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The key to successful travel is preparation

Travelers want their trip to see the World Cup in South Africa to include more than just soccer.

July 19, 2009|CATHARINE HAMM

Question: My son and his friend, both 19, have tickets to three games at the World Cup soccer event in South Africa next summer. They'll be in Johannesburg, but they would like to see as much as they can. Should they use a travel agent? Buy travel insurance? What should they see and do? Where should they stay?

Karen Mitchell

San Clemente

Answer: Travel is a bit like that final exam you still have nightmares about: You can't cram for it in one night. So it's great Mitchell is beginning early. It may take a year to get all the questions answered.

The biggest issue in travel planning, often times, is not the specifics of where to stay and what to see and do but where to start. So for advice, I turned to three travel experts: Arthur Frommer, the dean of travel and longtime guidebook author, and Susan Spano and Christopher Reynolds, both longtime travel writers for the Los Angeles Times.

Frommer's new book, "Ask Arthur Frommer," contains a wealth of information on the very topics Mitchell is asking about. He suggests, for instance, using a travel counselor, which is not a travel agent but an advisor who can construct itineraries for travelers. It will cost you, but he thinks it could be well worth it. Frommer also goes out on a limb and names names of businesses and organizations he likes, including airfare consolidators. He doesn't dismiss using travel agents (and this is a case where using an agent makes sense), but he does suggest that one vet them carefully before choosing.

Spano and Reynolds also are old hands at creating itineraries and making arrangements themselves. Their secret to success is the research part of the preparations. "Basically, what I do is read," Spano wrote in an e-mail to me. "And then I read. And then I read some more. In that way, my destinations become clear to me." Spano doesn't limit herself to guidebooks; she's especially fond of novels whose authors take pains to get the destination down correctly. "Mystery novels are full of great ideas," she said.

Reynolds also likes to layer a little human interaction. "I seek out friends and acquaintances and plausible-seeming strangers who have made recent visits. . . . I value firsthand traveler info greatly if I can look into the eyes of the sources and gauge how their tastes may differ from mine." Both Spano and Reynolds use Internet recommendations but take everything with a grain of sea salt.

"If info comes from a semi-anonymous Web source based on one person's experience, I don't trust it as much," Reynolds wrote.

Good starting points for any foreign journey are the State Department website ( www.travel.state.gov ) and the CIA Factbook ( www.cia.gov/library/publications/ the-world-factbook/geos/US.html). Remember that political pressures and biases can creep into anything, even guidebooks, which you should also have at hand. Don't rely on just one source to give you the full picture.

Make sure you get your travelers' input too. Of course, as the mom, you get to tell them, "No, absolutely not." Yes, they're young adults, but you're the one who's going to be lying awake at night worrying about them.

Veto power seems a small price to pay for the price we pay to turn them into adventuresome (please, God, not too much) adults (and, amen, not too soon).

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Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel @latimes.com

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