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Planes, Trains and Aquamobiles 

Planning your dream vacation

Finding options for vacations you'll remember forever (in a good way) is the easy part. All you have to do is type in "travel" on an Internet search and you'll get scores of Web site listings, even on the weakest search engine. Paring down possible destinations is the first hurdle, followed by figuring out the best way to get there, what to do once you arrive, how to make the most of your vacation dollars -- and still enjoy the experience.

The public's love affair with home-based surfing on the Internet has been answered by savvy companies and entrepreneurs, such as www.bestfares.com, www.expedia.com and www.travelocity.com. Such sites have improvised systems for pointing frugal travelers to the very lowest transportation fares and hotel rates possible, usually leaving the rest of the planning to individual vacationers. Technology doesn't abandon travelers there, however. There are dozens of other companies and organizations with Web sites that will help you fill in the other gaps, including tons of tips on everything from what documents you need for foreign travel to diversions that will keep children entertained during long hours in an automobile.

Independent Traveler (www.independenttraveler.com) offers the do-it-yourselfer a comprehensive guide for planning all types of vacations. It helps link travelers with bargains on packages and modes of travel, all kinds of resources, tips, industry news and even message boards and reviews submitted by Web site users. Best of all, the range of prices, methods of travel and tourist-friendly places to go means there is a vacation out there for everyone, whether your budget allows only for a weekend "Cruise to Nowhere" that takes you from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico and back again or a $119,000 weeklong cruise around the Mediterranean Sea in a luxury yacht. Cruises can be as simple, extended or exotic as you want, with ships regularly sailing to such destinations as Russia, Alaska, Fiji and dozens of other ports.

There is plenty of middle ground price-wise in the cruise industry and the mode of travel is popular, especially among families, mature vacationers and groups. Many cruises include daylong stops in various ports of call along the way, giving vacationers a variety of scenery and a chance to tour, shop, dine or bask on the beach, then return to the ship for dinner, evening entertainment and a place to relax. Travel agents also point out that cruises (and other vacation packages) help to contain costs because basic necessities are included in the price, leaving travelers to budget only for incidentals, optional drinks and dining, shopping, etc.

Riding a train to your destination (or as close as possible) also makes the trip a fun part of the vacation experience. Modern Amtrak coaches are comfortable, and viewing cars provide extra space and big windows for watching the scenery. If you can't afford to fly but don't want to be cramped in a car for a daylong trip, the train may be a viable alternative. For longer travels, or just for added comfort, Amtrak also has sleeping berths available.

Sometimes having a world of options can only confuse and befuddle a wannabe tourist, especially when planning a vacation itinerary for more than one person. It doesn't have to be that way, according to an innovative company that customizes vacations using advice from a team of more than 30 experts -- including Olympic ice-skating medalist Nancy Kerrigan -- in areas that include outdoor adventure travel, uncommon getaways, special-interest activities and more. The idea is to find places where, for instance, a husband can find excellent golf venues, his wife can explore art galleries and museums, others in the group can go biking and the whole family can enjoy a beach. It's an extremely personalized version of a travel agent, except it uses a special profiling and advice technology called Me-Print, which compiles vacation options based on the individual lifestyles of vacationers traveling together.

Although there are myriad resources that offer advice, options and price breaks for vacationers who want to make all the travel plans themselves, a travel agent can be invaluable in purveying first-hand knowledge of specific locations, local customs, quality of transportation, hotels and services. Stiff competition for vacation dollars has resulted in enjoyable and comfortable travel options and packages at almost all price points. Working through a travel agent, however, offers something most Web-based services don't: an advocate and trouble-shooter, someone who will find you acceptable transportation alternatives when, for instance, delays cause you to miss a flight connection in France and leaves you stranded among people who speak a different language. Travel professionals also help ensure vacationers receive the level of service and the accommodations they paid for.

Whether you begin your vacation adventure at the computer keyboard or opt to let a travel agent do everything except pack your bags, travelers would be wise to use the Internet to check out hotel rooms, access to transportation, restaurants and entertainment venues. If you're traveling out of the country, an Internet search of your destination (with Web sites compiled by tourism offices, government agencies and commercial enterprises) can provide you with interesting local customs, laws, information about prevalent diseases, ways to maneuver public transportation and more. Travel agents, especially those who have visited your vacation destination, also can provide insider information about side-stepping common travel hassles as well as money-saving tips such as which places sell discounted day passes for buses and trains, how to explore cities like a native, etc.

Part of the reason travel-related services are burgeoning, especially on the Internet, is that people are looking for excitement as much as relaxation in a vacation these days. Regardless of your passion, whether it's sword fishing or climbing a volcano, there is a niche-purveyor anxious to cater to your desires. Locally, Metairie sports equipment stores Adventure Sports and Massey's offer trips and/or recommendations as well as outfitting travelers for outdoor excursions. There's a Web site for every niche: Southeastern Expeditions (www.southeasternexpeditions.com) caters to rafting and kayaking enthusiasts (as well as other outdoor sports), and the Web site www.vegetarian-vacations.com holds its mission in its name.

Travel planners may be experts at making certain you have enough time to make connections, change transportation modes and have a reasonable room waiting at your destination, but even the most connected travel professional can't guard against things such as lost luggage on airlines. Baggage that is misdirected, misses a connection with another airline carrier, is stolen or simply lost can ruin a vacation or business trip and is a big enough problem that airlines are trying new systems, including Northwest Airline's experimental self-serve system being tested in Minneapolis, to cut down on the headaches. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 7,500 of the 2.8 million pieces of luggage checked at U.S. airports each day are damaged, lost, delayed or stolen. Travelers have responded by attempting to bypass luggage handling problems by taking all their belongings with them in the plane cabin as carry-on luggage. The trend has gotten so widespread that several airlines have dedicated millions to renovate overhead bins to accommodate wheeled luggage. Some airlines have strict restrictions regarding the weight, size and number of carry-on bags, but these rules vary according to the carrier because there are no standard federal rules. There is a federal mandate that allows travelers to recover up to $2,500 from airlines for lost luggage, however. Travel professionals agree the best tack is to take indispensable items -- such as prescription medications and important documents -- with you on the plane to avoid complications that could diminish your vacation fun.

SUBHEAD: Setting Your Sites on Trouble-free Vacations

Internet Web sites developed to help travelers discover new places to go and ways to spend their leisure time -- and money -- abound and can provide information about almost anything you'd want to know about, from whether it's safe to drink the water in Mozambique to where the insiders go in Paris. Here are some links we found particularly unusual or helpful.

www.brookes.ac.uk/worldwise -- World Wise Directory helps familiarize travelers with countries before they visit, including an overview of security, health, food and safety conditions as well as a host of tips and rules.

www.budgeteuropetravel.com -- Use to order a free European Planning and Rail Guide compiled by the Budget Europe Travel Service, which details highlights of 20 countries and travel tips including information about rail passes.

www.corporatetravelsafety.com -- Geared toward business travelers and the corporations that send them on the road, this site offers tips and information about travel safety and crime prevention, travel products, and seminars for corporate travelers.

www.cruisemates.com -- Travelers' ratings of various ships is only one insightful part of this site, established by cruise expert Anne Campbell, author of Fielding's Guide to Worldwide Cruises. In addition to reviews, Cruise Mates informs travelers about bargain fares and packages and lots of advice.

www.digsville.com -- Focuses on interesting neighborhoods and attractions most tourists never know about in a variety of places. Web site features first-hand accounts of suggested stops.

www.11thhourvacations.com -- If you have a flexible schedule and aren't frayed by last-minute packing scrambles, this site can help you find special (usually time-limited) deals on everything from air fare to complete vacation packages, as well as a gallery of "best deals."

www.familytravelforum.com/packingtips.html -- Packing tips and rules of the road for people vacationing with kids.

www.family.go.com/travel -- A travel checklist and other in-the-know tips for family vacations, including recommendations, advice and more from Disney online. Expect lots of info on all-inclusive resorts.

www.fodors.com -- From the standard in printed travel guides to locations all over the world comes Fodor's on-line service, which provides descriptions of hotels, restaurant recommendations, points of interest and even detailed maps. Once on the site, you can customize your search down to a country or city.

www.greatgolf.com -- Information, tips and events at major golf courses around the world, as well as travel information, PGA professionals' golf tips, weather forecasts and more.

www.havechildrenwilltravel.com -- Family newsletter that focuses on where to go, what to do and how to travel happily with children.

www.JohnnyJet.com -- Sets itself apart from the "tips" sites with travel industry news, a travel service, live Web cams and interviews with travel professionals.

www.luxelife.com -- The site to see if you can afford a high-end super-luxury cruise by ship or yacht, or just like to dream about it.

www.mossresourcenet.org/travel.htm -- Information, tips and resources for travelers who are disabled.

www.mytravelrights.com -- Web site of the Consumer Rights Travel Center.

www.orlandoinfo.com -- Orlando is a top vacation spot year-round because of Disney and other theme parks, and this official site offers a visitor's guide, list of accommodations, lodging and attractions information, cultural activities and other resources.

www.tips4trips.com -- A Web page of tips submitted by everyday travelers.

www.thetraveldoctor.com -- Web site focused on preparing travelers planning trips outside the United States, including tips about what to take, Visa and customs requirements, documentation recommendations, disease threats and more.

www.travelsafetytips.com -- Offers information, planning and tips about how to stay safe during trips.

www.survivethedrive.com -- A palatable mesh of marketing for Survive the Drive "backseat entertainment" products such as rental of car video systems, books on tapes, cargo carriers, portable DVD systems and games as well as expert travel tips.

www.vacationcoach.com -- A panel of experts in travel, sports, and other activities help travelers put together vacations specifically tailored to accommodate the interests of every person in the group.

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