Everyone has heard of Google Maps, which in 2009 became the most widely used mapping tool. But what are some of the lesser-known travel tips and tricks for using Google Maps? Here are five worth checking out.
1. The "Find Me" Button.
You don't need a cell phone with a GPS chip lurking inside to be able to pinpoint your location automatically on an online map. When using a desktop or laptop computer, Google can estimate where you are based on the WiFi signal you're using, along with collecting data from your browser. To take advantage of this automatic geo-location feature, search on your city, and then click the small circle in the left-hand corner of the screen between the zoom-in/zoom-out slider bar and the giant navigation circle. Google will plot a blue dot on the screen at your location.
2. Find a hotel in a specific neighborhood.
Go to google.com/hotelfinder. Type in your US destination and see it in Google Maps. You can then spotlight the area you are most interested in staying in by drawing a box around it on your screen. Google will then fetch rates for hotels located in that district for the travel dates you request. Google will even tell you if today's rates at those hotels are above or below the average going rate for the hotel.
3. Get an instant sight-seeing tour of your destination.
Go to citytours.googlelabs.com, punch in the name of your destination, and then enjoy a customized, day-long sightseeing itinerary, with suggested landmarks to see and a detailed walking map with directions. Click on any landmark's name to find opening times or other details.
4. Get turn by turn transit directions (so you know when to get off a bus or train).
Okay: This feature requires that you have an Android smart phone. Search for "Google Maps" in the Android Market and download the Google Maps mobile app. You'll get stop-by-stop directions for buses and light rail in over 400 cities. The tool will even buzz you when your stop is coming and that you have to get off. But you'll need a data connection, of course, so this tool won't work in a subway. Click here if you need an explanatory video.
5. Download an offline map to go.
This feature also only works on Android phones. You'll need to use the Google Maps app or view Google Maps through your device's Internet browser.
The problem: If you're traveling overseas, you may not want to ring up a bunch of roaming charges for using a data connection on a foreign carrier. After all, Google Maps needs a data connection to download map details, and the data connection can ring up your bill when you're roaming on a different network than your home carrier's.
The solution: Download a giant map of your destination and then save it to use offline on your phone during your jaunt. Here's how: Before you leave your hotel and while you still have access to WiFi or strong data coverage, find your destination on the map by doing a search, such as by typing "Atlanta" into the search box. In your left-hand screen, underneath some photos, you'll see the word Places and a list of notable landmarks. Click on any one of these open up a Places page near your destination. (It doesn't matter which one, as long as it is in your destination.) Then click on "More." You'll see an option to click to download a map of the area for a 10-mile radius. That size map is large enough to cover most area you might cover on a walk or drive around town. It's now saved on your phone and you can use it offline to zoom in on any relevant part of your trip, without needing a data connection. Sadly, this feature doesn't work on iPhones.
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