The best navigation tools to keep you on track on a car trip, here or abroad


Question: I am getting ready to spend a couple of months in Scotland, England and Ireland and wonder whether you have any advice/information on the best ways to navigate on this trip.

Jim McIntosh


Answer: Renting a car and hitting the high roads of Britain and Ireland brings with it some freedoms but also some complications. Two travel experts offer suggestions to make your travels more fun and less fraught, but keep this in mind: No system is perfect; if your goal is never to be lost, you might want to dial back your expectations.

Your three best friends on a car trip are your smartphone, a navigation system such as Garmin or Tom Tom, which might be built in to your car or might be a stand-alone, and — wait for it — a map, maybe even a paper one. The first two rely on satellite GPS; the latter on you.


There’s also guessing and stopping to ask for directions, but those are, um, less reliable and tend to lead to shouting if you’re traveling with someone. I’m walking away from those last two methods for purposes of sanity preservation.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each of the previous three.

Using an app on your smartphone

Pro: Your phone is always with you. The map apps you choose are usually reliable and frequently updated. Make a wrong turn and you’ll be rerouted.

Con: If you lose your cell signal, your maps won’t update or will do the digital equivalent of dithering.

Amy Nichol Smith, who recently spent time in Scotland, relied heavily on a Google map app on her smartphone. She upgraded her phone to an international plan.

“It was totally worth it,” said Smith, a technology analyst for, an online publication for small-business owners. “I was able to see exactly where there was traffic and construction.”

To save on data charges, she downloaded directions and switched her phone to airplane mode.


Andy Abramson, chief executive of Comunicano and of Brand Communication Design, both marketing services agencies, often buys a local SIM card when he’s abroad so he has access to the fastest cellphone networks. You can swap your SIM if your phone is unlocked (usually that means it’s paid for); you will need to contact you carrier for instructions on how to do so.

In a subsequent email, McIntosh noted that a phone tended to slip and slide and wasn’t handy to look at. If it’s your choice for navigation, do yourself a favor and buy an inexpensive, portable mount.

My travel version clips to the car’s air vent, and I carry a two-slot USB plug powered by the cigarette lighter so I can plug in my phone. Find out the laws at your destination to be sure you aren’t breaking them by use or placement of a holder.

Built-in or freestanding navigation system

Pro: If you’re out of cell range, these will work; some advocates say the directions and the amount of warning you receive for turns are better.

Con: It’s an additional cost to buy a free-standing unit (or to rent a car with a navigation system). The maps are not updated as frequently as your phone apps.

Abramson chooses his system based on where he is. On some back roads in France, where he travels frequently, “I had no cell coverage, and I was using Google Maps, so I switched over to the on-board GPS,” he said. “It was much more accurate.”

Among the leading providers of stand-alone units are U.S.-based Garmin and Netherlands-based TomTom.

A map

Pro: Relies on nothing but your good sense.

Con: Relies on nothing but your good sense.

Smith and Abramson learned to read maps when they were children and became the family navigators. Both suggest getting the lay of the land from a map and studying the anomalies of the road.

Smith noted that studying maps could, for instance, steer you away from toll roads in the U.S., important if your rental car company automatically charges for them and tacks on a fee, or differentiating between high and low roads in Scotland.

For those who lack sense of direction, becoming familiar with where the landmarks are on a map can help make the unfamiliar less so.

For help on learning to read a map, check out YouTube as well as lesson plans from the National Education Assn. and National Geographic.

On a car trip in Ireland two summers ago, I found the best way to ensure we were never lost: We hired a driver, which was far less expensive than we thought. And the idea of traveling in a private car without screaming fights about whose fault it was we were lost? Priceless.

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