Mapping software will get you there from here Directions: Programs will get you to your destination and will list hotels and restaurants on the way.

October 26, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Planning a business trip or vacation by car can be a lot like work. But travelers are increasingly ditching maps, atlases and guidebooks in favor of software that does most of the work for them.

The Internet has free Web sites that can quickly pinpoint an address or get you fast directions from here to there. MapQuest (www.mapquest.com) and Maps On Us (www.mapsonus.com) are two of the more popular online destinations.

But most map sites can't create elaborate custom itineraries or dig up nearby hotels and restaurants. That's where travel planning software comes in. Pop a CD-ROM into your home computer or laptop and you can plot a multiple-stop trip with turn-by-turn directions and lists of local restaurants, hotels and sights along the way. You can eventake a multimedia tour of your intended destination.

Some programs tap into the Internet for the latest road construction or weather information, stick a map onto your Palm Pilot, or work with a Global Positioning System receiver to provide real-time, audible directions.

Of course, the road isn't always so smooth. Trip planners occasionally insist that your mother's street doesn't exist. They can steer you off a highway, onto a parallel dirt service road, and then back onto the same highway. As one online map service admits: "Sometimes our routes can be, well, creative."

I tested some popular travel planning software programs to see how well they would get me from my home in Pikesville to Erie, Pa., where my folks live. Why Erie? Most travel planners, I found, are competent guides for Washington, San Francisco and other vacation Meccas. The real test is how they handle a non-Mecca (sorry, Mom and Dad) such as Erie.

To my surprise, all of the programs got me home, some with more accuracy and panache than others. A few even offered me a choice of fun things to do. And if you've ever been to my little hometown, you'd know that's the toughest test of all.

Expedia Trip Planner 98

Microsoft's Trip Planner lacks the multimedia frills found in other programs, but its accuracy, ease of use and price more than make up for it. For the holidays, Microsoft is selling Trip Planner with its address finder, Streets 98, for $15 after rebate.

The program's trip wizard makes traveling a breeze. Just type in the name of the city you're starting from and the place you want to go. Trip Planner does the rest.

The Erie itinerary was generally on target, although sometimes Trip Planner would offer enigmatic warnings such as "Refuel before here: last refuel 233 miles ago." Huh? The driving instructions were also terse compared with other programs.

But these are minor gripes. The interactive guidebook provided by Zagat Survey offered a solid selection of hotels and restaurants. And Trip Planner's printed maps were more crisply rendered than its competitors. Bottom line: If you don't care about frills and don't want to spend a fortune, the Trip Planner 98 bundle is tough to pass up.

Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft. com); 800-426-9400. Requires Windows 95/98, 8MB RAM, 24MB hard drive space, CD-ROM; $39.95 (not including $25 rebate).

DeLorme AAA Map'n'Go 4.0

AAA Map'n'Go is geared toward families planning to hit the road. It has kids travel activities, a budget planner and an interactive photo album.

Map'n'Go's trip planner is more intelligent than most. You can choose the shortest, quickest, or most scenic routes to your destination and specify, for instance, whether you prefer highways or forest roads. By connecting to the Internet, you can plan detours around roads that are under construction or experiencing inclement weather.

The hotel and restaurant recommendations come from the 1998 AAA TourBook listings, a feature that will appeal to AAA members looking for discounts.

There are other nice touches. The program lists highway exit services so you know where the nearest diesel pump, McDonalds or ATM machine is located. You can connect to a GPS receiver for turn-by-turn directions, or download your itinerary to a Palm Pilot or Windows CE-based device. You'll find a list of radio stations in major cities.

Map'n'Go's biggest drawback is that the screen maps didn't translate well to the printed page. Printouts were crude and often lacked crucial detail, such as street names and highway exit numbers. Still, it's a good choice for family travel.

DeLorme (www.delorme.com); 1-800-452-5931. Requires Windows 95/98, 486 processor or higher, 8 MB RAM, 35 MB hard disk space, CD-ROM, $39

Rand McNally TripMaker Deluxe 1999

TripMaker Deluxe is similar to Map 'n' Go and another good choice for families. Like Map 'n' Go, TripMaker, it's chock full of kid-friendly activities and travel ideas. If you're not feeling creative but want to get away, the program also contains 100 day and weekend trip mapped out by Rand McNally travel editors.

An intelligent trip wizard allows you to steer clear of trouble spots on the highway. Hotel, restaurant and sightseeing recommendations come from the reputable Mobil Travel Guides.

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