Planning, traveling and sharing a vacation with apps that have geography at their heart is no longer just a futuristic idea.
Dated guidebooks, tattered maps and finding a place to eat may have been part of the travel headache in times past, but new technology and mobile applications have eliminated many of those hurdles. Here are three of my favorite online and mobile applications to help you plan, enjoy and share your vacation without getting lost or guessing whether the hotel you hope to stay in is close to the ocean.
Never underestimate the power of Google maps.
Travelers can view real-time traffic, plan routes for public transportation and search indoor maps for airports. You can view real-time traffic by selecting custom layers, route directions using Google's public-transportation option and zoom into some airports for detailed maps of floor plans.
But the real gem of Google's maps may be the continued implementation of satellite data, 3-D modeling and street-level imagery.
When planning your trip, skip Google's online browser application and go directly to Google Earth and download it. This virtual playground for geography geeks, data lovers and travelers is relatively user-friendly, although it does have a learning curve.
To navigate, use the tools in the upper right-hand corner to manipulate the elevation, angle and view. You also can search in the toolbar by entering an address or landmark. The map will fly automatically to the location.
If it's your first time, conduct the obligatory search for your home and then move on to exploring landmarks you might recognize, say, Wall Street or Paris' Arc de Triomphe.
Like Google's online maps, Google Earth also provides layers with geotagged photos, videos, user reviews and a plethora of other information. The added information allows travelers to get a detailed overview of a location including what it looks like, where it is and what others think about it.
To activate this info, check the desired layers found in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen.
A favorite tool among photographers and travelers is the sunlight slider in the top menu bar. The tool allows users to explore how the sunlight dances across the landscape and locate areas to capture the perfect sunset or a hotel that may face west away from early morning light that would wake you up.
More advanced users can download and import custom layers designed by other users who have access to public or private data. These layers include bird migrations, real-time flight trackers and curated lists of the most interesting places to search.
Users can also create their own flyovers linking selected points of interest together. The flyover is a fun way to explore a cross-country road trip, or international destination and become familiar with the geography and landscape.
If you're planning a trip and just want to check things out before committing this is an ideal program to use.
Exploring a new city can be intimidating, but mobile apps have enhanced the experience. Where would we be without Yelp and Urbanspoon telling us where to eat or city guides telling us what to see?
One that might not be on your radar but should be: HopStop. It's is a simple-to-use app that's great for urban vacationers. It's designed for planning point-to-point directions before traveling in a city and finding routes in real time.
Pulling data from 140 metro markets in seven countries including the United States and France, HopStop provides route information for 750,000 individual stops and vehicles.
Need to find the quickest way from your hotel in New York City to the Empire State Building? Simply enter your starting and end point and HopStop figures out the rest. Routes include walking directions, bus lines, subways and estimated cab fares in case you're in a hurry.
To enhance the experience, HopStop also warns users about delays and scheduled maintenance.
Mobile phones and digital maps now provide adventurous travelers with the ability to research, enjoy and share their trips more easily than ever.
Trimble Outdoors, an Arizona-based technology company that's a leader in digital outdoor recreation, has enough maps to keep any outdoor enthusiast busy for days.
[For the Record, 12:50 p.m. PST April 8: An earlier version of this post stated that Trimble Outdoors is based in New Mexico. It is based in Arizona.]Like HopStop, Trimble Outdoors focuses on merging online data with mobile data, ultimately providing users with the ability to plan their route online and send the information to their smartphone for use on the road.
Trimble takes it one step beyond: It allows you to print a custom topographic map.
If that seems quaint, marketing director Kris Wagner offers another view. "Batteries die and cellphones fail, so we want to combine old-school technology with digital technology," Wagner said.
Because being in the outdoors sometimes means cell service isn't available, Trimble Outdoors' mobile application Trimble Navigator allows users to download maps for offline use and use the phone's GPS without cell service.
"People really want to know where they are on the trail and record where they are going," Wagner said. "With our app you can do that and then share your trip on Facebook for your friends to see."
Another key feature for many outdoor enthusiasts is an upgraded membership that includes custom map overlays that can show public land boundaries, offer real-time weather information and give the current conditions of the dirt roads it displays. Users can also export any trip into Google Earth and explore the terrain in 3-D.