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.

Keep your home address out of your GPS unit

Have you ever considered what could happen if your vehicle is stolen, along with your GPS unit? A thief could tell the GPS unit to “go home”. If you are like most people, you’ll provide easy access to your home with the garage door opener in your vehicle.

Now, I’ll admit right away that this scenario does build heavily on some pretty healthy paranoia, but I’m of the opinion that “better safe than sorry” applies here.

When you program your home address into the GPS, program it without a house number, or better yet – set it to a couple of blocks away. You know where you live (I hope), and if you need the GPS to get you home every night, you need more help than a GPS unit can provide. Removing your home address is just one more way to help keep you, your family and your belongings safe.

Find the right destination with a GPS map update

We’ve probably all been there once or twice – you get in your car, and try to enter your destination, only to find that your GPS unit does not know where you want to go.

In some cases, this could be as simple as a misspelled address, but in others, it means your GPS unit needs a new map database.

When you buy your unit, the maps are often at least a year old, but some units that have been on store shelves for a couple of years could try navigating you based on three or four year old maps.

In that period, new streets have been added, and map errors have been corrected. Thankfully, on most brand name GPS units, getting a new map is fairly easy, and quite affordable. The best place to start is your favorite electronics retailer or on the site of the GPS unit manufacturer.

For most units, the investment is quite modest – about $50 will get you the latest version (or one no more than 6 months old). Installing the map update varies from vendor to vendor. On Magellan GPS units, you order a physical SD card for the unit, on other brands you’ll usually need to download a large file and copy that from your PC to the device.

If you purchased your GPS unit within the last 30 days, contact the manufacturer to see whether you are eligible for a free map update, especially in those cases where your brand new GPS device comes with not so brand new maps.