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If you have a hard time using maps, our articles on map use may help.  If not, perhaps online mapping and routing Web sites might be the answer for you.  We provide recommendations on the best sites in the US and in Europe.

 

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Travel Advice - Alternatives to maps: Online mapping and routing

Some people have a hard time using maps to navigate between places. Problems range from finding locations on the map to determining a valid route between two or more places. In this article, we will focus on the use of Web sites that provide online maps and routing services that are an alternative to the use of paper maps.

The Web features a number of sites that provide maps and routing for printing or download. Below, we list sites in the US and Europe that are easy to use and provide the good quality results (best route accuracy and map readability).

U.S. Sites (can be used to route word-wide)

Bing Maps ( http://www.bing.com/maps/ )

MapQuest ( www.mapquest.com

Yahoo ( maps.yahoo.com )

Google (http://maps.google.com/)

Nokia (http://maps.nokia.com/

European Sites

Google  - There are country specific versions of Google, such as  http://maps.google.co.uk/  for the UK and http://maps.google.fr/ (for France) and http://maps.google.it/ (for Italy).  These maps for these countries are in the language of the country specified in the URL.

Michelin ( www.viamichelin.com  )    

Google has become the standard for routing services and their routing services are quite good, although the Bing product from Microsoft is quite competitive.

Most of the mapping sites use data from the same data providers but differ in their approach to technical issues and presentation. Although there are some differences in the results when requesting the same route from different navigation sites, most discrepancies are more related to the quality and currentness of the road data than the technology used.

Each navigation site claims to have a “secret sauce” (competitive advantage) that makes their routes and maps better than those provided by any competitor. Most often, navigation sites can be differentiated by functionality and ease of use.

Examine the sites that we have suggested and choose the one that works best for you.  Microsoft and Google have raised the bar for other services by adding satellite imagery and oblique aerial photography (views of the surface from about 45 degrees above the horizon as backdrops to their maps.  Google has a feature that lets you drag the route to include new towns that you might want to visit and it recalculates the route and creates a new itinerary including these places. It's a neat tool!

Since you may be less familiar with the European providers of online mapping and routing.  When traveling in Europe, we prefer the Michelin site due to the amount of supporting information that they provide on points of interest, restaurants and lodging.

The online sites that we recommend feature both mapping and routing functionality.

  • In order to create a map using an online service, you need to provide a location name or address for the place of interest to you.
  • Most sites ask you to provide a street name and address, as well as a postal code (Zip Code in the US) and state or, if mapping locations in Europe, a country name.
  • If you do not know a specific address, you can usually enter a town name and state/country to generate a map of the area that interests you.
    • Some services allow you to enter cross-streets as a map origins or destinations.
    • Others allow you to use airport names or codes to create origins and destinations.
  • The maps that appear on your screen can be zoomed (magnified) or moved around (re-centered) to show adjacent areas (the process is called “panning” and is usually accomplished by placing the cursor on the directional arrows found along the edge of the map and clicking). Usually, you can re-center the map by clicking anywhere on its surface. Doing so will bring up a new display with the location you clicked as its center.

One of the great uses for the mapping function, when vacationing, is to enter the address of your hotel and create a map of the area surrounding it. We find printed version of these maps very valuable for walking and touring. Many of the online map services provide the ability to select Points of Interest (museums, statues, parks, shopping, etc.) and display these locations on the map with identifiable symbols.

 

Using an online service to create a route between two locations, produces the best results if you are able to provide a street level address for the start and end of the trip. If you do not know an address (how about your hotel?), you can produce a route between the two locations simply by entering the two town names (and country names if in different countries).

Some Web sites allow you to create routes that feature “Via”, also known as an intermediate stop. Of course, you could simply create a route from A to B and then B to C, but the use of “Via” makes setting up the routes somewhat easier.

Usually, you can choose to have the Web service calculate the fastest or shortest route. The routes that result may not be the same.

  • The fastest route may involve driving major highways (with high speed limits), while the shortest route may involve driving back roads or city streets (with low speed limits or driving conditions that may require decreased speed).

Many of the Web services provide customized output for printing the map and route. The normal output shows the route overlaid on a map, accompanied by text describing any maneuver that requires a change of direction. Many sites, also, provide output in the form of mini-maps that represent the street detail of each maneuver accompanied by a text description of the maneuver.

Some of the sites provide methods for you to download the route to a handheld device such as a smart phone In addition, most sites feature the ability to email the route.

 

Now, a word of caution about relying only on online routes.

If you decide to use Web based routing to prepare the routes for your trip, be sure to take a good old printed road map with you for backup. We recommend this action for several reasons.

  • First, the roads on your printed route from the online site may be closed due to an emergency, requiring you to take an alternative route.
  • Next, the route provided by the online site may not be correct.
    • Often the routes offered by online providers will get you where you are going but may take you out of the way in the process.
  • Alternatively, the route from the online site may be correct, but you want to take a side trip to an area that is not shown on your printout.

Carrying a good quality printed map makes sense for a many reasons. Take our advice and make sure that you carry a printed map for backup. Losing your way will ruin the fun of a vacation. The price of a good quality road map pales in comparison to the “costs” of being lost.

If you have difficulty navigating to different places while on the road, we present two additional articles on alternatives to maps.  One article describes navigation systems provided by rental car companies (In-car navigation systems). Our final article explains the use of Personal Navigation Devices and cell phones to provide mapping and routing (Mapping and routing with handheld devices).

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