Planning a Road Trip

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Trip Planning - Routing Software

Being an avid motorcyclist in western NY is tough. If I’m lucky, I’ll get 8 months out of the year where I am able to get around on the bike in reasonably comfortable temperatures. Here it is October, for example, and I’ve already ridden in 30 degree temps. Add in the salt that my county throws down on the roads to melt snow, and my riding season can easily be cut to 6 months if the first snow comes early (October) and the last arrives late (April). It makes for a long winter.

One of the things that usually keeps me going through those winter doldrums is planning out road trips. I probably have over a dozen saved on various mapping sites spread across the internet, and in fact used one exclusively to fine-tune my 2400 mile trip last August. The problem with online route-planning sites, however, is that they are online, and if I happen to wander in an area with no connection for the laptop, I am stuck with no convenient way to do additional route research when I am stopped for the night (other than paper maps, of course, which I always have with me since I currently don’t own a dedicated GPS unit).

To make matters worse, RouteBuddy is the only stand-alone routing and mapping solution for the Mac, and it is horribly cost prohibitive. The software itself retails at $100.00, but that doesn’t include any maps! If you want to actually use that $100 piece of software, you’ll have to shell out another $60 for North American street maps. To be fair, I’ve heard pretty good things about it, but $160 is quite simply outrageous, and the “fully functioning demo” only includes “an example road map of Santa Fe, and a topographic map of Yosemite Valley.” Hardly full functioning if there’s not enough map data included for someone in NY to test out all the features of the product. It isn’t even a consideration at this point.

There are some alternatives though. I’ve tried out the demo of Microsoft’s Streets and Trips ($40.00) while running the demo of VMWare’s Fusion PC virtualization software ($80.00). It worked well, even if it did feel a bit clunky, but the 2011 version of S&T should be coming out any day, so I don’t want to plunk down the money until it’s available. I also know I’m going to be picking up a GPS unit for the bike (no I haven’t quite decided which one yet, but most likely the Zumo 660), and even though I haven’t heard many good things about Garmin’s MapSource for Mac, I’ll likely hold off until I can try it out for myself since I think it’s free with the GPS unit.

Which leaves me for now with all the different online routing and trip planning services. I’ve used more than a dozen of them over the years as I tried to find a single solution that lets me do what I want. There are some pretty specific things I look for in a trip planning solution, most of which I consider a deal breaker if violated:

  1. Choice of Road Type
    1. Avoid Highways – There’s nothing more boring for me than four to twelve lanes of tarmac that plows straight through the countryside.
    2. Avoid Toll Roads – What can I say… I’m a cheap bastard.
    3. Allow Seasonal Roads – Since I picked up the GS, this is actually really, really important. When I only had the Indian I kept an eye out for them when I was on the road, but now I actively seek them out.
  2. Route by Shortest Distance rather than by Fastest Time – Fast time usually means increased traffic on highways or well-traveled byways. I’d rather keep looking for “short-cuts” which often reveals much more interesting roads than trying to get there quick.
  3. No built-in limit for mileage, number of roads traveled, types of roads traveled, or number of stops. My early planning stages tend to start out long – REALLY long. My current plan, for example, started as a trip to the four corners of the US – over 10,000 miles through seven Canadian provinces and twenty-four states. It may not be that long when I finally figure out where I am going, but I need the ability to accommodate those longer trips.
  4. Ability to modify the route “by hand.”
  5. Ability to save multiple routes.

In separate posts over the next few weeks, I’ll take a look at what I consider the major players in online Routing Solutions:

Harley-Davidson Trip Planner
MapQuest
Google Maps
Bing Maps
Yahoo Maps
AAA Trip Planner (Membership Required)
Rand McNally
Trav Matrix

If you think I missed a good one, post a link in the comments and I’ll work it in.

Trip Routing: MapQuest

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Trip Planning - Routing Software

See this post for the introduction to this ongoing topic.

For all of the evaluations I am using the basic 4 Corners of the USA route: Rochester, NY > Madawaska, ME > Blaine, WA, > San Ysidro, CA > Key West, FL > Rochester, NY (a trip I one day hope to take).

MapQuest

Assuming that my aging memory is not failing me, MapQuest is the first online mapping site I ever used. And for a long time, it was my go-to source for both long trip planning and around-town directions. I haven’t used them in a number of years, though, and when I went back for a closer look I found that they actually have two services at the moment. First there’s the traditional service that has been around for a decade or more, and then there is their “new” service that is “faster and easier to use.”

First I’ll talk about the standard, “Classic” MapQuest:

The presentation of the map and directions immediately sets the traditional interface apart from most other mapping sites (and not in a good way). Instead of a side-by-side view where your route-planning is done on the left and the map itself is on the right, MapQuest Classic uses a top down structure which forces you to scroll up or down. In the case of long trips, the amount of scroll needed to view the directions, which appear in the bottom section of the interface, is significant. More problematic, I think, is that there is no change in scroll function when the cursor is placed over the map. Not being able to use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out of the map is, for me, extremely counter-intuitive, and I found myself constantly scrolling the page down and away from the map by accident.

Plugging in the first two stops of my 4 Corners trip reveals all the options I am looking for, but when the map is drawn a big yellow roadsign cautions me that the “Avoid Highways” option “cannot be used for routes over 250 miles.”

There is a work-around, as I can click and drag my route to get it off of, for example, Highway 20, a divided highway that runs from Montreal up the Eastern shore of the St. Lawrence Seaway. A bit of a drag, and a considerable amount of work considering that at 681 miles this isn’t even ¼ of the planned trip. A huge strike against MapQuest for me.

Plugging in the next stop reveals another strike against MapQuest. I realized I forgot to check “Avoid Toll Roads” in the preferences, so I do that and get another big yellow caution sign:

Considering that I just planned a 3972 mile trip, you’d think they’d tell me where the toll (tolls?) is located, but no. I scroll trough the directions searching for the toll road (64 lines to Madawaska, 77 lines to Blaine – yeah, the vertical layout is already getting old) and find a “(Portions toll)” notation next to I-75, about a third of the way from Maine to Washington. There’s a link next to it with “Avoid,” so I click on it, and MapQuest reroutes without taking me on the toll road. And sure enough, the big yellow caution sign is gone. Yeah, it’s good I can make such a simple adjustment, but why give me an “avoid toll road” option if you’re not going to pay attention to it? Very frustrating considering the scroll it took to find out where the toll road was and then being able to avoid it with a simple click, which was what my preferences supposedly instructed the routing software to do in the first place!

Strike three comes when MapQuest can’t figure out where Key West, FL is:

Key West is a city with a population of over 25,000 people, so it’s not exactly a booming metropolis, but it does have 3 whole zip codes all to itself and has been a part of the US since 1823. Ahh well… at least they knew it was in Florida.

For my purposes, the traditional MapQuest Interface is only barely usable, as it results in a significant increase in work on my end.

Scrolling back up to the top of the page, I click on the link for the “new MapQuest”:

Immediately, the “New MapQuest” brings me much relief in the familiar side-by-side layout of the map and direction screen. What’s more, the mouse wheel actually zooms in and out, something the traditional interface wasn’t able to handle.

Moving to plug in the directions for the first leg of the trip gives me pause, however, as I don’t see any kind of routing options anywhere. Clicking on Get Directions reveals them only after the route is already drawn on the map. Seems a bit backwards to me, but ok, I’ll take the extra step since all of the options I want and more are present:

For each option I select, however, the route is redrawn. One. at. a. time.

Shortest Distance.

Reroute.

Avoid Tolls.

Reroute.

Avoid Highways.

Ugh, it seems as though the New MQ shares the same limitations as Classic MQ, as the option is greyed out. This time there’s no cute little construction sign warning me, though. I wonder what it does with the toll that Classic made me take around I-75, so I plug in the next leg to Blaine, WA. Sure enough, there’s the message:

Unlike Classic mode, though, there isn’t an AVOID link next to the directions so I can’t reroute it automatically. There’s one thing left to do, so I scroll in and make my adjustments by hand. This brings up two more messages, one which I really, really like:

The undo button is a great addition, I think, as it lets you ignore your changes and revert to the previous route. I decide not to click undo, though, as I am intrigued by the other button, which turns out to be a bit misleading.

Clicking on the Timed Restriction notification in hopes to discover where this restriction is results only in the map being redrawn without any changes. Scrolling through the directions I find a note for a ferry that’s closed part of the year in the same color pattern as the message above:

I click on the AVOID link in the initial message to reroute around the ferry, and…

nothing happens. The map is redrawn without any changes. I clink three more times and still nothing. Finally I drag the route back down toward Quebec and the message goes away. Next I decide to try out the UNDO link in the “Your Route has been Modified” message (no, I can’t for the life of me imagine why they capitalized that message the way the did).

CLICK!

TADA!

Every change I have made is wiped out, and my route, once again, takes me back along the toll road at I-75. I suppose I have to save after every change in order to undo incremental changes (which would be more of a Revert to Last Save button than an Undo button), but I’m not really all that interested in finding out at this point. Instead, I plug in the next two legs of the trip and see where they lead me.

This time, MQ knows right where Key West is! Additionally, the route actually avoids both I-95 and I-75 and opts for Rte. 27. I assume this is because of the “Shortest Distance” preference, but it reveals quite a difference between itself and Classic, as Classic had me routed down I-75.

Other features that I like about the New MapQuest:

-drag and drop re-ordering of route stops.

-the ability to click a button and see where many points of interest are located along a route, including: gas stations, schools, hospitals, post offices, hotels/motels, airports, and quite a few others.

Saving the map, however, is confusing. It asks me to save to one of two locations, New Map or Favorites:

I decide Favorites, since New Maps says it creates a new map. Doesn’t appear to work, so I go ahead and try New Map. No dice. Neither option is saved as a route. Instead, only a pin in the starting city (Rochester) is saved:

Also, there was no option to save as a gpx file for later uploading into a GPS unit, which, although not a high priority for me at the moment since I don’t yet have a GPS, is a huge oversight on their part.

To be honest, I half expect that I have done something incorrectly as far as saving goes (as MapQuest is not the only service whose save functionality is counter-intuitive – yes I’m looking at you Google!), but at this point I am rather frustrated with MapQuest and know it just doesn’t suit my needs for generating long, involved road trips. Of the two different modes, I favor the new MapQuest over the old, but the limitations of the user preferences (not to mention flat out ignoring some of the preferences) is a huge turn off as it ends up generating far more work on my part than it should.

Trip Routing: Google Maps

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Trip Planning - Routing Software

See this post for the introduction to this ongoing topic.

For all of the evaluations I am using the basic 4 Corners of the USA route: Rochester, NY > Madawaska, ME > Blaine, WA, > San Ysidro, CA > Key West, FL > Rochester, NY (a trip I one day hope to take).

Google Maps

From what I gather when talking maps to folks, Google’s service has become the go-to source for nearly everyone. For around town, its what I use, and its Android app for my Droid works great for turn-by-turn GPS. How are they for long trips, though? Let’s take a look…

I haven’t even entered the first destination when I notice my first concern… there aren’t many options for when it comes to the type of roads I want to ride.

Avoiding highways and toll roads are the two most important options, but I think the built in functionality likely focuses on spending the least amount of time as possible on the road, something that usually isn’t what I am looking for in a motorcycle journey.

When I plug in Madawaska for the destination, Google does a great job at not putting me on any highways for the entire 678 mile trip. Not even 3 steps in to my examination, and already I’ve found a reason to use Google over MapQuest. The same holds true for the remainder of the route, a total of 10,112 miles, when I enter in the rest of the primary stops. Big, big plus mark for Google.

Additionally, Google uses a side-by-side view for turn-by-turn directions and the overhead map view. A nice addition would be to allow the user to minimize the turn-by-turn directions, but it’s so much easier to look at everything all at once. All the turns are numbered (527 turns in this case), and clicking on an individual item brings you to that point on the overhead map. Very, very nice addition.

Another nice feature is a graphic representation of the type of turn to expect, with symbols for left and right turns, traffic circles, exit/entrance ramps, slight left/right turns, and forks in the road.

Adjusting the route Google planned out for me is a snap. A simple click-and-drag creates a waypoint between two destinations:

There is also the ability to UNDO the change, and it works well.

Unfortunately, it also zooms you all the way out to an overview of the entire route, but it’s still a great feature.

The problems come when I want to save the trip, as no where on the page is there any kind of save button. Thinking that perhaps it’s located in the My Maps section, I am disappointed when I go there.

Clicking on LEARN MORE takes me away from my 4 Corners map and brings me to the help guide. Ooops. I click on the back button to discover my whole route has been deleted.

Ok, let’s start from scratch?

I enter the points I want to travel to again. Rather than directions, the My Maps section simply places little eyedopper icons at the locations of the towns, which I can then save to the map I am (hopefully) creating for this post (“Google Review”).

Flipping over to Get Directions keeps in in the route I just saved, and I can now enter the points of interest AGAIN (drag… too much extra work, Google!) and re-do what I lost earlier. The good news is that the route comes up identical to the earlier plan (10,112 miles). I switch back to My Maps, select Google Review, and add the new driving directions to the new map, but I still don’t see a way to save the new (old) route as part of this particular map.

Maybe I just haven’t found it yet, but a save button should be a pretty prominent feature in any software that’s sole function is content creation. At this point, I am tired of trying to figure out how to save the trip data, so I give up. Unfortunately, for all that Google does right, this makes it unusable for me as far as trip planning goes. Not having user-friendly save functionality limits Google Maps to around-town directions, or any trip that you believe you can plan in one sitting.

But even if you can plan it all out at once, unless you print it out, there is no way to take it with you. You could, I suppose, save it as a link (which they do have a button for right up in the top of the map screen) or send it to yourself as an email. Assuming you have a smartphone, you could then view it on your phone while you drive, but, again, that is not very motorcycle friendly.

Google Maps in a nutshell:

Pros
Excellent handling of routing.
Excellent speed at both rout calculation and drawing.

Cons
Lack of an intuitive SAVE feature makes it nearly unusable for anything longer than day-trips.

One more big plus that I didn’t get to test out is the Collaborate feature. It appears as though I can send the link of the map to various people who could then make changes to it. This would be tremendously effective if, for example, I decided to meet up with someone along the way and wanted his input on roads to ride in his area. I assume that there is a way to save it for this particular function, and it may even prove to be a workaround for the whole no-save-suckiness I encountered.

Trip Routing: Harley Davidson’s Ride Planner

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Trip Planning - Routing Software

See this post for the introduction to this ongoing topic.

For all of the evaluations I am using the basic 4 Corners of the USA route: Rochester, NY > Madawaska, ME > Blaine, WA, > San Ysidro, CA > Key West, FL > Rochester, NY (a trip I one day hope to take).

Harley Davidson’s Ride Planner has been my go-to option for all trips longer than a day or two. Most folks I’ve spoken to haven’t even heard about it, which surprises me, as it has a terrific interface, the ability to save maps, and on-the-fly shared map viewing for tips from other Ride Planner users. Use requires a free account/profile with your email address. In the 2 or 3 years I’ve been using Ride Planner, I’ve never received an email from HD that I didn’t specifically ask for. HD Ride Planner has gone back to Google for their maps (they had switched to Bing for a little while last year) which makes me quite happy.

Creating a new route is a breeze. Simply enter the address in the Start Location field and click on GO.

[singlepic id=11 w=320 h=240 float=left] The destination field opens up, and, when entered, the route is drawn very quickly. The routing options are limited to only Avoid Highways, but what is really nice is that you don’t have to apply a blanket condition to the entire route. In the 4 Corners route, for example, I could avoid highways for the trip up to Madawaska (which adds 3.5 hours and 30 miles to the overall trip) and then choose to take the highways across to Blaine, WA, saving 11 hours and 100 miles according to their estimations.

One of the things I like most is the clean layout of the page. The map takes of most of the real estate, and destinations are listed in the left sidebar with collapsible directions. It’s not quite as clean as Google Maps’ window, but it’s nice.

[singlepic id=21 w=320 h=240 float=center]

[singlepic id=20 w=320 h=240 float=right] Clicking on the Driving Directions button expands the list of turn-by-turn directions. With long trips, like this 10k mile sample I’m using, those turn-by-turn directions can get long an unwieldy, so it’s nice to have the ability to minimize them and focus on the waypoints.

 

 

 

 

Something that wasn’t typical in my previous uses was this window that kept popping up whenever I clicked the Avoid Highways for this segment option:
[singlepic id=19 w=320 h=240 float=center]

It always went away when I hit OK, but it’s frustrating. I’m pretty sure it’s happening because of the amount of data being transferred to/from HD’s servers, so this is something that may prove to be problematic in a real-world, detailed, trip-planning scenario. I’ll definitely update this post if that turns out to be the case.

[singlepic id=12 w=185 h=72 float=left]Because Ride Planner uses Google’s core mapping functionality, all of the same basic commands are available. Zooming, dragging to adjust the route, adding waypoints and locations, they are all in Ride Planner. [singlepic id=10 w=284 h=176 float=right] Additionally, clicking on the primary destinations in the directions sidebar zooms the map to street level at that location. I wish it did that for the individual turn-by-turn locations, but I guess that’s asking too much.

One of the functions I really like is the ability to see what routes other users have taken in relation to where the Ride Planner is sending you. At the top of the page are 4 icons: Roads, Dealers, Hotels, and Events:[singlepic id=13 w=320 h=240 float=center]

And of course, now that I am writing up a review, I keep getting that annoying window whenever I try to access that particular function. Bad day for a tech failure, HD! If I can, I’ll post an update with some screen shots whenever they get it fixed. Being able to see roads that other riders suggest is a nice feature, however, and even though it isn’t working at the moment it’s still worth checking out.

Saving the map is the simplest of any routing site I have found, and puts Google to shame. Simply click on the SAVE button in the bottom left of the screen:
[singlepic id=16 w=193 h=32 float=center]

As you can see, you can also email the map to someone or print out the directions.

Saving it comes with several options:
[singlepic id=18 w=320 h=240 float=center]

If you choose to save it publicly, then all of that information is available to other riders (assuming they are able to connect to the HD servers and view the route, anyway!). Once saved, that route is available in your Saved Ride Plans and accessible whenever you return:

[singlepic id=17 w=320 h=240 float=center]

Now that I have a GPS, I’m also interested in being able to export the route to my Garmin Zumo 660. This is a major headache with Google, but HD makes it simple. The GPS SYNCHRONIZATION button in the upper right hand corner brings up these options:

[singlepic id=14 w=320 h=240 float=center]

Most of Garmin’s units are able to be detected automatically as far as I can tell, but even so, manual mode exports a GPX file of the route which can be read by virtually every GPS unit on the market.

With the exception of a more detailed filter for road selection, HD’s Ride Planner meets every need I have and then some. It’s easily the best online route planning utility I have discovered.