Are fold-out maps obsolete? Not if you want to understand your destination

Is the age of opening up a map to figure out where you are a thing of the past? According to a recent post on Bad Latitude, they’re one of ten travel items that are now obsolete.

There’s no doubt that technology such as Google Maps and GPS have advantages over traditional maps, but a good, old-fashioned fold-out map will always be an important part of a real traveler’s kit. Here’s why.

As I’m planning my trip to Ethiopia I’ve been studying a 1:2500000 scale map from Cartographia that measures 65×85 cm, or 26×33 inches. Try getting that field of view from a computer screen or mobile phone! Seeing the country as a whole with all its details in one view gives you a better perspective. You begin to notice things.

For example, why does Ethiopia have that big spike for an eastern border? My map shows a string of oases all the way up to the eastern point of the frontier with Somalia, drawn in blue like a series of water droplets on the tan and pale green backdrop of desert and scrub land. A network of caravan routes crisscrosses the space between them. That’s why Ethiopia holds onto a region with a majority Somali population. The caravan routes are of no interest to someone in a car, so you won’t find them on the GPS. My fold-out map also shows the habitats of important wildlife and even the shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Fold-out maps give you a deeper understanding of the country and are things of beauty. They also have the advantage that they still work if the power goes out or if you lose the signal, a common occurrence in some of the places I go, and they’re far less likely to get stolen.

There’s no doubt that GPS, Mapquest, and Google Maps are efficient ways to get you from Point A to Point B, but real travel isn’t about getting from Point A to Point B.

And that’s a fact no amount of technology will ever change.

New device will let you text, twitter from remote places

The Consumer Electronics Show has been going on in Las Vegas the past few days, with a host of new gadgets and gizmos being announced, including everything from new digital camera, ebook readers, and even 3D LCD TV’s. One product that was announced, and may be of interest to travelers heading to remote places on the planet, is the Earthmate PN-60w, a hand held GPS device from DeLorme and SPOT, that will allow adventurers to more effectively communicate from locations that are not covered by cell service.

The new device pairs one of DeLorme’s GPS units with SPOT’s next generation Satellite Communicator, to send custom message from the backcountry. The Earthmate wil have all the regular features you’d expect from a GPS, including base maps, in this case covering the entire world, navigation, electronic compass, and so on. But it will also wirelessly pair with the Communicator, allowing the user to type text messages and send them to friends and family back home via satellite.

For its part, the Satellite Communicator allows for adventure travelers to call for help, should the need arise, from nearly anywhere on the planet. It also lets the user to share tracking information and custom messages that can easily be interfaced with Twiter, Facebook,, and SPOT’s own

The Earthmate PN-60w will be available later this spring, but pricing, for the device and the communications service, have not yet been announced. If DeLorme and SPOT stay true to form however, you can expect global communications to become available and affordable for the average consumer.

Eight rules for renting a car in a foreign country

Renting a car can be a great way to see a foreign country. Having your own wheels allows you the freedom to take your time, to stop for long lunches in the countryside, to turn down that little lane that looks interesting, and to go where public transportation won’t take you. But, renting a car comes with its own set of challenges and dangers. Here are eight road rules to remember when renting a car on your travels.

If you can’t drive a manual, now is not the time to learn.

Outside of the US, many, if not most, cars have manual transmissions. Finding an automatic rental can be difficult, and the cost will be significantly higher. You may be tempted to save money by taking the manual and if you’re fairly comfortable driving one, that’s fine. But if you’ve never driven one before, took a crash course just before your trip, or haven’t had to step on a clutch in over a decade, get the automatic. You’ll be concentrating hard enough on trying to figure out where to go, decipher all the crazy foreign road sides, and possibly drive on the “wrong” side of the road, that you really don’t want to add learning how to shift into the mix. And if you screw up the car’s transmission while you try to learn how to drive a manual, you could be held liable for the damage.

Always spring for the insurance.
$10-$20 a day for insurance can add up, and it’s easy to figure that, hey, nothing will go wrong, so why not skimp a little on the full coverage. Don’t do it (unless your credit card offers some coverage). On the off chance that something does happen, even if it isn’t your fault, you’ll be kicking yourself when you are stuck with a hefty bill. In some countries it is common to be offered an additional coverage on your tires and windshield. If you’ll be driving on gravel roads, definitely take this option. It’s usually just a few bucks more over the course of your rental and well worth the cost.

Let your hosts know when to expect you.
When you head out for the day with your car, always let your hosts know where you expect to go and when you’ll most likely be back. If you are going from place to place, let the proprietors of your next accommodation know when you’ll be arriving and what route you will be taking. If you do get horribly lost or get stranded along the road, at least you’ll know that one person has noticed that you’ve gone missing and they will have somewhat of an idea of where to start looking for you.

Make sure you have a spare.
In the US, it’s easier to get help if you get a flat tire. Chances are you’ve got your cell phone on you and you may even be a AAA member, making it easy to arrange a tow. At the very least, you can call the rental company and ask for assistance. If you are traveling in another country without a cell, getting help is a bit more difficult. Always check to make sure your rental car has a spare tire, and before you set out on your trip, make sure you know how to change it.

Don’t forget a map.
If you’ve got the cash and the option is available, get the GPS, but also bring a hard copy map with you as well. As we’ve seen, sometimes there’s no substitute for an actual old-fashioned paper map. If GPS isn’t an option, don’t rely on vague directions, be sure to pick up a comprehensive map in case you decide to wander a bit or in the event that the directions you were given turn out to be less than accurate.

Know the rules of the road.
Stop at stop signs, don’t speed, watch out for children and livestock. These are rules we know and which tend to be consistent across continents. Other rules of the road are more localized and often unwritten. Not following them may not get you a ticket, but they may not earn you any friends along the way either. Always research the road culture in a place you will be driving and learn customs that are followed there. For instance, when I was driving in South Africa, I was glad my friends had told me that on two-lane roads I should move over to the far left so that faster drivers could pass me. Had I not known, I probably would have made some other drivers very angry as they tried to pass me while I drove in the middle of my lane.

Don’t make yourself a target.
If you are driving from place to place, you’ll be traveling with your luggage and you may have a GPS unit mounted on your window or a map spread across the backseat. All of this screams “I’m a tourist, come pillage the car!” Always put your luggage in the trunk and stow the GPS and maps in the glovebox. Lock your doors when you aren’t in the car and don’t give anyone a reason to break in.

Read the fine print.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with your rental company’s rules. Some don’t allow rentals with debit cards, and a few countries require than the driver have not just a driver’s license from their home country, but an international driving permit as well. If you’re told something different in person than what you’ve read, be sure to ask for clarification. A couple I talked to in South Africa thought they needed to sign a special form to take their rental out of the country, but the rental agent said it wasn’t necessary. When they hit a cow and totaled the car in Botswana, they were told that because they didn’t sign the form before crossing the border, they could be liable for the cost of the car – about $7000US! Always read the fine print and know the rental rules.

Taking your GPS abroad – what you need to know

When you purchase your GPS unit, it’ll usually come with maps of the US, Puerto Rico and Canada. In some cases, the unit may even expand into Mexico, and premium systems will have Europe pre-loaded.

If you are heading abroad, but your GPS unit does not come with maps of your destination, all is not lost, and in some cases you’ll actually be able to load new maps.

Here are five tips on how to travel with your GPS, and how to take it abroad.
Check for international maps

Before you invest in new maps, check to see whether your unit already includes your destination country. In some cases this may be confusing if it holds a “base map” of the country. The base map will show foreign cities, but won’t actually contain anything at street level.

If you know that your unit does not contain an International map, you’ll need to check with the manufacturer to see which countries they offer as a map update. Before making this investment, check the prices of GPS units at your destination. It won’t make sense to spend $100 on a new map, when a brand new GPS unit costs the same. In some cases you may even be able to rent a navigation system from your car rental firm. With so many options, it makes sense to do your homework before leaving.

Switch the unit to the appropriate setting

Make your life easier when you are abroad – if your destination uses the Metric system, switch your GPS unit to Metric too. It’ll help make it easier to know how far you have to go, and whether you are sticking to the speed limit.

Protect your investment

If your GPS unit comes with a carrying case, use it – especially if you are forced to check the bag containing your device.

If you don’t have a carrying case, consider investing in one. They’ll cost about $15, and most of them will hold your GPS unit itself, along with the power cord and windshield mount.

The LCD touch screen on a GPS unit is pretty fragile, and if you end up packing it next to something sharp, a baggage handler may turn it into a useless gadget in a matter of minutes.

Brush up on your geography

A GPS unit is no replacement for basic geography knowledge. Before leaving for your destination, try to get a basic idea where you’ll be heading. In addition to knowing where a city is, try and learn a little about naming schemes. In German, Straße is street, which can be abbreviated to Str, most other international destinations have similar abbreviations, and you will need to know the basics in order to enter a destination into your GPS unit.

When your hotel or other destination provides its address, it may be abbreviated, the last thing you want is a GPS unit with international maps, but lack the knowledge on how to enter an address.

Your phone as a GPS device may be a really, really bad idea

Even though your (smart) phone may come with GPS, it isn’t always wise to use this when abroad. Many phone based navigation systems require a data connection, and international (3G) data costs a fortune. In fact, when you are in Europe, each megabyte of data will cost just under $20. With a normal map application pulling in about half a megabyte/minute (when driving), you’ll pay $600/hour for basic map based navigation. With prices like this, you’d be better off hiring a limo.

There are mobile phone navigation applications that install their map data locally, but even those programs may use the Internet for searches. If in doubt, find a way to disable your data access completely when you are abroad.

GPS safety – how to be safe and stay safe

When used correctly, a GPS unit can be a real time and lifesaver. It’ll get you where you need to be, on time, and (usually) with the best route. There are however some basic precautions you need to take in order to stay safe. Some of these tips are very logical, but as I drive around, I still see people neglect to follow even the most basic safety tips.

I have compiled 6 basic tips that will help keep you and your passengers safer as you drive around with your GPS unit.
Use the right mount

Can you imagine what kind of damage a GPS unit will do if you hit another vehicle? It turns from a GPS unit into a projectile. Never place your GPS unit on the dashboard without a proper mount. Also, be sure to keep your GPS unit out of your line of sight. In some states, the law prohibits your GPS unit from being mounted in the middle of the windshield.

In California for example, your GPS unit must be mounted in the lower corner of the driver side (in a 5″ square) or in the lower corner of the passenger side (in a 7″ square). Anywhere else is against the law, so you’ll need to invest in a beanbag mount or vent mount if you want it in the middle.

Don’t program when driving

The unit warns you about this, but I still see plenty of people fiddling with their GPS unit while barreling down the highway at 70 miles an hour. Leave the programming to your passenger(s) or pull over when permitted. Messing with your GPS unit while driving ranks up there with texting while driving.

If you can’t resist the urge to mess with the GPS while driving, then it may be time to invest in a voice activated unit like the Magellan Maestro 4700. A unit like this accepts a variety of spoken commands, and allows you to focus on the road instead of your gadget.

Program your destination(s) before you leave

If you plan to take your GPS unit on a trip, and use it in your rental car, be sure to program your destination(s) in the unit before your leave. Since most GPS units are battery operated, simply bring the unit inside the night before you leave, and add all the hotels, restaurants and attractions you want to visit. This will prevent messing with papers and guidebooks and wasting valuable trip time.

If you do rent, don’t forget to be sure the airport is set as a favorite location, and check the surrounding area for cheap gas to top off the rental before returning it.

If you are renting from Hertz, and opted to pay extra for their Neverlost system, you can even copy your destinations to a USB memory key and copy them to the Neverlost system as soon as you get in the vehicle.

Know how to operate the GPS

There is nothing more annoying than trying to figure out how to program your GPS unit when you are lost or stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. Before embarking on any long trip, spend some time getting to know your GPS unit.

Your wife (or husband) may not appreciate it, but you can spend some time going over its various features before going to bed. GPS units are fairly intuitive, but the user guide is still there for a reason. Especially when you want to use the more advanced features, all your passengers will appreciate the time you took to go over the manual.

Don’t consider the GPS to be king (or queen)

If your GPS unit tells you to turn left when you clearly see a “do not enter” sign, don’t listen to it. Every year, people actually die when they consider the GPS voice to be a command, rather than just a suggestion.

A GPS unit is not a replacement for common sense and sensory awareness. If your GPS unit says the speed limit is 55, and you are caught when it was actually 40, no judge is going to let you off the hook.

Check the suggested route before you leave

This one is an extension of the previous one – if your GPS unit suggests a route, take 30 seconds to read through the route to be sure it leads where you need to go.

A simple typo could lead you completely in the wrong direction. This happened to two Swedish tourists on their way to Italy. Their typo sent them to Carpi, instead of the island village of Capri. The difference? 400 miles. Remember, a GPS unit is no replacement for basic geography knowledge.