WHEN JOHN ROBERTS BEGAN HIS search for the perfect honeymoon trip, a friend told him about a great deal on a trip to Hawaii. His first thought was, "Yeah, yeah, it sounds too good to be true."
But then he ran into another friend who had actually taken that particular package to Hawaii.
"He said the trip had been great, the hotel they stayed in was nice and the whole thing had been a pretty good deal," says Mr. Roberts, a local consultant with IBM. "So I called the agency in Illinois and paid $50 for a certificate, which guaranteed the trip, and a $200 deposit. The airline called to confirm the flight, and everything looked good."
A few weeks before the wedding Mr. Roberts tried calling the travel agency to get a final quote on the trip, which had been estimated at between $1,200 and $1,400. Finally, just a week before the wedding, he was told the trip would now cost $2,200.
"I told him we just couldn't afford that and asked to speak to his supervisor. But the supervisor never called back," says Mr. Roberts. "Then I heard on the news that this travel agency was under investigation for fraud."
So Mr. Roberts scrambled to arrange another honeymoon trip. ** He and his bride ended up going to Sanibel Island off the coast of Florida.
"It was a great trip," he says, "but it wasn't Hawaii."
Mr. Roberts learned the hard way what established travel agents are always warning their clients: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Your honeymoon is such an important trip that it's worth taking the time to find a reputable travel agent, advises Courtney Froemming, assistant director of public relations for the American Society of Travel Agents.
"There are so many scams and hidden costs in planning trips. A good travel agent can make all your plans and get you the best bargain."
She suggests looking for agencies that are members of the American Society of Travel Agents, which has its own code of ethics. Companies that have long roots in the community are also good bets. If you have any doubts, consult the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been filed against a certain agency.
"Remember, a travel agency doesn't cost you, and one travel agency has access to the same rates and packages as another agency," says Lisa Huff, owner of Hunt Valley Travel.
Even if you think you've found the perfect trip advertised in the newspaper, at least talk it over with a travel agent, advises Clem Dietze, owner of Dietze & Renner Travel Agents. An experienced agent can confirm the ad and give you more information.
But finding a good travel agency is only one part of the puzzle. Your very first step in planning your honeymoon -- even before you talk to a travel agent -- should be to decide what you like to do as a couple.
"Everybody jokes that it doesn't matter where you go on your honeymoon," says Mr. Dietze. "But it really does. You need to decide what you like to do as a couple."
Since your choice of honeymoon can influence the timing of your wedding, it's a good idea to start thinking about the honeymoon as soon as you begin planning the wedding.
For example, if you like water sports, a January trip to Bermuda just won't cut it. (Unless of course, you like freezing water.) A summer trip to Bermuda or a winter trip to the Bahamas might be more appropriate.
"October was a great time for us to go on our honeymoon," says Debbie Dicker, whose in-laws have traditionally given honeymoon packages to their children as wedding gifts. So far, Debbie and her husband Ted, as well as Ted's brothers and Debbie's sister have all honeymooned at Disney World.
"The weather [in Florida] was gorgeous, it wasn't very crowded and we didn't have to wait for many of the major attractions," says Mrs. Dicker.
Bermuda was at the top of the list of honeymoon spots for nearly every travel agent we interviewed. It's not necessarily the least expensive choice, but it's considered a romantic location offering enough variety to satisfy any number of tastes.
Other destinations popular among local honeymooners are Jamaica, the Bahamas, Mexico, and domestic trips to Southern California, Florida and the Carolinas.
For couples who have more than one week at their disposal and want to go further afield, Hawaii -- especially Maui and Kauai -- Alaska and Europe are top choices.
Before you get too far in your honeymoon plans, be sure to set a budget.
It's in your own best interest not to let embarrassment keep you from being honest with your travel agent, says Ms. Froemming, who just got married herself a few months ago. "Remember, travel agents are regular people and they often have limited budgets, too."
And, don't be afraid to ask questions. Inquire about the %o accommodations, the weather, tipping, possible taxes and estimated costs for activities and meals.
Part of planning your budget means deciding what sacrifices you are willing to make for your dream trip. If you have a limited budget, but have your heart set on a gorgeous hotel in Jamaica, are you willing to eat peanut butter sandwiches most of the week?
Or would you rather find a less expensive place and be able to enjoy dining at fine restaurants?
Mr. Dietze says to keep in mind that, "Often you can't economize on a trip the way you can at home, where there's a McDonald's on every corner."
For couples on a budget all-inclusive resorts such as Sandals in Jamaica can be ideal, he says. "Everything is included, food, drinks, sports, so you know what it will cost up front."
As Ms. Huff says, "The less time spent bickering about money on the honeymoon, the better."
For that reason she also recommends cruises to cost-conscious clients because everything except drinks is included in the price. The Meridian cruise line, for example, has cruises to Bermuda right from Baltimore in May and October, eliminating air travel expenses and hotel costs.
Cruises may not be as private as some other honeymoons, but they do offer a variety of entertainment and usually are geared toward young people, says Ms. Huff.
Another good way to save money is to take an off-season trip. A summer cruise to the Caribbean offers an exotic honeymoon trip, but costs about half as much as the same trip during the fall-winter months, says Mr. Dietze.
Here again, it's worthwhile getting the advice of an experienced travel agent. You don't want to be in a great place like the Caribbean or Jamaica during the rainy season.
"It also helps to be flexible about your departure date," says Ms. ++ Froemming. While traditionally couples leave on their honeymoon immediately after the ceremony, you might find you can afford the trip of your dreams if you take an early Monday flight instead of a late Sunday flight.
After all the plans have been confirmed, be sure to make a last-minute check a few days before the wedding.
Anyone who has been following "Dear Abby" in the last few months has read all the horror stories from readers who've spent their wedding night in the hotel lobby or the ladies lounge because someone forgot to confirm the reservations.
"When you confirm reservations, ask for confirmation numbers," says Ms. Froemming. In addition, remember to ask what type of identification you will need if you are leaving the country. You may need to take a driver's license, a voter's registration card, a passport or visa. The bride may need a copy of the marriage certificate if her tickets and her identification list different names.
It may also be helpful to contact a traveler's health clinic for tips on avoiding honeymoon disasters such as Montezuma's revenge. (The Johns Hopkins University International Travel Clinic can be reached at 955-8931 and the University of Maryland Travel Clinic at 328-5196.)
As a general rule of thumb, you should take along twice as much prescription medicine as you think you will need, and pack over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, antacids, anti-diarrheal medicine and laxatives.
To keep all those wedding presents safe while you are away, you might want to ask the neighbors to watch your home, as burglars often follow the wedding announcements in the newspaper. This may also be a good time to invest in automatic timing devices that turn lights and a radio on and off.
Last, but not least, have fun! This is a trip you will always remember..