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!
Create a map
In http://maps.google.com, 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:
Searching for coffee near my “home” location of the Waldorf Astoria (note: I’ve never stayed there…)
Results for coffee near my home location – I might save this one to my NYC map!
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
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 maps.google.com 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!
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!