Navigating abroad can be achieved in four different ways:
- you ask the locals; the disadvantage is that you are sometimes sent in the wrong direction, maliciously, or due to a lack of communication. The advantage is that you often meet many different people.
- you navigate with apps on your phone; this has the disadvantage that you depend on technology. In some countries, it doesn’t quite work as we are used to. This often has to do with the internet.
- You use a paper map; this has the disadvantage that the map might not be up to date.
- a combination of all the above; usually the best solution. A local person can help you on your way by pointing you in the right direction or pointing it on a map and you can check if it is indeed the right way or pick it up from there.
How We Navigate with Apps
We hardly use maps anymore, except for subway maps. We put everything on our phones. There is an app Maps.Me, also called Maps With Me. It is a free navigation app that you can download right away. Anyone can add or remove things on the map. Very useful if you come across something that is not yet on the map, but can be very useful for others. So you can share everything.
This app has already saved us a few times, but also surprised us. In Mongolia, at the beginning of our trip around the work, we went for a walk to a monastery, but it was not entirely clear to us where the path leads. Just for fun, I grabbed my mobile and start Maps.Me. To my surprise, the path to the monastery was very accurate on the map. Not many people come here and it really is in no man’s land, but someone has made the effort to put it on the map.
The big advantage of this app is that you can download everything and no longer need the internet. Many navigations work with the internet, which is not handy if you don’t have a data card for the country itself. You don’t have this with Maps.Me. If you are on a Wi-Fi network, you can easily download the map (or maps) of the countries you are going to and you don’t need the internet anymore.
First, you start Maps.Me. You should have already chosen a map during installation. Now go to another country and zoom in. You will automatically receive a message that you still have to download the area.
Click on the “Download” button and after a while, it will be ready and you can use the map offline in that country.
First a little warning: Maps.Me always looks for its optimal route when navigating from-to. It does not take into account small streets that you would rather not walk through in the dark, huge height differences, toll roads, etc.
Open Maps.Me and press the loop at the bottom left. Now start typing where you want to go.
If what you want to go to is on the list, click on it. First, you will see the location where it is, marked with a blue circle. Then click on the “Directions to” button. Maps.Me will then search for the most optimal route. By default, it searches for a car, where it then avoids pedestrian paths, etc. But if you want to walk, click on the figure at the top of your screen.
When you are completely satisfied, click on “Start”. Now follow the directions.
Not everything is on the maps. As you can see in the images above, the nearest Mcdonald’s is 2.8 km away. But a 5-minute walk from our starting point is also a Mcdonald’s. Some things you already know and sometimes it also sounds illogical that something is very far away.
You can also search for a hotel on Maps.Me. This is made possible by a link with Booking.com. If you see a hotel on the map, select it and you will see a few details. Such as the rooms, starting price, and the number of stars. If you swipe up, above the details, you will see even more. You can view photos, customer reviews, descriptions, and more. Do you want to book this? Click on the Booking.com logo and the Booking.com website or app will open.
If you have made a route with the navigation, you will also see a taxi (those blocks) next to the car and figure. With this, you can order a taxi (or Uber). Nice and easy. The expected arrival time of the taxi plus the costs are stated.
It doesn’t always work perfectly
We arrive in Lanzhou, China. We see that we have to take the bus and from there it is a short walk to our hotel. We go on our way and I keep an eye on how to walk. We end up in a kind of slum where you would rather not go, but the navigation indicates that our hotel should be here. I see a guard and go ask. He doesn’t speak English but tries to point me in the right direction. It seems we have to go back. So here we go again. We meet more people and we ask. Finally, there is a boy who speaks English and takes us there. The location on Maps.Me is wrong (the one on Booking.com isn’t correct either, but we’re not talking about that right now).
Unfortunately, this is more common: ATMs that are on the map but do not exist, restaurants that are actually 2 blocks away, but mainly hotels that are listed twice or in the wrong location. Unfortunately, you can do nothing about this other than keep this in mind and double-check with locals if you’re unsure.
Especially after Covid things have gone a bit more south with this app. A lot of restaurants are gone and not updated on Maps.me. Purely because the whole traveling isn’t at full steam yet. A lot of countries also grabbed the opportunity to do some renovations on buildings, roads, and shops. Most of these changes aren’t in Maps.me and you could navigate to something that isn’t there anymore. Always double-check with Google Maps or with locals.
Google Maps needs no introduction; most people know about it and/or use it. It’s not better or worse than Maps.me, it’s just another way to navigate while traveling.
Most people think you can’t use Google Maps offline. Well, you can, but it’s limited. There is now a function in Google Maps that allows you to download regions and navigate offline. However, the details of locations, shops, and restaurants are limited and usually, it doesn’t work very well. You can use Google Maps offline for navigating to addresses, but public transport does not work.
The advantage of Google Maps is that you have direct access to functions such as Booking.com or real-time information about what you see. Maps.Me does not have this (it does have a function for Booking.com and Uber). But for this, you need the internet. If you are doing a (longer) road trip it is advisable to get a local sim card with some data and use Google Maps. This way you know where the roadworks are, which roads are closed, and more details about a destination.
Another great advantage of Google Maps is the public transport information. Again, for this you need internet. It shows you pretty accurate information about public transport, such as trains, buses, and subways. This way you can plot a route with public transport as well. It even was better than the local public transport website in Perth.
There are so many apps that can help you find your way. Each with its own advantages and disadvantages. It’s a decision you have to make. Do you have internet? No, then you need something that does not use the internet. Your options are then immediately limited.
TomTom or Navigon often don’t work in Asia, but they do in Europe and parts of America. Personally, I was a big fan of Navigon and would love to have it here too, but unfortunately, they don’t have maps to navigate. Sad news though: Navigon has stopped working.
Recently I found Karta GPS. This one looks very promising. I don’t always like the way Maps.Me shows a route. Sometimes the GPS is a bit behind. Karta GPS seems to do this a little better. It just has fewer features than Maps.Me.
The best way to navigate with apps
Navigation apps keep changing. I was a really big fan of Navigon and Maps.Me back in 2017. But now, in 2022, I lean more toward Google Maps. It’s more available in countries and works way better if you have internet. Small tip if you are going to use Google Maps offline: Save your destinations before you download the region. Otherwise, they are hard to find on the offline map.
Still, for hiking and walking through a city we use Maps.Me. It has better routes for walking and works offline. It also shows you how steep the road is. This way you can choose a different route that is more suitable for you.
My advice? Keep both Google Maps and Maps.Me and use them together.
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