A seasoned road trip enthusiast shares her essential free road trip apps. From before you go to while you're on the road, these free apps will help your road trip go a lot smoother so you can have more fun.
In two year, my husband and I took two cross-country road trips from the Chicago area to the west coast, racking up more than 13,000 miles over 66 days. We've also done shorter hops, to Asheville, North Carolina; Harbor Country in Southwest Michigan; Galena, Illinois; and Hendricks County, Indiana.
With all of those miles under our belts, we've picked up a thing or two. While I've got a whole guide on road trips, some of the most important tips are the free essential road trip apps.
From before you go to when you're on the road, there are tons of tools to help you navigate your way from point A to point B and everywhere in between. I try to keep a lean phone while traveling to conserve battery life, so these are the road trip apps that I consider necessary.
Related: Ultimate Road Trip Planner
Essential Free Road Trip Apps
Roadtrippers is my favorite road trip planning app. I used it for both cross-country trips, and it enabled me to find destinations I wouldn't have without it.
Basically, RoadTrippers is a website and app that helps you plan road trips by allowing you to plot points on a map. It then calculates the best route between them and helps you find info about what's along the route. You can use it for ideas for which road trip you'd like to take, or if you've already got a destination planned, what to see along the way. You can see things to do, lodging, restaurants, gas stations, and more within thirty miles of your planned route.
I've found it best to plan my trip on the website version and then use the app to reference it when I'm on the road.
Visit my guide to using Roadtrippers
Knowing what’s happening weather-wise is kind of important when you’re on a road trip, especially when rain is involved. My favorite way to see whether I’ll stay dry or will need to break out the slicker is Rainy Days.
This free radar app has helped my anxiety level on a number of occasions, especially while driving in North Central Nebraska (pictured). It was good to know we were driving the opposite direction of a pretty intense storm.
Another time was in Montana when a tornado warning popped up on the navigation system.
If you’ve never driven through central Montana, let me tell you, this is the reason jeri cans were invented. It’s big and beautiful and feels like you’re the only one for miles – and you probably are. The rest area near Musselshell was so quiet I could hear a cow call in the distance.
Out there, there were no bridges to hide under, no gullies, no shelter. Just us, the road, and ominous clouds.
Incredibly, we did have cell service, so I pulled up Rainy Days and discovered that the storm and its potential funnel clouds and golf-ball-sized hail was behind us and moving slower than we were. Whew!
Besides, it’s pretty cool to see those weather formations.
Until electric cars have battery life that will take you through the country’s most remote stretches, gas is the necessary evil of the road trip.
It’s a big expense. Huge. On one of our epic road trips, we spent more than $600 filling up a vehicle that averaged 27MPG. Fortunately, we had GasBuddy or we would have spent even more.
This free app’s basic function is to show you how much stations are charging for gas. The prices are updated by users and in the years I’ve been using it I’ve come across incorrect information twice (which I promptly corrected).
Seeing these prices means you can skip that station by the interstate that’s charging 15 cents more than its counterpart a quarter mile away.
In addition to showing you which stations are charging what, you can also save when you sign up for Pay with GasBuddy. To do this, you’ll add your bank account information to your GasBuddy account. They’ll send you a card that you can then use at the pump. Swipe it and enter your access code, and you’ll save about five cents per gallon.
Pay with GasBuddy doesn’t work with all gas stations. It won’t be available at Sam’s Club or Costco, for example, and it didn’t work at any of the stations on reservation land. But, it works with most major brands and we saved an average of five cents a gallon by using our card.
Check out my complete guide to Gasbuddy
Eating where the locals eat is a great way to get a real “taste” for a town. If you want to save some dough on your dining, sign up for restaurant.com. This app provides discounted certificates on restaurants, and I’ve found participating places in towns with fewer than 10,000 residents.
You’ll have to spend a minimum amount to use your certificate, and it’s usually double the face value. For example, if you get a $10 certificate for $4, you’ll have to spend at least $20 and you’ll save $6.
You can search for restaurants by your current location and by zip code. You can also choose from larger cities, including Chicago, Seattle, and Austin.
Once you’ve narrowed down the location, take a look at the menu and the ratings. I’ve found several real gems using this app, and they’ve been places I never would have known about or tried without it.
If I had a dime for every dollar Priceline has saved me I could start booking three- and four-star hotels.
The commercials ain’t lyin’ – their Express Deals are amazing. What’s the catch? You have no idea where you’ll end up. You can see a general area and a star level, but that’s it.
When a glitch caused our camping plans to fall through (nobody wants to set up camp at 8:30 at night - I've done it, and it's not fun), I found an Express Deal in Jamestown, ND, for $41. Once the transaction completed, I found out we were staying in a Days Inn. It was clean, offered free wifi, we had a refrigerator and microwave, breakfast was included, and I could even register the stay with my Wyndham Rewards account.
I've compared Priceline to HotelTonight multiple times, and I've always found a better deal on Priceline.
I almost feel like this goes without saying. If you have just one free road trip app, make it Google maps. Not only can you get directions, but because it's tied into Google you can find anything around you, too.
Pro tip: plug your day's stops into Google Maps before you leave and start navigation. Once the directions are downloaded, the GPS will continue to offer directions, even if you lose cell signal. Just don't back out, or they'll disappear! This is why I always have paper maps in my road trip essentials kit, too.
What about Waze? I love it. It gets an honorary mention. BUT, if you only want one mapping app to keep your phone lean, I'd stick with Google maps.
Before you go, check out our Road Trip Planner, the ultimate guide to planning a road trip
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