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Computer can be travel guide

Wouldn't it be great to see what your vacation destination looks like before you leave home? Want computer help to decide where to go, what to do and how much you should expect to pay? There are computer programs that can do all this, combining photographs, digitized movies and text to describe locations and events throughout the world.

"The whole category of multimedia reference products continues to evolve as users demand more than static maps and video clips," says Bob Lloyd, CEO of The Software Toolworks. "Today's users want a sophisticated reference utility with practical applications."

Here is a review of several of the more popular programs:

Travel guide

With this CD-ROM set, the armchair traveler has access to more than 6,000 photographs and 80 minutes of video clips of destinations, easily accessible with the click of a mouse. These two discs show attractions from Alaska's Arctic wildlife to Miami's Art Deco District. Users get information about 3,000 attractions, including festivals, theaters, museums, historic sites and baseball teams, covering every state in the United States.

Among the categories users can search: attractions with free admission, children's activities, beach tours, disabled access, dining, camping and hiking.

Everywhere USA Travel Guide retails for about $59.

Adventures CD-ROM

From the same manufacturer is this more-international program, with more than 1,000 travel opportunities. Viewers can choose from hikes in the Himalayas, bicycle tours through France, expeditions to watch polar bears in Manitoba and rafting excursions in New Zealand.

Cultural and educational tours include the opportunity to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity in South America. But the disc also includes text and illustrations of garden and gourmet tours, foreign language lessons, leisurely walking tours, courses for seniors, archaeological digs and tours sponsored by the Audubon Society. Once again, text combined with movies and still photography creates a realistic impression of the location; customizing options provide for searches by activity, place, time of year, level of difficulty, appropriateness for children or any combination of these. Adventures retails for $39.

World atlas

This is a multifaceted world atlas program on CD-ROM. For example, you can instantly convert currency values from one country to another or review common phrases in 30 languages.

The atlas itself offers detailed political maps of 226 countries, 17 regions, five oceans and 50 cities. A mapping system lets the user zoom in progressively closer, from country down to city. World Atlas 5 also offers a layering feature that enables users to turn on and off levels of detail, such as rivers, roads and city features.

World Atlas Version 5 offers updated economic and demographic information in 13 categories, such as health, government and economy, with almost 400 subtopics. This information can be displayed as a statistical map or instantaneously graphed, to compare various countries or regions. Other features include visuals of country flags, more than 150 video clips and 1,000 photographs of different cities. The information sources include the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Software Toolworks World Atlas is priced at about $49 for Windows and $59 for Windows CD-ROM. If you cannot find it locally, contact The Software Toolworks Co. at (800) 234-3088.

America Alive

By combining a collection of travel guides on CD-ROM, America Alive brings the sights and sounds of your destination to life through maps, slides, movies, sound and text. You can discover exactly what there is to do at Yosemite or Disneyland, for instance, and which activities your children might enjoy.

America Alive contains 75 maps, 50 digitized movies and 1,500 photos. The maps can be switched easily from national to local areas, with most of the usual tourist destinations highlighted.

By clicking on a specific location, you can view short digitized movies of that area, select color photographs or read pages of information about the climate, geography or entertainment options, including restaurants, the performing arts, seasonal events and even ticket information.

Places are listed from most to least expensive. Another feature of the America Alive series is the ability to document your own travels by integrating photographs and movies in the CD with your voice-over narration.

While this program is generally of high quality, the digitized movie picture quality drops off when enlarged on the screen. This program also can overload and shut down a computer without sufficient memory.

America Alive is part of the Media Alive Guidisc series, which offers similar programs for Europe and Asia. Each segment is priced around $99.

Great vacations

This program provides details on more than 500 destinations, such as ski resorts, tennis camps, guest ranches, golf resorts and white-water rafting. Great Vacations, from Positive Software Solutions, also provides an easy way to review large amounts of customized text information.

The set of side-button commands on the screen access information about popular cities, resorts, cruises, adventures and national parks. For example, by selecting a national park, I found information such as the cost of camping, the availability of drinking water and a description of park activities. This program gave me the option of printing a letter to the park requesting further information.

Another set of commands on the screen allows users to select information about weather forecasts, FM stations, telephone numbers for hotels and car rentals. Users can also record personal notes. At the bottom of the screen is the view window, give the user background and descriptions of the type of vacation destination selected. The information menu offers tips on planning, transportation, accommodations, and even books that might be of interest.

I enjoyed working with Great Vacations for Windows but had problems installing it. In fact, we had to re-configure the DOS programming. Also, some of the categories, such as Festivals contained inadequate information: I couldn't even find New Orleans' Mardi Gras.

Great Vacations is priced at about $39.

Richard D. Sheridan is a free-lance writer living in Chico, Calif.