Boca Raton, Fla., via Site59

Sunday, July 20, 2003

WHAT: Two nights at the Radisson Suite Hotel Boca Raton and round-trip airfare on Delta, booked two days before departure through

HOW I BOOKED IT: After I gave Site59 my departure point, it listed the packages available, starting with the cheapest (prices include hotel, air and taxes). Then I got to pick my flights and hotel. On my budget, I could have Site59'd my way to Detroit, Austin, Indianapolis or dozens of other places, but with a brother in Fort Lauderdale, I zeroed in on South Florida for a futon-free family visit.

Boca, via the West Palm Beach airport, was listed as "from $202," while trips to West Palm Beach, Lauderdale and Miami were a bit pricier. That's before the extra fees kick in. Some flights cost more per person, while upgrades to nicer -- or better-located -- lodging can be budget-busters. And if you're going solo, Site59 adjusts prices so that singles absorb the total hotel bill. Of the Lauderdale area choices, Boca seemed the top value, and I liked the description of its Radisson Bridge Resort -- all water views and five minutes from the beach.

Before booking, I called the resort and was told the 22-mile cab ride from the airport would be $55 (ouch), and there were no shuttles. Site59 wanted $102 per person to tack on a car rental. No way. I turned to Orbitz and nabbed a two-day Payless rental for $70.91.

Transportation issues resolved, I placed my order on Site59; within minutes, I was informed by e-mail that a trip confirmation would be coming "shortly." Then I waited. And waited. Four hours later, I e-mailed the service desk and asked for a definition of "shortly." More waiting. At 7:45 p.m., more than 6 hours after my initial order, I got an e-mail telling me there was a problem, with an 800 number to call.

The Bridge Resort was sold out. I could either rebook at another hotel over the phone or cancel everything and start anew. Needing time for more research, I canceled -- a big mistake, since I lost my spots on perfectly timed flights between Reagan National and West Palm Beach.

By the time I decided to stay at Boca's Radisson Suite Hotel, a 20-minute drive from the beach, my preferred return flight was full, though my 8:30 a.m. nonstop from National was still available. In my haste to rebook (which was confirmed within an hour), I mistakenly chose an earlier, connecting flight home . . . to Dulles. At least the hotel change shaved $30 off the package price, and my lift home from the airport didn't bean me.

BIGGEST ANNOYANCE: Finding out, at my prompting, that there was no room at the inn -- and then having to start all over.

NICEST SURPRISE: The hotel. Being six miles from the beach was a drag, but the Radisson Suite -- with an open-air atrium overgrown with tropical plants and a fountain that led to a big outdoor pool -- was a beaut. Plus, it served up a mean made-to-order breakfast that was included in the price.

LESSONS LEARNED: Do your research. Many hotels offered on Site59 are miles from where you want to be, so call the properties before booking to see a) how far they are from the airport and what a cab/shuttle may cost and b) how far they are from sites of interest. If you need a car, consider renting elsewhere: I found Site59 prices to be on the extreme high end, if not plain outrageous. Also, play around with various hotel options if you're traveling solo, as the single supplement varies greatly depending on the property. And if you don't hear from the site within a few hours of placing your order, start investigating. If there's a snag, don't cancel everything outright; do some more research and call back.

THE EXPERIENCE: Where have you gone, Morty Seinfeld?

Okay, Boca isn't exactly retiree-free (Jerry's dad would still feel right at home), but it's hardly the AARP-o-rama cliche I expected. Moneyed, yes. Restaurants starting with "La" or "Le" pock the landscape, and chichi shopping centers with spas and designer boutiques line the streets. Beaches are obscured by tall buildings protected by gatehouses, and yachts clog harbors.

You can't blame the locals if they're loaded, especially when it works to your advantage. Take Miz- ner Park, a midtown entertainment district. Several blocks long and lined with palm trees, it was a great place to watch the well-heeled buy stuff. But when the heat got to me, I ducked into the adjacent Boca Raton Museum of Art (501 Plaza Real), which is much more than just a good place to cool down.

The museum moved to its new digs -- all soaring ceilings and window walls -- in 2001, and it's a peach. I lingered longest in the superb Mayers Collection, which includes works by Picasso, Seurat, Matisse and Degas. Pablo and Co. arrived in Boca courtesy of museum benefactors, of which there appear to be many. Just about everything in the place, from elevators to walls to benches, has a glass plaque saying who paid for it.

Surprisingly, good, cheap food was easy to find all around town. Two particular faves were Flanigan's Guppy's (45 S. Federal Hwy.) and the Neighborhood Sports Grill (6450 N. Federal Hwy.), both with pool tables, drink specials, tons of fried food -- and lots of young, overtanned faces.

Though I was set to spend Saturday lounging on Lauderdale's sand about 25 minutes down the coast, I wanted to see what the Boca beaches were like behind all those walls. At Spanish River Park (3001 N. Ocean Blvd.), I had my chance. But first I had to get past Mary, the elderly woman working the park's front gate.

Mary told me the park fee was $10, and when I winced, she explained that when I saw the beach, I'd understand. She was right: It was lovely, though the sign warning of "sea lice" in the surf gave me the willies. (I later found out these were jellyfish larvae, which didn't make me feel any better.) She also advised me to seek out the nearby Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex (1801 N. Ocean Blvd.), and since there was something about Mary . . .

The next morning, I prowled the center's boardwalks, which lead to the Intracoastal Waterway and a 40-foot observation deck. Atop the tower, all of Boca was revealed, from beach to bay.

Just beautiful. Morty was a wise man.

PACKAGE PRICE: $294.89, including air, hotel and taxes.

PRICE IF BOOKED A LA CARTE: Orbitz and Southwest quoted fares from D.C. to West Palm Beach for $350, while the best rate I could find for the Radisson Suite Hotel was $89. That would have set me back a whopping $528.

TOTAL PRICE FOR TRIP: Site59 package ($294.89), Metro fare to Reagan ($2.65), car rental ($70.91), gas ($14.50), tolls ($2), meals ($75.24), museum admission ($8), beach parking ($16), Dulles pick-up parking ($4). Total: $488.19.

BOTTOM LINE: Despite the booking woes and %$#@@ single supplement, Site59 offered a significant savings over the do-it-yourself route. Planes departed on time, the hotel had my reservation when I arrived -- and with my new tan, I now blend in at the pool halls of Boca.

-- John Deiner

© 2003 The Washington Post Company