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Driving is one of the best ways to discover the United States

SHARE Driving is one of the best ways to discover the United States

One of the best ways to discover America is on four wheels - by car, truck, sport utility, minivan.

And, making it easier to do the discovering are the many travel guides and computer map programs available.Just released is '97 Great Vacation Drives from US News & World Report. This annual magazine-style publication provides not only information on great drives but also tips on making them more enjoyable, with topics ranging from learning the rules of renting a car to keeping peace with the kids in the back seat. There's a wealth of information on the 166 pages, along with a state-by-state "Hot Spots and Cool Stops" guide. The $9.95 guide is available on newsstands or by calling (800) 836-6397.

Reader's Digest has produced "The Most Scenic Drives in America," which offers 120 drives across the country. Each drive includes maps, mileage information, tips, handy telephone numbers, and more. The book is $29.95.

For years the Mobil Travel Guides have been the bible for motorists. Packed with information and ratings on accommodations and dining, along with valuable travel information, the guides, keyed to regions across America, are indispensable for any travel plans. Mobil has seven regional guides, each $15.95. Included are coupons valued at $500 for savings on hotels, dining, and attractions.

Now the guides are getting competition from "Frommer's America on Wheels," the first new road guide series in 35 years. The guides use a different rating system "designed to respond to the travel needs and expectations of a new generation of Americans who are more knowledgeable, more demanding, and more adventurous," said Ian Keown, consulting director for the series. The books are published by Macmillian Travel and are $14.95 each. Only 12 lodgings qualified for the series' Ultra award, among them Twin Farms in Barnard, Vt. Here's what the guide had to say: "The former home of Sinclair Lewis and his wife Dorothy Thompson, Twin Farms is discreet and uncommon, comfortable and unpretentious."

Many states also offer ideas for great drives within their borders. Virginia is focusing on Thomas Jefferson and is hoping the recent PBS documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns on Jefferson will help draw visitors to the commonwealth. The centerpiece of a special tour is a discounted "passport" or combined ticket that provides admission to five of the Virginia sites associated with Jefferson that charge admission. The passports are $57 for adults, less for children, and are good through next April. For information on the passport, call (888) 293-1776. For information on other "Jefferson's Virginia" travel packages, call (888) 742-4666.

One of the best ways to plan any driving tour is with the new CD-ROM computer programs. Rand McNally's TripMaker leads the pack in sales and allows users to customize their travel plans with route information, attractions, accommodations; you can even figure the costs down to the penny. The program is packed with thousands of listings.

Another excellent choice would be the DeLorme AAA Map 'n' Go program. One of the key differences is that DeLorme utilizes the vast resources of the American Automobile Association's guidebooks.

Both programs also offer Internet access for up-to-the-minute changes and information. Both have been advertised for under $50.

DeLorme recently came out with a new version that includes a Global Position Tracking device that can be placed on the dash and, tied into a laptop computer, will show your exact location as you travel (it is suggested to have someone other than the driver watching the screen while moving). My computer guru, Ken Songer of North Quabbin Computer in Orange, was so enthusiastic about this version and its use in exploring country roads that he easily talked me into paying the list price. I've seen ads for the program from $150 to $175. And while it won't guide you the way the expensive navigation devices that sell for $1,000 to $3,000 do, combining it with the travel part of the Map 'n' Go program opens up new ways of discovering America.

While not as extensive in its offerings, Road Trips Door-to-Door provides a quick and easy way find your way from your home to any destination. On a recent trip from Cape Cod to Cromwell, Conn., I found the program quite helpful with its printout of the route to my destination, including driving time and mileage (very helpful in making out an expense report).

None of these computer programs is perfect; some routes may be misnamed or some directions may be wrong. On Road Trips, my first choice was to head to Connecticut via Intersate 95; instead, from mid Cape Cod, the program sent me to the Mass. Turnpike, then down Interstate 84. When I changed my starting location to just off the Cape, it sent me via Interstate 95. It also told me to take one route north, but we found the route was heading west. Adjustments may be necessary, but even with these quirks I've come to rely on such programs for route planning.