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18 Dec 2019

The best sat navs and free sat nav apps for driving home for Christmas

Tackle the festive traffic in confidence with our recommended sat navs and apps

Christmas is a time of rest and relaxation. Or, if you're one of millions of motorists getting ready to spend the holidays with far-flung relations, a potential nightmare scenario of being stuck in long tailbacks, in a car claustrophobically packed to the gunnels with presents and irritable children.

The RAC estimates that over 31 million additional leisure journeys will be driven this week up until Christmas eve. Today and Thursday are set to be particularly busy, as those looking to get away battle for road space with commuters and shoppers.

You can, of course, get one-up on the jams and minimise the potential for delays. Simply use a portable sat nav or smartphone sat nav app that's easy to set up and follow, and crucially has access to live traffic data.

We thoroughly test both sat navs and sat nav apps, so we know that not all are created equal. The worst have messy maps, are hard to read and are vague when telling you where to go. Avoid these like the plague, unless you want to end up seething, rather than full of Christmas spirit.

Below, we round-up recently tested sat navs to see which will get you home in style - including one aimed at camper and caravan drivers, just in case you're really going all out on your road trip this Christmas.

See our expert pick of the best sat navs.

Sat nav vs sat nav apps vs free sat nav apps

Not sure which type of sat nav is right for you? Use our quick guide:

  • Standalone sat nav - these usually have traffic and other data services thrown in with no usage limit. But they are much more expensive than apps.
  • Sat nav app - probably a better bet for casual users. You'll need to watch your data allowance, as live services can quickly consume data - particularly for paid-for apps. Plus some paid-for apps perform better on certain phones.
  • Free sat nav apps - in return for keeping your credit card tucked away, you will have to do without useful features. Plus you may have to put up with banners and pop-ups.

Waze (iOS and Android), free

Free app Waze is available for both Android and Apple smartphones.

While it's not quite as well-rounded as some paid-for sat nav apps, Waze's crowd-sourced traffic data (from other users on the road around you) means it quickly identifies building jams and automatically (and sensibly) re-routes you to save time.

The map is easy to follow, but audio instructions can sometimes suffer from poor timing, and are sometimes confusing around complicated junctions.

That said, it's easy to program and use. If your passengers get bored of singing along to Christmas songs, they can help other users by marking road works or other incidents you come across.

Thanks to a live search function, you can accurately find destinations - even if you don't know the full name or address. Whether you want to master the daily commute or just need a navigation app for emergencies, Waze is certainly worth a look.

To find out how this free app fared in our lab and road tests, head to our full review of either Waze for AndroidorWaze for iOS.

TomTom Go Navigation (iOS), freemium app

TomTom is a leading brand for portable sat navs and this is its freemium app for iOS devices.

This means you're allowed 50 miles of free navigation a month, before being offered a one-, three- or six-month subscription, currently priced £1.99, £4.99 and £8.99, respectively.

Subscribing gives full access to TomTom's live traffic data and speed camera location database. It's light on data consumption, too, so you won't have to worry about running out of allowance mid journey. However, its maps will take up a lot of your phone's memory.

So is the TomTom Go Navigation for iOS worth having on your iPhone? See our full TomTom Go Navigation review.

TomTom Go Basic 5, £119

The TomTom Go Basic 5 may sit at the bottom end of the brand's range, but you still get the essentials, including lifetime traffic data via a paired smartphone.

There's also a three-month speed camera database trial thrown in, which can be extended at extra cost.

It does without the voice recognition and hands-free calling of TomTom's more expensive devices, which may not bother you.

You do get full European mapping and you can update maps cable-free over wi-fi, so it's easy to make sure you have the most up-to-date navigation.

Coming in at over £100, is this entry-level sat nav worth buying? See how it performed in our comprehensive lab assessment - TomTom Go Basic 5 review.

Garmin 780 Camper LMT-D, £330

If you're really going to town with your Christmas getaway with a caravan adventure, you'll have slightly more specific requirements than your average motorist.

Idyllic country lanes covered in snow might sound festive, but if you've got an oversized vehicle, you'll be more concerned with not getting stuck than enjoying the scenery.

Thankfully, Garmin's 780 Camper model is designed for just that situation. It allows drivers to input the specific dimensions of their motorhome or caravan and automatically avoid roads that are too narrow and bridges that are too low.

You can also avoid U-turns, weight limits and steep slopes, and you won't even need to lift a finger to operate it as it can be done by voice - even if its word recognition can sometimes be slightly hit and miss.

Free traffic updates are available via DAB, but you can also pair your mobile phone for a greater array of live services.

Find out how this camper and caravan sat nav fared in our comprehensive lab assessment. See our expertGarmin 780 Camper LMT-D review.

TomTom Go Premium 6, £315

TomTom's range-topping bells and whistles model is expensive and may be overkill for the occasional journey. But it could make the ideal companion (and Christmas present, if someone's been particularly good this year) for anyone who spends a significant amount of time at the wheel.

There's plenty of premium touches, too, including a capacitive touchscreen and an easy to install magnetic windscreen mount, making installing it and taking it down again after each journey a doddle. There's also voice recognition.

Added to this is global mapping and a lifetime traffic subscription through a built-in Sim card, meaning you will never have to use your phone's data to stay on top of the jams on your journey.

Weirdly, though, you do need to connect one if you want to use the device's Google-style live destination search, but this is a minor quibble.

Discover if this range-topping model is worthy of Best Buy status in our full TomTom Go Premium 6 review.