Online maps and, later, step-by-step driving directions were among the handiest byproducts of the Internet age. Getting “from here to there” was made infinitely more convenient with the ability to customize an area map, zoom in or out of its center, and receive detailed instructions simply by entering an origination and destination point.

Many reference maps that required a trip to the library or governmental office were made available online, affording convenient access to a variety of research tools.

Map sites tend to follow into three broad classes, with many sites that overlap categories:

  • area maps with driving directions
  • reference maps – topography, demographics, geologic
  • map vendors – retail, business-to-business, and wholesale

In their early days, some map sites were more precise than others, particularly when it came to driving directions. Now, the playing field has somewhat evened out and, despite their many disclaimers, most map sites are pretty on the mark when it comes to accuracy. What makes one better than another is a matter of personal preference, though some offer a few more bells and whistles. More sophisticated than ever before, many map sites offer some cutting-edge features. A few of our favorites:

  • One of the original pioneers in the online map arena, Mapquest is still a leader when it comes to accurate driving directions. One of its new features is a gas price comparison tool. Enter any U.S. address, and then select a radius (one, five or ten miles) to see lowest gas prices in the area.
  • Yahoo Maps offers great driving directions, along with local area maps. Satellite photos provide real-time traffic updates – courtesy of the state transportation agency – that show traffic incidents as well as average speeds. Much like a GPS system on a car, Yahoo Maps can show the location of nearby malls, movie theaters, ATMS, post offices, restaurants, train stations, and more.
  • Google Maps provides many of the same features as Yahoo, as well as a “My Maps” options that allows you to create, edit, share, and store personalized maps. Google Earth, a product of Google, is a downloadable program (free for personal use) that features satellite views, maps, and three-dimensional images of anywhere in the world. Zoom in on the Eiffel Tower, Wrigley Field, or your childhood home. This program is one that you have to experience to appreciate fully!
  • National Geographic’s Map Machine is one of the most comprehensive map sites today. International in scope, the site offers a variety of maps �” satellite, thematic, and road maps. Type in any address, and view an area road map. Then click on “change theme” to see a variety of maps for the same location – temperature, rainfall, population density, land use. (Although we note that during the time of our test visits, some of these features were unavailable.)
  • sells maps of all kinds – travel, wall, antique – as well as globes and atlases. But its section of “Free Stuff” also offers a variety of interesting frills – like Maps in the News, quizzes to test your geography IQ, and even a map blog.