They took a flier and did it our way

By Carol Sottili
Sunday, January 30, 2011; F02

For more than a year, Going Our Way has helped craft our readers' travel hopes into reality by figuring out budgets, recommending hotels, finding the best flights, locating tour guides: basically putting a trip together and tying it with a bow. Some of our "clients" have taken their vacations - and at least some of our advice - and have reported back. In this column, we reflect on three trips' highlights, low points and lessons learned.

Trip 1

A roots tour to Ghana for Vickie Jones, 37, of Alexandria, and her extended family, ranging in age from 4 to 63. The Jones family took the eight-day trip in March 2010. Their target budget was $2,000 to $2,500 per person. The actual budget came to $2,225 per person.

What went right: Jones didn't go with the U.S. tour operator we had recommended. Instead, she found a Ghana-based tour company called Land Tours Ghana ( ), and she has nothing but good things to say about it. "They were great in planning the logistics, the accommodations, the travel between cities, the itinerary, the correspondence before our trip and during our visit." She was also very impressed with their tour guide, Emmanuel. So impressed, that since the original trip, she has gone back to Ghana twice to see her new friend.

Jones also said the food was terrific and the hotel personnel very accommodating: "The Volta Hotel ( ) even packed us a lunch of sandwiches for one of our day trips." Highlights included receiving names (Jones's are Aku, for "born on Wednesday," and Kafui, meaning "praise God") and an emotional tour of the slave castles in Elmina and Cape Coast led by the guide who took the Obamas on a similar tour.

What went wrong: Nothing major. "Maybe the screaming Ghanaian babies on the 10-hour flight back from Accra," Jones quipped. Street vendors were sometimes aggressive, but guide Emmanuel helped manage those situations.

Lessons learned: Jones said she could have studied the jampacked itinerary more carefully before the trip to prepare for the fast pace. "It was absolutely the best way to see as much as we did, so we wouldn't change it," she said, "but somewhere along the way, I think maybe I should have paid attention to the fact that there was a five-hour drive from one city to the next." She also didn't realize beforehand that the canopy walkway tour at Kakum National Park would require walking across seven rope bridges suspended high in the air. "Again, we probably should have read that itinerary. It was one of those 'I am terrified, but so glad I did it' experiences."

Trip 2

A sailing charter tour of the British Virgin Islands for Cindy and Jeff Byron of Nellysford, Va., to celebrate Jeff's 65th birthday. The trip was scheduled for Jan. 30-Feb. 6, 2010, but a major snowstorm in our region extended it to Feb. 8. The target budget was $5,000 to $6,000; the trip cost about $7,800.

What went right: The Byrons rented one of the boats we recommended - the Corus, a 45-foot ketch owned and crewed by Bill and Ann Hasted - through Amazing Charters ( ). "Bill and Ann were wonderful," said Jeff. "The food and service were impeccable. Ann is a world-class cook. They are both expert sailors. And the boat was beautiful." The couple liked the Hasteds so much that when the Corus broke down, they opted to stay aboard, which leads us to the trip's downside.

What went wrong: On the third day of the trip, the boat's transmission died. The Hasteds spent another day or so trying to get it fixed before a mechanic figured out that it would need major repairs. After a three-hour tow to another port, which turned out to be "a beautiful resort marina" called Nanny Cay, the Byrons made their decision. "Cindy and I kept talking about what we wanted to do, and we realized that the thing we liked least about the whole trip was sailing," Jeff said. "So I said to Ann, 'If it's all right with you, we'd like to stay on the boat.' "

For the rest of the week, Bill took the couple to different places each day via speedboat, and they snorkeled, explored and ate delicious picnic lunches. And when their flights home were canceled because of snow, the Hasteds let them stay aboard for a couple of extra days free of charge (the Byrons bought the wine).

Lessons learned: No more sailing yachts. "I'll go on a powerboat," said Jeff. "Bobbing along on a sailboat when you are not doing the sailing is boring." And for couples like the Byrons, who are not used to having servants, being waited on in such close quarters was initially discomfiting, although, Jeff added, "We did get used to it."

Trip 3

A solo adventure trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Denali National Park and Preserve for Carol Rich, 51, of Ashburn, taken Sept. 16-24, 2010. The target budget was $2,500 to $3,000. Rich came in under budget at precisely $2,254.84.

What went right: Rich followed Going Our Way's advice to fly into Anchorage, a much cheaper destination via air than Fairbanks, and to rent an SUV. "I'm glad I rented an SUV because I had to drive gravel roads and rutted roads," Rich said. "Some of the places I stayed, like the Meandering Moose ( ) in Talkeetna, were back in the woods." She was pleased, however, with the ease of the driving - "there was no traffic" - and the beautiful scenery along the way. While none of her lodging choices was luxurious, "each had its own particular charm." Rich was also taken with the native Alaskans. "Everyone loved talking," she said, "and they were all super-helpful."

What went wrong: The northern lights were not active, so one of Rich's lifelong desires was not fulfilled. And she didn't see much in the way of wildlife. Also, when Rich moved her travel dates up by a couple of weeks, she didn't take into account that her trip would coincide with the annual road lottery, a four-day event that draws hundreds of winners of the once-a-year chance to drive their own cars on the road into Denali. "I was competing with the lucky 400 for a room," she said, so lodging choices were narrowed.

Lessons learned: Next visit to Alaska, Rich will do a "fly and ride." "I would ride a Harley and it would be fabulous, even though it would be chilly," said Rich, a motorcycle owner. So she may just brave the crowds and move the trip into summer, but then she'd have to give up another chance to see the aurora borealis. Decisions, decisions.

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