Software // Information Management
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11/30/2005
12:20 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Free Tools For Road Warriors

Not everyone has (or wants) a GPS. These Web-based alternatives Fred Langa searched out make even complex route planning a snap!

Capsule Summaries
There are no bad sites in the above list -- they all present excellent overall mapping and routing services -- although they do vary somewhat in the details of what they provide. Here are capsule summaries of each service so you'll know what each offers:

Map24 is an amazingly powerful free service that lets you build complex routes with up to five intermediate waypoints anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. The service will show you the locations of travel essentials along your routes (gas stations, rest stops, restaurants, lodging...about 60 categories of sites and services in all!); lets you specify road type, the level of detail you want in your driving directions, and even what your preferred driving speeds are (to generate accurate travel time estimates). It also offers flat or 3-D on-screen maps, and an interface that's very easy to master. It's perhaps the most technically advanced online mapping and routing tool currently available, and is definitely worth a look.

While the above link is for the U.S./Canada version of Map24, there also are sister sites servicing the U.K. and the rest of Europe; Brazil; and much of the Middle East (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.) If Map24 covers an area you want to drive in, it could be the only tool you'll need.

Maporama isn't quite as slick as Map24, but it covers a wider area; it's a truly global service offering free maps and directions to and within 61 different countries including the United States, Canada, Europe, and far beyond. It can generate routes with intermediate stops, and lets you specify road preferences. I know of no site with quite as broad a geographic reach. The maps are accurate enough for driving, but show some odd distortions where geographic areas are squeezed into available screen space; to me, this makes the maps less appealing, but no less useful. The Maporama products are certainly serviceable, and should get you where you're going almost anyplace you're likely to drive.

ViaMichelin covers the U.S., Canada, and 41 European countries. You can add intermediate points (Michelin calls them"stopovers") and set your road preferences. However, despite Michelin's reputation for excellence in European mapping, I've found its U.S. routing to be less than optimal: For example, around my house, the Michelin software doesn't seem to differentiate between slow town roads and speedy state highways. The Michelin directions will get you there, but maybe not by the best route, in the U.S.

MSN Maps and Directions (previously known as"MapPoint" and now incorporating"MapBlast") covers the U.S., Canada, and 17 other countries, including Australia (a rarity). It's also worth mentioning because it offers not only conventional maps and routes, but also a simplified driving map that they call a"line drive;" an easy-to-interpret, minimalist schematic of your route, designed to be understandable at a glance. (This is a nice safety feature when the driver is also the navigator.) Alas, the service doesn't allow for complex multistop routes; a serious disadvantage.

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