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Paper Maps vs. GPS for Driving

Is it worth the cost to include a GPS in my car rentals or rely on paper maps? I'll be renting in Italy, France, and Germany on 3 separate occasions this summer. I don't particularly want to purchase a GPS unit here and take it with me. What paper maps would you recommend?

Posted by
3188 posts

First of all, do the math. A GPS costs around $200. When we looked at renting one @ $10 per day for 17 days, the answer, for us, was obvious. I can't see any reason for not wanting to take it from here. They're neither heavy, nor bulky. A big advantage is that you can practice with it before your trip. Believe me, practice is important. After your trip you'll still have it. We've used ours many times now on domestic trips. You should have paper maps (Michelins are good) as backups, too.

Posted by
77 posts

Hi Rosalyn, thanks for your input. I was actually thinking of using paper maps ONLY and not using a GPS at all. Is that wise? If I arm myself with a good set of maps, I should be fine, right?

Posted by
756 posts

Brad is absolutely right. Getting lost in Italy is easier done than said! There are two simple reasons, 1)The signage is at best vague and 2)They treat highway numbers like a state secret. After driving 15,000 trouble free miles over the years is northern Europe with paper maps it took us almost 20 minutes to get lost in Italy. Buy a GPS and get a European map card here. Then really learn how to use it here, including the pedestrian mode for finding your way back to your car or hotel. The problem with the GPS in the rental car beyond lack of portability is that you will be in a strange car, in a strange place, learning how to use a strange device using a manual that will not be written in English. Sound like fun? Also take some paper maps as a back up since they will help you keep track of where you are in the grand scheme of things.

Posted by
12040 posts

Before I bought my current car (which has a GPS as a standard feature), I used mostly maps, and rarely had any trouble finding anything. In fact, I made more wrong turns using a portable GPS than I did simply using maps and following the ample road signs that are everywhere in Germany. If you're looking for a town, hotel, restaurant, store, government building, parking garage, church, tourist site or tourist route, there's usually plenty of signs pointing you in the right direction. The only advantage I can really see for a GPS is if you need to find a private address, or if you want to see where the next rest stop or petrol station is located. That being said, your rental car may include a GPS as a standard feature of the car model.

Posted by
4125 posts

If I arm myself with a good set of maps, I should be fine, right? How are your map reading skills? If they are good I'd say a good map is better than GPS in nearly every way and can enhance your road trip in ways that GPS cannot.

Posted by
3901 posts

Just wanted to mention when we rented in France, we had a Volkswagen Touran and it had an integrated GPS...when trying to rent (an Automatic, so more limited in choice), I wanted to add a GPS to it, but it didn't give us the option...perhaps because it was already integrated? Do you maybe have a friend who would loan you one? We borrowed a friend's when travelling to the US - I don't think we would have found our hotel in Virginia without it!

Posted by
913 posts

Pam, we found that our GPS, that we brought from home, contributed more to marital bliss than any other thing...... when we were traveling. Don't be cheap; buy one here, learn to use it here, and take it with you; loaded with the EU maps you are going to need. Don't bother with the unit in a auto rental; by the time you figure out how to use it your trip will be over! Also take along a Michelin map of each Country, and a compass.

Posted by
6369 posts

Pam, I agree with Adam. If your map reading skills are good you can do just fine with good maps - and I emphasize GOOD maps. You may have to spend a bit for the more detailed Michelin maps but it's worth it. I drove around France for 4 weeks last summer without GPS and had no major problems. Also I was alone with no second person to navigate but I'm a good map reader. In addition, if you're a person who doesn't plan their time too tightly so doesn't mind getting a little lost (or turned around) then you'll be fine. If these things bother you, then get a GPS. One thing though - I've heard most people say to buy it and use it to get familiar with it before using it in Europe. That's the main reason I didn't get one with my rental cars, it would have been too frustrating for me to get it figured out. I'm used to maps so that's what I went with.

Posted by
9363 posts

I love maps, and agree that you can get along fine with just that. But what a map can't do, that a GPS can, is tell you where the nearest gas station or hospital or restaurant is. And when I travel alone, it is difficult to use a map while driving. I use both.

Posted by
1137 posts

On a close vote, I vote for..... both. The main advantage of the GPS is we saved to favorites the addresses of hotels, museums, and other points of interest along the way. The saving grace was using Google Earth to pinpoint our very rural B&B in Normandy by inputting the latitude and longitude of their driveway. We also were helped immensely on the car return in rush hour, in a driving rainstorm in Caen. We could barely see out let along find the obscure street signs. How did we do it without a fixed address? At the rental car lot driveway upon leaving, I touched the auto icon on the GPS screen and saved and named that location into favorites. The GPS got us there when map reading in traffic in heavy rain was impossible. We got a Garmin Nuvi on Ebay (or Amazon?) loaded with European maps for a couple hundred bucks. We also had a Michelin map that helped us determine whether the GPS instructions were leading us down a narrow rural lane just to save a couple miles, which it will do occasionally.

Posted by
1064 posts

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy: If you have ever been forced to leave your route because of construction or wreck ahead, only to be dumped into a maze of streets without a clue of as to where you are, you might need a GPS. If you have ever been caught in a maze of one-way streets that are not marked as such on a map, you might need a GPS. If you are trying to navigate multiple traffic exchanges in heavy traffic, with dozensyllableexitsignsingermanlikethis and trying to make snap decisions, you might need a GPS.
When there are no recognizable signs or landmarks and you don't know what direction you are headed, much less which direction you want to go, you might need a GPS. Sure, you can get by without one, but at three o'clock in the morning lost for several hours in a strange city and your car's tank getting low, you might might need a GPS.

Posted by
3188 posts

What I forgot to mention in my earlier post on this subject was the following experience. We were staying in a country inn on the outskirts of Ragusa, located in what appeared to be a new development. When we returned on our second night, we got lost, mostly because we couldn't recognize landmarks in the dark. Our map didn't help, probably because the streets were new construction. Neither did the GPS, most likely for the same reason. No one was at the desk to answer our phone call. My husband thought of searching in the GPS for the restaurant near the inn, where we had eaten the previous night; and, voila the GPS got us there. The owner was able to give us directions to the inn, and we were spared the ordeal of spending the night in the car. (Iknow, Iknow. We should have saved the inn location. What did I say about practice?)
Especially in Italy, signage can be confusing. You regularly come to intersections with poles listing ten or more destinations, which are hard to read, especially while in motion. There's lots of new half-finished construction, with new streets that may not be on maps. I'm a convert

Posted by
11798 posts

I never thought I needed a GPS, after many miles driven in Western Europe, North America, Asia and Australia UNTIL I drove in Italy. I don't have time or the patience right now to regail you with the horrors of Italian road signage (both in town and on the autovia). To put it briefly, the signage is useless. We had a good road atlas and better than most map skills and still got lost constantly - because there are almost no road signs in towns. Fortunately, I knew enough Italian to ask for, and understand, directions from the locals. The roadsigns on the autovias don't say A5 West, next right. They have a sign, at the exit, with an arrow and the name of several small towns you have never heard of. Unless you can instantly find all the towns along your route, you're going to take a wrong turn. The autovias only have an exit every ten or fifteen miles. By the time you get off at the next exit, pay your toll, find a way across the autovia and an onramp, collect your ticket and get back up to speed, you lose fifteen to twenty minutes each time. That time alone is worth the price of a good GPS. Get a GPS. Buy a good one at home and get comfortable using it before you rent over there.

Posted by
2828 posts

I think a GPS is indispensable because of its 'insurance value', even if you are the most awesome people at reading paper maps. Of course, I mean a GPS with an updated map base (even if the device is old). Buying an entry-level GPS is cheaper than renting a GPS for more than 3-4 days at all rental agencies. Rental GPS fees are outrageous, it is like returning the car with the tank empty and paying much more per liter of fuel. A contextual map with tourist attraction is a helpful addition to a GPS unit, not a substitute.

Posted by
3901 posts

Oh - and the one we had in our rental was very helpful for finding parking spots! In Caen, you could click on parking and it would show you where parking areas were (or say how close by) as well as if it was full or not...and also let us know about delays or obstructions on the highway - we had an alert coming up that there was an obstruction on the highway so we were able to be on the lookout - there was a dead...looked like swan, in the middle of one of the lanes...on a Sun traffic was pretty much nil, but I don't think we would have wanted to hit that doing 120kmh.

Posted by
3584 posts

Uhh, Luddite here. We don't text. We don't take pictures. We don't use data on the phone. We just want a Global ready one. We got our flip phones in 2009 and have never upgraded partly because of the expense of all those other options and partly because smartphones are bigger than our flip phones. I know these old phones will eventually die and we will have to get smartphones and that when we do we will love them and put everything on them like the rest of the world. I've already been shopping for them. Now, back to GPS. My husband does the driving. I do the navigating. We both hate being talked to by a mechanical being while we are doing those things. We are visual, not auditory learners. And we are both very good with knowing where we are and the direction we are going. So far we have been able to navigate in southern Germany, Austria, northern Italy, Switzerland and all over France without a GPS. We have a good Michelin road map and I pull directions from Google for our routes. That prep makes it possible for me to recognize in person what I saw online, like what the front of the parking garage we want to use looks like. We have not found the problems others mention with bad signage. We have taken a few wrong turns which makes the process more fun for us. We would never have found that cute and delicious little restaurant in Rozay-en-Brie without the GPS yelling at us that we had turned the wrong way from our determined route around the south side of Paris. We would never have saved a lot of time and aggravation by using back roads heading essentially the right direction, either. The driving is a main part of the trip for us, not just the getting there. "I wonder where this goes?" and "Let's find out" is often heard in our front seat. As with the smartphones, I'm sure we will convert to GPS some day, and we can always turn it off.

Posted by
11450 posts

Pam reality is everyone did without GPS before GPS. I don't drive in Europe, but about 10 years ago went with my dad ( left my kids at home with hubby and did a memory lane trip with my dad, he is french) and we relied solely on maps.. we had a great map book , sorry can't remember name but it was fairly large but so easy to use( I was navigator) . We drove from Paris to Zermatt then back to Paris with a stop in Loire Valley.
We never got lost. Signage in France and Switzerland was good. Italy does sound a bit horrible though. This old debate over "needing" some things, lap tops, cellphones, ipads etc.. the fact is no one NEEDS these things, people travelled just as much before these conveniences came along, but are then NICE to have, yes, for some people they do greatly enhance their experiences.. I personally am so low tech that having anything other then my e reader and digital point and shoot camera would and does just stress me out. There is no right or wrong answer.

Posted by
2828 posts

While I agree that people traveled before many modern conveniences and gadgets, I'm also sure, in the specific case, GPS made car rental trips much more pleasant and efficient. Of course you can still try to drive to the major point of a village and look for traffic signs or park the car and seek a map at the Tourist Information Point or their equivalents. Likewise, you could also use only payphones to call home, you could still take only some vintage film camera with you and develop it back home, you could still use telegram. Ultimately, all leisure trips are not "needed" like a commute trip or a family visit or a business journey are. We take them because we like to see new things, places, widen our perspectives etc. So I don't see how not to incorporate modern add-ons like GPS just because our parents or grandparents generation traveled without them (and still did fine).

Posted by
9110 posts

A map shows relationships and options. A gps pushes you through an electronic tunnel. Read history or lame out with an audio guide? Use brain or don't?

Posted by
26402 posts

You don't have to have the voice switched on. 99% of the time I use my GPS silent. It has excellent POI database and is very accurate in speed displays. I use it to see the kink in the road ahead, check my speed when in Europe because it knows kph and my car is predominantly in mph, predict what the sign ahead will do or how how many exits around the roundabout I'll want, and to see how long the rest of the journey will last. I always read the signage and we also sense check the GPS routing against a map before we head off. For me it is a convenient display of my position relative to my surroundings so that my natural sense of direction is confirmed and my wife doesn't have to go plunging at short notice into a map which she hates. It saves me from doing that at xx mph as well. Much like some of the navigational equipment on a flight deck. My wife likes to be spoken to by the machine as it saves her trying to read signs and decypher them at speed - which she both hates and isn't very good at. To be told continue 7 miles or take third exit is very comforting to her. Again, sense checked prior to departure in the pre departure checklist.

Posted by
3901 posts

They can get you out of some tight squeezes (I know, and cause them as well - like the lady in New Brunswick, Canada who followed her GPS down an old backroad in the winter and got stuck miles away from nowhere)...but - we borrowed a friends for a trip to US - we missed our turn (in the wrong lane, our bad) trying to get out of one of the cities, nowhere to turn around at all, so it took us thru a very convoluted series of turns/streets to get us back on track and we only killed 20 min trying to get back on track rather then killing each other. And when we went to a place we were going to spend the night and it looked a little sketchy, we asked it to show us hotels nearby...voila! Tho it did try to turn us into a brick wall by saying it was a hotel entrance in Philly...lol. Not necessary, but they make life (mostly) easier... And amen to Andre!

Posted by
12040 posts

One circumstance I've found where I got completely lost WITH a GPS and wish I had a map. I was trying to find my hotel in Colmar, but road construction cahanged the flow of traffic through all those one-way streets. GPS was completely useless. I had to stop, park the car, and wander through the streets looking for my hotel. Luckily, I saw a guy carrying the Blue Book (turns out my hotel was recommended), stopped him and asked if I could see the schematic map of Colmar. Voila, there's my hotel, thank you random Ricknik! So in this case (admittedly, not a common scnenario), even the lousy maps in Rick Steves' books were better than a GPS.

Posted by
1064 posts

I had a situation similar to Tom's, only it was in Rheims instead of Colmar. Even when a GPS is loaded with "curent" maps, they can be a year or two behind actual developments on the ground, like new, closed or rerouted roads. In my case, there was a whole stretch of autostrasse and an access road into town that did not show up on the GPS, plus some of the streets in town had been changed to one-lane going in the opposite direction. We simply drove around the downtown area a while, ignoring the directions until the GPS locked onto a route we could actually take. It was a lot of trouble but easier than I have had in the past with paper maps, which are just as likely to be out of date.