Until now, one thing I’ve shied away from on this blog is dispensing country-specific, guidebook-style advice for bicycle travellers.
Mainly this is because the unpredictable nature of cycle touring can generate highly varied experiences. On the exact same route, a life-changing ride for one person may prove bleak and uneventful for another.
Such differences can’t help but colour your memories. No matter how objective one tries to be in retrospect, I’m not sure that cycling across a country makes one qualified to write a comprehensive and balanced guide for everyone else if that wasn’t the original intention of the trip – which for me it has never been.
It’s also because of the perennial problem with travel guides in general: they age, and they do so rapidly. I don’t want to create a bulky content-maintenance job on a blog which for the most part tries to dispense timeless advice. In any case, there are sites out there (WorldBiking.info and TravellingTwo.com come to mind) that do a good job of country-specific cycle touring advice already. If all you’re interested in is information, I happily refer you to Amaya and Friedel of the aforementioned.
I do, however, feel it’s time to share something of what I’ve learned from cycle touring extensively in a few select parts of the world – mainly because it’s beginning to feel a little selfish not to.
But I’m going to take an alternative approach, rather than replicating what’s been done elsewhere. Instead, I’ll base the articles on personal anecdotes and impressions from my own travels that I hope will convey a flavour of the place, rather than detailing the nuts and bolts of riding there.
This approach will mean I can write more honestly. It should be fun to put together and make use of my current nostalgic mood, and the result should be unique to this blog and hopefully entertaining to read.
Through these tales, I’ll also highlight country-specific resources for readers interested in researching further. This combination of personal stories and curated links should result in a light-hearted inside look at what a cycle tour in each featured country might feel like, with some carefully-selected starting points for follow-up research should the fancy take you to ride there.
As part of my protracted celebration of a decade of blogging about bike trips, I’ve decided it would be fun to write and publish country-specific articles in the order in which I first visited them.
This will have the interesting side-effect of filtering out countries through which I may have technically pedalled, and therefore might be tempted to include in a tally if someone asked how many countries I’d cycled through (e.g. Russia, Greece, Slovakia), but from which I actually have nothing of substance to relate.
(Anyone can collect passport stamps, but if there’s a meaningful measure of whether you’ve truly visited a place, it’s surely whether or not it gave you a worthwhile story to tell. I don’t think buying a greasy garlic-covered bread roll from a Slovakian supermarket between Austria and Hungary qualifies.)
By that criteria, then, country number one in the series – which you’ll be able to read about here shortly – will be… Scotland.
The UK’s 4th annual Cycle Touring Festival is rapidly approaching – there are now less than two months to go until that weekend of cycling, camping, workshops and talks in the lovely surrounds of the Forest of Bowland AONB in Lancashire.
Founded and run by my good friends and fellow world cyclists Tim & Laura Moss of TheNextChallenge.org fame, I was proud to have played a small part in organising and promoting the inaugural event back in 2015, after a fairly nonchalant chat about the idea during a picnic in Esfahan a year previously.
It’s ironic that I’ve been too busy exploring foreign lands (!) to have attended the event since then, and it sadly looks as though the same will be true this year. But I’m happy to see the festival going from strength to strength, and for a lot of UK-based riders, the May dates represent the sweet spot between the planning and the execution, with several people kicking off their tours from the festival itself each year, while many others head back to the final stages of their preparations before riding off towards whatever adventures await them on the road.
More still come to the festival to get a crash-course in what’s actually involved in the adventurous end of cycle touring, and with dozens of riders far more experienced than me (or Tim & Laura for that matter) volunteering their time to speak, run workshops, and be bribed with ale for additional coaching time and advice throughout the weekend, there’s probably no better place for it.
The last few tickets are still available, though don’t expect them to last long. Check out all the details of the weekend and reserve your tickets at cycletouringfestival.co.uk.
As a UK resident who travels abroad a lot for a living, I’m always on the look-out for ways to optimise foreign transactions using my UK/GBP bank accounts — especially after the day in 2016 when Brexit wiped out 15% of my overseas travel budget overnight.
In the realm of things I can control, I look for ways to minimise the fees associated with debit and credit card transactions for three types of transaction: cash withdrawals from overseas ATMs, point-of-sale card purchases abroad, and online purchases in foreign currencies or with foreign merchants.
Most banks will penalise (i.e. profit from) such actions through complex matrices of charges, often combining multiple fees for a single operation, not to mention poor exchange rates on top. Such charges quickly add up, and if you’re not wise to them, you might find anything from 2% to 5% or more of your hard-earned is leaking away.
Fee-free UK current accounts for overseas cash withdrawals and debit card transactions abroad have been hard to come by recently. Metro Bank was formerly this world traveller’s bank of choice in this regard (Nationwide before that), but they recently scaled down their global fee-free offer to Europe alone, making it far less attractive for the world traveller, though their fees are still very competitive.
Thankfully, a new contender has arrived in the form of Starling Bank, a mobile-only ‘challenger’ bank offering its personal current account customers zero-fee withdrawals and purchases in any currency anywhere in the world.
Especially for independent travellers in remote regions who rely heavily on cash, this is as good as it gets.
Yes, I was a bit slow on the uptake — it’s been several months since the offer was launched (what can I say — I was out in the mountains!)
But I’m also not one to recommend something I haven’t tried. So I opened an account with Starling with the intention of using the account to finance my current travels in South East Asia and reporting back on my experience.
The sign-up process involved installing the Android app (iOS also available), filling in my usual basic personal details, receiving an SMS confirmation code, and ta-da: my account was open. It couldn’t have been simpler. The MasterCard debit card arrived in the post a couple of days later, I transferred over a hundred quid from my regular current account for starters, and then, after a few test purchases, the rest of my funds for this trip. I’ve been using it on the road ever since.
So what’s the difference from a regular account and card? Well, the user-oriented, mobile-only concept is interesting and plays out in a couple of different ways. The first is in how your account usage is communicated to you. The app behaves more like a personal finance assistant than an account ledger, including details of the retailer, location, date and time, as well as the amount and the equivalent in GBP if applicable, and even a guess at the category of expense — much more accessible than a cryptic line on a bank statement. This information is also presented as quick and easy visuals of spending over time. The ‘real-time’ notification claim holds true: usually there’s a buzz in my pocket even before the cashier has handed me the receipt or the purchase confirmation page has finished loading.
The second break from the norm is that there’s no branch to visit or website to log into — it’s just an app. Online bank accounts are nothing new, of course (see Triodos, Egg, etc), and behind the scenes there’s a fully fledged FSA-certified banking operation with the UK government underwriting your deposits, as well as MasterCard protecting you from card fraud. I still have an account number and sort code if I need it, and can thereby use the account in a more traditional way if I wish. In other words, the underlying mechanics are the same, but fine-tuned for a much more user-friendly means of interaction.
There are a few novel features I haven’t tried, including the ability to ‘ringfence’ certain amounts of money without having to open a new account. This could be useful to the traveller for, say, monthly budgeting, reserving emergency funds, or protecting a particular sum for a planned purchase in the future, such as a long-haul flight ticket.
Some will dislike the perceived risk of having your bank account in your pocket, just as some refuse to make contactless payments or put their card details into a secure website. I can’t say I share these concerns: with the app only accessible via its own PIN code or a fingerprint scan, and the ability to instantly disable my card in case of loss or theft, my feeling on balance is that this gives me more control over account security than the traditional arrangement (i.e. having to find a WiFi hotspot to look up my bank’s international emergency hotline before calling them breathlessly over Skype to cancel my card).
Having said all that, I did choose to come first to one of the most notorious countries in the world for local ATM withdrawal fees (Thailand), being slapped for about £5 per transaction, which of course neither Starling nor any other UK bank have any control. But at least the lack of fees at my own bank’s end took the sting out of it — and paying for most of my accommodation in Thai Baht (via the Agoda app, in case you’re interested) further proved the point.
So Starling is my new go-to travel account. It isn’t a magic bullet: I still carry a Visa debit card for regions where MasterCard coverage is incomplete (again, Thailand is one such place), and I still stash USD and EUR cash about my person and luggage as backup. But I can see no reason not to move all my routine travel spending over to Starling.
Incidentally — and some smart reader may have the answer to this — I’m wondering what technical hurdle prevents payments from being linked directly to information about the purchase. Why couldn’t a grocery store transaction also include the list of items I bought, for example, or a flight ticket purchase include the itinerary? I currently use an app called Toshl for this, entering the details manually, but if fintech could bridge that gap, it would put a very clever real-time financial advisor in my pocket.
These offers rarely last long — a couple of years at most, in my experience — so if it piques your interest, I’d suggest making the most of it while you can. Qualifying UK residents can sign up for a free account here.
The links above contain a unique referral code which enables you to skip the waiting time for an account. I don’t get anything for it except an extra illuminated heart on my profile page — aw, how cute!
(Disclaimer: I am not a qualified financial advisor. This is an independent report about my personal experience with Starling Bank, with whom I have no affiliation, and is published for information purposes only.)