ORO VALLEY, Ariz. — For a Memorial Day weekend trip, I checked four free services that provide driving directions — Google, Yahoo, AOL’s MapQuest and Microsoft’s Bing.
I made it from Phoenix’s airport to a friend's wedding outside Tucson without getting lost, and I made several sightseeing stops along the way with only a handful of wrong turns. I also used the services in New York to find mass-transit directions to LaGuardia Airport.
Google emerged as the clear winner, but I found a surprise contender in MapQuest.
Years ago, I turned to MapQuest whenever I visited friends in an unfamiliar city. I found it amazing that I could leave my road atlases and fold-out paper maps at home. Google then came along in 2005 and blew past MapQuest and other competitors.
Google changed online mapping by making it easier to move around a map. Other services forced you to click a button to shift a map slightly left, right, up or down. The entire map would reload each time. Google made it possible to simply click and drag a map to get beyond the edge of what's displayed instantly, with no delays from reloading.
STILL THE BEST
The competitors have long adopted Google's approach, but Google still excels at helping you find where you're going.
On Google, I was able to look up my destination by typing just part of a street address or the name of a
business. Google offered several suggestions as I typed and narrowed the options as I entered more attributes, such as the city. I simply chose the right one once it came up. Bing and MapQuest make suggestions only after you finish typing — and they are often wrong.
Where MapQuest does better is in giving you more routing options. All four let you plot routes that avoid tolls or highways. On MapQuest, you can also avoid ferries, seasonal roads or streets that prohibit turns during rush hour. You can choose between shortest time and shortest distance. And if you have several stops in mind, you can let MapQuest figure out the most efficient order.
Once I found my routes, I printed out directions for my trip, switching off between the four as I moved from one place to another.
Bing and MapQuest were best in offering you cues on where to turn. They both offer warnings that if you’ve reached a certain intersection, you've gone too far. Both also tell you to look for landmarks. In some cases, MapQuest goes further, telling you what intersection to look for before you should make your turn.
Like Google, MapQuest offers a free phone app with turn-by-turn directions spoken aloud. It's a great feature when you're driving alone. Using the GPS system, the app tells you when to make your turn. If you miss it, it’ll automatically find you another way to get there. They also both offer real-time traffic conditions so you can route around congestion.
I tried both during my trip on an older Android phone. MapQuest has one for the iPhone, too, and the new iPhone version promises nearby gas prices (Android already has it). Bing's voice feature works only on Microsoft's Windows phones, which I didn't test.
Google excelled at finding transit directions from my apartment in Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport. Bing and MapQuest also offered transit directions, but only Google knew about a bus that stopped just a block from my apartment. MapQuest wanted me to take three subway lines and walk 40 minutes with heavy luggage. Those three also offer walking directions; Yahoo says transit and walking options will come this year.
Google is the best overall so far, but I'm glad there's competition. I hope MapQuest can catch up on finding destinations so that I can take advantage of its exclusive features.
In addition, MapQuest is a good choice for the iPhone, as Google's voice-guidance feature is available only on devices running on its Android system. In fact, that feature has been one big reason I haven't switched to an iPhone.
Photo: Stock photo