Trips for Families With Kids Ages 7 and 9
Any advice columnist would have said my family really needed a vacation. Over the past year, we spent far too much time at The Home Depot and U-Haul storage centers (we were renovating a house), as well as hospital rooms (too many reasons to explain). My children, Arjun and Araxi, are 9 and 7 years old--beyond the sandbox but not yet concerned about the fine line between cool and not cool. While trying to imagine what they'd most enjoy, I thought back to lessons learned from previous vacations, including the fact that spectacular scenery is for grownups. My kids love fun, hands-on activities and time to hang out together, and absolutely hate waiting in lines. For their sake and to preserve my sanity, I wished for all of these things, too. A farm with cute animals and a place to swim seemed like the perfect simple solution. The idea apparently appealed to another generation, as my parents wound up joining us.
Through the Pennsylvania Farm Vacation Association I found Weatherbury Farm, a B&B and working farm where guests help with the animals (1061 Sugar Run Rd., Avella, 724/587-3763, weatherburyfarm.com, $138 for a family of four). Owners Dale and Marcy Tudor decided after staying in various European pensions with their son Nigel that they wanted to run a B&B. While many B&Bs are filled with antiques and seek rich couples rather than families for guests, the Tudors decided they'd rather open an establishment that would appeal to children. They opened Weatherbury Farm, with a pool and six guest rooms, in 1992.
Our quarters, Mother's Sewing Room, had a black-and-gold foot-pedaled Singer machine as part of the decor, drawing Arjun and Araxi's attention for hours. They also inspected the steamer trunk, which stored extra bedding, and admired the claw-foot bathtub. I swear they never noticed the room had no TV.
After a delicious breakfast of apple pancakes and a bacon-and-egg casserole, Farmer Dale--everyone calls him that--guided us through the morning chores. We started by priming the hand pump. Anyone under 50 pounds had to put his or her entire body into this job. Araxi dangled from the handle a few times, and we managed to pump enough to give the animals their water. As we lugged buckets to the barn, my kids started talking about how hard farmers work. Geese, ducks, and guinea hens hung around in the background, and cats and kittens were everywhere. Farmer Dale showed us how to unroll a hay bale, and we fed the sheep and goats. The sheep ate out of our hands, which tickled. Arjun and Araxi used a baby bottle to give milk to a kid--the goat kind, with tiny hoofs and cute little teeth. It drained the bottle in less than a minute, and my kids were beyond thrilled.
Up at the henhouse, Farmer Dale opened the bird-size door, and chickens paraded out. We walked in the people-size door to deliver feed and water, and to gather beautiful pastel blue and green eggs. We didn't hang around long. "It smells worse than Yellowstone Park in there," Arjun said.
Once each morning's chores were finished, we had nothing in particular scheduled, though the children were given a packet of farm-related games and puzzles. We were free to explore the farm, which was always full of important lessons: On our way to the cow pasture, Farmer Marcy cheerily called out, "Remember, everything that's brown isn't dirt."
I also learned that as long as there were enough kittens to go around, everyone was happy. My kids found the side porch where more than a dozen cats and kittens gathered on drizzly days. They fell in love with Frankie, a six-week-old tabby with blue eyes who was small enough to curl up in their hands.
The hard part was getting my kids to leave the farm--and particularly, the porch with all the cats--for lunch and dinner. Pretty much every activity that took us off the farm, including a trip to an old-fashioned soda fountain, ended with the kids begging to go back.
At the end of our stay, Arjun and Araxi were given certificates that declared them Official Weatherbury Farm Kids. My parents were delighted with all the time they spent with their grandchildren. I was so relaxed I felt like I'd been to a spa.
When school started, Araxi had to do a report about what she had done over the summer. She drew a map of Pennsylvania decorated with kittens, along with an X in the southwest corner marking the farm. At the bottom of the page, she wrote: "We got to do chores!"
The farm associations of Pennsylvania (888/856-6622, pafarmstay.com) and Vermont (866/348-3276, vtfarms.org) make it especially easy to locate farmstays. Other states maintain agritourism sites--alabamaagritourism.com and California's agadventures.org, among others--where you can find farms that rent rooms, as well as ones that only welcome day visitors (for tours, tractor rides, and so on). Some farmstays are more geared to kids than others, so always ask about age-appropriate activities.
25 Reasons We Love Oaxaca
1. Altar of gold The ceiling of the 16th-century Santo Domingo church, five blocks north of the zocalo (town square), is covered with hundreds of plaster figures (opposite) outlining the family tree of Domingo de Guzmán, founder of the Dominican order. Even more amazing is the church's over-the-top Virgin of Guadalupe altarpiece, gilded in 60,000 sheets of 23.5-carat gold leaf. An adjacent monastery houses the less flashy Oaxaca Cultural Center, which includes a regional museum ($4.30), a walled garden of cacti from all over the state of Oaxaca, and a library dedicated to books on Oaxacan history. Constitución 101, 011-52/951-516-3720. 2. Courtyards by the dozen Many of the city's old colonial villas have been beautifully restored and turned into boutique hotels. Just two blocks east of the zocalo, Casa de Sierra Azul manages to keep the bustle of street life at bay with an ornate wrought-iron gate and thick adobe walls. As at many of Oaxaca's restaurants, galleries, and hotels, Sierra Azul's exterior hides a shady courtyard. Guests in many of its 14 rooms open their doors directly onto the quiet patio, where potted geraniums and ferns surround a gurgling, hand-carved stone fountain. Corridors around the courtyard are painted a pale yellow and host faded frescoes as old as the 200-year-old house. Hidalgo 1002, 888/624-3341, mexonline.com/sierrazul.htm, doubles from $124. 3. Corny festivals Nearly 40 percent of the state's population is indigenous, and the ancient languages are still heard in markets, especially in outlying villages. The Zapotecs, the most populous of the 16 native tribes in the valleys around Oaxaca city, are credited as the first people to celebrate Guelaguetza, a festival honoring Centeotl, goddess of corn. These days, Oaxaca city welcomes thousands of Indians from several tribes for traditional dancing and music during the festival, which falls on two Mondays in July. Tickets go on sale in May, and hotel rooms should be booked three or more months in advance. Oaxaca Tourist Office, Murguía 206, 011-52/951-516-0123, aoaxaca.com, $40. 4. A new old town The city's zocalo has always been considered one of the prettiest in Mexico, so Oaxacans were understandably shocked last summer when city officials closed it without warning for a five-month renovation. Workers replaced cantera stone pavers, replanted flowerbeds, and painted cast-iron benches a shiny black. But not everyone's a fan of "progress." Protest banners and kids' drawings of 125-year-old laurel trees killed during the renovation covered a corrugated metal fence that enclosed the project site. Reviews of the new zocalo are mixed--critics say it's too perfect--but it hums again with roving balloon vendors, mariachis, and teenagers out for a paseo, or stroll. 5. Chili power Iliana de la Vega, a virtuoso of traditional Mexican cooking and a favorite of American celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, teaches novices on Tuesdays and Thursdays at her top-rated restaurant, El Naranjo. Each cooking lesson varies, but students may learn to brew a tea flavored with hibiscus flowers, toast chilis and tomatoes on a comal (the clay griddle used to dry-roast ingredients and to make tortillas), and then use those chilis to make several salsas and a mole. After an educational walking tour of Mercado Benito Juárez, a daily market, the class indulges in a late lunch of all the dishes created that morning. When the last bite of flan has been eaten, de la Vega sends students home with printed copies of the recipes she's taught them. Valerio Trujano 203, 011-52/951-514-1878, elnaranjo.com.mx, $60. 6. Laundry like it's the Middle Ages Originally built as a convent in 1576 by Dominican monks, Camino Real has served as a government office, a jail, and a school over the years. Now it's a five-star hotel where doubles start at just under $300 a night. But you don't have to stay there to enjoy the two acres of grounds, planted with soft grass and bougainvillea. Check out Los Lavaderos, the 16th-century equivalent of a laundry room, in the northeast corner of the property. In a hexagonal stone gazebo, water flows from a large central fountain to a dozen stone basins that were once used by the nuns for washing. 5 de Mayo 300, 011-52/951-501-6100, caminoreal.com/oaxaca. 7. Sweating like an oldie For a traditional temazcal steam bath, taken in a small adobe sweat lodge, a bouquet of herbs--eucalyptus, mugwort, rosemary--is placed on heated rocks, and water is poured over it. The scented steam has been clearing minds and purifying bodies since the days of the Aztecs. Shaman Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera can be booked through Casa de las Bugambilias Bed & Breakfast. A two-hour treatment in her garden sanctuary 15 minutes from the hotel includes an aromatherapy steam, a few gentle whacks with a juniper branch, and a massage ($65, or $120 per couple). Reforma 402, 011-52/951-516-1165, lasbugambilias.com, doubles from $65, includes breakfast. 8. "Stain the tablecloth" is a flavor Known as the Land of the Seven Moles, Oaxaca receives accolades for its complicated chili-based sauces, which often require chocolate among more than 20 ingredients and take many hours to prepare. You'll never find a consensus on exactly what the seven are, but many agree on negro (black, the richest and most complex), amarillo (yellow and very spicy), coloradito (rust-colored and medium hot), almendrado (mild, flavored with almonds), rojo (very red, quite spicy), verde (green, light, and full of herbs), and manchamantel (literally "stain the tablecloth," sweetened with fruit). Restaurante Los Pacos, with a rooftop dining area, offers a great three-mole sampler. Mariano Abasolo 121, 011-52/951-516-1704, $11. 9. Worm chasers Tequila is king in the state of Jalisco; Oaxacans prefer mescal. Both are made from agave (different species), and it's the processing that gives each its unique taste. Agave hearts are steamed for tequila and roasted in fire pits to make mescal. That's why mescal has an earthy, smoky flavor that tequila lacks, no matter how old or expensive it is. Mescal is traditionally served in small earthenware cups, with lime wedges and sal de gusanito, an orange-colored salt spiced with smoked, ground worms (the same kind that are found at the bottom of many bottles). Mezcal Benevá, in the nearby town of Mitla, offers free tastings and tours; bottles of mescal start at $13. Km. 42.5 Carretera Oaxaca--Istmo, 011-52/951-514-7005, mezcalbeneva.com. 10. State of the arts Some of Mexico's most famous contemporary painters, including Rufino Tamayo, Rodolfo Morales, and Francisco Toledo, were born in the state of Oaxaca, and museums and galleries crowd the city center. In terms of size, scope, and popularity, you can't beat the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art (Morelos 503, 011-52/951-516-4750, $3) and the Oaxacan Museum of Contemporary Art (Macedonio Alcalá 202, 011-52/951-514-2818, $1). But smaller treasures, like the Museo de Filatelia, which exhibits Mexican stamps from as early as the middle 19th century, are worth seeking out (Reforma 504, 011-52/951-516-8028, mufi.org.mx, free). 11. Underground movies Back in the 18th century, Dominican monks built an aqueduct to bring water from the Sierra Madre mountains to Oaxaca's north end. In the neighborhood of Los Arquitos, restaurants, shops, and apartments have sprouted under the defunct structure's archways. Among them is El Pochote Cine Club, part of Oaxaca's Institute of Graphic Arts. El Pochote screens classic and contemporary films from around the world--most dubbed or subtitled in Spanish. Schedules are in the English-language Oaxaca Times, available at Amate Books or oaxacatimes.com. García Vigil 817, 011-52/951-516-2045, free. 12. Down = South Oaxaca's streets slope gently downward from north to south toward the zocalo, where the city flattens out. Everything's within walking distance, and if you're ever turned around, just remember that north is uphill. 13. Open-air prayer Construction on the Exconvento de Santiago Apóstol church began in 1535, but King Charles of Spain stopped footing the bills in 1550 after costs skyrocketed. What remains on the site in the small town of Cuilapam de Guerrero (southwest of Oaxaca city) is an elaborate facade, with flying buttresses, arches, and frescoes--but no roof. A second-floor window frames a perfect view of the entire valley. Admission $3. 14. Doorway to heaven Swing by Amate Books for its extraordinary selection of English titles on Oaxacan history and Mexican street art, but also for the one-of-a-kind doorway lined with a foot-wide border of dried red, orange, yellow, and white marigolds. It's sometimes guarded by a nattily dressed Day of the Dead skeleton. Macedonio Alcalá 307 #2, 011-52/951-516-6960. 15. Trunk show Many day trips to the east of Oaxaca city begin with a stop in Santa María del Tule, a small village named for the massive 2,000-year-old cypress at its center. More than 130 feet tall, with a trunk that's 46 feet in diameter, El Tule is regularly described as the largest tree in Latin America. Local children dressed in green sweatpants are the official tour guides; they use pocket mirrors to reflect the sun at different knots that look like an elephant, lion, waterfall, King Kong, Jesus, or various body parts. One particular bump brings to mind a woman's backside, which your guide may say resembles that of anyone from Monica Lewinsky to J. Lo. Eight miles east of Oaxaca, admission 25¢. 16. Serenity and spice Named for the monoliths carved with dancing figures found at the famous ruins of Monte Albán, Los Danzantes is a hip restaurant set peacefully back from the street hubbub in Oaxaca city, just beyond a small koi pond. Two-story walls in various shades of ochre ring the restaurant's patio, and a long reflecting pool runs the length of one wall. The eclectic menu might feature roasted hierba santa (a wide leaf that tastes mildly of anise) stuffed with goat cheese and quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) in a spicy tomatillo sauce, or duck enchiladas in green chili sauce. Hand-rolled organic cigars are for sale at the bar, where glass shelves are set into adobe. Macedonio Alcalá 403--4, 011-52/951-501-1184, entrées from $8. 17. Not everything's colonial Though it occupies a historic villa, Casa Oaxaca is a hotel with a minimalist, contemporary design--a refreshing change. Local artists' abstract paintings, on loan from a nearby gallery, dot whitewashed walls in the central courtyard and, in an adjoining garden, a blue-tiled pool makes a sharp contrast to bright red walls. Chef Alejandro Ruiz Olmedo runs the hotel's small, excellent restaurant. His nuevo-Mexican fare has proved so popular that Casa Oaxaca recently opened a restaurant in town. García Vigil 407, 011-52/951-514-4173, casa-oaxaca.com, doubles from $149, includes breakfast, entrées from $14. 18. Grasshopper poppers Men pushing what look like ice-cream carts hit the streets in late afternoon selling elotes: roasted corncobs topped with a dash of lime juice and chili powder. After a night on the town, Oaxacans head for their favorite tlayudera, a stand that sells giant crispy tortillas topped with bean paste, chopped spiced beef, and cheese. Chapulines (fried grasshoppers) are still considered a regional delicacy. They're sold at Mercado Juárez, and can even be found on the menu at some of the city's best restaurants. 19. No bifocals necessary At La Biznaga, Mission-style wooden tables are arranged on a courtyard patio, and the menu is written on huge chalkboards that hang from the arches. Chef Fernando Lopez puts a modern twist on traditional mestizo cooking with a salad of watercress, pears, pistachios, and Roquefort in a mango dressing, and grilled fish marinated in a sauce of pineapple, onion, and cactus paddle. It's also a fine place to taste a variety of mescals. They're usually served with orange slices in place of lime. García Vigil 512, 011-52/951-516-1800, entrées from $7. 20. Really super markets No matter when you're visiting the region, it won't be difficult to find fantastic shopping opportunities. Vendors take over outdoor squares somewhere in the state of Oaxaca every day of the week: Mondays in the village of Ixtlán de Juárez, Tuesdays in Atzompa, Wednesdays in Zimatlán, Thursdays in Zaachila, Fridays in Ocotlán and San Bartolo Coyotepec, and Sundays in Tlacolula. Oaxaca city's Abastos market, though open seven days a week, triples in size on Saturdays, with hundreds of stalls under a makeshift roof of plastic tarps. The pickings include exotic fruit such as cherimoya (with a white flesh that tastes like a tropical fruit smoothie), soursop (related to the cherimoya, but more bitter), and mamey (reminiscent of pumpkin pie). In other aisles, you'll wander past handmade pottery, burlap sacks overflowing with dried chilis and herbs, and veladoras (religious candles) stacked in colorful pyramids. 21. Home of the cloud people Oaxaca's largest and best-preserved archaeological site, Monte Albán, is eight miles west of the city ($4.30). It's easy to see why the Zapotecs built their fortress-city on a mesa more than 1,300 feet above the valley floor: The 360-degree view is ideal for spotting would-be intruders. In its heyday, around 800 a.d., 40,000 Zapotecs--known, not coincidentally, as the People of the Clouds--lived in Monte Albán. Surrounding the enormous grassy plaza are earthquake-resistant temples and tombs, built in perfect alignment with the sun and stars. There's very little shade, so go early to avoid the scorching sun (and the crowds). Monte Albán Tours runs four-hour trips in Suburbans or minivans to Monte Albán (011-52/951-514-1629, $17, includes hotel pickup/drop-off). If you plan to visit the ruins and several towns in one trip, and don't want to be held to a schedule, you might think about hiring a car and driver ($20-$25 an hour) through your hotel or the tourist office. 22. Seriously crafty Of the state's 3 million people, about 160,000 are registered artisans. Every village specializes in a different craft: In San Antonio Arrazola, phantasmagoric animals called alebrijes are carved from the soft wood of the copal tree. They're then painted in bright colors with tiny brushstrokes, creating geometric designs. The town of Atzompa is known for green-glazed pottery; Ocotlán, for clay figurines; and San Agustín Etla, for handmade paper. The Regional Association of Craftswomen of Oaxaca (or MARO) store in Oaxaca city sells crafts from all over the state. 5 de Mayo 204, 011-52/951-516-0670. 23. Lingo for gringos The Instituto de Comunicación y Cultura de Oaxaca holds Spanish classes Mondays through Fridays, and a week's worth of instruction costs just $150. The institute also offers a popular immersion program, in which students live, eat, and play with Oaxacan families. The $450 weeklong package includes airport transfers, accommodations in a room with a private bath, all meals, five hours of daily language instruction, arts workshops (cooking, weaving, dancing), and a field trip. Macedonio Alcalá 307, 011-52/951-516-3443, iccoax.com. 24. Tomb raiding Outside Oaxaca city, archaeological sites and villages are clumped together so you can see two or three in a day and not feel rushed. Mitla, 30 miles southeast of Oaxaca, is an ancient burial site for the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, with intricate stone mosaic fretwork covering the square tombs ($2.75). In the nearby town of Teotitlán del Valle, weavers such as Demetrio Bautista Lazo create much-coveted rugs with patterns that are inspired by the tomb designs (La Cúpula, Km. 2 Avenida Juárez, 011-52/951-524-4090, rugs from $170). No visit to Teotitlán is complete without lunch at the Mendoza sisters' Tlamanalli restaurant, where all dishes--squash-blossom soup, slow-cooked chicken stew--are made in the traditional Zapotec style (39 Avenida Juárez, 011-52/951-524-4006, from $6). 25. Chocolate for breakfast! The art of Mexican chocolate-making has remained unchanged for centuries: Cacao beans are dried and cured, then toasted and ground by hand on a stone slab and mixed with cinnamon, sugar, and crushed almonds. The result is dry and chalky, but delicious. Oaxacans love their chocolate; they each consume an average of 5.5 pounds of it per year. Many start the day with hot chocolate, which is whisked until it froths like a cappuccino. One of the best-known brands, Chocolate Mayordomo, has a small shop outside Mercado Juárez. 20 de Noviembre 305, 011-52/951-516-3309.
This Just In!
The new Holly Trolley is a red streetcar that makes 13 stops around Hollywood. A $1 ticket buys on-off access from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (ladottransit.com). This month, a new ferry in Alaska connects Wrangell, Petersburg, and Coffman Cove, a town on Prince of Wales Island. It's the first direct service between the three communities (interislandferry.com, from $25). Montreal's Mirabel airport, closed to passenger flights since 2004, will be transformed into a year-round tropical theme park called AeroDream, with an aquarium, an indoor beach, and several 3-D movie screens under multiple geodesic domes. The park is slated to open in late 2007. Download free podcast walking tours--such as one on Georgian Dublin--from Dublin's tourism website (visitdublin.com). Tupac Shakur is the first rapper to be on display at the Vegas outpost of Madame Tussauds. Other musicians previously enshrined include Elvis Presley, Prince, and Elton John (mtvegas.com, $23). North Korea is inviting several U.S. tour operators to run trips between August and October, during the country's Mass Games. Branson Landing, a $420 million shopping, restaurant, and hotel complex in Branson, Mo., opens May 26. And last month, the town's Silver Dollar City theme park added 10 new rides (bransonsilverdollarcity.com, $43, kids $33). "Mrs. President: From Martha to Laura" runs May 13-October 29 at The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. The exhibit features items owned by First Ladies, such as Mary Todd Lincoln's favorite carved coral necklace, pictured, and Grace Coolidge's Girl Scout uniform (alplm.org, $7.50). Electronic message boards at Universal Studios Orlando display the current wait times at all major attractions. Tour operator Globus has expanded its independent Monograms programs to North American destinations; the company is selling road trips that include hotel and car rental, as well as city stays that come with lodging and options to add excursions and transfers (monogramstravel.com). A few cruise lines are passing along fuel surcharges to passengers--for example, you can expect to pay an extra $4-$5 per person, per day on Regent Seven Seas and Crystal Cruises sailings. Festival, a new low-fare airline, says it will begin flying out of Rockford, Ill. (90 miles from Chicago) and other Midwestern airports by the end of 2006. Though the hotels it finds are mostly limited to major chains, searchparty.com gives quick rate comparisons--including a breakdown of taxes and fees--between a variety of booking engines as well as each property's own website. Led by France, 13 countries in Europe, Africa, and Latin America will soon be assessing taxes of $1-$48 per flight to raise money to fight diseases in poor countries. The Solaris 6 from Brunton (left) is a solar-powered panel that charges iPods and other small digital devices after only a few hours in the sun (brunton.com, $129). Go to farecompare.com and click on "My Airport Map" for a U.S. map displaying the best fares from a selected airport to 50 cities.
It's become a classic bit of advice: Look to smaller, alternative airports--such as Long Beach instead of LAX--for deals. Now, due to the rapid growth of certain airlines (and the demise of others), a whole new set of airports should be on your radar. The Southwest Airlines effect, in which a low-fare carrier enters or expands service at an airport and other airlines drop fares to keep pace, is on full display in Richmond, Va. (airport code: RIC). After AirTran began flying there from Atlanta in 2005, average fares dropped 42 percent. Fares will likely remain low, as JetBlue started flying to Richmond in March. And when Southwest Airlines and WestJet inaugurated service at Fort Myers, Fla., a low-fare hub of sorts was created--JetBlue, AirTran, Frontier, and USA 3000 already fly there. In February, after more than a year in bankruptcy, ATA dropped several routes out of its hub in Indianapolis (IND); AirTran swooped in, and by midsummer the airline will offer eight nonstops from Indy (up from two) to LAX, San Francisco, and a handful of Florida airports. The failure of Independence Air opened gate space at several East Coast cities. JetBlue got Portland, Maine (PWM), and AirTran took the gate at Westchester County Airport (HPN) in White Plains, N.Y. For decades, there was an uneasy peace between American Airlines, operating a hub at Dallas-Fort Worth, and Southwest, whose home airport is Dallas-Love Field. Recently, Southwest has pushed lawmakers to allow it to fly longer routes out of Love--to compete more directly with American--prompting American to go on the offensive. American announced more than a dozen flights out of Love, after not bothering to serve it at all for five years. "We're not here to make a profit," an American rep said at the time. "We're going after Southwest customers." Keep an eye on big airports, too. At Denver and Dallas, travelers are being wooed by low fares and other perks. When Southwest began service to Denver, Frontier and United, which both use Denver as a hub, offered double the frequent-flier mileage. United even tossed in discounts at Hyatt hotels.
Outside of trust-fund kids, no group has more leisure time than older folks--and the travel industry is well aware of it. Hotels, tours, airlines, and attractions target seniors with special offers, which unfortunately often turn out to be discounts in name only. The only way to figure out if you're getting a deal is to crunch the numbers. We've tried to help by doing some of the math for you. Airfare The days when seniors received a flat 10 percent off on most flights are long gone, but there still are special offers available. On Southwest Airlines, travelers 65 and up never have to pay more than $129 each way (plus taxes and fees). What's more, the carrier's senior fares are totally refundable without penalty, and no advance purchase or minimum stay is required. One hang-up is that Southwest limits the number of senior tickets per plane, so you're out of luck on flights that are close to full. Another sticking point: Southwest readily admits that its regular prices are sometimes less expensive than its senior fares, though the cheaper tickets come with the usual restrictions. United Airlines' Silver Wings Plus club, available for passengers 55 and over, is worth joining in certain circumstances. United divides the world into various zones, and once you sign up--and pay a $264 annual fee--flights are priced according to how many zones you cross. For example, the Silver Wings fare for a round trip from Medford, Ore., to Boston costs $389; when we searched, the best regular fare on the same flight was $489. On routes where United faces competition from other airlines, however, you'd often pay more than is necessary using Silver Wings. According to the zone fares, members would pay the same $389 for a trip from Portland, Ore., to Boston, yet anyone could buy a ticket on the same plane for as little as $288. The end result is that Silver Wings doesn't make sense for most travelers, though it can be worthwhile for those who fly often to or from smaller airports served by United. Other "senior" airfares are completely indistinguishable from standard tickets. AARP runs a website for its members through Travelocity (travelocity.com/aarp), but airfare searches almost always turn up prices that are identical to those at Travelocity's main site. (So far, AARP has only arranged special rates for members with United and Lufthansa.) At the websites of Continental, American, and other airlines, there are special boxes that allow you to request fare quotes as a senior, but you'll usually pay the same as any other adult would. Lodging Most hotels grant seniors around 10 percent off the rack rate, with varying age qualifications at different properties. The discount is often no better--and occasionally worse--than what military servicepeople, AAA members, and corporate travelers receive. Flashing your AARP card can yield the best price of all. Starwood hotels knock off as much as 50 percent, though there are caveats for the best deals: You might have to reserve well in advance, pay for one night up front, and accept the fact that no refunds are allowed. Among other member discounts, a list of 28 hotel chains can be found at aarp.org/travel; anyone 50 and up can join for $12.50 per year. Attractions Seniors can expect an easy few bucks off at museums, historic sites, and other tourist classics. New Orleans's National D-Day Museum, for example, charges $14 for standard admission, but $8 for seniors 65 and up. Cards and booklets such as CityPass, which covers entrance to several attractions in a given city with one purchase, complicate matters. CityPass points out that $98.80 is the full admission total for the six attractions included in its $49.50 Chicago pass. But seniors would pay only $72.32 if they bought individual tickets at each attraction, making the pass less of a deal--especially if they aren't interested in all of the sights. Other senior offers are clearly tremendous values: For just $10, the Golden Age Passport gives anyone 62 and up lifetime admission to all national parks. Trains Amtrak riders 62 and older get 15 percent off most coach fares, and discounts on Canada's VIA Rail are even better: With a paid senior fare, folks 60 and up can bring along a companion of any age at no extra cost. Alternately, a senior can receive 10 percent off a VIA Rail first-class seat, as well as a 75 percent discount on a companion's ticket. There are no senior rates for classic Eurail passes, but senior rail passes are sold for specific countries or regions--France, Great Britain, the Balkans, and Scandinavia. These passes are generally available in first-class service only, and cost a little more than what non-seniors pay for second-class passes. When seniors lose Travel insurance Because insurers factor age into their policies, seniors pay far more than younger travelers. Insurance for the same $3,500 trip costs $154 at age 40, $217 at 67, $346 at 77, and $528 at 87. Overseas car rentals Drivers can rent cars at almost any age in the U.S. That's not always so overseas. Many agencies in Greece and Romania have a cutoff at age 70, while in Ireland and Italy it's generally 75. Some agents will turn you down even if their company doesn't have an age limit. If you appear to be too old to drive safely, they'll refuse you.