I Put Waze and Google Maps to the Test on My Commute

Like many families, mine begins its morning with a mad dash out the door. But unlike most parents, I have seven kids. And they attend four different schools. Our morning routine straddles a fine line between organization and utter chaos—and after I get all of my older kids to school, I have to drop my youngest daughters off at kindergarten on the other side of Seattle. During rush hour.

Apple Maps #Fail

The first few times I made the trek across Seattle, I used Apple Maps to get me there. I was late for my parent-teacher conference and my daughters were almost late for their first day of school.

Every day, no matter how horrific the traffic was on the freeway, Apple Maps jauntily advised me to take the freeway, claiming that the trip would take about 35 minutes. And every day, the actual trip took at least an hour. I was ready to tear my hair out.

Google Maps Vs Waze

Enter Waze. As soon as I made the switch, it began sending me along byways I had never heard of. Within days, our commute time plummeted from an hour to a solid 35 minutes. But even as I praised Waze to everyone who would listen, I wondered if it was the very best app out there. Could I get our drive to come in at under 30 minutes? Could Google Maps outperform Waze?

I decided to put the two apps to the test. Over the course of three weeks, I used each app to map our drive across Seattle in rush-hour traffic. We left at the same time every day, give or take 10 minutes, and I gave each app a chance to get us to our destination faster. I kept track of their time estimates and how long it the trip really took. Here's what I found out.

Both Apps Are Complete Liars

No matter which route Waze suggests I take—and it varies among four different ones—it assures me that I'll arrive at my daughters' school in about 30 minutes. Sometimes, it even projects a supremely optimistic 25- to 27-minute commute time. Every time, it actually takes somewhere between 35 and 40 minutes. I've learned to add about 10 minutes to whatever time projection Waze gives me, just to be on the safe side.

Google Maps is even worse. It consistently tells me I will arrive at my destination in 25 to 30 minutes, but because the routes it gives me are less efficient, my real drive time is about 40 minutes (on a good day). Yikes.

There's No Winner When Traffic Is Light

Every so often, the angels sing and I encounter little or no congestion on my commute. On those days, both Waze and Google choose the same routes and get us to school in just over 30 minutes. If you don't need to account for traffic very often, you'll probably be equally pleased with either app.

But Waze Is the Clear Winner for Traffic Projections

Days of light traffic are rare in Seattle. Traffic is unreliable, and there's no such thing as a route that will work well every day. The only traffic rule that is almost always valid at rush hour is, Don't use the freeway.

But no matter how bad traffic is on the interstate, Google Maps routinely sends me there.

Waze on the left, Google Maps on the right. Why the freeway, Google? Why?

This morning, Google Maps clearly showed the freeway as red—full of traffic, a must to avoid, for God's sake don't go there—and yet it tried to send me that way, offering a time estimate of 35 minutes.

I know from prior experience that the freeway during rush hour will take closer to an hour (and I can't drop my kids off late for the sake of this article), so I cheated on Google Maps with Waze, which got me where I needed to be in 30 minutes, using backroads. I took the freeway home, just to verify that it really was a nightmare—and sure enough, I would still be sitting there if I had trusted Google Maps this morning.

Neither App Can Account for Unexpected Obstructions (Like Trains)

Waze isn't perfect. One morning it overreacted to mild traffic and sent me in a massive circle around Seattle that took 15 minutes just to get me a few blocks from where I had began. Then it tried to send us across train tracks, where we got trapped by a never-ending train. No matter how many times I noted it as a problem in the app, Waze kept trying to send me the same way. I switched to Google Maps, but it tried repeatedly to send me across the tracks as well. Ultimately I had to make my own way through unfamiliar streets.

We barely made it to school as the gates were closing, and I was cursing both apps the entire time. Trains 1, Waze/Google 0.

Waze Has Entertaining Voices (to Make Your Commute Less Awful)

My son often loads Waze on his Android phone during our commute, and he entertains us by having our directions spoken in all sorts of random voices, including Tyler Perry as Madea. When I try to have Waze speak to me on my iPhone, it's highly unreliable. I got a newer phone during my testing and Waze now speaks to me most of the time, so it may be an issue only with older iPhones.

Google Maps has just one default voice, so there's no fun to be had with voices on your commute. This matters more than you might think before you've had your second cup of coffee.

The Bottom Line

Both apps are light-years ahead of stock maps (I'm looking at you, Apple Maps), and they'll get you where you need to go. Both apps also offer the ability to choose your route, although Google Maps makes this option more obvious and easier to select while on the go than Waze does.

For people who travel in areas where traffic patterns are fairly reliable, either app would be a good choice. But for people like me, who fight city traffic every day, Waze is by far the best choice out there, at least for now. Even so, neither Waze nor Google Maps—and certainly not Apple Maps—can get my daughters to school in under 30 minutes, no matter what they promise.