Using your GPS Receiver Internationally
GPS works everywhere, but map data can
be hard to obtain
When you're in a
foreign country, and possibly driving on the other side of
the road, the last thing you want to be doing is juggling a
map and trying to navigate too.
A GPS can be even more helpful when traveling
internationally than it is while traveling in the US.
Part of our series on GPS receivers -
see links on right for extra articles in the series.
Useful at home, a GPS receiver
becomes invaluable when traveling in an unfamiliar foreign
country, often with hard to understand road signs, confusing
directions, an unfamiliar car and traffic laws, and possibly
while you're driving on the other side of the road.
In theory, GPS receivers can
work everywhere in the world, but in practice they are only
useful in countries for which they have map data available, so
as to provide you with 'you are here' information on a map
display rather than meaningless raw latitude and longitude data.
If you travel and rent cars
internationally, you should consider using a GPS to help you
No More Getting Lost,
Internationally as well as Domestically
One of the most popular
modern aids when traveling by car is a GPS receiver. Its
moving map display shows you exactly where your vehicle is, and
its routing ability allows you to key in an address and have the
unit give turn by turn directions to get you there.
A GPS is a wonderful tool
when traveling locally in the US, and when you are traveling
internationally, it can be even more helpful.
you too have tried to navigate your way around the confusing
winding roads in foreign towns and cities, and chances are
you’ve been lost for at least part of the journey. A GPS
will always show you exactly where you are on the map, and
calmly tells you where to turn so as to get you to your
destination. Better still, if you’re in the wrong lane and
miss a turn, it quickly provides a new route to your destination
without criticizing your driving!
The satellite network used
by GPS receivers covers the entire world, so – in theory – you
could take a portable GPS unit with you wherever you travel and
have it be as helpful as when driving locally in the US.
But there’s one important catch. A GPS receiver needs to
have local map data loaded into it before it can translate
abstract latitude and longitude data into a ‘you are here’
display on a map. Most GPS units you buy in the US come
preloaded with US (and often Canadian) map information, but if
you travel outside of North America, they can’t provide map
Use when Driving - and Walking
primarily as in-car units, today's latest portable units can be
carried with you as a hand-held unit while walking around a
In the larger cities the
units sometimes have problems if there are tall buildings on
both sides of the road creating a virtual cavern that blocks
many of the satellites, but because you're walking rather than
driving, you can readily work out which street you truly are on
and so ignore the GPS's occasional ambivalencies.
Clearly, when choosing a
hand held unit, smaller is better than bigger, and you want
something light-weight and easy to hold and read while walking.
You also want as much
battery life as possible built in to the unit. And, to
maximize your battery life, keep in mind that the
dimmer you have your display setting, the longer the batteries
Marking favorite places
There's another benefit of
using a unit while walking around. If you find a lovely
restaurant or bar, or store, or anything else that you want to
remember and come back to, you can simply store its location
into the GPS memory. No more subsequently wandering around
saying 'I think it was just down here; no, down there; ummmm, I
really don't remember!'.
One consideration - if
you're saving the location of a favorite place, be sure to check
the GPS is showing the correct location first. You might
need to over-ride its location and specify exactly where you
want to mark the spot, and be sure to edit the location saved
with the name of the place so, in the future, you remember why
you saved the place.
alternative for walking
Increasingly, some cell
phones include GPS receivers. Although they are generally
too small to be easily viewed and truly useful while driving, they can be very
convenient when walking around.
If your current cell phone
contract has been completed and you're considering buying a new
phone, perhaps consider getting a quad band GSM phone (ie with
AT&T/Cingular or T-mobile) that also features a GPS receiver
built in to it.
GPS Alternatives When Traveling
You have two choices when
seeking the help of a GPS internationally. One approach is to
simply rent a car that comes with a GPS in it, the other is to
buy a unit.
Rental cars with GPS units
Auto Europe offer GPS units
in their vehicles for an extra $84/week, plus potentially extra
costs depending on how many countries in Europe you want map
data for. The best rates for Auto Europe car rentals are usually
units in their vehicles in much of the world, also for an extra
charge (about $80/week in Europe, more in Great Britain), and
usually only in their midsize and larger vehicles. In
Hertz units are increasingly being upgraded to portable units so
they can do double duty as hand held units for while you're
walking around a town as well.
Other rental car companies
are adding GPS units to their fleets as well.
Buying a unit
If you decide to buy a unit
yourself – either one to use locally as well as one for your
travels, or even just one to take when traveling (at the better
part of $100 a week to rent one, it doesn't take long to pay for
the cost of your own unit) keep in mind a couple of factors.
The first is unit size and portability; the second is the
availability of mapping data for the countries you are visiting.
Normally, the bigger the
screen on a GPS, the better. But you’re sacrificing
portability if you choose a big heavy unit, so we’d recommend a
unit with no larger than a 4.3" screen, and perhaps a 3.5"
screen. Anything smaller than 3.5" is probably too
small to be conveniently seen in the car; anything larger is too
big (and too heavy) to conveniently travel with.
A possible exception to this
is if you're getting a unit primarily as a hand held unit for
use while walking around. In such cases, you might want to
consider a 3.5" screen as the maximum size, and also look
at the smaller 3" screen units.
Map data availability
If your GPS doesn't have a
digital map loaded into it for the region you are in, the unit
becomes useless. It will just show you a blank display -
no roads, no towns, no other information at all. Although
the GPS still knows where you are in terms of latitude and
longitude, it has no map data (ie picture) to show on the screen
with its marker to designate the 'you are here' point.
And, if the GPS doesn't have
map data, it also can't create a route from where you are to
where you want to go and give you the turn by turn guidance that
is so helpful.
So the availability of
international maps is a vital consideration when thinking about
using GPS units internationally. A GPS is close to useless
without map data for the countries you'll be visiting.
Not all brands offer
international mapping for their GPS units, and even though
nearly all units use standard map data (either from Navteq or
Tele Atlas) you can't usually buy generic map data from
somewhere and load it into any GPS.
European maps are more
commonly available than maps for the rest of the world, and
western Europe is more readily available than eastern Europe.
Other countries that are
sometimes available include Mexico, Australia and New Zealand,
Brazil, some parts of the Middle East, South Africa, and
offers perhaps the widest range of international maps,
especially for their Nuvi units, including an entire world map,
but this map only shows major highways - it can be helpful, but
it is useless when going through towns and cities and wanting to
turn off the major highways. Garmin also supports some
third party map products giving you
access to maps for more countries.
If you are considering a
Garmin unit, be careful to make sure that the unit you have in
mind supports the maps you need. Not all Garmin units
support all of their maps.
Other GPS manufacturers with
international mapping include companies such as
Tom-Tom (which has a more
limited range of maps), and low cost
GlobalSat (which offers European maps only).
A GPS navigation receiver
can be even more helpful, either for driving a rental car or for
walking around towns and cities, when traveling internationally.
Slightly different buying
issues apply when choosing a GPS for international use - it is
more important to be portable, and of course, it is essential
the unit has mapping data for the places you intend to visit.
Some rental car companies
rent GPS receivers as optional extras in their cars; otherwise
(or anyway) your best choice is to simply buy the unit that best
suits your needs, the places you visit, and your budget.
Low priced units are
available for as little as $200 or less (for example, see our
GlobalSat GV-370 review for a very low priced good value
Read more in the GPS
See the links at the
top right of the page to visit other articles
in our GPS series.
If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.
21 Sep 2007, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.