Image: AAA map
aaa.com
This spring, AAA's online mapping tool added several new features.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/28/2008 9:50:18 AM ET 2008-05-28T13:50:18

The open road is calling — and it’s saying be prepared for traffic jams, wacky weather and gas prices that will empty your wallet and take your breath away.

Still, if Memorial Day was any indication, many of us will continue to answer that call in pursuit of a fresh perspective and vacations that fit our style, schedule and budget.

A good online travel planner can help, and these days, plotting the right route is just the beginning. From tracking gas prices to booking hotel rooms, the right road-trip planner can help you cut costs, find fun activities and eliminate those frustrating searches for lodging at day’s end.

I recently “test drove” four road-trip planners on a hypothetical family trip from Seattle to Yellowstone and back. Based on what I found, I may even take the trip.

AAA
The tool: It’s been 40-plus years since AAA came out with its familiar TripTik Travel Planner — back then, they were essentially spiral-bound notebooks — and the nation’s largest leisure-travel organization continues to improve its travel-planning offerings. This spring, the group’s online mapping tool added several new features.

What’s cool: The “My Places” feature lets you create custom maps that pinpoint the specific hotels, restaurants and other points of interest (POIs) that you plan to visit. Once you’ve saved them to your trip, the planner automatically adds detailed content, including amenities, services and prices.

Other handy features include the ability to track gas prices along your entire route, book hotels without leaving the site and modify your route with a simple drag-and-drop maneuver. When I decided to include a scenic detour to Sun Valley, the program automatically redrew my itinerary and recalculated the driving time and mileage.

Needs work: Itineraries aren’t pegged to specific dates, so you have to calculate where you’ll be on what day when booking accommodations.

Grade: A

MapQuest
The tool: The Web site for AOL’s mapping tool hides a lot of information behind a cluttered, cartoony welcome screen. Nevertheless, it scores high for its ability to integrate with other applications and mobile devices.

What’s cool: Each time MapQuest calculates the route to a destination (or intermediate stop), it includes a link that lets you search nearby for restaurants, hotels and other services. Select one or more and it will automatically add them to your itinerary, although you’ll have to go off-site to book lodging, etc.

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You can also send your itinerary to your Web-enabled cell phone and access current traffic data (for 84 cities) via the MapQuest for Mobile Web application. In addition, the company recently launched a new service that can send itineraries directly to compatible Garmin GPS units. A similar program for subscribers of GM’s OnStar navigation system is in the works.

Needs work: Currently, there’s no way to save your itinerary on the Web site. (You can, however, send the URL of your itinerary to yourself via e-mail for later retrieval.)

Grade: B+

Rand McNally
The tool: Offering a two-tiered system (free and subscription), Rand McNally’s online planner lets users choose the features they want. It’s not as comprehensive as AAA and it lacks MapQuest’s mobile applications, but its intuitive design makes it a breeze to use.

What’s cool: After creating a general itinerary, users can use the trip overview to add things to do, search for places to stay and input personal notes. Printouts can be customized to include as much or as little information as desired.

While all users can print out their itineraries, those who register as Premier-level Road Explorers ($19.95 per year) receive a variety of added benefits, including downloadable state and city maps, discounts in the company’s online store and the ability to create comprehensive Trip Guides. With a few clicks, our Trip Guide included everything from a list of construction summaries to several pages of kid-friendly activities.

Needs work: Hotel searches are done via kayak.com, which means you open another window, do your search, proceed to the appropriate booking site, make your reservation and then go back to input the hotel’s location into your trip plan.

Grade: B

Travelocity
The tool: Launched last fall, Travelocity’s RoadTrip Wizard is the new kid on the trip-planning block. It uses a technology developed by Tampa-based LeisureLogix to create itineraries that can be personalized by dozens of parameters.

What’s cool: The tool lets you tailor your trip by number of travelers, style of travel (e.g., preferred miles per day, “mainstream” or “off the beaten path”), lodging budget, personal interests and other considerations. And because it’s part of Travelocity, you don’t have to leave the site to book your lodging.

Needs work: Besides being buggy, the site regularly ignored my preferences for number of days and preferred mileage and often returned places to go and things to do that were clearly off my route.

Grade: A for effort, C for execution

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