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Plan Your Trip with Google Earth and Google Maps

Written by Jared on January 11, 2012

A screenshot of the earth as shown in Google Earth.Google Earth and Google Maps are two online tools that we use frequently to plan and record our travels. Google Maps is great at finding places we want to go, calculating mileage and giving driving directions. Google Earth helps us keep track of long itineraries and document where we've been.

If you see a small screenshot thumbnail anywhere in this article, click on it to view the full sized image.

The Basics

If you've used Google Maps and Google Earth before, feel free to skip to this section.

Google Maps is a web page. Hopefully you've heard of it. In its basic form, Google Maps is an extension of the Google search engine, except it knows (most of the time) where stuff is. If you type in "campground zion national park" you will get a bunch of placemarks around Zion National Park in Utah where Google thinks there is a campground. If you click on one of those placemarks you should get an address, a phone number or link to their web page.

Google Maps directions screenshot.Google Maps can also give you driving directions. If you click the "Get Directions" button and type in Moab, UT in the box with the "A" next to it, and Zion, UT in the box with a "B" you'll see a purple squiggly line on the map with detailed driving directions on the left.

It is worth noting that Google Earth and Google Maps work much better in North America and Europe. Direction routing is available just about everywhere, but if you try searching for "campground" in Mongolia you will be disappointed. The farther you get from developed countries, the worse your results will be. Thankfully Google Maps is improving all the time, around the world.

Google Earth is a program that you can download for free. It's a great way to explore areas in three dimensions. It also offers searching and routing, although Google Maps is often a better option for these tasks. More on these features later.

We use Google Earth to store, share and document our travels. It is much more interactive, and the interface is easier to use to catalog and save waypoints, routes and information about destinations. Plus, I like having a file on my computer that I can easily view offline and backup.

Using Google Maps and Google Earth Together

As I explained above, Google Maps and Google Earth both have their strengths. While they share a bit in common, it's easiest to use each tool for specific purposes. Use Google Maps to search, find and route. Use Google Earth to explore, document and save.

The process I use goes something like this:

  1. In Google Maps: Search for and find my first destination.
  2. Get directions by searching for and finding my next destination.
  3. Tweak the destination markers and route so they show exactly where I want to go (or have been) and how to get there.
  4. Save the route and destination waypoints to my computer.
  5. In Google Earth: Open the waypoints and routes file.
  6. Copy the route and any needed waypoints to My Places.
  7. Rename and change the icons for the route and waypoints.
  8. Explore the area and if necessary, add any additional waypoints.
  9. Add descriptions and any important information to waypoints.

I'll cover these steps in more detail below after going over a few tips and tricks.

Make Google Earth Less Annoying

There are a few things I change in Google Earth the first time I install it.

First, turn off most of the layers. In the "Layers" panel (should be in the bottom left corner when you open the program), uncheck all of the boxes except "Borders and Labels" and "Roads". The extra clutter can be very distracting while mapping. Feel free to check out the other layers later. The "Photos" layer is especially cool for exploring new places.

Screenshot showing which layers to deselect.

Screenshot showing how to collapse the layers panel in Google Earth.

Once you've eliminated most of the layers, shrink the layers panel down by clicking on the heading "Layers". You'll find you need all the space you can get in the "Places" panel while you're moving routes and waypoints around.

If you use the "Fly To" or "Directions" searches in the top left, don't forget to clear your searches by clicking the X button in the bottom right corner of the panel. That will free up space for your "Places" panel and remove the extra markers from your map.

Screenshot showing how to clear the fly to results in Google Earth.

Finally, make sure the Toolbar is enabled, it should be by default. It can be accessed in the top menu View -> Toolbar.

Organize and Save Your Maps in Google Earth

Before we get into how I use Google Maps and Earth, I'll introduce two features that make Google Earth the better option for saving and storing your maps. It is possible to save your work in Google Maps, but I've never had much luck getting it to work smoothly. I also don't like that everything is stored in my Google account in "the cloud" rather than on my laptop.

It is very difficult to organize complex and detailed maps in Google Maps - something Google Earth makes very simple, once you understand these two concepts:

1. In Google Earth your map information is saved in the folder called "My Places". Any maps you open or download from Google Maps are put in a folder named "Temporary Places".

2. You can make folders within "My Places" to organize your map data.

Your map is not saved automatically, so make a habit of going to File, then Save, then Save My Places. This will only save map data stored in "My Places," not information in "Temporary Places".

A screenshot of Google Earth showing how to backup your map.

If you want to make a copy of your map to backup or share, right click on the "My Places" folder in the Places panel and select "Save Place As...". This will save a file with the extension .kml that can be emailed, shared online via Google Maps or opened in Google Earth on another computer.

Organizing your maps is as easy as creating folders in "My Places" to hold your routes and waypoints. I find it best to create lots of different folders, organized by geographic location (city, state or country) and then two sub folders in each, one for routes and one for places.

A screenshot of Google Earth showing how to add a new folder.

Having plenty of sub-folders allows you to easily hide and show different routes and waypoints and save different geographic areas as separate maps. It also gives you more control over your "Places" panel which can grow helplessly out of control when you are making large maps with many routes and waypoints.

Searching and Routing in Google Maps

Aside from the basics of searching and routing I covered above, there are a couple other tricks that may come in handy while using Google Maps.

You can click and drag both waypoint markers and route lines to change the start, end and path taken between destinations. This is incredibly helpful when you want to find alternate routes, or you are having trouble zeroing in on a specific destination.

Screenshot showing how to move a Google Map endpoint.
A Google Maps path that should be moved to a more scenic route.

You can also change entire routes in Google Maps. It will show you the fastest way from Point A to Point B by default. But this may not be the path you wish to take, or you may wish to compare the time it takes and distance by taking alternative routes.

A screenshot in Google Maps showing a path that was moved.

For example, when I searched for directions from Seattle to San Francisco for our current trip, Google told me to drive straight down I-5. However, we weren't in a hurry, and after a bit of research I found that Highway 101 was a much more scenic option. Google Maps made it easy to compare these two routes.

It's also possible to add more than two destinations when you are searching for directions. For example, we drove from Yosemite National Park to Zion National Park a few weeks ago and decided to cut the drive in half after seeing it would take over ten hours. Google Maps made this an easy decision and saved us from a long stressful day of traveling.

A screenshot in Google Maps showing how to add a destination to directions.

Saving Google Maps Results to Your Computer

Unfortunately Google doesn't make this as seamless as it should be, so there's a bit of computer wizardry involved. But don't be scared, it's easy.

Once you've searched for a destination or gotten directions, click on the link button. You should see a box drop down with a web address in it. This address is meant to be emailed or posted online to give others a way to pull up your map.

A screenshot of Google Maps showing out to save the output file.

Copy that address and paste it into your browser. Scroll all the way to the right of the URL and type "&output=kml" on the end of it, without the quotes. Press enter, and your browser should pop up a box asking you to download or open the file. You can either save it to your computer or open it directly with Google Earth.

Moving Google Maps Results into Google Earth

A screenshot of Google Earth showing Google Maps results opened.

Once you have the file open in Google Earth, your Google Maps results will be visible in the "Temporary Places" folder. The file will include a waypoint for each direction given in Google Maps (every time you need to turn your car) and a route (the purple line) which is always the last item in the list in "Temporary Places".

To finish adding your Google Maps results to your Google Earth map you need to copy the waypoints and route from "Temporary Places" to "My Places". Do this by clicking and dragging the items, or by copying and pasting them into the correct folders in "My Places".

A screenshot of Google Earth showing how to move a route from temporary places to my places.

Screenshot showing how to clear temporary places in Google Earth.

Once you've copied everything you want from "Temporary Places" to "My Places" right click on "Temporary Places" in the "Places" panel and select "Delete Contents". That will clean the extra clutter off your map and shrink down the "Temporary Places" folder so you have more space to continue working.

As personal preference, I usually only copy the route and ignore the waypoints from Google Maps into Google Earth. I find it easier to add the waypoints to the start and end (and anywhere in between if necessary) using Google Earth rather than picking and choosing them from the mess of waypoints imported from Google Maps. If you wish to include the driving directions in your map simply move everything in "Temporary Places" to "My Places".

Adding and Editing Placemarks in Google Earth

Once you have your route moved to "My Places" it's time to add some placemarks (aka waypoints). The easiest way to do this is to zoom into the start and end of your route and click the "Add Placemark" button in the toolbar at the top of the screen. This will add the placemark to the folder you have selected in the "Places" panel, if it ends up in the wrong place (like "Temporary Places"), drag it to the correct folder.

A screenshot in Google Earth showing how to add and move a new placemark.

When you click on "Add Placemark" you see an icon (probably a push pin) with a yellow box around it. You can click on the icon and move it to the exact place you wish it to be. Make sure to zoom in on your route so you get it as close to possible your intended destination.

Once the Placemark is in the right place, you can give it a name, add a description and change the icon by clicking on the icon button to the right of the name field. I use the city or landmark for the name and change the icon to something fitting. If it's a campsite I use the tent, if it's a park I pick the tree, if it's border crossing I'll go with the police man.

A Google Earth screenshot showing how to change a waypoint icon.

The Description field is useful for recording any extra information. This shows up in the bubble when you click on the waypoint on the map. I use this space to record phone numbers, addresses or notes about places I've been. If you're tech savvy you can use HTML in this field to add images or other text formatting.

A screenshot of Google Earth showing the Fly To feature.

An alternative to clicking "Add Placemark" and placing waypoints manually is to use the "Fly To" search box in the top left. You can search in Google Earth, much like in Google Maps by using place names, business types or GPS coordinates. Your results will show up in the Search panel, and you'll need to copy the waypoint into My Places to add it to your map.

If you want to change the name, icon or description of a placemark, right click on the icon in the map, or on the item under "My Places" and select "Properties" (PC) or "Get Info" (Mac).

Phew, that's it for today. Hopefully you've learned something about Google Earth and Google Maps. If you have any questions about these two tools or my directions feel free to add a comment to the article.


#3 Adam 2013-08-11 16:48
Google has changed maps and no longer offers a URL to share. The address bar URL won't accept a &output=kml option as it used to.
#2 kevin 2013-03-18 13:31
your method of transferring from maps to earth doesn't work for me. I just get the original maps website loaded and no option to save. Have Google blocked this now!
#1 Richard 2012-12-01 04:33
Using Google maps for trip planning is definitely one of th ebest ways to do it

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