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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS /
LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Getting to the Route of the Matter

June 30, 1997|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

When I was a kid and my parents were planning a driving vacation, they'd stop by the local auto club office for a stack of maps, a tour guide and TripTik with detailed travel information. They not only knew how to get where we were going, but also all the stops along the way.

Today you have another option. You can insert a CD-ROM into your PC to create your own custom travel guide, complete with printed maps, travel directions and information about attractions, campgrounds, forests, monuments and, yes, even tourist traps.

I looked at the two leading products: Rand McNally TripMaker and Microsoft Automap Trip Planner. Each costs about $40.

Rand McNally TripMaker 1997 provides several ways to plan your trip. If you're in a hurry, you can use the quick guide. You enter your origin and destination, and the program calculates the route. A few seconds later, you have a map and detailed driving instructions, which include each major road change, direction, miles, time per segment, and total time and mileage.

The Trip Guide option asks you for details such as the location and duration of any planned stop along the way. It also lets you pick any attractions near your stops. The program then asks whether you wish to use the quickest, shortest or most scenic route for your trip, followed by the dates of your visit.

The dates option helps the program select attractions that will be open during your trip. There also are a number of customization options. You can create a personal profile, your typical speed and the types of attractions you like to visit.

The program does more than just plan your route. It can also help you find places to stay and eat, though the database of restaurants and hotels is not nearly as extensive as what you'll find in a good printed travel guide. The Explorer Guide suggests scenic tours and attractions on or close to your route.

Although TripMaker is straightforward and easy to use, Microsoft's Automap Trip Planner is more fun for those who want to enjoy the sites and sounds of travel even before they leave home. The program's multimedia extravaganza begins as you launch the program to music and the roar of a car engine. You'll also find audio and photos with the sites and sounds of key tourist areas along your route.

Like TripMaker, Automap displays your itinerary and a map of your route. The itinerary is a bit more detailed, with instructions such as "bear right onto I-15 for 3 miles south toward Las Vegas." Both programs break your trip into days, allowing you to specify your speed and how many hours a day you like to travel.

The Microsoft program gives you more map options, including a detailed terrain view. Both programs allow you to zoom down for additional detail. Microsoft has a clever feature that lets you see anything from the entire Western Hemisphere down to a 1-mile radius.

It seems that every piece of software these days must have an Internet connection, but to its credit, TripMaker's actually makes some sense. Once the program has calculated a route, you can click on the Net button to take you to a Web site that provides up-to-date information about the areas you're visiting.

After I got my map and driving instructions from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., the program logged me on to the Internet and displayed a custom Web page with weather information for the cities and states I'd be driving through, along with a state-by-state breakdown on planned road construction along my route.

The Web page also generated a customized set of links for tourist information for my trip. Automap doesn't automatically create a customized page for your entire trip, but it does offer free links to Web pages from Microsoft Network, with information about more than 500 places in the U.S. and Canada.

By default, the maps for both programs display your entire journey, which will lack detail if you're traveling a long way. You can, however, zoom in on any part of the trip. Neither program is billed as a street atlas, but Automap lets you zoom into reasonably detailed maps of many towns and cities. Microsoft, Rand McNally and Delorme each offer other programs that display almost every street in the U.S.

Rand McNally's printout is surprisingly good. It starts with a summary page that includes the entire length of the trip, number of days and hours on the road, and the estimated cost of food, entertainment and lodging. Next is an overview map of the entire route, followed by a series of pages showing details for each segment.

Be sure to have plenty of paper and printer ink on hand. My color, customized guide from San Francisco to Washington was 31 pages long, though you can get a much shorter printout by avoiding detailed maps.

Automap prints the itinerary and a map of the entire route but doesn't let you print details of individual segments. In either case, I strongly recommend that you carry a regular printed atlas or a set of maps. If you buy TripMaker, you're covered. It comes with a copy of the 128-page printed Rand McNally Road Atlas.

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com

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