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New York, Free for All

By Kate Appleton
December 6, 2006
Visitors to NYC can feel like they're dropping cash everywhere. Here's five free holiday activities to spread good cheer.

(1) The Station Tour at Citigroup
Broadway set designer Clarke Dunham and his wife, Barbara, have brought to life a 27-foot replica of a Victorian train station and filled it with intricate displays of miniature trains and figurines. The trains chug up and down the Catskill and Adirondack mountains and pass New York City skyscrapers and a country fair--complete with a hand-painted Ferris wheel--as the seasons change from one scene to the next. 
Citigroup Center Atrium, 53rd St. and Lexington Ave., dunhamstudios.com; Mon.-Sat. 10 A.M.-5 P.M. and Sun. noon-5 P.M., through Dec. 29 (closed Christmas Day).

(2) Prospect Park in Lights
Local artist Jim Conti's festive installations light up all four entrances to Brooklyn's Prospect Park: Grand Army Plaza, Bartel-Pritchard Circle, Park Circle, and Parkside & Ocean Aves. On weekend evenings, trolleys make free half-hour trips through the park. Hot chocolate and entertainment are extra perks on Dec. 10 and 17. 
Prospect Park, 718/965-8999, prospectpark.org; trolleys depart from Grand Army Plaza at 6:45 P.M., 7:30 P.M., and 8:15 P.M., Sat. and Sun. through Jan. 7, 2007.

(3) The Pond at Bryant Park
There's no shortage of Manhattan rinks (Rockefeller, Wollman, Lasker, Chelsea Piers), but this recent addition gets kudos for its free admission and postcard perfect surroundings--an old-fashioned carousel, a flower kiosk, a holiday market, and restaurants. In mid-January, the Pond dries up to make way for the white tents and runways of Fashion Week. 
Bryant Park, 40th to 42nd Sts. between Fifth and Sixth Aves., 866/221-5157, bryantpark.org; open daily through Jan. 15, 2007; $8.75 skate rental.

(4) Why Art? An Exhibition and Examination of International Children's Art
Budding artists aged 3 to 14 contributed watercolors, tempura paintings, collages, and sculptures to this show organized by the nonprofit Jardin Galerie. Works are grouped by category--Trees and Secrets; My Mother, My Family; Animals; and Sea Life--to highlight cultural similarities and differences. 
The UBS Art Gallery, 1285 Ave. of the Americas, between 51st and 52nd Sts., 212/713-2885; open Mon.-Fri., 8 A.M.-6 P.M., through Jan. 12, 2007.

(5) Charmin Restrooms
It's hard to believe, but Charmin's 20 public restrooms in the heart of Times Square are so clean and well-supplied that you'll actually want to use them. There's an indoor waiting area, and attendants in unfortunate white uniforms (with attached floppy toilet seats!) inspect the restrooms after each use. 
Times Square, 1540 Broadway at 46th St., charmin.com; 8 A.M.-11 P.M. daily through Dec. 31, 2006 (they close at 6 P.M. on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve and are closed all day on Christmas).

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Trip Coach: December 5, 2006

Budget Travel editors: Welcome to this week's Trip Coach. Let's get to your questions! _______________________ Tolland, CT: What are the best accommodations for a family of six (mother, father, a 5-year-old girl, a 2-year-old boy, grandmother, and grandfather) visiting Disney World the last full week of April? We want a kitchen, laundry facilities, and a pool. We want to spend no more than $2,000 on lodging. Are rental villas the way to go? How far from Disney is too far? Is this even possible? Budget Travel editors: As someone who has traveled to Disney more times then she'd care to admit, I think this is definitely possible. My recommendation would be to go for one of the many two-bedroom villas (kids can sleep on the usually provided pull-out couch, so all you really need is two bedrooms for the adults) that are offered either on or around the Walt Disney World property. While the week you want to travel isn't THE busiest time of year to go, rates are still high at most of the Disney properties that offer two-bedroom villas. The lowest I found on Disney properties for six nights during the last week of April was $3,660. All these resorts have elaborately themed pools and the villas include kitchens and laundry services. An added bonus of staying on Disney property is all resorts include complimentary transportation to Walt Disney World parks. Visit disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/index and look at Disney Vacation Club resorts to book a villa.Off the property I've found that staying on one of Marriott's properties is close enough to not feel left out. Marriott has several properties with villas. I've stayed in at least two of them and found that both offered exceptional amenities. I found a two-bedroom, two-bath villa at Marriott's Cypress Harbour property for $1,174 and a similar villa at Marriott's Sabal Palms property for $1,208. These prices are based on a six-night stay during the last week of April. All villas have a kitchen, pool and laundry services. However, the Marriott properties do not have transportation to Walt Disney World so there will be an added expense to get to the parks, unless you have a car. Visit marriott.com and focus on Marriott Vacation Club properties to book a villa. In my experience, staying on Disney property is usually worth the added expense, especially when you consider that most of the parks are spread out all over. Plus when you stay on property, guests usually get special extras like early entrance to the parks and deals on meals, etc. _______________________ Seattle, WA: My husband (32), Sister-in-law (30), Brother-in-law (38) and I (36) and my dog (14) are planning a trip to Whistler, BC on February 15-18, 2007. We are driving up from Seattle on Thursday, and need a place to stay for three nights in Whistler Village that is "pet-friendly." We are considering the Delta Whistler or Summit Lodge. Three of us want to ski at least two days and would like to know the advantages of buying our lift tickets in coordination with the room reservation as it is offered by many hotels. We would also all like to snowshoe while we are there. In the evenings, we enjoy recouperative massages, art galleries and pubs with character. In addition to being a much needed get-away, this trip is a celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary and my in-laws 5th wedding anniversary. I would appreciate any help you can offer us for planning our trip. Budget Travel editors: Congratulations on your anniversary! Whistler is a terrific place to celebrate. You can save up to 20% off lift tickets, which start at $69.99 for a one-day adult pass, when you buy your tickets with accomodations through Whistler's official website, whistlerblackcomb.com. Washington State residents can also buy an EDGE card, which offers savings on lift tickets, skiing and snowboarding lessons, and other discounts.Delta Whistler Village Suites also has some great skiing packages. We recently ran a deal for four nights lodging, a two-day lift pass, roundtrip airfare from San Francisco, and hotel transfers from $692 per person. Since you don't need airfare, you can also book lodging-only packages through their website.As you're looking for lodging, don't forget the favorable Canadian exchange rate--currently U.S. $1 to CAN $1.15. Check out our currency converter for up-to-date rates. And don't your to ask for a VAT (value added tax) refund receipt or application when you check out of your hotel; Canada offers a 7% VAT refund on hotel accomodations. Read more about how VAT works here. _______________________ Manhattan, KS: My mother is turning 70 in February, and since she's alone now following my father's death, my sister and I want to take her on a trip for her birthday. She's always mentioned interest in the California Coast, so we thought a trip along the coastal highway might be perfect, especially in February. What's the best way to plan this trip? Is it something we can do on our own with a rental car and travel guidebook? We'd like this to be very special--hitting all of the highlights along the way--yet relaxing. Thank you. Budget Travel editors: California's Pacific Coast Highway is a classic road trip, full of breathtaking views and twists and turns. You can definitely plan a trip with a car and a guidebook--in fact, you could ditch the book, as we recently wrote about a similar trip in our magazine.Check out "Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway."In our magazine's Trip Coach column, we also helped a family plan a road trip from Seattle to San Diego, with lots of fun stops along the way. Read about it here. _______________________ Walkersville, MD: A group of 9 will be in Vancouver in June from 4pm-11am before boarding ship the next afternoon. Suggestions for don't miss sightseeing or a good variety restaurant for dinner? All staying in hotels near port area. Budget Travel editors: Lucky you! Vancouver is a beautiful city. One place I would definitely recommend visiting is Stanley Park. The park is huge, and a very close walk from downtown. You can see the city of Vancouver from almost every angle on the "Seawall"--the paved path that wraps around the park. I would imagine the view is spectacular at sunset as well. The park has gardens, nighttime dancing, beaches, a pool, tennis courts, a children's farmyard, and a great aquarium. Restaurants are located in the park as well. Theatre Under the Stars has a yearly production at the park. Go here for an updated schedule. Parking is a pleasure at the park--you pay once for however long you want to stay, and you can use the same pass all day at any of the park's parking lots.If you can't make it to Theatre Under the Stars, Vanier Park in Vancouver also features Bard on the Beach every summer. The theatre tent opens up in the back, and you are left watching the production at sunset with a beautiful view of the mountains. Tickets should be bought online in advance.For great shopping and dining, be sure to hit up Robson Street. Enjoy your visit! _______________________ Overland Park, KS: My parents, sister, my husband and myself are all traveling to Miami for New Years. We'll be there December 28th to the 1st. My parents are in their early 50's, my husband and I in our mid-twenties and my sister is in her early 20's. None of us are drinkers or into the party scene. We need some ideas of places to visit, things we shouldn't miss, etc! Budget Travel editors: While there will be more than a fair share of wild late-night New Year's parties, sun-kissed Miami offers plenty else to keep you busy. We recently ran a local's take on the city's laid-back side, My Hometown: Miami. And our Miami Snap Guide is packed with tips on where to eat, shop, and sightsee, from the Miami Art Museum to the crafts market along Espanola Way. _______________________ Anonymous: If I am making my first trip to Italy and I have only 3 weeks and want to include Venice, Florence (and some towns in Tuscany)...plus Rome and the Amalfi Coast--how should I break that down, and in what sequential order? Budget Travel editors: How lucky to have three weeks to spend in Italy! You should have enough time to cover all the destinations on your list without running yourself ragged or over-programming each day. We suggest beginning with four days in Venice--hit the blockbuster sights like St. Mark's Square and Basilica and the island of Murano; then spend a day or two wandering the maze-like streets to see how the locals live and hop over to less-touristy islands like Giudecca and Isola San Michele, home to a stately cemetery where Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinksy lie. Make Florence your next stop. You can walk through the compact historic center in a few hours, but you'll want four days to begin to absorb the city's staggering collection of Renaissance and Medieval art (The Uffizi Galleries, David at the Accademia, the Medici Chapels, Palazzo Pitti...). Allow yourself another four or five days for exploring the countryside--choose among nearby towns such as Pisa, San Gimignano, Lucca, Greve in the Chianti region, or Siena. On your way south to Rome, you could spend a night in the lively university town of Perugia. Give yourself five days in Rome to refuel and tackle its millennia of art and history, and reward yourself with a few final days kicking back on the Amalfi Coast.As for logistics, search sites like kayak.com or sidestep.com for multicity airfares, allowing you to arrive in Venice and then depart from Naples or Rome. You can look up train fares and schedules on the official site. And for more destination inspiration, here are a bunch of our favorite articles on Italy: Renting an Apartment in Venice; Eat Like a Local: Florence and Venice; Secret Hotels of Tuscany; Rome Snap Guide; and Secret Hotels of the Amalfi Coast. Buon viaggio! _______________________ Nashville, TN: I'm a recent college graduate faced with only having one week a year to travel (Dec 25-Jan 1). Please help me find a great last-minute deal! Budget Travel editors: You're right to be frustrated--that week is a tough one for bargain-hunters. If you plan to wait until Dec. 20 or so, try Site59.com, which specializes in last-minute packages (mainly in the U.S. and Latin America). Airfare to Western Europe drops in winter because of the chilly weather, but the holiday time frame means the savings won't be as great as in, say, late January or February. A quick search on sidestep.com reveals a round-trip fare between Nashville and London for $740 on American Airlines, departing on the 26th and returning on the 1st. For air/hotel packages, try tour operators such as Go-Today.com and Gate1Travel.com. A six-night package for Amsterdam and Paris with airfare from Nashville in late December starts at $1,219 at Go-Today.com, based on double occupancy. _______________________ Seattle, WA: What's the safest way for Americans to travel to Cuba? My Canadian friends go all the time and when I was in Cancun, my hotel offered a $200 excursion to Cuba. I'm worried about US regulations--lots of my friends have gone, however, and I'd really like to know the best way to go and not get in trouble. Budget Travel editors: Let me refer you some recent Budget Travel articles filled with advice for those traveling to Cuba: Inside Cuba, Travel to Cuba: Essentials, Travel to Cuba: Highlights, Ask BT: Traveling to Cuba. The articles are filled with information on how to get to Cuba, and what not to miss while you're there. _______________________ Knoxville, TN: Our family of four will be traveling through England and Scotland this spring. Which would be most enjoyable (least hassle) considering luggage--traveling by train or a potentially small rental car? Budget Travel editors: Considering the size of most European rental cars, there's a good chance your family of four (with luggage) might be in for a tight squeeze if you decide to rent. However if you limit the number and size for your bags, a car is probably your best option. Try Europe By Car or Auto Europe for deals on car rentals. _______________________ Tustin, CA: I'm planning a trip to Hawaii for April 07. When would be best to purchase airfare; now, or wait for later? Budget Travel editors: That all depends. When purchasing airfare, it's important to be an informed consumer, meaning you should constantly shop around for the best price before you buy. How do you do that? First subscribe to online newsletters like Airfare Watchdog which notifies you of unadvertised fare reductions and other airfare sales for domestic and international travel. Another good idea is to check your preferred carrier's website daily for deals or special promotions. SAS, for example, is currently in the midst of it annual holiday sale unveiling a new low fare to Scandinavia everyday in December. Is it a flight to Hawaii? No, but the more investigating you do, the better your chances are of finding a cheap ticket. That said, expect to pay around $400 for a roundtrip ticket from California to Honolulu in April when pre-summer deals begin to appear. _______________________ Saint Petersburg, FL: I will be traveling to Costa Rica during the last week of January. I need to renew my passport which has expired. How long does it take to get it back? Is it six weeks or more? I can't find this information anywhere. I know that I can pay for expedited service but would rather not have to if I don't need to. Budget Travel editors: The best resource for passport information is the US state department's travel website. US citizens are able to renew their passports by mail if they meet certain requirements, which you'll see clearly listed on the site. Assuming you meet them, under normal circumstances, the mail-in renewal process should take six weeks from the moment you send your passport away until the time you receive the new one. With the expedited service, you get your passport within two weeks--and pay $60 more, plus overnight delivery charges. The website does include the following warning, however: "During busier times, such as the summer travel season, we encourage customers to expedite their applications if traveling in less than eight weeks." You may not have travel plans during the summer months, but you are sending the passport to be renewed with less than eight weeks notice in the middle of the holiday season. Save yourself an ulcer and use expedited service. _______________________ New York, NY: I will be in New York at the Marriott on 42nd Street in early January. Where I can find cheap 24 hour garages? Marriott's rates are too high. Budget Travel editors: We've recently run across a very useful website (nycgarages.com) that lists all New York City parking garages between Houston Street and 96th Street by daily and monthly parking rates. You can search by address, neighborhood, attraction, or cross street. Enter in the dates you'll be arriving and departing the garage and the website will calculate each garage's rates for you. Happy hunting! _______________________ Budget Travel editors: Thanks for all of your questions! _______________________

Why We'll Pass on Verified Identity

There's been a lot in the news lately about Verified Identity Pass, the company that looks to be first in getting prescreening for air passengers approved. The idea is that people will pay around $100--annually!--to avoid waiting in security lines. A recent report in The New York Times said that the Transportation Security Administration claimed that "lines will not get longer for those who do not sign up for the service." Well, we should hope not! We won't sign up for the service for a number of reasons: 1. We stand by our initial assertion, made months ago, that the government must find a way to make the lines shorter for everyone, not just people who pay more. Subcontracting a private company to fix the problem for only a few people is just wrong. If lines at the DMV were really slow, wouldn't you hope that your state government would do something to fix them--and not get a private company to sell passes" to folks who can afford them? 2. What if the company (or the others like it) finds something it thinks is suspicious? Are you suddenly in trouble with the TSA? Heaven forbid. 3. Will it work abroad? Right now, one of the big problems is that the rules are much less consistent when you're outside the country--you never know what you'll be faced with. (We recently bought water and wine on the "secure" side of the airport in Buenos Aires. The security folks made us dump the water, but not the wine.) 4. Finally, as much as we all like to complain about security lines, and as annoying as it is to take off your shoes, in the big scheme of things the problem just isn't that bad. It makes you wonder how many homeless people that $100 a year could feed.

The Host with the Most: Advice From Danny Meyer

The best restaurants, big or small, work hard at providing hospitality. But there are things you can do to get the best dining experience. For an inside look, we asked Danny Meyer, who presides over well-known restaurants such as Union Square Cafe, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, and Blue Smoke--all in New York City. His new book "Setting the Table" recounts the role hospitality plays in his business. And in it, he writes about "collecting the dots" of information in order to offer a great dining experience for guests. But how can guests be a great partner in that dialogue? He tells us. Budget Travel: How should you go about trying to get special service for a special occasion such as a birthday or anniversary without appearing demanding? Danny Meyer: It's not at all demanding to let a restaurant know what your agenda is for a meal beyond nourishing yourself. It helps us to know that you are celebrating, or negotiating, or romancing, or meditating, or whatever. After you've made a reservation, just say what you're hoping to accomplish besides eating a good meal. "I'll be entertaining my future in-laws" or "I'm treating my college roommate to dinner after he won a big bet." A good restaurant will perform even better when they know why you're really there. BT: If you arrive on time for your reservation, but the table isn't ready, how long before you're allowed to be annoyed? Meyer: The restaurant owes you an apology for not being ready at the appointed hour, and, as important, the host should always let you know about the actual status of your table--with no BS--so that you don't have to wonder what's really going on. Do understand that many times, the delay is beyond the restaurant's control, especially when the earlier party on your table arrived late, or is "camping out." It's hard for a restaurant to hurry someone along in a gracious way, even when your party is waiting. (Imagine how you'd feel if you had just spent a fortune on dinner, decided to relax for an additonal half-hour over digestifs, and then the host asked you to leave!) If a delay goes beyond, say, 20 minutes, it's customary for a restaurant to offer a complimentary round of drinks. You're allowed to get annoyed whenever you want, but legitmately, I wouldn't be too annoyed if the restaurant is playing it straight with you, handling the situation with graciousness, and is genuinely trying everything they possibly can to get you seated. BT: There's sometimes a lot of confusion around wine! What's the etiquette? If you order an expensive bottle of wine, do you really have to tip 15-20 percent on it? And how expensive a bottle of wine do you have to order before you get the good glasses? Meyer: These days, few people distinguish between food and wine when it comes to leaving a tip. If you can afford an expensive dinner entree, or a pricey bottle of wine, you can afford to tip your standard percentage on that which you've consumed as well. If tipping didn't reward (and encourage) even better service, Americans would have disposed of the tradition years ago. Good restaurants will provide you with their best, most expensive glasses (assuming they have them) upon request, regardless of which wine you've ordered. They usually provide them for their more expensive wines without being asked. BT: Have you ever sent back a bottle of wine? What's the best way to go about doing it? Meyer: Many times! Sadly, about one out of avery 30 or 40 corks contain a bacteria that, while harmless to your body, creates a musty, "off-taste" in the wine called "corkiness." It's nobody's fault, and you should not assume the restaurant did anything wrong. But nor should you pay good money for a bottle that won't deliver its maximum pleasure. I am sensitive to that smell and flavor and will bring it to the attention of the waiter as soon as I notice it. "I'm sorry, the wine is corky" is direct, and you need not fear that you are doing anything rude by politely saying so. A good restaurant will replace the bottle and appreciate that you've given them the opportunity to satisfy you. It's a good idea to keep a bit of the corky wine in a glass to compare to the wine from the replacement bottle. Comparing them side by side can be revealing and educational for both you and the waiter. BT: What's the appropriate way to express displeasure with something you ordered? Is it enough that you don't like the taste? What's reasonable? Meyer: Express yourself directly, politely, and when you're displeased--when a restaurant can actually do something about it--not afterwards when all a restaurant can do is to feel bad that you were unhappy. You should speak up whenever you are less than happy with a dish. "I'm sorry, I hadn't know there was blue cheese in the sauce. May I please order something else instead?" or "I wanted my steak medium. Could you please have the chef cook it a bit further?" A good restaurant will appreciate the opportunity to fix problems on the spot so that you'll leave satisfied. Above all, patrons should understand that in the restaurant business, as in life, mistakes happen. Don't ever take it personally, and I'd go so far as to say not to hold a mistake against a restaurant. DO, however, judge a restaurant by how swiftly and graciously it addresses and overcomes its mistakes. BT: You write about having comment cards at your restaurants for guests to fill out. What is the most helpful comment you've received? Meyer: Any comment that is shared constructively so that we can improve as a restaurant is helpful. We love hearing from guests. The only ones that are tough to digest are the ones that are vituperative--assuming that a mistake we made was intentional or illustrative of a lack of caring on our part. BT: Care to share the least helpful comment? Meyer: "This restaurant will never work. Go back to the drawing board!"

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