Travel Advice - What makes a "good" map?
The key to selecting a good map is based on your understanding of its
currentness, coverage, and content.
Currentness refers to whether the map is up-to-date.
- The publication date should be noted on the map and is usually found
in one of the following locations: on the cover, in the title/map
information box, on the main map, or in the copyright notice.
- Maps over two years old may not be a bargain. Try to buy a
map dated the same year as your travel.
- Many map publishers disguise or omit the date in hopes that you will
buy their product whether it is current or not.
Buying a current map is important since geographic information changes,
especially information related to streets, roads, and route numbers.
- Examples of common changes include new roads, streets, highways,
highway exits, numbering changes, ramp details, and construction.
- Always buy the most current edition that you can find. If you find a
map that appears dated, ask the store if this is the most recent edition
or if a more current edition can be ordered.
- If a store is unable to order the most current map for you, contact
the publisher at their internet address (usually listed on their
product’s cover), or try another store.
- Most online bookseller Websites are not the place to buy road maps.
- Often, searching for the map you want is difficult because no
details on the map content are provided.
- In addition, the list of maps online booksellers provide often
include very dated titles.
Coverage (a real word this time) refers to the actual geography
that is represented on the map.
- Make sure that the map that you buy includes the geography that you
will be visiting.
- Map covers are often used to list the names of towns shown with
- The greatest variations in coverage between map publishers usually
occur in “city street maps” and “sectional, touring maps”.
- In general, “country maps” or country specific “road atlases”
published by different companies should have approximately the same
Content refers to the data ingredients of the map.
- Don’t assume that all maps of a particular geography are the same,
as cartographers make maps for specific uses and attempt to tailor the
map content to enhance this use.
- The amount of information and the detail of the information shown
on a map are a function of the map scale which acts as a limit on
the cartographer’s ability to represent information (see our article
What does map scale mean and how to use it?).
- Publishers utilize different levels of detail, depending on the
needs of the traveler they are trying to attract.
- As a general rule of thumb, when comparing two country maps, the
map on the larger sheet of paper will contain more detail at a
larger, more readable scale.
You should attempt to match the kinds of content contained in the map
with the type of vacation that you are taking.
- If you plan to tour by driving, then, you will need map detail that
includes towns (delineated by size), classes of roads (from highways to
local roads), important details of road geometry (entrances, exits,
bridges, tunnels, and ramps), and information on points of interest
(things to see and do but also including the locations of hospitals,
rest stops, toll booths, etc).
- Conversely, if your transportation has been arranged, you might be
interested in a product that has less road detail but is focused on
providing detailed inset maps and photographs of the tourist
destinations that you will be visiting.
The staff at most good map stores and some travel stores have are well
versed on cartographic products. The problem here is that there are not
many map stores to be found in the US.
- While you will find good collections of maps in most major bookstore
chains, it is likely that no one on the staff will have a good
understanding of the relative merits of the maps they sell.
- The best advice we can give, in this case, is to open the map,
compare it with the competition, and decide which seems to meet you
- We have provided a list of the brands that we think produce the best
products by country but these products may not always be available to
you (see Who produces the best product where?).
One general rule of thumb that you might find useful: maps
produced by publishing houses that are based in a country will
usually have better quality, more up-to-date maps than those
products provided by a publisher located in a distant country.
- For example, if you are looking for a good quality road atlas of
France, consider a Michelin product rather than one offered by a
publisher based in America.
- In some cases, maps provided by one publisher are "repackaged" for
sale by a publisher in another country.
- Look at the copyright notice to determine the name of the actual
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