It's way past midnight and I'm lost in a Madrid alleyway when it hits me: I'm in a dysfunctional relationship with Google Maps. In the U.S., I use Google Maps mostly for driving, and it rarely lets me down. But navigating a foreign city on foot is creating an uneasy new chapter in our relationship …
I'm hours into a late-night, all-walking tapas adventure with my friend Kim, who by this point has made it clear she is no fan of Google Maps, in the U.S. or abroad. But because I have decent reception around the city (thanks to free international data from T-Mobile), it's my phone—and Google Maps—that is leading us through the twisty streets to a series of tapas joints recommended by locals in the know.
"It just doesn't work when it needs to," Kim observes as I'm standing in the street turning in circles like a bat without sonar, trying to get the map to tell me which of the four streets I'm looking at will take us to our destination. There is some urgency here: It has been at least 30 minutes since our last small plate, and I'm giddy with the anticipation of tasting the best sautéed mushrooms I've ever had in my life.
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She has a point. Here in Madrid, my success rate with Google Maps has been hovering at about 60 percent. I love not needing to pull out a paper map—it helps me blend in, especially here where locals spend about the same amount of time staring down at their phones as the rest of us. And when it works, it's amazing. Just a few hours earlier, I had flawlessly navigated my way through a wiggle of tiny streets, emerging triumphant at the Plaza Santa Ana. Google Maps had nudged me with a slight vibration at every turn, and I was able to walk confidently and appreciate my surroundings even though I had never before been on any of the streets.
But a lot of the time it simply doesn't do what it's supposed to do. I find plenty of excuses—the buildings are blocking the GPS, my data must be slow, maybe the century-old streets have recently changed layout—but as the excuses build up, and Kim patiently waits beside me as I swear quietly at my phone, I start to realize that I'm defending a technology that isn't actually working for me.
A nearby bell tolls one as Google Maps regains its bearings and points me down a street—but when I zoom out, I discover it wants to take me the longest way imaginable. It clearly hasn't had these mushrooms (and I know for sure it hasn't been wearing these heels for six hours). I'm about to utter another excuse when I pause and instead say, "I'm in a bad relationship with Google Maps."
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Now I know from experience that travel partners are never perfect. Everyone has their quirks. But more than anything else, I need to be able to trust a travel companion, so I close Google Maps and open up a basic city map just to figure out where I am. I'm tired of making excuses for its bad behavior, and I'm done with being let down. And as we arrive at the bar with the help of a good old fashioned map, I think to myself, "Google Maps, we're breaking up."
And yet, the next morning, when I need to figure out how to get to a café, the first thing I do is to open Google Maps. Do I need therapy? Maybe. But what I need more is an interactive map app that gets me where I need to go nearly every time. Because there's nothing like easily navigating an unfamiliar city simply by keeping a phone close at hand. And also nothing like standing in an alleyway at one in the morning pining for sautéed mushrooms and not knowing how to reach them.
Want some alternatives to Google Maps? Here are a few I've either used or that have been recommended by a trusted source. And please, if you love a map app that works well, particularly for walking around unfamiliar cities in the U.S. and abroad, share them in the comments.
Ulmon: Executive Editor Anne Banas loves Ulmon. With it, she sets up each day in advance, plugging in place names and addresses as map markers so that when she's on the go, she can easily get directions between activities. She also likes that the GPS works "flawlessly, even when I'm not on data roam." The app has maps for many, but not all, cities.
City Maps: Often, you can find good and up-to-date maps by searching map apps by city. Many can be used even when you don't have data turned on. And TripAdvisor has apps by city with maps that work offline as well.
Waze: For driving in the U.S., Kim Foley MacKinnon swears by Waze. "I love Waze because it's a crowd-sourced app, with real-time information from real people on the road. My family and I began using it last year on our cross-country trip and it was extremely helpful directing us away from construction sites and major traffic, warning us about hazards on the road, and offering different routes to take, which in unfamiliar places, was especially useful."
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(Photo: Leonardo Patrizi/Getty Images)