Maps and Apps for Navigating Europe

No map is ever quite as good as advice from a helpful local.
By Rick Steves

Digital maps have changed how we get around at home, and they’re increasingly useful for navigating Europe as well. Whether joy-riding through the French countryside or navigating an urban jungle like Paris, a good map of any kind is an indispensable tool, saving endless time and frustration. Though my paper map remains my constant back-pocket companion, technology is making it easier than ever to navigate Europe.

Paper Maps

For navigating cities: While guidebooks come with basic maps of big cities, these are generally small and intended only to give you an overview. A detailed, foldout map can save you endless time and frustration; I make a point of picking one up immediately upon arrival. (You can almost always get a decent map free or cheaply at the local tourist office.) If choosing a city sightseeing map, make sure the city center is detailed enough, because that’s where you’ll be spending most of your time. If you’ll be relying heavily on public transit, get a map that shows not just subway stations, but bus and tram lines and stops. For an extended stay in a sprawling city, it can be worth paying extra for a sturdier, more detailed map. Or consider using a mapping app on your smartphone (see below).

For driving: Drivers need detail, especially when focusing on a specific region. The free maps you get from your car-rental company usually don’t cut it. Better maps and atlases are sold at European gas stations, bookshops, newsstands, and tourist shops.

I like Michelin maps, but the cost for individual maps can add up. Consider the popular and relatively inexpensive Michelin road atlases for each country (with good city maps and detailed indexes). Though they can be heavy, atlases are compact, a good value, and easier for drivers to use than big foldout maps.

Sometimes the best regional road maps are available locally. For example, if you’re exploring your roots in the Norwegian fjord country, Cappelens 1:200,000 maps are detailed enough to help you find Grandpa Ole’s farm. Other quality European brands include Hallwag, Freytag Berndt, Marco Polo, Berndtson & Berndtson, AA (The Automobile Association, Britain’s AAA-type auto club), Road Editions (for Greece), and Kod & Kam (for Croatia and Slovenia).

21st-Century Maps

With the help of digital maps, you can navigate unfamiliar roads and city streets more easily than ever. Unlike paper maps, a digital map can suggest the fastest way between Point A and Point B, give turn-by-turn directions, and offer fairly accurate estimates of how long the drive (or walk) will take. GPS and mapping apps also show your current location at all times, and many also display current traffic conditions.

When renting a car in Europe, you have three main options for your digital navigator: Use your smartphone’s online mapping app, download an offline mapping app, or rent a GPS device or service with your rental car.

Online Mapping Apps

Since your favorite online mapping app (such as Google Maps) works just as well for navigating Europe as it does at home, this option can make a lot of sense: You’re already familiar with it, you don’t have to do any prep work (beyond arranging for data roaming), and it can alert you to current road conditions. Online mapping apps used to be prohibitively expensive for overseas travelers — but that was before most carriers started offering affordable international data plans. If you’re already getting a data plan for your trip, this is probably the way to go.

If you’re judicious with your data usage, you can pay less in data than it’d cost to rent a GPS for your rental car. Downloading a map, a route, or other information (such as traffic conditions and turn-by-turn voice directions) requires an Internet connection; using GPS to locate your position on a map does not. This means that once you have the map in your phone, you can navigate with it all day long without incurring extra costs. The most economical approach is to download as much information as possible while you’re on Wi-Fi (Google Maps’ “save map to use offline” feature is useful for this, allowing you to view and even zoom in — though not search or get directions — once you’re offline). View the maps in standard view (not satellite) to limit the data demands for each map, and resist the temptation to talk to your phone, as its voice recognition is data-heavy. And consider bringing a car charger for your phone, since the mapping service — even just its offline positioning system — gobbles up battery life.

Offline Mapping Apps

Fortunately, a number of well-designed apps allow you much of the convenience of online maps without any costly demands on your data plan. City Maps 2Go is one of the most popular of these; OffMaps and Navfree also all offer good, zoomable offline maps for much of Europe (some are better for driving, while others are better for navigating cities). Google Maps has a similar capability (free). You need to be online to download the apps, but once that’s done, the maps are accessible anywhere. For much more fully featured GPS apps for your mobile phone, check out those from TomTom, Garmin, CoPilot, and other GPS device makers, though European maps for these tend to be very expensive.

GPS Devices

If you’ll be traveling without a smartphone or smart data-roaming plan, you may want to rent a GPS device with your car. Some drivers even prefer using a dedicated GPS unit over a phone-based mapping app — not only to avoid the data-roaming fees, but because a stand-alone GPS can be easier to operate (important if you’re driving solo). The major downside: It’s expensive — around $10–30 per day. Also, your car’s GPS unit may only come loaded with maps for its home country; if you need additional maps, ask. Make sure your device’s language is set to English before you drive off.

If you have a portable GPS device at home, you can take that instead. Many American GPS devices come loaded with US maps only — you’ll need to buy and download European maps before your trip. This option is far less expensive than paying for the rental company’s unit, and you’ll have the ease of traveling with a familiar device. (Before purchasing, check that the maps available through the manufacturer are detailed enough for the areas you’re visiting.)

Tips for Using Digital Maps

Once on the road, stay on your toes, and remember that digital maps are fallible. Check the settings to see whether it’s defaulting to the “most direct” or the “most scenic” route — a distinction that can translate into hours of extra driving. Some GPS units receive wireless traffic reports, then modify your route to help you avoid upcoming traffic jams; however detours onto back roads can wind up costing you even more time.

Even if I’m using a GPS, I always make it a point to also have a road map handy and at least a vague sense of my route. One time, driving from St. Moritz to Lugano via Italy’s Lake Como, I realized my GPS had just directed me right past the Lugano turnoff. Hitting the brakes and checking my paper map, I figured out that the GPS was aiming to send me on the freeway, then on a ferry across the lake. I stuck with the “slower” roads on the correct side of the lake — and arrived an hour earlier. The lesson: Don’t rely blindly on a GPS unit for directions; have a paper map — and some common sense — on hand to consider alternatives if you feel the GPS route is Getting Pretty Screwy.

For me, nothing beats the ease and readability of a paper map just yet. But with all of these tools at your disposal, you’ll have less reason than ever to get lost — unless you want to.

Extra Navigation Tips for Drivers

Navigate intelligently. Study the roads and major interchanges you’ll be using before you set out. If you’re headed for a small or midsize town, know which big city is nearby (and most likely to be signposted) to keep you headed in the right direction. In some countries, road numbers can help you find your way: For example, take road A-1 to London, then B-23 to Bristol, then C-456 to Bath. In other countries, locals (and local signs) ignore the road numbers, so you’ll navigate by town name. Signs are often color-coded: yellow for most roads, green or blue for expressways, and brown for sightseeing attractions. When leaving a city, look for “all directions” signs (toutes directions, alle Richtungen, etc.) pointing you out of town.

Know the local road-naming conventions. Normally, the more digits the road number has, the smaller it is. In Britain, M-1 is a freeway, A-34 is a major road, and B-4081 is a secondary road. Most international European expressways are designated with an “E” (similar to the “I” designation on American freeways), but they may also be labeled on maps and signs with their national letters (for example, the main route between Paris and Lyon is known as both A-6 and E-15). Since road numbers can change, you should also navigate by town names.

Get directions. When you call ahead to confirm your room, ask your hotelier for detailed directions on how to reach the place. Many hotels give precise driving directions and/or GPS coordinates on their websites. If possible, figure out your arrival route on a map before you enter the city limits. While some small towns helpfully post signs directing you to individual hotels, in many cases you’re on your own.

Look for clues to the town center. You can drive in and out of strange towns fairly smoothly by following a few basic signs. Most European towns have signs directing you to the “old town” or the center (such as centrum, centro, centar, centre-ville, Zentrum, Stadtmitte). The tourist office, normally right downtown, will usually be clearly signposted (i, turismo, VVV, or various abbreviations that you’ll learn in each country). The tallest spire often marks the center of the old town. Park in its shadow and look for the tourist information office.

Consider hiring cabbies. Even if you have a rental car, cabbies can be handy when you’re driving lost in a big city. Many times I’ve hired a cab, showed him an elusive address, and followed him in my car to my hotel.

Think metric. European countries (except the UK) use kilometers instead of miles. One kilometer is six-tenths of a mile. To convert kilometers to miles, cut the kilometers in half and add 10 percent of the original number (90 km/hour = 45 + 9 miles = 54 miles — not very fast in Europe).

Do the math yourself: 140 km/hour = 84 mph. Or 360 km = 216 miles. Some people prefer to drop the last digit and multiply by 6 (if 80 km, multiply 8 × 6 = 48 miles), though this can be challenging with large numbers (340 km × 6 = ?). Choose whichever formula works for you.

Figure out the length of your trip. When estimating how long a drive will take, figure you’ll average 100 kilometers per hour on expressways (about the same as going 60 mph back home). Determining how much ground you can cover off the freeway is a crapshoot. I use a trick an Irish bus driver taught me: Figure a minute for every kilometer (covering 90 km will take you about an hour and a half). Double that for slow, curvy roads, such as in Italy’s Dolomites or Amalfi Coast.