Navigating on vacation: New tools for plotting the best routes

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For travel without tripping up, few things are as indispensable as a map.


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Navigating on vacation: New tools for plotting the best routes when you’re on the road

By Risa Weinreb

For travel without tripping up, few things are as indispensable as a map. During the planning phase, maps give you a bird’s-eye view of a destination, and help you choose a hotel near major attractions. On the road, they direct you to your next stop, or that hot new Tamil-Croatian restaurant that’s all the buzz. Today, travelers have a wide world of cartographic options.

In Print. Until there’s a PC in everybody’s pocket and global positioning system receiver on every dashboard, fold-out maps will remain a fact of life.

Advantages: They’re light, easy to use, and cheap–starting at around $4, while map programs for handheld PCs may cost $100 or more.

Disadvantages: They wrinkle, they rip, they billow into spinnakers in breezy weather. And they become obsolete. Maps languish in stores long after highway exits have changed and new subdivisions have gone up. Another problem with maps is that they’re only as good as you are. Each user must interpret legends ("Gee, it’s 4 inches from San Francisco to Los Angeles") and plot optimal routes ("I wonder if they’re still doing that construction on I-40?").

Recommendations: Rand McNally, founded in 1856, still ranks among the best–with accurate, detailed plans and a comprehensive index. Also, check out two new trends: plastic and PopOut maps. "The future is plastics," according to many publishers, who offer sturdy laminate versions that can withstand rain and multiple folds. Those include Dorling Kindersley, Lonely Planet Publications, and National Geographic Society. Rand McNally’s PopOut Maps, which start out pocket-size, spring open into 8-inch by 10- or 20-inch charts.

On the Web. Today, figuring out how to get from here to there often requires little more than entering your starting point and destination on an Internet map site.

Advantages: Online "direction finders" not only display route options, they also suggest an optimal itinerary. Information is constantly updated to assure accuracy.

Disadvantages: Although all the sites listed below prescribe good, solid driving directions, the suggested routes aren’t always the shortest, most logical ones. A knowledgeable local can often outsmart the computer.


Recommendations (For testing the following sites, I used my old addresses in San Francisco, New York, London, and Paris): . In addition to its first-rate atlas (Afghanistan to Zimbabwe), this site allows you to pinpoint addresses and navigate roads in the US, Canada, and Europe. Driving directions feature turn-by-turn instructions, as well as maps that identify each street when you zoom in for detail. Live traffic reports list road closures and traffic tie-ups for 64 US cities. . Useful maps and excellent written directions for the US and Europe, including driving time and mileage. Traffic reports are available domestically. Although maps for pinpointing an address work well in the US, the site doesn’t contain enough street names to plot a course through overseas neighborhoods. . If you’re a member of AAA, this site allows access to their RouteMaster planner, which provides address-to-address and city-to-city directions, detour and construction information, and an address locator. In addition to choosing whether you want the shortest or the fastest route, you can custom design your itinerary to avoid toll roads or construction. Note: If these maps look familiar, it’s because they’re from MapQuest. . For planning a major trip by car, you can’t beat their Road Trip Guide, which allows you to choose routes and stopovers. I designed a trip from San Francisco to Phoenix, complete with visits to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. If you click on "Road Construction," you can read notifications of work scheduled for all US states and Canadian provinces.

Atlases. These are great reference tools, whether you’re planning a family vacation or tracking the latest political hotspot. Although they’re not detailed enough for driving, they provide a nice overall orientation to a locale.


• National Geographic Atlas of the World–seventh edition, 1999; $125. Every glossy page is an education, with readable and detailed maps derived from razor-sharp satellite photos. Even tiny destinations like Phnom Penh and Palau rate descriptive insets. The index features more than 155,000 entries.

• Hammond Atlas of the World–third edition, 2000; $69.95. I tried in vain to find a really good atlas in the $40 to $50 range, but this collection outperforms several volumes that cost $100 and more. It features 183 pages of highly detailed, computer-generated maps and 110,000 index entries (surprise–you don’t need a magnifying glass to read them).

• Essential World Atlas, from Dorling Kindersley, 1998; $14.95. You’ve got the whole world in your hands in this compact collection that measures just 5.7 by 8 inches. Nonetheless, it packs in more than 20,000 index entries and 100 clear, comprehensible maps depicting countries, regions, climate patterns, and time zones.


For information on online and print travel guides, see "So many travel guides . . . which one to buy?".


Risa Weinreb. Navigating on vacation: New tools for plotting the best routes.

Medical Economics