Virgin, Night and Day

The coolest thing about Virgin's new series of characteristically hipper-than-thou city guidebooks -- featuring, for now, New York, London and Dublin -- is a nifty, easy-to-read, double-sided day/night map. On the "night" side, which folds out to about a yard square, check out entertainment venues, cafes, pubs and clubs for the night owl. The "day" side of the map pinpoints museums, shops, tearooms and other highlights for the light owl.

The well-organized and pleasantly colorful guides are best at picking smart, insidery establishments -- shops, cafes, tearooms, hotels -- in all price ranges. The guides also have a great take on streetwise activities, from belly dancing in Dublin (who knew?) to tongue piercing in London. Although Virgin City Guides are published by an arm of Virgin Atlantic, spokeswoman Louise Cavanaugh swears they're not intended as propaganda designed to sell the cities the airline flies to. After all, Virgin has a reputation to defend.

"You could defy us," she says, referring to the determinedly unhip Irish destination that Virgin Express nonetheless serves, "to do a guide to Shannon."

Virgin City Guides (Globe Pequot Press, $16.95), at conventional and online book stores. Upcoming cities include Paris, San Francisco and Amsterdam, with others to follow.

Travel Explained

The Skinny on Mexico's Tourism Tax, er, `Visit Fee'

When Post staff writer Annie Groer went to the popular Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, last month, she became the first person we knew to pay Mexico's new tourist tax -- which the PR firm hired by the Mexican government calls a "visit fee." Though Groer had visions of paying her 150 pesos (about $15) to a dour security agent working the aisle of her busful of spagoers, the tax was collected in routine fashion by spa staff upon arrival. If you're curious about this new "visit fee," here are some questions and answers.

Who has to pay?

Starting earlier this summer, all non-Mexicans staying in Mexico more than 72 hours and traveling more than 16 miles beyond the U.S. border. Diplomats, students and those classified as "distinguished visitors" don't pay. After receiving many complaints, Mexico also exempted children under 2.

What if I'm just going to Tijuana from San Diego?

Certain areas are exempted (see below); luckily for the SoCal party crowd, the Tijuana-Ensenada area is one. So is any trip of less than 3 days.

What if I'm flying to, say, Cancun?

If your airline ticket has you pretty much anywhere in Mexico for more than 72 hours, the fee will appear in the ticket price. Cruise fares will in-clude it if port visits exceed 72 hours.

What if I drive or walk into Mexico?

Depends where you're headed and for how long. Overland visitors going beyond 16 miles of the border and staying more than three days will pay the tax at a local bank sometime during their stay, get their tourist visit card stamped "paid" and present that card at a checkpoint on their way out of the country. Immigrations officials could also ask for it during your visit.

What if I haven't paid the fee and am asked for my card?

No explicit sanctions for nonpayment have been established.

Do other countries have these taxes?

Most charge entry fees, exit fees or visa application fees. Mexico doesn't require a visa from U.S. travelers.

Where should I direct questions?

Hard to say. We tried three travel agents. One said you paid upon departure. Another said on arrival. Another had no idea. Our questions addressed to an embassy, a consulate, a tourism office and a PR firm all elicited different answers. We got the best information from the PR firm, which unfortunately responds only to questions from the press, not the public. The official policy is to call the Mexican Government Tourism Office (212-821-0314).

What will Mexico do with the money?

The expected $120 million per year will help officials track visitors and fund tourism promotion and development.

What are the exempted zones?

Most are zones where the government wants to promote tourism and/or commerce: 1) Tijuana-Ensenada; 2) San Felipe Tourism Development Zone (Baja); 3) Ciudad Juarez-Paquime (Chihuaha); 4) Piedras Negras-Santa Rosa (Coahuila); 5) Reynosa-China-Presa Cuchillo (Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon).

So how much did Annie lose at Rancho La Puerta?

150 pesos.

WWW.WHOA!

If online fare-rooting stretches your capacity (or patience), check out www.travelterminal.com, a site operated by an ex-airline agent. It's full of insider details on airline tricks, low-fare wrinkles and online booking sites. Plus: For a commission paid by the airlines (not you), the proprietor offers to use Sabre, an agent's booking tool, to seek and book a fare lower than your Web quote (restrictions apply). Disclaimer: We have not tried the booking service.

New York's End-of-Summer Sale

New York City is bracing for a rush of visitors this fall, but through Labor Day a number of nice hotels are offering rooms with exceptionally good rates. The Empire, near Lincoln Center at 63rd and Broadway, is offering doubles at $125.95 a night (about half the usual rate) to those booking through Hotel Reservations Network (1-800-715-7666, www.180096hotel.com). The guestrooms are small, but most feature CD players.

Quikbook, another reservation service (1-800-254-7188; www.quikbook.com), is offering deals at several properties. At Morgan's, a happening boutique property at 33rd and Madison, doubles that usually cost $300 are going for $175. At the Mansfield, another small hotel, doubles are $139. The location on 44th Street is perfect for theatergoers. And the rate includes continental breakfast.

Travel Tip 109

Check That Clock Radio!

"After a tiring cross-country flight, long line at the car rental counter, trip to our B&B and then a leisurely dinner, we collapsed into bed, vowing to sleep luxuriously late," writes tipster Joyce Siegel of Bethesda. "No such luck. The radio alarm woke us at 6 a.m.; obviously, the previous tenant of our room needed to awaken early.

"After that experience, I always check the radio alarm to ensure that it isn't set and won't disturb me."

Sometimes the best travel tips are the most obvious. Too bad Siegel had to learn the hard way, but we're sending her a Washington Post Travel section T-shirt by way of consolation. Want to share a travel tip of your own? Wake up to the tiny type 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.

Junior Class: United Rewards High-Fliers, Loyalists With . . . 4 to 5 More Inches of Leg Room

Yes, you can now get more leg room in coach. If you're a favored customer of United Airlines, or paying way too much for your seat, that is.

In a first-among-majors move, United is reconfiguring the forward section of its coach class -- the first six to 11 rows, depending on the aircraft -- to create an Economy Plus class with four to five inches more leg room than in deep steerage. Typical coach leg room is 31 inches; Coach Plus features 35 or 36. (Business class ranges from 40 to 50 inches, first class up to 68.)

But the semi-upgraded seats will be available, on a first-come basis, only to Mileage Plus Premier members (25,000 paid miles annually), Star Alliance Gold and Silver members and those who pay the giggly-expensive, no-discount, no-advance-purchase fares footed almost exclusively by business travelers on the company dole. For instance, a recent Dulles-to-Chicago unrestricted, full-fare, round-trip coach ticket was $1,124; the same flight for a Wednesday-Thursday advance-purchase round trip in mid-September was $144. By this example, each inch of extra leg room costs about $200.

"We asked frequent fliers what they wanted and they kept saying, `Give us more leg room in coach,' " spokesman Matt Triaca says. "This product is for our more loyal customers," not bargain hunters driven mainly by price. United does not expect the move to affect prices.

To facilitate the conversion, the carrier is removing a row of seats -- and not, they rush to point out, reducing leg room for lower-paying coach passengers in the rear. United hopes to convert 450 planes by April. All domestic routes will be affected except United Shuttle and United Express flights.

Advance-purchase and other budget travelers may occasionally luck into the new easy chairs when there aren't enough loyalists or corporate tools to fill them, Triaca says. These demi-upgrades will be left to the discretion of gate and flight crews, he says.

One more reason -- in these days of increasing passenger hostility brought on, partly, by precisely this sort of relative deprivation -- to be extra nice to your flight attendant.