Google Maps is constantly releasing updates that make it more powerful, but few users know how to take advantage of all the tools it has to offer. Here are our tips for using it while you're on the road. You no longer have an excuse to get lost.

Scout the Destination in Advance

Thanks to Street View and Google Earth, Google Maps now has images of nearly every location on the planet from broad strokes to fine detail. Some people even like to spend the afternoon taking a virtual vacation without leaving home. We're all for armchair travel, but it pales in contrast to the real thing so, for the sake of this tutorial, let's plan a weekend getaway from San Francisco to Seattle.

Search for a destination or attraction like the Space Needle and you’ll find a series of photos appear at the bottom of the screen. These include a link to Google Earth satellite imagery, Street Views of nearby streets, and user-submitted photo tours of various landmarks. Use these to look around the area. When you actually go there, you'll have a better sense of context and an idea of a few other places to visit if you end up disappointed (you won't, the view from the top is gorgeous).

Plan Your Next Steps

When it's time to book your trip, search for directions from San Francisco to Seattle, and there's a good chance Google Maps will display not a 12-hour road trip, but a list of options provided by a new tool, Google Flights. Your directions will include estimated travel time, fares, and a link to view schedules and book a ticket. If it doesn't appear immediately, look for the airplane symbol among the transit options at the top. If it suggests taking an overnight train, well, consider it.

In all likelihood, you'll still need to get to the airport, which is why Google Maps has been improving how it integrates information from mass transit agencies. Select the bus symbol to find the most convenient route, including considerations made for transfers and waiting time. 

The mass transit tool is awesome for learning the ropes in unfamiliar cities. Google Maps not only provides step-by-step directions for the scheduled trip, but also general route information, including hours of operation and route frequency. Click on "Route options" to select your preferences, like "Subway" and "Less walking." It's even possible to save your home address with the location of your hotel so you can find your way back more easily.

Don't forget to create an itinerary if you think you'll find yourself short on time. Google Maps has made it must easier to list multiple waypoints, which can be useful for sales calls or planning a city tour. Just click on the "+" button to add a destination to the list. You can even share your map with friends by using the "Share" button at the top to send an email.

Stay Updated on the Go 

Most people run into unexpected surprises when they travel, and how you respond to them can make or break the experience. You probably already know to use Google Maps to load live traffic information before you set out and you'll know to take a different route. Directions are automatically updated to account for estimated trip duration. 

But you can also use Google Maps to learn more about your destination and search for alternatives. (Suggestions improve when you log in, using information gleaned from past trips and friends' reviews.) Most businesses have a listing on Google Maps with details like operating hours, user reviews, and a phone number to make a reservation. A few – including shopping malls – even have floor-by-floor maps of the building interior. 

Maybe you didn't realize the hottest restaurant in town was closed for lunch, or that the museum is only open on weekends? It's easy to search for similar nearby establishments, which appear as red dots or icons on the map. Be sure to zoom in since not all locations are immediately obvious. Then click for more details or directions.

Let Android Be Your Guide

If you have a Nexus tablet or phone running an Android operating system, Google will use your current location to recommend waypoints via its Google Now function. This is basically an extension of maps and extremely useful if you're wandering aimlessly because it will prevent you from walking past an interesting landmark.