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Best Algorithms for the Traveling Salesman Problem

What is a Traveling Salesman Problem?

In the field of combinatorial optimization, the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) is a well-known puzzle with applications ranging from manufacturing and circuit design to logistics and transportation. The goal of cost-effectiveness and efficiency has made it necessary for businesses and industries to identify the best TSP solutions. It’s not just an academic issue, either. Using route optimization algorithms to find more profitable routes for delivery companies also lowers greenhouse gas emissions since fewer miles are traveled.

In this technical blog, we’ll examine some top algorithms for solving the Traveling Salesman Problem and describe their advantages, disadvantages, and practical uses.

Explore NextBillion.ai’s Route Optimization API, which uses advanced algorithms to solve TSP in real-world scenarios.

Brute Force Algorithm

The simplest method for solving the TSP is the brute force algorithm. It includes looking at every way the cities could be scheduled and figuring out how far away each approach is overall. Since it ensures that the best solution will be found, it is not useful for large-scale situations due to its time complexity, which increases equally with the number of cities.

This is a detailed explanation of how the TSP is solved by the brute force algorithm:

Create Every Permutation: Make every combination of the cities that is possible. There are a total of n! permutations to think about for n cities. Every combination shows a possible sequence where the salesman could visit the cities.

Determine the Total Distance for Every Combination: Add up the distances between each city in the permutation to find the overall distance traveled for each one. To finish the trip, consider the time from the final city to the starting point.

Determine the Best Option: Observe which permutation produces the smallest total distance and record it. This permutation represents the ideal tour. Return the most effective permutation to the TSP as the solution after examining every option.

Give back the best answer possible: Return the most effective permutation to the TSP as the solution after all possible combinations have been examined.

Even though this implementation gives an exact solution for the TSP, it becomes costly to compute for larger instances due to its time complexity, which increases factorially with the number of cities. 

The Branch-and-Bound Method

The Branch-and-Bound method can be used to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) and other combinatorial optimization problems. To effectively find a suitable space and the best answer, divide-and-conquer strategies are combined with eliminating less-than-ideal solutions.

This is how the Branch and Bound method for the Traveling Salesman Problem works:

Start: First, give a simple answer. You could find this by starting with an empty tour or using a heuristic method.

Limit Calculation: Find the lowest total cost of the current partial solution. This limit shows the least amount of money needed to finish the tour.

Divide: Select a variable that is associated with the subsequent stage of the tour. This could mean picking out the next city to visit.

When making branches, think about the possible values for the variable you’ve chosen. Each branch stands for a different choice or option.

Cutting down: If a branch’s lower bound is higher than the best-known solution right now, cut it because you know that it can’t lead to the best solution.

Exploration: Keep using the branch-and-bound method to look into the other branches. Keep cutting and branching until all of your options have been thought through.

New Ideal Solution: Save the best solution you found while doing research. You should change the known one if a new, cheaper solution comes along.

Termination: Continue investigating until all possible paths have been considered and no more choices exist that could lead to a better solution. End the algorithm when all possible outcomes have been studied.

Selecting the order in which to visit the cities is one of the decision variables for the Traveling Salesman Problem. Usually, methods like the Held-Karp lower bound are used to calculate the lower bound. The technique identifies and cuts branches that are likely to result in less-than-ideal solutions as it carefully investigates various combinations of cities.

The Nearest Neighbor Method

A heuristic algorithm called the Nearest Neighbor method estimates solutions to the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP). In contrast to exact methods like brute force or dynamic programming, which always get the best results, the Nearest Neighbor method finds a quick and reasonable solution by making local, greedy choices.

Here is a detailed explanation of how the nearest-neighbor method solves the TSP problem:

Starting Point: Pick a city randomly to be the tour’s starting point.

Picking Something Greedy: Select the next city on the tour to visit at each stage based on how close the current city is to the not-explored city. Usually, a selected measurement is used to calculate the distance between cities (e.g., Euclidean distance).

Go and Mark: Visit the closest city you picked, add it to your tour, and mark it as observed.

Additionally: Continue this manner until every city has been visited at least once.

Go Back to the Beginning City: After visiting all the other cities, return to the starting city to finish the tour. 

The nearest-neighbor method’s foundation is making locally optimal choices at each stage and hoping that the sum of these choices will produce a reasonable overall solution. Compared to exact algorithms, this greedy approach drastically lowers the level of computation required, which makes it appropriate for relatively large cases of the TSP.

Ant Colony Optimization

ACO, or Ant Colony Optimization, is a metaheuristic algorithm that draws inspiration from ants’ seeking habits. It works very well for resolving a combination of optimization issues, such as the TSP (Traveling Salesman Problem). The idea behind ACO is to imitate ant colonies’ chemical trail communication to determine the best routes.

Ant Colony Optimization provides the following solution for the Traveling Salesman Problem:

Starting Point: A population of synthetic ants should be planted in a random starting city. Every ant is a possible solution for the TSP.

Initialization of The scents: Give each edge in the problem space (connections between cities) an initial amount of synthetic pheromone. The artificial ants communicate with one another via the fragrance. 

Ant Motion: Each ant creates a tour by constantly selecting the next city to visit using a combination of fragrance levels and a heuristic function.

The quantity of fragrance on the edge that links the candidate city to the current city, as well as a heuristic measure that could be based on factors like distance between cities, impact the chances of selecting a specific city.

Ants mimic how real ants use chemical trails for communication by following paths with higher fragrance levels.

Update on Pheromones: The pheromone concentration on every edge is updated once every ant has finished traveling.

The update involves placing fragrances on the borders of the best tours and evaporating existing fragrances to copy the natural breakdown of chemical paths, which is intended to encourage the search for successful paths.

Repetition: For the fixed number of cycles or until a shift standard is satisfied, repeat the steps of ant movement, fragrance update, and tour construction.

Building Solution: After a few iterations, the artificial ants develop an answer, which is considered the algorithm’s outcome. This solution approximates the most efficient TSP tour.

Enhancement: To improve progress and solution quality, the process can be optimized by adjusting parameters like the influence of the heuristic function and the rate at which fragrances evaporate.

Ant Colony Optimization is excellent at solving TSP cases by using the ant population’s group ability. By striking a balance between exploration and exploitation, the algorithm can find potential paths and take advantage of success. It is a well-liked option in the heuristics field since it has been effectively used to solve various optimization issues.

Genetic Algorithm

Genetic Algorithms (GAs) are optimization algorithms derived from the concepts of genetics and natural selection. These algorithms imitate evolution to find predictions for complex problems, such as the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP). 

Here is how genetic algorithms resolve the TSP:

Starting Point: select a starting group of possible TSP solutions. Every possible tour that visits every city exactly once is represented by each solution.

Assessment: Examine each solution’s fitness within the population. Fitness is commonly defined in the TSP environment as the opposite of the total distance traveled. Tour length is a determining factor in fitness scores.

Choice: Choose people from the population to be the parents of the following generation. Each person’s fitness level determines the likelihood of selection. More fit solutions have a higher chance of being selected.

Transformation (Recombination): To produce offspring, perform crossover, or recombination, on pairs of chosen parents. To create new solutions, crossover entails sharing information between parent solutions.

Crossover can be applied in various ways for TSP, such as order crossover (OX) or partially mapped crossover (PMX), to guarantee that the resulting tours preserve the authenticity of city visits.

Change: Change some of the offspring solutions to introduce arbitrary changes. A mutation can involve flipping two cities or changing the order of a subset of cities.

Mutations add diversity to the population when discovering new regions of the solution space. 

Substitute: Parents and children together make up the new generation of solutions that will replace the old ones. A portion of the top-performing solutions from the previous generation may be retained in the new generation as part of a privileged replacement process.

Finalization: For a predetermined number of generations or until a convergence criterion is satisfied, repeat the selection, crossover, mutation, and replacement processes. 

Enhancement: Modify variables like population size, crossover rate, and mutation rate to maximize the algorithm’s capacity to identify excellent TSP solutions.

When it comes to optimizing combinations, genetic algorithms are exceptional at sifting through big solution spaces and identifying superior answers. Because of their capacity to duplicate natural evolution, they can adjust to the TSP’s structure and find almost ideal tours. GAs are an effective tool in the field of evolutionary computation because they have been successfully applied to a wide range of optimization problems.

NextBillion.ai offers advanced Route Optimization API that solves real-life TSP and VRP problems, which can be easily integrated with your applications. 

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About Author

Rishabh is a freelance technical writer based in India. He is a technology enthusiast who loves working in the B2B tech space.


It is not possible to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem with Dijkstra’s algorithm. Dijkstra’s algorithm, a single-source shortest path algorithm, finds the shortest possible route from a given source node to every other node in a weighted graph. In comparison, the Traveling Salesman Problem looks for the quickest route that stops in every city exactly once before returning to the starting point.

The term “traveling salesman” refers to a scenario where a salesperson visits different cities to sell goods or services. The goal of this problem is to find the shortest route that goes to each city once and returns to the starting point. It is a fundamental problem in algorithmic optimization to determine the best order of city trips and minimize travel time or distance.

“Route salesman” or just “sales representative” are other terms for a traveling salesman. These people go to various places to sell goods and services to customers. The traveling salesman, who determines the shortest route to visit multiple cities, is often referred to as a “touring agent” or simply as the “salesman” in the context of mathematical optimization.

The minimum distance a salesman needs to visit each city exactly once and then return to the starting city is known as the shortest distance in the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP). It stands for the ideal tour duration that reduces the total travel distance. The goal of solving the TSP, an essential issue in combinatorial optimization, is finding the shortest distance.