By Matthew R. Link
June 4, 2005
Central America's perfect, penny-pinching blend of island beaches, virgin rain forest, and Maya mysteries

English-speaking and just a tad larger than New Jersey, lush Belize looks like a Caribbean island accidentally washed ashore on the Central American mainland. Its pace is molasses--slow, its populace smiling and easygoing--and its politics not perfect but relatively open and stable. With reggae rhythms, coconut palm-lined beaches, and breathtaking scuba diving (on the world's second-largest barrier reef), it's easy to mistake it for any of the more famous tradewind-kissed island "paradises" out to sea further east. But there's a key difference: Belize has none of the megaresorts, casinos, and sprawling development that have ruined so much of the Caribbean, looking instead to low-key cultural tours and ecotourism. The lack of large, glitzy resorts and hotel chains means an abundance of inexpensive, laid-back mom-and-pop guesthouses, and the low per capita income means an abundance of affordable restaurants and other services. The Belizean dollar is stable and pegged at 50: to the U.S. greenback (no need even to waste commission fees on changing money; almost any tourist establishment will take U.S. dollars and give you change in Belizean dollars at a rate of two to one). For the budget-minded looking for a relatively close and multifaceted tropical vacation with Maya culture to boot, friendly Belize is one of the cheapest places on earth.

Why multifaceted? Because there's plenty of life beyond the reef and beaches: Belize's interior is a 65-percent uninhabited wonderland of deep jungle rain forest, exotic native species, and myriad Maya temples. The country's populace is an English-speaking rainbow mix of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, and even German Mennonite, in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbors like Honduras and Guatemala (a mere two decades ago, Belize was British Honduras, one of the last British colonies in the Western Hemisphere).

Most visitors opt for "surf-and-turf": a few days of inland adventure (usually in the lush Cayo district), then some R&R on one of the offshore islets called "cayes" (pronounced "keys"). Belize City is mostly for passing through, having little of interest - not to mention a somewhat dicey reputation.

Belize was hit by Hurricane Iris in October of 2001, devastating the once popular backpacker beach village of Placencia on the country's southeastern shore. Luckily, the remainder of Belize's verdant and wild beauty was left for the most part unscathed.

Your basic costs

The most popular way of getting around - for tourists and locals alike - is "puddle jumping" on small aircraft, since Belize is home to only four paved roads (and just four traffic lights, which in any case are usually out of order or simply ignored) and boat rides can be wet and bumpy. Most flights use Belize City as their hub; Tropic Air (26-2012, and Mayan Island Air (23-1140, both operate short flights throughout the country. Round-trip airfare from Belize City to the cayes, for example, costs you $52.

Most accommodations in Belize are on the simple side, with ceiling fans and no TVs, but their prices are nothing short of astounding. All offer much cheaper rates in low season (roughly Easter through Thanksgiving - which includes the autumn rain-and-hurricane season). You can try your hand at bargaining hoteliers down below their asking rates in low season, but winter usually means everything is booked up, so planning ahead is crucial. One very special accommodation option is the Maya Homestay Network (72-2470) in the southern Toledo district, where you can stay with a Maya family and learn local cooking and traditions for as little as $5 per person per night (plus a $5 registration fee) and meals for $2 each.

The Cayo district: the jungle interior

Ultrabudget travelers or those just passing through stay in town - otherwise, most tourists opt for the more comfortable jungle lodges around the area. If you're in San Ignacio, try the cheekily named Hi-Et (12 West St., 92-2828), in an old-fashioned plantation-style building with wraparound porches. Five basic but bright rooms with double beds, shared baths, and fans are located directly above the friendly host family's living room and cost a mere $12.50 per person for a double.

Within a short drive of San Ignacio, rain forest lodges are made up of quiet, stand-alone cabins with two double beds and private bath, as well as inexpensive restaurants on the premises. My favorite is the Black Rock River Lodge (92-2341,, ten miles outside San Ignacio and perched on an ancient Maya site within its own steep, dramatic valley of limestone cliffs visible above a rain forest river below the property. Spacious cabanas with shared baths are $25 per person per night, and for $8, John, the friendly manager, will whip you up an American breakfast with unlimited coffee and juice. A little closer to town is Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916). Its simple but comfortable thatched-roof bungalows sit aside the Mopan River, where you can swim and play in inner tubes. Your own private bungalow with bath is $20 per person ($32.50 in winter's high season), and the vivacious host, Chena Galvez, serves a hot and filling breakfast including fruits and local "fried jack" biscuits for only $4.50.

For in-town chow, the best-known travelers' tavern in San Ignacio is Eva's Restaurant & Bar (22 Burns Ave., 92-2267), where local characters enjoy the chairs on the sidewalk and a wall of notices announces shared rides and cheap excursions. The food's so-so (entrees from $5) and the service iffy, but the atmosphere's a gem. Another budget traveler favorite is Martha's Kitchen (10 West St., 92-3647), serving up T-bone steaks with veggies and fries for $7.50 and stewed beef or pork with fried plantains for $3.50.

Three thousand years ago, Belize was a thriving home to more than one million Maya, and Cayo is where you'll find a good selection of ruins from their great civilization. Two fascinating and popular sites are Cahal Pech and Xunantunich ($2.50 entrance fee each). Cahal Pech was once a royal residence and is perched on a hill right above San Ignacio, while Xunantunich is the country's most visited Maya site, eight miles west of town and accessible via a hand-cranked ferry across a small river, then a milelong road to the site. The panoramic views from the top will make your head spin. San Ignacio is also used as a base to visit the impressive Tikal ruins in neighboring Guatemala, about a two-hour drive away; Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916) offers a full-day trip from San Ignacio for $50 per person (minimum two), including lunch.

The area's other great draws include eco-adventures like rain forest horseback riding (typically $40 for a day) and exploring Maya caves filled with ancient pottery ($25 for a three-hour tour). Most of these excursions have standard prices and can be arranged through lodges, except for the extraordinary full-day adventure innertubing through river caves offered by the terrific, deep-jungle Jaguar Paw Resort (888/775-8645, for $70, including lunch.

On the way back from Cayo along the Western Highway to Belize City (between Milepost 29 and 30), stop by the fun Belize Zoo (81-3004). Hilariously clever placards explain the land's unique fauna, and this may be your only chance to see disappearing wildlife like the black howler monkey (with a cry as loud as an elephant's), tapirs, ocelots, crocodiles, scarlet macaws, and rare black jaguars. And it's all for a cool $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for kids.

The offshore isles: first, Ambergris Caye

Right on the water, the three-story Rubie's Hotel (26-2063, fax 26-2434), at the south end of Barrier Reef Drive, has been a budget anchor of Ambergris for 20 years, offering 24 basic but pleasant double rooms with private baths and fans for $12.50 per person ($15 in high season), including three with shared bath for $7.50 ($10 in high season). A short walk south of "downtown" San Pedro is the Exotic Caye Beach Resort (800/201-9389, with a pool and bar, plus four small hotel doubles for $25 ($35 in winter) as well as large condos featuring balconies, lofts, separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, and full kitchens that rent for $60 per person ($87.50 in winter).

Munching out in Ambergris can cost mere pennies: Celi's Deli (26-2014) just next to the San Pedro Holiday Hotel on Barrier Reef Drive, has an amazingly inexpensive menu of take-out food like 58: chicken tacos, 50: beef meat pies, and $1.15 slabs of rum cake; you're welcome to eat them on the hotel's oceanside back terrace. A popular town eatery called Elvi's Kitchen (26-2176) features wooden benches, a smiling waitstaff dressed in bow ties, and a thatched roof built around a tree. Rice, beans, and a quarter of a stewed chicken go for $6.90, while a huge plate of "Maya chicken" (served in banana leaves with fried plantains) is $10.

Ambergris Caye is ringed by sandy beaches with so-so swimming (due to lots of sea grass), but the snorkeling and diving on the nearby reefs is extraordinary - with prices that are rock-bottom compared to most you'll find in the Caribbean. For instance, SEArious Adventures (26-2690) zooms you out to both the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley (where you can touch wild stingrays and toothless nurse sharks) for a half-day trip of snorkeling for a mere $20, while various full-day dive trips start at $40 - all including equipment and gear.

And then there's Caye Caulker

Built on a walkable grid of spacious dirt roads, most of Caye Caulker town lies just south of "the Split," a hurricane-carved channel. Adjoining the Split is a small sandy area where folks enjoy lounging in the bathtub-warm water. Caye Caulker's caught on with the young crowd, but you don't need to stay in a crowded hostel or sleep in a hammock (although the latter can be had for a laughable $5 a night if you ask around).

Trends Beachfront Hotel (22-2094, fax 22-2097, is a baby blue and pink two-story hotel with eight comfortable rooms, all with both a double and a queen-size bed, fridge, ceiling fans, and large private baths. Double rates are $20 per person in summer, $30 in winter. Sandy Lane Guesthouse (22-2117) has individual cabanas with private bath, kitchenettes, and funky decor, sleeping three for an amazing $20; shared bungalows go for $7.50 per person. The very pleasant Lazy Iguana Bed and Breakfast (22-2350, presents four tidy rooms in a four-story building in the southern part of the village, including 360-degree views from the roof deck and hammocks, as well as hearty breakfasts cooked by friendly Texan hosts Mo and Irene Miller. Rates are $37.50 per person in summer, $42.50 in winter.

Cheap eateries abound in Caye Caulker, but Syd's and Glenda's, both located in the inland part of the village, are where the islanders flock for cheap eats. Syd's is a white, rather spartan-looking affair, but dishes up yummy plates of three garnachas (mini-tostadas) for 50: or lobster burritos for $2 each. Glenda's is in a blue island-style home, with kitschy touches like a hanging beach towel depicting Leonardo's Last Supper. Here, chicken, rice, and beans (the local mainstay) are $3, and locally famous cinnamon rolls, 25: each.

Belizey does it

In some cases you may save money by opting for independent packages (airfare, transfers, and hotel, but no organized touring). America's top budget-friendly Belize specialist is Capricorn Leisure (800/426-6544,, which offers three nights in Cayo and four nights on Caye Caulker this winter with a three-day car rental and round-trip air from Miami for $708. Tara Tours (800/327-0080,, meanwhile, is selling a $658 five-night package at the Spindrift Hotel in Ambergris Caye, including round-trip airfare from Miami. Marnella Tours (866/993-0033, has great three-night dive packages (with five dives, while staying at a beach resort) for around $700.

A somewhat cheaper but more grueling alternative: Take a charter flight to Cancon, Mexico, from a selection of U.S. cities for about $300 with Apple Vacations (available only through travel agents; and $400 with Sun Trips (800/357-2400,, then undertake a ten-hour, two-bus road odyssey from Cancon. ADO GL buses (800/702-8000, leave daily from Cancon to Chetumel, Mexico (five to six hours) for $20, with video movies to distract you from the lack of scenery. From Chetumel, you switch to a Novelo's bus (27-7372) at Nuevo Mercado for the four-hour drive to Belize City for $10; the last bus leaves at 5 p.m., so be sure to time it right and secure a safe hotel in Belize City for the night.

Get more tourism info at 800/624-0686 or at,,,,,, and

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Banff to Jasper

Travelers of the Victorian age called the hundreds of snowcapped peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains "50 Switzerlands in One," and they couldn't have been more accurate. The Tetons are molehills next to the Canadian Rockies, with hundreds of peaks over 6,000 feet tall. They harbor the Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper national parks. The awesome phenomenon now attracts more than four million annual visitors, making the area's centerpiece, Banff, and the surrounding region the most popular tourist attraction in Canada. Once there, you'll find pure lakes made electric blue by glacial runoff "rock flour"; an array of wildlife such as elks, cougars, and grizzlies; and dreamlike mountain landscapes taken straight out of a Maxfield Parrish painting. This is truly one of the last huge, untarnished wildernesses, and thanks to the excellent exchange rate and low winter prices, it's all yours for a song. You start in Calgary The first place most visitors to the Canadian Rockies see is the city of Calgary, Alberta (population: nearly one million), just about an hour's drive from Banff. It's an oil-boom location, buttoned-down and conservative, but with lovely, lush river parks meandering through its corporate heart. Its most famous attraction is the enormous annual Stampede festival ( in summer, with rodeos, concerts, and lots of parties. Cheap flights to Calgary can be had from Air Canada's Jazz Airlines (888/247-2262,, a low-cost carrier flying from many American cities (even as far south as Atlanta and Dallas), while Jetsgo (866/448-5888, offers cheap flights from New York/Newark, and Horizon Air (800/252-7522, has well-priced service from the West Coast. It's worth a day or two to poke around Calgary's clean streets and chic bars and restaurants, where prices are quite reasonable throughout the year. A must-stop, even if you're just passing through, is the Glenbow Museum (130 9th Ave. SE, 403/268-4100,; admission CAD$11/US$7.85), the largest in western Canada and housing thousands of impressive artifacts from Canada's "First Nation" native peoples. Also have a look at the impressive Olympic Park (88 Canada Olympic Rd. SW, 403/247-5452,, where the '88 winter games were held and top athletes still train. Self-guided tours are CAD$10/US$7.15. Duck in for an authentic Irish meal for under CAD$14/US$10 at the James Joyce Irish Pub (403/262-0708) on the pleasant pedestrian-only Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown, lined with cafZs and bookstores. Find budget digs at "Motel Village," near the intersection of Crowchild Trail and Highway 1, where the rates of Econo Lodge (800/553-2666), hovering around CAD$70/US$50 a room, are typical of any number of other privately owned, low-cost motels in the immediate area. Then hop on to the famously scenic Trans-Canada Highway ( for the roughly one-hour ride to Banff, passing otherworldly mountains and jagged peaks. Grizzly towns and buffalo nations Banff's main street is dwarfed by towering mountains on all sides. A town before the national park around it was formed, wildlife still dominates here-one year a grizzly bear strolled through downtown! Although you'll want to rush out into the wilderness, don't leave town without stopping by two important museums. The Whyte Museum (111 Bear St., 403/762-2291,; admission CAD$6/US$4.30) has outstanding paintings and historical displays on early exploration and tourism. The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum (403/762-2388,; admission CAD$8/US$5.70) is housed in a log fort along the Bow River and presents collections of stuffed wildlife, life-size dioramas of Native American culture, and awesome quillwork and beadwork. Most of Banff's cheaper lodgings can be found just at the entrance to town, strung along Banff Avenue. The very least expensive is the 100-plus-bed Global Village Backpackers (449 Banff Ave., 888/844-7875,, a "five-star hostel" that attracts a young, social crowd and includes an Internet lounge, game room, hot tub, and outdoor patio; its beds start at a mere CAD$23/US$16, and self-contained private apartments go for CAD$89/US$64. A more standard motel close by, the Red Carpet Inn (425 Banff Ave., 800/563-4609) offers doubles starting at CAD$75/US$54 and operates two restaurants, underground parking, and whirlpools. But even at a higher price, Brewster's Mountain Lodge (208 Caribou St., 888/762-2900, is arguably the best value in town (around CAD$100/US$85), with its large rooms featuring pine furniture, and granite and tile bathrooms. And check out the Timberline Inn (off Hwy. 1 at Banff, 877/762-2281, on a scenic perch above the town, with panoramic views of the surrounding Bow Valley. Doubles start at CAD$88/US$63, and even if you don't stay there, have a meal at its panoramic Big Horn Steak House, where New York striploin steaks are just CAD$20/US$14, and most meals cost less than CAD$14/US$10. The non-budget hotels are led by the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (403/762-2211,, called "the castle" by locals. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1888 to attract rich travelers, it's a stunning piece of architecture framed by a green carpet of forests. You can wander about and poke through the rock-wall lobby and grounds free of charge. Nearby are the Banff Upper Hot Springs (403/762-1515,, where visitors can soak outdoors amid the scenery for just CAD$7.50/US$5.35. Diamond in the rough outdoors Banff Springs Hotel's sister, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (403/522-3511,, is another must-see. About a half-hour drive north of Banff, it's called the Diamond in the Wilderness and sits on the edge of the peacock-blue-colored lake, gazing up at the dramatic cliffs. Eating at the swanky hotel's bar under huge windows is a real treat and not too expensive-just CAD$13/US$9.30 for the chicken Caesar salad or CAD$11/US$7.85 for the tempura prawn satay. Afterward, rent a canoe and paddle on the lake for CAD$32/US$23. Or take the (free) three-hour round-trip hike from the hotel to Lake Agnes, a pristine alpine pond with stunning views and an old-fashioned log teahouse where you can munch on sandwiches (CAD$6/US$4.30) and sip tea (CAD$3/US$2.15) outside on the terrace. Banff was regarded as a summer-only destination for years (the Banff Springs Hotel only opened year-round in 1969), but now with the nearby Ski Banff at Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise ski resorts (877/754-7080,, the area is busy in winter, too. Considerable renovations have taken place at each (Sunshine Village now has the fastest eight-person gondola in the world), and a three-day lift pass good for all three resorts is only CAD$186/US$132. The above Web site offers cheap packages as well. The road to Jasper A great many tourists turn around and head back to Calgary after Banff and Lake Louise, but this is a mistake. Banff is just the tip of the iceberg; the less-visited Jasper National Park to the north is arguably even more of an attraction than Banff National Park, with miles of hiking, tons of fishing, cross-country skiing, and other outdoor pursuits. The magnificent three-hour drive along the Columbia Icefield Parkway ( to Jasper takes you through the highest section of the Canadian Rockies. Be sure to stop to gaze at the ultra-green Peyto Lake and Bow Lake. The latter is site of the red-roofed, cabin-style Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (403/522-2167,, filled with fireplaces, historical photos, mounted animal heads, and live piano music. Dine on its large buffet breakfasts for CAD$15/US$11 or sandwich lunches, which cost even less. You can stay cheaper about halfway between Banff and Jasper at The Crossing Resort (403/761-7000,, where rooms start at CAD$55/US$39 in winter and CAD$95/US$68 in summer. The highlight of the drive to Jasper is the Athabasca Glacier, one tongue of the huge Columbia Icefields. Stop by the visitor's center (877/423-7433) at the base of the glacier for free displays on geology and history, or opt for the special shuttle tours to the top of the ice from mid-April to mid-October for CAD$30/US$21. Jasper, the friendly host Jasper is a quaint town that, like Banff, existed before its surrounding national park, with friendly folk who make visitors feel right at home. Stay at the historic (1929) brick Athabasca Hotel (510 Patricia St., 780/852-3386, in the center of town for CAD$59/US$42 in winter, CAD$109/US$78 in summer. Or e-mail the Jasper Home Accommodation Association (, which can set you up with stays in private homes and B&Bs for as little as CAD$35/US$25 per couple per night. Jasper is wilder and emptier than Banff and Lake Louise, perfect for solitude. Be sure to make a trip out to Maligne Lake, undiscovered by Europeans until 1908 and home to a string of extraordinary mountain peaks. The 90-minute, CAD$35/US$25 boat trip (780/852-3370, to Spirit Island is worth the splurge. Another side trip is to the Miette Hot Springs (780/866-3939, in Fiddle Valley, where you can hike along the heavenly Sulphur Skyline without seeing another soul and then finish your day with a long soak in the clean, modern pools for CAD$6.25/US$4.50.

Punta Cana: Penny-Wise in Paradise

With fine beaches and one of the most relaxing vibes in the Caribbean, la Repoblica Dominicana, which is roughly twice the size of Vermont, has sprouted some 80 resorts since the 1970s. Almost all of them are all-inclusive, meaning that for one price they sell everything vacationers need: a room; airport transfers; all meals and drinks, including alcoholic ones; a slew of daytime activities; kids' clubs; entertainment; and tips. Because of its undeveloped economy and extremely low wages, the Dominican Republic's prices are among the lowest in all the Caribbean for such arrangements. Though properties on other islands may occasionally match the DR's low rates, none do so consistently. And among the best values on the island are the accommodations in the modern development of Punta Cana. What is the atmosphere like in Punta Cana and what sort of vacationer chooses it? Located along 23 miles of beaches and an 18-mile coral reef in low-lying, arid land at the eastern tip of the country, Punta Cana is serviced by direct flights to its own airport, making arrival easy. Most visitors don't come to be submerged in Caribbean culture (there are no real towns nearby), but rather to get away from it all in a quiet, self-contained vacationland of large, low-rise, mellow resorts, each with its own palm-lined, soft-sand beach. Punta Cana's guests want to feel as if their hotel is the only one around for miles, and they rarely leave the grounds. Punta Cana is the cheapest area on the Caribbean's cheapest island-and here are its six most affordable all-inclusive resorts, all of high quality. They offer the amenities mentioned above, as well as private bathrooms, A/C, cable TV, phone, hairdryer, and fridge or minibar. High season runs January through April, low season June to mid-December. Rack rates for doubles (all are per person, per day; kids under 14 often less) are given as guidelines. You'll save much more by booking an air/resort package from a vendor such as Apple or Funjet, which in some months fly there daily and supply all-inclusive stays for as little as $500 a week, from New York and Miami (see box for more operators). Breezes Punta Cana Built in 2000 and managed by the SuperClubs chain, it has an elegant neoclassical design, with vaults and arches in the main buffet restaurant. Most of the 735 rooms are not enormous, but comfy, all with a balcony or terrace, CD players, and fridges stocked with soda and water. There are five bars and six restaurants: the elegant main buffet, El Alcazar; five good reserved-seating eateries serving Italian, Japanese, French, and Mexican cuisine; plus one near the beach offering grilled meats, fish, and a cold buffet. In addition to a small casino, Breezes offers unusual extras: a bank with ATM, a circus trapeze and trampoline, a rock-climbing wall, and-believe it or not-a little hockey rink. There's even an offshore shipwreck for snorkelers. Free wedding (ceremony, cake, champagne, flowers, etc.; legal fees extra) with a three-night stay. Wheelchair accessible. High season $130 all-inclusive, low season $91; 877/467-8737, Carabela Bavaro Opened on El Cortecito beach in 1992, this Spanish-owned property is intimate and private, as it's tucked away on a park-like spread with shady tall pines and palms and patrolled by pink flamingos and peacocks. An ocean mural peers over wicker chairs in the cool, open lobby, and its 399 rooms are arrayed in eight low-slung buildings. There are two pools with a swim-up bar, a children's pool area, and an enormous round spa tub. Besides the La Noray buffet restaurant, three others are reservation-only: Italian, seafood, and international cuisine; there's also a snack bar and five bars. Nightlife is not a strong suit, but there are funky little bars down the beach and in adjoining El Cortecito village. Extras: miniature golf; a hairdresser; massage on the beach for around $20. High season $80 to $90 all-inclusive, low season $70; 809/221-2728, Catalonia Bavaro Another Spanish-owned property, this five-year-old has bungalow-style buildings with 711 bright and spacious units, each with a terrace with hammock and a living area (some have hot tubs). Apart from the Gran Caribe buffet and a beach buffet, there are four ? la carte eateries with reserved seating (Japanese, Mexican, French, Italian). Bars number five, including a swim-up in the pool. Extras: archery, a basketball court, a small casino, an ice cream parlor/cr?perie, and (for a charge) a decent nine-hole golf course. The beautiful beach has a bit more sea grass than at some other resorts. Wheelchair accessible. High season $125 all-inclusive, low season $80; 809/412-0000, Club Med Punta Cana In 2000, this 74-acre member of the classic French chain was part of a $350 million renovation project. It has always been family oriented (rooms are now extra-big) and strong on tennis, with 14 courts and good instruction. It now offers an all-inclusive program closer to those offered by other resorts. There are two bars and round-the-clock snacks. The food is among the best in Punta Cana; apart from the main buffet, there's a fabulous over-the-water restaurant. The pool is huge and dreamy, there's a smaller one for kids, and the half-mile of talcum-soft beach is the area's longest, with its own coral reef. Some rooms are far from the main facilities. High season $140 all-inclusive, low season $100 to $110; 800/258-2633, Fiesta Bavaro: Part of a three-resort complex with a great beach and coral reef, its 608 units are in two-story bungalow-style structures. The fare gets good reviews at its main buffet, three ? la carte eateries (Mediterranean, Tex-Mex, international), and pizza bar. Guests may use the adjoining Fiestas-nine restaurants, twelve bars, two discos, and four pools. There's also an ocean-view fitness center offering (for an affordable price) massage and spa treatments. High season up to $128 all-inclusive, low season from $99; 809/221-8149, Occidental Allegro Punta Cana This older resort serves up 540 rooms in nine three-story buildings. Besides Topaz (the buffet) and a half-dozen bars, good food is found in four a la carte eateries (Italian, seafood, Caribbean, a caf?) and a poolside snack bar. There's a bit more energy here than at some of the more laid-back resorts above, but it's far from a "party-till-you-puke" kinda place. The helpful staff is a particular plus. A slight minus: no fridges in rooms. Horseback riding is included. High season from $105 to $169 all-inclusive, low season from $89; 800/858-2258, Package it, Pedro Apple Vacations, book only through a travel agent 800/915-2322, FunCaribe 800/680-6991, Funjet Vacations, travel agents only Inter Island Tours 800/245-3434, GOGO Worldwide Vacations, travel agents only MK Tours 888/441-7600, TourScan 800/962-2080, Travel Best 800/955-2378, Vacation Express 877/784-3786, Vacation Travel Mart 800/288-1435,

Half-Price Ticket Booths in U.S. and Canada

Fewer than 10 North American cities had them as recently as five years ago; now 14 operate busy outlets for reduced-price theater tickets. The reason? "An undoubted falloff in ticket sales" says Latifah Taormina, executive director of the Austin Circle of Theaters in Texas, "Nationally, subscriptions are down, as is the demand for individual seats. So half price is a way to get the paying customer into the theater. It's better than papering the house [issuing free tickets], and a real help to the performing arts." As a savvy tourist, you may want to keep the following list of discount-ticket booths and the times for using them. New York Addresses: Midtown's outlet is the Theatre Development Fund's TKTS booth at the top of Times Square, 47th St. and Broadway; Downtown, at the corner of Front and John St.s. Hours of operation: For evening shows, the Times Square booth is open between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays; for matinees, arrive between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Hours at the Downtown location are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. In addition, the Downtown booth sells matinee tickets a day ahead (you must buy Wednesday matinees on Tuesday, Saturday matinees on Friday, and Sunday matinees on Saturday). Discount amount: 25 percent or 50 percent. Method of payment: only cash or traveler's checks. Average time on line: In summer, as long as an hour; expect to wait between 15 and 45 minutes the rest of the year. Shows you'll get: In an average week, the TKTS booth will have available the majority of the shows currently on the boards (the week we last called, it had 65 productions on offer). You're unlikely to see the very biggest hits like The Lion King, Mamma Mia, Hairspray, The Producers, or Metropolitan Opera productions, but everything else is routinely sold. Tip: Theaters release tickets throughout the day, so you're no more likely to get a good seat at 3 p.m. than you are at 7:30 p.m. Thus, don't plan your day around getting to the booth early (some visitors foolishly wait an hour before it even opens); instead, show up when it is convenient for you. For information, visit Additional sources for discounts: Year-round, Web sites such as and give their subscribers discount codes for advance purchase on shows (there's no charge to subscribe). While these rarely undercut the savings of the TKTS booth, they do allow theatergoers to purchase discounted tickets well in advance. Currently, the League of American Theaters is also supplying coupons for tickets (go to, but in most cases, the resulting rates do not seem competitive with TKTS. Las Vegas Address: The youngest of the half-price ticket booths, Coca-Cola Tickets2Nite has been in business for just under a year now. It's located, appropriately enough, right in front of the giant Coca-Cola bottle on the Strip, next to the MGM Grand and across the St. from New York-New York. It's a very Vegas scene, with large, plasma video screens playing 30-second clips from the shows on sale. Hours of operation: 2 p.m. to approximately 8:30 p.m., seven days a week (occasionally the booth will stay open later to accommodate late shows). Discount amount: 50 percent. Methods of payment: cash or credit cards (sorry, no poker chips!). Average time on line: from 15 to 45 minutes. Shows you'll get: The booth usually sells about 25 different shows a day, from the biggest names in town to the most obscure. Tip: Tickets tend to come into the booth in the early afternoon, so you'll get the best selection at 2 p.m., when the booth opens for business. For additional information, call 888/484-9264. San Francisco Address: TIX Bay Area is located in Union Square on Powell St. between Geary and Post. Hours of operation: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Sunday performance tickets are sold on Saturday and Sunday.) Discount amount: 50 percent. Methods of payment: cash or traveler's checks only. Average time on line: 15 minutes; up to 30 minutes on Saturdays. Plays and activities on offer: In addition to discounting shows at ACT, the New Conservatory Theater, the opera, symphony, and touring Broadway shows, TIX acts as a Ticketmaster outlet and sells full-price events as well. To learn what's offered before you get to the booth, call 415/433-7827 or go to San Diego Address: The Arts Tix Booth is located in Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. Hours of operation: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Discount amount: 50 percent. Methods of payment: cash, traveler's checks, credit cards. Average time on line: five minutes. Shows you'll get: San Diego is an active theater town with many distinguished playhouses, some of which consistently move shows to Broadway. You'll find all of the top theaters represented at the Arts Tix Booth, including the Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, and San Diego Rep, along with many of the smaller, storefront theaters, local dinner theaters, dance companies, the symphony, and opera. As the booth also acts as a Ticketmaster outlet, it's a good source for touring Broadway shows (which may not be discounting), as well as tickets to concerts and other events. Getting discounts in advance: Unlike many half-price booths, Arts Tix has an online outlet (, which permits customers to reserve seats beginning at 6 p.m. the night before a performance. Since tickets are released by the theaters just once a day, usually the evening before, going online to buy is the best way to insure you get the show you want to see. For additional information, call 619/497-5000. Washington, D.C. Address: TICKETplace, Old Post Office Pavilion, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. at 12th St.. Hours of operation: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash, traveler's checks, credit cards. Average time on line: five to 10 minutes. Shows you'll get: Washington, too, is a real hotbed for theater, and TICKETplace offers discounts to many of the finest ones in the area: the Kennedy Center, the Folger, the Signature Theater, Washington Shakespeare Company, and touring Broadway shows. In addition, TICKETplace sells discounted seats for up to 70 different venues, ranging from special shows at the Smithsonian and Corcoran galleries (recently the much-acclaimed Jackie Onassis show was on sale) to opera, dance, concerts, and smaller theaters. More info: 202/842-5387, Hidden bonus: The ticket window is manned by performers, directors, and others involved in the Washington arts scene, and they give terrific advice on what's worth seeing and what should be skipped. Boston Address: BosTix operates out of two locations, Copley Square and Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Hours of operation: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Faneuil Hall location closed Mondays); Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Patriot's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash only. Average time on line: 15 to 20 minutes. Shows you'll get: There's usually a choice of about 30 productions and events at the BosTix booth, from touring Broadway shows and local theater to concerts and dance. For more information: 617/482-2849, Chicago Address: It's hard to go too far in Chicago without hitting a Hot Tix booth. They're at 78 West Randolph, 163 East Pearson, 9501 North Skokie Boulevard, and at Tower Records stores around the city. Hours of operation: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday (West Randolph opens at 8:30 a.m. weekdays); noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash only at Tower Records; other locations accept credit cards. Average time on line: less than five minutes. Shows you'll get: The greatest variety of shows are on the weekends, as Chicago plays host to numerous, small storefront and mom-and-pop theaters (Steppenwolf started this way!), but all in all, Hot Tix sells the shows of 140 different groups of all kinds. Occasionally, tickets are sold at a discount up to three days in advance, so be sure to ask. For more information and to see shows currently on sale, call 312/554-9800 or go to Minneapolis Address: TC Tix, first floor of the City Center (Seventh and Nicollet). Hours of operation: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash, traveler's checks, credit cards. Average time on line: less than five minutes. Shows you'll get: Minneapolis is a theater hub, plain and simple. From wacky experimental shows to poetry slams to alternative-rock concerts to glitzy Broadway musicals, it's all here. And all of these widely divergent performances are sold at the TC (as in Twin Cities) Tix area of the Information and Visitor Center. To snag a particular show it's best to show up as early in the day as possible, as tickets are limited. The TC Tix booth is also a Ticketmaster outlet for those willing to pay full price (but does anyone do that anymore?). For more information and to see shows currently on sale, go to The list of discounted shows is posted at 10 a.m. each morning (you can also call 612/288-2060). Cleveland Address: C-Tix is located at Star Plaza, 1302 Euclid Ave., adjacent to Playhouse Square Center. Hours of operation: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash, traveler's checks, credit cards. Average time on line: None--there's almost never a line, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland provides free parking to make the process even more hassle-free. Shows you'll get: touring Broadway shows, local theater, ballet, opera, concerts, and family entertainment. But interestingly, this is also a prime place for cheap tickets to events and attractions such as the Six Flags amusement park, many Cleveland museums, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For more information: 216/771-1778, Atlanta Address: AtlanTIX is in the Visitors Center of Underground Atlanta (sounds spooky, but it's actually just a big subterranean mall), at the corner of Upper Alabama and Pryor St.s. Hours of operation: Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 3 p.m. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash, traveler's checks, credit cards. Average time on line: five minutes. Shows you'll get: On a typical Friday or Saturday, theatergoers have a choice of between 20 and 25 discounted theater pieces, concerts, and dance recitals. Matinee performances can be purchased one day before. Also on sale here are the High Museum of Art, the Zoo, the Atlanta History Center, even the Road to Tara Museum in nearby Jonesboro. More info: 678/318-1400, Austin, Texas Address: AusTIX, 3423 Guadalupe; Austin Visitors Center at Second and San Jacinto; and Book People at Sixth and Lamar. Hours of operation: Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. (The Visitors Center location is open Tuesday through Saturday, with half-price tickets available Thursday through Saturday; Book People is only open Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash, traveler's checks, personal checks. Average time on line: none. Shows you'll get: theater, music, and dance from traveling shows to locally grown productions housed in the smaller venues. Some tickets are sold in advance, so be sure to ask. More information: 512/474-8497, Seattle Address: Ticket/Ticket has three outlets in Washington: at the Pike Place Market; at Broadway Market, 401 Broadway East, 2nd level (between Harrison and Republican St.s), in Seattle; and at Meydenbauer Center, 11100 NE Sixth St., Suite 2, in Bellevue. Hours of operation: Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. (Pike Place until 7 p.m. except Sunday). Matinees go on sale the day before and the day of show. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash only. Average time on line: five minutes. Shows you'll get: performances throughout the Puget Sound area, with the best tickets going to those who snatch them up early in the day. Shows range from choral concerts to theater pieces to film-festival selections. More info: 206/324-2744, Vancouver Address: Tickets Tonight, 200 Burrard St. (Plaza level). Hours of operation: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets for Sunday and Monday performances are sold on Saturday. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash, traveler's checks, credit cards. Average time on line: under five minutes. Shows you'll get: touring shows such as A Night with Dame Edna and Porgy and Bess; rock, blues, folk, and jazz concerts; opera, ballet, and local theater. Get there early in the day to get the best seats. To learn which shows are available, call 604/684-2787 or go to Toronto Address: T.O. TIX, Yonge-Dundas Square, corner of Yonge and Dundas. Hours of operation: Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7:30 p.m. Tickets for Sunday and Monday are sold on Saturday. Discount amount: 50 percent. Method of payment: cash, traveler's checks, credit cards. Average time on line: 10 minutes. Shows you'll get: theater, dance, comedy, opera, and music. Toronto takes its performing arts seriously, and there are serious bargains on a large number of shows to be had at this booth, the reincarnation of an earlier discount booth erected in 1983. To learn which productions are currently on sale, call 416/536-6468, ext. 40, or visit

4 Days, 3 Nights in Las Vegas For $500

If you're strong enough to spend four days in Sin City without ever going near a roulette wheel or slot machine, you and your companion can enjoy the entire experience for a total of under $500. And I mean "enjoy"- visiting a dizzying variety of shows, museums, events, panoramas, and both man-made and natural wonders. And savoring tasty meals that leave you full and content! We're going to assume a late-afternoon arrival and a decision to have dinner before you check in to your hotel: the spectacular Stratosphere Tower, whose midweek rates quite frequently go down to $35 a room per night. From the airport, my advice is that you begin with one of the bargain highlights of the itinerary: dinner at Ellis Island. Day one You won't find this casino featured in the travel guides, but its caf, serves the best meal deal in Las Vegas: a complete steak dinner for just $4.95. Though it's not on the menu, it's available 24 hours a day. Ellis Island is also a microbrewery, and homemade beers and root beer are just $1 if you buy them at the bar and carry them in (which you can do in most Las Vegas restaurants). Two steaks and two drinks: $12. 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Take a Strip Tour/Then Check In: Take a left on Flamingo, then head to the Strip and one of the most famous intersections in the world. To the left is Paris and its 460-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, and Bellagio is across the street. To the right is the world-renowned Caesars Palace and the massive Colosseum, where Celine Dion plays nightly. Go right on the Strip. You'll pass the Mirage-catalyst for the "New Las Vegas" when it debuted in 1989-and the sprawling Venetian. Slightly beyond are the steel girders that will be the $2 billion megaresort Wynn Las Vegas (formerly Le Reve) when it opens in 2005. You've seen these places on TV and in the movies, now they flank you on either side. As you reach the north end of the Strip, the older resorts have more familiar names: Riviera, Stardust, Circus Circus, Sahara. You'll have no trouble locating your hotel. Just look up; the Stratosphere Tower looms ahead. Check in, freshen up, and relax. Strip tour: $0. 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Stratosphere Tower: Before beginning the evening, there are two things you need to do. First, call the Plaza Casino (702/386-2110) and make reservations for dinner at 6:30 on the final night of your trip at the Center Stage restaurant. And second, page through Showbiz magazine (available in your hotel room) to find the coupon for the Hard Rock Casino's "Six Pack," which is found in this periodical exclusively; you'll need it on Day Two. Now head to the Stratosphere's observation tower, clutching the funbook that's distributed to hotel guests. It includes a coupon for half off tower admission, which lowers the price to $4. Ride the high-speed, double-decker elevator to the 107th floor and spend an hour atop the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Of the two rides at the top, the High Roller (coaster) is a snore. But for adrenaline junkies, the Big Shot is an instant rush 1,000 feet up. It's $8 to ride. And why not do it twice, using the funbook coupon for a $1 re-ride? Kick back and have a cold drink in the lounge on the mezzanine overlooking the revolving Top of the World restaurant. Drinks run from $4.25 to $7, but the funbook has a two-for-one drink coupon. Finish the evening by taking in a free show in the Images Cabaret. Hang out, have a cocktail, and listen to some great music till it's time to call it a night. Tower, two rides, two re-rides, drinks: $41. Day two 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Breakfast: The trip to Hoover Dam begins at Tropicana and the Strip. Drive to the Tropicana, park in the casino's east lot, and walk next door to the San Remo for steak and eggs, served in the coffee shop for $4.95. There's also an excellent around-the-clock $4.95 prime rib if you're in the mood. Breakfast: $13. 10 a.m. to noon Tropicana/MGM Grand: Walk back to the Tropicana and head to one of two free-pull slot machines located off the walkways from MGM Grand and Excalibur. The free spin can yield dinners, show tickets, even a new car, but don't count on those. You'll probably win two good perks: a free souvenir deck of cards with the Tropicana logo and tickets for the Trop's Casino Legends Hall of Fame museum (plus a coupon for a two-for-one drink that you'll use later). The Hall of Fame displays 15,000 items from over 700 casinos (550 of which no longer exist), including matchbooks, a showgirl dressing room, videos of casino implosions, 13,000 gambling chips, and a fascinating look at the Nevada "Black Book" of excluded persons (mobsters and cheats). Regular admission is $6.95, but it's free with the coupon. Time your museum exit for 10:50 a.m., then hotfoot it upstairs to catch the 11 a.m. exotic-bird show in the Tropics Lounge. The birds are stunning and the show is free. Before going back to the car, use your coupon to grab a couple of drinks from the bar and take the overhead walkway to the MGM Grand. An escalator just inside takes you directly to the Grand's 5,345-square-foot, multilevel lion habitat. This is a 5-to-10-minute diversion; admission is free. Souvenir, museum, bird show, habitat, two drinks: $3. Noon to 12:45 p.m. Hard Rock: Head east on Tropicana, take a left on Paradise, and you'll run into the Hard Rock Casino. Rock-and-roll themed and packed with music-related displays and memorabilia, this prototype of the new breed of supertrendy Las Vegas casinos is worth a half-hour tour. Bring the coupon from Showbiz magazine to the Backstage Pass booth to get a great, free shot-glass souvenir. Tour and souvenir: $0. 12:45 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Liberace Museum: Get back on Tropicana and continue east for two-and-a-half miles to the Liberace Museum. Liberace was a one-man walking advertisement for the extravagance, flamboyance, and uninhibited tastelessness usually associated with his adopted city, and his museum reflects it all. The $12 admission is reduced by $2 when you present the coupon that appears in the freebie magazines. Museum admissions: $20. 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Lunch: Continue east on Tropicana for several miles to the freeway (I-515) and head south. The dam is 30 minutes from here, which leaves time for another only-in-Las Vegas dining deal. Take exit 64 and drive toward the marquee of Sunset Station. There's plenty of good-value dining in the Sunset Station resort, but not as good as in the dining room at the Gold Rush, the little casino next door. Everything on the menu is a bargain, but the best play is the giant hamburger with fixings and fries for $1.99. Two burgers and drinks: $8. 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Hoover Dam: Get back on the highway and follow the signs to the dam. The sheer majesty of this construction marvel is worth the trip by itself, but there's also the tri-level visitor center featuring exhibits on the dam's history and engineering and a 25-minute movie chronicling the dam's construction. Since 9/11, visitors can no longer go into the dam on the traditional tour. However, a self-guided Discovery Tour has been substituted. Tickets are sold until 4:30 p.m., and the dam closes at 5. Getting there by 3 p.m. should allow you to see everything. Admission is $10 and includes the visitor center and access to the top of the dam. Parking is an additional $5. Total charges: $25. 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Aladdin Slot Tournament: Retrace your route back to the city and stop at the Aladdin, the second casino you encounter after turning right onto the Strip from Tropicana. You're going to play a slot tournament. Gamble? Well, yes, but there's a method to the madness. The entry fee for the Aladdin's mini-slot tourney is $25. You play a 15-minute round during which the $25 is the most you can lose. If you get lucky and score high, you can win cash prizes, including the grand prize: a free-pull on every dollar slot in the casino. But the real value is in the perks that come with the entry. For starters, you get $10 in free-play on a real machine. Play the $10 and cash out what's left. You also get $20 in food credits, $20 off two show tickets, and two free desserts at Starbucks. Cost: variable, depending on slot-play return-$16 is the average outlay ($25 maximum). 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Dinner and Show: After a long day of sightseeing and traveling, head to Aladdin's Spice Market Buffet, one of Las Vegas's top three, with abundant meats and fresh seafood, and sinful desserts. At $20 it's also pricey, but the $20 food credit chops it down to a bargain. The show, Society of Seven, is top-rate music/comic/variety, good for all ages and most tastes, and well priced at $35 before the discount. Time is a little tight here, since the show begins at 8 p.m. Send one person to get the show tickets, while the other gets a table in the buffet. Get your free dessert after the show, then head back to the Stratosphere. Stop at any casino if you aren't yet ready for bed. Dinner, show, and desserts (after credits): $70. Day three 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Breakfast: Breakfast buffets rank among the best bargains in Las Vegas, and the best in town is at the Palms. Drive south on the Strip to Flamingo and make a right. In addition to the usual breakfast fare, the Palms' Fantasy Market Buffet features cooked-to-order omelettes, eggs Benedict, knishes, fresh potato pancakes, and a complete Hawaiian breakfast of Portuguese sausage, eggs, and rice-all for a buck less than the norm, $5.99. Then stroll around the ultracool Palms and head back to the Strip. Two buffets: $12. 10 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. South Strip Driving Tour: There are far too many casinos to visit in a single trip, but you can soak up the outside spectacle from your car. The intersection of the Strip and Tropicana Avenue may be the most visually stimulating street corner in the world. In the space of about a mile, there's a 4,000-room castle (Excalibur), a 5,000-room city-within-a-city (MGM Grand), the Manhattan skyline (New York-New York), a 30-story pyramid (Luxor), and a gold-tinted, glistening high-rise that literally sparkles beneath the desert sun (Mandalay Bay). Take a leisurely up-and-back drive from Bellagio to Mandalay Bay, checking out the world-famous facades. Remember, look but don't stop. South Strip tour: $0. 10:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Center Strip Walking Tour: Park in the big garage on the south side of Bellagio and go inside. Spend a half hour checking out this spectacular resort, including the colored-glass chandelier in the lobby, and the view of Paris's Eiffel Tower across the man-made lake. Next, cross Flamingo Avenue to Caesars Palace. There are three entertainment options here. The Race for Atlantis ride is a high-tech motion simulator, coordinating motion with sophisticated 3-D graphics and stereo-headset sound. At $10 per ticket, this one is worth a splurge, and $2-off coupons are ubiquitous in the freebie mags. The other two options are free: Festival of Fountains and Atlantis. The two run concurrently, every hour on the hour, so you'll be able to see only one-choose Atlantis. Not only is the sinking of the lost city by battling animatronic gods a superior production, it's also conveniently located next to the Atlantis ride. Cross the Strip and head to the front door of the Imperial Palace to the best souvenir of the trip-a free photo set inside a classic automobile. The photo is available instantaneously inside the casino, but it's better to pick it up later. Get your claim check and go to Harrah's. At Harrah's outdoor Carnaval Court, locate the show-ticket booth near the entrance to the casino and ask for discount tickets to the Mac King Comedy Magic Show (or get tickets by signing up as a first-time member of Harrah's slot club). Center Strip tour, Race for Atlantis ride (with coupon), Atlantis spectacle, souvenir photo: $16. 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Show and Margarita: Mac is the king of the city's new genre of bargain entertainment: afternoon shows, known as "nooners." The show's retail price is a low $16.65, but the discount voucher admits you for a one-drink minimum of $5.95. Catch the 1 p.m. performance for 60 of the most entertaining minutes of magic and comedy in Las Vegas. Following the show, duck into the neighboring Casino Royale for frozen margaritas at the bar; they're $1 and available 24 hours. Show and margaritas: $14. 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Venetian/Imperial Palace/Bellagio Fountains: The ultraposh Venetian is next door to Casino Royale. Be sure to see its lobby, with its gilded frescoes on the ceiling and geometric design on the flat-marble floor that creates an optical illusion of climbing stairs. If you need a snack to hold you until dinner, there's a value-priced food court upstairs in the Grand Canal Shoppes mall where you can lunch (next to canal and gondolas). Head back to the Imperial Palace to retrieve your photo at the slot-club booth. Since you're going inside, check out the Palace's long-running automobile collection too. Pick up a coupon from barkers out front to save the $6.95 fee. It's a five-minute walk from here back to Bellagio. Time your return for 4 p.m. to coincide with the fountain show's half-hour rotation. Watch the syncopated waters shoot 20 stories high from the rail bordering the lake, then retrieve your car. Venetian tour, snack, souvenir photo, auto collection, fountain show: $10. 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Downtown Tour: No Las Vegas trip would be complete without a trip downtown. Turn left out of Bellagio and follow the Strip four miles to Fremont Street. Park free in the Plaza garage and take the elevator down to the casino. Dinner is set for 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza's Center Stage restaurant. This leaves about two hours to check out Glitter Gulch. Unlike the Strip, the downtown casinos are stacked side by side, so two hours goes a long way. Check out the Binion family's display of customized firearms at the Horseshoe, a chunk of the Berlin wall in the men's room at Main Street Station, and the world's largest piece of pure gold on public display at the Golden Nugget. Casino tour, two beers: $3. 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Appetizer and Dinner: On the way back to the Plaza, stop at the Golden Gate for an appetizer: the city's most famous (and best) 99> shrimp cocktail, a Las Vegas tradition since 1959. The Center Stage is one of Las Vegas's classic "bargain gourmet" rooms, with great food, cheap prices, and a view that stares straight down Glitter Gulch. Full meals (nothing is a la carte; substitute the onion soup for the salad) start at $15. Dinner and two shrimp cocktails: $45. 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Fitzgeralds Show and Fremont Street Experience: Be outside for the 8:30 showing of the Fremont Street Experience light show-a video projected on a canopy by two million lightbulbs and sound broadcast by more than 200 speakers. It's a six-minute presentation, which leaves plenty of time to get to Fitzgeralds for the 9 p.m. presentation of one of its full-fledged one-hour productions, where the price of admission is a one-drink minimum ($3). Note that two days a week there's a ticketed show ($12.95) in this time slot, so call ahead. Show and Experience: $6. Day four Tally Travelers, man your calculators! Total outlay in the itinerary is $325 for two people, all meals, drinks, shows, museums, slot tournament, and souvenirs. The room at the Strat will run about $100, the rental car about $60. The entire thing (minus air) is under $500.