I experimented with two offline maps to see which is best at navigating in a foreign city.
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Using offline map apps isn’t something I normally do. I decided to make an experiment to see what it’s like to navigate with offline maps in a big city that I didn’t know well.
I found that the offline versions give you a lot of information and have quite impressive capabilities.
The Offline Map Apps
There’s a third app, Here Maps, that offers offline maps and navigation, but I decided to leave it out of the experiment this time, having used it in the past. There are several other apps that are quite similar, but I chose to focus on the main ones.
Why would I need an offline map for urban travel?
Normally I get a local sim card wherever I go, so I’m hardly ever left without an Internet connection. With the new “roam like at home” EU rules on roaming, things have become much easier: it generally means you can use the same sim card and data plan in most EU countries at the same rates. There are also many ways to find wifi when you travel.
Still, there are times when you need to navigate with no internet connection. This might be because your sim card has expired or when you travel to a country where roaming isn’t available. It might also be that the wifi network you relied on stopped working for whatever reason.
This is when you want to be ready with an offline map.
How to Download Maps for Offline Use
To start using maps offline, you first need to be online. You’ll need to find an internet connection in order to download the map of the area you are interested in.
Both maps.me and Google Maps can identify automatically where you are and will prompt you to download the map and data for that area. They will also tell you how much space it would require on your device. With both apps you can download as many areas as you like.
How to Download Offline maps with Maps.me
In maps.me, the app will start downloading a maps automatically based on your location.
If you want to download another location, search for it and then tap download. Make sure you’re online.
The download process is pretty fast and straightforward, but if you need any help, you can find more details on how to download maps on the maps.me support page.
How to Download Offline maps with Google Maps
In Google Maps, open the app when you’re online and signed in, search for the city or area you wish to download and click download. There are full instructions for Android and Iphone/Ipad on the Google Maps help pages.
You can change the size of the area to be saved by dragging the map on the screen. Note these two limitations in Google Maps:
- The app will limit you if you choose an area that’s too large and takes up too much storage space.
- The offline maps remain available for 30 days on your device.
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Saving Places and Bookmarks
Using offline maps is particularly useful when you know where you want to go, for example the name of a restaurant or a museum you want to reach. You can bookmark those places in advance and find them quickly when you’re on the go.
Maps.me calls these bookmarks and Google Maps calls them saved places.
Saving Bookmarks with Maps.me
In maps.me, tap the star button at the bottom of the screen to add a new bookmark. After you save a bookmark, you can tap “Edit Bookmark” and create different categories (say, museums or cafes).
Maps.me doesn’t have a web interface (that I could find), so searching and saving bookmarks is done only on the phone. However, you can import bookmarks as a kml/kmz file – see full instructions here.
Planning a trip with a web interface is far more convenient if you have a lot of places to save on your map. When I go to big cities and when I do my trip preparations properly, I end up with very long lists of places to visit. Google Maps does have a web interface which makes the research for a trip easier.
Saving Places with Google Maps
Google Maps recently introduced lists on the mobile app, where you can save places to three existing categories (Favorites, Want to go and Starred places) and also create your own categories (say, galleries or beaches).
At the moment the Google Maps web interface doesn’t sync fully with the mobile app. These lists are available on the app, whereas the desktop version only lets you star places and add a label to each place (which is then visible in the app). I do hope this weird inconsistency will be fixed soon.
Note that I’m only referring here to Google Maps, not to Google My Maps, which is a different app and a different web interface. It also lets you save your places in advance and when you download a map for offline use, you’ll be able to see what you saved in My Maps.
However, one important difference to keep in mind is that you can see the information on each place you saved, such as its opening hours, phone number etc, only if you starred it in Google Maps. If you only save it to Google My Maps, you won’t get the information about it offline.
Searching for Places Offline
If you don’t save places in advance, you can still search for them offline. This is extremely useful and often more practical if your don’t have time to plan and save bookmarks or just don’t feel like planning too much.
You can search for a specific address, for the name of a place such as a shop or a restaurant, or for a keyword, such as “supermarket”. This is true for both apps. In maps.me, you will only get search results for places that are mapped with Open Street Map. This is an open data mapping project that the app is based on
When you search, you can start typing and get search suggestions. This is the same on both apps, and both were surprisingly good at guessing what I was looking for. It’s not limited to famous attractions, but you can also find local businesses quite easily.
Obviously, it takes a bit more time to type in the name of a place or an address, especially in a foreign language, so I do prefer to save places in advance.
Getting Directions with Offline Maps
After you search for a place, you can easily get directions to that place in both apps.
Getting Directions with Maps.me
In maps.me, just click “route to” and you will instantly get driving, cycling and walking instructions. I used it for walking and it worked beautifully.
The app shows you the distance to your destination and how long it would take to walk there. Click “start” to start the navigation, and give the compass a couple of seconds to calibrate. It’s easy to use and intuitive.
Getting Directions with Google Maps
In Google Maps, unfortunately, you can only get driving directions in offline mode. Walking or cycling directions are not available offline and neither are public transport directions.
I use Google Maps for public transport directions almost exclusively when I travel. Many cities have their own local public transport apps, but Google Maps is so much easier to use because you already know the interface and have your places of interest saved on the map.
A few times it was a real life saver for me. On my trip to Tokyo for example, where the public transport system is overly complicated, I’d never have survived without Google Maps. So it was a huge disappointment to see that public transport directions were not available offline.
You can use the driving directions to give you a hint about how to walk to the place, but this is not a perfect solution of course. I’m looking forward to Google Maps adding walking directions to their offline maps.
To sum up, both apps are excellent for offline navigation. It would be so much easier to use maps.me of it had a web interface too. As for Google Maps, once they add walking and public transport directions to the offline mode, the app would be perfect.
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