Free Mapping APIs v. Paid Mapping APIs: A Brief Comparison

April 18, 2023

If a map API is an integral part of your mobile app, choosing the best fit for your mapping requirements depends on several factors, with cost typically near the top. Free mapping API options may sometimes be sufficient, but defaulting to them in order to streamline budgets could mean missing out on enhanced benefits that could take your app to the next level.

This brief comparison provides food for thought as you consider free and paid map API options.

Free Map APIs

The appeal is obvious — there’s no cost for these APIs. The varied and rich data sets available, along with access to certain map features — like OpenStreetMap’s amenities, buildings, highways, places, shops and waterways — are also compelling reasons to use free map APIs.

However, without clearly understanding the downsides of the free options, you could wind up paying a different price.

Quality Can Be Suspect

Since data is largely the product of volunteer mappers, there’s no consistent vetting or standardized process for creating maps. This means hit-and-miss reliability, as maps for one part of the world may be highly detailed while others are lacking.

There’s essentially no quality control, so there’s no telling how long inaccurate data could be present if no one catches such mistakes — putting your app’s reliability and reputation at risk. 

Accuracy Can Be Challenging

Metadata is usually not associated with free map API layers. Instead of embedding maps into web pages, raw geodata is commonly retrieved or saved to API databases or open-source mapping libraries, which aren’t always reliable. Even with thorough documentation (something that’s not guaranteed with free map API options), you could risk using figures that are out-of-date.

Data is Not Authoritative

There is typically no national resource, such as U.S. census data, against which free map API information is cross-checked and verified. It’s the Wild West out there.

No Centralized Support

Some information in a free map API may be flat-out wrong or misleading, and when that happens, there may be no one to turn to for help.

Limited Scalability

If an app grows popular with users, free APIs likely won’t be able to scale up with their increased usage, leaving developers stagnant or pushing them to a paid API.

Paid Map APIs

Investing in paid map APIs may be a non-starter for app developers constrained by tight budgets or those wanting easy access to mapper communities. Prices are typically either a flat fee or pay-per-use — which means the costs can vary greatly depending on how much you’ll use them.

Even though you may need to carve out a spot in your budget for them, the advantages of going the paid route generally justify the cost for app developers. 

In addition to opening a wider variety of APIs, with paid map APIs:

Quality is Guaranteed

It may sound trite, but you get what you pay for. Paid map APIs are regularly updated, ensuring accurate data that’s current and of the highest quality and reliability. There’s a team behind the product in paid scenarios, and that team is tasked with ensuring everything in the API is correct for its customers.

Documentation is Detailed and Readily Available

The consistent ease of use, availability of tools, and ability to embed maps into web pages makes paid map APIs invaluable to app developers, who might otherwise struggle to find this level of functionality in non-paid options.

Whether it’s the setup process or troubleshooting, many paid options have thorough written guidance easily accessible on their websites.

Data is Authoritative

The guaranteed quality and accuracy of paid map APIs are backed by unrefuted authority. Google Maps, HERE and TomTom, for example, continually collect and extract data using computer vision and machine learning, upon which they algorithmically build up layers for common and custom applications.

Centralized Support

With a paid API, teams of experts are ready to help you out if any trouble arises. Plus, if you work with a reseller like ADCi, you can have an even more personalized experience and a direct line of communication with the API provider.

Better Scalability

Paid APIs can handle increased usage, giving app developers the necessary flexibility to scale up if their app takes off in popularity.

Taking the Right Steps

Weighing the pros and cons of free versus paid will help guide you initially, but taking the time to assess how a map API needs to perform within the parameters of the app build will often narrow the available options and prevent missteps. 

Get to the appropriate solution faster using our tip sheet: 4 Steps App Developers Must Take to Build Apps Using Map APIs. Click the button below to access your copy today!

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