Info on the go for travelers without smart phones

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Here is how my in-laws use the Internet to get a hotel room when they're traveling the 650 miles between their home in Canada and their cabin in Idaho: They call us from the road, and we book the room online for them.

The in-laws are comfortable with the Internet. But to them, a portable Web-ready device just isn't worth the trouble and expense when they use it so rarely.

And in that regard, they're fairly typical, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which has found that despite all the people connected to a Blackberry, an iPhone, or another mobile device, the laptop computer is still by far the most popular launching pad for a visit online.

According to the Pew Internet Project, one-third of adults have used Internet-ready mobile devices such as a cell phone or a smart phone. About 85 percent of U.S. adults have a cellphone. But "most wireless use is centered on laptops," said Susannah Fox, an associate director at the Washington, D.C.-based research center.

So what to do if you're traveling old-style (that is, with a mobile phone) and need to get directions, find a place to eat, or book a room?

Directory assistance is a lot more helpful than it used to be. Google has a handy new — and free — directory service that uses voice or keypad. When I asked the recorded voice at 800-GOOG-411 (that's 1-800-466-4411) for "independent book shop in Boise, Idaho" and it steered me directly to my favorite one, the Rediscovered Bookshop six miles from my home. It even offered to call the store for me.

Some hotel booking services are available by phone. A real person answers the phone at 800-328-0876.

Cell phones also work fine for checking your flight status, as long as you find the instructions before you leave home at airlines' Web sites.

And there are navigation features aplenty on regular mobile phones. Verizon's VZ Navigator, a GPS-based navigation, traffic and weather feature, costs $2.99 for a 24-hour period or $9.99 for a month. As long as you can type in your request, a voice on VZ navigator will give you directions to your destination.

And of course, many phones give you access to the Web, for a price. But given the limits of phone-based Web access, and the drawbacks of using a tiny little phone screen, sometimes it's just easier to be like my in-laws: As Pew calls it, an 'Internet User by Proxy.'

That's what Fox, of Pew, briefly became when she was lost in the tangle of highways between Cape Cod and Boston recently.

"I didn't have a map and I didn't have GPS," said Fox. "I called my friend whom I knew would be able to pull it up on a screen. I knew the Internet could answer my question."

Fox noted that she was driving alone and would have had to pull over anyway to consult any device.

"Eventually I got off and stopped at a gas station and bought a paper map," she said.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)