Planning a Trip WIth Google Maps

My friend Dustin and I are planning a week-long trip to Iceland at the beginning of June, and given the country's reputation for otherworldly natural beauty and unique geography, we just knew we'd have to road trip for at least some of the time. Sure there are plenty of day trips and excursions that will take you out from and return you to Reykjavik, Iceland's most populous city and capital, but we wanted the freedom and flexibility to go where we want, when we want.

Only time will tell if planning our own path and not taking a guide is a mistake!! (Very possible.) But, in the meantime, I wanted to share how I've used Google Maps to create a route with directions, estimated travel times, and plotted points of interest around a place that I otherwise have little to no knowledge about.

Personally, I find planning so much easier when I can write things down or draw them out and look them at as a big picture, so Google Maps provides a perfect tool to visualize your vacations.

(Note: click on the tutorial images to view them larger.)

STEP 1: First of all, you'll need a Google account to create and save your own maps. If you've got Google+ or Gmail, you've already got one, so just login.

STEP 2: Now, instead of going to Google Maps straight out, you'll want to go to Google Drive. This is counterintuitive, and kind of confusing, but trust me on this. Once in Google Drive, click the "CREATE" button on the upper left, and choose "MAP." Like I said, confusingly, your personalized maps are stored in Google Drive, NOT via Google Maps.

Then you'll have this screen, which will allow you to get started!

STEP 3: Change the name of your map from "Untitled Map" to whatever you want! This map is your oyster.

Start large, by searching for the country you'll be driving in. This will bring it into view, so you can look at it more closely and figure out what the hell you are doing.

Great! Now we can see Iceland as a whole, and get a sense of the main roadways, larger cities, park areas, etc. Depending on the country you're looking at, you may need to zoom in (if it's very large) or zoom out. Here we can see Iceland's Ring Road, the yellow path that circumvents the island. That's going to be our base path, and will help us figure things out.

I got a few tips on where to go, what to see, and what towns to spend the night in from a friendly Couchsurfer who lives in Iceland and offered me some tips. Is he the rightest about this? I don't know! But life is an adventure, mkay? So we are going on his advice.

STEP 4: Plotting points.

My Couchsurfing buddy named a few towns for us to stop in, so I started by plotting those. To add points to your map, simply search for them in the search bar (for instance, "Reykjavik.") The map will then automatically drop a neon green pin showing that place, so to add to your map, simply click the green pin and click "Add to Map". Now the pin is red and it's listed in the menu on the left. (Note: green points/pins are not added to your map automatically, you must ADD them!)

So now you'll do this with all your points of interest - towns you want to stop in, parks, natural sights, etc. Google Maps is awesome for predicting what you're typing based on the country/area you're already looking at on the map.

So now you have a bunch of red points. Let's organize this shit!

STEP 5: Color coding.

Are you insane like me and love color coding?! Google Maps has you covered. Color coding, in addition to being so fun, will help you categorize your points and further clarify your route. To color code, just click the paint bucket that appears to the right of the location in your menu on the left.

I'm going to make my natural points of interest green (because nature, doy), and label the towns where we could possibly stay overnight in red. Choose your own adventure here color-wise, and if you wanna go nuts, you can even use different shapes and icons. WhooaoaoAoaoaoa!!

STEP 6: Plotting the route.

Now that my map is partially color-coded it's looking much more clear, and I can see start to determine which towns make the most sense to stop in after plotting a route.

To find out the driving distance and time between points, ADD A NEW LAYER. Rename your original layer "Points" or whatever you want, and call this new layer "Routes". So while in your new layer, click the little arrow icon underneath the search bar, which indicates "add directions."

Now with the "A" field selected, click your 1st point on the map and it will auto-fill: in this case we are starting in Reykjavik. Then just click in the "B" field, and click the next nearest point (as long as that makes sense and is more or less the sensible route) and it will auto-fill. Then click "Add Destination" and select the field next to "C", then click your 3rd stop. Continue this until your points are connected in a sensible route.

You can continue doing this til all your points are connected, or go town by town. The point here is to get an idea of the driving distance between two towns, and make sure you haven't planned to drive 30 hours straight or something (because you might die if you do that!) To see the distance/time between two places, in your left hand menu, click the little three dot icon, and select "Step-by-step directions."

Now you can see the time/distance between each stop! (You'll have to scroll down to see everything.) From point A to point B is 43 minutes, B to C is 44 minutes, C to D is 10 minutes, D to E is 2 hours and 11 minutes (all totaled up, nearly 4 hours of driving as calculated as the top). So, completely manageable for one day of a road trip, and allowing plenty of time to stop, get out of the car, hike, etc. etc. before arriving at our next overnight stop.

If you weren't sure of where you'd stop overnight, this will help you decide as you can see how much time you'll need to get from place to place and allow for sightseeing time.

STEP 7: Re-ordering your points in the left menu, and finishing color coding.

Once all your points are connected and routes figured out, I like to re-order my points on the left so they are in the order in which we'll stop at them. And once I've figured out my overnight stops, I like to break my routes out by day, so I can see exactly how many days the trip will take, what each day is, and how much time will be spent driving. I also will go back and label all towns we aren't staying overnight in another color, but leave them on the map in case we need a place to stop or have extra time to kill.

And voila! A lovely, color-coded road trip map that's easy to understand and gives you most of what you need to know at a glance. And, you can view all your step-by-step directions and print them out before your trip just to have in case you lose your map or don't have access to cell signal/GPS. Safety first, y'all.

Your map will save automatically as you're making it, and to access it later to view or edit, you simply go into your Google account, click "Drive," and it will be listed in your Google Drive as though it were a document or file!

Now you can share your map with any of your travel buddies! Check out my color-coded, super helpful, interactive finished map of our Iceland road trip here:

Google provides lots of tools to make trip planning easy and awesome, and I'll definitely be doing more posts on how to use tools like Maps (and its additional features) to get ready for a trip! If you've got questions or additional tips, please leave a comment below!