It all started with those weekly e-mail messages I'd signed up for, the ones alerting me to last-minute, deep-discount, this-weekend-only air fares. I'm married with children and our foursome doesn't exactly travel lightly these days. With the boys 7 and 5 we're past that phase where every family mission resembled Operation Desert Storm. But still, whenever I'd see those last-minute deals scrolling down my screen, I had a sense they were aimed at somebody else, a less tethered class of burgher than I.
Which is why I had to try it anyway. What doesn't kill me makes me strong, after all, and I've been traveling with kids and fooling around with Internet long enough to know that a weekend-away-on-the-cheap-planned-en tirely-online promised to make me strong indeed -- perhaps strong enough to live to travel again after the children are grown. Incentive to take the plunge, I figured.
"Let's go away for the weekend," I proposed to my wife one day after work.
"Great," she said, pronouncing the word slowly. "Where?"
"We won't know that until the Wednesday before we go!" I offered, mustering the tone of excess cheer I reserve for attempts to sell Pam on something fundamentally unwise. "It might be Pittsburgh. It might be North Carolina. Sometimes it's Florida, but not very often. This is how these cheap Internet fares work." Pam got that annoyed but, I like to think, loving look she gets whenever I enthuse about some new high-tech gadget guaranteed to make us happier, smarter and better looking, but which usually results in my spending several hours of "family" time in front of the computer, swearing. "Airlines don't know which seats they need to dump until just before the weekend. Sometimes seats are $49. Round trip!"
Pam's immunity must have been low, or her desire to get away quite high, because she agreed with only the slightest condition -- that, if possible, we wind up someplace where we have friends we'd like to visit. I said I'd keep it in mind. Then we did the dueling day-planner thing and found a mostly open weekend a few weeks hence. Better still, the kids had Monday off for Columbus Day!
Lesson No. 1: Don't try to use last-minute fares on holiday weekends, even those not-really-a-holidays like Columbus Day. Lots of folks travel on these weekends, limiting available cheap seats, destinations and, we later found, other options, too.
I rushed to work on Wednesday, and by the time I got to my e-mail inbox at 8 a.m., a message from US Airways was waiting. The published options: New York or Pittsburgh for $79 round-trip, or Boston or Manchester, N.H., for $89. We'd already done New York with the kids. Pittsburgh had its appeal, but we had the requested old-friends-we-haven't-seen-in-a-while in Boston, and the kids had never been there. I could have waited for other airlines' e-mails to arrive to see more options, but we have frequent-flier accounts with US Airways, and I knew the clock was ticking.
Lesson 2: The last-minute getaway game punishes those who dawdle and overcogitate. Make a decision and run with it.
I hit the phone. By shortly after 8 a.m. Wednesday, the US Airways reservationist reported that the early Saturday flights from Washington National to Boston were filling up, though I could still snag four seats on an 8 a.m flight. For a Monday return, late-afternoon flights were already booked; I'd have to settle for a 6:30 p.m. flight from Boston, putting us back home around 8:30, late for a school night, but acceptable. I took them.
Now I turned my attention to booking a hotel room for the weekend, again intending to use my pal the Internet. First I tried the usual array of online booking tools: Expedia, Preview Travel, Internet Travel Network, Travelocity. (Lesson 3: Write down your log-in name and password for each of the services on a yellow sticky, and post it right on the edge of your monitor, where any fool who sits down at your computer can compromise your personal security.) Each online booking service has you enter search criteria via a series of forms; my earliest searches specified low-priced, suite-style, kid-friendly accommodations downtown. When these came up empty, I opened the search to more expensive rooms, more distant locations and less family-oriented digs. I kept shooting blanks. Determining no rooms were available took two hours plus. I also exhausted the Hotel Reservations Network's site, as well as hotel discounter Utell and BestFares.com. No rooms at the inn.
Around lunchtime, it began to occur to me that I might be the proud owner of four non-refundable airline tickets to Boston and no place to stay.
Lesson 4: If you've been foolish enough to ignore Lesson 1, ignore Lesson 2 as well. I decided human intervention was necessary. I hit the phone and called big chain hotels and a half-dozen booking services that represent many individual properties. All told me essentially the same thing: Boston's booked. It's fall foliage weekend. It's a holiday. There's a big college show at the Hynes. Can't help you.
Happily, I persisted through more than a dozen calls. When I reached Accommodations Express, the operator unexpectedly said yes, there was a room available at a Doubletree Suite in Waltham, for $159 a night. Two double beds, plus a fold-out couch and fridge. An indoor pool! An exercise room! "Convenient to all of Boston's attractions!" With a mixture of joy and panic I booked the room for Saturday and Sunday nights.
Lesson 5: If you're traveling primarily to enrich yourself and your family to the subtle diversities of language, culture, food and behavior of the place you're intending to explore, don't stay in a chain hotel in the suburbs.
Oh, don't get me wrong. We liked the Doubletree just fine. The whole family exercised and Jacuzzi'd and swam every day, and the two-room suite provided plenty of privacy and personal space. The room even had two big TVs, which turned out to be a godsend during that hellish just-before-bedtime-on-vacation period.
(Lesson 6: Deprive your kids of cable TV at home, and they think every hotel room is a movie theater. Corollary 6a: One suite plus cable TV equals two naps for the grownups.)
But visiting Boston and staying in Waltham, situated along Route 128 about 15 miles outside of town, is kind of like staying in Gaithersburg to visit Washington. It may be prudent. It may be dependable. But it's not convenient, and it's certainly not a good way to get to know a city. In fact, I suspect the hip-ocracy must reserve a special circle in Hell for the kind of people we were that weekend: not simply tourists, but commuting tourists. When you are a commuting tourist, the only cultures you absorb are the hotel holding company's and the regional traffic authority's. As I bore the suitcases to the Doubletree's elevator and the kids eyed the vast lobby for targets of opportunity, I was struck by the wording on a welcoming sign promising "hometown" hospitality. The sign was strikingly accurate: I might well have been in Rockville.
But I'm not bitter. We had room service, plenty of towels, a nearly lap-size, nearly clean pool and a nice view out the window of fall foliage. And that odious commute into town forced us to make some hard and useful choices. Had we been downtown, we could have easily fallen prey to attraction overload, blundering from museum to oyster house to historic statue to marketplace until the kids melted into the cobblestones, howling. As it was, based in pastoral Waltham, I was compelled to sit down with the Internet gatherings and create a short list of things that were both singular about Boston and of interest to the kids.
It was easy, for instance, to cross off the vaunted New England Aquarium -- Baltimore's is newer and better, and my kids practically have it memorized. Ditto the Children's Museum; Boston's was at the vanguard when it was opened, but now many are superior. Brief and bitter experience taught me that our kids derived little joy from art or historic buildings, so that killed off The Freedom Trail. I came away with a list of half a dozen things we might all enjoy: the Computer Museum (the only one of its kind); the Boston Tea Party Museum (for a brief anecdotal dose of Revolutionary War history); Salem (witches are an easy sell); and the Science Museum (everything I'd read said it was one of the best of its type). I made a note to try to get to the Mapparium -- a massive, walk-in, see-through globe at the Christian Science Center, and to the Bunker Hill Monument. The former I knew would make a memorable impression on young world travelers; the latter had 291 stairs and I figured we could use it instead of a tranquilizer dart if the kids still needed to get their ya-yas out as dusk fell.
I was booked. I was ready. I was informed.
Lesson 7: Don't trust those swaggering half-wits who operate online city event-and-attraction guides to be accurate, timely or useful. Call every place to verify the facts you find online.
Microsoft's heavily promoted Sidewalk Boston, for instance, recommended the Old Spaghetti Factory as a great, kid-friendly place near the Children's Museum. Of course, Sidewalk failed to tell me that the Computer Museum is in the same damn building as the Children's Museum, but I figured it and was able to steer us to the restaurant on foot, the proud techie paterfamilias with a laserprinted map stuffed in his back pocket. Unfortunately, the Old Spaghetti Factory was closed, forever -- a fact my hungry, sweaty little clan discovered only after walking several blocks to the end of a deserted street and peering, unbelieving, beyond the dusty windows of the vacant storefront. I fully suspect Sidewalk it will continue to steer families to the Old Spaghetti Factory until some poor, overworked geek who handles the restaurant section of Sidewalk Boston receives a copy of this very article on his desk.
But I digress.
Ultimately we had a sweet three-day taste of Boston. The Computer Museum was sort of forgettable -- a lot of the computer stations weren't working, and the software was horribly dated. But the Boston Tea Party Museum, located nearby, was a goofy, memorable smash. A guy in a three-cornered cap pretended to lead all of us "townspeople" into a joint decision to dump tea into the harbor -- leading us to call out Hear! Hear! and Fie! at appropriate moments -- and then, after equipping each of us with a single yellow feather Indian "disguise," led us to storm the replica of Beaver, one of three English ships that fell victim to the Tea Party in 1773. The kids even got to heave fake tea chests overboard, as long as they dragged them back up by the ropes. I think they came away with a dim understanding of populist revolt and the simmering sense of unfairness that the Colonists may (or may not) have felt under British rule.
Lesson 8: History is best when taken in small doses, and for small kids, living history is better than the other kind.
I'm sure the kids came away with even more powerful but less coherent ideas about early American life from the Salem Witch Museum, the highlight of our day trip to that coastal town an hour north of Boston. Imagine a smaller Williamsburg with lower production values, serious parking problems and an endearing sense of mystical menace, and you've got Salem. There are several historic buildings, inns and restaurants, and plenty of stores selling corny neo-pagan trinkets. But the major attraction in Salem is the museum, which is not a museum at all but a show depicting the rise of witch hysteria in Salem in 1692. Visitors are herded into the center of a very dark auditorium and stand and shuffle around as different dioramas light up to illustrate various parts of the story. The narrator's voice is appropriately fearsome, the soundtrack intense and the narrative quite easy to absorb. One scene depicted the crushing to death of one suspected witch, which was said to have taken place on Salem Common, the same public park where, an hour earlier, the kids had jumped on a pumpkin moonbounce and eaten pizza. I could feel Caleb's heart pounding through his shirt.
After the show, we shunned the crowds at the House of Seven Gables and drifted toward Salem's pleasantly underdeveloped waterfront. There we loitered along the seawall, threw stones into the water, admired the bobbing sailboats and, much to our delight, spotted four starfish in the clear shallows.
Lesson 9: When you're traveling with kids, the best experiences are the ones that happen between the things you intend to do, not the things themselves.
A few days after we got back, I asked everybody what they liked most about our trip.
Caleb said he loved eating at Legal Sea Food, and would get a hamburger there every night if he could.
Jordan said he liked playing with Alex and Nick, our friends' boys.
Pam recalled a moment at the Doubletree when the kids were playing in the pool and she was sitting on a lounge chair and the sun was streaming through the skylight and gently warming her face.
The thing I liked most was the starfish. And that, for only $89 each -- plus $159 per night for the hotel room, and $69 per day for use of a Buick Skylark (although Expedia quoted $63, but why quibble?), plus a couple hundred bucks on admissions, food and other stuff -- that I'd been able to learn Lesson 10: The truly important "destinations" and "attractions" in a family getaway are the ones inside your family members' heads.
Details : Cheap Internet Getaways
AIR FARES: For travel from the Washington area, the three best sources for last-minute, weekend getaway air fares are Continental (http:// www.flycontinental.com), American (http://www.americanair.com) and US Airways (http://www.usairways.com). For each of these, you register at the airline's Web site and on following weeks you'll receive e-mail messages, arriving sometime between Wednesday and Friday, alerting you to fares available for the coming weekend. To book them you call a phone number listed on the message.
A service called 1travel (http:// www.1travel.com, 1-800-929-2523) adds a nice spin by purporting to consolidate last-minute fares from your chosen city of departure in a single weekly message. Problem is, the message -- it arrives via e-mail bearing a Web address, which you have to paste into your Web browser to get at -- doesn't show up until Thursday. Still, 1travel does add a potentially valuable feature -- providing live links to hotel specials serving the weekend's discount cities. A great idea, but unfortunately it always lists the specials from your point of departure, too, so the screen is usually filled with useless last-minute bargains for Washington area hotels. Sometimes, though, you get lucky and find, say, a Pittsburgh hotel deal linked to a Pittsburgh flight.
While Southwest Airlines doesn't do the e-mail thing, it does make some Internet bargains available at its Web site (http://www.iflyswa.com). Last we checked, the only opportunity for locals was a $60 one-way fare to Chicago Midway.
HOTELS: Once you've picked your destination, it's time to poke around for hotel deals, though as my experience demonstrated, you're likely to find on-line options slim. Plus, occupancy rates are high in most major cities these days, making it a lousy time to sift for last-minute accommodations. The most useful sites I found were Utell's Hotel Book (http://www.hotelbook.com) and Travel Web (http://www.travelweb.com). The former is the on-line marketing arm of the well-known discount hotel marketer; the latter, run by a publisher of travel trade publications, offers a Click-It Weekends feature that lets you search for hotel sales by location.
If neither of these pans out, check Hilton Hotels (http://www.hilton.com/ specials/values.html); the company has properties in enough places -- and uses the Internet wisely to serve last-minute travelers -- that your chance of success is good. Radisson (http:// www.radisson.com) also has Hot Deals, but its system makes it hard to find properties in specific cities. Holiday Inn (http://www.holiday-inn .com) offers only a smattering of deals, but its last-minute discounts are steep, around 50 percent of typical charges.
Still no room? Hit the phone. Most fruitful 800 numbers: Accommodations Express (1-800-444-7666); Hotel Reservations Network (1-800-964-6835); Utell (1-800-207-6900); Central Reservation Service (1-800-950-0232) and Quikbook (1-800-789-9887). Or use the city guides, described below, to get phone numbers for local properties.
CAR RENTALS: You won't find much variation in price or quality here for a two- or three-day rental, so don't knock yourself out seeking a great deal. If you have a club or credit card discount, or a frequent-flier incentive, that drives you to a major brand, use it. If not, use a travel-booking site like Expedia (http://www.expedia .com), Preview Travel (http://www .previewtravel.com) or The Trip (http://www .thetrip.com) and let the site sift for the lowest prices on the days and type of car you specify. Continental Airlines' CO.O.L. fares are linked to special National car rental rates for weekend getaways.
ELECTRONIC GUIDANCE: For a basic rundown on the place you're visiting, try Fodor's Web site (http://www .fodors.com), which offers custom-made mini-guides of most destinations last-minute fares are likely to take you. The multi-page report you print out may make it unnecessary to buy a guidebook, especially for a weekend visit.
Most cities also have online directories produced by either a local publication, a local visitors group or a Web-based publishing company; they can be useful for general orientation and some specifics. Find a rundown on what's available by typing the name of your destination into any search engine. But be aware that most of the online guides are spotty, outdated and full of promotional garbage, so count on calling ahead to verify details about any place you really want to go. The three "brands" of guides competing for attention are city.net (http://city.net), which offers guides to the most cities; citysearch (http://www.citysearch .com), which offers only a few U.S. and, oddly, Australian cities (and is partly owned by The Washington Post); and Sidewalk (http://www .sidewalk.com), a Microsoft venture that offers online guides to a handful of cities.
-- Craig Stoltz
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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