Are Paper Maps Obsolete

asking for directions

Call me old fashioned, a dinosaur if you must, but I feel paper maps are useful as far as travel is concerned. My travel plans start with a paper map and when I’m visiting a foreign country, I carry paper maps of the regions my husband and I will travel through. We carry iPhones with access to map apps, always rent a car with GPS when traveling but paper maps have been helpful more times than I can count.

always carry a map when traveling
Always Carry A Map When Traveling

Are paper maps still necessary in this digital age…I think so. When traveling in an unfamiliar area, especially if I’m in a foreign country, I like to have a map with me when driving. If there is a road closure or a temporary detour that the GPS doesn’t know about, a map gives you a big picture of the alternatives. When there has been an accident and traffic is backed up for miles, a map may provide an alternate route.

If you ask directions from a person who doesn’t speak your language, you can just point to where you are headed and they may be able to help you get there.

At the end of a trip, the maps I’ve marked and used are a chronicle of our travel adventures. You may have photos of quaint towns but unless there is a sign or prominent landmark you might forget where you were. If you have a map that is marked with the route you took through those small villages, you will probably be able to figure out exactly where the photo was taken.

If you are going to travel on a large underground metro system, say in Paris for example, you need a map to plan your route before you get on a train. Paris has a smart phone app that maps out a route but you need an Internet connection or data roaming. If not, you can find small paper maps of the metro system at most tourist locations throughout the city that will help you use the metro to get from one point to the other.

Paris Michelin map
Paris Michelin Map Is Arranged By Arrondissements

When my husband and I start to discuss making another trip to Europe yet are not sure where we want to travel or perhaps we are looking to discover somewhere new, the first thing I do is take out my maps. I have spiral bound atlases of countries often visited. I use large country maps that I can be spread out on a table when trying to plan routes from one destination to another. I also have a file box filled with pages that I’ve printed from Michelin and Google maps I’ve found on the Internet as well as regional and city maps I’ve collected from tourist offices during previous travels.

A paper map such a Michelin map shows road numbers, distances, interchanges, elevations, scenic routes, etc. Explanations of all the numbers and symbols found on the map are listed in a large index. I wish I had looked at my map more closely before traversing the High Blauen Road, indicated by a small red dotted line as a “difficult or dangerous section of road“, on my German Michelin atlas while crossing the mountain outside of Badenweiler, Germany. There are only a couple of roads that I have ridden on that I now say I don’t want to drive on again and that was one of them.

key to map symbols
Part Of The Key To Map Symbols On A Michelin Map In Several Languages

Once decisions have been finalized about where we will be traveling, I create my own personalized map book. I scan and print copies of pages from maps that pertain to our trip. I use transparent colored removable stickers on the maps to mark scenic routes, towns that we want to visit and where our hotel is located. The stickers help tremendously when you take your eyes off the map for a few minutes and then look back trying to find the small spot on the map you are looking for.

making a map book
Make A Map Book

I place the individual map pages in plastic sleeves in a binder to create a small, easy to use map book. It is small enough to carry to breakfast where we can discuss our route before we head out to our next destination. While traveling in the car, I have the relevant page that shows exactly where we are traveling that day inside the clear front cover of the book. The map book I’ve made is more convenient to use in the car than trying to unfold and refold a large paper map that sooner or later will start to tear. It is also easier to use than sitting with a heavy, thick map book that covers an entire country when we are only going out on a short day trip to a nearby destination.

I have to say that I love the freedom that digital maps have given me as I get to experience more of the beautiful country back roads we explore while traveling. The car’s GPS will let us know exactly when we need to make a turn rather than me having my eyes always glued to a map so we don’t miss the turn. I also feel very comfortable knowing that I have a good paper map always at my side and feel both are necessary and valuable. 

****

While I know that most of us have cancelled travel plans for the present, it never hurts to think about and work on plans for future trips. I believe it is part of a travelers way of life to dream about where we will go next. Even though we aren’t going to Europe this fall, I’ve been looking at my maps…I wonder if you have been doing the same.

Do you think paper maps are obsolete in this digital age or do you use paper maps when planning a trip as well as when traveling? Are you one of those people that can’t make heads or tails out of a map and would never considering using them? Have you faithfully followed the navigation system on the car you are driving only to end up at a dead end nowhere near where you should be? If you can’t find your destination or may have made a wrong turn following your GPS, do you stop and ask for help if you don’t carry a paper map?

I love the freedom that digital maps have given me as I get to experience more of a scenic route rather than having my eyes glued to a map but I also feel comfortable knowing that I have a good backup always at my side. As far as I’m concerned, paper maps will never be obsolete. 

 

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I travel the back roads of the world, sharing great food and interesting places and enjoyable pastimes.

64 thoughts on “Are Paper Maps Obsolete

  1. I’m with you on this. I still use paper maps, though do rely a lot on my iPhone to find routes and timings once at a destination and setting off to a particular place. However, I always print out some maps of where I’m going before leaving for my holiday. I tend to do an overall and then some closing in on where I’m staying so I can see road names and get a feel for recognising the area. I do a lot of city breaks and print out routes to places I want to visit or eat at, with timings. Like you, I want to get the overall picture and a sense of where things are placed in the city. I always ask a hotel for a city map and keep it with me as major sites will be highlighted – not to mention exactly where I’m staying!

  2. I love maps too. We plan all our RV trips with the maps spread out checking the areas we want to go. When we do our long drives I use a highlighter and mark the routes we took for future reference. AAA has great maps

  3. I’m not a fan of telephone maps, but I have used them occasionally in an emergency. Normally I memorise where I’m going beforehand and if necessary print out a section of the map that I’m unfamiliar with. I would definitely take a folding map on a long car journey – I’ve never used GPS and am astonished that Uber drivers take the longest GPS routes around London, because they don’t know the city. A black cab driver has to learn the streets of London off by heart before being given a license. It can take 3 or more years!
    I avoid retail maps in large cities because they signal that one is a tourist – in Barcelona it turns you into a target for muggers and pickpockets unfortunately.

  4. I’m relatively non-digital when it comes to travel. I’ll book tickets and such online but for getting places I much prefer a map.I like to be able to see it all at once (or if a city map, an area all at once) and not be scrolling up and down, all around. You’re right about closed streets and such — that happened to us in London and having our map to figure out an alternative was good. And you’re right about the language, too. I might know enough French to say “where is the ___?” but not enough to understand an answer!

    Plus, when I return, my maps are, in a way, a wonderful souvenir of the trip — where we went, the journey. This is a most delightful post, Karen, and I hope you are well into planning your post-Covid trip and that it comes to pass right on time!

  5. I am totally a ‘map person’ – I can’t read telephone maps very well – because they hone in on a fairly limited space/area – and I like to have a good idea of the overal/larger space. I think iphone maps are heaven sent, of course, but we used to manage quite well without them in the past and so there is little chance that I will give up the sheer pleasure of reading a map !

  6. When I have an upcoming trip to a new place, one of the first things I do is buy a map of the area, and obtain a travel guide. I prefer the National Geographic guides when they are available for a country. I don’t need a list of hotels and restaurants, as I can find those on line, but the NatGeo books are focused on culture and history.
    For instance, it might have some walking guides for a large city, with commentary on the background of the places you will pass. They aren’t available for every location, but when they are, I snap them up.

    If I am driving, I will download the GPS maps on to my little Garmin GPS unit and save my phone data for inside the cities, but I still buy a map or two. When a friend and I drove across northern Croatia and Slovenia, the maps were actually more accurate on some of the small local roads. The GPS led us to dead ends a couple of times.

    As an aside, I’m shocked when I find people in their 30s and younger that have no idea how to read a map. They’ve had GPS all of their adult lives. They are going to be so screwed when the Zombie Apocalypse takes out all technology.

  7. Julius Caesar said “Gaul is divided into three parts,” and, as it turns out, the world of map readers is divided into three parts too: those who can read maps with ease; those who can read maps with effort; and those who simply cannot read maps at all.

    What pleasant recollections this article stirs, memories of spreading out maps on the dining room table to plan a trip, fumbling with maps on twisting back roads. Although we’ve gone over to GPS or phone maps when driving, I like to keep a small pocket map in my pocket when walking.

    It’s also fun just to walk around a wonderful historic city at random. Whether walking or driving, I stay oriented to the compass by checking the time and glancing at the sun’s location. Does anyone learn that any more?

  8. I love maps— and when I was still in the classroom as a high school art teacher I had a unit on maps, cartography and creating a compass rose— when I’d travel to Europe I always bought maps before the trip and “studied” them profusely— maybe one day we’ll be able to go back

  9. I used to love paper maps! And they’re great for getting an overall view of things. But Google maps does that too, and is way more flexible, I’ve found. Plus it has street view, so you can get an idea of what the place you’re trying to find actually looks like. True, you need an internet connection. But I have a Pixel and use Google Fi as my wireless carrier. Basically through this I can coverage anywhere in the world (some exceptions, like North Korea and China) at basically the same rate as I pay in the US. Yeah my phone can go out, but my wife has one too, so there’s backup. And Google map directions are pretty good. Usually. Until they’re not. Which does happen sometimes. Anyway, really interesting post — thanks.

  10. No, I love maps too. They are still useful. In fact we recently purchased a road atlas for our car. We use to always have one on the car, but we GPS we ended up tossing it out. Afterwards we regretted it. So much easier to find an alternate route if there are traffic jams etc.

  11. Paper maps have their advantage, as they do give a good perspective of a whole city/country, but by now I’m more used to using Google maps. Thank you for reminding us of travel for leisure. Hope we’ll be able to to that soon! 🙂

  12. We are on the same bandwagon. Paper maps are a requirements if you are traveling internationally. Phones and GPS may not work. Google maps is contingent on having access to the internet. Always best to be safe rather than sorry. Also, it gives you the unique opportunity of marking up your tour on your paper map so you can remember the places you stopped along the way.

  13. I’m a dinosaur – I like maps, and I’m moderately good at reading them. I keep them in the car glove box but also have GPS in both vehicles and carry an iPhone with a couple of map programs. Sometimes you just want to see what other options there might be and you can see that on a map. The maps stay as long as I’m around. 🙂

  14. I still prefer paper maps. It’s easier for me to visually plan out my vacation with the paper map before we head out. I guess I’m just old school too!

  15. We have a huge collection of maps and we almost always plan trips and holidays (if we ever have another one!) on paper. I admit though once planned we generally drive with a GPS in the car, much easier than trying to open maps up in a small space.

    Keep well and stay safe, Diane

  16. I’m a huge fan of paper maps. Although I do use technology regularly, there’s nothing more comforting than a good old fashioned paper map. Even though we altered our summer travels, I’m already thinking of ideas for next summer. Keep those travel dreams alive!

  17. I agree, Karen, a paper map in a city or town you’re unfamiliar with is so much easier and straightforward than looking at an app on your smartphone and hoping the GPS signals and mobile tower signals have no interference which may render you in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  18. I’m with you but then I am old. 🙂 My husband and I are both map lovers and love looking at the big picture which is very hard to do electronically. We used to do a lot backpacking so papers maps were the only way to go. GPS is great in a city, but otherwise, I’m like you and paper is the way to go.

  19. I tend to use digital maps but some places give paper maps and I enjoy using those too especially in cities with high rises where google maps doesn’t always work. I also find following digital maps harder when walking as I never know which way to go. I love recycling paper maps and using them as gift wrapping paper. They make for a striking wrapping! 😀

  20. Altho’ I regard myself as a woman of the times I also admit to being a total dinosaur regarding both maps and books. If I need a quick ‘fix’ regarding a place I do not know a Google map may be the fastest solution . . . if I am planning a journey all my beloved paper maps and me retire to bed for a pleasurable time together. Cannot see that ever changing ! In the same manner, in spite of trying my best for the planet in all other ways, I so love holding a beautifully printed volume in my hands . . . the turning of each page being such a pleasurable experience. And, with years progressing, I like most others methinks, find the print far easier to read . . . love the rustle of pages of book and map . . . love the ‘something’ twixt my fingers . . . no apologies . . .

  21. i love real paper maps! we were just saying the other day how useful they are to get an overall picture of where you are. GPS and iphones don’t really give you that. we had a fabulous British Ordinance Survey book of maps when travelling in the UK years ago. Soooo useful! let’s hope we all get to travel again soon.
    cheers
    sherry

  22. I love paper maps and have many all of which are well used. As with you and others, we use our GPS for local trips. We much prefer paper maps for long journeys. Heck, laying out those maps in the cold of winter and planning a road trip is a big part of the experience in my mind.

  23. I’m totally useless at reading maps, so will not carry a “proper” one on vacation; however, I cut and paste snippets of the parts of places I want to see from Google maps to a blank document and print that; so in the end I carry around A4 sheets with little maps on the front and back, including my scribbles and arrows 🙂

  24. We use both – depends on where we are in the world and what type of travelling we are doing.
    Must say though, I am most grateful for our cars onboard GPS system – has helped me so much getting to clients without stressing – I hate getting lost, makes me all flappy.
    Have a great day Karen.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  25. Great post Karen! Brought back wonderful memories of using paper maps just about a decade ago…when digital was not that popular! We rely only on GPS now but would be fun to print out a google map and follow it sometime!! Have a wonderful week ahead!!

  26. I really miss paper maps. Just recently I had to clean out a drawer, and it was full of maps. From the old days, when I drove around the western states a lot, plus everywhere we traveled after marrying. It took me days to throw them out. I should have done something artsy with them, now that I think of it, but they were also quite worn, and written on.

  27. I love a paper map and like you do all my planning on one. On our most recent trip to the UK I had one great foldout one and one of those AA map books that had the B & C roads. I’d draw our route on the fold-out one so we could see where we’ve been. The fold-out map had fallen apart by the time we finished with it, but it had done amazing service for us.

  28. We always carry a printout of the digital maps with us ever since our Garmin died during the first leg of our trip. Fortunately, my husband has an incredible sense of direction so he was able to get us to our destination without issue but it’s good to have a backup!

  29. I can definitely see that you are super organized and have all of your maps in perfect order, Karen! I totally agree with you that I like to have the paper map in hand to get my bearings, especially in a foreign land. We’re still dreaming of where we might go next … whenever that will be. Stay safe 🙂

  30. You make some good points here. I’m old enough to have grown up with paper maps and I do miss them sometimes, although I’m an avid consumer of virtual maps. I just love maps of all types, for practical reasons but also just to look at. As a kid, before I was old enough to travel, maps were a way to do so in my imagination. And I guess they serving that purpose once again during these strange times…

  31. We’ll never get rid of our paper maps! It’s saved our marriage 😉 Our phones and GPS are very helpful when traveling, but there have been many times when nothing but a paper map will help us out of a tight spot.

  32. What a wonderful post, Karen! Your posts always give me food for thought. Although we do use GPS, we will always use paper maps, too! I love all of the reasons you shared for using paper maps, Karen. Half the fun of traveling is the planning! I can’t imagine planning a trip without paper maps. They provide the ‘big picture’ of each day’s adventure. I’ll have to remember your colorful, sticky highlighters in the future, Karen.
    We keep paper maps in both cars all the time. If we happen to be in an unexpected place, it’s great to look at the map to check out any local places to visit. Last summer, we stopped to visit a beautiful state park with a covered bridge. We discovered this hidden gem on our paper map as we were passing through the area.
    One of my true ‘treasures’ is a map of Europe that I purchased on my very first trip to Germany in 1979. My German friends helped me to highlight our routes to each place we visited during our six weeks together. Ever since, each time I return from a European adventure, I have highlighted the routes on that special map using a different color for each year. It’s quite colorful now!
    Although we don’t have any travels on the horizon, I’m hoping that our next adventure will include Colmar, France! Hope you and your family are safe and healthy, Karen! 💗

  33. What an incredibly organised lady 🙂 🙂 I love paper maps too, but never use them as effectively as you. Often they’re a rough guide to getting lost. I’m pretty good at that!

  34. I think when you rely on the Satnav you miss out if you are taking a leisurely trip. We like to plan on Google maps and then print bits off. We had planned a trip to northern France in May but we will do it another time, with a paper map just in case!

  35. What a great post! Personally, I still get lost with both! However that being said, I love an actual map. It gives you a better context for a strange area and can really help get you off the beaten path. Besides my husband collects maps!

  36. Karen, although I’ve never relied on them for foreign travel (your method was very impressive), we keep a “truck driver’s atlas” next to our dining room table and my hubby peruses it every night before he goes on the next day’s run. I’m tickled to say that some of the younger GPS-dependent drivers have consulted with him re: ‘how did you get there’ many times! Sadly, paper maps aren’t obsolete, but places that offer them are. I once got lost driving out of the Tulsa airport and stopped at a gas station to buy a map to find my way home. Dinosaur doesn’t begin to describe their reaction! (FYI, my I still own an old-fashioned flip phone, LOL.) They had to go back into the stockroom to locate one… before they shipped the rest back to the map company. Long live paper map travelers!

  37. Hello Karen.

    We use both! Maps to get bigger view, when planning for example. GPS gives strange directions for road selection. This becomes clear when we know the road well.

    Humorously I say to GPS out loud: You go where you suggest, but we select this route! 🙂

    Have a good day!

  38. You know, you make an excellent point here, Karen. We use paper maps whenever we are exploring a foreign city. However, I use them in conjunction with my smartphone. (But you can’t always rely on good service, either. Too often we’ve found that a smart phone has trouble triangulating your position when you’re in the middle of a bunch of old buildings like you find in European cities.) We both carry a paper map folded up in our pocket. However, back home? I haven’t used a roadmap in ages!

  39. I came of age in the times post paper maps, and honestly can’t make heads or tails of them. I’ve been spoiled by GPS and the monotonous instructions to “turn left,” or “continue straight for 2 miles” thanks to Google. Honestly, I have no sense of direction so I’m grateful for this extreme crutch. Otherwise, I’d probably get lost in my own house, and it’s just a studio apartment…

  40. Oh you are amazing! So organised .. I’m jealous! I don’t think they are obsolete .. I’m a hard copy girl. The only problem is I’m shocking at reading maps 🙂 I’m also a fan of GPS

  41. I’m with you. I like paper maps, and how they provide the big picture. GPS can tell me where to turn next, but it doesn’t easily provide that overall view of how to get from here to there.

  42. I prefer paper maps for all of the reasons that you shared, Karen. And I must say that you have taught me so much in how you prepare your map journal. That is just brilliant! I’m going to do this from now on . . . PLUS, it provides an additional momento for one’s trips! I do like GPS, but it doesn’t always get your requests correctly and I spend time more frustrated in getting the right information than it is worth. I do like it for driving in urban and closeby areas where I don’t have maps for. I also appreciate that you are looking ahead during this pandemic. Such a great boost for me to continue planning and dreaming. SUPERB POST!!!

  43. I agree!! I love a paper map as it gives me the wide area. Especially if I am not familiar with the area or highway connection. My iPhone works well once I have an understanding of my whereabouts.
    And maps are like newspapers… they just feel good when using them.
    Great post!

  44. We are like you, Karen — the hybrid map users: GPS, iPhone, and definitely the paper map! Honestly, paper maps are just more fun! And we found the GPS that comes with the car is NOT as good as the iPhone — so many times it tells you to turn after the street you needed.

    We watched a charming 1960s film the other night starring Bob Hope: 8 on the Lam. There is a cute ing scene in Phoenix, AZ!

  45. You make many valid points for using paper maps. As usual, such great advice from a seasoned traveler. I’m not much of a navigator, but my husband is extremely visual and needs to have a mental picture of the entire route before starting out on any trip. He would love to travel with someone like you, Karen!

  46. This is so funny that I came across this post. Just the other day, my husband and I were talking about how maps are obsolete. But since you brought out so many valid points – I think I will carry one next time we travel abroad! Thank you for all the good and safety points about GPs v Maps!

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