Making Friends with Mr. GPS in Switzerland

This is the third of four reports guidebook researcher/writer Cameron Hewitt sent me just this week from his travels in Switzerland and beyond:

One highlight of my time updating our Switzerland guidebook was making friends with the computer voice of my rental car’s GPS system.

When I picked up my car, the rental agent said, “Sorry, I don’t have the size of car you requested, so I have to give you something a little bigger.” It turned out to be a Skoda Superb (made by my favorite up-and-coming Czech automaker) and was literally at least double the size of the car I’d reserved. You could fit our Norwegian rental car in the backseat, and have room left for a Smart Car in the trunk. While it was nice to have essentially a luxury sedan for the trip, it was sometimes challenging to nudge my tank through narrow mountain roads and tight city parking garages.

The car came with a GPS system that spoke in a buttoned-down British voice. I developed a real love-hate relationship with the GPS guy, who occasionally saved me tons of time and stress, but more than once steered me very wrong. Like an over-earnest navigator desperate to make a good impression, Mr. GPS periodically suggested bizarre and impractical routings. On our first day together, he sent me up narrow mountain roads (in some cases, ones I wasn’t sure I was legally allowed to drive), where I dodged cows and looked longingly down at the big, fast highway in the valley just below. (I’m guessing my GPS wanted to treat me to the “scenic” route. Yeah, thanks.)

On another occasion, I drove halfway across the country (from Gruyeres to Appenzell) at rush hour, hitting big traffic jams around Bern and Zürich. In order to “help” me avoid traffic on the Bern outerbelt, my GPS directed me to an exit to take surface roads through the city. Little did I know that he planned to send me straight through the heart of downtown. He was as confused as I was… “Turn left in 100 meters. Turn left now. No! Wait! Please make a U-turn if possible.” As I found myself doing a three-point turn right in front of the Bern train station, trying to ignore the bewildered stares of rush-hour commuters, I decided that Mr. GPS was on thin ice.

My increasing wariness proved useful a few days later, when — on the way from St. Moritz to Lugano via Italy’s Lake Como — I realized Mr. GPS had just directed me right past the Lugano turnoff. Hitting the brakes and checking the map, I figured out he was aiming to send me on the freeway, then on a ferry across the lake. I stuck with the slower roads on the correct side of the lake, and got in an hour earlier. (It reminded me of a recent news item, in which a Swedish couple touring Italy mistyped “Capri” as “Carpi” — and wound up several hundred miles from their intended destination.) The lesson: GPS is only useful in conjunction with a good map and some common sense.

The GPS guy would talk right over any music I was listening to. This created some odd duets. One time, listening to Janis Joplin on the radio, I heard, “Come on, take another little piece of my heart, now, baby… Please make a U-turn if possible.”

Pondering why I’m so fixated on my GPS experiences, I realize it’s probably because Mr. GPS was my main company for a few days. Now that he’s pestering some other driver, I kind of miss him.


15 Replies to “Making Friends with Mr. GPS in Switzerland”

  1. And this is why I take my own GPS with me…LOL! Although I had to wonder sometimes in Ireland last week when the road was somewhere off to the right or left of where the arrow icon (indicating where the car was) was floating in space.

  2. I had my GPS literally driving me in a circle last summer in Treis-Karden. So when I abandoned it and ventured off on my own I ended up going down a road so narrow I had to fold in the side-view mirrors to get through! Later in the trip, while driving from Innsbruck to Hallstatt, we were warned of a major traffic jam up ahead on the A-bahn and were detoured down a narrow, winding highway through some gorgeous countryside. However the entire way I was asking my wife, ‘How the heck do we know it’s right?” Ah, the memorable experiences travel gives us!

  3. We rented a car out of Florence last summer with a GPS, which proved very useful. Unfortunately, on the return to the car rental, the GPS directed us through the heart of Florence ZTL, (restricted zones) We had to go around a roundabout twice, because we missed a turn which led to two photographs of our license plate. Six months later we received two tickets for $160 each for violating the restricted zone. GPS is great, but don’t rely on it completely!

  4. Rachel….Interesting that you had a problem getting to the Wieskirche, as my GPS was dead on. Must have had something with my car being a BMW! :-)

  5. Love the GPS ( i got a garmin nuvi ) brought mine to Ireland this summer and it had even the smallest roads in the west of Kerry …but the trick to GPS is before u take off u can preview the route it has planned and double check that it makes sense it was fun to hear it try to pronounce the street names in the Gaeltacht region

  6. Thanks for my laugh of the day, Cameron. You’ve captured the GPS experience perfectly! We had a similar problem with my brother-in-law’s GPS in the Czech Republic — almost missed our bus connection to Prague for our flight home because it kept sending us in circles due to road construction in Brno.

  7. I vote for a Cameron Blog! This is fresh stuff. I love it. I have been lost as hell with my Garmin. God forbid the road you need to be on is 30m from the one you are on. It has no idea.

  8. Like all the other neat stuff we Americans have nowadays, GPS is convenient and useful but tends to reduce us to a bunch of nervous geeks. Americans seem to have all of this stuff. One guy was pleased to demonstrate his new geek stuff(Ipod or Blackberry) or whatever to us during an RS tour. But, respectfully, gadgets make us so lazy and dependent. We can’t read a map anymore. We aren’t innovative. We can’t improvise. There is something to be said for retaining our basic skills. And extra effort plus discomfort reminds us about “the basics.” After all, if people had really been totally comfortable eons ago, would they have said “let’s invent fire?” And if you are traveling with an RS guide, you aren’t likely to have an ER at hand. But your guide’s simple CPR skills could save you after a heart attack. Remember, 100 strong compressions (near the upper center of the chest) per minute. bill

  9. Ah, our GPS stressed us out so many times on our trip (and yes, I read maps very, very well). Ours also tried to take us down a hiking path, and despite updating with brand new maps, didn’t know how to react when the A-Bahn was closed for construction (and yes, the maps did come in handy, then.) It did not like snow coming down in the Alps- lost the signal frequently!

  10. We had Ms. GPS in our Skoda wagon in Germany then. One U-turn based goose chase after another trying to figure its way around an over-turned truck on the A5 south of Frankfurt. I threw my international iphone data plan to the wind and consulted Google maps for a second opinion. A very expensive decision, but we did eventually get there despite the “help” of the GPS. What should have been a 2-3 hour trip was more like 5-6. Good thing we had only planned to be in transit that day.

  11. We used a GPS all over Europe for six weeks. My brother named her ‘Hazel’ after maid in the old TV show–she may have been the servant, but things usually worked out best if you did what she told you to do. There were occasional ‘What were you thinking?’ moments, but the benefits far outweighed the problems, and it gave us the chance to feel smarter than a machine, which can be reassuring!!! Saved us a bundle on buying detailed maps. Hello to Cameron, who was just starting out as the assistant guide on my Eastern Europe tour years ago–now he writes the book, and I’m not surprised!!

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