Okay so this isn’t really so much app vs map as much as app vs paper I guess. I was recently asked what mapping applications I use when I’m on a trip. I thought about it a bit and honestly I don’t use many apps when I’m traveling. I really mostly just use google maps and a few paper based maps. Sometimes I’ll use a transit app specific to the place I’m traveling. They sometimes give you a bit better directions that google maps can. There are also apps you might want to look into depending on your specific needs. Some examples are things like topographic maps, nautical maps or ones that show hiking trails. There are of course advantages and disadvantages to each so lets look at each option a bit.
This is the area where apps can really shine. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used google maps to figure out what bus route to take to my destination. Not only which route but all the alternative routes too. Just punch in where you want to go and get directions from your current location. You can also pick which form of transportation you want to take. For example in New York I wanted to take the bus and not the dirty subway most of the time so I could just filter by bus. “Transit” is also a great dedicated transit app that currently works in 86 different cities. It shows you routes and travel times. It uses google for the maps but the transit information is pulled from a different place I believe.
Paper transit maps can still be good. However in cities where there are a lot of options the maps can get just too confusing.
One thing paper maps have going for them is they often have the accessible transit stations or stops marked on them. I have yet to find an app that has the information embedded in it. If you find something please let me know in the comments and I will update the post going forward.
There are a few situations where you might be offline or off the grid so to speak. The two most common for me are being overseas without access to my cell service, and being in rural areas with no service whatsoever. There are of course ways to download maps ahead of time to your mobile device for offline viewing. However I’ve often found myself in an area I wasn’t planning to visit and didn’t plan ahead. Also depending on the app storage space on your phone could be a problem. This is where paper maps rule for me. No matter where I am they just work of course. I often try to carry at least two different paper maps with me. I find that there are different details sometimes on each printing and sometimes it helps if you’re really lost.
Another situation where I apps win out. There are often lots of attractions marked on paper maps, especially in large cities. On paper maps though they tend to be only major tourist destinations. This is fine if you're just looking to get to a major landmark or museum. If you're trying to find something more local or off the beaten path though it might not help. The sheer amount of details on google maps is amazing to me. There are even floor plans for some major shopping malls which I personally think is pretty cool.