Relying on a smartphone as a GPS when traveling in Europe

My wife and I recently took a trip for our 15th anniversary to Sicily. We were renting a car to travel around the island, and we knew we would need a GPS to successfully navigate both the dense city streets and the surrounding sprawling countryside.

The last time we were in Europe was five years ago, and at the time we had borrowed my in-laws’ GPS, which had a European street module. It worked well enough, but we found entering the complex Italian addresses cumbersome, and there was a maddening 45 minutes when we first got off the plane while the GPS struggled to locate itself.

In those five years, smartphone technology has improved dramatically and has all but killed off the GPS market. We still had access to our in-laws’ GPS, but I wondered – should we just bite the bullet and pay for international data for my iPhone 5S?

There were two considerations: the first was how well would it work? I had no doubt that coverage would be fine in the major cities around Europe, but what about driving around the Sicilian countryside? Would the signal be strong enough and the data speeds fast enough to make the phone usable? The coverage maps showed 3G data in most areas, but would this really be reliable?

The second was the cost. How much data did we need? The prices for Europe are gruesome.  $30 would get me 120MB, and $60 would get me 300MB. I’ve become used to having 10GB, which means I don’t need to think about it. How much would we really need?

We decided to hedge our bets. I borrowed my in-laws’ GPS as a backup and went with the cheaper 120MB plan, since I knew I could upgrade to to 300MB if I needed to.

So, how did it play out?

Cell service was excellent. There was 3G data all throughout Sicily, including remote areas between towns. Occasionally, if we went into a building the signal would drop down to the very slow edge (“E”) speed, but out on the open roads 3G service was available everywhere.  My in-laws’ GPS stayed in our suitcase the whole time.

The 120MB data turned out to not be enough. I found that I was using about 20MB of data a day just on the maps. In theory, we could have managed, but we found that having a smartphone with internet access while traveling in Europe is extremely handy.

We brought one or two guidebooks, but we kept turning to the smartphone again and again to look up information that the signposts and guidebooks didn’t explain well. For example, when we found ourselves standing in surprisingly modern looking church in Ragusa, we looked up the history to discover that it had been destroyed in an earthquake in the 1700s.

Another time, in Palermo, we visited a palace which ended up being mostly closed off unless you were part of a tour group. While trying to decide what to do next, we started to look at a couple of options. Our guidebook recommended some nearby catacombs, and we were about ready to head over to it. However, I looked it up on Yelp and read someone’s first-hand review that suggested it was going to be a bit too gruesome for my wife’s tastes (think lots and lots of mummified corpses). Instead, I plotted nearby options on the map and quickly realized that two of our other top options where actually very close to each other. Within five minutes, we were on our way.

Of course, relying on a GPS, smartphone or otherwise, is not without its limitations. Many of the towns in Europe date to medieval times, and just because a street allows cars doesn’t always means that you want to drive on them. We occasionally found ourselves driving on streets that were designed for nothing bigger than a donkey pulling a cart. It’s a miracle we never put a scratch on the rental car with some of the tight hairpin turns.

The phone's GPS said we could drive on these streets in Ragusa, but I wouldn't care to try that again.

The phone’s GPS said we could drive on these streets in Ragusa, but I wouldn’t care to try that again.

Another great benefit of having the smartphone is access to Google Translate. When parking in the small town of Noto, we found a nice parking lot with a pay station. There were other cars, but the lot was far from full. Next to the pay machine, I noticed some sort of sign in Italian with a sign of a tow truck, but I couldn’t read it. We knew there was a festival in the town the following day – could parking be restricted?

Google Translate revealed that we had better not park here.

Google Translate revealed that we had better not park here.

I punched in the message to Google Translate and learned my fears were well founded. Parking was restricted from 12:01 am Friday through midnight on Sunday. We went looking elsewhere.

As for the cost, yes, it was expensive. I upgraded to the 300MB and used 2/3 of it in just one week. However, I like to keep it in perspective. The $60 was a rounding error when compared to the thousands of dollars we spent on the trip. There may have been cheaper options, but it would have required unlocking my phone and getting temporary service in Europe.

When we are on vacation, I want to maximize every minute. Not fighting with the clunky interface of a GPS or poring a map meant more time enjoying the experience of traveling. For one week, I was happy to pay for the convenience of showing up in a foreign country, turning my phone on, and knowing it would just work.

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