Online Maps

Barely a decade ago, we frequently had to refer to our trusty Rand McNally Road Atlas or AAA printed TripTiks when attempting to get from Point A to an unfamiliar Point B. Then technology intervened; we could print directions from a site like MapQuest from home. Then technology intervened again to allow maps while in transit, whether through a cell phone or GPS-enabled device. I never purchased another atlas after my Blackberry 8700g in 2007 (although Rand McNally still prints them). Yet there's been another sizable technology shift in the 6 years since AutoSlash last talked about avoiding fees for navigational devices

So what's changed since the last time we addressed using a cell phone for mapping while en route? The map software publishers have become more cognizant about the data use of customers and regions without data service. The result has been the ability to download maps for offline use, an underutilized feature in many mapping programs.

When Might Offline Maps Help?

There are three major reasons to consider downloading maps for offline use.

  • Heading to an area without cellular coverage (or spotty cellular coverage)? Online maps won't work if the phone can't get online.
  • On a plan with limited data? A traveler can download maps while on WiFi, conserving data.
  • Traveling to a region where you don't want to incur data costs (such as out-of-country)? An offline map can be created while a user's on WiFi, even before a trip commences. As Chris states:

"I sometimes cache a map right before I depart for a foreign country, knowing that I'll need to get from the airport to the hotel and then find a SIM card shop."

Does the AutoSlash team Use Offline Maps?

Absolutely! We're clearly not going to pay the fees the rental car companies want to charge for GPS devices or tablets -- recently, we've seen rates ranging from $3 up to $15 per day, plus taxes on the simplest navigational devices. In fact, even an out-of-service phone without a SIM card may be used for downloading maps! In a GPS-enabled phone, the user can still get directions -- and sometimes turn-by-turn navigation -- even when the phone's data service is turned off. Afraid of the per day fees most cellular providers charge abroad? A GPS-equipped phone -- perhaps even a recently retired phone without a SIM card -- can potentially serve as a navigational device without any additional cost. 

The Major Map Options

User preferences come into play with all apps, and of the four major apps available (Apple Maps, Google Maps, Here, and Waze), only two are truly suitable for offline use.

Google Maps -- Yes

Google's support division explains how to save maps for offline use for Android devices as well as iOS devices. Mashable even provides guidance on using apps for offline maps. And for those downloading the maps via WiFi? The process often takes just seconds. The entire country of Costa Rica was just a quick 67 MB download in Google Maps; the traveler can then search by location name (in the case of a landmark) or street address when on the road.

Here Maps -- Yes

The software developers at Here created a blog post that compares their app to Google Maps when using offline. Here was the first map application that truly excited me on a cell phone for their intuitive and informative interface, once I figured out how to set the profile to stop alerting me to excessive speed. Otherwise, one will get the speeding alert bells for a single mph over the speed limit. Then again, Here's headquarters city of Chicago has developed a multi-year love affair with automated speed cameras and other revenue sources.   

The Here app for iOS allows users to download the maps for entire continents
(photo courtesy Here

Apple Maps -- No Go

Apple Maps is (currently) the laggard when it comes to offline maps use. A map has to start at a point where the user has WiFi or data and a radius is then cached; there's no ability to download broad geographic areas beforehand. Apple Maps also provides basic maps in many locations where the software doesn't provide directions or turn-by-turn directions. So an Apple Maps user without data won't fall far from the tree origination point. Fortunately, iOS supports Google Maps and Here. 

Waze -- No Go

Similar to Apple, Waze states their map software was designed for users with data connectivity.

"Waze was built assuming a data network connection would be present all, or at least most, of the time. For all aspects of Waze to operate, you must have an active data connection on your mobile device. This connection enriches Waze with real-time traffic related information and ensures an up-to-date map. Without an internet connection, you won't be able to locate or navigate a route.

Tips and Tricks

  • Remember your charger. While a phone with the cell signal turned off will use less battery, there are few worse things than a phone without power.
  • Don't know how your GPS-enabled phone will use offline maps? Test out at home before heading to a location where the offline maps will be needed. Hypothetical start points and end points can still be entered if the cell signal is turned off.
  • Know the limitations of the offline maps. When an offline map is used, some features -- such as real-time traffic -- aren't going to be available. In addition, some systems have geographic restrictions (such as Apple Maps). 

Our Take

A GPS device or tablet from a rental car company is simply a profit center; after a week or so of rentals, the device hardware itself has been paid off and all future renters are pure profit. Not only is the AutoSlash team dedicated to providing you the lowest possible rental rates, we're always thinking of ways to avoid the costly additional and optional services offered by the rental car companies. Without exception, add-ons offered at the rental car counter can be found elsewhere at lesser cost. Those products and services are not made available for your convenience; they are made available for the rental car company's and commission-based agent's financial benefit.

Ready to book your next rental and get lost enough to try out your phone's mapping capabilities? Click below to request a quote now!

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