How To Save Data on Your European Vacation—Go Offline with Apple Maps

I've just recently returned from a 10-day vacation in Tübingen, Germany, a university town with a remarkable and picturesque old city and castle. Many of the buildings in the old city date back to the 15th and 16th century. In preparation for the trip, I spent more than $50 on Tom Tom's navigation app for Europe, wanting to make sure I could get where I wanted to go in the city. Its offline feature was the most important for my needs, mapping info on my iPad without requiring an Internet connection. I have a Verizon LTE iPad and could have paid for data service, but it would have entailed some extra charges, and it seemed like Tom Tom, while expensive, would ultimately save me money. (Long story short: I'm currently grandfathered into a $20/month data plan with Verizon, but would have had to forego that plan if I signed up for service in Germany, and would have been forced into the $30/month data plan forever after.) 

In the end, I almost exclusively used Apple Maps. It was simply so much easier to use than Tom Tom. I accessed Apple Maps in my hotel room where there was free Wi-Fi, and found I was able to cache enough data to find my way around the city using the app. 

I'm sure Tom Tom is a great app, and I've successfully used it to travel in rural areas of my native state of South Dakota where there's no cellular data access. However, early in my vacation, I gave up on Tom Tom when I struggled for 5-10 minutes and failed to get it to do what I wanted. I closed the app and within 30 seconds had accomplished in Maps what I was trying to do on Tom Tom. It was a revelation. Thank you, Apple.

Getting oriented in the old city part of Tübingen is a real challenge, because the streets are a tangle. They were likely originally dirt paths that led up to the castle, and they go every which way. There's no grid, and the area is closed to cars because the old cobblestone streets are just too narrow for vehicle traffic.

So I was utterly dependent on Maps. For example, before going out to a restaurant, I'd search various restaurant apps while still in my hotel room to find establishments that looked like good candidates. Then I'd drop pins to mark them and head into the old city, tracking my location using Maps. By accessing Maps in my hotel room, it would cache enough data that I didn't need to have Internet access while out and about. I'd walk in the direction of where I thought each restaurant was, and then use Maps to make sure I got there.

More then once during my vacation, I got disoriented on those streets and ended up heading in the wrong direction. But then I'd check Maps and get back on track.

That's the good news. I did, however, encounter an egregious instance of the well-known errors in Apple's Maps app. I wanted to visit the botanical garden, so I searched for it in Maps. The app identified two: a park-like area in the old city (that I had already visited), and what I thought was the botanical garden. The latter has acres of flowers and bushes and trees and other kinds of vegetation. The Maps app identified a particular location as a botanical garden and zoo.

So I ventured out, walked for about 25 minutes (using the Maps app all the way), and ended up precisely at the location where the app said a botanical garden and zoo should be. But it was just a street corner—not a garden in sight. It turned out there is no zoo in Tübingen, and the botanical garden I was seeking was in a very different part of town. I wasted part of an afternoon thanks to the Maps app. 

In the end, I took a city bus to the botanical garden. But again, I used the Maps app to help. I had a Tübingen resident drop a pin on the map at the approximate location of the garden. Because I was unfamiliar with that part of the city, I wanted to make sure I got off at the right bus stop. So as I rode the bus, I tracked where I was using Maps, and knew exactly when to get off.

Of course, my iPad was my constant companion during the whole trip. I used it to give me something to do on the plane, track my flight information, search for restaurants and read reviews, keep up with email, follow the news, check the weather, take scores of photos, and more. I didn't even take a regular camera.

And here's a final anecdote about how handy the iPad was. When I initially drove to the Southeast Iowa airport for departure, I arrived in the middle of a torrential downpour. It was quite a hike from long-term parking to the terminal building, and I knew if I left my car I'd be soaked in a couple minutes. So I got out my iPad, checked the weather radar, and saw that the squall would pass in about 10 minutes. Since I was plenty early for my flight, I sat in my car and did email until the rain had almost stopped, and then headed to the terminal.

Thanks, Apple, for this wonderful tool and for making my vacation a better experience.

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Author Details

Jim Karpen's picture

Author Details

Jim Karpen

Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.