Offline Maps for iPhone: My review of Travel Map apps in iOS

Just came back from testing an offline map app called PocketEarth, which works on any iOS gadget: iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

I’ve previously blogged about Offline Google Maps for iOS. The post is so outdated (circa iOS 3.x) yet it’s still one of the more popular articles on this blog. Apparently, interest on the subject peaked after Google announced true offline map support for Android devices. Offline Google Maps is also packed with new features such as 3D view, compass mode for street view, and offline directions.

Offline map of Indochina / mainland South East Asia

iOS users, like myself, have been clamoring for true offline Google Maps since day 1. As of iOS5.1.1, the feature is still not available. What’s more disappointing is that Apple recently announced its plans of ditching Google Maps as its default map app altogether.

Traveling with offline maps

Enjoying Offline Google Map for iPhone was possible back in the days of iOS3.1.1. I was able to explore unfamiliar cities and go on do-it-yourself (DIY) walking tours like an efficient backpacking machine :) I planned out my itinerary route easily, was aware of interesting nearby attractions I might have missed during my online research, and, most importantly, had decreased my chances of getting lost … it (getting lost) still happened now and then but at least I can find my way back on track easily with offline maps.

Then, Apple released updated versions of iOS. I had to go through the whole process of “jailbreaking” and re-installing apps. Somewhere along the line, I got tired of jailbreaking and settled with a clean install of iOS.

I also junked using offline maps altogether and settled with a good-ol-fashioned map. During those times, which wasn’t that far back, I wasn’t on my usual serial itinerary-planning moods. I wanted to travel slower and allow the experience of being on the road unfold as I go along. Plus, I planned to travel mostly in the Philippines, so it’s not that had to ask around for directions.

I realized I really am the type of traveler who does like to plan trips and make itineraries. I want to list down all interesting places, plot them down on a good map, and implement a plan of action :p

The ol-fashioned maps aren’t always that “good.” Free maps are not detailed enough most of the time. While decent bookstore maps add to travel expenses, which can be an annoyance when visiting many cities and different countries. I’m also not a big fan of carrying bulky guidebooks around.

Since I don’t want to spend money on a new Android device, I explored iOS alternatives so I can enjoy offline maps during my travels.

I’m currently on a backpacking trip around Indochina (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar).

PocketEarth

The app, which seemed like the perfect travel companion for me, was PocketEarth. It uses OpenStreetMaps (not Google Maps) for its mapping engine.

I am very satisfied with PocketEarth after testing it on a walking tour of buddhist temples in the Old City of Chiang Mai in Thailand. Planning my route has been so much easier now.

I start by researching about places to visit online with a dose of google searches and visits to other travel blogs. Then I plot interesting attractions on PocketEarth using pins.

What I like about PocketEarth

Being able to label the pins was very helpful. I include a reminder of things I should not miss during my visit. The pins include GPS (Latitude Longitude) data, which makes it easy for geotagging.

If available, Wikipedia and Wikitravel articles are also available for offline viewing. I could learn about the places I’m visiting at the site itself and without hiring a travel guide or bring along a bulky travel guidebook.

I liked to scour the offline map for other interesting places to visit that are nearby or along the way to my next destination.

Feature Request

PocketEarth is, relatively, new app. There are a lot of improvements that I want like:

  • Being able to modify and insert route points. After you plot start and end points, the app automatically calculates and shows a simplified route that cannot be modified.
  • Ability to group pins. Like a folder for “Chiang Mai,” or “Bangkok” for example. Currently all pins you plot are shown in just one list, which could be hard to manage if it gets too big.
  • Satellite and topographic maps. I’m sure they won’t be as good as Google’s but I’m hoping PocketEarth can find a way.

Some of the temples I have visited so far in Chiang Mai, still a lot more to go!

Installing PocketEarth

Installing maps on PocketEarth is very easy. While connected online, just load the app. Zoom and tap your destination, tap on the star icon to add to “my destinations” list, and then tap “download.”

File size for map data is reputed to be the smallest for any iOS map app. I downloaded offline maps for all of 5 countries I’m visiting. Map data totals only 42mb! + Wikipedia and Wikitravel articles, all data was just 122.6mb.

PocketEarth is available for download in the app store for $2.99, the price of one bookstore map.

Google Maps vs OpenStreetMaps

Google Maps is definitely a clear winner here. How I wish I could still access offline high-resolution Google satellite images. Google Maps renders maps that are much more detailed, user friendly, intuitive, and better looking.

OpenStreetMaps aren’t that bad. I was actually surprised with the greatly improved details in OpenStreetMaps. In Chiang Mai, for example, all temples are already listed. Very convenient!

I didn’t know mappers of OpenStreetMaps have been very active all these years. +1 for open source projects :)

More iOS Offline Map app reviews

So far, I’ve only used PocketEarth. I’ll keep an eye out for other excellent map apps.