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Trying to avoid extra cost for a GPS with out rental car for Europe trip, but need mapping...

So, AT&T costs to use phones in Europe seem pretty high. We will have wifi at hotels in the evening, but need mapping tool for driving rental car and for walking tours. What kind of advice do you all have for the least costly way to have access to GPS on phones? Thx. PS: Please pretend you are speaking to a toddler with your responses because I am technologically challenged. :) THANKS

Posted by
5017 posts

Worth noting: GPS is not the internet. Each technology actually works independently of the other, though some things (like phones) work better when used together. GPS is satellite-based. For "apps" on your phone, you need some connectivity (or to plan ahead, see below)

You know, you could simply do without either. Paper maps and basic navigation skills. Somehow, people have managed to travel for thousands of years before phones or GPS existed. Many still do. While GPS and internet connectivity is certainly handy, it is possible to live without it.

Some folks make do with phone or tablet based mapping/naviagtion apps, just squatting on free wifi for connectivity. It's possible, but at least in my experience, connectivity often (usually) fails right when you really "need" it.

You could download maps on your device(s) before you leave. This works for some folks (with some limitations). You would not have access to the internet except for those times when you could find free wifi, but maybe you don't really "need" that (or want to pay for it).

Or you could get a SIM for your phone. It's simple, not expensive, reliable. Many people just do this.

You could rent a pocket wifi device (they go by several names). These connect to the local cell phone network to get you connectivity, and then you are effectively carrying around your own wifi network. Maybe be expensive, connectivity may be solid or slow and iffy. May require a little ability to use technology, but usually not difficult.

Or you could actually buy a dedicated GPS device - probably for less than it might cost you to rent one in a car for more than a week or two. If you travel often (or even just occasionally but you plan to do so in the future) this can be a very cost effective way to go. There are advantages to being familiar with your own GPS device before you try to use it on the road in a foreign country.

Or you could do some combination of several of the above.

Personally, I have a GPS (bought at Costco years ago, with "lifetime" map/database updates for all of North America and most of Europe). I've used it on more than a dozen trips, from Japan to Mexico to Latvia to Italy to Ireland and it's great. I generally get a SIM for my iPhone, another for my iPad; if not, I have a pocket wifi device (or have rented one where that was a better option). And I would never travel anyplace without a good paper map, and without knowing where I was going and how I was planning to get there - there's no substitute for that.

Any of these options could work for you - it just depends on where you're going, for how long (which you did not mention - might make a difference), and your preferences.

Posted by
8889 posts

Seconding what David says. Using a phone for mapping and route finding with GPS does not require a phone connection, or an Internet connection. It does require a signal from a satellite, which requires you are not down a mine, in a tunnel or deep inside a building.
Many GPS map apps allow you to download the maps ahead of time, e.g. by WiFi when you are in a WiFi area (at home, your hotel). You can then later use the phone to display the maps, show where you are and find routes totally without phone or internet connection.

I use maps.me ( https://maps.me/ ), there are many others.

Posted by
4684 posts

Try Google Maps "offline" on your smart phone at home before you leave. First while at home on WiFi, go into Google Maps app on your phone (or whatever mapping app you prefer) and download the "offline area" for where you live now. Then put the phone in airplane mode. Then go for a drive somewhere and see how it works. It will work the same way in Europe, though you will have to download the "offline area" for the region of Europe in which you will be driving. Don't do this until just before you leave for your trip; the maps are free but "expire" within 30 days of download.

Posted by
5552 posts

Get a SIM card for your phone, around 30€ for a month. We used it all over Sicily, got us out of some bad situations.

Posted by
2232 posts

Another possibility: I will be traveling for over a month in Italy this spring, and renting a car for the final two weeks. I have made a reservation through Autoeurope for a car from Europcar. Europcar would have charged me $150 to add GPS for the two weeks. I mentioned this to the person on the phone from Autoeurope, and she said Autoeurope offered a free GPS gizmo, about the size of a smart phone, which could be charged in the car while it is running. The only charge would be $40 for round trip shipping by FEDEX, scheduled to arrive at my home a few days before I leave on my trip. She said an additional advantage might be that I could also use it during my trip when not driving, such as walking around a city, searching for a restaurant or a site. However, she said it would not hold a charge very long, and did not come with a charger which would connect to regular electric, just in a car. Not sure if I can find a charger for such a connection. I asked her if they had customer feedback on how well this GPS served their needs, and she said she worked in the “GPS department” and had not had complaints or negative feedback. If anyone has used this Autoeurope GPS gizmo, I would certainly appreciate their comment on how well it worked for you.

Posted by
5017 posts

I don't think paying to rent a GPS in a car is a good investment. For only a little more than the cost of a one-time rental, you can buy a good GPS, with European maps and database coverage. Buy it once and use if for years - at home (if you want) or all over Europe. Check out costco.com, they often have good prices on GPS units that include European coverage.

Posted by
6540 posts

I think Hertz charges something like $6 a day. We're renting a car for a quick run over to Krakow, and I splurged this one time. But if I was renting for 2 weeks, I'd be using other methods of maps.
I often go to Google Maps and plot routes--and cut a copy of the directions to manually follow. I also study city maps in the neighborhoods I'm staying at and actually know the streets and where restaurants are before I get there.

Posted by
5239 posts

The AutoEurope GPS plan looks good IF you will be using the rental car for your entire trip -- as I read it, they FedEx the device to you at home about 2 days before the rental period starts and expect you to FedEx it back about 2 days after the rental period ends. There are additional per-day charges for having the device outside the rental period.

Posted by
4684 posts

Get a SIM card for your phone, around 30€ for a month. We used it all over Sicily, got us out of some bad situations.

The OP has AT&T, and their phones are locked for the duration of the phone being paid off, if you bought the phone from them.

Otherwise, I agree. Even though map apps work OK without any SIM card or mobile data, they don't offer real-time traffic info, and having a working mobile phone while traveling is handy for all kinds of reasons - and relying on WiFi is not a good bet if you are out driving around who knows where.

Posted by
2232 posts

Laura B — the AutoEurope GPS plan explained to me is different from what you state. I was told they would ship the unit to me to arrive a few days before I left on my 40-day trip, so I could try it out in my own car, and that I could use it throughout my trip, including the last two weeks when I have the rental car rented from them. Then I would need to return within 2 days upon returning home. They did not mention any cost at all, just the $40 shipping fee, including to me and from me. However, I now see the AutoEurope web site mentions a $1 per day GPS rental cost beyond the car rental period, although that was not what I was told over the phone. The web site also mentions an optional $1 per day GPS insurance, for no-deductible for damage, and partial coverage for loss or theft of the unit. I’ll need to pursue more info by phone.

David from Seattle — I have been searching for GPS navigators on Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and Costco (I am not a Costco member) web sites, and see a mix of companies, features, sizes and costs from about $60 to $199, various makers including Garmin and no-name makers (with descriptions in imperfect English, so maybe direct from China). Many not clear if they include European or Italian maps. Can you recommend a particular company and unit that would serve my need in Italy. BTW, none of these mention needing the internet, so I figure they do not. They also generally have lithium batteries included, but do not mention re-charging.

Posted by
13909 posts

Larry Do you have an unlocked smartphone? If you get a SIM card with minimum data - or maybe your carrier has a data plan for the countries you're going to . . . . I had 2G of data and used only about 1/2 of it in 23 (wonderful) days in Portugal. I used google maps somewhat for driving, a lot for walking directions. Waze can also be used but it's a data hog. I also used Whatsapp a lot - to send photos to friends (hint, hint), to text them and occasionally even to phone them.

Posted by
5017 posts

I have been searching for GPS navigators on Amazon, Walmart, and Costco (I am not a Costco member) web sites, and see a mix of companies, features, sizes and costs from about $60 to $199, various makers including Garmin and no-name makers (with descriptions in imperfect English, so maybe direct from China). Many not clear if they include European or Italian maps. Can you recommend a particular company and unit that would serve my need in Italy.

Mine is a Garmin Nuvi 2559LMT, bought at Costco probably 5(?) years ago, cost was probably around the middle of the range you quoted. It came with "lifetime" map and database updates for both North America and Europe. (In reality, "Lifetime" probably means something less, basically until he unit is declared obsolete or until you get tired of jumping through technical hoops.) I've updated the maps/database on mine a handful of times, I've installed additional maps for Japan, Mexico, Latvia/Lithuania/Estonia and other countries (sometimes purchase from Garmin, sometimes purchase from third-party sellers on amazon). Sometimes that requires some fiddling (the unit has a limited storage capacity, so to load the Japan stuff I had to remove some other stuff, but it has been manageable). I believe Garmin's Nuvi line was discontinued and replaced with their "Drive" line. I used mine on my last trip to Italy about 2.5 years ago (drove all around Sardinia) and it worked perfectly.

I would go with a well-known name brand, skip the no-name units. I've had good luck with several Garmin units, the company is solid and isn't going to disappear. Ideally, look for one that has North America + Europe maps installed, and (if possible) "free" updates. Costco used to sell these, don't know if you can still find them there or at amazon. You can always buy additional coverage if you can't find one with the coverage you want pre-installed (in some cases you can buy it (maps/database) from garmn.com as a digital download, download/update it via desktop computer; in other cases, you can buy it on a memory card and plug that in (look on garmin.com and amazon). I've purchase maps for multiple foreign countries.

The market for dedicated GPS units is soft and weird - no doubt because so many people just want to use their phones. I have a phone, too, but like having a dedicated standalone GPS.

Standalone GPS units do NOT use (or need) internet connectivity; GPS signals are satellite-based (you may lose signal briefly driving through dense cities with skyscrapers, going through tunnels, etc.). There's some additional info that some units can pull in (eg for traffic conditions) - I think that comes via some obscure radio system (and may require the special Garmin cable that comes with the GPS) but IME that is neither 100% reliable nor terribly helpful (I suspect you're not going to get reliable traffic data outside the USA). Some units can do extra stuff like display your photos (useless IMHO) or perhaps show backup camera video via Bluetooth (I've never tried that, sounds like a hassle).

For charging: Mine charges via a DC cable - plug in to the round DC outlet in a car aka "cigarette lighter", or via USB power plug (comes with both plugs or buy what you need; I bring both). It has an internal battery, holds power for a while (couple hours?) but not all day. I've used it a few times for walking around but it doesn't work well without it's cable (which I believe helps it with sat reception). For walking around, a phone (with data connectivity) is a better bet.

Hope some of that is helpful.

Posted by
67 posts

While obviously some folks have had good luck with Garmin GPS units (for example, they're still in business), I have not.

I bought a Nuvi -- also from Costco -- before the long trip to France we took in advance of moving here. The thing was useless. It rarely could connect to satellites. And when it did it would lose the connection shortly after. It was never useful to me.

Never.

Which is odd, because in my work I would, on occasion, use a sub-meter Garmin GPS on a surveying rod to locate geographic points for mapping purposes. That worked.

I'm here in my home office this morning, and the old, inert Garmin Nuvi is sitting in a box on a shelf in which I keep old computer cords, patch cords, the odd HDMI cable, and an assortment of transformer bricks for long-gone laptops. At some point, I'll take it to the electronics recycling station at the local déchetterie (solid waste transfer station).

I don't believe I would ever buy another such product. If I were in your position, I'd go with a local SIM for an unlocked smartphone if you have one, or rely on paper maps.

But your mileage may vary, and if you choose to use one, I hope it works as well for you as those of some of the others who have commented.

Posted by
11 posts

Thanks everyone for the responses. I will read through them all after work today to see what direction we will take.

Posted by
68 posts

Sorry to jump in so late, but I have a suggestion: buy or borrow a tablet and install an appropriate app for travel maps and a GPS app. I prefer a 7" or 8" android tablet such as the Samsung "New Galaxy Tab A 8.0." A 32gb byte model costs about $110 at Costco. (The 10" model is $250.) I have used "Here We Go" as a travel app in Europe, USA, Canada & Costa Rica with excellent results. Set it up to work 'offline' and download the area maps you want to use. No need to connect to cell phone service or wifi when moving. I have tried Google download maps and find them not as complete or as fast offline. I also use "GPS Essentials" to verify satellite connections & operations. Most places you can skip this app, but it can be useful in mountain & city 'canyons'. The screens on tablets are easier to see and use. GPS operates without any connections to the internet or cell systems. The tablet GPS will work in a car, afoot, in a bus or train and often inside buildings so you can see your location on the map. And of course, the tablet can be used for games, movies, music, photos, emails (when on wifi) and anything a smart phone can except phone calls & texts. The battery life on most tablets greatly exceeds that of smart phones & stand-alone GPS devices making them ideal for walk around. You could probably get the same services using iPads, but none are as cheap as android tablets. If you go this route and can't find a tech guru to help you, send me a 'personal message' using ricksteves.com. I will try to guide you thru the setup.