Saturday, May 26, 2012

Use your smartphone calendar as a GPS trip planning tool!

You wouldn't initially think about using your smartphone calendar as a GPS trip planning tool.  One of the drawbacks of Google Navigation, or any of the other navigation apps, is that they lack a planning tool.   A trip planning tool is convenient when you are taking a trip that has multiple stops.  Various 3rd party apps have been developed to attempt to fill this gap.  But no one needs a 3rd party app to do this. Even more powerful is combining your smartphone calendar with your Smartphone Link compatible Nuvi to achieve some great functionality.

When we take our motorhome across the US it is not unusual to have a route that might contain 4, 5 or more stopovers including preferred truck stops, overnight campgrounds, or along-the-way sightseeing opportunities.  Some of these stops can be somewhat tricky to find, especially remote campgrounds.  Once we arrive at our destination, some of our sightseeing locations can be remote and difficult to find as well.  While the motorhome gives us freedom, it also allows us to travel to remote areas that can't be navigated to with a standard street address.  Trip planning to a series of stopovers with very defined street addresses may not warrant using this method.  Users may find it easier to simply write the addresses on an index card and use the voice recognition features of your GPS to input them along your route.  However, this method is most useful when your locations can only be described using latitude / longitude.  Another example of this is when you want to take a specific route to a destination that you know the GPS won't calculate using the automatic method.  The easiest way to do this is to find the latitude / longitude of the center drive lane of the road of interest and enter that latitude / longitude as a stopover point in your route.

If you are fortunate enough to have an Android smartphone, a Garmin GPS and Garmin Smartphone Link, I will show you how to use your smartphone's calendar as the ultimate trip planning tool that is especially useful for navigating to even the most remote places in the US.  

This method leverages a little known fact about Google Maps for Mobile.  It allows you to pass a latitude / longitude to it from 3rd party apps (like the Calendar app).  The format is as follows:


There can be no spaces within that syntax. It all runs together, including the comma and the "-" ahead of the longitude.  In one of my first posts about Garmin Smartphone Link I went into great detail about how you can use the Location field of the smartphone calendar to pass street addresses from your calendar appointments to your Garmin GPS. This technique builds on this wonderful capability and leverages the loc: syntax noted above.

At this point, some of you may be thinking I am crazy.  After all, any Garmin GPS that can use Smartphone Link also has a built-in trip planning tool.  True, however, in my experience at least, I have found that Garmin has a horrible track record of preserving the functionality of your trip plan across map updates.  So if I am going to spend the time building a trip plan, I am going to build it in something that is fully under my control.

Let's pretend that we want to visit the Grand Canyon.  I've read an article about a great scenic view from a place called Toroweap Overlook. Google Earth is a fantastic tool for finding places like this.  Here is a view of the location of Toroweap Overlook from Google Earth. The actual location of the lookout is where the small photo icon is located.  You can see the road on Google Earth.

Google Earth location of desired destination

A great feature of Google Earth is that wherever you hover your mouse, the latitude and longitude is shown at the bottom of the screen.  As you zoom in closer you can get down to a very close level of detail, in this case to what appears to be a turn out along the road.  Hover your mouse there and then write down the latitude and longitude. I continue using Google Earth until my entire trip stopovers and all of my sightseeing destinations are found and I've recorded the latitude and longitude.  I prefer to put my entire trip in my calendar so I will also keep a list of destinations that include good street addresses as well.

From here, I move to my calendar.  You can perform this step in multiple ways depending on the calendar you use on your phone.  You can enter it directly into your phone's calendar, enter it in Outlook if you use Exchange sync or enter it on the web in Google Calendar.  I will enter these directly into my Android device's calendar in this example.

After I've collected all of my trip data from Google Earth, I now enter it into my calendar.  Using the calendar has the added advantage of being able to invite friends and family to the appointment, entering the travel itinerary in a way that is time-appropriate, having your work's free/busy functionality be accurate for your trip, etc.

Here is what this appointment looks like in my Android calendar, by putting the loc: syntax discussed above in the Location field of the calendar appointment:

Android calendar appointment for travel destination

All of the steps discussed above would be performed as a pre-trip, planning activity.  Your calendar should be populated with all of the individual locations that you need on your trip on the days and times you plan to travel to them.  Once your calendar contains all of your locations, you can head out on your trip.

Now we will discuss what happens on your trip.  You should read this post first in order to better understand the capabilities of Garmin Smartphone Link.

When you head to your first destination, open your smartphone's calendar appointment and click on the loc: syntax in the Location field.  It should be underlined.  This will open Google Maps automatically and zoom into your desired location.  You can visually confirm from Google Maps that the location is the same as what you manually found in Google Earth.

Google Maps for Mobile location of latitude / longitude of destination

Now, as outlined in my previous post, click on the latitude and longitude shown above in Google Maps.  Click on the word "Direction" on the next screen.  Then click on the blue navigation triangle at the bottom left of the next screen. Select "Smartphone Link" as the fulfillment action.  This will pass your location to your Garmin GPS.

Here is the result of this location being passed to my Garmin Nuvi 3590LMT.  Notice that the Garmin doesn't include this road, rather the closest known road is the north/south road to the west where the backwards "C" curve is located.  This perfectly illustrates that it would be impossible to find and navigate to this specific location without the use of a tool like Google Earth as there is no viable street address.

As your travel day or vacation week continues, you simply return to your smartphone calendar for each stop and repeat this procedure.  The actual procedure of clicking on the link in the calendar and transferring it to your GPS through Smartphone Link takes about 5 - 10 seconds. Arguably you can't enter a street address manually into your GPS in this amount of time.  Even better, your co-traveling companion could do this for you while you drive.

Enjoy this great method of traveling planning.  Follow me on Twitter for more.