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.

WHO KNEW?: Although every photograph you've ever seen of the Taj-including this one-makes it look tranquil and wistful, in fact the whole joint is usually jumping with sightseers. Plan to enter the grounds when they open at first light, as sunrise bathes the monument in an eerie peachy hue, and again in the evening, when moonlight seems to light the building from within. Quick-footed salesmen will offer to snap digital photos of you in the gardens and print them while you wander. They're actually pretty talented, and you don't have to pay unless you want a copy. --Jason Cochran

Great Barrier Reef Queensland, Australia

The world's largest reef system is arrestingly big. What other living thing is about as long as the American West Coast and visible from space? Nonetheless, it sure can be an ordeal reaching it, marooned as it is off the northeast coast of Australia. Better face it: With the planet's reef habitats withering at an alarming rate, it's a true see-it-before-it's-gone wonder.

GETTING THERE: The best land gateways are tropical Cairns (touristy to a fault) and Townsville (Cairns' yokelly competition about 150 miles south). Americans usually first touch down in distant Melbourne, Brisbane, or Sydney and take a connecting flight to reach the reef. High airfares used to make that leg the deal breaker, but young Virgin Blue (virginblue.com.au) offers one-way Sydney-Cairns flights for $74 (on sale) to $170 (normal price). Add that to a good Los Angeles-Sydney fare ($899 in our summer), and your toes can get to the sea's edge for as little as $1,047 round trip. Alternatively, a company called Oz Experience (ozexperience.com) will guide you and a busload of other adventurers from Sydney to Cairns, allowing you to take your time, for $287; it requires a minimum of nine days each way.

YOU MADE IT: Dozens of outfits vie to take you to the reef, an hour offshore. One of the cheapest, Compass Cruises, in Cairns (011-61/7-4051-5777, reeftrip.com), leads snorkeling outings for $45. Three-day, 10-dive expeditions cost around $425, and there's plenty of equipment to go around. Day trips to the many islands (some overcrowded, some virtually deserted) start at around $20. Generally, the farther from land you go, the better the diving is.

WHO KNEW? Cairns has more than 20 hostels, many with nice double rooms, so lodging doesn't have to cost more than $25 a night. Avoid going in the rainy season, from January to March, when waters can get cloudy from river runoff-that's when transpacific airfare costs the most, anyway. And, for heaven's sake, always check with locals before jumping into these wild waters: From November to April, the deadly box jellyfish prowls the waves, and, year-round, saltwater crocodiles browse for meals at the shore. -JC

Red Square Moscow, Russia

Russia is more than a decade removed from the fall of Communism, yet the country's heart and soul is still Moscow's Red Square, a 500,000-square-foot swath of public space that is actually not red, or square (it's more like a gray rectangle). It's here that you'll find the royal trio of Russian icons: onion-domed St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin looming behind high walls, and the world's creepiest tourist magnet, Lenin's corpse.

GETTING THERE: Flights to Moscow often drop below $500 in winter, when temperatures there rarely climb above freezing. In summer, it's unusual to find airfare under $1,000. (Tip: Try Finnair, with a change in Helsinki.) But an air/hotel package is usually more affordable. For $699 in winter and $1,399 in summer, Eastern Tours offers a six-night package to Moscow and St. Petersburg, with lodging, air from New York, train tickets between the cities, transfers to hotels, and guided tours of both cities, with a particular focus on the Kremlin and Red Square. It's a bureaucratic nightmare to get a tourist visa (by itself, $100) without using a travel agent-another good reason to go with the package. Flight taxes and visa fees tack on about $300 through Eastern Tours (800/339-6967, traveltorussia.com).

YOU MADE IT: Most decent hotels-such as the Rossiya Hotel (moscow-hotels.net/rossiya-hotel), a modern, three-star property right across from Red Square ($104)-help guests negotiate the complicated and mandatory visa procedure. It's also necessary to register with local authorities within three days of arrival. Most hotels take care of this for you for an additional $20 or so-skip it and you risk getting hassled by the police. The wait for Lenin's Mausoleum can sometimes last three or more hours (it's generally open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and closed Mondays and Fridays). Stone-faced guards turn tourists away for any number of reasons. Carrying baggage is a no-no of late, due to security precautions (both Red Square and Lenin's Mausoleum were closed for spells last year, without much warning, for renovations and terrorism concerns). Entrance to the mausoleum is free and also grants access to the Kremlin Wall, where Stalin, Brezhnev, and other luminaries are buried.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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