Trip Coach: May 20, 2008

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Budget Travel editors answered your questions about travel.

Budget Travel editors: Greetings! Thank you for visiting for our weekly online chat. Unlike most Tuesdays, today we're fielding questions on all budget travel topics. Let's get to it!

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Quincy, Ill.: My new husband and I (married on May 3) are winging our way to Costa Rica for a honeymoon in July. We're going all over—rainforest zip lines, hanging bridges, cloud forest, Arenal Volcano, even a couple of days on the coast. I'd love to get some amazing flora/fauna/husband photos, but an expensive new digital camera and rain forest don't seem like ideas that will mix. Any advice? I'd rather not cheap out with a disposable camera—after all, I want my photo-safari to look like a magazine, not like grainy old snap shots. —Laura

Budget Travel editors: Congratulations on your wedding and upcoming honeymoon! I consulted a professional photographer friend about your question. He tells me that these days, most SLRs—even inexpensive ones—are pretty water- and mist-tight. Since you'll probably be exposed to the elements for extended periods of time, though, consider getting a waterproof case. He likes the Aquapac ($30) and the Ewa-Marine ($95).

If you're in the market for a new camera, the shockproof, waterproof options from Olympus would stand up to anything Costa Rica could throw your way.

My friend also says that going old-school and using film is also an option. Older mechanical cameras, like a Nikon FM-2 or a Pentax K-1000, can go through rainstorms without any problems.

To go the true budget route, take the advice of several of our readers, who tell us they keep spare Ziploc bags or plastic grocery bags on hand in case they find themselves in a sudden downpour and need to protect their electronics. Beth Collins

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Kansas City, Mo.: My fiance and I are trying to plan a honeymoon on a small budget. We're in our late 20s and love to travel though, but after a wedding who can actually afford a honeymoon? We hope to go to a beach and we'd love somewhere where we could hike and experience nature as well. I'm at a loss for where to begin. We're hoping to take a trip from 9/14/08-9/19/08.

Budget Travel editors: Hey there, Kansas City. Thanks for your question, and congratulations on your engagement! I'd avoid the Caribbean and western Mexico during your suggested travel dates of mid September. That tends to be tropical storm season. Two of my former co-workers each took their honeymoons during late August and early September along the Gulf of Mexico tourist destinations, and they regretted it. What about Hawaii? Hawaii's Big Island Air/Hotel, $894 per person, is a deal we list here.

Rather go abroad? How about Mexico? It's bikini weather in Baja and Los Cabos, Mexico, a side of the country mostly insulated from the brunt of hurricanes. But if you go anywhere in Mexico, note that a passport is required for U.S. citizens for all air travel there. For details on the new passport requirements, visit travel.state.gov/travel.

Still too pricey? What about taking a road trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula? It's a 14-hour drive, but the scenery is wonderfully varied, everything's inexpensive, and while the water will be too cold for swimming in September the beaches should still be sunny then. See our road trip idea here.

Looking for more pampering? Why not skip the beach and head to Las Vegas. United and Frontier are offering $240 round-trip tickets per person for September from Kansas City. See the Eiffel Tower replica, ride a gondola at the simulated Venetian canals, and get a four star hotel at two star prices by using Hotwire.com.

Good luck—and we're always looking for Trip Coach candidates, folks who need help planning their trips. If that doesn't seem too invasive for your honeymoon, send us an email at Letters@budgettravel.com, sharing as much info about yourselves and what you're looking for. (This is a feature every month in our magazine.)

Have a blast! Sean O'Neill

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm "starving" for a trip to London. I'm currently having my employer's travel agency look for some packages to London then train fare to Paris and Spain. But all flights leaving the U.S. to Europe (London, Paris, etc) is on average $800. And that's for travel this fall and next Spring '09. Should I wait until fall 2009? With gas prices being high I'm sure it's hard to predict the best times to travel. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you so much!
— Rani

Budget Travel editors: Hello, Silver Spring. Wow, it's gotten really fancy in your town in the past few years, hasn't it? You live in a little Mini-Bethesda there. Anyway, your trip to London sounds fun. I wouldn't wait. Who knows what will be happening in 2009. Seize the moment this year while you have the chance in your life. If you're willing to hop a bus to NYC, you may find much cheaper airfares out of NYC this year. You see, about 100 more routes between NYC and Heathrow have been added in the past couple of months because of de-regulation in March. You could hop BoltBus, DC2NY, or Greyhound to get to NY's Penn Station for about $35RT, and then hop a LIRR for about $7RT to JFK. It'll add a few hours to your trip, but may save you several hundred dollars. FareCompare.com, which tracks fare changes, is noticing that the airlines are sporadically offering unusually low fares for this summer and early fall. You may also want to try Farecast.com, which offers predictions on whether you should buy a fare today or wait until tomorrow. You can even pay $10 and they'll guarantee that you pay the lowest price. Good luck, and have fun! If Dulles is the only option you're interested in, another alternative is Priceline.com. Sean O'Neill

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Denver, Colo.: Hi. I'm traveling to Europe next month and I'm wondering what the best (fastest, but cost-effective) forms of transportation would be. I'm flying into Copenhagen and then I leave to come home from Athens 4 weeks later. I plan on hitting up about 6 cities (Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bordeaux, Florence, and Athens). What's your opinion?

Budget Travel editors: Start by checking out the different train passes that are available on the Eurail website. For two people traveling together, the Global First Class Saver Pass gives you unlimited travel in 20 countries (including the ones you want to visit) for a month for $1,075. If you are traveling solo, the price increases to $1,266.

One way to save is to buy a 21-day pass instead. Start your trip in Copenhagen, and then activate your pass the day you leave the city. From that point, you have three weeks to complete all your train journeys. If you plan to spend at least three or four days in both Copenhagen and Athens (at the start and end of your trip), this is a better pass to buy. The cost for two people traveling together is $850; for solo travelers, it's $1,021.

Because you're visiting Athens, though, you still have to buy individual train tickets through countries that are not on the Eurail system (either Bulgaria or Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia). This time could be better spent visiting another country instead. If you decide to buy the Eurail, you may want to reconsider your decision to visit Greece.

Or you could see how much it would cost to buy individual train tickets on raileurope.com and fly between some of the cities. Keep in mind that traveling by train on weekends and off-peak hours (night and overnight) is cheaper than traveling on weekdays during the day. Check websites like kayak.com, mobissimo.com, and easyjet.com for the lowest fares on budget airlines. Whichbudget.com will also tell you which airlines fly between the cities you are visiting.

For example, a flight from Copenhagen to Amsterdam on Sterling Airlines in June is just $97 (I found the fare on Kayak.com). If you take the train to Brussels ($51 weekend fare) and then another train to Bordeaux ($147), you've completed half of your inter-Europe travel for just $295. Getting to Florence and then Athens is more expensive. A train ticket from Bordeaux to Florence costs $369 (flying between the cities is even pricier). Taking a train to Athens is tricky because you have to go through the Balkans or via Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—and that takes forever. Try taking a train from Florence to Rome and then flying to Athens (the train is $74 and the flight on Air One is $219).

That brings your grand total for the trip to $957. Buying each ticket individually requires more planning, but you'll save money and get to keep Athens in the itinerary! Justin Bergman

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Westminster, Colo.: Where is the best place for onion soup in Paris?

Budget Travel editors: Specific questions are part of the thrill and challenges of travel (and trip research). I would recommend checking out several different resources beforehand (using both guide books and website searches) and asking for word-of-mouth references along the way. You're in luck, though, as several new guides to Paris restaurants have just hit bookshelves. Among them are guides from restaurant critic Gilles Pudlowski (Pudlo Paris), Gourmet Magazine European correspondent Alexander Lobrano (Hungry for Paris), and Paris food blogger Clotilde Dusoulier (Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris). I also suggest writing your specific request on the boards of foodie websites like Chowhound.com. Who knows? Perhaps someone in Paris with the same affinity for onion soup has already discovered exactly what you're looking for. Laura MacNeil

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a Cali girl and have been away from my homeland for almost 5 years now. So I had a trip idea to do a 10-14 day road trip from San Diego to San Francisco, with stops at Disneyland, Hollywood, Malibu, LA, Venice Beach, Santa Barbara, San Luis Opisbo, Monteray, and Big Sur. But there seems to be no cheap way to get a rental car, especially for that long. I even tried getting a package deal with car and flight but I can't since the rental pick-up and drop-off locations are different. This is my dream vacation and i think it's going to put me into debt! Any ideas?

Budget Travel editors: Since I'm also originally from California, I contacted some car rental companies about your dream trip.

Hertz and Enterprise responded with these tips.

Although one-way rentals aren't available at Enterprise.com, you can reserve one by calling 800/261-7331. A reservations agent quoted me $648.29 for a 14-day economy rental starting July 15 from San Diego to San Francisco. Hertz.com offered $899.44 for the same time period. Price quotes include taxes and unlimited mileage, but not insurance. If you're traveling before June 30, Hertz.com has a $25 coupon for a weekly one-way rental. Although Enterprise doesn't offer AAA discounts like Hertz, Costco members do get 5 percent off.

I agree that the price is steep. However, Hertz's spokeswoman reminded me that there's no penalty for canceling reservations so if you find a better deal, feel free to cancel and nab the cheaper price.

Alternatively, Auto Driveaway uses drivers to deliver vehicles but is really meant for long-distance trips. You need to be at least 23 years old with a clean driving record. (They'll check before pairing you with a car that needs to be transported.) The company covers the first tank of gas; a $350 deposit is refunded upon delivery of the car. Since your trip is only about 500 miles, the best the San Diego branch could offer was two to three days (619/337-3600). It's not quite the road trip you imagined, but it would basically be a free car rental.

Good luck! Amy Chen

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Livingston, Tex.: We are taking a cruise from Dover on July 13, 2008 and are spending a few days in London prior to the trip. What is the best way to get from London to Dover? Could a one-way car rental be a better way to go? Also, we are debarking the ship in Dover and will fly home from Amsterdam after spending a few days there. What is the best way to get to Amsterdam from Dover with perhaps a stop in Brussels? We like the idea of train travel but when I look at a timetable I'm having a hard time finding a Dover-Brussels-Amsterdam itinerary. Please help!

Thank you,
Linda

Budget Travel editors: Off the bat, I think your best options are to take a train from London to Dover (depart London's Charing Cross station). You can find schedules and details online. The trip's only about an hour and forty minutes. I'd buy a round trip London-Dover ticket, because the fastest and cheapest way to get to Amsterdam is via a low-cost airline flying out of London. You can research and book low-cost carrier fares online at Kayak.com. Bon voyage! Laura MacNeil

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Pottstown, Pa.: Where is the best place to convert US $ to Euros? A bank? ATM in Europe?

Budget Travel editors: ATMs are the way to go. Your bank will charge either a flat fee (usually between $2-$5) and/or a foreign transaction fee (1 to 3 percent). There may be an extra few bucks to pay in ATM charges, but all of this is still a better deal than the high commission you'd pay at a bank to exchange money. Before leaving for your trip, make sure you get your bank's policies on international withdrawals and ensure your card will work (some countries have extra digits in their pin codes, which can be problematic). You'll also want to ask about using your debit card as a credit card overseas, an option that may turn out to be cheaper. Finally, it's a good idea to alert your bank to the fact that you'll be traveling so the card won't be flagged for suspicious activity. Naomi Lindt

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Pinehurst, N.C.: What are some reliable travel websites for handicapped travelers, especially those who wheelchair bound or use supplemental oxygen?

Budget Travel editors: I reached out to Laurel Van Horn, the research director of Open Doors Organization, a Chicago-based nonprofit that studies travel by people with disabilities.

Here are her top picks:

DisabledTravelers.com is updated regularly and offers links from all over the world. The website's founder has a sister with a disability so there's compassion, Van Horn says.

The editorial staff of EmergingHorizons.com maintains a database that is updated monthly. Categories include medical travel, products, and lodging.

Disaboom.com has a travel section with in-depth articles, such as "Accessible RVing and Camping," "Travel Agents Specializing in Adaptive Travel," and "Enjoying Beantown's Old and New: Touring Historic Boston by Wheelchair."

VacationsToGo.com has a thorough guide to accessible cruising with details on more than 90 ships.

For people traveling with oxygen tanks, Breathineasy.com divides its tips into sections: cruises, air travel, or car/RV/rail/bus. There's also a nice chart that compares airlines by oxygen policies.

To book a trip, AbleToTravel.org is the travel agency for the United Spinal Association.

For more help, check out the U.S. Department of Transportation's hotline for air travelers with disabilities (800/778-4838) or TSA's website for air travelers with special needs. Amy Chen

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Sandy Hook, Conn.: What is the best time of year to go to Africa and where are the best places to go?

Budget Travel editors: The timing really depends on where you're planning to visit and the type of trip (there are more than 50 African countries!). If you have a safari in mind, the most popular destinations are Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, and Tanzania. The high season is roughly June through October, when the weather is drier and animals flock to water sources—making them easy to spot. In the rainier off-season, animals can be harder to track, but trips are cheaper and the landscape more verdant. You can find more safari advice by reading Get the Most Out of Your African Safari.

In Ethiopia, however, the weather tends to be warmest and driest from October through March, and one of the most fascinating times to visit is around a religious holiday like Timkat, the three-day festival of the Epiphany and one of the holiest holidays in the Ethiopian calendar (in January). You'll be inspired by our Sacred Ethiopia story and slide show. For pyramid viewing and cruises along the Nile, try the fall or spring, when the Egyptian heat is less oppressive. The same goes for Morocco. Good luck with your trip planning! Kate Appleton

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Birmingham, Ala.: My wife and I are interested in doing a French Barge Tour in April or May 2009. Do you have any recommendations? We would also like to have a few days in Paris and a side trip to Dordogne. —Paul

Budget Travel editors: Sounds like a great trip. If you haven't already, check out our cover story on Dordogne and our story on European River Cruises.

Have fun! Sean O'Neill

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New York, N.Y.: How pertinent is it to know fluent Italian to be going on a toured trip to Italy for a week?

Budget Travel editors: Not very! If you're visiting Italy as part of a tour group, you can expect to have a guide who's fluent in both English and Italian and who'll be able to assist in any tricky situations. Besides, major Italian cities are so overrun with tourists that those in restaurants, museums, and stores typically know enough basic English to help with anything from size conversions to the location of the bathroom (or bagno).

We'd still encourage you to pick up some phrases before you go. It'll add some fun to your visit, and Italians truly appreciate efforts to speak their language. Beyond ciao and grazie, one handy phrase for is per portare via—use it to request your slice of pizza "to go." Kate Appleton

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Lexington, Ky.: My passport is about to expire. Someone told me that U.S. passports are processed outside of the U.S.A. Is that true?

Budget Travel editors: It's smart of you to renew before your passport expires, because the process of getting a fresh passport is much more of a pain. Passports are processed in the U.S., says the U.S. State Department. But there may be a time delay in getting your passport processed, so do it as soon as you can. See details here. Good luck! Sean O'Neill

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Baton Rouge, La.: My husband wants to use our frequent flier miles on Continental to travel to Australia. The flights land in Cairnes, which is far from Sydney where we also want to travel to. I am thinking of a cruise. A cruise would be relaxing and let us see the island without stress. What do you think?

Budget Travel editors: I wouldn't recommend the cruise. Don't fear renting a car. Like Iceland, the highway network for the country is, generally speaking, a big circle along the rim all around the country. It's a sophisticated place with friendly locals and you're not likely to get lost or stressed out. Hotels in Cairnes will also have coach bus shuttles departing multiple times daily to Sydney—another option (that spares you the cost of gas, which is higher than in the U.S.)

Have fun—it's a trip of a lifetime. Sean O'Neill

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Lexington, Ky.: Hi Budget Travel. I would like to take a trip late this year or early next year to Europe. Easy enough, I suppose, but as a single, gay traveler, what do you recommend as gay-friendly venues? What options are available for traveling with others? I am not looking for one of those whirl-wind trips where you see 75 countries in 3 days. I'd like to spend some time and get to know the place.

Thank you for your time,
Bill

Budget Travel editors: Hi, Bill, I enjoyed visiting your city recently.

I travel with my partner to Europe often, but it's hard to give recommendations based on the limited info about yourself that you've provided. If you have any German ancestry (hard to tell with your name), you may really like Germany. They are extremely gay-friendly in Berlin and Nuremberg, and the tourist bureaus produce pamphlets with helpful tips for travelers. If you're a young person, the Love Parade festival is perhaps Europe's ultimate GLBT event. You can stay overnight at a castle for under 100 euros.

The most welcoming city for GLBT is Amsterdam.

The Irish GLBT scene is abysmal, but if that's your heritage, then you should go, and you'll still find the country's people very welcoming and nonjudgmental. I have.

If cost is an issue, know that you can experience the burgeoning gay centers of Prague, Budapest, Moscow, and St. Petersburg for a fraction of the cost of Western Europe.

Italy is a favorite for its incredible sense of history, though public displays of gay affection are frowned upon.

Paris of course is Paris. You should see it before you die.

Have a blast! Sean O'Neill

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Seattle, Wash.: We (two 30 year-old adults) are going to Singapore in August for 2 weeks to visit friends. We would like to make some short trips to neighboring countries (e.g., Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.) as well to make the most out of our journey. Which neighboring country to Singapore do you feel would give us the most bang for our buck? We are departing from Seattle.

Budget Travel editors: Sounds like a terrific trip. Be sure to check out EatingAsia.com for tips on dining in Singapore and beyond. (It's written by a reviewer for TimeOut KL). Um, you haven't supplied enough info to help me answer your question. But I'd generally point out that, if Costa Rica is the most tourist-friendly place for Americans in Central America, and Honduras is more roughing it, and Nicaragua has almost no English-speakers and few flush toilets, then you could use the same scale with Thailand being the most infrastructure for tourists (every restaurant named in your guidebook will have Australians and Japanese and Germans in it too), with Vietnam being less established, and Laos being most like Nicaragua in terms of tourist infrastructure. Hope that helps! Sean O'Neill

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Lexington, Ky.: Is it safe to travel to Liberia, West Africa? Which airline(s) fly there from the USA? Thank you.

Budget Travel editors: Yes it is safe. The US State Department publishes travel advisories and warnings. You can read its report on Liberia here. These are not "politicized" reports. They are highly respected, impartial reports.

Depends what airport you're flying out of. Delta partners with Air France, with connections in Paris. That's the major connector.

Have a great trip. (The historical exhibits to slavery and to local empowerment in the face of colonialist power is supposed to be fantastic). I'm jealous of your trip plan. Sean O'Neill

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Los Angeles, Calif.: I am thinking about taking one of those river cruises that are in Europe. Have you ever taken one and what did you think about it? Is there any particular cruise line you would suggest?

Budget Travel editors: All of the cruise lines mentioned in this article are well regarded. Sean O'Neill

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I would like to take a week-long trip in early September to Hawaii. Everything I've seen is way out of my budget. Is there a way to go to one island maybe all-inclusive or cruise within a reasonable budget?

Budget Travel editors: Yo, Philly! Look for package deals. And consider going for a shorter stay: Hawaii's Big Island Air/Hotel, $894.

Also visit the blog GoVisitHawaii.com for more deals.

Hope you have a blast. Sean O'Neill

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Delton, Mich.: A girlfriend and I are getting away to Orlando for a week in January and are staying on International Dr. We have tickets for Universal but would like to do something that isn't so commercialized too. Any suggestions? We love to do and try new things! One thing...I'm afraid of heights! —Vickie

Budget Travel editors: Hi, Vickie, Check out our May 2008 article on 25 reasons why we love Orlando. And have a blast! Sean O'Neill

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Budget Travel editors: Unfortunately, that's all the time we have to take for questions today. We regret that there were a few we weren't able to answer. Please check in next week, when our focus is on Girlfriend Getaways!

Is it Memorial Day Weekend yet? Hope you have fantastic time! And don't forget to pause for a moment and give a thought to our soldiers who are bravely serving overseas and can't be with us.

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