Simon Calder: How to get from A to B (20 million times a month)

The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

Set the controls for the heart of the sun? Whether you are driving to the Sussex coast (the sunniest shore in mainland Britain) or the Costa del Sol, you could simply tap in your target into a sat-nav and follow the synthesised instructions until you reach your destination. But to do so is wrong, both aesthetically and practically. You surrender any sense of your surroundings and erase the chance of making a shrewd detour should you encounter a traffic jam.

Ideally, you need an expert navigator in the front passenger seat. But the next best thing is a detailed itinerary delivered by one of the free online route-planning systems.

The Automobile Association says that its free online Route Planner system delivers 20 million detailed itineraries a month, which I reckon is eight trips a second – and shows there is still a healthy appetite for knowing where precisely you are going. “Even in an age of sat-nav, the AA Route Planner lives on,” says Edmund King, the association’s president. He has kindly shared with The Independent the routes that UK drivers crave above all others.

There are dream destinations, and there are places you need to reach. And, as the AA data shows, they rarely coincide. The two top online searches are by motorists seeking to leave the country on British Airways through the airline’s main gateways of Gatwick’s North Terminal and Heathrow Terminal Five.

While London’s two leading airports top the chart, the capital as a destination comes nowhere. “London doesn’t feature, as anyone driving to Buckingham Palace – apart from the Queen – would be mad,” says Professor King. He also claims: “At any one time, 15 per cent of drivers in London are lost.” Perhaps the AA could bring back its splendid Pilot service, whereby members could request professional assistance to guide them through the capital: the 20th-century predecessor to sat-nav, with the personal touch. Nothing new under the sun, indeed.

Gerry and the placemarkers

Online route guidance became available around the turn of the 21st century. Before then, the average driver planning an unfamiliar journey sat down with a road atlas. AA members could go one better, with personalised advice available on tap. A century ago, pioneering motorists who belonged to the association were given handwritten cards detailing the journey between way points. By the Sixties, the trip itinerary process had become mechanised. Route compilers were assigned route segments to check, then wrote up the results for the printer. Gerry Knight was a compiler for the AA Route Planner for four decades from 1969. He recalls: “When a member wrote in to request a route, the compilers would select the relevant route sections and piece them together to form the completed route.”

The young Edmund King was one beneficiary of the trip advice, which used to arrive in a big yellow envelope. “I remember my dad getting the printed AA route from Norwich to Dover in the late 1960s when our family of nine kids would cram into a Citroën DS to travel to France. The route became part of the excitement and the holiday.” With nine children in a family saloon, I’m surprised anyone could find it.

The longest road

These days travellers have a choice of route planners – so I took a trio of them for an online test drive, on the benchmark route from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats close to the far north of mainland Scotland. The AA Route Planner took three seconds to generate a route for the 838-mile trip, complete with a map showing the speed cameras I would encounter along the way. The drive was calculated to take just short of 16 hours – not counting stops for fuel.

The Government’s site, Transport Direct, clunked for 17 seconds before delivering its itinerary – which was identical to the AA’s. No mention of speed cameras, but I was advised to stop for a 15-minute break every two hours. Without these stops, the site predicted it would take 11 minutes longer than the AA.

The RAC revved a route over in three seconds flat, adding that a typical saloon would consume £150-worth of fuel. The directions matched the previous two – but the timing nearly an hour faster than the longest estimate. The RAC plan assumes an average speed of more than 55mph. Watch out for those speed cameras.