Is a cross-country trip on a scooter feasible, reasonable, or at all safe?
April 16, 2009 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Is a cross-country trip on a scooter feasible, reasonable, or at all safe?

I've been dreaming of taking a trip to visit friends in distant states this summer and seeing the country. I'd plan on just filling a backpack with a couple changes of clothes, a tent, sleeping bag, camera, netbook, and toiletries. A scooter seems like a relatively cheap way to get around and would give me a lot of flexibility.

I've never rode a scooter or motorcycle, but I would of course take a safety course and practice riding around town before hitting the road. But I still don't really know anyone who's ridden scooters or motorcycles very extensively and so I don't really know how practical my plan would be.

The scooter I'm considering would be 150cc, supposedly has a range of 110 mpg, and supposedly has a max speed of around 60 mph. I don't know if that's wishful thinking on behalf of the manufacturer, or a realistic estimate.

Here's a scooter I'm looking at, which someone local is selling for $850, w/ <100 miles.
posted by abkadefgee to Travel & Transportation (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have much in the way of practical advice to offer, but Peter S. Beagle wrote a really fantastic memoir about a cross-country trip by scooter which he took in the early 1960s, from NYC to California. It's called I See By My Outfit, and it's one of my very favorite books. It's recently back in print, and might provide some insight despite the trip being 45 years in the past.

Best of luck!
posted by dryad at 1:16 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why? Why would you risk your life on a knock-off scooter? If you are going to do this, and it is possible, do it on a name brand scoot (Piaggio, Honda, Yamaha) with at least the potential for parts and service. Now that being said, Yes you can. If Obama has told us anything it is that yes you can. Don't expect to go on any super highways, but it would be better on old interstates anyway. Get some good rain gear, padded gloves, ballistic jacket, full face helmet, lots of reflective tape or fabric, and see about panniers instead of a back pack. You'll thank me for it. IN my experience 60 is doable on the flat. uphill, not so much.
posted by Gungho at 1:17 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

The first couple of things that pop into mind are how uncomfortable a scooter will get after the first few hours. In a car, you can fiddle around with your seat adjustments. The folks I see doing long distances on motorcycles usually have rather large bikes with I imagine a bit more physical comfort.

When you say "range of 110 mpg" do you mean mileage, or do you mean how far the scooter will go in between fillups? Because 110 miles is not enough to get you from gas station to gas station in the big wide open spaces.

Also, what about bad weather?
posted by ambrosia at 1:20 PM on April 16, 2009

Yes! It is! The only trick is that you'll have to stick to surface roads, and make sure your scooter has the horsepower to get it around on the faster streets you do ride. I've ridden all around the Bay Area; San Jose to San Francisco, buzzed around Mountain View, and planned on going cross country until I had to move (and subsequently sell the scoot. :( ) I had a Buddy 125, and the highest speed was between 60-80, depending on the wind.

The 150 should be fine, the mpg will be amazing. Two years ago it would cost me $4 a week to fill up, and the scooter was my only means of transportation (that included weekday commutes of 2+ hours a day).

Use mapquest to plot a surface road map (no highways: they are too windy and your scooter WILL go too slow). Know how to change the tires/minor repair on the scooter before you go. Know where your gas stations are and when you'll want to fill up.

I'd get that scooter checked out before you buy it, obviously. Lastly, you might find Vespa Vagabond a good read: she ended her trip before completing it, but she had a similar idea to yours.
posted by thatbrunette at 1:22 PM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: @Gungho- Thanks for the advice. From what I can tell, those scooters cost significantly more. If a knock-off is far less safe, I could be convinced. But besides the name, what are the major differences?

@dryad- Thanks.
posted by abkadefgee at 1:27 PM on April 16, 2009

I think it's doable, but you'll need to stick to local roads. Back in 1991, I rode my badass and sorely missed Yamaha Zuma II (not mine pictured) from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to Tampa using only local roads (SR70, to be exact). The 275 mile trip took me about 6.5 hours (my scooter's top speed was about 48mph with the wind at my back). The gas tank held just under a gallon, and it took 2 full tanks to make the trip. Gas was about $.85/gallon at the time, which was very nice.
posted by zerokey at 1:27 PM on April 16, 2009

The scooter you're linking to is most likely Chinese, which is why it's so much cheaper. They break easily, quickly, and many scooter repair shops refuse to try fixing them because they're basically throwaway machines made with shoddy workmanship and impossible-to-locate parts. I'd liken it to asking if you could make it across the country in a Yugo. Yeah, you might get a few miles, but when (not if) you break down, you're going to wish you'd sprung for something more reliable, even for the added cost.

I'd definitely buy whatever you're going to get soon, and get your butt used to lots of riding before you take off.
posted by scarykarrey at 1:38 PM on April 16, 2009

besides the name, what are the major differences?

as mentioned, parts and service availability. Take it for granted that some repairs will be needed, and go from there. If you're not in a huge hurry, it can still work out ok, but you might spend extra time in random small towns while you wait for parts to ship [days or weeks]. As an experiment, try calling random motorcycle shops and asking for a random part for the model you're considering. See if it they sound confident about ordering a part for you, or if they give you the run-around. Now call a town nearby with a population less than 5,000 and see how things look then.

But mainly I came here to say DO IT!!! and to reiterate the advice of panniers [your back will be in for enough of a rough time without a backpack on] and rain gear [you also get wet from the bottom up whenever a car passes you...] and the full face helmet/gloves.

Wear safety gear or I won't be your friend.
posted by Acari at 1:38 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @ambrosia- 110 mpg would be mileage. If you're right, obviously, that would be a major problem. And for bad weather, I'd plan on getting some rain gear, but if it was awful, I'd definitely pull over and find some place to wait it out. With my phone and a netbook, I'd definitely keep checking the weather every day and plan accordingly.

Either way, the key would be obsessive planning before the trip to make sure I could make it from station to station on the route I chose and make sure I had safe places to stop on the way.
posted by abkadefgee at 1:39 PM on April 16, 2009

I have camped cross-country by motorcycle -- a couple of old 750cc Honda's and a 1000cc Goldwing.

Carrying enough gear to camp for any length of time on such a tiny bike would be very challenging. Even a little backpacking tent and a compact goosedown sleeping bag take up a fair bit of space. If you plan to get into the mountains at all then you'll need some heavy, warm clothing. Add in a camp stove, fuel bottles, a couple of aluminum pots... it piles up.

Also, a no-name scooter will mean parts will be nearly impossible to get while on the road. It will be much harder to find a mechanic who's willing to work on it. The first time something breaks may be the end of your trip. This will be no fun at all.

I can see short weekend trips of a few hundred miles on a cheap little bike, but the scale of trips you're contemplating sounds unlikely.
posted by jon1270 at 1:39 PM on April 16, 2009

(By the way, I'm in a vintage scooter club, which is where I get my info)

I'd stick to Genuine Scooters (Buddy, Stella for the vintage look with modern durability), Yamahas, and Piaggios (Vespas mostly).
posted by scarykarrey at 1:41 PM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: @acari- What random parts do you think might be likely to need replacement? What might I ask for that would be difficult to find?
posted by abkadefgee at 1:42 PM on April 16, 2009

My wife has a 150cc Stella—Stellas are made in India using the tooling for older (early 80s?) Vespas, so they're cosmetically and mechanically very similar.

If she were writing this, she'd say Don't Do It.

1. Mechanical issues. She's had a lot, including some that could have been life-threatening if they manifested at 60 mph on an interstate—like a disc rotor coming loose. This is part of what Gungho is talking about when he says the knockoffs aren't as good.

2. Roadworthiness. She won't take hers on the interstate. Legally, she could, but even straining at top speed, she could not keep pace with traffic, and would not have enough presence on the road to feel safe.

3. Comfort. The posture, noise, etc of a scooter all contribute to making them short-range vehicles.

People have certainly made long-distance trips on scooters, so it can be done. It strikes me as foolish to commit to such a trip without having the scooter in hand or even experience riding them. If you do it, stick to back roads. A low-displacement motorcycle is more roadworthy and generally gives you more bang for the buck, fwiw.
posted by adamrice at 1:42 PM on April 16, 2009

The difference between generic sub-$1000 scooter and one of the bigger names (Vespa, Honda, Yamaha, etc...) is that you have dealer support in many parts of the country. If something breaks on your X-treme XM-155 will you be able to find someone to fix it? Even if there's a X-treme dealer, will the scooter even be fixable.

This $999 Scooter Info page has lots of good information on why you should not buy a cheap scooter.

That said, it can be done. And is done by lots of people.
Scooter Cannonball a bi-annual cross country scooter race
Alix's P.E.A.C.E Scooter Project
Scootin' for a Cure
posted by vespabelle at 1:43 PM on April 16, 2009

People routinely bicycle across Canada; you see them all the time on the highway between Kamloops and Calgary during the summer. There are several 6-9% grades along that route. Can't imagine a scooter would be anymore difficult. Probably a bit less safe as you can go a lot faster on the scooter but you could always throttle it back.
posted by Mitheral at 1:45 PM on April 16, 2009

Regarding weather: during my scooter adventures, I would often hit vicious S. FLorida thunderstorms. They're easy to tough out until you can find an overpass to take cover under.

I always imagined bringing some type of portable shelter with me in case I hit rain and had no place to take cover. I just found this. It's a bit pricey @$145, but it only weighs 14oz and packed is 4"x8". You could surely find something cheaper or improvise.
posted by zerokey at 1:48 PM on April 16, 2009

Response by poster: Well, after clicking on @vespabelle's first link, I was led to this article from my local paper on the brand of scooter I was looking at.

So, definitely not going to buy THAT scooter :).

So far, this thread has made me think that this could still be a fun trip, but that it's currently out of my price range. Guess I'll have to keep saving!
posted by abkadefgee at 1:55 PM on April 16, 2009

Just make sure that you've got the price of a bus ticket tucked away, so you can bail if things go sour.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:59 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know about this. I ride a Genuine Buddy 125, and while they're one of the faster scooters off the line, I can't imagine getting up and safely maintaining 55+ speeds for long periods of time. And riding in the wind or around curves at that speed on a 10-inch wheel base is plain scary.

Scooters just aren't meant for long-term riding, both mechanically and in terms of riding position. Like others have said, you might have trouble findings replacement tires, bolts, bulbs, starters, spark plugs, and other items they are likely to fail on a cross-country trip, regardless of manufacturer.

If you're looking at a new scooter, it's important to know that most manufacturers recommend not riding scooters too hard in the first 500-1000 miles. That is, you should keep to smooth streets, variate your speed, and not hit speeds of over 45 mph.
posted by lunalaguna at 2:00 PM on April 16, 2009

The trip is definitely doable, but you will probably thank yourself later if you were to buy a scooter, take a year to get familiar with riding it, have a few close calls that DON'T involve cruising at 60mph, and then going through with it. There's a learning curve, and as most scooterists will probably tell you, it's easier to learn it at your own pace rather than being forced to learn everything the hard way, when you're far from home.
posted by scarykarrey at 2:01 PM on April 16, 2009

It's been years since I bought a motorcycle, but 1970's-vintage CB350 motorcycles used to be cheap and common. It seems that many people bought them with the hope of saving fuel during the '70's gas crunch, and were unpleasantly surprised by the wind, rain and noise. Back in the day when I rode, I saw several with only a few hundred miles on them, advertised for ~$300 or so. They've typically been stuck in the back of a garage for decades, gasoline turning to jello and varnish in the carburetors, so it takes a few hours of cleaning to get them running -- but they are very simple machines. I wonder whether some of those aren't still around.
posted by jon1270 at 2:06 PM on April 16, 2009

Another concern: small diameter tires are terrible on compromised roads. They're fine on new pavement, but a pothole is a whole different experience when your front wheel can fit inside of it.
posted by jon1270 at 2:09 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Those little Asian scooters are made with cheap pot metal and designed to last for a year or so of college commuting. Not an epic cross-country journey.

Also, if the advertised max speed is 60, the realistic cruising speed is probably more like 45.

If you're dead set on wind in your hair (inside a helmet, natch) you need a real motorcycle for a highway journey, not a cheap toy.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:21 PM on April 16, 2009

Scooters: fast enough to get you into trouble, not fast enough to get you out.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:25 PM on April 16, 2009

I've got some experience doing distance riding on small bikes. My advice: Go for it!

I have a Honda Nighthawk 250 that I've logged 25,000 miles on, including several out of state trips. It's not much faster than a scooter; top speed is 75 mph, a little faster if there's a tailwind or downhill. Very simple machine. I also have ridden a couple thousand miles on a Buddy 125. Small bikes are a world apart from their bigger counterparts. You can do more things on a bigger bike, but it's not as rewarding. Some people say the smaller bikes are too slow - not true.

As far as getting a bike, you don't have to restrict yourself to a new bike. Take a look on Craigslist and see what's out there. A lot of people are scared of buying a used bike. Most of the time there's no reason to. A lot of people buy scooters or motorcycles, ride it for a few hundred or a couple thousand miles, and then it gets put in the garage. After a couple of years, they think to themselves, "This thing is taking up space. I really should get rid of it." The result is a bike that's close to new and pretty darn cheap. You can always have it checked out by a mechanic if you want. (My other bike, a '02 Honda Shadow ACE 750, was over $7000 new, and the previous owner put over $2000 of goodies on it. I bought it in '06 with 5000 miles on it, for $4500. He put a little over 1000 miles a year on it - the bike was barely broken in. So don't be afraid of used. I've since put 16,000 miles on it with no problems.)

What will be most important to a trip like this will be planning. You don't need to plan it in minute detail. What you will need to do is first figure out where you're going, and then also if there are any places you absolutely must stop at. For example, maybe you've never seen the Grand Canyon, or you're hell bent on seeing the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota. (Apologies if I got the song stuck in anyone's head :) ) This gives you general outlines of a route. General outlines is all you really need. From there you can look and see if there's anything cool along the way you might like to check out. Maybe there's an attraction nearby that'll be neat, or a festival going on when you'll be in the area. You can also look to see where towns are that will have gas stations, hotels, places to eat, etc. Try to figure out if there are any areas where fuel will be a problem. This can be a very big deal out west; I've ridden 80 mile stretches where no fuel is available, and there can be longer stretches out there. Find out where you can camp. Find out where motorcycle shops are along the way, in case you need to get something fixed. The more knowledge you have, the better your trip will be, since you'll spend less time worrying and you'll also know what you can do if a problem arises.

There's some other preparation you need to do. For example, you'll probably need to figure out storage on your bike, so that you have a place to put things on it. Getting a roadside service plan, such as the American Motorcyclists Association MoTow, can take a lot of hassle out of any breakdown issues that may arise. A GPS can be a godsend at times; I know my way around, but my little eTrex has been an immense help on rides. A cell phone goes without saying; if you don't have one, a prepaid phone can be a great little lifeline with a low cost. A credit card tucked away can be a nice little lifesaver, as well as a couple of twenties tucked away on a hidden spot on the bike. If the money is hard to get to, then you're not going to use it unless you really, really need it... such as when you're at the only gas station for 40 miles around and the debit card reader is out of order.

Little luxuries - You'll also want to budget for a motel every now and then. Camping is great on a bike, but there are times when you will want a room for the night. The convenience of a in-room shower, power outlets, and shelter along with a warm place to sleep is something that will sometimes be worth the money. A motel is also a good place to wait out a bad storm. I've ridden in all kinds of weather, including hellacious driving rainstorms; there are going to be times where you decide that you just aren't feeling like getting beat up by bad weather all day. I imagine you'll be getting food at grocery stores and making sammiches and such along the way. This is a great thing as it allows you to eat at your convenience and save money. But make sure that you stop at a diner or such every now in then, and sit in a comfy chair, let someone else cook for you, and let the waitress bring you coffee.

There are plenty of resources online to help you plan your trip. Since you're new to riding, I'll point you to , which is a site that caters to all riders, but especially new ones. The community there is fantastic, some of the best people I've had the privilege to know, and they've been an immense help to me. They also plan regional events sometimes. There are several MSF Rider Coaches on the site as well in the forums. You can also look at for ideas on good places to ride.

I've been wanting to do a cross country trip on the bike for years. The only thing that has stopped me is insufficient time off of work, so I've had to settle for 4-5 day trips. If you get the chance, do it!
posted by azpenguin at 2:54 PM on April 16, 2009

Looks like you've already made up your mind but a couple other points...
Lightweight scooters can be blown all over the road by strong wind gusts.
Avoid drawbridges with metal grids.

Read an old travel memoir by a guy who went from London to Australia by Vespa in the 60s? 70s? Title escapes me.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:56 PM on April 16, 2009

Here's an account of a solo cross-Canada trip, all the way to Inuvik, that was made on a moped.

There are tons of awesome photos, and this is one of my very favorite pages on the web.
posted by glycolized at 3:21 PM on April 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sure, as long as you aren't in a rush. A Korean guy named Wan earned massive celebrity status among the Battlescooters crowd by riding around the US on a Ruckus 50cc. You can read his epic thread here.
posted by workerant at 3:34 PM on April 16, 2009
posted by Jules22871 at 3:52 PM on April 16, 2009

Ed Otto rode the 1995 Iron Butt on a Honda Helix, and finished respectably.

I'd take to heart all the warnings you're getting about the cheap-o chinese scooters. You'll note all the 180, 200 and 250cc engines on the Scooter Cannonball link upthread. I know that I'd want to have the extra power (and weight) under me, if I were going to put in those sorts of miles.

I rode an Elite 250 for years. At different times, I've owned larger motorcycles, and a 49cc moped.
posted by toxic at 4:16 PM on April 16, 2009

Read Wan's Ruckus Adventure.

Note that he chose a very popular widely supported scooter with tons of dealerships and great parts availability, as opposed to a disposable potential beater.

Another guy I went to college with has ridden from Maryland to Arizona twice on a Honda Reflex 250cc scooter and lived to talk about it.

In my opinion, the concept and the trip are viable and potentially very rewarding, but not on the scooter you're considering.
posted by imjustsaying at 4:22 PM on April 16, 2009

Plan your epic adventure for summer 2010, buy a scooter now, ride it all around to get used to it, work out any mechanical issues, get your scooter driver's license. A year from now, you'll have a much better feel for what riding a scooter is all about. And whether you want to ride it several thousand miles across the country.
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:57 PM on April 16, 2009

FYI, according to the link:
The range is 110+ miles for each tank.
posted by The Deej at 7:14 PM on April 16, 2009

I've never ridden a scooter, but I did have a small motorcycle for awhile and did a couple of trips on it, though nothing as big what you're planning. I'd second jon1270 and azpenguin's advice and look for a used motorcycle rather than a scooter. They really are simple machines that are reliable and easy to work on with minimal tools.

Most important, though, is to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before you go.
posted by fogovonslack at 8:01 PM on April 16, 2009

You should totally do it. Read back through forums like this one, as well as brand-specific forums for whatever scooter you end up buying, for inspiration and advice. I have seen at least three or four blogs by people riding cross-country on 50cc scooters, and last summer I passed a couple of people putting along in the slow lane, loaded up with camping gear and with big smiles on their faces.

Basically, on a really small scooter, you pick routes that work well for bicycles and keep a close eye on your mirrors so you don't get squished. On a slightly bigger scooter, like the one you were considering, you stay off the interstates and still keep an eye on your mirrors. Your biggest issue (aside from a sore ass) will be avoiding overpacking -- a few extra pounds of stuff is a big deal when your engine is that small.

Others have covered why name-brand scooters are a good idea -- I'll just say that I fervently agree, and would suggest a used Honda or Yamaha over a brand new no-name scooter. There's a good in-between category, too, with a couple of brands like Kymco that are cheaper than the big Japanese companies, while still providing quite good service and quality.
posted by Forktine at 8:08 PM on April 16, 2009

Yes I forgot to mention Kymco. A good and popular brand. As far as parts: Rims, spark plug, battery, brake pads, throttle cable,... Anything that will wear out or break. I own a Piaggio LT 50 sometimes called the Liberty 50. When I had a flat it took two days to find/order a replacement tire and tube since the OEM tubeless tire had been discontinued. So even a name brand can sometimes be difficult to service.

The recession has forced a number of casual riders to sell their scoots. You may be able to find a good used one.
posted by Gungho at 8:54 AM on April 17, 2009

Not exactly a scooter, nor advice, but you might enjoy The Straight Story which is a movie about an old guy who took his lawnmower on a road trip.
posted by Rash at 12:14 PM on April 17, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all of your advice everyone.

I think my plan now will be to continue hiding away some money over the next few months and see where I'm at. If I can manage to save enough, I'll probably buy a scooter in late summer and see how I like it. If I have the time, I'll shoot for a nice trip at the end of the summer/early fall. If not, I'll probably wait until next year and take the time to get used to scootering.

It looks like it can be, and maybe should be done, but not with the scooter I was considering and now I'll have to start saving.

Thanks again!
posted by abkadefgee at 12:40 PM on April 17, 2009

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