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TRAVEL NOTES

A new way to Mexico

A new route to Mexico is scheduled to open this week with the start of ferry service between Tampa, Fla., and the Yucatan Peninsula cities of Cancun and Merida.

Mexico-bound travelers aboard the Yucatan Express service can opt for seven-day cruise/hotel packages to either city, 11- and 14-day packages including coach tours, shorter trips that include only the cruise and an overnight in Mexico, or ferry passage only.

The ship -- the Scotia Prince -- will be familiar to many who have crossed between Portland, Maine, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where it sails much of the year under the flag of Scotia Prince Cruises. The round-trip weekly service to each Mexican city is scheduled through April when the ship returns to northern waters. The ship can carry about 1,000 passengers and about 200 vehicles.

Seven-day cruise-hotel round-trip packages start from $229; 11- and 14-day cruise-hotel vacation packages range from $359 and $469; "Back2Back Fun Cruises" of 70 hours to Cancun and 86 hours to Merida start at $75. Passage-only tickets start at $120, round trip. Prices are per person, double occupancy and do not include onboard meals, port fees and taxes. The basic prices are for a shared Category 6 "economy" cabin, which includes berths and a washbasin, with communal private bathroom and shower facilities. Vehicle fares start at $298 per round trip for a standard car.

For details or bookings, contact Scotia Prince at (866) 466-3935, Web site www.yucatanexpress.com.

For Cancun, the ship docks in nearby Morelos. For Merida, the port is Progreso, about 20 miles north of the colonial town and 215 miles west of Cancun.

This won't be the first time the Scotia Prince has dipped into the Gulf of Mexico from a Tampa base. In late 1998, the ship began a similar service to Progreso under charter to American Viking Lines, but the service folded after 16 round trips.

Return visit

For the second year in a row, Royal Caribbean's Nordic Empress will be based in Tampa for week-long Western Caribbean cruises. The series of 23 voyages began earlier this month and continues into April. Most of the cruises last seven nights with calls in Georgetown, Cayman Islands; Belize City, Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico. Rates aboard the 1,600-passenger ship begin at $499 per person, double occupancy. Information: www.royalcaribbean.com, phone (800) 327-6700.

A vacation from luggage

Air travelers who have oversize luggage or simply are fed up with airport baggage hassles can consider using one of several services that, for a price, will allow you to sidestep the process of hauling, clearing, checking and retrieving. The companies pick up your bag at home and ship it to your destination, making sure it arrives when you do at a hotel or other stopping point. While the companies have been in business for years, airline cutbacks and long security lines have given their business a big boost. They typically use a company such as DHL or Federal Express to do the actual shipping.

Among them are Luggage Express (866-744-7224, www.usxpluggageexpress.com) and Virtual Bellhop (877-235-5467, www.virtualbellhop.com), both owned by Universal Express of Boca Raton, Fla.; Sports Express of Durango, Colo. (800-357-4174, www.sportsexpress.com); and Skycap International of Anchorage (877-775-9227, www.skycapinternational.com).

A first-class idea

In recent months, Delta Air Lines has been offering relatively inexpensive upgrades to first class in some airports to some booked passengers, on some flights. Now the airline says it will extend the program nationwide and to San Juan and St. Thomas flights. The upgrade program will apply selectively to off-peak flights on which the airline has empty first-class seats and to those passengers who ask to "stand by" for the upgrade, which costs from $50 to $150, based on flight length. A Philadelphia-Atlanta upgrade was going for $50 recently. Delta said the upgrade option would be available to passengers already confirmed and traveling under "many published fares." However, passengers flying on deeply discounted and sale fares are not eligible.

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