Tuesday, January 24, 2017

iPhone GPS road navigation for international travel

When I travel internationally, one of the perks I miss most is the ability to sit back and drive while my phone's GPS navigation tells me where to go. While I do sometimes wistfully long for the charm of map reading, I've honestly been completely spoiled by the ease of phone navigation. There's no going back now. Cell phone coverage in the United States is so good these days that I am rarely out of range for very long, especially here in the northeast, so I can pull up a map and navigate anywhere at pretty much any time. However since I do not have an international cell phone data plan, I lose this ability while abroad. Recently a few iOS mapping apps have offered users a chance to work around this, and here's how you can do it. We will use two apps: Google Maps and MAPS.ME.

First, make a custom map using Google Maps on your home computer/laptop (there does not yet seem to be a way to make a custom Google map in the iPhone app). As an example I'll use the map I made of birding destinations in Aruba.



Once this is done, open the Google Maps app on your iPhone (these instructions may or may not apply to Android devices) and try the following:

1) Zoom to the area in which you will be navigating, here Aruba.



2) Open the menu by clicking the three parallel horizontal lines at the left of the search bar.

3) Click "Offline areas."



4) Under the gray heading that reads "Download an offline area," click on "Custom area"



5) You will see the island of Aruba, and you will be able to crop the map to download the entire island. Click "DOWNLOAD" once you have the island selected.



6) Name the offline area whatever you want, and click "SAVE." Here we'll call it "Aruba." Note that you need to be connected to WiFi to download the map. Once the download completes, you now have a map of Aruba downloaded onto your phone, so you no longer need cellular data to view it. You will now see "Aruba" in your list of Offline areas.



At this point, here is what you have accomplished. You have an electronic map of Aruba on your iPhone that you can access while you are on the island without a cellular data connection. Since your phone's built-in GPS can access satellites without a cellular signal or data connection, your current position will appear on the map too. You can even press-and-hold the screen to drop a pin to navigate towards, and Google Maps will provide directions. Pretty cool.



Here is what you have NOT yet accomplished. For some reason, as of this writing, there does not appear to be a way to transport your custom map with birding locations (the ones you created on your home computer) onto this offline map. If there is a way to do this, I have not figured it out. It seems there should be a way, but Google has been a bit slow fully integrating the custom Google maps (nicknamed "Your Places" by Google Maps) into the mobile app. It will happen eventually I am sure.

If we want to use the pins on our custom map, we have to turn to a second navigation app, this one called MAPS.ME. It is currently available in the App Store for free. Download this app to your phone.

1) Go back to your home computer, go to Google Maps, open the menu and choose "Your Places," and click on "Aruba" (or whatever your map is called). Then, click "Open in My Maps."



2) In your custom map, open the menu by clicking the three vertical dots in the upper left and choose "Export to KML" from the drop down menu.



3) Check the box for "Export to a .KML file..." and then click "Download." Save this KML file to your computer.



4) Open up your personal email on your computer, and email the saved KML file to yourself.

5) Now go to your iPhone. Open your personal email on your phone. Open the email that you just sent yourself with the KML file attached. Press and hold the icon for the KML file until a menu opens with options. Scroll sideways until you see the green icon that reads "Import with maps.me" - click that icon. MAPS.ME will open.



6) Find the island of Aruba (or your place of interest) in MAPS.ME. You should see a punch of pins dropped - this indicates that your custom placemarks have been imported successfully. When you try to zoom into the island, the app will ask you if you want to download that particular region to your phone (again, you may need a WiFi connection for this). Do this.

Once complete, you now have exactly what you had accomplished above with the Google Maps mobile app PLUS the convenient addition of your custom placemarks. Now, when you visit Aruba with no phone connection, you can open MAPS.ME, click on one of your points of interest, and click on "Route to" at the bottom of the screen - and you are on your way. No cellular connection, no charge. Just make sure that you did not forget to turn off all cellular connections in your phone's settings - the last thing you want is a massive surprise bill when you get home. The easy way to do this with an iPhone is to put it in Airplane Mode - as long as you are running iOS 8.3 or later, the GPS function will still work in Airplane Mode, but cellular reception and data will not.


This may seem like a lot, but each step is pretty quick so it shouldn't take very long to set up, especially if you are already comfortable using these devices.

I do like having both Google Maps and MAPS.ME at my disposal while traveling abroad, so I would go to the trouble to set up both for offline use. You could always choose one or the other if you'd prefer. It's always nice to have a backup though. In addition I usually purchase a paper map as well, at least a basic one, to have with me in case of electronic failure.

If you have any issues with this, please comment or email me directly.

 - Nick

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