Saturday, August 2, 2008

Travel Tips: GPS Navigation

“Calculating route. When possible, make a legal U-turn,” said the recorded female voice. I dutifully obeyed, glancing over at my friend, knowing I had just made a wrong turn, but relieved that it would take less than a minute off the trip.

One of the most useful travel innovations in recent years has been the near-perfection of handheld GPS units at affordable prices. I’m no expert, but I predict that a few marriages will be saved by them.

The best thing the myriad GPS units offer is confidence. Knowing that I can just use the touch-screen to enter an address and have my route automatically planned takes a lot of the headaches out of traveling.

Voice prompts are given well in advance of the necessary maneuvers, and a highlighted line is superimposed over a detailed map. If you make a wrong turn, you will be rerouted and sent on your way.

Gone are the arguments where a map is pressed against the inside of a windshield and angry hands trace improbable routes. Oh, and there’s no more folding the maps back up…

Another nice feature maps simply don’t have is points of interest (POIs). Most devices offer a large selection of POIs, which can be hotels, restaurants, sports and concert venues, theaters, airports and tourist attractions, to name a few. Search functions allow you to type in individual names or categories, or simply search from a list of nearby places. Problems arise when the maps are outdated and businesses move or close, but updating them is simple.

The two units in the picture, a Magellan Maestro and a Garmin nüvi 370, both work by tapping into the global positioning satellites and using coordinates to determine their positions on preloaded maps. As the devices are moved, their positions are updated just a few seconds behind real time and routes adjusted accordingly.

Be they Garmins, TomToms, Magellans or another brand, the portable GPS navigators have several things going for them.

1. They are not mounted in vehicles. The navigation systems most car companies offer are permanent fixtures in the dash, and cannot be taken out for use on foot or even transferred to another vehicle.

2. They are very affordable. The amount of perks will dictate the cost, but car-mounted models run in the thousands of dollars as options. Both the ones pictured cost less than $400 each.

3. They will always get you where you need to go. It may not be the best route, but it will work.

4. If you run into traffic or a road closure, you can just take the next exit, and the route will be updated.

5. No subscription is necessary. As long as the battery is charged and the satellites are orbiting overhead, it will work.

As with most technologies, there are also downfalls.

1. Not everywhere is mapped. Taking these off roads causes problems. If you have a paper map with GPS coordinates on it, you can still use the GPS units to get coordinates and then figure out your location, but you may not be able to use them to map a route for you. There are units made specifically for hiking and off-roading, however.

2. Satellite acquisition can sometimes be spotty. In narrow alleyways between tall buildings, such as some spots in San Francisco, the antenna may not be able to locate satellites. Moving to a more open area will generally remedy the problem. I still recommend taking maps to unfamiliar places just in case reception is lost, the battery dies or you drop it and break it.

3. The routes are not always ideal. In playing with the two pictured units, I found that they tend to favor certain surface streets when “fastest route” is selected that are not, in fact, very fast. Selecting “most use of freeways” fixes that issue, but can also cause you to travel farther than necessary. This is a minor drawback that can easily be remedied by glancing at a map or not worrying about it.

Choosing a GPS device can be somewhat daunting, with salespeople rattling off acronyms and features that may or may not be useful. I suggest deciding what it is you want to do with your GPS, and getting something that fits the bill.

For example, I wanted something I could use in the U.S., Canada and Europe. I wanted it to say street names aloud (as opposed to “left turn in point two miles”), and I wanted it to have pedestrian and bicycle modes. I didn’t need to be able to talk to it, although I think that’s cool. For that reason, I decided on the Garmin nüvi 370.

The Magellan Maestro doesn’t work in Europe (other Magellans do), doesn’t read street names (making it harder to drive and navigate alone) and costs significantly less. I used it in Hawaii earlier this year and was able to get everywhere I needed to go.

With many of the newest generation cellular phones having integral GPS navigation, the portable devices may be redundant for some people. If you have an iPhone or equivalent, check that it will work where you want to go and will do everything you want it to do before relying on it as your only way to get from point A to point B.

In buying a GPS device, you have the benefit of always knowing where you are and the way you need to be going. You will have an estimate for how long the trip will take, a list of all maneuvers and, most importantly, the confidence and security derived from never having to wonder if the two-lane road with no signs that stretches for 40 miles along open fields is actually the right road.


Natasha said...

i wish i had one of these when we were in paris...haha or anywhere in europe for that matter. my dad has a garmin too. he took it with them when they went to paris last time and he said it worked really well. they rented a car (crazy, i know) so it helped a lot. seriously though, every one of your blogs makes me want to quit macys and go travel...

Brandon Darnell said...

Why is renting a car crazy? I love driving in Europe, except the time I was merging onto the autobahn in an underpowered Opel and a truck was about to run me down, but roundabouts are fun.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Excellent post! If Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't reduce me to minimum wage, perhaps I can get one of these someday. The printout from Googlemaps never seems to adjust after I miss my exit, dammit!