We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. If you continue to use this site, we'll assume you're happy with this. Alternatively, click here to find out how to manage these cookies

hide cookie message

What’s the best type of map to use for driving? Satnavs, route planners and smartphone apps

How digital maps can help you get from A to B

You probably have a satnav in your car which does well enough for your navigational needs. However, if it's more than a couple of years old, its maps will be out of date and the cost to update them could well approach the cost of the satnav in the first place.

Although many people have a portable device, such as a TomTom, many cars have built-in satnavs, so you can't take it out and use it in a hire car abroad, or even lend it to a friend or family member.

Take a look at Create and Share Custom Google Maps

Android satnav Google Maps

In both cases, it makes sense to look at alternatives. Relatively inexpensive apps are available to turn your GPS-equipped smartphone into a satnav, with turn-by-turn spoken instructions and all, for far less than the price of a dedicated in-car device. CoPilot Live, for example, costs £20 for just one region (e.g. UK and Ireland, France, Benelux) or £35 for all of Western and Eastern Europe. However, before shelling out on one of these, be sure to check out the free apps such as Google Maps for Android – you might be surprised how good it is.

If you have a Nokia Lumia smartphone, Nokia's Drive app comes pre-installed and even allows you to download maps to use offline. Apple iPhone 4S and 5 owners running the latest iOS 6 software can use the built-in Apple Maps for turn-by-turn directions if they don't want to pay for CoPilot or TomTom's apps.

Route planning

Sometimes, you'll want more than A-to-B directions. Let's say you're planning a road trip of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. But while your trusty satnav will tell you how to drive from Portree to Applecross, it certainly wouldn’t suggest these are two places you should consider including in your tour.

For an overview of the road network, pretty much any of the online mapping sites will do the trick. If you’ve only ever used Google Maps, you might like to try some of the others to see if there are any you prefer.

Others to consider include Bing Maps, Streetmap, and ViaMichelin. Many of these sites provide road mapping for many countries other than the UK. Ideally, though, this is a job best done on a desktop or laptop PC as constantly zooming in and out and panning will soon become irritating on a handheld device.

Michelin road maps

While we wouldn’t suggest that mapping software or websites are a viable replacement for a dedicated satnav, they certainly have their place in augmenting an in-car device. Having said that, if you’ve got used to using a satnav while driving, please don’t be tempted to sneak a glance at your tablet or laptop while you’re at the wheel. These are most definitely tools to be used before you set off, for reference in a lay-by, or for your passenger to use.

AA Route planner

If you’re without your satnav for a while and are looking for a stand-in, useful free alternatives are the online route-planning sites such as the ones run by the AA and the RAC. There's also TomTom's planner) which is a great source of current traffic information - it will factor this into a journey you're planning immediately.

TomTom Route planner

Enter your start and finish points, and any intermediary places, and you’ll see your route on a map and as a list of driving instructions that you can print out. These are fine if you know where you want to drive before you leave home but if you want a greater degree of flexibility, there are better options than using these websites on a smartphone. Both the AA and the RAC offer Android and iPhone apps that do much the same as the web utilities but are optimised for a small screen, and other companies have similar offerings.

IDG UK Sites

8 cheapest 4G smartphones in the UK 2014: Best budget 4G phones

IDG UK Sites

Apple MacBook Air lab tests and benchmarks: 11-inch & 13-inch, 256GB, 2014 Mac laptops tested

IDG UK Sites

How to prank people using Google Glass

IDG UK Sites

Brian Cox to step into will.i.am's shoes with IBC keynote