Three Return Trips

Still wondering how to spend that tax return? A lot of people spend their federal kickback on vacations; this year, the average return was $1,521. That can't exactly fund an over-the-top fantasy getaway, but it ain't bird food either. Here are three possible itineraries that will exhaust your windfall, for those traveling solo. (If you're married, traveling jointly or with dependents, break out the worksheets.)

Schedule A: One night of living like a Trump in New York City.

Itemization: Round-trip Metroliner to Penn Station, $230; one night lodging at the Plaza Hotel, $650 (768 Fifth Ave.; 212-759-3000); dinner at Le Cirque, $300 (a three-course meal costs about $100, and you should have little trouble finding a $200 bottle of wine; 455 Madison Ave.; 212-303-7788); Broadway show of choice, via overpriced last-minute ticket from the concierge ($200); cover charge plus drinks at the Blue Note jazz club (131 W. Third St.; 212-475-8592), $60. That leaves $80 for taxi rides and breakfast.

Schedule B: Drive the Pacific Coast, from San Diego to Seattle, in six days.

Itemization: Flights (D.C. to San Diego; Seattle to D.C.), $413, on United; car rental, $211 (from National Car Rental, not including insurance); gas for the 1,400-mile drive, $50; five nights' lodging, $500; food, fun and incidentals, $349. In-budget lodging possibilities: Pacific Crest Inn by the Sea, Santa Barbara, Calif. (1-805-966-3103; from $90 a night); Big Sur Lodge, Big Sur, Calif. (1-800-424-4787; from $100 a night); Gualala Country Inn, Gualala, Calif. (1-800-564-4466; from $90 a night); Southport Landing Bed and Breakfast, Loleta, Calif. (707-733-5915; from $105 a night); the Inn at Manzanita, Manzanita, Ore. (503-368-5941; from $110 a night).

Schedule C: Sixty days of camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in North Carolina and Tennessee, which contains the largest wilderness sanctuary in the East.

Itemization: Gasoline, $50; food and supplies, $461 (deduct here if you prefer to catch fish for dinner); camping fees, $900; seven nights in nearby motels, so you don't violate the one-week maximum stay limit in the park, $210. Campground reservations: 1-800-365-2267 or www.nps.gov.

-- John Briley

Hotel Reservations Network: Deals, Warnings and Expansion to Europe

If you're thinking about a New York getaway, lodging specialist Bob Diener recommends squeezing it in before Labor Day -- and he's got a hot tip on a place to stay. As president of Hotel Reservations Network (HRN), a leading discount accommodations service, Diener is a self-styled expert on which cities will be drawing the most visitors and how to snag a room there.

Starting early September and continuing through year's end, successive waves of conventioners, Christmas shoppers and Y2K celebrants will descend on New York, Diener says, and an affordable room will be hard to come by. Diener's unabashedly self-serving advice: the Waldorf Astoria. The venerable New York hotel has made a block of double rooms available to HRN clients for $169 a night, less than half the usual rate. One caveat: The rooms are in the hotel's sole unrenovated wing. Still, the rate's a steal and the address is great.

Like other discounters, HRN books blocks of rooms in dozens of cities in the United States and abroad and offers them to the public at discounts ranging from 10 to 65 percent. In the growing field of cut-rate hotel agencies, HRN is trying to carve a niche as the agency with the broadest spectrum of rooms in the most cities. "We are also the place to go to get a room if all hotels in a city say they're booked out," said Diener.

Quikbook, a major HRN competitor, offers more luxury hotels and some better bargains, but it has rooms in only seven U.S. cities, compared with the 38 destinations HRN serves. HRN is just starting to offer rooms abroad, a market that another competitor, Utell International, has cornered for years.

We have found some great deals through HRN, but not everyone is satisfied. A couple of Travel section readers complained they are charged $50 to cancel or change a reservation -- which is, in fact, HRN's policy (cancel within three days, and you pay for one night). Diener says all clients are informed of this fee as part of every phone operator's script, so customers know up front.

Another reader said he reserved a room at one hotel but upon arrival was sent to another, far inferior property. Diener acknowledged that hotels may indeed sell the rooms set aside for HRN guests, particularly in crunch sitations. But it's rare. "That has only happened in a very few cases, and when it does, the hotel guarantees that it will give the guest a room in a property of comparable quality," Diener says. "If the customer is not satisfied, we will do what we have to do to make him happy." While overbooking is not unique to HRN, it does raise questions about a "guaranteed" booking.

A third reader griped that she booked through HRN but found on arrival that she could have gotten a cheaper rate by booking directly through the hotel. Diener said this should be rare, too. "We help the hotels fill rooms in the slow season and in return they give us a break on rooms in busy times," he added.

Bottom line: HRN's a solid service for discounted rooms in major cities, including some European cities (with Asia coming by the fall). But if you're a really serious dollar-watcher, shop any quote against other sources. And remember, cancellations will cost you. Information: 1-800-964-6835 or www.180096hotel.com.

-- Gary Lee

Travel Tip 103

The Old Leftover Film Problem

"When I return home from a trip, I often have a roll of film in my camera that is not completed," confides tipster Katherine Toomey of Washington. "Instead of wasting the film (either by having it developed with those pictures untaken, or taking pictures of nothing), I finish the roll by taking photographs of items in my house for insurance purposes. Then I separate those photos and keep them in a safe place in case the unthinkable happens."

As owners of lots of pictures of "nothing" (most consisting of the cat and dog eyeing us balefully), and as veteran procrastinators who've been meaning to photograph our household possessions for about 17 years now, we're somewhat chagrined that Toomey's idea hasn't occurred to us before. She wins a Travel section T-shirt for her sensible suggestion. Want to win a shirt of your own? Document the fine print below.

Travel tips (100 words or less) may be sent by e-mail (travtips@washpost.com); postcard (Travel Tips, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071); or fax (202-334-1069). Include your name, address and phone number. One tip per postcard or e-mail. Winners receive a Washington Post Travel section T-shirt. No purchase necessary. Tips submitted become property of The Washington Post, which may edit, publish, distribute and republish the information in any form, including paper and electronic media. Weekly winners are chosen on the basis of utility and novelty; decisions are made by the editors of The Washington Post Travel section and are final.

Exit Lines

In an unnecessarily hokey effort to generate buzz for Voyager of the Seas -- Royal Caribbean's 142,000-ton, 3,100-passenger, 1,200-crew ship, which will hold the biggest-ship-in-the-world title when launched this fall -- the company announced last week that the vast floating city had acquired its very own Zip code. Cute, but one major problem: It wasn't true. The announced unique-to-Voyager Zip code, 33132-2028, was actually, um, the address for Royal Caribbean's corporate HQ in Miami. Alerted by an inquiry from The Washington Post, the U.S. Postal Service firmly denied Royal Caribbean's boast. "They have made a claim that's completely untrue," said USPS spokesman Greg Frey. Meanwhile, the PR staff issued a revised press release that reworded the claim and promoted Voyager's own Zip-plus-four number, which directs mail to a Miami post office box. "We stand corrected by the post office," said Rene Mack, RCI's public relations consultant.

You -- yes, you, with the cell phone cocked at your ear: End your call and get to the gate. United Airlines, American and US Airways are closing plane doors a full five minutes before departure time -- and requiring passengers to board 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure. The reason? To improve on-time performance. "Airplanes are filling up and airports are getting more crowded, so there are many opportunities for delay," says Terry Trippler, an airline consultant for 1travel.com.

The best feature of passengerrights.com, a kind of electronic traveler whine line, is a service that forwards e-mail complaints to appropriate officials at airlines, tour operators, cruise lines, hotels and auto rental agencies. If you're really mad, you can copy it to Sen. John McCain's transportation committee, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection Division and -- hey, it couldn't hurt -- the president of the United States. The site claims victories, in the form of consumers whose e-mails yielded refunds or apologies. But not everybody wins. Click on Horror Stories to read the dispute between a Celebrity Cruises doctor and passenger. The traveler got $100 -- not from the cruise line, but from the site, for winning Horror Story of the Month.