Be your own travel guide: tips to travel smarter with Google Maps


Going on a trip can be such a stressful experience. There are hotel reservations to make, restaurant reservations to place, activities to plan out, and tickets to buy. What if you forget something, or you discover that the place you wanted to visit for your dream vacation falls far short of being anything anyone would describe as a dream?

I do recall a time when people planned out road trips using paper maps. In fact, I still have memories of my dad staying up late the night before a trip, and tracing out the whole route in pencil on a paper map that he would fold up and hand to my mother the next day. She was the navigator. Unfortunately, she was also a nervous wreck on the road (no pun intended), and spent more time screeching about my Dad’s reckless driving than she did focusing on the map and providing driving directions.

Things are so different today. Now there are GPS devices. Even better, most smartphones provide mapping applications that are just as effective — if not more effective — than many GPS devices on the market today. One of the best online mapping services on the planet at the moment for preparing for a big trip is clearly Google Maps.

Google Maps provides solutions for all the issues you face when planning a major trip. In this article, I’m going to walk you through the ways you can use Google Maps to plan every aspect of your next big trip, starting with hotel reservations, all the way to predicting the weather, and planning out your transit routes. Once you’re done here, there will be no unfortunate surprises left to ruin your dream vacation.

Creating Your Trip Map

The first order of business of course is creating the trip map itself. This is the digital version of that paper map you used to scrawl directions and notes all over. Well, now you’re going to fill in your digital Google Map with those directions and notes. Some of these you might have heard of, while other Google Maps features may be new to people. Using all of these features on a single map makes this an ideal tool for planning a big trip.

You can create your map when you find your first location to save to it. For most trips, the first spot you’ll want to set up is probably the hotel. I’ll cover hotel research on Google Maps in the next section, but the way to create your map once you find it is to click on the location and click on “Save to map”.

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Change the dropdown to “Create a new map…” and then click the Save button. This creates a new map under “My places”, which you’ll see in the left pane next to the Google Map you have up. You can rename the map to whatever you like, and also make it either publicly available to anyone online, or keep it as a private, unlisted map.

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If you’re planning out a personal family trip, the odds are you will probably want to keep it Unlisted.

Researching the Perfect Place to Stay

Google Maps is definitely my favorite place to research for the best hotels to stay at. During my trip planning for Orlando, I went to the Google Map for Orlando, Florida, and then in the search field typed “hotels”. All of the hotels in the area show up on the map as location markers, and all along the left pane you’ll find the addresses, phone numbers, and reviews for each hotel.

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When you see the one that looks like it’ll make the perfect place to stay during your trip, just click on the location marker. On the larger box that comes up, you’ll see the Save to map option. Once you click “Save to Map”, this is where you’ll either create the new map described above, or just select the map you’ve already created. You also usually have the option here to click on the actual hotel website link so you can research it further.

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By the way, if you click on the reviews link for the hotels, you’ll be swept off to the hotel’s Google + review page.

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There, you’ll typically find the address and phone number, all of the available reviews from other Google users, and best of all there’s usually a booking price right on the page and a link to book the hotel.

Travel Plans and Transit

If you’re driving through a city during your trip, the first thing you’ll want to check out is the traffic layer. You can enable that view just by clicking on the Map icon in the upper right corner and enabling the “Traffic” option.

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What good does looking at current traffic do for you when you’re planning a future trip? Well, the cool thing about the Traffic view is that you can click on the “change” link and set the view to show you what the traffic typically looks like at a certain time and day.

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If you know you’ll be driving through a city during your trip on a certain day and time, you can identify the potential problem spots using this tool, and try to avoid them by taking alternative routes during your trip. You’ll be surprised how much time this tactic can save.

The feature that I used most often during a business trip to Philadelphia last year was the Transit feature in Google Maps. I absolutely love this feature when I’m ever visiting a city with a public transit system. To enable it, just click “Get directions” in Google Maps, type the two addresses that you’ll be traveling to and from using public transit, and make sure to click on the “Public Transit” option in the navigation menu. That one looks like a city bus.

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This set of directions gives you bus numbers to take in order to navigate your way through your route. This display will show you public transit entry/exit points for things like the subway or for bus pickup and drop-off points. You’ll see the path that you’ll be traveling using public transit highlighted in blue.

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If you’re really confused by the local public transit system, just scroll down the navigation details in the left pane, and you’ll find detailed walking directions that will tell you exactly what to do along each leg of the route. It’ll tell you exactly how far to walk and what buses or other public transit to take along the way.

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Best of all, if you click to print the public transit navigation details, you’ll even get a detailed printout that includes the time that the trip will take, and the total cost of all public transit fees.

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You can print this out as a PDF and save it on your smartphone. Now you don’t have to worry about not having enough cash on hand – you’ll know exactly how much you’ll need before you even head out!

Watching the Weather

Another useful feature in Google Maps for planning your trip is the Weather layer that you can enable by clicking under the map icon in the upper right corner, and then selecting the weather layer. What you’ll see is a pretty cool grid of temps and little weather-condition icons over each major city or town in the area you’ll be visiting.

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Knowing the weather is useful not only during your trip, but also for planning ahead when you want a decent forecast. On the pop-up 5 day weather forecast, you can click on the “10-Day” link to visit weather.com and get a longer weather forecast for the time you’ll be traveling to the area.

Exploring the Area

Do you want to see what an area is like before you decide to visit it? Thankfully, there are lots of ways to explore an area where you plan to vacation by using Google maps. One of those is to enable the Webcams layer in Google Maps.

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Once you do that, you’ll see all available webcams displayed on top of the map. Clicking on any one of them will show you a snapshot of the live webcams in that area. This is a great way to see what the size of the crowds look like in the area during certain times of day, or just checking out an area to see if it’s as nice as you expect it to be.

Another way to explore the area, which is also one of the more popular features in Google Maps of course, is Google Street View.

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The beauty of Google Street View is that there are now so many places in the world where you can explore special spots, even when the location is nowhere near any public road. This is the case for many of the Walt Disney theme parks by the way.

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 Take some time and explore those areas before your trip. Make sure that the location you want to visit really looks like the travel brochure describes, or how you’ve read about from reviews online. Doing this is actually a lot of fun, and you may even come across some pretty strange and amazing sights in Street View that you never expected.

Planning Your Itinerary

So, you’ve mapped your hotel, you’ve researched and printed a PDF of your public transit routes, you’ve explored the area in Street View, so what’s left? Well, don’t forget that the highlight of most vacations is food and activities. You can map out an itinerary of everything you find on Google Maps by just finding those interesting spots on the map and clicking “Save to Map.”

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You can save restaurants, theme parks, historic sites, and anything else that you discover in Google Maps to your convenient Trip Map that you created at the very start of your research. Once you’re done, you can just click on your saved map to check out or print your vacation itinerary.

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All of these features make it really easy and ultra-convenient to plot out your next vacation and make sure that you’ve got all your bases covered before you even take one step outside your door.

Have you ever used Google Maps to plot out your vacation? What other tools do you recommend that people use? Share your ideas and feedback in the comments section below!

(article by R.)

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