Travel Q&A with Carol Pucci
Times travel writer Carol Pucci answered your questions about travel destinations and more.
Northwest Travel Guides
Times travel writer Carol Pucci answered your questions about Europe and other destinations. Thanks to all who participated!
Coming Tuesday April 26: Cruise Q&A with travel writer Kristin Jackson. If you have ideas for additional Q&A topics, e-mail us at email@example.com.
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Thank you for your practical, down-to-earth travel advice for the middle-income working traveler. So many of the travel magazines cater to exclusive travelers and recommend hotels in the $300 to $500 range. My husband and I are planning a trip to Krakow, Poland, in '06. Where did you stay and eat and how did you get around for sightseeing and day excursions to other cities?— Susan, Olympia
C.P.: Glad you asked. I stayed in a wonderful, family-owned hotel in a great location in the old town center. It's called the Globtroter, and as far as I know, it's not listed in any of the guidebooks, so consider it a find! See www.cracow-life.com/globtroter for details. Doubles are around $70.
Jack, the English-speaking owner, can help you with side trips. He organizes trips to the Salt Mine at Wieliczka, rafting on the Dunajec River and to Auschwitz.
Krakow is very walkable and it's easy to get around and find your way to all the sites. There are dozens of cafes and inexpensive restaurants about which I'll be writing later in The Times. You won't regret your decision to visit this friendly and charming city!
Last year in your articles on travel to the former Yugoslavia you mentioned using airline consolidators. I tried to find the article but can't - could you repeat the names of the consolidators you mentioned in that article. Thanks.— George, Seattle
C.P.: I had good luck with Croatia Travel in Astoria, New York. The agency is run by Boris Miketic, who lived in Zagreb. He has excellent knowledge of the country and good contracts with car rental agencies and the airlines that service Croatia, Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. Book online at www.croatiatravel.com or call 800-662-7628.
Hi. My fiancé and I are looking for a nice honeymoon spot. We were thinking about Australia, Greece, or SOMEWHERE in the Caribbean? We need some advice...Please Help! Thanks. — Mike, Renton
C.P.: How about Costa Rica? It's cheaper and less touristed than the Caribbean and a lot closer than Australia and Greece. English is spoken everywhere and there's a big diversity in terms of things to do, even if you have just a week's time. You can do a little beach, a little hiking, explore a rain forest, visit an active volcano and soak in a natural hot springs. Flights from Seattle usually touch down in Houston before going onto San Jose where you'll arrive the same evening.
I am part of a tour group going to Manchester and London. We will be getting to visit the "normal" guided-tour attractions, but will have some free time on our own. What would be a few places we might want to go back and spend some extra time exploring? London Tower is one we keep hearing. Is it really that good?— Mike, Columbus, Ohio
C.P.: Take it from someone who has to be dragged to most "tourist sites." The Tower of London is definitely worth it.
While you're there, you could catch the RVI bus across the Thames River to South Bank and visit the Borough Market (Friday and Saturdays). Get off at the London Bridge stop, then get back on the bus and stop again at the London Eye Ferris wheel and/or continue on the bus to Covent Garden, a hip and fun area of London where there's a great market, little restaurants and pubs and lots of street theater. Enjoy!
I have a girlfriend who lives in the Seattle area and would like to travel back and forth, mostly on weekends. I would prefer flying. Any suggestions for cost effectiveness?— Nigel, Vancouver, BC
C.P.: Alaska Airlines offers last-minute Web specials for travel during the current week and weekend. Advise your girlfriend to sign up for e-mail notification (www.alaskair.com).
The train is another option. Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) travels once a day between Seattle and Vancouver. The trip takes about four hours, longer than flying, but you eliminate the time it takes to get to and from the airports and the hassles of having to be there an hour or more in advance. There are also buses that take about the same amount of time and travel more frequently.
Do you have any information on nice yet reasonable places to stay in San Diego for a family of five? Any travel tips for Ccalifornia or San Diego? Thanks!— Lynnda, Redmond
C.P.: Check www.sandiego.org for starters.
Things to do:
--Seaport Village (quant shopping area on the water downtown).
--Gaslamp area which includes Petco Park, the second year baseball stadium and restaurants and shops. Very similar to Belltown.
--The San Diego Zoo, Sea World, and Mission Beach.
--The San Diego Museum of Art, with its fine collection of Indian paintings and lots of European art.
Also watch for this Sunday's Seattle Times Travel section. It's a special report on California.
And don't forget Mexico. You can reach the border in about an hour's drive.
We have a 17-hour layover in Hong Kong on our way to Johannesburg. Do you have any ideas about the best way to spend that time?— Carolyn, Edmonds
C.P.: Hong Kong is compact enough for you to see plenty in a short layover. Base yourself in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, and take the Star Ferry to the Hong Kong side. Kowloon is more nitty-gritty, down-to-earth Old Chinese and Hong Kong is more modern. Both are worth exploring.
If you end up having an evening there, head to the Temple Street Night Market (Kowloon side). During the day or night, ride the tram to the Peak www.thepeak.com.hk for views all over Hong Kong.
We are working on a trip to southern Africa in September. We will travel around the Cape Town area on our own and then go on safari in Botswana. What are the pros and cons of arranging a safari ourselves vs. working through a company such as Frontiers?— Marilyn, Friday Harbor
C.P.: It depends on how much work you want to put into figuring out the logistics of your trip vs. studying up on the areas themselves and leaving the planning to someone else.
You could go online, ask questions via e-mail and figure out what's the best deal and probably save money, but that means making all your own arrangements, including the flights. I don't know about Frontiers, but the people I know who have been on these types of trips say they find there are advantages to dealing with a tour operator who is based locally.
Seattle Times staffers Carey Gelernter and Jerry Large recently traveled to Africa and wrote about their trip for The Times. (See Botswana: Getting close to nature on a 10-day camping safari and South Africa has lessons to teach.)
Because of high airline ticket prices and unfavorable exchange rate my family and I are looking at delaying our trip to Europe this year and doing Mexico instead. Do you have any idea when prices might return to those of the glory days a few years ago?— Shana, Seattle
C.P.: The poor exchange rates are due mainly to our country's economic polices which have produced high deficits at the same time interest rates (that might otherwise attract foreign investment) have remained low. Little is expected to change under the current administration, so no one is counting on the exchange rates for travelers improving much soon if ever.
Most travel experts are advising people to look for ways to adjust their standards by settling for less expensive modes of travel - smaller hotels, cheaper meals etc. - rather than wait for things to turn around. I'm afraid those "glory days''are behind us, but that doesn't mean you can't find creative ways to still enjoy all Europe has to offer.
Does the Dutch railway system offer short-term passes, like for 3 to 5 days? And is it transferable to other modes of transit?— Oscar, Kent
C.P.: Sure, you can buy a short-term pass just for travel in the Netherlands (about $95 for any three days in one month) or combine it with other destinations, such as Belgium and Luxembourg. See www.raileurope.com for details. The passes aren't good for other modes of transportation, mainly buses and trams.
I am graduating from law school next month, and I only have a few days after graduation before I need to begin studying for the bar exam. I want - NEED - to go somewhere for a couple of days. I have some money to spend, but only a couple hundred dollars. Any ideas for a getaway?— Andrea, Seattle
C.P.: Vancouver is just a four-hour train ride away. The U.S. dollar still buys more in Canada, and, given the price of gas, Amtrak is less expensive and less hassle than driving. The views on the way are great and the people, cultural and natural sites in Vancouver are different enough to leave you feeling as if you've been somewhere.
No need to have a car once you're there. Everything's within walking distance or reachable by public transportation. There are some nice B&Bs in the West End near Stanley Park, or you could check into the quaint and inexpensive Syliva Hotel (www.sylviahotel.com) without straining your budget.(For additional information, see NWsource: Vancouver destination guide.)
I'll soon be going to Pittsburgh on vacation - no, really! I've got my list of cultural sites to go see, but would love to know other, lesser-known places. Neighborhood baseball museum? Ethnic hole-in-the-wall eatery? I know The 'Burgh doesn't sound very exotic, but I want to see how the Steel Belt cities have changed over the years. Thanks for any tips sent my way.— Nikki, Seattle
C.P.: Not a city that brings to mind one of the nation's vacation hot spots... but you're right, a lot has changed in Pittsburgh in the past few years. I haven't been since I moved to Seattle from Cincinnati, but my sources recommend:
--Kennywood Park is a 100-year-old classic amusement park.
--The Incline (a hillside trolley which connects the riverfront with Mt. Washington, where there are great views of the city and the Allegheny, Mononghela and Ohio rivers.
--The Andy Warhol Museum. He's one of Pittsburgh's native sons!
--Ethnic neighborhoods perched on their own hills - Jewish, Italian, Polish, Irish, etc. - with their brick row houses and porches people sit on in the evenings.
Did you take a cell phone, laptop or PDA with you? If so, what other equipment did you need?— Marie, Burien
C.P.: My cell phone service is T-Mobile which has excellent overseas service, but it's one of the few services available here in the United States that do. Some people rent a phone when they are traveling overseas, and that seems to work out well. You might call your cell phone service provider and find out the options.
I don't carry a laptop with me (I go to Internet cafes to file stories via e-mail) because of the extra weight and possibility of theft, but there is lots of Wi-Fi service in many parts of Europe and Asia and using a laptop would not be a problem.
My family (two adults, two kids under seven) is going to Playa del Carmen late summer. We'll be staying at an all-inclusive resort. How much spending money is reasonable to take with us?— Andrea, Puyallup
C.P.: I always err on the plus side when it comes to money and traveling. You never know what might happen that will require extra cash. You could be delayed an extra day because of a missed airline connection, or find that you'd like to take a sidetrip or do something that's not included in your all-inclusive package.
There's no need to load up on pesos here before you go, but make sure you have enough money in your checking account to allow you to use an ATM in Mexico to withdraw extra cash (in pesos) if you need it, and take some travelers checks just in case you have problems using the bank machines.
What are the best places to get deals on cruises?— Scott, Snoqualmie
C.P.: Expedia's not a bad place to start looking, especially for last-minute deals. The site is well-organized and it's a good place to start shopping. Search according to destination and departure date, and if you find a lower price on another Web site within 48 hours of booking, it promises to match it and throw in a $50 gift certificate.
Keep in mind that cruise bookings come with all sorts of strings attached regarding refunds, changes in itineraries etc. Unless you're experienced at sorting through all of this, you might want to book through a reputable travel agent who specializes in cruises. Everyone - travel agents and the online booking sites - has essentially the same to offer when it comes to cruise deals. It all depends on where you're most comfortable booking.
I am going to Greece this summer. I have a place to stay, but I'm wondering when the summer flight sales will hit. I'd like to find a good deal, roundtrip from Seattle. But I'm willing to do two flights if I can get a better bargain: Seattle-New York, New York-Athens. Thoughts?— Angela, Seattle
C.P.: Things are not looking good for cheap airfares this summer, with fuel costs through the roof and the airlines all struggling financially. The airlines are going to take advantage of pent-up demand for international travel after the Iraq war, SARS, etc., by getting whatever price the market will bear.
It's doubtful you'll save by going through New York, but you could get an idea by trying several combinations of cities on one of the super search engines like www.mobissimo.com, www.farechase.com or www.sidestep.com that scan all of the airline and travel Web sites and then link you to one of those sites for booking.
I'm going to be sending my 15-year-old son to London during summer break to visit relatives he's never met, and I'm looking for a good fare. Is it better to purchase a ticket through the airline itself, or would I be better off with the help of a travel agent? Are there any special fares for students?— Sharon, Seattle
C.P.: You might start by checking fares with STA Travel, a travel agency which specializes in student travel and offers discounted air fares. They're offering a $751 student fare for round-trip Seattle-London for June travel which is about $200 below the regular adult fares. STA has an office here in Seattle in the University District (206-633-5000) and a Web site (www.statravel.com) for online bookings.
My wife and I, along with another couple, are looking for a one-night getaway. We're looking for a comfortable and affordable one-night accommodation somewhere within a three-hour drive from Seattle. We'd like a cabin but most have a two-night minimum. Thanks!— Scott, Seattle
C.P.: I just spent a weekend on Lummi Island (100 miles north of Seattle). It's about a two-hour drive from here and once you're there, you'll really feel like you've gotten away without having spent all your time in the car. The Willows Inn (www.willows-inn.com) has a guest house with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and rents for $290 per night. There's a nice, but pricey, restaurant on the premises and a casual and less expensive cafe near the ferry dock that serves local specialities such as reefnet-caught salmon and organic lamb burgers. Lummi is near Bellingham. On the way to or from, you could detour off of I-5 onto scenic Chukunut Drive via Fairhaven, an interesting little village to explore for a few hours. For more info, see www.lummi-island.com.
You're right that most cabins have two-night minimums, but if you see one you like, you might call and ask about staying one night. Some owners will make exceptions, especially this time of the year, when things are slower.
I'm a student headed to Paris (among other places) this summer, and I want to know if you have any suggestions for keeping down food costs.— Aieleen, Seattle
C.P.: There are so many options for eating in Paris that it's easy to eat well on any budget.
Restaurants are expensive, but grocery stores, such as Monoprix, sell all sorts of prepared foods, cheeses, meats, juices, wine, etc., at prices comparable to here. Almost every neighborhood has an outdoor market,and you'll have fun wandering through and shopping for fresh produce, cheeses, pates, quiche, pastries, etc.
You'll see lots of places selling inexpensive and delicious take-out. The long baguette sandwiches displayed in glass cases in the boulangeries — $2.50 or $3 — make great, quick lunches as do the crepes with all sorts of fillings sold by street vendors.
When you do go out, look for the "formula" menus or the plat du jour, a special, such as quiche or a fish dish and salad, for a set price. For the best food discoveries, throw away the guidebooks and scout out the informal cafes on your own. I was walking in the little Rue Saint-Severin in the Latin Quarter when I overheard a man tell his friends that the little Le Saint-Severin restaurant served the best onion soup in Paris. I went there later and had a steaming bowl, thick with sweet onions and Gruyere, a basket of bread and a small pitcher of wine for $13.50.
Keep in mind that tax and service are always included in the bill.
My wife and I plan to visit Italy, France & Spain next year for three weeks. We want to rent a house or apartment and car in Tuscany, drive through the south of France, around Spain and back to Tuscany. Any suggestions on how to do this, especially the base camp in Tuscany idea? Was in Italy last year on religious pilgrimage, so have been there once. Thanks!— Rich, Maple Valley
C.P.: Unless you're wedded to flying in and out of the same city, why not book an "open jaw'' flight, flying into Milan and out of Barcelona, for instance, and avoid backtracking? Often the price is the same as a round-trip flight, or just a few dollars more, and rental car companies such as Kemwel (www.kemwel.com) and Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com) often don't charge extra to pick up in one city and drop off in another.
With three weeks and so many destinations, you might want to look into staying a few days here and there in farmhouse inns along the way as opposed to renting an apartment for a week in one place. You'd get a good feel for the countryside, meet local people and enjoy the local cuisine since meals are often included. The Karen Brown series of books on inns in Spain, France and Italy list the kinds of accommodations that are available, along with maps, prices and contact information.
My family and I will be traveling to Germany and Italy in 2007. My five-year-old son has many food allergies. I am concerned about the language barrier and the ability to get foods that he can eat safely. In your travels, did you find that it was difficult to communicate with people because of the different language(s) spoken?— Patty Smith, Seattle
C.P.: I think you'll be surprised how many people do speak English, especially in Germany and Italy, which attract a lot of tourists. You should have no problems, but if you do, try approaching a student or younger person. Most all are studying or have studied English in school and are happy to have the opportunity to use what they've learned.
I'm a beginning teacher who was awarded a scholarship to study abroad this summer. I was hoping to extend my stay about 3 weeks to explore Europe as it will be my first visit, but I've also just purchased my first house so money is a pretty tight. I'm planning on doing the 21-day "best of" tour. Any suggestions as to ways to eat cheap or otherwise cut corners? Thanks!— Kyanne, Auburn
C.P.: I'd recommend looking into staying in private rooms instead of hotels. These are accommodations in people's homes (B&Bs), and tourist offices in each town often keep a list of what's available. You'll meet locals which will be fun and they will guide you to the inexpensive places to eat and free things to do and see. You might have to share a bathroom with the family or their other guests, but this is a small trade-off considering the money you'll save.
Eat like a local at the pubs in London, cafes in Paris, eet cafes in Amsterdam and casual trattorias in Italy. Pick up lunch at a market or from a street vendor, or picnic in nice weather.
Check into free concerts and reduced admission prices for museums on certain days of the week or evenings. All of London's top museums, for instance, are free. Take time to explore what I like to call the "museums of the streets" by wandering through neighborhoods, noticing things like the collections people in Amsterdam display in their windowsills or the way bakeries display pastries like little works of art.
Instead of an expensive city tour on a bus, rent a bike or take a bike tour such as the ones offered by Yellow Bike in Amsterdam (www.yellowbike.nl) or Paris Velo Sympa in Paris (www.parisvelosympa.com).
Above all, don't rush. Take time to appreciate the little things as well as the major "must do" sites. Don't worry about missing something. It will give you a good excuse to return!
Do you have a recommendation for a great B&B (or someplace similar) to unwind for the weekend? It should be within 4 hours' drive of Seattle and have hiking trails nearby.— Caryl, Woodinville
C.P.: I love the area around Mount Rainier for spring and summer hiking, not only inside the park itself, but outside as well. Alexander's Country Inn in Ashford, near the park entrance at Longmire, is a cozy B&B that's well located for hiking and relaxing afterwards. See www.alexanderscountryinn.com. (For additional information: see NWsource: Favorite Mt. Rainier hikes. )
On the other side of the park, near the Sunrise entrance is Alta Crystal Resort www.altacrystalresort.com with a heated outdoor pool and nice cabin-type units that include fireplaces and kitchens. There are many good hiking trails all around and rates go down in the late spring and summer after ski reason (Crystal Mountain ski resort is nearby).
My wife and I love Hawaii (Maui, especially), but she would like to try Mexico for a change. She likes history, flowers and relaxing. I like golf and the beach. We don't need nightlife. Where are the best areas to consider? Can you recommend Casa Del Mar?— Graham, Bellevue
C.P.: You might consider Oaxaca for history, art, flowers, great restaurants and relaxing, with a side trip to the coast and Puerto Escondido for beaches, golf, etc. Or maybe better yet, Guadalajara for wonderful sunny mild weather, great shopping, markets, gardens, etc., and nearby Tlaquepaque, and then Puerto Vallarta or Manzanillo for the beach and golf. Alaska Airlines flies into all three cities, so you might be able to arrange to fly into one and out of the other and rent a car for the drive in between.
What is the best airline, time of year, and amount of time to spend in Amsterdam? I'm looking for for affordability without sharing space with rats and IV needles. Thanks!— Jon, Seattle
C.P.: The best airline is Northwest which has daily non-stop flights to Amsterdam, leaving Seattle at 1 p.m. and arriving in Amsterdam at 8 a.m. Flight time is around 9 hours.
"Amsterdam is a small city with a big image,'' someone once told me, mostly undeserved. Get away from the drug and sex scene around the Central Train station and you'll discover one of Europe's most charming cities. The bonus: Almost everyone speaks English.
Spring and fall are the best times to go. You could easily spend a week visiting museums, relaxing at canalside cafes, taking bike rides and doing sidetrips by train to towns such as Delft, Utrecht and the Hague.
Hotel recommendation (sans rats and needles). The charming Hotel van Onna in the historic Jordaan neighborhood near the Anne Frank House. Rates with breakfast for rooms with private bath are 40 euros per person, about $52 at current exchange rate. Info at www.hotelvanonna.com/ The van Onna is 15 minutes walk or a $12 cab ride from the train station. Phone reservations only.
Carol, we're trying to plan a trip to England for three generations - grandma, us and two kids. Any advice on time of year (our kids are school age) and also any advice on lodging/transportation for a big group?— Jay, Tacoma
C.P.: England is a great choice for families with kids... so much history and all those Harry Potter haunts! It's also very family friendly. You'll find hotels and B&Bs set up with "family rooms'' designed with room enough for several people.
The London Underground sells family passes good for unlimited travel on the Tube and buses, the best way to get around in the city. You can buy them when you get there.
The five of you could probably fit into a rental car for traveling in the countryside, but keep in mind that cars tend to be small and driving is on the left. Trains go everywhere, so depending on your mobility, that might be something to consider.
Avoid summer travel if you can, and consider taking the kids out of school for a week if possible so you can go off-season in spring or fall when it's less crowded and less expensive. This will be an educational as well as fun time for them and looking back on it, they will likely remember more than if they had stayed in the classroom a week longer than usual.
What on-line site would you recommend for hotel ratings (for example www.tripadvisor.com)?— Nita, Seattle
Interesting you should ask. Check out my column April 24 in the Seattle Times Travel section for more on this subject.
TripAdvisor (www.tripadvisor.com ) is an excellent hotel rating site. It has more than one million reviews posted by travelers throughout the world. The reviews are candid and uncensored and taken together for each hotel, tend to give you a pretty good idea of what other people have experienced. I use the site all the time and have decided against certain hotels based on what I've read and booked others for the same reasons. The site is owned by Expedia, Inc., which also owns Expedia.com. Expedia also now posts hotel reviews, but only for about 17,000 hotels that can be booked on the site.
I'd love to visit Canada. I'm a naturalized U.S. citizen. Do I just need my U.S. passport or do I need a photo of my naturalization certificate, too? Thank you!— Lindsay, Seattle
C.P.: A valid U.S. passport is all that you need to visit Canada. If you have other questions, contact the Canada Border Services Agency at www.cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/travel.
I've often heard that when traveling in Europe you don't need a hotel reservation and can wait until arriving at your destination to get the best rate (and location) for your stay. What do you think about traveling this way?— Megan, Seattle
C.P.: This depends on what time of the year you are traveling and where you are going. It's doubtful you'll really save money by not booking ahead, but you will buy yourself more flexibility.
It's pretty much imperative that you have reservations during busy months, such as summer, in cities such as Venice or Amsterdam where demand is high relative to the number of rooms available. Good value hotels tend to fill up quickly and if you haven't reserved ahead, you could end being forced to pay more for an inferior place.
It's less important to book ahead during the off-season or in less-tourist cities, but again, it depends. Advance booking would be wise in the little villages along the Cinque Terre in Northern Italy that attract hordes of Rick Steves followers. In other areas, you can afford to be more flexible. Inspecting hotels with your own eyes instead of relying on guidebook recommendations is always better. Try to arrive in town early enough in the day to look around at a few places before making a decision.
If there's a special place you want, reserve it. I was disappointed and surprised to find a little hotel in an out-of-the-way part of Italy fully booked in October when I arrived once without reservations. I had to say in a modern business hotel next door at twice the price.
I am buying tickets online to fly to Europe this summer. Do I need travel insurance?— Anita, Tenino
C.P.: If you think you might have to cancel or postpone your trip due your own illness or illness or death of a family member or traveling companion - two of the main reasons travel insurance would reimburse you - and only if the cost of changing the tickets would be more than the cost of the insurance itself.
Keep in mind that travel insurance only covers you under certain circumstances, all of which you can check out before you buy by calling the insurance company or reading the fine print under "trip cancellation and interruption.''
A standard policy covering the cost of two tickets worth $1,000 each would be about $100 for two people between the ages of 35-59, not a bad deal considering most airlines charge $200 per ticket to change a non-refundable international ticket.
I am honeymooning in Jamaica this July. I have read and been told passports are optional. Is this correct? And why or why not, besides security?— Eric, Mt. Vernon
C.P.: Passports are still optional, but not for long. Right now you need either a passport, a birth certificate or government-issued photo identification, like a driver's license, to enter Jamaica and re-enter the United States. This will change under new rules proposed last week by the State and Homeland Security Department that will require Americans to have passports to re-enter the U.S. from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
The rule's first phase will go into effect December 31 of this year when U.S. citizens traveling by air or ship to or from the Caribbean will be required to have passports. The next phase, which will apply these rules to all air and sea travel to or from Mexico and Canada, will begin a year later.
You're safe for travel in July, but if you have a passport, bring it. It's the ID of choice and you'll have fewer hassles traveling with it than without it.
I am traveling to Costa Rica in June and am thinking about renting a car while there. I have a platinum credit card and am wondering if I can avoid purchasing insurance through the car rental agency. Thank you.— Sydney Schuck, Bellingham
C.P.: This is a good question. Chances are you will be covered, but call your credit card company and ask specifically about Costa Rica. There are certain countries that credit card coverage excludes, mainly because the chance of theft or damage to the car is higher. Certain areas of Costa Rica could be affected because of poor road conditions, so check first and get the details of your coverage in writing before you go.
How can I book the best rate for air fare to Rome in October?— Diane, Kirkland
C.P.: That is the "shoulder season," and fares are generally lower for travel after October 15, although the exact date varies by airline. Fall sales usually start just after Labor Day so keep watching the various search sites right before and after to see what's happening. You might check www.sidestep.com which scans various airline and travel sites, such as Orbitz and Expedia, in one fell swoop. Air Gorilla (www.airgorilla.com) is another site which pulls up discounted fares, and the airlines themselves should start advertising fall fares in late August to early September.
My husband and I would like to go on a three-week vacation to Europe with our three-month-old baby. Any recommended places that are child and budget friendly?— Angela, Seattle
C.P.: The nice thing about Europe is that it's very family friendly. Most hotels and B&Bs are set up with "family rooms'' to accommodate several people. I once stayed in a B&B in England where the only room available for the night happened to have a crib!
Europeans rear their children to interact with adults from the start. They bring their kids to restaurants and even into pubs. You'll find a load of tips and suggestions from travelers on the Graffiti Wall at www.ricksteves.com Scroll down to the section on "Diverse Travelers'' and go to "Travel with Kids.''
I will be in Europe this summer from the beginning of June to the end of July. I am traveling with my husband and two children. We will be spending most of our time in Germany and Hungary. Any suggestions for how to eat well and not spend a fortune? Also, are there any festivals or BIG things happening in that part of Europe you can recommend? Thanks so much!— Sabrina, Seattle
C.P.: I'm not sure where you'll be traveling in Germany and Hungary, but neither should present much of a problem re: eating inexpensively. Unless you are a vegetarian, there are wurst options!
In Germany, look for outdoor snack bars called imbis. Here you can sample a rostbratwurst, a foot-long sausage sandwiched between hamburger-size buns, with at least 4 inches of sausage drooped out of each end, or a currywurst, a pork sausage doused with catsup and sprinkled with curry powder.
Town squares in Germany become outdoor party halls on Saturday afternoons when and arts and crafts sellers, musicians and food sellers take to the streets. It was at a fair in Weimar in eastern Germany where I first sampled "Schmalz Kuchen," fist-sized balls of dough deep fried in lard, filled with raisins and dusted with sugar. Delicious!
It's been a while since I've traveled in Hungary, but the food is similar and the goulash, served sometimes at breakfast as well as dinner, is not to be missed.
Summer is festival time all over Europe. You'll find yourselves stumbling onto local fairs and festivals in celebration of religious feasts, wine harvests etc. Re major festivals, there's a good list for Germany at www.germany-tourism.de and for Hungary at www.artsfestivals.hu, the Web site for the Hungarian Arts Festival Federation.
Any suggestions for an inexpensive, tropical honeymoon in October?— James, Seattle
C.P.: You're no doubt aware that that's hurricane season in Mexico and the Caribbean and the "Green Season'' in Costa Rica when rainfall can be heavy. Hawaii might be a possibility. Rates are down and the waters around it are a little too cool for hurricanes, although there's always still a chance.
If you like warm weather, but aren't wedded to the beach idea, you could try an inland city such as San Miguel Allende in Mexico; Guadalajara or Oaxaca, all with mild tempertures and lots of nice accommodations, some with swimming pools. You'll find enough shops, museums, artist communities, cafes and restaurants to keep you busy for a week or so without spending a fortune.
More than traveling, I want to live and work abroad and experience other cultures as a participant, not an observer. What advice would you give to someone who is looking for such an opportunity?— Heidi, Seattle
C.P.: Excellent idea. I'd start with Transitions Abroad (www.transitionsabroad.com), a monthly publication full of resources, ideas and first-hand accounts of people doing just this. Its Web site is also a portal for key resources on how to get started working and living abroad.
Many people decide to get a job teaching English, a skill in great demand all over the world, but especially in countries where people can afford to go to school and/or hire teachers - South Korea is an example. So are most of the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern and Central Europe.
Volunteering for a short amount of time is another possibility. Short-term jobs, internships and other opportunities to reach or help build homes and communities are available for anywhere from one week to six months or longer in parts of the world such as Nepal, Ghana, Tanzania and Costa Rica. See www.backdoorjobs.com for ideas and links to programs offered by organizations such as Cross-Cultural Solutions and Internships International.
How do you make the peso go farther in Mexico?— David McBroom, Redmond
C.P.: Mexico's unit of currency is still a good value for U.S. travelers at 11 pesos to the dollar compared to 10 two years ago. Eating, drinking and shopping are inexpensive in Mexico for U.S. travelers, or at least they can be. Most Americans visit beach resorts where prices are geared toward the American market. You'll want to stay in a nice hotel, of course, but try venturing out of the hotel zone to local neighborhoods and street markets to eat and drink. You'll have more fun and you'll pay a fraction of what you might otherwise.
Bargain on the price of anything you buy, keeping in mind your desire for a fair price with the seller's need to make a living. Bargaining is an accepted part of the culture and done the right way, becomes a chance to interact with and support local artists as opposed to paying high prices in hotel shops and boutiques.
What is the "London Eye"? In Paris, did you visit the place where the famous "Beat Hotel" used to be at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur? Is there a beatnik area in Paris now? Was visiting Europe alone okay? I'm a single woman who is 54 and I may need to travel alone to England, Paris and Amsterdam. Did you travel to Liverpool, England? I'd like to visit a Beatles site like the old Cavern, etc.— Eydie Eskridge, Seattle
C.P.: The London Eye is a giant Ferris wheel built for the millennium by British Airways on the South Bank of London between Waterloo and Westminster Bridges, right opposite Big Ben and Parliament. Visitors are treated to stunning views of Central London in a half-hour ride aboard capsules holding 25 people each. The cost for an adult ticket is $24. Waits can be long in the summer. See www.londoneye.com for information and advance bookings.
Haven't heard of the "Beat Hotel,'' but it sounds interesting. If you get to Liverpool, check out Cavern City Tours which offers a two-hour Beatles tour for $23, including a stop at the Cavern Club. Info at www.cavern-liverpool.co.uk
Traveling alone in any of these cities shouldn't be a problem. Pick your neighborhood wisely and take the usual precautions to safeguard your money, credit cards, passport, etc. I like staying in B&Bs and small guesthouses when I'm alone because it's often an easy way to meet other travelers and connect with local people, usually the owners, and sometimes their friends or neighbors.
We are going to Italy this summer. Some people tell me driving is a nightmare, avoid it at all cost AND some say driving in Italy is great, no problems. What is the truth and what about getting a special Italian driver's license? Thanks.— Terri Hobbs, Seattle
C.P.: Someone you talked with might be talking about an International Driver's License. There's not need to have one in Italy. You're regular U.S. license will do.
Driving within the big cities and on the Autostrada as opposed to small towns and country roads are two different things, as you can imagine.
If you must drive in a city such as Florence or Rome (picking up or dropping of a car would be the ONLY reason), it's much easier if you avoid peak traffic times, one of those being right before the long lunch break, around 12:30-1 p.m. and again around 3:30- 4 p.m. Some friends and I drove into Rome once around 2 p.m. and there were almost no cars on the street (everyone was home eating and had not yet started to return to work).
Driving on the Autostradas can be stressful if you don't like high speeds and truck traffic. No one can force you to drive fast, of course, but I always feel pressured. Keep change handy for tolls. Backroads are more relaxing, but a good map or road atlas is essential as well as a basic knowledge of what various street signs mean. "Senso Unico'' is a good one to remember. It mean's "One Way.''
Parking can be tricky. There are pay lots in bigger towns, and marked parking areas in smaller towns where the streets can be barely wide enough for one small car. The Italians, of course, tend to park anywhere.
Because of the school calendar, my family has to schedule our trip to Spain in the high season - June and July. Do you have any secrets for reducing airfare costs?— Carol Gittins, Edmonds
C.P.: Summer air fares to Europe this year are high and there are few ways to get around the fact that you're planning to travel in peak season when everything is more expensive.
One way to save on your tickets is to travel on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday as opposed to the weekend. I did a quick check on some Seattle-Madrid fares in June and July and found the price dropped by $200 per ticket for mid-week as opposed to weekend travel. Shop around and check several Web sites as well as discount travel agents who sometimes offer consolidator fares. Don't ignore the airlines' own Web sites which often offer the lowest fares.
Want to travel to Southern Vietnam. Any concerns? Plan to travel from May 30th to June 13th. Thanks.— Daryl Brennick, Lynden
C.P.: Health concerns pose the biggest risk in travel to Southeast Asia, but assuming you've consulted a medical professional regarding health precautions, immunizations, etc., you should be fine. The weather, as you probably know, is hot, humid and rainy in South Vietnam during the time you plan to travel, so take a good mosquito repellant and wear cool, loose clothing.
You might want to check the Center for Disease Control's Web site at www.cdc.gov for the latest update on avian bird flu. At this time, CDC and the World Health Organization have not issued travel warnings for avian flu-infected areas, which include Vietnam. Travelers are advised to avoid poultry farms and contact with animals in live food markets. Eating processed poultry products is OK, as long as they are thoroughly cooked. More advice on this is on the State Department's Web site at www.travel.state.gov.
Carol: Thank you so much for the story regarding traveling on a somewhat sane budget in Europe! My soon-to-be wife and I will be honeymooning in London and Scotland May 24 through June 2. This is not my first time to London (it will actually be my third) and not my first time to Scotland -- but I've only been to Edinburgh. This time we're going to the Highlands, and staying on Loch Leven. We have found a great deal with United Escapes for airfare and first three nights hotel in London with full English breakfast. Do you suggest buying a three-day Travelcards for the buses and Tube and train tickets once we arrive in Britain, or beforehand here? What is the Web site for schedules and fares for Brit Rail - or does it exist anymore? Also, do you know if the tube and bus travel card will get us out to Windsor? Any absolute must sees in the Highlands?
— Reonn Rabon and Dana Ezell, Seattle
C.P.: Three-day Travelcards good for unlimited travel on buses and the Tube are available at any Underground station in London. The price for travel within two zones (Central London) is 15 pounds per person, about $28.50 at current exchange rates. For more information on London Underground and buses, see www.tfl.gov.uk.
You can buy something called the London Visitor Travel Card here in the U.S., either online (see www.railpass.com) or from a travel agent. It's also good for three days of travel within Central London. The price is $26, but keep in mind, if you buy the card online, you'll pay a shipping fee.
Either way, you'll need to buy a separate train ticket to Windsor. The trip from Paddington Station takes about 30 minutes.
British Rail does have a Web site. It's www.britrail.net and you can use it to either buy tickets or check schedules. There's really no need to buy your London-Edinburgh train ticket in the U.S. The trip takes about 4 hours each way.
I'm afraid I don't know much about the Highlands, but as long as you're checking the Web for the various transport options, you might want to take a look at www.visithighlands.com, the Web site for the Scottish Highlands Tourist Board.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.