Using Android and Google Maps as a trip planner for an 1,100-mile (2,200 round-trip) road trip left a bit to be desired.
Read on, to find out why…
In September, 2018, we took a road trip from Dallas to Orlando, which is about 1,100 miles each way, and a straight-through time of about 19 hours.
I’ve used many different navigation systems on various road trips in the past, and I’ve even used Google before, but there were some specific annoyances, as well as specific features that Google lacks as a trip planner.
When you look for Android-based trip planning software, most of it is glorified navigation software, but there is a big difference between the two.
2. Trip Planning vs. Navigation
Navigation software provides basic functionality to select a source and destination location, plot a route between the two, and provide a discreet set of directions.
Beyond this, a Trip Planner also allows you to:
- Specify multiple waypoints. Most Navigation software allows you to pick a few destinations – perhaps 3 or 4, but a true Trip Planner allows you to plot out a multi-phase trip with dozens of waypoints.
- Manage the timeline. Navigation only provides an ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival). Trip Planners allow you to specify a start time, plan out travel breaks, and even plot out overnight stops. Once you are on the road, a Trip Planner compares your location to the baseline time plan, and tells you if you’re ahead of or behind schedule.
- Measure distance and other tools. A Navigation aide tells you your total distance, and perhaps the distance to your next navigation point, but doesn’t allow you to measure distances between any two arbitrary points along your route. A Trip Planner usually also includes tools for measuring linear distances, and other basic image analysis tools. Common questions that you can answer with image analysis tools:
- How far away is the storm? Will we be driving in it?
- Will my trailer fit in this gas station? Or, can I turn this corner with my trailer?
- How many miles are we from “x”?
- Browse Points of Interest (POIs) along a given route. Google can do this, with some limitations (which we will describe below), but ideally, you should be able to easily browse POIs and add waypoints as needed. For example, you should be able to plot out rest stops and refueling stops as you’re planning the trip, but you should also be able to find the nearest truck stop or rest area from your current location, as you’re driving.
- Maintain a persistent route. A Trip Planner always maintains the basic “trip plan” you specify during the planning process. Everything you do along the way is considered temporary, and you can always revert to the original baseline “trip plan”. A Navigation System holds one route. If you modify the route, you can’t easily go back to your baseline route.
3. Things Google Does Well
There are a few things that Google does well, as a Navigation Aide.
- This seems obvious, but Google is very good at finding your destination. I’ve used many navigation systems that can’t find an exact location or an exact address, but Google’s always-on, constantly-updated cloud database allows you to find an exact address, all the time.
- Extensive and mostly accurate POI database. Most navigation systems contain a Point of Interest (POI) database, but they become inaccurate over time. Even other cloud-based systems tend to have outdated POI information – POIs that no longer exist, or have changed function. For example, you search for a gas station, only to find out that it’s closed down, or has been turned in to a restaurant. Although Google doesn’t always have perfectly up-to-date POI information, it’s community-based feedback system means that errors usually get corrected within a few days or weeks, as opposed to months or years in other databases.
- No updates necessary. Cloud-based systems, including Google, always provide the most recent information available. Stand-alone navigation systems require periodic updates, and in many cases, the updates are sold as a separate product. Over time, the size of the database increases. A stand-alone device that originally had enough storage for its original database, eventually becomes too limited to store the entire database, and you are forced to load only certain geographical regions, or winnow down the list of POIs. Using a cloud-based device means that I can go anywhere in the world (caveat: Anywhere with a data signal), turn on my phone, and instantly have relevant navigation and POI data.
Actually, with Google, you get the best of both worlds, because you have the capability to download specific map regions for offline use, and the map data stays up to date automatically whenever the phone is connected to WiFi.
- Satellite and street views. Both are extremely helpful when trying to find an exact location, or learn more about a place.
- Real-time traffic. It’s helpful to see where traffic is grinding to a halt due to construction or a wreck, so that I can decide whether to choose another route.
- Location is accurate and timely. In the past, it was quite common for your location to update very slowly, or in a jerky fashion, which could result in a missed turn. Even with WiFi off, location data is very fast and accurate.
4. Google Annoyances
In addition to the lack of true trip-planning features, there are quite a few shortcomings.
- ZERO image analysis capability. All you get is a scale (if you’re lucky) in map view. How far from here to there? Well, STOP your current navigation, select the two waypoints, and THEN it will tell you the travel distance between the two.
What would be really convenient, is a calibrated reticle overlay on the navigation screen, so that you can judge distance accurately in real-time.
- Just-in-time information is not timely. Although Google provides lane guidance, street names, and all sorts of helpful information, often, none of this is available in Navigation mode until shortly before you reach a nav point, unless you look at the turn-by-turn directions. I’d rather see everything all at once.
It’s even MORE annoying when you know you need to make a turn, but it takes several clicks to figure out what lane to take, while turning. For example, my next nav point is a left turn in 500 feet. Google tells me to turn from the left lane. Got it. BUT, what’s my next nav point after that? There’s no easy way to tell whether I need the right lane because I need to turn right, or maybe the left lane ends, or perhaps my next nav point isn’t for several miles, and it doesn’t matter.
Likewise, neither the map nor navigation views show you street names unless you scroll around or zoom in to a ridiculous level of detail. It’s nice to be able to see upcoming street names so that you can gauge where you are in relation to your next nav point.
My wife and I had the same conversation more than once:
Her: Where do I turn?
Me: I can’t tell.
Her: Well, what street name?
Me: I can’t tell that, either, until we’re closer.
Her: What lane do I need?
- Endless supply of pointless alternate routes.
“HEY, do you want this other route? It’s only 2 hours slower!” Um….NO.
10 seconds later, “HEY! HEY! I’ve got EVEN MORE USELESS ROUTES!” NO.
“HEY!! Do you want to exit the freeway, reverse direction, make 23 stops, and drive past the haunted castle? It’s only TEN MINUTES LONGER….?” Just. No.
- Insufficient control over the route when it counts. On the browser version of Google Maps, you can drag and drop the route. However, on the Android version, you can only select between routes that have been predetermined by Google.
During our Orlando trip, we drove to Cocoa Beach. I know that driving through Jacksonville is more efficient than taking the Florida turn pike back to I-10. Google REFUSED to let me navigate through Jacksonville. However, once I manipulated its routing algorithm by adding a waypoint in Jacksonville, it was only 10 minutes longer than the route that it insisted I take through the Florida turnpike… at a cost of about $10. So Google REFUSED to save me $1/min.
To “force” the route to conform, you have to add bogus waypoints, which leads to the next annoyance…
- When I select an arbitrary nav point, it always selects some crazy location in the opposite direction from where I was headed. All of a sudden, I’ve added 5 more miles to my route, but that’s because it wants me to exit, U-turn, drive to Canada, and then reverse the process to “resume my journey”. If I’m traveling west, why would you assume that I want a waypoint on the east-bound side of the freeway? As far as I can tell, every navigation device suffers from this defect, but Google is supposed to be super-smart, so I give it extra non-bonus points for failing where others have failed before.
- POI Hell. This comes in two flavors:
- Can’t see nearby POIs. I’m at a stop light staring straight at an Applebees, but (not that I want to eat there) there is no Applebees POI on my nav screen. Instead, it shows the mattress store next to Applebees, and the McDonald’s accross the street, presumably because they paid Google more money than Applebees.
- POI search results are complete crap. If you want coffee or gas, you’ll have great luck. If you want anything else, forget it. Hint: Sonic is NOT a Chinese restaurant. Meanwhile, all I can see is a messy list that’s arbitrarily sorted by…. something….. Again, I would do better on my own, if I could simply see a raw list of POIs, and then narrow them down.
- Can’t limit search by distance. I don’t want to drive more than 5 miles for dinner, for example. Or, I want the donut shop down the street, not the one rated 4.5 stars that’s 30 miles away.
- Search along route leaves a lot to be desired. This is a necessary feature that Google lacked for a long time. Here’s the scenario: I’m driving to dinner (or on any trip), but I need to get gasoline. I can search my route for a nearby gas station, and add it to my route along the way to dinner. This is great, in theory, but…
- Unless you’re searching for gas or coffee, you end up in POI hell (see above).
- When you search along route in nav mode, EVERYTHING IS MEASURED IN TIME. “Your gas station is 5 minutes away”, well, that’s great, but I don’t know if my gas tank is 5 minutes from empty – my car says it’s 7 MILES from empty, so I’d like a gas station that’s LESS THAN 7 MILES away. Not minutes.
- You have to go through an absurd procedure to figure out the actual distance to a POI.
- Again, if I am driving west, WHY would you show me search results that are OPPOSITE the direction I’m traveling? Why not say, “The nearest gas station AHEAD of you is 50 miles away” (or whatever), “but you JUST PASSED ONE 5 miles back.” Then let ME make the decision. Instead, click on gas station #1 – it’s 3 miles back on the wrong side of the road. Gas station #2 as ALSO behind me, but farther back. AHH Gas station #3 is ahead of me, but it’s 2 miles off the freeway in murder alley. Google should be much better at showing me POI search results that are relevant.
Google on Android makes a decent navigation aide, but leaves quite a bit to be desired as a true trip planner.
- Lacks trip planning features such as time management, multiple trip phases, a persistent route, and image analysis tools.
- Has many annoyances, such as too much reliance on “just-in-time” information, POI hell, bogus alternate routes, and insufficient route control.
- POI search is a major negative. Beyond not giving me what I want, where I want it, Google’s POI search doesn’t even show me a physical building that I’m staring at, when I perform the search.
If you decide to use Google on Android as your navigation aide, one way around all of the defects and annoyances is to have a second device that you can use for ad-hoc searching.
Unfortunately, I have yet to identify a complete “trip planning” solution for Android.