Ten stray thoughts about the upcoming summer travel season: 1. The most delightful new travel product is Italy's recently announced "Home Food" network, a system for publicizing the meals served in private homes by talented amateur cooks. You learn about their willingness to feed you from a website called HomeFood.it (www.homefood.it), listing scores of towns and villages whose home chefs charge 3 euros for registration and then 35 euros (around $45) for a several-course meal (with local wine) prepared by, say, a grandmother, from recipes more than a hundred years old. What a fine alternative to standard evening activities.
2. From sublime meals to ridiculous meals: Las Vegas is all abuzz with the new "Buffet of Buffets" offered by the Harrah's hotel chain, a pass entitling you for $39.99 to 24 hours of unlimited dining at any or all of the eat-till-you-burst buffets of Harrah's eight Vegas hotels scattered about town. You buy the pass at any chain member: Caesar's Palace, Harrah's, Planet Hollywood, Imperial Palace, Flamingo, Rio, Paris or Bally's.
3. Multiple readers have claimed that you do better in converting your frequent-flier mileage into actual air tickets by phoning the airline in question rather than relying on its website. That's because, apparently, the Internet websites aren't programmed to seek seats at the "partner" airlines of the alliance to which your main airline belongs. Although you'll be charged $25 for making a call to a live human reservationist, the fee isn't assessed simply for inquiries, but only when an actual transaction occurs. The better results — longer trips for less mileage — more than justify the expense.
4. From now until Dec. 31, the Sea World theme parks in Orlando, Fla., San Diego and San Antonio will reduce their admission charge to $5 for children ages 3 to 9, when accompanied by a full-fare-paying adult. The probable reason for the dramatic reduction — the pall cast over those theme parks by the recent tragic death of a trainer swimming with a killer whale. Attendance is undoubtedly down.
5. As of the time I write (and matters could change in a flash), the dollar (both the U.S. and Canadian versions) is greatly improved in value against the euro, reducing the cost of touring the continent. You now pay only $1.28 for a euro, as compared to $1.55 just two years ago. But you get that rate only if you're a smart tourist, obtaining your euros at European ATM machines (which give the best rates and take the lowest commissions), and never from a commercial money- changer.
6. Is it just my imagination, or are tickets to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany (and related accommodations), selling for distressed rates? Go to Go-Today.com or Gate1Travel.com, and you'll find two-day packages to Oberammergau and the play selling for reasonable sums and not for the scalper levels of previous months. O'gau may be another victim of the economic slowdown.
7. When times were better, we all opted for glittery accommodations on our trips to Hawaii. Today, there's a heavy use of the budget-price Ohana hotels of the Outrigger chain. One of them, the Ohana Waikiki West, in Honolulu, charges only $79 a night for a room capable of housing four people, and each of its 500 rooms is equipped with a kitchenette for preparing an occasional meal. Tourists on an even lower budget are staying at Oahu's 140-bed Waikiki Beachside Hostel (largest in the islands) where they pay $25.67 in the dorms, $30.98 per person in a private room. That includes a breakfast of pastry and coffee.
8. Hiking is more pleasantly accomplished in Scotland than anywhere else in the world because of the widespread availability of low-cost "sherpa services" carrying your luggage from one overnight stop to another (for as little as 7 British pounds a bag) while you stroll unencumbered through the breathtaking scenery of the Highlands. E-mail infosherpavan.com for all the details.
9. In response to many repeated inquiries about getting to the Shanghai World's Fair: An air-and-land package to several Chinese cities including Shanghai is far more cost-effective than purchasing your own airfare to Shanghai (at least $1,500 including taxes, round-trip) and making independent hotel arrangements. After scanning many different offerings, I find that no one charges less than China Focus of San Francisco (chinafocustravel.com): $1,499 throughout the summer and fall, for nine hotel nights in five Chinese cities, all-inclusive of meals, sightseeing and round-trip air from San Francisco, and starting with three nights in Shanghai, enabling you to spend two full days at the Fair. For what others pay for airfare alone, you'll then have six remaining nights of visiting the rest of China (and Beijing).
10. In the eternal quest for decent rates charged to single persons traveling alone, Maho Bay Camps overlooking one of the great beaches on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a standout. From now until Dec. 15, it places single people in their own private, canvas-side bungalows, which they needn't share, for only $60 a night. And most people going to the unique, ecologically sensitive Maho Bay are outgoing, supportive, gracious fellow guests. Singles love it. Access maho.org, or phone 800-392-9004.