The Most Essential Sanity-Saving Apps for Your US Road Trip

Road-tested in a van with 6 people for 8 weeks

This is not our van. But in my dreams we have a rooftop camper on our van. | Photo by Paul Trienekens on Unsplash

Road tripping has rekindled my love

… for my phone.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my phone.

At home, I often switch it to silent in the morning and leave it somewhere, still on silent, for the rest of the day so I can forget it exists. Social media is meh, at best; apps tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. I keep going back to a very simple phone setup with only a few basic apps, and usually, that’s how I like and use my phone best.

A cross-country road trip changed my perspective.

My phone is a lifeline in many ways.

Beyond the obvious survival requirement for a road trip — continuous music — (I mean, umm, maps!), I use it to find food, lodging, alternate routes, interesting stops which we have usually passed about an hour ago, and factoids with which to bore our kids. My phone is entertainment and education: it’s full of pre-downloaded books (hey, remember when we all called a book in digital form an “e-book”? Ha, I forgot about that), audiobooks, podcasts, videos, and language learning apps. My phone is connection and communication. It’s also my primary means of recording our journey: my calendar, photographs, our map history, and my random notes keep most of the memories safe.

Ok, that’s a long introduction for a list of apps.

Here are my top picks for Apps You Shouldn’t Live Without while Road Tripping in the US.

Or Apps That Will Improve Your US Road Trip Experience by 1000%.

Apps to Keep You and Your Family Alive on a US Road Trip?

Apps that May Save Your Sanity After 250 Hours in a Van!

I have a lot of alternate titles.

Apple Maps vs Google Maps

This is not so much an app recommendation as a comparison.

Of course you’ll want a good map app on a road trip.

I also recommend having an actual paper atlas because 1) they are fun to look at, 2) real maps rock, 3) they bring back loads of travel memories for me, 4) it’s nice for your kids to see how much trouble it used to be to find your way anywhere, and 5) you can make up stuff for the currently-being-loudest child to do (“Find Toledo. No I won’t tell you which state it’s in”).

We have used both of these apps extensively. They’ve given us accurate directions and route options. The main difference is in the voice command part, and it’s a total mood:

Google Maps is the micro-managing control freak who wants to over-complicate everything and by giving you the most minute detail (“Veer right in 17 yards”) may cause you to miss the actual important info (“Turn left onto that freeway which has no other entry point for the next 10 miles”).

Apple Maps is the cool older adult who wants to be your friend but also really really wants you to do things a certain way. It’s going to casually throw out big-picture ideas (“Stay on Highway 110 for the next 72 miles”) and understated bits of info which are actually key commands (“Stay in the farthest left lane if you want any chance of turning left on the next road”).

So, pick your poison, I guess.

Finding a Place to Stay

L to R: HipCamp, Trailforks, and Gemini Photos

The obvious ones for lodging that isn’t a hotel room. Watch the cleaning fees, use the filters extensively to narrow a giant list of options. The instant book filter is helpful when you need a place for the same day.

iOS | Android

Our fellow adventure-traveling friends showed us this app and we’ve used it several times. Love it. Search by map for a place to camp, park your RV, or glam. Faves so far: camping with friends at an equestrian center in Colorado and staying in a yurt on an olive farm in California.

iOS | Android

I’ve used this app mostly to find campground info for national parks and forests. You can also get info (or get a current link to info) for day use info, park openings or closing, activity passes, reservations, tours, etc. Make an account to make the app useful, otherwise you’ll hit a “You need to log in for this feature” error every 2 minutes.

iOS | Android

Simple and effective. Do you need a hotel tonight? Seek and ye shall find. The rates are impressive, too; some deep discounts show up (today’s daily drop was a $212 room for $74, in Portland. Same room on Hotels.com: $114). There’s a variety of boutique hotels on the app. You don’t get to pick your room type, but each room is guaranteed to sleep 2 adults. If we were traveling without kids, I would use this app every time I needed a hotel.

My go-to for when it’s a hotel night.

The prices/selection are very close. Sometimes I’ll find more options and/or lower prices on Expedia. I like the Hotels.com rewards better — you get one stamp for every stay, and after 10 stamps you get a 1 reward night. Also if I get 3 more stamps by Aug 1, 2021 I will become a Silver member. I have no idea what that means, but cool. Maybe they’ll finally give me enough little shampoo bottles for our entire family.

Expedia rewards are points accrued with each stay, and the number of points seems to vary, and then the points have a cash value which you can redeem. Also, you can’t use the points for 30 days after you get them. So you “have” them, but not really. Currently, I have amassed a big points value of… $13. Woohoo.

iOS | Android

Great if you want to compare prices/availability on multiple apps (like Expedia and Hotels.com and Bookings.com and so on). I love the interface: it’s just texting. Text your location and dates and “they” (THE AI ROBOT OVERLORDS of TRAVEL) text you back a link to a list of hotel deals. Compare, choose, and on you go. Easy to use and less putting in ALL THE INFORMATION, like the age of each child traveling with you and your first grade teacher’s middle name.

Getting Food and (More Importantly) Coffee

Everybody in the US knows about these apps, so I don’t think we need my input. I’ll just tell you this: after multiple days of camping, it’s absolute bliss to check into a hotel and then have delicious food delivered. Bliss.

iOS | Android

At the very beginning of our road trip, one of my friends mentioned Panera’s summer promo for free coffee. Any time the words “free” and “coffee” (or, honestly, just “coffee”) are used, I’m listening.

I think maybe I hold some kind of record for visiting the most Panera locations on their free coffee promo. Hey, Panera, can I get something for that illustrious attainment? Maybe… more free coffee?

Exploring the Great Outdoors

iOS | Android

For tracking runs, hikes, walks, biking, etc. I love Strava especially for the route recommendations: set your desired distance and it will show you a few route options on the map. I wish there were voice prompts for navigating the route, which would be way nicer than glancing down at the route map as I’m running. I only recently realized that Strava works for tracking your run even with no signal (yay!) so I have a big gap when I wasn’t tracking anything because mountains and cell signals do not go together.

iOS | Android

I just got this app in Northern California, and am currently using it in Oregon. It would have been so helpful in Colorado. Download the region you’re in and access trail maps and info offline, anytime. Other cool features: make a wishlist, keep a log, share your location.

iOS | Android

For finding out what that really amazing gorgeous tree is called.

I have a thing for trees. This app (from Virginia Tech) is the best for identifying trees and I have tried… well, not many. But several.

Let the app get your location and it will show a list of woody plants in the area. Or use the ID quiz to identify a specific tree or shrub. Photos and detailed plant description. I wish I could save my identified plants in a list on the app.

iOS | Android

Take a photo in the app, or use one you’ve already taken, to identify a plant. I use this one for non-woody plants (because vTree is more accurate, usually). I have gotten some screwy “results” from the photo ID, so be sure to view the other photos and read the description to make sure it fits. If it’s not quite right, check the More Options list and you’ll probably find the right plant.

iOS | Android

Identify all the birds! I started using this in Puerto Rico, when I apparently turned into my Granddad during quarantine. I’m okay with it. I like that you can ID a bird with a photo or by answering a super easy set of questions. It’s tough to get a good photo of a bird. Also, I totally get why Granddad was so possessive about his binoculars now.

Saving Your Ever-loving Sanity

L to R: SnapTravel, Teamup, and Binaural

iOS | Android

The sole reason I am paying for a premium membership to YouTube: to download videos. Not on my laptop, only on my phone, but it’s enough. I’ve downloaded interviews, audiobooks, TED talks, courses, lectures, language learning videos, and stand-up comedy. There’s plenty more. I can pipe it to the car stereo or listen/watch anytime, whether we have a signal or not.

iOS | Android

I’ve used Pandora, Amazon Music, and probably some other ones I’ve forgotten. I like Spotify best.

Some of my kids have better taste in music than others. If you, like me, are tired of Minecraft parody songs in your Spotify recommendations, spring for the family plan. Up to 6 individuals (wow, how perfect is that!) can have their own login on your family plan, keeping their music and subsequent music recommendations separate from yours. There is a Family Mix playlist you can use, if you want to.

iOS | Android

For when you need lyrics to really rock that sing-along sesh in the van. Let me tell you about how much our kids love Karaoke Hour with Mom. Anyway, tap the Shazam button and it will find the song playing (usually) and give you lyrics that scroll with the music (usually). Genius Lyrics fills in the gaps when Shazam can’t find a song.

iOS only | Android alternative

I’ve never been one of those people who is super irritated by the sound of others chewing, until I listened to our kids crunch tortilla chips behind me for 30 minutes straight. Yeah.

Binaural is — you guessed it — an app for binaural beats. Honestly, I’m not even sure what those are. But I like them. I use it for background noise to block out annoying sounds, talking, chewing, etc., or white noise under music when the environment is louder than usual. I also use it for meditating. It’s a beautiful, simple app that does its thing well without fuss or complication.

iOS only | Android alternative

My favorite parenting hack is to solve every argument that gets loud/annoying enough to warrant my intervention with some kind of timer:

  • 10 minutes of silence!
  • 30 minutes of you two not talking to each other!
  • 15 minutes of this audiobook!
  • YOU get 5 minutes with this suddenly desirable piece-of-crap toy, and then YOU get it for 5 minutes! Or 117 minutes of nobody having it!

I also use it to give myself timeouts: 20 minutes of Mommy not answering any questions! (Pro tip: don’t actually set the timer. Just quit answering questions, maybe forever.)

Keeping Track of Your Adventures

iOS only | Android alternative

The OS-standard Notes app on Apple is simple and functional. I use it for quick, well, notes. Somebody’s name, that number I need right now but don’t want to save forever, ideas to write about, weird things the kids say, overheard conversations, lists, stuff we need to get on our next grocery/thrift/outdoor store visit.

iOS | Android

I use my Teamup calendar to keep track of everything. You can create multiple sub-calendars and organize them in folders. I’ve been logging where we sleep each night and the most notable things we do. It’s amazing how fast those memories and details get fuzzy when you don’t write them down somewhere.

Full disclosure: I work with Teamup. I love them. You will also love them. I could write a whole blog post about how I use Teamup to keep my entire life straight.

iOS only | Android alternative

I’ve been taking so many photos. So many. My phone holds a lot of photos, so storage isn’t an issue. But scrolling for 10 minutes to find the photo I want or swiping through 23 photos of the same thing… these are not activities I enjoy.

Gemini Photos sorts your photos into categories: Similar, Duplicates, Videos, Screenshots, etc. You can delete all your duplicates with a couple of taps. The Similar feature is amazing: the app suggests the best photo out of each similar grouping. Tap to accept the selection and delete all but the best. I am telling you: hours of my life are coming back to me.

Gimme your app recommendations, please

What are your essential road trip, travel, camping, on-the-go apps? We’re still on the road. You could save my life. Share your faves in the comments, please! I’ll owe you.

Life is an experiment | All this and more: https://tinyurl.com/y54maxgv |☠️ Sweary☠️

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