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5 clever Google Maps tricks to see more than just what's on the map

Google Maps crowdsources more than just traffic data -- get real-time information on your destination, including wait times, operating hours and more.

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Wherever you're headed, Google Maps can give you a snapshot of what you'll find when you get there, from real-time crowd numbers to menus, prices and contact information.

Angela Lang/CNET

I open the Google Maps app on my phone practically every day, even though I rarely actually use it to get directions. It may not be obvious at first glance, but Google Maps can do a lot more than just navigate from Point A to Point B. Beneath all those high-resolution satellite images and color-coded traffic patterns hides a powerful search tool, chock-full of crowdsourced real-time data on retail stores, restaurants, professional offices, public parks and practically anywhere else you want to go.

Turn-by-turn directions are so last decade compared with some of Google Maps' more recent updates, which include vastly improved transit navigationAI-powered language translation and incognito mode to prevent leaving a paper trail. If you're already familiar with Google Maps as a navigation tool, next-level powers such as these are only a tap, press or swipe away.

To unleash the hidden power of the Google Maps app on your phone or tablet, take a look at the five ways I use Google Maps almost every day that have nothing to do with getting directions.

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See how long the line is everywhere from Walmart to the DMV

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In the Google Maps app, real-time information on lines, crowds and wait times is in red, but you can tap any other hour of day to see what you can probably expect then.

Screenshot by Dale Smith/CNET

Before I walk out the door, whether I'm heading to Walmart, the grocery store, the doctor's office or to renew my driver's license, I almost always check Google Maps to see exactly how busy I can expect my destination to be. Here's how you can look up that information too.

In the Google Maps app, tap on the business or location you want to visit and scroll down until you see a graph labeled Popular times. Tap the day of the week if you're planning a trip for later that week.

Tap on the red column to see current foot-traffic data, or one of the blue columns to get a summary of how busy you can expect it to be at another time: Not busy, Not too busy, A little busy or As busy as it gets.

Next, under the heading Plan your visit, you'll find general information like peak wait times ("up to 5 min from 6 a.m. -- 12 a.m.") and length of average visit ("People typically spend 20 min here"). Now you know whether you'll be in and out in a flash or if you need to pack a good book or just plan your visit for another day when wait times aren't as long.

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Want to wait until a restaurant has room before heading out? Look under "Popular times" to see when the crowds usually die down.

James Martin/CNET

Check out menus, photos and customer reviews

In addition to its navigation tools, Google Maps is also a full-blown crowdsourced review app, much like Yelp or TripAdvisor, so you can get a good idea of what sorts of options your destination offers, as well as price, presentation and whether you'll need to take out a loan to afford it.

This feature is especially useful if your destination is a restaurant, hotel or bar, where previewing menu options and prices -- not to mention getting a good look at the dishes and decor -- might make or break your decision to try someplace new. For those who trust the wisdom of crowds, it also shows the restaurants' five-star average as well as individual reviews to weigh in your decision.

On most restaurant listings you'll see a navigation bar at the top with Overview, Menu, Reviews and Photos listed as options (you may have to side-scroll to see all of them). Tap any of those or just scroll down. The link labeled Menu is often listed just below operating hours, but keep scrolling until you see the heading Popular dishes to see photos of food. Keep going past Popular times until almost the very bottom to find the restaurant's five-star average and user reviews.

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Get a feel for the type of cuisine a restaurant offers by browsing menus, photos and reviews in the Google Maps app.

James Martin/CNET

Book a table or place an order for carryout or delivery

Once you've gotten a sneak peek at all your restaurant options, most of the time you don't even have to leave the Google Maps app to make a reservation. If you'd rather eat at home, you can also usually order carryout or delivery from within the app.

If the restaurant you've decided on uses a booking service like OpenTable, you'll see a tab beneath the Menu option that says either Find a table or Reserve a table. You don't actually have to log in to the booking service to make the reservation (although if you collect bonus points or otherwise actively use the service you may want to anyway).

For carryout or delivery, look for an option labeled Place an order. A popup will give you a list of available services, like DoorDash or Postmates, but you will have to sign in to complete your order, so if you have an account with any of them you'll probably want to choose that one.

Hey, Google Assistant, how'd you get on my iPhone?

I spend most of my digital life in the famously walled garden of the Apple ecosystem, with one glaring exception: I use a Google Home ($30 at Best Buy) with Google Assistant to control my smart home

Google Assistant doesn't come baked into iOS the way Apple's less capable voice assistant Siri does, but a setting in Google Maps lets you shove Siri to the side so you can have always-on access to Google Assistant while navigating. 

To set the Google Maps app on your iPhone to listen for "OK, Google" while navigating, open the Google Maps app and tap on the menu icon (the three stacked horizontal lines to the left of the search bar), then tap Settings. At the top of the page, under the heading Getting Around, tap Navigation, then scroll to the option labeled Access your Assistant with "OK Google" and turn the toggle on.

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Google Home devices like this Nest Hub come with Google Assistant baked in, but on iPhones you have to use a Google app like Google Maps to summon the digital sidekick.

Dale Smith/CNET

Admittedly, this workaround is a little wonky -- you have to set Google Maps to navigate to a specific destination for the "OK, Google" voice command to work, and you can't summon Siri with "Hey, Siri" while this feature is turned on. But until Android can woo me away from my iPhone, it's better than nothing.

Find operating hours, phone numbers, ZIP codes and more

Whenever I need to know when a store or office opens or closes, or if I need to call the place and I don't have the number, or on the rare occasion when I need the ZIP code for a business for which the street name and number are all I know off the top of my head (say, for a job application), I go straight to Google Maps to get these answers and more. 

Here's where to quickly and easily find basic info about locations listed in Google Maps:

Operating hours: Businesses' hours of operation are displayed immediately beneath the address. You can tap the down arrow beside today's closing time to see hours for other days of the week. Most listings are updated with any special holiday hours, which are highlighted in a red font.

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Find the ZIP code for almost any business in the United States by searching for its name or street address on Google Maps.

Angela Lang/CNET

Phone numbers: Beneath hours of operation in most listings you'll find the phone number. To call it without leaving Google Maps, tap the number, then tap the pop-up that displays the prompt to Call followed by the number.

Website: If the business has a website, it will be listed below the phone number. Tap it to open the website in a Google Chrome-powered tab within the Google Maps app.

ZIP code: This one's less common, but when I've needed it, Google Maps has saved me tons of time. Either enter the street name and number or the business name and tap search. At the top of the listing beside the street address, you'll now see the ZIP code.

Of course, Google Maps is also chock-full of features that help with what the app is most obviously designed to do -- show you how to get where you're going. Start with these six Google Maps tricks you probably don't know about yet. If you'll be using Google Maps to navigate on a big road trip, these tips will help make your journey as smooth as possible. If you happen upon any accidents, speed traps or other slowdowns while you're out and about, you can now report up to seven different types of road incidents directly from the Google Maps app.

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Originally published last month.