So you're planning a road trip, but you're not sure which route to take. Don't fret. Help is at your fingertips — on your computer keyboard.
More than a dozen websites offer free driving directions, most with maps and information on such things as restaurants, lodging, weather and attractions. Some will tell you as well where road construction may cause delays or where traffic is likely to be heavy. Others provide such detailed information only to those who sign up (and pay) for a membership program.
And don't believe that adage that only women ask for driving directions. A recent July 2005 survey of visitors to online mapping sites found that 49.1 percent of them were male. The survey was taken by Hitwise, a company that monitors Internet usage.
"What they these sites do is enable you to avoid having to stop and ask directions when you're already on the road," said Bill Tancer of Hitwise.
Tancer also noted that more and more of the sites that provide driving directions are including collateral information such as lodging and dining opportunities on one's route. "There's a trend to providing a lot more services online," he said.
For travelers, the most helpful sites offer ways to customize your routing. Depending on the site, you can request the quickest route or the shortest, whether you prefer to travel on expressways, want to avoid tolls or want to make stops en route. All sites we reviewed give routing mileage and estimated travel time. Some sites also provide interactive closeup maps of each travel segment, showing you the exact street routes suggested, and one or two can provide satellite views of route sectors.
Be warned: Many sites have annoying pop-ups, advertising and links to sponsors that may require exorcising.
We checked out driving directions on several sites for directions from city to city and to specific attractions.
The most useful sites for city-to-city travel, we found, are those that note road construction and real-time traffic problems you may encounter on the way, as well as providing information on lodging, dining and attractions. On that basis, Yahoo rated tops; it does not require fees or membership. Mapblast provides free real-time information on traffic incidents and tie-ups.
Travelers get obtain free information on real-time area traffic problems on most locales in the U.S. by dialing 511. These are usually provided by state transportation agencies.
AAA's Triptiks and Rand McNally also provide good free directions but a fee or membership is required to access detailed information. MapQuest's directions were written with the fewest steps, which does not mean they were the most precise or best routes.
Yahoo, by the way, is the most frequently visited map site, according to Hitwise, with 41 percent of the market share. MapQuest ranked second with 33.4 percent.
ROAD TEST RESULTS:
- MIAMI TO DAYTONA BEACH
In a test of more than a dozen sites, most suggested taking I-95 all the way from Miami to Daytona, the most obvious route if you're just looking at a map. Only two, Mapblast.com and Freetrip.com, recommended the route I would've used: taking the Florida Turnpike from Miami to Fort Pierce, then shifting to I-95 to Daytona. Reason: This avoids the aggravating road construction and chronic congestion on I-95 in the West Palm Beach area.
However, Yahoo and aaa.com (on a page accessible only to members) did include specific warnings of detours and possible construction and traffic delays on this routing. On randmcnally.com I was able to download a list of all road construction sites in the state.
Mileages from Miami to Daytona Beach varied little, from 259 to 268, but estimated travel times ran from 3 hours, 42 minutes to 4 hours, 49 minutes.
- DALLAS TO KANSAS CITY
Rand McNally routed us north on I-35 through Oklahoma City and Wichita, then shifted to I-335 and I-70 into Kansas City. Total miles 557, estimated driving time 8 hours, 50 minutes. MapQuest took pretty much the same route, calculating the mileage at 554 miles and travel time at 8 hours, 18 minutes.
AAA and MapNation, however, stayed on I-35 the whole way, but their travel times varied widely. AAA calculated its mileage at 550.9 with a travel time of 8 hours, 2 minutes. MapNation's mileage was 551.6 miles, but it estimated travel time at 10 hours, 5 minutes.
Yahoo shunned the interstates, taking U.S. 75 out of Dallas rather than I-35 to travel through Tulsa variously on U.S. 69, U.S. 64 and U.S. 169 into Kansas City. Its mileage and estimated travel time were the least, at 497.5 miles and 7 hours, 39 minutes.
- ATLANTA TO WASHINGTON, D.C.
Rand McNally took I-85 north, merging onto I-95 north in Virginia. Mileage 638, travel time 11 hours, 15 minutes. MapQuest and AAA followed the same route, with MapQuest's mileage at 639.61 and travel time at 10 hours, 24 minutes; AAA's mileage was 636.5 miles, travel time 10 hours, 19 minutes. Yahoo also took the same route, but with variation on the approach to Washington. It wound up with a mileage of 639.3 and travel time of 9 hours, 50 minutes.
- SAN JOSE TO DISNEYLAND, CALIF.
In California, we tested MapQuest, Rand McNally and AAA Triptik. All three sites direct drivers through downtown Los Angeles via Interstate 5, where congestion is unavoidable. Disneyphiles know there are more circuitous routes
that are faster and bypass bumper-to-bumper traffic. Rand McNally suggests I-5, then Highway 170, then Highway 101, then I-5 again. MapQuest and TripTik agree: Stay on I-5 until you exit at Harbor Boulevard. Better choice: From I-5, take Highway 134 east to I-605 south to I-5. Time and distance: AAA TripTik: five hours, 30 minutes; 367.8 miles. MapQuest: 5 hours 47 minutes, 369.6 miles. Rand McNally: six hours, 10 minutes; 368 miles.
From the San Francisco airport — from all points west — Yosemite has three entrances. AAA TripTik is best of the sites tested since it gives you a choice of directions into all three. MapQuest and Rand McNally take a northern route, then direct you south toward the faster, less winding Highway 140 entrance. Portions of the route can be confusing, so MapQuest is preferred for its simpler directions and illustrated highway signs.
AAA TripTik: three hours, 34 minutes; 196.8 miles. MapQuest: three hours, 38 minutes; 192.16 miles. Rand McNally: four hours, 15 minutes; 199 miles.
Sites offer identical routes; not surprising, since Highway 50 is the only advisable way to reach South Lake Tahoe from the San Francisco Bay Area. Where they differ: At the end, where MapQuest offers a simple right turn from Highway 50 onto Lake Tahoe Boulevard, the othersget you there via Pioneer Trail. First-timers should keep it simple: MapQuest is easier to follow, with more direct directions.
AAA TripTik: three hours, 40 minutes; 216.7 miles. MapQuest: three hours, 53 minutes; 217.8 miles. Rand McNally: four hours, five minutes; 217 miles.
You can get to New York City several ways from Philadelphia, and we got three different routes from the three different map services. All used different bridges to cross from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, and AAA routed us through New York City differently from the other two. We'd use MapQuest because it offers a way with fewer twists and turns — but all three work fine. MapQuest's route covered 99 miles, with one hour, 49 minutes estimated time.
Rand McNally: 98 miles; 1 hour, 50 min. estimated time. AAA TripTik: 97 miles; 1 hour, 37 min estimated time.
It's a no-brainer: Across the Delaware River, on the edge of Philadelphia's downtown, lies New Jersey. The Atlantic City Expressway zips you to the casinos' doors, as well as to our requested destination, Boardwalk Hall, on — what else? — the Boardwalk. MapQuest, to our surprise, gives you the correct routing to cross over to New Jersey — but never tells you that you'll be on the majestic Benjamin Franklin Bridge. AAA tells you to take an exit toward the bridge, then puts you on it without letting you know you'll be on it. Rand McNally wins this one, with precision instructions telling you just where you'll be going.
MapQuest: 61 miles; one hour, 8 minutes estimated time. Rand McNally: 61 miles; one hour, five minutes estimated time. AAA TripTik: 61 miles; one hour estimated time.
The sweet Curtis Arboretum in Wyncote, Pa., sits about five minutes outside Philadelphia's northwest boundary. We chose it because Church Road, a normally busy two-lane artery fronting the arboretum, has been closed for a half-year to traffic coming from City Hall's direction. MapQuest and Rand McNally used the same, major-street route. AAA, to cut the trip time, used a smart route of local streets that only Philadelphians would know. AAA would win this one — except that all three take you smack onto the closed, ripped-up Church Road, and none mentions the clunky detour you'll need to take.
MapQuest: 11 miles; 27 minutes estimated time. Rand McNally: 11 miles; 27 minutes estimated time. AAA TripTik: 11 miles; 21 minutes estimated time.
(Michael Martinez of the San Jose Mercury News and Howard Shapiro of the Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report.)