The kids are starving. The gas needle's plunging toward E. You're sitting on your heel, praying for a potty. And you're all wishing you'd taken that last highway exit -- the one with the signs for food, fuel and facilities. What were you thinking? With the tiniest bit of planning, you could have tapped into the charms of every highway exit along your route. Here are five resources to help you figure out where to get off the road . . . next time. -- Jennifer Huget
1 Get a TripTik. The iconic TripTik, available free to AAA members, gives a basic idea of what you'll find at exits along the route that the auto association has mapped for you: A "g" printed near the exit number indicates gas, for instance, but there's no telling what brand or how far off the highway you have to go. "F" means food, "l" is for lodging, all generic.
TripTiks are easy to use, and the information is updated frequently. Technically, they're available only to AAA members, but the site currently allows nonmembers to "test drive" the service. Create a TripTik online at www.aaa.com (warning: the site can be persnickety) and print out a copy or download it to your PDA. Order the traditional, notebook-style version from the Web site or by calling AAA at least 10 days before you need it, because it is sent by mail. Or walk into your local AAA office and have them create one on the spot. Basic AAA annual membership is about $70.
2 Buy a book. At 542 pages, "The Next Exit" (Next Exit, $12.95) is the biggest book-form exit guide going; it gives info about services within a mile of highway exits in the 48 contiguous states. Though it's updated "regularly," chances are some details will be out of date when you need them; the current edition came out in December 2004. Check the Web site (www.thenextexit.com) to see a sample page.
"The I-95 Exit Information Guide" (Starsystems, $14.95) is the printed partner of a Web site (www.usastar.com/i95/homepage.htm) devoted to the Maine-to-Florida trail. Less unwieldy than "The Next Exit," this compact guide with a flat binding is easy to read. The current edition is sold out, but a new one is due later this summer. You can also buy the e-book on the Web site for $5.95.
Slightly more expensive but more fun is "Drive I-95" (Travelsmart, $22.95), in which authors Sandra Phillips-Posner and Stan Posner divide I-95 into 30-mile chunks. Hold the spiral-bound, flat book one way to follow northbound routes, flip it upside down to see the southbound version. Sandwiched between the two maps for each stretch are two guidebook-style pages full of firsthand info and anecdotes about key attractions -- eateries, museums, lodging and local points of interest -- near that section of the highway. Check it out online at www.drivei95.com.
3 Check with state highway departments. Googling "highway exit" plus a state name often generates at least one Web site with info about services and facilities along that state's major highways. Ohio's highway site (www.ohhighways.com/exits), for example, lists info about gas, lodging and food near exits that can be printed out or downloaded to a cell phone or PDA.
But such sites are often vague or scant, and some feature advertisers who've paid for the mention. Most don't say how often they're updated. And it's cumbersome to print out pages, creating a document that may make you want to scream when you refer to it in the car. Still, the info's free and can provide a good starting point.
4 Hit the Web. While MapQuest and Yahoo Maps are fine for basic driving directions, neither offers much in the way of exit-specific info. Instead, try the new TravMatix.com (www.travmatix.com), which integrates detailed exit info into directions generated by MapQuest in a driver-friendly format.
The site's data comes from a team of researchers who check the facilities firsthand, exit by exit. Among the useful features: a bathroom-rating system. TravMatix launched in March, and some glitches remain in the merging of MapQuest map and TravMatix data. In a recent search, a Connecticut-to-D.C. route listed no facilities in New York or New Jersey. A fix is promised. The ad-supported site is free and, according to founder Randy Carpenter, not swayed by advertisers' influence.
5 Go the electronic route. Lots of services let you load info onto your mobile phone or PDA. I-WayInfo 2004 (www.iwayinfo.com) is the electronic version of "The Next Exit" (see above) for the Palm operating system and costs about $14.99. Feel like splurging on a fancy gadget? The Garmin iQue GPS/PDA (www.garmin.com/products/iQue3600) marries a Global Positioning System to a Palm-powered PDA to deliver more information about where you are on a highway and what's nearby than any human can possibly need. Handheld and graphically pleasing, it's $589.27.