I love maps and can spend hours dreaming about places to go next or thinking about where I’ve been. I also love GPS technology, and have had a handheld GPS in one form or another since the early days of the Garmin eTrex (circa 2000). It still amazes me that I can carry around a device that can show me exactly where I’m at on a map.
It probably comes as no surprise then that I’m a big fan of real-time flight maps while in the air. When I’m flying over parts of the world that I’m familiar with, I like to see if I can identify the features below, like cities, rivers, or mountains, especially ones that I’ve climbed. And when I’m in an unfamiliar part of the world, it’s nice to get a general idea about I’m looking at.
In fact, I’m so fascinated by maps and navigation that when I have an empty seat between my son and I — as I frequently do on international flights — I usually set the TV at the empty seat to the map channel so I can glance over at it while watching a movie on my screen.
But of course, not all planes have flight maps as part of their inflight entertainment system. For those cases, you need to bring your own.
Google Maps Probably Won’t Work
You might think that you could just use the mapping app on your smartphone while you’re flying to figure out where you are. The problem is that Google maps stores data in the cloud. It only downloads the relevant sections of the map that you need, when you need it. It’s essentially “just in time mapping.” That means that if you don’t have an internet connection, you’re pretty much hosed.
A friend of mine learned this the hard way when his party was using an iPhone to navigate while on a snowmobiling trip in remote Wyoming– they ended up outside the range of the nearest cell tower, got lost, and spent a cold night in the snow before luckily being rescued the next day.
If you don’t have an internet connection, this is pretty much what you get from Google Maps.
Gee thanks Google, that’s really helpful.
Maps.Me (MapsWithMe) Stores Maps Locally
The solution to this problem is use an app that downloads and stores the mapping data locally so that you can access it even when you don’t have a data connection. There are a variety of apps that will do this (and you might even be able to configure Google maps to operate this way), but I’ve been using Maps.Me for a couple of years with good results.
After installing the Maps.Me app, you download the maps for the parts of the world that you care about. You can do this at home, in the airport, or in the hotel, but the key is that you need to do it before you’re without a data connection. Then when you no longer have data available — or are too cheap to pay for it — you still have access to the maps.
In theory, you can just download the maps as you need them, even over a cellular data connection. But since you’re probably using Maps.Me because you’re somewhere that none of your other cloud-based mapping apps are working, you really need to think about what you’ll need before you need it. Otherwise you’ll end up with just the basemap that comes as part of the standard Maps.Me installation. It’s better than nothing, but trust me, you’ll be mad at yourself for not planning ahead.
It’s also worth noting that when you download a map you have a choice between getting just the map or the map and the routing capability. The trade-off is in the size of the file that you need to download and then store on your phone — the routing capability takes up quite a bit of space. For in-air navigation, the routing capability is unnecessary.
My Experience Using Maps.Me
I’ve used Maps.Me not only in the air, but also in places like Burma where cellular data is hard to come by. (I still carry my Garmin Vista HCx handheld GPS with me to places like that, but it’s mostly just a backup.) For those without a good international data plan, using an app like Maps.Me can reduce your data usage since you can download the maps while you are on a Wi-Fi connection.
Most recently I used Maps.Me on my United Q400 flight in first class from Denver to Salt Lake City. We were flying over the Rocky Mountains where I have done extensive mountaineering and the views were spectacular. But the view from the ground isn’t quite the same as from the air, so I’m still not great at identifying peaks while flying over them. Knowing that I’m over Grand Junction and looking south can improve my guesses considerably.
This helped me to identify (what I think was) the Sneffles Range off in the distance. Mt. Sneffles is one of the Colorado 14,000 foot peaks and where I had my mountaineering accident last fall.
Of course, I don’t always practice what I preach, so shortly after I took that screen capture we crossed the Utah state line and I was left with this.
But like I say, even the basemap is still better than what you’ll get from Google maps. It was sufficient to know how much time was left in the flight. And besides, my battery was almost dead anyway.
Wait, Can I Even Use a GPS On A Plane?
I’m quite confident that if you ask a flight attendant this question, the answer will be no. Frankly, I have no idea what the harm in using one would be and I’m an electrical engineer. A GPS unit just receives and processes signals; it doesn’t actually transmit anything. Sure, they’ve got an oscillator in them for timing, but what doesn’t these days? Heck, your phone is probably running its GPS too — Facebook or some app always seems to want to know where I’m at. Then again, the terms of what you can and can’t do on an airplane aren’t always governed by logic, so if you use a GPS, I suggest not flaunting it.
One thing to keep in mind is that the hull of an aircraft essentially forms a Faraday cage. That means that the metal shell somewhat shields the interior from the RF signals emanating from the GPS satellites, the same signals that your GPS needs to figure out where you are. The net effect of this is that your GPS may have a hard time acquiring a lock, or there may be quite a bit of uncertainty in your position. I’ve found that holding the device up to the window helps, but regardless, we’re just trying to get the general location anyway so accuracy isn’t all that important.
How Much Does Maps.Me Cost?
Apparently Maps.Me is now open source software meaning that you can download it for free. That’s really cool, though I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that I invested $5 in a Pro version a couple of years ago. (Just kidding, I’m truly thrilled to see that it’s free for everyone. I just hope they can maintain the product going forward.)
It seems to be available for just about every platform, though of course I’ve only used it on the iPhone.
If you like to know where you’re at, where you’re headed, or where you’ve been, the flight map that’s part of the seatback IFE is awesome. But if you’re flying on a plane without such an AVOD system, you need to bring your own.
Maps.Me is an excellent offline mapping app that will show your position on a map even in the absence of a data connection. This can also be useful when you’re traveling abroad and don’t have an international dataplan. Given the app is now free, it’s certainly worth trying out.
What offline mapping app do you use? Have you ever been told not to use your GPS on a plane?