If you're leaving, it helps to know where you're going, right? Over the past decade, the Internet has nourished a number of free map providers, which will furnish you with customized information to help you get there. Most online maps won't help you hike the Annapurna Circuit or scale K2--the more specialized or detailed the map, the more likely you'll need to buy carefully surveyed map. But free online maps will tell you where the roads, towns, and borders are, and for most tourists, that's plenty.
The most common usage of an online map provider is for driving directions. You enter a starting and ending address and the Web site suggests what it considers the most expedient route. These engines aren't fancy--they don't usually take into account construction delays, traffic, or whether you'd rather take interstates or back roads--but they're still useful to keep you from getting lost. They're also lighter than conventional maps, you don't have to fuss with folding them, and best of all: they're free.
You can also use online maps to simply locate addresses on a map, provided you know the number, street name, and city. So if a friend recommends a side-street restaurant in Baltimore that you can't locate on any map, you can plug in the address (or even just the street) and your computer will zero in on it for you. Then you can print it out and take it with you. For the short-scheduled and the far-sighted, Web mapping can be a godsend.
Following is an abbreviated list of the best of the online mapping engines. Each one has its own Web site, and several also allow their software to be used at other sites, which is why you'll find a Mapquest logo on searches performed at Yahoo's maps page maps.yahoo.com.
MapBlast! was our favorite point-to-point driving-directions service because it was easily customizable. It has since been taken over by MSN, which has further improved the product. Now called Mapoint (mappoint.msn.com) it offers enhancements such as alerts to traffic trouble spots, turn-by-turn directions, and good places to make stops. MapBlast! offers street level maps of the United States, Canada, and Europe and city-level maps of the rest of the world. Finally, Mapoint sells its Streets & Trips GPS Locator for $129 (updated annually), including GPS hardware. The software alone sells for $39.95.
One of the oldest and most visible companies is Mapquest (mapquest.com), which offers the usual complement of features, including point-to-point driving instructions. You can also e-mail your maps to any address, which can be helpful if you'd like to do advance planning and then retrieve your research on the road. Mapquest serves North America and Europe. It also has a nifty "Click and avoid highways" button for those seeking the roads less traveled.
Of Mapquest and MapBlast!, we prefer the latter. In our highly subjective experience, it seems to offer more accurate and easy to follow driving directions than Mapquest.
Rand McNally (randmcnally.com), the indisputable map specialist, offers free downloadable state maps that offer a degree of detail close to your standard store-bought road atlas, with major highways, towns, and interstates marked. Print them out (they're more detailed on paper than they appear on the screen) and put them in the glove compartment for trips. For point-to-point directions, it uses the MapBlast! engine. It even offers maps and directions on Java-enbabled cell phones.
Maps.com (maps.com) is another service providing driving directions and address locations. It serves the lower 48 states best, but also has a workable world atlas and currency conversion engine. The site also sells maps.
For the United Kingdom, some of the best coverage comes from Map24 (uk.map24.com), which boasts knowledge of every road, down to the smallest unnamed country lane.
The National Park Service offers free downloadable maps of America's national parks and national monuments. They're much more detailed than the ones you receive when you enter the gates. Find those by going to each individual park's official page at nps.gov, and then clicking "Parks & Recreation" and then "Georgraphic Search."
If you're hiking the Appalachian Trail, the NPS also produces a series of passable overview maps, available at rhodesmill.org. Some hikers insist you'll need something more detailed for serious multi-day hikes, and those must be purchased from camping shops.