Road Trip App Thunderdome

Road trips bring out the best and the worst in all of us. Where we end up stopping to eat is often determined by the complex formula of how-far-can-we-get times how-old-are-the-kids, minus how-long-has-it-been-since-the-last-break, divided by who-ate-all-the-trailmix. What we see along the way is sometimes a starfield blur as we race for our destination, powered by a chorus of are-we-there-yet.

Roadtrippers.com

It doesn’t have to be that way.  New apps, most notably Roadtrippers, AAA, and Along the Way (powered by 4square) aim to remind us all that the journey can be as much fun as the destination.

So last week my family loaded up our iThings (iPhone and iPad) with the apps, as well as a web version of Roadtrippers, and decided to see if our personal backseat driver found any of the apps distracting enough to never ask how-much-longer again track where we were going, and how we would get there.

The Journey: A predicted 7 hours, 9 minutes of travel time along 466 miles of turnpikes and highways between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and (just past) Cleveland, Ohio.

The Contenders: Roadtrippers (iOS), Roadfood, Along the Way (iOS, $)*, and AAA TripTiks.

Along the Way search interface.
AAA TripTik app

 

Initial thoughts:

  • IMG_1958
    Roadtrippers location descriptions are gorgeous.

    We were entranced with how beautiful Roadtrippers was, and by the opportunity to search by a variety of categories–from History and Movie Locations to Food (of all sorts). We created an account and quickly began pinning places we’d like to go. We included these on our built-in trip map. Sometimes that got out of hand, especially when Backseat Driver decided she wanted to visit a place in Indiana–well off course. The map adjusted accordingly, as did the length of the trip.

  • Roadfood.com search results

    Trying to use Roadfood‘s search tools was fine, as long as we knew what towns had restaurant entries. The mobile app is linked from the front page, but requires a login to access, and no place to register. Fail. We went back to trusty OpenTable and AAA.

  • Along the Way food search – waiter, there is apparel in my food…

    Along the Way initially seemed promising and was filled with places to check out, but we quickly became annoyed with having to re-enter our trip starting location and destination each time we opened the app. We found it an unreliable source, especially when it suggested we stop for gas at a location that was not meant for commercial customers–no way to pay without a radio card, no attendant. If we’d been in dire gas straits, we could have been in trouble. There were other problems to come.

  • AAA TripTik search results

    AAA–the roadtrip guidebook of your parents’ days, and purveyor of custom TripTiks for decades–also looked promising, and proved very useful, if cluttered. The app contained links to deals for AAA members, as well as many options for connecting with road services.

Test 1: Find a place to eat that was close to the highway, but not on the highway. Test engaged multiple times. Near larger cities, Roadfood‘s website provided several options. Roadtrippers gave numerous options based on food preferences and distance from highway (YES, thank you!). AAA was the most well populated, with fast food and chain options. Along the Way was also extremely well populated, but clicking on any one item yielded a map marked with all the options. Not Helpful. Worse, a search for food turned up clothing stores and other random stops–there seemed no good way to filter.

Test 2: Find a gas station. This test engaged in the toughest environment imaginable: the Wilds of Pennsylvania–a four hour stretch of woodlands and not much else. AAA, hands down. I’ll keep this app, purely for emergencies. And as for you, Along the Way? This is when you went into time out. First gas station suggestion was not a consumer station. Second suggestion was out of business. Not Helpful.

Roadtrippers search
One of many Roadtrippers search categories.

Test 3: Find offbeat places, learn new things. Depending on the location, both AAA and Roadtrippers provided great options. AAA was very reliable about showing nearby attractions. Roadtrippers‘ search was a little skittish sometimes. For instance, when the Backseat Driver typed in Fallingwater at my suggestion (we’d been discussing architecture) as “Falling Water,” search only returned a location in Florida that had nothing to do with Frank Lloyd Wright. (The Roadtrippers folks are aware of the glitch and fixing it. Because they’re pretty amazing. More on that below.) Roadtrippers turned up both highly unusual items and the most glorious descriptions of wayside attractions. Several had us giggling. Many are part of our future plans.

The outcome: We settled on a two-app strategy, using AAA for many immediate needs and Roadtrippers to construct not one but multiple dream trips. We plan to use both again.

Important note: You don’t need to be an AAA member to use the TripTiks app.

I spoke with Brandon Hite from Roadtrippers, asking him about the company’s goals with their app. He responded, “Roadtrippers‘ goal is to highlight the best independent stops and places. We find these places in guide books, through online research, via user recommendations, etc. We collect the info, link to the place’s respective website, provide the contact info when available, and add it to our map.” According to Hite, the company is adding “about 5000 locations a month.” They maintain a live feature request system (my request for a more robust search capability was already on the list) and they document new changes, favorite locations, and roadtrip tips on their blog.

A breakdown of our experience, at a glance:

Sample Results Only: Your Mileage May Vary

The best outcome of putting trip planning tools in the backseat? Not one “When do we get there?” Not. One.

WIN.

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Fran Wilde writes science fiction and fantasy. Her first novel, Updraft (Tor, 2015) is called 'Soaring' by Publishers' Weekly and Barnes & Noble SFF blog, while NPR Books says it was "one of the most original fantasy novels I've read this year." Her next novel, Cloudbound releases in September. Fran's short stories appear at Asimov's, Nature, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tor.com. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, SFSignal, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com/GeekDad.com. She can also program digital minions, tie most of the sailor's knot board, and re-load a fountain pen without spattering herself with ink (usually). She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their tween-minecraft fanatic / book addict / budding Scratch programmer.