There’s no discounting the helpfulness of maps on your iPhone or any smartphone for that matter. Since the days of using the $300 TomTom GPS kit with my Treo 600, I was hooked on using my smartphone to get places. In the early years of the iPhone, you still needed a costly third-party app if you wanted turn-by-turn directions. Those days are long gone. There are free options galore and the default Apple-powered Maps app continues to improve and iOS 9 will now offer Transit, providing directions using mass transit. Mapping capabilities are awesome, but are you making the most of the features available to you? Here’s a look at five different ways you can positively rule maps on your iPhone. Buckle-in, hit the gas! We’re taking you on a road trip to mapping awesome-ness.

Maps on your iPhone

Before we start, let’s take a look at what free apps you should download. If we’re going to expand our mapping boundaries, we’ll need an arsenal of map apps to get the job done.

  • Google Maps: A personal favorite and perennial member in our yearly list of the best free apps. Plain and simple, the maps here are stellar. No matter your destination, this app will get you there.
  • Waze: This app is fun, finger-friendly when driving and makes you feel as you’re part of big, driving community.
  • Maps: You know it, you love it (well, sometimes). It’s the default Maps app that comes with every new iPhone.

1. Beat the traffic

The best Garmin GPS will provide you with up to date traffic information and so can your iPhone. Often we wait until long trips or when we’re traveling to a new destination to break out an app for directions. That does not have to be the case. Even if you’re familiar with a location, you might not know of potential traffic jams or delays. If you’re traveling more than 10 minutes outside of your neighborhood, why not locate and avoid traffic. This is where Google Maps comes into play. I travel to Annapolis every three months, so I know my way without leaning on my technology.

On a recent trip, I fired up the app to check my travel time and anticipated arrival. I had just left my house and noticed a 2-hour delay. Google Maps changed the route on the fly, suggesting a route that I would have never thought to take. This all happens relatively fast. You’ll get a pop-up that tells you the amount of time you’ll save and which road you’ll be taking.

Avoid traffic

I’ll admit, there’s a leap of faith. On the same trip, this time returning from Annapolis, it routed us through side streets in Staten Island. Saving time is one thing. It’s also nice to see new areas and let’s face it, no one likes sitting in traffic.

If you prefer Apple’s Maps app, that’s always imminently qualified to provide you with traffic data. If you’re going a short distance, tap on the ‘i’, followed by Show Traffic. Maps will show you when you can expect a slow-down (yellow) or heavier traffic (red).

Last, but certainly not least is Waze. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon-ish interface. Waze gets its data from people like yourself. By crowdsourcing from it’s legion of Wazers, they are able to provide some interesting on-the-road statistics. When you view the map, you’ll see fellow Waze users. They can chip in by advising drivers of road-work, road-closures, accidents and more. Neat pop-ups can alert you to exact speeds on a particular road. Not only are you seeing possible delays, but you’ll get a better understanding of whether traffic is moving or not.

So the next time you’re headed out for an excursion, be it familiar or just far, don’t forget to use any of these map apps.

2. POIs and a quick way to find cheap gas

All three apps we’ve discussed have POIs (points of interest), but not all are created equal. They all use some sort of icon to stand out, such as a coffee cup to represent – you guessed it, a coffee shop. Waze allows advertisers to sponsor their locations, which is actually a win-win. While I’m not a fan of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, their logo appearing on a Waze map stands out and that’s a good thing. This reminds me of how Navigon treated POIs. Other sponsors include DVS and Dairy Queen.

All three provide ratings for a particular establishment. Apple’s Maps is powered by Yelp. When you tap on a place, you’ll see reviews and photos directly from Yelp. Apple will also recommend popular apps that are nearby. Waze will offer up the number of stars and an overall rating, but you can’t read reviews. I find that to be important.

Sponsored POIs in Waze

From the slide-out menu in Google Maps, there is an option to explore nearby. This is particularly helpful. You don’t have to pinch and zoom around a map looking for places. Instead, Google serves them in a nice grouping of categories such as top restaurants, quick bites, parks museums and expresso bar. It doesn’t always work well. I’d say it’s a bit of stretch to call Dunkin’ Donuts an expresso bar. Google Maps also displayed ten DD’s, while ignoring a Starbucks that’s 5 minutes from my home. From a glass half full perspective, I did find an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that I had not seen before and it’s less than 10 minutes away. Check back with me and I’ll let you know what a $6 Fluffernutter milk shake tastes like. What’s great about this implementation is that you’ll see a street view of the storefront. From here you can tap and dig deeper, reading reviews and seeing more photos, all without leaving the maps app.

Google Maps POIs

If you are grabbing a juicy burger or navigating your way around town, you’re going to need to fill up your tank every so often. A quick search of gas stations will reveal locations, but that’s not going to help your wallet. We’ve done an extensive write up on the best apps to find cheap gas. Truth is, you never have to leave your maps app if you’re using Waze.

  1. Tap on Menu
  2. Tap on Navigate
  3. Tap on Gas

Waze cheap gas

From here, you’ll get a list of gas stations sorted by their proximity to your location. Even better, they list updated price per gallon. They are color coated, so you can easily spot the lowest prices. This allows you to decide if it’s worth it to travel a bit further to save a few bucks.

3. 3D Flyer Is Like Having Your Own Personal Drone

Are you planning a vacation sometime soon? If so, are there landmarks that you are planning to visit? One of the absolute best features in Apple Maps is the 3D Flyover Tour. It’s easy to use. For one, if you enter a known landmark, the app will fill in the address. At the top of the screen, you’ll see an option: 3D Flyover Tour. I implore you tap on that link and enjoy what is a beautifully rendered 3D flyover that is absolutely stunning. To give you an idea, open up Maps and type Empire State Building and take the tour. It’s like having your own personal drone.

Flyover tour

4. Access Street View using Google Maps

Turn-by-turn directions are only so good. Seeing an actual photo of your destination is profoundly helpful. Google has done quite an amazing job capturing street view photos that go well beyond retail, museums and parks. If you are traveling to a residential location, seeing the street view provides you with a number of benefits. Recently, I found a deal on Craigslist and the seller sent over his address. Before I hit the road, I had already seen a photo of the house. If it were creepy, I probably would have passed. As mentioned earlier, street view allowed me to get a better understanding of what to expect from that retro diner/ice cream parlor.

Street view in Google Maps

5. Crowdsource to find cops and speed traps

One of the more controversial features that can be found in Waze allows users to report police. Personally, I drive in the slow lane, but I can certainly see how this could be advantageous to those with a heavy foot. Users can report where and what side they spot police. People are using Waze to find cops and avoid speed traps. It’s caused quite a stir, with law enforcement expressing concerns that it puts cops in danger. There have been calls for Google (who purchased Waze in 2013) to remove the feature. For now, it’s still functioning and much cheaper than adding buying a radar detector.

Find cops Waze

When it comes to map apps for the iPhone, it’s become an embarrassment of riches. There are so many fantastic apps, most of which are completely free. You don’t have to limit yourself to just one. Hopefully we’ve encouraged you to check out some great alternatives to the stock app and how to maximize the awesome location and mapping capabilities of your iPhone.