Real-World Observations about Mapping Apps

Originally published at: https://tidbits.com/2019/08/19/real-world-observations-about-mapping-apps/

After spending several weeks using Apple Maps and Google Maps constantly while traveling in Switzerland, Adam Engst has a few thoughts and recommendations that could ease your future trips.

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My wife & I travel quite a bit throughout Europe, Asia and the US, and like you, we’ve encountered all kinds of issues with batteries as well as walking directions. I love to hike and to that end, I use Gaia GPS to track all of my hikes and pre-plan walking routes. So when we travel, I’ve come to rely upon Gaia GPS as well. I start by downloading a map of the area that we’ll be visiting, so that I have offline access to it. I’ll then add Waypoints of everywhere that I intend to visit, including the airport, my hotel, restaurants, museums, train stations, etc. Gaia will not provide turn-by-turn walking directions, but it will draw a line between your current location and your destination, and I can then choose which streets to walk to get the said destination. I’ve found that this tremendously saves my battery life, while also allowing us to explore a particular city. And when necessary, I’ll consult Apple/Google maps for an address, or bus & train directions.

I also like to use DayOne as a travelogue, as it will automatically keep track of any destination that we visit. I’ll later augment the entry by adding text, pictures, audio or video, as well as keywords so that I can later find the entry much easier. One of the things that I also like about DayOne is that it drops a pin (waypoint) on the map of the various locations that I’ve created entries for, making it fun to see where in the world I’ve been.

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Although the article is primarily a comparison of general-purpose mapping applications, it is worth noting that anyone traveling in Switzerland by using the public transit system should have the SBB Mobile app available. It’s very good about giving directions from point A to point B in order to leave A at, or arrive at B by, a given time T. It allows you to scroll the list of possibilities backwards and forwards in time so you can see if minor changes to your schedule make major changes to your travel time. Or to scroll forward to see what the last possible departure for the day is. I particular appreciate that it tells you what platform your train will be leaving from and arriving at, making connections a breeze.

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I generally find that both Apple maps and Google are quite poor for walking, as they often miss pedestrian-only routes. In my experience the best source of walking information is using an app like ViewRanger to access Open Street Map. This user-sourced mapping usually has all the pedestrian short cuts & also useful info like playgrounds.

The best apps for combining walking with public transport tend to be apps like Citymapper, which works in many cities around the world & gives you info like which part of a tube train it is best to get on for your particular journey.

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I find Here WeGo to be more legible than Apple, Google, or Maps.me, and it works off-line, but I seldom plan a detailed route. For continuing approximations that work on the watch as well, Big Arrow is worth a try.

I have used Pocket Earth on several trips in Europe. It was very good about showing public transportation stops with the bus/train numbers listed. clicking on the stop icon displayed all the route IDs and clicking on the ID would cause the route to highlight. This was really useful in England, Italy, and Portugal. Pocket Earth also shows many (but not all) of the walkways and hiking trails in public parks. Pocket Earth allows you to download map details ahead of time, so you can use it without internet connections. (Having said that, the UI takes some getting used to and seems somewhat awkward compared to Google and Apple Maps.)
We also rely on local web transportation services which can be excellent In some places for real-time stop times and delays.

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I have no helpful suggestions about how to resolve this problem. The simple fact is that sometimes, even with these advanced mapping apps, you need some local knowledge to be able to navigate a transit system effectively.

Or you could, you know, just ask somebody. :wink: Since the Swiss use trains and transit a lot they are usually well equipped to tell you where to get on a specific tram or where you’ll find track 33B.

Especially railroad/transit employees in my own experience through the years in Switzerland were most helpful. And their English is usually good in urban areas. Out in the boonies, that’s another issue for sure. Although I have to say, in my experience they were never as annoying as the French about it. :wink:

This is excellent advice.

For those without the app, at the very least make use of sbb.ch. Its interface is essentially From: and To:. The best part about it is that although it’s run by the Swiss Federal Railways, it will accept not just train stations or town names, but any address in To:/From: and it will give you directions not just using trains but also including trams, busses, ships, cable cars, private operators, etc. You can use it to get transit directions from literally anywhere to anywhere in Switzerland. It’s a great tool and I could only dream of having something that works that well for transit in the Bay Area (or any other urban area I know in the US).

I recommend Guru Maps for an online/offfline map with directions and recording of route. Really great app and responsive developer. It uses open street map for vector maps, but you can download just the map or the map and directions.

Re rail passes, the reason you have a paper ticket that you have to write is that it is all part of a Europe wide scheme and there is no single ticketing system across the whole of Europe. If you get a Eurail pass or an InterRail pass which covers multiple countries you have the same paper based record keeping that is needed.

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Citymapper was already mentioned, but for the cities it covers (for me, London) it does really well at public transport. Including rerouting due to delays. I use it paired with Google Maps—which I find does quite well at walking directions, including pedestrian-only paths through parks, for example. I just can’t bring myself to use Apple Maps, but maybe it’s time for me to get over that hump!

I remember standing on a corner in London in 2008 with a physical map and not knowing exactly where I was. There were no street signs! Soon after we switched to Apple maps on my iPhone. Even on that old phone it worked, slow and spotty, but it worked. :slight_smile:

Quick photos… I haven’t tested when Maps is on the lock screen but I just swipe right to left on the lock screen to open the camera. I think ios12 came like this. It works when a notification is displayed on the lock screen.
Switzerland is great for self-planned travel and the scenery is fantastic. Our last trip included the Bern Valley and a trip to the Schilthorn peak Which gives a wonderful panorama of the Alps.

Oh, you were in Switzerland and Lucerne! I really liked to meet you as I live only 20km away from Lucerne and visit the most beautiful city of the world (Lucerne!) often. :smiley:

It is funny, how you discovered our travel system that is cumbersome for us, too. We have an app from the major railway company that covers most of it, but still not completely. The idea of a tap-in, tap-out system is in the works since more than ten years. But privacy-concerns block the progress…

If you would travel to Europe again, try Komoot App for hiking and biking (komoot.de). You would buy an area (about 30$ for whole Europe) once, then all trails would be to your service. You can download for offline usage too and the battery consumption is by far the lowest I know. I somtimes record (for Photo GPX-Export) my whole day of traveling or hiking without any spare battery. It seems that it does not consume any additional power than the iPhone itself.

This was my first thought when reading @ace’s travails on using the public transport features of Apple/Google Maps. More generally, I don’t really trust their public transport information to be as accurate or useful as the local transport agency, so I would always look for the local public transport app. Though, as others have said, if you’re in a city that CityMapper supports, that is definitely the one to go for – CityMapper will also include walking, bike hire, mixed modes (e.g. bus + underground), etc. It even tells you where to board an underground train to make your exit smoothest, and figures out the interchange stations that require the least walking.

ViewRanger is also excellent to use when hiking, as it provides access to a range of premium mapping, such as the official mapping for many countries. And you can access it through a web browser to do route plotting on the computer and then have it on your phone. I also second the recommendation of Maps.me for generally being out and about. I can’t emphasise enough the value of OpenStreetMap-based apps when you’re exploring a city by foot or bike, they generally have far more detail than Apple/Google Maps, and it’s also easy to download an area and know it’s there ready to use. And Maps.me’s routing includes cycling as well as walking, and takes into account all the additional walking/cycling path data in OSM.

Having lived in Europe for twenty years, apps like Apple Maps make finding one’s way around foreign cities much easier than before. In addition many major cities have their own public transport apps which are also very useful, including features such as real-time maps showing both where you are and the nearest public transport stops with schedules. Frequently these apps have an English option, but even if they do not, the interfaces are pretty straightforward, and using them is part of the fun traveling in a foreign country.

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We had rather mediocre luck with finding people who spoke English, particularly in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland. We heard repeatedly that “everyone there speaks English” before we left, but it just wasn’t true for us.

Interesting! That makes sense for the inter-Europe passes, but the Swiss Travel Pass is good only for Switzerland. But without an overarching electronic ticketing scheme, I could see where moving forward would be tough.

No, sorry. When Maps is on the Lock screen, you can’t swipe left to get to the camera, as you can when it’s a normal Lock screen. But Control Center remains available.

Ach, sorry about that! This was the first trip we’ve taken since 1998 that didn’t involve business travel, visiting relatives, or traveling with family, so we kept it quiet.

That’s good to know. We had maps for some of the trails, but it would have been nice to be able to see if there were more alternative hikes.

I’m intrigued to see the multiple recommendations for local transit apps. My limited experience in the US is that Apple and Google have so many more resources than any local transit authority that their apps are vastly better. My assumption has always been that when local transit options are available in Apple Maps and Google Maps, the local transit authority is publishing them in some constantly updated, standardized fashion, so the information would be the same. Apple and Google certainly knew when there were transit problems in Switzerland (for instance, an accident on one route, which actually cleared before we got there), so I assumed they were getting live data from SBB.

I’m afraid if it was in urban areas you just had bad luck. Out in the boonies I’m not surprised at all. Heck, they can’t even understand each other in their native tongue, why would we be able to communicate with them in English? :wink: Switzerland in terms of English is definitely not Scandinavia or Holland, but in most cases you’ll be much better off than in Germany or France where especially older people do not (or do not want to) speak English.

Citymapper was already mentioned, but for the cities it covers (for me, London) it does really well at public transport. Including rerouting due to delays. I use it paired with Google Maps—which I find does quite well at walking directions, including pedestrian-only paths through parks, for example. I just can’t bring myself to use Apple Maps, but maybe it’s time for me to get over that hump!

I know Citymapper works well in many cities, and it was initially designed as an app for London’s tube system. But here in New York City, which has an almost century long, and very well deserved, bad rap for delays, reroutings, snafus, etc., its transit info is not very reliable. But neither is Apple or Google Maps, though I find them a little better for the NYDOT than Citymapper. Cable TV provide Spectrum’s New York One transit updates are far better, though not perfect, and they are updated every ten minutes.

What surprises me is that years ago, shortly after Google announced they were not going to develop turn by turn directions for its iOS Maps app, and Steve Jobs was literally forced into a buying spree, Apple acquired Hop Stop. It was a really good transit app covering many US cities, and maybe European ones too, and was better in NYC Apple almost immediately dropped the Android version, and Android didn’t as yet have public transport in Google Maps. So I’ve never understood why Apple Maps’ public transport info sucks worse than Hop Stop did years ago.

I’ve been using satellite GPS for over 10 years on my Nokia phones. It takes a few minutes to find the satellite, but I don’t have to bother with cellular networks for maps and guidance. I always knew it was good but didn’t have a comparison until we had to go over a mountain on a dirt road in Crete. I had my iPhone with its maps, and my Nokia N8. The iPhone lost the maps within 5 minutes, and the Nokia satellite GPS directed us on lots of very lumpy dirt roads. We arrived at our destination very slowly after passing through 3 or 4 sheep/goat fences/gates. Didn’t lose the bottom of our rental car either.
Nokia maps has evolved into Here […we go] maps, and it’s excellent with my new Nokia phone. I still use my iPhone for lots of things, but its maps are still not as good. I use Here Maps for walking around in cities/towns. It also has choices for dozens of voices and languages for guidance. There’s also an iPhone version. Does iPhone have satellite GPS without cellular network yet?

Google Street View can help.

I always plan the most stressful parts of our journeys with Google Street View. I always check the timetables for trains and busses to reach the hotel at home. Then I go around the train stations or airport bus terminus and check if I can see any bus stops or metro signs in Google Street View. You can not rely on Street View to have covered all angels, but it helps that I have “been there before” when I arrive. I use the same for the walk from the bus stop to the Hotel.

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