I love to travel solo or semi-solo and Google Maps is the best companion, as not only does he help me find my way, he always let’s me get my way. We’ve had a lot of adventures together, but we’ve had to work at our healthy relationship. I’ve had to share a lot with Google Maps and keep him updated – good relationships are a two-way street, after all. So in order to take advantage of all my Google Maps has to offer and execute my tips below, I’ve had to be logged-in to my Google Maps application on my smart phone so it remembers who I am.
Once you’re signed-in, you can really discover the miracles of Google Maps. Here’s how it has made me a better traveler:
1. I can always find my way, with or without data, with Google Maps Offline Maps feature.
There is nothing more frustrating (and scary) than being exhausted after a long day as a tourist, trying to get back to your hotel, realizing you don’t know how to get back, and not having a data plan on your phone to feed your maps application to help guide you home. Usually I load my directions via WiFi at the restaurant where I eat dinner before I retire for the evening, but sometimes I forget and other times WiFi isn’t available. This is where Offline Maps is a lifesaver – it doesn’t need WiFi or a data plan to function (although it is slightly more limited than using Google Maps online as it doesn’t offer transit, bike, or walking directions). I make a point to add downloading Offline Maps to my to-do list for all the cities I plan to travel to before I leave on vacation.
Even if you think you don’t need Offline Maps because you have a rock star international data plan on your phone, you can never be too prepared. One night at a Paris metro stop I had unknowingly arrived just after the last metro I needed left for the night (Paris metros notoriously finish running relatively early in the evening on weekdays, like between 11pm and 12am). While I had data on my phone during my Paris trip, at the time I was in the metro tunnel with no usable data signal, unsure of what I should do next. Luckily I had previously downloaded Paris as an Offline Map on my phone and didn’t need a data connection to use it. While it couldn’t load transit directions, it was enough to let me cross-reference with the metro map to see how far it was to get to my hotel from a different metro stop with an alternative metro line that was still running from the stop where I was waiting.
2. I have the memory of a goldfish, so I always update my saved Google Maps “Home” location with the address of where I’m currently staying, no matter how briefly I’m there.
Sometimes the most obvious pieces of information can be the most elusive, such as the address of where you are staying in a foreign country. Take this familiar scenario, for example:
You get to your hotel or Airbnb via all the reservation information you printed out at the office before you left on your vacation. You check in to where you are staying, have a rest and a shower, and set out exploring for the rest of the day. You have a fruitful few hours of exploring and are ready to call it a day. You reach for your reservation information to reference the address of where you’re staying to tell the taxi you’re planning to take, and much to your chagrin, you realize you’ve left the print-outs with the address in your room. You panic. You remember what neighborhood you’re staying in, but not the street. What are you going to do? You could (A) Google your hotel address on your smart phone if you have data or via a found WiFi signal. (B) Run around searching for a knowledgeable local who’s willing to help you and speaks English. (C) Try to find your way on your own by meandering back in the direction you came from in the dark. (D) Sleep on a park bench and deal with it in the morning. (E) Ask Google Maps (in offline mode if necessary) to navigate you to your hotel because you remembered to store the address as Home when you left on your travels. I think by now you know which I’m choosing. 😉
Believe it or not, this scenario happens more than you think. I’ll never forget the lovely lunch I shared in Lecce with one of my great friends, Janet from New York. An American woman sat alone at the table next to us, and spent much of our lunch talking to us and asking questions. She left a bit before us, and as we were walking back to our Airbnb, we ran into her. She was lost. She asked us if we could help her get back to her hotel. I reached for my iPhone, and at the same time realized I had remembered her checking her email on her iPhone during lunch. I asked her, “You have an iPhone with data, don’t you?” She looked at me, confused, and answered, “Yes.” I responded, “Have you tried inputting the address of your hotel in your phone’s map for directions?” And she said, “You can do that?” Well, now you know, ha!
3. Google Maps tells me where the basics like ATMs and grocery stores are, wherever I am, which saves me a lot of time and hassle.
I hate paying fees to exchange money in advance of entering a country with a different currency. Instead, I arrive and plan to withdraw money in the local currency from an ATM (cash machine) asap. This plan has always worked out for me, especially since it is so easy to find ATMs in Google Maps.
While the ATMS are easy to find at airports and train stations, often these ATMs have the highest fees. Instead, I wait until I get into the city, open Google Maps, make sure it knows my current location, and just type “ATM” into the search function. It then displays a map with red dots all around me, each red dot representing an ATM location. I select one, ask Google Maps to give me walking directions, and head over and withdraw a small amount, knowing I can easily withdraw more when I need to.
Sure beats going to the bank in your hometown in advance of your trip and asking them to exchange $1,000 from your account into Euro, and then spending your travels worrying about getting robbed.
4. I navigate public transport like a local, wherever I am, with Google Maps Transit Directions.
While Google Maps Transit Directions are not available in every city, they are widely available, especially in cities that are major tourist destinations.
If transit directions are available where you are (and you can always check in advance of your trip by doing a quick test search), Google can tell you how to get where you want to be via public transportation. It will give you several different options of different lines and types of public transportation (bus, metro, train), and you can even edit the time you want to leave. For example, if I’ve made a breakfast date with a friend, I’ll check the transit directions on Google Maps the night before to see how long it will take me by changing the departure time to the following morning.
The transit directions even include walking directions to where you need to catch the bus, train, or metro. So there’s no excuse for spending the money on a taxi, Lyft, or Uber, especially since I’ve found that Google Maps has sometimes been more accurate with transit times than transit information posted locally. If only it went so far as to tell you how to open the door on the Paris metros. Then it would truly be a perfect travel companion.
Please note that Transit Directions are not available in Offline Maps, and are not accurate in the event of a transit strike or sometimes due to local holiday transit schedules.
5. Google Maps “Saved Places” feature helped me bar-crawl my way through the best-rated historic pubs of London.
Even though I could ride the London Tube like a pro if I had wanted to, thanks to Google Transit Directions, I had a lot of time on my hands during my trip to London, and I was determined to save every penny and not waste a single cent on Tube rides (although I found out at the end of my trip that the Tube graciously caps your daily ride cost to £6.50, no matter how much you ride in the city between certain hours, as long as you use your Oyster card).
Since I didn’t want to spend my money on the Tube, that meant a lot of walking. And London gets pretty chilly, even during the summer. If I was walking from, let’s say, The Photographer’s Gallery to, let’s say, East London to check out the amazing street art, I would want to stop to warm up every mile or so. Luckily, beer is quite economical in London, and half-pints even more so, running from £1.50 to £2.50. And, I happen to be a fan of beer, so what a great way to spend my money that I save from not using the Tube!
How did I manage to bar-crawl my way through London’s best pubs when I knew nothing about the city and even less about the pubs? I referenced my “Saved Places” on my Google Maps app, which, after I’ve saved a place, appears as a star on my map. Whenever I wanted a break from my walking, I just looked for the nearest star on the map and navigated myself there, or had Google maps give me walking directions. I would research the places I wanted to go with WiFi at my Airbnb at night, like articles about the best pubs in London, and when I found a pub that sounded promising, I punched it into my Google Maps app. When the app located the pub I was looking for, I pulled up on the screen for more options and clicked the star to save the location. And voila! Look what my map looked like after all that research (see below).
6. There’s no need to wait until I’m on vacation to do my research: I put Saved Places on my Google Maps whenever I get a tip about a good place to go, anywhere in the world, all year round.
I often find myself shuffling through my Instagram feed and drooling over friends’ delicious meals at fantastic places in Asia or Europe and deciding I’m going to go there one day. But I have the memory of a goldfish, so you and I both know I will never make it there. Unless, of course, I take advantage of the services of Google Maps. Now when I see an amazing meal a friend is eating on Instagram, or read a fantastic article about a city in the New York Times travel section, I immediately find and add the recommendations as Saved Places on my Google Map. Not only will that information be there whenever I make it to these cities, it gives me all the more inspiration for actually going in the first place because my research is already half-done!
7. Google Maps lets me save ANY location anywhere on my map, leaving me with no excuse for not finding my way to “unofficial places,” like the meeting point for a walking tour or the start of a hike a friend recommends to me.
I was on Facebook a few weeks ago, and saw a New York-based friend’s plea for Los Angeles-based friends to take a photo of a billboard her friend had designed that had just gone up in Hollywood. No one had replied to her plea, and I knew I would be in LA eventually, so I opened Google Maps and added a pin at the intersection the billboard was located. I labeled it “Billboard I need to photograph” so I can reference it the next time I’m in Los Angeles and it saved as another star on my map. Pretty easy.
I also used this feature when I was in London to save the meeting points for the many London Walks tours I went on. The walks were very educational (sometimes too educational, ha!) and economical, and we often met in front of metro stops or at well-known intersections. I would just drop a pin at the tour’s meeting point on my Google Map and label it with the name of the walking tour and the time we were supposed to meet.
Obviously, I am quite passionate about my love of Google Maps. I could go on and on and on…but I won’t. Keep in mind that technology changes quickly, and Google Maps is always changing/improving – the latest update makes it possible for Google Maps to pay attention to the travel and restaurant reservation info you make through your Gmail account. I will try to keep you up to date, but if all else fails, just play around with it and see what you come up with, or leave a comment here on my blog!