Trip Coach: March 28, 2006

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Budget Travel Editors answered your questions

Budget Travel Editors: Thanks for joining us this week. Let's get to your questions!

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Dayton, OH: My husband and I are planning to be in San Diego toward the end of June. We are thinking about driving up the California coast, and have about 5-7 days. Can you suggest an itinerary, and decent but more inexpensive places to stay and dine? Thanks!!

Budget Travel Editors: 
Driving along the California coast is a lovely, classic American road trip. We recently wrote about a similar trip, driving Highway 1 from San Francisco to L.A. in the February issue. Some of the places we liked to stay included the no-frills Pacific Crest Inn by the Sea in Santa Barbara, the La Cuesta Inn in San Luis Obispo, and the Carmel River Inn in Carmel. We also liked La Super-Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, Paula's Pancake House in Solvang, and Urth Caffé in Santa Monica. Read more for our itinerary, plus recommendations on places to stay, eat, and see.
Before you go, you may want to download some free maps from the California Travel & Tourism Commission. Go to visitcalifornia.com and click on "Maps & Getting Around"

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Hinckley, Ohio: We have been watching the X-Files series with our 15 year old son. We would like to visit Vancouver in the summer for 7-10 days, probably during early July. We would like to see X-Files sites, in addition to the many other attractions that Vancouver has to offer. We are planning on flying there. Any advice/guidance would be appreciated. Thanks! Bernie, Joe, & Kevin

Budget Travel Editors: Vancouver is a beautiful city: lots of great parks and open spaces, diverse neighborhoods, and a usually favorable exchange rate. If you fly into Vancouver, you probably won't need a car, unless you'd like to take day trips outside of the city.
Before you go, you'll want to read "X Marks the Spot: On Location With The X-Files", written by location managers Louisa Gradnitzer and Todd Pittson.
It's a useful book containing a map, detailed descriptions and photos of locations, anecdotes, and synopses of seasons 1-5, which were filmed in Vancouver.
In addition to these locations, you can't miss Stanley Park, containing 1,000 acres of wildlife and nature and easily accessible from the downtown area. Inside the park, check out the Vancouver Aquarium, lounge on one of the beaches, or walk along the seawall. Vancouver's large, active Chinatown, historic Gastown, and up-and-coming South Main are also neighborhoods worth walking and shopping. All of these areas are easily accessible by bus or SkyTrain, Vancouver's light rail system.
Also, we strongly recommend bringing your passports, especially for reentry into the U.S. Find out more at Washington State's Department of Transportation website or Canada's Border Services Agency website
Weather-wise, you can look forward to mild days (60-70 degrees), cool nights, a little rain--after all, it's the Pacific Northwest!

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Davis, CA: My best friend and I, both 27, are planning a trip to China for two weeks toward the end of June 2006. She has been to China before but I haven't. We plan on flying out of San Francisco and into Beijing and definitely spending some time there, taking in a lot of the different sights. I would really love to go to the South and see places like the Li River, where they have those amazing rocky, steep hills but I don't know if we have enough time or money. It would also be fun to see the Three Gorges before they're completely filled-up by the dam. We're on pretty strict budgets but would like to see as much as possible and just have a good time.

Budget Travel Editors: If you're planning on cruising the Yangtze, then I'd highly suggest looking into reputable Victoria Cruises. Many of their offerings include the Three Gorges. Here's a link to their current specials, which start at $450 for 4 nights: victoriacruises.com
Also, Ritz Tours consistently has excellently priced air-hotel-tour packages for China, some of which include river cruises.

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Micco, Florida: I'm a senior looking to travel to London, Paris, Rome and Prague with my two grown sons. We would like to spend three days in each city. Would you advise going to a travel agent, or trying to do it ourselves? Any information you could give me would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Budget Travel Editors: These days, with Internet access, you have all the tools you need to make your travel plans yourself. We do NOT recommend using a travel agent. In fact, we wouldn't recommend you try to cram four cities into 12 days either, but if that's what's you have your heart set on, then check with Go-Today.com, which right now is selling a three-city air-hotel package for packages for London, Paris and Rome for $1,219 per person for travel before May 27. You could then extend your stay on your own in Prague.
If you want to price each leg separately, I'd suggest booking roundtrip airfare to London (the most affordable European gateway if you're flying in from the US), and then flying around Europe on one-way flights on one of the many low-cost carriers that operate there. Come May, SideStep.com may offer more European options in its search, but in the meantime, you could also use Cheapflights.uk to source connections. You don't have enough time to drive between cities, or take a train. Should you change your mind about the number of places you want to visit, then I'd recommend renting a car through AutoEurope.com or sourcing train tickets through RailEurope.com. Finally, I'd suggest consulting our Snap Guides for ideas on where to find good affordable accommodations:

London

Paris


Our Rome Snap Guide hasn't been published yet but here are two terrific properties:

Casa Howard (Splurge)
Via Capo Le Case 18 and Via Sistina 149, 011-39-06/679-4644, casahoward.com
Gorgeously appointed rooms in two separate boutique guest houses near the Spanish Steps. Each is done in a radically different style, from the masculine "American Cousin's" room, to the sultry, concubine-ish "Chinese" room. In the Via Sistina property, the "Zebra" room has a private balcony overlooking the street. Both locations have a Turkish bath ($30 supplement) and free Wi-Fi Internet access throughout. From $153, add $14 for Continental breakfast.

Hotel Panda
Via della Croce 35, 011-39-06/678-0179, hotelpanda.it
Great value in a neighborhood where everything else is prohibitively expensive. Rustic rooms are bright and polished, with wooden beam ceilings and terracotta floors; a few even have original 19th century frescoes. Wi-Fi Internet access throughout. From $112, with shared bath $100.

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Collierville, TN: I want to take my 10 year old granddaughter to New York city for her 1st time, and a friend would like to take her 12 year old. We need a nice clean inexpensive (less than $200 per night) hotel near the 42nd Street/Time Square area.

Budget Travel Editors: The newest hottest place to sleep near Times Square is Hotel QT, which is modern and has a pool in the lobby (i.e. super cool and likely to appeal to 10-year-olds). Its rates start at $175. You could also look into the Pickwick Arms (pickwickarms.com, 230 E. 51st St.; 212-355-0300). The rooms aren't big, but the service is great. The hotel was recently renovated, and rates start at around $150. I also think the Ameritania (rates from $165) is a terrific value for Midtown. For more info, go to: nychotel.com.
Download our mini-guide to New York City for other budget suggestions.

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Los Altos, CA: We are planning to go to Spain from 12/21/06 to 1/3/07 to visit our daughter who is studying in Madrid next year. We want to fly in to Barcelona & stay there through 12/25/06, fly to Seville on 12/26 (spend 3 days), take the train to Madrid (through 12/29) & stay there for 3 days, and fly home on Jan 2nd or 3rd, 2007. Can you suggest places we should visit, places to stay, ticket prices, etc. (or changes in plans if this makes sense). I've always wanted to go to Spain, and seeing my daughter over Christmas provides just the opportunity! Thank you.

Budget Travel Editors: The advice we give so often to our readers is "slow down" and don't try to do everything in one visit. If I could make one suggestion to you, it would be to spend extra time in Madrid and allow your daughter to show you around. There's an incredible amount to see there, and she will likely want to share all of the places she's discovered with you, along with all the sights. If you want to add other cities on, then choose either a) Barcelona or b) Seville. Both are extraordinary, and they couldn't be more opposite. Read up on both and see what strikes your fancy. Scenic Seville typifies Moorish Old World Spain, while Barcelona is Gothic and Nouveau, with an exciting modern POV these days. It's known for its rich arts tradition (Dali, Picasso, Miro, etc.), high design, incredible food, and indominable Catalan spirit. It's also on the water, and there are many great day trips within easy striking distance, if you want out for an afternoon (Vic, Montserrat, Cadaques, Figueras, Tossa del Mar, Sitges, etc.)
Keep in mind that most of Spain will be on vacation at this time, so make your plans early, say four months in advance. (Now is too early). Also, if you can extend your stay until Jan. 6 (Epiphany or "Reyes" as its called by Spaniards), you'll be in for a treat.
Book round-trip airfare to Madrid, and then use a rental car to get around. Be sure to rent BEFORE you depart (AutoEurope.com is a terrific place to do this), and purchase a Michelin road map. A car will enable you to explore outside the cities, and put you in touch with a quieter, less touristic (i.e. more authentic) side of Spain. Buenos suerte!

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Canada: Do we need passports to get into Canada in 2006?

Budget Travel Editors: When entering Canada, you are required to provide proof of citizenship and identity. U.S. citizens should show a U.S. passport. If they do not have a passport, they should provide a government-issued photo ID (e.g. Driver's License) and proof of U.S. citizenship such as a birth certificate, naturalization certificate, or expired U.S. passport. U.S. citizens entering Canada from a third country must have a valid U.S. passport. A visit for more than 180 days requires a visa.

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Pennsburg, Pennsylvania: Traveling to Rome in October: what to pack and recommended tour guides for Rome in a day

Budget Travel Editors: In October, Rome's temperatures average in the low 60s, but can be unpredictable. Layers are the way to go! A thin jacket, cardigans, and light-weight shirts should give you combinations for any unseasonably warm or cold weather. And be sure to throw in an umbrella along with your sunglasses--October is the city's rainiest month (typically 4.5 inches). For a standard double-decker bus tour with hop-on/hop-off service for top attractions (Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, Coliseum), try Bus 111 Open, atac.roma.it. If walking tours are more your style, Enjoy Rome offers three-hour general orientation tours and Context Rome's
team of historians, archaeologists, and foodies lead private or small group walks for a higher price. They can also get you into underground tombs and other normally restricted sites. You can find general information about the city at its official tourism site.
For an insider's take, read Rome: Live Like a Local and check back later this spring for our downloadable Rome Snap Guide, packed with tips on the best places to eat, shop, and play. And get a peek at visiting Rome around Halloween in The Eternal--or Infernal?--City.

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West Warwick, RI: My wife and I will leave in three weeks for a trip that includes Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria and Germany. Our concern is about currency. We know the Euro isn't used and we wonder about the need to have the currency of each country. Credit card use for small items and tips doesn't seem to be practical. Your advice will be deeply appreciated.

Budget Travel Editors: The good news is that the euro is actually the currency in both Austria and Germany ($1 is about 80 cents there), which should make things easier As you suspected, you'll want to carry some local cash for trinkets, tips, public transportation and so on. In the Czech Republic, $1 is about 24 koruny; in Hungary, $1 is about 220 florints. It depends on your comfort-level and where you'll be heading first, but to be safe, you should probably exchange a small amount of money into euros, koruny, and florints at a bank in the U.S. before you go. Once in Europe, ATMs are the best alternative to using a credit card (you should see some ATMs in the airport upon arrival). You'll typically be charged a small fee from the foreign bank for an ATM withdrawal and perhaps a fee from your U.S. bank, too, so the fewer withdrawals, the better. And check with your bank before traveling. Steer clear of making transactions at any dinky exchange offices abroad. In general, make credit card charges whenever you can and try to return home with as little foreign currency as possible--you don't want to be stuck exchanging it again once back at home. The best credit card to use outside the U.S. is Capital One. Every credit card incurs an automatic 1 percent fee during a currency conversion, which goes to the credit card company. But while most banks pass on an additional 1-3 percent to credit card holders for foreign purchases, Capital One doesn't add any extra charges and even absorbs the 1 percent fee from Visa or MasterCard.

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New York, NY: I'm thinking of taking a trip to Sicily in mid-April. Is it still too cold to go there then? Is July a better time or is too hot?

Budget Travel Editors: April in Sicily sometimes can produce inconsistent temperatures, but the weather's much more tolerable than the dry, scorching days you might face in July. Plus, you'll avoid the swell of summer tourists and can enjoy the traditional Easter celebrations. However, if you're hoping for some beach time, the average April high in the low 70s probably won't be warm enough. It is just perfect, however, for checking out the island's just-blooming wildflowers.

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Columbus, Indiana: We are an adult couple visiting New Zealand for five days on a limited budget in early August. To get the most from the experience, should we focus on the North or South Island?

Budget Travel Editors: Well, the answer to this really depends on what kind of experience you're seeking: relaxation, natural splendor, cultural immersion, or a mix of everything. A compact country (New Zealand's about two-third's the size of California), it's relatively easy to cover some of the two main islands' major hotspots via a rental car during a five-day trip. North Island is home to 70 percent of the population and New Zealand's larger cultural and city centers (Auckland and Wellington) so if you're looking for more than just bucolic beauty it might be best to focus on it. North Island's also well-known for its beach fronts and unique geothermal activity; the Rotorua area, a volcanic plateau in the island's central part, features boiling mud, sulphur springs, and gushing geysers. The South Island's natural offerings include snowy hills and fjordlands, and it has smaller cities like Queenstown. Bear in mind that August is winter in the southern hemisphere so it'll be chilly (in the 40s and 50s). Your activities may be limited by that. New Zealand's official tourism site, newzealand.com, is a great source for highlighting the country's many options, and be sure to check out our past New Zealand Trip Coach piece.

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Aurora, Colorado: I am putting together a complicated trip to England this summer. First, I am flying to England with my 3 teenaged daughters. After about a week, my 16-year-old needs to meet a foreign-exchange group in Madrid, so we are taking her there, spending four days before returning to England to meet my husband and our 18-year-old son (yes, that adds up to 4 teenagers). A week later, the daughter in Madrid needs to be met and brought back to England by an adult. My 19-year-old daughter wants to pick her up, is fluent in Spanish, and has been to Madrid before. However, I am leery about transport from the airport and how to book a room for her. She does not have a credit card and since she is not frugal at all, we have discouraged her from getting one. Would debit cards work? Any ideas? Thank you.

Budget Travel Editors: Debit cards will also work for making and paying for hotel reservations, and there are plenty of decent centrally located hostals that are clean and safe. (Puerta del Sol is right in the heart of Madrid; your daughter will most likely already be familiar with this area if she's visited the city before.) Hostalworld.com is a good resource for comparing several different options. As for transportation to and from Madrid's Barajas airport, there are subway and bus options, but if you'd rather know that your daughter is being transported door-to-door, aerocity.com runs bus shuttles that guarantee no more than three stops en route to your destination, and the 20 euros (roughly $24) may be worth the piece of mind. Your daughters can also use this same service on the way back to the airport, again for $24 (it's the same price for up to three passengers).

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Boise, Idaho: My wife and I, both near 60, will be in Helsinki, Finland September 2-9. We do not desire to rent a car. What's the easiest way to travel without renting? What would be the most recommended things to see in and around Helsinki in that amount of time? We'd also like to spend one day in Tallinn, Estonia. What's the best way to get there and what type of tour and sites would you recommend?

Budget Travel Editors: Good news: as a tourist in Helsinki, there is no need to rent a car. The city is small enough so that most attractions are within walking of a downtown hotel, but there is also an efficient, simple, and affordable system of public transportation to help out for any long hauls. Helsinki is known for its architecture and design, both of which can be admired by wandering and window-shopping through the city, visiting a few of the capital's 80-odd museums, and taking a tour of an area recently proclaimed the Design District, where many art-oriented stores and studios are located. Maps for a self-guided tour and tickets for guided tours are available at the Helsinki City Tourist Office, Pohjoisesplanadi 19. Getting to Tallinn, Estonia, is a straight-forward and simple day trip from Helsinki; the city is less than two hours away by boat, and no visas are necessary for U.S. citizens. Ferries leave daily and cost about $36 each way. There is no need to buy tickets any more than two days in advance. Several companies offer daily trips by ferry to Tallinn, complete with guided tours, transfers, and lunch, including Helsinki Expert (helsinkiexpert.fi, $162).

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