What Is a Relative Location?

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Relative location is a location stated in terms of its distance and direction from another location. It contrasts with absolute location, or location based on a general coordinate system. Relative location is by far the most common way of locating places and things in casual use.

Relative location is often much more useful, in day-to-day terms, than absolute location. While the coordinates of a location, generally given in latitude and longitude, are useful for finding a location on a map, in terms of actually traveling, using a combination of direction and distance is far easier. In general, when planning a trip, such elements as routes and required time are needed. Absolute location requires that one knows the coordinates of both the initial and end locations, and then must calculate the meaning of their differences. There is no direct correspondence between distance and longitude, for instance, because the distance in a degree of longitude varies by latitude.

Relative location easily applies to countries, states, cities and landmarks. For instance, Mexico is south of the United States, and Georgia is west of the Atlantic Ocean and north of Florida. Another example is the hospital is located two miles south of the shopping center. In each of these examples, the location of one place is given with regard to its relationship to another location. Relative location also applies to much smaller areas.

Absolute location is useful for cartographers and map readers, and it is the only way to reliably find a location without reference to any other locations. It is also useful for navigation by the stars or other celestial phenomena because the appearance of the sky varies by longitude and latitude when time is taken into account.