How To Travel Without GPS

For college students like us, GPS is often the only hope we have to stay on track. It gets us from point A to B, whether it be from an unfamiliar Metro station to Piccadilly Circle, or from a friends house to Denny's for an after-hour pancake run. Thanks to the smartphone, we were born into a generation that has outgrown the need for MapQuest and travel booklets. In just a few seconds our route can be planned, optimized, and read to us, all from the palms of our hands. We're lucky enough to have never needed highlighters, compasses, or, well... critical thinking. 

And that's the problem! Technology is so incredibly helpful, but not always the most reliable. When your out of the Country, most phone carriers don't offer expense-free roaming, so you my get stuck without GPS or service. And when you're lost in a foreign country, holding your phone up to the sky as if that still helps you find reception, it can be kind of scary. 

So what do you do when you're outside of your comfort one, nowhere near WiFi, and awkwardly trying to pinpoint North based on the angle of the sun? For starters, you can...

 

Utilize WiFi Before You Venture Out

Most hostels, hotels, and AirBNBs offer complimentary WiFi, so be sure to use it for more than watching The Office for the third time on Netflix! Before you leave for the day, figure out where you’re going, and exactly how you’re going to get there. Google Maps lets you save directions offline, so try to save the walking and public transport directions from notable landmarks to where you’re staying. That way, if you get lost when you don't have access to GPS you can simply ask a local for directions to the nearest landmark, then use the offline maps to maneuver yourself home from there. 

This was by far the most helpful thing Elise and I did on our most recent trip to Vancouver, Canada. We knew we wanted to see the Capilano Suspension Bridge, so we looked up the directions to get there and get home, and as a backup (for when we inevitably forgot everything we tried to memorize), we saved the directions in our offline maps. It may have taken a little bit of guesstimation when it came to the bus schedule, but we made it with plenty of time to spare.

Free WiFi Is Worth Its Weight In Gold

If you're an off-the-grid camper, or your destination doesn't offer WiFi, don’t panic! Nearly all restaurants, bars, and coffee shops offer free WiFi nowadays. Be sure to utilize these hotspots to the best of your ability. Like I mentioned before, when you find these hotspots make sure to save all the information you can to your phone: landmarks, phone numbers, bus schedules, Metro maps, all of that good stuff.

If you're in an area that doesn't offer WiFi at all, maybe ask the locals if there are any reputable internet cafe's in the area. It all depends on your destination. If you're heading into the Arctic circle, I would definitely bring a compass, paper map, and consider WiFi as a rare or lucky find. But, if you're headed from the U.S. to Canada like Elise and I were, and are too cheap to upgrade your cell plan, finding WiFi was still plausable and so, so helpful.

 

Ask Around

This may seem obvious to some, but if you’re lost and need a little help finding your way around, just ask someone! No matter where you are, there are likely hundreds of helpful and friendly faces who would be more than happy to help a misguided tourist. Remember that people have been traveling long before the invention of portable electronics, and they made their way just fine.

As previously mentioned in Elise’s article “Happy Holidays From Cambridgeshire, England,” we once stood outside in the midst of a freezing English winter, just a short walk from a grocery store for nearly an hour waiting for a bus that wasn’t coming. If we had simply gone inside and asked someone for help, we could have skipped the frostbite and called a taxi. Instead, we nervously kept to ourselves and looked like a couple of buffoons waiting in the rain all night for a cancelled bus line. But hey, that’s what travel is all about, right?

 

Learn To Use Actual Maps

I know, I know, how awful. Paper maps can be such a hassle, but when you're a traveler they can be a real life saver. Sometimes, you don't even have access to WiFi to begin with. Other times, you thought you would have access to the internet but it just isn't coming through. You should never put yourself in a situation like this without being at least somewhat prepared. Even if you don't intend to use it, you can purchase or print out and store a map somewhere in your bag or purse. AAA has some very detailed maps of different popular tourist destinations, but you can find most any map with a simple google search. Make sure you're familiar with the layout of a map and know how to read it properly, and when you make it to a destination, mark it! 

Weening yourself off GPS for awhile in advance is helpful too. Just be cognizant of where you are (which should always be a rule of thumb when traveling), and make sure you have an updated version of your map.

Just be safe and prepared, that's really the only advice that matters. 

 

Pay For The Luxury

As two stingy college students, this one isn't really an option for us. That's why we decided to write this article! We made navigation work on our budget by thinking outside the box, but if it's available to you, purchasing an extended cell plan may be a good idea. You’ll have to check in with your specific cell carrier, but each one offers different types of international plans at varying levels of affordability. On top of that, most international airports have vending machines containing SIM cards that you can pop into your phone and use while you’re there. Just be sure to call your service provider and ask them to unlock your phone or else it may not always work!


While I personally don't believe you need GPS to get around, I definitely miss the luxury from time to time while out of the country. That being said, travel is about enjoying your surroundings, being thrust into new and exciting places, and most of all, changing it up. Will you really be getting the most out of your experience if you’re buried in your phone the whole time? I’ll leave that up to you.