Going somewhere? You might not want to rely too heavily on your Mac for help.
Mapping and travel Web sites such as MapQuest and Expedia work just fine on Macs, as do online reservation and airline sites. But the selection of travel-planning CD-ROM packages for the Mac is sparse, and the programs that are available take a back seat to their Windows counterparts.
But even a ride in the back seat beats staying home, and if you're determined to use your Mac to plan a trip, you'll find some useful CD-ROM companions.
I began my journey into travel-planning software with "DeLorme's Street Atlas USA 6.0." This $49, two-CD package includes astonishingly detailed street maps of the entire United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.
When the program starts, you see a map of North America. From this astronaut's-eye view, you can zoom in 15 times until you see individual street intersections. It reminded me of my favorite travel movie--Charles and Ray Eames' "Powers of Ten," which, in nine minutes, zooms you from intergalactic space to a carbon atom in the hand of a dozing picnicker.
With "Street Atlas USA's" search features, you can locate a place by searching for a city name, a ZIP code and even an area code and phone number. Enter a starting and ending address for a trip, and "Street Atlas USA" generates step-by-step driving directions.
However, the program's directions aren't as explicit as those provided by mapping Web sites such as MapQuest. Where mapping sites spell out left and right turns, "Street Atlas USA" simply provides compass headings, telling you to head southeast or northwest. Bring a compass.
DeLorme also sells a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receiver that works with "Street Atlas USA" to show your location and speed as you travel. The $179 Earthmate GPS Receiver includes the Street Atlas USA software and a cassette tape-size GPS receiver. The receiver connects to your Mac's USB port, though you'll need to buy DeLorme's $39 USB cable to make the connection.
The biggest problem with "Street Atlas USA" is that it's out of date. "Street Atlas USA 6.0" was published in 1999, and thus doesn't reflect any roads built or changed since then. The Windows version of "Street Atlas USA" is more current and has slick features that the Mac version lacks: It will speak directions as you drive, and if you have a GPS receiver, it will tell you how to get back on your route if you lose your way.
A DeLorme representative told me the company has no plans to update the Mac version of "Street Atlas USA." But DeLorme still sells and supports the program, and it ran fine on a new iBook under Mac OS 9.1. It's a great program, provided you don't need to navigate new subdivisions.
You also can run Windows mapping programs on your Mac using Connectix's "VirtualPC" software. I learned this when National Geographic mistakenly sent me a copy of its "TripPlanner 2002"--which isn't available for the Mac. This $30, three-CD package provides U.S. street maps, turn-by-turn driving directions (with GPS support) and articles and photographs from various National Geographic books and magazines.
National Geographic also sells a library of interactive maps ideal for hikers, campers and cartography nuts. The Topo series takes U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps, puts them on CD-ROMs and wraps them in an appealing interface that lets you pan around, zoom in and out, locate features of interest and print custom trail maps. Each map CD costs $49, and dozens are available at http://www.topo.com.
Alas, Mac users ride in second class on this trip too. To use the Topo CDs, you must first download a viewer program from National Geographic's site. The viewer works well, but installation is a multi-step process. But unlike DeLorme, which practically tells Mac users to get lost, National Geographic plans to enhance Mac compatibility in future versions.
Jim Heid is a contributing editor of Macworld magazine.