How to navigate abroad for free while avoiding the hassle of unpractical paper maps and expensive roaming charges

While preparing our trip to Japan, we were a little bit concerned about how to find our way once there: different alphabet, hardly any knowledge of the language, very expensive roaming charges, different modes of transportation (driving, riding the train, walking and biking in cities, hiking…). We started looking for road maps to find out that past the Tokyo area, they are quite hard to buy in Europe, and the question would remain whether to get them in Japanese or English. Plus, given the amounts of maps we would have needed, it would have taken too much room in our backpacks.

Luckily enough, one day, I found out a fantastic free smartphone application that solved all of these issues:

Basically, this app allows us to download maps of any region of the world, which are fully available offline: geolocates us and shows the local map in all its details (points of interest, gas stations, post offices, even hiking trails…) with the ability to easily zoom in and out.

  1. In our specific case, I started by downloading the free “” app on my iPhone (also Android and BlackBerry compatible, even though we haven’t tested these versions).
  2. I started the app and simply went to the “download maps” section to get the relevant regions for our trip (about 5 maps to cover Japan from South to North). I could already see all the details of these areas.
  3. Because everything goes smoother if it is planned for in Japan, we had prepared our trip using GoogleMaps. In one shot, I exported all of our points of interest (locations of accommodation with the relevant notes, such as booking numbers, or train stations with schedules of the trains we wanted to catch…) and loaded them into the app. Magically, all of our pins with the relevant notes appeared in

Now that we are on the road, we can even navigate our way around using our phones in airplane mode.
It sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?


Indeed, there are a couple of things to bear in mind, so here is the list of pros and cons:

  • Make sure you download the maps you need using a wireless connection before you hit the road.
  • You can add favorite points in the app on the fly.
  • also guides you (but it doesn’t talk). We have been using it as a pilot and copilot team, finding our own routes and deciding when to make the turns (avoiding very expensive Japanese toll roads). Just perfect.
  • If you are used to road maps, is easier as you are geo-localized and zooming in or out, the scale smoothly adapts to your need (we use it to drive cross-country and also to find our way walking in cities and searching for geocaches).
  • As with any app, once your cell phone battery is dead; you’re on your own! However, we have observed that is more battery-friendly than our default iPhone GPS app. And just to be on the safe side, we bought a device to charge our cell phones in the car.
  • is based on data from OpenStreetMaps.

Knock on wood, but we have driven quite a bit already and have made 0 U-turns (…so far!) even finding some remote spots on country roads or navigating our way in and out several-million-inhabitant cities. has been our best companion so far in Japan!

Marcella & Claire

PS: we have been back from Japan and looking back, we made only 2 U-turns in 6000km, including 3000km driving! Indeed, was our best companion in Japan!

12 thoughts on “How to navigate abroad for free while avoiding the hassle of unpractical paper maps and expensive roaming charges

    • It is super easy NH:
      1. Log into your Googlemap you want to transfer.
      2. Export the map as a .kmz file (upper left corner, in the options on the map).
      3. We use on our phones, so email this .kmz file to yourself.
      4. On your phone (this is the procedure on iPhone), go to that email, and click for a while on the .kmz file: it will give you several options, including “open in”. Select it.
      5. will open saying “loading bookmarks” and explaining they were successfully loaded.
      6. In, click on the green search icon, go to bookmarks. You will see the list of maps you imported (you can delete them from there if needed).
      Hope this helps!
      Thanks for reading us and happy traveling!


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