Looking for a GPS solution to get me to Canada.
July 3, 2011 6:54 PM   Subscribe

I will be traveling from Utah to British Columbia with my family and visiting the area for two weeks. I want to use a GPS and am not sure whether to get 1) a bluetooth GPS receiver, coupled to one of our idevices, 2) a cheap Android phone, or 3) a standalone automobile GPS.

1) A bluetooth GPS receiver would presumable work with one of our Apple products. My kids have iPod touches, and I have an iPad and a Macbook. Advantage: Cheap, long battery life. Would be fun to stick on my bike during longer rides. Disadvantage: might be clunky to use, and/or pair up with the devices.

2) If I get a cheap Android phone from Virgin Mobile, I can use their probably sluggish 3g network for only $25/month. However, I am assuming there is some trick to buying minutes for use in Canada. Still, I need a phone and they're only $150. Also, it could serve as a weak wifi hotspot for checking email, blogging the trip, etc.

3) A standalone GPS costs more than a bluetooth receiver, and less than a phone. We would probably use it after the trip. I am confused about whether I need to subscribe to map updates, etc.

4) A standalone GPS with bluetooth: would that let us pair our Apple devices and play with google maps, etc?

My goal for whatever I get is to let the kids (four of them) look up where we we are located, and to cut down on the unfolding of the giant paper map while I'm driving which my wife loves to do and drives me crazy. Also, I hope it will keep us from getting seriously lost. I don't care a lot about the Points of Interest data (should I?)

Thank you for helping me puzzle this out. Personal anecdotes are welcome.
posted by craniac to Travel & Transportation around Canada (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oooh, pasted on bonus question: Is there a website that lets you put in your destinations and produces a map where they are all connected, Raiders of the Lost Ark style?
posted by craniac at 7:07 PM on July 3, 2011

Where are you going in BC? There are plenty of mountainous areas where you will not have any cellular coverage. I've tried travelling with smart phone GPS apps and they are generally completely useless if you lose coverage.

I live in Alberta - you'll have problems in the Rockies but I've had reception issues closer to Vancouver and north of Whistler. BC is massive! Take a look at Telus' (the largest cellular provider) coverage map.

I'd recommend a standalone unit.
posted by jeffmik at 7:18 PM on July 3, 2011

One thing about all the phone GPS receivers I've used: they rely on the data network. That is, the maps aren't stored on the phones but are downloaded on demand. Last time I looked, on AT&T, the international roaming fees were ridiculous. And if you're at all in mountainous terrain data network reception will be spotty. I wouldn't use my iPhone's map application in Canada.

I'm not sure how the standalone ones work exactly, but they either have the maps stored internally or get updates via satellite.
posted by sbutler at 7:29 PM on July 3, 2011

I should mention I've only used the builtin map/GPS applications on these phones. No idea if the 3rd party, Tomtom like applications behave better.
posted by sbutler at 7:31 PM on July 3, 2011

Thank you for the suggestions so far. We will be driving through Seattle and visit the San Juan Islands.
posted by craniac at 7:56 PM on July 3, 2011

It sounds like I need to choose between a bluetooth GPS tracker thingy, and a standalone unit, or standalone with bluetooth. The more I think about it, a standalone with bluetooth sounds like it would have the most flexibility.
posted by craniac at 8:14 PM on July 3, 2011

I have a TomTom that I have used the past five years in both the U.S. and Canada. Make sure you update the maps (on any unit) ... when you purchase a TomTom, you automatically can download the newest map available within 30 days, if that map is different than the one on the device at purchase. Also, corrections are made by users, and these can be downloaded every week or so. Other standalone devices work similarily, I am just familiar with TomTom (and love it).

Cell phones and services from the U.S. (and vice versa) don't work particularly well in Canada as a rule, with very high rates when they are used. Also, as mentioned, many areas dont have cell phone service ... and those might be precisely the areas you most need the GPS in.

Don't know about blue tooth ... may run in to same problem?

Have fun!
posted by batikrose at 8:15 PM on July 3, 2011

I believe that a bluetooth GPS receiver is a normal GPS receiver, some without a screen, and the bluetooth is used to establish a local connection to your cellphone, laptop, or other piece of electronics with a screen and software.
posted by craniac at 8:49 PM on July 3, 2011

I used an iPad as a GPS and road atlas on my last trip (using good old Google Maps), it was fantastic and i'd never bother with anything else again. Pro tip: get whoever is riding shotgun to learn how the "find current location" and "get directions from here" functionality works, and be safe: pull over when you need to consult the map yourself.
posted by furtive at 9:20 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Forgot to mention I was in BC for the trip: Golden, Okanagan, Osooyoos, Vancouver, lilloet, Whistler, Pemberton, Kamloops, Golden and reception was fine the whole time.
posted by furtive at 9:23 PM on July 3, 2011

I am so glad that you welcome personal anecdotes. I live in the half-way area of your trip, Oregon. I can say not only does Canada have lousy cell phone coverage, lots of rural Pacific Northwest has dead area's lasting over a hundred miles. We hear several heart wrenching stories a year of families using a GPS to take shortcuts or alternate routes that ended in disasters, even death. GPS can reveal a road that turns out to be non-existent or just seriously wrong. If you plan on driving in some of the vast rural areas be sure to have a stack of paper maps covering the areas. A compass is handy too. Be safe and enjoy the adventure!
posted by nogero at 12:10 AM on July 4, 2011

My wife's family is from Oregon, so we generally just take the freeway without incident. I remember the sad James Kim incident. We will have enough paper maps to shingle a small shed.

@furtive: did you buy special software?
posted by mecran01 at 6:38 AM on July 4, 2011

Is your iPad the 3G model or the Wi-fi model? If you have the 3G model, which includes a GPS receiver, you're in luck. Buy the Navigon or TomTom app for it, and you're all set. These apps download all the data to your iPad so you don't need a data connection to use them.
posted by Emanuel at 9:16 PM on July 4, 2011

I bought a garmin for eighty bucks at Walmart and it was great, except for the battery life when walking. Sadly, when I crossed the border I discovered that it had no Canada maps. Later it disappeared somewhere on Galiano island. I blame Canadian ninjas but my wife thinks I left it in a hotel. I really liked the trip cost calculator and green driving feedback tool.
posted by craniac at 7:20 AM on December 3, 2011

« Older Are we just friends? part II   |   I'm picky, okay? Sorry! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.