What’s the app you use most while traveling? Probably something that helps you find your way round, right? Google Maps is the best of the lot, with accurate navigation, detailed maps, and loads of features that keep getting added and updated all the time.
Many of those extras are hidden away in menus and settings, though, and you often won’t find them in daily use. To help out, we’ve spent far too much time digging through every part of the app and website, and uncovered thirteen of the most useful Google Maps tricks and secrets for travelers.
They’ll save you time, money and energy, help find places you didn’t even know existed, keep a journal of your entire trip, and a whole bunch more. Enjoy!
No, You Don’t Need Internet
Let’s get this one out the way right off the bat: you don’t need an Internet connection to use Google Maps on your phone or tablet. In a world where roaming data is typically still expensive, slow or both, this is a huge bonus.
While the company has messed around with offline support a lot over the years, it now lets you download maps to the app ahead of time, and use them while traveling. You can even keep your phone in flight mode while navigating, since GPS will still work.
You can do this for as many cities or regions as you like (or at least, as you have storage space for), then delete them when you’re done. You’ll want to download them over Wi-fi, since the maps can be quite large.
You can only get driving directions (not walking or cycling), but you can still see where you are, and find any address or landmark just by searching for it. Due to licensing, language and other restrictions, not every country is available for offline use, but most are.
To download a map, search for any address (or just the name of a city or region) in the app. Swipe up from the bottom to get more information, and tap the Download button. Zoom in or out to select the exact area you want, then tap Download. To manage the areas you’ve already downloaded, tap the menu icon in the search box, then choose “Offline areas”.
PS: It’s worth downloading maps even if you will have a data connection, since the app will still use the offline map if it can. This is faster, and reduces the amount of data you’re using.
Create Custom Travel Maps (Even on Mobile)
I’m surprised more people don’t take advantage of Google’s custom map maker, really. It’s a good way of creating a visual itinerary for yourself, or showing others where you went on your travels. The tool is super-easy to use, and custom maps can be shared with anyone else as needed.
While you can’t use the usual Maps app to create custom versions, there are a couple of little-known tricks that let you view, edit and create custom maps on mobile.
On Android, you can download the dedicated My Maps app. That app doesn’t exist for iOS, but you can use this URL to do the same thing in Safari on your iPhone or iPad. That same link also works in desktop browsers.
Add Multiple Stops to Your Journey
We all know not every journey goes straight from A to B. Wouldn’t it be nice to plan out your route for the day all at once, with multiple stops along the way? Well, you can.
Just get directions between the first two locations as usual, then tap the menu icon on the top right and choose ‘Add Stop’. Search for the next location, and click ‘Add Stop’ as many times as you like until your route is finished.
You’ll see the route mapped out in the app, with each stop assigned a letter. You can change the trip method (car, walking, etc), drag a stop to a different spot if you need to change the order, and delete or add new stops while you’re on the go.
Don’t Let a Slow Device Hold You Back
If your laptop is a bit of a dog, or you’re using the website instead of the app on your mobile device, you may have noticed the Google Maps site can be a bit slow to use. Good news: there’s a special ‘lite’ version that speeds things up by turning off non-essential parts of the site. It’s supposed to switch automatically if it needs to, but the process isn’t perfect.
Fortunately, there’s a way to activate the cut-down version yourself. Just click the lightning bolt near the bottom of the screen, or visit this link, and you’ll see a message saying you’re now in Lite mode. If the site is running slow, try this first before swearing at the screen.
Speed Up Your Searches
If you use the Chrome browser on your laptop and find yourself turning to Google Maps a lot, why not speed up the search process? Chrome lets you create text shortcuts to a wide variety of search tools, and Maps is one of them.
To create the shortcut, click on the menu icon (three vertical dots) on the top right of the Chrome window, and choose Settings. Scroll down to ‘Search Engines’, then click ‘Manage search engines…’.
Scroll down to the bottom of the ‘Other search engines’ section, and you’ll see three boxes for adding a new search engine. Type Google Maps into the first box, whatever text shortcut you want to use into the second box (I use gm), https://www.google.com/maps/search/%s into the last box, and click Done.
In the future, from the address bar of any tab on Chrome, type ‘<shortcut> <thing>’ to search for that thing in Google Maps. For instance, I’d type ‘gm statue of liberty’ or ‘gm 29 smith st’. You’ll be surprised just how much it speeds up your searches.
Near Enough Is Good Enough
Often when I’m in a new city, I know what I want (Thai food, for instance, or an ATM), but not where to get it. That’s where the word “near” becomes very useful. Google Maps understands that concept, so you can search for things like “thai restaurant near 22nd and 10th”, or “atm near me”, and get a few useful suggestions.
It doesn’t get things right all the time… but then again, neither do I. More often than not, though, it helps me track down what I’m after without having to think too hard about it.
Make Home and Work Have a Whole New Meaning
Google lets you save your home and work addresses for easy access, no matter which version of Maps you’re using. That’s helpful when you’re at home, but while you’re traveling, you’re unlikely to need to use either of them for navigation.
Instead, change one to be the address of your current accommodation, by clicking or tapping on the menu icon, then choosing ‘Your Places’. It only takes a few seconds, and makes it much easier to find your way ‘home’ for as long as you’re in town. That’s doubly true if you’re staying in an Airbnb rental, or anywhere else without a name you can search for.
Now, whenever you need to get back from a long day of exploring, just type ‘home’ or ‘work’ into the app’s search bar, and away you go.
Take Your Directions With You
Ever looked up directions on your computer, headed out the door, and promptly forget where you were going? Yeah, me too. While my Google Maps search history usually syncs up between my laptop and phone, it doesn’t happen straight away. If I leave the house straight away and don’t have cell data on my phone, I’m often out of luck.
Avoid that problem by sending directions directly to a phone or tablet. Once you’ve chosen your destination(s) and transport method, just click the ‘Send directions to your phone’ link highlighted above, and choose from email, text, or send directly to any of your devices Google knows about.
Time to Get Out the Measuring Tape
Did you know there’s a measuring tape built right into the app and desktop site?
On the website, right-click any point on the map, and choose ‘Measure distance’. Now click anywhere else, and the straight-line distance between the two points comes up. Keep clicking to add more points, and you’ll get the total distance between them all.
In the app, tap and hold anywhere to drop a pin, swipe upwards, and choose ‘Measure distance’. Scroll anywhere else to see the distance between them, and tap the + button to add extra points.
I use this to figure out the distance when planning to walk along a beach, through a large park, or anywhere else that streets and paths don’t go.
It Even Works Indoors
Most people only use Google Maps for finding their way around outdoors, but that’s not the only choice. Floor plans of airports, shopping malls, train stations, sports venues and other large public buildings around the world have been slowly showing up for a while now, and the list is growing all the time.
To see them, just zoom in on any of the places in the above list (there are many others), until individual shops and areas start being shown. For multi-level buildings, select individual floors via the numbers that show up on the side of the screen. You can even get walking directions between different parts of the building if you need them.
Tech getting you down?
Get our free 5000 word guide, plus regular tips, discounts and the best travel tech advice.
Who Needs Fingers Anyway?
If you use the app for driving, there are good reasons (and sometimes, strictly-enforced laws) why you shouldn’t be swiping around on your phone at the time. Fortunately, there are many built-in voice commands that let you do everything from avoid tolls to finding a gas station, getting an ETA or traffic report, and much more.
You can find the full list of commands here. To use them when you’re in navigation (ie, driving) mode in the app, just tap the microphone icon near the top of the screen, or say ‘OK Google’, and talk away.
There’s a Travel Journal Built Right In
Can’t quite remember the name of that great restaurant you went to last night, or where that amazing viewpoint was? If you had your phone with you at the time, it’s all good. Google has a better memory than you do.
Click on the menu icon in the top left of the Maps website, and choose ‘Your timeline’. Day by day, you’ll see a map of everywhere you went, along with the total distance traveled. Anywhere you stopped is highlighted, and there’s a detailed breakdown listed alongside. If you took photos at a particular place, they’ll show up too, so it’s very easy to figure out where you were.
The ‘Your timeline’ feature is also available on iOS and Android devices.
If that’s all a bit creepy for you, you can delete your entire timeline history, or just individual days. You can also turn the feature off entirely if you don’t like it, all from the Timeline settings menu.
Avoid The Hills
If you’ve ever visited somewhere hilly, you’ll know the shortest walking route is not always best. A longer, flatter option is often the way to go, especially if it’s hot outside (or you just don’t like climbing).
Google’s walking directions don’t really seem to take account of elevation changes — something I regularly discovered in Madrid and Lisbon — but its cycling directions do, and you’d often follow a similar route on foot. While not every city or country has been enabled for cycling instructions, it’s always worth checking whether your current hill-filled location has been.
If so, you’ll get a little elevation chart under each route option, and can pick the one that looks most appealing. It works on the website and in the app, although you’ll need to swipe up to see the full chart on the latter.
So there you go, thirteen Google Maps tricks that’ll help out any traveler. Any you didn’t know about? Got others to share? Hit up the comments below!