Google makes some of the world's most popular apps and online services. From Search and Maps to Gmail and YouTube, it's hard to imagine living without these deeply engrained products. When it comes to travel, there are some really awesome and oft overlooked functionalities to assist the seasoned globetrotter. Google doesn't do the greatest job of showcasing many of these subtle but extremely powerful capabilities. I thought I'd share some of my personal favorite features from Google Search, Maps, Translate and Photos.
Quick disclaimer! I work for Google. Rest assured. That doesn't automatically make me some silly Google fanboy, so please don't consider this a shameless promotion for my employer. I love me some Google, but when it comes to many of the company's consumer products, I'm fairly critical. I would never vouch for a product I wouldn't use myself. The travel tips and app suggestions below are all based on personal experience!
Like most apps and online services, the best way to maximize and personalize your experience is to be logged in. If you've ever used Google search (which hopefully ALL of you have), you have likely noticed that your results vary a bit when you're logged into your Google account compared to when you're an anonymous user. The search results are hopefully richer, more personalized and more relevant to you. For example, the card below appears in the search results when I type in "Johannesburg". Google automatically reminds me of my upcoming flights to and around South Africa. As the date approaches, I can even get real-time updates on delays, estimated arrival times, etc.
Another perfect example of the benefit of logging in is on Google Now. The app is like a personal assistant, surfacing the most timely and relevant information. Here's what appears on my app at the moment:
The app will show important information like the current GBP to USD exchange rate (something I monitor way too frequently) as well as good nearby attractions. I've been doing a lot of research on Jordan in preparation for an upcoming trip, so the app gives a few helpful suggestions. If I click into the first Jordan card, I will get even more details and online resources:
This is all possible as Google can connect the vast amount of data across YouTube, Gmail, Maps, etc. As long as you're logged in, you will have a personalized experience across every Google product on every screen. Some people get nervous about sharing so much information. Online security is understandably a big concern. Keep in mind that these personal results only appear to you and are meant to give users a better experience.
I've only recently started using Google Flights for pre-travel research. There are plenty of other travel engines and aggregators out there like Kayak, Skyscanner and one of my other favorites, Hipmunk. While Google Flights offers many of the exact same services, there are a few unique features that set it apart.
- For me, Google Flights' greatest strength is its data visualization. Many other flight search engines give results in a simple list format that you can filter by time, price, etc. With Google flights, you can also view results in a calendar format. The engine shows how flight prices vary by different dates. This is particularly helpful if you have some flexibility in your travel schedule. The nifty bar graph (see below), is especially helpful for finding the cheapest travel schedules. Of course, the search functionality allows you to filter results by standard variables like price, number of stops and airlines. If you're hell bent on accruing elite miles to earn status, make sure to filter by your airline alliance of choice.
- Living in Europe gives you access to so many amazing weekend destinations. With seemingly unlimited options, it's often hard for us to make a decision. In Google Flights, you can toggle over to the "Explore Map" tab. Once you input your departing city and flight dates, the map will populate with various cities and prices. You can zoom in and out to explore quickly the most convenient and cheapest destination for your next weekend getaway. If you're a spontaneous traveler, just click on the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button.
In my humble opinion, Maps is Google's most indispensable and powerful product. There is no (worthy) alternative. See Apple Maps. Beyond the app's basic functionalities like Street View and navigation, there are some really unique, "hidden" features that every Maps user should be aware of:
- Like I said previously, Maps is even more useful when you're logged into your Google account. For instance, If I zoom into Edinburgh, I will see a reminder of my upcoming hotel reservation at the Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa. The map will also surface other relevant restaurants and stores in the city that I have been searching for.
- You can easily customize your own maps experience by pinning "favorite places". When you search for a place on Google Maps, simply click on the small "saved" star button. Once you do so, that star will always appear in Maps until you manually remove it. When we went to Copenhagen back in May, I quickly pinned a few stores and coffee shops I wanted to visit. This was super handy as we used Google Maps to navigate the city and find each destination.
- If you're traveling internationally and won't have a data plan on your phone, don't worry! You don't need data to access Google Maps. In fact, the app is pretty powerful even when you're offline. If you turn off roaming when abroad, just make sure to keep your Location Services is enabled. This way, your phone will rely on GPS to pinpoint your location without accruing international roaming charges. In Google Maps, you can still track the tiny dot as you find your way around a new city. To take offline capabilities one step further, iPhone and Android users can now download "offline maps". This allows you to pick a specific area and save a full resolution map, including street names and markers, to your device. You can then access and navigate this map anytime you are offline. It's always a good idea to download maps for a new city before taking off!
This is one of the most vastly improved but grossly under-appreciated apps created by Google. Translate goes way beyond the standard language translation service. The app is optimized for use in daily, real-time situations.
- If you are an Android user, you can download language packs for offline translation. The feature is a bit more limited for iOS users, unfortunately. However, you still have a few options. You can download languages for one of the app's coolest features: instant camera translation
- It's not very convenient to manually type in every word you're trying to translate. This is particularly annoying if you're attempting to decipher a road sign or menu in a foreign language. With Google Translate, you can simply point your camera, and the app will translate the image for you. We tried this on a French menu in Paris, and it worked shockingly well (minus a few awkward translations). It's features like this that make you realize how far technology has come. Just watch the video for proof!
Last but certainly not least is the new Google Photos app, which allows you to seamlessly access all your photos in the cloud no matter what device you're on. It's a pretty straightforward product that's stupidly easy to use and perfect for trigger-happy travelers:
- There are a lot of different services like Flikr and Dropbox that provide online photo storage. With Google Photos, users get free unlimited storage for all photos under 16 megapixels and 1080p videos. This is higher resolution than most photos taken on a smartphone. If you're a hardcore photographer, you get up to 1 TB of free storage with the option to purchase more. All photos on your phone will be automatically uploaded into the cloud. This way, you won't lose all your precious memories if you lose your phone. Also gone are the days of maxing out your phone's built in storage. Sadly, I don't think my mom has quite caught onto the cloud, so I have to constantly help her upload photos to a computer and clear up room on her iPhone.
- Culling through thousands of photos and sorting everything into folders can be a headache. The search feature (shocking) is pretty awesome in Google Photos. Simply type in any query, and the app will identify relevant photos. Google relies on a variety of signals like photo recognition and location to pull the best images. For example, if I type in "Austin", I'll be shown a variety of photos from my recent trip to the city. Even better, if I search on a random subject like "weddings", Photos accurately serves up photos from Rae & Kurt's recent nuptials. Kinda creepy but pretty amazing.
- The most random (and my personal favorite) feature in Google Photos is the Assistant. In this tab, you can create all kinds of random things like Stories, Animations and Collages. The app will automatically create a few for your review, but the ability to manually create your own animated GIF? Priceless.