Travel Technology

How Does Google Maps Work? 5 Tips for Travelers

Ever passed by a cute-looking restaurant on your way to dinner and wonder why Google Maps didn’t show it as an option when you searched the area? I found out the secret behind how Google Maps decides what to show you, plus other must-know tips for travelers.

How Does Google Maps Work?

I hate it when I’m searching an area for a restaurant or coffee shop and it seems like there are only chains around. Does Google Maps, I wondered, actually show you everything available? I asked a Google spokesperson, and discovered the answer is no. “Local search results in Google Maps are primarily based on relevance, distance and prominence, as well as a user’s personal interests,” explained the spokesperson. “Algorithms in Google Maps combine these factors to help find the best match for a user’s search. For example, Google Maps might decide that a business that’s farther away from you is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer. Therefore, it will rank higher in your local search results.” Bottom line:  Just because you’re looking at a map doesn’t mean you’re getting the whole picture.

Not seeing anything you like in your search results? Set your phone down and go for a wander—maybe you’ll find a hidden gem.

Here are some tips to help you get the most out of Google Maps while traveling.

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Check Crowds on Public Transit

Relying on public transportation to get to the airport? Check Google Maps’ new transit updates feature, available in over 200 cities worldwide. Google Maps recently launched the ability to show live traffic delays for public buses, so you can see in real-time if your bus is running late.

Worried about getting a seat on the subway or squeezing on a crowded train with your suitcase? Google Maps now offers crowd predictions, which will show you estimates of how crowded your bus/train/subway is likely to be.

Create Lists

Instead of using an endless email chain or sprawling group text to decide what to do and where to eat on your next trip, try Google Maps’ List feature. This lets you save places to a shareable list that the other travelers on your trip can add to or vote on. Your lists can be saved offline so you can access them without Wi-Fi or data.

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Decide What to Order

Found a charming local restaurant, but not sure what to get? Pull up the eatery on Google Maps to see what the restaurant’s most popular dishes are and read reviews of individual orders. Maps will even automatically translate the reviews if they’re in another language so you can order with confidence.

Find an Available Bikeshare

If you’ve ever used New York City’s popular bikeshare Citi Bike, you already know about this invaluable Google Maps feature, which has been live in NYC for a year. The bikeshare information ability is rolling out in 24 more cities across 16 countries, and automatically shows you the location of bikesharing stations on Google Maps—and how many bikes are available, in real-time. Never roll up to an empty bike rack (or one that’s at capacity) again.

What to Wear on Your Next Vacation

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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for travel photos from around the world. 

By Caroline Morse Teel

Unfortunately for her bank account, Principal Editor Caroline Morse Teel is powerless to resist a good flight deal. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.

Caroline joined Boston-based SmarterTravel in 2011 after living in Ireland, London, and Manhattan. She's traveled to all seven continents, jumped out of planes, and bungeed off bridges in the pursuit of a good story. She loves exploring off-the-beaten path destinations, anything outdoorsy, and all things adventure.

Her stories have also appeared online at USA Today, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Yahoo,, TripAdvisor, Buzzfeed, Jetsetter, Oyster, Airfarewatchdog, and others.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Earplugs. A good pair has saved my sleep and sanity many times!"

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.

Travel Motto: "Don't be boring."

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle (when the first class private suite isn't available)."

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