On a trip to Copenhagen a few years ago, I asked the taxi driver to take me to a certain Hotel Christian IV. He misunderstood me, thought I said Christianborg, and dropped me off in front of the royal palace, which definitely did not look like the kind of hotel I would be staying in. I had not bought a data plan for my phone and must have wandered around for 20 minutes until I could buy a map and learn that my hotel was a 10-minute walk away. Since then I have always purchased a data plan before I traveled, if only for my obsession about knowing where I am and how far I am from where I am going.

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In other places, there simply is no cell service or Wi-Fi. According to Google, roughly 60 percent of the world is without coverage. That, and my minor inconvenience of being lost in Copenhagen, is no longer a problem for Android users of Google Maps; according to the Google official blog:

Now you can download an area of the world to your phone, and the next time you find there’s no connectivity—whether it’s a country road or an underground parking garage—Google Maps will continue to work seamlessly. Whereas before you could simply view an area of the map offline, now you can get turn-by-turn driving directions, search for specific destinations, and find useful information about places, like hours of operation, contact information or ratings.

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It's all very clever, switching back to Wi-Fi when a connection is found, because you need those live traffic updates. It even knows to only download on Wi-Fi, not cellular, so that you don't get dinged with massive charges. Just make sure you have a little headroom on your phone; a download can take up a lot of memory. Google says that downloading Greater London would take up to 380 MB and San Francisco about 200 MB. Many cheaper Android phones don't have all that much space.

Another drawback that will make the cycling and pedestrian communities cranky is that it will download driving directions, but not walking or public transit directions, which makes it a whole lot less useful to me, and doesn't yet work for the iPhone, although they promise it will soon.

London A to ZTry finding your way around with this. (Photo: London A to Z)

I might complain about the lack of cycling directions, but that's pretty minor in the larger scheme of things. I remember traveling years ago with a black-and-white edition of London A to Z, trying to find my way around without zoom and pan and rotate. It was hard. Google Maps and Google Earth have changed the way we see the world and find our way around in it. It has revolutionized travel. Now you can even take it with you into places where you cannot connect. We take it all for granted now, but really, it's an amazing and wonderful thing.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.