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ON A BUDGET

Yen for the exotic? Asia is within reach

Bargains and reasonable exchange rates are once again luring travelers to the Pacific Rim, a region hit hard last year by the SARS epidemic.

March 28, 2004|Arthur Frommer | Special to The Times

Despite occasional reports of bird flu, Asia is now regarded as being safe for travel and generally free of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which badly affected tourism there last year. The travel industry and the public are returning to the cultures of the Pacific Rim, drawn by travel bargains and reasonable currency rates everywhere but in Japan. Here are some travel opportunities:

* Seventeen nights in Thailand from $1,719: With an exchange rate of nearly 40 baht to the dollar, vacations in this colorful Buddhist nation are as reasonable as ever. Americans can book a 17-night vacation there, including round-trip airfare from Los Angeles on Northwest Airlines, air and land transportation within Thailand, rooms in deluxe or first-class hotels, comprehensive sightseeing and two meals a day on most days for about $100 a day per person ($1,719 in April and May; $1,739 in June). The tour operator is Pacific Delight, (800) 221-7179, www.pacificdelighttours.com, which ensures top arrangements throughout. Travelers will visit Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and the hill tribes of the Golden Triangle, and will attend cultural lectures and performances. The itinerary is memorable, the value remarkable.

* Eleven nights in China from $1,199 available April to October: Now in its 10th consecutive year, the 11-night tour to six Chinese cities offered by California's China Focus, (800) 868-7244, www.chinafocustravel.com, covers a lot of territory. On "Historic China," you're flown round-trip from San Francisco on Air China to, from and within China -- Beijing, Jinan, Tai'an, Qufu, Suzhou and Shanghai -- and stay in four-star hotels in all but one city. The tour also includes three meals a day and escorted sightseeing. For flights from LAX and West Coast cities other than San Francisco, add $100. Tips and taxes add $56. This tour is responsibly planned and supervised, and I do not recall a critical comment from any of the large number of readers who have booked it through the years.

* Two weeks in Vietnam for $1,500: Many cost-conscious Americans will want to travel independently in this ultra-low-cost country, where Hiltons and Melia hotels charge from $70 for a double room and acceptable two-star hotels rent doubles for as little as $33 a night. A round-trip flight on China Airlines between Los Angeles and Saigon sells for about $800 per person in the May high season, and two weeks' room and board can be as low as $600. If you'd rather have assistance in planning the stay, call the New York-based partner of Halong Travel of Hanoi, the Witmor Travel Group, (800) 727-8898, www.witmornyc.com, which offers rates almost as cheap as those you'd encounter on the spot. A travel writer I know recently reported spending no more than $2.50 for chicken pho noodle soup and tea for two people at a modest Hanoi cafe, and $7.50 for a complete Western-style meal with wine.

* Five nights in Japan for $899: Although Japan remains an expensive destination with a costly currency exchange rate of one dollar to close to 110 yen, various airline packages bring the cost of a trip there down to manageable levels. In effect, the carriers are partly subsidizing your stay to sell Tokyo-bound seats. In April and May, $899 will buy you midweek round-trip airfare between Los Angeles and Tokyo on Singapore Airlines, transfers, a half-day escorted tour of the city and five nights at the elegant Hilton Tokyo, an unusual luxury for such a low-priced arrangement. You'll have to pay for meals and activities, but the package helps ensure reasonable outlay for a city whose levels of safety are among the world's highest. Contact (800) 742-3333, www.singaporeair.com.

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