Air Rage, Explained

"Back in steerage where the package tours go . . . shoulder room is twenty inches. Hip room between armrests is twenty inches. This is two inches more space than a slave had in the Middle Passage. . . .

"Dr. Hannibal Lecter is in the center of the middle row in steerage with children on both sides of him and a woman holding an infant at the end of the row. After so many years in cells and restraints, Dr. Lecter does not like to be confined. . . ."

-- From " Hannibal," by Thomas Harris (Delacorte)

Travel Lab Report No. 737,422

Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, Orlando

HYPOTHESIS: Spending a day at Universal Studios' new, $1 billion park offers serious thrill-seekers a respite from the namby-pamby offerings of the Mouse.

MATERIALS: A one-day Islands of Adventure pass ($46.64), credit card, comfy pair of shoes.

METHODOLOGY: Arrive Sunday shortly after 9 a.m. opening, spend eight hours tramping through the park's five components -- Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, the Lost Continent and Seuss Landing. Hit every show and ride save Doctor Doom's Fearfall; even in the name of science, we refuse to plunge 150 feet from a tower.

RESULTS: IOA's two roller coasters -- Dueling Dragons, whose twin trains zip toward each other on intertwining tracks, and the Incredible Hulk, which goes from 0 to 40 mph in two seconds uphill -- are laugh-till-you-cry hoots. Jurassic Park River Adventure starts benignly and ends with a T. Rex lunging overhead as you plummet 85 feet down a waterfall in the dark. Even Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls -- seemingly a simple log flume -- packs a hair-raising surprise. Highlight is Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, an astonishing 3-D thrill ride that whisks along on a track; it's so technologically advanced that it, ahem, broke down three times while we waited to board. For kids, Camp Jurassic and Me Ship, the Olive are both sound-effects-jammed play areas crawling with activities. Seuss Landing is a beautifully rendered and blessedly slower-paced tribute to the good doctor's creations.

OBSERVATIONS: Requiring guests to park ($6!?!) in garages and take moving sidewalks to IOA and its older sister, Universal Studios Florida, is ingenious and eliminates trams. Ubiquitous lockers and wring-out areas are a big, unusual plus. The Dragons queue winds interminably through a cold, dark castle, but we walked on to most rides without a wait. We weren't impressed by the shows, which were loud and hokey. Food and drink prices? Please! We had a Dagwood sandwich ($7) in Toon Lagoon for lunch, but we left the park for dinner at CityWalk, a flashy compound outside the parks.

DEATHS OR INJURIES OBSERVED: None.

FOR FURTHER STUDY: Numerous park employees told us attendance has been unexpectedly light since the park's May opening. Publicity director Jim Hampton wouldn't divulge figures, but reports Universal is "satisfied with what we've seen this summer."

CONCLUSION: Rides may be too intense for many, but the hale and the brave will be amply rewarded. Good target for families whose kids have outgrown, or exhausted, Disney. Bring lots of money.

Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, 1-888-837-2273, www.uescape.com.

Hard Knocks U.

When Shopping Online, Look for the BBB Reliability Seal

We'll spare you the bilious, baroque, blood-boiling detail, but a Travel section reader reports extraordinary difficulty attempting to get a refund on an airline ticket purchased through Expedia, Microsoft's online travel-selling service. Suffice to say Expedia insisted the refund was British Airways' responsiblity, BA said it was Expedia's, and the (admirably persistent) reader was stuck in a two-month finger-pointing fight.

All of which raises a question: What consumer protections do you have when buying travel online? We and others tirelessly counsel readers to prefer agencies that are registered with the Better Business Bureau or other industry watchdogs. Shouldn't the same advice apply to online merchants, where the lack of a face, a name and a local office can make a transaction seem riskier?

Two of the Big Three online agencies, Preview Travel and Travelocity, belong to BBBOnLine (www.bbb.org), the electronic arm of the Better Business Bureau. The BBBOnLine Reliability seal may be displayed on a Web site only by companies registered with the BBB and that have a satisfactory complaint-handling record. More important, businesses with BBB registration agree to binding arbitration of unresolved disputes between themselves and consumers. In other words, had the Expedia buyer used Travelocity or Preview Travel, the BBB could have mediated a settlement.

Travelocity is also a member of the American Society of Travel Agents, which offers far more modest consumer protections. Preview is not a member of ASTA.

Microsoft Expedia is not registered with the BBBOnLine. The firm also canceled its membership with ASTA because of disagreements unrelated to consumer arbitration, says Expedia marketing director Erik Blachford.

After we forwarded a copy of the above-referenced reader letter to Blachford, he e-mailed back, stating such situations are "very rare" at Expedia and that the agency was able to resolve nearly all cases to the customer's satisfaction. His e-mail continued: "You can be assured we will also look into joining the BBB in order to let our customers and suppliers know" Expedia has a strong commitment to customer satisfaction.

As for the consumer caught in the Expedia/British Airways crossfire? After dozens of calls, faxes and e-mails from April through July, he ultimately got his account credited for the amount of the refund. Though it's still not clear who paid up.

Travel Tip 112

The Detergent Bottle Workout

"Many of the hotels I stay in aren't equipped with gyms, or if they are, have limited hours that don't fit with my work schedule," laments tipster Ruth Norris of Washington. But over the years she's perfected a hotel-room workout. "Instead of carrying two five-pound hand weights in my luggage, I take empty detergent bottles, the kind with the handles molded as part of the bottle. Filled with water on arrival, they serve perfectly for upper-body workouts. I toss them in the trash at the end of the trip, and have extra space in my suitcase for whatever gifts and trinkets I've purchased along the way."

If we ever exercised on our trips, which we fully intend to start doing one of these days, we'd definitely try Norris's ingenious system. Meanwhile, we're sending her a Washington Post Travel section T-shirt for sharing her idea. Got a clever tip of your own to share? Lift 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.

SAFARI UPDATE. Several readers called and wrote to say they were taken with last week's story on a wildlife safari in Tanzania, enough to wonder which outfitter author John Wood used. The tour was operated by luxury agency Abercrombie & Kent (1-800-323-7308, www.abercrombiekent.com). Its 13-day "Tanzania Under Canvas" tour goes for $3,985 and up, international air fare not included.

In an alarming example that using even the best, and most costly, tour company does not guarantee one's safety, it was indeed an Abercrombie & Kent safari tour very similar to Wood's whose plane went down Wednesday morning in Tanzania, killing 10 U.S. tourists, a Tanzanian tour guide and the pilot.

More Room in Chicago

For those who have had trouble snagging a decent room in Chicago, a city chronically overbooked during convention season, a little relief is on the way. The Hotel Burnham, a new property in the heart of downtown, opens Oct. 1.

Originally the Reliance Building, the 105-year-old structure with a stately glass-and-terra-cotta facade has the feel of an old-style gentlemen's club. Shoe-shines and morning papers are free, and the health club is state of the art.

Part of the Kimpton Group, which is working to popularize boutique hotels, the property will also offer the amenities the San Francico-based chain is known for: complimentary evening wine and classy decor, with indigo velvet and gold bedroom fabrics.

Though designed with the style-conscious business traveler in mind, the hotel's proximity to some of the best department stores and restaurants will probably make it a good base for leisure travelers, too. Doubles start at $145 per night.

1 W. Washington St., 877-294-9712, www.burnhamhotel.com.

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 to do, things 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.