We were going to be in England for a couple of weeks and we wanted to use our phones for navigation like we do in the States. We also needed to stay connected. How did we do it?
Like most smartphone owners, I have become accustomed to the convenience of having maps at my fingertips when I need to find an address or look up directions.
Offline Google Maps are Worthless
Here at home in the U.S., we have a Rand McNally RVND 7720 Dashboard GPS in our motorhome. All maps are stored locally and no Internet connection is needed to do our routing. But we use Google Maps on our phones when driving the car. Google Maps uses Internet (data) for the maps. If you know you’re going to be out of cell service, you can save a section (a small section) of map offline. We tried that in England but quickly discovered that when using the offline map, you are not able to search or navigate. All you could do is look at the map. So, what good is that?!?
We did verify however that, if you start navigating when you have an Internet connection, the map along that route will be good even after you lose connection. If you deviate from your active route, all bets are off. Part of our travels were driving in the NE Norfolk area of England where none of our phones had any signal. No data to run Google Maps! When we stopped for lunch we found a Wi-Fi hotspot and connected. We loaded Google Maps and asked it to navigate to our next destination while connected to the Wi-Fi. That navigation was good even after we disconnected from the Wi-Fi and were traveling thru data-less territory!
T-Mobile is Good in England and much of Europe
Planning ahead for data is the key to success. We had been wanting an iPhone for our weekly “What Does This Button Do?” show, so we decided to get a 16GB iPhone 6 Plus on the T-Mobile network which includes international capability. We were very impressed with the connectivity we had using this phone throughout England and even during our two day jaunt to France and Belgium where our British friend’s phone did not work, the T-Mobile phone did! See the countries included in T-Mobile’s plan on the International page of their website.
Chris had her Verizon Samsung Galaxy S5 phone and AT&T iPad Mini. We purchased local SIM cards to connect over there as international roaming on Verizon and AT&T is prohibitively expensive.
Just before we left for England, I got notification that my invitation-only experimental Google Project Fi world phone was available. Another phone! Great. I’ll be talking a lot more about Project Fi and the 32GB Nexus 6 phone in future posts.
Google Maps turn-by-turn voice navigation works the same in Europe as here. It is the best. We wanted to look at other inexpensive or free apps for our mobile devices, too. We were running both iOS and Android. If we were staying longer, there are plenty of more expensive choices including dedicated satnav units.
Get good paper maps for the areas you will be visiting!
Do not rely on your mobile device exclusively unless you don’t mind getting lost occasionally. Actually, getting lost sometimes can be fun. You may discover things you never expected. Planning ahead using a paper map will help with your orientation and give you a better sense of direction and distances. Especially when we were walking, consulting our phones for directions was often more confusing than helpful.
No app or dedicated device is perfect! Any of them can try to take you the wrong way down a one-way street, or tell you to turn where there is no road. Most don’t care if the road is gravel or appropriate for your mode of travel. Use your head.
One problem we experienced was the speed of GPS location updates on the maps. We missed a couple of turns in the car because of that. The issue is even more pronounced when walking in cities or towns. We got completely turned around more than once because the GPS didn’t know which direction we were walking. Other times, the GPS fix was lost because we were surrounded by tall buildings. GPS needs to “see” the satellites in the sky.
Here are a few apps which were recommended to us. It is not a comprehensive list, by any means. These are available for both Apple and Android unless noted. We tended to trust Google Maps most as we had connectivity on one device or another most of the time.
Maps.me: Free mapping. Totally offline, worldwide maps, fast, and detailed. Only need the Internet to get the app and preload the maps. There was no voice direction for turn by turn navigation as we discovered. We are spoiled by Google Maps clear spoken directions.
OffMaps2: iOS, $0.99. Offline maps for over 4000 cities and tourist destinations.
Telenav Scout: Freemium (extras like voices and traffic cost more) First country map is included free. They partnered with Trip Advisor and Foursquare, great for tourists.
MapFactor Navigator is a free turn-by-turn GPS navigation app for Android phones and tablets using OpenStreetMaps data. Maps are installed on the SD card so there is no need for an Internet connection when traveling. Map and app updates are FREE every month. It has voice guidance in several languages with door-to-door route planning and can handle border crossings without the need to switch data files. Those data files can get pretty big, so you need plenty of capacity.
Sygic is another well regarded app with a free component. The premium app looks to have much better features. It may well be good choice for frequent overseas travelers.
Let us know if you have a favorite navigation or mapping app.
Our Data Plans
T-Mobile’s $70/month Simple Choice Plan features unlimited talk + text and 3GB of high-speed (4G LTE) data at home. They will throttle your speed if you go over 3GB during the month. Unlimited text and slower-speed (256KB) data is included in 120+ countries. Voice calls are $0.20 per minute overseas. WiFi tethering is included and there is no annual contract. You can purchase higher speed data.
Google’s Project Fi Plan is $20/month for unlimited voice + text using the Sprint and T-Mobile networks at home. Add $30/month for 3GB of high-speed data. Additional data is $10 per 1GB, no throttling. Like the T-Mobile plan, tethering is included and voice calls are $0.20/minute overseas. No annual contract.
We also used local SIM cards to turn Chris’ phone into a local UK phone. Read more about that in this article: Three Ways to Get Internet Abroad.