What's better than Google?

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Google mashups, of course.

Before you take your next trip, don't just settle for a standard map of your destination. Go online first to see if some creative person has whipped up a free, customized map. New mashup Google maps highlight selected locations with boxes that fly over the maps and typically display addresses and phone numbers.

Here's the fastest way to see if there's an enhanced map of your destination. Visit this website, Google Maps Mania. Then search on your destination either by clicking on the "By Country" link or by entering your destination's name in the website's search box. You'll find both the link and the search box in the top right-hand corner of the website's main page.

For example, click on this Prague 360 map. Besides seeing the typical Google map of the Czech capital, you'll see teardrop-shaped markers for various spots around the city. By clicking on each marker, you'll see photos of the location or additional information about events scheduled to take place there. For instance, if you click on the link "Flying above Petrin Tower -- Prague Skyline," you'll see a 360-degree image of Prague's skyline, which you can click and drag for an adjustable view. (Neat!)

This service allows you to plan for aspects of your trip in ways that your guidebook won't. Budding photographers can spot the most promising locations for taking scenic photographs. Nightlife-lovers can find out about the latest lineups at top concert venues. Travelers willing to take public transportation can plot out where subway and tram stations are in relation to their hotel.

Many U.S. and Western European cities have well-developed Google Map Mashups, which you can find by clicking here. However, most destinations around the U.S. and the world still don't have a lot of customized maps available. If the location of your next trip doesn't have a cool map now, bookmark the Google Maps Mania site and check back six months from now. New maps may have been developed by then.

Another cool planning tool is Google Earth, which incorporates satellite data into Google's streetmaps. Learn about the latest cool features of this free software by clicking here.

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