Good maps are one of the most important items on a vacation, especially if you are driving on your own through areas that you are unfamiliar with. They can make or break a trip because the stress and delays associated with poor maps or no maps at all may be impossible to recover from. They may be the difference between the insecurity and embarassment of relying on strangers for directions and/or help and the confidence and security of being able to handle things by yourself. Several bad trips may spoil the concept of designing your own trips entirely.
So where can good maps be obtained? My suggestion is that you try out map services by using the same company for local travel, where you are familiar with the routes. In this way, you can get an idea of the reliability of the map service. The only problem with this method is that not all places are alike. A map company may work very well in the US, where there is a more logical highway system but not work very well in Europe where the system is less developed, or is more jumbled. The only way to find a good map service in these places is to test them out on a trip, which can be a very stressful experience. In this situation, I would bring several versions of the routes, from several different companies and try to assess them on the early legs of the trip, hoping to discover the best service early enough in the trip to make the latter part of the journey easier.
These days, there are numerous options, besides the traditional printed map. There are online services such as MapQuest, Google Maps, and Via Michelin, and there are also portable GPS systems which use satellites to orient and plot routes. I personally have not used GPS, although I have been in cars where this system was in use and have found it very accurate, at least for the US. In addition, a friend of mine used one recently in Europe and was entirely satisfied. So this may be the best choice in the future.
For now, for those of us who do not have this technological adjunct, we are left with traditional maps and online mapping services. I have tried Via Michelin in Europe and found it to be inconsistent — sometimes it was right-on and other times it was downright incorrect (not a very good choice in an unfamiliar country where language is an issue). I have also tried Map Quest in Europe with slightly better, but still not totally reliable results. I have only tried Google Maps in the US and they are impressive, but I honestly don’t know how they would perform in Europe or elsewhere.
As far as paper maps are concerned, Michelin maps are renowned in Europe although my experience is that they are no better than AAA maps, and, if you have a membership, the cost difference is significant. The only problem with AAA maps is that they cover a wide region (not particular countries) and so are not as detailed as Michelin). I have only used Rand-McNally in the US and Canada (they are excellent here) so again I don’t know how reliable they might be outside of North America.
City maps are even more important, in my estimation, since one-way streets and difficult-to-find street names make driving in cities extremely stressful. My suggestion here is to write to the Tourist Information Offices of the various countries you may be traveling to and specifically ask for their city map. Sometimes these maps will even have attractions, hotels and restaurants identified. In this regard, also check out the maps in guide books like Fodor’s and Frommer’s (and others) — I have found them to be extremely helpful in this regard. I usually try to enlarge them (my eyesight is always an issue) and take copies with my reference material whenever I travel. Walking tour maps can also be very valuable in finding your way around the interior of a city. Insight guides and DK guides also provide excellent maps of city or town centers.
In conclusion, just like in much of life, preparation is the most time-consuming and the most important aspect of any trip, so making the effort to obtain the best possible maps prior to a vacation may enhance your overall enjoyment and establish a precedent for success.