Google Maps provides, by far, the best and most comprehensive maps for cities all over the world. It is an extremely useful tool to help you before, during and after your trips.
There is a lot you can do with it. I use it all the time, before, during and after the trips. It helps me not only navigate but also catalog places for later reference. My usual workflow is:
- Before – after collecting all information I want (buildings to visit, places to eat and sleep, etc.), I create a custom map using Google’s My Maps tool. I dump everything in it, add photos, extra information, links, everything I think I might need while on the go. I also download an offline version of my maps, in case I go offline during the trip
- During – other than using my custom map to help me navigate, I also save other stumbled upon places that I like or places that mean something to my trip, using Lists
- After – my last task is to review all places, both the ones on my custom map that need correction or removal, as well as the new places on my lists that deserve a spot on my custom map
It sounds much more work than it is. I actually find it quite fun, as it also helps me understand the city better, and adds to the excitement of exploring all those new places.
One of my good friends is an advocate of paper maps and the wonders of analog wayfinding. We did a two-week trip to Vietnam once with no electronic devices whatsoever, and it was quite liberating.
While this is great for some types of trips, when it comes to city exploration on a tight time-schedule I believe digital wayfinding using a good maps app and GPS is one of the best things to come to personal travel.
Nowadays, it is much easier to have access to a 4G connection in most countries. I usually buy a SIM card for my destination and try to always have an internet connection on my phone wherever I go.
Architecture travel involves both free exploration and chance, but also careful planning. You need to know where the buildings you want to visit are, and that’s where preparing your maps before you go is key.
Save offline maps
Sometimes you are not sure you’ll have an internet connection during your trip. Luckily, GPS is always available and Google provides the functionality to save offline maps on your phone.
You can download maps of any place on earth before you get offline, and have a full detailed and updated map when you are on the road. Here is how you do it:
Create your custom map
This is where Google Maps shines. It provides you with a tool to help you build your own maps, with the information you find most useful or interesting for your trip.
For that, you can use Google’s My Maps creation tool on your laptop or desktop computer:
I can’t recommend it enough. Spend some time adding the places you are interested into on your custom map of your destination. You can organize it in different groups, such as “Architecture”, “Food”, “Accommodation”, or anything you want. You can add photos or any other information you find important.
In this site, I am trying to provide you with a great starter map for some cities. You’ll find it always at the top of the city guides. These are carefully prepared maps with lots of information to help you kickstart your planning.
Here is a small guide to get the best of it, and also to save it to your own Google Maps account to use it on your phone:
While you should never spend your trip glued to your phone screen, you could use if for occasional navigation and note taking. Part of your note taking will also include location saving, and Google Maps is an invaluable tool for that.
Load your maps
During your trip, you’ll want to load any custom maps you created or saved, and have it displayed on your app at any time. When a custom map is loaded, you’ll see its icons on the map, and you can easily navigate through them to check extra info or get directions.
Save new locations on lists
Custom maps done via My Maps are great but it does require a bit more work and time investment. You also are not able to use you phone to create and edit your maps, which makes it not suitable for the road.
Enter Lists. Google recently updated its map system to allow users to create customs lists by or saving locations directly on Google Maps, both on the app as well as on the desktop.
The main difference between Lists and My Maps is the amount of information you can customize and add to the map. Lists are collections of places that you save in Google Maps. Custom Maps allow you to add information to the places, photos, links, edit info and more.
That’s why I think My Maps is a nicer tool for pre-planning, while Lists is a helpful tool to collect information quickly for later sorting.
While visiting or searching for new locations, you can easily save place on Lists. Google went ahead and created three pre-set lists in the app: Favorites, Want to go, and Starred places. These are pretty much self-explanatory and offer you an excellent way to collect location information. I use it as an “inbox” of sorts, using it during and after my trips.
You can also create your own list, name it as you want and add any places to it. Here is how you do it:
A significant part of my trips happens after it: sorting information, editing photos, creating and updating maps, planning and writing blog posts.
How many times did you come back from a trip only to forget where that picture was taken or where did you eat that amazing meal?
By always having the habit of saving places on Google Maps as you visit them, you’ll end up with a great collection of good (or bad!) visited places through your trip, which you can (and should!) organize later and save them into your lists or maps.
I started doing it a long time ago, and now I have quite a sizeable collection of maps I always go back to whenever I re-visit a place, or when someone asks for recommendations.
If you are interested in keeping your own collection of places, it is worth to spend some time sorting through all the places you starred during your trip, categorizing them and putting them into their respective custom map or list.
And if you use one of the TFA Maps, let me know later if they were useful, and of any corrections or additions, you found necessary!