Q Do you have any info regarding packages or group trips to the Philippines?
Chapel Hill, N.C.
ABefore you head off for the Philippines, here are some jarring realities to keep in mind: terrorist threats, kidnappings, Communist insurgents, petty crime and typhoons. In November, the U.S. State Department issued a public announcement -- more of a "be careful" than a "don't go" -- that warned Americans of terrorist activity, as well as other violence, in the Southeast Asian country. (That notice is set to expire April 30.) Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office concurs: "There continue to be threats against Western interests and there is a danger of collateral damage from terrorist attacks targeted at others."
But don't give up yet. Robb Maxwell, an Asia regional analyst for iJet Travel Risk Management, which assesses security risks for travelers worldwide, says the country does have secure tourist zones. "Right now, there's no real reason to avoid the country altogether," he says. "It's just about being smart about where you're going." That means skipping the Mindanao region in the south, as well as rural areas, even those around Manila, and avoiding overland travel. Resorts, however, are safe, especially those that cater to divers.
If you're unfamiliar with the country, it may be best to let a travel agent organize your trip. The Philippines Department of Tourism lists at www.wowphilippines.com.ph accredited travel agencies and their packages and tours, which cover lodging, attractions, white-water rafting and sailing outings, island visits and more. Example: The Ifugao Heritage Tour offers two nights at the Banaue Hotel, breakfast, a Banaue rice terraces excursion and transfers for $127 per person double. Other land-only packages are similarly inexpensive. Hong Kong's PacificTours.com (www.pacifictours.com) also offers land-only packages, such as a four-day Manila trip that includes accommodations, a city tour and a boat trip to the Pagsanjan Falls, from $215 per person double.
You should also consider an American tour company; it will make trip planning easier and, in case of emergency, it's good to have a U.S. contact. Manila Forwarders Travel and Tours (800-210-1019, www.tourism.gov.ph) is an L.A. travel agency that specializes in the Philippines. It books hotels, flights, day tours, wildlife adventures, etc., but does not offer organized group programs. IExplore (800-IEXPLORE, www.iexplore.com), for one, has an 11-day almost-inclusive tour (air is extra) from $3,370 per person double.
We're going to Costa Rica at the end of March and are staying in the Guanacoste region. We plan on going horseback riding and scuba diving, but what else is there to do there? We don't plan on renting a car but would if need be.
Olive Branch, Miss.
Guanacoste, part of Costa Rica's Northern Pacific region, is a surfing haven, a center of folkloric culture and home to the rare white sand (most Costa Rican beaches are black from volcanoes). There are also wild rivers to navigate by raft or canoe, waterfalls to splash in and nature parks ideal for bird-watchers and trekkers. The Costa Rica Tourism Board (www.visitcostarica.com) has a detailed description of the area, with ideas on things to see and do.
Katie Kogan, a travel specialist for Costa Rican Luxury Vacations who lives in San Jose, offers some suggestions to winnow the options. Among them: This is a "cowboy kind of region," she says, so catch a rodeo, fiesta or bull-fighting event near Liberia. You can also zip through the trees on a canopy tour; book through a tour company in Tamarindo, a big party town. A hike around the active Arsenal Volcano, followed by a soak in the hot springs, is a popular afternoon outing. For nourishment, dine at a soda, small eateries that serve local cuisine for only a couple of dollars. And for handmade art, the tourism office suggests the crafts of Guaitil de Santa Cruz and San Vicente de Nicoya, though Kogan says you can just as easily buy stunning pottery from beachside vendors.
As for transportation, the area is vast, and a car will make touring easier. However, many roads are unpaved or riddled with potholes. Another option is the Interbus, a tourist-only shuttle that services the main tourist sights for about $20 to $25 per person per ride. Info: www.costaricapass.com. Public buses are also available, but you will need more than rudimentary Spanish to make sure you get off at the right stop.
Audrey Austin of Brandy Station, Va., has a suggestion for single cruisers looking to avoid paying a supplement (Jan. 16). On an Alaskan cruise aboard Holland American's Westerdam a few years ago, Austin says she booked "a single room for only a couple hundred dollars more than my sister and her husband's double. The Westerdam had several rooms set aside for singles." She suggests looking for other cruise lines or ships with similar arrangements for solo passengers.
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