Fifteen years ago this month, my then-girlfriend and I were living in Washington, DC and found ourselves with three weeks to kill before starting new jobs. We had no car and basically no money, but we did have two bicycles. So we spent a couple hundred bucks gearing up our bikes and set off for a barely-planned cycle tour of Virginia and North Carolina. It remains one of the greatest trips I’ve ever taken, in part because traveling by bike is such a wonderful way to travel. Here are four reasons I recommend it so highly.

You Take the Scenic Route

I’ve lived in the DC area most of my life, and have traveled south many times, but you don’t take the same routes on bike that you would in a car. For one thing, biking on highways is practically suicidal. It’s also pointless. Loaded down, we never got going much faster than 12 miles an hour no matter what the speed limit says. So why not take the road that’s more pleasant to travel on?

Instead of barreling down I-95, we headed south out of DC through southern Maryland and across the Potomac on the Henry Nice Bridge. We waited out a hurricane in a bed and breakfast in Colonial Beach, Virginia, and pitched our tent at little campsites scattered along the rural roads. Since we weren’t trying to get anywhere in a hurry, we were open to detours.

For example, we’d heard you can take the ferry from Reedville out to Tangier Island, a little town in the middle of the bay with its own history and culture. We biked out to the tip of the peninsula, persuaded the marina owners to let us camp by the dock, and took the first boat out the next morning.

You Look Weird

I remember, when passing through a small town in southern Virginia, a man in a pickup pulled up next to us, rolled down his window, and said, “Where’d you all come from?”

We told him DC, and he said, “On a bike?!” He thought we were nuts and he got a kick out of us.

Over and over again on our trip, we encountered people who were surprised and delighted to see us slowly trudging up some hill or into town, and then were eager to give us directions, let us hitchhike for a spell, or even put us up for a night. In Williamsburg, Virginia, we persuaded some college students to let us camp in front of their house on sorority row. On our trip, we were a curiosity. That gave us the chance to meet people and do things we never would have if we hadn’t been traveling by bike.

You Experience the Places you Pass Through

When you travel by car, you glide through places in a climate-controlled bubble with your own personal soundtrack—you could be anywhere, really. When you bike, exactly the opposite is true: you’re out in the elements, you put your feet down on the pavement when you stop at a light, and you get a chance to talk to people.

I realize that the predictable comfort of driving is a big part of its appeal, and of course being exposed to one’s environment comes with its share of risks (as when we got chased by three pit bulls down a gravel road). But it also meant that when we arrived at our destination each night, we felt like we’d been on a journey.

You Get to Be Spontaneous

I imagine that to many people, guerilla camping after slogging along the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp may not sound like a vacation. But the spontaneity, the feeling of being in the moment and open to possibilities—that’s something that is available to people every time they get on a bike. Unfortunately, in a lot of places, biking for most people in most places is just not appealing or practical. But as we’ve seen in cities across the country, adding safe, convenient, and pleasant bike routes can encourage more people to give cycling a go.

When I’m working on a project and thinking about how we can make a place more amenable to cycling and other forms of active transportation, I try to find ways to provide opportunities for the spontaneity and adventure that I experienced on our bike trip. You can learn about how every day at Foursquare ITP, my fellow planners and I don’t just plan for, but embrace, active transportation.