I've read a couple of blog posts recently whose titles have suggested it's possible to cycle-tour entirely for free. When you read the blog's content, however, you realise it isn't actually possible, or you can only get close to free by behaving like a selfish arse, taking advantage of people, sometimes people with a lot less than you have. I don't want to be a selfish arse.
That said, you can cycle-tour for very, very little. Last summer three complete strangers and I tried an experiment. We wanted to see whether, on an extremely small budget, it was possible to cycle a long distance: approximately 3,500 miles along Europe's western coast from Liverpool in the UK to Gibraltar on the Mediterranean. Our budget had to cover everything except travel tickets (in our case, one ferry ticket) and major repairs to bikes, and so our minimal funds had to include all food, fuel to cook the food, drinks, accommodation, bike consumables like inner tubes and spokes, and anything else we might need along the way. It would also have to cover bottles of single malt whisky, diamond tiaras and trips to the opera, but you won't be surprised to learn that we didn't spend money on any of those.
Importantly, we wanted to do this in a sustainable way. This meant not stealing stuff or raiding bins, since one day the supermarket bins might be locked for good, or – who knows? – people might stop throwing so much food away. It also meant not using sites like Warm Showers or Couchsurfing. I know that I move around too much to offer a future bed to a fellow cyclist and so it would be unfair to take advantage of this free service without returning the favour. Sheets have to be washed. Water has to be heated. That would just be passing the cost on to someone else, and we didn't want to do it like that.
We set the daily budget at just £1 for each cyclist, which at the time was approximately US$1.50 or €1.40. It's not much, but when you shop carefully and supplement your food by foraging and fishing, it's just about doable. Oddly, it's easier to get by on so little in a relatively expensive country like the UK than it is in generally cheaper places like Spain and Portugal. Britain's huge, ubiquitous supermarkets each carry a massive range of budget lines – a large sliced loaf of bread for 40p ($0.60, €0.56), a pot of strawberry jam (that's jelly for US cyclists) for 27p ($0.40, €0.38) and a tub of peanut butter for 60p ($0.90, €0.84) – whereas in Spain, the big supermarkets tended to be on cycle-unfriendly roads and their cheapest lines aren't that cheap anyway, and so we usually ended up buying from less economical, tiny village supermarkets. Luckily, Spain was abundant in free, roadside fruit, especially figs, and these are great once your digestive system has worked out how to cope with the onslaught.
Usually in France, Spain and Portugal we wild-camped. Wild-camping is fine but, for peace of mind, it's better to stay legal. For this reason, throughout England and Wales, we asked farmers if we could stick our tents in the far corner of an unloved field. Of the twenty or so people we asked, only two refused and they were tenant farmers; our staying there would have caused problems if the landowner had found out. Sleeping at the farms was great. Unlike when wild-camping, we could set up early, wake up when our bodies wanted to and get a comfortable night's sleep in a field with no nasty surprises, although we did share one with fifteen curious bullocks who looked like they wanted to kick our heads in.
Did we manage it? Yes, we did. Just. It can be done for very little and without taking advantage of anyone. That said, I can't recommend it unless it's your only option. Wild-camping and frugal dining hides you away from hotels, camp sites, restaurants, bars and all those other places where you're likely to meet people and, for me, it is finding interesting and inspiring, or wacky and weird, people that makes a bike tour special. And, for that reason alone, I won't be touring again on a budget of £1. But if my finances deteriorate in future, it's reassuring to know I can always afford a nice, long bike ride. I'll just need to get used to the figs again.