Wondering how to plan a road trip with Google Maps? You are at the right spot. In this post, we will be sharing a step-by-step guide to using Google Maps on your desktop and phone, plus other trip planning and itinerary tips.
Note: These images/screenshots were taken from Google Maps and are used in this guide for illustrational purposes only.
How to Plan a Road trip with Google Maps
Travel planning can get overwhelming. There are so many tools, apps, and resources out there. Truth be told, you only need 1-3 applications for travel inspirations, plotting an itinerary, and keeping track of all these activities
Of all the resources we use, Google Maps is the most powerful. And in this guide, we are sharing our secrets to crafting that epic road trip or weekend trip itinerary, to make the most of your vacation.
This post contains a tutorial and additional tips to planning your road trip.
Decide where you want to go on a road trip
So, your first step is to make a bucket list of places you want to see or the route you wish to embark on for your road trip. It might be a tough choice deciding on where to go. For inspiration, you can check out our itineraries, or use Pinterest (our second trip planning tool).
What to see on your Road Trips?
A good way to narrow down on the road trips, depends on your travel style. When embarking on a road trip, we prefer mountains and pristine lakes, with small towns (for breaks and affordable accommodation), tons of small museums, and sightseeing.
For you it could be a road trip through major cities, or outdoorsy activities – from camping, hiking to water sports.
Once you know where you want to go plan it on Google Maps
Google Maps are an amazing tool to plan and plot your road trip itinerary. You can create the map on your Google account (on the desktop/laptop) and then view it on your phone. You will need wifi or cell connectivity to view it.
To plot the itinerary, open Google Maps, then save your starting point. Use the ‘direction’ option to get from road A to B. Repeat these spots to keep adding all the places you want to visit on your road trip (more details below).
Also, add your hotel, any attractions you wish to visit inside a city or national park. When you click the location on your phone or computer, you will see the opening hours, reviews if any.
Step by Step Directions to using Google Maps to plan a road trip and more
Step 1: Log in to your Google account, and create a New Map for your road trip
Your first step is to log in to your preferred Google email account, and then go to the MAPS option (on your desktop/laptop). You can find the MAPS option by clicking on the circle near the account name.
Or you can use this link to login.
When you open the link (and you are signed into the Google Drive account or your Gmail), click on the ‘3 dashes’ on the left hand side. This will open a list of options on the left hand side, as you can see below.
Choose ‘Your Places’, to open an ‘Untitled Map’ or brand new map.
When I choose ‘Your Places’, it shows up my previous maps that I had created (both private and public maps I created).
Next, choose ‘Create Map’. The image is that of a new map. You can see options like ‘Add Layer’, ‘Share’, ‘Preview’ and ‘layers’.
Now it is time to customize and rename the Map. We use Google Maps to plan and plot our itineraries. For the purposes of this itinerary, let’s name it a Canadian Rockies road trip.
We renamed the map and using the ‘search’ functionality we can start adding attractions, hotels, restaurants, anything and everything we want to cover (and keep track of) in the upcoming road trip.
Step 2: Adding attractions, hotels and restaurants to the custom Google Map for the road trip
Continuing from Step 1, you can use the search bar to add attractions and sites that you are interested in adding to your itinerary. As I mentioned before, I use Pinterest, and other search and photo platforms for inspiration.
You can color code the attractions to keep them categorised. We categorise them based on
- Attractions: They include photo spots, iconic landmarks, museums, parks, etc.
- Food & Restaurants: For fast-food chains, groceries, etc.
- Hotels & Accommodation: It includes where we are planning to book accommodation
To use the option to change the colors, do the following
- Search the destination/attraction/landmark
- Add it to the map
- Then click on the options below the address to change color or the icons
- You will see it change on the left hand side, in real-time
In the above image, we have listed all the restaurants in Banff, color coded by breakfast, lunch and dining.
You can do the same by different categories (food, hotel, attractions, to name a few). You can create as many as you can inside of the single map layer. However, on a single layer, it is better to stick to 5-15, so that you can see the spots properly without any issues.
This method is extremely useful when you are in the planning or inspiration stage and want to keep track of your road trip bucket list!
Step 3: Use a second layer in Google Maps for Directions
We use the second layer inside of Google Maps to add directions. On the desktop it is easy to see what and which attractions are located close to each other, allowing you to manage your time and drive efficiently.
Based on your interests, you can narrow down the sightseeing to the chosen few, and add restaurants and hotels. Google Maps will automatically choose the best route possible on your phone, when you are road tripping.
Again, using Canadian Rockies road trip itinerary, we use 2 layers
- The first layer is sightseeing
- The second one is for the directions layer
- You can add directions from the option listed under the ‘search bar’
When you click the three dots, you can see the exact directions and time/duration for getting from Point A to B.
In the example above, to get from Banff Avenue to Banff Sightseeing Gondola, it will take 12 minutes.
Step 4: Save the Google Custom Map, and access that on your smartphone
Now we have created the directions, and saved the sightseeing spots on the desktop using Google Maps.
In order to view the same on your smartphone, you must download the Google Maps app, and ensure you have wifi or cell phone data on, to access it. Once you have the Google Maps downloaded on your phone, search for the route you have created on the desktop.
- From Google Maps App, choose ‘SAVED’ (located at the bottom of the phone screen)
- Choose the preferred map. In this example, we choose Canadian Rockies
- When you choose the map, you will find the 2 layers we created (sightseeing and directions)
Note that you do need internet connectivity to check these routes.
You can also use Google Maps, as a GPS too (with or without cell connectivity).
For use as GPS, ensure you have GPS settings on, on your phone (Settings > Google Maps > Location > select “Always”).
Step 5: Use of offline Maps
As far as offline Google maps go, you can download a city map for general directions. Just make sure you have offline maps enabled and save it ahead of your road trip, as sometimes cell tower connectivity in parks and country-side may not be that great.
In order to access the custom Google map we created – offline, use a secondary application – Maps.me to view the map.
It is an app that you can download on your smartphone. Once you are in, you can create a map list, and export the ‘saved file’ to import all the sightseeing spots and directions, and download it.
You can also download full city maps, and share with others.
How to plan a road trip? Additional Tips
Here are additional tips and factors to consider when planning your upcoming road trip
When are you planning to travel for your road trip?
Whether it is a city bound road trip or a journey through our national/provincial parks, it is important to make note of the seasons. Countries that experience all four seasons, you must be wary of road conditions, route closures, operating hours of sightseeing attractions and businesses.
We love road tripping in the fall and the winter season here in Canada.
- Summer – Summers are a great time to embark on a road trip. You can easily break for walks or short hikes in the summer, and also go camping as the weather is favorable, and most campgrounds open. If you are hitting the popular national parks and cities, ensure you start early to beat the traffic rush.
- Winter – Driving in winters can be tricky. Make sure to listen to local news alerts and winter driving regulations prior to starting your road trip. Also add in additional travel time due to the road conditions, poor visibility, etc. on certain routes.
- Spring and fall – Fall is our favorite time to visit as the weather is still warm, and attractions not too crowded. Late spring is amazing for road trips too. Finding accommodation in cities and small towns during this time will be easy (and fewer crowds). One thing to keep in mind is that during crossover months the weather can be very tricky.
Accommodation: Hotels, RV, Campervan, Camping
When you are road tripping, there are tons of options for accommodation. We like to plan our trips in advance, so we book hotels, Airbnbs and reserve campsites prior to hitting the road.
Here are some of the accommodation options,
- Hotels & Lodges: Whether it is a country-side, city or national park, you can book a hotel, lodge, an Airbnb or a cabin for your accommodation. Book them ahead of time, especially during peak seasons.
- RV & Campervan: One of the popular ways to explore national parks, or enjoy slow travel while road tripping is on a campervan or an RV. Almost every city will have an RV renting place, from where you can book an RV and save money on hotel accommodation. It is also a nicer alternative if you do not own a lot of camping gear.
- Camping: If you are planning to camp overnight, ensure you reserve camp-sites when bookings open for the season. And of course, ensure you carry the right camping gear for your trip. You do not need to reserve for day camp sites (like picnics as part of your road trip), especially in provincial parks in Canada or state parks in the US.
Road Trip Essentials
Here is a list of items to pack for your road trip
- Clothes & Comfortable shoes – Pack 2-3 sets of clothing, depending on the duration of your road trip. Comfortable shoes are a must, they are helpful while you are behind the wheel or taking rest stops (for a stroll) or out and about exploring
- Warm clothes (for winter) – While driving in Canadian winters, don’t forget warm clothing from a parka, warm socks, gloves, beanies.
- Hand warmers are great little items to keep inside the car
- Travel Mug – Coffee and tea lovers, pack your travel mug, and refill it on the go!
- Water bottle – Super important, carry your water bottle. Stay hydrated!
- Healthy snacks – Munch them if you are hungry, whilst feeling light!
- Medications, hand cream, chapstick
- Emergency car kit – An emergency car kit is essential should things happen on the road. You can create one from scratch or buy one pre-pack from Amazon
- Emergency first aid kit – Check the first aid kit inside the car (check for expiry dates). If you don’t have one, here is one that you can buy from Amazon
- Flashlight – Super handy if you are camping or even driving overnight
- Dashboard mount for phone or GPS – Go hands-free while you are driving. Use a dash mount to keep your phone or GPS for navigation.
- Charging cables – Unless your car has cable-free charging, it is important to pack one for your road trip. Buy a car charger here
- Playlist – No road trip is complete without an amazing playlist. Save it on iTunes, or your iPod.
- Cell-phone – Don’t forget your cell-phone. Stay connected with family, let them know where you are heading. Store the hotel or campsite contact information, plus roadside assistance number for emergencies.
- Car freshener – Refresh your car, using a refresher.
- Road trip games – License plate, sing-along, card games (for kids)
- Car & Travel insurance – Car insurance is essential, so is travel insurance if you are traveling from overseas. For the car, you can also secure insurance with the rental company when you pick up the vehicle
Getting Ready: Checklist prior to your trip
Just before you start for your road trip, preferably a few days prior, ensure you do a quick run-down and check your vehicle.
If you are renting a car, the rental company usually takes care of the car maintenance. But it is your responsibility to take note of any dents/scratches to report to the company later, plus record the mileage.
For your car, do the following a few days (to a week) prior to your embarking on the road trip
- Clean your car prior to your trip
- Get it to the servicing center, if needed
- Ensure your license/registration has not expired
- Inform friends/family about your trip
- Don’t forget navigation systems/Google maps (make them accessible from your car seat)
- Save all the information phone numbers, hotel and sightseeing addresses, tour passes, etc
Mistakes to avoid while road tripping
After embarking on many road trips in Canada and the USA, here are our hacks and tips,
1. Not taking ample breaks
It is crucial to stop and take breaks on your road trips. In Canada, there are gas stations, convenience shops, and rest-stops where you should stop by to take a break. Washrooms are also free to use in gas stations here.
2. Rushing, and not allowing enough time
While road tripping, go slow and soak in the views. Stop for a break, if needed. Eat, stretch your legs – that is the fun for taking on road trips.
3. Follow a loose itinerary
To enjoy a road trip to the fullest, don’t plan everything to the T. Have a rough idea about the route, attractions covered, but don’t be afraid to stop at a place longer if you like.
We do recommend not to drive away endlessly for safety reasons. It is important to know of the next stop, be aware of the gas tank level, and the time of day and not derail completely.
4. Not booking hotels or camp reservations
To avoid last minute hassles, don’t leave hotel and campsite booking for the last minute. Last minute could be expensive. And during peak seasons, you may not even find a vacant hotel room in most national parks.
Plus campsites are hard to get if you don’t reserve ahead of time.
5. Not grabbing snacks or good music
Healthy snack items are a good idea if you are not planning for a meal stop on your road trip. We keep health/nutrition bars, coconut water and some candies. Don’t forget water!
And a good playlist (or podcast) is crucial to keep everyone inside the vehicle happy and jolly!
Use of Google Maps for walking tours, and trip planning
Other than using Google Maps for road trips, we extensively use it for planning our walks in Europe (while sitting here in Canada), and also map out distances, time/duration and other stops in the itinerary.
When exploring Europe, we use a mix of public transportation, guided and self guided walking tours, and we walk a lot!
So from arriving at the airport, to getting to the right terminal for trams or trains to our day to day itinerary we pin everything to Google Maps.
I take a lot of screenshots of maps and directions and save them in a folder on my phone. I am a planner, and doing so allows me to visualize and be empowered as to which way do we need to go, how much time will it take to get there, money to budget, etc.
In the above image, you can see how to get from the airport in Barcelona to the hotel via metro trains. It includes terminal information, duration, etc.
Or this one, which was how to get from La Rambla to Bunkers del Carmel. We follow this route, and this way we are not wasting any time (other than stopping for food, or photos here and there :))
And this is another one, with all the sightseeing spots, and directions (first and the second layer on the desktop).
So, there you have it. This is our route planner for itineraries and road trips. Google My Maps have worked wonderfully well for crafting our adventures, and it is completely FREE to use.
Don’t forget to create your own travel map with Google, and give it a try! Have questions, let us know in the comments below.
Other trip planning guides