12 Best Budget Airlines
Travel can be an expensive hobby—you have to figure out where to stay, what do see and do, what to eat, and more importantly, how to get there, and all without breaking the bank. Flying can often be the priciest part of the journey, especially with all the extra baggage fees and other taxes that are involved nowadays. Luckily, there are airlines out there that want to make it easier—and cheaper—for travelers to get from Point A to Point B. We've rounded up 12 of the world's best budget airlines, great for that quick weekend getaway you've been dreaming about and there to help support your endless sense of wanderlust with an affordable way to visit a new city abroad.
Comfy leather seats and televisions for all
So you want to fly down to D.C., Orlando, or even San Juan for the weekend—no problem! JetBlue Airways makes your flight—whether it's a cross-country hop to San Francisco or a shorter, regional flight to Boston—comfy and enjoyable with plush leather seats and your very own TV screen equipped with 36 channels to make the time fly by. Complimentary snacks like Linden's chocolate chip cookies, Terra blues potato chips, and Dunkin Donuts coffee are available among other tasty snack options, and to top it all off, your first checked bag flies free of charge. Taking the red-eye? JetBlue offers a complimentary snooze kit with eyeshades, ear plugs, and pre-landing treats like hot towels, coffee, and orange juice to help you greet the new day.
Where they fly: Between major cities in the northeast, southeast, and western United States; the Caribbean; select cities in Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Fun-loving employees and open seating options
Best known for their above-and-beyond customer service—the airline made news in 2011 when a pilot held an outgoing flight for a grieving grandfather trying to see his dying 2-year-old grandson—Southwest Airlines now offers connections to even more cities around the U.S., Caribbean, and Mexico, thanks to a nifty new partnership with Air Tran Airways. Their unique open seating boarding procedure is another thing that makes this airline stand out. You'll receive a group number when you check-in (the earlier the better), and after your group is called, stand in line and choose any seat you want while boarding the plane. Your first bag flies free, and your biggest decision all day will be choosing between the window or aisle seat.
Where they fly: Major cities throughout the United States; Nassau, Bahamas; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Montego Bay, Jamaica; Mexico City, Cancun, and Los Cabos, Mexico.
Connecting Canada with the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean
Founded in 1996 and based out of Canada, the idea behind WestJet is that you shouldn't get less service just because you're paying less for a ticket. The airline has won several awards since then, was named J.D. Power Customer Service Champion, and is involved in several community service projects including the Boys and Girls Club of Canada, Make-A-Wish Canada, and the Ronald McDonald House among other charity groups. WestJet is also committed to investing in more eco-friendly practices like building more fuel-efficient jets. The airline offers flights to and from a number of Canadian cities, as well as flights between Canadian cities, making this an affordable way to visit the sites in Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Victoria, and Toronto for less.
Where they fly: Major cities throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Major cities throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Check their flight map to see more options.
Gateway to South America
Looking for an affordable way to explore South America? LAN is known for their reasonable long haul prices between the U.S. and a variety of destinations—sign up for their email newsletter and never miss a sale. The airline also offers extensive in-flight entertainment options. Each seat has its own television, and you can choose from more than 100 movies, 42 TV shows, 25 games, and even customize your own music playlist from their collection of more than 1,000 CDs or listen to one of their 10 available radio stations; entertainment options sure to make that international flight go by in a jiffy.
Where they fly: Miami is the major U.S. hub, but flights also leave from most major cities in the U.S. and Canada. Within South America, destinations include Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro, Guayaquil, Bogotá, LaPaz, and Caracas among others. Domestic flights are also available within Colombia, Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
Spice up your next transatlantic flight with a free stopover in Iceland
Want to make that long awaited trip to Europe just a little more interesting? How about adding a free stopover in Iceland? Thanks to IcelandAir, you have the option of adding a stay of up to seven nights when traveling from the U.S. and Canada to Europe for no additional cost to your original plane ticket. If you've got time to spare, don't miss this opportunity to tack on a few days and explore this intriguing nation, home to the Blue Lagoon, gorgeous natural landscapes, and a rare chance to catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights. Check their website for specials from the U.S. and Canada to seemingly pricey destinations like Oslo, Copenhagen, and Helsinki, and for budget-friendly packages to Iceland that include airfare, hotel stays, and visits to popular attractions.
Where they fly: From New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Orlando, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Halifax, and Toronto, to 25 major European cities and, of course, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Service with a brogue and a smile
Erin go bragh! Originally created in 1936 to provide service between the Emerald Isle and the U.K., Aer Lingus is now the national airline of Ireland, operating 43 aircraft and carrying more than 10 million passengers per year. Customers can look forward to an impressive amount of in-flight entertainment-long haul flights from the U.S. feature a large selection of movies, TV shows, and music on demand, as well as several radio stations and gaming options-and complimentary in-flight WiFi on all flights beginning June 2013. Check the Aer Lingus Vacation Store for special deals on trips to Ireland that include airfare, hotel stays, and car rentals depending on the package.
Where they fly: Major cities in the U.S. and Canada, various cities in the U.K. and around Europe. Also to Puerto Rico, Sydney, Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, and the Canary Islands.
Affordable flights around Europe and the Middle East
The U.K.'s largest airline, EasyJet connects 30 countries on 600 routes, transporting more than 59 million passengers a year, all while offering some of the cheapest fares around Europe. If you're hoping to visit more cities while in Europe or the Middle East, this airline makes it easier to hop a plane to a new place for less. Their nifty Inspire Me tool can help figure out where to go next—just enter the European city you plan to leave from, set your budget range, and watch the options appear. A search from London, for instance, yielded one-way tickets ranging from nearby Edinburgh and Belfast to cities as far away as Berlin, Munich, and Milan for less than $50.
Where they fly: Throughout the U.K. and between a number of major European cities; Moscow and various cities in Eastern Europe, Morocco, Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, and Egypt.
Cheap flights—but watch for extra fees
RyanAir is probably one of the most well known of all the budget airlines, but unfortunately is also known for offering super-low base ticket prices and tacking on extra fees for things like baggage, purchasing your tickets with a credit card, reserving seats, and reissuing boarding passes—at one point the airline even considered charging passengers to use the onboard restrooms. According to their website, these extreme methods are used as a way to encourage people to fly in a simple, low cost way, for instance, without any checked baggage, so for budget travelers with only carry-on luggage, this airline can be a great way to see more cities for a fraction of the price you would be spending on another airline.
Where they fly: Various cities around Europe, Morocco, Cyprus, and the Canary Islands.
Africa's first budget airline
If you're looking for an affordable way to explore more of Africa, perhaps before or after your dream safari trip, try FastJet, Africa's first budget airline. Domestic flights start at about $20 one way, but make sure you pack a snack—because of the short flight time between cities, onboard refreshments are not offered at this time. You are allowed to bring one carry-on item with you as long as it can fit into the overhead compartment and prices start at just $6 to check a bag, making this no-frills airline an affordable option to hop between popular destinations like Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
Where they fly: From three international airports within Tanzania—Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro, and Zanzibar—and Mwanza Regional Airport, with more routes expected to open soon in Entebbe, Uganda, and in Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya.
Your ticket to paradise
If you're on the east coast and think a trip to paradise is financially out of the question, think again. Hawaiian Airlines began non-stop flights from New York City's JFK International Airport last June, creating quite a stir in the tri-state area with prices in the $400s for a round-trip ticket. Keep an eye on their website for specials that are also available from California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona, connecting the continental U.S. to the Hawaiian Islands at competitive prices. The airline also provides connections to other South Pacific islands and parts of Asia, making that dream trip across the Pacific well within reach.
Where they fly: Honolulu, Hawaii, is the main hub—you can island hop to the other Hawaiian Islands of Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island, or fly to the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Tahiti, Singapore, Australia, and American Samoa.
Domestic flights between cities in 15 Asian and South Pacific countries
Australia's award winning low cost airline is Jetstar, a group of airlines made up of Jetstar Airways, based in New Zealand and Australia; Jetstar Asia, based in Singapore; Jetstar Pacific, based in Vietnam; Jetstar Japan; and Jetstar Hong Kong. Together, the Jetstar Group has flown more than 75 million passengers, helping people fly between hotspot destinations around Asia, the South Pacific, and Hawaii for less since 2004. You have the flexibility to choose how many included amenities you want while booking thanks to their cheap base fares and the ability to add extras as you go—the standard ticket price includes one piece of carry-on luggage (a great value for those who tend to pack light), while other variations include seat selection, food, beverages, and in-flight entertainment.
Where they fly: Various cities in Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.
Great for hopping between major cities in Asia
Let's say you're visiting Australia but really want to pop over to Singapore to explore the city's vibrant culinary scene. Tiger Airways offers low fares great for last-minute split-second decisions to explore a new city, a network spanning more than 50 destinations in 13 different countries around Asia and the South Pacific. Check out their Flight Combos for even more savings and a chance to tack on a free two-hour guided sightseeing tour of Singapore if you have at least five hours to spare between connecting flights.
Where they fly: Cities throughout Australia, Tasmania, Indonesia, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, China, and the Philippines; Singapore, Kuching, Macau.
Intimate Italy Like You've Never Seen It!
Our waiter, Giado, covered his eyes in dismay when we told him we were setting off the next day on a weeklong walking tour of Tuscany. "You really want to walk? It's sometimes 16 kilometers [about 10 miles] from one town to the next, with nothing in the middle to eat or drink." His concern seemed genuine, and given that we'd just demolished two of Osteria le Logge's most amazing desserts—a mascarpone terrine with port granita and a chocolate panna cotta with lavender cream—somewhat justified. Nearly every window in the city of Siena displayed something I wanted to eat: biscotti, lardo, wheels of pecorino, bresaola, cones of gelato. I knew we wouldn't find much of that while footing it through hay fields. TOUR TUSCANY'S GLORIOUS CAPITAL, FLORENCE! But my mom, my sister, and I had come here to start a seven-day trek through Italy's villages—we wanted to really experience the countryside, not just drive by it. Everyone has a fantasy of what Tuscany looks like: old stone farmhouses, rolling fields, lines of cypress trees. (Admit it: You've seen Under the Tuscan Sun at least once.) That was certainly our terra cotta-colored vision, and we were convinced that a self-guided tour was the only way to live the dream. Countless companies offer walking tours in Tuscany; we chose an outfit called Girosole because it was run by locals passionate about their homeland and intimately familiar with the best walking routes. The company allowed us to start our trip on any day and add extra nights in a given location, in the event that we couldn't tear ourselves away from a favorite sliver of la bella vita. For $1,390 per person for eight days (in high season), the company booked our hotels, provided walking directions (and a cell phone in case we got lost), and supplied a driver who transported our luggage—and sometimes us—from hotel to hotel. The self-guided option left us free to start our days whenever we pleased and walk at our own pace without contending with anyone else's schedule or group dynamics. Neither my mom nor I are regular hikers, but my sister is a marathon runner, so having the services of a driver gave Mom and me an out: If we were too lazy-or worn out-to walk one day, we could always hitch a ride with the bags. Our driver turned out to be not one person, but two: Paolo Forti and his son, Giacomo. Giacomo, 27, wore oversize Ray-Bans and was exceedingly (and adorably) polite when he picked us up in Siena. He opened doors, carried our bags, and on the way to Montalcino, where we started our trip, he narrated the scenery, pointing out the small town where he grew up, offering advice on his favorite wines, and telling us to look for rosebushes planted at the end of every vineyard row. "The rose and the grape, they take the same element from the ground, so the farmer, he can know if the land is good for the grape," he said, in charmingly accented English. When we reached Montalcino, Giacomo handed over a set of maps and customized directions, and then we were off and walking. For us, a typical day started at 9 A.M., and we often set out right from the front door of our hotel-in this case, Hotel dei Capitani. We'd wind our way down from one of the jewel-like hilltop towns we stayed in, looking back to see the fortified castle of Rocca d'Orcia recede behind us on one day, the walled town of Montalcino the next. Then we were crossing fields of hay that waved in the wind, fording rivers next to stone bridges destroyed during World War II, and passing row after row of heavily pruned grapevines, all while following our endearingly quirky walking directions: You arrive at another open meadow. Keep right through the next fork just past the small ruined church. The trail bends into a gap in the brush. They seemed cryptic out of context, but on the trail they made perfect sense. One leisurely walk led to Bagno Vignoni, a spa town where people have taken the waters since Roman times-thermal pools still bubble and boil there. We scrambled across cliffs that spewed hot, sulfurous water into turquoise pools, dined at a restaurant beneath a fragrant acacia tree, then soaked our feet in the warm mineral water that flowed through channels carved into the rock. Heaven. We'd usually make it to the next town for lunch, but twice we stopped at a grocery store before setting out and bought picnic provisions: prosciutto, pecorino made from local sheeps' milk, Sicilian blood oranges, fresh-baked bread, and a thermos of red Brunello-we were, after all, in wine country. One day we waded through knee-high grass into an olive orchard and sat beneath the trees, our jackets serving as a picnic blanket. I picked a tiny stalk of wild onion sprouting delicate purple flowers and presented it to my mom, who wore it in her buttonhole. Mom was almost giddy from all the gorgeousness. She couldn't stop hugging us and saying "I'm so lucky!" My sister and I rolled our eyes, but secretly we agreed. Girosole sent us on a path through the Orcia River valley (Val d'Orcia). It's an area of such well-preserved agrarian beauty-where cypress trees and crop rows trace the same lines they did when this land was first farmed-that it's been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's the place where the concept of man-made landscape began, when the wealthy merchants of Siena laid out plots of land in the 14th and 15th centuries with the aim of making them not just manageable, but also aesthetically pleasing. We felt like we were walking through a 600-year-old period set piece, where every field, tree, and house was placed just so, and around every corner was another equally cinematic view. Let's just say we took a lot of photos. Throughout the trip, we were in daily contact with Giacomo or his father, and when they came to collect our bags, we'd pepper them with questions. One morning, we asked Giacomo about a massive building we'd seen in the distance, which he explained was a hotel dating back to the Middle Ages built to house religious pilgrims. During Caesar's time, the main north-south byway cut through the Val d'Orcia. Later, in the 7th century, Christians traveled by foot on their way to Rome, and it remained a pilgrimage route for a thousand years. Monasteries and inns sprang up to serve the travelers, but by the 17th century, the road fell out of fashion. But those earlier journeyers left behind a province perfect for strolling, where scenic lowlands were punctuated with hilltop fortified settlements, most of which were located less than 10 miles-a manageable day's walk-from another town. Remnants of this once-illustrious route are sprinkled throughout the Val d'Orcia. Just after passing through the hamlet of Villa a Tolli (which was so deserted I had to use my camera's self timer to photograph the three of us in front of a dreamy stone house covered in climbing roses), we rounded a corner and saw the Abbey of Sant'Antimo, its bell tower peering above the countryside. The abbey was built and rebuilt many times, first in the 700s by Lombard kings to house pilgrims. Its current form is gracefully curved in a rare French-Romanesque style, dotted with prehistoric-looking carvings of monsters and oxen and men. Close up, its massive building blocks seemed to glow from within. There were other visitors at Sant'Antimo, but we spent most days in splendid isolation, encountering almost no one-just us and fields of poppies, thorny brambles of wild roses, stone walls blooming with irises, and clumps of rosemary as big as bushes. We walked right up to the iconic Cappella di Vitaleta. Flanked by two rows of towering 40-foot cypress trees, this tiny chapel is reportedly the most photographed church in Tuscany, but it's reachable only on foot. We had it all to ourselves for almost an hour; to celebrate our private tour, my sister and I turned cartwheels right on the lawn. Similarly deserted was the Collegiata church, in the slumbering town of San Quirico d'Orcia. Its entrance is flanked by delicately knotted columns resting on the backs of fantastical lions while scaly monsters tangle in battle above the door. Though it was designed to make 13th century pilgrims cower before the power of the church, we modern-day travelers were just as awed, dwarfed and alone before those spectacular stone beasts. When we saw Giacomo again, we asked him where everyone was. "The Italians, they don't walk," he said. "They come by car, they have lunch, they have a coffee, then they get back in the car." The under-populated countryside stood out in blissful contrast to the teeming villages where we spent our nights. One day, as we lingered outside a ceramics shop, surveying the valley we'd just walked through, we overheard another tourist. "Okay, this is our third town today. Are we done yet?" While they rushed on to Florence or back to Rome, we spent leisurely afternoons and evenings poking around in boutiques, gaping at medieval architecture, and strolling the narrow lanes. In Pienza, we saw a group of little old ladies gathered at the end of a cobbled street, knitting. In Montepulciano we sat outside drinking glasses of the famous Vino Nobile in a piazza and slept in a hotel, L'Agnolo, that felt more like a cathedral, with glorious frescoes painted on the ceiling of our room. And we happened to be in Montalcino on the day the town celebrates its patron saint, Maria SS del Soccorso, so we were treated to July 4th-worthy fireworks bursting over a fortress; afterward, a DJ blasted tunes in the square, and we found ourselves dancing in the streets to "Another One Bites the Dust." In truth, our appreciation for these towns was heightened because of the effort it took to get to them. Which is another way of saying that touring Tuscany by foot wasn't always a walk in il parco. Take, for example, our march to Montepulciano; the hike took longer than expected, and after five hours without food, we could hear one another's stomachs growling. We were so hot and tired that when we skirted an olive orchard and the Temple of San Biagio suddenly rose above us, we thought we were seeing a mirage, conjured up to give strength to hungry passersby. Glowing golden in the sunlight, drawing us in, its dome looked like something out of a Renaissance masterpiece.And yet, despite our grumbling bellies, it was impossible not to stop. Inside, the church's cool air and silent beauty seemed to cure our weariness. A diffuse light fell from the dome in a perfect circle, and we were surrounded by arches and rosettes and Greek columns, all carved out of the same linen-colored stone. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw an automated tour guide called an ArtPhone. I dropped a 1 Euro coin into the slot and learned that in 1518, a fresco of the Virgin painted on this spot suddenly seemed to smile. Many people witnessed the miracle, and public funds were collected to build a commemorative temple. San Biagio, one of the world's finest examples of Renaissance architecture, has been providing refuge for religious pilgrims-and weary hikers-ever since. When we headed back outside, our empty stomachs were filled thanks to another miracle. Directly across from the church, far from the city center, where we least expected to find a restaurant, I spotted La Grotta, reportedly home to the best food in Montepulciano. We weren't exactly dressed for a fancy lunch. Yet when the maitre'd, impeccable in his tailored navy suit, heard that we'd walked all the way from Monticchiello-five miles, uphill all the way-his eyes widened and he ushered us (shorts, hiking boots, and all) to a prime table in the back garden. He brought an extra chair for our hiking gear, recommended a bottle of the house red, and let us order dessert long after the restaurant had closed. We were several paces down the road when he came running after us with a half-empty bottle of water we'd left behind. "You will need it for your walk!" he said, sending us on our way with a wave and a "Ciao!" Bustling Montepulciano was full of trattorias and wine shops, but our favorite town was the emptiest: Rocca d'Orcia. There we found a crumbling castle looming over stone streets barely wide enough for cars (not that we cared about that!). When we arrived, an elderly man, navigating rocky steps worn smooth by the footfalls of several centuries, greeted us with a "Buon giorno." Otherwise, all was silent. We were staying at Cisterna nel Borgo, a three-room hotel above the town's only restaurant, where owner Marta Catani also gives cooking lessons, though she herself has no formal training. "Italians don't go to cooking school," she explained. "You just watch your grandmother." At dinner, we stuffed ourselves with tender, tangy wild boar cooked in yogurt and sauteed pork in a honey sauce that was salty and just a bit sweet. Since we were the only guests, we each got our own room; mine had a wood-beamed ceiling and windows overlooking the town square, which was dominated by a massive well. Marta told us that until the late 1950s, the city gates were locked against intruders every night, and today just 26 souls live within the town's walls. For two glorious nights, we were happy to push the population to 29. On our last morning, we were feeling lazy and not up to the challenge of a nine-mile walk. When Giacomo's father, Paolo, came to collect our luggage in the morning, we asked if he would drop us off at the halfway point. "Si, si," he said. That morning, instead of huffing up hills, we strolled through Monticchiello, a beautifully preserved walled town. We craned our necks to get a look at the top of the thick defensive tower at the town's entrance, then passed beneath a stone archway and into the winding medieval streets, flanked by the high walls of houses made of uniformly honey-colored stone. We walked down lanes no wider than a horse, took photos of laundry hanging from shuttered windows, admired a vintage red Fiat parked by a church with a vaulted interior covered in flaking frescoes, and read the plaque on an obelisk-shaped World War I memorial. On the way out of town, we encountered a crew of maintenance men. They waved. We waved back. "Ciao bella!" they exclaimed. Yes, we thought. It was beautiful.
One-Tank Escapes From 8 American Cities
Shenandoah Valley, Va. 107 miles from Washington, D.C. A collection of 10 independent cities make up the Shenandoah Valley, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, an idyllic watercolor landscape and outdoor adventure haven. SEE OUR SUMMER ROAD TRIPS! Shenandoah National Park is famous for its outdoor beauty, accessible via both easy and difficult hiking trails, some of which are part of the park's 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail (540/999-3500, nps.gov/shen, $15 per vehicle, $8 per person). The Limberlost Trail takes you past lush mountain laurel; Old Rag Mountain offers panoramic vistas. To refuel, perch in the Pollock Dining Room's taproom at Skyland Resort Lodge and order a Prohibition Punch, featuring local (legal) moonshine ($7.50), and a slice of famous blackberry ice cream pie, made from scratch from the season's harvest (540/999-2212, visitshenandoah.com/dining/skyland-restaurant, Prohibition Punch $7.50, blackberry ice cream pie $6). Not outdoorsy? Stroll through downtown Winchester with a guided tour of the Patsy Cline Historic House, where the country star lived for five years (540/662-5555, celebratingpatsycline.org, $8), or pick your own flowers in the fragrant fields at White Oak Lavender farm in Harrisonburg (540/421-6345, whiteoaklavender.com, tours $5). WHERE TO STAY Instead of camping out with her hubby FDR in Shenandoah National Park in 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt opted for luxury in Luray: "Franklin, you can rough it if you want, but I'm staying at the Mimslyn," she allegedly told the president. Even today, the property has opulent touches like Doric columns, formal gardens, and fine dining courtesy in the hotel's "upscale Southern" Circa '31 restaurant—necktie recommended (800/296-5105, mimslyninn.com, from $160). DRIVING TIP I-81 runs the length of the valley and connects large towns like Winchester, Harrisonburg, and Stanton. Consider jumping onto Skyline Drive to take in some of the most beautiful mountain vistas in the U.S. Yountville, Calif. 56 miles from San Francisco A walkable mecca for wine and food enthusiasts, Yountville offers glasses of big California reds, award-winning bites, and lush Napa Valley scenery that's a refreshing change from San Francisco's cityscapes. To sample vino, hop the Napa Valley Wine Train that chugs through the heart of town: It serves meals onboard, and visits local wineries for tours (800/427-4124, winetrain.com, from $135). Or go rogue and create your own tasting of five wines at Cornerstone Cellars (707/945-0388, cornerstonecellars.com). Get Michelin-star-quality flavor for less at chef Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc restaurant by partaking in the evening family-style four-course menu (707/944-2487, adhocrestaurant.com, $45); also, make time to walk through Keller's French Laundry Garden, which nurtures fresh vegetables and fruits used at French Laundry and Bouchon Bistro—it's free and open to the public. On a weekend morning, stop by Bouchon Bakery for the somewhat elusive chocolate doughnut—brioche dough filled with decadent chocolate pastry cream and topped with chocolate frosting and chocolate-covered Rice Krispies. But go early (it opens at 7) to score one (707-944-2253, bouchonbakery.com/yountville). Then float above the horizon on a group hot air balloon ride for eight to 12 passengers or take a romantic trip à deux with Napa Valley Balloons (800/253-2224, napavalleyballoons.com, from $210). WHERE TO STAY For a French country feel, book a room at Maison Fleurie, a B&B with a morning breakfast buffet and complimentary wine, tea, and hors d'oeuvres in the afternoon. Borrow bicycles from the front desk and go for a leisurely ride when you tire of tippling (800/788-0369, maisonfleurienapa.com, from $145). DRIVING TIP The most direct route from San Francisco is I-80 East, over the Bay Bridge, to Highway 37 West and then Highway 29 through Napa Valley. New Braunfels, Tex. 175 miles from Houston If you visit New Braunfels and don't (a) eat German food or (b) get wet, you're doing something wrong. The town is well known for the innovative 65-acre Schlitterbahn Water Park, but its German history, food, and freshwater activities are equally compelling. Floating down the spring-fed Comal River on giant inflatable "toobs" is essential in New Braunfels. Rent one for the day or take a guided group trip at Rockin 'R' River Rides (830/629-9999, rockinr.com, call for a group trip quote). Quell your post-river appetite with one of 10 types of schnitzel, pan-fried bouletten (meatballs), or classic brats at Friesenhaus, one of the area's specialty German restaurants (830/625-1040, friesenhausnb.com, schnitzel from $15). No German meal is complete without a hearty dessert, so pop into Naegelin's Bakery, "the oldest bakery in Texas, since 1868," for a big hunk of apple streudel—a whole one is more than two feet long (830/625-5722, naegelins.com). WHERE TO STAY The 30-unit Greune Mansion Inn, right on the Guadalupe River, has a quiet, Victorian feel, with multiple historical buildings broken up into residences that guarantee each guest his or her own entrance and porch. Many of the units have river views (830/629-2641, gruenemansioninn.com, from $190). DRIVING TIP Take I-10 to I-46, making sure to avoid Houston rush hour if you can help it. Hood River, Ore. 62 miles from Portland Orchards, wineries, and outdoor recreation are all hallmarks of this Columbia River Gorge destination. Taking a drive on the whimsically named Fruit Loop steers you through 35 miles of orchards, vineyards, forests, and farmland (541/386-7697, hoodriverfruitloop.com). Sampling the area's up-and-coming viticulture is another must: Columbia Wine Tours shuttles from two to 24 people to four wineries in four hours and provides bottled waters and snacks along the way (541/380-1410, hoodrivertours.com, two-person tour $140). Or if you prefer hops to grapes, swing by the Full Sail Brewing Company Tasting Room & Pub for a sip (or three) of Full Sail Amber (541/386-2247, fullsailbrewing.com). Dubbed the "windsurfing capital of the world" by some, Hood River is an ideal place to test your mettle on the water: Hood River Waterplay offers five different levels of windsurfing classes, plus equipment rental if you need it (541/386-9463, hoodriverwaterplay.com, from $69). WHERE TO STAY Seven Oaks Bed and Breakfast describes itself as a "garden oasis," surrounded by two acres of flowering plant life and fenced in by Douglas firs. The four-unit house (plus separate cottage) provides storage for recreational equipment and serves organic eggs, jams, and pastries (541/386-7622, sevenoaksbb.com, $160). DRIVING TIP I-84—a.k.a. the Columbia River Highway—is a straight, gorgeous shot from Portland. Look for both mountains: Mount Hood and Mount Adams. Harbor Country, Mich. 26 miles from Chicago Hitting the beach in the heart of the Midwest is possible at Harbor Country, a group of eight towns on the white-sand beaches of Lake Michigan. The southern beaches of New Buffalo and Warren Dunes State Park are biggest, but individual townships have access too (harborcountry.org). Charter a fishing boat in the New Buffalo Harbor with Cap'n D Charters to hunt down salmon, trout, bass, and blue gill (574/232-0436, capndcharters.com, $500 for up to four people for six hours) or try surfing or stand-up paddleboarding in New Buffalo or St. Joseph, assisted by Third Coast Surf Shop (269/932-4575, thirdcoastsurfshop.com, $75 for a 90-minute private lesson). Afterward, head to Three Oaks to the brand-new organic Journeyman Distillery, nestled in a former corset-making factory, and kick back in the tasting room for a sample of Featherbone Bourbon, a nod to the turkey feathers that the corsets were fashioned out of (269/820-2050, journeymandistillery.com). Soak up the booze at Skip's in New Buffalo, famous for its ultra-tender prime rib (269/469-3330, skipsrestaurantandcatering.info, from $22). WHERE TO STAY Directly across the road from its own private beach, the 31-room Lakeside Inn, built in the late 1800s, has a front porch filled with rocking chairs, plus an on-site café (269/469-0600, lakesideinns.com, from $80). DRIVING TIP Stick to highways 90 or 94. Creatively taking the back roads will only lead you into stop-and-go traffic. Clarksville, Tenn. 207 miles from Memphis How to describe Clarksville? "Think Carrie Bradshaw meets Dolly Parton," suggests the Clarksville Chamber of Commerce's website. With entertainment offerings just as diverse as those two pop culture icons, Clarksville manages to be a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll. The tobacco trade—specifically stemmeries—brought in the big bucks in Clarksville in the late 1800s: Tour the Greek Revival/Italinata-style Smith-Trahern mansion, built in 1958 by a wealthy tobacconist - the slaves' quarters out back are still standing, as is an adjacent 1700s cemetery (931/648-5725, fceclarksville.org, $2). Continue exploring the past via the trails at Fort Defiance Civil War Park, between the Red and Cumberland rivers. The site was a Confederate fort that fell to Union soldiers in 1862; soon after, it served as a safe place for freed and runaway slaves (931/472-3351, fortdefianceclarksville.com). Or, hike one of three trails at Dunbar Cave State Park—the caves were once mined for gunpowder (931/648-5526, tn.gov/environment/parks/dunbarcave). Cool off afterward amid 1870s architecture downtown, at the Blackhorse Pub & Brewery, which makes its own beer onsite, including the signature Barnstormer Red Ale, made with Bavarian Hallertau hops. Pair it with one of the eatery's specialty pizzas, like the Whitehorse, a pie topped with alfredo sauce, fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, feta, provolone, and mozzarella (931/552-3726, theblackhorsepub.net, from $15.50). WHERE TO STAY For an authentic 1800s experience, drive 15 miles southwest of Clarksville to Lylewood Inn Bed & Breakfast in Indian Mound, run by Mandy Williams. The rich antebellum décor—some rooms have claw-foot bathtubs—is matched in decadence only by the group meals: In addition to the requisite country breakfast, home-cooked dinners can include glazed pork loin, garlic cheese biscuits, and fresh berry cobbler (931/232-4203, lylewoodinn.com, from $75). DRIVING TIP Take Highway 40 to Highway 24, but don't fear the backroads. Visit the Tennessee Trails and Byways website for multiple mapped driving routes from different destinations - like the "Screaming Eagle" trail that begins in Nashville (tntrailsandbyways.com). Excelsior Springs, Mo. 28 miles from Kansas City, Mo. Soak up the late-18th and early-19th century history of Excelsior Springs, a Missouri town that boomed due to its wealth of pure, natural springwater. Early tourists came from miles around to bathe in the mineral-rich H2O and hopefully heal their ailments, and the city has preserved that craze via historic buildings and walking tours. Belly up to the world's longest water bar, housed in the Art Deco-style Hall of Waters and Cultural Museum, built in 1937, where you can taste the mineral waters that put Excelsior Springs on the map (816/637-2811, visitesprings.com). A few blocks down, stop into Oooey Gooey Chocolates for a chocolate-dipped Twinkie on a stick—your choice of either milk or white chocolate (816/630-9255, oooeygooey.com, $2.25). Or get away from it all at the 40-acre Knott Nature Sanctuary, which features education and recreation programs that include hiking, camping, and gardening and landscaping (816/630-2872). WHERE TO STAY Notorious characters Al Capone and Bugsy Malone reportedly threw their own bathtub gin and gambling parties at The Elms Resort and Spa, which reopened this year for its 100th anniversary after a multi-million-dollar renovation that includes a spa with a hydrotherapy grotto. The hotel is perhaps best known, though, for being the place Harry S. Truman found out he'd defeated Dewey for the presidency in 1948 (816/630-5500, elmshotelandspa.com, from $139). DRIVING TIP The quickest way to get to Excelsior Springs: Catch I-35 North from downtown Kansas City, then take Highway 69 to Excelsior. Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. 30 miles from New York City Indulge your love of literature, the arts, and lifestyles of the rich and famous in this storied region north of New York City. Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman live on (in spirit, anyway) in the Sleep Hollow Cemetery, which author Washington Irving name-checked in his 1820 story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Walk the grounds for free and visit cemetery residents including Irving himself, Andrew Carnegie, Elizabeth Arden, and William and J.D. Rockefeller, or take a two-hour, lantern-lit guided evening tour—if you dare (914/631-0081, sleepyhollowcemetery.org, guided tour $25). For a quick bite, select a hot "Fleetwood original" calzone (stuffed with pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions, mozzarella, and tomato sauce) from Fleetwood Pizzeria, founded by the Guzzo family in 1965 (914/631-3267, fleetwoodpizza.com, $5.75). Drive two miles northwest, on Bedford Road, to Pocantico Hills to see how the other half lived at Kykuit: The Rockefeller Estate. Drift through the main rooms of the six-story stone house, past the fountains and sculptures dotting the expansive gardens, and tour the underground art galleries, replete with works by Picasso and Warhol (914/631-8200, hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites/kykuit/tours, from $23). WHERE TO STAY Venture eight miles north of Sleepy Hollow to bunk at the Alexander Hamilton House, an eight-unit Victorian B&B with an eight-foot-deep swimming pool and a giant lawn chess set in the backyard (914/271-6737, alexanderhamiltonhouse.com, from $135). DRIVING TIP Allow traveling time for New York City traffic—the 25-mile drive can take much longer than an hour, even during off-peak hours.
Gaming in Nevada: Time to Think Reno
What comes to mind when you think about a casino vacation? If it's 3,000-room megaresorts, celebrity chefs, and pirate battles, then you may have been among the almost 34 million people who visited Las Vegas last year. Thirty-four million! Now for some, that's just dandy - the bigger the party, the better. But lately, even dyed-in-the-felt Vegasphiles have been grousing that their beloved casino haunt is being overrun now that the last of the several new 4,000-room hotels has opened. Time to think about an alternative? Time to think Reno. Think Reno and you won't conjure images of fire spewing and waters spouting from man-made volcanoes and lakes. You'll first entertain more modest associations, such as three-digit room counts, employees who smile, and a great oyster bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget in the neighboring city of Sparks. But these are just warm-ups to the Reno area's main event, which is anything but man-made: an outdoor wonderland of golf, skiing, and sightseeing, compliments of two dozen links, a score of downhill resorts, snow-capped mountains, and an alpine lake without peer. Dubbed the "Biggest Little City in the World" in 1927, Reno is no Las Vegas, but it doesn't try to be. The city has developed its own style based on its most marketable attributes: outdoor beauty, recreational opportunities, a come-as-you-are casualness, and affordability. And is it ever affordable! The area's large number of casinos ensures a high level of competition, which sets Reno's bargain quotient at a level second only to its big-sister city to the south. Two ways to win The key to enjoying Reno is knowing what to expect. If you're used to Las Vegas, you have to be prepared for the differences. For example, Las Vegas boasts 18 of the world's largest hotels. Reno has none; its largest hotel is the 2,000-room Hilton (not even in the Las Vegas top 20). Remember that lofty 34-million visitor count? Reno turnstiles admitted a mere 5.1 million last year. In almost every manner, the pace is slower and the glitz factor is lower. As one wise soul put it: If Las Vegas is a sparkling diamond, then Reno is a partially polished peridot. Still reading? Then you're a candidate to honestly love Reno. There are two ways. The first and most reliable is to use the city as a home base for day trips. Reno is the perfect gateway, not only to the Sierra Nevadas, Lake Tahoe, and the ski areas, but for a sightseeing excursion to Virginia City, or even an extended trip to San Francisco or Northern California's wine country, both about 200 miles away. The second way is to simply go to Reno for Reno, taking advantage of the best that the 30 or so casinos in the area have to offer, perhaps coordinating a visit with one of the city's nonstop summer events. Whatever your base strategy, planning in advance will pay big dividends. The first move is to obtain the "Reno, Sparks, Lake Tahoe Visitor Planner." No casino locale has an informational guide in the same league as this one. And it's free. A toll-free call to 800/FOR-RENO will secure it in quick order. The planner provides extensive hotel descriptions and vitals, RV parks, special-events listings, suggested sightseeing itineraries, maps (both city and area), a list of travel wholesalers you can query for package-rate savings, and some stunning photos that will fire you up about your trip. You can also log on to the tourism authority's very good Web site at www.renolaketahoe.com. High-end rooms at bargain rates Upscale or downtown-and-dirty? Unless you want to go the ultra-bargain route, the best combo of price and quality is captured by going for the gusto. The good news is that upscale prices in Reno still qualify as bargain-rate lodging. In a random (mid-summer) check of hotel rates for this article, the most expensive we could come up with for standard rooms was $119 on the weekend and $65 on a weekday, both at Harrah's (800/ HARRAHS). Those were the highest! Weekday/weekend rates of $49/$79 at John Ascuaga's Nugget (800/648-1177), $49/$89 at the Reno Hilton (800/648-5080), $49/$99 at the Atlantis (800/723-6500), and $59/$109 at the Peppermill (800/648-6992) qualify as downright steals. Now is as good a time as any to mention that these latter four hotel-casinos are the cream of the Reno crop. All are perimeter joints, two situated to the east (Nugget and Hilton) and two to the south (Atlantis and Peppermill) of downtown, which contains the primary casino concentration. Downtown Reno has had a tough go of it in the recent past, during which many of the older Reno casinos have closed for good. Gone are the Mapes, Nevada Club, Riverside, Virginian, Riverboat, Holiday, even the famous Harolds Club. Using its huge Bowling Stadium as an anchor, downtown hopes to mount a comeback with the dozen casinos that remain, but for now, there's not much to recommend it. Of course, the financial inducement to take the downtown-and-dirty route can be mighty. Our survey found weekday rates of $49 at the Eldorado (800/648-5966), $32 at both the Sundowner (800/648-5490) and Pioneer (800/879-8879), and $24 at Fitzgeralds (800/535-LUCK). If you're using Reno as a home base, there's a great case to be made for spending $24 a night simply to store your gear and crash at the end of the day. Truth is, Reno is an easy town to rate-shop, so all you really need is a general idea of what's where to evaluate the prices you encounter. The core of downtown contains Harrah's, the Flamingo Hilton (800/648-4882), Cal-Neva Virginian (877/777-7303), Fitzgeralds, Circus Circus (800/648-5010), Eldorado, and the relatively new Silver Legacy (800/687-7733). The latter three are linked via elaborate skywalks housing restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops; together they constitute the focal point of downtown. Located away from the core, on the downtown's outskirts are the Comstock (800/266-7862), Pioneer, Ramada (888/RENO-777), Sands Regency (800/648-3553), and Sundowner. You'll find lower prices here because the locations are less convenient. To the east and south perimeter casinos already mentioned, add the Silver Club (800/905-7774) and Western Village (800/648-1170) in Sparks, and way out some ten miles west of town, the burgeoning Boomtown (800/648-3790), and you've got the whole roster of Reno-Sparks hotels. Upscale meals, moderately priced Filling up a dining card in Reno isn't difficult. Excluding the rock-bottom plays detailed later (see our section called "Bargains on Parade," further along in the article), there are two must-dos. The first is John's Oyster Bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget. Open since 1959 and operating out of the same location since 1979, John's recipe for awesome seafood soups hasn't changed in four decades. The restaurant's inspiration was New York City's Oyster Bar at Grand Central, but try getting an oyster pan roast, overflowing with the little critters, at Grand Central for $9.95! Chowders, cocktails, Louies, and oysters on the half-shell are served with half-loaves of fresh bread and an update of the day's events compliments of the in-house-produced Today's Noon News. Dine early and there's a good chance you'll see John himself sampling the wares; on rare occasions, you might even spot him doing a bit of cooking. Must-do number two is a trip to Louis' Basque Corner. Northern Nevada has a rich Basque heritage, and the area is peppered with restaurants serving the region's unique cuisine-lamb, tongue, oxtails, rabbit, paella - at long tables in the traditional all-you-can-eat family style. But Louis' is the top choice: It has the formula down, the price is right (about $16 for dinner), and it's only a two-block stroll from the center of town. Reno's buffet scene has taken a little longer than Las Vegas's to catch fire, but the creativity gap is beginning to close. The best spreads in town, ordered by price (from $10 to $15 for dinner), are at the Peppermill, Ascuaga's Nugget, Atlantis, and Eldorado. Also recommended is the incredible Baldini's (800/845-7911) value buffet discussed below, and the famous steak buffet at the Silver Club. Though pedestrian in general, the Silver Club's $6.99-er comes with all the sirloin steak you can stomach. And these aren't skinny shoe-leather jobs, mind you, but slabs thick enough to get them cooked, according to the grill chef, "exactly the way you want, if you're lucky." Moving up to the low high-end, there are the good value-priced steak houses, such as those at the Sundowner, Cal-Neva Virginian, and Western Village. Many of these offer neat little early-bird menus that chop an already puny tab in half. Recommended mid-rangers include La Strada (Italian) at the Eldorado, Art Gecko (Southwestern) at Circus Circus, Orozko (Mediterranean) at Ascuaga's Nugget, and the venerable Steakhouse Grill, also at the Nugget, where a toteboard tells you that 3,186,576 steaks (whoops, make that 3,186,577..., 578..., 579) have been served since 1956. Two gorgeous Italian restaurants, MonteVigna at Atlantis and Romanza at the Peppermill, take it to the next level. And for the biggest dent Reno can levy on your wallet, head to the Peppermill's highly rated White Orchid. But a scanty club scene Whereas Reno holds its own in the food department, its entertainment situation is significantly less developed. This is not a place to find the latest in touring musicals, high-tech production shows, top-flight impressionists, or cutting-edge magic. In fact, there's barely even a star presence. Only the Celebrity Showroom at Ascuaga's Nugget maintains a regular schedule of headliners, even if the likes of Robert Goulet, David Brenner, and Tony Orlando seem about ten years removed from their showroom heydays. Reno showrooms are "intimate," and tend to house small-scale production shows that seem to mark time between the appearances of the occasional second-tier headliner. In a pinch, you can always count on the tried-and-true comedy clubs, of which there's usually more than one to choose from on any given night. Taking up some of the slack is a vigorous nightclub and bar scene. Finally, if you really want the Vegas-style show up north, you can take the ride to Lake Tahoe, where the stars still come out. Bargains on parade One universal trait of bona fide casino destinations is the availability of the super bargain. Since the goal is to hook you on the fishline of one of the negative-expectation casino games, it's necessary to throw out some bait. Reno's got the tactic down cold. With only about a third of the Las Vegas casino count, Reno deals aren't as numerous, but in a head-to-head comparison of each city's best, David may actually beat Goliath. The first place that comes to mind when discussing Reno food specials is the Cal-Neva Virginian, where the granddad of local breakfasts, the 99[cent] bacon-and-eggs special, is still available daily from 10 p.m. till 8 a.m. in the Top Deck restaurant. This breakfast is such a standard in Reno that it constituted legitimate big news when 24-hour availability was rescinded earlier this year, replaced during prime time with a $1.74 version ("with more bacon"). You can also treat yourself to a big hot dog and bottle of Heineken at the Gridiron Grill for $1.50; Cal-Neva claims to be the largest seller of one-bottle-at-a-time Heineken in the entire country. The Cal-Neva's trump card, though, is another Top Deck special that even Las Vegas couldn't sustain: A complete steak dinner for $1.99, available from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. It's an eight-ounce sirloin steak, rolls, vegetable, choice of potato (including baked), and one trip to the salad bar. You'll want to save the check, displaying a tab of $2.13 after tax, as a souvenir. Stiff competition comes from Baldini's, a quirky locals' casino located halfway between downtown and Sparks, where Pepsi is so prevalent (a la Cal-Neva's Heineken) that it all but doubles as currency. Baldini's has 49[cents] hot dogs, 89[cent] burgers, a dozen chicken wings for $2, and a whole rotisserie chicken for $4.99. But its claim to fame is a buffet with a taco bar, a baked potato bar, and a working Mongolian grill, where cooks stir-fry beef, chicken, and pork with a vegetable mix of your choosing. A few other casino buffets have Mongolian grills, but not with prices like $3.99 for breakfast, $5.99 for lunch, and $6.99 for dinner. It gets better. Kids are half-price, you get a card good for a 25 percent discount on unlimited visits just for signing up for the slot club, and you can get half off the price of your first buffet with a coupon from Baldini's "Super Bonus" funbook (you'll need out-of-state ID and a voucher available at the tourist center in the Bowling Stadium). The diner at the back of the little Nugget slot joint in downtown Reno hasn't changed in nearly 45 years. Eighteen red stools face the counter and another eighteen face the back wall. Try the "Awful Awful" burger for $3.50, or the chef's special dinner, which changes daily, for $3.95. The Sundowner's $1.99 plate of spaghetti with garlic toast, available 24 hours a day, is another that's been around forever. Back to Plan A It would take another article of this size to thoroughly explore all the possibilities in the Reno-as-gateway scenario. The key trip you should take, if only to look around, is the 40-mile jaunt (plus another 20 to the casinos on the south shore) to Lake Tahoe. The payoff for the steep climb up and over majestic Mt. Rose is a view of the lake suitable for memory framing. This sight is surpassed only by the breathtaking visage of Tahoe's Emerald Bay. To call the Lake Tahoe recreational area an outdoorsman's paradise doesn't begin to do it justice. Golf in summer and skiing in winter? Duh! Try 10 golf courses and 13 alpine ski resorts, a number of them world-class. Now add bicycling, hiking, swimming, speedboating, sailing, rafting, waterskiing, windsurfing, jet skiing, scuba diving, sport fishing, bungee jumping, skydiving, horseback-riding, tennis, bowling, ballooning, paragliding, rock-climbing, cross-country skiing, sleigh riding, snowboarding, ice skating, and snowmobiling. Do one, do all - possibly in overlapping seasons. If you expend a little effort, you can find all sorts of ways to package these activities for big cost savings. Last May, for example, Fitzgeralds advertised $49 and $59 ski packages to Mt. Rose, Alpine Meadows, or Squaw Valley that included a room at the casino, all-day lift ticket, and transportation. The tourism authority produces several planning guides to specific activities. You can track them down via the main planner and Web site referenced earlier. Advantage play "Advantage play" is a gambling term that describes any method for getting an edge at a casino game. The concept can also be applied to a trip to a casino destination. Advantage play for Reno begins the moment you book your flight. Try to get a seat on the left side of the airplane. Depending on your approach path, you'll be rewarded with a great aerial view of either Lake Tahoe or the city. And don't run straight for a cab at the airport. Unlike Las Vegas, almost all the Reno casinos provide airport shuttles (plus, Tahoe Express shuttles travelers from the airport to Lake Tahoe's south shore about a dozen times a day). Right off the bat, pick up one of the freebie magazines (e.g. Best Bets or Fun & Gaming) and page through it immediately. They're great sources for entertainment leads and discount coupons for shows and meals. Also, visit the tourist center at the Bowling Stadium for more of the same. If you come with kids, the best arcades are at Atlantis, Reno Hilton, and Boomtown. The best book to read before you come is the Nevada Handbook by Deke Castleman. The best place to get a book once you get there is Ron Teston's Gambler's Book Store at First and Virginia. The biggest special events are the Reno Rodeo in June, Hot August Nights in August, and the Best-in-the-West Rib Cook-off, Great Reno Balloon Race, and the National Championship Air Races in September. For a cool diversion, have lunch, dinner, or a drink at the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant, which is named after the first slot machine, developed in 1898 by Charles Fey. The bar's owned by two of Fey's grandsons, and on display are some of the inventor's machines, including his Liberty Belle. And finally, whatever you do, check out the great bathrooms next to the Romanza restaurant at the Peppermill. Trust us.
A Presidential Tour of Virginia
At George Washington's Ferry Farm, the Virginia plantation where the nation's first president lived as a boy, you learn some of his youthful secrets. Like the time he took a dip in the Rappahannock River, which flows past the farm, and two women from a neighboring town pilfered his britches. "It's in the court records," I was told as I toured there recently. Did the Father of Our Country scamper home unclothed? I wondered. On that we can only speculate. Part of the fun of traveling to historical places is coming across odd, sometimes gossipy—but always fascinating—stories like this one, which add flesh and blood to notables like Washington who figure so prominently in school texts. In Virginia, four of America's first five presidents almost seem to step from the pages of history at the plantation homes where they once lived. You can meet them on a seven-day, budget-priced driving tour, in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers. The 500-mile loop itinerary out of Washington, D.C., takes you to Mount Vernon and two other plantations on which Washington lived; and on to Monticello, the gadget-filled home of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president. Settling nearby as neighbors—and good friends—were James Madison, the fourth chief executive, who called his mansion Montpelier, and James Monroe (the fifth) who retired to Ash Lawn-Highland. At these sites (and more), you learn about the everyday world of the men chosen to shepherd the new United States. The tour skips John Adams, the second president, who hailed from Massachusetts. To see Virginia's presidential quartet, plan on staying two nights each in three small colonial-era cities—Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Charlottesville. I've scouted out economy lodgings and good family-priced restaurants in each. Entrance fees at the presidential homes are modest. For recess from the history lessons, I've also pointed out inexpensive recreation. Outside Fredericksburg, take a cooling dip in lovely Lake Anna, a state park with an inviting sandy beach. Sample Virginia's fine vintages on a winery tour. Hike a shady segment of the famed Appalachian Trail not far from Monticello. Go tubing on the gentle James River. You'll mostly travel country roads past woodlands, fields, and pastures. But the focus of this drive is on the men—and their wives—who helped create the nation. They have the continuing power to inspire. We see them both as the pedestaled icons they have become and as the real-life men and women they actually were. What struck me most as I recently revisited their homes is that they achieved so much while facing daunting personal problems: the early death of loved ones, troublesome debts, family squabbles. Poor Madison, I learned at Montpelier, had to put up with an alcoholic stepson addicted to gambling. A disillusioning note is that all four-champions of freedom-kept slaves. This, too, is a story told at their plantations. Fredericksburg We know George Washington as a victorious general and astute president. But he was also a pioneering farmer, experimenting on new crops and methods of growing them. This is one of the stories told at Mount Vernon, the estate where he lived for 45 years. Little has changed, including the handsome furnishings in his white-pillared mansion (which you can tour) and its grand view across the Potomac River. Adult tickets from $17, kids ages 6-11 pay $8, $16 for seniors. As a farmer, Washington was especially proud of the massive 16-sided treading barn he designed to keep his wheat crop safe from the weather. Destroyed in the nineteenth century, it was rebuilt recently—and visitors can now watch his innovative structure at work. As my wife and I stood in the center, piles of newly cut wheat stalks were spread on the nearly circular plank floor. Then a trio of large horses, treading in a circle around us, separated the grain. Kernels fell though gaps in the floorboards to collecting bins below. Mount Vernon is 30 minutes south of Reagan National. You can stop for a half-day at the estate before continuing on for the evening to Fredericksburg, Washington's hometown. Devote the next day to visiting his boyhood homes: Popes Creek Plantation, where he was born, and Ferry Farm, where the family moved when he was six. Entrance to Popes Creek Plantation is free; admission to Ferry Farm is $8 for adults, $4 for students, and free for children under age 6. Officially designated the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Popes Creek celebrates Washington's ancestors. His great-grandfather John, an English merchant seaman, was the first of the family to land in America in 1657, and he is buried here. The 550-acre park, about 38 miles east of Fredericksburg via Route 3, is maintained as a colonial-era farm with costumed interpreters. Devon oxen keep the grass mowed and a trio of turkeys struts. The river views are as lovely as Mount Vernon's. Pack a lunch and savor them at the picnic area. From Popes Creek, return to 115-acre Ferry Farm, just outside Fredericksburg. As a youth, Washington learned to hunt, ride, and farm—the skills of Virginia gentry. Here, too, is where he may have chopped down a cherry tree-wild cherries still abound—and perhaps tossed a stone across the Rappahannock. The river is not wide, and his arm was strong. Time your visit so you can watch archaeologists dig for colonial artifacts. In Fredericksburg's Historic District, you can also pick up the early footsteps of James Monroe. As a young man, he practiced law in the city. The James Monroe Museum, located at the site of his office, displays rich furniture pieces he took with him to the White House. As a history buff, I've known him as a statesman. But here I learned he was a Revolutionary War hero, wounded as a lieutenant the night Washington crossed the Delaware. His wife Elizabeth, so a guide told me, introduced place cards to society dining in America—etiquette she picked up when Monroe was minister to France. Admission is $5 for adults, $1 per child (ages 5 and under get in free). Getting thereFrom Reagan National, take the George Washington Parkway/Mount Vernon Memorial Highway south through Alexandria to Mount Vernon. After touring, continue west on Route 235 to Route 1 south and follow signs to I-95 south. The beach at Lake Anna State Park is about 25 miles southwest of the city. Where to Stay & EatExcept in summer, try for one of the 26 fully equipped cabins at Westmoreland State Park near Popes Creek. Contact them for current rates. Eat at Yesterdays in nearby Montross. In Fredericksburg, well-priced motels are clustered at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443). Near the motels, the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features southern cooking with full dinners under $9. In the Historic District, Sammy T's is a local favorite with a nineteenth-century look. Go for the quesadilla plate, $5.50. Williamsburg As the capital of England's richest American colony, Williamsburg drew important visitors. The footprints of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe crisscross often here. Many lodgings, taverns, and government offices they frequented have been rebuilt or restored to create Colonial Williamsburg, a 173-acre eighteenth-century town. Washington served for 16 years in the House of Burgesses. Topped with a soaring cupola, Colonial Williamsburg's impressive brick capitol duplicates the one in which the burgesses met as revolutionary fervor grew in the 1770s. Jefferson and Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, adjacent to the Historic District. The school's beautiful eighteenth-century Wren Building, where they studied, is the oldest academic building in use in America. A lifelong scholar, Jefferson is credited with broadening the school's curriculum to include chemistry, medicine, and modern languages. As Virginia's second state governor, Jefferson occupied the Governor's Palace that earlier had housed England's colonial governors. A beautifully symmetrical structure, which had to be rebuilt, it was one of America's most ornate residences. As you exit, take a stroll—as Jefferson may have—through the garden's holly bush maze. Washington and Jefferson were often guests at Raleigh Tavern, a popular gathering spot also authentically reconstructed. Step inside for a tour. As a student of 20, Jefferson is known to have spent at least one especially gala evening here dancing and drinking - to excess, it seems. After the night's revelry, he complained in a letter to a friend, "I could never have thought the succeeding sun would have seen me so wretched." To meet Washington as a military commander, take the Colonial Parkway about 12 miles east to the Yorktown National Battlefield, where his troops won the war for independence in 1781. Stretch your legs as you walk among the still-evident trenches and earthworks he ordered dug beside the York River. Getting thereWilliamsburg and Yorktown are about 105 miles south of Fredericksburg via U.S. 17. Where to Stay & EatArea motels are plentiful and inexpensive. Summer-season rates begin at about $30; at the 22-room Rochambeau (800/368-1055), $32; the 75-room Econo Lodge Pottery (757/564-3341), $60; the 39-room White Lion (800/368-1055), $44; and the 108-room King William Inn (800/446-1041), $65 weekdays/$79 weekends. Dine one night at a colonial tavern. At Chowning's, full dinners begin at $14. A less expensive alternative, the Old Chickahominy House serves up a bountiful colonial lunch-fruit, Virginia ham, Brunswick stew, biscuits, homemade pie, and coffee—for $7.75. In Yorktown, meals at Nick's Seafood Pavilion, beginning at $7, come with a water view; a heaping seafood platter is $16. Charlottesville The homes of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all perch atop green hills with grand Blue Ridge views. Acres of fields and gardens surround them. So untouched is the setting, I find it easy to imagine each Founding Father is at home when I come calling. Jefferson designed Monticello himself, adding to it for 40 years. More than any museum house anywhere, it reflects its master's inquisitive and industrious nature. He filled it with gadgets he designed, such as the giant clock over the front door that faces both inside and out. Indoors, the clock sports two hands; outside, he placed only an hour hand—since, to quote my guide Charlie Gay, "You only have to know the approximate time when you're working outdoors." A man with expensive tastes, Jefferson furnished his beloved retreat lavishly—and died deeply in debt. Admission from $25 for adults, $16 for children ages 12-18, $8 for children ages 5-11, children under five are free. Two miles up the road, Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland is humbler, seated at the end of a long entrance drive lined with ash trees. Monroe, instrumental in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, held more major offices than any other president: senator, ambassador, governor, secretary of state, and secretary of war. His home displays many of the rich objects he and his wife acquired in their travels. In the drawing room stands a bust of Napoleon that the emperor himself gave to Monroe. Admission is $14 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-11, $12 for seniors over 60. Madison's Montpelier is located 30 miles north near Orange. Take Route 20, a scenic byway. Its entrance marked with four soaring pillars, Montpelier is a stately structure with a dual personality. Madison's lifelong home, it was acquired subsequently by a horse-loving Delaware du Pont, who greatly enlarged it. Scholarly and introverted, Madison was complemented by his vivacious wife Dolley, a born hostess, according to my guide Bob Carr. Admission is from $18 for adults, $7 for children 6-14, and free for children under age 6. Elsewhere in Charlottesville, the "academical village" Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia was cited in 1976 by the American Institute of Architects as "the proudest architectural achievement of the nation's first 200 years." His magnificent Rotunda is patterned after Rome's Pantheon. Jefferson so loved the university that he ordered "Founder of the University of Virginia" carved onto his Monticello tomb, ignoring his presidency. Two miles from Monticello, the city-run Monticello Visitor Center displays 400 original Jefferson objects. As a study break, stop for a complimentary tasting at Jefferson Vineyards, a 50-acre vineyard near Monticello. After all, Jefferson is considered America's first wine connoisseur. Or drive south 18 miles on Route 20 to Scottsville, where James River Runners will put you in a rubber tube on the James River. The fee is from $24 per tube. Just 18 miles west, hike along the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. Getting thereCharlottesville is 120 miles west of Williamsburg. The fastest way is via I-64; the most scenic, Route 6 west from Richmond. En route, stop in Richmond to see the neoclassical State Capitol Building Jefferson helped design when Richmond succeeded Williamsburg as the capital city. A famed full-size statue of Washington stands in the Rotunda. Where to Stay & EatThe 37-room Budget Inn (800/293-5144) is an easy walk from the college campus; $46 weekdays/$55 weekends. Other choices: On the northern outskirts, the 115-room Knights Inn (804/973-8133), $54 weekdays/$65 weekends, or the 65-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $49 weekdays/$59 weekends. In Orange, the new 65-room Holiday Inn Express (540/672-6691) occupies a Monticello-like hill with a view, $85. Just outside Monticello, eighteenth-century Michie Tavern serves the same hearty buffet lunch daily. For $10.95 (adults), the bill of fare lists fried chicken, black-eyed peas, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, corn bread, stewed tomatoes, green beans, "tavern beets," and biscuits. Across the street from the UVA campus, join students for budget meals at the College Inn, a pub where the eight-ounce steak platter (fries, salad) comes to $9.50. Up the street, the Virginia offers a baby back rib plate for $8.95. An easy walk from the Knights Inn and Super 8, the Chiang House Restaurant features lemon chicken at $7.45. Next door, heap your plate high at the Wood Grill Buffet; a choice of salads, entrees, and desserts runs $7.99.