12:20 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

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!

Imagine: You're in a hotel room, partway through what was supposed to be a routine business trip. You check your E-mail and find your plans must change: Instead of traveling to familiar places by well-known routes, you're faced with having to plan a new and somewhat complex multistop route on unfamiliar roads. The classic online mapping tools you've used before -- Yahoo, Expedia, and the like -- are meant for simple point-to-point navigation, and can't handle complex, multistop routes. What do you do now?

Or: Perhaps you've rented a car with a GPS unit, or have your own self-contained, whole-continent GPS unit with you. These units are meant for point-to-point navigation, and some can be hard, or even impossible, to use to build complex routes with multiple stops along the way. What do you do now?

Or: Perhaps you have a full-featured GPS, but unexpectedly need to travel beyond its coverage area; say, to a region beyond whatever maps are in the unit. What then?

Or: Imagine you're midway through a business trip, and want to plan a short sightseeing side trip. On the business portions of the trip, you want a fast route that saves the most time, but on the sightseeing trip, you want a route that avoids freeways and takes a deliberately inefficient, scenic path to the destination. How do you accommodate both?

In all these cases and more, you're beyond what the classic online route-planning tools can offer. Sites such as Expedia, MapQuest, Yahoo and Google are all good for what they are, but simply aren't meant for planning complex, multistop routes; or for finding deliberately off-the-beaten-path directions. At the very least, you'd have to manually break your route into simple, point-to-point subsections that these mapping services could handle, and then print out the maps and directions for each segment. The resulting sheaf of paper would not only be awkward to manage, but also is potentially dangerous: a distraction for the driver.

Fortunately, there are a number of specialized mapping and routing sites that will help you develop custom, complex routes, in one pass, for destinations almost anywhere in the world. I've been poring over literally dozens of sites, trying to find the best ones for you: Ones that allow for complex routing; that let you specify variables such as preferred road types or driving speeds; that present clear, well-drawn, detailed maps; and so on. What's more, all the best sites I found are free, and accessible from anywhere -- even Internet cafés or public kiosks -- so you'll never be far from access to world-class mapping and routing tools.

In a moment, I'll present you with capsule summaries of the best mapping and routing sites I found, but first, here's a list of the sites and their URLs that you can copy and paste and save in your laptop or PDA, or even print out to carry in your wallet. Then, no matter where you are when you need to plan or change a trip, you'll have quick access to some of the very best tools available.

InformationWeek's List Of Outstanding
Free Route Planning And Mapping Sites:
Extremely Wide Coverage:
  • Maporama (worldwide)

  • Map24 (U.S./Canada)

  • Map24 (U.K.)

  • Map24 (Europe)

  • Map 24 (other)

  • MSN Maps and Directions

  • ViaMichelin

  • U.S. And Canada Coverage:
  • FreeTrip

  • U.S.-Only Coverage:
  • Maps On Us

  • RidePlanner
  • Rand McNally

  • Europe-Only Coverage:
  • Royal Auto Club

  • Mappy

  • AA Route Planner

  • Traveling with Agip

  • ANWB Routeplanner

  • MultiMap

  • More route planners,
         worldwide meta-site

  • Miscellaneous:
  • U.S. gas station finder

  • U.S. truck stop finder      (gas/food/sometimes lodging)

  • View this list as a seperate file | Download this list as a .txt file
    Download this list as a .doc file

    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.

    U.S.-Only And U.S./Canada-Only Mapping
    Maps On Us lets you build a point-to-point route anywhere in the U.S., and then add up to five additional intermediate stops along the way. You can even build a circular route: simply use the same start and end point, and Maps On Us will route you back to where you started, after visiting all the intermediate points you specify.

    OK, this one will seem strange, but RidePlanner , from Harley Davidson, isn't just for bikers. It's actually a free service, open to all, that lets you"add stops and pick the roads to travel" along the U.S. routes you build. The latter feature -- selecting the roads you want to drive, even if they're not necessarily the fastest or most direct, can be great when you're building in a little sightseeing. One limitation to RidePlanner is relatively minor: Your total route must be less than 5,000 miles (8,000km). But it would be unusual to plot any trip that long on an online site, so you're not likely to bump up against this limit.

    Rand McNally has several free routing options available ranging from a basic point-to-point tool (under"maps and directions") to a more powerful tool that allows intermediate stops (under"plan a road trip") and automatic round-trip routing, if desired. The main drawback of this site is that it's a U.S.-only service -- and limited to the lower 48 states, at that.

    Free Trip lets you build routes anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, to set route preferences (e.g., scenic, or no tolls) and to pick up to three intermediate destinations. Awkwardly, these latter can't be specific addresses, but are limited to what the site calls"Attractions, Restaurants, and Lodging" along your route. This may or may not be problematic, depending on the specifics of your trip. In the worst case, you might have to substitute an"attraction" near a desired intermediate point, rather than the point itself.

    Europe-Only Mapping
    Agip, the huge oil company, offers Traveling With Agip, a routing service that covers a vast expanse stretching from Ireland to Turkey, and from western Russia to Monaco. The service allows for intermediate waypoints and will help you find Agip gas stations near your route, but it doesn't have quite the flexibility of some of the other Euro-centric services, below. But in terms of sheer geographic scope in and around Europe, it's hard to beat.

    Mappy, a French site offered in 11 languages, including English, focuses on Europe with maps and directions for 27 countries. The routes can include intermediate points, and the service will help you find nearby travel-related services.

    The Royal Auto Club offers good point-to-point driving directions, with or without intermediate stops, for the U.K. and Europe.

    The AA Route Planner offers much the same services as the Royal Auto Club, above, though without quite as many options. It similarly covers Great Britain, Ireland, and Europe.

    The ANWB Routeplanner specializes in routing for the Netherlands and western Europe. The site is in Dutch, but features a very clear interface: Even a slight familiarity with any Germanic language should be enough to let you use the site.

    MultiMap offers an odd collection of services. For example, you can get maps of just about any place on earth, but can get driving directions for only 14 countries (in Europe); and can only get driving directions with intermediate stops for just the U.K. If your needs mesh with its peculiar mix of features, it can be good.

    Additional Resources
    While a good GPS can tell you where the nearest gas station is, the "USA Gasoline Station Directory" can help when no GPS is available: Figure out how many miles you can go between tank-ups, and use the directory to find stations along your route at about that interval.

    Similarly, this directory of U.S. truck stops can help you find fuel, food, and sometimes even lodging along your route.

    Finally, if the kind or type of route planner you need isn't covered in the above, or if you need driving directions for regions not mentioned, you'll probably find what you need in the worldwide list of route-planning tools found at this page.

    And if you do find a different or better tool -- or if you're already using one -- please share your knowledge! What online sites and tools have you found most useful for your travel planning and routing needs? Which has the best maps? The best directions? The greatest flexibility in building your trips? Join in the discussion!

    To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum.

    To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page.

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