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Why GPS sucks for roadtrips, and why I’ll still never drive without it

I did a long road trip last month, making my way from Phoenix through south Texas and over to New Orleans, then generally up the Mississippi River to Illinois and back towards Phoenix via Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. I drove about 6800 miles in total.

I used GPS the entire way, running off of a custom map of pins we had created for the trip.

I’m continually amazed at how much easier and less stressful it is to drive in unfamiliar areas using GPS than before—especially navigating crowded city centers, areas with only one-way roads, and spaghetti freeway intersections.

There’s nothing like avoiding an hour-long backup by getting a notice of it early enough that you can take a far better alternative. And it’s nice to know about road hazards and speed traps in advance, too. And getting a heads up as to which lane to be in for your turn is quite handy. And it’s especially great when it recalculates a new route if you miss your turn. Or remind you what the speed limit is on that rural highway that doesn’t seem to have a sign.

GPS can be an absolutely amazing tool for roadtrips.

Unfortunately, as GPS moves you through the streets of an unknown city with ease, it does so in a dis-orienting way. You don’t get the same sense of the geography when you’re simply following an arrow on the map. That’s especially true when that map remains, nearly always, intently zoomed into just the block or two you’re currently traversing—never pausing to lift its head up and look further afield.

As a result, you rarely get to orient yourself to the shape or layout of a city in the same way you naturally would if looking at a paper map. It’s hard to know which way is north, or what you’re bypassing by taking this particular route.

When someone asks me where I visited in a city—was that brewery on the east side of town, or the southwest? I might struggle because I’m not sure; I just followed the turns the GPS told me to, got in the correct lanes when it said to, and followed the blue line on the map. I don’t really know where I went.

I routinely drive through many small towns on my trips. Too often I find that I’m routed around historic downtowns or otherwise interesting neighborhoods—sometimes without even realizing it—simply for efficiency’s sake. I’ll be directed to turn right three blocks before the historic old courthouse to miss the only stoplight in town, cutting a corner off to save a minute or two, but also missing the only thing I’d find interesting about the place. This ruthless efficiency is great for your daily commute. But it’s less than ideal when the point is exploring along your route.

That relentless optimization is the biggest downside for me. There’s simply no way to prioritize a scenic or interesting route—just the most efficient one. So I’m routinely forced to add otherwise meaningless waypoints along the route I want to take, just to ensure that it will be offered as a choice to select.

And since these apps often “find a faster route” and automatically override your current route unless you opt out in time, these waypoints become critical for taking the slightly longer but far more enjoyable route.

Like I said, GPS can be an absolutely terrible tool for roadtrips.

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