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Here it is, vacation time. The kids will be out of school soon (if they aren't already) and everyone is overripe to shed those wintertime blues. So, where will you be going this year? Will it be another trip to that same old place you go every year or will you take off in a new direction? The Internet and your computer can help you find that destination.
Online, you can research destinations by visiting the various state websites or sites like www.nps.gov to check out those National Parks. By the way, if anyone in your party is 62 or older, make sure that person has, or gets, their Senior Pass. The Senior Pass will cost $10.00, it is good for the life of the holder and it gets the holder and 3 others into any National Park for free. You cannot buy a Senior Pass online; you must purchase it at a National Park in person.
Once you have an idea where you want to go, you will probably want to know how to get there. If you are a member of any road service, you can contact them and trust that they will route you according to your wishes. Or you can go online or purchase a program to do the routing on your own PC.
Online, I suppose that one of the first websites that comes to mind to most people is MapQuest.com. In addition to MapQuest, you will find maps.google.com, RandMcNally.com, FreeTrip.com, travel.yahoo.com and others.
I have looked at several of these websites and they all do a pretty good job of routing your trip. I suppose that the best thing that they can offer the traveler is the ability to suggest places to stay and, more importantly, things to do and see along the way. All of them do seem to have the same drawback; they all come up short when it comes to customizing your route.
An online service, whether it is associated with your road service or not, is good only as long as you can access it. What happens if you are midway through your trip and decide to make a change in your route? If you cannot get online, you would be stuck. I admit that the chances of being isolated from the Internet are pretty slim. If you can't find a WiFi HotSpot, you can always use your cell service to connect. But if there is no Internet connection, you could rely on stand-alone software on your computer.
These "local" solutions include Microsoft's Streets and Trips ($39.95 or $74.95) and DeLorme's Street Atlas USA ($39.95 or $69.95). These two products are from the leaders in trip planning software.
Microsoft got into the "road map" business when it bought the trip planning software "AutoMap" many years ago (around 1994, I think) and DeLorme has been in the cartography business probably since Chris sailed across the Atlantic. By the way, the second figure quoted above is for a package containing the software and a GPS receiver the combination of the two makes your notebook computer a full-featured GPS.
Both of these solutions do rely on an Internet connection to update road construction information and they both allow you to create your own personal points of interest. One advantage of the software solution over the online solution is that you can change your itinerary at any time without having to find an Internet connection first. Another advantage is that these software solutions generally give you more options as to customizing your route. So if you want a route that avoids toll roads, unpaved roads and U-turns (think large RV), the software will give you those options.
Other trip planning software is available but most of those do not compare with the features available in the Microsoft and DeLorme offerings.
If you don't want to spring for software but you want to be able to plan your trip without depending on the Internet, there is a solution. More on that next week.