Live Talk: Planning an inexpensive, hassle free vacation

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Executive Editor Pauline Frommer answered your questions on Tuesday, January 11 at noon ET

Three major US airlines are teetering on the brink of annihilation and airfares are at a 20 year low.

The biggest cruiselines recently imposed a "no discounting" rule on cruise agencies, but despite all predictions shipboard vacation prices are not soaring (yet).

The Euro has become the Arnold Schwartzenegger of currencies, with the dollar a 90-pound weakling...and Americans are crossing the pond in record numbers (2004 was the second biggest year for European tourism, after 2000).

It's been an odd year for travel, to put it mildly. But despite the upheaval in the airline industry (with its attendant holiday meltdowns), the weak dollar, rising fuel costs, and virus-plagued cruise ships vast numbers of Americans have caught the travel bug and are setting off to see the world in ever increasing numbers. The question is: are they doing it smartly? Are they getting the most for their money?

Today, we'll have a broad-ranging discussion on planning vacations (and doing it well!). From using the Internet effectively, to hot destinations, to insurance and safety issues...Let's talk travel! I'm also happy to answer any questions you might have on traveling to Paris or New York, two cities I've written on extensively.

Pauline answered your questions Tuesday, January 11, at 12pm EST.

Pauline Frommer is Executive Editor of Budget Travel Online and like many of our editors, grew up on the road. She started traveling at the age of four months, dashing about Europe with her guidebook-writing parents. Pauline is the former Editor in Chief of Frommers.com and was at its helm when it won the coveted "People's Voice" Webby award. She is the co-author with her father Arthur Frommer of the book "The New World of Travel" and a recipient of a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers for her magazine articles. Married to photographer/actor Mahlon Stewart, she is the proud mother of five-year-old Veronica and one-a-half-year-old Beatrix, both terrific travelers.


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Pauline Frommer: Good afternoon to all! I've oiled my keyboard, am strapping on the old thinking cap and am going to try and answer as many questions as I can in the next hour.Post again there and either I or one of our staff or best yet, one of our brilliant and well-traveled readers, will help you out.
Okay, bring on the grilling!

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Houston, TX: My 14-year-old daughter and I plan to visit the Czech Republic this June. She wants to buy a good Czech violin while we are there. I know that many luthiers work in and around Luby, but since I cannot figure out how to get to Luby or where to stay once there, I wonder if going to the source is advisable. What would you recommend for a 10-day sightseeing/violin buying/cultural experience vacation to the Czech Republic?

Pauline Frommer: There are actually two main violin companies in the Czech Republic: Amati which is located in Karslice and Strunal which is in Luby (Amati is slightly larger). Both towns are very close to the famous spa town of Karlovy Vary, which in turn is a two-hour train ride from Prague. If you're determined to buy a violin on this trip (and you can certainly get one made to your specifications there for less than you could here), you could overnight in Karlovy Vary and either hire a driver or take a taxi from there to one of these two towns. There also will be public buses between these towns and Karlovy Vary, though translating the schedule could be a bit tricky. Still, this is doable, and Karlovy Vary is an interesting place to visit in its own right (be sure to take the waters).

If you want some help in setting up this itinerary you may want to contact the very knowledgeable Czech expats who run Summit International Travel (http://www.summittravel.com/). They have terrific and inexpensive air/hotel packages to Prague (which you could use for airfares and hotels in the capital) and also can arrange custom itineraries.

You're going to love the Czech Republic--a fascinating, beautiful country, which is especially friendly to music lovers (there are classical concerts in Prague nearly every night of the week).

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Pittsburgh, PA: Was Australia affected by the tsunami?

Pauline Frommer: No, not to my knowledge.

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Philadelphia, PA: Vegas or Orlando: which is will be the least expensive to travel to this year? I like to find best bargains.

Pauline Frommer: Vegas and Orlando are the number one and number two most popular US destinations for both domestic and international visitors. They both have an outrageously large number of hotel rooms, and--except during huge conventions (Vegas) or at the peak of school holiday periods (Orlando)-- a good number of those rooms are going to be empty at any one time, and discounting to attract guests. In Orlando, it's possible to stay at any number of faceless, but clean and comfortable motels along International Drive, for as little as $19 a night; you'll find the same kind of pricing in Vegas at Terribles Casino and periodically at the Westward Ho and Stratosphere hotels (on my last visit, I stayed at Harrah's--right on the strip and next to the chi chi Venetian--for just $39/night).
Both destinations are also tops for "packages". Currently, e-LeisureLink.com is selling five-nights' hotel in Orlando, with airfare from a few East Coast cities and rental car for just $353. Southwest Airlines vacations currently has a deal that will lower the cost of a two night hotel stay in Vegas--with airfare from California--to just $79/person. Many other gateways are available on both deals and are similarly discounted.
This is a long way of saying that, if you do it right, you can have a budget vacation at either place. Vegas may be slightly cheaper because the cost of theme park admissions keeps going up and up and up in Orlando (just last week Sea World raised it's rates to $59.75/person; last month it was Universal; and the month before that Disney "restructured" its rates.) It's very difficult to get a discount on DisneyWorld, though the "lesser" theme parks do often farm out admissions coupons to the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau (look for their "Magic Card") which can cut costs substantially.
But heck, if you gamble in Vegas, there go any savings you might have gotten on the hotel or airfare (since the house always wins in the end. Yes, they do. Don't fool yourself about that.)

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Conyers, GA: As a single person, what are some important things to consider when planning an inexpensive vacation?

Pauline Frommer: Though packages can often save couples money, the dreaded "singles supplement" usually wipes out any savings for the solo traveler. So be sure to check, before booking anything, how the costs stack up if you buy the elements of the vacation (hotel, air, rental car, etc.) separately.
Singles always get stung with extra costs on cruises and tours, so consider whether you'd be able to still enjoy your vacation if you shared your room with another traveler. Often the company you're booking from will arrange a share, and guarantee you the lower double occupancy price if they can't find anyone for you. If you're unlucky and they do find someone for a share you could be stuck with the roommate from hell. It's a risk.
You may want to take a look at our online chapter on Travel for singles which lists a number of companies which arrange vacations just for singles; we also list vacations where you'll feel less stigmatized if you are alone. You'll find the chapter at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3223204/.

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Yorktown Heights, NY: How easy will it be for a 13-year-old to hike to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite?

Pauline Frommer: Half Dome is a tough trek for grown-ups but if your child is in reasonably good shape (and you may both want to get on a work-out program to prepare) I would say it was doable. From Happy Isle it's about 17 miles round-trip, so you'll have to leave at dawn to make it back by nightfall. You may want to consider camping in Little Yosemite Valley so you can take your time (you'll need a wilderness pass). Bring gloves, as your hands can get pretty chafed on the cables.

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Kansas City, MO: Is it reasonably possible to save $5000 American dollars and live and travel around Brazil for one year?

Pauline Frommer: That's an interesting one. If you stay out of the major cities (Rio and Sao Paulo are both pretty pricey compared to the rest of the country), I think you could just make it, though be sure to factor in the cost of airfare (you'll pay less in the summer months) and the fact that you'll have to pay $100 just to get into the country. You may also need a specialized visa for a stay that long so contact the Brazilian consulate before you start saving in earnest.
My family and I were in Brazil this summer and found it to be very affordable. I delicious meal of freshly caught skewers of shrimp bought from a vendor on Ipanema Beach was about $2. We stayed at a wonderful resort in the colonial city of Paraty for just $30/night and rented a boat with driver for the day to take us around to see the islands in the bay for just $40 (for all four of us). So yes, Brazil can be done inexpensively. And it's definitely worth the visit, a fascinating place of great extremes (both economic and in terms of physical appearance) with among the sweetest, most welcoming people we've ever met.

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Huntington Beach, CA: Hi Pauline, I'm visiting Madrid and Paris this summer from July 5th-August 15th. The airfare to fly into either one is around $1,100. Why is it so expensive and would it be better to buy later? Thanks.

Pauline Frommer: Though domestic fares have fallen from many gateways, international fares remain pretty hefty. Add to that the fact that you're traveling in high season. You could possibly shave some off the cost if you fly into and out of the same gateway (I would guess that Paris would be the cheaper of the two) and book low-cost hops between the two on one of the "upstart airlines" that's making flying within Europe relatively inexpensive (EasyJet, Ryannair, GermanWings are just a few of these carriers; you may want to do a search on Mobissimo.com to get the lay of the land). As for whether to book now or later: you won't lose anything by waiting a few months and you could catch a sale that way. I'd wait until at least mid-March to book. It's highly doubtful that rates will go up from where they are, and you could possibly catch a sale. Another suggestion: try a discounter such as 800/FLY-EUROPE or go to aggregator CheapFlights.com. They may have access to non-published fares that could cut your costs significantly.

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Cherry Hill, NJ: I am a senior citizen interested in a campus vacation that is inexpensive. If inexpensive courses or waivered courses are offered, I'm interested. Please do not recommend Elderhostel. Work-study is usually low cost. Is there a list of US universities offering summer adult housing and work-study? Thank you.

Pauline Frommer: I know of no university that has work-study programs for non-accredited students. However, many Universities across the country allow seniors to audit their classes for free. You won't get free housing, but you will get free classes and in the summer, there may very well be inexpensive dorm lodgings available. These types of auditing programs are available in all 50 States.
Sorry you don't want me to recommend Elderhostel. I think they're a terrific and highly affordable organization.

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Grand Rapids, MI: I would like to know where I can find the best airfare from Grand Rapids to Lihue, Kauai. I keep finding airfare for $800 and above. We are leaving on June 24 and returning on July 2. HELP!

Pauline Frommer: You may be out of luck. I'd say try an aggregator site such as Sidestep.com, kayak.com or mobissimo.com. They allow you to scour the web pretty rapidly. Or you may want to try and book a "two-legged" trip for yourself. Price how much it would cost to go to Los Angeles or San Francisco and then see what kinds of prices you can get from there. Both gateways often have terrific deals to the islands from such companies as SunTrips, Aloha Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines among others. A word of warning though: the latter two are in bankruptcy, so don't book them without travel insurance.
For our other readers a note: Southwest Airlines will soon be code-sharing to Hawaii. So if you live in a Southwest gateway (which Grand Rapids is not), you may soon be able to get lower rates to the islands through SW.

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Arleta, CA: I like to visit Niagara Falls in Canada, when is the best time and cheapest time to travel?

Pauline Frommer: Winter. High season is during the summer months.

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Providence, RI: Hi Pauline: I received an email a couple of weeks ago from my cousin who indicated she and her fiancé have decided to get married on the 3rd weekend in May in Greece, Santorini Island actually, and have invited a bunch of family and friends. I would love to go but also would like to make it a long vacation and do some other traveling. I want to spend about 4 or 5 weeks abroad and would love to know the most cost efficient way of doing this, all the while visiting the hot spots. You see, I'm also being "downsized" (a polite way of saying my job is going away because of a corporate merger) in May and will have plenty of time on my hands as well as a small severance package that will allow me to not worry about money while traveling, at least in the short term. Although that may change given how poorly the dollar is doing against the Euro. Anyway I did travel to Toscana this past May and found Italy wonderful. What I would love to do is travel in and around the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean Seas. I am budgeting about $5,000 US dollars. Any suggestions? P.S. I'm also turning 40 in June and want to make this a memorable trip.

Pauline Frommer: What a great birthday present for yourself!
Here are some suggestions on how to stretch your money (which you're going to have to do with the Euro as strong as it is currently):

  • Get a good guidebook, plan an itinerary and book in advance at the highly recommended small guesthouses. You'll be getting into high season and the really popular cheap places will book up well in advance. You could also mix hostels in; some are pretty nice and have single rooms that can be less expensive than equivalent rooms in hotels.
  • I don't know why, but I'm assuming you're a woman (please excuse me if you aren't). A wonderful way to save money and "personalize" your travels is to join a club called "Women Welcome Women". This is an organization of women all over the world (and many in Europe) who enjoy extending hospitality to travelers. Sometimes they'll give you a spare room for the night, other times, they'll just give you dinner and perhaps, a tour. But it's a great way to meet interesting people in the countries you'll be visiting. If you're male, you should look into "The World for Free" (a similar club).
  • Turkey is wonderful, near Greece, and much less expensive than Europe. Consider it as part of your itinerary. You won't regret it.
  • For meals: have your big meal of the day at lunch. This way you can try really great restaurants without spending too much. Then picnic at dinner time, picking up supplies at a local market: some cheese, a great sausage, a bottle of beer.
  • You'll pay less on international airfare if you can fly into and out of the same gateway at the end of your trip. So plan a circular itinerary if you can (unless you find great deals on air hops, which is a distinct possibility. It's amazing how cheap some intra-European flights have been recently).
  • You may want to look at Troy Tours which has had some inexpensive (and extendable) air-hotel packages for Athens and Istanbul.
    That's all I can think of right now. Have a wonderful trip! I envy you.
  • St. Louis, MO: Are there any cheap ethnic dining establishments you would currently recommend in NYC? Also, could you recommend some good day spas for a massage? I'm planning a solo long weekend in NYC next month as a mid-winter break.

    Pauline Frommer: For a day spa, try Bliss, the Stone Spa or Oasis Spa. As for restaurants: yikes, the city is crawling with great ethnic eats. Here are just a few of my faves:

  • Chinese: Great New York Noodletown (on the corner of Bowery and Bayard in Chinatown) is a must. Amazing sautéed pea shoots, fab salt baked seafood, really good duck and as you might expect, really good noodles.
  • Chinese, dim sum: Try Jing Fong (on Elizabeth between Bowery and Canal) a Dim Sum Palace with a huge variety of tasty options. Be sure to stop by the buffet area along with picking from the carts.
  • African/French: Les Enfants Terribles (37 Canal Street at Ludlow) is a really hip, fun scene, with terrific food and music.
  • Greek: It's worth trekking out to Queens to visit Elia's Corner (24-02 31st Street, in Astoria) for fresh and well-seasoned seafood (the octopus is incredibly tender). This is a particularly nice place in summer as it boasts a large outdoor patio.
  • Japanese: Shabu Tatsu (216 E. 10th) and its sister establishment Shabu Shabu (314 E. 70th) are where I bring out of town visitors for the experience&and food. Basically, you cook your own grub here, it's a lot of fun and the food is delish.
  • Roumanian: Sammy's Roumanian (157 Christie Street, near Delancey) is like a bar mitzvah on steroids. A cheery keyboardist pounds out tunes from Fiddler on the Roof while you consume large quantities of chicken liver (mixed at your table with generous sloshes of schmaltz (i.e. chicken fat) and bottles of Absolut encased in ice. It's not an inexpensive evening, but its one you won't forget.
  • Ethiopian: Meskerem (468 West 47th) is convenient to the Theater District and serves up massive portions of very tasty, very cheap food which you eat with your hands (you scoop it up with the spongy bread they provide).
  • Caribbean/Southern: A strange combo, but Maroons (244 West 16th) does both exceedingly well. The best collard greens I've ever tasted and a great atmosphere.
  • German: Hallo Berlin (626 10th Ave and 402 W. 51st). Lots of beer, great sausages&what could be better? Also, nice and cheap.
  • Middle Eastern: Moustache (90 Bedford Street) offers up inexpensive but tremendously fresh foods. The spreads are particularly good.
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    Pontiac, MI: Pauline, my companion and I are planning a trip to Iceland the last week in March 2005. How can we do this inexpensively and hassle free? We plan to stay just three nights. Keep in mind that we have never been to Europe. What major places should we see? What should we not leave Iceland without? Thanks for your help!

    Pauline Frommer: My colleague Senior Editor Adrien Glover has just recently been in Iceland, so I asked her to respond to this one. Here's her reply:

    Iceland will be pleasant, easy, and naturally exhilarating introduction to Europe, but it's not cheap, so you'll have to plan carefully. For your first trip, I'd recommend looking into Icelandair Holidays (icelandairholidays.com/)--it offers relatively affordable air-hotel packages. Icelandair flies from Boston, New York, Baltimore, Orlando, and Minneapolis. Of its two big hotels in Reykjavik (icehotels.is/), the new Nordica is stylish but I'm actually a fan of the retro (and charmingly worn) Loftleidir Hotel, the only hotel in the city with its own mineral swimming pool. If you book your airfare and hotel separately, then look into staying at the Hotel Fron or a "guesthouse" ($100/ni.).

    Spend your first day soaking up Reykjavik (it's not big, and therefore easy to do), spend your second day on the Golden Circle Tour (it takes you to geysers, stunning waterfalls, lave fields) or to the Snæfellsness Peninsula (where you can watch whales and see glaciers). Be sure to return in time for a late-afternoon visit to one of the city's many public mineral pools. This is a must, and a quintessential Icelandic experience. You can easily arrange on the day of your departure to stop at Iceland's famous Blue Lagoon ($50), milky azure geothermic hot springs (bluelagoon.is/) en route to the airport. This too is a must for any first-timer to Iceland, and a terrific way to end your trip.

    While there, you might want check out the nightlife Reykjavik's famous for. For dancing, go to NASA and for music, talk to you your concierge about the latest spots for listening. One of my favorite restaurants is Perlan, which rotates on top of a geyser. It serves incredible gourmet food, featuring lamb, arctic char and other items Iceland is known for. (A dinner here will be a splurge.) Other eats include Iceland's famous lamb hot dogs (they cost just $2 and are sold everywhere--in the Keflavik Airport, at a stall near the port in old Reykjavik, etc.). "Black Death" or Brennevin (caraway schnapps) is THE drink of choice. Locals even mix it with Coke. Iceland is a strange beautiful place. Enjoy your trip!

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    Houston, TX: Hello, I'm planning a 6-day trip to London for March ('05). My cousin and I would also like to visit Paris for a day or two (inclusive) via train. We don't want to carry our luggage with us the entire time, do you have any suggestions, other than renting one room in London and one in Paris for the same dates?

    Pauline Frommer: There will be lockers at the train station (guarded) where you should be able to leave your luggage when you go to Paris. You can consult any good travel guide for costs and information on where in the station these will be located.

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    New York, NY: Can you recommend a good option for suites in Las Vegas? It seems the Strip hotels have really high rates. Any suggestions?

    Pauline Frommer: What you pay in Vegas will always depend on when you go. If you can be flexible with your dates, you can often get suites for very little money. You may want to go to the website of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau to see the listings of conventions. This will give you a good idea of which dates to avoid. You'll also pay a lot less for rooms midweek than you will on the weekend. Finally, you may want to consider looking off strip, though I personally prefer the excitement of the Strip to having a really large room. I've found that very few of the rooms in Vegas are that great to begin with (the exception would probably be the plush rooms at the Venetian and Bellagio). But in general, the rooms in Vegas are poorly lit (purposefully) so that you won't want to stay long in your room and will get back to the casino sooner!
    One final suggestion: try a room consolidator like Hotels.com or LasVegas.com. They may have deals that aren't available to the general public.

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    Anonymous: Why are fares from Denver, which is 700 miles away, to Las Vegas so high? We can't get a RT ticket below $215 bucks...yet my friends in Indianapolis, much farther away, can go for $150 round trip? What's the deal?

    Pauline Frommer: Competition. Those gateways that have the most airlines vying for your travel dollar get the best fares.

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    Pinon Hills, CA: I'm renewing my wedding vows in Las Vegas in February. It's my 20th anniversary. Can you suggest a nice place to have dinner afterwards? OR maybe a great show. Thanks.

    Pauline Frommer: Congratulations! If you're looking for a great, old-fashioned Vegas show, I'd recommend Clint Holmes. He's a really terrific performer (and would probably announce from the stage that you're renewing your vows. Just alert the manager in advance). As for a restaurant, it really all depends on how much you want to spend. The town is bristling with great restaurants.

    Orlando, FL: Pauline, Good afternoon and thanks for a great magazine. My question to you is about how to find opportunities/jobs similar to what you do be it as a researcher or something in the travel field. I am very good at researching destinations, love to travel and learn about other cultures and countries and would like to get some direction on finding an opportunity. Thanks for your help in advance.

    Pauline Frommer: There are no such jobs. You have to be a writer to work as a travel writer. No travel writer worth her salt would send someone out to research destinations for her; there would be no way she could write them up from someone else's notes.
    Sorry!

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    Columbia, CA: We are going to be in Vegas January 16-18 for a conference. We'd like to extend our stay, but need help on how to find those budget deals for shows and places to stay that combine fun with frugality. Should we wait  we're there for the best deals or book through a search engine ahead of time? Thanks!

    Pauline Frommer: Wait until you're there. For shows, there's a half-price ticket booth on the Strip which is a real money saver, and, depending on the time of year, sometimes even gets the Cirque du Soleil shows (which are extremely pricey). And if you have a few moments to wander around to a couple of hotels during your convention you should be able to find an inexpensive room for yourself. Don't be afraid to bargain! There are always vacancies and managers are dying to unload rooms. Say to them "Well, I just got an offer of $40/night at (fill in the blank) hotel. Can you beat that?" You'll be surprised at how often this will work. Just be brave!

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    Boston, MA: Hi Pauline, I am trying to plan a group vacation in April for about 10 late-twentysomethings, mostly couples. We want to spend about 5 to 7 days wherever we go, with a combination of nightlife and outdoor activities, and keep the per person cost to around $700 for air/hotel. Some of our ideas were: Iceland, South Beach & Orlando combo, Cozumel, or a Napa-Tahoe-Yosemite trifecta. Any other cheap alternatives? Thank you!

    Pauline Frommer: My colleague Adrien Glover volunteered to take this one:

    Of all the destinations on your short list, I'd go with Mexico. I'd recommend renting a house on the Yucatan Peninsula (Cozumel or elsewhere) for your group vacation. This area offers something for everyone (beach for those who want to veg, cave diving, jungle treks, etc. for those who are more active, Mayan ruins for culturally oriented vacationers, good shopping opps, etc.) and is easy to get around.

    Many properties also come with cooks and a staff. (It isn't much more to have a cook and it's is a terrific way to help alleviate pressure around meal time, plus you can sample many local dishes without leaving your compound.) You and your friends should have no trouble finding a property big enough to accommodate you all for less than $700/couple, and there are quite a few websites dedicated to regional rentals in Mexico. NOTE: You'll need to rent a car(s) or minivan. When you do be sure to rent with an established international agency; the local outfits can be difficult to deal with should something go wrong.

    I'm just not sure you could actually do the other locations on the budget you have planned (especially Iceland).

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    East Lansing, MI: When is the best time to travel to Mexico and is San Miquel de Allende a good destination?

    Pauline Frommer: San Miguel de Allende is a wonderful destination (good for you for choosing a historic sight over a bland beach resort!). As for when you should go, don't go in May because everything shuts down then (that's when the Mexicans take their own vacations). Early fall is lovely, spring is great too, the winter can be chilly, and with summer comes the rainy season.

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    San Diego, CA: What is your favorite "can't miss" sight in the Miami/Florida Keys areas?

    Pauline Frommer: Vizcaya in Miami is absolutely wonderful. A historic home, eclectic and beautiful in its design. I'd highly recommend it. Also in Miami, you're going to want to spend at least an afternoon in the art deco district wandering among the pastel hotels and chi chi restaurants. It's a real scene and not to be missed.

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    Orlando, FL: Hi Pauline; Not only do we have the same name but we are bargain travel shoppers. My question is I am looking to go on a cruise and wanted to know if you recommend me doing a last-minute booking to see if I can gain some great last-minute deals, or if I should play it safe and book early with the cruise line that I have traveled before to benefit from my saving offers for past cruisers?

    Pauline Frommer: There's been a real shake up in the cruise industry of late. The cruise lines (Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity in particular) are trying to do in the discounters by not allowing them to rebate back to the consumer any of their commission; and by not allowing them to buy cabins in bulk and at a group rate and then pass back that discount to consumers. You combine these consumer-unfriendly tactics with the fact that cruising is booming and the result is: very few last-minute discounts.
    Last year, I would have advised you to wait. This year, my advice is to go to a "reverse auction" site such as CruiseCompete.com and see what kinds of discounts you can get in real time. You may also want to check in with such discounters as Cruisestar.com, cruisevalue.com, cruisebrothers.com, cruisesonly.com, etc.
    Finally, "Repositioning Cruises" where the cruiseline moves a ship from its winter to its summer port, continue to be good values. If you speak with any of the above companies, you may want to see if they have any good deals on these types of cruises.

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    Phoenix, AZ: I am planning a trip to Italy (Rome) in October...should I get my tickets immediately or should I wait and see what happen with fares??

    Pauline Frommer: Wait!!! You'll pay through the nose if you book now, since they'll know they've got you. Start looking about three months before you're planning to leave. That way, if there are any sales, you'll be able to catch them. 1-800-FLY-EUROPE has had some really good prices of late to Italy.
    If you don't have a hotel picked out, you may want to look into an air/hotel package. This will often save you big bucks on both components. Some companies to look at for Rome:

  • Tour Crafters
  • Gate 1 Travel
  • Go-Today.com
  • VirginVacations.com
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    Milo, ME: Is there a best time of year to travel to southwestern areas for a scenic tour type vacation? Coming from Maine, we do mind extreme hot weather... anything less than 80 is fine.

    Pauline Frommer: Well, the Southwest is a pretty big area. If you're visiting the mountainous areas of the Southwest (in New Mexico, for example) the temperature should be pretty temperate, even in August. But if you're thinking of visiting Phoenix, say, you'll be pretty miserable in June, July or August. I'd suggest you visit weather.com/ so you can key in exactly where you'll be going and get a forecast.

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    Reston, VA: I once took a trip with Green Tortoise, an adventure travel company that provides you a bus to live on while traveling across the US. I loved it, as it was affordable and allowed me to cover a lot of ground. Are there any other travel companies that are similar that you would recommend? Thanks.

    Pauline Frommer: Green Tortoise is really one of a kind! I don't know of any other companies where you sleep on the bus. However, there are companies that do "cooperative camping". What that means is they set up tents for the customers and everyone bunks down together at night.

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    Raleigh, NC: I was thinking about going to Iceland specifically Reykjavik for Spring Break (March), is that a good time to make the trip?

    Pauline Frommer: Yes, that's a real party time to go. Iceland is increasingly popular as a destination among American college students thanks to the advanced dance club scene in Reykjavik. You may want to take a gander at our earlier response on Iceland for more details.

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    Houston, TX: I want to travel to the Dominican Republic this summer. Where should I go? I would like to stay at an all-inclusive resort.

    Pauline Frommer: What a question! There are dozens of terrific all-inclusives in the D.R. It's their stock in trade. In November, I was at the Sunscape Casa del Mar in Bayahibe, a nice, affordable place with a mostly European clientele that I enjoyed a lot, but there are tons of other places to go. My suggestion would be to visit DebbiesDominicanTravel.com. It hosts the most extensive message boards I know of on Dominican Resorts and you'll get hundreds of opinions there (not just mine) on resorts in La Romana, Punta Cana and Puerto Plata. One quick note about Punta Cana: there's been an outbreak of malaria there, so visitors going to that region will have to take malaria pills. The D.R. is a huge island so not to worry: none of the other resort areas are affected.

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    St. Louis, MO: I am going on a cruise very soon. Any hints to get an upgrade in cabin or any other amenities the day of the cruise.

    Pauline Frommer: It's unlikely you'll get an upgrade. Cruising is having its best year ever, and many ships are going out at near capacity. My two tips for you are:

  • If you see something you like in one of the onboard shops, wait until the last day of the cruise to buy it as the shop will probably throw a sale.
  • Don't buy shore excursions! You can put them together for yourself on the dock, much less expensively. If that makes you nervous, visit the cruise lines website in advance of the sailing. A number of lines are now posting their excursions, with full descriptions, online for purchase. You can see what's offered and then contact a local agency in whatever port you're visiting to see if they can put together an identical itinerary for less.
  • Los Angeles, CA: Do you know of any organizations, listserves, blogs, etc. that would be good to join for someone who is interested in getting into the travel writing industry?

    Pauline Frommer: The American Society of Travel Writers would be your best bet.

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    Lancaster, PA: We want to take a cruise and this will be our first cruise. We always hear Alaska cruise are really nice. What are the better lines; least complaints, most bang for the buck, best places to go that aren't too touristy. Any suggestions would be appreciated

    Pauline Frommer: It's hard to say which are better, but the cruiselines do have very different personalities. Carnival, for example, tends to have the cheapest cruises, but many find the atmosphere on-board to be a bit too frenetic (it's kind of like being in Vegas for a week--some people like all the neon, some don't). Holland America is an elegant line, but it tends to attract a much older crowd (though they're trying to change that with new kids clubs onboard). Really your best bet would be to talk with a knowledgeable cruise agent. Go over your tastes and budget. Most Alaskan cruises follow very similar itineraries, so what you really need to figure out is: which ship can you afford, and which would best suit your taste.

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    Grapevine, TX: Do all travel agencies charge the same rate on all cruises? Is there any benefit in shopping around with different travel agents? Thank you

    Pauline Frommer: No, there are certain larger agencies that will rebate part of their commission, or may get a better price for the clients either by buying in bulk or as a reward from the cruiseline for selling a lot of cabins. It's always a good idea to shop around. You may also want to try the reverse auction site CruiseCompete.com (which will allow you to see what a couple of agencies are offering very quickly). The important thing is to go to an agency that specializes in cruises: look from one with the word "Ahoy" or "Cruise" or "Sailing" in their name. General agencies sometimes don't get as good deals as specialists, though, as I wrote earlier, a lot of the deals are drying up in the cruise industry.

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    Audubon, PA: We are planning a vacation for our family to London over spring break. Our daughters are 15 and 14. I have looked at Travelocity, Orbitz, cheapflights, etc.. for air fare and accommodations. Any other suggestions?

    Pauline Frommer: What a wonderful idea! You're children will love London.
    You'll get a much better deal on a package if you go with a specialist. Try:

  • France Vacations (francevacations.net/ and yes, it also does London)
  • Go-Today.com
  • Off-PeakTraveler.com
  • Gate1 Travel
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    Pauline Frommer: Thanks to everyone for the terrific questions! So sorry I didn't get to them all.
    Happy Trails to all!
    Pauline Frommer

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