Q & A

Q&A: Car rental

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Q. I’m taking my daughter to visit colleges in Providence, RI, and Syracuse, NY, over the upcoming MEA weekend.  I booked tickets on Southwest at a great rate, flying into Boston and back out of Buffalo, to accomodate the driving between the colleges we’ll be visiting.  I’m now realizing that any savings on the airline tickets will be eaten by the fees to rent a car in Boston and drop it off in Buffalo.  Any ideas on how to get a reasonable car rental when picking up and dropping off in different places?A. You present a perfect case for the importance of considering all costs before booking any travel. Unfortunately, the benefit of dropping off a rental car in Buffalo instead of Boston nearly doubles the price. You’re looking at roughly $100 a day instead of $55, and that’s without the taxes and fees. There are a few tricks to try: First, research rates so you’ll know a good one when you see one, and then call a local agent – not the national 800-line – to see if you can score a deal. Try car rental agents away from the airport, which generally offer better rates (you might even catch a hotel shuttle to downtown Boston for the rental). Also, especially if you are landing toward the end of the day, reserve a compact car; often you’ll be upgraded for free because the car rental company has run out of the smallest vehicles.But would you considered forgoing a rental car for at least a portion of the trip? You could zip down to Providence from Boston in a rental car and return the car to the same location. Then you could take Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited train the long way to Buffalo, where you can rent another car for the drive to Syracuse. Alternately, if the once-a-day schedule permits, you could take the route from Boston (South Station is closest to the airport) to Syracuse and catch the train to Buffalo (Buffalo-Depew, NY station) the next day. It may not save a ton of money (one-way fare between Boston and Buffalo in mid-October hovers just above $50), but it’d made a lovely way to see the Berkshire Mountains and spend quality time with your daughter.Good luck finding the right deal — and the right college.

Q&A: The Pacific Northwest

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Q I am going to Portland, Oregon, for business and want to extend my stay. Should I visit Seattle, Washington, or Victoria, British Columbia, or both?A Do both hip, green Seattle and Victoria, with its wedding cake turrets, pristine parks and British history. Seattle may strike you as a larger version of Portland — a casual, eco-conscious vibe, farm-to-table restaurants and ample green space define both cities — but the differences are worth exploring. Microsoft and other mega-companies based in Seattle help fuel world-class arts organizations like the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Plus, a trip there let’s you trade Portland’s Velveteria (a museum devoted to black-velvet  paintings) for Seattle’s Experience Music Project.  Once in Seattle, you can catch the best ride into Victoria: the Victoria Clipper ferry, a nearly 3-hour passage through Puget Sound and into the Straight of Juan de Fuca.  The schedule makes even a day trip possible, with a morning ferry from Seattle and a return in the early evening. (Remember that you need a passport or passcard now to get back into the U.S. after a ferry trip to Canada.) However your itinerary turns out, I hope you enjoy your time in the Pacific Northwest!

Q & A: Volunteer Vacations

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Q: Do you have any suggestions for picking a travel volunteer program? Do you always pay your own way?

A: Yes, you always pay your own way when you take a volunteer vacation. But according to “Best Immersion Travel USA” author Sheryl Kayne, many of these trips are tax deductible. Kayne also says that you can keep your costs down by volunteering domestically.  ”You can help people, communities, wildlife, the environment and our national treasures volunteering in the United States,” she said.  When evaluating a potential volunteer vacation opportunity, Kayne recommends speaking to at least two people who have already done the program for their candid opinions. Be sure to ask:

• Are there fees for the program and how are those monies used?
• How long has the organization been working in the area?
• Are there any special physical requirements to do the work?
• How many other people will be in the group?
• Are other people in the community involved so the work continues when the volunteers leave?
• What systems are in place in case of an emergency?
• What will my day be like?
• What is the balance of volunteer activities and free time?
• Will I be able to explore my surroundings and engage in other activities?
• Will I be able to meet, talk to, work with the people who know the
area best and form friendships with other participants
who share similar interests?

Q & A: More affordable options to Universal Studios

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Q: I am taking my 10 and 12-year old sons to Los Angeles at the end of August. I wanted to take them to Universal Studios Hollywood, but the tickets are $69 each. What’s more, I’ve been told at this time of year we need to get Front of the Line passes because it’s so crowded. Those tickets costs $129 each. Can you suggest a less expensive way to experience behind-the-scenes Hollywood?A: There’s no doubt that Universal Studios is pricey. That’s because in addition to the studio tour, the ticket price also includes general admission to their amusement park. Because your kids can go on rides at home, I’d suggest the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour. Kids ages 8 and older are welcome and it costs $45 per person for a tour that lasts just over 2 hours. Then I’d head over to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood to check out the  footprints of movie stars dating back to the 1920s. It doesn’t cost a penny, unless you want to have your photo taken with one of the characters–Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader–trolling the area for tips. 

Q & A: Hotel recommendations you can trust

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Q:  I’m looking for unbiased information about hotels. Do you have any suggestions for where to start?

A: User-generated hotel reviews are notoriously difficult to trust, says travel expert Pauline Frommer in a blog entry for Bing.com. That’s because hotel marketers often pay people to write and post fake reviews. Further complicating issues is that fact that ordinary travelers usually only stay in one place in any given location, which makes it tough for them to definitively declare that the hotel they are writing about is “the best in the city.” Thankfully, Oyster.com may change that. The website sends out anonymous reporters to sleep in the beds, interview guests and photograph their entire hotel experience. If the room service tray wasn’t picked up during the night, you’ll hear about it. Likewise if the gym isn’t well equipped and has no windows. Frommer points out that Oyster.com still hasn’t worked out the kinks when it comes to accurately reporting room prices, but if what you’re looking for is a thorough idea of what it’s like to stay at a wide range of hotels, it’s a great resource. Oyster.com currently reviews hotels in New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Jamaica, Aruba and the Dominican Republic.

Q & A: Observation decks in Minneapolis

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Q: I’m going to be visiting Minneapolis with two teenage girls who haven’t spent a lot of time in a big city and am wondering which skyscrapers have public observation decks.

A: Despite an abundance of skyscrapers, the only public observation deck is on the 30th floor of the lovely but relatively shrimpy Foshay Tower (now a glam W Hotel).Tickets are $8 for the general public, $5 for seniors. Children under the age of 12 are free. Other great places in Minneapolis to take in gorgeous vistas include the views of the Mississippi River and St. Anthony Falls from the Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater’s Endless Bridge. For a great view of downtown, head to Thomas Beach on Lake Calhoun.