I don't know why I became obsessed with the Baltic States. Maybe it's because I'd already done most of Europe, and they're on the uncharted side -- way up north bordering Russia, Belarus and Poland.
Since I was going on my journey solita, I opted for an escorted tour. I couldn't envision myself sitting by my lonesome at a cafe, sipping whatever it is they sip there, in a place I knew so little about. Madrid, Paris, sure. But Riga? I wasn't even sure I could muster ''Hi'' in Latvian yet.
So I did as any good little Web surfer would do: About two months before I wanted to leave, I clicked over to Google and typed in ''Baltics'' and ``tours.''
My budget was pretty sad. Optimally, I didn't want to spend more than $1,200, including airfare.
After scrounging around on my lunch hour, nights and weekends, still no luck. Tours were up in the 2K range.
SUCH A DEAL!
I was beginning to think my vacation plans were headed south -- as in the Bahamas. But one late night a few weeks into my searching (a little groggily, I might add), I chanced upon an affordable tour operator named Baltic Holidays. Wow: They had a seven-nighter costing only 789 euros -- single occupancy fee included! We'd visit the three capitals by bus with an English-speaking tour guide, stay in ''first class accommodations'' and even get breakfast. Fantastic.
I hastily sent an e-mail, inquiring if they had room.
The next morning, I had my reply: ``We have one spot left. Would you like to book?''
I was so tired of endless ruminating and wanted something to look forward to that I bit the bullet -- how bad could it be? It's Europe! I gave my credit card number.
Over the phone.
The receipt was e-mailed back to me. The total: not $900 (the euro to dollar conversion at the time), but $1,500 and change. Wha? I called the booking agent, Heidi Walker, at Baltic Holidays -- silly me, when I realized it was based in Manchester, England -- telling her there must be some mistake.
``No, she said that's the rate of the pound today.''
''The pound? That rate wasn't in euros?'' I asked, my heart beating out of my chest.
There it was. The ''L'' looked just like an ''E.'' Was I really in such a late-night haze?
Oy -- why didn't I call to doublecheck? The Internet has made it so easy to bypass talking to actual human beings.
NOW I'M STUCK
''Well, cancel the whole thing, then,'' I told her. ``I can't afford that.''
``I'm sorry, m'am, but there are no cancellations once you have given your credit card.''
I envisioned calling Visa, but then thought better of it. I'd be tangled up in phone calls, nasty letters and hassle for months. I'd have to get Zen about this, go with the flow and stock up on ramen noodles.
At least the airfare wasn't bad. An acquaintance who'd been to Eastern Europe had advised me to buy my own tickets, since all-inclusive rates on tours sometimes tend to be inflated. I'd had excellent luck with Expedia.com in the past, and it didn't fail me now. Approximately two weeks before the tour was to leave, I snagged a flight from Miami to Vilnius on FinnAir for about $700.
Still, I was spending much more than I had budgeted -- and more than I actually had in the bank. It was nerve-wracking and hardly the way to start a blissful getaway.
Woe is me? Not really. It was no one's fault but my own, says consumer advocate and The Miami Herald's Travel Troubleshooter Christopher Elliott, who advises booking major overseas trips with a travel agent: ''You'll pay in dollars,'' he says, ``and won't have any surprises.''
So, if I were jetting off to say, Anguilla, for a weekend jaunt, it'd be a different story?
''If it's a simple point-to-point airline reservation, yes, do it yourself,'' Elliott says. ``But if you want something special, see an expert. I mean, would you bake your own wedding cake?''
Even Baltic Holidays' Heidi chided me on my lack of savvy: ''Unfortunately, the outcome is that you can either go on the trip and leave everything as is,'' she wrote after my desperate e-missive telling her I couldn't afford to go. ``Or you can cancel, but you would only get 100 [pounds] back. If you'd had holiday insurance, you could reclaim the rest.''
Heidi, for her part, was just doing her job. She wasn't out to rook me.
''Tour operators are protecting themselves with their policies. They're buying air, hotel and cruises at volume discounts and reselling them to you, so there's some risk involved,'' says Elliott.
''The best way to protect yourself is with an airtight travel insurance policy.'' Right, got that. Thanks.
MAKING THE BEST OF IT
So how was my vacation? On a ranking of A to F, I'd give it a solid C. The hotels were decent, but hardly first class; the tour guide had a serious Lithuanian accent that was often hard to decipher, and the bus rides, as expected, were endless. But I admit, I had a negative attitude going in, feeling a tad hoodwinked, not to mention perilously broke.
Even so, I made the best of it, saw some terrific sights and made some friends. I look back at my pictures with no regrets.
The trip was in August 2006. I made my last payment on my credit card in May, so it is officially behind me. I love to travel, so there's always a next time. Live and learn.
One last lesson: Never make a transaction online for anything when you've had less than six hours' sleep.