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Experiences with a Garmin GPS in Europe

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This posting on using a Garmin GPS in France is taken from my blog entry "Recalculating!", which has some other thoughts about GPS units as well. The more complete version, which has some photos, can be seen at:

Although I report here on using our GPS unit in France, we've had similar experiences with it in Italy and Spain. Hence I've tagged this report with France, Italy, and Spain, the countries we usually visit, and about which we usually post. I hope this information is interesting and useful. I don't consider this to be a "Trip Report".

A Garmin GPS in France

Just before our recent trip to the Dordogne region of France, we purchased a new Garmin Nüvi 1370T GPS. We chose it in part because it comes with maps of both North America and Europe pre-installed.

Flying into Bordeaux, we picked up our rental car, and entered the address of our hotel into the GPS. A couple of hours later, we arrived in Saint Émilion, at the North end of town, where the GPS told us to turn down an absolutely impossible street (too narrow and winding and steep for the car).

After circling around the block a few times, we parked in the center of town and found the Tourist Office. The woman there informed us that our hotel was in the south part of town, and that it was impossible (despite the advice of the GPS) to drive through the town from the north part to the south part. She told us how to drive out of town and around to the south part, where we located our hotel. The next morning, we walked UP the street that the GPS had wanted to take us DOWN. While not drivable, it's perfectly walkable, although steep. There's a picture in the blog of Margie walking up it, although it doesn't clearly show the very sharp turn that would have been necessary to go down it in a car.

In researching GPS units, I've gotten the impression that TomTom units are a bit better in Europe, and Garmin better in the US (although this is rather a casual impression). Since most of our use is in the US, we've generally purchased from Garmin. But in using two different Garmin units in France, Italy, and Spain, we've found that it has sometimes turned us off onto some pretty dicey roads. I think that even small roads that are mapped in the US meet certain minimum standards. This doesn't seem to be the case in Europe.

Frequently, we'd be on a main road that looped around a small hillside town, and upon entering the town, the GPS would tell us to turn. Suddenly, the road would tip down in a 25 percent grade, turn to dirt, and narrow to a couple of inches wider than the car. After a few hairy turns, we'd pop back out onto the main road at the bottom of the village. Sure, it had cut off some distance, but after a while we learned to ignore these suggestions and stay on the main road ("Recalculating!").

On our recent French trip, while driving north from Sarlat on the D704, when the road main road wiggled to the left, the GPS told us to keep right at the intersection. The right went in a straight line, and hence was shorter than the main road, which looped around to the left. But it was obvious to us at the time that we ought to stay on the main road, and we ignored the GPS's advice. We did this frequently ("Recalculating!"). There's a satellite view of all this on the blog entry.

Why would the GPS tell us to bear right at that point? A better question is, why would it not? The route to the right was shorter, but the GPS is programmed to calculate a route with the shortest time, not the shortest distance. If it knew that the local road to the right had a substantially lower speed limit than the main road to the left, it would have taken us to the left, staying on the main road. Thus I get the impression that the problem with its European maps is that it doesn't have enough information about relative speeds that can be traveled on different roads. Yet at times, the European maps seem to contain speed information that is often lacking from the US maps. At one point, the GPS beeped at me for exceeding the speed limit, and it often displayed the speed limit in the lower right corner of the screen.

The Garmin GPS in Europe had a general tendency to take us on very small roads, if they were direct and cut off some distance. It took us over some roads that were so narrow, that they had stretches in which I couldn't imagine what I would do if a car appeared in the opposite direction. But in general, these small roads had very little traffic on them.

Here's some speculation about a possible reason that a GPS unit might tend to take drivers off on small roads in Europe: in Europe, there's a greater variety of roads of various sizes that are all two-lane roads. In France, many of the "Departmental" roads (designated with a "D", like the "D704"), are quite good, with good shoulders and wide lanes, but they are still only two-lane roads. Perhaps the database used in the GPS doesn't distinguish, in terms of average speed, between a road like that and a much smaller (but still paved) road with narrow lanes and no shoulder. Perhaps the database considers these two types of two-lane roads to be equivalent. Then, of course, given a choice, it will go for the shorter of the two possibilities

Once, heading for the town of Le Bugue, our GPS took us over a rather convoluted route, on scenic roads. This seemed a bit odd, since the most direct route, from the map, seemed to be the main road to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. The route computed by the GPS was no doubt a tiny bit shorter in distance, but the twisty roads, I think, made it take substantially longer. This caused me to check the setting of the GPS to see if it might be set up to choose the route of shortest distance instead of shortest time. But it was indeed set up for shortest time. This was really the same issue we had encountered on the D704.

Although the route was very scenic, we chose to come back the other way, repeatedly ignoring the instructions from the GPS unit ("Recalculating!" "Recalculating!"). From our experience on this trip, as on all our earlier trips, it's unwise to depend on a GPS alone. A general problem with any GPS is that you can become addicted to it, and lose track of the larger picture of where you are. Margie learned to follow along on a good conventional map of the area.

There was another GPS problem in the countryside: many places didn't seem to have an actual address - that is, an actual street name and number. When phoning one of the local attractions, I asked for an address to put into my GPS. The woman said something like, "We're in the countryside - we don't have addresses." The result: there's nothing to put into the GPS as a destination.

One restaurant we set out to find was Le Près Gaillardou. We went to the trouble before leaving our apartment of looking up its web site, and then trying to locate it on the French "Mappy" site. But its address was only "Lieu dit Gaillardou, 24250 La Roque Gageac". "Lieu dit Gaillardou" just means "place called Gaillardou", which is pretty vague (and the restaurant didn't seem very concerned about this, since they didn't have detailed directions on their web site). We did find it, by the way, and had a nice meal there.

On one occasion, trying to get to Les Jardins de l'Imaginaire, we drove into the town of Terrasson. There we hit a massive traffic jam, and it took half an hour to get out the other side of the town. Having missed our tour of the gardens, we changed our plans, and set off for the Chateau de Hautefort. Upon setting the GPS for Hautefort, it told us to turn around and drive back through Terrasson. Fat chance - we weren't going back through that mess.

Consulting a map, we instead drove east a bit (the wrong direction), until we could go north to hook up to the A89. The GPS bitched every step of the way, saying "Recalculating!" each time we ignored one of its suggested turnarounds. Only as we approached within a kilometer or so of the A89 did it decide that the highway was now the better route to Hautefort. After visiting the Chateau de Hautefort, we drove straight home on the D704, ignoring all pleadings to branch to the east for a slightly shorter route on dubious roads. By then we had gotten very good at knowing when to ignore the GPS's advice.

At the end of our trip, we spent a night in Bordeaux, to be able to catch our very early flight the next morning. I knew I would have trouble entering the All Seasons Bordeaux Aeroport hotel into the GPS, because the address was shown as "95 Avenue JF Kennedy". So just what do you type for the street name? Do you leave off the "Avenue"? I tried "JF Kennedy" both with and without the "Avenue", but in both cases got "Not found". I tried various other combinations of the JF with and without spaces.

Finally, I just entered "Kennedy", and that did it, so apparently you need to just get a partial match. If you enter too much, it kills the match. When the street with a name matching "Kennedy" was finally displayed by the GPS, it showed the full name to be "Avenue du Président John Fitzgerald Kennedy" - that's what I would have had to have typed to get an exact match. The route circled Bordeaux, and the GPS took us straight to the Hotel.

Like any tool, the GPS has its strengths and weaknesses, but overall we find it enormously useful in both the United States and Europe.

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