Trip Coach: June 15, 2005

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Budget Travel Editors: Welcome to this week's Trip Coach. We'll be answering your questions during the next hour.

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Colorado Springs, CO: Would it be better to go to Australia and New Zealand in May or in October/November? We can't go in the summer - Jan - March. We are planning to spend 3 - 4 weeks and want to do the trip on our own, but the planning is a little overwhelming! Any other tips on planning a trip to Australia and New Zealand?

Budget Travel Editors: Depending on what you want to do, they are both fine times to go. You should pay considerably less in airfare in spring or fall compared to the summer. May probably gets a very slight edge. If you want the beach, May is probably better because the water will be a bit warmer. In all honesty though, the water won't be all that warm either in spring or fall (or, really summer). For hiking (or tramping as they call it) in New Zealand's South Island, May is better. Things will still be quite wet in Oct/Nov, though again, things are always pretty wet there. On the other hand, the wetter it gets in places like New Zealand's Milford Sound, the better in terms of waterfalls (there are thousands of them gushing down steep rock walls). And everything is really really green in Oct/Nov in New Zealand.

As for Australia, either season is perfect for exploring the Outback (it's unbearably hot in the summer, and little shade to speak of). The best bit of advice when approaching the trip is to not try and do too much. You should even think about limiting the trip to one country. Australia is the size of the continental U.S., so if you spend two weeks there you'd either be on the run and get a quick glimpse of everything or you'd have to eliminate some parts of the country from the itinerary (maybe do Sydney, Melbourne, the Red Centre, and Darwin and the Top End, but leaving out the west coast and Perth, as well as Cairns, Brisbane, Great Barrier Reef, Gold Coast, etc.). If you love the outdoors, you could spend two or three weeks in New Zealand's South Island alone. So it's hard decision time. Even with four weeks, you can't do it all. Something's got to give. Whatever you decide, go with your own rental car rather than a tour, unless you don't like to drive or are really uncomfortable driving on the other side of the road (it's worrisome at first, but most people get the hang of it and it's real fun). Both countries make for fantastic road trips.

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Camillus, NY: We will be taking a Mediterranean cruise in May, 2006. We will be arranging our own airfare. Since we will be arriving in Barcelona and departing from Venice, we are looking for an "open-jaw" itinerary. Can you please tell me the best time to begin looking for fares and where I might find the best prices? Thank you.

Budget Travel Editors: Flying open-jaw is a smart way to do such a trip, saving time and eliminating the need to retrace your steps back to one airport. Unfortunately, most of the big search engines only allow you to search for simple round trip flights, not open-jaws. So, what you need to do is figure out a few airlines that fly from the U.S. and connect to both Venice and Barcelona. Unfortunately, while Venice and Barcelona get their share of cruise ships, they aren't major intl airports served from the U.S. Most Americans wanting to fly to Spain direct have to go to Madrid; in Italy the choice is either Milan or Rome. So you'll have to get a connecting flight through some major European hub. Carriers such as Lufthansa, British Airways, and Air France make sense for such a trip, as well as American carriers (that will often use European partners on flights within the Continent) such as American and United are also possible.

You need a crystal ball to predict who will have a sale for next May, but British Airways and Lufthansa often have decent promotions pop up. Begin doing airfare searches on these airlines' websites around March (a month or two earlier if you have no flexibility or you're flying with a big group). It's sometimes tough to figure out how to do an open-jaw search on the web, but there's always a way (click on something to the effect of "other options" or "multiple destinations"). Calling up the airlines directly is also an option, as is requesting a price online or over the phone through a consolidator such as autoeurope.com. Consolidators get bulk amounts of tickets from airlines and sell them at discounts, though their prices are not always cheaper than the airline sales. May is not high season yet, so if you have some flexibility with when you fly give or take a few days, you can easily wait until around 6 weeks prior to departure to book. Any later than that gets pretty risky.

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Conyers, GA: I am extremely interested in going on an Alaskan cruise. What's considered off-peak season so that I can get a good price?

Budget Travel Editors: Book early for the best choice and price. The Alaska cruising season is short -- May to mid-September -- because of the weather and many passengers now make reservations up to six months ahead to assure the itinerary and cabin of their choice. Generally speaking, June, July, and August are peak months, which means that you could save by booking a sailing for May or September when weather is cooler during the day (temps in the 50s, as opposed to the 70s).

There are two basic seven-night Alaska itineraries: The first is a round trip from Vancouver or Seattle, sailing the Inside Passage and calling at Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan; and the second route runs Vancouver to Seward (or vice versa), with similar ports of call but better glacier viewing north of Juneau. Visit CruiseMates (cruisemates.com) and Cruise Critic (cruisecritic.com) for reviews of specific ships, itineraries, and ports of call. Once you pick your itinerary, shop around and be as flexible as possible with your dates. Try GalaxSea Cruises(800/662-5450, cruisestar.com), CruiseBrothers.com (800/827-7779, cruisebrothers.com), and American Discount Cruises (866/214-7447, americandiscountcruises.com), and compare their prices with what the cruise lines themselves have advertised.

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Culver City, CA: I would like to visit a "Thalassa" (spa?) in the south of France. How can I book them on the Internet?

Budget Travel Editors: "Thalasso" or water cures that incorporate mineral-heavy sea water and algae have become the trend in spa therapy in recent years, although the treatment actually began around for well over a century in France. Not surprisingly, you'll find many spas offering this treatment there, however they can be pricey. (Most of the major hotels on Monaco offer thalasso, as does the nearby Hermitage Hotel in Monte-Carlo.) If you don't have gobs of money to spend on this quest, then you may want to forego thalasso in France for thalasso in Eastern Europe. The "Romanian Riviera" is riddled with spa hotels, many of which offer thalasso, such as the Mangalia Hotel in Constanta. Other affordable countries/regions with a long history of aquatic therapies are Hungary, Lithuania, and Bohemia (see Budget Travel's article on the "Spas of Bohemia"). Rates for thalasso treatments at this spas can cost as little as $20. One source you can use to search for spas offering thalasso is Spafinder.com.

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Rancho Cucamonga CA: With the recent disappearance of an American HS Grad in Aruba...I wondered what locations would be considered a fairly safe bet for my 2007 grad to consider with her classmates for their grad trip? Hawaii tops my list. Thanks for the feedback.

Budget Travel Editors: While it is disturbing that the American high school grad has gone missing in Aruba, the truth is that she could have disappeared anywhere, but statistically the chances of being kidnapped/disappearing/being abducted are very, very low. From what we know, the young woman in Aruba did not use her common sense and left a bar with three guys she didn't know. Rather than be concerned that your daughter (or son) travel to a "safe" place for graduation, we'd suggest that your newly adult child use street smarts wherever he/she goes, reinforcing the fact that just because she/he's on vacation doesn't mean they should do things that she/he wouldn't do at home, like drink too much and then leave with three strangers. By encouraging our children to travel and see the world, even places that are off-the-beaten path, is the most important thing we can do in educating them to become citizens of the world, develop an appreciation and respect for cultures other than our own, and teach them not to fear what they do not know. Provided there isn't a travel warning issued by the US government against the country/region, we'd suggest letting your grad explore a place that they find interesting. Who knows, they might just return home a changed person--for the better.

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Murrieta, CA: Hi..I would like to start getting ideas for a high-school graduation/celebration trip for my daughter for 2006..all inclusive prefered..2 adults and our kids (10,13,15,17-at that time)..any ideas of places and resorts to keep them busy for their age, fun, interesting, and won't break the checkbook, 7-nights ?

Budget Travel Editors: I'd start by reading our April feature about five affordable all-inclusive resorts on the Riviera Maya, the 75-mile stretch of sand between Cancún and Tulúm. Journalist Josh Dean spent a week bopping from one resort to another and talking to guests. He hit the Gala Beach Resort, Riú Playacar, Iberostar Paraíso del Mar, Sunscape Tulúm, and Barceló Maya; read the article here

This area is perfect for your family not only for what the all-inclusives themselves offer, but for what can be found beyond the resort gates. If there are divers in your group, plan an excursion to the cenotes to scuba in caves (snorkeling is allowed, too). Rent a car -- or join a group tour from your resort -- and visit nearby Mayan ruins. Horseback ride on the beach. The possibilities are endless...Though there's absolutely no shame in just sitting on the beach all day!

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Belding, MI: My honeymoon will be the first week of October of this year. The problem is that I don't know where to go! I want to go to so many different places! We have a budget of around $3000. We can go a little over also. Here is what I want in a honeymoon: relaxing beaches, good food, daytime activities (hiking or museums or snorkeling, just about anything really) and nighttime activities (local bars, local sports). I would prefer not to be in any locale that feels like we are in America. I travel to experience new people and places. Here is what my fiance wants: beaches, bars and activities during the day that we can do, but not too physically involved (we are on vacation! as he would say) and he likes the Americanized resorts. He is not comfortable being in places that don't speak alot of English. We've been to Mexico and I've been to the Dominican Republic and staying in the U.S. is out of the question. I was thinking the Caribbean, but its hurrican season! Then I was thinking the Mediterranean, but from what I've heard it will be too cold to swim in the Sea! Any ideas of where we can go and what we could do??

Budget Travel Editors: Have you thought about the South Pacific? Check out the offerings from companies like Tahiti Legends (800/200-1213, tahitilegends.com), Pleasant Holidays (800/448-3333, pleasantholidays.com), Sunspots International (800/334-5623, sunspotsintl.com), and ATS Tours (800/423-2880, atstours.com). You'll be looking at a starting price of about $1,300 per person for eight-day/six-night packages to Fiji or Moorea, including air from Los Angeles. (I'm guessing you'd have to add about $350 per person for air from Grand Rapids to L.A.) As an alternative, Bali would be less expensive, with five-night packages starting at about $900 per person from L.A. or San Francisco. Try Escapes Unlimited (800/243-7227, escapesltd.com) and Sayang Holidays (800/243-7227, escapesltd.com). If you decide that the U.S. is not "out of the question," there's a reason Hawaii such a haven for honeymooners . . . It fits all of the criteria you mention above and then some.

Check out our special Hawaii section for more info: BudgetTravelOnline.com/hawaii

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Manassas, Virginia: My wife and I want to visit China in September, do the Yangtze River Cruise and see as much of China as possible. Can you suggest tour operators and/or tours that are comprehensive and reasonably priced? Too many choices and we have no knowledge of the area or the tour operators. We found one with an interesting side trip to Tibet, but the rest of the tour was limited. Thanks for your help.

Budget Travel Editors: Probably one of the best (and oldest) sources for Yangtze River cruises is Victoria Cruises (victoriacruises.com). Their prices are affordable (from $820 for a standard cabin to $2,150 for the Shangri-La Suite) for a five-night cruise in September (the shoulder season), plus they offer interesting itineraries with day trips, and even have onboard activities such as tai chi and lectures in English on Chinese history. Also, you might want to check into Champion Holidays (china-discovery.com), which is selling a 15-day trip that includes a Yangtze River cruise in September for $2,639 from LA or $2,779 from NYC. As with other cruises, prices include meals, and in this case most (but not all) excursions. Our best advice would be to go with a company that specializes in travel in China--this way, you can be sure you're getting not only the most authentic experience, but chances are you'll also be getting the best price too. Finally, another Asia/China specialist Ritz Tours (ritztours.com) has a 17-day Tibet Highland and Yangtze cruise package in September priced at $3,499. It also has other cruise only packages starting at $1,399, including airfare from LA.

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Morgantown, WV: I am going form Belfast to Glasgow July 9 and then have a flight back to Belfast from Edinburgh July 15. How many days should I spend in Glasgow? How should I get to Edinburgh? Should I take a couple day trips outside Edinburgh while there, and where would be the best to go - up to Loch Ness or to St. Andrews?

Budget Travel Editors: It's hard to say how many days in Glasgow you'd want. If you just want to see the standard tourist sites, 2 or so days in the city will cover it. But if you are into clubs and galleries and want to soak up some of the young, hip, artsy vibe in town, add a few more days. The train is the easiest way to get from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It takes about an hour and you can buy tix the day of from an automated vendor in Glasgow. You can save a bit by buying ahead of time, but it complicates things because they need to mail the ticket somewhere so you need an address in the UK or you'll have to pay extra to have it mailed outside the U.S. Go to scotrail.co.uk for all the details. Loch Ness and St. Andrews are very different experiences. St. Andrews is known for golf, so if you're into that, go for it. Other than that it's a nice town, though few people we know of are blown away by it. Loch Ness is the infamous home of the monster (and lots and lots of tourists hoping to spot him). At least you get a glimpse of the highlands and lochs (lakes) on a trip up there. Our call would be to rent a car and drive up into the highlands for 3 days, meandering, hiking, drinking tea, sampling the local pubs, and staying at cozy B&Bs inland or on the craggy coastline.

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Intervale,NH: I am hoping to take a year off to do a tour around the world. Where should I begin to look for a round the world airline ticket? Generally, what are the rules of these tickets? Can you recommend any sources of information for planning such an adventure?

Budget Travel Editors: Journalist Gayle Forman globetrotted for a year with her husband and she's recently published a book about the experience: You Can't Get There From Here (Rodale Books, ISBN 1-59486-037-8, $23.95). We ran an excerpt in our March issue; it'll be available on our website in the next few days.

Beyond the book, which is a terrific travelogue, Gayle's own website (gayleforman.com) has tons of useful practical information -- including suggestions for buying round-the-world (RTW) airline tickets, from the cheaper options offered by brokers like Airtreks (877/247-8735, airtreks.com) to pricier tickets offered by airline alliances. One of her best pieces of advice: Plan your itinerary ahead of time, but wait until the last minute to buy your RTW ticket. Why? Most tickets are only valid for one year from the date of purchase. Gayle participated in a terrific live chat in March...Read the transcript here.

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Long Beach, CA: I am a college student trying to plan a trip to Europe with one friend (and possibly two others) for next June or July. I know this is an expensive time, but summer is the only time I have a chunk of time to travel. Because this is my first trip abroad, I have been looking into trips that go through tour companies such as Contiki, Cosmos, and Trafalgar. I am looking for a trip that focuses on London, Italy and France with any other stops as an added bonus. The only problem is my budget. I can only afford 2500 (this price including airfare and whatever other fees)and I want a decent length trip because I do not know when I will ever get enough money or this kind of time again. Many of these companies exceed my budget with added airfare from LA, airport fees and travel insurance. I am confused and don't know what to do (and I don't know too many travel savvy people). Any advice anyone could give me would be truly appreciated.

Budget Travel Editors: It's tough to answer this question without knowing how savvy you and your friends are and how much time you actually have. I'm guessing that you're leaning toward a group tour not only because it'll be your first trip abroad, but because the independent alternative seems completely overwhelming and you think you wouldn't know where to start. But I'm also guessing that you've got at least a month to play with and, if I'm right, a group tour really isn't the way to go. Before you psych yourself out of traveling independently, remember that many college-age kids travel around Europe on their own for the first time without a tour guide, and I'm sure a lot of them are less savvy than you are. (After all, you came to us for advice, didn't you?!) They book an open-jaw ticket (flying into, say, London, and out of Rome), buy a Eurail pass, and hop from country to country, hostel to hostel, blowing wherever the wind (and the friends they met the night before) takes them. If you're good with a budget -- i.e. you're not going to blow half your money on a pair of killer shoes you find your second day in London (don't laugh, it's been done more times than you think) -- and you're relatively self-sufficient (you can read a map and you're not so desperately shy that you refuse to ask for help when you need it), you really should look into planning your own trip.

First off, I'd recommend getting your hands on a copy of Doug Lansky's excellent new book, First-Time Europe (Rough Guides, ISBN 1-84353-407-X, $14.99). It's not a traditional guidebook, rather "everything you need to know before you go": How to get the best deal on airfare, which rail pass to choose (if you need one at all), how to create a decent itinerary, the skinny on travel insurance, what it's really like to travel with a friend (and what to look for in a travel partner), advice on packing, sample budgets, how much you'll spend on average in each country, etc., etc.

If after reading First-Time Europe you think you and your friends might want to go it alone, buy a good guidebook -- and poke around on our website for supplemental info you won't find elsewhere: Snap Guide London, My Paris is Better Than Yours, Renting a Car in Europe, etc. But if you're still not convinced that independent travel is for you, visit the live chat again, give us the dates you want to travel, and we'll try to help you find a group tour you can afford.

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Budget Travel Editors: Sorry we didn't get to all of your questions. Join us next Tuesday at noon ET. And sign up for our free e-mail newsletter and be the first to hear about great deals, airfare sales, and travel tips: BudgetTravelOnline.com/newsletters

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