Ultimate Guide to GPS for Europe

You’ll be driving on an upcoming trip to Europe and don’t want to rely on paper maps. This guide to GPS for Europe is your answer! It walks you through whether to use your smartphone, in-car GPS or a portable dedicated GPS device, including the pros and cons of each and what each means for your cellular data, memory and battery life.

What is GPS?

Before we get to your options for GPS in Europe, we want to make sure that everyone understands that you don’t need an internet connection to get GPS. GPS is free. Anyone can get a GPS signal so long as the path between the GPS receiver and the sky isn’t disrupted by things like dense trees or heavy metal (e.g., the inner depths of a big building). But GPS data is raw, so you need a smartphone application like Google Maps or your dedicated GPS device like a Garmin to process the data and show it on a map.

What Are Your Navigation Options For GPS for Europe?

Using Smartphone GPS in Europe

The biggest difference between smartphones and a dedicated GPS device is that a smartphone needs an internet connection to download a map while a GPS device has pre-downloaded maps, so it can operate without the internet. But that’s changing as smartphone applications are perfecting offline maps (learn more about offline maps).

If you already have a map downloaded on your phone, you don’t need an internet connection to show your location on that map. That’s why if you turn your phone to airplane mode right now and press the compass icon in Google Maps to show your location, you’ll still see the blue navigation dot. You’ll probably also see a detailed area in your immediate vicinity because your phone has already stored (or “cached”) the map around you in its memory. As you zoom out, you’ll lose details such as street names, and you won’t be able to search for locations unless they’ve already been stored in your phone’s memory.

Using a GPS Navigation Device in Europe

When navigating a rental car abroad, there are usually two types of dedicated GPS navigation: those that are already installed in a rental car and portable devices. In car navigation systems are available in most European car rentals and typically costs between $10-12 extra a day to rent (although some budget rental cars provide portable GPS devices instead of in-car GPS). Rental car companies use different GPS systems with different amenities, so look at what’s available at the company you’re considering renting from.

A number of manufacturers make portable GPS devices, but the major makers are Garmin, TomTom and Magellan. Garmin has traditionally been the most popular, but Tom Tom’s market share has increased due to its more affordable offerings. Users largely prefer one brand over the other based on familiarity, so the users of each claim their own device as the best.

If you have a portable dedicated GPS device but your maps are limited to the U.S., it will cost you $50 – $100 to get maps for Europe, depending on the number of countries and the device. Garmin charges $100 for all of Europe and TomTom offers the map for about $50. Before buying additional maps, just make sure they’re detailed enough for the areas you plan to visit.

Is Your Smartphone and a Dedicated Device the Best GPS for Europe?

When is a Dedicated GPS Navigation Device the Best GPS for Europe

Even with the improvement smartphone navigation, there are still a few instances when a dedicated GPS device is a must-have rather than a preference when navigating in Europe. One example is if you learn the area you’re visiting doesn’t get good cell service or you don’t want to rely on offline maps. So when choosing a navigation tool, step one is deciding how you plan to use your smartphone abroad and whether you’ll have service in the region in Europe that you’re traveling in.

Another reason to use a dedicated GPS navigation system is when you’re somewhere that has confusing roads and you’re driving alone, which makes looking at your phone for directions difficult and downright dangerous. Case in point: in Madeira, Portugal when one member of the Travel Honey team stayed an extra day, she was left trying to navigate the winding roads on her own!

But even if having a dedicated GPS system isn’t a must have, many prefer them over using their cell phone or in addition to their phone for GPS in Europe for the following reasons:

  • Even if the roads aren’t confusing like in Madeira, and you’re driving with someone who can help navigate, dedicated GPS devices are easier and safer to use because they are mounted on the dashboard and the speakers are better (although iPhones can also be mounted with one of these contraptions).
  • When you use your phone for directions, the map disappears for a short time when you get a call and you have to listen to the voice prompt from the map interrupting your call.
  • Traffic can be provided over FM radio waves on your GPS device, so you’re not reliant on internet for traffic (some devices, however, provide traffic through cellular data).
  • When you use a dedicated GPS device, you don’t drain the battery on your smart phone (turn-by-turn navigation usually drains a phone battery as fast as a standard car charger can charge it).
  • The devices allow you to save your phone memory (a map of each state takes between 200MB and 500MB of storage and the whole USA requires about 4.5GB of data).
  • You can pre-download maps for the destinations you plan to visit in Europe ahead of time into your portable GPS device.  Also, in  rental car navigation systems you can load the addresses using a thumb drive.
  • In some places, GPS directions are more accurate than what you’ll find on a cell phone.

Reasons to Use Your Smartphone’s GPS for Europe:

  • The dedicated GPS systems are usually more costly than navigating with your cell phone when you’re in Europe.
  • Some portable GPS devices only come with maps for certain countries pre-loaded, and you have to pay extra for other countries. Many new devices come with the option to purchase unlimited map updates for the world, but those devices are more expensive.
  • You have to manually update the maps in a GPS device by connecting the device to a computer, which is cumbersome, and you’re more likely to be relying on an outdated map.
  • If you’re not familiar with the GPS device, it can be confusing and hard to use compared to your smartphone.
  • We’ve found that using GPS in Europe sometimes sends us on a slower back roads route than the route provided by Google Maps.

Comparing a Portable GPS Device and an In-Car GPS for Europe

If you’ve decided to use a dedicated Device for GPS in Europe, you’re next decision is whether to get GPS in your rental car or bring your own portable GPS device.

Infographic about whether you should choose a portable GPS device and an in car gps device

Making Your Decision On GPS For Europe

In deciding on the best GPS for Europe, it’s ultimately a question of convenience and price. For optimum GPS navigation capabilities in Europe, you should bring a portable GPS device that you’re familiar with and use your smartphone. But if you don’t have a portable GPS device, you have to decide if obtaining a GPS device is worth the cost. Are you driving solo? Best to get the GPS device unless you have something to attach your smartphone to the dashboard. Are the roads extra confusing or is there bad cell phone service where you’re traveling? Again, probably best to spring for the GPS. Are you tight on cash and you find the thought of getting lost and finding new adventures appealing? Then save your dough, your smartphone will do just fine!

Do you want to learn more about using your cell phone in Europe, including whether to get a SIM card, 14 tips for saving data when traveling, what’s the best calling app and how to use offline maps?Then click here for links to all these articles.

Or get the guide in one easy to read PDF.  We just need your email below. You may also like one of our awesome itineraries for Europe, including FranceGermany, BudapestIceland, Italy, PortugalSpain or the United Kingdom.

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