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Hola! Last week we left off in Delray Beach, Florida. First my brother Frank came into town, and then we bounced to South Beach. We took the most economical way: Tri-Rail (the double-decker commuter train) for $5 each. It took an hour and a half to get to the Miami Airport station. Thatís Tri-Railís southernmost station, and the closest stop to South Beach. We had no problem finding a taxi that drove us the final 10 miles (15 minutes for $20).

The night before, Frank told me that if I could find us a 4- or 5-star hotel for no more than $120, he would pay for it. I couldnít pass up the deal -- or the challenge -- so I quickly logged on to JohnnyJet.com, and used our hotel search engine. Every travel provider except Hotwire came in over-budget. Because I had such good luck with Hotwire the last time, I went with them again. However, before I pressed ďPurchaseĒ I checked BetterBidding.com. This is a forum similar to BiddingForTravel.com, except BetterBidding has info and tips for Hotwire users (BiddingForTravel does the same for Priceline). As BetterBidding predicted might happen, we ended up with a hotel not listed under BetterBiddingís Hotel List for Florida. We got the Blue Moon Hotel on Collins Ave for $120, plus $19.95 taxes and fees. When I told my brother we were staying at the Blue Moon, he said it sounded cheesy. I agreed.

However, we both checked out the hotelís website, and it didnít look too bad. Of course, I was curious to see if we had gotten a good deal, and what the reviews of the hotel were like. Blue Moonís own website listed it for $169, plus tax. Hotels.com had it at $1 more. Travelocity had the best deal (besides Hotwire): $157.57. So we did get a good deal -- phew! But interestingly, I noticed there were no consistent ratings for it. Hotwire, Hotels.com and Expedia (all are owned by the same company, InterActiveCorp) claimed it was a 4-star hotel. But Travelocity (owned by Sabre) and Trip Advisor (also owned by InterActiveCorp) rated it 3 stars. The reviews were equally different, and can be read by clicking the respective links: Travelocity, Expedia, Trip Advisor. The hotel itself had a sign above the desk bragging about its 4-diamond rating ó thatís from AAA.

When we checked into the hotel it looked nice from the outside. However, when I saw the messy front desk I knew it wasnít a 4-star property. As you can tell from Frankís expression going up in the elevator, he was thinking the same thing. Our room was small but comfortable, clean and cozy. The Blue Moon theme radiated throughout Ė including the shower curtain, knobs and mirror. What I liked best was the small Colgate toothpaste squeeze bottle given as an amenity. I had run out of toothpaste, and this was the first time Iíd seen these little squeeze bottles. The hotel has a small pool and outdoor patio, and the staff was friendly. Most importantly, the location was good: a block and a half from the beach, in the heart of South Beach. After staying there I know why no one could agree on a rating, because I give it a 3.5 (out of 5). Blue Moon Hotel & Bar, 944 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, FL; tel.: 800-724-1623; 305-673-2262.

Like most South Beach visitors, we did not stay in our room Ė or even the hotel Ė for long. We were starving, so the first place we hit was Frankís favorite South Beach restaurant: News Cafť. I love it too, because itís a great place to sit at a sidewalk table and people watch. Itís a trip to see the wide variety of people, from European tourists to beautiful models, and everything in between. Frank likes this place so much that --get this-- we ate here three times in 10 hours (ate dinner, late-late dinner, and breakfast). News Cafe-Miami Beach, 800 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach, FL 33139; tel.: 305-538-6397.

We were in South Beach to kick off Frankís bachelor party weekend. Only someone like Frank -- who has eluded taking the plunge for so long before actually doing so -- could get his friends to throw him the bachelor party to end all bachelor parties. It started off with us meeting some Connecticut friends at the Shore Club. Then Ė well, you know what? It was a bachelor party, so some things are best kept secret.

After breakfast we took a short stroll (okay, a waddle) on the beach. Then we were back at Miami International Airport for our flight to Costa Rica. Thatís where 10 other guys were flying into, and where the real party took place. It was my first time in Costa Rica, and I was amazed at how cheap the airfare is. No oneís ticket cost more than $330 -- and people came from New York, Chicago, L.A. and Florida. Most airlines didnít even have a 14-day advance purchase restriction, so I was able to change my original ticket LAX-SJO (airport codes for Los Angeles to San Jose, Costa Rica) for cheap. A walk-up Miami-SJO fare the other day on American was $209 round trip. Incredible, huh?

I do have a small beef with American Airlines, so please let me rant for 10 seconds. I bought my dadís ticket online at www.aa.com, and they claim I typed in the wrong credit card number. The purchase did not go through. My problem is that the only reason I found it didnít go through was because I called a day later to double-check (most people donít do this). What I donít understand is why American (and other internet companies, because I had a similar problem with Travelocity) donít send emails alerting customers that a transaction did not go through? It could be fully automated; of course, they already have the customerís email. Can someone out there please explain to me why they donít? Iím sure it has to do with cost, but if I hadnít double-checked and if my poor dad had been denied boarding at the airport, American would have lost me as a customer for life. The moral of the story: Always double check to see if your purchase has gone through by calling directly (Here's a list of every airline's phone # and website).

Now that thatís off my chest, letís get back to the Miami airport. None of us checked bags, so it didnít take long to zip through check-in and security. In the short security line I spotted a great idea: a stand with free clear plastic baggies, and a sign alerting passengers to put all loose change, cell phones and whatever else makes metal detectors beep inside. It makes the line go much faster, so kudos to American for putting this in place.

Did you know Costa Rica is just a 2-hour, 50-minute flight from Miami? Itís only 1,120 miles -- the same distance as New York-Miami. I thought it was farther. In addition, I had no idea so many American carriers fly there. American has four flights a day to San Jose from Miami, along with two from Dallas-Ft. Worth, and one each from JFK and LAX. We took the 11:57 a.m., a nice wide body A300 aircraft. TIP: For the best seats in the house check out SeatGuru.com (as you can see Fred and Geoff did not). We arrived on time at 1:47 p.m. local time (Costa Rica is on Central time). San Josť's Juan SantamarŪa International Airport felt like landing in the U.S. The gates were not only occupied by almost every U.S. carrier- Delta, Continental, United, USAir and America West -- but the airport is modern, filled with Americans and has so many godawful fast food chains.

After clearing passport control, the first place my brother and I went was an ATM machine. I had forgotten my Frommerís guidebook at home so I didnít know what the conversion rate was, nor did I look it up online. I thought choosing the middle option was a safe bet. When I pressed the button for 4,000 colons I squinted and took a deep breath, because 4,000 of anything sounds like a lot. But it turned out to be just $8.93. Not only that, but Bank of America charged me $5 for the transaction. Now that hurt! What made it even worse was that I didnít even need to change money, because every place we went accepted U.S. dollars. (Most places gave change in Colons. The current exchange rate is 1 Costa Rican Colon = 0.002234 US Dollars (the other way around: 1 US Dollar = 447.720 Colons. Paper notes come in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 Colons.

Some quick facts about Costa Rica: The population is roughly 4.1 million (96% Spanish descent, 2% African descent, 1% indigenous, 1% Chinese). Landwise, itís about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire together. Everyone speaks Spanish, but most people -- especially in the tourist areas -- speak English too. Thatís a big reason so many Americans are traveling and retiring there.

Everyone told me I did not have to spend the night in San Josť, but I wanted to see the capital for myself. Getting a taxi from the airport is easy. As you're walking out of the airport you see the official taxi dispatch window. You prepay for a taxi. A trip downtown costs $18 USD, and takes 30 minutes (they have their share of traffic). There are also tons of cheaper gypsy taxi drivers willing to take passengers anywhere (including a 3 hour drive to the town of Quepos for only $100 USD). The private drivers stand on the sidewalk near the entrance behind an imaginary line screaming at new arrivals like they are movie stars Ė of course, instead of trying to get your autograph, they want your business. Fortunately, we had a driver and guide with us at all times. Our guideís name was Willie (email: FishWilliam@hotmail.com, Tel: (506) 253-6713/). He was from Flamingo Bay Pacific Charters, the company Frankís friends hired for deep-sea fishing. (They chose Costa Rica because of its world-class fishing.)

Our first stop was a nearby grocery store. We needed to pick out food to stock up the two houses we rented. The grocery store was just like an American one. It was huge, clean and had modern checkout registers. Our three carts included really good pre-cooked chicken, mashed potatoes and vegetables (to eat in the car). Boy, did that hit the spot! Our next stop was our hotel, for a one-night stay in downtown San Jose. Frankís friend Sean, who planned this incredible trip, made reservations at the Holiday Inn. It cost $95 a room, and was in the heart of San Jose Ė right across the street from a park called Parque Morazan. Whatís interesting is upon check-in they hand you the TV remote. The Holiday Inn has dark depressing lighting, throughout their 17 floors, 206 rooms, two restaurants, a pool, workout room, a small casino, and business center with two high-speed computers. The hotel also has free wireless, but it worked infrequently. Holiday Inn San Jose- Aurola, 5th Ave and 5th Street, San Jose, Costa Rica; tel.: 506-2-222424.

Before dinner we all met in the hotel bar. We asked the waiter where we could get something to eat, and have some fun. He recommended The Blue Marlin Bar, on the other side of the park. It includes a restaurant, bar and casino, and is the most popular place in town. It sounded good. When I walked in I couldnít help noticing there were way more girls than guys Ė about 10 to 1. I went to the bathroom, and when I got back to the table I said to the boys, ďI think these girls think Iím a movie star. They wonít stop winking at me, and I even got pinched twice.Ē The guys thought that was funny Ė the same thing happened to them. The dudes at the next table overheard us, and laughed uncontrollably. They told us the women were all hookers, and cost about $100 USD. That brought us all back down to earth -- and back to our hotel bar. Hotel Del Rey; 1st Ave. and 9th St., San Jose, Costa Rica; tel.: 506- 257-7800.

My brother and I woke up early, and met our buddy Joe Lewis after he arrived on the red-eye from LA. This time we didnít ask anyone where to go. Instead we walked around downtown looking for a place to eat. Five blocks away was the Gran Hotel. It looks impressive, and includes an outdoor restaurant. Since opening in 1930, the Gran Hotel has hosted many U.S. dignitaries, including Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and John Wayne. Eating fresh fruit and Huevos Rancheros on the outdoor patio was perfect. (BTW: Almost every restaurant we went to gave us eating utensils pre-packaged in plastic óitís cool that we knew our silverware was clean, but I donít know how good that is for our environment). Although it was roasting and service was slow, the food and views of the plaza and theatre were awesome. I felt like we were truly in Central America. Gran Hotel, P.O. Box 527-1000, San Josť, Costa Rica; tel.: 506-221-4000; fax: 506-221-3501; e-mail: info@grandhotelcostarica.com.

After breakfast, I walked across the street to the magnificent National Theatre. If I could translate their website I could tell you more about it. I know it opened in 1897, and was declared a National Monument in 1965. The interior was even more impressive than the exterior. I felt like I was in a European museum. The beautiful sculptures, ornate interior design and marvelous paintings made this place a must-see. The painting on the ceiling was jaw-dropping (and can be found on the back of the 5-colon bill). Thatís what makes these bills one of the most popular souvenirsóbesides the fact the it cost more to make the cinco Colon then itís actually worth. I bought one at a gift shop for $1. I hear the going price is half that, but I would have paid triple. The theatre still stages productions today, and tours are available for $3.

An hour later we all got picked up and taken to La Casona del Marisco restaurant near the airport. The rest of our party (including my dad) who had just flown in joined us there. We all had great meal (I had chicken Mexicana). I really liked the food in Costa Rica and all the menus are translated. Not only is it very inexpensive, but it was my kind of meal: simple, tasty, and with hot sauce on the side. La Casona del Marisco, Frente a el Parque del Agricultor en el Cacique de Alajela; tel: 506-442-0066.

After lunch Willie, our guide, said the 15-seat private plane we chartered was broken. Everyone gulped. Our choices were to take three smaller five-seat planes, or vans. Everyone gulped again. It was either a 20-minute flight over the high clouded mountain range in small planes, or a three-hour drive in vans over winding mountain roads Ė with no guard rails. I had a knot in my throat, because I didnít like any of those choices. I decided to do whatever my dad did. It turned out that everyone flew. My dad and I jumped in the second plane, and it was HOT inside. We were sweating profusely -- me more than the others, because I despise small planes. Surprisingly, the 20-minute flight was smooth, and although my toes cramped up from curling them in fear, the flight was quite enjoyable. I even made a 20-second video of it.

Next week, we have stories from Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. There we visit a national park to see wild three-toed sloths, monkeys, toucans -- you name it. We hit an incredible beach, and even go on a Canopy Tour. Itís the craziest thing I have ever done! Hasta la vista, baby!

Happy Travels,

Johnny Jet

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    • Can you please send me the website for the inflatable cushion ? Thanks ! Roxy G - Stamford, CT REPLY: Are you talking about the 1st Class Sleeper that was mentioned in last week's newsletter? FYI: Anytime you want to read past issues just go to our Newsletter Archive located on the homepage.
    • Why do you put all of the glam shots of my daughter and the dorky one of me? Carol - Florida
    • I plan on going to Argentina in a few months. I read about your vacay to BA back in 2001 and wanted to know if you could tell me (if you remember) where i could go to get a leather jacket made. Also, if you have any "must sees" that you can remember please tell me! :). thanks. hope you're having a blast in costa rica. (so jealous)lol.......
    • You mentioned something about Tech TV (creating your blog) in one of your newsletters and then again that you are on Tech TV. I used to watch it religiously, but have let it slip for the past several months. When are you on? How often? Looking forward to seeing you - on TV at least. Judy C. - Crofton, MD REPLY: Thanks Judy. I used to do the show a lot, now they moved it to Toronto so I only do it once in a while. Here is a clip from the old one I hope to be on it in April -- we'll see.
    • Thanks for the great book recommendation! I haven't bought it yet, but I will. This book is totally up my alley. Keep up the great work. We all love reading about your adventures. Jenny Williams - Prescott Valley, AZ.
    • I enjoyed this week's newsletter; I try to get down to Florida or Arizona for a spring training visit every year to escape winter myself. I wasn't able to do so this year because of other commitments, so thank you for the chance to vicariously catch a game through you. But don't be so surprised that the U. of Miami Hurricanes might beat a major league team. In the southeast college baseball is a major sport, the way NCAA ice hockey is in New England or the northern Midwest. My alma mater, the University of South Carolina, is building a new and bigger ballpark to replace the 15,000 seat baseball stadium that regularly sells out. I have personally heard Tommy Lasorda (a man who knows something about baseball) say a year in a good college program is comparable to playing a season in a AA minor league. And the Hurricanes are the Yankees of college baseball -- they've made the NCAA baseball tournament for more than thirty years straight. What would you say about a basketball program with that kind of record of consecutive success? What you can say is that they have their pick of recruits. Including quite a few very good ballplayers who turn down pro contracts so they can spend some time in college first to prepare for the rest of their lives. And one baseball game doesn't prove anything. I'm sure, as a New York Yankees fan, you're familiar with the Mayor's Trophy competition between the Mets and Yankees. The first such game was held in 1962, the Mets first season. Now, the '62 Mets were one of the worst teams in the history of the majors, the '62 Yanks one of the best ever. So you know who won that first game in 1962. That's right. The Mets. Gregg Wiggins - Arlington, Virginia
    • I've been checking out your blog and it is so AWESOME. Costa Rica looks like an amazing place to visit. Hopefully, I'll visit there someday. Dean P - MN
    • I have just read your article on your trip to French Polynesia. I am going (hopefully) on a cruise round the islands at the end of December. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your article and the photos they were great and I went onto your website which I thought was really great. I also read about your mom. I also lost my absolutely beloved mummy from liver cancer in August of 2004, we traveled so much together and New York was our special place, from diagnosis to her passing it was 3 weeks, and would I have wanted to do anything other than sit beside her and hold her hand, no because we did so much together, especially our traveling. Anyway, with some money she left me, I have decided to go somewhere very nice, but having traveled so much and having my father live in Portugal where I spend so much time, I could not think of where in the world was left for me to go so my friend in travel mentioned this cruise and after reading your article, I made up my mind to go... I can hear my mummy saying how wonderful go and enjoy...so thank you for your most wonderful article. Lisajayne - London
    • mr. Jet, Although i understand you may, in a good-hearted gesture, have opted to support a friend's endeavor -- ms. Swanko and her literary undertaking -- and perhaps, to subtly promote your own religious perspective, i found the text's inclusion and your summary of its content unpleasant and inappropriate to a non-partisan, travel-centric newsletter. you may well be innundated with slavish praise for the promo but be sure that the dismay i experienced was not, among your readers, exclusively mine. my request: confine yourself to the pursuit, travel, for
    • which your output is consumed. thanks! John Michaan - Los Angeles, CA REPLY: I appreciate your support and comments -- Just an FYI: I have no hidden agenda, just supporting a friend no matter what religion they are.
    • What a great business you have. Its great being able to do what you love, and have Passion isn't it? I love your site and tell everyone about it! Peace, N - Chicago
    • I really love your website. Thank you for all useful information on the website, and I will for sure, to check your website first before making any travel plan decision. Jing - Torrance, CA

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    Costa Rica: No artificial ingredients and no stress on the budget
    Sixty percent of you voted for me to head to Costa Rica for my winter escape. And with this Carolina-sized country working its way up "top destination" lists, it's no wonder. Even though the thought of lush green scenery, pristine beaches, and intense biodiversity will excite you, you'll be more pleased to learn that doing this trip for under $500 was no challenge at all. Click Here To Read Article

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