Q: We would like to send our soon-to-be- 18-year-old son on a trip to Cuba as a graduation gift. We'd like this to be an adventure and an educational opportunity rather than a tourist excursion. Is there any such thing?
Bob and Debbie Fatula
A: One of the stumbling blocks to visiting Cuba is getting there legally. Our federal government still prohibits U.S. tourists from spending any money on travel to Cuba, making most trips there de facto illegal. But restrictions have loosened, and many U.S. citizens are finding ways to get to Cuba without breaking the law. And there's a sizable contingent who ignore the legalities and continue to travel there through other gateways, including Mexico and Canada.
One way to travel legally to Cuba is to go as a "fully hosted" visitor, meaning you are hosted by a Cuban organization. Global Exchange, a nonprofit San Francisco group, offers many trips to Cuba under this designation. The organization is devoted to promoting human rights, educating the U.S. public about global issues, promoting sustainable development and improving the lives of the poor. It has scheduled a youth trip to Cuba June 16-28 that will delve into the music, art and cultural scene, plus study Cuba's economy and its religious connections to Africa. Trip cost--including accommodations, two meals daily, a trip leader and air fare from Cancun--is $1,100. Information: Global Exchange, 1-800-497-1994, www.globalexchange.org.
Also, Marazul Tours (1-800-223-5334, www.marazultours.com) specializes in arranging travel to Cuba and has developed several programs for traveling legally to Cuba. It recently started offering a nonstop charter flight between New York and Havana.
Q: A group of 10 couples wants to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their college graduation by meeting in London for a long weekend. Any ideas for lodging in a central location?
A: Much depends on your budget. If you're going for economy, renting apartments makes sense. Also, you'll get better deals if you stay in a neighborhood a bit removed from the city center, but close to a tube station. For example, you could rent two three-bedroom apartments and two two-bedroom apartments at the Queensgate Apartments in South Kensington for about $164 per couple per night, a good deal in high-priced London. Information: 1-800-664-5663, www.londonguestsuites.com.
Decent boutique hotels generally start at about $150 per night, and, for very convenient locations, the price quickly rises to more than $200. Some hotels worth looking at:
* The London Guards Hotel (011-44-171-402-1101) is a converted Georgian-style house near Hyde Park. The 39-room boutique hotel has rooms starting at about $140 a night.
* The Grange White Hotel (011-44-171-580-2224, www.grangehotels.co.uk) is a nice hotel adjacent to the British Museum in the West End. The 60-room hotel is pricey, but it frequently offers special deals of about $185 per room per night.
* The Delmere (011-44-171-706-3344, www .delmerehotels.com) near Hyde Park is within walking distance of Paddington Station. Prices start at about $160 a night.
A third option is to stay at a university. Imperial College's South Kensington campus, for example, allows the public to stay in its dormitory rooms in April and from late June until late September; the rate of $95 a night for two includes breakfast. Information: 011-44-171-594-9507, www.ad.ic.ac.uk/conferences/facilities.htm.
For additional lodging information, contact the British Tourist Authority, 1-800-GO2-BRIT, www.visitbritain.com.
Q: I would like to drive leisurely through Western parks (Yellowstone, Zion, Grand Canyon, etc.). The problem is my old bones won't do well on the long drive, and to fly and rent a car would be expensive because you can't use round-trip tickets from two cities. Any ideas?
A: You can often get decently priced round-trip tickets arriving in one city and leaving from another using something the industry calls an "open-jaw" return. But the bigger issue is the rental car. All the rental car companies charge an exorbitant fee if you pick up a car in one city and drop it off in another. Avis, for example, would charge about $500 to rent a car for one month out of Salt Lake City. But if you drop it off in Phoenix, the cost more than doubles. Sometimes the fee will be waived in certain markets, most commonly in Florida or California, but that's not likely for your itinerary.
I'd recommend flying into Salt Lake City, renting a car and heading north to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Then drive back to Salt Lake City, drop off the car and grab a one-way flight to Las Vegas. Rent a car and head east to Lake Mead, Grand Canyon National Park and then up to Zion and Bryce. Fly home from Las Vegas. Cost breakdown for a month-long trip next spring: $389 on Continental for flight from BWI to Salt Lake City, with a return from Las Vegas, $63 on America West for the one-way flight from Salt Lake to Las Vegas, and about $532 plus taxes for the car rentals in both cities.
Allan B. Coleman of Washington likes to take advantage of the winter fare deals to Europe, using the fare savings to upgrade his hotel room. Favorite places: The Hotel du Louvre (011-33-1-44-58-38-38, www.hoteldulouvre .com) just across from the Louvre Museum in Paris, where rates of about $220 a night for two include "a very generous breakfast"; the Bistro l'Ardoise on Rue Mont-Thabor in Paris's 1st Arrondissement, where three-course meals are "well worth" the $28 price per person; and Radisson's Vanderbilt Hotel (1-800-333-3333, www.radisson.com), in the Knightsbridge section of London, conveniently situated across the street from a tube station and with very nice rooms and a generous breakfast (Radisson was recently offering a special winter rate of $167 per night for two at the hotel).
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