Cheapism: Best inexpensive GPS units

The Garmin Nuvi 40LM comes with free lifetime map updates.

When you’re driving unfamiliar streets or seeking a nearby spot to fill up your tank and your belly, it helps to have that patient, all-knowing GPS voice directing you to “exit to the right,” or, if you’ve ventured off-course, “make a legal U-turn when possible.”

Increasingly that voice comes from a smartphone, rather than a stand-alone device. With the right app, a windshield or dashboard mount, and a car charger (so you don’t drain the battery), you’ve got yourself an inexpensive navigation system. If you don’t own a smartphone, you can find a reliable, easy-to-use GPS starting at less than $100.

Below are the top budget picks from

  • The Garmin Nuvi 40LM (starting at $90) has earned the approval of hundreds of online reviewers with fast, accurate directions and attractive features. It lets you know which lane you should be in, identifies streets by name when telling you where to turn, warns you if you exceed the speed limit, and comes preloaded with more than 5 million points of interest. The purchase price includes free map updates for the life of the device. (Where to buy)
  • The Garmin Nuvi 50 (starting at $80), like the 40LM, has impressed users and experts with its pinpoint accuracy and user-friendly interface. But it differs from that model on two fronts: It has a larger screen that measures 5 inches diagonally, compared with 4.3 inches, and it requires users to pay a fee for map updates. To get a lifetime subscription, consumers must upgrade to the 50LM, which costs about $50 more on Amazon. (Where to buy)
  • The TomTom Via 1405TM (starting at $114) incorporates not only free map updates but also lifetime traffic alerts to help users avoid delays in real time. Reviews note that this 4.3-inch model may take a minute to come up with directions, but users can generally count on efficient routes that factor in real travel times and even fuel efficiency. (Where to buy)

The maps on these devices cover the continental U.S., Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. The TomTom model also includes Alaska, Canada, and developing coverage of Mexico, whereas Garmin charges extra for full coverage of the U.S. and Canada. Users can download additional points of interest to supplement the millions of hotels, gas stations, and other so-called POIs that are already installed on the three units. All Things Nav is affiliated with Garmin’s maps provider but explains how to customize any GPS with POIs ranging from historic sites to red-light-camera locations.

These devices are portable, but their rechargeable lithium-ion batteries last only a couple of hours. For consumers who venture far from their vehicles, Cheapism highlights a different take on a GPS: the handheld Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour (starting at $80). This model homes in on your location and keeps track of where you’ve been, so you can find your way back to a trailhead or campsite -- or, if you’re less outdoorsy, to your car in a megamall parking lot. Users who bring it on runs, hikes, and road trips get a kick out of seeing their routes rendered on a mapping app when they return.

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