Trip Coach: June 21, 2005

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Budget Travel Editors: Welcome to this week's Trip Coach! Because of the high volume of questions, Budget Travel editors will be answering your questions throughout the afternoon. So apologies in advance if we don't answer your question this week--and check back next week for another Trip Coach!

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Windsor, Ontario: I'm a cruiseaholic and part of the excitement has always been finding a great deal which until recently has been fairly easy. I know that travel agents are no longer allowed to advertise discounts for most cruise lines unless they are sanctioned by the cruise line but if you call a wholesaler for a quote, can they give you a discount as long as it's not advertised? I've tried the cruise auctions and find that their prices are usually higher than the advertised prices.

Budget Travel Editors: You're right on two accounts. Travel agents can no longer advertise discounted rates on most cruise lines (rebates, as their called), but travel agents can still give you a hush-hush discount off the price that's officially sanctioned by the cruise line. As long as a travel agent isn't advertising the price, the cruise lines leave the agency alone. The discounts will vary depending on who you're travel agent is; some will stick to the official price. A good agent will give a good client either a discounted rate or some kind of perk as a thanks for their business. The perks may be on-board credits at the casino or the pay-extra restaurant, free or discounted excursions, free or discounted airfare, etc. But it's generally up to the customer to shop around and see which travel agent will give them the best deal. If all your agent is offering is the same price as if booking through the cruise line directly, turn the tables and ask him or her straight up: Why should I book with you? What can you do for me? The more you know about how the market works, the better your chances of getting a deal. That's how the game works these days.

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Rochester Hills, MI: I would like to plan a trip to the Sacramento,CA? What is the cheapest airline to fly in SAC from DTW? What special things should I try to do while visiting friends?

Budget Travel Editors: Northwest's hub is in Detroit, so you'll probably get more convenient flights to Sacramento. But for low fare carriers, America West and Frontier both fly from Detroit directly to Sacramento. You might also want to consider flying to Oakland, which is about 2 hours away from Sacrament, if you find a cheaper flight. Sacramento is old gold-mining territory, and there are lots of cool ghost towns in the foothills around town. In particular, the towns of Auburn (530-885-5616), Grass Valley/Nevada City (800-655-4667), and Placerville (800-457-6279) are good bets all within a short drive. If you're up for active adventure, there's terrific rafting 45 minutes outside of Sacramento on the South Fork of the American River. W.E.T. River trip is a reputable outfitter that runs full-day trips with lunch (888/723-8938, raftwet.com). In town, Sacramento has all sorts of state capital-related activities, including a tour of the 1877 governor's mansion, now a museum--sadly, an Arnold sighting is unlikely as he and Maria don't actually live in the historic site (parks.ca.gov/?page_id=498) Also, there's the California State History Museum, which includes everything from old surfing magazines to state archives (1020 O St., Sacramento, 916/653-7524)

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Biloxi, MS: My wife, our adult daughter and I want to go on a Mediterranean cruise next year. We all want to be in the same cabin. We would like a cruise of about 10 or 11 days. What do you suggest? We would like for air fare to be included.

Budget Travel Editors: There are so many choices, from itineraries that focus on short hops along the coastlines of one or two countries to ones that crisscross the Med from end to end. It all depends on your personal taste. Why don't you start by poking around websites like CruiseMates (cruisemates.com) and Cruise Critic (cruisecritic.com)? You'll find destination guides, ship reviews (including cabin sizes and configurations), and sample itineraries to help you narrow your search. Once you find the itinerary, ship, and departure date you prefer, shop around for the best value. Try Cruise Compete (cruisecompete.com). If you'd like the advice of an experienced consolidator, contact a company like GalaxSea Cruises (800/662-5450, cruisestar.com) or CruiseBrothers.com (800/827-7779, cruisebrothers.com).
A note about pricing: The Med cruising season runs April/May to October. For the best rates, look for a sailing early or late in the season, not one in June, July, or August. Flights are generally not packaged with cruises, and even if they were, you'd probably be better off looking for the lowest airfare on your own. Book flights early to get the best deal and remember that you'll want to pad a few days on land at the beginning and end of the cruise. (At the very least, tack on a day or two at the beginning so that you won't miss the boat if anything happens to delay your international flight.)

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Los Angeles, CA: Are there any companies that do packages to Spain and Morocco? I've been looking but I'm finding tour agencies that do one or the other, but not a trip to both.

Budget Travel Editors: Petrabax (800/265-4842, petrabaxusa.com) offers a comprehensive 15-day fully guided tour that hits all the highlights: Madrid, Toledo, Seville, Granada, and the Costa del Sol in Spain; Rabat, Marrakech, Casablanca, and Fez in Morocco. The land-only price (airfare is extra; arrange it on your own or through Petrabax) starts at $1,545 and includes transfers, deluxe motor coach transportation throughout, breakfast daily, a few lunches and dinners, 13 nights' hotel, the services of a tour director, local guides, and entrance fees for sights included on the itinerary. (They also have an 18-day trip that includes Portugal, starting at $1,710.) FreeGate Tours (888/373-3428, freegatetours.com) has similar 16-day tours starting at $1,699. And Gate 1 Travel (800/682-3333, gate1travel.com) offers a variety of escorted Spain and Morocco tours that can be combined in any number of ways; prices would depend on what time of year you're traveling and how long you want to be away.

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Washington, D.C.: Where can I find budget airfare to Honolulu, HI from August 1st to the 6th?

Budget Travel Editors: Flying to Honolulu in August from just about anywhere in the US will likely cost you a bundle. Your question is hard to answer because we don't know where you'll be flying from, but here are some of the airfare specials from various major US cities, good for travel the first week in August (departing Aug. 1): $872 from NYC (American); $821 from Miami (American); $521 from Seattle (Hawaiian Airlines); $769 from Chicago (ATA); $874 from Denver (United). We recommend using SideStep.com to find out the lowest price from your home gateway. Also, try calling SunTrips (1-800/SUN-TRIPS; suntrip.com) to inquire about its charter flights from Oakland or Denver, if those are viable gateways for you. Prices for travel Aug. 11 from Oakland, for example, start at $369 round-trip.
If you're looking for a great affordable hotel in Honolulu/Waikiki, some of our top picks are The Breakers (250 Beach Walk, 800/426-0494 or 808/923-3181, breakers-hawaii.com), where doubles start at $99; Hawaiiana Hotel (260 Beach Walk, 800/367-5122 or 808/923-3811, hawaiianahotelatwaikiki.com), where doubles start at $95; Royal Grove Hotel (151 Uluniu Ave., 808/923-7691, royalgrovehotel.com) has double rooms priced from $75-$77. Our recommendation for a splurge is: Waikiki Parc (2233 Helumoa Rd., 800/422-0450 or 808/921-7272, waikikiparchotel.com).

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Ypsilanti, MI: Is there a travel website (Orbitz, Hotwire, etc.) that will watch fares for me? For example, I want to be alerted if fares from Detroit to Rapid City, SD fall below $325. Is there a site that will do that?

Budget Travel Editors: Yes, Travelocity's FareWatcher will track the best roundtrip prices to up to five city pairs of your choice. You can sign up at travelocity.com/info/fare_watcher/0,,TRAVELOCITY,00.html
Also, we've recently covered how to find the best airfare deals online. Read some tips here from the February 2005 issue on booking travel over the Internet.
And read our article on the best "aggregators". Good luck!

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Worcester, MA: My fiance and I are planning to elope to Japan this fall. Ideally, we would like to have a short, simple, private marriage ceremony with a monk's blessing at a temple or shrine. Do you know how I might arrange this?

Budget Travel Editors: Just like in the U.S., getting married in Japan is a legal act, which can be--if you so choose--be accompanied by a religious ceremony. That said, the only place you can get legally married in Japan is at a city office, and not at the U.S. Embassy. As U.S. citizens, you must obtain what's called a "Certificate of Competency to Marry" from the Embassy or one of our Consulates, which enables you to get married in Japan at a city (or ward) office. You will also need your passports, birth certificates, and the signatures of two "adult" witnesses (over 20 years-old) to acquire a 'Marriage Notice'. For more information on getting married in Japan, visit the U.S. Embassy's website: japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-marriagedoc.html
A religious ceremony with a monk's blessing would not be a legally binding union. It's customary for a couple to seek out a Buddhist monk's blessing after they've completed the appropriate paperwork. While we can't point you to a Buddhist monk who'd be willing to give you a blessing, we can suggest that you contact one of the following Buddhist retreats in the U.S. for referrals:
· Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, 39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley, CA 93924 415/865-1899 sfzc.org
· Spirit Rock Meditation Center, P.O. Box 169, Woodacre, CA 94973, 415/488-0164 spiritrock.org
· Zen Mountain Monastery, P.O. Box 197, Mount Tremper, NY 12457, 845/688-2228, mro.org
· Dorje Drayang Ling, which means small, immutable island of melodious sound), P.O. Box 250, Pahala, HI 96777 808/928-8539 nechung.org
· Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, 373 Agren Road, Castle Rock, WA 98611, 888/465-9118 or 360/274-4859, cloudmountain.org
· Karmê Chooling, 369 Patneaude Lane, Barnet, VT 05821, 802/633-2384, shambhala.org
·Bhavana Society, Rte. 1 Box 218-3, High View, WV 26808 304/856-3241, bhavanasociety.org
If you'd like to get married at a Shinto shrine, you're in luck--there are many to choose from, and a good number of hotels even have attached shrines adjacent to reception rooms. Even in modern hotels, these shrines tend to be serene oases. If the hotel you're staying at doesn't have a shrine, it can likely recommend one in the area. A few words of note: any ceremony will be traditional, including the wearing of kimonos and sipping of ceremonial sake.
Traditionally, only family members attend the wedding ceremony--friends and colleagues join in at the reception. If you're planning your elopement for the fall, keep in mind that this, and spring, are the most popular times of year in Japan to get married. Good luck, and congratulations!

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San Diego, CA: How can you tell if you're really getting a good deal on airfare. Are there any general guidelines you can follow?

I've been trying to get the the Virgin Islands this summer (July) and can't believe how expensive the airfare is. I thought summer is "low" season due to the hurricanes! I went to Belize last Nov. for $280 + tax so I feel like the VI should be slightly more. I've traveled to Japan for $560 for goodness sake, but I can't find anything lower than $500+! Is that a good deal?

I've been watching the fares everyday hoping for a drop, but no such luck yet. Should I buy??

Thanks for your response!

Budget Travel Editors: One way to compare airfares is to use travel "aggregators", such as sidestep.com, kayak.com, mobissimo.com or cheapflights.com. These aggregators search the airlines', car rental companies' and hotel chains' booking engines directly for the best rates, and tend to offer a more objective search than bigger online agencies.
And check out our answer above to a reader in Ypsilanti, MI above on how to track airfare to and from specific cities by signing up to Travelocity's Farewatcher.

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New Orleans, LA:: We are traveling to Hawaii (Wakkaii) August 30 thru Sept. 6, 2005 for a conference/vacation. Can you suggest some all around entertainment for us, such as food (local), 1 day road trip within several hours, and whatever your reader has experience?

Budget Travel Editors: If your vacation package doesn't include a car rental, you'll want to add one on for at least part of your stay. (Plan ahead so that you don't have to pay for parking the entire time you're in Waikiki. That can get very expensive.) Most of the boat tours/snorkeling trips leave from Waianae, more than an hour northwest of Honolulu. You'll want to see the north shore, too; plan on a full-day excursion. Head north to Haleiwa, a cool little surfing village just north of Waialua. You'll love the shops (North Shore Swimwear is one of my favorites) and taco stands. Don't miss the Waimea Valley Audubon Center (audubon.org/local/sanctuary/brochures/waimea.html). There's a lovely, shady nature walk that ends at a great swimming hole at the base of a waterfall. One word of warning: Driving on Oahu during rush hour is a nightmare because there are so few highways. Plan your jaunts accordingly. For more info about eating on Oahu, check out our recent "Eat Like a Local" story. And for more on the island itself, read "The Real Hawaii".

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Vallejo, CA: How can I get a copy of the Seattle, WA article some months back....about where to go and what to do? It was a very good article with many suggestions...I save most of all your magazines but must have given this ONE away to friends that were traveling to WA...Thank you.

Budget Travel Editors: You have a good memory! I believe the article you're looking for is from the May/2002 issue. You can read "Seattle: An Outdoor Haven" for free in our archives.

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Budget Travel Editors: Thanks so much for all of your great questions. We'll be here next week to answer more of them! You can submit a question anytime.
You can read last week's transcript here.
And if you'd like your question to be considered for the magazine, you can email Letters@BudgetTravelOnline.com (put "Trip Coach") in the subject line.

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