Road trip coming up? Pack the GPS. You can 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 smartphone screens look awfully small when you're trying to read a map at 70 miles per hour. And some smartphone 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, which comes preinstalled on Android phones, has an offline maps feature that is handy for travel in areas with poor reception. Scout by Telenav (for Android and iPhone) accepts voice commands and shows nearby points of interest. 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. If you don't have a smartphone, a dedicated GPS device ($100 to $400) is a better alternative than an auto manufacturer's pricey in-dash system. 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; update schedules vary by manufacturer.
Garmin nuvi 3597LMTHD ($350) is an excellent, high-end device, with a 5-inch high-resolution display housed in a sturdy aluminum frame. Plus, the nuvi offers the same pinch-and-zoom feature as your smartphone -- 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 nuvi's voice-activated navigation.
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. So what's missing? The Via doesn't include TomTom's HD Traffic service, which provides updates every two minutes, and there's no voice-command option, either.
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. Caveats: The device's home screen is cluttered, and voice command is not available.
(Jeff Bertolucci is a freelance contributor to Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit http://www.Kiplinger.com.)