A new world of maps is unfolding online, giving travelers the power to scout their destination from as close as curbside to as far out as space.
Take, for example, a trip to Manhattan. While a traveler planning such a trip might once have felt lost trying to pick a hotel or figuring out what landmarks were worth the walk, today's traveler could:
- Choose a hotel from the virtual Big Apple in Google Earth , then use the satellite feature of Google Maps and A9.com's Blockview to get a feel for the neighborhood.
- Plot the hotel on an interactive subway map to find the closest subway stations with onNYTurf.com.
- View 360-degree images from sightseeing destinations that are linked from a map of the city on NYCPOV.com.
- Calculate the distance of a walk from the hotel to Union Square, then past Madison Square Garden, through Times Square, into the park and finally to the Metropolitan Museum of Art using the GMaps Pedometer.
- Snap photographs with a GPS-enabled device, for later display in a custom travel diary at Continento.com.
Competition and a blend of new technologies make these services possible. In their race to reach local consumers and businesses, companies such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have put new geographic applications on the Web. Some have even opened their online mapping software to independent Web developers. Hundreds of websites now mix geographic data and images, giving savvy travelers new ways to find anything from taco trucks in Seattle to pubs in Britain.
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The technology is still young, and people are still working out how best to use it. But some intrepid travelers, from weekend warriors to international flyers, are jumping right in.
Jeremy Henricks, a dedicated hunter and angler from Springfield, Ore., travels two or three times a month into the backcountry. He said the satellite images available on Google Maps give him an excellent picture of the terrain, allowing him to scout trails and access as never before.
"Guidebooks can't match the amount of coverage that Google Maps offers," he said. "Also, guidebooks tend to point out the most popular and easy to access spots. But with Google Maps, you're in control of choosing a spot based on access, terrain, structure, and other criteria that you may not find in a guidebook."
Google's satellite images show detailed top-down views of cities, too, and even allow users to overlay map data, such as street and park names, on the photograph. A9.com's Blockview takes a different angle. The yellow pages service includes millions of photographs of businesses taken from the streets of major U.S. cities, with buttons to scroll left and right along the block.
Barnaby Dorfman, vice president of local search at A9.com, said people could use the tool to suss out the neighborhood around a particular hotel, for example.
"Hotels always have this great brochure, and you have no idea what's around it," he said.
Dorfman said he recently used Blockview to find a restaurant in New York City. "When you get close, you start to recognize things. It's not necessarily the signs. It might be the fringe of the awning," he said.
These services and others like them are already changing the travel industry. Nancy Cutter, president of Court Travel LTD in Charlotte, N.C., said she heard about Google Earth from a customer. The free software gives users the ability to take a virtual flight over any city on earth, plotting hotels, restaurants and other businesses along the way.
"I was able to easily identify a lot of services that we'll be able to provide to clients," she said. For example, a photographer recently asked her to find him a hotel near the marina in Sardinia, Italy, where he was to photograph a sailing race. Using online mapping software, she was able to separate the hotels on the waterfront from those merely claiming to be.
Finding a convenient hotel may be the most obvious use of new mapping applications, as evidenced by the quick appearance of Google Maps on the hotel reservation sites Hotels-x.net and ReserveMy.com. But there are other applications that may benefit travelers, such as:
- Detailed tourist information. Tourism British Columbia has a Google map of attractions in Vancouver, for example.
- Accurate transit maps. Individuals in many cities have posted interactive maps of local bus and train systems. Some even plot transit vehicles' locations in real time.
- Special-interest vacations. For instance, fans of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture can use an online map of his creations to plan a series of discovery trips.
Some travelers use map data after their trip is over, too. Aaron Watkins, a London-based software developer, has experimented with plotting his travels on a Google map. His work is similar to the online travel diary at Continento.com, which allows travelers to link photographs and text to specific locations on a world map.
Both Watkins' site and Continento take advantage of a feature of Google's software that allows anyone with a little programming know-how to embed a custom map in their own pages. The result is called a "mash-up," and they're popping up all over the Web. Ontario software developer Mike Pegg, who chronicles the evolving online maps phenomenon on his Web log, said he thought tools linking geographic information to images and data would transform the Internet.
"I really think we could see the same kind of explosion that we did with the traditional website in the 1990s," he said.
And in the meantime, Pegg said, travelers have a few great new ways to see the world."I know from doing an around the world trip in 2002 I would have loved to have some of these tools available then."