Top 15 GPS Apps and Devices for Holiday Travel (and Beyond)

Even if you think you know where you’re going this holiday season, you might still want to fire up a GPS app or boot up that dedicated GPS devices. But which one will help you avoid traffic and lost time? We navigate 15 GPS apps and devices and arrive at the answer.

gps holiday travel title
Credit: Shutterstock
Why You Need a GPS App or Device

Even when I’m driving around San Francisco, where I live, I often use a GPS navigation app. It’s not because the city’s layout is so perplexing; it’s because the better apps help me avoid traffic. So even if you know where you’re going this holiday season, you might still want to fire up a GPS app. But which one? And what about dedicated GPS devices? With so many navigation apps, is there any reason to own one? Navigate your way through the following 15 GPS apps and devices for the answers. I’ve tested almost every app/device in this slideshow, which are arranged in no particular order (though my current favorite is first). All are free (or freemium) unless otherwise noted.

1. waze
Waze

Android, iOS, Windows Phone

No other GPS navigation app has aroused as much as devotion — and occasional anger — than the quirky Waze. The Google-owned app irked some LA citizens recently by turning their otherwise quiet side streets into busy thoroughfares. But that’s what makes Waze a better-than-average navigation app: It helps you find shortcuts to your destination that other GPS apps/devices might miss. Waze’s magic at least partially comes by crowdsourcing current traffic and road conditions and map edits from loyal “Wazers.” Despite too many distracting pop-up messages and an interface that’s a bit too cute, Waze is the most useful navigation app I’ve tested in a long time. It’s particularly helpful for highway driving, with accurate, helpful road condition alerts.

 

2. google maps android
Google Maps

Android, iOS

Few apps offer as many navigation modes as Google Maps, including pedestrian, transit, driving and biking, as well as satellite, terrain and Google Earth map modes. Traffic information factors into your routes and updates them if needed. The new Material Design aesthetic, introduced recently with Android Lollipop, gives the app a more updated look-and-feel, even on iOS device. The interface is simple and uncluttered, which makes it easy to get going quickly. I just wish Google Maps gave better directions. It almost always starts me out from my home going in the wrong direction; it once had me driving in circles in a Richmond, Va. suburb; and its walking directions can be worse than useless.

5. garmin viago
Garmin viago

Android, iOS

Garmin is probably the best-known name in GPS navigation, and the U.S. company not long ago released viago, a solid pay-as-you-go app. The basic app is $2, which includes turn-by-turn directions, lane assist (a visual guide to changing lanes), and current speed and speed limit. In-app purchases add more features, including live traffic and downloadable maps in North America ($10 each), 3D panoramic view ($10) and European downloadable maps ($20). In other words, viago is a build-your-own GPS app. Like nearly all GPS apps and devices, viago has given me some circuitous directions. But overall, it’s a reasonable choice for those who want to pick and choose their features. Garmin also makes a full-featured GPS app for iOS, which costs $50.

3. scout ios
Scout

Android, iOS, Windows

Scout from Telenav used to be my go-to GPS app. I love the capability to search for something while you’re navigating (and, I hope, not driving), such as the closest Starbucks on your route. The ETA feature sends your approximate arrival time to someone waiting at your destination, though several navigation apps offer this capability too. But recently, I deleted Scout, thanks to several knuckleheaded — no, make that dangerous —directions it gave me. Exhibit A: It told me to drive down an unpaved country road late one night, which was completely avoidable. Exhibit B: Scout instructed me to get into the far left turn lane on a busy six-lane street. When I did, Scout suddenly changed its mind, telling me to take a right instead.

6. apple maps
Apple Maps

iOS

Apple Maps has improved steadily since its pothole-filled 2012 debut on iOS, when Australian police warned using the app could kill you and Apple CEO Tim Cook felt compelled to issue an apology. Apple Map’s directions have noticeably improved (though are still far from perfect). Apple Maps also has some cool features, such as its 3D flyover view of cities (check out the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower in Satellite or Hybrid modes). Perhaps its biggest advantage is that Apple Maps are tightly integrated into iOS. Example: When searching for a place in mobile Safari, the results will likely include a link to its location in Apple Maps, making navigation nearly instant (if occasionally inaccurate).

7. citymapper ios
Citymapper

Android, iOS

Just to set expectations, the handy Citymapper app works in 13 cities, only five of which are in the U.S. (New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area). And it doesn’t provide voice-prompted, turn-by-turn directions, as other GPS navigation apps do. Instead, it shows your route on a map, which automatically updates as you go via GPS. The free app has its quirks, but during a recent London trip, it turned out to be the most reliable option I tried, in terms of accurate pedestrian directions. In addition to pedestrian mode, the app includes routing for public transit, cycling, and taxi rides. Unfortunately, there’s no option to download city maps to your device, which would be great for international travel.

8. magellan roadmate usa ios
Magellan RoadMate USA

iOS

Magellan’s RoadMate USA was once my favorite GPS navigation app. I liked the uncluttered interface, the app’s capability to quickly look up points of interest on Google and navigate to them, its often-sensible directions, and its above-average pedestrian mode directions. But from time to time, the app would have a “crisis of confidence,” changing its mind suddenly about the direction I’m supposed to take. I put it up with a few times, but when it encouraged me to immediately cross several lanes on a busy boulevard, I decided enough was enough. Plus, at $45, the app is expensive, doesn’t have any particularly wow-worthy features, and isn’t regularly refreshed or refined. As of this writing, its last update was in February 2014.

4. copilot
CoPilot Premium

Android, Amazon, iOS, Windows

CoPilot Premium ($10) is a lesser-known GPS navigation app, but it has some features worth knowing about. You can download maps to your mobile device and get real-time, turn-by-turn directions offline, which is helpful when traveling internationally or through rural areas with poor cell reception. The offline maps also work in pedestrian mode, and you get such other goodies as 3D maps, speed limit warnings, and the capability to choose between routes. CoPilot has occasionally given me head-scratching directions, there is a confusing array of app variations and I struggled to download the app recently in London. But give it a try, particularly if you’re going abroad. (Just downbload the app before you leave.)

10. nokia here
Nokia Here

Android (beta), Windows Phone

Nokia Here recently became available in the Google Play store as beta software; an iOS release is expected in “early 2015,” according to the company. It’s probably one of the most international GPS apps available, with maps and directions for more than 800 cities and 40 countries—more than any other mapping service, Nokia claims. You can download maps to your device for offline navigation; share your location with others via SMS or email and Glympse; and choose from lots of voices for navigation, including French Canadian, Bahasa Malaysia, and some I can’t pronounce. I like how the app clearly presents you with multiple routing options at the beginning, with estimated travel times based on current traffic conditions.

11. tomtom
TomTom USA

Android, iOS

Amsterdam-based TomTom offers multiple navigation apps, include USA apps for Android (for the curious sum of $37.01) and iOS ($25). Before spending that money, though, be aware you can download the Try TomTom GPS Navigation app for iOS for $1, which is good for 30 days. (Oddly, I didn’t find an Android equivalent.) Along with the usual navigation features, TomTom USA lets you download maps to your device; create multi-stop routes; and navigate via ‘eco’ routing, designed to get you from points A to B using as little gas/batter power as possible. I’ve not used TomTom USA much, mainly because with so many other options, I haven’t felt compelled by its fairly-standard-but-respectable feature set.

12. motion x gps
Motion X GPS Drive

iOS

In terms of features, Motion X GPS Drive ($1) seems to have just about everything. The app offers a community of users for crowdsourcing road hazards, accidents, weather conditions and more; virtual lane assistance for major junctions and intersections; multi-stop routing; offline maps; lots of voice choices; the capability to mark your parking spot on a map; iPad screen optimization (an iPad mini with cellular connectivity makes a great GPS device); pedestrian navigation; and a real-time compass. But keep in mind that you only get 30 days of turn-by-turn, voice-prompted guidance and traffic. Beyond that, the cost is $3 for 30 days or $10 per year. I’ve only started using this app, but App Store reviewers are generally positive.

14. magellan smartgps
Magellan SmartGPS 5390

Dedicated GPS Device

Magellan offers a less-expensive option to Garmin’s high-end nuvi, the SmartGPS 5390 (currently on sale for $207). The “smart” part comes from the dedicated GPS device’s integration with Magellan’s free Android and iOS apps, which lets you send destinations and contacts to the GPS device; see reviews of nearby points-of-interest from Foursquare and Yelp; receive traffic alerts; and more. In my tests, the integration between iOS app and GPS device was hit or miss. The SmartGPS’s Bluetooth calling feature, using my iPhone, worked well, but importing contacts didn’t. FYI: Garmin has its own app, Smartphone Link, which, in my tests, integrated easily with the nuvi 3597LMTHD. The Magellan GPS device screen isn’t as bright and crisp as the nuvi’s, either.

garmin nuvi 3597lmthd
Garmin nuvi 3597LMTHD

Dedicated GPS Device

Why spend $330 (list price) on the Garmin nuvi 3597LMTHD dedicated GPS device when there are so many free/low-cost mapping apps? For that matter, why buy an inexpensive GPS? My two cents: A dedicated GPS device is great to have on long drives in unknown areas because it keeps your smartphone available for voice calls (hands-free, preferably). Also, a dedicated GPS has maps and point-of-interest (POI) data already downloaded so it won’t eat into your smartphone’s data plan. This is Garmin’s top-of-the-line GPS, and it has some great features, such as a crisp, bright 5-inch touchscreen that works in portrait or landscape mode and supports pinch/zoom. Garmin navigation is pretty good, too. But at this price, the lack of pedestrian mode is a big drawback.

15. tomtom via
TomTom VIA 1605 TM

Dedicated GPS Device

TomTom’s VIA 1605 TM (list price: $230) has a big 6-inch touchscreen, unusual for a dedicated GPS system. And unlike the Garmin nuvi and Magellan SmartGPS, it offers a pedestrian mode. But at 8.4 ounces, it’s heavier (and bigger) than the Garmin and Magellan standalone GPS devices. And it lacks Bluetooth support for hands-free smartphone use. I’ve not tested TomTom’s VIA 1605 TM, but Consumer Reports gives it an overall score of 68, which is pretty good but below its scores for the nuvi (84) and Magellan (73). You can find TomTom’s GPS for about $173 on Amazon.

9. mapquest
MapQuest

Android, Amazon, iOS, Windows 8

As online navigation goes, MapQuest has been around longer than most (since 1996). I used it often for years, but my affections cooled as GPS devices came down in price and apps proliferated. Still, MapQuest’s mobile apps have their fans. Among their best features is the capability to create multi-stop routes —which, surprisingly, a lot of GPS apps and devices either don’t allow or make difficult. You can also click on gas stations nearby to compare prices and book hotel rooms. I like MapQuest, but it’s guilty of taking me down some circuitous paths. And it lacks some features that I appreciate, such as the capability to download maps for offline use. MapQuest will cache maps for routes created on iPhones while on Wi-Fi, however.