Trip Coach: June 28, 2005

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Budget Travel Editors: Welcome to this week's Trip Coach. We're ready to answer your questions.

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Panama City, FL: I will be visiting NYC with my 15-year-old son in August for the first time. My son is interested in becoming a chef. Are there any culinary schools in the area where we could visit and/or have a meal?

Budget Travel Editors: Yes, there are several good culinary schools located in New York City. The French Culinary Institute (frenchculinary.com), for example, is in SoHo (at the corner of Broadway and Grand streets), and open for lunch ($21 prix fixe for three-course lunch), and $31 for a five-course dinner. All the food is prepared by students, and the front of the house is also run by wannabe chefs and restauranteurs. The French-inspired meals are not only a fabulous value, but it gives you a good glimpse at what the school is all about. I'd also recommend a tour of the facilities (which are located upstairs from the restaurant). Sometimes, prospective students are invited to sit in on a class or two, if you call ahead.
You may also want to check into the Institute for Culinary Education
(iceculinary.com) located in the Flatiron District at 50 W. 23rd St. The school's been around since the mid-1970s and offers a full calendar on day and evening workshops, in addition to full-blown programs for professional chefs. Your son may want to spend a day taking a course that interests him, so he can get a taste of life as a culinary student. Here's a link to the recreational course calendar by date: http://www.iceculinary.com/recreational/calendar.shtml
In August, they're offering a range of subjects from Regional Thai Cuisine to a Cupcake Workshop. Most day classes are 5 hours (10am -- 3pm), and cost under $100. Call 212/847-0770 and ask that a brochure/calendar be mailed to you.

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Mandeville, LA: When is the best time of year to travel to Greece to get the best deals and nice weather?

Budget Travel Editors: You'll find the best deals in the dead of winter, but outside of Athens there won't be much to do...A lot of hotels and attractions in the islands shut down from mid October to early April. For the best combination of price and weather, try for the shoulder seasons instead. From mid April to mid June and again from September to mid October hotels are less expensive, rooms are more readily available, and the weather is still plenty warm, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Best of all, you'll avoid the crush of tourists that flock to the ruins and beaches in July and August.

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Fairfax, VA: I would like to take my son on an island vacation, preferably in the Carribean since neither of us have been on a real beach vacation. My question is, since our only available vacation week is in late August, am I crazy to go to the Carribean as my destination? What about hurricanes and heat? Can you suggest a particular island/country? (I like the idea of going someplace with Mayan ruins but perhaps it would be cooler on an island vs on mainland?)

Budget Travel Editors: You're not crazy. The Caribbean can be fantastic in the summer. Hot? You bet. Risk of hurricane? Yeah, that's the season. But the vast majority of people going to the Caribbean in the summer--and there are millions of them-- have a great time and don't see anything worse than a few raindrops. It's always warm in the Caribbean, but things can get a bit more steamy in the summer, so you'll probably want to stick close to the water and the nice breeze. (Save the trip to Chichen Itza for January.) Not know anything about you, it's really hard to pick one particular island/country. Think more about what kind of experience you want to have. Loads of people love the giant all-inclusives, with multiple restaurants and loads of activities from tennis lessons to snorkeling to discos. Other people prefer a small inn where it's more like you're staying in a cozy B&B. With the latter, you usually have to leave the inn for at least lunch and dinner-which can be nice, but also a headache at times. If you're really worried about hurricanes you could head to one of the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao). Because they're so close to South America they're out of the hurricane belt and almost never see serious storms. But it being summer, and the Caribbean's low season, you can always wait until it's fairly late (within 2-3 weeks of departure) and see what deals are available then. Most Caribbean resorts and tour operators are struggling to fill hotel rooms and plane seats in the summer, so they're willing to deal at the last minute. Go to your travel agent or companies such as Apple Vacations (applevacations.com), Capricorn Leisure (capricorn.net), and Vacation Travel Mart (vacmart.com) for possibilities. You don't sound committed to one destination over another, so this may be the way to go.

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Chicago, IL: I'm looking for an affordable trip (September 2005) for Portugal. Any good suggestions? We would love a tour, but the airfare prices are killing me. A two-City stay would be fine. We want to book the trip soon. I'm trying to stay as close to $1000 per person as possible (Air & hotel cost).

Budget Travel Editors: Check out Petrabax (800/265-4842, petrabaxusa.com). They're currently selling round-trip TAP Air Portugal flights from New York to Lisbon, the Algarve, or Porto, and six nights' hotel in any of the three starting at $809 in September and October. Bonus: You have the option of splitting your time between Lisbon and either the Algarve or Porto for the same price. You can request add-on airfare from Chicago, but you may get a better price searching for those flights on your own. Try both.

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Minneapolis, MN: Any itinerary suggestions for a 10-day honeymoon starting and ending in Gothenburg, Sweden at the end of August of 2005?

Budget Travel Editors: Congratulations! Like the rest of Europe during the summer months, Sweden (and it's surrounding countries) will be teeming with tourists. But if you don't mind the crowds, June, July, and August are lovely months to visit Scandinavia with temperatures averaging around 65 degrees. Consider heading north towards Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn, Estonia, all great destinations with plenty of romantic stops along the way. The train from Gothenburg to Stockholm takes about 3 hours and a second-class ticket costs around $164 from Raileurope.com. After exploring the Swedish capital, consider a two-city cruise on the Viking Line, first to Helsinki, Finland, then to Tallinn, Estonia (vikingline.fi/index.asp?lang=en). From Stockholm the boat overnights to the Finnish capital and you'll be treated to live entertainment, casino tables, restaurants, bars, and stunning nighttime Baltic views along the way. It's a one-way cruise, so disembark in Helsinki and stay as long as you like. When you're ready, purchase another ticket to cross the Gulf of Finland into Tallinn, Estonia. One walk through the Old Town and you'll feel like you've stepped back in time with cobblestone paths, Hanseatic facades, and medieval towers. There are tons of great restaurants to celebrate your special day, and unlike in pricey Western Europe, your dollars will go far in this beautiful Baltic city.

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Madison, WI: My extended family and I are interested in planning a trip, possibly somewhere in Mexico or the Caribbean, though we would also consider US destinatons, but aren't sure what would be best since there are 10 adults and 9 children ranging from ages 3-22. We would like to keep the cost below $800 a person for a 5 day stay. We are thinking an extended weekend in Jan or Feb 2006. Any suggestions?

Budget Travel Editors: It's never easy planning a trip for large groups, so it's best to stick to an all-inclusive resort where you and your family can essentially pay one price and feel well taken care of for the duration of your vacation. And the all-inclusive resorts on Mexico's Riviera Maya--it's just south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula--should have everything your looking for: swim up bars, tons of activities, white sand, warm water, and best of all, great value. Five resorts to consider: Gala Beach Resort Playacar (877/888-4252, galaresorts.com.mx); Hotel Riu Playacar (888/666-8816, riu.com); Iberostar Paraiso Del Mar (888/923-2722, iberostar.com); Sunscape Tulum (866/786-7227, sunscaperesorts.com); and Barcelo Maya (800/227-2356, barcelo.com).

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Evanston, IL: My husband and I would love to visit Montreal. We need a budget idea. We stayed in a Provincial Park once and it was fine. Are there any around this part of Canada?

Budget Travel Editors: The Isle de Boucherville Park is located in the St. Lawrence River just south of Montreal's east end. It's made up of the islands of Ile Saiinte-Marguerite, Ile Saint-Jean, Ile-a-Pinard, Ile-de-la Commune and Ile Grosbois (sepaq.com). Algonquin Provincial Park, between the Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River, is a four-hour train ride from Montreal. You can search for other parks on the Web site for Parcs Quebec (sepaq.com). The Web site also includes various lodging options, from cabins to hotels. If you'd like to stay in an affordable hotel in the city of Montreal, the new Hotel Anne Ma Soeur Anne in the Plateau Mont-Royal district (annemasoeuranne.com) has stylish rooms starting at only $65.

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Jackson, MS: I have planned a honeymoon trip for my wife and myself to Negril Jamaica at the Sandals resort. What would you guys consider some of the "must see/do" things while in Jamaica?

Budget Travel Editors: Like most Caribbean islands, it's easy to do nothing in Jamaica and be perfectly satisfied. If your idea of a good time is lazing on the beach, taking long walks, or enjoying a rum punch while watching a shimmering sunset, then Jamaica is the place for you. That said, there's plenty to keep you busy. In hedonistic Negril, you'll be treated to some of the best restaurants and bars on island, not to mention open-air dancing to first-rate reggae. Have a walk on its seven miles of sugar white sand and you'll be treated to some of the finest sunsets anywhere in the Caribbean. For the adventurer in you, try a canopying tour in nearby Montego Bay. The folks from Chukka Cove (chukkacove.com) will take you on a tour of the treetops as you navigate a novel system of pulleys and cables slung between platforms some up to 380 yards apart and 75 feet above the ground. And for more information on Jamaica, tryvisitjamaica.com.

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Portland, OR: I am planning to cash in a pile of United miles for a free trip next year. The last time I tried to plan "reward travel" it was a huge pain / mess. Do you have any tips or recommendations?

Budget Travel Editors: Be patient, be flexible, and plan ahead. Awards seats are released 330 days before departure, and booking early is the best bet. What the airlines don't tell you is that freebies aren't granted on all flights so forget about scoring a seat to the Caribbean in January or visiting Big Ben the weekend before Christmas. You've got to be flexible, which often means traveling midweek and avoiding peak season. Also it's important to continuously monitor what flights are available (which is best and easiest to do online on the airline's website). If a flight isn't filling up as the departure date gets closer, airlines will sometimes release frequent-flier seats. Most charge a fee for booking less than two-weeks in advance, but it's still better than paying full price.

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Budget Travel Editors: Thanks so much for all of your great questions, we apologize we weren't able to answer them all. Check back next week for more Trip Coach answers!

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