Making Tracks To the Grand Canyon

You can now buy, at any Amtrak office, a round-trip ticket to the edge: Earlier this month, Amtrak's Chicago-to-L.A. Southwest Chief began stopping in Williams Junction, Ariz., transfer point for the vintage steam and diesel trains of the 10-year-old Grand Canyon Railway. Shuttle buses meet Amtrak arrivals in Williams Junction for the four-mile trip into Williams, where the GCR's vintage engines and cars start their 64-mile trip to the South Rim.

The fare from Washington's Union Station to the South Rim (leave Tuesday night, arrive Friday morning) is $441 round trip, not including food, on-board lodging or the night that passengers coming from the East have to spend in Williams (where GCR just happens to own an 89-room hotel). Railway owners Max and Thelma Biegert, who also started Farwest Airlines to take passengers from Phoenix directly to Grand Canyon Airport or (after a shuttle from Flagstaff) to Williams, had reportedly lobbied Amtrak to add the Williams Junction stop for almost a decade.

IRCs: Mystery Solved

In last week's Message Center, letter writer Roz Harris of Chevy Chase advised readers to send "international reply-paid coupons" when ordering a brochure on English B&Bs. Fair enough. But then the e-mails started trickling in . . . It seems that a number of you were left wondering just what the heck these coupons are. (We paraphrase.)

International reply coupons (often abbreviated IRC) enable correspondents in one country to pay for the postage needed for a reply from another country. Recipients simply trade them in for air-mail postage. The coupons, which cost $1.05, are redeemable just about worldwide and can be purchased at post offices. The number of coupons purchased should approximate the cost of return air-mail postage.

Upright and Locked

I Can See More Miles and Miles and Miles . . .

In further confirmation that profitability lies with appeasing loyal customers -- and, of course, to keep pace with other major airlines -- American and United have announced that frequent-flier miles will not expire, and United has even offered to reinstate 1998 expired miles to Mileage Plus members who take either two paid domestic round trips or one paid international round trip on United, United Shuttle or United Express by Dec. 31. To qualify, register at http://offers. mileageplus.com/mpw049/ or call 1-800-645-4502 (promotion code 49).

Both offers carry a tiny catch: Miles earned will expire if there is no activity within three years of the earning date. But that should be an easily cleared hurdle, given the bevy of mile-yielding airline partners, such as hotels, car rental firms and credit card companies.

Once again, the airlines cater to frequent and top-dollar-paying passengers, not the budget hounds in steerage. Can it be much longer until our mileage balance determines the number of carry-ons we're allowed?

AND AN INTERNET BONUS ALERT:

United Airlines is offering 3,000 bonus frequent-flier miles for first-time cyber-shoppers who buy a round-trip ticket through the carrier's Web site (www.ual.com) and travel through Dec. 31. That bounty comes on top of the 1,000 miles awarded for purchasing any United ticket through the site and is also valid for United Shuttle and United Express. The deal may be combined with other offers, but you have to register as a site user first.

Drought and About

Look Before You Leaf: A Foliage Update

To all you fall foliage-philes wincing at the specter of a drought-driven, dull-brown autumn: Don't get your binoculars in a twist just yet. The weather period most crucial to leafy colorama starts around Labor Day, three to four weeks before the leaves begin to turn in earnest.

Despite some forecasts that this year's aridity (less severe in New England than locally) would result in drably dressed trees and empty B&Bs, New England could have a characteristically spectacular -- albeit slightly early -- fall, says Peter Del Tredici, director of living collections at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

"The factors that determine fall colors [are] the sunlight and moisture available in the two to three weeks before color starts to appear," Del Tredici says. "You can have a severely dry summer and great fall colors." And, as regional tourism officials are quick to note, the dearth of rain has helped minimize insect and disease damage to arboreal life, leaving leaves less perforated than in wetter times.

Ideally, for a triumphant display, the region would get some moisture in coming weeks, interspersed with warm sunny days and cool nights.

The drought definitely will spur earlier-than-normal pigment changes, as the drop in available moisture has made trees work harder to draw nutrients from parched soil. This "stress," as botanists call it, causes trees to ditch their leaves quicker in an effort to survive, and is expected to accelerate coloration by one to three weeks. The phenomenon is most visible along roads and in urban areas where forests' natural systems -- underground water sources and mulching from decomposing matter -- have been trashed by man, explains Jim Cantore, a meteorologist at the Weather Channel.

Surprisingly, Cantore cautions that New England still could get too much rain (and, ergo, insufficient sun), which would cause trees to "spit out their buds for next year and shut down." If the drought holds, experts say, areas farther north -- excluding coastal Maine -- and deep-in woods harbor the best hope for autumnal brilliance.

Like your leaves closer to home? Our region's drought, coupled with July's pummeling heat (both worse than those suffered up north), guarantees somewhat duller and earlier fall hues in the Shenandoah Mountains and other D.C. area forests. But, as elsewhere in the East, September's weather holds the key to your viewing pleasure.

For details, try the following foliage hot lines: Maryland, 1-800-532-8371; Virginia, 1-800-434-LEAF; National Forest Service, 1-800-354-4595.

Travel Tip 111

What Was That Masked Tip?

Masking tape, tipster Beth Rubin of Annapolis avers, is right up there with Ziploc bags as Indispensable Travel Item of the Millennium. "Over the years I've used it to repair torn hems and toys, seal leaky shampoo bottles, remove lint from clothing, fasten bags of snack food, label plastic film canisters (e.g., `Roll 1/Hoboken') and affix notes to motel mirrors."

Now that we're on a roll . . . Kindred tapester, er, tipster Lynn Martin of New Bern, N.C., confides that "although I like to have masking tape with me, I don't like to pack the whole roll. I unroll some and roll it onto any plastic bottle/jar I plan to take -- doesn't take any room and it's always there for me to use."

And there you have it: masking tape nirvana. Rubin and Martin win Travel section T-shirts for sharing their tips. Want to win a shirt of your own? Stick with 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.

Fast Food, Tokyo-Style -- by the Minute

Some Tokyo eateries are taking fast food a little too literally these days, charging diners not by the meal but by the minute.

At Dai-ichi Hotel Tokyo Seafort, overlooking Tokyo Bay, the Grand Cafe charges about 25 cents per minute for light dinner and dessert on weekends. Diners punch a card into a time clock at the start of the meal and can spend as much time as they want grazing the buffet. The restaurant serves sandwiches, salads, cakes, fruit, cookies and more. (Hint: Unpeeled oranges are time-consuming.) At the end of the meal, the guests clock out and the cashier tallies the bill according to the number of minutes spent eating. According to hotel employee Acumi Takahashi, two young girls consumed platefuls of cake in record time -- 10 minutes, or less than $3. Most diners, however, spend a leisurely 30 to 40 minutes eating. The clientele is mixed, but the place is popular among children craving sweets and college students with slender wallets and big appetites.

Those wishing to masticate at a slower pace can seek out restaurants that charge for blocks of time. In large cities throughout Japan, some franchises with all-you-can-eat sushi or shabu shabu -- thin slices of beef quick-cooked in boiling broth or water and dipped in special sauces -- place an hour or 90-minute limit on the buffet. Prices range from $10 an hour to $100 for 90 minutes of unlimited top-quality cuts of beef. For example, Mo Mo Paradise in Tokyo offers shabu shabu and sukiyaki dinner specials for about $13.50 for 90 minutes, or all you can eat and drink for $30. Diners can refill their soup bowls or restring their bamboo kebab sticks over and over again. But when time's up, the customer must leave or pay up. However, says Miko Fujiwara of the Japan National Tourist Organization, cheaper restaurants can be a bit more lenient when the clock runs out. Just time wisely, and save the chewy squid for last.

THE MONDAY TRAVEL FIX

Join us this and (nearly) every Monday at 2 p.m. for a live online discussion of places to go, schemes for getting there, stuff to seek and avoid, secret deals, painful lessons and more. Log onto www.washingtonpost.com and click on the Live Online box appearing on Monday's home page. Or choose "Travel" from the far-left column.

Comments? Questions? Responses? E-mail us at travel@washpost.com.