Are rapacious roaming charges ruining your vacation? There’s an app for that!
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Photo Credit: PR screenshot

MAPS.ME lets you see and search maps any time and any place, without an Internet or cellular connection

Imagine trying to survive for a few hours, let alone a few days, without Internet access. Sounds awful, right?

Well, that’s the situation faced every day by travelers and vacationers. Even if they’re visiting a major city, they often have to pay extortionate roaming charges to connect to the Internet through a 3G network. But if they disconnect, how will they navigate their new surroundings? Where is the closest public bathroom? Metro stop? These questions could put a damper on their holiday fun.

Even worse, imagine the distress of a backpacker who gets lost in the wilderness. Just when she could really use a map, she has no way to get one.

In comes MAPS.ME

MAPS.ME was founded in 2011 by Belarusian cartographer-coders Alex Zolotarev and Yury Melnichek to address precisely this problem. When Alex travelled to Cuba, he found there was only one Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana and it cost $8 an hour. Founder Yury Melnichek was dismayed to find a similar paucity of web access in Sri Lanka.

The pair (along with two other business partners) created a mapping app that can be accessed offline, without an Internet or cellular connection, and with just your phone’s GPS.

Users of the app can find useful places – cafes, shops, parking lots, ATM machines and landmarks – by pinning them in advance or simply relying on the information other users have entered. Users can also search, bookmark places and even create routes, all in offline mode.

The app has seen 7 million downloads so far, mostly consisting of business travelers, leisure travelers and wilderness enthusiasts.

Why do we need any other mapping apps beyond Google Maps or Waze?

Hasn’t mapping been perfected already? Actually, no.

The answer is quite interesting. MAPS.ME and related mapping apps rely on something called OpenStreetMap, which is to Google Maps and Waze what Wikipedia is to, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica. Like Waze, OpenStreetMaps is crowdsourced, but the resulting maps are free of charge to outside developers. Any information that users add to the maps does not become the proprietary data of a multibillion dollar company.

Furthermore, say the founders of MAPS.ME, cities like Minsk, as well as small towns and villages throughout the world, are much more detailed in OSM. OSM’s information is updated very rapidly and even contains features that don’t exist on other map services, like hiking trails, drinking fountains and benches.

Competitors to MAPS.ME include Osmand, a navigation app based on OSM data, and City Maps to Go.

MAPS.ME earns money by offering a Pro version that costs $5. In the last month, 17 percent of the app’s downloads have been in Russia, followed by the United States at 14 percent, and China at 4 percent.

MAPS.ME was recently acquired too

The bootstrapped company was acquired on Thursday by the Mail.Ru Group, one of Russia’s giant email and social media firms. The company will integrate MAPS.ME into its platform, with plans for aggressive expansion abroad. An app that doesn’t require Internet service could be particularly attractive in the developing world, Mail.Ru executives have said.

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Simona Weinglass

About Simona Weinglass

I’m an old-school journalist who recently decided to pivot into high-tech. I work in high-tech marketing as well as print and broadcast media covering politics, business culture and everything in between.

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  • david.oxley

    This sounds fine but what would happen if you wanted to make a call as well. I would want to be able to use my phone to make calls using an international sim cards from the likes of Telestial or Go Sim which by the way do use GPS.