If a lack of vacation days is holding you back from taking a road trip across the USA this year, it might be time to turn to math to make it happen. 

An open road with mountains, hills and vegetation surrounding it.
Plan an efficient road trip around the USA ©liyinuo/Getty Images

While that might sound scarier than not getting enough holiday time, Dr. Randy Olson, lead data scientist at Life Epigenetics, has already done all the hard work. Olson, who runs a personal website about data visualisation and machine learning, used Google Maps data and an algorithm to create a very efficient road trip. It will take travellers to the state capitol buildings of the 48 contiguous states in 8½ days of driving – though it’s up to you to find the energy to actually do it.

A map of the USA shows a road trip route in red.
Follow an efficient road trip route around the USA © Randy Olson / Google Maps

In Olson’s example, he proposes a trip that would allow the traveller to take a picture at every US state capitol buildings in every state except Hawaii and Alaska. Assuming there is no traffic, you could hit up every building in 8½ days of driving, starting from anywhere on the route. 

How was this extremely efficient trip planned? Google Maps is designed to help you find the best way to get between two points, so mapping the best possible routes between all of the different capitol buildings is a bit more complicated. Olson turns to  algorithms to work through the possibilities. It’s an example of the classic “travelling salesman problem” – an algorithmic problem used to find the most efficient route between a list of different places.  

Obviously this trip might be a bit too ambitious to actually accomplish. However, many travellers might find merit in trying to scientifically plan the most jam-packed holiday possible. Olson also developed a way to plan a route based on how much time the person has available – a parameter that could also extend to budget.

Olson’s other ultimate road trip itineraries include the best way to see 50 historic sites around Europe and although Olson is well aware that some of the plans are “grandiose”, but it could prove useful. He even posted the code online with instructions for anyone interested in trying out his intense trip planning system – but be warned that it’s not for amateurs. 

If you want to understand how Olson plans these efficient trips or start mapping your own, read the full post on his website.

This article was first published on 21 June, 2016 and upated on 5 December, 2019. 

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This article was first published June 2016 and updated February 2020

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