Equipment Technology

27 Incredibly Useful Free Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

While I believe your first bicycle adventure should be as low-tech as possible, there are plenty of cycle tourers and bikepackers who pack a smartphone or tablet alongside their tent, stove and toolkit. There’s a good reason for that: they can come in extremely useful.

Smartphone technology moving as fast as it does, the app scene is constantly changing. This is my 2022 update of an article first published in 2012, detailing what in my humble opinion are the most useful free apps for the cycle tourer or bikepacker right now.

This is not a list of navigation apps for cyclists. That list would be hundreds of entries long, and all the big cycling websites have published such listicles in the battle for search engine traffic. Most of this list is about apps for other aspects of life on two wheels than navigating while you’re cycling.

In other words, this list represents a full on-the-road lifestyle app suite.

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.

Shall we begin?

Mapping, Route Planning & Navigation Apps For Cycle Touring & Bikepacking

There’s no single best app for cycle touring or bikepacking where mapping and navigation is concerned – and in any case, you may prefer paper maps, road signs, or just following your nose.

But if you do intend to use digital maps and possibly the navigation features that come with these apps, and you don’t already have a favourite that works for you, I would suggest trying a multi-pronged approach, playing to the strengths of each of the following apps and the coverage of the data that supports them, which tends to differ worldwide.

Unlike all those spam blog articles about cycling apps, I’ve actually used all of these apps on my own bike trips. Here’s my current pick of the bunch…

1. Google Maps (Android/iOS)

Google Maps is good in places there’s money to be made. Most of the world’s transport infrastructure now features excellent mapping coverage, and the vector maps are fast, detailed and attractive. If you’re hooked up with a data SIM card, you get good service throughout your ride, and you’re sticking to the roads, Google Maps may well do everything you need. In many places, bicycle-friendly routing is offered alongside directions for cars, and where it isn’t, using the walking directions will often offer you a low-traffic route between two places.

Many places allow you to download maps in the default style for offline use. But that’s about the limit of its offline functionality. It won’t cache the terrain view, which makes it difficult or impossible to estimate a route’s elevation profile if you don’t have a data connection. Nor can it store anything offline about points of interest other than their name. Routing also depends on being online – so while the base map may be cached, you’ll have to do your own navigation. Finally, it’s almost completely useless in remote backcountry regions.

Pair Google Maps up with Street View if you want to explore places in VR before you get there. I only use this if I’m heading for a specific spot in a city, such as a Warmshowers host’s house, and want to visualise the location in advance.

2. Maps.Me (Android/iOS)

In the last few years, Maps.Me seems to have fought off masses of competition to become the go-to Google Maps alternative, and it’s easy to see why. It’s been focused specifically to fill the gaps left by Google in terms of offline mapping and routing, as well as representing the open data movement, and this is marketed as one of the app’s key features.

When you first start 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, including bicycle-optimised routing. On my 2018 trip in Thailand, I used this feature daily and cross-referenced it with Google’s walking directions to plan most of my riding and find quiet, backroad routes across the country. You can also search offline for nearby points of interest such as cafes, grocery stores and lodgings.

It isn’t without its flaws. It depends on the OpenStreetMap (OSM) database to generate its maps, which makes it susceptible to coverage issues in less-visited regions, although not necessarily any more so than Google (and the same is true for other OSM-dependent apps).

My biggest gripe is that the map does not display any topographical data (contours, hillshading, elevation colour coding). This is partly compensated by a elevation profile generated along with the cycling and walking routes, without which I would struggle to recommend it.

3. BackCountry Navigator (Android only)

I’d also keep BackCountry Navigator installed if there are going to be any significant hills along the way. BCN features no routing or sat-nav style navigation features, being more oriented towards GPS users on foot in the backcountry, but the ability to download a variety of basemaps, including the OpenCycleMap and Thunderforest Outdoor styles, makes it invaluable for remote or mountainous rides.

Backcountry Navigator will also allow you 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.

  • Download BackCountry Navigator for: Android

4. Russian Topo Maps (Android)

In places where OSM, Google and paper map coverage is sketchy, my fallback for many years has been the good old Soviet military maps, which, yes, were last updated during the Cold War, but cover the entire world at the 1:100–200K scales and offer a fantastic level of topographical detail. The paid version allows you to download them for offline use. Previously known as Soviet Military Maps, the app has been renamed to Russian Topo Maps.

In some really off-grid parts of the world, these are still the best maps you can get. I wish I’d known about them before that time I went to Outer Mongolia

  • Download Russian Topo Maps Free for: Android
  • Download Russian Topo Maps Pro for: Android

5. RideWithGPS (Android/iOS)

RideWithGPS is perhaps the most cycle computer-esque of all the apps listed in this section, finding favour in the long distance cycling community, particularly bikepackers – indeed, use it as their preferred platform for delivering routes.

If you’re keen to track, analyse and share your rides, RideWithGPS is as good a place as any to do so. (See also Komoot below.)

6. komoot (Android/iOS)

komoot (with a small ‘k’) has one of the most powerful routing algorithms of any of the apps in this list. Rather than hosting a database of user-submitted routes, komoot uses OpenStreetMap data to calculate an optimal route (via any number of points) for road cycling, touring, or mountain biking.

It has some nice social features, too, which encourage you to record and share the best of your discoveries. Users can submit highlights that show up on future route plans if the community rates them highly enough. Read my full write-up of komoot here. This is my personal favourite of all the apps in this category when I’m exploring new places.

Weather Apps For Cycle Touring

It’s good practice to check the weather outlook before setting off on a ride. In circumstances when a change of weather would bring about greater risks, it’s critical for a safe and enjoyable ride. These apps will help with that:

7. Windy (Android/iOS)

I’ve tuned into the finer details of the weather in recent years as a result of spending too much time in the mountains, and this has spilled over into cycle touring. In terms of sheer quantity and range of data, nothing I’m aware of beats Windy, which visualises almost every weather factor you could ask for on an interactive map.

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 pretty much all the information you could wish for.

8. (Android/iOS)

Alternatively if you just want a local forecast at a useful level of detail for the outdoorsperson, the Norwegian weather agency’s official app seems still to be the most cited option.

Accommodation Apps For Cycle Touring

When you’re ready for a night off, here’s a few apps that might make finding a bed (or campsite) that much easier:

9. iOverlander (Android/iOS)

Mainly aimed at motorised travellers, iOverlander’s app is still of relevance to the cyclist, mainly because it’s the closest thing to a ‘wild camping app’ in existence. It’s a user-generated global database of points of interest – including vehicle- and bike-friendly hostels, campsites and wild camping sites (as well as Land Rover mechanics!) – with a very active community behind it. It’s volunteer-run, so consider a donation if you find it useful.

10. (Android/iOS)* features the widest range of hotels and guesthouses in many parts of the world. Be aware, however, of the tactics this app will use to make you feel like you have to book right now or the universe will implode.

Know also that they charge accommodation providers a lot – if you want to support small businesses over massive corporations, it might be better to do your research here but then walk in and pay cash.

They aren’t always the cheapest: in South East Asia, for example, the Singapore-based Agoda is often a better bet.

11. Hostelworld (Android/iOS)

Low-budget hostels are underrepresented at (perhaps because they can’t afford the fees), but Hostelworld steps in to fill this niche. Especially in the West, you’ll find way more cheap beds here than through the usual booking sites.

(I previously recommended HostelBookers, but with the app not updated for over two years and with ratings sliding down the charts, I can feel a shutdown coming soon.)

12. AirBnb (Android/iOS)

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 (i.e. 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.

13. WarmShowers (Android/iOS)

The original cycle touring hospitality exchange platform might not have taken off quite like Couchsurfing did post-buyout, but it didn’t really need to (and many would argue it was for the best anyway). The much-improved current version of the WarmShowers app makes searching for willing hosts that much easier, with an interface that’s arguably better and more user-friendly than the website itself. The map search function is particularly useful.

While the distribution of hosts is not exactly even in a global sense, it’s always worth looking at the map to see who’s about on any given route. I’ll continue flying the flag for WarmShowers for as long as it exists and I’m still riding my bicycle, just because I love the spirit of it.

14. Couchsurfing (Android/iOS)

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 CS 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

Sometimes – oftentimes – you need to take a plane, train or bus to get yourself and your bike from A to B before or after you ride it. That’s where the following apps may come in handy.

15. Kayak (Android/iOS)

When it comes to searching for and booking flights, I tend to default to Kayak, mainly for its extensive filtering capabilities, as well as because it usually turns up the cheapest tickets, especially if your dates are flexible.

Of particular interest to the cycle tourist is the ability to filter by airline, which as we all know 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.

16. TripIt (Android/iOS)

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

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)

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).

If you’re heading round the world on a bike and you plan to communicate with locals as you go, as well as friends and family back home, best install all of them.

Such is the competitive nature of this market that other apps are likely to replace those listed in future years.

18. Google Translate (Android/iOS)

Yes, I’m listing Google Translate as a communications app, but for real-life face to face communication with people who don’t speak your language.

It won’t be long before you’re both wearing earpieces and receiving simultaneous translations as you converse freely in your native tongues, but while we’re waiting for that to happen, Translate does allow you to download offline translation dictionaries for a huge number of languages, and the accuracy is only improving.

Rotate your phone to landscape orientation and the word or phrase you’ve translated will be enlarged to fullscreen, allowing you to brandish it at a roadside noodle stand while trying to order a stir-fry with ‘no onions’ in it.

Finance Apps For Cycle Touring

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)

Based on the highly popular 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).

20. Toshl (Android/iOS)

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.

21. Starling (Android/iOS) [UK only]

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.

Here’s a full write-up of my experience with Starling if you’re keen to read more.

  • Download the Starling app and sign up for an account here.

Photography Apps For Cycle Touring

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 combined Google Drive / Photos account.

In its free incarnation, this will store 15GB of your original resolution photos and an unlimited number of compressed but nevertheless high quality versions of the same (you can choose which in the app settings). You can pay to upgrade to a 100GB or 1TB capacity account if you need it.

Plug a card reader into your phone or otherwise connect with a compatible ‘proper’ camera, copy the images over, and it’ll do the same thing. Really this is about safeguarding your images, rather than photography per se (and you do care about having backups, don’t you?).

23. Dropbox (Android / iOS)

If everything being Google-oriented isn’t your bag, the Dropbox app will perform exactly the same backup function 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.

Other Apps For Cycle Touring

Finally, I’ve come across many other useful apps that just don’t quite fit into any of the other categories. Here are a few:

24. AccuBattery (Android)

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.

25. Sky Map (Android)

I’ll probably never learn the constellations unless I actually need to navigate by them, but the 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.

26. AnkiDroid / AnkiMobile (Android/iOS)

The apps accompanying the open-source flashcard platform Anki allow you to memorise things effectively on the go via the proven learning technique of spaced repetition. I find it particularly useful for language learning, memorising words, phrases, alphabets, and the like. 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.

  • Download AnkiDroid for: Android
  • Download AnkiMobile for: iOS

27. A Trusted VPN App

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, most of which are full of malware and security holes and whose developers are out to sell your browsing data to the highest bidder. Avoid those and choose one of the recommendations audited by a trusted site with a reputation worth losing. I haven’t included any specific recommendations here as they change so frequently, but TechRadar have an updated list for 2019.

That’s it for 2022’s cycle touring and bikepacking app selections! Any I’ve missed that you’d consider particularly useful to the adventurous rider?

(And just to reiterate: for your first trip, leave all this stuff behind.)

On The Road Planning & Logistics Technology

Is Komoot The Most Powerful Route Planning App A Cycle Tourist Could Wish For?

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.

So what exactly are komoot’s strengths? 

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).

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Kiss my Meghri Pass! (2,535m) . This was always going to be the big one. My GPS recorded 1,890m total ascent today, helped along by a surprise giant pizza at a roadside cafe and a great aerial view of Armenia’s mining capital, Kajaran. The following descent took more than an hour and consisted of freezing cold rain and multiple stops to warm up numb fingers by stuffing them down my shorts (apologies for the graphic imagery). Tomorrow: Meghri and the Iranian border! . #tomsbiketrip #cyclingarmenia #kissmypass #meghri #meghripass #kajaran #kapan #syunik #armenia #caucasus #lessercaucasus #zangezur #mountainpass #cycling #cycletouring #bikepacking #bikewander . cc @polarisbikewear @terranovaequipment @konabikes @alpkit

A post shared by Tom Allen (@tom_r_allen) on

The verdict?

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!

Budgeting & Finance Technology

Stop Bleeding Away Your Travel Money Via Overseas Card Transaction Fees (UK Only)

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.)


8 Handy Bits Of Software For Travellers & Adventurers

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.)

Stunning view in Jebel Akhdar, Oman

Planning & Logistics Technology

How To Use A GPS Unit On A Cycle Tour

As with many of the technology and equipment articles I write, this one opens with a question:

Do you really need to use GPS on your tour?

Will a GPS unit help you significantly to achieve your goals? Or will it serve as a distraction from the experience? Could you navigate by road-sign, map & compass, common-sense and by asking for directions, and would that be more fun? Would a cycle-computer suffice to keep track of distance — and why are statistics so important anyway?

Still considering using GPS for your next bike tour? Let’s continue.