With Google’s Offline Maps, Getting Around Gets Cheaper

Using your smartphone to look up a museum address or get turn-by-turn directions on a street in a foreign city can end up costing a small fortune in data charges. Those who download Google Maps’s new Offline Maps won’t have to pay a dime.

The tool allows users to be in a place without Internet access — whether on a sidewalk in New York City or a back road in Tuscany — and pull up a map that lets them get directions and use turn-by-turn voice navigation, as well as search for places (art galleries, restaurants, hotels, museums) and see details including hours, phone numbers and reviews.

Offline Maps, introduced this month, is one of a handful of free tools being rolled out by Google as the company further extends its reach in the travel realm. It also recently began promoting a rewards program for people who post online reviews and tips about restaurants, concert halls, botanical gardens, hotels, shops, markets, museums and practically any other place one might want to go, as part of Local Guides.

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And in July the company announced that it was displaying bar charts in Google Search that show the most and least popular hours at places including monuments, aquariums, cinemas, stores, bars and restaurants, so visitors can plan accordingly. Together the tools are poised to help millions of travelers figure out where to go, when to go and how to get there.

Offline Maps

Google Maps users have previously been able to look at offline maps they downloaded over Wi-Fi. But being able to use turn-by-turn voice directions, or search within a map for galleries, coffee shops and other destinations along with their details while being offline is new. (Even the autocomplete feature in the Maps search box now works offline.)

Using Google Maps offline requires minimal planning. When you’re in a place that has Wi-Fi, simply download a map to your smartphone by opening the app, then go to “offline areas,” and tap the “+” button. Alternatively, you can search for a city, county or country and then tap the “download” button. That’s it.

There are limits to the size of the offline map you can download, but you can download multiple maps. So if you wanted, say, an entire country, you could save multiple maps of its different areas. More likely, you’ll just want a large metro area, like the one surrounding San Francisco or New York. Or let’s say you downloaded Dublin. Now, when you’re in an area without an Internet connection, or when you’re in a pub and your service is spotty, Google Maps will automatically switch into offline mode. When you’re back in a place with Wi-Fi, Google switches back online.

Google certainly is not the only option. App stores are full of detailed offline maps that can be downloaded onto your smartphone, including Maps.me, City Maps 2Go, and Pocket Earth Pro. Several of these kinds of apps allow you to search for streets and nearby points of interest, be it a fast-food joint or a planetarium. Some have reviews. A number of them are free. Or you can go retro and carry a paper map.

Many people are used to navigating with Google Maps, though. It, too, is free, and unlike some competitors, its new offline maps have turn-by-turn voice directions as well as museum and restaurant reviews (sourced from a larger audience than most apps) and information.

Currently, Offline Maps is available to Android users; iOS users will likely be able to get it by the end of the year.

Local Guides

Also this month, Google announced it was expanding its Local Guides program, whose members provide reviews for places including restaurants and hotels in Google Maps and Google search.

To encourage people to share information about places they visit, there’s a rewards program. After signing up at Google.com/local/guides/signup, members can earn points by writing reviews, uploading photos, answering questions and updating information. Points can be used for rewards including early access to new products, and online data storage.

The program has five levels. The lowest, Level 1 (0 to 4 points), allows users to enter contests for things such as the latest Google devices. Level 2 users (5 to 49 points) can get early access to new Google products and features. For those who want their expertise recognized, Level 3 users (50 to 199 points) appear in the Google Maps app with a Local Guides badge. Level 4 users (200 to 499 points) receive 1 terabyte of free Google Drive storage. And Level 5 users (500 or more points) can apply to attend what Google is calling an “inaugural summit” next year in a place yet to be announced “where you’ll be able to meet other top guides from around the world, explore the Google campus and get the latest info about Google Maps” (the company said it will offer more details next year).

Popular Times Tool

Once you’ve found the places you want to go, there’s the matter of when to get there. Back in the old days, you hoped for the best. These days, when you search Google for Madame Tussauds or Shake Shack, you sometimes see in your search results a bar graph that shows how busy the place is at different hours during the course of a particular day of the week, based on historical visits. (The graphs show up for places and on days when there is adequate data.)

New Yorkers and tourists alike can discover, for instance, that on a Tuesday the Metropolitan Museum of Art is least crowded at the opening hour, 10 a.m., while you may be vying for a spot in front of van Gogh’s “Wheat Field With Cypresses” if you show up between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. For discount Broadway tickets, the line at the TKTS booth in South Street Seaport is longest at the opening hour (11 a.m.), so if you have your heart set on a particular play, arrive early. If you’re willing to roll the dice, go at 4 or 5 p.m. when the crowds are gone. As for the High Line, the elevated park on Manhattan’s west side, use it to bookend your day: You’re most likely to have a peaceful stroll at 7 a.m. or 10 p.m. That is, of course, unless everyone begins using the “popular times” tool.