A GPS can be damn handy when driving in your own country, but just how well will it cope with driving through multiple countries with different road rules? Road Worrier finds out on a trip across Europe.
Regular readers of Road Worrier will have noticed that while I've got plenty to say about planes, trains and even boats, the automobiles part of the equation often gets neglected. There's a simple reason for that: I've never properly learned to drive or got a licence, so I'm not usually in much of a position to offer practical advice.
Recently, though, I spent a few weeks in Europe on holiday with friends who are enthusiastic and fully-licensed drivers, and a fair bit of driving was on the agenda. That seemed like a good opportunity to see how well a GPS copes when you shift into countries with unfamiliar road rules and completely unfamiliar roads. The kind folks at TomTom loaned me a GO 950 for the journey. This isn't the cheapest GPS on the market (the RRP is $649), but it comes with maps for the whole of Europe pre-loaded, which makes the whole experience a lot simpler than purchasing maps for a specific location.
In the course of the trip, we used the GO 950 in the UK, France, Switzerland and Italy. It handled all those countries easily, managing cross-border trips without skipping a beat and making good use of traffic information in London to pick the quickest route. It was also a handy double-check for what the local speed limits were.
In all that time, it only once came up with totally inaccurate information, inventing a non-existent roundabout in France which took it a while to recover from. A small amount of central London also proved tricky to navigate as the tall buildings effectively blocked signal, but other than that there were no real dramas. No GPS system is perfect, so two errors in a dozen or so days of driving is a pretty good outcome.
The suction mount was particularly effective, installing (and uninstalling) in three separate hire cars without incident. It's certainly worth switching the units of measurement on your device to match local signage (most of Europe works in kilometres, but the UK remains stubbornly committed to imperial measurements). That doesn't always work completely depending on what voice options you've got selected: our chosen voice (Homer Simpson) always spoke in metres no matter what option we'd set, but that was only a minor flaw, and more than made up for by his occasional utterances of "Mmmm, steering manoeuvre".
The other setting worth digging out in any GPS (if it's offered) is the one to remind you if you're drifting to the wrong side of the road, given that Australia's left-hand-side rule doesn't apply anywhere other than the UK and various former colonies. On freeways, that's rarely an issue, but when turning the corner in minor French villages, it seems all too easy to drift back to the left, even in a right-hand-drive car.
So should you take your own GPS on the road? If you're hiring a vehicle anyway, then it could be just as easy to hire a GPS with the vehicle at the same time. With that said, if you're regularly using one at home, then the familiarity of the interface could easily make it worth travelling with your own. (One caveat: smart phone options might seem tempting, but the data charges when roaming could be a real killer.) I certainly wouldn't recommend traversing an unfamiliar country by road without a GPS after this trip.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman promises he will not be making the roads less safe by actually learning to drive. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.