Renting a motorbike is one of my favorite ways to explore while traveling.
You have all the freedom to go where you want, when you want, and at your own pace.
Freedom of mobility aside, there is nothing like invigorating your senses by taking it all in as the wind blows through your hair and rushes around you.
Some of my best experiences while traveling in South East Asia and South America were while exploring on rented motorbikes. Many times, I simply ride out of the city, in no set direction, with no set plan and just see where the road takes me.
Often this leads to discovering villages, sights and even happy locals who are curious as to why any foreigners would take the time to explore their remote area.
Now that we have established the reasoning for wanting to rent a motorbike, lets get down to the nitty-gritty.
Renting a motorbike has its risks.
As with any vehicle, there is always a risk of an accident occurring. So first and foremost, make sure you know and understand the local rules of the road and driving customs. It’s also a good idea to have some knowledge of how to ride a motorbike.
It is a good idea to have an international drivers license (although many shops in South East Asia and South America, will rent to you without one) to avoid legal repercussions or bribes in the event that something happens or you get pulled over.
Part of lowering the risk and making sure your rental experience goes smoothly is making sure you have a rental bike which is in good condition. I have probably rented over 30 motorbikes in my time. The condition of the bikes has ranged from nearly un-drivable to practically brand new. I have learned the importance of vigorously checking over a rental bike before taking it out.
There are three main reasons you want to inspect the bike
1. Safety – A bike in poor condition can increase the risks of an accident. Worn out brakes for instance, mean you can’t stop as fast. This can be the difference between running into the back of a car or stopping safely.
2. Time – There is nothing worse than having your rental bike break down and having to spend a couple hours having it repaired or exchanged for a new one.
3. Money – If there is something wrong with the bike that isn’t pointed out when you rent it, it is very easy for the owner of the bike to say you broke it while you were out and that you are responsible for the repair.
Here is a thorough checklist of things to inspect when renting a motorbike.
1. Read your rental contract carefully.
Do you have to fill the tank up with gas? Is there insurance on the bike and are you covered if there is a theft or accident? Is there a deductible? Are you covered without an international license? What is the maximum amount you would need to pay if the bike was stolen or completely demolished in an accident?
Read our guide on understanding travel insurance for more tips.
*I have met far too many people who have gotten screwed over because they failed to read their rental agreement and something happens and they are left having to pay big money.
2. The Brakes.
Take the bike for a quick run down the street. Make sure both the front and rear breaks function properly. They shouldn’t be over grabby and they shouldn’t be soft. You shouldn’t have to squeeze the breaks overly hard to get them to work. Also if you feel any inconsistency in the breaking, this could mean the rotors are warped and that is no good.
3. Make sure the motorbike is straight.
When you take the bike for the quick test spin in step 2, make sure the bike is riding straight. Sometimes if the forks or frame are bent from a previous accident, the bike will pull you towards one side of the road.
4. Lights and horn.
It blows my mind how many vehicles in South America and South East Asia drive at night with no lights on. Forget being able to see yourself, but how do you expect to be seen by others? Lights may seem insignificant but they are a very important safety feature.
Make sure the taillight, break light, and headlight, are all functioning. If the turn signals don’t work, you can let this slide, as you can signal your turns safely using your hands.
Also don’t forget the horn. Unlike North America and Europe where the horn is predominantly a means of expressing your frustration with others driving, it also acts as an important communication device for alerting others around you.
Check tires for good pressure and ample tread. You don’t need to check the actual pressure per say but they should look and feel full. Sit on the bike and see that the tires hold your full weight and still appear full.
Check the tread (the grooves in the tire that give it traction and grip). Use a coin (as seen in the picture gallery here) to check the depth of the treads. If they are warn down too much or bald do not take the bike. Having warn out tires severely compromises your traction and safety and is an accident waiting to happen.
6. Shocks. Grab the front brake and push forward and down on the handlebars.
If the bike dips down to easily chances are the shocks are shot. Similarly, sit down on the seat and thrust your weight back and down. If the back dips down too easily this is not a good sign.
Look on the front fork seals, the two rubber pieces that surround the metal rods that connect the handlebars to the wheel; if there is oil on the seals or forks, this is also not a good sign. The shocks are not only for providing a comfortable ride, they also play a part in the handling or the bike.
7. Listen to the engine.
It should hum regularly. If it isn’t think twice.
8. The Chain.
Make sure the chain doesn’t have too much slack in it.
Look the bike over. Note any scratches, cracks, etc. Make sure to point them out to the shop owner and even have him note them on the contract.
10. Have a copy of the rental agreement.
Make sure you have a copy of the rental agreement and the phone number of the shop owner.
The list might seem like a lot, but once you learn how to inspect a bike you can go through it easily in less than three minutes. Believe me you will be saving yourself a lot of risk, hassle, and headache by taking a couple minutes to make sure the rental bike you are getting is in good working condition.
It’s a good idea to wear a helmet regardless of the local laws. I also highly recommend glasses or sunglass as dirt and rocks and bugs can fly into your eyes which is not pleasant.
One last tip for renting a motorbike:
If you do get into a small accident and repairs need to be made, I suggest you go to another shop to fix the bike. Many times the shop you rented the bike from will try to ask you for more money then it would cost normally to fix the bike. Because they have your passport or credit card and rental agreement, they have leverage.
Take it to a third party shop who will be more likely to give you a fair price as they don’t already have your credit card and will compete for your business. If you can find a local friend to help you do this, even better.
Safe riding and as a wise man once said to me, “Keep the rubber side down.”