Why I always travel with a paper map in hand

map of London
© K Martinko -- Studying a map of central London over coffee

Who needs GPS? Nothing beats a trusty paper map for navigating a foreign city.

The very first thing I do when I arrive in a foreign city is find a paper map. Whether I get it from a tourist information booth at the airport or from the hotel concierge, it's the single most important task I have to accomplish upon arrival. After that map is in my hands, I can unpack my suitcase, have a shower, and take a nap. Then, I sit down with the map and study it carefully.

That map, you see, is my key to getting around the city. It allows me to orient myself before I've even set foot in the street. I learn where I am in relation to the rest of the city, the names of neighborhoods, the major streets and the directions in which they run, the transit lines. I figure out where the rivers and waterfronts are, where the subway stations are, how I can get to the best walking and cycling routes.

Then I plan. I use that paper map to figure out which sights are closest to each other and how I can use my time most efficiently by visiting everything in a specific area on the same day. I put dots where the bookstores, restaurants, markets, and museums are that I most want to see. I note which neighborhoods I want to visit along the way.

No doubt some readers are rolling their eyes and wondering why I don't just pull out my phone. While I do own a smartphone with GPS, I don't see the point in using it while navigating foreign streets. It's expensive (those roaming charges add up fast) and it's inefficient.

But the main reason is that my phone's GPS deprives me of a greater sense of orientation. It zeroes in on a specific destination and prescribes a precise route to get there, but it doesn't put the journey into context, which I dislike. I always want to know where I am in relation to everything else. (The same goes for when I'm on a road trip back home in Canada. I'd much rather look at a provincial highway map than the GPS.)

My trusty map, on the other hand, is all about context. Ask me the nearest bridge, major intersection, market, neighbourhood, or landmark, and I'll be able to tell you in an instant.

A paper map does not run out of battery. It never has a poor connection. It is easily replaceable. It's a great conversation starter for locals who can immediately peg me as a tourist -- not always a good thing, but there is something about a paper map that softens people up. They're curious about who would use a paper map these days and are inclined to talk.

For a passionate traveler like myself, consumed by wanderlust, that paper map is like a portal into another world. Staring at it transports me into a dreamlike state, where I imagine all the places I'll go and things I'll do. And simultaneously, it enables me to begin planning and strategizing how I'll make it happen.

Then the map comes home with me. It bears the battle wounds of the journey, creased and torn and stained. It's proof of the places I've been and, while it would have little meaning to anyone else, it comes alive when I open it up and take a glance. I don't usually keep it long, knowing it's served its purpose, but it can be a good reference if I end up heading to the same place again, helpful when wanting to book accommodations in a good area. But I never take it with me, knowing I'll get a fresh map when I land -- and start all over again.

Tags: Maps | Tourism


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