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.
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.
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.
3. 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
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.