How I Travel: Using Google Maps to discover and map out a city

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I’ve talked a bit about how I don’t really enjoy some of the planning parts of travel – I don’t like price comparing flights, searching out deals, or spending tons of time on ratings websites. But one thing I do love doing is sussing out the place I’m going to stay and start to get a sense of the surrounding area even before I get there. That’s when I open up Google Maps and create a custom map for the trip. I have some Google Maps which have been around for years, and with each subsequent trip I add more landmarks, more suggestions, and often discover and chart out a new area in the city.

Here are some tips I have if you want to get started with it yourself – read on!

New York map

Create a map

In, search for something (usually your hotel or lodging is a good place to start), click on the pin, then “Save to map” and click on the drop-down and select “Create a new map” and Save.

Here are a few of my favorite maps:

Use the “Search nearby” function, a lot

Now that you’ve got at least one pin on your new map, I love clicking on it and selecting “Search nearby” to find all the essentials – coffee, of course, is the first thing I look for near my hotel. I know most hotels have coffee in the room, or even in the bar downstairs, but I like going outside for a few minutes, saying hi to the city, and getting my coffee, even if I head back to my room to work or have to go somewhere else after. It gets me going and it’s a few minutes I take for me. So that’s what I search nearby for, first. As you continue to use Google Maps moving forward, don’t forget you can click on any landmark in your search results, then “Save to Map” and select which map you want to save it to. I usually find some supermarkets and pharmacies in case I need to stock up on something or have an emergency, and then I start adding restaurants/bars/shops/clubs that I discover or have recommended to me. I love going through bloggers’ recommended lists and then throwing everything into my map! If you’re super advanced, you can click on the pin, and add a link in it to – Rename your map. Usually the map takes on the first name of the thing you’re adding it to (which is annoying), so make sure you navigate to “My Places,” click on the map name, then “Edit” and rename it.

Setting my home location:

Setting my home location

Searching for coffee near my “home” location of the Waldorf Astoria (note: I’ve never stayed there…)

Searching for coffee near my "home" location of the Waldorf Astoria

Results for coffee near my home location – I might save this one to my NYC map!

Results for coffee near my home location

Decide on a legend / color scheme

You can actually use your own images for the icons (check out my London map to see the WordPress logo indicating where I had a meetup one night), but I think the best way is to work with an icon scheme that you remember to group similar items. Here’s a look at mine and the icons I use:

  • Coffee cup: obviously coffee! sometimes breakfast places (bagel shops, bakeries)
  • Hamburger/Drink: Fast(ish) food or a cafe’ (not a restaurant).
  • Fork/knife: Restaurant
  • Martini glass: Bar / Drinks out, club
  • Basket: Supermarket
  • Snowflake: Gelato and Ice cream, naturally
  • Yellow house: I usually mark this as my home base, and it makes it really easy to do “Search Nearby” after clicking on the icon
  • Running guy: gyms and sports clubs
New York map

New York map

Set the privacy settings of your map

You really only have two listings for your maps – public and unlisted. Unlisted means only people with the URL can view it, and the public will not be able to find it. Click on “Collaborate” (upper left, after you’ve selected the Edit button) and make sure “Allow anyone to edit this map” is not clicked if you don’t want people to modify your map. Alternatively, you can explicitly invite people to collaborate on the map with you.

Do the prep at home on your computer or in your hotel room

This is best done through your desktop / browser where you can load tons of maps, open various tabs, etc., i.e., during the planning phase and not while you’re actually out and about on the street. Unfortunately you can’t access My Places from your iPhone (but you can from your Android phone), though I’ve heard you can get to them from the Google Earth iPhone app (but satellite imagery is a bit of a pain to download on those data plans!), through a free/paid app called “My Places for Google Maps,” or by navigating to on Chrome for iPhone. I haven’t been able to verify them myself so be sure to try it out yourself. Also, downloading maps can take up a lot of data and it’s best to do it while you have a wifi connection or if possible, download the city center maps to your phone locally (Android only, as far as I know), or at least spend some time loading them and navigating them while in the hotel room and they might remain in your phone’s cache while out and about.

And I got a preview of the new Google Maps recently which looks pretty awesome. Let’s hope those changes flow back to My Places, too!

Google Map: newer interface

Google Map: newer interface

Do you use Google Maps for travel like I do? What tips can you share? 

Read more about How I Travel with a peek inside what I pack in my carry-on!

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  1. says

    Ha, this is brilliant because I do exactly the same!

    I use the different icons, like you do, to denote hotels, restaurants, coffee/snacks, bars, shopping, and various tourist attractions. And the bed icon for hotels, of course.

    I only feed in the places I have a recommendation for, or have found enough detail on via Google to think will be special. Otherwise, we just wing it when there.

    I am an android user so will investigate the option to download for offline use, as I’ve not tried that yet.

    And I too have several such maps, going back several years!

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Kavey! Nice! I have a lot of recommended links and then I usually add a bunch of “local” links to my homebase since I’m often traveling for work and sometimes I also need some really local coffee, quick lunch, supermarket, pharmacy links, etc. :)

  2. says

    Yes, I use Google Maps too! It’s my savior in searching for and plotting gluten free and general allergen friendly places to eat.

    I also use it to plan my itineraries for longer trips. I actually wrote a post about using google maps to plot out the things you are interested in seeing which gives you a good visual of where you will want to spend your time. It’s also helpful for planning travel days and distances.

    • Ms. Adventures in Italy says

      @Adina – Nice re: itineraries! I usually definitely use the distance/directions features (esp. the directions / public transportation times in big cities) when I’m in a city, but haven’t really used it much for mapping out longer trips. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity soon :)

  3. says

    wow! A great tip, thank you :) I’m. Leaving my home in London for Italy (big adventure!) in May, and have just discovered your site-it’s gorgous

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