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The Best Tools for Planning a Road Trip

AFAR logo AFAR 7/16/2021 Annie Daly

The Best Tools for Planning a Road Trip © Courtesy of Unsplash.com The Best Tools for Planning a Road Trip

Remember when planning a road trip meant busting out your best paper maps and highlighting various routes with multicolored pens? Today, road trips still bring out the old-school adventurer in all of us, but planning them has certainly become more streamlined. Thanks to these travel apps, there are more ways than ever to maximize planning for your next long drive.

Let’s begin with the free Google Maps app. It’s the most multifunctional road trip map app out there, whether you’re looking for directions, the quickest route, a nearby hotel or restaurant (see also: grocery stores, pharmacies, ATMs), and even the cheapest gas station. Once you enter a general term in the search bar, the app lets you filter by category. If you’re looking for a place to eat, for example, you can narrow your search using a variety of options, including cozy restaurants, group-friendly dining, new restaurants, and cheap eats. When you search for nearby gas stations, the app will tell you how much gas costs at each place, allowing you to select the cheapest fuel.

a hand holding a cell phone: Google Maps gives you so much more than directions. © Photo by AngieYeoh/Shutterstock.com Google Maps gives you so much more than directions.
But while Google Maps is incredibly convenient, it doesn’t do everything. Add these fun, functional, and free road trip planning apps to your collection for your best road trip yet.

Roadtrippers

Apple App Store| Google Play

Roadtrippers is a do-it-all, know-it-all website and app that asks you to enter your destinations and calculates the best route. It shows you everything you can see and do along the way, including parks, restaurants, and hotels. Essentially, this road trip planner deals in logistics—making it a perfect option for those who need a plan but hate doing the legwork.

GasBuddy

Apple App Store | Google Play

Gas prices inevitably spike every summer as travel demand increases. Fortunately, GasBuddy is a great way to stay on top of your road trip budget and take advantage of the best gasoline deals in your area, wherever you might be. The app provides real-time price information for more than 150,000 gas stations in the United States and Canada and ranks as one of the highest-rated apps in the Apple App Store’s history. GasBuddy also has a function that allows you to estimate how much gas you’ll need on your travels based on your planned destination and make and model of your car, making it one of the most convenient and practical road trip gas calculators out there.

Waze

Apple App Store | Google Play

This is the traffic app to beat all traffic apps. While other route-planning apps like Apple Maps and Google Maps can tell you when traffic is about to get bad, the community-sourced Waze provides more of-the-moment information. Users give and receive real-time updates on accidents, speed limits, hidden police cars, and road conditions. The app also provides a variety of navigation routes, which can be especially handy when you need to take back roads to avoid a brutal traffic jam.

HotelTonight

Apple App Store | Google Play

If, after a long day of driving, you suddenly hit a (figurative) wall and need to stop and rest, this is the service for you. HotelTonight specializes in same-day booking at quality boutique hotels. You can reserve rooms in advance, but because hotel prices often drop as it gets closer to your stay, you’ll likely end up saving money when you book at the last minute. If you use the app instead of the website, you’ll save even more with exclusive mobile deals.

Flush

Apple App Store | Google Play

As any seasoned traveler knows, a good, clean restroom can be hard to find on the road (and even more appreciated during the pandemic!). But with a database of more than 200,000 bathroom options across the world, the Flush app can take some of the edge off of the nail-biting urgency of finding a toilet in an unfamiliar place. Flush also makes it easy to see whether restrooms are accessible to people with disabilities, require a fee to use, or need a key to access. Simply open the app and Flush will search for nearby toilets using GPS, providing directions using Apple Maps or Google Maps. Users can also add newly discovered toilets to the app and rate washrooms they come across on their travels.

The Dyrt

Apple App Store | Google Play

As anyone who’s tried to orchestrate a camping trip knows, finding a decent place to camp can be one of the most difficult parts to plan. The Dyrt app gives campers a way to research potential campgrounds in depth without the guesswork of solely using traditional park websites, all from the comfort and convenience of a phone. You can browse reviews of potential campgrounds you’d like to visit, use the app’s “near me” function to find nearby places to hunker down when you’re on the go, or even connect with other campers for tips and feedback on campgrounds you’re thinking of visiting. Though the app is available to download for free, the premium version ($35.99 per year) will also give you access to downloadable maps, a trip planner, and big discounts on gear and campgrounds.

a screenshot of a cell phone: The Outbound app allows road trippers to find outdoor activities along their route. © Courtesy of Outbound The Outbound app allows road trippers to find outdoor activities along their route.

The Outbound

Apple App Store | Google Play

Being cooped up in a car for hours on end can often be the worst part of a road trip. One solution? Consult this GPS-based, crowd-sourced app that gives local recommendations for nearby outdoorsy activities. The app will point you to national parks, good hiking trails, secret swimming holes, and more—and the user reviews are fact checked by the Outbound Collective staff, so you can trust the advice (especially important if you’re hiking in an area you don’t know well).

DayPass

Apple App Store | Google Play

Similar to the Outbound, DayPass helps you find activities when you absolutely can’t be in the car any longer. However, it’s not exactly a hiking app—instead, DayPass focuses on pools, beach clubs, gyms, and spas at hotels and resorts around the world. Just type in the destination (or let the app pull up a current location based on your GPS), and you can see all of the hotels and gyms that offer day passes to their facilities. Some properties don’t allow booking through the app, so you may have to call instead.

Psych! Outwit Your Friends

Apple App Store | Google Play

Can you even call a road trip a road trip if you don’t spend hours playing pointless games? From the creators of Ellen DeGeneres’s popular Heads Up!, this game app tests your ability to pick real answers to trivia questions—and avoid the fake answers made up by the other players. There are four styles of play—the word game “Word Up!” the classic trivia game “Is That a Fact?,” the truth-telling game “The Truth Comes Out,” and the movie trivia game “Movie Bluff!”

Much like Cards Against Humanity, part of the fun is trying to guess who wrote which answer based on everyone’s sense of humor. There’s even an option to “play with Ellen,” which means an Ellen bot will also contribute hilarious answers. The game requires some screen time, so it’s not driver friendly—but if you read the questions and answers out loud, whoever is behind the wheel can certainly join in on the laughs. (It’s another reason to regularly rotate drivers, too.)

Magic Hour

Apple App Store

One perk of a road trip is that you can pull over somewhere beautiful for Magic Hour, or Golden Hour: the term professional photographers use to describe the hour after sunrise or before sunset when the light is at its prettiest. This app lets you know exactly when Magic Hour begins and ends each day based on your location, helping you time your stop just right. If you pay $0.99, you can add locations, allowing you to plan for future Magic Hours, too. (Magic Hour is only available for Apple devices, but Google Play offers similar apps for Android users.)

SoundHound

Apple App Store | Google Play

Although there are many ways to find and stream new music, turning on the radio during a road trip adds an element of fun. Not only is it nostalgic, but listening to what the local DJ has to say and play also helps you get a feel for the local culture. When you hear a song you like but don’t know, open up SoundHound, hit the orange circle, and the app will tell you its name. Bonus: The app keeps a dated history of the tunes you identify.

If you have Spotify or Apple Music, you can even sync your accounts with SoundHound, and all of your discoveries will automatically show up in a playlist called “SoundHound.” By the end of the trip, you’ll have a curated playlist of your song discoveries that you can enjoy long after you’ve returned home.

a bench in front of a store: Mr. D's Diner is an old Route 66 staple that has been open since 1978 serving up homey American cuisine. © Photo by Heidi Kaden on Unsplash Mr. D's Diner is an old Route 66 staple that has been open since 1978 serving up homey American cuisine.

Roadside America

Apple App Store

Sometimes the best part of a road trip isn’t even the final destination but the stops made along the way. The Roadside America app is one of the best road trip planners to help you find all of the kitschy highway attractions the country has to offer. Giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Ox? Sure, why not. The world’s largest garden gnome or a museum dedicated entirely to hammers? Yes, please. Available on the Apple App Store for $2.99, the app points users to hundreds of quirky locations across the United States and Canada organized by city, state, or province. Users can plot their planned route in the Roadside America app to learn about all the fun stops that might be worthy of a pit stop on their journey.

Star Walk

Apple App Store | Google Play

To catch some truly spectacular, au natural nocturnal sights, make sure to download the free Star Walk app before hitting the trail. Whether you’re driving at night or camping alfresco, one of the best parts of a road trip through the middle of nowhere is seeing millions of stars lighting up an unspoiled night sky. The Star Walk app gives users an easy way to see what constellations will make an appearance whenever and wherever they are. This astronomy program is simple to use—just point your phone at the sky and see what stars, constellations, and planets drift above you.

This story was originally published on March 15, 2019, and was updated on July 15, 2021 with new information. Mae Hamilton contributed original reporting.

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