TRAVEL LAB REPORT

HYPOTHESIS: Tourism Web sites for Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia make it easier than ever to plan a getaway.

MATERIALS: PC and phone. Errand-free weekend ahead.

METHODOLOGY: Set goal to find, in each state: a) an event (festival, tour, etc.) two weekends hence within a four-hour drive; b) a place to stay where a couple can get coffee in the early morning without having to chat with strangers first; and c) nearby hiking.

RESULTS:

* Maryland's www.mdisfun.org takes 45 minutes and many miscues to fill the bill with a $79 Comfort Inn in Easton near Tilghman Island Day and info on nature trails at nearby Pickering Creek. One search returns three events that sound good--but happened in 1997. Animated GIF of golfer on home page seems bad form for such a diverse state.

* At complex, color-coordinated www.virginia.org, it takes nearly as long to find a $105 B&B in Nellysford, with details--and a map!--to the Amherst Apple Harvest Festival near Lynchburg.

* At www.callwva.com, we nab a cancellation at Berkeley Springs' Highlawn Inn, a bead on Martinsburg's Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival and hiking and horseback riding at Cacapon State Park within 15 minutes. All the links and phone numbers work.

NOTES: Maryland's site may be ugly, but at least it's poorly organized. Every query requires a three- or four-step search, each either fruitless or spawning endless, maddeningly brief pages of unsorted, marginally maintained "data." (The button to the Tourism Development Board itself? Bad-link error.)

Like certain of its horse-country inns, the Old Dominion's tourism site makes you wonder if maybe you attended the wrong college. Data and graphics are above reproach--but they meet in completely counterintuitive screen after screen! Once you figure it out--and if your browser supports mucho whizbang- ery--it's a deep well. Try not to fall in.

West Virginia wins: an edited, integrated database of events, sights, lodging, dining and theme links that's easy to search--and presented in a sensible sequence of low-tech, high- return pages. The site doesn't Make a Statement. It just makes visits easy.

CONCLUSION: Maryland tourism slackers should attend a retreat with some Virginia Tech Web heads who don't get out much. We recommend West Virginia.

On the Web: Maryland (www.mdisfun.org), Virginia (www.virginia.org) and West Virginia (www.callwva.com).

WHAT'S THE DEAL?

Amtrak Two-Fer; Panama Perks

* Act fast--by midnight Monday--and your companion can ride free on most long-distance Amtrak routes. Call Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL, www. amtrak.com) and mention that two are traveling. You will be given the lowest rate and be charged for one ticket, but issued two. An annoyance: Travelers must pick up tickets and travel together. The deal excludes the Northeast Corridor and some Midwest stops. (Travel must end by Dec. 16; Thanksgiving blacked out.) Still, you can claim the two-fer for places like Miami, Chicago and Seattle. For a one-way trip to L.A. via Chicago (with stops), two can travel for $359.

* With Solar Tours, a six-night trip to Panama City, Panama, costs just $45 more than air fare alone. The $525 per person package includes: round-trip Continental flights from any area airport (via Newark or Houston), six nights at the Grand Hotel Soloy, breakfasts, transfers, taxes and city and canal tours. (Seven-day advance buy; Dec. 23-Jan. 10 blackouts.) The catch? The $35-a-night hotel is in the unsavory commercial area, where after-dark walks are dicey. A better bet is the $580 package, Jan. 1-March 31. The extra money, pushing the total to $100 over the air-alone price, puts you at the Golden Tulip Costa del Sol, a recently renovated hotel in the brightly lit tourist and banking district. 1-800-388-7652, www.solartours.com.

TRAVEL TIP 116

Squirrelz in the Hood

PROBLEM: Squirrels cavort under the hood of your car while you're off on a trip, chewing on wires and hoses and generally going nuts in there.

SOLUTION: Tuck mothballs into the engine's nooks and crannies.

TIP REPORT: Tipster Joy Burks of Oakton, who knows from hostile rodent incursions ("The squirrels in my neighborhood are pretty bold"), swears that the smell of mothballs will keep the critters out of your car for several weeks. "The remaining mothballs just fall out when the car is driven again. But be careful to remove them if there are small children around."

Send travel tips (100 words or less) to us 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). Winners receive a Washington Post Travel section T-shirt. No purchase necessary. Tips become the property of The Washington Post, which may edit, publish, distribute and republish the information in any form.

TO DO

HOME THIS WEEK?

"Adventures in Western Polynesia," Oct. 14-15, National Geographic, 1600 M St. NW, 202-857-7700.

THE REGION

Dewey/Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Oct. 14-17, Autumn Jazzfest, 1-800-29-MUSIC, www.rehoboth- dewey-jazz.com. The sounds of the Beach Boys give way to jazz, blues and R&B.

Charlottesville: Oct. 16, International Food Fest, 804-296-8548. The U.N. of the culinary world steams, boils and fries up a feast. Burn off those calories alongside flamenco and Irish dancers.

THE NATION

Anderson, Calif.: Oct. 16, Return of the Salmon Festival, 530-365-8622. After a long journey of swimming and spawning, the salmon finally settle down at the hatchery.

Houston: Oct. 21-24, International Quilt Festival, 713-781-6864, www.quilts.com. A crazy quilt of throws, blankets, wearable art and other home-sewn creations covers several football fields of space.

THE WORLD

Bridgwater, Somerset, England: Nov. 4, Guy Fawkes Carnival,1-800-462-2748, www.bw-carnival. freeserve.co.uk/index.htm. Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade meets General Electric. The two-hour procession, illuminated by 10,000-plus bulbs, honors Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605.

Send news about events, festivals and other things To Do by e-mail to travcal@washpost.com.

SITE OF THE WEEK

To monitor air-fare deals: www.travelzoo.com

If you find it exhausting to keep up with the barrage of air-fare deals in constant motion around you, join the club. And have a look at Travelzoo, whose newish Netfares Search Engine lets you specify a departure city and then disgorges all the active air-fare promotions from that town. Click on a fare and it provides decently detailed, real-English rules for getting that fare. We wish only that the list distinguished between weekend-only e-savers and other, more open-ended deals.