Do you use GPS when you travel?

I recently returned from a two month road-trip around the United States. It had been almost ten years since I had traveled extensively inside the United States and it was, as you might expect, very different than my last trip.

Aside from the negative aspects — more sprawl, less open space and so on — the one thing that really caught my eye was the prevalence of GPS. Whether it’s on your phone or, more conspicuously, attached to your windshield, it seems that everyone these days is using some sort of GPS device to find their way around.

I have (fake) GPS on my own phone, though I’ve learned through experience not to rely on it. In fact, short of looking up hotels near me, I never used it. Part of that is due to its shortcomings, but part of it is just resistance to technology.

In fact, after a while I found myself have a rather curmudgeonly reaction to GPS — grumbling about the kids today and the over-reliance on technology while I tried to steer and read a map at the same time.

I know it’s hypocritical. After all, I have no idea how to use a sextant, once the best way to navigate. New technology always supplants what came before. This is, I believe, referred to as progress.

And I have nothing against technology, but since my day job involves covering technology news I’ve learned over the years that the process by which older technology is supplanted inevitably involves a trade off of some kind. Often it’s minimal — I don’t have any CDs anymore, but I still have plenty of music.

Sometimes though the trade off is a bit more costly. While I have nothing against GPS exactly (again, I use it myself sometimes) always knowing where you’re headed eliminates some of the serendipity of getting lost or even just stumbling on something by accident. It can also sometimes cause you to miss the bigger picture.

By its nature a GPS device is concerned only with where you are now and the narrow route to where you’d like to go. Some of the fancier models have features that will alert you to nearby attractions, but none of them are going to show you a whole region in detail and let you chase that “I wonder what’s over here in this town..” aspect of traveling.

I’m not sure how common iPhones or Android devices with travelers overseas, but I suspect that if they aren’t commonplace yet they will be soon enough. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, nor would I suggest you leave it at home, but don’t forget that there are plenty of other ways to find your way, including just stumbling blindly forward.

In the end GPS devices are like any new technology — there are good and bad things about them. It all depends what you want out of your journey and how you use the technology.

Do you carry a GPS device when you travel? Has it changed the way you travel? Good? Bad? Both? Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

[Photo by mroach, Flickr]

Posted by | Comments (9)  | September 7, 2010
Category: Travel Gear, Travel Tech

9 Responses to “Do you use GPS when you travel?”

  1. GypsyGirl Says:

    Nope- still don’t have a GPS in my vehicle or on my cell phone, just a good old fashion road map!Sometimes I’ll use MapQuest to get approximate driving times (but there are tables for that in the map books) My first extensive road trip was back in 2002, 3 months, 18,000 miles in the “This looks interesting…” fashion. It was a blast but it got me hooked even deeper on road travel. So much so that I took off in 2006 for what was to be a 4 month adventure…and never stopped circling the country. We, (my animals and I) have traveled all of the major East-to-West highways (and them some), end-to-end except for all of I-10. Which we are working on over this winter! Never have had the desire to have a GPS- the road signs work wonders.

  2. Roger Says:

    I was reluctant to buy one, because I’m partial to maps, but my wife insisted we get one last Christmas. I have to say I’m getting more and more use out of it because of the data it can provide. It does come in handy. I still use maps to get the overal picture, and to plan routes, but the GPS is good for what it does. Also, an added feature that I have begun using it for is the bicycle and pedestrian settings. I’ll use it on my bicycle or when walking to record distance, average moving speed, stopped time, etc.

  3. Nicolaï Says:

    No GPS. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    To those who use GPS when traveling, what does it allow you to do that traditional maps don’t? I’m curious.

  4. Scott Gilbertson Says:


    One thing I did use the iphone’s map app for was finding hotels in places I hadn’t intended to be. I also made use of an app that’s sort a map-related, it finds known, free wifi hotspots, which was also handy a couple times.

    Not sure what dedicated GPS units can really do for you… to my mind it’s just one more thing I have to lug around.

  5. Marc Says:

    I use a GPS and love it! Aside from giving the turn by turn, which is better than a co-pilot, I use it to search for necessary services near my current location.

    My current GPS is the software on my phone so its non-invasive, has not additional cost, and is always with me.

  6. Nicolaï Says:


    That’s pretty slick. I keep getting the impression that iPhones are the Amex of the cellular phone world, eh?

  7. Sage Says:

    Nope, I’ve only used GPS on the water… but I also have a sextant 🙂

  8. Adam Says:

    I’ve also always been pretty anti-gps. Recently, though, I needed a new mp3 player and phone, so I ended up with a nokia phone with free gps maps. I gave it a go, and found a use for it I hadn’t thought of before.
    One thing it does that a traditional map doesn’t is give you the confidence to get off the map.
    Far from missing out non the big picture I find we’re seeing more of the streets, back country ans strange places than ever before.
    Before, when using a map, you can figure out which way to go to get to the next town and off you go. But now, we spot a little dirt track off to the side, or a cool looking alleyway, and just turn. And keep making turns, ignoring the cries of the little lady that lives in the gps, getting completely lost.
    When we’ve had enough we let her guide us back to the main street, hostel, whatever. Eventually we get there and see so much on the way. Never did that with a map – some of those roads aren’t even on there. Also, you’d need a bloody big bag to carry all the maps that can fit on even the cheapest gps.
    So, yeah, I was resistant at first, but if you can find a small one, why not get it? You dn’t have to use it, but if you do it’s actually pretty useful.

  9. Jeanna Says:

    I enjoyed this post and i agree. I am not a huge fan of the GPS either, and for the same reasons. When you’re trying to drive and watch it, it even occasionally makes me nervous, you miss the turn and it immediately yells at you to make a U-Turn, well I may not want to!! 🙂 I have a passion for maps, there is something very enjoyable about traveling down the highway with a map and a full tank of gas! Great post!