Tools Of The Trade: Track travel timetables while you're in transit

Journey-planning software that brings up-to-date rail and flight information to your handheld
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The Independent Online

Anyone who makes regular use of public transport for business knows that finding information on routes and services can be a challenge. Information phone lines can mean long periods spent on hold, and although airlines and railways have invested time and effort in improving their websites, these really only work well when viewed from a personal computer.

Anyone who makes regular use of public transport for business knows that finding information on routes and services can be a challenge. Information phone lines can mean long periods spent on hold, and although airlines and railways have invested time and effort in improving their websites, these really only work well when viewed from a personal computer.

Too few travel operators make any real allowances for people connecting from a mobile phone or another handheld device.

Recently, the National Rail Enquiries service, run by the train operating companies, updated its website so travellers can bookmark the organisation's WAP (mobile access) pages on their handsets.

This works reasonably well, as National Rail Enquiries can send out the bookmark as a text message, free of charge. But you have to hunt around to find it because the link is buried in the service's help pages (if you want to store the link directly in your mobile, the address is http:// mobile.nationalrail.co.uk/).

The main advantage for travellers of a WAP site such as National Rail Enquiries is that it is updated daily, and has live train-running information. But as it takes a couple of minutes to enter each journey into the system, it is not the most practical option for frequent rail users. And unless you have a smart phone, browsing WAP sites will always be a fiddly experience.

An alternative is to buy a third-party travel planning package. Rail Planner Pocket from Travel Infosystems contains the entire national railway network time-table and runs on Microsoft PocketPC handhelds, along with a more limited version for Palm computers.

The PocketPC software makes it easy to plan even complex trips, with the software displaying connections, journey times and the ultimate destination of the train - handy when it comes to finding the right platform.

In our tests, the timetable information seemed accurate and all the data was clearly presented. It also included Eurostar connections.

There is no facility to save planned trips directly from within Rail Planner Pocket, but it is easy enough to copy and paste them into a note or diary entry on the PocketPC. The Bronze version of Rail Planner Pocket comes with four annual timetable updates, and the Gold version with 12.

For air travellers, Travel Infosystems publishes Flight Check, offering similar search facilities for airline timetables globally. This is a quick way to find possible routes and connections by airport.

The database includes minor destinations such as regional airports in the UK and US, and lists all departures across all airlines. This works well enough, although there is no way to limit the search to one airline, or to find all flights into all airports in a metropolitan area such as New York or London.

Another restriction is that Flight Check runs only on Palm computers, rather than PocketPCs or Windows-powered smartphones. Flight Check comes in World and European versions with monthly downloads included in the price.

A free alternative - and one that works on PocketPC and Palm - is British Airways' own electronic timetable. This quickly lets travellers navigate the BA route network, by selecting the departure airport and then the destination.

Once you are happy with the trip, you can automatically add details to the handheld's diary.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the growing popularity of both smartphones and handheld computers with wireless connections, none of the travel packages we tested has live links to the operators' websites or any support for online reservations. Flight Check lists airlines' web and email addresses and phone numbers where possible, which is a start. But the ability to book a flight and check in from a handheld would be a real plus for hard-pressed travellers.

THE VERDICT

Rail Planner Pocket

Bronze, £29.99; Gold, £59.99 (rating: 3 out of 5).

Flight Check World

£14.99 (rating 4 out of 5).

www.travelinfosystems.com

BA electronic timetable

Free from British Airways (rating: 5 out of 5).

www.britishairways.com/travel

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