Real-World Observations about Mapping Apps

posted in: September 2019 | 0
Swiss train

Photo by Adam Engst

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Real-World Observations about Mapping Apps

Last month, Tonya and I spent two weeks in Switzerland, where the public transit system is, at least to us Americans, utterly amazing. It seems that it’s possible to go just about anywhere in the country via transit, and let me tell you, the buses, trams, and trains really do run with the punctuality for which the Swiss—a nation of watchmakers—are known.

While we were there, the apps I used the most were Apple Maps and Google Maps. We had a Swiss Travel Pass that provided free passage on all but the mountain railways (where it gave us a discount), and nearly every day found us mapping routes to our next adventure or destination. I used both apps heavily, often simultaneously, and came up with some observations that you might find helpful on your next trip.

Mapping Apps Use Lots of Power

Unless your iPhone battery is in great shape, I strongly recommend having an external battery pack with you when traveling. Losing access to mapping apps because of a dead iPhone will be extremely stressful. My iPhone X still has a Battery Health Maximum Capacity of 94%, and only once or twice was I in danger of running out of battery before we stopped for the day. However, I always put it in Low Power Mode in the morning to reduce power usage. Embarrassingly, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I could have added a Low Power Mode button to Control Center to avoid the trip to Settings > Battery every day.

As I noted in “Orange Holiday Europe: A Cheap 4G SIM for Your European Vacation” (22 July 2019), Tonya’s iPhone 6s had more problems. It suffered from a Battery Health Maximum Capacity of only 88% despite her replacement battery being newer than my iPhone X, so she always carried an external battery and still restricted her usage to essentials. As a result, I did almost all the mapping, since those apps drained her battery all the more quickly.

Apple Maps Better for Walking

Apart from one day when we borrowed a tremendously cute Smart Fortwo from a friend, we walked or took transit everywhere. Or, more accurately, we walked and took transit everywhere, since getting to and from stations always required some walking, and we were also exploring Lausanne, Lucerne, and Geneva on foot. Since I was using both Apple Maps and Google Maps, I’d try walking directions in one, then the other, or sometimes both at the same time.

Apple Maps did a better job with walking directions than Google Maps due to its special place within the Apple ecosystem. It sent turn-by-turn directions, complete with custom haptics, to my Apple Watch, and it took over the Lock screen, so I could quickly glance at the screen to see how we were doing. In contrast, Google Maps was limited to notifications. And although I can’t quite find the words, I found Apple Maps walking directions more reassuring and solid, making it more comfortable to use in the moment.

Screenshots of walking directions
Walking direction screens. Left: Apple Maps. Right: Google Maps.

Apple Maps Lock Screen Prevents Camera Use

Apple Maps taking over the Lock screen could be helpful, but it also proved annoying. We were in tourist mode, so I often wanted to whip out my iPhone, tap the camera button on the Lock screen, and take a quick snapshot. When Apple Maps was on the Lock screen, it removed the camera button, forcing me to unlock the iPhone and open the Camera app manually. While walking, paying attention to the map, and talking with Tonya, losing access to the Lock screen camera shortcut made for some awkward interactions.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but I could have added the Camera to Control Center (Settings > Control Center > Customize Controls) and accessed it more quickly by swiping down from the upper-right corner of my iPhone X, even when on the Maps-occupied Lock screen. I’d recommend setting that up in advance if you plan to use Apple Maps for walking directions when you also want to be able to take a photo quickly.

Screenshots of Control Center
Left: Tap the green + button for an item in the More Controls list to add it to the Include list above, as I’ve already done with Camera. Right: Bring up Control Center and tap the Camera button to switch to the camera from the Lock screen.

Both Apps Show the Direction You’re Pointing

Over the years, my main problem with walking directions, regardless of app, has been figuring out the direction in which to start. Both Apple and Google have improved their apps in this regard. In the past, I’d often find myself walking half a block before it was clear that I had guessed wrong about which direction to go initially. The icon that indicates your position now gives an indication of which way you’re pointing, so you can usually just turn around slowly to figure out which way to go.

Directional icons in Apple Maps and Google Maps
Directional icons. Left: Apple Maps. Right: Google Maps.

The only problem with this is that the icons can be fairly small, and if your close-up vision isn’t great and you’re in bright sunshine, it can be challenging to read the screen well enough to determine direction. Even with the directional icon, I always checked that we were going the right way and several times had to admit that I’d sent us in the wrong direction. Which, as a guy equipped with high-tech mapping gear, was tough.

Large Stations Can Still Be Confusing

When you take the train into Geneva, you arrive at Gare Cornavin, a massive transit hub for both trains and local trams and buses. The problem, and neither app did a good job of helping us, is that there are at least two rather widely separated spots to catch buses or trams. Both apps could tell us which number bus or tram to use, but neither was able to tell us where to find it. Worse, because there were multiple routes that would work and time kept passing, as we tried to figure out what to do, the possibilities—and where to get the recommended bus—kept changing. Since we had arrived late at night and were exhausted, it was all the more stressful.

I have no helpful suggestions about how to resolve this problem. The simple fact is that sometimes, even with these advanced mapping apps, you need some local knowledge to be able to navigate a transit system effectively.

Walking Directions While in a Transit Route Suck

As I noted, setting up a route via transit almost always requires walking to get to the station. The problem is that neither app does a good job of providing those necessary walking directions. Both show you a map with lines that indicates where to go, but neither gives you turn-by-turn directions while you’re walking, forcing you to watch your iPhone and look for turns manually the entire time. I could have sworn they didn’t show the directional icons either, but perhaps that was merely me not being able to see the screen well while walking in bright sun. Regardless, why can’t these apps provide the same interface for walking directions while in a transit route?

Screenshots of walking directions while in transit routing
Walking directions while in a transit route were less than ideal, and often disagreed. Left: Apple Maps. Right: Google Maps.

I sometimes ended up setting up our transit route in Google Maps before switching out to Apple Maps for separate walking directions to the first station. That was more effective, but particularly in downtown Geneva, Apple and Google often disagreed not just about the best way to get somewhere, but how it could be done at all, forcing us to pick one and stick to it. I suspect either would have worked, but much like when you were a kid and depending on your parents to navigate, it was disconcerting to have them argue.

Bus Routes Aren’t Always as the App Suggests

On our first night in Geneva, after we finally guessed at which bus to take from Gare Cornavin to the Airbnb where we were staying, I was somewhat concerned to see our moving location in Google Maps deviate from the predicted blue line. Luckily, we were still going in the right direction, so we stuck with it, and the bus did eventually rejoin the predicted route and stop where we needed. But because you sometimes have to make quick decisions about whether to stay on a bus or get off because it’s going the wrong way, that deviation made for a fraught few minutes.

Bus Stop Names Don’t Always Match Up

Also trying were the times when the names of bus stops didn’t match with what the mapping apps advertised. The discrepancies weren’t huge, but when you’re already somewhat at sea due to not speaking the language of the area, it can induce uncertainty.

For instance, at one point, both Apple Maps and Google Maps told us to get off at “Cointrin, De-Joinville,” with the previous stops being “Vernier, Balexert-Pailly” and “Vernier, Floralies,” but the screen in the bus that advertised upcoming stops read merely “Balexert-Pailly,” “Floralies,” and “De-Joinville.” It’s easy to see that the first word is being dropped when you have time to reflect, but when you’re hot and tired at the end of a long day and you’re squished into a standing-room-only bus with your backpack, the fact that the names start with different words can be tough to parse. In short, be aware that the mapping apps may use slightly different names.

Photo of a bus stop screen
The buses always advertised their stops, but it was disconcerting when they didn’t match up with what the mapping apps claimed. Yes, I could have cropped to show just the screen, but where’s the fun in that?

It’s Hard to Preview New Routes While on Transit

One of the reasons to have at least two mapping apps available at all times is that when you’re on a train in the middle of a transit route, it’s tricky to stop and restart the route, as you might want to do if you want to preview a different possibility or need to switch to a slightly different eventual destination.

That’s because the apps have no way of knowing that you’re already on a train, so they’ll try to direct you to the closest station, which may be behind you or require taking an entirely different transit option if you were on foot at your current location.

I learned quickly that it was best to let Google Maps keep routing us while I switched out to Apple Maps to check out a different route possibility or to ponder what would be involved with the next day’s travel.

Beware the Last Bus of the Day

One day we traveled from Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps to Geneva, which involved five trains, two buses, a funicular, a cable car, and a tram, along with bumming a car ride. That was because we went to Moléson for via ferrata and hiking—separately, since Tonya wouldn’t be caught dead clambering up a mountain face that looked like this.

Photo of via ferrata hardware in Moléson
It’s not recommended for those with a fear of heights and is undoubtedly considered wimping out by real climbers, but I found via ferrata to be big fun. And yes, I kept myself clipped in to the steel cable the entire time.

Once we had reconvened at the stunningly scenic restaurant halfway up the mountain (you took the funicular to the restaurant level and then the cable car to the top, or in our case, back down from the top, since I went straight up and Tonya hiked around and up to the peak), I mapped out the rest of the trip to Geneva and was shocked to see that it was predicted to take 18 hours, rather than the 3 hours I had expected.

Photo of Moléson
Moléson. Just another gorgeous bit of Swiss mountain scenery that was quite relaxing until we started planning the next leg of the trip.

The problem was that the last bus for the day between Moléson and Gruyere—yes, where they make the cheese—had run for the day at 6:37 PM, and it was just after 7 PM. Both mapping apps therefore thought we should wait until 7 AM the next morning. Luckily, a Swiss family that had also been climbing kindly agreed to give us a ride into Gruyere, saving us a forced 4-kilometer march with full backpacks in an attempt to make the last train out of Gruyere.

Missing this bus took us by surprise because we had become accustomed to being able to go anywhere on the Swiss transit system, at any time. But of course, not all routes run at night. To co-opt a phrase, caveat viator! And read my next after-the-fact observation below.

Remember That You Can Set the Route Start Time

Most of the time when you’re using a mapping app, you want to go from your current location to some destination, leaving shortly. You probably know that you can also get directions between two arbitrary places, but you may not have realized that you can also change the leaving time when getting transit directions. That’s important if you need to sync up your day’s activities with transit schedules.

In Apple Maps, once you set up your route, but before you tap Go, tap the Leaving Soon link in the From line, and set the desired date and time.

Screenshots of setting leaving time in Apple Maps
Setting a different leaving time in Apple Maps.

Similarly, In Google Maps, after you set your start and destination spots, but before you pick one of the suggested routes, tap the Depart At menu and set a different date and time. When I did this, I discovered that Google Maps offers a Last option for any given day, which would have been nice to know that day we were on Moléson!

Screenshots of setting leaving time in Google Maps
Setting a different leaving time in Google Maps. Note the option to find the last run of the day.

What If There’s No Connectivity?

Neither Apple Maps nor Google Maps ever complained about not being able to download necessary map data while we were in Switzerland. However, our iPhones sometimes showed only the EDGE status icon instead of 3G, 4G, or LTE, and we occasionally noticed the dreaded No Service status as well. Offline maps could have been helpful in such a situation. The other utility of offline maps is that you could put your iPhone in airplane mode to save battery power or to avoid data charges while still being able to navigate. (Your iPhone’s GPS remains active in airplane mode as long as you’re running iOS 8.2 or later.)

In conversations with friends after we got back, one person pointed out that we could have gotten Google Maps to download offline maps for the areas we were in. Just tap the hamburger menu in the upper-left corner, tap Offline Maps, tap Custom Map, pinch to fit the desired map area into the screen, and tap Download.

Screenshots of offline map use in Google Maps
Beware that an entire country’s worth of maps could consume significant space on your iPhone.

Another friend recommended a different app—Maps.me, which offers free, offline maps with turn-by-turn directions. It looks like a competent mapping app on the iPhone, although you must still download maps for the desired location while you do have connectivity. Note that Maps.me supports transit routes in only a limited number of cities. Oddly, that list includes Lausanne, but no other cities in Switzerland.

Screenshot of offline map use in Maps.me
Once you download maps for the desired region, you can use Maps.me entirely offline.

Apple Maps has no user-controllable provisions for offline usage, but it supposedly caches everything along a route once you tap Go. Plus, if you load an area and zoom in everywhere you might want to go in that area, Apple Maps may cache that data for offline viewing as well. Frankly, I think you’d be insane to gamble on an automatic caching algorithm providing reliable offline navigation. This limitation of Apple Maps is just another reason why you should always have multiple mapping apps available. If you have other recommendations, leave a comment!

A Low-Tech Finale

One final note that’s specific to Switzerland. The most disconcerting thing about the Swiss transit system for us was how we paid for passage. We had each bought a Swiss Travel Pass, which cost about $550 per person, but that meant that we paid only a small, discounted amount for the mountain train that took us up the Eiger to start our 12-mile hike on the Eiger Trail and the funicular/cable car combination up Moléson. Every other trip was free, as was entrance to nearly all museums in the country, so it turned out to be well worth the price.

But the Swiss Travel Pass was literally a piece of paper, and it turned out that you used by writing the month and day into a pair of boxes before you rode each day, since it was good for only 15 days of travel within a 30-day timeframe. We didn’t realize this because that detail was buried in the middle of a page of 6-point text in multiple languages. On the first bus we took, we continued to be confused about how to use our passes and the driver, who didn’t speak English, just grunted at us when we asked. It turns out that the buses are largely an honor system, with no pass checking that we saw.

Photo of a Swiss Travel Pass
Imagine—a paper ticket!

However, two days later, when we took our first train, the conductor took pity on us for not having written the date on each pass before getting on the train and let us off with what I expect is the standard clueless tourist warning. It seemed like an oddly backward system for a country that prides itself on efficiency, and it left us longing for London’s tap-in, tap-out approach that works with Apple Pay and other NFC-enabled payment platforms. I have to think that the Swiss would love having everything encapsulated within an app that would engender additional appreciation of the precision and punctuality of their transit system.