There are dozens of excellent mapping applications available for free and for purchase. Depending on whether you will be connected to the internet, or whether you need hands free driving directions and traffic updates, or whether you need a mapping app that’s more suited for walking, public transit, and even bicycling, there are many choices available for your Android, iPhone, or other type of smartphone. Here is our map through available mapping apps for iPhone, Android, and other smartphone platforms.
All Purpose Maps
Google Maps (Free, Android, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Windows, and more)
Google maps has traditionally been the biggest innovator in free GPS mapping, and you may be using Google Maps without even knowing it. It is the default mapping application for iPhone (until iPhone 5 is released), and helps you search for businesses, addresses, provides directions for driving, walking, and public transit, and the newest versions include street view, which is hard to compete with! It also includes a compass and shows you on the map which direction you are facing, which is very helpful when you’re getting out of a metro station.
Google Maps for Android has even more functions, including being available offline. It features great Google Places integration letting you go from maps to reviews very quickly which is great when you are looking for a place to eat in a strange city. You can set Google Maps to cache maps in advance when you have a Wi-Fi connection saving on expensive data charges.
On Android, Google Maps also lets you create routes and way points adding in your own photos and annotations. You can then share this custom map which is a great way of showing the folks back home what you have been up to. On iPhone you can “drop pin” and share locations with friends.
“The Swiss army knife of GPS navigation!” GPS Essentials has pretty much every tool you can create with a GPS and accelerometer.
The app uses Google Maps for its maps and lets you create routes, add waypoints, and link photos and tag your maps. GPS Essentials is probably best for travellers looking to share their journey through their maps or for people heading well off the beaten path needing maps for anywhere on globe and a full suite of navigation aids.
MapsWithMe (Free lite version, iPhone and iPad)
This offline mapping app lets you download country, city, and other vector maps for places all over the world, and then use the maps when you’re offline. While the free lite version does not allow you to search, you can view the maps and it will work with your GPS so you can see where you are on the map. The best features are that the maps are available offline (so no expensive data charges, just download the maps over Wi-Fi connections), and that the maps are vector-based rather than satellite images, so they don’t take up a lot of space on your phone. Also available for Android and Kindle Fire.
MapDroyd (Free, Android)
MapDroyd lets you access your map without a data connection. If you have a proper GPS, you can even use your phone for navigating with just the GPS on.
MapDroyd lets you download and save maps on to your phone’s SD card for offline access while you travel. If you need more maps than your SD card can hold, just save the maps you want on other cards and swap them out as you need. The main disadvantage of MapDroyd is that it uses the Open Street Map service which has uneven coverage.
You can also purchase and use MicroMap-format maps for use with MapDroyd. This gives you access to a wide range of specialty maps.
TomTom (Around $60 + $20 annual, iPad and iPhone)
It’s difficult to ignore TomTom when writing about mapping and navigation apps. TomTom is generally considered to be the worldwide standard of navigation units, and with the release of their app for iPhone and iPad, they are staying relevant in the new smartphone and tablet world. TomTom is excellent for driving directions and navigation, and it works offline so you won’t have any nasty data service charges, but it’s quite expensive and much more geared to the needs of drivers and does not accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, or people taking public transit.
The Great Outdoors
BackCountry Navigator (Free, Android)
BackCountry Navigator markets itself as the Android GPS map for the Outdoors. The app gives you topographical maps that you can cache on your phone in advance so you won’t need any more than a GPS signal.
BackCountry Navigator is also available for Windows Phone and it has a Windows desktop client that lets you plan trips on your home computer before transferring all of your information to your phone when it is time to depart. BackCountry Navigator mostly just covers the US and Canada using sources like the USGS for their maps. The developers appear to be interested in adding other countries with maps of Italy and Spain also supported but don’t buy this app hoping they will eventually add a specific area outside of North America.
MotionX GPS ($0.99, iPhone and iPad)
Combining features that will satisfy both outdoor lovers and urbanites, MotionX GPS has a total of 9 map choices, including open topographic and road maps. It also lets you record your tracks, and mark waypoints, and you can store maps for use offline. I discovered this app while searching for a good international outdoor map app, but the app’s integration with Wikipedia also helps you find nearby places of interest and gives you information from Wikipedia about the location.
Looking for a map of a National Park? Maybe you like to rollerblade or cycle around your destination? Try searching on your device for specialized map apps tailored to the particular needs of your trip. A good one to check is Maplets (iPhone and iPad only), where you can download thousands of maps to subway systems, national parks, bike maps, and ski maps.
Trip Journal (Price varies, Android, iPhone, Symbian)
Trip Journal is designed for people wanting to document their journey online. Trip Journal lets you share a map of your route integrated with photos, videos, blog posts and comments. The app integrates with Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube and Flickr letting you share your trip on your social networks directly from the Trip Journal.