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Lie back, log on, and see the world

Zooming to street level helps visualize landmarks in Phoenix. Zooming to street level helps visualize landmarks in Phoenix.
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2008
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Google Earth might be the best thing ever to happen to armchair travelers. The free software makes it easy to spend hours spanning the globe, swooping in between the walls of the Grand Canyon or soaring high above the pyramids of Egypt. Google Earth allows you to explore places you might not dare to visit, such as the summit of Mount Everest, and those you couldn't experience even if you tried, such as the streets of ancient Rome. And now that it has the ability to surf through constellations and galaxies, Google Earth literally has out-of-this-world features.

While you could spend an entire "staycation" happily ensconced in this virtual world, Google Earth is also a valuable trip-planning tool for those in the real world. Here are some ways it can help:

  • Find a hotel. Choose the Lodging option from the Layers toolbar, and bed icons denote hotel locations on the satellite image. Or use the software's Find Businesses search fields to identify hotels in particular towns or near landmarks. Looking for lodging near LAX or Sydney Opera House? Input those search terms, and Google Earth displays options. Want to make sure you can walk to the beach from that hotel you're considering in Miami? Type in the address, then use the Ruler tool to measure the distance. Click on each hotel icon to get reviews from TripAdvisor and other websites.
  • Scout the neighborhood. When you're investigating lodging options, the Layers toolbar can help you find restaurants, bars, ATMs, and supermarkets nearby. Click on restaurant icons (a knife and fork), and get addresses, phone numbers, websites, and reviews. Can't live without Starbucks, even in Tokyo? Type Starbucks and Tokyo into the Find Businesses search fields, and find out where you can satisfy your latte fix. If you're planning to rent a cottage in Ireland, enter the address in Google Earth and see whether your "rustic hideaway" is surrounded by green pastures or by power lines and railroad tracks.
  • Transport yourself. Just like Google Maps, Google Earth provides driving directions, but you can also locate gas stations using the Layers toolbar or use the Find Businesses field to search for Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, or other guilty pleasures along the way. For city views, click on the Transportation layer to find subway stations.
  • Explore the great outdoors. Select the Parks and Recreation layer to locate city, state, and national parks, and the Golf layer to find nearby links. Hikers can use Google Earth's 3-D Terrain layer to get an idea of trail elevations, and the Trimble Outdoors Trips layer presents information on popular hikes. Choose the Weather layer to get local forecasts from The Weather Channel.
  • Brush up on history. Embedded links to Wikipedia entries, National Geographic stories, and Discovery Channel videos offer opportunities to learn more about historical landmarks and places of interest. Choose the Rumsey Historical Maps layer for maps of 1857 Chicago, 1716 Paris, or other historical views. One fascinating feature allows you to overlay historical maps on top of present-day satellite images; compare Washington, D.C., of 1851 to today's city.
  • See the lay of the land. Google's popular Street View function is available through a layer on Google Earth. This is valuable for getting a street-level view of storefronts and city blocks. Want to see what the exterior of that restaurant in Phoenix looks like so you know it when you spy it? Use Street View. Want to visualize highway exits in an unfamiliar city so you know where to turn, or to know where that parking garage entrance is in Manhattan? Use Street View. Links to user-generated photos posted on Panoramio and videos on YouTube can give you further visual aids. A new addition to Google Earth is a 3-D view of the theme parks and resorts at Disney World.

  • Get a tour from the locals. You can find some great user-created content at the Google Earth Community (bbs.keyhole.com). Users post personal city tours with pinpointed locations and commentaries. An Amsterdam city guide sails over the city like a flying carpet, zooming from well-known landmarks such as the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum to recommended cafes. There are also more off-beat tours such as Nashville homes of country music stars and sites related to the life of Kurt Cobain. Travelers to England will find tours for all tastes, from London pubs to Wars of the Roses battlefields. To download Google Earth, go to earth.google.com and follow the instructions.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.

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