Travel Tips Tuesday: Using A Map in a Foreign Country

Bologna is an epicenter of some of the world’s most famous foods. This northern Italian city is famous for bolognese sauce, lasagna, and tortellini. When I had a day in Bologna last fall, my top priority was to eat as many types of pasta as I could in one day.

I wrote to a friend who used to live in Bologna and asked him where I could find the best Bolognese sauce in the city. He sent me a long list (includingDrogheria della Rosa and Osteria dell’Orsa) with some addresses and links. The only thing standing between me and my pasta was the challenge of navigating a new city without getting terribly lost, or looking too out of place.

Here are two of my favorite tips for using a map to stay found:

1) Save your Map App.

More and more people are relying on digital maps. I am a big fan of Google Maps on my smart phone–especially when I am in a foreign city. Of course not all cities have good maps, so GPS and smart phones are not for everywhere. But where they work, they are awesome. The combination of overhead aerial photos (orthophotos) and street names and business listings can help you to place yourself and make sure you are on the right path.

But there is a catch. Maps, especially when you use the satellite images and GPS, can eat through your data and battery. When you are travelling, battery power is valuable and data is expensive.

So my trick is to save my maps. Lots of big tourist cities have map apps. Android has a handy trick where you can download and save portions of google maps for offline–look for it in the settings. And the most versatile–take a screenshot. Or a few. Then the map is in your photo gallery without wifi, expensive data, or a frequent search.

2) The Folds are Made to be Broken

Even with my smartphone, I still love my large paper map. As long as you overlook the advertisements, these free folding maps are a good deal. Alternatively lots of guidebooks still include a full fold out map.

The problem with these maps is that when you open them up in the middle of the day you look a little bit more like Lewis and Clark, then the savvy international traveler you want to be. Locals usually just want you out of the way, and you just want to know where on the map you were looking earlier.

Instead, I only open the map fully when in my hotel or when I’m sitting somewhere–but then before I embark, I always fold it specifically to show the next part of my journey. The refolded map is now centered on just what I want to see in the size of one sheet of paper–despite the original crisp fold lines the advertisers agreed on. If I want a souvenir map I’ll take another before I leave.

In the next Travel Tips Tuesday, we’ll talk you through some other tips for navigating new places and avoiding getting lost–when the map doesn’t cut it. For now, what are your tips for using maps?