The Brancatelli File By Joe Brancatelli
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Your Travel Questions, My Answers
April 30, 1996 -- Time for another round of stump-the-alleged-travel-expert. Well, not stump so much as drive me to my notes and force me to call around and do your homework for you ...

Q: Are Hong Kong hotels offering special deals for July 1, 1997, the date when China takes control of the British colony?
A: Some hotels may announce promotions later this year, but only the Hotel Furama Kempinski Hong Kong (800-448-8355) currently has an offer on the table. The hotel's 4-night "Handover Package" is available between June 27 and July 3 and offers great perks: round-trip limo transfers from Kai Tak airport, daily breakfast, a Chinese dinner for two, a four-course Western dinner for two, free dry cleaning, free drinks and souvenirs. The rate is steep--about $500 a night--but it includes all hotel taxes and the airport departure tax.

Q: How far in advance should I apply for a passport?
A: Under normal circumstances, you can apply for a passport by mail and have it in your hands within a month. This summer, however, allow at least six weeks because the State Department has never recovered from the chaos caused by the government shutdowns last December and January. In April, the passport backlog was more than 200,000 applications. To get up-to-the-minute data and good advice for applying for a passport, call the National Passport Center at 603-334-0500.

Q: I recently stayed at a hotel in Germany rated "first class" and was disappointed with the physical quality of the property. Aren't there any standards for hotel ratings?
A: There are quasi-official rating standards, but you got caught in the system's jargon. The linguistically challenged, 10-level rating system for overseas hotels used by travel agents and tour operators ranges from budget-priced "moderate tourist class" to "superior deluxe," the highest category. A property labeled "first class" is smack in the middle of the ratings pack and the hotel is considered "dependable, comfortable...for average [travelers] not expecting deluxe facilities." If you want a hotel that is truly first class, book a property rated "moderate deluxe" or "deluxe."

Q: Where can I give an accumulation of coins that I've brought home from many trips so that they may be of some good use?
A: Virgin Atlantic Airways has collected foreign currency from its passengers and contributed the funds to worthy charities since 1991. Among the beneficiaries have been children's hospitals in London, Boston, and Tokyo. Although Virgin usually asks flight attendants to collect the coins at the end of its flights, the airline says it will also accept mail-in contributions from readers. Send your contributions to Virgin Atlantic Airways, 747 Belden Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06850.

Q: I have an adolescent daughter who is fascinated with dolphins. Are there any places I could take her where she could swim with them?
A: "Dolphin Quest" allows children to learn about and swim with bottlenose dolphins in a controlled lagoon environment. Among the places Dolphin Quest operates is at the elaborate Hilton Waikoloa Village Resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. Call 808-885-1234, ext. 1288 for more details. Book well in advance since the program is extremely popular with both kids and adults.

Q: Are cruise lines subject to the same consumer protection and liability laws as the airlines and tour companies?
A: The matter of cruise lines and the law is extraordinarily murky. In many cases, cruise operators are subject only to the "law of the sea," which is based on antiquated maritime statutes more suited to cargo crafts and whaling ships than passenger liners. The Coast Guard and federal law generally have jurisdiction over navigable waters in U.S. territory, but several recent court decisions indicate that state statutes may also apply. If you're unhappy with a cruise operator and can't get satisfaction through normal channels, consult a lawyer before proceeding further.

Q: Is shopping in Canada really a bargain for travelers from the United States?
A: Absolutely. The Canadian dollar is worth only about 73 U.S. cents and that makes travel and shopping a financially rewarding experience. For starters, accommodations and car rentals in Toronto, Canada's largest city and best shopping destination, are much cheaper than in New York. (One example: The Four Seasons Hotel charges about $130 a night on weekends in Toronto and $325 in New York.) As for shopping, the best bargains in Toronto are locally produced products: crafts, fashions, shoes, furs and sporting goods. But even international products are less expensive. A watch that Tiffany sells for $375 in its catalog costs about $360 at the Tiffany shop in Toronto. The other cost advantage Canada offers to U.S. travelers is tax rebates: the national 7 percent sales tax and some provincial sales taxes are refundable on goods taken out of Canada.

Q: Can you suggest a good place to stay in Cancun and a good place to find package deals?
A: The best place in Cancun, bar none, is the Ritz-Carlton Cancun (800-241-3333). It sits at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and overlooks a stunning stretch of Caribbean beach. It offers two outdoor pools, three lighted tennis courts, a fitness club, and a full range of water activities. Between June 1 and September 1, nightly rates are as low as $129, which is about 75 percent below the high-season prices. For the best array of package deals at the lowest prices, try Pleasant Mexico Holidays (800-448-3333).

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

This column is Copyright 1996 - 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.