q. What's the next Costa Rica?--C.L., Seattle, Wash.
a. There's no question it's Panama -- with more rain forest than Costa Rica, deserted beaches along the Caribbean, and more species of mammals and amphibians than any other country in Central America. Go before the rest of the world finds out about it: in December, Panama regains control of the canal and will launch a major program to attract visitors. Contact the Panama Tourist Bureau in Coral Gables, Florida, for information on outfitters and places to stay (800/557-0017, fax 305/857-0915). Lonely Planet's Panama guide is also a great resource.
q. Can you suggest a rental agency on Maui with houses that would fit a big family?--D.R., Wayne, Pa.
a. Kailua-based Homes & Villas in Paradise (800/282-2736) offers reasonable house rentals throughout the Hawaiian Islands. They have an ocean-view, five-bedroom villa on Maui for $825 to $900 per night, depending on the season. Homes & Villas also leases a four-bedroom Maui beachfront house with a pool for $620 to $850 per night. At both, a seven-night minimum stay is required. Elite Properties (800/448-9222) has good rates for large oceanfront houses with tropical landscaping and great views. Its three-bedroom villas start at $300; a five-bedroom house on two acres along Maui's southern coast is $1,000 per night in high season. For a splurge, Kapalua Villas offers lavish private houses. View pineapple fields and a championship golf course from a house with indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, five bedrooms, an exercise room, and a 480-gallon saltwater aquarium (800/545-0018; $5,000 per night, seven-night minimum).
q. My sister, who lives in Paris, tells me France has something called "action flights," where you buy tickets that have been canceled within the last 24 hours. I'd like to visit her soon -- do we have something comparable in the United States?--Query via the Web
a. In a word, non. If you're looking for a cheap last-minute flight to Paris, you won't find it by calling a major airline. Some U.S. carriers now have short-notice Internet specials for international flights on a few routes, but a popular destination such as Paris is unlikely to turn up there. Your best bet for last-minute travel would be to ask a consolidator, or to try a major wholesaler like France's New Frontiers (800/366-6387; www.newfrontiers.com), which has its own airline. Consolidators contract with airlines for blocks of seats at deep discounts, reselling them to the public with their own markup. They could save you hundreds of dollars for short-notice bookings; in early June, we found a New York-Paris round-trip at $410 on a flight the following week. For a listing of reliable consolidators, consult the U.S. Air Consolidators Association Web site at www.usaca.com. Another option is an on-line bidding site, such as Priceline.com or the European Travel Network at www.nameyourflightprice.com. But be cautious: if you submit a bid that's accepted, you'll be billed right away, with no changes or refunds allowed.
q. Is it too late to get tickets for the Sydney Olympics?--M.P., Denver, Colo.
a. You still have time. Cartan Tours (800/841-1994) is the official U.S. Olympic ticket agent; prices range from $8 to $14 per person for preliminary events -- soccer, field hockey, judo -- to $1,054 for premium seats at the opening and closing ceremonies. Check out the Sydney 2000 games schedule at Cartan's Web site (www.cartan.com) and then submit your ticket requests by mail. Orders placed before September 15 receive priority; the games will be held September 15 to October 1 next year.
E-mail your questions to AskTL@travelandleisure.com, fax them to 800/926-1748, or mail them to: Ask T&L, 1120 Avenue of the Americas, 10th floor, New York, NY 10036. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.