Road trip coming up? Pack the GPS. Despite stories about bum guidance to closed roads, for the most part GPS devices are accurate and helpful for sojourns in and out of town.
Start by test-driving a free phone application, such as Google Maps, Scout or Waze. Each is easy to use and delivers free updates, voice-guided navigation and current traffic conditions. The downsides: Even "large," 4-inch smart-phone screens look awfully small when you're trying to read a map at 70 miles per hour. And some smart-phone speakers are less than ideal for vocal directions. If you go the app route, be sure to invest in a car phone mount ($10 to $30) and a car charger ($5 to $30).
Google Maps comes preinstalled on Android phones. Google says it updates its maps frequently, but won't reveal how often. Its offline maps feature is handy for travel in areas with poor reception, or if you have a limited data plan. Scout by Telenav (for Android and iPhone) takes voice commands and shows nearby points of interest; a premium service that offers offline navigation, real-time traffic updates, rerouting assistance, and info on red-light cameras and speed traps is $25 a year. Waze (Android and iPhone) takes a "crowd sourcing" approach: In addition to delivering spoken turn-by-turn directions, it collects information from fellow Waze users to report on real-time traffic conditions.
Dedicated GPS. GPS devices cost from $100 to $400 -- much less than auto manufacturers' in-dash navigation systems -- making them an economical alternative if you don't have a smart phone. Plus, dedicated GPS devices generally have larger displays than phones, making their maps easier to read. And some units accept voice commands, providing easier and safer navigation than touch controls. Map and traffic updates are typically free as long as you own the unit, and update schedules vary by manufacturer. Magellan aims for four updates per year; TomTom says it regularly releases new maps.
The Garmin nüvi 3597LMTHD ($350), is an excellent, high-end device. Its 5-inch high-resolution display is housed in a solidly built aluminum frame. Plus, the nüvi offers the same pinch-and-zoom feature as your smart phone -- handy for zeroing in on specific streets or neighborhoods. A magnetic backing makes it easy to snap in and out. The turn-by-turn directions and real-time traffic updates are accurate, and we particularly liked the nüvi's voice-activated navigation. One gripe: The unit's suction-cup mount popped off a couple of times, sending the unit skidding across the dash.
For tighter budgets, the TomTom Via 1605 TM ($230) is a good choice. Its crisp, 6-inch screen is easy to read even in bright sunlight, and its on-screen buttons and menus are large and well spaced. The Via mounts to the windshield or dash. So what's missing? The Via doesn't include TomTom's HD Traffic service, which provides updates every two minutes. There's no voice-command option, either, although pricier TomTom units offer it.
The Magellan SmartGPS ($250) is an innovative hybrid that includes a free app for iPhone and Android. The unit stays in your vehicle, providing driving directions and traffic alerts. When you leave the car, the app's Pedestrian Mode guides you to your destination. Alternatively, you can use the app to get driving directions and send them to the SmartGPS unit in your car. It's all very clever -- perhaps a bit too clever. The device's home screen is cluttered with too many tiles and toolbars. Voice command is not available.