Dial 511 for travel: New resources for road trips

/ Source: Independent Traveler

The Internet abounds with tools for flights, hotel stays, cruises, car rentals, wireless access, ticket purchases, amusement park guides and the "10 Best" of you name it.

But if you are traveling in the United States, no matter where you're going or how you get there, chances are that eventually you will be behind the wheel of a car, sealed behind electric windows on a featureless road, and have next to no idea where the heck you are. And then where do all those tools get you? Until recently, the Internet couldn't even get you to the nearest gas station to grovel for assistance.

That is changing rapidly. New Web and wireless services are poised to serve the en route traveler better all the time. Here's a look at some recent developments aimed at bettering your time on the road.

Cell phone directions
Most major cell phone companies now offer driving directions as part of their custom (and paid) "411" services. Operators can be a little grumpy, and the directions a little bumpy, particularly at spots like off ramps and city boundaries where street names don't apply or are subject to change.

For example, using Cingular's 411 driving directions, I mapped out a 100-mile trip that was right on target on the whole, but a section like the one pasted below, while easy to process when reading from a computer screen, is excruciating on a cell phone when you are frantically scribbling notes:

15. Bear right at S Black Horse Pike -- go 0.1 mi
16. Continue on N Black Horse Pike -- go 0.8 mi
17. Continue on S Black Horse Pike -- go 0.3 mi
18. Continue on Black Horse Pike -- go 0.8 mi
19. Continue on N Black Horse Pike -- go 1.2 mi

When you are viewing this type of information online, it's easy to figure out which parts are important and which aren't; however, when you are listening to a computer-generated cell phone voice direct you through a complex cloverleaf/right-to-go-left/all-turns-from-this-lane/on-off ramp scenario, following all the tenths of miles can be rough going due to way too much information. It almost feels like they're going to say "swerve right to avoid the pothole, keep an eye on the jerk accelerating into the merge," etc.

(By the way, the directions above were pasted from mapping the same route using Google Maps; Cingular and Google are using the same information to map driving directions.)

Cell phone directions on steroids
If you need to know exactly where you are, where you're going, and how far and fast you have to go to get there, Telenav offers a relatively powerful GPS service available via the GPS-enabled Blackberry 7520, the Palm Treo 650, Windows Mobile as well as a heap of cell phones by Motorola, Samsung, Sanyo and more. Turn-by-turn audible or visual directions are available along with a BizFinder app and 411 directory.

The service is available with most of the major wireless phone providers, and starts at $9.99 a month, which, all told, looks like a pretty good savings over in-vehicle navigation systems. There may be hidden costs, however; for example, if your provider is Cingular, for example, you must have a premium-level "Data Plan" account in order to use Telenav.

And if you are really looking to go hardcore, Garmin is a longtime industry leader for consumer GPS applications, and a partnership with Sprint brings their industrial-strength GPS technology to a Sprint phone.

Internet traffic
No, not that kind of Internet traffic -- we're still talking about road trips. The folks with the category-slaying URL Traffic.com have recently launched MyTraffic, a new free service that allows you to create a traffic homepage, chart out up to 20 routes, call in for traffic updates, access real-time traffic maps, and, most useful when you are actually on the road, set yourself up to receive email and/or mobile phone/PDA notifications of traffic problems on your routes.

Maine-based event manager Chris Hughes used the service to make an end run around a highway shutdown on a recent trip to San Francisco.

"I left for the airport in time to be at the gate at least an hour before my flight, but an hour is nothing when you are faced with a road closing," he said. "I got off the highway just in time to avoid the shutdown, and then threaded my way to SFO on an alternate route. I ended up being early for the flight."

One upside of the service is that they are not relying solely on helicopter, government and other anecdotal reports, but often on digital monitors right on the highway.

More ways to beat traffic jams
MSN.com has a well-regarded service that is unfortunately all but buried in the MSN Autos section of their Web site -- to find it, visit autos.msn.com and scroll down to Driving Tools to find two small icons for Gas Prices and Local Traffic. The Local Traffic link leads you to reams of traffic information from across the country, all displayed on easy-to-read maps. Each traffic trouble spot appears as a numbered black dot, and when you put your mouse over the dot, specific road information appears on the screen.

One of the problems with many of the traffic sites appears to be very limited geography; MSN's Local Traffic casts the widest net I found.

For some reason, the private sector seems to be a lot better about getting this type of information out and about, but it turns out that the Department of Transportation isn't doing a terrible job of it. Check out the DOT's National Traffic and Road Closure Information, which links out to extensive information on state DOT sites. I did find access to the main DOT site to be slow; Accuweather's AccuTraffic service has most of the same links to almost every state DOT, as well as other useful links by state.

Dial 511 for travel
The DOT's Intelligent Transportation Systems' 511 Travel Information is a new-ish and little-known government initiative is gaining ground nationwide. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission assigned 511 for nationwide access to travel information services. The number is an abbreviated dialing code for travelers to access highway, multi-modal and other pertinent travel information via landline or wireless phones.

By the end of 2006, the system should be accessible by over half of the U.S. population; however, as with a lot of government information, the problem is finding it! This is the case on the Web at least -- for example:

You get the point.

The upside is that, in those states where it has been deployed, you simply dial 511 on your phone to connect.

Road trip fuel-cost calculator
A question I am asked with increasing frequency of late: Now that gas prices are so high, at what point is it cheaper to fly? Gas costs are becoming an important concern for folks who watch their travel budget. The RV-centric site RoadTripAmerica has a Road Trip Fuel Cost Calculator that you can run alongside your favorite booking engine to figure out the comparative damage to your wallet for air travel vs. auto travel. Put in your mileage, the price of gas, and your ride's fuel economy to find out your fuel bill for the trip.

What exit?
Highway exit guides have been a small Web cottage industry for some time now; I first covered this last year in Five Travel Web Sites That Work For You. The site I featured then, Travmatix.com, is still a great resource, and still has those restroom ratings that can't be found anywhere else. I found a few more promising sites this month.

The Interstate Wizard Web site purports to have detailed exit-by-exit information for most major interstate highways nationwide -- I found some gaps in the information, but the site has its moments.

Additionally, there are many sites dedicated to specific highways -- a simple Web search will usually get you where you need to go. Some of the better sites:

There are heaps of these sites on the Web; check for your roads before you travel using a Web search site.

Finally, a word on safety
One final note: Accessing a ton of information on small handheld gadgets while at the wheel can be a sure way to slow down your trip -- with a detour to the body shop or worse. We recommend pulling over to the side of the road when inputting queries, writing things down or the like. Even the computer-generated Cingular guy recommends it before giving directions. Happy trails, and keep the rubber side down, as the saying goes.

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