had the whole day to get there. What a kind and generous manager!
Getting ready to go to France by bike
In preparation, we’d taken off the front racks of the bike, to make them slightly more nimble. The Tern GSD has a foldaway handlepost, which can help when trying to cram it into small spaces. It can also be stored upright, so that was another option to store it on the train.
For carrying our luggage, we had the large Tern panniers on the Tern GSD, and two Ortlieb panniers on the Bike43. On top of that we had a bunch of rucksacks, which we’d attach to the Tern GSD with bungee cords.
On the day of travel we contacted the train manager and found out the only suitable train was around 1pm that day. We got to the train station on time and made sure we were in the right spot on the platform.
When the train manager got off the train and looked at our bikes he said our bikes were not allowed on there because they were e-bikes. Fortunately, our local train staff contact came to the rescue and explained that e-bikes are in fact allowed, and that we were going to get onto the train to catch a ferry.
We got on the train, which had a near-perfect storage place for our bikes and luggage, and we could sit right next to them.
The storage space had a rack above it, which the Tern GSD could fully fit underneath, thanks to the folding handlepost, but the Bike43's handlebars stuck out slightly.
My normal upright bike also wouldn’t have fitted either, so this shows that cycle storage on trains is usually designed for lightweight, sports-type cycles and not bikes for everyday journeys with racks and panniers, let alone bike seats or cargo bikes.
We were very glad to be on the train and made our way to Portsmouth where we’d have around 6 hours to spare before our ferry was leaving.
We learned through the Family Cycling UK Facebook group that Portsmouth is particularly prone to bike thefts because of the ferries leaving for France and Spain. Not wanting to risk it, even with good locks, my husband stayed with the bikes at a nice spot in the harbour while we went to explore the historic dockyards.
When it was time for dinner, we found a restaurant with outdoor dining and parked our bikes right next to us.
Embarking on the ferry in Portsmouth as cyclists
Cycling to the ferry was easy along National Cycle Network signposted routes on shared pavements and cycle lanes.
We had to queue with cars to check in but were then given priority to get on the ferry. Our bikes were parked in a little space on the ferry where some machinery was stored.
The bikes were fastened to the boat by the friendly ferry staff. We were asked to take all our luggage with us, which was a bit of a pain, but doable.
While navigating around a ferry terminal that is designed for lorries and cars can be a daunting idea, cyclists are common passengers and ferry staff are used to bikes coming aboard.
We took the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo and had a hut with two bunk beds in it. Spending the night on the ferry was fun and comfortable and we arrived in St Malo, Brittany the next morning.
Getting off the ferry was easy, although it was rather cold and windy. We had a 15-mile trip to our accommodation and this was the least fun bit of the entire holiday with kids being tired and cold.
As it was early on a Sunday morning, stops were not easy to find.
We decided to stop and warm up in the first village cafe we found outside St Malo and then continued on to get to our accommodation. The journey took about two hours in total, with stops.
Cycling day trips in Brittany
Once we’d arrived (and warmed up!) it wasn’t the end of the cycling. We then spent our 10-day holiday using the longtail bikes for most outings and day trips, including to Cancale and Mont Saint-Michel.
The paved and unpaved cycle lanes along the coast and easy cycling across the entire area made the bike trips easy, fun and comfortable.
We often followed the beautiful Eurovelo 4 route along the coast and used the France Velo Tourisme website to find out about routes before our trip.
Two adults on longtail bikes would carry the four kids, and two adults would be on their own bikes. The longtail bikes with panniers could easily take everything you need for a day trip to the beach with kids.
We also sometimes split up and took the car our friends brought with them for some of the group and then switched who rode the bikes on the way back.
This is how I ended up cycling with the longtail and my youngest back after a visit to the breathtaking Mont Saint-Michel.
We found other road users to be very respectful when sharing the space with us and the quiet country roads made for very pleasant cycling.
We only had to get the children off the bike for one steep hill when we went to visit Cancale and found the powerful motors on the longtail bikes weren't strong enough to carry two 5 year-olds on one and two 8 year-olds with luggage on the other.
We saw plenty of people cycling on the Eurovelo route along the coast, including children on their own bikes and children in bike seats, trailers and tagalongs. The Eurovelo route 4 definitely seemed suitable for a family cycle touring trip!
What to do in Brittany
We ended up using the bikes every single day, bar one rainy day when we all stayed home.
Here are some of the things we’d recommend doing:
- Eat fresh oysters and mussels in one of the many outlets near the beach
- Cycle along the coastline
- Enjoy the salted caramel local speciality
- Visit UNESCO World Heritage Site Mont Saint-Michel
- Fly a kite on the beach
- Go to the market in your local village
- Swim in the sea
- Visit a different beach each day and collect shells (lots of them!)
Returning home to England
On the way back to the UK, we cycled back to St Malo on a sunny day and cycled right into the historic walled city, which was spectacular and so much more fun than parking outside of the town and walking in.
We stayed right next to the seaside and spent a lovely day in the city before taking the daytime ferry back to Portsmouth the next day.
On both ferry journeys there were only a handful of other cyclists, and we were surprised there weren't more!
We stayed the night in Portsmouth on our return to allow plenty of time and options to get our bikes back on the train to Bath the next day.
The next day we went to the train station and found out that the first train was perfect to take our bikes, although we had to split our party up because each carriage would only fit one bike.
Top tip: Getting on at Portsmouth Harbour is really easy because it’s the start of the line. It’s also where the ferry to the Isle of Wight and North Spain departs, so plenty of adventures to be had from Portsmouth!
Other ways to go on a family cycling holiday in Brittany
If you don’t own a cargo bike or don’t want to take bikes on trains in the UK, you could take the ferry as foot passengers and hire bikes in France.
There are plenty of places where you can hire bikes, including e-bikes, children’s bikes, trailers and tandems.
The French cycling tourism website has lots of information about cycle hire too.
Top tips for family cycling holidays
- Make sure you bring clothes and gear for all weathers! Even though we went in the middle of summer and the weather was nice, it was very windy sometimes and we all brought buffs and hats to protect us from wind and the sun.
- If possible, a practice run on the trains proved invaluable for our successful UK train journey
- Familiarise yourself with the train operators' bike policy, as different operators have different interpretations of the rules. We knew electric bikes were allowed, despite what one train manager thought.
- Have a plan B in mind if the bikes won’t fit on the train. Our plan B was to bring the bikes back home and go on holiday without wheels.
- Make sure your bike is in good condition and have it serviced not long before you head out.
- Familiarise yourself with a good route planner and have a mobile phone holder or map holder on your bike. We used Cycle.Travel’s excellent android app and used it for all our journeys. Eurovelo signage was quite patchy in places.
- Make sure your luggage is waterproof so you’re prepared for a downpour. Our waterproof panniers came in very handy on the wet ride from the ferry to our accommodation.
- Don’t forget to bring locks. We actually found ourselves feeling very safe about leaving the bikes in Brittany and mostly used the wheel locks when we’d stop at a cafe or for a picnic, but it's better to have them with you.
- Bring your battery charger and travel adaptor if you’re riding an e-bike. We never found ourselves with flat batteries and only charged the batteries every few days.
- Wear comfortable clothes on the travel days. I usually don’t cycle in sports clothes, but did on this trip, to avoid getting sweaty and also to save on luggage space by wearing my running shoes!
- Start small if going abroad feels like a big step to start with, go for a UK weekend away or visit family or friends via public transport and cycling.
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