July 19, 2024

Maps & Apps for Travel

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No Internet?  No Worries!

Traveling to new and exciting destinations is what it is all about for many  The journey can be a great adventure.  But even for experienced travelers it’s sometimes easy to get disoriented, confused, or even lost while exploring exotic new locations.  And let’s face it.  Getting lost is no fun.  It’s a waste of precious travel time and it is stressful. Seasoned travelers also know that to avoid becoming a victim of crime it is wise to appear confident and to move about with a sense of purpose and direction.  That’s hard to do if you are lost or disoriented.

Bottom line, for a variety of reasons it is best to be well aware of where you are and where you are going. But how do you do that while one the road? There are a number of “apps” travelers can use when they have access to the internet.  I’ll be reviewing those in a future article.  But first, let’s start with basics.

 How can you find your way when you have (GASP!) NO INTERNET ACCESS?


Paper Maps –

Call me old school, but paper maps are great!  Remember the days when you’d roll into a full service gas station, pay some ridiculously small amount for gas, and pick up a free paper map for the area or state you were heading into? Okay – maybe you don’t remember those days.  But trust me – that’s the way it once was.  But of course if you are looking for a full service gas station today – Good Luck!  You can still get paper maps, but you have to look for them.  And if you do find one, you will almost certainly have to pay for it.  The American Automobile Association, otherwise know as Triple A or AAA (www.aaa.com) provides some great maps and travel services.  But to get them you do have to be a member. Larger book stores also have many paper maps available. So scout around – with persistence you can find them.

In today’s digital age you might ask “Why bother with paper maps?” If you haven’t got much experience with paper maps then that is a reasonable question. Actually, a paper map is a great tool for the traveler. You don’t have to plug it in and it never runs out of battery power.  And there is another that way paper maps have a big advantage over digital maps.  If you fully open a paper map it gives you a comprehensive visual sense of geography and the spacial relationships between places and locations.  I’m always struck by how many younger people today (showing my age aren’t I?) have no sense of geography, direction, or relative locations.  My personal feeling is that this is due, at least in part, to the prevalence of GPS and digital maps.  Following the “driving directions” on a GPS system mostly gives you a “turn right, turn left” type experience. Using this “rat in a maze” approach, travelers arrive at their destination having hardly any idea of where they were, where they are, or how they got there.  Digital maps, limited by small screen real estate on phones, tablets or laptops,  typically give the viewer a very small sliver of a view.  You can scroll or scan around but that really offers little improvement.  You can zoom out to increase the covered area, but doing so leads to a significant loss of detail. If you want to really get a sense of place and space and where you are, paper maps have an advantage.

Paper maps are handy and dandy in many ways.  Of course while driving or walking around it might be best to fold them down to a smaller, more manageable size – one showing your immediate area. That in turn leads to my personal biggest problem with paper maps – figuring out how to refold the darn things!


Spain phoneOff-Line GPS Maps – 

Digital maps and apps are the obvious alternative to paper maps. But what do you do if you are traveling “off the grid”,  in areas without internet access, or where access is cost prohibitive?  That’s when you need an app designed to operate using GPS input only.  Apps operating in this fashion have two primary but minor limitations. 1. Maps for the area of travel must be downloaded to your device prior to your travels. Because of this you have to plan ahead and the mapping system you use must have downloadable maps for the area in which you will be traveling. 2. Positioning information for these apps comes solely from GPS input. There is generally no big problem with this. Initial GPS acquisition or “lock” may be a bit slower than if aided by cellular tower information. But once GPS lock is obtained you are good to go. I’ve tried a number of mapping apps which don’t require internet access. Finally, I am happy to report that I found one I really like. I’ve used it for several years now and it remains my strong favorite.


MAPS.ME  (MAPS.ME) This mapping app is available on multiple platforms including Apple iOS and Android.  It’s free (always one of my favorite words). It allows you to download maps to your device in advance of your travels (again maps are free) and it has downloadable maps for just about anyplace you might want to go.  Maps show good detail including many points of interest (hotels, restaurants, view points, etc.) and are available for each state in the U.S. as well as many other countries including lesser traveled locations such as those I’ve traveled to in the past – e.g. Myanmar, China, Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam.  Maps.Me uses GPS input to show your current position on the map.

Maps.Me has worked very well for me.  I’m really impressed. Points of interest are searchable. Perhaps one of the nicest features is that you can also add your own information to the maps as “bookmarks”. This means that as you plan your next adventure – places to visit, eat, explore, etc. – you can place this information on the map so when you are traveling you can find its location and any related information you have stored about it. Below is an example of a map built for the small city of Nyaung Shwe in Myanmar which is a jumping off point for trekking as well as visiting Inle Lake.

Section of Maps.me – A portion of the city of Nyaung Shwe near Inle Lake in Myanmar. The red balloons are sites I have added. The box in the upper left corner appears when you click on a balloon giving other information which can be expanded in the notes section. The heavy turquoise line is a bicycling route I have mapped out in advance.

Thus far Maps.Me is clearly the best mapping app I have found for off grid / no internet travel.  Using Maps.Me you have a full map of the entire state, or country you will be visiting.  Maps are downloaded and always available on your device.  The maps don’t expire (see Google Maps below).  Your location is clearly indicated and positioned through GPS. You can zoom and change your view of the map at will.  And you can add information, sites, routes for later use as well.  The process of adding some of that information is a bit quirky so a bit of practice before your trip is recommended.

**Google Maps**  In all fairness I should add that with Google Maps you can download and save limited maps to your digital device. The areas available for download are limited and seem to change from time to time.  ( I previously saved a downloaded map of Yangon Myanmar but later when I tried to repeat the process I found that map area was “unavailable” for download. No explanation as to why. I couldn’t download the map for Cambodia.  The same applies to my upcoming trip to Cuba – “map unavailable for download.”) If you find an area of interest which is available for download,  the downloaded maps can later be used without any internet connection.  Creating and downloading the maps is a bit tedious and these saved maps are only good for 30 days after which they must be “renewed” or saved once again – thus updating the information. Still, these downloadable maps can be used effectively when no internet access is available.   It’s an option to consider – maybe a backup for Maps.Me. But if you are going to be away from reliable internet service for extended periods of time don’t forget to “update” the maps you’ve saved, doing so  just prior to your departure to insure it will be valid for 30 days. If a map has “expired” it can’t be used again until updated, which requires an internet connection.



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