The Ultimate European Road Trip, Optimized With Math

By Carl Engelking | August 20, 2015 1:30 pm
(Credit:  Iakov Kalinin/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Iakov Kalinin/Shutterstock)

Planning a vacation is a daunting task, so why not let big data take the reins?

That’s exactly what data scientist Randy Olson did. Using specialized algorithms and Google Maps, Olson computed an optimized road trip that minimizes backtracking while hitting 45 of Business Insider’s “50 Places in Europe You Need to Visit in Your Lifetime.” (Five locations were omitted simply because you can’t reach them by car.)

Crunching the Numbers

Mapping software has come a long way, but for this kind of challenge it’s woefully inadequate. Google Maps’ software can optimize a trip of up to 10 waypoints, and the best free route optimization software can help with 20. But when you’re looking to hit 45 or 50 landmarks, things get complicated.

According to Olson, a computer would need to evaluate 3 x 10^64 possible routes to find the best one. With current computing power, it would take 9.64 x 10^52 years to find the optimal route to hit all your desired locations — Earth would have long been consumed by the Sun before you left the house. So Olson used a clever workaround, based on the assumption that we don’t need to find the absolute best route, but one that’s pretty darn good.

Olson used so-called genetic algorithms to solve the problem. Genetic algorithms start with a handful of random solutions, and then mathematically improve these random routes over and over. The best routes are saved until the algorithm can no longer find a better solution. The approach is far more efficient than evaluating every possible route to arrive at the best one.

Euro Trip

If you plan to use Olson’s route, prepare for a ton of driving and clear your schedule. The optimized route adds up to 16,287 miles, which amounts to 14 days of driving. That doesn’t include time to step out of the car, sleep, eat, or snap a photograph. You’ll want to request about 3 months of vacation for this trip.

(Credit: Randy Olson/Google Maps)

(Credit: Randy Olson/Google Maps)

It’ll certainly be a trip you won’t forget. You’ll ski on the slopes at Innsbruck, Austria; walk a more than 600-year-old bridge in Prague, Czech Republic; bury the speedometer on Germany’s autobahn; explore Rome’s iconic Colosseum and more.

Other Destinations

If the New World is more your thing, Olson has also charted a course to see the 50 major landmarks in the contiguous United States. He’s also released the code used in his mapping projects, so if you’re computer savvy you too could optimize your own fantasy road trip.

You only live once, so start optimizing and hit the road!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
  • Stanton Mitrany

    This sound like a great opportunity. Has Randy Olson made a file available of the entire route which a device like a computer, tablet, or smartphone which is location-aware can follow? Is there a companion file describing the route in easily-understood language? Has he made these two forms of description also available for the optimal route to see the fifty major landmarks in the contiguous United States?

  • OWilson

    For 4 years we drove every summer from the U.K. to Poland to run a ESL program for high-schoolers. We would allow 2 to 3 weeks for sightseeing, and a week or so to come back. We got to see most countries, except for Spain, Greece and Scandinavia.

    Planning the trip was always exciting, we used a standard gas station map and magic markers, with a different route each time to maximize our range. Still have the map!

    Speaking of algorithms, is this related in any way to internet traffic flow, optimal routing, and all that?

  • schufosi777

    Thats brilliant. When I was young I photocopied every page of the atlas, a really big atlas and stuck them altogether to devise a trip around Europe. I could never get in all the cities I wanted and this progam does the calculation in milliseconds. Wow.

  • OWilson

    After reading this article, I pulled out my old map and journal.

    Now I’m convinced that the trip could not be practically done unless you were in truck or bus driver mode the whole time. You’d also need an industrial supply of Red Bull.:)

    Driving time between points is one thing, but getting into the major cities and old town areas where the tourist attractions are located can be a nightmare, you would have to allow for rush hours, finding parking, car maintenance or repair. Many cities, Venice, Heidelberg require a lot of time outside the car, walking up to the castles, etc.

    It could theoretically be done, but it would certainly not be the “Ultimate Fantasy Trip”.

  • Michelle

    Did that as a teenager at the national zoo: we saw everything and did everything in the limited time available (one afternoon) including the aquarium.
    Many years later my spouse still reminds me of the fact that it took quite a while to recover from it and yes, it was all a blur. There is something to be said for limiting objectives and just absorbing and savouring the surroundings. However if boasting is the thing then….


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