A GPS has become an essential and everyday part of our driving experiences. The sometimes challenging art of map-reading is becoming a lost skill, and it is hard to imagine getting around without the help of general purpose products such as Google Maps and various dedicated GPS devices (from Garmin and others) and apps (Waze, Copilot, and so on).
However, there is a very important, but largely obscured, distinction between different types of GPS devices and services. This distinction is of little importance to us, most of the time, when we’re using a GPS in our home country, but can be vitally important as soon as we travel internationally.
Some smartphone map and GPS apps rely on a local copy of the map data on the phone. Others download the map data they need, real-time, as you are traveling around.
There are pluses and minuses in favor of both approaches. But when you’re outside the country, the ‘rules’ change drastically, and what was hopefully both fast and also low-cost or free data at home might now be extremely expensive, maybe slow, or just plain unavailable data in another country.
If your GPS/map app relies on the phone’s data connection to download map information, you will almost surely have problems when traveling out of your home country. Your phone may or may not be compatible with the data service in the foreign country, or perhaps it has limited compatibility and only works with more universally supported slow 2G type data services (GPRS and EDGE).
Slow data service could mean that your maps aren’t loading as fast as you are driving. You can partially workaround this by zooming out to a low detail map, but that isn’t very helpful when you’re trying to puzzle out exactly where your next turn is.
This can be an issue with the free-but-slow international data service offered by T-Mobile. While we love their free service and use it all the time, we wouldn’t rely on it being fast enough to ‘drive’ a GPS program.
Furthermore, not all countries have brilliant data coverage everywhere. What happens if you are totally dependent on your GPS to guide you to your destination and you enter a zone of no data coverage?
For these three reasons – cost, slow data, and/or no data – we think it essential that any international GPS service you use be based on local maps stored on your phone or tablet (or inside a dedicated GPS unit) rather than rely on downloading map data as and when you need it.
In our experience, the Copilot GPS product, available for both iOS and Android, is acceptably good and fairly priced. These days it also has the benefit of being a single piece of software, and then you simply add maps for whichever countries and regions you travel to – it has maps available for most places in the world that most of us are likely to be traveling to.
The maps you download can be as large as 1GB or more in size, so make sure you have plenty of spare space on your phone to hold them.
The Difference between the GPS Signal and the Data Service
To show your position on a map, your phone needs to do two things. It needs to know where you are, and then it needs to be able to show your location, not just as an abstract latitude and longitude, but as a meaningful location on a map.
Quite possibly it needs to use its wireless data service to download a map picture. But, to know where you are, it doesn’t use any of the phone’s data access and service. It simply ‘listens’ to the GPS radio signals, and it can do that fully for free, without using up any of your data allowance or minutes or anything.
The worldwide GPS service is not only amazing, but it is also fully free for us to access and use. Our taxpayer dollars really truly are at work on this occasion.
So as long as the phone doesn’t need to download map information, your mapping program is free to use.
One notable exception to this – if your GPS app is also showing you traffic information, or weather information, then that is being downloaded through your data service. The GPS signal can’t also broadcast that to your phone.
Rental Car GPS Units
Many rental cars offer a GPS unit as an extra service, and of course, for an extra fee. This is an interesting alternative, but we generally don’t recommend it.
First of all, you are forced to confront an unfamiliar GPS unit with a set of menus and options you don’t know how to best use. That’s at best frustrating, and at worst, totally dysfunctional.
Secondly, you’re probably paying another $5 – $10 a day for this GPS. Why not save the money and use your phone.
Two Essential Car Accessories When Using Your Phone as a GPS
If you’re using your phone as a GPS in any car, there are two things you must have.
The first is a windshield mount so you can mount the phone somewhere securely and conveniently in your line of vision. It is dangerous and possibly illegal to be driving with one hand and clutching your phone/GPS with the other – or, even worse, to be reaching over to pick it up off the floor after it fell off the dashboard while going around a corner.
Here’s a unit we’ve used repeatedly. It is a bit ungainly, but it is sturdy and functional, and for $17 is a great price. We recommend you don’t use the mounting attachment that clips onto the louver/directional ducts for one of the car air vents, though. Use the windshield suction cup.
The other thing you must have is a power supply that plugs into the accessory outlet/cigarette lighter. You need to get a high current one – lower current standard model chargers struggle to keep up with the phone’s power use when it is working as a GPS. We also suggest you get one with at least two slots so you or a passenger can be recharging something else at the same time. We review a lovely four slot high current unit here, and it also costs only $17.
Another Map Product Too
There’s another mapping product that we love and use whenever we’re in Britain. This is the Outdoors GPS app, available on both iOS and Android. It also offers some mapping coverage for France, Germany and the US.
Most GPS maps, and Google Maps too, have very limited information beyond that of simply showing the roads you’re driving along. They don’t help you answer a common sort of question travelers and visitors have – ‘what is that thing over there’. The Outdoors GPS product uses Ordnance Survey maps (and similar products in other countries) to provide an enormously detailed set of information about not just roads but other visual things of interest, too, and can greatly enhance one’s enjoyment and appreciation when traveling, albeit as a passenger rather than driver.
The Outdoors program doesn’t do routing, so you can’t use it like a GPS to tell you how to get somewhere. It tells you where you are, and it can also record routes for where you’ve been, or use them to tell you where to go, but you can’t just put in a destination and have it take you there.
It comes with both a downloadable map version and an online map version. If you’re a UK resident, you might prefer the online map version, but for visitors, the downloadable map version is vastly preferable – either the lifetime maps or the one month rentable maps.
There are maps in both 1:25,000 and 1:50,000 scales, and a free country-wide 1:250,000 scale map. I’ve of course downloaded the free map, and then have bought some of the 50k maps for much of Britain, and also some of the more detailed but also more expensive 25k maps for areas I visit regularly (Scotland) or which are particularly scenically interesting (The Cotswolds).
They are very detailed – see the example above, showing the Kilmartin region in Scotland – to give you a sense of scale, this is a map slice about 1 mile wide. They also work excellently as hiking maps if you like to go walking around some of these regions.
One important thing. While you’ll see map pricing on their website in pounds, it seems that when you buy the maps, at least through Apple’s App Store, you pay the same price numbers, but in dollars rather than pounds (ie a £12.99 map costs $12.99). That’s a nice discount for us in the US.
An Important Tip
Before traveling, be sure to open up your GPS/Map app and make sure all the maps and ‘Points of Interest’ and other data tables are up to date. Download any new maps and data tables while you’re at home, with spare/free time and data to do so.
If you don’t do this, you might discover, to your horror, that when you first try to use the map app in a foreign country, you’re told that it needs to download new maps totaling maybe 1GB or more – something that is not only horrendously expensive to do, but also something that takes a very long time to complete.
Google Maps is all that many of us need while we’re traveling in our home country, or perhaps their Waze product (which gives better guidance and is more sensitive to rerouting based on road conditions and traffic).
But when you’re traveling outside your country, you need a GPS product that uses local copies of maps, not ones it downloads via wireless data as and when needed. Copilot is a good choice.