Travel Software Puts You on the Road Again

If you're planning a summer road trip, don't forget the computer.

Travel-planning software has become so detailed, it's like packing a travel agent in the glove compartment. Whether it's calculating the exact mileage from Gnaw Bone, Ind., to Shin Hollow, N.Y., or finding interesting kid activities out West, you can find it out with a $40 trip program.

For years, computer-savvy drivers have used Automap to find their way. Now called Microsoft Automap Trip Planner, the program can figure out that the fastest route from Monterrey, Mexico, to Gracefield, Canada, is 2,324.1 miles through Dayton, Ohio. Its written directions are so detailed that it will tell you that the last turn to get to Gracefield is 187 yards after the previous turn!

The software also lets you look for museums, shopping, national parks, and other noteworthy sites along the way. Not sure where you're going? Automap incorporates nearly 100 classic drives for the continent, such as a tour of Abraham Lincoln sites in the Midwest or Spanish missions in California. All in all, this package is a solid partner for the travel planner. (But, like the rest of the programs reviewed here, it works only for Windows computers.)

DeLorme's Map 'n' Go is a lot like Automap with one exception. The company also sells a $149 global positioning system (GPS) receiver that uses satellites to tell drivers their current location. It's a nifty idea: Map out your route on the portable computer, then attach the GPS receiver to track your progress on-screen.

Unfortunately, the hardware didn't cooperate when I tried it on a recent Midwestern jaunt. First, my portable computer didn't have enough battery power to run the CD-ROM drive (not DeLorme's fault). Hooked to electric power in a motel room, my computer finally did manage to pinpoint my location, but only after poking the receiver through the motel window and into an outside bush. Even then, it took at least 15 minutes to get the initial reading.

Eventually, such obstacles will get ironed out. Some luxury car companies are already beginning to incorporate GPS into their new models. But the technology is still more promise than fact for most of us.

DeLorme's software, meanwhile, is quite good. While all these programs allow users to find attractions, lodging, and restaurants along their route, Map 'n' Go includes a slide show that walks the would-be traveler through audio descriptions of various sites along the way. Although I liked the zoom-in detail of Map 'n' Go better than Automap, some of its local directions were suspect. For example, on a westward trip out of downtown Pittsburgh, the software inexplicably directs the driver northeast before looping back west again. A local would never make that mistake.

That caveat holds for all travel-planning software: Local directions at the start and the end of the trip are not necessarily the best. Both Map 'n' Go and Automap have companion disks of city maps, which do a better job of showing the way.

My favorite software in this category, however, is Rand McNally's TripMaker. Although not as detailed as its two competitors, the software is easier to use for planning. It tells you when to refuel and where each leg of the trip should end if you want to knock off at a certain time every day. The program shows nearby hotels and motels along with descriptions and phone numbers.

An especially helpful feature is TripMaker's "attraction packs," which let you pick what type of sites you might want to visit along the way. The "Fun for Kids" button, for example, listed 48 possible stopovers (from amusement parks to science museums) within 20 miles of the route from Monterrey to Gracefield. Other categories include "Urban Attractions" and "High Adventure."

Happy traveling.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at www.csmonitor.com

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