… Since Sliced Bread

If you travel a little or a lot, there’s a huge amount of help you could be getting, and it’s free. Perhaps you are already using it. Regardless, for me, it’s a life saver.

It’s Google-Earth.

I use it to scout out places I’m going to visit and get a peek at what things look like from ground level. The particular feature that lets me do that is called “Street View” and it looks like a little man — you drag and drop him onto the street where you want to stand and Google-Earth, if Google’s photographic car has been down that street, shows you how it looks.

Click-en to embiggen

Here’s the house and window where I’m sitting and typing right now. Click the image for a bigger version. These pictures are what Google-Earth shows for our home (plus the caption bubbles and “Overhead” and “Street” graphics I added later).

I have a business trip coming up in about two weeks to Brazil. I’ve never been there and have only the recommendation of someone I’ve never met for the hotel. It’s a Novotel which is usually an OK but lower cost chain.

Using Google-Earth, I found the hotel and dropped into street view and, literally, walked around the neighborhood.

What I discovered was unsettling. There’s a Shell gas station on the backside of the hotel and within walking distance, but nothing else.

The hotel is bounded by a razor-wire topped fence and has a closed electronic gate with guard station.

Other than at the gas station, there are no people visible. None.

“Forbidding” is the word that sprang to mind.

So I zoomed back out in the overhead view and check-marked the box in Google-Earth to show me more places to stay.

After a bit of searching, I found a much nicer place in a better neighborhood with lots of people walking around carrying groceries and pushing strollers. It has a 24hr supermarket across the street and a big shopping mall — with McDonalds, no less — about 300 yards away. There are crosswalks with pedestrian crossing lights that the many pedestrians are using. The hotel is on a major street that’s busy with traffic. And there’s also a really nice looking restaurant a block away with people going in through the front door.

While I may still stand-out as a foreigner, with all the people around, I’ll feel much less exposed.

And the hotel’s web page is also much nicer with more pictures of better looking rooms, dining area, front lobby and so on. Only the pool looks dinky. I can live with that.

The bad hotel’s rate was about $70 US per night. That’s pretty cheap but I didn’t know what to expect in Brazil.

The new place is almost double but that’s not out of line for what I would pay in the US for a nice place in a safe neighborhood. And in some cities, LA for example, I’d expect to pay even more.

So I changed the hotel reservation and emailed the customer. They sent back a “Good choice!” congratulations. (I think I just passed a test.)

I also use Google-Earth to find the customer’s address I’m going to visit so I can see what their front door looks like. I’ve used it to find parking garage entrances in downtown locations and decide which streets to avoid in neighborhoods around Midway airport in Chicago. I’ve looked at the house where I grew up, the schools I attended and my first apartment (and shuddered at what has become of it).

You could say it’s “educational”.

Google-Earth is free. All you do is download (CLICK HERE) to your computer and you’re good to go. I have it on my iPad2 where the capabilities are a bit more limited than on my Windows 7 PC but, nonetheless, it’s a very valuable tool to preview your travel choices (and keep yourself out of the bad places).

FYI: I would say that a “fat pipe” (good Internet connection) is a requirement. You could “get by” with a dial-up connection but you’ll need to be patient. But if you have a fixed connection with reasonable bandwidth, you’ll be very pleased. Take the time and learn how to use it. It’s worth your time.

Thank you, Google-Earth!

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