Printed maps and hand-written directions are often still your best bet when you're traveling through an area with little or no connectivity. But Google Maps now offers another alternative to help you find your way: offline navigation and search.

Google Maps product manager Amanda Bishop gave a sneak preview of these new capabilities during the Google I/O conference in May. At that time, she demonstrated how the feature allowed her to access road maps, turn-by-turn voice directions as well as reviews and hours for local attractions in Mexico City -- even when her phone was in airplane mode.

"With offline maps, you won't need to suck down expensive data or have super reliable connectivity every time you want to navigate somewhere," Bishop said at the conference. "Google is committed to making our platforms and our products work well for the next billion people who are going to come online."

Designed to 'Prevent Large Data Fees'

In a blog post today, Bishop explained that such offline capabilities are vital for large parts of the world. "Roughly 60 percent of the world is without Internet today, and even where online access is available, it can still be spotty," she said. "That means that quick and easy access to information is still not possible for a majority of the population."

The new offline navigation and search features enable users to download areas on Google Maps to their devices when they do have connections, and then lets them access that information even when there's no connection available or data access is prohibitively expensive. In fact, Google Maps by default will download areas to a device only when a Wi-Fi connection is available "to prevent large data fees," Bishop said.

Google began rolling out offline navigation and search capabilities today for Maps users with Android devices. Support for those features on iPhones and other iOS devices will be coming soon, Bishop said.

Offline Mode Works Where GPS Can't

Offline navigation will also help support another of Google's ambitions: driverless cars. While GPS navigation today enables many motorists to find their way in unfamiliar locations, it doesn't work where satellite signals aren't available, in places such as tunnels, underground areas or even densely forested areas.

Google's test vehicles have now logged nearly 1.27 million miles in autonomous mode, according to Google's most recent monthly report on its self-driving car Relevant Products/Services project, which sums up activity through October 31. Test cars are currently averaging 10,000 to 15,000 autonomously driven miles per week on public streets, the report noted.

In July, Google Maps also launched a feature called "Your Timeline" that allows users to view information about places they've previously visited. The feature is available to users who have opted to save their location histories.