In a time when most of us have forgotten how to read maps and are so unfamiliar with asking directions that actually doing so feels like a traumatic social experience, traveling internationally can seem daunting.
At home its become second nature to save locations, drop pins, even just hop in our cars and tell our phones to navigate us to a place we couldn't find on a map (even supposing we did own them).
Abroad all that changes. Cut off from high speed data, we see tourists in cargo shorts with neck wallets clustered in hostal lobbies, repeating in broken spanish as they circle things on promotional bus maps and scribble street names and landmarks over the ads for authentic local crafts and also burgers.
Well, no longer!
We can now extend the curtain of our technological hermit-ing to anywhere in the world because Google Maps is now usable offline.
HOW DOES THIS WORK?
If you were born prior to 1990, you might remember the first generation of GPS navigators. I myself remember being amazed as a friend's dad loaded CD's full of map data to a changer in his trunk so we could drive through Wisconsin at the whims of a lady robot.
Those old stand-alone navigator's relied on a pre-built and populated map, using the GPS satellites to track and direct you across it. Today your smartphone downloads the map as you request it carrying with it other advantageous information like construction, traffic and the nearest adult toy shop. Moreover, your phones cellular and wifi connectivity make determining your precise location much easier than with GPS satellites alone.
But this same advantageous evolution of navigation technology has made traveling outside the network more difficult than it was before. For international travelers who lack the initiative, inclination or skill to acquire a data plan outside their own country, they can no longer access the maps that have become second nature at home.
All that that has now changed. You can now download maps when you have connectivity and use your phone to navigate anywhere you have stored.
DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?
Relying solely on GPS means that your phone's ability to zero in on your location might be minorly impaired. This means you sometimes have to visually locate your current location (like with street signs) and then find yourself on the map.
You will also have limited ability to search for things on the map like the nearest grocery store or coffee shop.
However, as long as you have an address or intersection, Google Maps can provide step by step navigation instructions from where you are to where you want to go.
HOW DO YOU DOWNLOAD MAPS OFFLINE?
You can download maps any time you have connectivity. Depending on the size of the area you are downloading, offline maps can take a significant amount of space.
We've found this to mostly be the case in the US and Europe where maps have more details and business info. In less developed countries, maps have so far been smaller than similarly sized cities in the US. Downloading Lima and its surrounding suburbs was only 44mb. That said, you are better off waiting until you have wifi to download maps, especially of large and dense urban areas.
To download a map on your Android device, you'll want to navigate visually in maps to the area you want to download.
Whatever you see in the map window is what you will download so be sure that you have the right area covered. Going a bit larger than you really need is a good practice.
(As you can see above, I'm downloading a map of Cusco, Peru and its surrounding areas.)
Once you are seeing what you want to download you need to hit the three horizontal lines at the left of the Google search box at the top of your map screen. This will bring up your options menu.
Tap "Offline Areas"
As you can see, I've already downloaded maps for Cusco, Lima and Mancora, Peru. If this is your first time downloading maps offline, this area will be blank.
Click on the "+" button in the bottom right.
You'll be asked to confirm that you want to download the area offline.
You'll be asked to name the offline area. You can then check the progress of the download in the pull-down status bar at the top of your screen.
To confirm the area is downloaded go back to your "Offline Areas." You can select any of those listed and see the area covered and when it will expire on your device. You can also update the area if you want to keep it longer or you think there have been significant changes to the maps since you downloaded.
To use your offline maps you don't need to do anything different. Just use Maps the same way you would if you had data.
Remember that just using GPS satellites to find your position will be slower and less accurate than when you have cellular coverage, so double check things before you get going.