In This Guide
In the first post in this series, you learned how Beth and I use Trello, Evernote, Instagram, Panoramio, Chimani and Google Maps to start trip planning and decide where we’re going. In reality, that part of planning really only scratches the surface, as there are many more factors that affect how we get to where we’re going.
In this post, you’ll learn about several additional tools we use to figure out exactly how we’re going to get there, taking into account time, distance, clearances, grades and fuel costs.
Sadly, no single trip planning app does everything we want perfectly, but we’ve managed to put together an ensemble of free and inexpensive tools that work reasonably well together when planning your cross country road trip.
Let’s face it, until you’ve driven a 13’ tall, 10’ wide, 18,000 pound vehicle, you probably never put much consideration into things like low bridge clearances and road grades when taking a road trip (or at least, we sure didn’t).
Which Trip Planning App Should You Use?
After our first two jaunts, we quickly realized that Google Maps just wasn’t going to cut it for planning our road trip, so we started looking into other tools. The following tools are the trip planning apps we consider to be “best of breed.”
Using Google Earth to Visualize Your Road Trip
When I first realized the limitations of Google Maps for plotting our cross country road trip, I turned to Google Earth for its superior multi-point routing capabilities. While Google Maps does fine with point A to point B (and even A to B to C, now that the new version once again supports multi-stop routing), it lacks the visualization features necessary to make it an effective tool for truly planning an extended road trip.
Google Earth is a very cool tool for exploring the planet, and its ability to import KML files makes it easy to use in conjunction with Google Maps to store and share routes and destinations.
Still, for routing a large RV across the United States, Google Earth lacks the necessary capability to identify and avoid low bridges and steep hills that might otherwise ruin your day.
Although Google Earth isn’t our primary routing tool, it’s still useful to save, store and share routes, and these two excellent posts go into great detail about using Google Maps and Google Earth together, and Creating KML Files:
One of the coolest features in Google Earth is the ability to view photos from Panoramio overlaid onto the map by enabling “Photos” in the Layers panel. In this video, I walk you through exporting a route from Google Maps Trip Planner as KML, then importing it into Google Earth and turning on the Panoraio Pictures layer:
If you want to get your own photos into Google Earth, you can upload them directly to Panoramio. For more info on the process, check out this how-to guide from Google:
Using Garmin BaseCamp for Offline Trip Planning
Like Google Earth, Garmin Basecamp is designed to plan, organize and share road trips. Both tools show topographic data and can plan routes for cross country road trips. In 2013, Basecamp even added “RV” and “Truck” profiles with special routing options. Because we have a Garmin RV 760LMT GPS (we also bought the backup camera), I spent quite a bit of time trying to get the Garmin route planner to do everything we need it to do, and admittedly, it comes close.
Still, the Trip Planner mode is a little bit clunky because it’s oriented entirely around the dates and number of days you plan to stay at each destination. While this is fine if you have specific days and dates planned for each leg of your trip, when you’re full-timing like us, days and dates tend to change frequently and are rarely set in stone. 🙂
Also, even when using the BaseCamp route planner’s RV mode, I’ve found the list of low clearances to be incomplete, and indeed BaseCamp would have routed me via some roads that I wouldn’t have wanted to drive based on additional research I did using the Mountain Directories and LowClearances databases (see below).
Still, I find that having a good routing tool with a reasonably accurate overview of topography helps me to get a better idea of how to circumnavigate some of the more difficult terrain we might encounter. While both Google Earth and Garmin BaseCamp could fit the bill, BaseCamp has the edge over Google Earth in this area simply because we can use it offline (without internet access). So, even though BaseCamp isn’t my primary trip planning app, I do still reference it occasionally as I’m planning the longer legs of our journey.
Good Sam's Trip Planner is the Easiest to Use
Important note: There are two versions of the Good Sam Trip Planner, the old trip planner and the new trip planner. In my humble opinion, the old trip planner was horrible, and barely worth wasting my time playing with. The new trip planner is much better, and even if you don’t use it as your primary routing software, it is well worth considering. As of 8/24/14, I can no longer find links to the old trip planner, so it appears that the new trip planning app is now standard.
Also, it’s important to note that you’ll have to be a member of Good Sam Club in order to use their Trip Planning app. Membership is cheap (only $15/year if you prepay 3 years in advance) and also gets you discounts at Camping World, Pilot Flying J gas stations and hundreds of RV parks.
When I first found the Good Sam Trip Planner, I thought I’d finally found the perfect RV trip planning app.
Unfortunately, after working with it for several months, it has shown itself to have some of the very same flaws as the earlier tools I reviewed, although it is much easier to use and prettier to look at than several of the other tools I played with.
In fact, I find the Good Sam Trip Planner to be the nicest looking and easiest to use tool of all the route planning software I’ve looked at to date.
Interestingly, the Good Sam Trip Planner is powered by Rand McNally, though I’ve found Rand McNally’s own routing software to be rather lackluster. Regardless, they did a pretty good job with the new Good Sam trip planning app, so I won’t complain.
Creating trips in the Good Sam Trip Planner literally takes two clicks. Once you’ve added a couple of simple details about your trip, you will be taken to the main trip planning interface, which is broken down into five tabs:
- Trip Manager
- My Trips
- Things to Do
My Trips is where you manage multiple trips or routes, and Trip Manager is where you’ll spend most of your time while planning your route, although you’ll likely jump back and forth to and from the Campgrounds tab as you look for spots to stay along the way.
The Good Sam Trip Planner breaks campgrounds down into Good Sam RV parks, Public campgrounds, and Private RV campgrounds. However, because this post is mostly about “how to get there,” I’ll wait to explain more about the Campgrounds tab and “where to stay” in the next post in this series.
In addition to the clean interface and simple layout, one of the most useful capabilities of the Good Sam road trip planner is the display of mileage with cost and time estimates for each leg of your journey (as well as for the entire trip). To us, this is essential for planning because we don’t like to drive more than 4 or 5 hours per day when we can easily avoid doing so. Plus, seeing the cost of each leg of the journey helps us better plan how long we might want to stay at each destination.
Another nice feature of the Good Sam Trip Planner is the ability to automatically identify “RV warnings” which include things like low clearances and restricted use roads or tunnels.
As with other trip planning apps mentioned previously, the Good Sam Trip Planning app still doesn’t manage to catch all of the critical low clearances, and even worse, it has actually suggested routes with such incredibly severe road grades that we likely would have burned up our engine or our brakes if we had even attempted them! For this reason, regardless of which of the travel planners you decide to use, I would strongly suggest that you pay very close attention to the section on the Mountain Directories and Low Clearances below and always double check your route using more than one tool.
Frankly, until late July, the Good Sam Trip Planner was the best road trip planner I’d found (and the only one I was using consistently), until Bob Freelove read the first post in this series and encouraged me to give RV Trip Wizard another chance.
Overall, the Good Sam Trip Planner is definitely one of the best road trip planner apps on the market, and considering the minimal cost of Good Sam Club membership (and the other added benefits club membership provides) I’ll certainly continue to use it every time I plan a new leg of our journey (although I will always double check suggested routes using RV Trip Wizard and the Mountain Directory).
RV Trip Wizard is A Fantastic Trip Planning App
Early on in our travels, I spent quite a bit of time researching road trip planning websites and apps, and RV Trip Wizard was actually one of the first tools I looked at. Unfortunately, the RV Trip Wizard website isn’t that great (sorry, guys), and even though they offer a “free demonstration” route, since I wasn’t able to put RV Trip Wizard through its paces with my own route, I never really got a feel for just how useful the tool actually was.
Fortunately, fellow RVer and travel blogger Bob Freelove read the first post in this series, after which he sent me a very nice email thanking me for putting together the information in that post. After a brief conversation about mapping tools, Bob convinced me to give RV Trip Wizard another look, and suffice it to say, I’m very happy that I did.
Although I do find the RV Trip Wizard interface to be a bit more cumbersome than Good Sam’s Trip Planner interface, RTW essentially overlays their interface on top of Google Maps, so manipulation of the map itself is pretty intuitive. Managing stops isn’t as easy as with the Good Sam tool, but as you’ll see, the added capabilities make RV Trip Wizard worth the additional kludge.
Like the Good Sam app by Rand McNally, RV Trip Wizard is one of the only apps that also provides time and fuel cost calculations for the route. Even better, they’ll also allow you to set average amounts you expect to pay for campgrounds, meals and other miscellaneous daily expenses, and use that information to calculate an estimated total cost per day which is incredibly useful when road trip planning (and much more so than the simple fuel cost calculation provided by Good Sam).
Another very useful feature is RV Trip Wizard’s “bounding radii,” which make it much easier to determine the minimum and maximum distances you’ll probably want to travel one any one leg of your journey. Although the radii are measured “as the crow flies,” they still provide a good reference to help you determine how far you’ll be able to drive each day.
Whereas the Good Sam tool only organizes RV parks into three categories (Good Sam RV parks, Public campgrounds, and Private RV campgrounds) RV Trip Wizard identifies literally thousands of RV parks, campgrounds and outdoor resorts and organizes them according to club membership (with about a dozen supported membership clubs), or as National Parks, State Parks, National Monuments, National Seashores, State Beaches plus about a 30 other extremely useful categories.
So, after putting the RV Trip Wizard through its paces to calculate the three most recent legs of our journey, and comparing it to Garmin BaseCamp and the Good Sam Trip Planner, I can now say that RV Trip Wizard is indeed a superior route planner and the first trip planning app I rely on when hitting the road.
Check out this RV Trip Wizard review video I just uploaded to our YouTube channel:
Staying Safe on Your Cross Country Road Trip
Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier in this post, none of these travel planners is perfect, and none of them really do an effective job of routing around steep grades, even if they do manage to avoid some (or even most) low clearances.
Avoiding Dangerous Mountain Passes and Steep Grades
As Beth and I left North Georgia headed for Asheville, North Carolina, we immediately became aware of just how much road grades impacted our travel. Not only can it be tough to climb a 7% grade in an 18,000 pound vehicle towing a 4,500 pound car, but it can also be pretty tough to slow down or stop quickly as you head back down the other side of the mountain.
Although we’d first experienced some of these same grades on our maiden voyage to Louisville, Kentucky several months before, we’d done so with a mostly empty coach and no toad, which probably amounted to a difference of at least 6,000 pounds. Even then, going up some of the bigger hills put a noticeable strain on the engine, and hearing the brakes squeal while descending was more than a little disconcerting.
After quite a bit of research, we came to the conclusion that there just aren’t a ton of reliable sources for information about mountain passes and steep grades. Sure, you can find recommendations from other truckers and RVers in some of the RV forums and you can scour topographic data in Google Earth or Garmin BaseCamp. Unfortunately, neither of these is consistent or reliable enough to save you from the worry of burning up the engine in your gas-powered class A motorhome, or setting fire to your disc brakes as you make your way through the Blue Ridge or Rocky Mountains.
As such, the most comprehensive resource we’ve found for road grade information is the Mountain Directory series of “books.” I use the term loosely, as we chose to purchase the “ebooks” rather than the printed books. Unfortunately, the “ebooks” are actually Windows applications, and since Beth and I both use MacBooks, they’re a bit of a pain in the ass to use. We manage by using VirtualBox (you could also use VMware Fusion or VirtualPC) to run Windows on our Macs, but I’ll certainly be purchasing the printed books before we get back on the road.
I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of the Mountain Directory ebook interface (the ebooks are basically web pages embedded in a Windows executable), but it’s still 1,000 times better than glancing at topographic maps and guessing whether or not we’ll run into trouble.
In fact, had it not been for the Mountain Directory West ebook, we would have taken a route suggested by the Good Sam Trip Planner that would have taken us on a road with 10% grades both up and down a mountain pass, with dozens of hairpin curves and switchbacks!
Even if we hadn’t fallen off the side of a mountain, I’m about 99% positive that Beth would have had a stroke or a heart attack before we made it to our destination, so I consider the Mountain Directory guide to literally be a life saving trip planning app. 🙂
Avoiding Collisions and Low Clearances
Although most of the resources discussed in this post do their best to take into account low clearances, none of them is as comprehensive as someone with at 13’ tall (or taller) vehicle should accept. Even though our Garmin GPS has done a pretty good job of routing us around low bridges, one simple omission could result in a huge loss of time and money by forcing us to backtrack and re-route our trip. Even worse, if you don’t realize you’re approaching a low clearance, you could end up shaving off your air conditioners or even the entire roof of your vehicle if you’re not careful!
From our research, the route planning tools and websites mentioned above use databases with between 300 – 500 bridges and low clearances. Most “RV GPS” units have larger databases with around 1,500 low clearances. However, on a recommendation from our good friend dc0de, we discovered LowClearances.com, which maintains a database of over 4,000 low clearances that you can download and use in conjunction with most of the above trip planning apps or install onto your own GPS unit.
That means that your GPS or route planning tool may be missing as many as 3,500 low clearances that you could otherwise encounter on your cross country road trip. Yikes! In fact, Route–1 estimates that there are an estimated 5,000 low hazard collisions in the USA each year, causing over $100 million worth of damage to public and personal property!
Considering that the complete USA and Canada databases with lifetime updates only costs $75, we consider it a small price to pay to make sure we don’t contribute to next year’s statistics.
On dc0de’s recommendation, we’ve now installed the low clearances database on both our Garmin GPS and into Garmin BaseCamp to make sure we don’t get surprised by obstacles or clearances that our other trip planning apps might have missed.
FuelMyRoute, MyPilot and GasBuddy Save You Money
Although both the Good Sam Trip Planner and RV Trip Wizard provide fuel calculations for route planning purposes, they don’t provide quite enough information to ensure that we always:
- Save the maximum amount of money on gas (or diesel)
- Stop at the right times to ensure we never get too close to empty.
In order to ensure that we get the best prices on gas and never break down, we use a combination of three free apps to plan out our fuel stops along our route.
Notice: As of 02/02/2015, FuelMyRoute.com has (unfortunately) shut down.
FuelMyRoute.com is a simple and effective website designed to help you plot your fuel stops for your road trip. In addition to plotting the lowest cost gas stations along your route, you can specify maximum travel distances between stops (based on your tank size and average mileage estimates) and gas stations to prefer or avoid. Since we have a Costco membership (where gas is often $.02 – $.10 cheaper than other stations) and our Good Sam Club membership saves us $.03 per gallon at Pilot Flying J truck stops, we’ve found that FuelMyRoute can save us up to $.50 per gallon on long trips.
On a 500 mile leg, that could easily translate to a $40 – $60 or more savings on fuel alone!
Because there are times when we may change our route on the fly, we also make pretty good use of the MyPilot iPad app, which allows us to easily map out the nearest Pilot Flying J truck stops and see ratings for the stations (with additional useful information, like user reviews of the cleanliness of restrooms and showers) as well as up-to-date prices on fuel and propane.
Finally, once we’re parked at our destination and cruising around town in our toad, we tend to rely on the GasBuddy app for iPhone and Android, which allows us to locate the cheapest gas stations at a moment’s notice.
Route Plan Like a Pro
After using virtually every route planning tool available, I can safely say that none of these tools is perfect, or even good enough to be used on its own. Some are better at somethings than others.
If I could only use one trip planning app, it would be a toss up between the Good Sam Trip Planner and RV Trip Wizard, with a slight edge given to RV Trip Wizard because it hasn’t yet tried to route me up and over a 10% grade. 🙂
Still, if you want to plan a cross country road trip that is safe and fuel efficient, without spending weeks planning, you should really consider looking to third-party databases like the Mountain Directory, Low Clearances and fuel databases mentioned above.
At the minimum, they’ll probably save you a few hundred dollars on gas, and at best they’ll save you hours or days of travel and quite possibly, the engine, brakes and roof of your RV!
Across later posts in this series, I’ll show you the best ways to figure out where to camp, where to eat and how to completely avoid bad weather.
Have we missed anything?
If you haven't read part 1 in this series, make sure to check it out here.
Have a favorite tool or tip that we should add to our list?
Please let us know in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading. We hope you enjoyed our Ultimate Road Trip Planning App guide!