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3 Ways To Keep In Touch On A Bike Tour (Plus One)


It’s not always easy to keep in touch on a bike tour.

Cyclists tend to seek out quieter roads and that means you’re not always close to a strong mobile phone signal or a nice cafe with free wireless internet. More to the point: one big reason to go on a bike tour is to get away from it all. Do you really want to spend your days thinking about what’s going on back home or how many emails are waiting in your inbox?

Still, you should check in once in a while, if for no other reason than to keep your mother from sprouting too many grey hairs. Here are our thoughts on the various options for keeping in touch while you’re on the road.

It's nice to have a forest camp as your office!


1. Mobile phones

There’s plenty of choice when it comes to phones. At the cheap end of the scale, shops in much of the world sell unlocked phones. This means you don’t have to use a specific provider. You can take these unlocked phones across borders and buy pay-as-you-go cards for a few dollars in each country that will let you make calls and send text messages.

Unlocked phones can be ultra-basic models that don’t take great photos or let you surf the web but will let you do the simple things that make your life easier, like contacting hotels and friends ahead of your arrival. You can also get unlocked smartphones, which support all kinds of apps for blogging, taking videos, tracking your bike tour and more, as long as you can snag a free wireless internet connection or you have a data plan.

Do try and stay with unlocked phones (the last thing you want on a long bike tour is an expensive contract to pay for every month). If you’re on a budget, you can always scan eBay for a cheap, used smartphone that will do the job, as Tom Allen points out.

Our verdict: After cycling around the world without a phone, we’ve now started carrying one while bike touring. Payphones are rare enough now that we can’t rely on them and they’re very expensive. This makes at least a basic phone a valuable asset, for very little extra weight or cost.

Moonscape on the Pamir Highway, by Robert Thomson, on FlickrDo you want a mobile phone when you’re biking here? (Photo by Robert Thomson)

2. The Internet
You don’t need us to tell you that the internet (usually coupled with a small bike-touring sized laptop or tablet) is a good way to keep in touch. It’s actually accessing the internet that can be tricky on a bike tour. In developed countries, try:

  • Libraries, cafes, hostels and tourist bureaus – Access is often, but not always, free and tends to come with time limits.
  • McDonalds – We would not normally eat here but McDonalds now offer free wireless access to customers in much of North America, Europe and Australia (not to mention clean bathrooms). Maybe it’s worth buying a coffee there and checking your email at the same time.
  • Cellular broadband access – Another good option that’s now available in most countries (though coverage can be patchy, the further “off the beaten track” you are). You’ll need a laptop or 3G phone. See Going Slowly for a summary of GPRS options.

In less developed countries:

  • Internet cafes – From Turkey to Thailand, you’ll find a constant string of them in most towns and villages. The quality of the computers and the connection varies widely. Get used to checking your email next to pumped up kids playing games or to the tune of some cheesy 1990s pop singer at full blast.
  • Wireless access - Wifi in less developed countries has been non-existent or very rare but things are changing quickly. “Wi-fi is coming up in the remotest corner of the world,” says Patrizia, currently on a world tandem tour with her partner Brö.

For the guaranteed ability to get online, but at a price, you could carry a satellite internet terminal with you. You won’t be uploading your latest travel video on it though. Costs (in 2010) are currently $5-7 U.S. for every megabyte transfered. “I use it strictly for work email when we can’t get connected any other way.  It is mostly for my peace of mind.  Knowing I can tackle a work emergency from anywhere in the world keeps me sane and my clients happy,” says Tyler Kellen, who’s working while touring the world by bicycle. He uses the BGAN Explorer 110.

A more affordable option, if you just want the ability to use wireless hotspots, is the iPod Touch. It eliminates the pricey contracts that end to come with the iPhone and the extra weight that a laptop adds to your bags. “It gives me all the music to keep me going,” says Keith Millard. “Then I find Wi-Fi spots where I can Skype with a hands free ear piece and small mic.”

Our verdict: You can access the internet just about everywhere now and if all you want to do is fire off a quick email or Facebook update, it’s probably not worth carrying a laptop. For long trips, however, it’s worth investing in a small netbook like one from the Asus EEE series so you can get online more often and in an environment that you enjoy (your hotel room, for example, instead of a library that might only be open a few hours in the afternoon). A laptop also lets you write journals and edit photos offline, then put them on a USB stick and upload them from an internet cafe the next day. Sign up for a Skype account before you leave as well. It’s great for free or very low-cost phone conversations. We only found Skype difficult to use in places like Australia and New Zealand, where internet time in hostels and campgrounds often has a download limit.

spottracker3. Spot Tracker
If the folks back home really need hourly updates on your position, try a satellite tracker like the Spot II ($99.95 from REI). It can show your progress on Google Maps, send a message to a group of people to say you’re okay and alert emergency services with the 911 button.

You’ll still need to find a place to recharge the batteries every week or so and it’s not the cheapest option. In addition to buying the unit, you also have to buy an annual subscription that costs $99 U.S. for the basic package (more if you want the Google Maps tracking feature). It’s a lot to pay up front but, on the other hand, it won’t seem like much if you end up using it in an emergency, not to mention the peace of mind it brings to your family. Cyclists who’ve used a Spot Tracker include Vin Cox and the Cycling Nomads.

Do note that if you ask the Spot II to track and publish your progress to a public Google Maps page, you can’t then ask it to  ‘freeze’ your progress for a short time. This means, for example, that the whole world will potentially know where you’re wild camping. That’s not the smartest move in terms of security. A better option is to use privacy settings to limit your complete route to just friends and family. You can also choose to share just a few selected points throughout the day, when you hit the OK button.

Our verdict: We haven’t used one of these but we can see the appeal. It probably wouldn’t be worth carrying if you’re just going to cycle around Europe, where you’re rarely far from civilisation. On the other hand, the ability to call in help at the touch of a button in remote areas would be invaluable, not to mention the reassurance it brings to family and friends.

And…. 4. A Kindle

Kindle for bike touring

Since originally writing this article, we had a chance to try out the Kindle eReader. Not only does it hold 1000s of books and have a battery life of up to a month, you can also check your email on it! If you have the simplest model, you can only do this where there is a Wi-Fi connection. With the 3G model, you currently (August 2011) get free internet access wherever a 3G network is available. Read our full review.

Our verdict: The keyboard is a little clunky (you won’t be typing pages of text) but the Kindle is fine for firing off a quick email or checking the weather. Do pack it carefully, however. It has a very fragile screen, which won’t do well if you drop it or bang it around too much in your panniers.

Think About This…

However you choose to keep in touch, do give some thought to exactly how much you want to be connected in general. Tom Allen has some good thoughts on keeping a balance with technology in his High-tech or low-tech? article.

Keep in mind as well that the more technology you take with you, the more you need to think about how to power all of these things. Will you carry a small solar charger? Stop in a campsite every few days? And then there’s the extra weight in your bags and the worry about being a more attractive theft target.

What do you think? Leave a comment below and tell us how you stay in touch during a bicycle tour and how much you actually want to be connected.

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15 Responses to “3 Ways To Keep In Touch On A Bike Tour (Plus One)”

  1. Lee Hughes says:

    Good post…

    I was hoping you would cover a post like this as when I leave I would need to upload quite alot of video for online storage and can’t really use public wi-f, I really need my own service..

    Might wait till the last minute though as god knows what they will come up with in 7 months :)

    • friedel says:

      Lee, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t know how easy it will be to upload a lot of video from the road. Might be worth investing in an external hard drive to store it? Have you asked Mark Beaumont what he did?

  2. Thomas Nylen says:

    Thank you for your post about staying in touch. I just finished a 3 week trip to Spain and Portugal. I brought my iPhone to help with navigation and to keep in touch with folks back home. Overall the phone worked well for staying in touch since there are plenty of places with WiFi in Spain and Portugal. The only thing that foiled my wish to use the phone to navigate was the cost to access data through the cellular network. In the US data access is unlimited. In Europe I was going to pay by the mb, which would have gotten expensive if I accessing maps online. To get around this problem I downloaded the motion-x app (less than $5). Unfortunately the maps from motion-x I downloaded for free before I left were not always suitable for navigation. Also, in remote parts of the Iberian Peninsula where there was no cell phone coverage the GPS on the iPhone would not acquire a position in airplane mode. Hopefully by the next tour I will have figured out the map issue.

    In terms of the setup, I found a waterproof case for my iPhone from http://www.thinkbiologic.com/products/bike-mount-iphone-4. Case held up well to the elements. We had several days with lots of liquid sunshine, and not a drop got in the case. The iPhone case also has a slot for a iPhone download/power cable. I powered the phone using a 7W rollable solar panel (http://www.powerfilmsolar.com/rollable-solar-chargers/r7.php), which I attached to top of my trailer. I made a cable with several connectors (so I could take the panel off the trailer and the trailer off the bike) to connect the panel to 5V car charger to regulate and set down the voltage (next time need to water proof the car charger since it rusted in the rain). Ran the iPhone cable back along my top tube to the seat tube where I plugged it in to the phone. I was able to keep the iPhone powered most of the time, except when the sun was not shinning for most of the day. I thought about getting a Li-Ion battery as a backup for those periods where the sun does not shine, but I decided not to for such a short tour. Would consider it for a longer trip.

    • friedel says:

      Thomas, thanks for an incredibly detailed comment! I’m sure your experiences will be useful for others taking an iPhone or solar charger along on tour.

  3. Thanks for the exploration of the theme 3 Ways to Keep in Touch.

    I must admit that, having done both kinds of travel – a solo cycle across the world in the days before internet and mobile phones, and a more recent world trip where i carried a laptop with wifi, had a website and blog, and a mobile that takes pix etc., I have to say that, for me, less is more!

    One of the best things for me about travelling in the “old days” was getting “lost”… i mean, going for weeks without communicating with the world that i knew about, but instead immersing myself in and being in touch with the new world before me… so humbling and liberating, no distractions…

    with all this technology (amazing as it is) it’s too easy to be in control, book everything ahead, know where you’re going to go each night, have a detailed summary of the profile of the mountain passes you’re gonna cross. besides all the time taken fiddling with this technology when you could be breathing in the land and people that are around you, where’s the adventure, the excitement, the unknown, the letting go and the trust…?

    so take a little bit of faith and trust, leave this technology at home, and perhaps the universe will show you another route or introduce to to another person that you may not have been able to even imagine.

    http://www.ridehimalaya.com/home.html

    happy adventures ! xxx

  4. Kaitlyn says:

    One thing you may wish to add to your point about cellphones is that some models (iPhone/Blackberry included) don’t really turn off when you turn them “off”, but just enter into standby mode.

    Depending on the phone, that can be anything from “everything is off except for a small amount of power to keep the boot up time as short as possible” to “turns off the screen but everything else runs in the background”. I have heard horror stories of people with iPhones/Blackberries getting ten thousand dollars or more in download fees because their “off” phone was constantly pinging the email servers and downloading their emails while they were on vacation.

    • friedel says:

      That’s a good point, Kaitlyn. I’ve heard that too! The last thing you need is a huge, unexpected bill at the end of a trip. With more and more wifi hotspots cropping up, I think I’d favour an iPod Touch with the ability to skype.

  5. Ingrid says:

    We are actually on tour in Spain and Portugal. I maintain my blog only with my cellphone HTC Desire HD. It’s a lot of work because the writing is quite slow, I miss a real keyboard. Of course one should turn on the flight modus and activate manual update for all programs. It’s the fault of the people themselves, when they get big invoices. For me it is difficult to decide, what’s better, a small lightweighted easy to charge cellphone or an easy to use but heavy and spacetaking little computer.

  6. Liz Kurtz says:

    I’m glad you touched on this. I leave on a 3 week tandem tour to France in 2 weeks and was wondering if we should “hi-tech” ourselves with phones and GPS or buy phone cards at the Tabac shops and read maps.
    I think maps and tabacs are the way to go for us. Internet cafe’s will be a nice treat when we find them too.
    getting lost with each other sounds pretty nice right about now!

  7. lorenzo says:

    Often couchsurfers or random hosts are kind and let me use their laptops. Otherwise internet cafes are a great alternative expecially if you need upload photos and videos.
    I would never travel with a mobile phone or computer, but that s just my style guess it would compromise my feeling of freedom

  8. Michael says:

    subscribe to your email list

  9. jim says:

    I wish these articles had the publishing date attached.

    I used a kindle – my uk one gives free 3g internet in a heap of places around the world, good for checking the email but not so good it’s a major distraction.

    • Friedel says:

      Good point, Jim. I seem to remember that we had some problem with showing dates a while back, but we can look at it again and see if we can get the dates up there.

      We do have a review of the Kindle, and we try to update articles like this at least once a year, so I can update this one with a note about Kindle.

  10. Vera says:

    Good topic!

    I thought about the tech bit before I went on a three month trip through Europe and decided on iPhone plus mini laptop.

    In hindsight I would have left the laptop at home as I used the iPhone to check email, upload pics using Panoramio, track my route, take pictures, listen to music, take notes and what not. For the occasional longer emails I found enough libraries, couchsurfing, internetcafes in bigger places.

    Next time I’ll go with Android though; I found the iPhone restrictive and expensive. Android allows use of Google maps without having to be online (paid or wifi) and android phones are more easily compatible with simple (read: cheaper and easier to find:) chargers and headsets.

    Best (bicycle) regards,

    Vera

  11. Thank you for this article, it would be nice some reviews of diferent solar panels dad could be usefull on this kind of trip.

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