RESEARCH QUESTION: Just in time for summer, AAA has released AAAmaps .com, a free, pared-down version of its members-only TripTik mapping site (the association's renowned step-by-step driving guides that offer detailed directions, plus recommended restaurants, hotels and attractions). We wondered how it would stack up against other free mapping sites -- as well as the AAA member site. More important: Would AAAmaps.com finally provide a one-stop shop for all free, online mapping needs?

METHODOLOGY: We gave each site two challenges. First, we asked for a route from The Post's downtown D.C. headquarters to the Empire State Building in Manhattan. Then, we tried a straight mapping task, to simply locate the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

RESULTS: As with all new Web sites, the proof is in the clicking.

* Challenge 1: Washington Post to the Empire State Building

{scheck} Mapquest (www.mapquest.com). Mapquest couldn't generate a return for "Empire State Bldg., New York, NY" and required a subsequent search under "Find a Business." The overview map it spit out was crude (a red line plotted on a highway-free U.S. map), but detailed maps for steps along the way were a click away and provided a well-formatted printout. The site's 3 hour 47 minute estimate seemed reasonable. No destination info.

{scheck} MSN Maps (www.mappoint.com). MSN's place-name search quickly located the Empire State Building, then returned an easy-to-read overview map. Detailed maps along the way were available by clicking in a tiny box next to each step of the directions. The site also has an option for shortest and quickest routes, but its 3 hour 35 minute timeline struck us as optimistic. Links to destination info are available through MSN city guides.

{scheck} AAA Maps (www.aaamaps.com). Warning: If you use a pop-up blocker, you'll have to turn it off, and you still may have problems accessing the site. (AAA spokeswoman Janie Graziani told us the association is aware of the access issues and is working on a solution.) That said, AAA Maps uses a well-designed search form with a pull-down menu for NYC attractions -- including the Empire State Building. Detailed maps of start and end locations were sharp and listed area restaurants, hotels and attractions. The same info is available for stops along the way, but AAA Maps' interface was difficult to use. At 3 hours 50 minutes, the site gave us the most conservative time estimate.

{scheck} AAA TripTik members site (www.aaamidatlantic.com). After using this version -- available only to AAA members -- the limitations of the free site become apparent. For our itinerary, the free version offered only three maps (overview, origin, destination). The members-only version gave 15 additional detail maps along the route, with bonus features such as detours and toll info. The free version offers addresses and AAA diamond ratings for select restaurants, lodging and attractions; the member service gives complete AAA profile info for those venues, as well as general tourist info, campgrounds and more. And where the free version lets you add only one stop to your itinerary, TripTik handles up to 11.

* Challenge 2: Locate the University of Virginia in Charlottesville

{scheck} Mapquest. Using the search terms "University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.," Mapquest could not find any results. A subsequent link led to a serviceable map of Charlottesville, but the only way to find a listing for U-Va. was the "Find a Business" search.

{scheck} MSN Maps. MSN let us search by place name, and it quickly returned a link for a U-Va. map. Even better: The map was sharp and easy to read, though it offered no additional travel or tourist info.

{scheck} AAA Maps. Using AAA's handy pull-down menu of location types, it was easy to narrow listings to all universities in Virginia, then to a crisply rendered Charlottesville map highlighting U-Va. Nearby restaurants, hotels and attractions were plotted on the map with basic listings and AAA diamond ratings.

{scheck} AAA TripTik members site. Same as above, with more detailed profile info from AAA guidebooks for restaurants, hotels and attractions.

CONCLUSION. AAAmap.com's search strikes us as best in class, and if you're looking for a simple locator map for an airport or national park, this is the site. However, for driving directions, AAA's decision to withhold the vital detail maps for its members-only site renders Mapquest and MSN more useful for most road trips.

AAA's members-only TripTik is the most useful of all, especially for multi-leg trips; it offers all the great road trip info AAA members are accustomed to without the hassle of an office visit. But that $69 price tag is daunting, especially when the competition is free, so we're likely to keep using several sites.

-- Ben Abramson