ADVERTISEMENT

For Discounted Airfares Uses These Top "Bucket Shops"

June 4, 2005
By working with an airfare discounter, you can save as much as 50 percent off the cost of your next ticket

In the past decade and a half there's been a veritable explosion in the number of airfare discounters operating in the United States. And while as many as half limit themselves to the sale of international tickets--to Europe and Asia, to Central and South America, to Africa and India--a good number of the larger sellers routinely promote cut-rate tickets within the US, saving consumers as much as 30 to 50 percent off the cost of a domestic flight.

A few of the domestic airlines confine that sale to limited periods of the year; some confine the destinations to long-range flights (like between Boston and Los Angeles); some to particular days of the week. But there are indications that the possibilities will grow, and at least ten major consolidators now claim that they have frequent supplies of domestic air tickets for sale at discounted rates. I list them in no particular order of preference:

For airfares within the US

1-800-FLY-CHEAP(800/FLY-CHEAP) Large (more than three million tickets since it began in 1989) firm claiming to offer savings on most advance-purchase tickets. A subsidiary of industry giant My Travel Group. Web: flycheap.com.

Cheap Tickets, Inc.(800/377-1000) This giant among air consolidators can cut the price of an advance-fare ticket practically anywhere in the world by 15 to 25 percent, very often more. Web: cheaptickets.com.

Cheap Seats Travel(800/243-2773) A primarily domestic specialist (though there are many international options) that offers discounted prices for flights on several major carriers. The firm also works with several smaller upstart carriers, offering discounts of around 20 percent off published prices and up to 70 percent off last-minute deals. Web: 1800cheapseats.com.

AirDiscounts(866/4LOWAIR) A division of Archer Travel Service, Inc. (in business since 1952), AirDiscounts.com lets you search for roundtrip, one-way and multiple city flights online but recommends that you call it directly for the lowest fares. Web: airdiscounts.com.

CheapAir, Inc.(800/CHEAP-AIR) A division of American Travel Associates, this 15-year-old specialist in domestic airfares offers flights to smaller cities, last-minute savings and some international bookings. Its discounts average 25 percent. Web: cheapair.com.

Both domestic and international airfares 

Priceline.com(Internet only, call 800/774-2354 for customer service) You specify the price you're willing to pay to fly to and from a city on particular dates. If an airline accepts your price, you're obligated to fly on the routings and times of day they choose. An immense firm that can save travelers up to 40 percent off published fares. Web: priceline.com

Hotwire(Internet only, call 866/HOTWIRE for customer service) Travelers choose their itinerary and Hotwire fires back the lowest price. Discounts are available on cars and hotels as well as air tickets. The four-year-old company is owned by several big airlines. Web: hotwire.com.

Orbitz(Internet only, call 888/656-4546 for customer service) Not a consolidator per se, Orbitz offers fares from a choice of over hundreds of airlines. Pick the dates and Orbitz provides a list of the cheapest airfares. Car rentals and hotels rooms are some other features available on the site. Web: orbitz.com.

Expedia The largest of the web-only air sellers. On its site, along with car rentals and hotel discounts, is a build your own package feature, allowing customers to book air and hotel in one easy step. Go to  expedia.com  or call 800/EXPEDIA to learn more.

Transatlantic airfares

Destination Europe Resources(800/717-4247 airfares; 800/782-2424 other travel products) Acquired by the Rail Europe Group, this long-established firm that claims to provide discounts of 20 percent to 35 percent on advance-purchase European airfares also offers a full range of other discounted travel services. Web: http://www.dertravel.com/.

STA Travel Inc.(800/777-0112) STA is the major student travel firm with tickets to Europe (25 percent to 30 percent off published fares, it claims) but offers domestic savings as well. Cheap backpacker-friendly hotels and hostels worldwide are another specialty. Web: http://www.statravel.com/.

1-800-FlyEurope: (800/FLY-EUROPE) Today, Destination Europe accounts for more than 50,000 tickets annually (including packages). In addition to air tickets, the company offers discounted rates on car rentals and more than 2,500 European hotels. Web: http://www.1800flyeurope.com/.

Ireland/UK Consolidated(800/577-2900) Specializing in airfares to Ireland and the UK, the company claims to save travelers up to 30 percent off published prices. Ireland/UK Consolidated has been operating for over 30 years. Web: ukair.com.

Sophisticated Traveler, Inc.(800/801-1055) Provides some of the best prices on Swiss Airlines to destinations in all major cities in Europe leaving from the major US gateways. It specializes in tours to Central and Eastern Europe, including packages to Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Web: s-traveler.com.

Airfares to Latin America

Travel Partners, Welcome to Travel(800/247-6578) This high-volume discounter, over 20 years old, offers a considerable saving on tickets to Central America and Latin America. Web: pinotravel.com.

Solar Tours(800/388-7652) One of the largest and longest established of the consolidators to Latin America. Can nearly always save 20 percent to 30 percent off published advance-purchase fares, sometimes more, using most major carriers. Web: solartours.com.

Airfares primarily to Africa

Magical Holidays(800/228-2208) One of the major discounters of airfares to Africa, typically offering 25 percent (or more) off advance-purchase fares. Also offers some of the best prices for safaris.

Premier Travel(800/545-1910) A 21-year-old that's one of the largest consolidators of African airfares, selling for as much as 30 percent off standard rates. Also offers well-priced land packages and safaris. Web: premiertours.com.

Airfares primary to Asia

Festival of Asia(800/880-ASIA) A specialist in southeast Asia and India, this San Francisco firm offers savings, it says, of 25 percent to 35 percent off published fares in summer and as much as 40 percent in shoulder seasons.

Hari World Travel(888/889-2968) The largest consolidator of airplane tickets to India-saving customers a third, on average, off any advance-purchase ticket. For tickets without advance purchase, the discount can run higher. Please note that only travel agents can use the Web site. Web: hariworld.com.

Japan Budget Travel International(877/246-5284) Founded by Japanese-Americans, this firm with 15-plus years of experience now serves all corners of Asia with discounts that can reach as high as 35 percent off standard rates. Web: jbti.com.

Around-the-world airfares

Circle the Planet(800/799-8888) Owner Nick Kontis may have originated the cheap around-the-world fare with his former company, Ticket Planet. That operation has since morphed into Circle the Planet. Now his current California-based company allows travelers to circumnavigate the globe for as little as $1,250. Web: circletheplanet.com.

Air Treks(877/AIRTREKS) Multi-stop fares to transport you around the globe, at a fraction of what booking individual tickets would cost. Best priced tickets usually involve you paying for some land transportation (for example: London to Paris or Bombay to Delhi). Special fares as low as $1,300 round the world through Europe and Asia. Offers an itinerary-building template (Trip Planner), as well as the opportunity to write your own travel memories (Trip Journal). Web: airtreks.com.

Airfares to worldwide destinations

1Travel.com(800/929-2523) A full-service Internet discounter of everything from airfares (domestic and international) and packages to hotel rooms and cruises. Features an e-mail service for last-minute values and an airfare search engine that compares consolidator and published fares. Web: 1travel.com.

Economy Travel(888/222-2110) Specializes in Europe (mainly London, Paris, Rome) and some destinations in Africa, South America and the Middle East. It lists both consolidator and published fares alongside each other, enabling the public to compare. Web: economytravel.com.

Keep reading

Exploring Yellowstone

Sometimes it seems like all hell is breaking loose in Wyoming's vast and amazing Yellowstone National Park. Everybody knows about Old Faithful Geyser, but its periodic eruptions that shoot jets of boiling water more than 150 feet into the air make up only part of the park's ongoing thermal extravaganza. You can easily watch even bigger geysers blow their tops, too, if not quite so regularly. All around you, the park's many hot springs froth wildly, shooting forth clouds smelling of brimstone. Smoke holes spout noisily. Mud cauldrons bubble ominously. Steaming rivers, flowing through water-scalded valleys, appear on fire. You sense barely restrained power and danger lurking beneath your feet, and wonder, "Has the devil gone berserk?" No place on earth is quite like Yellowstone; nowhere else is there such an enormous concentration of thermal activity. As many as 300 geysers. Ten thousand hot spots of all kinds. At every turn, you cannot help but gape in awe. I still do, and I've been a frequent visitor since childhood. The time to go--and what you'll spend Nature's fireworks, not surprisingly, draw crowds from late spring into fall - the brief season between heavy snows when the roads are open. But this doesn't mean you're forced to fork over a bundle to catch the big show. If you plan ahead, you can nab one of hundreds of comfortable rooms or cabins within the park (some with baths, some without) that go for $35 to $65 a night for two people. (Not bad, especially when you also get to enjoy some of America's most beautiful scenery just outside your door.) Procrastinators can usually find similarly cheap last-minute lodgings in motels or in a first-class hostel in West Yellowstone, Montana, and in other small Old West towns outside the park. The views are almost as great. Meals in the park's cafeterias are easy on the budget, too. For lunch, my wife Sandy and I keep cheese, crackers, raisins, and fresh fruit in a cheap plastic cooler and picnic every day beside a stream or lake. And at Yellowstone, as at most of the country's major national parks, your days are crammed with exciting adventures that don't cost you a penny. In a rush, you can hit the highlights in a long day. But plan to spend a week, and you'll discover you still haven't seen it all. Highlights To get you started, a few favorite freebies: Fish with a buffalo. Last summer I saw several trout fishermen in waders standing waist-deep in rushing Nez Perce Creek. On the grassy bank behind them, seven huge, shaggy bison grazed nonchalantly. Cast a line in any number of streams and lakes, and you may draw an animal onlooker of your own. Adult fishing permits cost an easy $10 for ten days. Go hiking. Yellowstone claims 1,200 miles of trails, some passing through intimidating grizzly country. For a short, tough hike without a bear on your heels, make the steep descent to the brink of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. About 1.5 miles round-trip, this jaunt boasts close-up views of the vividly colored walls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, another of the park's wonders. Explore Yellowstone's geyser basins. Throngs gather at Old Faithful for its hourly (more or less) eruption. But to see more dazzling thermal hijinks, follow miles of carefully placed boardwalks that thread among geysers, hot springs, and bubbling mud pots in several sprawling geyser basins. At Midway Basin, steam billowing from Excelsior momentarily enveloped me in a blinding fog one cool morning last summer. Join a ranger-led program. "Managing the Wild" has proved to be a popular two-hour walk focusing on how Yellowstone strives to provide a healthy habitat for bears, wolves, and bison at a time when the desires of the public and the needs of wildlife often collide. For more intensive nature studies, sign up for courses offered by the Yellowstone Association Institute, 307/344-2294, www.yellowstoneassociation.org. A day's lesson in mammal tracking is $60, a worthy splurge. Improve your outdoor snapshots. Several times weekly, a Kodak photographer heads up a one- to two-hour stroll, giving tips on improving your nature shots. Check Yellowstone Today, the free park newspaper, for the schedule. Plan a day trip to neighboring Grand Teton National Park. Less than an hour's drive to the south, it boasts scenic grandeur you shouldn't miss. The Yellowstone entrance fee of $20 per car for seven days also covers Grand Teton, so take advantage of the two-for-one price. The peaks of the Grand Teton range, the park's most dramatic feature, rise 7,000 feet above the valley floor like turrets of a castle. Go wildlife spotting. Early morning and late evening, when animals tend to feed, are the best times. But in midday from my car window, I've glimpsed elk, mule deer, moose, bison, coyote, pronghorn, snowshoe hare, black bear, and, I think, a grizzly ambling along a cascading creek. Elk nibble the lawn outside park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs; bison herds in Hayden Valley block traffic as they cross the main road. Where to stay: Inside Yellowstone For campfire chats and starry nights, plan to stay inside the park. On the plus side, you get budget rates and gorgeous views; on the negative, the cheapest park lodgings are sometimes fully booked for peak summer weeks from six months to a year in advance. Helpful hint: Yellowstone is enormous, larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The distance between the north and south entrances is just over 100 rugged, winding miles, and driving time at a 45-mph limit is slow. If you've got several days, book most of your stay in the southern end to see the geysers and massive Yellowstone Lake, North America's largest mountain lake. But save a couple of days for the north to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and Mammoth Hot Springs. All the park lodgings we name below can be booked in a single call through Amfac Parks & Resorts at 307/344-7311, www.travelyellowstone.com. In the past, I've stayed in almost all of the park's lodges, most of which offer a range of accommodations from budget to expensive. For this report, I returned last summer for a fresh look at budget rooms and cabins only. Space is tight and amenities scarce, I found. But everything appears well kept, and housekeeping services are provided. The rates quoted here are for one night's rental of a room for two. In most places, children under 12 stay free. For geyser viewing: First choice is historic Old Faithful Inn in Upper Geyser Basin, a soaring structure of stone and wood that rivals its nearby namesake geyser as an eye-catcher. About 75 rooms without bath (but with a sink) go for $64. A five-minute walk away, the less glamorous but still inviting Old Faithful Lodge offers a total of about 100 cabins in three categories: Budget with shared bath and in-room sink, $35; Pioneer with private bath, $43; and the more spacious Frontier with private bath, $62. Neighboring both is the recently built Old Faithful Snow Lodge, surrounded by ten older, more modest Frontier cabins (with private bath at $62). For reasonably priced meals, head for the Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria, where the prime rib dinner (mashed potatoes, vegetable of the day, roll) costs $10.79, and the meat loaf plate (best buy) is $5.99. At Yellowstone Lake: Midway between the geyser and canyon areas, Lake Yellowstone Lodge, which has 86 Pioneer cabins ($49), makes a convenient choice if you're staying in the park only a night or two. Rocking chairs with a lake view line the porch of the cedar-shingled main building. Dine with more lake vistas at the cafeteria, where the pot roast plate (potatoes, a vegetable) comes to $6.99. In canyon country: Just a half-mile from Yellowstone's Grand Canyon, the 1950s-era, motel-style Canyon Lodge offers about 300 Pioneer cabins at $54. In the cafeteria, a breakfast plate of scrambled eggs is $1.79; a hearty bowl of oatmeal, $1.99. At dinner, rainbow trout amandine with all the trimmings may tempt you at $7.99. The menu's budget plate is country fried steak, $5.99. In the north: To savor the expansive views of the mountain valleys, stop at Roosevelt Lodge, a rustic outpost where about 60 Roughrider cabins with shared bath are priced at $43. The Roosevelt is popular for its ranch-style activities: horseback rides ($23.50 for an hour), clattering stagecoach rides ($6.75), and Old West cookouts (adults $32, including wagon transportation). In the lodge dining room, try a bowl of Cowboy Chili with corn bread, $4.50. Just inside Yellowstone's north entrance, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, which overlooks Mammoth's steaming travertine terraces, is a convenient stopover as you enter or leave the park. About 30 hotel rooms with shared bath and in-room sink go for $60; 44 cabins with shared bath and in-room sink, $50. In the dining room, pan-fried Rocky Mountain trout with rice pilaf and a roll ($13.25) may pinch the budget; if so, fish and chips with french fries and coleslaw are an easier $7.95. Note: In mid-May, "Early Bird Specials" trim the rates at several lodges. At Mammoth Hot Springs, rooms and cabins with shared bath are just $25; with private bath, $59. Lodges open for the summer on a staggered schedule. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and The Old Faithful Snow Lodge are first in early May; Canyon, Lake Yellowstone, and Roosevelt Lodges are last in early June. Winter closings are staggered from early September to mid-October. Where to stay: outside the park My recent swing through Yellowstone also took me to these neighboring towns, each catering to park visitors with a choice of surprisingly inexpensive motel rooms. You can almost always count on a private bath, TV, and morning coffee. West entrance: If you strike out in Yellowstone, try first for a budget-priced room in West Yellowstone, Montana, an attractive mountain town just outside the park gate. About 30 miles from Old Faithful, it claims a population of about 900 and I suspect offers just as many motel rooms, mostly in the budget-to-moderate price range. At the 40-room Al's Westward Ho Motel (16 North Boundary St., 406/646-7331), a longtime family favorite, the summer rate is just $52, a bargain for the spiffy accommodations. Manager Marilyn Parker says she or her fellow motel-keepers can usually find you a good economy room even on the park's busiest weekends. Nearby at the 15-room Lazy G Motel (123 Hayden St., 406/646-7586), a room with one double bed is $43; with two double beds, $53; a two-room family suite, $75. For a kitchen, enabling you to save money on meals, add $10. But the best buy in town is the tidy Madison Hotel (139 Yellowstone Ave., 406/646-7745), a 1912 log structure with authentic Western flavor that doubles as a private hostel: just $20 per person for nicely decorated three-bed dorm rooms. For privacy, six hotel rooms with shared bath and in-room sink cost $39, $27 if you're traveling solo. Six rooms with private bath start at $49. Dine a short walk from all three lodgings at the Canyon Street Grill (22 Canyon St., 406/646-7548), where a breakfast stack of buttermilk pancakes is an easy $2.25, the liver and onions plate, $8.25. North entrance: Choices are fewer and the prices a bit higher in tiny Gardiner, Montana, at the park's northern entrance, about 60 miles from Old Faithful. Best value for your money: the 14 white-frame cottages at the Hillcrest Motel (200 Scott St., 800/970-7353), tidily maintained by owners Art and Annie Bent. With a kitchenette, $70. In contrast, the Super 8 on Highway 89 (406/848-7401) will set you back as much as $89.80 in early August. The whole town eats at the Town Caf_ Motel (121 Park St., 406/848-7322). On the menu: biscuits and gravy with two eggs, $3.95; the porkchop plate, $7.25. A quick 30 miles north of Gardiner, in the town of Pray, the 102-room Chico Hot Springs Lodge (1 Old Chico Rd., 406/333-4933) is one of my all-time favorite places to relax. A century old, it sits in wide-open ranch country at the foot of 10,960-foot Emigrant Peak. Its large hot springs-fed swimming and soaking pools are free to guests. In the oldest wing, the lodge still maintains 36 rooms with shared bath at $45; with a sink, $60. Dining is pricier: $6.95 for the breakfast buffet, $19.95 for a pork loin chop platter with salad. But those steaming pools are worth it. In a pinch, a room at the Livingston Inn (5 Rogers Ln., 406/222-3600), about 110 miles north of Old Faithful in Livingston, Montana, charges $75 per double from mid-June to early September and $42 off-season. South entrance: The year-round resort town of Jackson, Wyoming, is becoming increasingly ritzy. Browse its contemporary and traditional art galleries (expensive) and then seek budget lodgings elsewhere. For bare-bones accommodations, it's hard to beat the Colter Bay Village tent cabins (800/628-9988) on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Canvas roofs, log walls, cement floors, an outside grill, wood-burning stove, and picnic table add up to just $33. Dine at the John Colter Cafe Court, a cafeteria, where eggs rancheros with biscuits is $4.95; an eight-inch pizza, $4.75. East entrance: The historic little cowboy town of Cody, Wyoming, about 52 miles from Yellowstone, makes a great way station to or from the park. Cody stages a rodeo ($10 adult, $4 children) nightly in the summer, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (720 Sheridan Ave., 307/587-4771), which includes the Plains Indian Museum, is one of the country's finest Western-themed museums ($10 adult, $4 children). Book at the 40-room Grizzly Bear Lodge (244 W. Yellowstone Ave., 307/587-5960), $54. Nearby, the Cattleman's Cut Steak House (225 Yellowstone Ave., 307/527-7432) touts its chicken-fried steak at $4.99 (lunch) and $7.49 (dinner). Getting to Yellowstone The closest airport to Yellowstone is in Jackson, Wyoming, 57 miles to the south, but summer flights tend to book up and can be expensive. Two alternatives are Billings, Montana, about 125 miles northeast, and Bozeman, Montana, 84 miles northwest. But flights here are limited and pricey also. You're better off looking elsewhere for budget airfares. And elsewhere means Salt Lake City, Utah, a six- to seven-hour drive from Yellowstone. Don't groan. The roads are lightly traveled, and the nonstop mountain and valley views via U.S. 89 north over Logan Pass help the time pass quickly. I've taken the route several times to save money. Another advantage: Salt Lake's car rental rates tend to be cheaper, and you get unlimited miles. In Billings, rental agencies limit you to 1,050 to 1,400 miles a week. Yellowstone's distances are immense, and a mileage charge could cost you plenty. Last summer I used coupon discounts on United to cut the cost of a flight to Billings, because I wanted to drive into Yellowstone over the famed Bear Tooth Highway (U.S. 212), which climbs to nearly 11,000 feet at Bear Tooth Pass. Without the coupons, the best buy was definitely Salt Lake, as a check on the Internet later revealed. For a week's stay in August peak season, the cheapest ticket I could find from my home in Washington, D.C. to Jackson came to more than $700 and to Billings, $600. But to Salt Lake, just $210. Similarly in Salt Lake, Payless Car Rental (800/729-5377) asked about $165 for one week with unlimited miles. In Billings, Enterprise Rent-a-Car's (800/736-8222) low rate of $199.99 came with a limit of 1,400 free miles. Greyhound Bus Lines (800/231-2222) pulls into West Yellowstone daily from Idaho Falls, Idaho ($23 one-way), and Bozeman, Montana ($15.50 one-way). But the park provides no public transportation, so you will need to rent a car to tour. Hitchhiking, a potentially dangerous option, is officially prohibited, although I've seen and talked to younger park employees who hail rides to get around. No matter how you get to Yellowstone, every approach road passes through beautiful mountain country. In a way, your vacation begins even before you reach the park. Now that's really getting extra value for your money.

Hong Kong Chills Out

A quick ferry ride from the teeming streets and gleaming skyscrapers of Central and Kowloon are the Outlying Islands. Just because you're visiting one of the world's busiest cities doesn't mean you can't do a little island-hopping. Lantau Island Virtually all visitors to Hong Kong begin and end their trip on Lantau, at Chek Lap Kok airport, opened on the north shore in 1998. By 2006, a new Disney park near the island's eastern tip is projected to add 5.6 million more visitors per year, many of them Chinese mainlanders. Until then, Lantau is tracked primarily by adventurous day-trippers, who revel in its beaches and 31 square miles of parkland. Most ferries from Central land at Mui Wo. The town's main street is fringed with open-air seafood and soup stands, as well as restaurants serving Western cuisines. Start with a pub lunch at the British-themed China Bear, facing the dock -- and before your meat pie hits the table, you'll make half a dozen new friends from around the globe. A five-minute stroll east along the coastal road ends at Silvermine Bay, where you'll find most of Mui Wo's lodging, including the top choice on all the Outlying Islands, the Silvermine Beach Hotel. Below its windows is a wide stretch of gold sand protected by a shark net. Or rough it: Nearly the entire western half of Lantau is within Nam Shan park, where walking paths swarm with butterflies. Camping anywhere costs nothing and almost always requires no reservation. From Mui Wo, take bus #1 or a bike (Friendly Bicycle Shop, around the corner from China Bear, rents them for $4 a day) along the southern coast. Four miles west, Pui O's shell-lined beach attracts not only picnickers but also a team of water buffalo that, nearly every sunset, wanders from the nearby rice fields to cool off in the surf. Savor the spectacle over margaritas on the patio at Treasure Island, and then crash in its B&B rooms, which were added this year. Three miles west is the pearl-white sand of Cheung Sha; overlooking the water is The Stoep, a Mediterranean and South African restaurant that's worth a stop. Past that, houses disappear, replaced by one gorgeous palm-shaded cove after another. Small vegetable farms form mosaics of green and yellow up the hillsides, and their laborers wear the same bamboo hats with fly netting that are seen in much of southern China. Thousands of tourists, principally mainland Chinese, come each year to climb the 268 steps to Po Lin (Precious Lotus) Monastery, atop a hill with views down to the South China Sea. The attraction is the summit's enormous Buddha sculpture, more than 110 feet from the pedestal to the curls on his head. In the adjacent cloisters, you can observe prayer rituals and recharge with a vegetarian meal ($4 for noodles and bean curd). Tai O, one of Hong Kong's most unusual sights, awaits nearby, at the end of South Lantau road. Until recently, the village of Tai O -- actually on its own tiny isle -- could only be reached on small boats dragged from shore by ropes. Now there's a tiny bridge, but little else has changed in over a century: The village, often referred to as a Chinese Venice, is a jumble of wooden houses balancing on stilts over slow-flowing creeks. Like many of these islands, it was once a home to pirates. You'll get glimpses of an old-fashioned life -- fishermen repairing nets, carpenters carving boats by hand, women laying the fresh catch out to dry on rooftops. Tours sold in Central take all day and cost at least $30. In Tai O, half-hour runs are $2.50, and sightings are guaranteed. There's no advance booking; you'll almost certainly be approached by salesmen as you roam the boardwalks. Cheung Chau With few Western residents and no Western restaurants, Cheung Chau is a throwback to a slower time. Here, incense sticks smoke in temples, and parks are filled with card games, the clatter of mah-jongg tiles, and gossip, pretty much as you'd find in towns throughout China. Despite the density -- about 20,000 people on an island of less than a square mile -- Cheung Chau, with green hills framing its harbor plied by Chinese junks, is still a picturesque place to pass a few aimless days. Paths wind alongside tiny butcher shops, cheap noodle stalls, apothecaries offering mysterious herbs and Chinese remedies, and elders observing their families from benches in front of the old temples. On weekends, the population doubles with city folk soaking up the nostalgia and the sunshine. "It's hard to imagine how idyllic it once was," says Canadian Murnie Weeks, an 18-year island resident who runs a tourist information booth. "But even with all the people," he says, "Cheung Chau is still a better place, where you can get away from Hong Kong and have a quieter life." As soon as you step off the boat, you'll run into dozens of pushcarts manned by guesthouse owners. As with the dolphin-tour guides on Lantau, they don't speak English, but they use plenty of photos to land business; small double rooms start at around $25. The only full-service hotel on the island, the 71-room Warwick, was recently remodeled and overlooks the busy beach at Tung Wan, a 10-minute stroll from the ferry. The best food is found right off the dock, where a string of seafood restaurants lines Pak She Praya Road, the waterfront promenade, and serves up dishes of squid, shellfish, and garupa (a whitefish-like cod). Family-owned Real Taste, on adjoining Pak She Sixth Lane, serves broccoli with mussels, as well as tourist favorites such as lemon chicken. Next door, Hing Lok is the island's only vegetarian restaurant, with adventurous combinations like fried pear with black beans. Consider planning your visit to coincide with the intriguing Bun Festival, when villagers offer thousands of steamed lotus-paste parcels to the god Pak Tai, who saved Cheung Chau from (depending on the legend) a plague, pirates, or evil spirits. Every spring (in 2005, May 9 to 15), the islanders go mad, covering a trio of 50-foot-tall bamboo towers with thousands of buns. At the festival's climax, worshippers used to scramble up these structures, but the practice was banned in 1978 after one of the structures snapped. Still, the annual celebration is probably the most colorful in the Outlying Islands, and it offers a rare chance to get a front-row seat for the sort of Chinese festivities that are normally too mobbed to enjoy in the city: banging drums, dragon dancing, parades, and elaborate costumes. "If Hong Kong were the United States, then Lamma Island would be San Francisco," says British-born Nick Lovatt. Once a well-known radio personality here, he now sits shirtless in town a few days a week, selling used books. "It's a free place, where you can do what you want, and you know everyone by name or nickname. It's completely laid-back." Lamma has 12,000 residents, including a concentration of expats -- teasingly nicknamed gwailo, or "ghosts," by Chinese -- who moved here for the small-town appeal. There are no cars, no big stores, and few buildings over three stories tall. Half-hour ferry trips from Central usually land you in the village of Yung Shue Wan, on the northwest coast, where most services and people cluster. A few minutes' walk from the pier, on the central lane threading through town, check in with a real estate agent such as Bali Holiday Resort or Sunrise Holiday Resort and rent a harborside apartment, with a furnished kitchen, for as little as $36 a night. Living like a local can be endearingly quirky: The neighborhood flower shop rents videos, and at the hardware store, customers pick up eggs and herbs along with nails. There's a toy-town quality about Lamma, which, because of its narrow alleys, claimed (until recently) the world's tiniest ambulances and fire trucks, each less than five feet wide. They've been replaced by little vans and buggies, but policemen still patrol on foot or mountain bike. Visitors don't need vehicles: Paved paths link the island's undeveloped bays with Yung Shue Wan. There are intermittent pavilions where you can sit and listen to birds rustling in the banana plants before you reach the peaks, where you'll be rewarded with spectacular vistas of many other islands. Start the day with dim sum, the Cantonese specialty of dumplings and other small dishes, available until around noon. At Sampan Seafood, on Main Street, $7 buys a feast for two, including tsu mai (pork and crab-egg dumplings), fan gow (pork, peanuts, and vegetables in rice paper), and sin jok guun (minced pork, cabbage, and black fungus in tofu skin). Down the street from Sampan, hold court with the island's counterculture Westerners, who debate environmental policies over muesli at the Bookworm -- note the i love yoga stickers -- or buy organic snacks and smoothies at Green Cottage, which has sidewalk tables where you can keep an eye on the town's many bohemian characters. Evenings and weekends, charter boats descend on Sok Ku Wan, a village on the eastern shore, and unleash diners upon more than a dozen seaside restaurants, some of Hong Kong's finest. Top choice: Lamma Hilton (no relation), where the fried squid with spicy salt is incredible. Public ferries from Central also land there; the one-hour walk to Yung Shue Wan makes for an easy day-trip loop. Near the hike's midpoint, on popular Hung Shing Yeh Beach, is Concerto Inn. With warning, the owners will porter your luggage from either ferry dock for free, leaving you to explore unencumbered. Ferries board just below the Central metro (MTR) station, which is also where the train from the airport ($13) arrives. There is signage in English. Boats generally depart every hour, with greater frequency during rush hours. For Lantau and Cheung Chau timetables, log on to nwff.com.hk; for Lamma, hkkf.com.hk. Rides take from 30 to 60 minutes. Tickets for standard service cost around $1.30 and don't require reservations, but fares and hotel rates rise about 40 percent on weekends. Prepay all ferry, bus, and subway rides with an Octopus card, available at all MTR stations and at most convenience stores.

Golfing Pebble Beach

Most golf lovers fantasize about walking the grounds of Pebble Beach, Calif., the legendary multicourse resort where the greens sweep down to kiss the Pacific Ocean. But with fees of $395 for 18 holes--and $40 just to watch players practice for the PGA-circuit AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am--the closest most fans get to the area's glamour is Golf magazine. The secret to swinging with the stars is to focus on the towns that share Monterey Peninsula with the tony courses: Carmel (two miles southeast), Pacific Grove (five miles north), and Monterey (eight miles northeast). You could wait years for a tee time on the marquee links, but Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Course has a view almost identical to Pebble Beach's. Its 18 holes--ranked by Zagat as one of the top-10 budget courses in America--cost just $32 during the week and $20 after 3 p.m. Have a buddy snap a photo of you at hole 17 sinking the winning putt while waves crash in the background. Pacific Grove's Beachcomber Inn is a cheerful but simple motel beside Spanish Bay, one of the three seaside golf courses at Pebble Beach, and 300 yards from the beach--many second-floor rooms have decks overlooking the ocean. Among locals, it's best known for its Fishwife restaurant, which is consistently voted as having the best seafood in the area. Across the street, the sprawling Asilomar Conference Grounds, open since 1913 and mainly designed by the architect of Hearst Castle, rents modern standard rooms (hotel quality, private bath) for about $60 per person double; four friends can split a $160 room with four beds. Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor and still owns a pricey inn, is good for celebrity sightings. Raise a beer at Jack London's Grill & Taproom, a golf-theme pub, and you may see Bill Murray, Kevin Costner, or other famous Pro-Am regulars who hang out there. The next Pro-Am runs February 7 to 13, and volunteers receive access passes in exchange for at least three days of gofering (get on the waiting list at attpbgolf.com). Or follow the lead of many longtime crashers: On afternoons during the tournament, stroll the beachfront near Pebble Beach Golf Links' exits and beg for day passes from the tired spectators who leave early. The best passes read sponsor and often get you into corporate tents full of free food and cocktails. Pebble beach Activities Pacific Grove Municipal Golf Course 77 Asilomar Blvd., Pacific Grove, 831/648-5775 Lodging Beachcomber Inn 1996 Sunset Dr., Pacific Grove, 800/634-4769, montereypeninsulainns.com, rooms from $50 Asilomar 800 Asilomar Blvd., Pacific Grove, 831/642-4242, visitasilomar.com, from $60 per person double Food Fishwife 1996 1/2 Sunset Dr., Pacific Grove, 831/375-7107, fishwife.com, entrées from $9 Jack London's Grill & Taproom Dolores St. between 5th and 6th Aves., Carmel, 831/ 624-2336, beer $3.25

Track Down a National Parks Summer Job

When I was in college, several friends worked summers in a national park. I kick myself now that I didn't join them. They got a fun-filled vacation with pay. I returned each year to a waiting warehouse job in my hometown. It seemed like a prison sentence. Come fall, my buddies regaled me with tales of exciting outdoor adventures and the gorgeous coeds they met. I kept my mouth shut. Like mine, their jobs weren't great-washing dishes, serving tables, hauling trash. But those perks sure sounded terrific. Imagine it! Spending an entire summer at Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or dozens of other parks. (Or working in the winter. The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park never closes, and winter is prime time for exploring the exotic corners of Death Valley National Park.) Lots of great times with new friends. For outdoor addicts like me, it's a dream vacation. And you earn while you play. Now that's a travel bargain. Nowadays, students, retirees, and other folks still sign up for temporary park jobs as a way to see the country, have fun, and bank a little money. In most park jobs, count on receiving cheap lodging and meals. On days off, hiking, fishing, or swimming hardly cost more. It's a fact of park work: If you can't spend, you'll save. The big change in recent years is the Internet, which makes it easier to track down seasonal jobs. A number of Web sites offer updated details on temporary employment at parks and other outdoor destinations. Read on for a list of the most useful ones. And keep in mind some of the drawbacks to park work. If you can't handle being stuck in a remote wilderness outpost, try elsewhere next summer. Maybe my old warehouse job is open. Where (and what) the jobs are Park officials-the human resources managers who hire summer help-tell me that if you want a job, you almost certainly will find one. That is, if you're not picky about what park or (especially) the job you get. Generally, you will be asked to commit to a three-month stay. Think how amazed your parents-or spouse-will be to see the skill and speed with which you can make a bed after three months of cleaning lodge rooms. Sean LaBarge, 23, thinks he lucked out in his first park job. Unhappy pushing burgers at a fast-food outlet in Yuma, Arizona, he spotted a Web posting for a front-desk job at the famed Bright Angel Lodge at Grand Canyon National Park. The chance to enhance his resume with an interesting white-collar job appealed to him. So did the Grand Canyon's cool summer temperatures, a sharp contrast to the scorching heat of the Yuma desert. When I talked to him, he had been on the job a month and was still enthusiastic about it. As a newcomer, he was paid $6.50 an hour, but raises could be expected. His two-person dorm room, just steps from the canyon rim, cost him $16 a week, and he ate well at the employee cafeteria for less than $10 a day. At these prices, "You can save a big bundle here," he told me. Uniforms are provided, but no health coverage. Employees must be at least 18 to live in a dorm. In his time off, LaBarge hiked into the canyon on the popular Bright Angel Trail. But Xanterra, the company that runs the Grand Canyon lodges, also maintains a staff recreation center, where he can use the fitness room or watch movies for free. Off-duty workers often unwind at the sports bar at nearby Maswik Lodge. A park job can be "a rich life experience," advises Bill Berg, 49, of Gardiner, Montana, and he ought to know. He launched a career at Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park in 1972 by pumping gas on his summers off from college. That's where he met his wife; she was pumping gas, too. His wife became a ranger, while he recruited employees for one of the park's concessionaires. That led in 1995 to CoolWorks.com (see its Web address below), the job-listing firm he founded. It was one of the first online databanks for seasonal park employment. "The parks are a real melting pot," Berg assures the adventurers, young and older, eager to follow in his footsteps. "You meet people from all over, and it's not at all hard to make friends. For people who live in an urban area, it's a great way to get to know the wilderness." Sometimes, as happened with Berg, the lifestyle gets in your blood. Some people swing from summer work in the parks to a winter job in a ski town. The big resorts routinely lure Yellowstone's summer temps with visions of deep powder and endless runs on the slopes. Still, what seems like a dream job for some might prove to be a nightmare. Dorm life can be a drag if you prefer privacy. And the nearest mall to the Grand Canyon is 90 miles away. The isolation gets to some people. LaBarge lost his first roommate early on. "I've had my fill of the Grand Canyon," the disgruntled young man told him. "I'm going home." Where to apply There are two basic alternatives. Ranger Ruth: The National Park Service, the federal agency that oversees more than 380 parklands, regularly hires seasonal help. Depending on your experience, you could spend the summer doing archaeological research; patrolling trails as a substitute ranger; leading campfire talks; fighting fires; staffing a search-and-rescue team; serving as a lifeguard; or tackling tasks such as collecting fees, planting shrubs or, yes, hauling trash. Housekeeper Harold: The other major alternative is to work for a concessionaire-one of the firms that manage the lodges, restaurants, and gift shops. A lucky few become fishing guides or kayak instructors. But first-timers are more likely to wait tables, wash dishes, or make beds. National Park Service jobs tend to pay more than the concessions jobs, but openings are fewer. At the Grand Canyon, one of America's busiest parks, the National Park Service employs about 540 people. Of these, 100 to 200 are seasonal and only work in summer, according to Larry Thompson, the park's human resources specialist. In contrast, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the official concessionaire, keeps a summer work force of 1,200-about 400 of whom are seasonal, says Patrice Armstrong, its staffing manager. At Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the Grand Teton Lodge Company hires about 1,000 temps each summer. Choice jobs include boat captain (three to five slots per season), cowboy/wrangler (25), and van driver (six). At Yosemite National Park in California, the Yosemite Concession Services Corporation takes on 800 seasonal temps. You'll probably be an "unassigned hire," which means you take whatever job is open when you show up. Chances are you will clean rooms or dish up cafeteria food. If you want confirmed summer work, start looking by late winter. At Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, lodges line up temps as early as January or February, according to Debbie Zinn of ARAMARK Sports and Entertainment Services, the concessionaire. For a winter job, get moving by early fall, since fewer openings are available. But don't be discouraged if you miss out. Some hires fail to show up, and dropouts create last-minute openings. For a National Park Service job, consult the Web site of the park that interests you. Shenandoah, for example, is at www.nps.gov/shen and www.shenandoah.national-park.com/jobs.htm. Addresses for other parks with jobs include the Grand Canyon, www.nps.gov/grca; Yellowstone, www.nps.gov/yell; Yosemite, www.nps.gov/yose; Glacier, www.nps.gov/glac or www.glacier.national-park.com; Bryce Canyon, www.nps.gov/brca; and Redwood, www.nps.gov/redw-you'll easily be able to find or deduce others. For a national overview of positions, check the agency's seasonal employment site: www.sep.nps.gov. If you don't have Web access, call the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., at 202/208-5074. For a concessionaire job, check the concessionaire's Web site. (You can usually find it from the park's Web site.) Also check third-party sites listing openings. They include: CoolWorks.com (www.coolworks.com), the most comprehensive site, lists positions at more than 35 parks. Fun Jobs.com (www.funjobs.com) has fewer listings, but is useful. ResortJobs.com (www.resortjobs.com) and ActionJobs.com (www.actionjobs.com) sometimes post something interesting. So, now that I'm well out of college, is it too late for a temporary park job? A summer at Montana's Glacier National Park might be a great way to beat the heat. "Go for it," urged Alex, a clerk I met at the Bright Angel Lodge. A retired heavy-machine operator, Alex and his wife now hold temporary Grand Canyon jobs. "We're on a great adventure."

ADVERTISEMENT