If you're like most of us, you use Google Maps to get directions to a specific location, then you don't think about it again, until it's time to go somewhere else you haven't been to before. And that's perfectly natural, because on the surface, that's all there is to a navigation app -- right? Or that's at least all you need it to be.
But despite Google Maps being so far beyond all other competition in terms of monthly active users, the company still works regularly to make this app not just a navigator, but also a tour guide and a commuting guru. Let's dig a few layers below the surface of Google Maps to show you some other, perhaps more exciting things it can do.
Using the Commute tab to smoothly travel between work and home
If you use Google services often enough, odds are that they already know where you live, and perhaps where you work as well. It turns out that you can use this to your advantage via the Commute tab in the Google Maps app.
Once you have this set up, the app will be able to estimate your arrival time at work before you've even gotten into your transportation. If you're behind the wheel, it can also figure out alternate routes in case of congestion, road closures and other obstacles. With an Android phone, you can even step into your vehicle, say "Hey Google, take me home," and the Google Assistant will lay out out a turn-by-turn route for you -- no matter where you are.
And it's pretty easy to get this configured. After tapping on the Commute tab at the bottom of the screen, tap the three-dot menu in the upper right to see your commute settings. For "Home" and "Work," you can type an address, use your phone's microphone to speak it (the company's Gboard virtual keyboard has a microphone button in the upper right on Android, or you long-tap on the space bar in the iOS version). Or you just tap on a location on the map.
The other important step is to tell Google Maps how you get to and from work. Your options include a passenger vehicle, public transport, a combo of public and personal transport, a motorcycle, bicycling and even walking. When you've made your choice, tap Next, then select the times where you would like to arrive at work and leave work.
Lastly, if you're taking public transit, you can decide which specific route you want, or you can let Google figure it out. From there, Google will tell you what station you need to be at, and when.
At this point, you can basically ignore the official arrival and departure times listed by your local transit authority, because Google Maps monitors all traffic in the area in real-time, so it can estimate when a bus or train will arrive much more accurately.
If you need to leave for work or home at a different time, just go to the Commute tab and tap the blue Go button with an arrow in it. This will make Google Maps reconfigure your route for the current traffic conditions.
Using the Explore tab to find good watering holes and events
The Explore tab is where Google Maps' tour guide mode kicks in. Tapping on it will make the app take a look at where you are, and it will generate a curated list of places that it recommends for a meal, a cup of coffee or an event like a concert or festival.
And those are just the top-line items. Tapping on the More button will unveil about 40 different categories, from ATMs and gas stations to dry cleaning and pharmacies.
Once you've made your selection, you can filter the list using a series of tags located near the top of the screen, like "Open now" or "Top rated." If you tap "Sort by," you can list them according to distance or "relevance." Google Maps defaults to the latter. You can adjust multiple filters at once if you tap on the button in the upper right that has three sliders on it.
From there, tap on your chosen destination to see more information about it, then tap Directions to get your navigation instructions. If your destination is within walking distance, Google Maps may give you directions for pedestrians instead of vehicles.
Using the For You tab to get recommendations for places to eat and shop
There's a lot of conceptual overlap between the Explore section and the For You section. You can think of For You as a kind of Explore mode that's configured around where you live and work, rather than where you're physically located at that particular moment, which can be literally anywhere in the world where Google Maps is allowed to operate.
In the For You section, you get a dynamic list of destination suggestions; in our experience, it orbits around highly rated restaurants, but it scales according to your habits. If you've used the app recently to go to a museum, a public beach or a comedy club, suggestions along those lines may start popping up here.
If the For You section identifies something that looks interesting to you, tapping on the "Want to go" button to the right of that entry will give you the equivalent of a bookmark with the app. Every location that you tag this way will show up in Google Maps with a little green flag next to it -- and the app may sometimes send you a notification when you're within throwing distance of that destination.
When you tag these recommendations, a button with a green flag on it will pop up in the upper right. The number on the button represents how many places you've tagged, and you can tap on it to evaluate the list at any time. Changed your mind about one of these places? Tap the Edit button, then the "X" button next to each one that you want to remove, then tap Save to finish.
If you don't want to see these green flags on your maps, tap that numbered flag button in the upper right of the For You section, then the three-dot menu in the upper right, then select "Hide on your map."
Note that the For You tab may not appear if you are logged into a G Suite account.
Using voice commands to navigate with Google Maps
Since Google Maps has an exhaustive amount of map data, and it's tightly integrated with the Google Assistant, which itself is very good at voice recognition, you basically never have to type an address again. If you're using an Android phone, and you have the Google Assistant fully enabled, you don't even need to have the Maps app open, or your phone unlocked.
You just say, "Hey Google, take me to [street address]" and then your phone will prompt you to unlock the screen and then it will open a Maps widget and lay down your suggested route. If you want to go to a unique location like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, you can just say "the Staples Center" instead of its address.
If you want to go to a store that has multiple locations (like a grocery store chain or a bank), saying its name will produce a list of that company's locations sorted by proximity and then you tap on the one you have in mind to let Google Maps create navigation directions for you.
Contributing your experiences to Google Maps to help others find interesting destinations
While Google Maps generates its recommendations based largely on where you've been before, it also relies on users to provide evaluations and on-location info like photos of the location and what you can expect to experience there. Yes, all you foodies with photo albums full of appetizing restaurant menu items can rejoice: Google Maps can include your pics with just a few taps.
To add your reviews or photos, you can search for the destination on Google Maps (remember, you can use the microphone to just speak the address or place of business), tap on the panel that pops up at the bottom of the screen to get the overview, tap the Reviews tab, select how many stars you want to give, type or dictate your review and then tap the camera button below that to add photos.
Note that the Reviews tab may take a few seconds to load if you have a spotty connection. Either way, the more reviews and customer photos a location has, the better Google Maps' recommendations can be, for you and for every other user. So get cracking!
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