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January 9, 2007

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Trip Coach: January 9, 2007

Christine Karpinski: Hi everyone! I'm Christine Karpinski, the author of "How To Rent Vacation Properties By Owner" as well as the Director of the Owner Community for I advise owners of second homes on how to rent their homes on a nightly, weekly or nightly basis without the use of a middleman (property manager) to vacationers like you. I have been renting out my own vacation homes in Destin, and Panama City Beach, Florida as well as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN for nearly 10 years. I'm here to answer your questions regarding renting a vacation home for your next vacation. Happy Renting by Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Melville, York: How would I go about renting an apartment in or near Charleston, SC for about one month during February '07? Do you recommend any resources? Thank you! Christine Karpinski: If you're looking for a property in Charleston you have a couple of different options. You can rent a property directly from an owner or your can go through a property manager. You can find properties rented by both of these groups easily on the Internet. If you're traveling in February, then you need to act quickly. Unfortunately, you may have a difficult time finding a property for this season because most vacation owners who rent by the month have already booked the upcoming season. The good news is there are about 800 properties for rent by owner on, 300 on, and I've found several others by typing "Charleston vacation rentals" on Google. Choose a specific area you wish to stay and then start searching. So you may want to also do a search on Google that's more specific, for example "Kiawah Island Vacation Rental", rather than "Charleston Vacation Rental." Here are many of the Charleston areas: Charleston, Awendaw, Dewees Island, Edisto Island, Edisto Beach, Folly Beach,Goat Island, Hanahan, Isle of Palms, Wild Dunes, Isle of Palms, James Island, Johns Island, Kiawah Island, Mount Pleasant, Seabrook Island, Sullivan's Island, Wadmalaw Island. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine _______________________ Humarock, MA: Hello, I have always wanted to rent a villa in the South of France. Can you recommend how to go about this? Where do I search, how do I know what I am truly getting? Would a home swap be better? Thank you!! Debbie Christine Karpinski: The South of France is beautiful place to visit and there's no better way to experience Europe than to rent a home, where you can live like a local. Even though renting vacation home is gaining in popularity for Americans, renting vacation homes in Europe goes back centuries. There are a few options that you can take when looking for homes to rent. You can look for properties that are directly rented by owner, through property owners, or through travel agents. When looking for a property to rent on the Internet, substitute the word "holiday" for "vacation" because Europeans refer to "vacation homes" as "holiday homes" or "holiday rentals." I would look It looks as though this site has properties rented by owner and through property managers. It is by far the largest site that has homes available to rent in France; they have over 20,000 properties in France alone. is another good site, it has more than 5000 properties in France. Just as if you were renting a home in Florida, likely you'd search on a specific area of Florida, the same is true when searching for properties in the South of France. Because there are so many homes to choose from, you first step would be to figure out exactly where you want to go. Nice? Marseille? Montpellier? Once you hone in on an area your searching will be much easier. A few hints for Americans traveling to Europe: Amenities that are standard in the US are not necessarily standard in Europe. For example, many homes don't have air conditioning. Most don't come with clothes dryers and some don't even have a washing machine. Dishwashers are virtually non-existent. Some homes include a cook (usually depicted in the ads as "catered") and others do not ("self-catered"). And many homes don't have showers, only bathtubs. If you prefer all of the luxuries and amenities "American-style hotels", you may be better off in a hotel. As far as knowing what you're getting, it's very important to ask many questions. Choose a property that has many photographs. But also be sure to ask specific questions about the photos such as when were they taken. If you see a photo of a "view" ask if that photo was taken from the home. You should have a minimum of 2-3 conversations prior to setting up any reservations. I also recommend that you have at least one phone conversation. To your question about home-swaps, that's entirely up to you. For some it's very uncomfortable, for others it's fine. Would you be ok with someone opening your dresser drawers? Sleeping your bed? Showering in your bathroom? If your answer is yes, then you'd be fine with a home swap. Going with a Home swap also means a lot of extra work before you leave for your vacation. You'd have to make sure that you home is ready to be the host home for the family that you're swapping with. I personally prefer to rent. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Hendersonville, NC: My biggest hang-up is sleeping. When a description says "sleeps 4" what does that really mean? There is not a universal code to go by when dealing with by owners. We have a 2 and a 15 year old. Both can make a bed just about anywhere. I don't want to email or call the owner and ask about it. I fear they might think I'm filling my room like a "Spring Breaker in Daytona". Christine Karpinski: When you're dealing with vacation rental homes, because each is individually owned and operated, you'll find that there are no "across the board" universal codes. When a description says "sleeps" that most often means the number of people the property sleeps in beds, sofa beds, and/or roll out beds. I always recommend you ask the owner the specific layout and size of the beds before booking. While some owners will allow renters to exceed maximum occupancy rules--meaning allow you to rent their apartment that sleeps two, even though you really have four people (two adults and two children), others are very strict about their policies. As with all aspects of life, honesty is always the best policy. Some of the occupancy rules are not set by the owners themselves, rather by the Home Owners Association or through the local laws and/or occupancy ordinances. If you are looking at a property that accommodates less than your party, I would email the owners and explain that you have two adults and two children and put in the comment field that you're okay with the kids sleeping on the sofa bed or floor. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Sanibel, FL: We would like to plan a trip with our three adult children and their mates to Florence in the late spring or early fall. We will need accomodations for eight adults and would prefer to stay -- for approximately three or four weeks -- in Florence itself or in an area that is a short car ride from outside the city. We are nervous about the quality of villas that we see advertised on the internet. Photos as you know do not always tell you all you need to know about the quality of the accommodations. Would very much appreciate your guidance and suggestions. Thank you. Allan Christine Karpinski: Finding a villa that will sleep eight adults (four couples- meaning that finding a four bedroom, two-four bathroom home), in Florence might be difficult to find--as the city center of Florence mainly has small 1-3 bedroom apartments to rent. You will likely have to search outside the city. When you're searching on Yahoo! or Google, try searching on "Firenze holiday rentals" (Firenze is the European spelling for the city of Florence.) You could also search by the region, "Tuscany" + Holiday + Rentals. As for being nervous about the quality of the villas, I don't think you have to worry as long as you're booking from a reputable website. Many of the "by owner" vacation rental websites take vacationer complaints very seriously and will boot off any owners who has had 3 or more vacationer complaints. Remember though, the villas will be old--some as old as 1000 yrs old. But don't confuse old with bad quality. Here's a villa, which is around 1 hr drive from Florence that I have personally stayed in that's over 900 yrs old. The best deals will be likely be found through owners, as the owners forgo the 20-50% property management fees and most pass along the savings to travelers; however, if you are worried and prefer to deal with a property manager, the Parker Company ( or 800/280-2811) represents 350 properties in Italy is a reputable property management company. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Tampa, FL: Ms. Karpinski: We're very excited, my husband and I and our two children (ages 18 and 8) will be going to London the week of March 19th for vacation. This is our first time to London and we're looking for an economically priced vacation property we can rent from March 19th and we're departing early on March 26th. Any suggestions? Christine Karpinski: London's a great city and you and your family are going to love it. Unfortunately "London" and "economical" rarely go together. Since hotel rooms in London are very small, you'll have a very difficult time finding accommodations to comfortably accommodate your family (especially for a full week). But staying in a vacation rental home will almost certainly be less expensive than two hotel rooms and the conveniences they have for your children will be the difference between enjoying your vacation and being stressed the whole time. You'll be able to save money by having breakfast or an occasional lunch or dinner in the rental home (most come with a kitchen). Think about the difference between a tiny hotel room, possibly with limited amenities, and an actual home with multiple bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens, living and dining areas. No contest, right? You know that crowded, slightly stir-crazy feeling you get in a hotel room? It's doesn't happen in a vacation home. In fact, I've found that people who stay in private homes don't feel so compelled to wear themselves out cramming in every touristy activity in town. They don't mind just hanging out in the living room and relaxing more, which after all, is what a vacation is supposed to be! Vacation homes provide more privacy for Mom & Dad. Let's say you want to have some, ahemmmm, adult time while you're on vacation. There's nothing like being able to put the kids in a separate bedroom down the hall. Since your travel dates are Monday to Monday, I would start my quest looking for accommodation from the 17th to the 24th (Sat-Sat) since many owners rent their properties from Saturday to Saturday. If your flight reservations have been solidified, I would still send the requests for the Saturday to Saturday dates and then after you hear back from the owners you can give them your specific dates. If you do indeed find a "holiday home" to rent, then you might be required to check out on Saturday and then check into a hotel for the remainder of your stay. I think that this would still be more economical than renting two hotel rooms for your entire stay. Sites such as,, or have variety of listings in London. It looks like a two bedroom, two bath "flat" or "apartment" will cost you about 800 pounds which is around $1500 USD. On a final note, be sure to pre-buy your attraction tickets, it's a great way to save some money on tourist-y things to do in London: . Your children will love the Tower of London! Happy Renting by Owner, Christine Karpinski _______________________ Huntington Beach, CA: I am considering renting an apartment in the Costa Del Sol region of Spain for 10 days to 2 weeks. How do I go about finding one? Christine Karpinski: Looks like is your bet. There are nearly 2000 properties on in the Costa Del Sol area. Just as note: Most people rent their homes for a full week, so if you're up in the air about whether to stay 10 days to two weeks, you'd likely have an easier time finding a vacation rental home for two full weeks. If you choose stay in one of larger cities (Malaga or Cadiz), you'll be able to take buses to other cities in southern Spain. If you stay in a more remote area, you're going to have to rent a car at the airport to get around. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Baltimore, MD: Have not been successful at finding a Catskills rental for this summer by Googling it. Is there a good internet site thru which I can find a rental--searching the internet for a rental by owner has been great for us in the Adirondacks and in Maine, but this has been harder. Not sure why. Looking or older house/cabin for 8-10 with charm! Christine Karpinski: If you're looking for a property in the Catskills, you may want to pick a specific town first. A lot of the little towns are really close together like Allan, Wararsing, Kerhonkson, and Shawangunk. I found 86 properties on, 243 on, and about 175 on and 137 on The trick in finding them is really searching on the specific town that you wish to visit rather than just "Catskills". Happy Renting by Owner, Christine Karpinski _______________________ Hollidaysburg, PA: My wife and I will be traveling to Kaui in July of this year for a wedding, staying about two weeks. We are considering staying at a condo or other type of rental property. Where should we look for this type of opportunity. There are other members of the wedding part who would be willing to join us and stay in a larger unit. Christine Karpinski: If you're looking for properties for July 2007 for a large party, you should find and solidify your plans as soon as possible. Jan-Mar is the busiest booking season for vacation rental properties. After March your choices will be limited. And if you're looking for a large property or a bunch of condos in the same complex, it will be that much more difficult after March. The first thing you have to do is find out where specifically on the Island of Kauai you and your party wish to travel. That will narrow your choices and make it easier for you to decide. For instance, if you're going to be going to Princeville, you'll have no problem finding individual condos for each of your party to rent. makes it very easy and even breaks the search down by condominium or neighborhood complexes. However if you're traveling to Lawai (South Kauai), your choice might be much more limited since there are fewer homes to rent in that area. When looking for multiple homes to rent, be sure to let the owners know. Many owners know other owners that also rent out their homes/condos. The owners, since they know the area very well can be a plethora of information for many of your party's needs. Happy Renting by Owner, Christine _______________________ Minneapolis, Minn.: If I drive to Texas, could I find a mobile home park with rental trailers or other RV's? Christine Karpinski: You can find some vacation rental RV's or trailers, but most will be homes or condos. I've seen just about everything on vacation rental websites, including cabooses, teepees, lighthouses, yurts, boats and yes even trailers and RVs. For example, I found these by searching "vacation rental Texas RV". If you are specifically looking to go to a particular destination and stay in a trailer or RV, you might want to put the location + vacation + rental + RV into Google or Yahoo! Happy Renting by Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Seattle, WA: Two of us will be traveling to Perth,Australia in October 2007. We will be staying 3 weeks in that area and wonder if renting a home would make more sense than a hotel or camping van. Value wise, what is your opinion? Thanks. Christine Karpinski: Renting a camping van provides a much different experience than staying in a hotel or renting a vacation home. Are you planning on staying in one particular area or do you intend to travel around? If your answer is the latter, then perhaps a camping trailer would be your best bet. Renting a home is by far a much better experience than staying in a hotel room, especially for an extended period of time. I cannot imagine staying in a hotel for three straight weeks. To me I think I would go stir crazy, even if the hotel were a high end hotel--the thought of being cooped up in one room for that long does not sound appealing to me. On the other hand, vacation rentals are often more spacious, comfortable and economical. Here are a few other advantages: You can get inside information from the homeowner. One big reason vacation home renters get to "live like locals" is that most homeowners love to provide their guests with helpful hints. They'll point you to the best restaurants in town, the best hiking trails and the best bike rental places. They'll tell you who has the cheapest gas, which roads to take to avoid traffic, and which attractions are overpriced "tourist traps." You can cook and do laundry. If you're on a budget, both of these factors can be huge benefits. Obviously, eating every meal in a restaurant gets pricey. The ability to prepare meals "at home" not only saves money (especially when you're staying 3 weeks), there's just something nice about savoring a home-cooked meal while on vacation. Washers and dryers enable you to pack fewer clothes. If it were me, I'd either rent a camping van and travel around the county over the 3 weeks or I would rent a vacation home in one, two or even three different locations during my vacation. Happy Renting by Owner, Christine Karpinski _______________________ Pinellas Park, FL : Is there a home to rent from Thanksgiving thru Christmas 2007 in or near Crystal Lake/West Dundee, IL? Thanks! Christine Karpinski: Finding a vacation home to rent during the winter in an area that's normally a summer destination maybe a difficult proposition, that is unless there are ski resorts or other winter attractions nearby. Many owners of summer homes close down their properties during the winter. However, if you reserve the rental and wish to stay a full month, some owners who may opt to keep their property open for you. After doing a search for that area, I didn't find any vacation rentals on any of the major websites. You might however have better luck calling the local real estate offices to see if there are any available. I'm assuming that you likely have family in that area (as that's not what you would call a popular vacation destination.) I would have them check the small local newspapers and/or penny savers as well. I have had luck finding vacation rentals near my home town that way. Happy Renting by Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Los Angeles, CA: we found an amazing rental by owner in Vancouver Canada, Millionaire's shack is name, I think. We are looking for something for 4 adults, July 7 or so for one week this coming summer. We talked to the owner in September, she said she does not like to reserve so early, always hopes someone will take it for a month. So hard to get people to come and clean. She reluctantly took our name and emailed us saying we would be first for a weekly rental. Some digging on the web and her comments indicated she had wanted to turn it in to a Bed Breakfast but that did not work out. Question: How can we find out if this rental is in good condition? We have never done rental by owner, what is our risk of having her cancel at the last minute--in high season? How can we protect ourselves? Christine Karpinski: I hate to be redundant but I think that honesty is the best policy. I find when you ask direct questions then you'll get direct answers. I would ask the owner the specific questions that you have asked me. Believe me, after renting my properties for nearly ten years, I have had every question imaginable and no question offends me. What anyone who's renting a vacation home needs to realize is both parties (the owners and the vacationers) need to be comfortable with each other. Vacationers are trusting that the hundreds or thousands of dollars that they are sending is for the home portrayed in the ads. And owners are trusting that the vacationers will respect and take care of their thousand or million dollar homes. I think that one thing that makes my renters feel confident when renting my homes is I always provide them with a written contract which specifies property address, rental dates, rental amounts, cancellation policies, and checkin and checkout policies. Here's a link to the contracts that I personally use I think that renters should demand something in writing from the owners. I also accept credit cards, which gives the renters the safety and security that if anything goes wrong they can always dispute it through their credit card company. If the owner that you are dealing with does not accept credit cards, ask if they can accept PayPal. From looking at this particular property's webpage, it looks as though these owners have been renting their property since 2002. You can always email the webmaster for VRBO and ask if there have been any complaints about this property. Their email address is But one thing that would concern me is that it looks as though their photos were also taken in 2002. Five years and tons of renters later the place could either still look great (if the owners are diligent about upkeep) or it could be run down. I would ask the owners if they have more recent photos. I would also ask them how often they themselves visit the property. Properties that are visited by their owners at least two or three times per year are more likely to be kept in great condition. That is unless they have excellent maintenance staff on the premises. Bottom line, there are no guarantees when dealing directly by owner but I can tell you that the number of complaints that and receive from vacationers is less than .01%. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Boulder, CO: We like to travel off the beaten path. How can we identify vacation rentals in Mexico outside of the main resorts that are popular with Americans? Cities like Colima, Veracruz, Catemaco, or Guanajuato. Christine Karpinski: Actually a vacation rental is your best bet for finding a property off the beaten path. What many travelers don't realize is there are many off the beaten path beautiful places in Mexico. Last year I stayed in a Mexican Jungle Retreat. Because many of the vacation rental sites categorize the properties by specific geographical regions, there are some gems buried in geographical areas that don't fit into that cookie cutter box. The way I found Taninah was by searching on first...but it was listed under "Playa del Carmen" which is the closest big city. Here are some of the properties I have found for you: Colima:, Veracruz :,, Catemaco: Guanajuato:, Of course whenever you're looking for out of the ordinary accommodations or locations, you'll have to do some digging and likely it will take you a bit more effort than if you were just traveling to a popular destination. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________ Welches, OR: We frequently rent through VRBO with wonderful success both here and abroad. But, on our trip to Hawaii last fall we ran into a difficult situation... Our apt. on Maui exceeded our expectations; our apt on Oahu was lovely but misrepresented. We were told it was a 1 bedroom, not a studio. It turned out to be one tiny room overwhelmed by the bed (our motor home bedroom was bigger), the kitchen was a hot plate and micro in the bathroom and the only window/door was the sliding door at the foot of the bed. We had to sleep with the doors wide open. The only place to sit was outside. To whom do we send an alert that the property is not as described? Christine Karpinski: Many of the "by owner" vacation rental websites take vacationer complaints very seriously and will boot off any owners who have had three or more vacationer complaints. I know that VRBO has this policy as well. I encourage you to email the webmaster for VRBO their email address is . is the only site that I know of that has "Listing Reviews" on their site. This rates the accuracy of the advertisements and unlike guestbooks, they are mandatory for all owners. Many homeowners list on 3-5 different websites. You can always find out which other sites they list their property on my Googling their phone number. You should make this complaint to all of the sites that they are listed on. As a final note, it's very important for you to ask many specific questions before booking a vacation rental property. When I rent my vacation homes, I always go through a detailed script about my home. I clearly describe the location, the view, the configuration of the bedrooms, bathrooms, what things are included such as dishwasher soap and things that are not such as laundry detergent. My modus operandi is to have my guests pleasantly surprised when they arrive rather than terribly disappointed. The thing to remember is there are most vacation property owners are honest and their ads are accurate. Happy Renting by Owner Christine Karpinski _______________________ Christine Karpinski: Thanks so much for joining me. The hour passed very quickly. If you have any other questions you can contact me directly through this web site: If you're thinking of renting a vacation home for your next vacation, be sure to check out the worldwide leader for vacation rentals on the Internet. With more than 130,000 vacation rental homes across 100 countries, HomeAway makes finding the perfect vacation home, defined as anything from condos to castles and bungalows to villas, faster and easier than ever. Happy Renting By Owner! Christine Karpinski _______________________

The Best Wheelie Bags

It might be time to buy a new wheelie bag. But the question is, which one? We asked manufacturers to let us test out medium-size models with the newest, most durable, smoothest-riding wheels. We considered testing carry-ons, but good wheels seem more important on larger bags. The perfect bag needs wheels large enough to roll easily over uneven terrain like cobblestones and sidewalk cracks, yet not so big that they're obtrusive. They have to be soft, to lessen vibration and noise, and at the same time durable enough to survive dozens of vacations. Ideally, the bag will be able to zigzag quickly through crowds and corner like a Corvette--and yet be stable enough to avoid wobbling around on one wheel or tipping over entirely. Before testing these five models, we loaded each with 40 pounds of clothes, so that they'd total about 50 pounds apiece, the maximum for free checked bags on airlines. As for the lab coats--we couldn't resist. Rating system Excellent ***** Good **** Average *** Fair ** Poor * The contenders Tumi T-Tech Pulse Cooper Square 30", $450Ogio Terminal 28", $170REI Strato Cruiser 25", $230Osprey Vector 28", $189Eagle Creek Velocity 25",$340 Test 1: The slalom The closest we could get to a mad dash through a crowded airport. It immediately became clear how much better these bags are than what rolled around airports 10 years ago. We felt like Bode Miller on a good day: All the wheels were remarkably quiet and cruised smoothly across the pavement. The Osprey, with its big 3.5-inch wheels, was the smoothest of all, while the REI's 16-inch wheelbase (the widest of the bunch) kept it especially stable. None of the bags came close to tipping during turns, and switching directions was a breeze. The Tumi got a slight demerit because it felt a little heavier and clunkier. The slalom Eagle Creek ***** Ogio ****½ Osprey ***** REI ***** Tumi **** Test 2: Cornering City streets are mean enough. The last thing anyone needs is a bag that can't handle the turns. This was where the bags really began differentiating. The three with the widest wheelbases--REI, Eagle Creek, and Tumi--remained on two wheels without a hiccup while zipping around corners. The Eagle Creek and the REI were somewhat more likely than the Tumi to go up on one wheel or flip when cornering during a near sprint. The Ogio and the Osprey, on the other hand--which have wheelbases of 13.5 and 13 inches, respectively--often leaned over on one wheel when entering a corner at any pace faster than a walk. At jogging speed, they flipped over regularly. Cornering Eagle Creek ****½ Ogio * Osprey * REI ****½ Tumi ***** Test 3: Bumpy terrain Because any wheelie bag can glide right over smooth floors. The Tumi rode like a Cadillac over cobblestones, uneven concrete, and stone walkways; the Eagle Creek absorbed the bumps and handled the terrain even better. Neither came close to tipping, even on some hairy sections of banked cobblestone. Either of the bags sure would come in handy for touring medieval towns in Europe. The REI performed adequately, though it bounced more and rode a little rougher over the bumpiest areas. The Osprey and the Ogio sailed over the cobblestones and sidewalk cracks if pulled in a straight line, but both were likely to tip up on one wheel and flop over when riding over lopsided sections of stone. Bumpy terrain Eagle Creek ***** Ogio ** Osprey *** REI ****½ Tumi ****½ Test 4: Curbhopping There will always be times when your bag has to make a leap. We yanked the bags up curbs and small sets of stairs again and again to see how the bags handled the impact. Sometimes we hit the curb dead on; other times we made contact at a slight angle. The Tumi was the smoothest curb hopper, easing its way up and absorbing the steps as well as you could expect. The Eagle Creek, REI, and Tumi quickly settled back on two wheels when hitting the curb at an awkward angle. The Osprey easily jumped up curbs and stairs, but its big wheels caused more of a jolt than the others. Both the Ogio and the Osprey were inclined to flip when we hit the curb at anything other than a 90-degree angle. Curb hopping Eagle Creek ****½ Ogio *** Osprey **½ REI ****½ Tumi ***** Test 5: Stability When push comes to shove, is the bag prone to falling down on the job? We stood each bag up and nudged it to see how easily it would topple. The Eagle Creek and Tumi bags performed the best, resettling quickly after each push; only swift shoves knocked them down. The REI was good, but slightly more inclined to tip--perhaps because of the weight of its standard attached day pack. (With the day pack removed, the REI was more stable; then again, without it the REI had less packing space than the other bags.) The Osprey required only a slight nudge to fall over. It also wound up on its back when we attempted to stand it up on ground that wasn't completely flat. The Ogio came in dead last, tipping with little or no nudging at all. The problem is that, when standing up, the Ogio rests on its wheels and a plastic stabilizer handle--which don't line up correctly. The bag has bad posture, never standing up straight. Sometimes it crashed over the moment we let go of the handle. Stability Eagle Creek ***** Ogio ½ Osprey *½ REI **** Tumi ***** The final test: Times Square Our test lab was all well and good--and the lab coats made it feel very official--but there's no substitute for the real world. Call us masochists, but before naming a winner we rolled the three highest-scoring bags into the heart of Times Square for one final, less theoretical trial. By then, something must have come loose in the Tumi's handle, and it rattled loudly (and annoyingly) along the sidewalks. The bag's wheels also became stuck in subway grates. The lighter, quick-turning REI and Eagle Creek were more deft at zigzagging around tourists and avoiding taxis. While the REI's attached day pack is a nice option, it juts out awkwardly from the main bag and made it less stable than the Eagle Creek. In dense crowds, the day pack sometimes wound up bumping into people, too. Times Square Eagle Creek ***** REI **** Tumi **** Notes and observations: REI: The bag (right) has a zippered compartment with backpack straps--and surprisingly, the bag sits very comfortably over the shoulders. Ogio: The handle often got stuck when we tried to push it back into the bag. Osprey: On the plus side, the bag has two handles in the precise spots you want for picking the bag up with two hands. But when the bag is standing up, the zippers snag easily, and during tests, the bag frayed and ripped in a few spots. Tumi: The handle's release button (right) is in a fairly awkward position, requiring two hands to extend the handle. The winner! With 29 stars out of a possible total of 30, Eagle Creek's Velocity 25" was our best performer. Not only did the Eagle Creek score tops in our tests, it also has some other cool features we like. The big rounded handle fits especially comfortably in the hand--a relief after a few hours. The model comes with some unexpected extras: a garment bag and a space-saving folder system for packing clothing flat. And at $340, the Eagle Creek retails for $110 less than the Tumi model we tested. And yes, it also comes in black.

You Fly Into the Wrong City

Oh no! Last year, I needed to catch a Pearl Jam concert in St. John's, Newfoundland, for a story I was writing. I reserved a room at a B&B near the venue and then booked a flight through my company's travel agent. When the date came, I boarded a plane to Montreal, went through customs, and caught my connecting flight. On the ground, I hopped in a taxi and told the driver the B&B's address. "That doesn't sound familiar," he said. "Wait. Are you supposed to be in Newfoundland? 'Cause you're in New Brunswick." What I did Besides freak out? The driver walked me to the Air Canada counter--in Saint John, New Brunswick. "She's supposed to be in Newfoundland," he said. The desk agent sighed and said, "Another one, eh?" I went into Amazing Race mode, asking if there was another flight. "Sure," the nice agent told me. "Tomorrow. Connects through Halifax." Maybe I could rent a car? "Sure. It's about 1,000 miles." I was soon heading back to Montreal (but I didn't make it home that night because a flight was canceled). After pleading my case with several layers of management at the travel agency, I eventually received a refund. What experts say As we all know, everybody makes mistakes, and I should have double-checked the itinerary beforehand. The obvious advice is to be sure you have the correct airport codes and city names, request e-mail confirmations, and look over the details carefully. My experience could have been worse, I suppose. The folks at St. John's Tourism told me about several other airport mix-ups, including a British couple who wanted to go to Australia but ended up in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Honeymoon Helper

Honeymoon registries sound appealing to engaged couples and gift givers alike: After all, a South Pacific cruise is more exciting than new pots from Williams-Sonoma. Honeymoon registry specialists The Big Day, HoneyLuna, Distinctive Honeymoons, Traveler's Joy, and The Honeymoon now compete with programs from lodging chains Marriott, Starwood, and Sandals. Even Aruba Tourism is getting in on the action, allowing couples to register for Jeep safaris and restaurant gift certificates. The problem, as with marriage itself, is that some couples sign up for honeymoon registries without knowing what they're getting themselves into. Create a wish list There are several big differences between agencies like HoneyLuna and programs from lodging companies. Some of the honeymoon specialists are simply travel agents that book whatever trip a couple pleases--and like any middlemen, the agents add a fee one way or another. A registry through such an agency can include first-class flights, overwater bungalows, hot-air-balloon rides, dinner on the beach, estimated cab fares, bottles of champagne, and more. Airfare and lodging can be divvied up on the registry in suggested gift amounts ($100, say) or at per-night rates, the same way other couples list place settings. A honeymoon registry might also include vague items like "happy-hour dollars" (whatever that means) and "shopping." With lodging-chain registries, couples may select only tours, meals, and accommodations operated by the company and affiliated vendors. On the other hand, gifts for these registries usually come as a flexible credit. If it rains on the day the couple is scheduled to go snorkeling, that dollar amount can be exchanged for (on-property) spa treatments, cocktails, or room service. Ultimately, it's your bill With traditional wedding registries, couples select their wineglasses and whatnot, then wait for the gifts. If the gifts never come, it's no problem because no money was spent up front. Travel registries work differently. Airfare and certain tours must be reserved and paid for long before wedding presents are traditionally given. Couples pay for much of their honeymoons in advance, hoping guests will chip in with gifts down the road. Can't hurt to ask Many splurges--$200 couple's massages, private boating excursions--don't have to be reserved beforehand. A couple can wait and see if somebody picks up the tab, knowing that if guests don't come through, the newlyweds aren't on the hook for something they can't afford. More personal than cash Wedding guests view the registry online and pay via credit card. The registry company notifies the engaged couple every time a guest buys a gift. Distinctive Honeymoons, for example, sends an e-card in which a gift box opens to reveal a personalized message from the giver. All the websites track who has given what in order to help couples organize their thank-you notes. But still pretty impersonal Typically, the agency mails the couple a check for whatever's in the account shortly before the wedding. A second and third check may be sent to account for late gifts. For registries through Starwood, Sandals, and Marriott, the couple receives a gift card or company credit. Expiration dates Starwood's registry gifts--called Honey Money--expire two years from the purchase date, which seems stingy. Marriott credits, on the other hand, never expire. Watch the fees The Honeymoon adds an 8.85 percent service fee, meaning a wedding guest who wants to give one $200 hotel night actually has to pay the agency almost $218. In fact, all the honeymoon-specialist agencies tack on fees of some kind for registries. The Big Day charges 9 percent, though the fee decreases depending on how much the couple books through the agency. Distinctive Honeymoons charges couples a flat $150 to set up a registry and doesn't take a percentage of gifts. But you'll pay more if you use one of its agents to "customize and build your registry so you don't need to do the work," as its website suggests. "Each itinerary will be evaluated as to the fee charged" on top of the original $150. Sandals registries use American Express gift cards, which have a handling fee of 10 percent. There are no extra fees for registries through Marriott and Starwood. Don't assume it's a good value There's no guaranteeing that prices for airfare, lodging, and tours booked via any registry are the best out there. In fact, rates may be inflated. One option at Aruba Tourism is a barhopping excursion called the Kukoo Kunuku. It costs $130 per couple via the registry program, but only $54 per person for bookings made online directly with the company.