Steermaster: Let Your Car Drive Your Itinerary

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2003

My friends had never pushed that blue button on the ceiling panel of their minivan. They knew what it was, of course: the heavily advertised OnStar system that General Motors touts as an all-purpose, high-tech help-meet for those on the road. Pay a basic subscription ($16.95 a month) and the blue button will connect you to an attendant who can deliver traffic and weather reports, summon a tow truck or ambulance, or have a distant computer diagnose your faltering engine. (Contact them by cell phone and they'll track your stolen car or remotely open your doors if you lock your keys in.)

Pay a little more ($34.95 a month) and you can get GPS-aided driving directions. Pay a lot more ($69.95 a month) and you get access to a "personal concierge" who will recommend restaurants, make reservations, find movie times and generally hold your hand on a road trip. "Plan entire trips" is OnStar's promotional boast.

Plan our entire trip? Well, why not?

Dan and I pushed the button last Thursday at noon. We had climbed aboard with a full tank of gas, a yen to travel and no itinerary. The radio went mute and soon a woman spoke out of the speakers. "Welcome to OnStar, Mrs. Knotts. How can we help you?" We told her it was Mr. Knotts and a friend, looking to get out of town for a night. She put us on hold for a few minutes until Concierge Jeff spoke from the dashboard. "I see you're in the Washington, D.C., Takoma Park area," he said. Spooky. They had locked onto our position.

"Well, Jeff," I said, "the wives have the kids and we have one night for a road trip. Where should we go?"

Long pause. "I'll need to get a little more information about what you'd like to do," he said finally.

Make it a city trip, we said.

"What kind of hotel are you interested in?" No more than $200 a night, with an indoor pool.

"I'll have to call you back," he said.

While Jeff pondered, we asked another OnStar concierge, Olivia, for a lunch recommendation in Takoma Park. She browsed her listings, made a call and came back to suggest the Blair Mansion Inn. It's a mile from my house, but I'd only vaguely heard of it. "It's pretty much American cuisine for $5.95 to $9.95," Olivia said. "It sounds really nice, actually."

What We Found: The Blair Mansion Inn was nice. It was also funky , friendly and absolutely freezing. Although technically open for lunch, most of its business is evening dinner theater and no one had bothered to fire up the furnace. I guess "Is the heat on?" is not a question concierges ask when calling to vet a restaurant on a 34-degree February day. "Keep your coats on," the hostess advised. We blew breath clouds in the dining room as they rustled up some passable crab cakes.

Jeff called back on our cell phone just as we were leaving. At first he wanted to send us to Baltimore, and had done a lot of research on hotels with pools near the Inner Harbor. But I nixed Baltimore as too close. I wanted at least to get out of range of my neighborhood radio stations. We finally settled on Philadelphia, to Jeff's obvious relief. The Four Seasons has an indoor pool but was too expensive ($330 a night, he said), so he suggested the Marriott Philadelphia by the convention center ($179). I spoke my credit card number into the dashboard and he booked it.

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