HOW TO TRAVEL EUROPE WITH THE SCHENGEN VISA RULES?
JAN 16 2024
If you've never traveled Europe long term, you may have never heard of the Schengen Visa Rules. As an American, I never knew about it until I was about to embark on my expedition. I mean, we only get 10 days vacation a year and 5 sick days, so why would we need to worry about long term travel anywhere? I digress. I'll explain everything I learned the last two years about the Schengen, how I navigated it, and any tips I can offer fellow overland travelers.
WHAT IS THE SCHENGEN AREA?
The Schengen Area is a region made up of countries within the EU that allows for free passport travel. There are no border checks once you enter the Schengen Zone, and only passports are checked upon entry and exit. Upon crossing the borders within the Schengen, you can sometimes see remnants of abandoned border patrol booths. To view a large map and read official rules, click HERE.
On the map to the left, the purple and blue countries are in the Schengen, but blue are not in the EU, while the purple are. The green are in the EU, but not he Schengen. The grey are in neither.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE EU AND THE SCHENGEN?
The European Union (EU) is a political and economic union of European countries with its own Commission, Parliament and Council. The EU was set up after two World Wars to prevent more wars, promote peace, help countries in the aftermath of WWII, as well as a way to remove trade barriers to promote economic growth and improve living conditions for citizens. You can read more about the EU HERE.
WHAT IS THE SCHENGEN VISA?
If you are not an EU citizen, you cannot stay in the Schengen Zone indefinitely without a visa. The rule is you are only allowed to stay 90 days out of 180 days within the Schengen Zone, then you need to exit out of the Schengen countries to reset your visa allowance. This is a rolling clock and you can enter and exit when you want. You don't need to stay 90 days consecutively. For example, you can fly out 3 days to anywhere outside the Schengen and fly back in and thus, so those 3 days you are out do not count. If staying 90 total days, you don't need to apply for a visa. You may request extensions in extraneous situations, but I've never tried it because "traveling slower for tourism" doesn't seem to be a legitimate reason for my case. With an American passport, you don't need to apply for a visa, you just need to keep count of your days. For those that do not reside in the US, check your country's passport restrictions. Here is a list of countries that are required to apply for a visa prior to entering the Schengen HERE.
HOW DID I NAVIGATE THIS?
Are you ready for my big reveal? Behold!
This is basically the only planning and research I've done in the last two years. It's a bit of a puzzle to figure out how to tour every country in Europe and navigate the Schengen rules. This was the best route I could come up with while touring as much as I could.
I first landed in Croatia October 2021 and at that time, it wasn't in the Schengen yet, so I didn't have to worry about it. Since January 1, 2023, it has become a Schengen country so now over landers will need to account for that. I didn't have to worry about the Schengen for a while since I was in the Balkans and a good majority of the Balkans are neither in the Schengen or EU.
I started in late fall and knew I was heading to Greece for the winter for "warmer weather". Little did I know Greece was not warm at all, but I would describe it as more tolerable than more Northern countries. I rode Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and North Macedonia for two months and then entered Greece on December 25, 2021. Honestly once November hit, it was really miserable. Some weeks the warmest days would be 34F/ 1C and I would still ride a few hours just to make some distance. If it's not lightly snowing, then it is raining or spine piercingly cold. I don't recommend riding in the Balkans in the winter, but it's possible because if I did it, you can do it too.
I spent 3 months in Greece because while it wasn't tropical island warm, the sun still came out. I was also lucky to experience a major snow storm in Athens that shut down the entire city. It was beautiful in its own way. Locals informed me this happens once every ten years. To see snow in Athens, you can watch the video I made on my YouTube HERE.
After my three months in Greece, I migrated North to Albania and Kosovo, which are not in the Schengen and then I cut across all the way to Bulgaria and then to Romania. I knew once I exited Romania, my last non Schengen country in the region, I would then enter Hungary racing against the clock because my Schengen 90 day countdown would start.
It was going to be a fast paced journey because I would need to hit 17 countries to exit out again: Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands. I only counted the countries I explored. I didn't count Belgium and France in these countries because I only used them for transit to get out of the Schengen into the UK.
Some countries I only spent a night, like in Latvia where I had this beautiful spot by the lake to myself.
Other countries like Hungary, I spent 4 days because I met some Romanian-Hungarian bikers at the border crossing and they invited me a moto rock camping festival.
It was constantly on my mind that I needed to keep moving. It felt like I was always under pressure and I could never relax or breathe. Even with all the time in the world, I still couldn't travel how I want. If I spent an extra day in one country, I would need to take it away from another country. It was a pretty challenging and exhausting way to travel because something was always being sacrificed in the future for a moment in the present. So I really needed to ask myself: Is this monument worth it, do I want to spend my time with this person, do they feel good to me and want to spend time with them and I'm not just being polite? There were times where I met amazing people and they invited me to stay with them, but I had to say no because that meant I would need to make up the extra day somewhere else in my journey. But don't get me wrong, I did do this sometimes. Because the sun sets so late in the summer, sometimes 10-11pm at night and the temperature stays warm, I would ride until 2 or 3am in the morning to make up time. This of course was not sustainable, but I knew I only needed to push myself hard for 3 months and I could rest in the UK after.
After I hit those 17 countries, I took the Eurotunnel from Calais, France to Folkestone, England. Finally! I thought...I can rest in London. However, I didn't know London is known for its rainy and cloudy weather in the fall (actually more like year round). I was completely demotivated to explore as temperatures kept dropping as winter came. I also didn't realize how expensive London was.
The last winter, I found hostels for $10/ 9 Euros a night in the Balkans and thought I could find the same in England since it was the winter and low tourist season. Wow, I was wrong. I paid $20-40/ 18-36 Euros a night in hostels. It was unsustainable financially to stay in London so I needed to move North. So much for resting. I was really internally bitter and frustrated about this. Imagine riding hard for 3 months thinking you can finally rest, but you are forced to move again because of weather and cost.
So for the next two months, I rode even more North and explored Scotland, took the ferry to Northern Ireland and continued to face unbearable weather. Sometimes the pain from your fingers and toes going numb was so unbearable it felt like your nails were going to pop off from lack of circulation. I couldn't ride more than 45 minutes to an hour like this and only rode 2-3 hours a day.
The cold was just so unbearable and I questioned why I making myself suffer. It really wasn't worth it paying so much money to not be able to explore, staying in hostels and hotels for weeks at a time watching the rain and snow from indoors. I decided to take a few months break and fly back to California to help my cousin with her first in January 2023. I was grateful to go home and spend time with family.
Once I resumed my journey, I flew back to Ireland to finish the Wild Atlantic Way, took the ferry to Wales, finish England and then went back to the mainland of Europe to finish the rest of the countries.
This time, I would have 3 months to do 11 countries in the Schengen: Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, San Marino, Malta, Vatican City, Monaco, Andorra, Spain, Portugal. The race against the clock began again.
This second round, I knew the strain I would have to put my body through. It wouldn't change how difficult the journey would be, but I at least knew know I had to front load some things to best prepare. In Ireland, I put on as much weight and muscle as I could. I did this because when you move fast on a motorcycle, you tend to eat unhealthy no matter how hard you try. Gas station food is convenient and quick, and I eventually lose weight because I am not resting properly, eating enough and am always on the go. No one pulls out their cooking stove to cook broccoli or brussels sprouts on their lunch break.
This second round of my Schengen run had its own challenges. I didn't realize France, Italy, or Spain were such long countries. Some days I would just pin the throttle to make as much distance as I could in a day. I would take the main highway because it was 2 hours faster than taking the more scenic back country roads.
Italy was especially a mental challenge for me. In order to reach Malta, I had to go all the way down to the South of Italy, and then had to go all the way back up. Italy felt like it never ended and I was just itchy to get it done and over with.
Upon finishing Italy, I started my way West to Monaco, Andorra, Spain and Portugal. These were my last countries on my Europe tour and I was happy to be so close to the finish line.
At a certain point, I just wanted to be done. Portugal was my last country and even though there wasn't some big celebrating moment, I was happy to be physically there.
It took me two years instead of my predicted one to finish my Europe tour. This is due to a variety of factors. Some including the limitations created by the Schengen rules, the winter weather, my exhaustion and my desire to want to see what I wanted in each country. I honestly don't think I could have finished any faster because I was running on fumes the majority of the time.
MY TIPS ON TRAVELING THE SCHENGEN
I don't know anyone else who would want to set a goal to ride through every country in Europe, so let's gear my advice to riders/ over landers who want to tour 3+ months in Europe.
Before starting, create a general map of the countries you'd like to tour and have an exit point. The bigger options to reset the clock are to the UK, the Balkans, Morocco and Turkey. There are smaller options like San Marino and Andorra, but these are very small countries that one might get cabin fever if spending 3 months there.
Leave a few extra days for buffer when exiting incase. Living on the road, something always happens, a flat tire, medical visit, needing extra days to rest from exhaustion, rough weather to limit movement, etc.
Do a bit of research on the weather and temperature of the region you'd be adventuring in during the time of year you will be there. The extreme heat or cold adds an extra layer to riding a motorcycle fully geared. I've tested it and you can't really go too far too long in these environments.
Start making contacts you trust in countries in case you are unable to exit out on time, so you can leave your bike with them. Things happen, you might need to fly home unexpectedly and the last thing you want to worry about is if your bike and gear will still be there when you come back. This could be a trusted shop, a cool travel friend you made on the road, a dedicated locked garage.
Make a list of things that are a must see, and a list of things that would be nice to see. You can't see everything and things will get eliminated off these lists. So as long as you've seen or done the few things on the need to, your trip is going to be okay.
Train before starting the journey. Riding long term for long days on the bike is physically and mentally exhausting. Your body gets used to it eventually, but it still hard. You have to push the bike sometimes, pick it up, carry all your gear on and off the bike, oftentimes up multiple sets of staircases. The buildings in Europe are old and historic and many are not equipped with elevators. You'll have an easier time if you're in some sort of physical lifting shape. I'm not talking about long distance running lung capacity shape. Motorcycle touring shape seems more of a slow twitch muscle, high weight endurance type of shape. At least from my experience. Imagine you're run out of gas and need to push your bike for 800m. It's a slow burn, but high weight resistance exercise. Or climbing up a few floors with 45 kg/ 100 lbs worth of gear.
Take pictures, journal and have fun! This will be one of the best adventures of your life.