What is the best GPS unit, and best map system, to use driving the back roads in France--Dordogne, Provence, etc?
Which ever one you can get the cheapest. They all have advantages and disadvantages but they all work just fine. I go back forth when the current one bricks, all based on money. The only mistake was once getting one with too many bells and whistles. Go basic with the biggest screen you can afford. Make sure you know how to set 'night colors' in the Dordogne. It gets dark fast on the back roads (many of which have neither side no center stripes) and the sucker will blind you in half a heart beat.
I have used Michelin maps and a Garmin GPS unit. I had some difficulty with the Garmin when traveling from the Loire Valley to the Dordogne. It took me on very small roads so the trip took twice the expected time. Also since the car was not automatic, my wrist was very sore from all the shifting:) In the future, I will either have a Michelin map handy or print off routes before I go and not depend totally on the Garmin. Once in towns, the Garmin works great. Just be aware that it does not always take you on the most direct/quickest/easiest route.....
That sounds like an initial set-up selection. Maybe 'scenic' or 'avoid tolls' was plugged in.
Make sure you set up your GPS properly so it won't take you on the shortest route, likely down a cow path when staying on a motorway is the obvious choice. We saved to favorites the addresses of our hotels, museums along the way, and other places of interest so we could drive right to them. However, drifting along on the back roads, stopping to buy cheese, wine, or picnic supplies is the way to travel. With a GPS and a Michelin map you will always know where you are and how to get to your destination. We had a Garmin Nuvi. Learn how to use it stateside and save your destinations to favorites before you leave. Rural B&B's have no real address so you can locate them on GoogleEarth and program in the latitude and longitude the same as a street address.
I have resisted the GPS era, even though I own one. I use an analogue, carbon fiber based product that boots up instantly, recharges instantly, operates in any country regardless of current and shape of plug -- It's called A MAP.
Our garmin is taking us on very slow farm roads rather than main roads so trip takes twice as long as garmin says it should. I noticed that garmin display says speed limit on these back roads is 90 kph whereas safe speed is more like 50 kps. Apparently garmin software computes best route or fasted route ASSUMING one can travel at 90 kph. In short it gives wrong answer re fastest route from a to b. how to cope? I am going to use paper map and follow main roads. At same time I will preprogram a route being sure to as via points all major towns along those main roads. I think garmin will then the same roads I did and be useful in following them. Then, the tricky part, before I get to a via point I will stop and try to delete it from the saved route. That should allow garmin to find the fastest route through or around the town rather than taking us to the town center of eac via town. Clearly garmin should use realistic driving times on rural roads rather than assume 90 kph.
"Make sure you set up your GPS properly so it won't take you on the shortest route, likely down a cow path when staying on a motorway is the obvious choice" Yeah. After my Tom-Tom insisted I drive along a tractor path to get to Burg Eltz, then later directed me to drive directly into the Rhine, she was no longer welcome in my car. If your rental is a Mercedes, Audi or Renault, these often come with a standard-factory installed GPS. My new car has just such a unit, and I haven't experienced the sort of problems I had with stand-alone models. But the best fool-proof navigation method? Just follow the road signs. They will direct you flawlessly to just about any city, town, attraction, parking area and even many restaurants and hotels.
Stephen, I use a Garmin Nüvi and so far it's worked quite well. I've upgraded the maps a few times, so it's reasonably current. However, I've found that it's a good idea to constantly double-check the directions the GPS is providing. On one occasion when driving to a town in the Cotswolds, the GPS instructed me to turn left and drive through along a narrow dirt road through some freshly plowed fields. At the same time, I noticed a road sign that indicated the town was only a mile ahead. I followed the sign and ignored the GPS. I'm sure I would have eventually arrived by following the GPS directions, but it clearly wasn't the best route. I'd suggest also carrying a good Map! There was another occasion where I missed the turn-off to the Bristol airport (couldn't get into the left lane) and decided to follow the GPS directions, even though they didn't make a lot of sense at the time. The route took me along back roads, behind a country Pub and through trees so thick I could barely see the sky (GPS still had a "fix" though). Suddenly the trees parted and the airport car park and rental returns were directly in front of me. I was quite impressed with the GPS on that occasion! Happy travels!
When we moved here, we took everyone's advice and went with a TomTom instead of a Garmin. We've been directed down some farm roads, but never when a highway is nearby. And the longer we drive here, the faster we go on those farm roads. It starts to seem normal to drive them. You do not need voice-to-text features when navigating in France. You'll never find a road sign fast enough to match to what the GPS is saying. Plus, the pronounciation may not match how you are reading the sign in your head. Best to just hear "Turn right in 200m."
The best GPS unit is the one you are already used to before travelling. Nowadays, all but the most basic GPS units have options that allow you to pick options such as "simple to drive" route... TomTom cartographic base works slightly better in terms of road hierarchy, in that is shows better distinction between minor roads and local wider routes than Garmin's but it is not the end of the World. Only make sure the option for unpaved roads is disabled and that shall keep you out of trouble.