We got lost somewhere between the Chattanooga Choo Choo and the Chattanooga zoo. We circled blocks on the outskirts of the delightful little city, and then circling them again, as the zoo-bound baby in the backseat became more and more restive. We spotted nary a gas station nor a convenience store as we tried turning left, and then right. The streets, quite possibly slated for urban renewal, were empty. There was no one we could ask for directions. We were well and truly lost.
Then my son, the baby’s father, asked me to use my cell phone to call the zoo and get its street address. Check. Address memorized, and also text-messaged to my phone for further reference, we were set to exit the maze. He turned the information over to his phone and right away a pleasant voice led us, turn-by-turn, to the zoo’s parking lot.
GPS, or global positioning system, is technology that makes use of satellites to let individuals know exactly where on earth they are, and how to get from there to where they want to be. It has been available for some time on stand-alone units, including the heavily advertised Tom Tom, a small dashboard-mounted box that gives turn-by-turn directions. But it’s expensive. Tom Tom units are now selling for between $499 and $899. There are also factory-installed GPS systems, including OnStar, which is available on new General Motors vehicles.
Until recently, though, there was no low cost way to get spoken driving directions, and most drivers venturing into new territory had to rely on Mapquest print-outs or search out friendly gas station attendants. But now anyone with a relatively new, web-enabled cell phone can get inexpensive help in driving from point A to point B. These cell phones are fast becoming ubiquitous. They are often offered at little or no cost, after subtracting those wretched mail-in rebates, to anyone signing up for a new cell phone plan.
The Verizon GPS service my son used to get us across the Tennessee River and into the zoo has an enticing cost structure. It can be accessed for $9.99 a month — or $2.99 a day, which Verizon defines as 24 hours. The latter option is ideal for anyone who has worn a grove between home and office, but who occasionally has to visit a new client or take the kids on a field trip.
Right now the price is even better. Verizon is offering a free two week trial through December 31. It was the free trial that led to our escape to the zoo.
Prices from other cell phone providers are similar. Sprint charges $9.99 for its MapQuest Navigator, which became available on September 13, and Cingular is expected to begin offering subscriptions soon.
To get started on the GPS service, download software from the phone. The software has lots of features. It lets users search for goods and services by category, such as gas station or ATM, in any given locale. It also stores locations, perhaps a home address or the addresses of all of branch offices, for future reference.
Accessing the GPS feature uses air time, but not as much as you might think. Minutes tick away when you request a route and the software calculates it, if you make a wrong turn and the calculation has to be repeated, and when you download maps or ask for the location of the nearest Thai restaurant. But it does not use minutes as you cruise down the road toward your destination.
Using the GPS feature does not affect the ability to make and receive calls. It keeps you going in the right direction even as you are chatting.
My son had downloaded the GPS just to check it out. He relies on Mapquest print-outs and didn’t expect to use it. But he now thinks that ordering up a subscription is a pretty good idea.