Langa Letter: A Real-Life GPS Road Test

Fred Langa recently spent two weeks navigating through Europe using a GPS and a laptop. Here's how you can use this emerging technology for your next road trip.
Handling Ad Hoc Routing, Detours, And Equipment Failure
Some of this may be overkill for short trips, or trips closer to home, or trips that involve routes only on major roads leading to heavily trafficked (and thus well-marked) destinations. But in my case--a two-week trip, six time zones from home, visiting many smaller, off-the-beaten-path destinations--I wanted the extra security of figurative belt and suspenders: I wanted to be able to continue the trip, as planned, even if the GPS were lost, broken, or stolen.

So, before I left, I printed out hard-copy versions of the planned routes. Both software packages make this easy, and I ended up with something like the American Automobile Association's famous "TripTik" strip maps, but entirely self-generated and customized to my own routes and preferences: a series of maps (at differing scales and resolutions, depending on how complex a given route section was), plus textual, turn-by-turn directions.

Route 66 automatically generates text directions, but I found it verbose in the extreme, with far more information than is needed to drive a route. So, I edited the automatically generated text to produce simpler, easier-to-follow directions I could print out and have handy in the car, if needed.

In fact, these text directions and maps did prove useful in those cases where long tunnels or other obstructions temporarily rendered the GPS mute: I'd dig out the custom paper maps, and follow along on paper until the GPS was back on line. (Incidentally, this highlights a major safety advantage of using a GPS: In normal operation, a GPS requires less attention--less taking your eyes off the road--than does a paper map. Every time I had to use a paper map, I had to reduce speed or even stop and pull over, an inconvenience.)

Aside from being clunky, paper maps also are static, and may not help a lot with routes that must be altered significantly (beyond range of the map) or for small roads not shown on the map. Normally, this is one area where a well-equipped GPS really shines: In a GPS with automatic routing, the unit will sense when you're off course, and automatically recalculate a new route for you. (This is exactly how a U.S.-base map Garmin V works when used in the U.S. with City Select local maps. Rerouting is fully automatic.) But because the MapSource European CDs weren't routing products, this ability wasn't available.

So, again in the belt and suspenders tradition, I also brought a laptop, and installed both the MapSource and Route 66 software on it. In several cases where something like a major construction detour forced a route change of such magnitude that I couldn't easily figure out a good alternate route via the small screen on the GPS unit or the printed custom maps, I connected the GPS to the laptop, fired up the Route 66 software, and let it plot and display a new route. Remember that the Garmin unit can "speak" NMEA to the Route 66 software: Thus, Route 66 could obtain location, direction, and speed data from the GPS, and show this on the laptop's screen, along with the route I should take to get to the next destination.

Although this arrangement is far less convenient than just using a compact, dash-mounted GPS unit alone, it gave me total freedom to drive any route I wanted or needed, at any time--even totally abandoning the preplanned routes, by choice or necessity.

Freedom Through Technology
As with many technoid topics, actually driving the GPS-guided route wasn't as difficult as spelling out all the separate steps may have made it seem. (And if the MapSource software had been a routing product, things would have been downright simple.) But even with the clumsier, two-product method, navigating the route was relatively easy--it was the planning of the route that was labor-intensive.

And even there, the Route 66 and MapSource software made it easier than it would have been using old-style paper maps, or even online routing services. In fact, given the complexity of the route, plus the fact that I wanted the flexibility to change routes at will, and not to have to stick to only the major highways, I think it would have been either extremely hard or even impossible to plan and drive the same trip without GPS.

I figured I'd return from this trip either totally believing in GPS technology, or equally firmly believing that it wasn't yet ready for prime time. I'm happy to say it's the former: I'd take another GPS-based trip of this sort without any qualms. In fact, as the GPS products improve, complex trip planning should only become simpler and easier.

In short, for travelers who need to visit locations away from major airports and the hearts of major cities, or who want a maximally flexible or complex itinerary, GPS is the only way to go.

What's your take? Have you used a GPS and mapping software for long trips? Do you have success--or horror!--stories to share? What online trip-planning services have you used? Where have you found GPS useful, or a drawback? Join in the discussions!