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Free Online Mapping and Driving Directions
By Ira Wilsker
            Many of us like to use maps when we travel.  Maps can be used to display driving directions and points of interest.  Fortunately there are several excellent and free mapping utilities available on the internet, such as those provided by Microsoft’s “Live” service, Google, Yahoo!, and AOL’s Mapquest.

            Mapquest (www.mapquest.com) has the honor of being one of the oldest online mapping services, and during its tenure has earned a large following.  The interface on the startup page is simple, giving the user the options to enter the “Maps” option to display the image of a single location, or “Directions” to calculate driving directions.  Maps generated can be displayed either in traditional graphics format, or as an aerial image with key streets labeled.  If an individual map is selected, a bar at the top of the screen allows the user to locate and select from a lengthy list of local facilities including restaurants, banks, pharmacies, colleges and universities, hospitals, auto repair, and several other options.  Any of the attractions listed have a link to “map”, “directions to”, and “directions from” such that the user can easily find the desired destinations.  This feature can be invaluable to travelers and locals alike to find points of interest.  Since most hotels currently offer internet access to guests, the ability to locate any activity or points of interest using the internet can be a major contributor to the joys of any trips.

            One of the most useful features of any mapping website is the creation and printing of driving directions.  Mapquest offers a fully featured driving direction service where up to 10 intermediate points or stops can be selected.  Options include the choice of shortest distance or shortest time, avoiding busy highways, and avoiding toll roads.  For those who prefer detailed return directions there is a selection “Reverse Route” which will generate detailed directions back to the starting point.  One very good capability of the Mapquest driving directions is the easy option to create turn-by-turn maps to go along with the driving directions.  When the driving directions are displayed on the screen, each segment has a “Map” option on the right edge of that segment.  If “Map” is selected, a detailed map of just that segment will be inserted showing that turn in great detail.  When the “Printer-Friendly” link is clicked, the resultant map printed will include the directions along with any map segments selected, along with a large map displaying the entire route, with smaller maps detailing the starting point and destinations.

            The newest entry into the online mapping fray is Microsoft’s Live service at maps.live.com.  Microsoft uses maps created with its “Microsoft Virtual Earth” using street data NAVTEQ.  One interesting feature of Live maps is the ability to show both aerial views as well as hybrid maps which combines the aerial view along with the street map.  Much of the aerial imagery is from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  Live also offers a most interesting service, a 3-D “birds’ eye view” where images can be displayed in a virtual 3-D window, complete with buildings and major landmarks that can be displayed from any perspective, from straight above to any selected angle.  The search bar at the top of the page can display the location of any points of interest, such as restaurants.

            Live offers detailed driving directions using either the flat 2-D maps, or the more sophisticated 3-D maps.  When printed, the output includes detailed directions along with detailed maps.  One interesting feature on Live is a display of real-time traffic conditions for major cities.  As I type this, Live is displaying a Houston area map with some “moderate” incidents displayed on the map, but the color code for the Houston area highways indicates that traffic is flowing smoothly around most of the city.

            Yahoo! has recently upgraded its mapping function (maps.yahoo.com).  For those who may prefer the older format, but still very usable maps and directions, Yahoo! offers a link at the top of the page “Dial-up Map Original” which will open the prior mapping service.  The new Yahoo! Maps offers a choice of a traditional road map, satellite view, or hybrid combining the roads with the satellite image.  Options to display attractions such as restaurants and hotels are included in Yahoo! maps.

            Yahoo! offers driving directions either direct or by adding desired stops or waypoints, and the printed output contains very clear text along with a detailed route map.  Yahoo! also displays real-time traffic conditions for major cities showing incidents and average speeds along the major roadways.

            Google also offers a competitive mapping service at maps.google.com.  As with most of the others’ services, maps can be displayed as a road map, satellite view, or hybrid.  Google merges its popular search engine with the ability to locate attractions and local points of interest.  As is now common, Google offers road maps, satellite images, or hybrid maps.  Google also offers real time traffic conditions.

            Google was recently rated as the most popular source of driving directions, and its printed directions are among the most precise and easiest to read.  Small maps display the details of the starting point, destination, and route summary.

            With the summer upon us, and as we enter the peak driving season, a good map or two may be most helpful on our journeys.  With near universal internet access in most hotels, local information can be just a few keystrokes and mouse clicks away, by utilizing these services.  I would suggest that readers experiment with two or more of the above mapping services to determine personal preferences, and print driving directions from one or more of the services.










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