Finding the shortest route around multiple stops is a hard problem with a long history.
Shortest route, fastest route, and best route are not all the same thing.
Modern route optimization algorithms are the only way to solve the routing problem.
Delivery route planning is the most complex. The best options are Routific, Circuit, Badger Maps, Onfleet, and OptimoRoute.
Are you (or your employees) on the road a lot? Do you have to visit a lot of different places every day? Then you probably already know that finding the shortest route can save you time, fuel, and money. But how do you find that magical shortest route?
We’re not talking about simply finding the shortest route from the office to a single client meeting, or from home to a new grocery store. If you’re just driving from Point A to Point B, you can use Google Maps or Waze to get your driving directions, and be done with it. We’re talking about the much trickier task of finding the shortest route around multiple stops — tens, or even hundreds of different addresses. If that’s what you need, read on!
Why is it so hard to find the shortest route around multiple stops?
In a word: Math. It turns out that finding the shortest route around a number of stops is so difficult that the task actually has a name: the traveling salesman problem. Mathematicians have worked on it for centuries, and it’s only in the past couple of decades that we’ve started seeing route planners that can do the job. Thanks to ever-increasing computer power and intelligent algorithms, route optimization is now accessible to everyone.
In this article, we'll look at the problem in a little more detail, starting with the difference between the shortest route and the fastest route — they’re not the same! Then we’ll take a brief look at some of the best route planner apps available for different needs, including give links to more detailed reviews.
At Routific we specialize in delivery route planning, so we’ll focus on the apps that can help you chart the shortest, most efficient routes for deliveries. Whether you're a courier company, a food delivery service, or any business that relies on moving goods from one place to another, these apps can help you do it more efficiently, more sustainably — and more profitably!
Shortest route vs. fastest route: What’s the difference?
Shortest route. Fastest route. Best route. It seems like they’re all different words for the same thing — but actually, there are important differences between them. Let’s unpack some of the detail:
The shortest route is just the line with the fewest miles or kilometers between two points. Sometimes it includes a stretch of the busiest road in town, a bridge that’s often jammed with traffic, or a section of highway that’s in the middle of major roadworks. If all your route planner cares about is the shortest total distance, you’re going to spend a lot of time being frustrated.
Thefastest route is the one that gets you to your destination in the shortest amount of time. This is a much more complex task: it needs to take into account traffic conditions, the time of day, speed limits, and road conditions. The Google Maps route planner, along with similar navigation apps like Apple Maps, Bing Maps and Waze, is really good at this — provided you’re just going from A to B. But if you need to make a few stops along the way between your starting point and your final destination, you have a route optimization problem: And that’s not what everyday route planners are designed to solve.
When it comes to multi-stop route planning, we prefer to talk about the best, most efficient or optimal route. This is the route that minimizes travel time, but also considers things like driver shifts, delivery time windows, and different vehicle types and capacities. The best route is the quickest route possible that meets real-world needs and constraints.
In the next section, we’ll look at route planner options for different needs. We’ll start with delivery route planning, and then look at more everyday route planning needs. Feel free to skip ahead to the section that’s most relevant to you.
Shortest route planners for delivery businesses
When delivery businesses are just starting out, they often rely on free tools to get going. It’s fast, free and great for building simple routes — we’ve even written detailed tutorials on how to plan delivery routes using Google Maps and even Excel. But once you get beyond 10-20 stops, it doesn’t perform nearly so well. At this stage manual route planning can really start to hold a business back. It takes hours every day and doesn’t create efficient routes, leading to loss of revenue, late deliveries and frustrated customers. It’s also hard to manage delivery drivers when you don’t know exactly where they’re going and when.
That’s when you need delivery management software with built-in route optimization functionality. Depending on exactly what your business needs, these are the apps that our customers rate highly:
💡Test Routific for yourself! Check out our free 7-day trial (no credit card needed) to see how our user-friendly app can reduce your driving time and fuel costs.
Circuit started as a multi-stop route planner for drivers, and more recently branched out to include route planning software for teams. They’re still very popular with individual drivers, which can make it easier to introduce the app to larger teams. They also have excellent ease of use. Their route optimization is sometimes lackluster, however, and it’s not possible for dispatchers to add stops or reorder routes once they’ve been planned.
Onfleet is a leading delivery management platform for mid-size businesses. It has some features that Routific lacks, including advanced analytics, barcode scanning, on-demand delivery scheduling, and in-app messaging between drivers and dispatchers. It can be difficult to use, however, and it’s the most expensive of the apps in this list. It’s best suited to companies that are large enough to have dedicated route planning and dispatch teams.
OptimoRoute is a versatile route optimization solution that caters to mobile workforces as well as delivery operations — think lawn care and janitorial companies. It's known for its flexibility in handling complex service scenarios, including multiple constraints and time windows.
Route4Me is one of the original route planners. It’s still very popular and has a great driver app, but it’s starting to show its age. It has a big library of add-on modules to enable customization — but the costs can start to add up, and many of their add-on modules are features that now come standard with other route optimization apps.
5. Badger Maps
Badger Maps is a bit of an outlier in this list: It’s a route optimization tool specifically for field sales and service professionals, rather than last mile deliveries or couriers. It integrates directly with leading CRM solutions, so it’s ideal for sales teams on the road who need to visit multiple clients efficiently. Badger Maps offers real-time traffic updates and scheduling features.
For more detail on any of these apps, have a look at our in-depth reviews:
When selecting a delivery route planner for your business, you'll want to consider both basic and advanced functionality. Here's a breakdown of what to look for:
Basic route planner app features
A good route optimization algorithm is the backbone of any good delivery route planner. It should allow you to input multiple destinations and calculate the most efficient order to visit them. Look for an app that can adapt to changes in real-time and provide alternatives when needed.
Dispatch to a mobile driver app
The ability to dispatch optimized routes directly to your drivers' mobile devices is essential. This feature ensures that drivers are always equipped with the most up-to-date route information and can easily navigate to their destinations. Make sure the drive app provides your drivers turn-by-turn directions, ideally using their choice of the Google Maps app, Apple Maps or Waze. Most route planners have both an Android and iOS driver mobile app.
Real-time tracking provides visibility into the current location of your drivers. It enables you to monitor progress, respond to unexpected delays, and keep customers informed about their delivery status.
Advanced route planner app features
Advanced route planning software often offers customer notifications. This allows you to send automated updates to customers regarding their delivery, including estimated arrival times (ETAs) and order tracking links. These notifications are critical for customer service. For example, if you need to re-dispatch a route, the original delivery times will change and customer notifications will automatically update your customers for you.
According to a recent study, 64% of consumers expect delivery tracking to be available with every package they receive, with 94% saying they use it at least sometimes and 63% almost always.
Proof of delivery
Proof of delivery features enable drivers to capture signatures, take photos, or collect other forms of evidence upon completing a delivery. This documentation can be invaluable for verifying deliveries and resolving disputes.
For businesses with specific time constraints for deliveries (e.g., time-sensitive packages like perishable groceries), time window management is crucial. An app that can accommodate time windows for each stop in the route is a valuable asset.
Route optimization for different vehicle types
Not all vehicles are created equal, and a route that's ideal for a small van may not be suitable for a large truck. Or you may need refrigerated vehicles for some deliveries but not others. This is where vehicle-specific route optimization comes into play. Look for route optimization software that allows you to customize driving routes based on the type of vehicle in your fleet. Factors such as vehicle size, weight restrictions, and height clearance must be considered to ensure safe and efficient deliveries.
Shortest route planners for all needs
What about route planners for other needs — running errands, using public transit or a bike to get around town, or planning a long-distance road trip? It can get complicated! Planning these kinds of routes requires taking into account a lot of very different factors than what’s important in a delivery route. We’ll list some of the most popular options below – but first, let’s look at the thorny question of why it’s so hard to find a good shortest route planner when there are multiple stops involved.
Is there a good free route planner for multiple stops?
Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze are all excellent free navigation apps. They’ve also spoiled us — we’re so used to getting the valuable services they offer for free that we object if we need to pay for route planning. But there are good reasons why there is no such thing as a good free route planner with unlimited stops. Mainly, planning the shortest route for multiple stops is a route optimization problem that needs a specialized algorithm to solve. Developing and maintaining those algorithms takes hard work by highly skilled engineers — and that’s without the costs of developing an app, making it available and keeping it up to date.
If your budget is zero, you have three options:
1. Use an ad-supported app
Mapquest is able to offer limited route optimization by serving ads along with their routes. They also have a limit of 26 stops in a route. If you don’t mind the ads, and just need to optimize a handful of stops one time (or even a couple of times a year), this is probably good enough for you. You won’t necessarily get the shortest route, but it will be a lot better than laboriously hand-sorting addresses in Google Maps.
2. Accept a limit on the number of stops in your route
If you only need to plan the shortest route for 10 stops or less, there are a number of free options:
Speedy Route will optimize 10 stops for free (although you’ll get lots of prompts to upgrade).
MyRouteOnline will let you plan up to 6 addresses free, or you can sign up for a free trial and get credit for 20 stops.
Again, these are a good option for limited, one-time use. Don’t expect high-quality route optimization or any customer service, though.
3. Use a time-limited free version of paid software
All the pro route planners we’ve mentioned in this article offer free trials, usually 7 or 14 days. Most of these trials, including Routific’s, are unlimited — meaning there’s no limit on the number of stops you can add to your route. If you have a lot of stops to plan but only need to do it once (for example, you deliver to the same places every week), this could be exactly what you need.
Emma is a B2B SaaS, last mile delivery, and delivery management writer. With 10+ years experience working with small business and early stage startups, Emma ties delivery challenges back to holistic strategy and storytelling.
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