For many drivers, using a GPS to point the way to a new destination has become a matter of course. Even if your car isn't equipped, you can always pull out your smartphone and figure out the basic idea -- even when you're not in the most highly blanketed WiFi areas. A GPS device, since it uses satellite technology, can often be more helpful and reliable than phone service, and in any case, it's designed specifically for this use.
Or at least, that's the hope! If you're familiar with the little guys at all, you know that things can sometimes get awfully complicated, even when you're in your hometown. Once you imagine getting into an obnoxious GPS situation on a road trip, it can be a little intimidating.
There are tons of software applications available for planning out a road trip and programming it into your GPS, all of them with specific advantages and drawbacks, and all of them depending on what model GPS you have.
Many systems now give you the capability of programming the trip directly into the device itself, plotting different legs of your journey as separate, linked trips. With a Mac or a PC, you can use RoadTrip or BaseCamp before setting out, depending on what kind of GPS you use (so make sure your equipment is compatible before buying anything).
But that's only part of the story, because you're also going to be improvising and changing your priorities as you go. Part of being flexible means being able to change plans on the fly, and it's essential that you remain flexible, or you'll find yourself sternly forcing your family through what was intended to be a fun, relaxing time together.
If you're not comfortable with disobeying the GPS on the road -- and it can be scary, especially at night, to even think about that -- you could find yourself in over your head when it doesn't do the right thing.
While the technological aspects of the question depend on those specific details, and the final options you use will depend on your needs and budget, there's another important question that we sometimes forget to ask, because we're so used to relying on our GPS devices closer to home:
Just because you can use a GPS to plan your road trip, does that mean you should?
Supplementing Your GPS on the Road
If you're driving an RV cross-country, for example, you can bet that your GPS won't be able to tell you which overpasses are safe and which aren't high enough for clearance. And if your road trip takes you into the mountains, or low-populated areas, it's highly possible that you won't have gotten the most recent updates, as far as changes to the road map or even damage to the roads themselves.
We've all heard the horror stories of what can happen when people blindly follow their GPS devices into bad situations, and it's not necessary to repeat them here. The point is that a GPS is a wonderful device, but it's not the only thing you can -- or should -- use. Technology adds to older methods; it doesn't necessarily replace them.
A paper map gives you options that a GPS is simply not designed to show you. And while the GPS device's ability to estimate drive times can make your road trip a lot more efficient -- helping you decide when to stop and when to press on, for example, or how long you can spend in one area before it's time to move on to the next -- it's also tempting to hit autopilot on your brain and just follow its instructions, without stopping to think whether you're having the best possible time.
By incorporating a guidebook or paper map with your GPS use, you can make a fractious family member feel like a helpful co-navigator. Comparing your planned GPS route with other maps, especially those online, can give you the opportunity to adjust your route ahead of time.
While a GPS system is a wonderful addition to our lives and the ways we enjoy trips, it's important to always remember that it's just a tool. Ultimately, that tool belongs to you, not the other way around. If it isn't helpful -- or even if something just doesn't feel right -- make sure to check in with yourself, and with other plotting tools, to make sure you're not being led astray. A few minutes spent on double-checking the GPS could be worth hours, or more, of your life.
For more information, check out the links on the next page.
- 10 Best Snacks for a Road Trip
- 10 Tips for Planning a Cross-country Road Trip
- Top 10 Stress-free Road Trip Ideas
- Top 5 Car GPS Devices
- How GPS Systems Work
- How to Use GPS
- How to Use a Handheld GPS
- How to Buy the Right GPS for Your Car
- What's so special about Route 66?
- What was the first road trip?
- Why do GPS systems give wrong directions?
- What was the first cross-country U.S. road trip?
- What are some fun things to do on a road trip?
- Drive Safely. "Trip Routing and Driving Directions for your Road Trip." Drive-Safely.Net. (July 5, 2011) http://www.drive-safely.net/trip-routing.html
- Fritscher, Lisa. "Where Are We Going? GPS, Maps and Old-Fashioned Common Sense." Tots & Travel. Feb. 1, 2011. (July 5, 2011) http://www.totsandtravel.com/2011/02/3894/where-are-we-going-gps-maps-and-old-fashioned-common-sense
- Garmin's Support Site. (July 5, 2011) http://www.garmin.com/garmin/cms/site/us/extras/downloads
- GPS Track Log. (July 5, 2011) http://gpstracklog.com
- GPS Visualizer. (July 5, 2011) http://www.gpsvisualizer.com
- Magellan GPS Resources. (July 5, 2011) http://www.magellangps.com
- TomTom's Route Planner. (July 5, 2011) http://routes.tomtom.com