Beyond MapQuest: online maps and free mapping software to help in your travels
Folding maps are widely available in bookstore around the world.
This page isn't about those wonderful folding maps you can pick up at your local bookstore (www.bn.com) or at Maps.com (www.maps.com). I'll leave that to you and your personal tastes.
However, I will offer this advice on physical sheet maps : you really should bolster any bought at home with locally-produced maps picked up once you get over there, as they'll be infinitely more detailed. Don't worry about them being "foreign" publications. A road is a road in any language.
This page is, instead, all about the free mapping services available online . The better to compare/contrast the results each of the general mapping services will give you, I've pasted below screen shots of the maps each service returned when I did a search of a pretty minor street (Vicolo del Cinque) in Rome, Italy.
Before we get to the details, remember: getting lost in a foreign city counts as a cultural experience . Go with the flow, don't fret if you spend a happy hour wandering the back alleys of Venice trying to find your way (only way to escape the tourist crowds there, really), and above all, don't be afraid to ask directions —my fellow guys of the male persuasion, I'm looking in your direction.
Evaluating the Results
I searched all services for a small street in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood called Vicolo del Cinque. Trust me; I didn't pick this neighborhood at random. I once lived there—though not on Vicolo del Cinque, but an even smaller street a few blocks up called Vicolo del Leopardo that none of the mapping services was able to find. (Gosh, I miss that apartment.)
Of the general mapping sites, good ol' Michelin (www.viamichelin.com) had by a long shot the best map (though its search engine was fussy about spelling, not recognizing that "Vicolo del Cinque" was the same as its abbreviated "Vicolo de' Cinque"). However, it was fully detailed with all sorts of remarkably accurate nuances and streets drawn with all the crooks and corners of reality.
Google Maps (maps.google.com) did a stellar job, and even found it though I used a different spelling. It had some of the best close-up detail, including street numbers and some sightseeing info.
Multimap (www.multimap.com)—a British mapping service that has been absorbed by Microsoft juggernaut bing.com—has vastly improved its accuracy in searching lately, and the maps it produces are accurate. However, the labeling isn't as complete as with some others, and (though this is a personal preference) the maps don't reflect the true size and shape of each street; a boulevard and an alleyway are drawn with the same line thickness, which to me is a drawback (and makes it harder to read and follow).
Famed Mapquest (www.mapquest.com) fared the worst in our test by an enormous margin. First of all, it did find the street (or rather, found the same street five times with different ranges of address and made me pick one), but their software is so miserable, the map itself wouldn't show up when I used Safari, Explorer, or Firefox (on a Mac). The only browser on which a map showed up at all was Netscape, and even then it wouldn't zoom in for me. At the closest I could get, the street wasn't labeled at all, and the level of detail was ridiculously useless. I know Mapquest is better at domestic maps, but when it comes to the rest of the world, don't even bother.
The actual results are below, but before we get to them, do know that there are also country-specific mapping sites out there than can be a real asset. TuttoCittà (www.tuttocitta.it) is the Italian mapping outfit that provides the city maps Italians get with their phone books. Streetmap.co.uk (www.streetmap.co.uk) provides really detailed maps of the U.K. Mappy (fr.mappy.com) is a French map server that also covers the rest of Europe.
Each of these maps is shown at the the closest "zoom" level available, so you can see how much detail each offers. Other than converting these images to jpgs—and shrinking the Michelin and Google maps by 10% so they would fit on this screen properly—I did not alter or crop these maps, so as to show you just what you get when you search on a map at these sites.