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Upgraded map sites do more than route you from A to B

Want a hotel near the London tube? Or a satellite view of your destination? Just click, print and go.

October 01, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

IN the last year, Yahoo Maps and Google Maps have taken a giant step forward in the user-friendliness department. They also have made it easier for others to plot custom content on their maps. For travelers, this means access to local information beyond street addresses and directions.

Online maps had more than 75 million visitors in August, according to ComScore's Media Metrix. The three big map websites -- Mapquest, Yahoo Maps and Google Maps -- account for most of those visits.

And the numbers keep growing, partly because of some big changes made to the sites in the last year.

Yahoo Maps announced major changes to its site in November 2005, though the upgrades are still officially in testing. Perhaps the most significant improvement is the ability to easily plan a trip with multiple stops. To try it out, I planned a recent road trip from Ventura to San Diego and Laguna Beach and back.

To begin, Yahoo Maps now remembers a default address, like your home or office. If you need directions from a different starting point, you simply type it in the space. It also saves recent destinations and accesses them from a pull-down menu.

I then entered the address of my first stop in San Diego. It provided detailed driving directions, a summary of the distance and estimated travel time, and a map with the route highlighted. It also noted that there was a business at that address and asked whether I was visiting it.

I was, so Yahoo automatically inserted the name of the business and its phone number, a nice touch.

My final stop was in Laguna Beach, where I was visiting friends in their new home for the first time.

To get a bird's-eye view of their home, I clicked on the "satellite" button to get my orientation not in map terms but via a satellite photo. I could drill down to make out the house and its surroundings.

I've always thought satellite views were a groovy feature for some maps but questioned the value to travelers. But because I had a good sense of how close the home was to the beach, I could judge when I was getting close. Yahoo also allows a "hybrid" view that combines the best of the map with the satellite view, which I tried and didn't find particularly useful.

Online maps have something of a reputation for getting travelers off track, but this time I made it to my appointed rounds without incident.

The other exciting new development on the mapping front is the ability for Web developers to customize Google or Yahoo maps. This practice has become known as a "mash-up" and has led to several interesting detailed maps for travelers.

Mike Pegg, an account manager for a software company in Ontario, Canada, runs a blog called Google Maps Mania. (Go to

On his blog, Pegg tries to document all the unique maps out there. The first that came to his attention was a housing map that superimposed CraigsList information on a Google map ( Today there are 2,000 such maps in existence, estimates Pegg, and 800 of them related directly to travel. He has a list of them on his blog.

For example, if you are traveling to London and want to find a hotel near a London subway station, check out

When I am in London, I get my bearings from the nearest tube station. They are accessible, fixed landmarks in an otherwise unwieldy and confusing city.

"Most people can get a handle on London when they look at a tube map because it is such a good series of reference points," said Ben Jackson, founder and president of Pint of Milk, the company that developed Tube Hotels.

Having some Web programming experience is useful if you are going to customize a map, but it's not required. The more complex the map, the more expertise and time it will take. Jackson, who is a Web designer, said it took a couple of weeks to integrate the London hotels with the Google map.

"It's easy to plot a single object here and there, but when you want to plot 500 hotels it does require some technical knowledge," he said.

Some very quirky maps have made it online. There is one that plots the smells of New York City subway stations as reported by readers of the Gawker site ( The smells range from "horrific" to "sublime," according to the website, and come coded with graphics to represent their source.

It comes as little shock to me that the subway stations on the Upper East Side have more perfume smells and that the stations near Times Square fall in the "horrific" range.

There is even a quirky map that details locations in Preston, Idaho, the town that was featured in the oddball film "Napoleon Dynamite" (

Of course, one man's quirk is another man's passion.


Go ahead, ask for directions

* Auto Club: Offers map services to nonmembers as well;

* Mapquest: Testing new a feature that lets you drag across a map;

* Google Maps: Very flexible site with a smart interface;

* Yahoo Maps: Now handles complex itineraries;

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