10 Tips When Traveling Overseas with GPS

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It appears that nothing can slow the growth of tourism. Despite political instability, declining economies and the proliferation of terrorism, the lure of the overseas adventure continues to draw millions of people every year.

One thing that is making overseas travel more attractive is the growing number of location-based services that use GPS and act as a travelers very own tour guide.

For example, you could be walking down a street in Manhattan with no clue about where you are or nearby attractions. But with your personal GPS device in hand and a location-based app, in a matter of minutes you could be listening to a walking tour of the architecture you’re standing next to or viewing a list of adjacent restaurants offering special discounts. Later in the day you decide you need to organize some accommodation. And once again you turn to your handy GPS device and start up an app that lists all nearby accommodation options, with prices, current offers and walking directions.

There’s no doubt that GPS has revolutionized the way travelers get around foreign cities and access food, accommodation, and attractions. If you’re looking to take advantage of the digital travel revolution, here are ten tips to make sure you get the best GPS experience.

1 – Get a GPS education

While there is a range of different personal GPS devices available to consumers, by far the most popular is the smartphone. Whether it’s an iPhone, an Android-powered smartphone or Windows Mobile, with built-in GPS the smartphone becomes a powerful tool in the hands of the traveling tourist.

When it comes to GPS it’s worth taking the time to understand how it works, times when it may not work, and its limitations (such as time taken to get a fix on your location, improved with the use of Assisted GPS).

Understanding how GPS works will help you to know what to expect and how to get the best from your GPS experience.

2 – Save on data charges – preload your maps

Most GPS smartphones allow you to connect to a Wifi hotspot, allowing you to save on data charges (which can be outrageous when you’re overseas – buying a SIM card locally can help).

When connected to a Wifi, download any map data you may be using in the near future. Most map apps today allow the data to be cached to your phone, which means you can save on data charges and also battery life, if you switch off your 3G connection.

3 – Don’t always rely on your GPS

It can be tempting to have total faith in your GPS device but do this at your own peril. Map data, particularly outside of main centers, can be incorrect and potentially dangerous (such as sending you down a one-way street the wrong way).

While GPS is a very handy tool it does have its limitations, such as losing satellite signals or showing a less-than-accurate position (see point 10 below).
Some location data is also unverified, added by enthusiasts but sometimes incorrect or outdated. If in doubt resort to common sense or ask a local.

4 – Get the biggest screen and best battery life you can afford

GPS not only chews through the juice but it also works better when you can see the big picture. Splash out on the biggest screen and best battery life to maximize your GPS experience, as well as installing apps that help you to manage the amount of juice your phone is using.

If you’re not using them, switch off unnecessary services, such as 3G (if you’ve cached your map data), and turn off the phone when it’s not in use.

5 – Have paper guides for backup

For most things in life it’s good to have a plan B. Allow for worst case scenarios to avoid being stranded in unfamiliar surroundings. What if your smartphone is stolen, lost, damaged, or runs out of juice?

Having some paper guides or maps can be a lifesaver in situations like that. It doesn’t have to be much – just enough to get you back to safety – or somewhere to recharge your phone.

6 – Get familiar with your phone before you go

While you may be waiting for prices to drop before you buy your personal GPS smartphone, it’s best to allow at least a couple of months before you depart. Not only does this allow time for any faults to become evident (so you can return the device) but it gives you lots of time to get thoroughly familiar with your phone in an unpressured environment. There’s nothing worse than trying to figure out how to get walking directions to the train station when you’re running late!

Play with all the features in your phone. The touch gestures, the soft buttons, and customizing it to suit so you’ll have fast access to the key features you need. You’ll also get a good idea of the actual battery life of your device (it often varies from the printed phone specifications) so you’ll know how long you can go between charges.

7 – Browse available travel apps (and get recommendations from other travelers)

Search the web for travel apps available for your device. This is one of the definite advantages of a smartphone over a dedicated GPS unit so make the most of it. New apps are coming out all the time, and while some are not worth the time it takes to download them, there are plenty of valuable apps out there that can improve your travel experience, and save you money too.

While iPhone apps had a definite head-start in the market, Android apps are gaining quickly, and other phone makers (such as Nokia with their Ovi Maps) also provide a range of travel apps.

Most apps offer users reviews which can be valuable. You can also post questions on traveler forums as Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree or FlyerTalk to get opinions from actual travelers.

8 – Tap into the wisdom of the crowds

While the internet can be a source of collective stupidity, crowdsourcing information can be a valuable way to ‘triangulate’ and verify locations, attractions or destinations.

Use friends on Facebook or helpful strangers on Twitter to get answers to your travel conundrums (use the #travel hashtag to improve your tweet’s visibility), or search sites such as Yelp or foursquare to find useful location-based information, recommendations, or special offers.

9 – Geotag your photos

One useful feature of using your smartphone with GPS is when you take photos, you can automatically geotag them, which means it will record the exact location of where the photo was taken.

This can make it a lot easier when it comes to sorting out your travel photos when you return home. Some camera manufacturers are also building this feature into their products but generally only on higher-priced models.

10 – Remember the (in)accuracy of GPS

GPS technology is actually very accurate (learn more about how it works) and was primarily designed for the military. It was provided for civilian use, but for security reasons the signal was “adjusted” to be less accurate. Most devices, depending on the hardware and under optimum conditions, are accurate to within about three meters so they are perfectly acceptable for most travelers.

There will be times when your GPS device will be in less-than-optimum conditions, such as traveling underground or inside a building. Without clear line of sight to at least three GPS satellites, your device may make an educated guess about your location. If your device is fitted with A-GPS (Assisted GPS), cell-site triangulation and Wifi positioning then this will improve the speed and accuracy of your smartphone’s location reporting, even when the conditions are less than perfect.

Travel happy(ier) with GPS

A GPS device is not a necessity for travelers but it can definitely improve the experience, and with the growing number of location-based apps under development the future of travel is only going to get easier for tourists equipped with GPS.

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One Response to “10 Tips When Traveling Overseas with GPS”

  1. Teesh Says:

    Liking the tips. I’m tempted to pick up a handheld hiking GPS for when I geocache.

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