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Originally published Friday, December 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Travel Wise

Travel isn't likely to get easier or cheaper in 2007, but it'll still be worth it

It takes determination to travel these days. Unless your idea of a cultural experience is clearing brush and mountain biking in Crawford...

Seattle Times staff columnist

It takes determination to travel these days. Unless your idea of a cultural experience is clearing brush and mountain biking in Crawford, Texas, that's not likely to change in 2007.

Have plastic zip-lock bag filled with gels and liquids, will travel. This time last year, it looked like higher fuel prices and soaring airfares would pose the biggest challenges. Who could have guessed we'd also be scrambling to figure out whether we could take lip gloss or yogurt in our carry-ons?

I don't have a crystal ball, but I do know that a well-prepared traveler is a happier traveler. Here are a few tips for getting a jump start on the new year.

Passports

If you're thinking about flying to anywhere in Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean next year, you'll need a passport to get back into the United States, starting Jan. 23. This includes a seaplane hop to Victoria, a weekend ski getaway to Kamloops or a last-minute package deal to Cancun.

The Travel Industry Association has a one-stop information site at www.getapassportnow.com. See also http://travel.state.gov/passport or call 877-487-2778 for information on how to apply for or renew a passport. Cost is $97 for adults and $82 for children under 16. Processing can take up to six weeks.

You won't need a passport for at least another year for land and sea border crossings, including trips on cruise ships, ferries, pleasure boats and the Victoria Clipper. Birth certificate and photo IDs are OK for now.

Consider the U.S. Virgin Islands or the commonwealth of Puerto Rico if you don't have a passport but still want to go somewhere warm. No passports required.

Hamburger at steak prices

Next year isn't looking like the year to take the family to London. It takes nearly $2 to buy one British pound. This pushes the price of a one-mile taxi ride to $8 and the family admission price to the Tower of London to almost $100.

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Americans will face sticker shock in Western Europe as well if the dollar continues falling against the euro. A 100-euro hotel room cost the equivalent of $89 in January, 2002. It was $118 this time last year. Today it's $130.

It's time to embrace the forint, zloty, kuna and the lev — the currencies of Hungary, Poland, Croatia and Bulgaria — and those of other countries where the dollar is stronger.

The former Soviet-bloc countries in Central and Eastern Europe that haven't yet adopted the euro as their official currency offer loads of atmosphere and better value than Western European destinations. If you've got your heart set on Italy, head to the less-touristed south instead of the expensive northern cities. Consider South America, Turkey or anywhere in Southeast Asia or India.

Have some fun figuring out where the dollar buys more by checking out Economist Magazine's 2006 "Big Mac" Index at www.oanda.com/products/bigmac/bigmac.shtml. This tells you how much you'll need to buy a McDonald's hamburger in different countries, based on the buying power of the dollar. China was the best value, where a Big Mac cost the equivalent of $1.33, compared to $3.10 in the U.S. and $5.27 in Switzerland.

Airfares

By this time next year, there could be at least one and maybe two fewer big airlines. Delta and Northwest, both in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, are in play in what airline experts predict will be a consolidation of the major players in 2007.

Fares rose an average 15 percent this holiday season, and could go higher with less competition.

Anyone who has looked lately for a winter travel deal knows that airlines are holding off longer than they used to when it comes to offering seasonal discounts. The good news is that finding the best fares is easier with sites such as kayak.com and mobissimo.com. They scan for fares offered by consolidators and discount airlines and link buyers to those sites.

The old rule still applies: Search several places before you buy. Example: I found a $137 price difference on the same Seattle/Paris round-trip Northwest Airlines flight the other day, starting at a high of $734 on Expedia.com, then $729 on Northwest's site, $637 on Kayak via a link to Airfare.com and finally $597 on a Mobissimo link to Farepath.com.

Discount airlines overseas offer cheap fare alternatives for flying within Europe or Asia. No-frills pioneers Ryanair and easyJet have competition from a slew of competitors, including Air Berlin, now the third-largest European discount airline, and Slovakia-based SkyEurope, which added flights to Croatia this year from London, Paris and Rome.

See www.whichbudget.com for a list of who flies where within Europe and Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East.

Security

U.S. Transportation Security Administration officials are unlikely to back off the new restrictions on liquids and gels in carry-ons. Most foreign airports now have similar rules. The frustration for most travelers comes in the various interpretations, here and abroad.

One Seattle Times reader reported that a security official in Atlanta confiscated a pewter flask she brought from London in her carry-on. The flask was bigger than three ounces, the maximum amount of liquid allowed in the aircraft cabin. She pointed out that the flask was empty, but the agent insisted she put it in her checked bag for the connecting flight.

Best advice: Play it safe, and put anything you're not sure about in your checked bags, especially if you're coming from overseas and transferring to a flight within the U.S.

Frequent business flyers will be able to sign up for the "Registered Traveler" program at some airports next year. The TSA is authorizing private vendors to collect annual fees in the $100 range and gather fingerprints and other personal information, then issue biometric identity cards that will allow travelers access to speedier lines.

Verified Identity Pass Inc., which operates a test program in Orlando, Fla., is hoping to convince TSA to exempt Registered Travelers from having to remove shoes and laptops, but so far, officials at Seattle-Tacoma airport aren't sold on the benefits and don't plan to join.

World alert

Travel has its risks, but it's not terrorism that most often disrupts plans.

Magazine articles touting five-star luxury amid third-world poverty make it easy to forget how problems can develop in places we don't associate with anything more dangerous than drinking the water.

Ask anyone who had plans this year to go to Oaxaca, Mexico. Political protests and clashes with police turned the picturesque colonial capital into a war zone.

Peaceful Fiji erupted as soldiers rounded up public officials in a military coup. Tanks rolled through Bangkok when troops ousted the prime minister. Earthquakes leveled hotels and cafes in the tourist hub of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Dengue fever swept through Northern India last fall.

As bad as these events were, they were temporary. As sure as people are back to buying up bagged spinach, those of us who love to travel will find ways to keep on traveling, taking home memories of the people we meet and leaving behind a better impression of Americans than most foreigners have from watching T.V. or reading the news.

A holiday greeting I received from Oaxacan chef and author Susana Trilling brought back memories of the afternoon I spent in her kitchen a few years ago learning to make fish in a spicy "devil's" sauce, two kinds of chilies and tomatoes served over fish wrapped in banana leaves and steamed over an open fire.

"The thing Oaxaca needs most is for tourists to come," she wrote in her e-mail. "The food is still incredibly wonderful, as are the people, the crafts, the music, and the fiestas are better than ever. ... "

Clearing brush in Crawford might be safer, but not nearly as much fun.

Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs Sundays in the Travel section. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com.

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About Travel Wise

Carol Pucci's column is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', she'll cover everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture.
cpucci@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3701

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