Cheap sat-nav apps for your smartphone will save you money and stress – read James Stanbury's tests to find the best smartphone apps for towing caravans
There are few scenarios caravanners dread more than finding themselves stuck on an inappropriate road. Whether that’s because there’s a low bridge in front, a ridiculously sharp corner on a narrow lane, or simply because the weight limit up ahead effectively means no entry to you, the reality is that you’ve got to turn around and find another route. Even accomplished towers hate having to execute a multi-point turn on a busy road, and the more sensible option of unhitching and manually turning around your van is unlikely to win you any sympathy from other road users either.
Sat-nav to the rescue!
Little wonder, then, that manufacturers of satellite-navigation systems saw an opportunity and launched caravan sat-navs that take your outfit’s weight, height and other dimensions into account. Snooper’s Ventura is probably the best known brand, but Garmin also has a caravan-friendly sat-nav, even if TomTom’s brief flirtation with our market has now ended.
But while ordinary sat-navs increasingly compete on price – meaning that consumers get ever-better units for ever-less cash – niche models such as those caravan versions stubbornly stay somewhat dearer.
At the time of writing, Snooper’s entry-level Ventura sat-nav is the cheapest, but even that’ll set you back £299. So, is there a budget alternative to the traditional sat-nav?
The short answer is yes, and it’s probably in your pocket right now! The smartphone-based sat-nav is slowly making standalone devices extinct, and it’s not hard to see why. Why pay for a separate processor, sat-nav receiver, memory and high-definition touchscreen, when your phone already has all of them?
In fact, in many cases, a decent phone’s screen is bigger and more detailed than all but the most premium standalone sat-navs. And you can buy after-market device mounts so that you can attach most mobile phones to the windscreen. So, you might reason, by cutting out the cost of the hardware, I only have to pay for the maps and program? Well, maybe. Some sat-nav apps have a price, but others are absolutely free to download and use.
But the big question has to be: is a phone-based sat-nav reliable? Unfortunately there’s not a definitive answer. Common sense tells us that if your phone regularly jams up doing simple things such as sending text messages or surfing the web, then it’s best avoided as a navigation device. But if your smartphone is reliable, it should handle sat-nav duties with ease.
Technically, there’s a solid argument for using phone-based navigation systems, too, because as well as using GPS, it also factors in proximity to mobile emitters as a secondary positioning source.
The best way to find out if your smartphone is up to the job is to try it! With so many free sat-nav apps available, there’s nothing to lose even if you end up deleting it again.
Time to get testing
So, how did we judge the phone apps in this test? To start with, we tried each one extensively and rated it for ease of use, how well the various navigation screens worked, how extensive the 'points of interest' sections were, plus other necessities such as sensible routing, fast re-routing if you go wrong, and overall accuracy.
We preferred sat-nav apps that allow you to avoid a particular road or part of the route. This feature comes into its own if you want to make a detour to avoid a traffic problem. Being able to tell the sat-nav what you’re doing is so much better than the alternative of picking other roads randomly and the system desperately trying to take you back to the road you’re trying to avoid.
One problem that is peculiar to phone-based sat-navs is whether the app can work offline or not. Some simply download the maps as you drive, which isn’t a great way of doing things. As well as bumping up your mobile phone bill, it also means that you can lose navigation completely if you enter a large area with no data signal.
Other apps, like standalone devices, store mapping data in your phone’s memory. Note that all apps use a live connection to some degree, for traffic and hazard data updates. But sat-nav apps with offline maps will work without a signal, even if traffic alerts and avoidance have to shut down temporarily.
Finally, getting back to that nightmare scenario of finding your car and caravan on a completely unsuitable stretch of road, we obviously prefer applications that are tailored for caravan usage.
TomTom GO Mobile App, free to £34.99 – Four stars
Given the popularity of TomTom sat-navs, there will be few surprises with this app’s capabilities or plush navigation screens. Overall, CoPilot just pips TomTom on total number of features, but for general driving both apps are more than adequate.
Both take pre-journey route planning and avoiding problem roads in their stride, unlike many basic sat-navs or sat-nav apps. Price-wise, TomTom has taken a carrot-on-a-stick route. You can download GO onto your Apple or Android phone completely free, with all features running – including speed camera and traffic data alerts – but you only get 50 miles per month; £14.99 gives you a year’s usage and updates, and £34.99 gives you three. We've given the TomTom GO Mobile App a four-star rating.
Navmii, free – Four stars
Navmii started life as Navfree in 2010, when it made headlines for being the first free sat-nav app for iPhones. Unfortunately, it soon gained a reputation for a stream of distracting adverts on screen, too. Now, Navmii has become a plusher, more polished alternative to Waze.
Both offer a wealth of crowd-sourced live data on traffic, accidents and other hazards. And the irritating ads seemed to have vanished as well – surprising, given that we were also able to download other free maps and voices.
Another bonus is full cross- platform support: iOS, Android, Windows and even Blackberry. We've awarded Navmii a four-star rating.
Google Maps, free – Three stars
So, what do you have to do to get Google Maps on your mobile? Well, if you own an Android phone, probably nothing: it’ll be on there from the factory. However, iPhone users have to download it.
But Google Maps is no second-rate freebie: it’s so good that many people use it as their main sat-nav. We’ve found that by catering equally for drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, the app doesn’t have all of the dedicated driving functions of, say, CoPilot or TomTom GO. But things are improving.
Traffic data is now on there, and free. The app’s biggest drawback, like Waze, is the need for a live data signal, even if recent versions can now download small areas for limited offline usage. We've awarded Google Maps a three-star rating.
Sygic, £15.39 to £23.19 – Three stars
Sygic looked familiar to us, which is probably because it uses TomTom mapping. And while we prefer TomTom’s GO, this app is very close behind – making it a good option for Windows phone users who can’t use TomTom. We especially like the way photos of your start and finish points flash up when you program in a route. But the choice of app really comes down to pricing.
Sygic gives you a seven-day free trial, but after that you’ll need to pay £15.39 for lifetime usage and European maps, or stump up £23.19 for lifetime use and world coverage. Traffic and speed camera data are extra again, making this app far from free in its most comprehensive form.
CoPilot Caravan, £49.99 – Five stars – Our winner!
CoPilot has really become the sat-nav app to beat, and it’s not hard to see why when you try it. You would have to spend rather a lot of money on a high-end separate unit to get the wealth of features that come as standard here. But sophistication is pointless without ease of use, which is also where this system excels.
Even the mapping screens are well designed and communicate plenty of information with ease.
CoPilot comes in free, Premium and Caravan guises, with the latter taking your caravan’s width, height and weight into consideration when formulating routes.
Note that CoPilot Caravan is compatible with iOS and Android smartphones only, whereas both the free package and CoPilot Premium are also available for Windows devices.
The CoPilot Caravan, costing £49.99, gets a five-star rating and is Practical Caravan's winning sat-nav app in 2016!