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How to use Google Maps: 23 essential tips and tricks

how to use google maps
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It's hard to imagine how people got around before Google Maps. Directions had to be memorized, paper maps had to be purchased, and you'd still get lost if you weren't careful. Thankfully those days are gone, and whether you want to find the best way to commute home, keep track of all your favorite places, or just figure out where you need to be, Google Maps is there to help.

In fact Google Maps does a heck of a lot more than just give you directions. Google adds new features to its Maps offering all the time, whether you need to find the nearest COVID testing site, see how busy the nearest grocery store is, view directions in AR, or take advantage of any number of other hidden gems. Whether you're a iPhone or Android user, these are all the best Google Maps features, tips and tricks you should start using right now.

Find the nearest COVID vaccination and testing site

how to use google maps covid-19

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COVID-19 is serious business, so anyone who can get vaccinated should get vaccinated as soon as they can. The problem is finding the place where they're handing out shots, so Google Maps will show you COVID-19 vaccination sites.

All you have to do is search for "covid vaccine [location]" — where "location" is the name of the city — and Maps will highlight vaccination locations in the vicinity. Results will also show whether you need an appointment or referral first, which patients are actually eligible, and whether there's a drive-thru option. This feature is Arizona, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas right now, though Google promises more states and countries are on the way.

On top of this, if you think you've been exposed or have come down with symptoms, Google Maps will also show you local testing sites when you search "covid test". Similar to vaccination spots, the results will include whether you need an appointment or referral first.

Curbside grocery pickup support

google maps curbside pickup support

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Curbside pickup is now more widespread than ever before, and Google Maps has added features to help you make the most of it. Information about Curbside pickup is now rolling out in Google Maps' business profiles, so you can see who offers it before you check their website. That information also includes details about minimum orders, delivery windows, and other fees you may incur.

Anyone living in Portland, Oregon can also take part in a pilot scheme that integrates curbside pickup from Fred Meyer directly into Google Maps. The app lets you add the right location to Maps, tells you when it's time to leave, and passes your ETA onto the store so your order is ready as soon as you arrive.

 Add Music

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If you’re using Maps while driving, you can make life easier for you by syncing it with your music app of choice. Just head to the settings menu and hit “navigation controls”. From there you’ll see one of two options: iOS users will have to hit “Music playback controls” while Android users will see “Show Media playback controls”.

Switch that on and a pop-up menu will appear with a list of compatible apps you have installed. Follow the setup instructions to sync them up and every time you go anywhere you’ll see a balloon at the side of the screen. Just tap it and playback controls will flash up for your convenience.

Maps supports integration with YouTube Music, Spotify and (on iOS) Apple Music.

 Go Incognito 

how to use google maps incognito

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Sometimes you want to go off the grid, or as off the grid as you can be with a GPS navigation system. Much like the Chrome browser, Google Maps does have an incognito mode that lets you get around without saving any details about where you’ve been. It’s nice and easy, just bring up the menu by tapping your profile picture in the top right, and you’ll see “Incognito Mode” at the very top of the list. 

Just tap it and you’re good to go. Should you ever want to switch it off, do the same again and hit the big button that says “Turn off Incognito Mode”.

Measure distance

how to use google maps

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When Google Maps generates a route it always tells you what distance you’ll be travelling, but did you know you can measure any distance you like? Route or no route, Google Maps can measure it, and it’s pretty easy to do on desktop and mobile.

On desktop just right click on a spot and click “Measure distance” to set your start point. Once that’s done you can click extra spots on the map to create your own custom route and see how far apart everything in. Maps includes ruler-like measurements so you can better measure the distance, while the total is displayed at the bottom of the page. 

Mobile works in much the same way, except you press and hold to drop a pin and swipe up from the bottom of your screen to bring up the relevant menu. Extra points can be added by hitting the big “+” in the corner, though the Maps app will only show you the total distance and nothing in between each point.

Customize your vehicle

how to use google maps change vehicle

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You don’t have to be stuck with the default blue arrow if you don’t want to be, because Google does let you pick one of four different avatars, including the blue arrow. Start your navigation directions and tap the arrow (or dot) and you can swap it out for a red car, green pickup truck, or yellow SUV. 

Time Travel

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If you’re on your desktop you should know that the standard Street View imagery you get is not your only option. It is quite possible to travel backwards through time and see what these places looked in the past, using older Google snapshots.

Simply drag the little yellow figure from the bottom right corner to enter Street View, and in the top left you’ll see a black box with a drop down menu next to a little clock. Clicking it brings up a scroll bar that lets you go back and see exactly how an area looked on previous Google Van visits.

See building numbers, crosswalks, and other small details

how to use google maps building numbers

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Google Maps is invaluable, but you may well be missing some key details by not looking carefully enough. There's a lot more detail than you may have realized, including building numbers and crosswalks, and it can make it that much easier to get around. 

All you have to do is zoom all the way in and Google will start displaying so much more useful information. The fact is the default route view is pretty bare, and it doesn't have to be.

Hands-free with Google Assistant

how to use google maps hands free

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If you're driving, or in any other situation when your hands are otherwise occupied, don't forget that Google Maps has pretty close ties with Google Assistant. In other words you can use Google's pocket AI to tell Maps what to do, and without having to fiddle with your phone in the process.

Pretty much anything you'd need the Maps app to do can be done with a simple "Hey Google" command on Android. Whether that's "Hey Google, find me a gas station" or "Hey Google when is my next turn", the possibilities are endless.

iOS users aren't left out of this either, but the lack of Google Assistant adds an extra step. Just tap the microphone on the top right of your screen, and say your command.

Advanced Gestures for Google Maps

how to use google maps advanced gestures

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Zooming in on a map requires two hands right? One to hold your phone and the other for the traditional pinch-to-zoom gesture. What if I told you there's a better way? Just double tap the screen, but don't let go after tap #2 — instead, swipe up and down to zoom in and out. Lovely and simple.

You can also spin the map's orientation around yourself, which is done by pressing your finger and thumb against the screen and spinning then in a circular motion. 

Likewise, you can change your perspective by swiping two fingers up and down the screen. Swiping up gives you more of a birds-eye view of an area, though you get the most out of it if you switch 3D buildings on first. Swiping back down takes to the default top-down perspective.

Avoid crowds with Google Maps

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Back before the holidays, Google Maps got a big update that should make it easier for you to run errands while avoiding crowds. Maps will tell you the best and worst times to visit grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops, based on the current population of those locations. As such, this gives you more insight into when you should head to a store, and when you have the best chance of maintaining social distance. 

This is also true for parking, and for good measure Google will remember where you car is. Just tap the blue dot and hit either "Save your parking" (Android) or "Set as parking location" (iOS).

See AR Live View walking directions in Google Maps

how to use google maps AR directions

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The Google Maps Live View feature overlays real-time augmented reality navigation directions on top of the real world using your camera lens. If you find yourself disoriented, Live View will reveal arrows pointing you toward your destination.

The display will guide you to the exact address you searched, so you won’t have to wonder if you’re in the right place. This is one of the best Google Maps features and especially helpful in metropolitan areas where tall buildings can interfere with GPS positioning.

Google Maps indoor live view directions

(Image credit: Google Maps)

Google Maps also recently launched Indoor Live View, designed to help you get around complicated buildings like shopping malls, train stations, airports, and so on. It's currently only available in select malls in Chicago, Long Island, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle.

Indoor Live View will be getting a wider roll-out, and is set to arrive at transit stations in Tokyo and Zurich some time in "the coming months".

Get real-time transit data in Google Maps

how to use google maps

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Did you know Google Maps can show you where subway trains and city busses are on their route in real time? Instead of guessing how long until the next shuttle will be at your stop, you can see up-to-the-minute tracking for transit lines. 

In certain municipalities you can also ask your Google Assistant when the next train is so you know whether you’ll be taking a leisurely stroll or light sprint to the station. Coming in March, you’ll also be able to find out if a station is handicap-accessible, the temperature of train cars and whether there’s security present.

Plan your commute ahead with Google Maps

how to use google maps

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If you try to plan a trip the night before you leave, you won’t get an accurate picture of the traffic conditions along the route. But when you search for directions in Google Maps, you can specify your  arrival and departure windows — Google Maps will then estimate the amount of traffic along the route, potentially avoiding traffic jams. You can also set a reminder for when you should leave to arrive at an appointment or work on time.

Add extra stops to your trip

how to use google maps

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Navigation isn't always about going from A to B. Sometimes you have to move onto point C and D as well. Luckily Google Maps can accommodate your needs, and sending you from A to C with a pit stop at point B to do whatever you need to do.

You can add up to nine stops on your route, and if you find yourself in need of gas or a snack along the way you can search for something suitable along your path. Google Maps will even show prices and ratings, so you know what you're in for.

Plus, if you don't like the route Google has served up, you can change it by holding your finger against the blue route line and dragging onto a different path.

Share your location and trip progress via Google Maps

how to use google maps

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Tired of texting your friends that you’re only 10 minutes away? Instead of leaving your friends wondering how far  you are from meeting them, you can share your Google Maps trip progress to let them check in your location. 

As one of the best Google Maps features, it's also an excellent safety tool for letting loved ones know when you’ve made it home. Plus, tracking automatically ends once you’ve reached your destination, so there’s no need for privacy concerns.

Download maps in Google Maps for offline directions

how to use google maps offline maps

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Whether you’re out of the country without a SIM card or have a weak cellular data connection, you might have a hard time getting directions or finding a place you want to go. Luckily you can download complete maps for offline use, like you might Spotify playlists or Netflix episodes. Google Maps supports offline maps for small neighborhoods and entire cities; just make sure you save them ahead of time. 

Make lists of your favorite places in Google Maps

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One of the best parts about travel is being able to share suggestions for food, entertainment and lodging with friends afterwards. With the Google Maps lists feature, you can send curated guides of your favorite spots to whomever you’d like. 

You can build lists as you travel or make them ahead of a trip to supplement your itinerary. Lists offer immediate access to addresses, reviews and contact information for each locale, too. You can choose whether you want to keep your lists private, share them with specific contacts or publish it to the Google Maps database for all the app’s users to access. 

See where you’ve been in Google Maps

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Google Maps saves your directions history so you can easily revisit or look up places you’ve been. That way, you can remember locations you visited if you forgot to write them down or want to view a manifest of your travels. 

Use the “Your timeline” feature to get a day-by-day rundown of your searches. And if you’d prefer Google not record your directions history, you can disable the feature in Google Maps settings.

Get indoor directions in Google Maps

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Google Maps isn’t just for outdoor directions. One of the best Google Maps features lets you use the app in certain indoor locales, too, such as museums and sports arenas. Certain locations even support maps for different floors or levels, meaning you’re less likely get lost when you’re in a massive venue. Points of interest like concessions, restrooms, information desks, and ATM machines are also highlighted for easy identification. 

Book hotels, restaurant reservations, workout classes and more in Google Maps

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You can book nearly anything you need directly within Google Maps. Maps partners with third-party services like Expedia, OpenTable and Mindbody to help you make reservations for hotels, restaurants, workout classes and more without exiting the app. 

You can enable Google Pay on your Android phone to make the payment process even easier. Maps will add your plans to Google Calendar if you use that app, too. 

Check weather and air quality

google maps air quality

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Google Maps has started rolling out two new layers to Google Maps, one that covers weather and another that displays air quality. That way you'll be able to see current and forecasted weather for another location, as well as how good the local air is at any given time.

Rollout is set to happen in the coming months, and the weather layer will be available worldwide. The air quality layer will initially be restricted to the U.S., Australia, and India.

Choose more eco-friendly driving options

google maps eco friendly routes

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Google Maps recently announced it will be rolling out a new routing model that will optimize your trip and minimize fuel consumption in the process. It may not send you down the fastest or shortest route, but it will minimize all those things that waste fuel. Whether that's high-speed driving, lots of stop-starting at traffic lights or stop signs, and everything else.

The feature can be switched off for those of you that always want the fastest route, no matter the cost. But minimizing fuel wastage is going to save you money in the long run, as well as dishing out a small help to the environment. This feature is heading to the U.S. later this year, with a global rollout following soon after.

Certain regions will also get alerts if they're heading towards a low emission zone. Because nobody wants to drive into one by mistake, and end up with a fine because they're not driving an electric car. This feature will arrive in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and the U.K. in June.