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If you've ever had to navigate a congested city or remote area with a physical map, you understand how game-changing the advent of smartphone navigation apps is. Not only did they basically eradicate the need for a standard GPS, but they also opened travelers up to a wealth of other features, decoding the best ways to avoid traffic, find efficient public transportation, plot out an attraction-by-attraction itinerary, and navigate off-road routes by foot, bike, or horseback.
The default apps included in your device’s operating system are pretty strong — and we cover them in this round-up to help you understand when it makes sense to use them. That said, there's a legion of other options to consider for all types of travel. Before we delve into the nuances of our favorite apps, here’s a travel-friendly tip: if you’re in a location that doesn’t fall under the umbrella of your data plan, consider using a Wi-Fi connection (at your hotel, a café, or bar) to queue up the directions and then head out. Most apps can be used even when you’re not covered as the GPS in your smartphone still works. It may be laggy, but it’ll save you from the murky waters of an international cellphone plan.
Our Top Picks
Best Overall: Google Maps
Sorry, Apple, but it’s hard to argue with the data-driven simplicity of the Google Maps app. For day-to-day use, it offers real-time ETAs based on live traffic data and outlines traffic-avoiding routes via real-time GPS navigation, automatically re-routing based on current conditions that include accidents and road closures. You can also choose alternate routes easily, should you prefer to take the more scenic route. Not driving? No problem — fire up biking and walking routes, and utilize real-time transit info to find the best public transport option — bus, trains, and subways — as well as ride-sharing services.
Travelers will really appreciate the vast library of local restaurants, events, activities, and bars, including must-try places curated by local experts, Google, and a handful of publishers. It even helps you navigate inside places like malls, airports, stadiums, and buildings. You can save a list of favorite places for future reference, and share those lists with friends. Or create a shortlist of options and circulate to your friends, so they can all cast votes to decide where to meet for dinner or a drink. The footprint is global — and reliable, and it also includes offline maps to search and navigate via your device’s GPS without Wi-Fi or data coverage. Other Google features, like street view and satellite images, are also baked into the app. And, perhaps best of all, it’s free.
Best for Dodging Traffic (and Cops and Traffic Cams): Waze
A relatively recent acquisition by Google, Waze uses the same real-time traffic data found in the company's own app. Waze distinguishes itself, however, with a more playful interface and a heavy emphasis on driving — or, more specifically, avoiding traffic, speed cameras, police traps, and other obstacles. If the data shows there’s unexpected traffic, an accident, or other hazards, it’ll suggest alternate routes that may seem counter-intuitive or obtuse (head down this suburban street), but they always save time. The app also has elements of gamification, letting you add to the sea of data it processes by reporting cops, accidents, or other obstacles.
With the release of iOS 12 update, it’s now Apple CarPlay-friendly, and you can also choose to play music and podcasts through the app itself. (The device pauses the playback whenever it provides voice commands for the next turn.) It also crunches data to help you find the cheapest gas on your route. What you don’t get? Any sort of non-driving info like walking, biking, or public transport guidance. And some may find the gamey elements and push notifications a bit much, though those features can be turned off.
Best for Siri: Apple Maps
You’re right to be skeptical about Apple’s Map app. Indeed, the app faced a fair degree of criticism when it was first introduced. But, Apple has worked diligently to fix its initial bugs, and the data behind Apple Maps is now universally reliable. Unlike other apps, you can also use Siri for voice-command input and advice. It includes turn-by-turn spoken direction, including pro-active suggestions to choose the right lane, as well as interactive 3D maps, and a whole bunch of roadside attractions, broken down by categories like food, drinks, shopping, services, and health. It also automatically records where you’ve parked your car, and since you can select from public transport or walking options, you can easily avoid the maze of confusion to locate your vehicle.
Travelers will appreciate the sophisticated search feature, which can be more narrowly focused by using phrases like "Thai food" or "liquor stores." It also has access to a handful of indoor layouts like JFK Airport, complete with guides to gates, restaurants, and baggage claim. You can satisfy your wanderlust by exploring select cities from the air thanks to interactive, 3D views, letting you zoom in, pan, and tilt the city and its landmarks. But perhaps the most powerful feature is the way the Maps interacts with other apps installed on your phone, affording you the ability to make a dinner reservation via OpenTable (automatically adding that info to your calendar), or booking and paying for an Uber.
Best for Public Transport: Citymapper
Loads of apps include public transportation info as part of their feature suite, but Citymapper focuses specifically on those options, and that’s why it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. It taps into real-time data in a legion of cities throughout the world to provide optimal routes via bus, subway, train, or foot (or any combination of the above) to help you get where you’re going, and fast. It also guides you to the best individual subway car and suggests the most efficient exit to take.
The sleek interface lets you compare all options at a glance, and a recent update now includes info on nearby share bikes, mopeds, scooters, and car services like Uber, widening the options for quick transport. Citymapper has nav support for cities in the United States, Australia, Latin America, Europe, and parts of Asia.
Best for Off-Road Exploration: Magellan TRX
Full disclosure: the Magellan TRX app isn't a standalone program — it works in tandem with a dedicated Magellan GPS device. That said, if you’re really into off-road exploration, investing in one is a no-brainer. The data library comes with more than 160,000 pre-loaded trails and uses both high-res topographical and 3D base maps, with advanced trail and point-of-interest searching and reliable turn-by-turn directions for both the street and the trail.
The app’s specs include mileage by road type (dirt, paved, etc.) as well as a journal feature, Track Me protocols, and the option to name and save data around a network of routes that you plan to explore. It also lets you reach into the wider Magellan community, which includes a library of other routes and suggested itineraries uploaded by app and GPS users. The system also lets you log the routes you’ve taken, and share them with friends and family. Users of the app report that it works fairly reliably even when you’re far off the grid — provided your smart device can ping against the GPS satellites.
Best for Running, Hiking, and Cycling: AllTrails
Building off a truly encyclopedic library of guidebooks written for mountain bikers, trail runners, and hikers, AllTrails might be the most comprehensive way to penetrate the backcountry. It includes more than 50,000 editorially-curated trails, supplemented with reviews and photos that have been crowd-sourced from other app users. You can select based on trail type, distance, fitness level, and features like dog- or family-friendly routes, and receive directions to the trailhead as well as turn-by-turn directions when you’re in the thick of it. Of course, you can record your adventures — which is a great way to re-trace your route, view your stats at a glance, or share your outdoor exploits with friends and family via Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms. AllTrails works reliably when off the grid, and you can also save trails to your profile, and follow fellow bikers, hikers, and trail runners to open up a wealth of other options.
The base app is free, but to truly unlock the power of AllTrails opt for the Pro version. An annual subscription costs $30 a year (or $100 for life) and includes offline GPS mapping, additional map layers, and integrated real-time overlays like satellite weather and air quality. The Pro level also lets you tap into the huge repository of trail data on offer, and lets you design and print custom maps if you want to meld the digital experience with some old-school analog reference materials.
Best for Road Trips: Roadtrippers
The name may be a bit on the nose, but what Roadtrippers lacks in trendy branding, it makes up for in function. The app excels at planning epic cross-country trips, weekend outings, and everything in between. It utilizes a vast repository of attraction info on everything from quirky diners and roadside attractions to scenic viewpoints, national park highlights, and hotels. You can explore points of interest and attractions via the website or through the app, saving spots (known as waypoints) to create full trip itineraries that sync automatically between devices. You can also explore free travel guides with pre-formed itineraries, which you can modify as you like.
User reviews are helpful in determining what's worth stopping for. And the saving feature also makes it easy to share your trip — before and after — with friends and family. Upgrade to the Plus program for $30 a year, and you can save as many trips as you like, with up to 150 waypoints per trip, as well as access live traffic conditions and a variety of map styles. The latter two features arguably compliment elements of free navigation apps, but Roadtrippers Plus also opens up special discounts and offers as well as exclusive user content.
Best for Active Travel: Komoot
Much like AllTrails, Komoot was designed to deliver data on the best hiking and biking trails around the globe. Unlike AllTrails, the first regional map is free and can be used off-line. Pricing then breaks out by additional single regions, bundles, or the complete package, which opens up maps to the U.S. and the entire world, accessible even when you’re out of data range. Turn-by-turn navigation comes out of the box, and you can plan the perfect route — say, a mix of dirt road, singletrack, and paved roads — for in-the-field reference.
Trails can be spec’d out by difficulty, surface type, and elevation profiles, and you can also browse the region’s top highlights and trails. You can also track your activities with GPS, adding photos, highlights, and tips to build your own personal adventure log, which you can then share with friends and the wider Komoot community.
Our writers spent 10 hours researching the most popular navigation apps on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 10 different apps, read over 9 user reviews (both positive and negative), and tested 8 of the apps themselves. All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.