Eco-Centric

In Calif., Rent Tomorrow's Car Today

It's not as eco-chic as disposing of your rental car entirely, but you can now rent a natural gas-powered or electric car on your next trip to California.

Last month, Budget EV Rental Cars, a joint venture of Budget and EV Rental Cars (EV stands for environmental vehicles), expanded its operation to the Sacramento airport. It started offering eco-cars in Los Angeles in December.

The vehicles are "96 percent cleaner than the newest, cleanest car on the market," and are as safe and fast as other autos, says Terry O'Day, planning and operations director at EV Rental Cars. Electric EVs reportedly run quieter and accelerate quicker than gas-juiced rides -- General Motors' EV1 beats a Corvette off the line, O'Day says -- but can travel only 50 to 150 miles on a charge.

Recharging takes one to five hours and is free (there are 100 recharging stations around Sacramento, more in L.A.). Natural gas cars are more similar to conventional cars, but have lower mileage ranges, 150 to 250 miles. Sacramento has 20 natural gas refueling stations, most in convenient locations like shopping malls.

For doing your part in planetary resuscitation, expect to pay daily rates from $44 (GM EV1 or Honda Civic) to $64 (Toyota Rav4-EV), about Budget's rates for mid-size and larger cars in Sacramento. The EV rates include electricity and fuel so there's no annoying tank filling before returning the vehicle. But for natural gas cars you'll be dunned five cents per mile.

Budget EV plans to expand in California in coming months, then move into Nevada and Arizona by January and later into Atlanta and Florida. So far the stuff is selling: The 15 EVs in Sacramento were all rented within the first week, spurring Budget EV to add 5 more cars.

Info: 1-877-387-3682, www.evrental.com.

Playing Chicken with Priceline Hotels: Cluck, Cluck!

You might be skeptical of Priceline.com ("Name your own price for airline tickets!"), and with good reason. The Web company's flagship bidding service is useless unless you don't care what time of day your round trip begins or ends. And, of course, you have to agree to take what you get before you know what you get. There's no "No, thanks" at Priceline.

But if you're having trouble finding a reasonably priced hotel room, by contrast, even at the usual Web-based hotel sources, Priceline might be worth a try.

I first tried placing my lodging fate in Priceline's hands in planning a weekend in New York City. Finding affordable weekend quarters in Manhattan can be a take-what-you-can-get exercise, and my mantra is generally "a hundred bucks a night and not too gross." I found some possibilities on Microsoft Expedia -- plenty of acceptable places for $100 to $150.

So, at 2 o'clock on a Wednesday morning, armed with the going rates, I got cheeky with Priceline. Give me a three-star room for $100, I requested. At Priceline, three-star means "high quality, beautiful appointments, well-decorated lobbies and common areas, and many extras, such as fine dining, valet parking and gym/sauna."

This was not a reasonable request. But at 2:59 a.m. came the e-mailed reply:

"Congratulations! We have hotel accommodations for you! You will be a guest of W NEW YORK HOTEL."

I did a little clicking and liked what I saw. The W looked great, at least on its Web site, and a room there on those dates was supposed to cost $259 a night. (It turned out to be wonderful. It's a "boutique" hotel -- chic clientele, a bar we wouldn't even try to get into, stylish but cramped rooms. Think of staying in a Pottery Barn catalogue, only slightly more roomy.)

The next day, I was making arrangements for a weekend in Chicago. The non-airport, non-suburban hotels that weren't booked were quoting rates around $200. So back to Priceline I went, with my demanding formula. Three stars, $100: Impress me.

"Congratulations! We have hotel accommodations for you! You will be a guest of THE FAIRMONT HOTEL CHICAGO."

I haven't made that trip yet, but the Fairmont looks promising. And Expedia sells that room for $299.

About a week later I needed another Priceline fix, and so I decided to arrange an "in-town getaway." But I wasn't about to pay $100 a night, so I played chicken: Three stars, 45 bucks.

"Congratulations! We have hotel accommodations for you! You will be a guest of WYNDHAM WASHINGTON DC HOTEL."

The Wyndham. Barely a block away from The Washington Post, where both my fiancee and I work Monday through Friday, we would spend a "getaway" weekend.

At least it's a historic site -- the former Vista International where Marion Barry was so memorably paid a surprise visit by FBI agents.

Barry had his vices, and I have my Priceline.

-- Bill Walsh

Save the rain forests!

But first, try to count them.

As several readers pointed out, we erred last week by stating that Puerto Rico's El Yunque is the only rain forest in the United States.

Trouble is, when we dutifully tried to conduct a census of U.S. rain forests, things got misty. An exhaustive query of conservation groups yielded no definitive list, only a litany of reminders that temperate rain forests exist in Alaska (Tongass National Forest), Washington (on the Olympic Peninsula) and (possibly) Oregon and California (depending on one's definition of "rain forest").

Two (other) tropical rain forests in Hawaii were cited, though we were assured the islands harbor others. And, yes, there are indeed rain forests on such U.S. territories as Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

By way of correction, and public education, we offer the map at right, which indicates the U.S. rain forests we were able to identify.

Travel Tip 113

Have Annoying Perfume Card, Will Travel

You know those irritating, fragrance-laden perfume cards that fall out of magazines, interrupt your concentration, smell up the room and are just incredibly annoying, all out of proportion to their size and importance? Tipster Jacki Moffi of Silver Spring has found a practical use for the pesky things: Take 'em on the road. "Along with perking up luggage interiors and masking dirty laundry odor on a long trip, they're great for rubbing on upholstery, bed linen and drapes to give a nice scent to your hotel room. Easier than candles, they also make instant airplane/train toilet air fresheners, and bookmarks -- talk about efficiency! A little goes a long way with this portable fragrance that doesn't stain fabrics, and lasts just long enough."

We don't know about that bookmark idea, but the rest of her suggestions smell good to us. Moffi wins a (blessedly fragrance-free) Washington Post Travel section T-shirt for sharing her tip. Got a road-tested idea of your own? Sniff out the fine print below and send it in.

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.

Out & About With Travel Agents

Two area travel agents appear on a list of the nation's top 41 gay and lesbian travel agents, published in the September issue of Out & About, a national gay travel newsletter. Sharon Smith at Gay Travel Plus, Holiday Afloat, in Timonium, Md. (1-800-970-7245) and Mike Greenwald at Personalized Travel in the District (202-508-8656), made the list, which is otherwise dominated by gay travel specialists in New York and California. In a telephone interview, Greenwald gave his hottest tip for gay and lesbian travel: Mardi Gras in Sydney, Australia, scheduled for early March. Packages start at about $2,500. "The time to book," he said, instantly verifying his status as an agent on top of his game, "is now."

Free Advice on the Caribbean

To assist with the perennial task of choosing among the dozens of possible Caribbean getaways, you may want to consult the Caribbean Coalition for Tourism's annual vacation planner. The free, 168-page guide features information on 27 islands or territories, including a brief description, highlights of activities available and basic travel information. Ads for hotels and airlines serving each destination are included.

For a copy, call 1-800-356-9999, ext. 799, or visit www.caribtourism.com. Both sources will also recommend travel agents specializing in the islands.

In other island news, a number of airlines are poised to announce increased direct service from area airports to a number of islands for the coming season -- a boon to time-pressed, if not necessarily bargain-hungry, sun-seekers. Look for details in our Caribbean Travel Issue, coming Sunday, Oct. 24.