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Even pros get lost along the way

February 04, 2007|Catharine Hamm; Susan Spano; Jane Engle; Chris Erskine; Beverly Beyette; Rosemary McClure; Vani Rangachar; | By Times Staff Writers

IT'S not easy to admit a mistake, especially if you're supposed to be a professional. Yet we all make them. Here, the Travel staff of The Times comes clean about great goof-ups we have known and made.

1. Mind the details

Don't ignore the fine points when booking a ticket online. Alternate airports can be a godsend, offering cheaper fares or better schedules. But they are neither cheaper nor better if you book yourself out of one airport and back into another.

I was flying to Boston from San Jose and assumed I would come and go from the same place. Wrong. I booked myself from San Jose (SJC) but returned to San Francisco (SFO). This wouldn't have been quite the pain it was if I hadn't left my car at the San Jose airport.

Lesson: Slow down and check, even if you think you know what you're doing.

-- Catharine Hamm

2. Be consistent

If you're going to be a budget traveler, be consistent about it. Imagine my glee this last summer when I landed a $72 room at the Hyatt Embarcadero in San Francisco by using Priceline. The room was lovely, and I felt pretty darn proud until I discovered that parking was $49 a night. A smart budget traveler would have inquired beforehand and arranged to return the rental car a day early.

Lesson: Consider all the expenses of a hotel stay, especially parking and taxes.

-- C.H.

3. Check the map

If you travel by rail, especially in foreign cities, make sure you know which station your train departs from. In Paris, for instance, there are six major train stations -- Montparnasse, Austerlitz, Lyon, l'Est, Nord and St. Lazare. Each one serves trains headed to different places. It's the same in the Chinese capital, where I once tried to catch a train to Xi'an from the Beijing Train Station. Good thing I got there early, because the train actually left from Beijing West Train Station, a 45-minute taxi ride. My driver ran red lights all across town and got me there just before the train pulled out.

Lesson: Look closely at your tickets and study your map.

-- Susan Spano

4. Buyer beware

Hotels are cheap for a reason, and it's not charity. I was sure I'd found a rare weekend deal in Las Vegas when, for $44 plus tax, I booked a hotel near the Strip that chat rooms rated as "basic but clean."

What I got was a big but drab room with mismatched furniture, stained ceiling, rusted shower head, thin towels and some kind of fuzz coating the exhaust fan. So far so good; I once stayed at a B&B in Greece where I had to wrestle towels from my host, and it was OK.

But this room was not. The first-floor window, which lacked a lock, was propped shut with a broom handle. Unidentifiable brown goop covered the floor of the small fridge. The next morning, sewage gurgled up in the sink, which the janitor told me sometimes happened when the hotel was full.

Lesson: Beware of the unbelievable bargain.

-- Jane Engle

5. Know the difference

Don't assume that foreign airlines fly by the same rules as U.S. airlines.

My partner and I had frugally packed for our 17-hour flight to Hong Kong via Taipei, each of us cramming clothes, toiletries, medications and extra shoes into a single carry-on, sized to slip under our seats.

To our dismay, China Airlines' ticket agents at LAX plunked our bags onto scales -- something I'd never seen a U.S. carrier do -- and declared them over the weight limit of 7 kilos, or about 15.4 pounds, each. We had to check them.

Luckily we had sizable purses for necessities. But popping open our luggage in front of strangers, and hurriedly pawing through our possessions to find items needed for the flight, was an embarrassing, nerve-racking way to start a trip.

Lesson: Before heading for the airport, contact your airline about its policies.

-- J.E.

6. Don't do this

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever take the red eye with a young child.

I took my toddler on an 11:30 p.m. flight to Chicago, from LAX, thinking he would sleep most of the flight because of the late hour. As many parents know, this tactic often works in car trips. Not here.

In fact, no one on the plane slept, even after the crew turned the cabin lights down to sleep mode. Revved up by the excitement of the trip, the 2-year-old executed the sort of twirls and back-flips you usually see done only in a professional circus -- by chimps. The other passengers were amazingly tolerant. Two years later, I still feel amazingly guilty.

Lesson: Take kids under 5 on early flights, never late ones. Check them with your bags.

-- Chris Erskine

7. Go native

There are places where it's not wise to drink the water or eat anything that's not well cooked -- and I'm not keen on street food -- but eating the local cuisine is part of what travel is all about. I'm reminded of a San Diego couple on a 10-day tour of China who would eat nothing but steamed rice. They denied themselves a lot of pleasure. Some of my most unforgettable travel experiences have resulted from trying new things and exploring new places, even when that meant getting lost.

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