With 7 million Triptiks -- handy, made-to-order flip-maps -- served up last year, the American Automobile Association may be the McDonald's of travel routing. In fact, some branches of the venerable auto club are adding drive-through service windows to keep up with demand.
What makes Triptiks so popular?
"Peace of mind," says Debbie Ranson, an AAA member relations director in Florida.
"It's something you just can't do for yourself. Plus, it's very easy to look at, and the information is accurate, timely and useful."
Not to mention a value -- an unlimited number of Triptiks are provided free with the AAA annual membership fee, which ranges from $40 to $72 per person annually.
A Triptik is a series of narrow strip maps, each focusing on a specific area of highway. The maps include mileage counts, points of interest, food, gas and lodging (cross-referenced to in-depth guides called TourBooks), and current highway conditions, construction and detours.
Each office of AAA has carefully organized shelves of all 653 Triptik strip maps on file. When a request comes in, a travel counselor pulls the books in sequence, gathers the appropriate inserts (such as "U.S.-Canada Border Information") and binds the pre-punched pages.
The counselor then goes over the maps with the member, highlighting the driving route and road advisories with a translucent marker and custom stamps.
Although Triptiks are also mailed in response to phone orders, personalization is a key to their appeal. In an age of declining service, a one-on-one consultation that goes over a vacation itinerary in detail seems luxurious. And it is a luxury that some AAA members use to the hilt.
"We get people who are going on the road for three months on a U.S.A. tour," said Barbara Blaksley, a senior travel consultant at a Florida AAA office. "I've taken as long as two hours to do a Triptik."
Some members feel that the farther from home you travel, the more useful a Triptik becomes.
"Most people in Florida don't think about road closings in the winter," Ms. Blaksley said, "but they often do out in Crater Lake, Yellowstone and some of the other national parks out there in the Northwest."
Of course, the Triptik counselors do get some offbeat requests.
"A particularly strange one was the man who wanted to go across Mexico by donkey," Ms. Blaksley said.
"He was serious. And it was his donkey. He wanted to know how to get into the country. We referred him to the consulate."