Plan a road trip using only your smartphone

Have phone, will travel.
Road trip

Explore the open road. Adrian/Unsplash

Until self-driving cars take over, the road trip will remain one of the most popular vacations. It’s liberating, offers flexible options, and can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be.

However, to make sure you see everything you want to see—and avoid spending half your time in traffic—a good road trip will need meticulous planning. Here’s how your smartphone can help.

The best routes

Google Maps or Apple Maps should be the first go-to options for finding your way around. Before you leave home, let them chart out your initial route for you. Once you get out on the road, fire up these same apps again to learn about traffic delays, road closures, and other inconveniences that might affect your carefully laid plans.

In Google Maps (free for Android and iOS), use the search box at the top to find your first destination. Tap Directions (labeled Route on iOS), and the app will automatically set your current location as your starting point. If you plan to set out from another address, enter that starting point instead. Then select driving as your transport mode of choice. To add an extra leg to the journey, tap the menu button (the three dots in the top-right corner) and choose Add stop. Estimated travel times are based on current traffic conditions, so if you can, run the initial search at roughly the same time of day as you’ll be traveling.

Tap the bottom card or the Preview button to get a better idea of where the route will take you. If you want to take the scenic route or keep costs down, you can adjust the settings to avoid freeways, toll roads, and ferries. Simply tap the menu button again and then pick Route options. Finally, choose Share directions from the menu to save the directions for when you need them. On Android, you can also save them as a shortcut on the home screen.

Google Maps
Google Maps David Nield/Popular Science

If you’re using Apple Maps (built into iOS), then tap in the search box to enter your first destination. Once it pops up, pick Directions, then tap My Location to change the starting point (if it’s somewhere other than where you currently are). Scroll down to see the route options Apple Maps has given you, and tap Driving Options if you want to exclude freeways or toll roads from your route. Hit any route to view the details of turn-offs and roads. Unfortunately, you can’t yet add multiple stops or save routes in Apple Maps for iOS.

Apple Maps
Apple Maps David Nield/Popular Science

If Apple Maps and Google Maps just aren’t doing it for you, then Waze (free for Android and iOS) is an excellent alternative (and actually now owned by Google). The basic functions are still the same, but Waze gives you some extra features, like the option to plan trips for future dates (based on traffic estimates) and save them to your phone. You can also avoid “difficult” turns, such as those on busy roads without traffic lights, if you want an easier drive.

Finally, Here WeGo (free for Android and iOS) deserves an honorary mention as well. When searching for routes, it provides some useful options, like being able to avoid tunnels and unpaved roads. You can see each route in detail as well as share routes with other apps on your phone. It is lacking in some areas though—you can’t add multiple stops on a route, for example, or check estimated traffic conditions ahead of time.

Where to stay

The mapping apps we’ve already mentioned can look up hotels, restaurants, landmarks, and so on for you. But they don’t specialize in these search functions. Instead, while you’re planning your road trip, you can fire up a variety of other apps to get the lowdown on the best places to stay. A lot of these apps let you book through your phone as well, but you don’t need to leap into making a reservation immediately. Take your time before deciding on hotels and motels.

One of the best apps for showing you what a hotel is like—without badgering you to make a booking—is TripAdvisor (free for Android and iOS). For just about any lodging on Earth, you get a stack of user reviews and photos, as well as the hotel’s usual professional spiel and photography. It’s a fantastically useful way of scouting out a place while you’re deciding where to stay.

If you’ve been using the app a while as a registered user and have left some ratings, TripAdvisor can recommend new places to try based on the hotels you’ve liked in the past. If your road trip takes you to areas you’ve never visited before, but you still want to stay somewhere that matches what you’re used to, this ability can be very handy.

TripAdvisor David Nield/Popular Science

Of the many other accommodation-finding apps out there, Hotel Tonight (free for Android and iOS) is one of our favorites. It’s geared towards finding you cheap lodgings when you arrive in a new place (hence the app’s name), but you can still use it to look for hotels in advance. The succinct descriptions and price-based categorizations make it easy to quickly sift through a long list of options.

Hotel Tonight
Hotel Tonight David Nield/Popular Science (free for Android and iOS) is a behemoth of an app. If you can get past all the special offers and on-screen clutter, it’s one of the best places to find information about hotels, apartments, and other place to stay ahead of time. Type in the places where your road trip takes you, and you’ll get a list of hits you can filter by price, rating, neighborhood, or type of accommodation. Each individual listing includes details of facilities, prices, user ratings, and more.

Finally in this section, Kayak (free for Android and iOS) is a more general travel app but has consistently impressed us with the way it can sort through places to stay. It’s worth checking out as you look for the best place to lay your head. Key information like pricing, customer rating, and location are all well presented. And you can also view lists of hotels on a map, so you’ll see how they relate to your road trip route.

Sights to see

One of the appealing aspects of a road trip, as opposed to a city or beach vacation, is that you get to see so many places along the way. No doubt you’ll want to leave some of these encounters up to chance—a road trip that’s too heavily regimented won’t be much fun—but it can’t hurt to scout out at least a few attractions in advance.

Yelp (free for Android and iOS) probably needs no introduction for most of you, and it’s hard to beat in terms of sheer comprehensiveness. Type in your destination, and you’ll get lists of restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, ordered by rating and price (use the filters if you want to see the latest locations, or only view places that accept reservations). Dig into the reviews left by other users to see if a spot really is worth a stop on your trip.

Yelp David Nield/Popular Science

If you’re focusing on places to eat, you should also take advantage of OpenTable (free for Android and iOS) when planning your road trip. It doesn’t list quite as many places as Yelp does, but the app’s intuitive interface lets you quickly find the most popular, newest, or most highly recommended restaurants. Once your road trip gets closer, you can use the app to make reservations too.

More generally, the Foursquare City Guide (free for Android and iOS) is a superb option for looking up places to eat, nightspots to hang out at, and activities to do in an unfamiliar city. Important for our trip-planning purposes, you can save your favorite spots and build up a travel itinerary in advance within the app. Reviews and tips left by other Foursquare users add some valuable color to the listings.

Foursquare City Guide
Foursquare City Guide David Nield/Popular Science

In a similar vein, Spot (free for iOS only) helps you discover the most interesting places in an area, based on reviews left by over half a million contributors. You can save lists of potential spots you want to visit, and collaborate on them with other people—so it’s ideal if you’re going on a road trip with other friends or family members. The curated lists, which include topics like top ten underground bars, are also worth checking out.

Lastly, Roadtrippers (free for Android and iOS) gives you just about everything you need to plan a road trip ahead of time. We’ve included it in this section because it points out interesting sights—like scenic areas and historical markers—along a particular route. But it also helps you work out directions in the first place, discover hotels, and save your itinerary for later review or sharing with your fellow travelers.