Last updated on March 9, 2023, adding new screenshots of the subscription-only features of the official WarmShowers app.
While I will always encourage you to make your first cycle tour as low-tech as possible, almost every rider today is packing a smartphone by default. But what exactly are the best apps for cycle touring and bikepacking?
It’s a tricky question. To my knowledge there is no single app that provides a comprehensive range of features for someone travelling by bicycle long-term.
And that’s probably because the cycle touring or bikepacking lifestyle is a complex, multi-faceted thing, taking in an incredibly diverse range of activities and needs. No one app can (or should) serve all of them.
My list therefore represents a suite of apps for life on the road on two wheels.
In other words, I’ll be listing apps that augment all aspects of cycle touring and bikepacking – for example, accommodation and hospitality exchange apps, weather forecasting apps with an outdoor focus, community-generated maps of safe wild camping spots, apps to help with common travellers’ concerns such as budgeting, communication and translation, apps to monitor and conserve battery usage for big days on the road, and an eclectic selection of other apps I’ve personally found useful on long cycle tours.
This is not a comparison of navigation apps like the ones you’ll find if you search your preferred app store for “cycle touring apps” or “cycling apps”. That list would be hundreds of entries long, and the mainstream cycling media have published plenty of listicles in the battle for search engine traffic anyway.
Smartphone technology moves fast, and the app scene is constantly changing. That’s why – like all my other ultra-detailed posts about aspects of planning a bike trip – I’ve been updating this post regularly since I first published it way back in 2012. My goal for the original post was to answer the frequently-asked question of what the best apps for cycle touring or bikepacking are. This latest version of that list has been curated with the same goal in mind.
I’ve included links to Android and iOS (iPhone/iPad) versions of each app wherever they exist, and broken the list down into eight handy categories covering navigation, weather, accommodation, transport, communication, photography, finance, and everything else.
But if you do intend to use digital mapping apps and the navigation features that come with them, and you don’t already have a favourite app that works for you, I would suggest trying all of the following apps to see which one best matches your riding style. Most have free trials or some way to try them out before upgrading to a paid premium version.
Unlike the robot writers of spam blogs about cycling apps, by the way, I have actually used all of these apps on my own bike trips. Here’s my current pick of the bunch…
1. Google Maps (Android/iOS, free)
Why start with the most obvious mapping and navigation in the known universe? Well, because commercial mapping is often your best friend in places there’s money to be made – ie: urban areas. Most bike trips start in, end in or pass through towns and cities where you commonly need to find specific street addresses. This is where the big platforms like Google Maps excel.
In terms of navigation, bicycle-friendly routing is offered alongside directions for motor vehicles in cities across much of the developed world. Where it isn’t, using the walking directions will often offer you a low-traffic route. You can also bookmark places and categorise these bookmarks into preset and customised lists.
The latest versions of Google Maps have incorporated the Street View functionality that used to be the domain of a separate app. I tend to use this handy 360-degree VR imagery if I’m heading for a specific spot in a city, such as a Warmshowers (see below) host’s house or a local bike shop, and want to visualise the location in advance.
In short, if you’ll have good cell service throughout your ride and you’re sticking to paved roads in developed parts of the world, Google Maps may well do everything you need in terms of navigation.
Using Google Maps on a bike tour becomes more limiting when you switch off mobile data or stray beyond the reach of cell service. The app does allow you to download offline maps in the default style, and your lists of saved places will be accessible, but it won’t cache terrain or satellite basemaps, which makes it difficult to judge a route’s elevation profile and impossible to use aerial imagery for following unmapped routes. Nor can it store anything about saved places other than their name and street address, plus any text notes you may have made about them. Many aspects of route planning and directions also depend on being online.
Finally, map coverage remains poor across much of the developing world, and even in remote regions of developed countries where there’s little or no no commercial activity. This is why it’s often worth pairing Google Maps with one or several of the other mapping apps in this list
Pro tip: In the former Soviet Union and in other countries where Russian is the default second language, you’ll usually find that the Russian equivalent to Google Maps, Yandex Maps, has better map coverage and traffic data. As a bonus, the smartphone app is available with an English-language interface.
In the last few years, Maps.Me seems to have fought off masses of competition to become the most popular Google Maps-style alternative mapping app for travellers. And with a wealth of offline functionality, it’s easy to see why.
When you first open the app, you are prompted to download parts of the world region by region, starting with your current location. All of the app’s main functionality will then work offline within these regions. Usefully for cycle tourers and bikepackers, this includes bicycle-optimised routing and directions. This means you can conserve battery power by activating flight-safe mode while retaining the ability to use your phone as a GPS navigator.
On my 2018 trip in Thailand, I used these features daily. Typically, I planned my route by cross-referenced Maps.Me’s routing suggestions with Google Maps’s walking directions, and then used Maps.Me’s offline maps to follow quiet, back-road routes across the country. This combination worked like a charm.
You can also search offline for nearby points of interest such as cafes, grocery stores, lodgings, drinking water fountains, etc – all of which are downloaded with the offline maps. When you’re online, accommodation searches are supplemented with results from booking platforms like Booking.com – indeed, affiliated links to these platforms are a significant part of the app’s revenue model.
Like most of the other apps in the mapping and navigation section of this list, Maps.Me depends on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) database to generate its basemaps. This can make it vulnerable to coverage issues in less-visited and/or less well-mapped regions, although not necessarily any more so than Google. In some regions, you’ll find the mapping is actually better, more detailed, and more up-to-date than commercial mapping platforms, simply because of the strength of the mapping community contributing to it.
If I have one issue with Maps.Me, it’s that the map does not display any topographical data (contours, hillshading, elevation colour coding, etc). This is partly compensated by the elevation profiles generated along with the cycling and walking routes. If detailed elevation data, tracktypes, and other detailed cycling-specific navigation functionality is important to you, however, you may be better off with one of the other navigation apps in this list.
With its raster maps, dated-looking interface, and lack of route planning or sat-nav style navigation features, it may not be immediately obvious why the Android-only app BackCountry Navigator is still recommended for cycle touring or bikepacking in 2023.
For me, the main reason is its ability to download for offline use a wide variety of specialist basemaps beyond the often simplistic vector maps that come with most other modern mapping apps. Preconfigured basemap styles include OpenCycleMap, which (as its name suggests) is an OpenStreetMap-based map style for cyclists, showing cycle-friendly infrastructure and points of interest; OpenTopoMap, which resembles a modern outdoor-oriented printed topographic map; and high-resolution satellite imagery layers from Esri and Bing.
Offline aerial imagery at this level of detail is a rare feature among apps in this list, and riders going off the beaten track to explore off-road, off-grid routes will find plenty of reassurance in having satellite imagery to refer to while navigating.
There’s plenty of other functionality in BackCountry Navigator that will be more familiar to hikers and outdoorspeople, such as the ability to load in GPS tracks in various formats and overlay them on the basemap, as well as keeping a tracklog of your movements if you so desire.
Really, though, it’s the wealth of offline raster maps at your fingertips that make the Pro version of this niche app worth the $20.99 one-time purchase price.
Download BackCountry Navigator Pro ($20.99) for: Android
4. Russian Topo Maps (Android)
Previously known as Soviet Military Maps, this wonderful app has now been renamed to Russian Topo Maps, but it still offers a fantastic mix of genuinely useful topographic and landcover detail and Cold War nostalgia which may hold particular appeal to map nerds (like me).
Produced during Soviet rule and updated every few years until the late 1970s, the scanned sheet maps offered by this app cover the entire world at the 1:100–200,000 scales. In places where OpenStreetMap, Google/Yandex and paper map coverage is sketchy or non-existent, and particularly in the former USSR, these may still be the best maps you can find without raiding a little-known railway depot on the outskirts of Riga in search of the captured wagons containing vast caches of original printed source maps. I wish I’d known about it before that time I went to Outer Mongolia. (Then again, it was 2010, and this app probably didn’t exist.)
The free version allows you to browse these maps and use all of the GPS features, while the paid version allows you to also download the maps for offline use.
Offering some of the most in-depth navigation and route planning features available, RideWithGPS is also the only mapping and navigation app in this list which is built specifically for cyclists (as opposed to the range of outdoor activities catered for by some of its rivals).
The result of this focus is that RideWithGPS has grown into an established favourite in the long distance cycling community, particularly among off-road bikepackers, who often need to plan extremely detailed routes in remote regions. Indeed, Bikepacking.com use it as their preferred platform for delivering their vast library of community-created routes.
The platform has a web interface with plenty of additional screen real-estate, allowing you to plan routes at your laptop and then seamlessly switch to navigation mode on the smartphone app. Once you’ve planned or recorded a route, you can also use the platform’s social features to share it with friends, followers or fellow riders.
As with many apps of its kind, there’s a free version with basic functionality or a premium subscription version currently priced at $59.99/year. Upgrading unlocks the app’s turn-by-turn navigation mode, offline functionality, and a couple of other features you’ll probably find useful if you decide to make RideWithGPS your primary route planning and navigation app.
In short: if you’re keen to plan, track, analyse and share your daily cycle touring or bikepacking activities, and you prefer extreme detail over simplicity in your route planning, RideWithGPS is currently a hot favourite. If, on the other hand, you’re after a simpler and perhaps more passive way to get directions from A to B, you should probably look elsewhere in this list.
komoot (with a small ‘k’) is a relative newcomer to the smartphone mapping and navigation scene. Its particular strength for the cycle tourer or bikepacker is in its automated route planning features, which will appeal to those who want to spend less time poring over waypoints and more time actually riding.
Using one of the most powerful routing algorithms of any of the apps in this list, komoot draws on the OpenStreetMap database and combines it with third-party elevation data to calculate an optimal route via any number of points. Usefully, it allows you to specify variables such as the type of bike you’re riding (road, mountain, touring, e‑bike, etc) and how fit you think you are, resulting in a variety of generated routes and accompanying information on gradients, road surface types, etc.
It has some nice social features, too, which set it apart from competing platforms. Users can submit highlights of places they’ve visited – either specific points of interest or favourite segments of a route – which are then rated by the community and included in future generated routes based on their favourability.
Like RideWithGPS, komoot has a web-based interface which makes route planning a little easier to manage.
All said, komoot is my personal favourite of all the apps in this category when I’m exploring new places – so much so that I’ve published a full review of the app separately from this post.
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Weather Forecasting Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
For multiple reasons including comfort, safety and route planning, it’s good practice to check the weather forecast before setting out on another day of cycle touring or bikepacking, or indeed when looking for a place to wild camp.
While there’s no substitute for learning how to read nature’s signs, the following apps will at least help you confirm what you suspect, or highlight something you’ve overlooked when it comes to upcoming weather conditions.
7. Windy (Android/iOS, free)
I’ve tuned into the finer details of the weather in recent years as a result of spending a ton of time in the mountains, where the effects of weather tend to be multiplied. In terms of sheer quantity and range of data, nothing I’ve found beats Windy, which visualises almost every weather factor you could ask for on a zoomable interactive map, as well as generating 11-day forecasts for specific point locations.
As the name suggests, Windy’s featureset was originally designed for outdoor pursuits in which wind is a major factor, such as sailing and surfing. But it’s easy to switch the map overlay to show cloud cover, cloud base elevation, precipitation, ground temperature, and a wealth of other metrics. You can even see isobars and air pressure across altitude bands if, like me, you’re into that level of nerdy detail. When it comes to forecasting, Windy can draw from a variety of models, including ICON for Europe and ECMWF for global coverate.
There is a premium version (£18.49/year) which enables 1‑hour forecast resolution and higher data precision, but in my opinion the ad-supported free version is more than enough for 99% of cycle touring or bikepacking scenarios.
If you’re into making your own forecasts or want an in-depth perspective on what you’re seeing and experiencing, give Windy a data connection and it will give you all the information you could wish for.
Accommodation Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
When you’re ready to stop for the night, here’s my pick of the currently-available apps to help cycle tourers and bikepackers find a bed for the night – whether that be staying with hospitable local people, checking into a nearby hotel or campground, or wild camping for free under the stars.
9. iOverlander (Android/iOS, free/donation)
Though primarily aimed at overland travellers with motor vehicles, iOverlander’s app is incredibly useful to cycle tourers and bikepackers. Why? Because it’s the closest thing to a ‘wild camping app’ in existence.
With an active community behind it, this user-generated global database of points of interest includes vehicle- and bike-friendly hostels, paid campsites, wild/free camping sites, mechanics’ workshops, water refill points, and more. Other apps do exist that aim to serve the wild camping niche, but none as successfully on a global scale as iOverlander.
As with so many community platforms that rely on user-generated content, iOverlander is free and volunteer-run. You can contribute either by making a donation, adding your own content (including reviews of existing points of interest), or both.
It’s worth mentioning that in some countries you may find that another platform has, for whatever reason, gained preference over iOverlander. For example, when I began planning a ride along the New South Wales coastline and noticed that iOverlander content was lacking, a friend told me that in Australia – a country with a huge bush camping culture – WikiCamps was in fact the ubiquitous platform.
When it comes to paid accommodation in many parts of the world, you’ll often find that the Netherlands-based Booking.com features the widest range of hotels and guesthouses, having grown over the years into a global market leader in the vastly lucrative business of online accommodation bookings.
One of the features I like best about it is that you can often book accommodation at extremely short notice, ie: for the same night, as well as being able to search accommodation based on your current location on the map. Google’s partnership with the platform means you can often click through directly from a Google Maps search results listing to the Booking.com app reservation page for that property, making it possible to source nearby overnight accomodation on the fly and with minimal friction.
Be aware that booking platforms like this charge accommodation providers a lot for the privilege of appearing in their listings – up to 15% of the value of the booking. While big hotel chains can build this into their pricing and negotiate for discounts, the impact on revenue for a small accommodation provider can be substantial. For that reason, if you want to help give small businesses a fairer deal, I recommend you do your research on Booking.com or its local equivalent, find the phone number on Google Maps, and then contact the provider directly to make your booking. You’ll often find that guesthouse owners will thank you for this gesture.
Note that in specific locations you may find another platform has gained prominence. In South East Asia, for example, the Singapore-based Agoda often has a bigger selection and better prices.
Low-budget hostels are underrepresented at Booking.com (perhaps because they can’t afford the fees!), but Hostelworld steps in to fill this niche.
Especially in the developed world, you’ll find way more cheap beds here than through the mainstream booking sites.
There’s little more to say – with Hostelbookers having shut down, Hostelworld now holds the monopoly on hostel bookings, and its free app has all the features you’d expect of any accommodation booking platform.
Though it’s by no means the quirky and inexpensive alternative it used to be, AirBnb is still worth checking out, particularly if you want your own self-catering apartment for a few days off, or if you like the B&B experience as it used to be (ie: an actual person hosts you in their home and cooks you breakfast).
Sign up through this referral link to get £25 in credit towards your first stay, then install the app to search for options and make your bookings.
The original online hospitality exchange platform for cycle tourers and bikepackers was Warmshowers. Starting as a passion project, it is today incorporated as a nonprofit organisation based in Colorado, USA, with nearly 200,000 members worldwide. My own profile page tells me I’ve been a member for over 15 years.
The original Warmshowers app was a noble volunteer-led effort. It was recently replaced by a new professionally-built app, which makes searching for willing hosts much easier and has an interface that’s arguably better and more user-friendly than the website itself. The map search function is particularly useful. The trade-off is that using the app to find hosts now requires a small subscription fee – £2.79/month as of the time of writing, which I personally think is a small price to pay for keeping the app updated. Using the web interface remains free, as does signing up as a host.
The distribution of hosts is not exactly even in a global sense, but it’s always worth looking at the map to see who’s about on any given route. Other hospitality exchange networks do of course exist, but none offer the instant common ground you’ll share with people who’ve signed up specifically to host people on bicycles.
While some in the community have noisly abandoned the platform over the introduction of fees to use the app, I’ll continue flying the flag for WarmShowers for as long as it exists and I’m still riding my bicycle. I love the spirit of it, and – having some experience of running a nonprofit – I don’t mind lending a little financial support to those who voluntarily keep this community going.
Where WarmShowers hosts have not yet reached, Couchsurfing is still there with its however-many-million users, and if you can be bothered to wade through the oceans of inactive profiles and unresponsive hosts you might still find someone cool to stay with. The lack of a map search is a woeful omission, but most other aspects of the app interface are fine.
Personally, I use Couchsurfing more now to meet travellers and locals for a drink and a wander in a new city than to find a host, for which I either use WarmShowers (see above) or – now I’ve been on the road a few years – ask around my networks and usually end up finding a friend of a friend to stay with.
If you do use it to find a host, make sure they know you’re showing up on a rather expensive bicycle and that you probably won’t want to leave it locked to the fence outside!
Travel & Transport Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Sometimes you need to take a plane, train or bus to get yourself and your bike from A to B. This could be at the start of a cycle tour or bikepacking trip, at the end, or even in the middle if you’re taking an open-minded approach to where you travel by bike. That’s where the following apps may come in handy.
15. Kayak (Android/iOS)
When it comes to searching for and booking flights, Kayak is my go-to platform these days. As well as extensive search result filtering capabilities, it also usually turns up the cheapest tickets – especially if your dates are flexible, as it’ll search for the cheapest fares in a given month or in a 7‑day window.
Of particular interest to the cycle tourer or bikepacker is the ability to filter by airline, which can make a huge difference at the check-in desk depending on the baggage policy of the carrier in question (a topic for another article, perhaps).
Kayak is mainly just a search aggregator – you have to click through and book elsewhere, though they have started selling tickets direct now too.
This one is a simple itinerary management tool. Allow TripIt access to your inbox and it will pull in confirmation emails for flights, hotels and what have you and spit out a simplified, offline-accessible itinerary with all the details you’re likely to need while you’re in transit.
Communications Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
You’ll be wanting to communicate while you’re on the road, both to the people you meet and to the people back home. Guess what? There’s an app for that…
17. Signal / WhatsApp / Viber / Telegram (Android/iOS, free)
I’ve listed four phone number-based instant messaging apps here because, at the time of writing, three of them predominate depending on what country you’re in, and one of them won’t sell your data (Signal).
You’ll be likely to use these apps for such common travel tasks as communicating with Warmshowers or Couchsurfing hosts; making enquiries with local businesses such as guesthouses, hostels, bike shops, etc; or joining group communication channels with other riders in the areas you’re passing through. Telegram in particular, with its ability to locate groups and users within your local area, can be a good way to connect with other travellers you’d otherwise struggle to meet.
Don’t forget that you’ll also likely use at least one of these apps for keeping in touch with friends and family back home.
Such is the competitive nature of this market that other apps may one day replace those listed here. But for now, if you’re heading off on a bike and you plan to use your smartphone to communicate, you may find it’s best install all of the following:
I’m listing Google Translate here as an aid to face-to-face communication with people whose native language you, as a foreigner, are unable to speak.
It’s more and more common to find travellers realising they can dictate to the app in their mother tongue and have a translation audibly read out to their conversation partner – then simply reverse the direction of translation for the reply. I’m sure it won’t be long before this evolves into near-simultaneous translation, probably via some kind of futuristic earpiece or neural implant.
Translate also allows you to download offline translation dictionaries for a large (and growing) number of languages.
One tip I recently learned is that if you rotate your phone to landscape orientation, the word or phrase you’ve translated will be enlarged to fullscreen, thus allowing you to brandish it at roadside noodle stands while trying to order a stir-fry with ‘no onions’.
Finance & Budgeting Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Here are a few selections on the financial end of things, which may ease your pedal-powered wheelings (sorry, couldn’t resist) and dealings:
19. XE Currency (Android/iOS, free)
Based on the highly popular xe.com currency exchange website, the XE Currency app will allow you to choose a handful of currencies and convert between them all at the latest mid-market rates.
I mainly find this useful to ensure I’m not getting ripped off by money-changers, but also to watch for spikes in conversion rates that may affect my travel budget (other Brits abroad may remember 23rd June 2016 particularly well).
My travels of late have tended to involve a slightly more complicated financial picture than the ‘spend as little as possible, preferably nothing’ approach of my earlier cycle tours. To track and visualise what I’m spending, I use an expense tracking app called Toshl, into which I spend a few minutes each day putting my expenses.
For someone who was more or less financially illiterate, this has shed a remarkable amount of light on the actual flow of funds through my travel activities and, in turn, helped me adapt my ways to better fit my means.
If keeping track of travel money is a source of stress for you, I would highly recommend starting to use a simple tracking app such as Toshl as the first step towards a remedy. It can also simply produce an interesting summary of the financial aspect of your journeys, which I’m planning to demonstrate in a future article.
The UK’s newest fee-free overseas spending debit card provider, Starling Bank, relies on this app to communicate with its customers. Though technically not just an app but also a bank account, I’m including it here because of its particular relevance to the bicycle traveller looking to keep their overseas card withdrawal and spending fees down.
Download the Starling app and sign up for an account here.
Photography & Media Management Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking
Most new smartphones come with absurdly good cameras, sensors, processing algorithms and editing software built-in, so I no longer consider any third party app truly essential in the photography department. Keeping your photos backed up is another story, however…
22. Google Photos (Android/iOS)
My main reason for including Google Photos here is for its automatic backup feature, which upon detecting a WiFi connection will upload in the background all the photos you’ve taken since the last backup, storing them in your Google Storage account.
In its free incarnation, Google Photos used to allow you to backup an unlimited number of compressed photos a slightly reduced quality in ‘storage saver’ mode. Nowadays, only the owners of Google-branded (ie: Pixel) phones get this perk. You can, however, pay to upgrade to a 100GB or 1TB capacity account if you need it. Connect with a compatible ‘proper’ camera, copy the images over, and it’ll backup these photos too.
Recently-added features I also find useful as a cycle tourer and blogger include the ability to search my image library by location and keyword.
But for me, this app is mainly for backing up my images, rather than photography per se (and you do care about having backups, don’t you?).
If you don’t like everything being Google-oriented, the Dropbox app will perform exactly the same backup function for your photos via its Camera Uploads feature, though I find Google’s web interface and in-app editing features more appealing. Again, free and paid options differ mainly in terms of the amount of storage you get.
Finally, I’ve come across many other useful apps for cycle touring and bikepacking that just don’t quite fit into any of the other categories. Here are a few:
24. AccuBattery (Android, free)
AccuBattery will give you detailed stats on your phone’s power consumption, including estimates of how long it’ll currently last with the current fleet of running apps; useful when you don’t know where the next charging opportunity is going to be.
It’ll also prompt you to disconnect your charger at a level that’ll reduce battery wear and help prolong its life – useful if you’re charging your phone on the go with a power bank or dynamo hub.
I’ll probably never learn the constellations unless I actually need to navigate by them, but the (formerly Google-owned) Sky Map app is great fun when you’re lying out under a starry sky and you want to identify what you’re looking at. It’s also great for picking out other celestial bodies when they’re visible to the naked eye.
The apps accompanying the open-source flashcard platform Anki allow you to memorise things effectively on the go, using the scientifically-proven learning technique of spaced repetition.
I find it particularly useful for language learning, memorising words, phrases, letters of new alphabets, etc. The open platform gives you access to shared, community-created ‘decks’ of cards covering most such topics.
The Android app is free; the iOS equivalent is paid and the revenue supports the broader Anki project.
Ride for long enough and you’ll inevitably reach a country where some website or app or service you rely on has been blocked by the government. Pre-empt this by installing a VPN (virtual private network) app and setting it up in advance.
What these services essentially do is make it look like you’re accessing the internet from somewhere else, encrypting your data in such a way that your actual whereabouts is untraceable.
There are thousands of free VPN apps out there. Choose one that’s been audited by a trusted and impartial source with a reputation worth losing. TechRadar have an updated list for 2023. I personally use ProtonVPN*, which is included with my ProtonMail subscription.
That’s it for 2023’s best cycle touring and bikepacking apps! Any I’ve missed that you’d recommend to another adventurous rider?
Full disclosure: Komoot was mentioned repeatedly in response to my 2018 round-up of apps for cycle touring. I got in touch with the team and they offered to make a modest contribution to my ride around Armenia in return for a detailed report on my experiences. Here it is.
Lots of people have been asking about the route planning smartphone app I’ve been using on the road in Armenia. The app in question is komoot (with a lowercase ‘k’), the creation of a Berlin-based team of developers, which is finding increasing favour with recreational outdoor users, and just happens to be an excellent tool for cycle tourists.
First things first: why would you use an app for route planning and navigation on a cycle tour?
There are obvious reasons, the main one being to get where you’re going without getting lost. Less obvious are that such apps are now clever enough to calculate – in many cases – better routes than those you might pick on the ground. By better, I don’t mean shorter or more direct, like Google Maps might suggest. I mean quieter, prettier, with gentler gradients, with road surfaces appropriate to the bike you’re riding, and passing by more points of interest along the way – in short, routes that are more cyclist-friendly.
This kind of functionality was hard to come by until pretty recently, and is one reason I’ve never bothered with previous generations of such apps and websites until now. It’s also because I generally like to go low tech. But for this trip I had some specific aims, and
The komoot app (Android/iOS) is free, as is the first of the regional offline basemaps you choose to download. From then on, additional maps are chargeable at £3.99 each, but world travellers might prefer to buy the complete package (£29.99) which covers the whole globe for a one-off purchase.
I’ve been using komoot daily for nearly a month, and my impressions so far have been very positive. There are a couple of caveats which I’ll mention in detail below, but none are deal-breakers – indeed, komoot has become my go-to app for route planning and navigation on cycle tours, and I plan to continue using it for the remainder of this extended tour of Armenia, and likely into the future too.
To my mind, it isn’t a single feature but rather the package as a whole. Rather than trying to do everything for everyone and cram in every possible piece of functionality, the developers’ goal seems to be simplicity of use combined with powerful key features. To that end, the app’s functionality is broadly split into three parts: route planning, navigation, and social media. Let’s go through each in turn.
Planning mode uses routing algorithms to generate optimal routes between any number of points of your choice, which can be searched for, selected on the map, or chosen from categorised listings of nearby places. The routing happens server-side; you’ll need an active internet connection to carry out this step, but saved routes can then be followed offline.
The resulting routes are generally excellent – I particularly like that I can switch between cycle touring, road biking and mountain biking, which produce different routes based on different criteria – and the database of points of interest is extremely comprehensive.
Of particular use to cycle tourists is that generated routes are displayed not just with elevation and gradient profiles but also track type breakdowns, so you can see in advance what proportions of a route are on dirt or asphalt, highway or provincial road, etc, and adjust as necessary depending your preferences. Also generated are statistics concerning distance, estimated ride duration based on your fitness, total ascent/descent, average grade, highest/lowest elevations, and the like (though in uber-mountainous Armenia these numbers usually give me a sinking feeling!).
It’s worth mentioning that the app has a matching web interface for planning routes in a bit more comfort. Routes planned and saved here are then synced to the app.
In navigation mode, the app is unobtrusive and as accurate as the mapping allows (see below); I prefer to use the audio prompts (turn-by-turn navigation) with the screen switched off, which saves a lot of battery power. The fact that this works offline for pre-planned routes is a big plus. Your actual route is automagically logged, regardless of whether it matches the route you planned, and can later be exported as a GPX file.
The most innovative element is perhaps the social media side of the app. Once you’ve logged your day’s activities, you are encouraged to highlight your favourite spots and sections on the route, and then to share your recommendations with the app’s other users, who can then upvote them. Popular highlights then begin to show up when other users plan routes in the same area, thus enabling them to benefit from good recommendations. Public trips also become searchable and show up on your profile.
You can also embed them in your blog…
The result is a community-generated database of routes and curated highlights which might not otherwise appear on a regular basemap. (On a gamification tip, you also get badges and whatnot for being an active contributor.)
It’s a nice, simple system that seems to have the spirit of exploration at its core, rather than that of competition or showmanship as with some other cycling apps. Does it work? Well, the app has 5 million users to date, so komoot must be doing something right!
I mentioned earlier that there are caveats. Komoot asked for an honest report, so here they are in detail.
The most visible issue stems from the app’s reliance on the OpenStreetMap database and open-source elevation data to provide the underlying data. All of the route planning features depend on it. This means that the functionality will only ever be as good as the data. And while the open-source data is extraordinarily good in some places (including the app’s native Germany, the UK, and most other European countries that dominate its user base), in Armenia it is far from perfect.
To be sure, it’s a lot better than it was – we added or updated more than 5,000km of track data in 2016 alone with the Transcaucasian Trail project – but there are still quirks, mostly relating to road names (which affect the audio prompts), the misclassification of dirt roads as paved (which affects routing for road biking), and the low-resolution elevation model (which creates discrepancies in elevation and gradient profiles).
Of course, komoot is by no means alone in suffering from incomplete or inaccurate mapping data. In fact, the same issues affect all apps using OpenStreetMap (which is most of them). But coverage and accuracy continues to improve worldwide, and a bit of common sense is enough to overcome most routing issues – and it’s practically a non-issue in much of Europe nowadays. That’s why it isn’t a deal-breaker. The fact that it even has such sophisticated routing features is already a game changer – find me an app five years ago that could do that!
And if the map really is blank at any point, you can draw a straight line between A and B, or switch the basemap to aerial imagery and trace the routes you see. This much-requested new feature is called ‘off-grid routing’ and surfaced in an update midway through the most recent leg of my ride. It has given komoot a big leg-up in the planning of intrepid, off-trail routes, though I am yet to make use of the feature myself.
On the topic of routing, komoot does have a particular type of user in mind with these features. While they are extremely powerful given good underlying data, users who like doing fine-grained, turn-by-turn route planning themselves will find the algorithms too dominant and the ability to micro-adjust a route too cumbersome, necessitating adding endless additional points to ‘force’ the app to take the route you want.
But this would be missing the point: komoot’s focus is clearly on making the routing feature as strong as it can possibly be and appealing to people who will utilise it rather than try to override it.
(Case in point: I’ve found plenty of new routes in Armenia that I wouldn’t have known about had I not followed the app’s suggestions.)
There are a few minor niggles that could be improved:
It is somewhat fiddly to add new points to a route mid ride; I’d prefer to be able show preset categories on the map at all times and then simply tap to add them.
I’d like to be able to join a pre-planned route midway, rather than replanning it with a new starting point (necessitating an internet connection).
If I make an intentional detour, I’d like the app to recognise this rather than instructing me to make a U‑turn for the next several minutes.
If I’m going (downhill?) too fast to be able to hear the audio prompts, it would be cool if the app would detect this and show a visual prompt as well.
And if my phone’s screen is locked, I would prefer to be able to unlock it without pausing my tour to do so.
The specific phone I’ve been using – a cheap Huawei Y6 – also has a habit of terminating the app at unpredictable intervals when the screen is off. Having looked into the issue I believe it is an issue with Huawei’s proprietary version of Android, rather than a fault with the app itself. It doesn’t happen with my Google Nexus 6P, which runs the regular flavour of Android.
Finally, I don’t believe I’ve got the best out of the social features, purely because of where in the world I’m located. I think I’m a komoot Pioneer in Armenia by default, as nobody else here seems to be using it (yet).
Komoot is certainly the most powerful route planning app I’ve come across to date – as long as you let it do its thing and don’t try too hard to override it. And if you’re cycle touring in new places and you don’t know the area, who wouldn’t want optimally calculated routes together with curated community highlights?
Throw in offline voice navigation and you’ve got one of the most powerful apps a cycle tourist could wish for. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it when I was riding across southern Thailand earlier this year.
If you’re keen to see how it actually works, check out my public komoot profile, which includes all my tracked rides (and a few hikes) in Armenia so far. Onwards to the north!
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.)
If you’ve ignored all my advice to go on low-tech adventures and are packing a laptop and mobile net connection alongside your merino-wool boxer shorts and solar panels, you might find these bits of software make your precious time at the battery-powered screen a bit easier, safer and more productive. (And 7 out of the 8 are free.)