Navigating by GPS in Europe

Finding our way around countries that we are totally unfamiliar with is one of the challenges that we deal with on a daily basis when traveling. This post is about our experience using our GPS in Europe.

What to do?


For long distance navigation we use the same Garmin GPS unit that we have in the US that we refer to as Greta Garmin. There is a European SD card which can be bought and inserted in many Garmin navigation systems. It is possible to also download the map set into the Garmin directly. The only issue with purchasing the SD card in the US is that it cannot be updated, you have to purchase a new card when you require an update. This became a problem as the French changed the speed limits on most of the inter town roads (N and D roads in the French system) after our second trip, and we needed to update. If you plan to stay in Europe for a long period, or do not want to carry your GPS unit back and forth it may be worth looking at purchasing a unit over there as units purchased in Europe come with free updates from Garmin for the European map sets as they do here in the US.

Other Options

There are other options that we have looked at including using Google Maps, an app called ViaMichelin, and an app called CoPilot GPS. The issue we have with these three options for long distance navigation is that they are internet based, and while we purchase a plan that gives us about 3 gigs of data per day we do not want to use it for inter-city navigation. The CoPilot app has an offline mode that allows you to use the tracker in your phone and a route you download prior to departure. We considered that, but my senior eyes need a display larger than an iPhone to quickly see what is going on.

Our Experience

The initial unit we brought over was a car based system so there was no capability to program any size restrictions. This is more important in Europe than in the US. Roads are far more often restricted by height, width, or height than in the US. When these restrictions are in place they are usually well marked so you can detour prior to hitting them, but sometimes the detour is not clear. Watching for these signs are both of our responsibilities.

My observation is that the logic for Garmin systems looks at speed limits and distance to pick the best route. Our experience is that there are three broad classification of roads in Europe. Using the French designations as they are not standardized across Europe, “A” routes (freeways)have speed limits of 110 to 130 kph. “N” routes (think US Highways) have speed limits that vary between 80 and 110 kph, but generally are either 80 or 90. The thing that makes navigation tricky are the “D” roads. The speed limit is 80 on these roads but these roads can range from good wide two lanes with shoulders, to a paved one lane equivalent of a US ally with no shoulder, and obstructions on either side, and while the official speed limit may be 80 kph the realistic speed particularly in a RV is going to be much slower. The problem is that Greta Garmin does not know which type of “D” road it is and since the speed limit is the same will pick the shortest route. The other problem is that most of the good stuff you want to see is on a “D” road so you will spend a lot of time on them and occasionally to get where you really want to go you will need to go a skinny road.

A good “D” road speed limit in France 80 kph. (This one is from Austria)
Also a “D” road speed limit 80kph.

The other issue is that when you enter the city limits of towns in Europe the speed limit drops to 50 kph unless marked. The same logic applies here to Greta Garmin, she picks the shortest route which can take you down roads that were designed in the middle ages, versus a reasonable modern route with two good lanes that is 200 yards longer.

These signs are standard when you enter a town in Europe. It also means the speed limit is 50kph unless marked differently.

Over time we have learned to ignore Greta’s insistence on turning down single lane country tracks, and continued on the good “D” road we are on, particularly in towns. It usually works out though she complains for a while. As we have gained more experience we have learned more about signage to help us find the bypass routes that keep you off medieval roads.

To try to address this problem of Greta trying to route us down roads that should be used as a last resort, for Christmas I invested in a RV Garmin that we plan to test on our next trip. This will allow us to input the size and weight of Fran├žois into the Garmin which will hopefully cause Greta to want to keep us on wider roads. I will give an update after our next trip.

The bottom line is that like in the US do not blindly follow your GPS no matter what type you are using. But in Europe in an RV be even more skeptical than you would be here about what your GPS is telling you.

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