Maps vs. GPS - Choosing High Tech or Low Tech Travel
March 27, 2007 3:02 PM   Subscribe

Roadtrip technology. Which would you prefer, high-tech solutions (web-enabled phone/Palm, laptop, GPS) or low-tech solutions (maps, AAA Triptiks, GoogleMaps printouts) or some combination?

I'm embarking on a bit of a road trip soon, and I'm trying to come to a conclusion about technology and what I want to schlep along and whether or not it's worthwhile to pay the premium for in-car GPS to the rental agency and so forth. I'm a map nerd, and the more detail the better, and I love having a paper map that I can take into a diner and pour over as I drink some coffee. On the other hand, I'm also a tech nerd, and the idea of a GPS that can say "Turn right in 50 yards" gives peace of mind, but I fear a situation in which a GPS put a friend in the parking lot of a KMart when they were aiming for the (easy to find) Pittsburgh airport.

If you were driving across four states through major metropolitan areas and making a variety of stops in unfamiliar places, what directional technology would you use? How would you combine options to have the best coverage and least opportunity for hair-rending moments of "where in blue blazes am I?!?!?!"
posted by Dreama to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
GPS is great for "where exactly am I right this second," to correlate with a paper map, even if you don't use its navigation feature. It's also great for detouring around bad traffic. I've had it in my car for about two years, and I just used it yesterday on my way home from work to detour around an accident that had closed a major road I take all the time. Navigate / Home / Avoid Road / select road where the accident was... and it detoured me through back streets I'd never been on before to get me on the highway a different way. Insanely useful.

If you already have a laptop, it may be cheaper and more useful to you in the long run to get a USB GPS module and some nav software. My car has a Windows PC installed in it, with touch screen in the dash, for this purpose. I prefer it strongly to the all-in-one units from Garmin and Tomtom.
posted by autojack at 3:07 PM on March 27, 2007

Out of curiosity, Autojack, what mapping software to do you recommend?
posted by OldReliable at 3:14 PM on March 27, 2007

The minimum you need for a road trip is a paper highway map. If most of your stops are near the highway, that should do you fine.

Besides, part of the fun of a road trip is those moments of "where in blue blazes am I?!?!?!"
posted by yohko at 3:15 PM on March 27, 2007

do you have a laptop? drive more or less aimlessly around (you will discover more things anyway) and only when you really are lost log into google earth. you can use the app with its cached content even when offline but you might want to find a starbucks, fedex, ups, even mc donalds in many places and just go online there when you really need it.

roadtrips are about stumbling over cool things. use flickr to find places in the states you are interested in.
posted by krautland at 3:16 PM on March 27, 2007

Do you have a navigator? Maps are rougher alone.

GPS is better at night too.
posted by smackfu at 3:24 PM on March 27, 2007

I've always treated road trips as adventures, and thus I never like to be too prepared. Packing tech backup seems like cheating to me. Possibly getting lost is part of the experience.

Don't play it safe. Just grab a road atlas at the nearest gas station and go nuts. We have enough conveniences that tell us what to do and how to do it easily in our day to day lives, and being on a road trip is about throwing day to day life out the window. Live a little.
posted by Roman Graves at 3:42 PM on March 27, 2007

Best answer: The spiral bound, every page plastic laminated Rand McNally Motor Carrier Road Atlas is the navigational "bible" of professional drivers. Don't leave home without it.

The advanced routing features of the Rand McNally Web site permit you to choose fastest route, shortest route, or multi-point route options. This flexibility is amazing, and works really well, in my experience. It's worth paying for a Premier Membership, if you're taking a laptop along, or can stick to pre-printed directions for major legs of your journey.
posted by paulsc at 3:44 PM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've driven back and forth from the Midwest up through Pennsylvania dozens of times and if you're taking the interstate, then aiming at major metropolitan areas is pretty easy using just highway signage.

If you really want to understand where you're going in each of these cities, then I think maps are the way to go. They help to really grasp the whole system. The major parts of the city, how they're connected. If you use GPS it's hard not to become dependent on it. Offloading that mental engagement to a computer means that it's easy to wind up somewhere without really knowing where you are. It's like being a passenger.

I use Yahoo maps as a planning aid. When I'm heading to a strange city, I map out my destination, and sometimes points of reference (like the airport if I'm flying) or downtown using the internet, then commit to memory the major roads that connect everything so that I'll at least recognize them when I arrive. If it's a major city, then I buy maps before I leave. Sometimes I pull up Yahoo Local once I'm at a hotel. But it's more to discover my options. I go out and explore once I'm at the destination, noting landmarks in the area or resources like gas stations or restaurants.

To me, part of the fun of road-tripping is experiencing the journey. Interstates take most of the fun out of the spaces in between and GPS kills what's left.
posted by Jeff Howard at 3:55 PM on March 27, 2007

GPS is soulless. Maps are art!
posted by loiseau at 4:04 PM on March 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

I paid $240 CDN for a Garmin i500 GPS, and I'm in love with it. Sure, it leads me the wrong way sometimes*, and it doesn't always have the newest roads, but I long for the chance to drive across the continent with it. I don't know if I could ever go back.

* It told me to ford a river last week, I've never forded a river, but it sure was fun!
posted by blue_beetle at 4:05 PM on March 27, 2007

Paper map. $2 compass, just to make sure you're heading the right way, which can make a difference in those stretches when the compass bearing of a road has no relation to its actual direction.

Go online (Google groups, forums) to research backroads or US-route alternatives to interstates: I did that on a northbound trip, evaded the stretch of of I-95 between DC and Baltimore, and also had a lovely stop in Annapolis.

If you don't have a navigator, though, GPS makes sense in some situations.
posted by holgate at 4:09 PM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

OldReliable, iGuidance is the best damn GPS app I've used. The UI is very simple, it has all the features I need, and it's never led me to a K-mart parking lot instead of the airport : ) The last version of it added a "touch-screen mode" that makes the buttons and text big. Perfect for the car setup. That said, if you want to use GPS for complex routing, like planning a coast to coast trip with stops and detours and all kinds of stuff like that, and then say, "Go," iGuidance is probably too simple for that. I find it great for basic point to point stuff though, which is how I used it when I drove cross-country in 2005. I pre-planned the cities I wanted to stop in and hotels I would stay at, and then just used the GPS when I got into the city limits to lead me to the hotel.
posted by autojack at 4:10 PM on March 27, 2007

I've got a palm with a bluetooth gps receiver and tom tom running on the palm. I love it for when I'm in an area I don't know all that well. Maps are very handy but its great to be able to ask tom tom for every restaurant in a ten mile radius. In my experience, not having to worry about how to get there lets me do a lot more exploring than if I had to plan out my route with a paper map or google. I wouldn't go vacationing without it.
posted by MasterShake at 4:12 PM on March 27, 2007

paper rocks.
I have never had a problem with it, it's cheap and forgiving.
I love gadgety stuff and technology, but I don't (and have found I can't) trust it.
posted by henryis at 4:15 PM on March 27, 2007

I used a Garmin StreetPilot III as my navigator when working in field support for IT in a large area including three large cities and surrounding environs. The maps I have are from 2000, because I've been too cheap/lazy to upgrade, and thus occasionally wrong, but common sense got me through those spots.

When I drive cross-country to my new city next summer, I'm going to have it fully upgraded with maps and (hopefully) a bigger data card. I <3>
That said, a paper map for backup is a necessity. Comes in handy when your power supply gives out (my first one was abused quite a bit by moving it between vehicles daily, etc)and you lose guidance while in the middle of an unfamiliar area. I carried those big yellow street atlases for the counties I covered; for your purposes, state highway maps for your states, and close-in city maps for any cities you plan to travel in extensively should cover you.

If you've got a laptop and a mobile GPS receiver, I guess Google Earth could be cool. Haven't done that, though.
posted by Alterscape at 4:23 PM on March 27, 2007

I am rabid about maps and GPS, but when it comes to road trips I've learned that it's better to lay off and keep my eyes out the window. If I'm curious about the lay of the land I'll get some state road maps (like DeLorme Gazetteer or Roads of __) and maybe even historical/regional books. I'll take my Garmin GPS just for casual glances at where we are in general and for navigating through confusing towns (where it really shines).
posted by zek at 4:57 PM on March 27, 2007

I love real maps, but I rented a car w/GPS a couple weeks ago in the northeast, and it was the best. Especially for on-the-fly changes in navigation, when you'd have to pull over and check the map (after finding two cross-streets to locate yourself), the GPS is teh win.
I'd definitely go for the hybrid solution -- maps to look at in the diner, carefully planning your route, and GPS to help you out when you make a wrong turn or decide to change plans midstream. (though not fording the river... I'm not that brave)
posted by katemonster at 5:05 PM on March 27, 2007

You can see more at once with a paper map, which really helps.

I'm a big fan of getting as much as possible inside my head before embarking, or before hitting the next stop. If you're doing several cities, this might not help that much, but getting a feel for the major streets, interstates, etc. ("which direction are the mountains/ which direction is the ocean") ahead of time will probably help.
posted by amtho at 5:25 PM on March 27, 2007

The one time I was in a car with GPS I hated it and its crappy directions. Maps are the way to go for fun.
posted by dame at 5:26 PM on March 27, 2007

I think it really depends on what the point of the trip is. If you're just trying to get to where you need to go, go GPS. If you're looking to get there, but at the same time satisfy a little wanderlust, nothing beats having a paper map stashed in the back seat but just trying to wing it in general.
posted by neilbert at 5:38 PM on March 27, 2007

Best answer: I take road trips a lot. I have both. Or, rather, I have four things not counting the laptop.

1. paulsc is 100% right about the Rand McNally. You NEED spiral bound and it's just barely spendier than the shite maps.

2. local gazeteer if you'll be anywhere a while. The Rand isn't super awesome for cities and for teeny roads. If you are going to go local exploring in the US, invest in a Delorme gazeteer for the rural areas and possibly a Thomas guide for the cities (I'm not as great on cities, so if there is someone else who knows more, listen to them).

3. You can also use AAA for city maps and I hve found that I always feel that he money I spend on AAA is well-spent for the maount that I travel. They also have camp books which can be good for finding a campground and even if you don't do tourist stuff like their Tour Books emphasize, it can be good for giving you the general layout of a city, or telling you where the good caves are.

4. GPS. I have an old Garmin III that just plugs into the cigarette lighter. I'm not blogging my trips, I just want to figure out where I am, maybe, where I am going, maybe and I like knowing roughly when I'll get there. The Garmin does that with few bells and whistles, it always works and it doesn't TALK TO ME which I appreciate. You can get them on ebay for almost nothing. A GPS will also tell you which direction you are pointing which, if you're not that great at figuring that stuff out at night or a cloudy day, can be a godsend and help you use the rest of your tools.

I also tape a piece of paper to the cover of my raod atlas and use it for directions people give me and other things I need to write down. I also tape a big manilla envelope on to the inside over and use it for receipts and misc stuff that would clutter up the car.
posted by jessamyn at 6:30 PM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I bought this after reading this thread. It's not the Rand McNally Motor Carrier one linked above by paulsc, but that is $55 for spiral bound and this one is $10.
posted by smackfu at 6:59 PM on March 27, 2007

GPS beats the hell out of whipping out a Thomas Guide to find an address somewhere. You type in the address and you're off. No figuring out what quadrant and corresponding pages you're on. You can leave your sextant at home. You can set the itinerary up before you leave so you don't have to fumble with it on the road.

It is also nice if you're in the middle of nowhere and want to find the nearest Baskin Robbins for an ice cream cone.

They aren't infallible since roads change frequently and sometimes the data is outdated. Just because the thing says turn right, make sure it isn't instructing you to turn the wrong way onto a one way street.

The voice models mean you don't have to look off the road and it is nice getting a notice you want to turn off the interstate two miles in advance.
posted by birdherder at 7:07 PM on March 27, 2007

GPS is a stress-beater. I've had a Garmin IQue for a few years now. It talks, that is often welcome, and when not, there is a volume knob. Garmin provides compuer software so you can look at the maps on the computer, which is very helpful for advance planning.

I'm a map lover. Print maps are nice, but I found computer maps easier. Then came my Garmin. I rarely buy print maps anymore. But I also rarely navigate areas where GPS fails me. Even through London I had no problem with GPS failure more than could be dealth with.

As for adventure, adventure results in avoiding freeways. Isn't that rather obvious? GPS is superb for that. And you can just stop navigating and drive at random/will, and when you're bored with that, switch the navigation on and presto! You're back on track. Added benefit of GPS: you watch your ETA and it becomes a pace-setter when time becomes important.
posted by Goofyy at 11:45 PM on March 27, 2007

A few years ago, in-car GPS beeped at us the entire time we were in a national park (Rainier, I think), insisting we were driving through the middle of a large lake. Since then, looking at a map in advance has worked amazingly well.
posted by devilsbrigade at 12:55 AM on March 28, 2007

I paid $275 ( price was the best I could find) for my Garmin StreetPilot c320, and consider it the best money I ever spent.
posted by Lizzle at 5:34 AM on March 30, 2007

It's not the Rand McNally Motor Carrier one linked above by paulsc, but that is $55 for spiral bound and this one is $10.

To follow-up, don't buy this unless you have a small glove-box. The maps are only 8x11 and the level of detail is pretty crummy. The city maps are in a different section of the book from the states and are also too small. It's adequate for Interstate travel, but that's about it.
posted by smackfu at 7:08 AM on March 30, 2007

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