I use Google Maps practically every day, even though I rarely actually use it to get directions. It's not obvious at first glance, but Google Maps can do a lot more than just navigate you from Point A to Point B. Beneath all those high-res satellite images and color-coded routes hides a powerful search tool, chock-full of crowdsourced real-time data on scores of retail stores, restaurants, professional offices and public parks -- and practically anywhere else you want to go.
Turn-by-turn directions are so last decade compared with some of Google Maps' more recent updates, which includeand . If you're already familiar with Google Maps as a navigation tool, next-level powers like these are only a tap, press or swipe away.
To unleash the hidden power of the Google Maps app on your phone or tablet, take a look at the top four ways I use Google Maps every day that have nothing to do with getting directions.
See how long the line is everywhere from Walmart to the DMV
Before I walk out the door, whether I'm heading to Walmart, the grocery store, the doctor's office or to renew my driver's license, I almost always check Google Maps to see exactly how busy I can expect my destination to be. Here's how you can look up that information too.
In the Google Maps app, tap on the business or location you want to visit and scroll down until you see a graph labeled Popular times. Tap the day of the week if you're planning a trip for later that week.
Tap on the red column to see current foot-traffic data, or one of the blue columns to get a summary of how busy you can expect it to be at another time: Not busy, Not too busy, A little busy or As busy as it gets.
Next, under the heading Plan your visit, you'll find general information like peak wait times ("up to 5 min from 6 a.m -- 12 a.m") and length of average visit ("People typically spend 20 min here"). Now you know whether you'll be in and out in a flash or if you need to pack a good book or just plan your visit for another day when wait times aren't as long.
Check out menus, photos and customer reviews
In addition to its navigation tools, Google Maps is also a full-blown crowdsourced review app, much like Yelp or TripAdvisor, so you can get a good idea of what sorts of options your destination offers, as well as price, presentation and whether you'll need to take out a loan to afford it.
This feature is especially useful if your destination is a restaurant, hotel or bar, where previewing menu options and prices -- not to mention getting a good look at the dishes and decor -- might make or break your decision to try someplace new. For those who trust the wisdom of crowds, it also shows the restaurants' five-star average as well as individual reviews to weigh in your decision.
On most restaurant listings you'll see a navigation bar at the top with Overview, Menu, Reviews and Photos listed as options. Tap any of those or just scroll down. The link labeled Menu is often listed just below operating hours, but keep scrolling until you see the heading Popular dishes to see photos of food. Keep going past Popular times until almost the very bottom to find the restaurant's five-star average and user reviews.
Hey, Google Assistant, how'd you get on my iPhone?
Google Assistant doesn't come baked into iOS the waydoes, but a setting in Google Maps lets you shove Siri to the side so you can have always-on access to Google Assistant while navigating.
To set the Google Maps app on your iPhone to listen for "OK, Google" while navigating, open the Google Maps app and tap on the menu icon (the three stacked horizontal lines to the left of the search bar), then tap Settings. At the top of the page, under the heading Getting Around, tap Navigation, then scroll to the option labeled Access your Assistant with "OK Google" and turn the toggle on.
Admittedly, this workaround is a little wonky -- you have to set Google Maps to navigate to a specific destination for the "OK, Google" voice command to work, and you can't summon Siri with "Hey, Siri" while this feature is turned on. But it's still better, in my opinion, than the thought of switching to an Android phone (fighting words for some, I know).
Find operating hours, phone numbers, ZIP codes and more
Whenever I need to know when a store or office opens or closes, or if I need to call the place and I don't have the number, or on the rare occasion when I need the ZIP code for a business for which the street name and number are all I know off the top of my head (say, for a job application), I go straight to Google Maps to get these answers and more.
Here's where to quickly and easily find basic info about locations listed in Google Maps:
Operating hours: Businesses' hours of operation are displayed immediately beneath the address. You can tap the down arrow beside today's closing time to see hours for other days of the week. Most listings are updated with any special holiday hours, which are highlighted in a red font.
Phone numbers: Beneath hours of operation in most listings you'll find the phone number. To call it without leaving Google Maps, tap the number, then tap the pop-up that displays the prompt to Call followed by the number.
Website: If the business has a website, it will be listed below the phone number. Tap it to open the website in a Google Chrome-powered tab within the Google Maps app.
ZIP code: This one's less common, but when I've needed it, Google Maps has saved me tons of time. Either enter the street name and number or the business name and tap search. At the top of the listing beside the street address, you'll now see the ZIP code.
Of course, Google Maps is also chock-full of features that help with what the app is most obviously designed to do -- show you how to get where you're going. Start with these. If you'll be using Google Maps to navigate on a big road trip, . If you happen upon any accidents, speed traps or other slowdowns while you're out and about, directly from the Google Maps app.
Originally published Jan. 4.