I love a good map. I’ve got maps hanging on my walls. I go to the bookstore to read maps. Whenever I navigate my way home using only a map, I feel like I must have some innate bushcraft skills. And if you’ve read my posts about traveling in Maine, you’re probably sick of me talking about the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer by now. (I really cannot help this–these atlases have a cult following in the Pine Tree State.)
But while reading paper maps will always inspire a sense of get-up-and-go adventure for me, I’m not totally opposed to using tech for planning my trips (and sometimes navigating on the ground, but don’t tell anyone).
One of my favorite trip planning tools is Google My Maps, which is a tool that allows you to create a custom map and add pins for specific locations. Not only is a great because, well, it’s Google, but it can be used in several different ways: from initial brainstorming to itinerary planning to navigating on the go. Here’s an overview of the different ways I use Google My Maps to plan my travels, plus a tutorial (and video!) of how to set it up.
8 Reasons To Use Google My Maps
It allows you to see your itinerary.
This is so helpful, especially if you’re a really visual person or enjoy using maps. But even if you’re not, it’s still really useful to see where everything is in relation to each other as you plan your trip because it helps you be realistic about your plans.
It connects with other Google apps.
Setting aside my (ahem, very rational) fear that they may take over the world soon, I love all things Google. My Maps stores a copy of the map in whatever Google Drive account you’re using. (Am I the only one who has 6 of these?) So if you like to create Google Docs or folders to store trip planning information, documents, photos, or itineraries, it’s nice to have your map easily accessible in the same folder.
You get additional location information since it’s part of Google Maps.
If a location is on Google, you can see their website, phone number, address, reviews, and website when you add it to your custom map.
You can add your own extra details.
You can add notes and your own photos or videos. You could use the notes during planning to add website or hours information (if it’s not already in the listing), or as a place to write notes on the go as you visit places. If I hear about the location from a particular blog post or website, I usually add that link and an excerpt from the post into the notes section so I can reference it later.
You can create a layer with directions.
When I traveled to Burlington, Vermont, I wanted to see the length of the bike trail on the map, so I used the directions feature to show the whole route. (Check out the Burlington travel guide and map here to see what that looks like.)
It’s highly customizable.
Don’t mind me while I swoon over the color coding and organization options over here. Use custom icons, layers, and colors so it’s easy to see what things are at a glance. For example, you can use a coffee cup icon for all the cafes you add, a bed icon for hotels, and a swimming icon for beaches. You can also use layers in many different ways, such as one layer for each day of your trip or one layer for each category (like dining, lodging, and things to do).
In-depth planning on your computer. Easy, on-the-go access from your phone.
You can access it from within your Google Maps app on iPhone or Android (and on Android, you can download a separate Google My Maps app if you want to view your maps or add to them).
It’s easy to share it with a friend or with the world.
If you’re planning a trip with other people, it’s easy to share the map with others. And if it’s something you want to make available to everyone (like I do on my travel guide posts), just change the privacy setting and share the link or embed it on a website.
3 Ways to Use Google My Maps
Brainstorm and store ideas for future “maybe” trips.
I often come across a really interesting hotel, restaurant, or fun thing to do in destinations I want to travel to in the near future, and I want to make sure I don’t forget about them. I have so many bookmarks in so many places (Pinterest, Facebook, Pocket), but Google My Maps is the place I’ve started storing ideas for future trips.
Plan your itinerary.
When you’re ready to plan an upcoming trip, use Google My Maps to visually see your itinerary. I like to add all the places I might go, even if I haven’t planned out each day’s activities.
Navigate on the go.
Not sure what you want to do today, or want to see what the closest restaurant from your list is for dinner? Pop into your map to jog your memory from the notes you made or to get directions to your next location.
How to Use Google My Maps
Creating a new custom map
Go to Google My Maps from your desktop browser. Look at the Google icon in the top right corner to make sure you’re using the Google account you want to. Click “Create A New Map” and a window will open with a blank map. To give your map a name and description, click the map name (“Untitled Map”).
Working with Layers
When you create a new map, the first layer will already be created, so you’ll probably want to rename it. To give your first layer a title, click directly on the title name like you did with the map name, OR click the 3 dots next to “Untitled Layer” and then click “Rename Layer.” Clicking these 3 dots next to a layer title is also how you can delete a layer if you add one accidentally or change your mind. In this example, I’m changing my first layer to “dining” and will add all restaurants to this layer.
You can use layers any way you want to, or simply stick to one layer if you don’t need multiple ones. To add more layers, simply click “Add Layer” in the gray section below the map title and description.
To move a pin between layers, click the pin on the layer and hold down the mouse, and then drag it to the desired layer.
Adding Location Pins
There are various ways to add location pins to a layer. First, make sure the correct layer is chosen by clicking anywhere in the white area on the layer. You’ll see which layer is selected by looking for the blue bar on the left of the layer.
- In the map search bar, type either a place name or an address. Click “Add to Map” to add a pin for this location. This is how I add most pins.
- If you don’t need an exact location or don’t have an address, you can click the pin marker button below the map search bar (“Add Marker”). It will turn your mouse into a T and you can click anywhere on the map to add a blank pin. You’ll immediately be prompted to add the pin title and description.
- If you’re dealing with very remote locations (or you just like geeky map stuff), you can also use latitude and longitude coordinates.
To delete a pin, simply click on it and click the trash icon.
A few tips and best practices for adding pins:
- If the place you’re searching for does not have a listing on Google, you’ll have to use an address. One thing to note is that sometimes Google Maps listings aren’t correct or don’t take you to the right place, so you may want to double check the location if you’re not using a street address to add the pin (especially if it’s a small business without a website).
- I have also found that hiking trail heads are frequently on Google Maps, but they’re not always correct in terms of navigating there by car. I usually add them to my map to get a basic idea of where they are while planning, but I use a paper map or atlas to find them while traveling.
Customizing Location Pins
To change the title and add notes to your listing, click on the pin on the map, and then click the pencil icon (“Edit”).
To change the color and icon of the pin, click the paint bucket icon (from the pin itself OR directly in the layer). Click “More Icons” to view all the icon options. You can color code by type of activity, by layer, or any way that makes sense to you.
To add photos or videos to a pin, click on the pin on the map, and then click the camera icon (“Add Image or Video”). This is another way to make your map interactive, especially after you’ve visited a location and want to share it with others.
I find that directions layers are very helpful for showing the route of a walking tour or bike path you want to take, but I don’t find them that useful for directions since I can simply use the maps app to navigate. I use directions layers whenever I want to show an entire route on a map, rather than a specific location.
Click the arrow icon underneath the search bar, which will create a new directions layer. On the legend, click “Driving” if you want to change this to walking or biking directions. Add a location name or address to Points A and B in the legend. If you find that the pins are not exactly where they should be, you can drag the points on the map.
Continue adding points by clicking “Add Destination” on the map. You can either type the information into the legend OR hover your mouse to a spot on the map and double click it. (This is especially useful if you’re tracing a route on something like a bike path or hiking trail that won’t have an address.)
Rearrange the order by dragging the items around in the legend. Just like altering directions on Google Maps navigation, you can click on part of the route and drag it to a different road if you want to change part of the route after is it complete.
If you need to access the directions, click the three dots on the layer and click “Step-by-Step Directions.”
Here’s a walkthrough video to show you most of these tips and tricks, along with several examples of how I use custom maps for trip planning!
What’s your favorite travel planning tool or app? Let me know in the comments!
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