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Just a few years ago, it was physically impossible to take a computer away with you on a trip unless you had a spare trailer.  These days it’s de rigeur for both business and leisure travellers who have just as much computing power in their palm PC or mobile phone as in a desktop PC.

In this editorial for Travelmag I want to sort the wheat from the chaff, giving a guided to tour to some of the techno tools for car, rail and air travellers.  They’ll hopefully help you plan a better trip, and might even get you out of a sticky situation en route.

Speaking as a UK resident I feel that cars are tremendously under-equipped with travel systems compared to elsewhere in Europe.  For example, in the Netherlands many cars are equipped with colour screens on the dashboard displaying everything from ‘live’ navigational info to a telephone keypad for easy mobile dialling.

Alpine became one of the front-runners of in-car navigation kit when its NVE-N055ZP navigation unit was voted “Product of the Year” in 1998 by ECAP, an association comprising Europe’s leading car audio magazines.  In the UK, Drive Time in North London stock this and act as an independent source for various other manufacturers.

Alpine car navigation

Alpine’s navigation systems work from DVDs containing geographical data but probably the ultimate computerised in-car travel companion is something that’s connected to the outside world.  As such, Trafficmaster’s SmartNav claims to be “the first any-car system to combine satellite navigation, live, historic, forecast and incident-based traffic information and a personal assistant to answer questions and even take orders for flowers and champagne.”  It uses a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS)  to continuously track your position as your drive. If the traffic conditions ahead change, SmartNav will automatically alert you and suggest an alternative rote.

If you’re travelling by train then almost all of us now turn to the web or some sort of software before we set off. ‘Dot coms’ like The TrainLine and TrainDirect have become very popular for booking tickets.  The UK’s top-selling software for planning rail travel is RailPlanner.  It’s been bought by PC and laptop-using travellers for the past four years and in recent times has been taken up by companies and businesses keen to promote a ‘green travel policy’ among their employees.  Despite its name, RailPlanner can also be used for cross-channel travel planning as it has data on connecting ferry services and Eurostar.

Palm flight checker

It’s one thing planning your route before you set off but it’s only when you get on a train that the ‘leaves on the line’ really start to throw you and you have to start plotting your progress all over again!…  As such there are versions of RailPlanner for handheld PCs and PDAs.  It’s reassuring when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere or en-route to a redirected station to have a database of 8 million UK rail journeys – complete with a search system that can ‘guess’ the station if you only know half it’s name – literally in the palm of your hand.

Pocket PCs and Palm Pilots are incredibly useful for air travellers, too.  Laptops are just too bulky to open up in a departure lounge and internet café’s can be a drain on travel budgets if you start browsing for flight details rather than just communicating with home.  Launched earlier this year, FlightCheck is a software system for Palm users providing over 350,000 worldwide flight schedules, searchable by departure or arrival airport.  As schedules change, updated timetables are available on the web and the product also includes aircraft and catering information.

Japanese quietcomfort ad

The other gadget I would recommend for air travel helps more after you’ve taken off.  While in the US last November I picked up a copy of the Denver Business Journal and was fascinated by a report on ‘white noise headphones’.  These special headsets – which block out the noise of the aeroplane allowing a much quieter journey – are apparently taking off (if you’ll excuse the pun).  “It is amazing to learn how much the din of the inside of an airplane can disrupt your comfort,” the Denver reporter said.  “When you put on a set of white-noise headsets, you will fully understand the meaning of peace and quiet.”  The most popular white noise headphones are called QuietComfort.  They’re made by Bose but are in short supply outside of Japan.

Hopefully some of these tools might help smooth your passage on your next long-haul or short hop.  I’ve included URLs for many of the products and companies mentioned here.  But if anyone has any feedback or user experiences of ‘techno travel tools’, do please email me and I’ll try and include them in a future editorial…

More information:
Alpine: http://www.alpine-europe.com/
Bose: http://www.bose.com/
Denver Business Journal: www.bizjournals.com/denver/
Drive Time: http://www.drive-time.co.uk/
FlightCheck Palm: www.travelinfosystems.com/productflightpalm.php
QuietComfort: http://www.bose-export.com/
Trafficmaster: http://www.trafficmaster.co.uk/
The TrainLine: http://www.thetrainline.com/
TrainDirect: http://www.traindirect.co.uk/
Travel InfoSystems: http://www.travelinfosystems.com/

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