Using Google Maps™ to plan a cheap road trip

Using Google Maps™ to plan a cheap road trip

I love road trips. I’m perfectly happy to drive everywhere, regardless of how far away it is. You get to see beautiful country, meet interesting people, listen to music and audiobooks, chatter away with the people in your car, and stay in hotels/motels that have Fruit Loops for breakfast!

Road trips are also wonderfully inexpensive, or at least they can be if you plan enough in advance. In the past, gasoline has been a major expense, but thankfully right now gas is cheaper than it’s been since I was a kid. So if you’re planning a road trip, the biggest expense you’re going to have is lodging.

I am currently in the planning phases of an epic, nearly two-week long road trip with three friends. Me and my three amigos will be driving from Wichita, Kansas to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the 2016 Realm Makers Conference at the end of July. It’s 1,400 miles one way. But flights to Philadelphia from Wichita are pricey, and I’m just enough Scottish that if I can save a couple of hundred dollars, I’ll totally do it.

So I thought I’d share some of my planning steps in case anyone is interested. I have some specific websites I trust to provide reliable information, but even then I always find another opinion on anything I dig up online.

Far and away, the most important road-trip-planning tool in my arsenal is Google Maps™.

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I know some folks have mixed feelings about the accuracy of Google Maps™, but I’ve always found it to be a reliable estimator for how long it will take to reach a given destination. I don’t use it for detailed traffic reports, although I’m sure it probably does fine with that. I mainly use it to find the best route from Point A to Point B (and often from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point D and so on and so forth).

First, you start with your destination. Where do you want to end up? In our case, it’s Philadelphia.

© 2015 Google Inc, used with permission. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.
© 2015 Google Inc, used with permission. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.
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© 2015 Google Inc, used with permission. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.

Once you’ve set your destination, click the Directions Button and set your starting point. Make sure you’ve selected the Car icon in the upper task bar. Google Maps™ will display several possible routes from your starting point to your destination.

This is where the fun begins.

Step 1: Decide how long or how far you want to drive in one day’s time.

Some people really like marathon driving. I’ve got friends who drive 24 hours straight, but they switch off drivers. That’s one of the nice things about traveling with other adults. When you get tired of driving, you can hand the keys to someone else.

For this trip, we have a long way to go, and there are four adults who will be in the car. However, we don’t want to be exhausted when we reach the conference. All four of us need to be rested and able to engage, so for us, a decent driving time per day is eight or nine hours.

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© 2015 Google Inc, used with permission. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.

So, back to our map. At the bottom right-hand corner of your screen, there’s a key showing a relative distance of 200 miles. On average, I’ve found I can go 200 miles in roughly 3 hours. So I use that little representative distance to estimate 600 miles on the best route option Google™ gives me.

  • I guess that from Haven to Kansas City is about 200 miles.
  • Then from Kansas City, it looks like the other side of Missouri is about 200 miles.
  • Then, it looks like across Illinois and just over the Indiana border is another 200.
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© 2015 Google Inc, used with permission. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.

So, I zoom into the area that’s approximately 600 miles from the starting point, and I find:

Terre Haute, Indiana.

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© 2015 Google Inc, used with permission. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.

The next step is to add Terre Haute into your destination list and see if it really is within 8/9 hours. You do this by clicking the plus sign beneath your final destination and inputting the information in the field provided.

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© 2015 Google Inc, used with permission. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.

Now, you’ll see that Terre Haute, IN appears on your route map. If you click Details under the suggested route, you can see that Terre Haute is approximately 9 hours from Haven. So it fits the requirements as the first stop on the trip.

The next question, though, is will there be a place to stay in Terre Haute? That’s where TripAdvisor® comes in!

Step 2: Ensure there is a hotel in the city you’re planning to stay in.

TripAdvisor® is probably the best resource for narrowing down a list of potential places to stay. This site has every city you can imagine. I mean, I actually found cabins and cottages in Balquhidder, Scotland on TripAdvisor.

Generally speaking, what you find on TripAdvisor® usually matches the actual hotel exactly. So if they say it’s good, it is. If they say run away, do it.

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©2016 TripAdvisor LLC. All rights reserved.

I usually use the search fields at the top, and the program will usually supply the city names you’re looking for. Generally, TripAdvisor® will return the Top Ten Best Hotels in that city, and that’s great. But I want cheap, clean accommodations. I don’t need a five-star hotel. I just need one with a working toilet.

©2016 TripAdvisor LLC. All rights reserved.
©2016 TripAdvisor LLC. All rights reserved.

So I use the fields on the right hand side to set the details of the hotel I want. I also set the dates that I will be traveling, and it gives me a sliding price bar that I can adjust.

The program will tell you if it can’t find hotels at your desired rate, so you can adjust your price. You can also sort your results by price, location, and ranking.

The rest is pretty self explanatory. Read the reviews. Check the user ratings. You can tell the best hotels by whether or not they respond to complaints. In my experience, even hotels that have bad comments/reviews can be awesome, but you can usually tell because the management will respond to criticism.

For this part of it, you kind of just have to decide what you’re willing to risk. If you find a passable hotel that fits your budget, book it. If not, go back to Google Maps™ and search along your route for another city. There might be a better hotel at a cheaper rate a little further up the road or a little further behind.

Step 3: Repeat until you have reached your destination.

Follow the same steps over and over until you get to where you’re going. You may have to tweak your route a few times. You can click and drag your route on Google Maps™ to avoid certain cities or stretches of highway you don’t want to drive on.

The most important thing to remember is that this is an estimation program. You can’t guarantee that you’ll reach your destination exactly when Google™ says, because there’s a lot that can happen between one location and another. But using Google Maps™ will give you a good idea of how long it will take you and where you can stay along the way.

So the next time you need to plan a road trip, give Google Maps™ a try. With gas prices so cheap, now is the time to road trip. So grab an audiobook, charge up your MP3 player, and throw some friends in the car and hit the road!

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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