Dream Trips 2004
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you choose? We've figured out the smartest, cheapest ways to experience seven of the world's wonders. It's time to stop dreaming and start exploring.
The Pyramids Cairo, Egypt
The pharaohs built things to last. That's why the name of Cheops has survived for 4,500 years. After all, nothing says "Cheops was here" like a 450-foot-high pile of stones weighing 6 million tons and covering 13 acres. This Great Pyramid is the oldest, and last surviving, member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It bakes under the desert sun in the western suburbs of Cairo, surrounded by nine smaller siblings and the inscrutable gaze of the Sphinx. An old Arab proverb holds that "Man fears Time, but Time fears the Pyramids."
GETTING THERE: Direct EgyptAir flights from New York to Cairo cost roughly $800, plus a $15 visa fee paid upon arrival. Taxis downtown are $10 (be firm on the price) and buses cost 50¢. Giza and the pyramids are an hour's bus ride (12¢ on air-conditioned minibuses #83 or #183), or 40 minutes in a taxi ($7, with airconditioning), from Cairo's main Tahrir Square, where relics from ancient times are housed in the Egyptian Museum. But in this case, an air/hotel package trumps going solo. One of the best deals in traveldom is Misr Travel's $899 package from New York.
YOU MADE IT: Admission is $3.24 and covers the entire site: the Great Pyramid, two slightly smaller ones, seven teensy Queens' Pyramids, and the Sphinx. Shimmying into a burial chamber costs another $8 to $16, depending on the pyramid you choose, but involves a long, crouching shuffle down a steep passage less than four feet high. Claustrophobes will want to pass.
WHO KNEW? The Great Pyramid of Cheops (his Greek name; the Egyptian name is Khufu) releases only 150 tickets each morning for burial-chamber visits, and another 150 at 1 p.m. Unfortunately, tour buses scoop up the first batch by 8 a.m. Solution: Arrive mid-morning, explore the grounds, then line up by 12:30 p.m. to snag an afternoon entry. Better yet, pay $13 to hire a taxi for the day and get there early. You can then drive just a few miles farther to Saqqara, Dahshur, or any of the other pyramid sites in the surrounding valley which, unlike crowded Giza, you can have virtually to yourself. --Reid Bramblett
Taj Mahal Agra, India
When his wife died in 1631, Emperor Shah Jahan was so bereaved that he spent 22 years-and most of his empire's riches-on this elaborate tomb, a tribute to love and mild insanity. His subjects locked him up for profligacy, but these days the Shah is most remembered as a romantic for the ages. Travelers who behold this soothingly symmetrical architectural ode report a sense of accomplishment, for there are few world monuments to match it for exotica and beauty. And-surprise!-if you've got the nerve to forge through chaotic Indian crowds, the Taj is reachable on a simple plane/train combo.
GETTING THERE: Flying out of New York, San Francisco, or Toronto yields the best chance at a markdown. Hari World Travel, operating in five North American cities, can arrange flights to New Delhi, the nearest gateway, for under $900 (212/997-3300). Don't forget to bring a visa ($30, indianembassy.org). Once you land, take one of several competing airport shuttle buses (about $1.30) to New Delhi's main train station, and from there grab one of the many daily trains on Indian Railways (indianrail.gov.in), the world's largest employer, southeast to Agra. The express ride is two-and-a-half hours (slow trains take up to twice as long); prices float illogically between $6 and $12. Spring for first-class seats with air-conditioning, especially when the heat spikes, from April to October. A rickshaw from Agra station to the Taj should cost just a buck or two (always settle on a price before boarding). The package alternative: Djoser's guided 20-day India and Nepal tour hits Agra on days eight and nine. It costs $2,095, including airfare, leaving Los Angeles from February to May (877/356-7376, djoserusa.com).
YOU MADE IT: Indian citizens pay 55¢ to enter the grounds (and they stay there all day, picnicking and hanging out), but you must pony up $20. Respectfully cover your legs with breathable pants-it's a Muslim burial site, which also means it's closed Fridays--and if you want to mount the plinth and pad around the polished inner sanctum that's inlaid with semiprecious stones (you do), you'll have to leave your shoes with an attendant. Tons of basic lodgings, of the type patronized by the Indian middle class and Western shoestringers, are in the adjoining Taj Ganj neighborhood and cost but $4.40 a night. After seeing the Taj, lots of tourists spin around and return to Delhi-you shouldn't. About a mile west, Shah Jahan's home, the Red Fort, still dazzles with its regal austerity, and 23 miles west of Agra, don't miss the fabulous palatial city of Fatehpur Sikri, built from scratch by the Mughals in the late 1500s and abruptly abandoned 14 years later.