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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC Focus

CD-ROMs, Internet Put Travelers on Right Path

July 13, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

It's summertime and my family, like so many others, is planning a vacation.

Thanks to CD-ROM programs such as Rand McNally TripMaker Deluxe and Microsoft TripPlanner 98, I know which roads to take and all the local attractions, restaurants and hotels along the way.

Thanks to the Internet, I also have plenty of information about flights, rental cars and hotels, though, for reasons I'll go into later, we made our reservations the old-fashioned way--by telephone.

The Internet also helped provide the type of information you're not likely to find in tour guides.

TripMaker Deluxe and TripPlanner are general-purpose travel guides that include computer-generated maps and driving directions as well as information and photos about nearby attractions, festivals and events and scenic tours.

Both let you choose the type of route you wish to follow: quickest, shortest or most scenic.

In both programs you plan your trip by entering your point of origin, your destination and any planned stops along the way.

Both programs display a map with the marked route as well as printed driving instructions that tell you which roads to take and the number of miles until the next change of highway.

I found Microsoft's directions to be more detailed (with instructions like "bear left" or "turn right"), but the Rand McNally program included a reference to the page number of the printed Rand McNally Road Atlas (sold separately).

I used both programs to plan driving trips from Charlottesville, Va., to Williamsburg, Va., and from Los Angeles to San Francisco and found that they both provided the same information when it came to the quickest route but gave very different information when I asked for a scenic route.

Both were smart enough to suggest spectacular Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Monterey, but Microsoft TripPlanner failed to keep me on Highway 1 for the lovely ride between Santa Cruz and San Francisco.

Instead, it took me on a route through the Santa Cruz mountains and then on Highway 280, which is very pretty for an interstate, but anyone who really knows the area would probably have suggested the coastal route.

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Both programs provide easy-to-follow maps, but TripPlanner is a bit more detailed than TripMaker. I also found that TripPlanner had more detailed restaurant information because it contains the Zagat restaurant guide.

Although both programs provide useful information, neither is a substitute for a good set of books and maps.

Even the best color inkjet printer can't come close to the resolution of a printed map.

The guide information on the CDs is pretty good if you take the time to research and print out the information before you start your trip.

Personally, I prefer to carry a good travel book with me so I can refer to it at any time.

Even if you carry a laptop computer (as I do) on vacations, these programs can be time-consuming and inconvenient to use along the route.

Using the Internet to plan a trip can be very handy, especially if you're looking for out-of-the-way places. If you're an experienced Web surfer, then you may already know about major travel sites such as Travelocity, Internet Travel Network (http://www.itn.com) and others.

These sites can be used to make air, hotel and car rental reservations.

I use them to check fares and schedules, but if I'm looking for the lowest fare, I always double-check by calling the airline and a travel agent to see if they can beat what I find online.

Sometimes they can, but there have also been times when I've found low fares that airline reservation clerks and travel agents can't match.

I wound up making most of my final travel reservations for this year's summer vacation by phone because I was able to ask about special discounts (such as AAA's) that aren't always offered by online travel sites.

You can also access free city guides that give you as much detailed information as many printed tour books.

You can easily print out screens from these guides to take with you, which can be better when you're walking because you don't have to carry the entire book.

Some of the better ones are Lycos City Guides (http://cityguide.lycos.com), CitySearch.com (http://www.citysearch.com) and Microsoft Sidewalk (http://www.sidewalk.com).

The Lycos City Guide does a good job with finding smaller towns. I'm writing this column from Charlottesville, which is well-covered by the Lycos guide.

Some of the most useful travel sites on the Internet aren't even considered travel sites. Yahoo, Excite and Lycos allow you to type in the name of a city or town to locate local restaurants, hotels and shops with their own Web sites.

Sometimes these can be rather obscure places that don't make it into online or printed travel books.

Switchboard, Yahoo and BigBook have online yellow pages that you can use to locate restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners and other establishments that might not show up on travel sites.

Yahoo has a mapping feature that not only provides driving directions and maps to places you might want to visit, but its yellow pages can also help you find locations in proximity to other locations.

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If you're looking for accommodations near a friend's house, for example, you can type in that person's address and get a listing of all nearby hotels and restaurants listed by distance from the address.

I once used this site to find inexpensive motels within walking distance of a major hotel where I was attending a conference.

I always read local newspapers when I travel, but now I read them online before I leave home.

Newspapers not only give you a sense of what's going on in the town but also have reviews of local restaurants and attractions as well as listings of local events.

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Larry Magid can be reached at magid@latimes.com. His Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com or keyword LarryMagid on AOL.

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