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 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 allows you to use Google Maps as a trip planner by creating a custom map and adding pins for multiple locations. Not only is a great because, well, it’s Google, but it can be used in several different ways: from initial brainstorming to creating a trip itinerary to navigating on the go. Here’s an overview of how to use Google My Maps to plan a trip, plus a tutorial (and video!) of how to set it up.
8 Reasons To Love Google My Maps
- It allows you to see your trip 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.
Customize your map even more by adding notes, photos, or videos. 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 plan your route by creating 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 for an example of the trip planning map I created that includes the bike path route.) And while I haven’t done this yet, you could also use Google My Maps to plan a road trip itinerary for a longer adventure.
- 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 trip itinerary.
Want to use Google Maps for route planning? When you’re ready to plan an upcoming trip, plot it out visually by using Google My Maps to create your itinerary. I like to add all the places I might go, even if I haven’t planned out each day’s activities, but you could definitely get more detailed with a day-to-day plan.
- 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 custom map to jog your memory from the notes you made or to get directions to your next location.
Here’s an example of one of the custom Google Maps I’ve created!
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Google My Maps Limitations
As great as Google Maps is for planning a trip, there are some limitations to using it. Some of these have been pointed out by readers in the comments, so thank you to everyone for helping me make this an even more robust guide. I’m organizing them here since it makes it easier than scrolling through the comments.
- You can only add 10 layers per map.
If you are planning a longer road trip and want to create a layer for each day, this limitation may prove frustrating. Here are a couple of workaround ideas: You can create 2 maps, and have the entire master route as 1 layer on each (showing the very basic route for all 12 days – say from city to city) as a reference. Then build individual layers for each day. As a second option, you could add multiple days to 1 layer and change the titles to start with the day they correspond to (so it would be “1 – Name of Place” instead of just “Name of Place.”) However, this option may not be ideal since you can’t see the titles until you click when you’re on the phone.
- No bridge height filter.
For those RVers out there who need to plan ahead for height limitations, there is no bridge height filter available. Since I haven’t had to use this feature myself, I am not confident in an alternative to recommend. However, from a bit of digging around, there are some apps and GPS units for truckers that may be a good place to start looking if you have an oversize vehicle.
- Directions layers can’t be accessed on your phone for navigation purposes.
As I mentioned, I generally only use the directions layer to show a route visually, rather than to actually create custom directions. As several readers have pointed out, you cannot create a directions layer and then access those directions in Google Maps on your phone. (You can see them on desktop if you want to know the distance or how long a route will take, but that doesn’t help when you actually want to use them for navigation–see here for screen shots.)
- (Sort of) not available offline.
Unlike the rest of Google Maps, which you can download for offline access, you can’t download your custom map to use offline within Google Maps. However, I have been able to use it in areas with spotty reception. I pulled the map up when I did have reception, and I left it running in the background. It would stay loaded in the app and I was able to pull it up to look at it later when I was out of reception. Another alternative (especially if you’ll be traveling in another country where you’ll be completely offline) is to use a third party app as mentioned here.
How to Use Google My Maps to Plan a Trip
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, bike path, or road trip you want to take, but I don’t find them that useful for directions while traveling 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 it is complete.
If you need to access the directions so you can see the distance of your route or the time it will take, click the three dots on the layer and click “Step-by-Step Directions.”
Sharing Your Map
There are several options for sharing your Google Maps Trip Plan.
Open up your map, then click “share” in the gray bar above your layers. To allow others to view your map (which includes embedding on your website), click “change” under the section “Who has access.” For embedding, you will need to make this setting public.
Otherwise, if you want to allow others to edit your map, add their email address in the “invite people” section.
Viewing Your Custom Map in the Google Maps App
Open up Google Maps and go to the menu on the left (I use Android so this may be slightly different with Apple). Click “Your Places” –> Click “Maps” (you may need to scroll to the right). You will then see the custom maps you have created (make sure you’re using the right Google account!).
To navigate to one of my pins, open your map, find the pins for where you want to go, click it, and then click “directions.” When you do this, you won’t see your custom map anymore but will be looking at the regular navigation of Google Maps.
Google My Maps Tutorial
Here’s a walk through video to show you how to use Google Maps to plan a trip, along with several of my own Google My Maps itinerary examples!
What’s your favorite travel planning tool or app? Let me know in the comments!
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This post was originally published on July 27, 2017 and has been updated in August 2018.