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For a European road trip, GPS is essential - some tips

A tip for anyone planning a first-time driving trip in Europe: Don't set off from the airport without GPS!

We've driven all over North America with just road maps, never even using Google Maps. But in Europe I quickly realized that this would be impossible.

The way the roads are designed and marked, you need to change roads, merge and so on many, many more times for the same length journey in Europe compared to the US.

In the US, you could check a map and know that to get from point A to point B, you need to get on first one highway and then switch to another highway, depending on signage to get you to the first highway and then onto the second one. Roads are marked as I95 North or I70 West.

Not once in our European driving did we have an experience going from point A to point B anywhere as simple as that. Roads are marked primarily by the major city destination ahead (which would change as you progress). Highway numbers are much smaller than city names and hard to read. Never would a sign include a compass direction. And many, many times the road would split with both options going apparently to the same major city. Very confusing. Also, just figuring out how to exit a city or town was complicated.

In addition, nearly all transitions from one road to another involve a roundabout with three, four, five or even sometimes six different options. Many times there would be a succession of three roundabouts in a row to transition from one road to another. Without the GPS, I don't think it would have been clear to us which option to take at each rounabout.

With that said, we had a lot of troubles with our car GPS. The biggest problem was that it didn't seem to have some smaller locales where we'd booked hotels in the GPS at all! The second biggest problem was that some hotel addresses were written in such a way that the GPS wouldn't accept them. I coped with this by trying to book only hotels that had a street number and what looked like a conventional street name (rather than a km marker, say, or just the name of a village).

Late in our trip, I figured out that if I used the postal code for a smaller town like Tarifa, Spain, this would work in the GPS when typing in "Tarifa" wouldn't work. I also noticed that it usually worked to just type in the longest word in the street address and not bother with little stuff like "de la" or even "avenida." (Maybe techies already would know this, but I didn't.)

I think some of the problems we had inputting smaller towns into the GPS came from alternate spellings for place names, due to, say, different vowels or stylistic variants in Galician or Basque versus Castillian Spanish or English or Italian. If you didn't use the same variant as what's programmed into the GPS, you're stymied.

I don't understand why our car GPS didn't have hotel names in it, the way Google does, but it didn't. At some points, I would give up on the car GPS and pull out my cellphone to get us to the hotel more easily or to, say, a certain cave. That helped until my cellphone was stolen and we had to depend only on the car GPS.

Overall, I would say that GPS challenges were a major factor in our road trip, more than language problems (we have intermediate-level French and Spanish and we mainly went to France and Spain) and as much as trying to stay on the right side of the toll collection system in various countries. (That would require another post.)

One last point: we found European drivers to be reasonably sane, careful and predictable. But rent the smallest car you can stand, as town streets are often scarily narrow and parking spaces are small.

Posted by
4695 posts

Just bring your smart phone to Europe with you and use Google Maps on it to navigate. Works great. It will work better if your phone works in Europe (has data reception), but if not, you can still use Google Maps "offline" as a real-time GPS on your phone. All you have to do is download the maps "offline" ahead of time while on WiFi. Try it at home first - works pretty well, just no traffic data.

Also, bring a car charger for your phone that fits in the "cigarette lighter" charging port that's the same in European cars as in US cards. And of course, bring a suction cup to hold the phone to the windshield.

And be cautious about local laws about using your phone as you drive!!! You may not be allowed even to touch it while driving.

Posted by
5010 posts

Glad you enjoyed your trip.

Someone will be along shortly to poopoo what you wrote, but I think you make some valid points about usage. Yes, there are many conventions that we take for granted at home that are simply absent, or different, when navigating abroad.

Personally, I am 100% sure that the best way to navigate is to first engage your brain, and always have some sense of where you are and where you are trying to get to, before you choose what tools work best for you to aid your navigation. Far too many drivers fail to do these two steps and just blindly follow their gizmo. I like having a good, detailed, paper map, I study that before setting out and always have it handy for cross-referencing, when the gismo is telling me something that seems crazy, when it's not clear, or when it just fails completely (all of which will happen to you eventually). I use a combination of GPS (sometimes multiple GPS units), iPad and phone, but always, ALWAYS using common sense, comparing the results of one tool to another, and not just blindly following along with whatever the box bleats at me without questioning it. I always bring a GPS from home, preloaded with map and data for the destination - that one I know and can be sure it'll be in English (the built-in GPS in the rented car is often cryptic and may be in a language that's completely unintelligible to me - I've experienced GPS units in everything from Japanese to Lithuanian....these can still be useful as a cross-check for the routing and ETE though).

I agree, the last kilometer or two is often the most challenging, especially in urban areas. When aiming for an old city center, I have found it's often best to just get close (like, within a few blocks) then park the car and find the last bit on foot. Doing that reduces the stress and danger a lot.

Posted by
1118 posts

Excuse me, I have driven all over Europe using maps long before GPS existed. We even made it through unmarked detours. It is not hard, you just have to know the European way of marking roads. Yes, many of the signs do include the direction, you just have to know the language.

Our last trip to Italy we did use GPS but I had all my routes, hotels, attractions, etc. programmed into my GPS before we left.

Posted by
4695 posts

I would never blindly rely on my phone to get me around - I always check out my driving route for the upcoming day's driving, either on a paper map or a Google Map on my laptop. Because Google Maps lets you create maps and share them between laptop and phone, it's easy to save your destinations in the map and use them both places.

I too have navigated in Europe in the past without GPS. But what's the point of not using my phone? The GPS will save me time and make my life easier - and because I already have the phone, it won't cost me anything to use it. So why not?

Posted by
380 posts

I am not sure what kind of cars are being rented but I have rented 4 cars in the last couple years in Germany and France and in each case they came with GPS built in. And in each case the GPS worked well. Often if I could not get the exact address I could find the location in a search by category such as Hotels or such.

Posted by
3283 posts

GPS is nice, in general, but if you like to drive on scenic routes or make other deviations, it becomes almost worthless. I like to have an actual map. I like to have a visual of the route for the day and to know what I might be passing. I've had many situations that GPS is just wrong and having a good idea of our route and destination was helpful. For my upcoming trip, I'm using an app on my phone called Maps.me. I've downloaded the maps and have practiced using it at home so I know its limitations. I've had a few people now tell me that in general, they like maps.me better than google maps. A big exception is that maps.me doesn't have a public transportation option yet--just car and walking.

Posted by
1563 posts

I totally agree with you OP! Now, I will always request a car that has built in GPS or Sat Nav. I drove in Norway, Scotland and Ireland this past summer and we relied on it heavily. Paper maps are nice and I bring those too, but we didn’t use the ones we had more than once or twice.

Posted by
15625 posts

How did people survive before GPS? Are there thousands of people lost and still driving around?

People who driven from Bolzano to Ortisei may recall this one. There is a tunnel after you turn off the Autostrada with a "Y" intersection in the middle. Our driver had a total brain-freeze, because you can't get sat-nav in a tunnel. Of course he guessed wrong, and we later had to make a U turn on a road on the side of a cliff.

Posted by
5379 posts

On our last trip we did not order GPS with the car -- carried a Michelin paper map, bought a used Garmin at a garage sale, got a SIM card with data and used Google Maps ... and then it turned out that the car DID have a GPS so we cross-checked several sources.

David had excellent advice -- get "near" your destination, then park the car in a garage and find your way on foot. (Take that, Lyon!)

Posted by
343 posts

I like having a good, detailed, paper map, I study that before setting out and always have it handy for cross-referencing, when the gismo is telling me something that seems crazy, when it's not clear, or when it just fails completely (all of which will happen to you eventually). I use a combination of GPS (sometimes multiple GPS units), iPad and phone, but always, ALWAYS using common sense

I agree that paper maps are useful for getting clear on the big picture. For example, the paper map can tell you that the ocean should be on your right rather than your left or vice versa. However, sometimes common sense can steer you wrong. For instance, in many European cities you need to go what looks like the wrong way or even in apparent circles because of one=way streets.

Here's a story about a tourist who ended up several hundred miles from his destination by blindly following his GPS. He didn't have common sense because he was in a foreign country where he did not have his usual bearings:
https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-35482537

Posted by
343 posts

I am not sure what kind of cars are being rented but I have rented 4 cars in the last couple years in Germany and France and in each case they came with GPS built in. And in each case the GPS worked well. Often if I could not get the exact address I could find the location in a search by category such as Hotels or such.

The GPS built into the factory-new Renault we leased for more than a month did not have any listing for hotels in the category section or anywhere else. In addition, there were several fairly new highways during our trip that the car GPS did not know about at all.

We drove an older rented Opal when we visited the Canary Islands for a few days, and I had to beg the clerk for a car with GPS as I hadn't specified that when I put in the order before leaving home. (Naturally I did not know then that my cellphone would be robbed halfway into our trip and we'd need car GPS.) Luckily we can drive a manual shift car as it appeared all the automatics available that day did not have a GPS.

Posted by
580 posts

I found a GPS very helpful when driving in France and Germany. We brought our own portable device so we were able to practice with it prior to the trip, then loaded European maps onto it. It had all our hotels, showed parking lots in small towns, etc.

I also recommend bringing maps such as the Michelin series. For one thing the GPS screen is too small to have a good sense of your overall trip if you're driving any distance. Second, what would you do if your GPS breaks or is stolen? We always put it away prior to parking so nobody sees us peel it off the windshield. But the fact of travel is that going between one town you are staying at and another you will go past places you want to stop with your luggage locked in the car. And many of these places have signs up warning of breakins.

Posted by
14016 posts

I was very lucky when I rented a car through Burgundy and Alsace that it had built-in GPS. The huge Michelin maps were more of a nuisance than a help and signage on rural roads was iffy - seems that they sometimes get turned askew and you really have no idea to which of the 2 or 3 roads the arrow is indicating for your destination. One problem I remember running into is that it seems that there are at least 2 places with the same name for every place name in France.

Now that I am the confused owner of a smart phone (it's only been 4 months and I'm still climbing the learning curve), I have started using WAZE. This summer I used it on a short road trip with a friend in rural Illinois (yes, there's a whole state past that little corner of Chicago). I used WAZE and she used google maps. They were both nearly perfect, but in the end she decided to switch to WAZE when she got home because it had alerts for cops, radar, and cameras :-)

Posted by
5010 posts

There's no doubt, all these tools are helpful. But any of them can (and eventually will) fail for you someday (the only exception being a paper map, which won't fail, unless you lose it). I'd suggest that being able to find your way around is a critical task for virtually any trip (maybe not so much if you're on a guided tour every day) and being so completely dependent on a single tool that's prone to failure is not wise. Having more than one tool along, which can both serve as a backup and also which you can cross-reference as needed, is a much smarter plan.

Posted by
2 posts

Avis wants $200 for a GPS for a rental car for my 2 week rental - are you saving if its in the car you can use it for Free

Posted by
3283 posts

GPS on your phone is basically free, so that's an option. (you can use it offline) Some people use google maps, I will be using Maps.me on my next trip.
Another option is that if you rent thru Autoeurope, they can send you a GPS ahead of time with a postage paid box for you to return it at the end of the trip. It was pretty reasonable compared to other options.

Posted by
4695 posts

GPS on your phone is basically free, so that's an option. (you can use it offline) Some people use google maps, I will be using Maps.me on my next trip.

Yes, but you need to download the maps ahead of time if you wish to use the phone "offline" (without mobile/data service while driving). Google Maps calls this option simply "Google Maps offline." There's an "offline" option in Google Maps settings that lets you download (probably while on WiFi) the map area you wish to use offline later. The larger map area you define, the more space it will use on your device.

Google Maps "offline" works well enough, but I encourage anyone who is planning to use it on a trip to try it out at home first. (Download the map area for where you live, then put the phone into airplane mode and take the phone and use it to navigate and drive somewhere.) It's a little different from "regular" Google Maps. For one thing, there's no real-time traffic info. Also, it works only for driving, not walking directions.

Posted by
3283 posts

Yes, thank you, you must download the maps anywhere you have wifi unless you have a data plan. Might want to try both google maps and Maps.me ahead of time. Lately Maps.me has been getting higher ratings. For me, it was easier. I just downloaded from home, the map of my state (for practice) and then the country I will be going to. I also went through my itinerary and marked my hotels and places of interest. So when I arrive to a train station, all I need to do is find my pin and then ask for the "route to". Maps.me, provides both car and walking instructions, however a limitation is it does not provide into for public transportation.

Posted by
2 posts

Just downloaded Map.me and it does have public transportation - I used it to get from my hotel in Munich to the BMW museurm

Posted by
3283 posts

it would be great if it had transit, but mine is still saying transit maps not available. It does have the icon for transit, but then when I try it I get an error message. Perhaps it depends on location. I will see if it changes anything to download the map again

Posted by
1001 posts

We used to navigate with maps alone before we bought a gps. We managed ok. But the gps has helped enormously on recent trips and makes life so much easier. It certainly takes a lot of the stress away when you make a wrong turn especially in cities. We still carry maps and also a free mapping program as well that we used in the French countryside when we were really turned around even with gps. It all helps. The technology is there so why not use it.

Posted by
4695 posts

Just downloaded Map.me and it does have public transportation - I used it to get from my hotel in Munich to the BMW museurm

Offline? Or did you have mobile data? That is what is in dispute - whether it can provide public transportation directions offline.

Posted by
3283 posts

Thanks for the clarification of the question. I can't get public transportation instructions on Maps.me either way. I'm home right now on wifi and it said that public transportation was unavailable. I also have been unable to get it when I'm offline. I mentioned this to my tec saavy son and his wife and they told me that in their experience so far with maps.me, public transportation wasn't an option on maps.me for the places they traveled to.

I want to point out that maps.me and probably google as well, is essentially a GPS unit, itself. So I'm not disputing that GPS isn't helpful, it certainly is! Its just that some people may already have GPS capability and not really realize it. It gives me verbal instructions as I drive/walk. It doesn't seem to break in when I'm on bluetooth and listening to music in the car, so I have to take it off bluetooth to hear the instructions.