When it comes to travel, map apps are an indispensable part of our toolkit that sits loaded on our smartphone. We use it to find read reviews of nearby restaurants, find pins on a pre-planned route, browse custom maps, and maybe even the best closest emergency bathroom. It's one of the single reasons I don't get as lost as I do before (I still do) and why I think we're all more comfortable with travelling off the cuff.
The thing is, as much as Google Maps has become synonymous with mapping, it isn't the only game in town. I hope I'm not the only one but offline functionality is incredibly important to me. That may be because I'm sometimes too cheap to pay for roaming or maybe I'm in a blackout area but I've learned that I should always be “offline ready”. I'm here to share with you an alternative to Google Maps that offers the best offline maps app solution – Maps.me and from there, I'll also show you how I migrate maps that I plan with Google's My Maps and import them via KML files.
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Table of Contents
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Here's what we're covering:
- Table of Contents
- Best Offline Maps App for Travellers
- How to migrate your Google My Maps to Maps.me
- Best offline maps app solution that isn't Google Maps?
Best Offline Maps App for Travellers
As much as I love love LOVE Google Maps, there are things to be desired and for me that really comes down to offline capabilities. Tell me if you can relate.
Why offline Google Maps kind of suck
For years, the offline feature was a bit of a secret. You had to use “Ok Maps” in the search bar and based on what you have in the app's field of view, it'll save that offline. Today, they've made it a bit more obvious with the “Offline” part of the menu where you can see all of your saved maps but it largely works the same and you can still “Ok Maps” as you please.
So here's why it's a bit of a letdown. I loved being able to pin places or more specifically, add “Save” places in Google Maps as either “Favorites”, “Starred places”, “Want to go”, or even your own custom list. It's super convenient because I can plan on the computer and it'll show up on my phone or vice versa.
When I'm at home, it's great but when I don't have data, you pull up the app and while you can see the topography of the map, those pins disappear.
Those pins disappear
Over the years, I've learned to hack it by making sure I pull up my map while I have wifi/data and just keep Google Maps open the whole time so it doesn't have to reload.
Even then, need to find a point of interest on the fly without data or want to zoom in the map to see detailed places, forget about it!
I could've probably created this guide by listing out ALL of the other possible mapping apps that are out there but I wanted to keep it simple and just focus on the flat out best one that travellers use.
Maps.me started off a a small startup based in Zurich and won a startup competition in 2012 to propel them forward. Fast-forward to today and they've since then been acquired by a Russian internet company and continues to use OpenStreetMap as its foundation for their maps.
The key behind their success is that they continue to use OpenStreetMap as its foundation for their maps. This is open-source software that is made free for the public to use. So instead of propriety tech by giants like Google, most of what you see through OpenStreetMap is created through entries by enthusiasts, professionals, engineers, and anyone else passionate about building better maps. To give you an idea of how involved the community is, 9 months after Maps.me allowed app users to make changes, over 1 million edits were recorded.
Why Maps.me is awesome for travel
What it comes down to is really offline usage. All of those problems offline with Google are essentially solved with Maps.me.
- You can actually search offline – you can search by name, address, categories, or coordinates.
- Goes beyond just travel in the city – for those that hike or spend time in the wilderness, Maps.me has a ton of detail including trail names.
- Metro overlay is available – If you don't have a transit map in a separate app, you can use this to help figure out how to get around in a city.
- Travel guides – You can download user generated guides that are self-guided walking tours.
- Bookmarks – Similar to those custom pins on Google Maps, you can also create your own pins in Maps.me and they do show up when you use the app offline.
- Turn-by-turn navigation available – now I normally wouldn't use this feature it's just not going to be as good as Google Maps, it's there in a pinch when offline.
- Bonus features – You can search hotels with their partnership with Booking.com and even book an Uber. You can also share your location with friends.
- Local guides feature – I've never used this but the app has a “Discover” feature and they'll show you locals that run their own tours that you can book.
- Ability to import KML files – We'll get into this soon but it's a super handy feature for those that plan trips with Google My Maps or if you're a serious hiker and want to pull in something like the entire Milford Track trail in New Zealand.
What could be improved with Maps.me
As with all apps, there are things that I'm not completely in love with when it comes to Maps.me. Here's what annoy me about Maps.me
- Not super slick – If you're used to Google Maps, Maps.me just won't look or feel very polished. Polished might not be the right word but it's just not as good of a user interface and the maps can often feel a little overcrowded.
- Takes getting used to – Part of this is that you get used to using Google Maps and when you go to Maps.me, the interface is jarringly different. You have to figure out what these new icons mean and how to use the menu.
- Ads – It's a free app and so they've had to add banner ads in a number of places which can get quite annoying because of the limited screen space on your phone.
How I use Maps.me
I pretty much use Maps.me exclusively for its offline functionality. It's my lifeline when I'm on the road and as someone that's an OCD planner like myself, I like to be ready.
If you've read the art of trip planning, you'll know that maps are a big part of the process. I plan out my itinerary on with my Google spreadsheet template and then I plot all of the places onto a map.
This map usually ends up being on Google's My Maps tool. Now this is honestly just part of the Google Maps product but they had to have another name for it. I create a custom map and it was a great idea because I learned that I could pull up custom maps from Google Maps on my phone ( Menu > Your Places > Maps tab) and it'd have all of my planning details in there.
Great idea until you don't have data and then it completely fails.
That's when I started using Maps.me and added another step (annoying I know) where I simply export my map into something called a KML file and import it into Maps.me as a bookmark list and voila it's all in there.
Now when I travel, I know I can reliably pull up Maps.me with the local maps downloaded offline and pins loaded to figure out where I need to go and how I can get to the next spot.
How to migrate your Google My Maps to Maps.me
Alright so I'm going to go through a very specific scenario of mine to provide you step-by-step instructions for how you can import your custom Google Map pins into Maps.me.
Step 1: You need a custom Google Map
This is the obvious step but I want to make sure I'm clear that this really only works if you used the My Maps tool with Google to create your own custom maps.
I created one for my latest Tokyo trip focused on ramen.
Step 2: Export the Google Map
The option to export is pretty easy but you'll need to make sure you have the checkbox selected to save it as a KML file which Maps.me can read. This KML file won't include any map information but will contain all of those pins you've created and notes if any.
There'll also be a dropdown that will allow you to choose what layers of the map you want exported but most likely you'll want all of it to be exported.
You need to do this on a desktop/laptop computer.
Step 3: Email the file to yourself
I'm sure there are a number of different ways you can do this but this is the simplest. Drop the file you just saved from Google into an e-mail and send it to yourself.
Step 4: Open the file with Maps.me
With your favourite e-mail app, open the e-mail you just sent to yourself and tap on the attachment to open it. It might open up a page of gibberish code. From here, tap the share icon and go to the option which says “Copy to maps.me” in iOS. Android should be similar.
Step 5: Automatically imported to bookmark list
Open up Maps.me and you'll see the pins you imported in the Bookmark part of the app. They'll be organized together in a folder.
Step 6: Edit the bookmarks if needed
At this point, all the pins have been imported into Maps.me from Google My Maps and you can manipulate it as you please. Note that the one thing that doesn't get translated over are the custom icons that Google Maps has and that's simply because Maps.me doesn't have any of those. All the pins are the same but you can change the colour afterwards if you want.
Best offline maps app solution that isn't Google Maps?
So that's my pitch for Maps.me and why I think it's a super handy tool to have for any traveller. I'd love to hear from your experiences though. Love it or hate it, what are your thoughts on Maps.me as a mapping tool, how do you use it, and how do you wish it could be improved?