Google Maps: The Best Travel App Gets Even Better

Google Maps Review

After about a year of targeted deployment, Google began rolling out the latest update of its maps program to everyone last month. If you haven’t seen the newer, sleeker version yet, you soon will.

We’re always apprehensive when companies tinker with programs as awesome and essential as Google Maps. It’s safe to say that this is the program we rely on most when traveling, which is to say this is the program we rely on most – period!

We use it for everything. Need to find a grocery store? Use Google Maps’ “search nearby” feature. Need help getting somewhere? Use Google Maps’ directions. Want to plan a day’s itinerary in an orderly way? Create a personalized Google Map to see which things on your to-do list should be grouped together. 

While bugs and problems can always plague these kinds of things, we’ve been playing around with the new Google Maps and are pretty impressed with the updates.

Saved locations synch with mobile devices

Google Maps - Save Location on Your Desktop

The most important update for us is that Google has now made it possible to synch our desktop maps with the one on our Android smartphone. Previously we’d research a bunch of stuff on our laptops, plot out the order we’d want to do those things on Google Maps, and then write the addresses down on a sheet of paper so we’d have them while we were out and about.

Now we can do this all from our laptops and have the results automatically appear on our smartphone.

All we have to do is click a Google Map location, say Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library, and then hit the save button displayed as a star on the left hand of the screen. Once saved, that location is marked with a star and that star appears on both our laptop maps and in the Google Maps app on our smartphone.

These saved locations allow us to access all kinds of information while we’re traveling around. If we want directions we can just tap the star on our map and ask for driving, walking, or even public transportation directions. We can also pull up other important information such as operating hours, telephone number, website url, and nearby subway or bus stops. 

Improved Multi-Stop Mapping

With this latest update, Google has made it far easier to create and update multi-stop itineraries. With the older version, rearranging the order of a bunch of stops was pretty tedious. Now it’s just a matter of grabbing the little white dot next to a location in the list and dragging it to where you want it. The mapped route adjusts automatically to your changes.

Now it’s much easier to just throw a bunch of destinations at Google Maps like these in D.C.

Throw a bunch of destinations into Google Maps to get a sense of how to plan your day(s)

Punch a bunch of destinations into Google Maps to get a sense of how to plan your day(s)

And then simply re-order them to eliminate all that back and forth travel. With Google Maps “Classic,” re-ordering this to-do list in a logical way might have taken fifteen minutes. Now it takes about two.

Easily reorder that jumbled mess into an efficient itinerary.

Easily reorder that jumbled mess into an efficient itinerary.

One short-coming of this new version is that it seems to limit you to 10 different destinations. That’s probably enough for most trip planning, but we’d prefer to see that number expanded quite a lot.

Improved Directions

Google Maps Smartphone Directions

Public transportation directions get a huge upgrade in the new Google Maps.

We’ve also noticed a marked improvement in Google Maps’ directions. When giving walking directions Google Maps now routes us through parks and pedestrian thoroughfares instead of just keeping us on typical roads. 

The biggest upgrade we’ve seen, though, is with public transportation directions. In previous iterations of Google Maps this was a pretty useless feature. Not any longer. Now it’s our first stop for figuring out how to get places using an unfamiliar city’s trains or buses.

We tested it in both Washington, D.C., and New York City and probably used Google Maps’ suggestions nine out of ten times. It showed us exactly where we needed to walk to pick up the metro or the bus. It showed us where we needed to transfer to a different line and how to get form our final metro stop to our destination. It basically walked us door to door. 

It even successfully navigated the three trains we needed to catch to get from Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights to Park Slope.

Google Maps even figured helped us with this three-train head scratcher.

Google Maps even helped us with this three-train head scratcher, gave us four different options, and estimated how long each would take.

For most trips Google Maps gave us several different options for getting where we wanted to go and a surprisingly accurate estimate of the travel time for each option.

We don’t know yet whether Google Maps works as well in other cities as it did in D.C. and New York, but at least in these two it’s a real rock star.

Room for Improvement – Offline Maps

The biggest disappointment about Google Maps is its handling of offline mapping. Having access to maps without being connected to the internet is particularly important at times when you’re trying to avoid overseas roaming charges or are in locations with spotty cell service – something we expect to deal with a lot going forward.

While you can “cache” a map on your cell phone (click on Google Maps’ search bar, scroll down to the bottom of the screen, and select “Make this map available offline”) you lose basically all the functionality and features of Google Maps as long as you’re disconnected from the internet. Even basic search features and navigation are disabled while offline.

Other issues with Google’s offline maps include a limited size of the area you can “cache” and, to our knowledge, no functionality for organizing or deleting your cached maps. For these reasons we’re investigating competing offline mapping apps to use when Google’s otherwise incredible mapping software is, well, offline.

 

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13 Comments on “Google Maps: The Best Travel App Gets Even Better”

  1. vannillarock March 10, 2014 at 8:40 am #

    really useful review- i look forward to trying out some of the new features. thanks for posting!

    Like

    • Brian March 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm #

      You’re welcome. Let us know what you think of the new maps.

      Like

  2. digger666 March 10, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666 and commented:
    Seldom does one find such an enthusiastic encomium for a service. It should be interesting to judge how well the journey route advice copes with London’s frequent full or partial line closures due to planned engineering work.

    Like

    • Brian March 10, 2014 at 10:36 am #

      I imagine it will deal with it at least as well as a printed map does. 😉

      Like

  3. Erin Elaine March 10, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    A suggestion for an offline map app – City Maps Pro. Not only can you download a complete city map, you can find restaurants, attractions, etc, with the “nearby” feature just like in google maps. You can even access the city’s wiki to read a bit about its history, population, etc. All without any internet connection! 🙂

    Like

    • Brian March 10, 2014 at 3:13 pm #

      Thanks for the tip. We’ve got City Maps 2Go and a couple of other offline mapping apps. We hope to do a review of them once we had the opportunity to see how well they work overseas.

      Like

  4. cjsinger March 11, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    Awesome, we’ve had a lot of luck with Google Maps, but after reading this, it’s clear we’re not using it to its fullest. Thanks for the info!

    Like

  5. Reveries of Forevers March 13, 2014 at 12:07 am #

    Very informative. Thanks!

    Like

  6. suziejprince March 18, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    I love Google Maps too.

    Public transport works very well in San Francisco, London and much of the UK.

    We were also very happy when it helped us get to a vineyard just outside Santiago, Chile. Very empowering and simple.

    Like

  7. watahyahknow July 14, 2014 at 12:10 am #

    used to tomtom navigation but now using google maps on a tablet for my work delivering food in the netherlands
    i drive a lot of small distances inside town and the thing thats realy anoting is the fact you need to rewrite the adress in the searchbar if google maps dont get the adress the first time (search timed out)
    allso when nearing the destination the route and location the pointer and the 3d view disapeares
    the thirth thing is that there isnt a way to get google maps to automaticly start the route after it does find the adress but requires a coupe of clicks to get to the screen you need (i need to do this while sitting in the parkinglot )
    it would help if i could punch in the adress and hit retry every time it doesnt get the wifi signal or satelite and that it starts at a presetting after it finds the location (3d map voice on travel by car fastest route ) so i dont have to stop driving
    it would allso help to get a picture from the front of the house taken by streetview as housingnumbers arent allways eazy to spot

    Like

    • Brian July 14, 2014 at 2:41 am #

      We’ve never used it for driving. We’ve always had a dedicated GPS for that, mostly because we never know when we’ll lose cell service. But it sounds like the real-time driving directions can be improved upon as well.

      Like

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