Talk about Travel

Jan 23, 2012

Have a travel-related question, comment, suspicion, warning, gripe, sad tale or happy ending? The Post Travel section's editors and writers are at your service.

Hello travel chatters, one and all! Happy Monday and here's a fervent wish that this week's travel news will be much more positive than last week's. The sinking of the Costa Concordia was truly tragic, the kind of event we pray never happens. But it did, and it raised a lot of concerns and questions in the travel community. And because we imagine that you may have continued questions today, we've invited John Deiner of Cruise Critic (and former Post deputy travel editor) to join in our discussion. So fire away at him with any concerns, comments, questions, etc. He can answer general questions, too -- as will all the rest of us. So let's get started, and just to lift our spirits from last week, we'll give a modest prize to the chatter who offers their most positive cruise memory.

I am flying to Prague on May 16th for a travel abroad program. Which is the bestter layover option: 1) DCA to JFK to PRG or 2) IAD to LHR to PRG? I hear Heathrow is a diaster to be avoided. Thoughts? Advice on preferred airlines (bearing in mind I am a poor grad student with 5 star tastes?

I'd probably opt for connecting in New York. Heathrow is big and confusing and you'll be tired when you arrive. Better to wake up at your final destination. As for airlines, Delta flies nonstop from New York, and prices are competitive. 

I recall that there is a minimum 1 hour rule for changing planes. I was to have used "mixed travel" at Atlanta and there was just 45 minutes between flights. No way to make it from one airline to another. I assume that the rule only applies when you are changing flights on the same airline??

Actually, those rules are a part of the reservation system. In order for a connection to be "legal" it has to leave you enough time to walk between terminals. The difference between legal and illegal varies based on the type of connection you're trying to make. If you try to book a connection that doesn't leave you enough time, the system should reject it.

Please inform on a resource for dental implants and restoration work in Costa Rica. Have heard that it is well-known for this and need work done. Thanks

Sorry, we're a travel section, not a health/medical section. I personally don't know anything about this, but perhaps there are some chatters out there who do, so let's ask them.

Going on a Mediterranean Cruise in June and have some questions: Can you provide some thoughts about selecting Cruise Line excursions vice finding our own. Where can you find information about Tours and Tour Operators to consider doing independently. We are 3 couples approaching retirement age. Thank You.

Lots of folks plan their own excursions, but they come with a hitch, and it's a major hitch: You don't have the same protection that you do with cruise lines, which carefully vet the providers. You'll definitely pay more (or mostly will), but for the most part you'll be in good hands. That said, if you check the Roll Calls on the Cruise Critic message boards, our readers frequently get together to plan excursions on their own, and they're a worldly bunch. One other thing to consider: If a cruise line-sponsored excursion returns to the ship late, it'll usually ait. Not so much with private excursions.

The chatter from last week asking for ideas to bring back gifts from Italy. We were there last summer, in all of your detinations. I agree with the leather goods idea from Florence, belts, gloves and purses were great and you can bargain in the markets. As for food stuffs you can bring back hard cheese and olives as long as they are vacuum packaged. The large food market in Florence had them there and we came through customs w/o any problem. In Venice most of our gifts actually came from island of Murano, blown glass perfume bottles and glass ornaments were a great hit.

Terrific ideas, thanks!

Hello! Is there a way to easily search archived travel articles? Much like, um, your competitors to the north where you can find all of the articles on Paris written in the past ten years in two website clicks. Thanks.

Yes, this is a work in progress that we've been trying to clear up since our new web site launched last year. Can we help you find something specific? Not sure if your Paris example was hypothetical!

on the costa cruise they didn't do the drill that is the first thing every other cruise does when you get on board - with the life jackets, etc... Is that true?

It is, sadly, true. Maritime law dictates that a muster drill be conducted within 24 hours of departure, and Concordia's was planned for the next morning -- within the 24-hour time frame. That said, cruise lines vary wildly on when and how musters take place. Huge ships like Royal Caribbean's Oasis and Allure of the Seas usually have the musters in public rooms like theaters and don't require passengers to carry their life jackets. No doubt this is one of the major safety issues that will be reexamined when all is said and done.

To John Deiner, I miss you!

Thanks, Mom! I promise I'll visit soon, or at least call! And I miss you, too....

I'm looking for an eco-tourism resort in Costa Rico for our family of five adults. Any suggestions and tips?

I enjoyed Selva Verde, located about two hours from San Jose. 

I've never been on a cruise, and have always been a bit skeeved about them. This incident has not helped. My question is how well the staff is prepared for emergencies. When flying, I feel that the flight attendants' main job really is safety and security, and a plane with 100 or 200 passengers is much easier to oversee from that perspective. But these megaships with thousands of passengers? How much safety training do the waiters or housekeepers get?

This is a good question, and I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a bit skeeved, too. Just a shocking turn of events, and so terribly tragic. Cruise Critic's news editor, Dan Askin, has been looking into many of the safety questions that have arisen, and he tells me that everyone assigned to muster duty has a tremendous amount of training, and they practice in port constantly. In my own experience, they take their job extremely seriously -- it's the cruisers who sometimes seem to blow off the drill by talking, eating, taking pictures, etc.  Again, though, it's likely that the training will come into question.

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the medical tourism question. That area seems to be booming these days. Thailand for example has whole luxury hospitals catering to westerners and increasingly Middle Easterners looking for good quality health care at reasonable prices. Might be a good future article.

We're certainly not unaware of the medical tourism boom -- see this article we did on the same in Mexico. My point merely is that we're not up on ALL the latest in where to get to get which procedure.

I left my granddaughter's pink iTouch in the seat pocket of an American Eagle plane on 1/4. I checked with their Lost and Found in Chicago and Pittsburgh where the plane went next, spent the night and was cleaned. The iTouch was not turned in there and I was told to contact American's central Lost and Found in Dallas, where you can only leave a message. Of course I left a message but am curious as to whether there are any statistics or any history of what percentage of actual lost queries are successfully resolved.

I'm unaware of any current statistics about lost and found items on planes, and specifically on American Eagle. I can tell you that quite a few lost items end up in the Unclaimed Baggage Center. I'm afraid that's where your iTouch might be headed.

My wife and I are taking my mother to Paris for the first time. We want to go in June (5th-14th), but flight prices are still $1,300 a piece if we book now. Should we snatch those up or wait?

That's for nonstop flights. If you are willing to connect in Reykjavik, Icelandair is offering flights on those dates, with convenient connections, for about $990 per person round trip.  

My wife and I have traveled a lot, but she's now got several illnesses that limit our options. She needs oxygen at night and a c-pap so we'd have to arrange it wherever we go. She can't walk long distances, even a few blocks. I however, am active and like to hike, bike, etc. Can you suggest a travel destination where we could get both? Probably inside the US or a short plane trip, as she has a hard time getting through airports. We live in Minnesota.

Hm. I know it's not far, but how about something like Chicago? It's a great biking town. Nice and flat for your wife to get around when she feels like walking, with plenty of options for when she doesn't.

Cruises have become a much cheaper option for multi-stop travel. How do you expect hotels and airlines to use the latest incident to their advantage? Do you think they'll be offering better deals in popular-cruise destinations? Clearly, it is probably "too soon" for the deals to pop up, but if they are coming, when should we expect them?

By many accounts, the deals just may not happen this time out, thus there would be no extension to hotels and airlines. Just about all the agents we've talked to report no major cancellations or general balking among cruisers -- at least at this time. That said, cruising newbies may be thinking twice about jumping on a cruise ship, so the lines may do some outreach to get them onboard. It's a great question, though, and it will be interesting to see how things play out.

Hi Crew - I live in Hagerstown, which is pretty much equidistant from BWI and Dulles. When booking travel and looking at either airport, I consistently find that fares from BWI are much cheaper. For example, a round trip fare for two people to San Juan in April is $1,000 from Dulles on United and $650 from BWI on AirTran. (I know they are different airlines, but I don't notice that much difference between economy class on either one) I've found the same issue with a Delta flight from both airports to Detroit later this spring. BWI was $200 cheaper! Why is this?

Because more discount carriers, such as AirTran and Southwest, operate out of BWI. AirTran and Southwest are merging, so it should be interesting to see what that means for fares out of BWI. 

My 23 yr old son & I (his Mom) are going to Paris mid - March (his surprise Christmas gift to me!). Could you suggest a vineyard tour (wine or champagne) near Paris? Thanks.

Viator offers a number of wine and champage tours in and near Paris. Not all of them are available in March, but you should be able to find one to suit your tastes. Let's ask the chatters for recommendations as well. Folks?

Where can I find information about barge or narrowboat cruises on the English canal system?

Depends on where you want to go, but here's a list of boating attractions from the England tourism folks. Plenty of canal listings in there.

Hi John! Just wanted to tell you how much we've missed you her on the chats, and to thank you again for the wonderful work you did during your WaPo days. Just to weave the thread back to today's topic, can you provide links re cruise opportunities in the Azores, because floating from island to island overnight, with daytime tours, sounds like it might be a great way to visit there? Here's a link to the article you did here on the archipelago: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/16/AR2007031600749.html

Thanks so much -- I'm genuinely touched. I adore WaPo, and it will always have a huge place in my heart. Regarding the Azores, we just don't have a tremendous amount of Azores content on Cruise Critic, but we just assigned a writer to report back on Ponte del Gado -- which is a wonderful spot.

My husband and I are heading to Costa Rica next month. Our resort offers a discount if we pay in cash (10% off our stay). We're trying to figure out if it's a good idea to take advantage of this and save around $500. I know traveling internationally with over $5k isn't the best idea. Do you know it would work for us to get the amount in a traveler's check then cash it upon arrival? If we call our bank ahead of time, are there convienent ATMs? We're flying into Liberia and staying just outside of Tamarindo. I greatly appreciate your help!

I would be very reluctant to travel with that much cash on your person. The 10 percent discount sounds attractive, but I'd be more concerned about someone stealing the money somewhere along the way. 

My family is planning on visiting West Point for a memorial service sometime in the spring. What is the best way to travel to West Point? Plane and then rental car? Just drive? Is the train an option? Next, are there any B&B or small inns near the Academy or nearby town that could accommodate a family of five? If I'm booking a romantic getaway, I have plenty of options, but for a short, family trip, what should I do?

Yes, the train is an option if you don't mind changing in Manhattan from Penn Station to Grand Central. You can take Metro-North from Grand Central to Peekskill, then cab it to West Point. There's also bus service from Port Authority on the Short Line -- cheap, only about $15 and about an hour and a half drive. You could also fly to LaGuardia and rent a car, but that would be the priciest option, probably. Check out this page of directions that the academy provides. It's up to you which way you want to go. BedandBreakfast.com offers these suggestions for nearby inns, but they look to me more like the romantic getaway option. You could probably find accommodations in or near Poughkeepsie at one of the larger hotel chains. Chatters, your thoughts?

My husband and I took a cruise to jointly celebrate our wedding anniversary and my parents' wedding anniversary. We took our 17-month old son with us and cruised on the older (and much smaller) Costa Riviera. My son was completely enamored with everything on this trip and, due to his fascination with the father-son team who played the accordion & violin as the on-board welcoming and at the tables during dinner, we picked him up a junior sized violin in Mexico. He couldn't wait to show his new musician friends and insisted on taking it to dinner that night. While we were sitting at our table, my son climbed out of his high chair, took his violin with him to the table next to ours and promptly began "playing" for them while singing his 'ABC' song. Imagine our surprise when the people started to pull out money to tip him! We declined but after that, our son was recognized by everyone on board. He took his violin to Western Night & played his fiddle with the ship's violinist who took the time to show him proper hand placement on the instrument, he dressed up in a towel toga and was rewarded with a Roman helmet to wear during the Toga Night dinner and before we disembarked, crew members had given my son a Costa teddy bear and a remote-controlled Ferrari. I have cruised many times, but that cruise and the way the crew members treated my son will always remain dearest in my heart. Oh, and the nightly pasta dishes were melt-in-your-mouth fantastic!

What a lovely story! I hope your son is still playing the violin?

For the person two weeks ago looking for something near Palermo in Sicily, I highly recommend Trapani. You can get there in an hour via a bus from the center of Palermo and it's a lovely, historical, walkable seaside town (and bigger than Cefalu so there might be more to do). There are many delicious restaurants and wine bars too. The very historical town of Erice is nearby and accessible via cable car (with a gorgeous view of Trapani and its salt works). You definitely don't need to drive in the center of Trapani, though you might want one if you want to go farther afield, such as to the ruins at Segesta or to Marsala (or you could likely hire a taxi to take you). Have fun, Sicily is fantastic!

Thanks for the suggestions. I'm with you -- absolutely love Sicily. Before you go, read two books: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and The Stone Boudoir: Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily by Theresa Maggio. 

As a high school graduation present, my world-traveler 70-year-old grandmother took me to London, and for the return trip, we sailed on the QE2. At age 18, I was pretty certain I was the youngest passenger on that particular voyage, but the ship was glorious, and the crew and the staff were particularly gracious to me (I was probably far closer to their own ages). It is also my fondest memory of my grandmother, who has since passed.

Nice, thank you!

Is there a site at which I can say when i want to leave and where I am leaving from and leave the destination blank to see where they can take me? There used to be a site that had packages that let you search that way but now they want a destination and when leaving at the last minute I might want snow and I might want sun depending on what is offered.

Ironically we purchased tickets for our first ever cruise on Jan. 14 (the day after the Italian cruise ship disaster). Our family of four (2 daughters ages 12 and 9) are slated to go on a five-day cruise in December on the Disney Dream. We turned down the option to buy the Disney vacation plan protection as we have until mid-October to cancel for a full-refund. How do we know whether we need to purchase vacation protection?

That's an excellent question. Hard to answer in just a few sententces, but I have a draft of an ebook on travel insurance that I'd be happy to send you. Email me for the details.

I have one day in LA in April, what should I do? I have never been there before. Also, do you have any suggestions for budget friendly hotels near LAX?

For the SoCal beach scene, walk or bike along the trail from Venice Beach all the way down to Redondo. Break for lunch and shopping in Manhattan Beach. For something more Hollywoody, tour the Kodak Theater, home of the Oscars;  Walk of Fame; Grauman's Chinese Theater; and more. It's super touristy but super fun. I would also recommend a hike in Runyon Canyon -- great views and potential star sightings. Also at the top of my list: the Getty Center and the downtown attractions (Disney Concert Hall, by Gehry; Museum of Contemporary Art; Little Tokyo; etc.). You could also plant yourself for the day in San Diego. I know--so much to see!

For hotels, if you are simply looking for a good location near LAX,  check out Hotwire or Priceline and book a chain hotel. For more style, the Custom Hotel is a retro- hipster hotel with tooms from $105, plus tax.

No, not the kind you wear. I read about a class action suit, but my understanding is that for most cruises one signs an agreement to accept binding arbitration in the case of most disputes, with the site of any hearing or lawsuit to be of the cruise line's choosing (often outside of the U.S.). Has this ever been successfully challenged in court?

Yes, some ticket contracts have arbitration clauses. Costa's applies to any claim not involving physical or emotional injury, illness or death. Here are the details. (Fine print alert!)

With so many low wage employees from around the world on a cruise ship, what's to stop a crew panic like the one experienced on the Costa Concordia. It's nice to think things would be like in the movie Titanic where the crew tried to get people into the lifeboats as the band played, but the reality is likely the crew would be the first into the lifeboats and the passengers would be on their own. It would be like the Ringling Brothers tent fire when all the animals survived by 165 people died.

Boy, there's a lot of talk about the question of "Is chivalry dead at sea?" I've seen lots of stories about the dog-eat-dog scene at the lifeboats, regardless of the whole women-and-children-first axiom. And let's not forget about the horrid actions of El Capitan. You just account for human nature in these sorts of things, but it seems that many, many people stepped up in this hour of need, since so many people were saved.

Do you have any suggestions for a reasonably priced, well-located (fairly near subway), quiet, family friendly hotel in NYC? A quiet room is very important to me - the walls in many hotels are too thin. My daughter is 12 and we are planning a trip by Amtrak during spring break.

JANE TOUZALIN: I recently stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn on W 35th Street -- reasonably priced, quiet. Subway entrance was not far away, and the location was great.

In June the Le May car museum in tacoma, wa is schedule to open. It is to have many vintage cars.

Thanks for the info! We'll have to look into it.

I've been on several cruises, and I'm fairly sure that the muster drills I've participated in won't really help if the ship is capsizing. You wouldn't be able to find a way to get through a sideways ship to your muster point. That said, the safety reviews on an airplane really wouldn't help a lot in the case of a real emergency either. So, I guess what I'm saying is I wonder if muster would have saved lives or not.

Excellent point. The drills don't tell you what happens when the lights go out, or how to get on  a lifeboat when the ship is listing 20 degrees. In fact, if you're not actually trying on the life jacket because they're not required at some drills, then you're not even getting that sort of instruction across. One thing the muster would have done, though, is instruct first-timers on where to go, which may have allayed some of the panic.  But it's hard to say....

Have you considered one of those mobility scooters for your wife? As long as you're visiting a fairly level place with smooth pavement, she should be able to keep up with you, maybe even go faster!

Lufthansa via Frankfurt and/or Munich. Free booze!

I submitted this early, but am not sure it went through. I'm going to be in Western Europe (France, Belgium, Germany and possibly England) for three weeks in June. Am I better off with linen tops and skirts or microfiber? I think I need something that will be pretty durable; linen tends to get limp pretty quickly (also, I found some microfiber skirts with pockets--yay!). Any thoughts?

I'm a big microfiber fan for traveling. No wrinkles! Roll it up and throw it in the suitcase! Linen is cool, but it not only gets limp but also wrinkles and just looks kind messy. That said, I don't actually think late June in those countries will be all that hot. Another reason to go with the microfiber. Chatters, agree or disagree?

Our cruise from New Orleans to Cozumel set sail a couple of hours later than planned, so when we finally got on, most of the other passengers went straight to the dining rooms. My boyfriend Jack and I decided instead to explore the ship, and we stumbled upon this great musician, this funny singer-songwriter, harmonica-guitarist by the name of Jim. We introduced ourselves and chit-chatted for a bit. To our surprise, Jim remembered us and for the rest of the cruise and whenever he was performing and saw us, he would give us these loud shout-outs that just got funnier and funnier as the days went by. Our favorite: This one goes out to Anna and Zach! Married 25 years today! They got married when they were two! The funniest thing? Jim always got my name right, but kept changing Jack's. What a hoot, and what great memories of our first cruise together.

Fun!

We are interested in taking a trip to an island in the Caribbean for the Christmas holidays this year. We are open to leaving 2 to 3 days before Christmas Day, on Christmas day, or the day after Christmas. Our preference, being the most economical time to go. We are planning ahead so we're ready to make reservations at the best rates/location for our group. There are six legal aged adults in the family (Four young adults 24 - 31). We would like to seriously consider an all-inclusive resort that has decent food offerings and activities. We would need two rooms per night. I'm not sure what is reasonable. Perhaps, 1500-2000 per person for the length of the stay? A five to seven day stay is our preference. Many thanks.

Christmas is a pricey time of year to travel to the Caribbean. Airfares are high, and hotels are expensive. Take a look at package deals being offered by companies such as Liberty Travel, Apple Vacations and Vacation Express.  You group sounds well-matched to an all-inclusive. Destinations with lots of choices would include Cancun, and points south; Dominican Republic; and Jamaica. 

Would welcome recommendations about fine dining and the more authentic ethnic Epcot options onsite at Disney World. Three generations traveling, all adventurous cooks/eaters, and so many choices we'd rather not waste time on mediocre food. Thanks!

It's been a long time since I was there. Any recommendations?

I have been looking for the past couple months for reasonable priced flights from RIC to either airport in Jamaica in April. All I've seen is $680 and higher, which is ridiculous. I can't believe I can find a great deal at an all-inclusive resort but can't find a decent priced flight. Do you think there will be any last minute flight deals to Jamaica from RIC (heck I'd even take National or Dulles)?

Are you looking around the Easter/Spring Break holidays? That could account for the high fare. Fare from Dulles is running about $417 round trip for nonstop flights later in month. 

I received a cruise vacation as a graduation present and took my partner on a 7-day eastern Caribbean cruise on one of Royal Caribbean's mega ships, at the time the biggest ship in the world. It was the most relaxing vacation we've ever had. We'd spend the day exploring, and then order up cocktails and a snack and sit on the balcony as the ship left port. We'd take an early evening swim while the rest of the ship had dinner, and then eat in one of the a la carte restaurants or cafes for a late dinner. Years later, we still talk about lounging in the sun and watching the clouds during the At Sea days.

Sounds blissful!

I am going on a trip of a lifetime trip to Botswana for 2 weeks. I have no pre existing medical conditions or anything that should derail this trip, so I am torn on how much coverage to get through travel insurance or if I should even bother at all. It is an 8000 trip and I am thinking I should get it in case of trip interruption due to the amount of charter flights I have set up. Any suggestions?

Yes, get it. If you're spending that much, you'll want to protect your investment. Also, consider additional protection through a company like International SOS, which offers health and security coverage when you're overseas.

Hi Team - Love your articles and could really use some help here. Situation: Two couples in their late 20s are looking for an all-inclusive five night beach vacation in May. We have narrowed it down to Punta Cana or Riviera Maya. The goal of this trip is purely to relax on a picturesque beach. Which do you prefer? And do you have specific resort recommendations? We are looking to spend no more than $3000/couple. Thanks!

I've stayed in both places, and they each have pros/cons. Like the beach in Punta Cana. Like the surrounding areas, and comfort of going off campus, in Riviera Maya. Both offer easy transport from airport to hotels. More nonstop flights to Cancun, which is a plus.  All-inclusives dominate in both locations. Most recently, I stayed in the adults-only section of the Majestic Elegance in Punta Cana, and it was fine -- food isn't gourmet, but it's edible, beach is nice, and it would likely be in your price range. 

My husband and I had our first child about six moths ago and we're really getting a handle on this whole parenting thing. We visited our families over the holidays (both out-of-town trips) with much success, so I was thinking it's time we try to go somewhere just the three of us. I'd like the destination to be no more than a 3-4 hour drive from DC. We like outdoor activities, like hiking and x-country skiing (hiking more likely with a tot), but we know we'll have to tone our activities down a bit with a kid in tow. What would you recommend?

Seems like a ski resort or resort area is your best bet. Think about Wisp. They have cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Plenty of hiking opportunities around there too. 

The Sunday travel section story on Big Bend brought back memories. I was there ten years ago, and couldn't go rafting because the Rio Grande's water level was too low. We did a two night backpack up through the Chisos mountains, which was strenuous but spectacular. We camped near the cliff overlooking the river, and at dusk thousands of cliff swallows starting flying around. We also visited Guadalupe National Park on that trip. Both of these are very uncrowded parks. But you really should go in the spring (AFTER the college spring break is over) or fall, not summer.

Sounds like you had a magical Big Bend experience as well. Agree on the summer--sounds like vacationing in  the center of the sun.

Several years ago we took a cruise in Hawaii and missed the drill because it was held prior to the time of departure. We had spent the day touring and were told when we had to be at the ship to sail. Nothing was said about a drill. Also as I recall, the storage for the life jacket was at the top of the closet beyond my reach. The excursions were great but we're not interested in cruising again.

Interesting that you never had a drill -- I think these sorts of stories will come out more and more and time progresses. And good point about the life jacket: If you don't know to look for them, it's easy to forget where they are. I've seen them mostly tucked into the bottom of closets, but if you couldn't reach it, that's ridiculous -- and scary.

Hi :-) Thanks for taking my original question. I'm traveling to Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam in mid-April and would love to be able to access your archives and recommendations in all three cities. I liked the NY Times articles but I am a loyal Washington Post fan and very much respect your travel opinions, in particular.

OK, that helps. We don't typically break things down by city, but here are our pre-new-web-site-launch archives for France, Belgium and the Netherlands. And one on Paris.

Here's a recent story we had on Amsterdam. And a "Midnight in Paris"-inspired article.

In March 2012, I am planning a trip to Patagonia, followed by a week in Buenos Aires. I would appreciate suggestions of hotels or pensions in the Recoleta neighborhood. I am also interested in apartment/hotels. Thank you.

We did this story on Buenos Aires that may be helpful. Check out the details box. And of course let's ask the chatters.

I'm attending a conference at the Hilton Caribe hotel in San Juan at the end of April. Do you have any recommendations for cheap places to stay that are not hostels? There will be a group of us, all grad students, so price is at the top of everyone's minds. We'd like to stay either near the conference hotel or in Old San Juan. Hotels, B&Bs, or apartments would be great. We'd appreciate any advice you have!

You might want to rent a villa or apartment, then you can double the savings and cook at "home." Check out Caleta 64, which rents apartments in Old San Juan (the properties sleep at least four).  Also: Coqui del Mar, which has a range of accommodations starting at $69 off-peak; or the Canario Boutique Hotel. There is a also a collection of small, family-run inns called paradores, with a number in the metro area. For the inns, see here.

Travel Gurus, I would love to take my beautiful wife of 25 years now on an anniversary getaway. Price is very much an object, unfortunately, due to some recent financial setbacks, but I'd love to take her someplace that will take her breath away, and leave her with great memories. Aruba, the Caymans, and the Virgin Islands are all on her dream list - do any fill the bill of an amazing place that we could find a bargain at that would still wow her? Our travel times could be flexible, but we would love to get away in the late winter/early spring time, if possible. I've been looking at the "CheapCaribbean.com" website - are they good and reputable? I'd love to be able to surprise her with an upscale location, for at least 4-5 nights nights, but our budget probably tops out at less than $2000 total, including airfare, food, and lodging - am I dreaming of being able to find a great island anniversary trip on this type of budget? The limits on our funds had me thinking of all-inclusive, to limit food costs - would this help? Thanks for any help that you can provide!

Congratulations on your upcoming anniversary. The three places you mention as being on her bucket list don't really offer a large selection in the way of all-inclusives. They are a good bet for those who enjoy eating/drinking. But if you don't drink too much, and you're not all that married to  three-square-meals-a-day, you may do better going to a more traditional resort. I'd start by researching airfares at a site such as Kayak to see which of the three offers cheapest flights. And then go to the various review sites, such as Tripadvisor, and to official tourism  sites for U.S.V.I., British Virgin Islands, Aruba and the Caymans to get a better idea of accommodations. I've never dealt with CheapCaribbean.com, but it's been in business for some time.  

Is it possible to show up on the dock, bags in hand, and leave on the next sailing at a very reduced rate? What is the likelihood that a cabin for two (2) will be available? How much of a reduction, on average, off the "best" fare do the cruise lines give to fill a ship soon to be leaving port? Which months during the year is one likely to receive heavily discounted rates, and encounter less crowds at shore excursion activities?

I wouldn't show up on a dock bags in hand to do anything, but you can snag a great deal on a cruise at the last minute for certain (we have lots of them on Cruise Critic). Just about every region has a high and low season for cruising where you can get a deal; we outline them here and say when the best time to cruise is: http://www.cruisecritic.co.uk/articles.cfm?id=133. One thing: Many ships leave at or near 100 percent capacity, so while there are frequently empty cabins onboard a ship, you can't always assume what you want will be available two days before a sailing.

Just back from a Caribbean/Costa Rica/Panama cruise (saw the news about Costa while on board...) and had a fabulous time. What happened is tragic but will not put me off cruising. I always carry a small flashlight with me and encourage others to do the same - this can be very helpful. Anyway...booked a few independent excursions and had a MARVELOUS time! Had one private tour, another with one other person. So much better than being with 50-100 or more people! Not sure of the promo rules in this chat....but the website is time4vacation.com and my agent is Carolyn 800-951-9394. Tell her Sharon sent you. And have FUN!

My husband and I will be in Manchester, England the last week in March and we would like to extend our stay in the UK for 5 -7 days. Given the time of year, would we be better off going south to London, which we have visited before, or do we dare to head to Glasgow and Edinburgh?

How about the Lake District? Beautiful area of northern England. I believe Virgin Trains offers convenient rail service from London. 

Are there options for traveling to Bejing from the Midwest that would allow for segments no longer than 14 hours with a return flight from Bangok?

If you fly, say, nonstop from Chicago to Beijing, you won't break the 14-hour mark --though you may come close if the plane is delayed.  The flight from Beijing to Bangkok is about nine hours, then to Chicago, add another 20 hours, at least. For this kind of route, you might want to call the airline or ask a travel agent for help. However, I am doubting that you can cover these distances for under 14 hours, unless you throw in a number of connections.

Had an outstanding meal at the new pizza place in Epcot last year - apparently they fly in all of their ingredients - including the water for the pizza - from Italy. Delicious and relatively easy on the wallet. Crystal Palace is very good and an excellent value for character dining. I prefer lunch to breakfast, but both are worth it. Fast dining: In Magic Kingdom Pecos Bills (I think that's the name - quick service in Frontierland) is the best option there. Epcot has a nice food court in the "Earth" building.

If you were visiting San Diego for a week and four of your days were in conference at the convention center; how would you spend your time? We will have a rental car, for we will be flying from the east coast. Any suggestions for restaurants, parks, museums or outdoor activities, will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

I'm heading there in a few weeks. Don't miss the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park, which also offers many museums. La Jolla is a lovely place to walk, shop and eat. The bike/walking path along the ocean/bay in Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Mission Bay is fun. I always get a good meal at Cucina Urbana. And while you are attending that convention, make sure you explore the surrounding area: Seaport Village is great for shopping and eating -- I enjoy the Greek Island Cafe -- and the Gaslamp Quarter has great restaurants

When is the best time of year to visit Ireland, and are travel packages available?

I think you can always find some kind of package in Ireland. Summer definitely has the best weather, but it also has the highest prices. Spring and fall may have more questionable weather, but, as with a lot of Europe, they're good times to avoid crowds and get shoulder season pricing.

Do you know if anyof the major hotels in Crystal City VA offer the fly/park option? You can stay the night before the flight, and leave your car for the duration?

Try the Courtyard, DoubleTree, Sheraton and Marriott, to name a few.

Last week on our way to Paris we picked up a card with a chip at the airport, in part based on discussions on this blog. We had a previous bad experience trying to buy a RER train ticket with our regular credit cards and the machines did not take bills only coins. Plus side: the card worked great and we used it in several places including the train station and we will supposedly be able to get our balance back (didn't have time on our return). Downside: the minimum purchase amount was $250 U.S., it was impossible to determine the balance left on the card, and the exchange fee was extremely poor. This exchange rate is their "transaction fee" which was 13%!!!! Other than our experience at the train station, we have never had a problem using our credit cards or using ATMs to get cash. Even at the 3% rate charged by the major banks (although some charge even less - you need to check), getting the card with the chip was fiscally a poor choice.

Interesting info -- thanks so much for sharing! Bummer about that transaction fee.

Original poster here. Thanks for the input; I think I will go with the microfiber. As I'm going to be partly in France, I hope I won't look too frumpy. :)

You won't!

People always check in with Tom about dining away from the theme parks in Orlando, and I can't help in real time since I'm teaching. However, the best place to eat in all of the Orlando area (in my humble opinion, that is) is Luma on Park in the Winter Park area. The chef worked at French Laundry, and it totally shows in the beauty and tastiness of every dish that comes out of the kitchen. My husband and I have been dining there since it opened, and it's never lost a step: the service is impeccable, the wine list and menu are ever changing, locally sourced, delicious, and inventive. Last night, between the two of us we had foie gras terrine, honey crisp apple salad with pork rillettes, tomato salad with basil infused creme fraiche, truffle-parmesan popcorn, duck confit, and lemon curd with tiny, perfect strawberries. The best part is that even when we split a $50 bottle of French Pinot Noir, we got in and out for under $175, which, considering everything we got (and a delightful date night to boot) is totally worth it. We're already planning our next visit (hooray for Valentine's Day, and two birthdays coming up!). Flee the theme parks, people! The food's better out here!

Yes, we recently featured Winter Park as an anti-theme park retreat in the Orlando area.

Flying to Pisa for a trip in September and looking at fares. With taxes, from IAD, the price is $1375. I know you cannot predict the future but I feel that you may have a better idea: is that high or low? I have no idea and obviously can wait if the price will drop but will purchase if this is a good price. Don't want to wait for a sale that may never come.

You could try pricing the round-trip fare from IAD to LHR, with flights from London to Pisa on a discount carrier, such as RyanAir. But you'd have to get from Heathrow to London Stansted. 

ATMs in Costa Rica almost all spit out dollars (and are the preferred currency there). HOWEVER, most US banks limit the amount of money you can take out on a given day.

Thanks for answering the question. I'm heading down to Colombia for a wedding in June and was wondering if you had any recommendations for places to see/things to do. I will definitely detour for a couple days in Cartagena.

How about Medellin?

For the person who wants to get a discount for paying cash, inquire whether a wire transfer would satisfy the hotel. If so, you should be able to arrange for it to arrive the day you check in.

We are getting to Riviera Maya on a Friday around 7pm, we will be only in the area for 4 days and we don't want to miss Chichen Itza. We are debating on the best day to go since it will be a full day. I was thinking going on early Saturday then have Sunday and Monday to just relax, but I wonder if going Sunday will be a better deal for a less crowded visit. Also, any "must see" historic Churches in the Riviera Maya area?

I would not count on it being less crowded on Sunday. Tourists are there every day. Get ready for a long, hot day if you're going to take an organized tour. I'd look into renting a car and doing it solo -- this way you can get a very early start. Don't know of any historic churches in Riviera Maya. Closest venue for that would likely be Valladolid.  

Skip the gaslamp (tourist trap!) and go to Little Italy instead. Not too far from the convention center. And how could you forget to mention Coronado Island?

Hi Crew, Headed to Japan this July and I have a small but visible tattoo on my upper arm. Surfing some travel chat boards, I've seen talk that tattoos are very taboo in Japan (associated with the Yakuza) and that they are actually forbidden at onsen, hotel pools, and the beach?? Will I really have a problem? It's July, I'm sure I'm gonna want to swim. I'm a caucasian female, if it matters...

I suppose it depends on where you're going and whether the ban is enforced at that particular site, based on what I quickly Googled. Who's to say what will happen? I guess you could try to cover it up. If you're surfing, do you have any of those pieces with sleeves you could wear? Or maybe a super-strong little bandage?

Reports about the cruise disaster indicated that passengers didn't have ready access to their passports and were required to turn them in. Why? If so, then passengers should be told to take a copy of the passport and other ID before leaving.

Interesting point...not sure I've heard this angle. A lot of them lost their passports in the disaster and were stranded in Italy while their respective embassies procured new ones. One of our members reached out to us right after the disaster and was in touch with us for a few days while she waited for the Australian Embassy to get her and her family new passports. But it's always good to take copies; I always email a copy of mine to myself so I have it wherever for reference.

I'd also be concerned about the financial viability of any tour company that offers a 10% discount on cash. Is this common? I can understand about prefering one credit card over another, but cash? And I'd want to make absolutely positively sure that it is the tour company that gets/wants the cash, not some place in Nigeria.

I share your suspicion. It may be legit, but maybe not ...

The wreck is awful. But there were so many special circumstances for that line and that shp and that idiot captain that it doesn't affect my general opinion on cruising. Every cruise I've taken has had SERIOUS drill at the start (Carnival, Royal Carribean, and Celebrity) of the voyage. So I won't go on Costa, and I will continue to avoid megasuperhuge ships. Otherwise, no effect.

Yours is the general sentiment we've found at Cruise Critic, though the jury is still out on whether they'll go back on Costa. I've always had a drill as well, and I've been on about 20 cruises.

I'm looking at flights to Cancun for the last week of April. I'm shocked at the prices ($600 - 700 for airlines that aren't Spirit) for even the itineraries with stops. I've gone to Cancun the same week for the past five years. In the past I've paid between 300 and 450. Easter isn't that week so I'm not sure why its so expensive. These prices aren't the new norm are they? Thanks.

No doubt that fares have gone up. But you should be able to get less expensive fares to Cancun, especially if you are willing to travel midweek, by taking AirTran out of BWI -- fare seems to be about $411 round trip for nonstop flights. 

I recently purchased non-refundable tickets on American Airlines for late April/early May, but didn't get trip insurance. Was that a mistake given AA's bankruptcy?

Probably not. The insurance offered when you buy online is usually pretty limited and is unlikely to cover an airline going out of business. You may still be able to buy a trip insurance policy through another carrier, but again, pay close attention to the fine print to make sure a very unlikely Chapter 7 filing would be covered.

I've traveled with a mobility-impaired person and it does take some planning. The good news is, there are plenty of companies that cater to travelers who need to rent durable medical equipment and mobility-assistance devices while away from home. Detailed lists, Google and followup phone calls will be your friends in this process. You can arrange to have oxygen delivered to your hotel, you can rent wheelchair-accessible vehicles, you can even rent power wheelchairs or scooters - which your wife might consider doing for some of your preferred tourism destinations. Many parks and nature reserves have some paths that are accessible to those with mobility impairments, so don't cross them off your list automatically. Don't think about the limitations first, think about where you want to go and then figure out how to make it happen. (Trust me when I tell you that navigating the airport will be the hardest part.) Good luck!

Actually, it's spelled Ponta Delgada (meaning literally "narrow point" in Portuguese, not "point of the cat" -- LOL!).

D'oh! I swear I was a better speller when I was at the Post.

A friend's daughter is spending a semester-abroad in Mexico City through her college. She seems to be quite safe there, but also wants to travel around the country. Could you please post the link to the State Department's latest travel warnings re Mexico? Gracias!

Here you go. But you might want to share with her also our recent look at safe travel in Mexico.

My wife and I were there about 3 years ago, in addition to several other stops in Argentina. Our one error was not checking apartment rentals in B.A. Even in the Relocta area, you can rent a good place for a lot less than an equivalent hotel, AND, if you want to make a few of your own meals, you're way ahead of the game.

Also take a day to go to York--beautiful medieval city. Make sure to go to Evensong at York Minster!

Too true. York is a wonderful city to visit! My kids loved the Jorvik Viking Centre there. 

My partner and I, together with our 9 yo, are planning on visiting Quebec City in late August. Any great suggestions re: hotel, restaurants, things to see. We are on a bit of a budget.

I loved the hotel I stayed at last year, Le Hotel Germain-Dominion, but I'm not sure if it will work with your budget. Restaurants: Great crepes at Casse-Crepe Breton, good fast casual and pastries at Paillard. Tour the Citadelle (the kid will like its goat mascot), visit the Musee de la Civilisation and Place Royale. Get out of the city and head to Montmorency Falls and the Ile d'Orleans.

What is the best way to see Ecuador interior? We are spending three weeks in Ecuador starting June 28, and hope to spend time in authentic Andean villages driving toward the down to the sea, and perhaps scope out some potential retirement real estate. (No visit to the Galapagos.) We generally prefer a lot of unscheduled time to explore new discoveries. Is it advisable and generally safe to rent a car and drive ourselves - do we need to hire a driver or just go ahead and turn travel over to a tourist outfit that can tailor or travels and provide it all? Thank you!

Because the driving is tricky, with steep mountain roads, thick fog and roving animals, I would hire a driver. You can fly to the different cities and hire a local driver for the day. Or hire one for the entire trip. It's also good to have a local who can help you with any language or cultural issues. I have read good things about this driver, Guillermo, who can be reached at gvfacilities@ hotmail.com.

My wife and I would like to visit friends in England and then cruise back to the US (NYC or Boston -- any port is fine). That way, rather than losing an hour each night, we can gain one. But we haven't been able to find a cruise line that does this! Can you help?

Have you looked at transatlantic crossing on a Cunard ship? Seems as if that would fit the bill. 

When I flew from Beijing to Bangkok last November the flight only took about 6 hours, I believe, not 9.

I would like to go on a cruise to Alaska in September which I have heard is one of the cheaper times to go. I would probably depart from Seattle. This is my first cruise experience and I would like it to be an educational rather than a night club entertainment type of tour. I will also be traveling alone. Can you suggest some cruise companies?

For that sort of trip, think about lines like Lindblad, which offers intriguing expedition cruises in the region, and American Safari Cruises. You'll be a hefty premium on these lines, but from what we hear, it's well worth it.

My boyfriend and I bought a livingsocial deal for a weekend in Floyd, VA, next month. We have wine tasting tickets for Chateau Morrisette, but not sure how else we'll spend our time. I went to Floyd with my parents when I was younger and remember the Friday Night Jam, so we'll probably do that too. We're mid-late 20s and open to pretty much anything. Also, any recommendations for where to eat?

Primland Resort is not far from Floyd. You could look into stargazing there, as discussed in this story from a few years ago. It also had a sidebar with some dining suggestions.

Do you hike? There are plenty of trails around Floyd you could try, assuming the weather in February is accommodating. If you're into crafts or art, there are many galleries in the vicinity. Tourists seem to like the nearby Mabry Mill, along the Blue Ridge Parkway; I found it a bit underwhelming, but since it claims to be "the most photographed and recognizable rustic scene in the U.S.," you might want to check it out. The area is best known for bluegrass, as you probably know, and the jams are held every Friday at the Floyd Country Store. Well worth taking in!

Is there any regulation that makes ships practice lowering the life boats on a regular basis? I've been on RC and I swear they do that drill. It seems like a no-brainer to rotate thru the lifeboats on a regular basis, say two per week. That way each crew assigned to the lifeboat gets thru the procedure and the captain knows all the boats are ready to go.

Crew members absolutely have to take part in these drills. According to the SOLAS regulations, which oversee ship safety, every crew member must take part in a fire drill and abandon-ship drill once a month. This includes the lowering of at least one lifeboat.

There is no such one-hour rule. As you said, it depends on the airport, whether it's connecting to an international or domestic flight, the size of the airport, etc. In some cases, 30 mins. may be within the "legal" (allowable, though not by statue) time, but in orders a good hour is needed. Some believe the airines have accumulated enough stats to know what times will and iwll not work, but I usually go with the max. Even IF the airline will put you on the next flight in case of a missed connection, that may not be the very next flight (seats need to be available), and in case of delays caused by weather, Immigration lines, etc. you may, at the least, end up paying for a hotel room.

I am planning a trip to Hawaii during the last two weeks in May. Any advice on how to travel from island to island at a resonable costs? Will I need to rent a car? Any recommendations on which airline has low cost flights from BWI or DCA to Oahu or Maui?

Flights are typically fairly inexpensive. Re: car, depends on what you want to do and where you are. On Oahua, public transit is very good.  No one airline has best fares from our region. If it's very expensive,  you could try booking in two separate tickets -- from here to West Coast, and from West Coast to Hawaii. But you'd need to be careful with this, as it could come back to bite you if you miss the connection. 

Hi Crew - We are taking two tween girls to Philly for two nights this weekend and staying in Old City. Would love some good activities and restaurants. Thanks!

Don't mean to sound too cynical/sexist (and I'm a woman), but why should old 'women first' off a sinking ship prevail today? Obviously children deserve a headstart, and a mother with those children should be able to accompany them. But...why should a perfectly healthy woman take priority over a healthy man if children aren't involved? If chivalry isn't dead, maybe it should be...

Hi there! Planning a weekend trip to Napa with my sister and mom for March. Wondering if you (or other chatters) had any advice on where to stay. Was thinking of staying in Yountville, but I'm open to other areas too. Would be great if we could walk around town and not have to drive everywhere (given all the wine drinking we'll be doing!). Would love a hotel with a spa, but don't want to break the bank either. Thanks -- you guys are great!

Take a look at the options suggested with our story on Napa that ran a few weeks ago. Some of the prices look high, but see if you can find any  specials.

I started to book a trip to London/Spain using my Avios miles and when I was researching hotels realized that the dates we were planning to be in London are right at the start of the Olympics. Am I crazy to keep this vacation pattern? (nothing is purchased at this point). The London part of the trip was going to be July 24-28. I was trying to buy tickets for a soccer match - and while they seem available on the London2012 site, it's only for residents of the UK and I can't figure out the US sites at all. Is this a case for buying a package? Help!

I would honestly avoid London during the Olympics, unless you seek higher prices and larger crowds. If you want an authentic European football experience, wait till after the Games. If you do plan to go, I found tickets for sale on the London Olympics site and through the official ticket seller for Team USA.

Whew! That was, pardon the pun, a boatload of questions. And so many good thoughts and observations. Thanks all for joining, and sorry if we didn't get to your question this week. Come back next week and ask again! Meanwhile, our prize this week goes to the cruiser with the violin-playing -- well, sort of -- son. Send your name and address to me at smardzz@washpost.com, and I'll ship you something soonest. Thanks again everybody, and see you next week.

In This Chat
John Deiner
Managing editor, The Independent Traveler/Cruise Critic and former deputy editor of The Washington Post Travel section
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column, clearing the way through the fog of consumer travel issues. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the acting editor of Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
Recent Chats
  • Next: