One vital part of traveling is being able to get to your destination, especially when you’re in a totally new and foreign place. Maps and guidebooks are great, but in rural places like Nepal or massive cities like Seoul or Tokyo, maps can be difficult to use to, hard to pinpoint your location, and unclear how to get in and out of your destination. This is where your iPhone, Android, or smart phone comes in handy, as its in your language and with GPS and Google maps, your phone knows exactly where you are and how to get you from point A to point B. And you can use the GPS function without using data rates, you just have to follow some easy steps. Now this article is specific to iPhones, but the same concept should be useable for Android and other phones with Google maps.
Google Maps, and sometimes Apple Maps, are essential for getting you around, as they provide walking, driving, and even metro directions. I’ve found that Google Maps’ metro directions are accurate and has worked for me in every country I have tried, even getting reliable bus times and directions in some remote places. I can’t express how much help it was navigating the Tokyo metro, easily the most complicated system I’ve ever encountered. Makes NYC and London look like crying babies.
But the big question: how do you use Maps and GPS without getting a huge bill for international data. Simple: GPS is not data, its GPS. Your phone knows where you are at all times by triangulating your location based on pings from cell towers, so you don’t need to use data to locate yourself. The trick is to pre-cache your maps, directions, and saved locations while on a wifi connection (in your hotel, coffee shop, etc) so you can use them offline without using data.
UPDATE – MUCH EASIER STEPS, NEW GOOGLE OFFLINE MAPS
Google Maps now offers offline maps! You can still follow the older instructions below, but now its super easy to get around while your data and wifi are turned off. Here is how (directions below images)! (Make sure to update your version of Google Maps, as this is a feature in the newer version of the app.):
Now, this wont work in Airplane Mode, but will work with your cellular data turned off, as long as you’re still connected to a local phone network. I use this with my AT&T iPhone and I am not charged. Also, sometimes, when you search, Google Maps will now give you the offline option as a button. And that’s it! Happy mapping.
For a quick fix, you can use offline maps and navigation apps. You can use paid apps like Tom Tom or Navigon, free apps like CoPilot, or cheap apps like Pocket Earth and MotionX GPS Drive. You can also download many city guide apps that will have offline maps. The beauty of city guide apps or apps like Pocket Earth, is they have local maps that also include popular destinations and tourist sites, and you can map your route offline with no data. But if you want to go old school and do it yourself, or just don’t want the hassle of using more apps, here is how it’s done.
1. Turn off cellular data. If you are in a foreign country, you should always turn off your cellular data and de-activate any automatic services that use data (for example, I turn off my BBC and CNN notifications and any apps that send me recommendations of places to eat or visit when I arrive in a new place, Facebook notifications, etc), though turning off data will also cancel any notifications too. Do not put the phone in Airplane mode, just turn off cellular data. The trick is to rely on wi-fi, which is free.
2. Pre-cache your maps. So first thing, get on wi-fi before you leave to go exploring. Open up Google Maps and Apple Maps. Let the apps find your current location (should do so automatically, or press the little blue pointer icon in the bottom right). You’ll notice that for a moment, the maps are grayed out, but the blue dot that shows where you are is active. That is because GPS knows where you are, but maps hasn’t loaded so you have no visual representation of where you are. But as the maps load in, you will see that GPS has you pinpointed to your location.
When the map loads, start all the way zoomed in and start moving the map around to load in the streets and locations close to you. Zoom out a little and repeat the steps. Zoom out a little more and move the maps around to load in more detailed views. Keep doing this as you incrementally zoom out. Google maps uses bitmaps so you have to pre-cache a lot of levels or you may not get a smooth map when offline. Apple maps is vector based, so you don’t have to zoom in and out so much, but Apple maps is notoriously bad for finding locations overseas. I get “no results found” constantly when searching for an address in Apple Maps. Though Apple maps is a good fall back, so pre-cache with that app as well.
Now, secondly, search all the destinations you are going to and repeat the same steps. This way, you have maps loaded up for those areas too. It can take a few minutes, but don’t go wild. Load up just the zoomed in views within a few blocks of where you are going. You can zoom far out to get a loaded in map of the overall area.
3. GPS your way from destination to destination. Lastly, generate GPS directions from your current location to your first major destination. Use walking, or driving, or metro results – however you plan to get there. Before you begin your journey, follow the same steps to pre-cache the maps by following the route to the end, letting the maps pre-cache. This way, if you have to walk back, you have the way loaded in. Then go back to the start and click to start the GPS talking directions and begin your journey. As you walk away from your wi-fi signal, you’ll notice the GPS still works, even though your data is off and you are no longer on wi-fi. You won’t be able to modify your route, once off wifi/data, but if you leave it be, you can use GPS to navigate to your destination. Once there, find a new wif signal and GPS your next destination and continue. If you don’t have wi-fi at the new destination, you will at least have pre-cached maps so you can see where you are, and if you’ve saved your locations to your favorites, you will have stars displaying all the places you want to go and you will have a digital map to help you and show you where you are exactly at that moment.
So that’s it really! Below are some screenshots to illustrate how this method works.