Talk about Travel: The Caribbean

Oct 21, 2013

Talk about Travel is here to help at 2 p.m. Mondays.
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Hello, everyone! We missed you last week, but we're back. Hope you had a chance to read the stories from this week's Caribbean issue, all of which focused on less high-profile locales: Nicaragua's Corn Islands, Nevis and Turks and Caicos. What are your favorite Caribbean destinations, and why? The most convincing answer -- I am not the biggest island/beach person -- gets a little prize.

And away we go!

corn islands

Any ideas on international trips that would require totally minimal walking? I'm stuck at "safari" (clearly cities seem to be out)... but there must be other sights that can be done well under a machine's exertion?

Short of a walking trip through, say, Scotland or Ireland, you can always avoid moving your legs. Most countries offer bus tours, especially Europe, and you won't be forced to leave the bus (though you will miss out on lots of attractions). You can also take a cruise, which has very limited walking, especially if you ride the elevator and avoid stairs.

For city tours, I took a sidecar tour in Nova Scotia. Or consider a vespa tour in Rome. Here's the story that ran in August.

We recently returned from a trip to Orlando, flying United Airlines in both directions. On the trip south, the plane (757-200) offered free in-flight entertainment. Coming back, the plane (737-800) had individual screens for each seat with DIRECT-TV but you had to pay for it -- $7.99 each. Since it was such a short trip, it didn't really matter but on a longer flight we would have been tempted to have something to do even though $8 is a lot to pay for an old movie. Is charging for in-flight entertainment the new policy for all airlines?

No, it's not. It varies by airline, aircraft and even seat class. If you'd been in first class on that 737, it would have been free. Not in steerage, though. You can see what's available on United by aircraft. SeatGuru also makes it easy to compare between the airlines.

We want to drive one way from Phoenix to DC at the end of the month. Are there any places to get good deals for low prices on rental cars for such a trip? We plan to take about 7-8 days to make the trip.

The only time you'll see decent one-way rental car prices is when agencies want to move vehicles from one area to another. That might happen in May from Florida to New York, for example.  Any chatters in Phoenix need their car moved to D.C.? 

When's the best time to visit Machu Picchu? I've read that Dec-Apr is the rainy season, and I don't like being rained on :).

Define best: If you don't want rain, then, yes, probably best to avoid the rainy season. Crowds will be bigger when it's drier. So that's a tradeoff. You could roll the dice and do a shoulder season trip in April or November. Sorry we can't guarantee sunshine. Here's a little more info.

We want to book a 10-14 day trip to Bavaria for a family of multiple ages, including 4 month old baby, next July-August. We're hoping to stay in one location and make day trips from there (to the fairy tale castes, for example.) Do you have any recommendations for narrowing our scope? Some people will want to hike in the Alps, including the parents of the baby. I understand that unlike the rest of Europe most activities are available in August, but will it be too cold? Any thoughts would be most appreciated!

I moved to Bavaria with my family when I was your baby's age. We lived in Passau, which is farther north, for about a year, before relocating to Austria.

If you want to get up close to the mountains, you might try Berchtesgaden, which is a few hours south of Munich and close to Salzburg. In August, the weather should be really nice, but the weather is never really warm in the mountains, so don't pack for the beach. You'll probably find the most lodging options in Munich, although it's a little bit of a road trip to see real Alps. That said, I haven't been to Germany in a few years.

Chatters, any recommendations for Bavaria with a baby?

Your favorites?

Try coming back next week. Our resident Texan, Joe, is out today... in Texas.

I recently bought 3 tickets for a flight to Ft Lauderdale. When I was looking into rental cars a few weeks later, I realized I got the departing tickets for 6:25 pm, not 6:45 am as intended. When I looked into how much it would be to correct that problem, I found that correcting it would cost slighly more than the cost of the tickets; $200 each to correct each $198 ticket. Incredible! Is there any reasonable way to lessen or eliminate that? Otherwise, the kids will have one less day in the Keys. Whch stinks, but I'm not sure it's worth $600 more for my mistake. Thanks!

If you discovered your error within 24 hours, you can invoke the DOT's 24-hour rule. If not, then unfortunately, the airlines will charge what some feel is an excessive change fee. And yes, in some cases the fee can negate the value of the new ticket. Flawless airline logic, isn't it? I'll be writing something about these consumer-unfriendly change fees soon in a Navigator column. 

I am planning to travel by air to Panama and have the experience of cruising the canal one way and by rail road on the return, starting from Panama City, without having to go through a Caribbean cruise. Is there such a service and if so, where can I get that information? Also, I understand that Panama is a good place to retire since it offers a lot of exceptions to expatriate retirees. Can you provide some input on this?

You can take a half- or full-day boat tours of the canal, depending on how much time you have. Ancon Expeditions, for example,  has a 10- to 12-hour ocean-to-ocean transit tour, as well as a partial transit.  Panama Marine Adventures also offers boat tours.

Panama does attract lots of retirees with its easy living, foreign-friendly property laws and use of  U.S. currency. International Living, which covers living abroad, is a good souce of info. The U.S. Embassy in Panama also has information. I would also touch base with an expat for first-hand experiences and advise. Try Expat Exchange.

I highly vote for St. Maarten, because it's really two islands in one. You have the Dutch side and the French side, and they are both very different culturally with separate activites (e.g. gambling on the Dutch side), in cuisine, in items available in shops, in the language spoken, and even in how people appear on the beach. ;) It has 39 beaches, too, with something for everyone's tastes. It's also close to several other islands, such as Saba, which make it a great launching point for day trips.

What is the best tour company you've worked with in either London, Paris or Rome? We are planning a trip in May 2014 and can't pick! We aren't spending a lot of time in each place so we really need to pay for the tours to get the most of the vacation.

We don't work with tour companies. Chatters, advice?

I'm curious about your thoughts on taking young teenagers (13 and 15) to Europe when they specifically say they are not really interested in going. Part of me thinks they're just saying that because they have no idea what a European trip is really like, but my husband thinks they really wouldn't be interested since we tend to go look at art, churches, etc when we're there without the kids. Should I take them to Europe anyway and hope they like it? I hate to spend a fortune just to end up hearing them complain during the entire trip!

I took my children to England when they were 13 and 11. The 13-year-old was not a happy camper. The entire photo album is filled with smiling mom, dad and daughter, and scowling son. Favorite line: "If I have to go into one more church or museum, I'm throwing myself off the Tower Bridge." We managed to have a good time anyway by going to places such as the Jorvik Viking Centre in York and the London Dungeon. But  if you have strong-willed kids who are more interested in going to the mall (the shopping kind)  than going to a museum, you may not have a great time. 

Hi, Chris - have you heard about any scams involving speeding tickets after returning from international travel? We just received a 'speeding ticket' from France - 5 weeks after returning from our trip. We did rent a car, but we were mostly on the open roads as we took the train out to Amboise, then drove to Sarlat...all French countryside. There were no cameras & we frequently remarked how everyone else was going faster than us. Also, when going through small villages, the streets were quite narrow so we had no choice but to go slowly. The 'ticket' says it happened on Sep 3, which is the day we got the car. Everything but our home address is in French, but I know enough to decipher a couple of things: 1) there are 3 amounts due - all in Euros - depending on when we pay (the least is 46 Euros & the most is 180). 2) They included a form to claim we're innocent of the charge - of course I want to try sending that back 1st, but my husband thinks it will just delay things so that we owe the larger amount. And 3) there is no photo included, just several pages in French, to include the ticket, the claim form & a payment form. Could a scammer have gotten our home address from one of the vendors we used to plan the trip - or sometime during it? I'm hesitant to give our credit card number to pay this, but we didn't come home with 46 in Euros (we would send that if we did in hopes it would solve the issue). So, 2 questions...does it sound like a hoax or scam to you? Any suggestions on how we should proceed? And, I guess a 3rd one...if we ignore it and it's real, could there be a warrant for our arrest if we ever go to France again? Thanks very much for any input you might have.

I've written about a similar problem involving traffic tickets in Italy. I don't think this is a scam, but I receive frequent complaints about these "gotcha" tickets. You'd think the car rental companies might have figured out a way to pass these fines along to us in a timely manner, and without making us feel ripped off. Ah, but we can dream, can't we?

I've been searching for a plane ticket to California for the Christmas holidays, and the price has been hovering around $600-700. I fly to the west coast several times a year, and I have never seen airfare this expensive before! Do you think the price will go down at all?

Please don't tell me that -- I haven't bought my Los Angeles-dwelling daughter's ticket home yet. Connecting flights are usually cheaper, and flying on the actual holidays can save money. Also, look at alternative airports, such as Long Beach for Los Angeles or Oakland for San Francisco. As for a sale, research how many seats are left on the flights you are interested in taking. If the plane is nearly booked, prices will only go up, but if there are still lots of seats, there may be a sale. I would not count on that over Christmas.  

I'd like to take a second family trip to Paris next August. My husband, teen daughter and I would like to visit a second city and would appreciate your suggestions. We already did London (loved the Eurostar). We would like somewhere that is accessible by train -maybe a 4to 6 hour journey, tops. What do you suggest?

Oh, a lot of ways to go with this. You could head to Belgium to check out Bruges or Brussels. Or Amsterdam. In France, you could head north to Normandy or south to Provence. Play around with this really cool tool on the Rail Europe site -- choose Paris as your starting point and then you can use the little slider tool to choose how long you want your ride to be, and it will show you destinations.

Always worth pointing out one more reason to fly Southwest Airlines. Cancel the ticket and get a credit good for one year.

Bonaire! Definitely Bonaire, one of the ABC islands just off Venezuela! I, too, am not a huge fan of sun and sand and beaches, but with my travel partner an avid diver, I wind up in such places once a year or so. Bonaire was different in that: 1) The reefs and the fish are right offshore - so the divers have shore entry diving, and people like me can float on top of the water just a few feet from land with a snorkel and mask and see things that, according to my friend, you often don't see in most other diving destinations, much less in water just offshore. 2) The main town, Kralendijk, is very laid back. I don't remember any duty-free jewelry/perfume hawking, and specifically noted a blessed lack of Tortuga Rum Cake displays. 3) Except for some minor property crime (primarily car break-ins; we were specifically told not to leave anything in the car and not to lock it so that windows don't get broken), the island is very safe. 4) Washington-Slagbaii park is a wonderful change of pace - cacti and iguanas and hills and valleys. 5) The donkey sanctuary is fun. 6) Wonderful choice of food - as upscale as we'd had anywhere, to a shack serving local food to locals, found down an unpaved road - our lunch was briefly interrupted by a bunch of goats crossing the patio slab and getting frisky, but they were chased away by the cashier waving a dish towel. 7) Reasonable prices - getting there is the biggest expense. 8) Though it does get clipped by an occasional stray, it is outside the hurricane belt. 9) Except for divers, a wonderful absence of people on the beaches. I was able to watch the divers arrive, suit up, walk into the sea, then come back up an hour later. In between, solitude. There really isn't much nightlife, but for us, that was a positive. Would go back any time!

My parents and I have all been very happy with Tauck Tours. I went through Great Britian with them. First class company.

My father landed on Normandy Beach a days after D-Day in WW11. I want to retrace ( as much as possible ) his trip through France and into Germany (Leharve in France). Later, the 1st and 3rd armies( led by Gen Patton) joined and entered Renes, France in August 1944. Later went to Paris, Luxemburg, and Holland on the way to Berlin ( where he fought in the Battle at Heurtgen Forest. Any suggestions? I'm 67 years old and never traveled to Europe.

I might suggest you work with a travel agent who can build you a custom itinerary, especially since you're a Europe newbie. Here's a link to a piece by a Conde Nast Traveler editor that has a recommendation for an agent.

our family group will be in bayeux (Normandy) France the last week in December and would like to arrange for a private, guided day tour of the Normandy beaches and other WWII sites. Can you help with contacts (agencies, services, stc.) that offer such tours?

I feel like someone has made a recommendation on this chat before -- maybe they are around to do so again? 

You don't work with tour companies? I thought "Washington Post Tours" or something like that was advertised in the Travel section.

Oh, yes, but huge caveat: We in the Travel section, the editorial folks, have nothing to do with that. Those are initiatives arranged through The Post's business division. We don't take positions on those one way or the other.

Our family will be staying in Bayeus France in late Dec. Some members of the group would like to do a personalized, private tour of the Normandy beaches, etc. Do you know of sources we could contact about such tours? Thanks

More on Normandy! Folks?

Just returned from a fabulous two week trip to Turkey and Greece where we spent some time in Athens and took a 7 day Holland America cruise to Istanbul, Cesme, Mykonos, Ephesus, Lesvos. Upon embarking on the cruise ship they insisted on taking our passports (in Athens) and held them for us (like, you couldn't get the passport if you wanted it) until the conclusion of the cruise. Meanwhile, we were off the ship in both Turkey and Greece...with no passports in our possession. Trooped around in all sorts of places, not on cruise ship excursions! We had American driver's licenses and photocopies of the passport with us. Have you ever heard of this before? Was this safe for us to be out and about with no passport in our possession? One time I was on the TransMongolian Railroad between Mongolia and China and the Chinese authorities came through the train and took our passports to inspect and stamp them...but I had expected that and was prepared. This cruise ship thing made me and my sister the lawyer very nervous. Always appreciate your perspective and advice!

Yes, this is fairly common. When I took a riverboat cruise a few years ago, they took our passports. Some hotels will do that, too. It made me nervous, but they always returned the passports. I think it's safe to be out and about without passports, unless you're trying to cross a border. Try that without the right papers, and you could end up in a Turkish jail. That's probably not the kind of vacation you want.

A friend is getting married at an all-inclusive hotel on the Guanacaste Peninsula in Costa Rica this spring. Here is the thing... I have enough FF miles to get me to San Jose, but it seems that it is quite a distance from San Jose. Is it fool-hardy to make the trek via car from San Jose? Should I take a plane to the airport in Liberia? Or should I not use my FF miles and fly to the Liberia airport directly from the US?

Not sure where you are going on the Guanacaste Peninsula, but the drive is going to take at least four hours each way. Major roads are generally fine, but secondary roads can be problematic. Have you priced out doing a domestic flight between San Jose and Liberia? 

In response to the question from two weeks ago about what to do in Israel on a Saturday (Shabbat), as someone who lives in Jerusalem and has played "tour guide" for visitors on the weekend, here is what I can tell you: 1. Saturday is a great day to visit the Old City. Although the businesses in the Jewish Quarter will be shut and photography is not permitted in that area on Saturdays, the Muslim and Christian Quarters will be bustling and sites and stores will be open. 2. Some museums in western Jerusalem are open on Saturdays, including the Israel Museum and the Islamic Art Museum. 3. Bethlehem is an easy half-day trip from Jerusalem, it might be a good destination for a Saturday. There may also be organized tours to the Dead Sea or you could go there if you have a rental car. Just keep in mind that public transportation (both intercity and intracity) doesn't operate from about 90 minutes before Shabbat starts until about 90 minutes after Shabbat ends. 4. Hotels continue to serve food to guests, and the new "First Station" complex has restaurants that are open on Saturdays. I know less about Tel Aviv (I've never spent Shabbat there) but my understanding is more restaurants will be open than in Jerusalem, and I'm sure some museums and other tourist attractions are too. And of course, the beach is open at all times, weather permitting. Back in Jerusalem, you may want to make it a point to go to the Western Wall on Friday night to take in the scene or to one of the other synagogues in the city, some of them are quite unlike the options that exist in most American Jewish communities.

Super, thanks for all the info.

I wanted to address an issue someone raised last week about having to wait in long lines at the airport to clear Customs. While Customs and Border Protection officers were not furloughed during the government shutdown, they have been facing funding shortages and staffing issues due to sequestration. Congress recently approved legislation to hire more officers but that hasn't happened yet. Overtime has been cut so officers who would be willing to stay to help clear passengers have to go home. So if you hate waiting in long lines, blame Congress and the agency, not the harried officer who is overworked, overwhelmed and serving her country. Call your congressional representatives: tell them to restore needed agency funding.

I wave my flag in support of that!

We (2 parents/2 elementary school aged boys) are interested going to Disneyworld in 2014, and doing it right - staying on-property, going during off-season (understanding it's always pretty busy), going to several of the parks, etc. However, when I check out the Disney website, it's totally overwhelming - there are so many choices. Lodging, meal plans, park plans - I don't know how to figure it all out. Is there a resource that can help with planning? Is a Disney specialist travel agent a good idea? If so, how can I find a reputable one? I'd call Disney to ask, but I worry they'd just try to upsell me to the most expensive properties/plans. I would appreciate any advice!!! Thanks!

Anyone have a Disney specialist to recommend? AAA helps too with Disney. But I think given the time you have, you can probably also do it on your own. There are also lots of sites out there that you can look to for guidance, such as AllEars.net. And, of course, play around with Disney's own tools. Especially if you're just doing stuff online, you won't be under any pressure to be upsold.

Lodging shouldn't be too hard to figure out, if you know about how much you want to spend per night. The different resort tiers Disney has make it easier to figure that out. The less expensive resorts aren't as centrally located and rely on buses to get you to the parks. The more expensive ones are within walking distance or accessible via monorail.

It probably pays to get a package that includes park tickets. Should be cheaper that way, especially the longer you stay.

Meal plans? I remember my family not being all that crazy about them, since they may sort of restrict your freedom on where and what you eat. Anyone have insight on that?

Would you feel comfortable waiting till you arrive in Bayeux, then just asking during your hotel check-in for a recommended guide? Although I haven't been to that area, my experience elsewhere in Europe has been that most hotels have lists of local guides, including those fluent in English, and they've turned out to be excellent (or even better!).

Good advice.

I did a private tour with Dale Booth (www.daleboothnormandytours.com) . Check out Travelocity for reviews of him and other tour guides.

All right! One recommendation. Thank you very much.

I'm new to this process. How do I view "live" responses to questions?

You will see new answers pop up throughout the hour, from 2 to 3 p.m. when we are "live." Then the complete transcript stays posted on the same page for... eternity.

My (now) fiance and I traveled to Anguilla last summer. WONDERFUL. Underdeveloped and quiet with great food. The locally caught seafood (mahi mahi, crayfish) make for excellent and healthy meals. We stayed on Meads Bay during the "off season" in June and we were often the only 2 people on the beach. And when we weren't, we were 2 of 4. It felt like we were on some private. Did I mention the perfectly blue water and white sand?! Even better, Anguilla is close to St. Maarten, St. Barth's and Saba, which makes for easy island-hopping :-)

This isn't really a question but more like travel information. I rented a car through Orbitz a few months back. I picked the car up at Dublin airport-Europcar/National Car rental. My insurance co told me that I had blanket coverage even overseas under an umbrella policy. But the rental agency in the airport told me that I had to have their coverage or a special policy issued only in Ireland. I ended up paying more for the insurance daily than the rental and I had to give them a 1600 Euro deposit-for damages. Orbitz told me that they didn't control that and couldn't help me. I don't know if this is common but I think people have to be aware of this. Hope this is helpful.

Thanks for the warning. Yes, Ireland is one of those countries where your car insurance or credit-card coverage probably won't work. I've heard of only a few cases where insurance was accepted -- definitly worth a separate story, listing all the countries and car rental requirements. I'll add that to the list.

My wife and I loved the idea of a 7-8 day European River Cruise in 2014...until we saw the price of about $4,000 apiece without airfare. All the river cruise lines are comparable on price. Is there a lower priced alternative that will provide a similar experience? We were thinking about the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

River cruises are more expensive than most ocean-going cruises because it's a very different experience. Food is upscale, wine & beer is included with meals, daily shore excursions are included, and the cabins are plush. Plus there are far fewer passengers. There are cheaper river cruise lines, although most of these cater mostly to non-English-speaking guests. I'd look at tourism organization sites for the area you want to visit. The Danube River Tourist Commission, for example, includes a list of all cruise companies that operate on the river. 

Virgin Gorda, no doubt. We have visited many islands, but we keep going back to Toad Hall on VG--we rent the house with 2 other couples. It's near the Baths, so you can enjoy an amazingly beautiful spot among to boulders when the cruise ship people have left for the day. No casinos or much nightlife, which is as we like it, but enough restaurants to keep us entertained. Otherwise, good snorkeling at Savannah Bay, swimming at The Crawl and Spring Bay, and hanging out reading books. Complete relaxation in a magic house in a magic place. We're going back for the 9th time in February.

right outside DFW Airport in Grapevine is Mi Dia From Scratch...very high quality, innovative TexMex...and they do make everything from scratch. Downtown, try YO Ranch for steaks & game. Hibiscus gets great reviews--haven't been, but going for my anniversary tomorrow! Bob's also for old-school steakhouse, Al Biernat's for see-and-be-seen. St. Martin's for romantic French, Smoke for BBQ. Folks here eat out a *lot*...there's plenty to choose from!

Dallas diner, here you go.

I've been to Playa del Carmen, Mexico many times, and have noticed it it popular with wheelchair and motorized chair visitors. The main promenade- La Quinta (Avenida 5) is a smoothly paved pedestrian street and has 40 blocks of shops and restaurants, and the beach is just a block away at the foot of most of the cross streets.

 My husband and I are celebrating our 5th Anniversary on November 21st. We would like to take a 7-8 day trip to Greece and Turkey. Our budget, including flights, is $3,000 (approx). We have found reasonably priced airfare to Instanbul, then Athens.

We have many questions: 1) How should we break up the trip? (Days/Nights - Turkey vs. Greece) 2) What once-in-a-lifetime sights must we see? 3) Should we book a budget/discount tour - OR - do a "self-tour"? 4) What should we avoid? (i.e. overrated, unsafe, tourist trap or scam) 5) Should we rent a vehicle, take taxis, or bus (public transit)? 6) Is it recommended we use a travel agent or agency? (never done that before) 7) Specific travel guides, books, maps or websites we should visit to "do our homework"?

We recommend starting with guidebooks or tourism offices. I never leave the country without my Lonely Planet. For that budget,  I might also limit your trip to one country. If you plan to go in November (the clock's ticking), you might think about Turkey, since Greece is best when you can enjoy the warm weather and beaches.

For specific planning advice, perhaps some of the chatters can help out this Greece- and Turkey-bound traveler?

bad thing is that's **all** that's available on the aircraft that have it...no free audio...and there goes my favorite Channel 9 listening to the cockpit/ATC conversations. Another sacrifice to the almighty buck!

This is where it pays to have your own devices for entertainment! Which, let's be honest, most of us do several times over.

...technically it's not in the Caribbean -- but our favorite spot is Bermuda! Been on three cruises to Bermuda, and flew there once for a week long stay. Great beaches, friendly people -- it's the best!

I have been getting some interesting emails from a company called YMT Tours. They also have sent me some attractive brochures. They offer escorted bus tours in the US and elsewhere. I have asked 2 travel agencies about them and neither agency has heard of them. Is YMT Tours reliable? What do you know about them? Are they a good value?

YMT Vacations, formerly Your Man Tours, has been around since the 1960s, and it's known for providing value-priced group tours to mature travelers. If you're looking for luxury, probably not a good fit, but if you're more about the budget, might very well work. 

I'm still looking for some help in getting info on exchanging our house here in Arlington with a house in the Center of Ireland (Athlone area). Anybody???

We did give you the link to our house swap story from a few years ago, right? There are resources in there. Other than that I'm not sure what we can do! 

Hi - thanks for answering my early post! I'm planning to take a train trip from either Chicago or Minneapolis to Glacier National Park with my elderly but fairly sturdy parents. My parents love the outdoors, and we want to go while the glaciers (and my parents) are still around. When would be a good time to go? Any sights we shouldn't miss along the way? Any advice about getting around the park with people how are capable of walking but not hiking, if you get my drift. Do you know if they are any particular resources for seniors? Thanks again!

You'll probably want to stick to May-September, when the most facilities are open. It's when most everyone else goes, but there's a reason for that -- it's the best weather. Here's the park's page on accessibility. I think that should help. For wider inspiration, have a look at our Glacier story from a few years ago.

I just wanted to mention to the traveler who wishes to take teens to Europe that it is all in the city (cities) they choose. I lived in Germany with preteens for two years and they still rave about our travels. They absolutely loved Rome, Amsterdam, and Spain. The German castles were a hit, but definitely not all those churches!

Good point. 

Just wanted to pass along an excellent bit of information that we received from our wine steward at Sterling Vineyards (whose name, unfortunately, I do not remember). We were bemoaning the fact that we could not get into the big parks - Muir Woods and Yosemite - during our trip because of the federal shut down when that wonderful man directed us to Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, CA, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco. Since it is a state park, it was open and for $8/carload, we got to drive in, park, walk around, and see some amazing trees. What could have been a missed opportunity turned into a great adventure. One caveat - the town itself is ... um ... rustic so either bring in a picnic lunch or hit the Subway (sandwich shop) on the way out.

Excellent. It's awesome to have our national parks back, but I'm also hoping the shutdown has opened our eyes to some of the lesser-known gems of state parks.

You can do it without a tour company...honest! I am a 60 year old mom, traveling with like-aged women, and I have done Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Beijing with the use of Trip Advisor, a couple good guide books, Rick Steves (books and audio guides) and Home Away apartment rental site. We have used well-reviewed guides from the sites for lovely private tours, not cattle drives of tourists, many of whom are just interested in tshirt shops and finding the bathroom. You have so much more control over your experience when you make the plan yourself. Just used Rick Steves audio tour of the Acropolis (free, loaded onto smart phone or Kindle) and can't imagine a more informative or interesting visit there. Had great private guides, hired through Trip Advisor recommendations, for Istanbul, Ephesus, The Coliseum, The Vatican, etc. And you get to walk around and look at what YOU are interested in...not rug shops, glass factories, etc etc.

Here's my vote for the Turks & Caicos. Incredible mix of beaches, snorkeling, laid back atmosphere, and wonderful people. Taking a boat out to West Caicos and snorkeling / exploring was a highlight, but so was eating dinner at a little outdoor restaurant right on Grace Bay (appropriately called Somewhere...). And walking out hundreds of feet into Sapodilla Bay -- that was pretty amazing.

We went there on our honeymoon and it offered exactly what we were looking for: quiet beaches and total relaxation. The beaches are clean and beautiful, the people are really friendly and we loved that no matter where we went, there weren't very many tourists - or people for that matter. Lovely place and definitely going back.

We worked with Aegean Thesaurus Travel, www.thesaurus.gr, and they were wonderful about recommending where to book and how long to spend there. They took care of everything is and was much cheaper than booking ourselves. Also DON'T DRIVE!! They are absolutely crazy there. We walked and took public transit and taxis and were fine. The acropolis is absolutely worth it, as is Istanbul. I like the views of Santorini, but would avoid other super popular places.

I got an e-mail notice this weekend and was asked to "accept the change" which I did. The quesiton is what would have happened if I hadn't done that. Would they have cancelled the ticket? Released my seat reservation? Nothing? By the way, the changes were simply indicating that my arrival time was one minute earlier on the trip out and seven minutes later on the trip back which was *almost* trivial enough that I resented being told. The subject line gave me a start until I could open the message and saw how small the changes were.

You probably would have been connected to an agent, who would either authorize a full refund or try to book you on an acceptable flight. It's refreshing to hear that airlines are proactively notifying their customers of even the smallest changes. It almost makes up for all the times they forgot to tell us about the big ones. But not quite.

Hello! My wife and I are heading to North and South Dakota next month, our last two unvisited states. We're flying into MSP and driving a loop thru Fargo and Watertown. Any recommendations on what to see, where to stop, shop and eat? Any highlights we shouldn't miss? Thanks for considering our question! peace

Definitely check out this lovely piece by Post staffer Rachel Dry from the other year about her quest to follow in Steinbeck's footsteps.

Go to your local library and check out the book "Unofficial Guide to WDW" -- easy to understand guidance, good data, realistic touring plans, and good info on hotels, web sites. weather, what to pack, etc.

I've been looking for a long weekend getaway to a destination not much more than a 2-hour flight, and a few Canadian cities meet that criterion. However, it seems flights there are more expensive than flights to American cities that are a similar size and similar distance from DC. Is this just the airlines' choice to up the fares to Montreal / Ottawa / Toronto, or are there actually extra charges to cross the northern border? Thanks!

Price is based on supply and demand, and season. There is likely a higher demand (and more planes) for flights from DC to Los Angeles than DC to Ottawa. Taxes do come into play as well. For example, taxes for a December flight to Los Angeles are $22; to Ottawa, $106 (including Immigration and Naturalization Fee, and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Fee). However, you can find good deal to Canada: Check out sales on Porter Airlines and Air Canada.

My wife and I want to go to Coast Rica to one of those places where you study Spanish half the day and enjoy the country for the rest. How do I find out what the best places are?

Here's a page with suggestions from Andrea's story a few years ago after she took a language course in Mexico City.

...which Caribbean islands are the most conducive to tourists getting to go out and around exploring, and mingling among the locals? It's sounded to me from comments here in the past that many tourists go to the Caribbean just to hole up in an all-inclusive resort, so they can avoid the local scene entirely (especially if it's impoverished and/or dangerous), or at most take a well-protected guided tour.

For more cultural experiences, I would recommend Barbados, Curacao, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Grenada and parts of Jamaica (the eastern coast, near Port Antonio, for example).  With the caveat: Know where you going and bring along a friend. No island, just like no city or state, is ever a true paradise.

In addition, I am a big fan of St. Johns, which has amazing nature and warm (and quirky) residents.

 

Hi there! Recently moved to the area from New Jersey. In the past we spent Christmas week in Vermont and enjoyed snowmobiling up at Stratton Mountain. Since we're not going to be able to make it up there this year, I was wondering if there are any places within a reasonable drive that offer snowmobiling? I realize the snow likelihood is significantly less but one can always hope!! Thanks

West Virginia is good for snowmobiling. Think about Snowshoe.

My husband and I want to take a delayed honeymoon to French Polynesia/Bora Bora/Tahiti next summer. We are planning on ten days, and hoping this is a good time of year to travel in this area. Where should we begin? Any suggestions on flights, activities, lodging - including those lovely huts over the water? Many thanks.

Take a look at Air Tahiti Nui. It offers a good selection of travel packages through different tour operators. Weather is great in July and August. 

Six friends, living in D.C. and San Francisco, want to meet for Presidents Day weekend somewhere warm that we can all reach by direct flight (and sort of in between). We don't want a city, and we don't need much in the way of activities -- just a pool/beach to sit by and some good food. Any ideas? In an ideal world we'd find a place to stay with both a kitchen and maid service. Should we try Cancun? Tulum? Someplace in the Southwest?

There isn't any obvious place that's midway between the two cities. I thought of Galveston, but you don't want a city. Maybe South Padre Island in Texas? Cancun is going to be a much longer flight for the SFO crowd, but there are nonstops, which makes it easier. 

Last night checking in for my American Airlines flight from Ecuador to Miami, the agent told me their system showed I missed my connecting flight yesterday morning (Miami to my home city). My electronic ticket clearly said that that flight was THIS morning and the agent admitted that there was some sort of error. Nevertheless I was forced to pay $300 for a bogus "changed" flight. What steps should I follow to recover my money?

Oh no! Here are some executive contacts for American Airlines. If that doesn't work, send me an email, and I'll try to help.

I've been tracking that flight since summer and it's been 500-700 - way higher than usual. However, I changed my dates slightly (leaving the week before Christmas and returning on Christmas day), and the fare dropped to 370. So - you might see if you can adjust your dates a bit.

We just got back from the Royal West Indies in Providenciales. Were there Oct 5-12. So curious if your reporter was there the same time. Beautiful calm water and sand. Go!

Not sure when Valentina was there, but the story has been done for a little while. So I doubt you crossed paths!

We will be staying at the Riu Palace. It seems to be a 40 minute ride from the Liberia Airport, and domestic flights aren't quite as cheap as I had hoped!

How adventurous are you, and how much time do you want to spend driving? If your time is valuable, you may not want to devote two half-days to driving across the country, especially before and after long flights.  Bus service is also available, but with luggage and connections, not sure you want to get into that.  

Vieques, Puerto Rico! You all covered it a couple of weeks after I got back about two years ago but some highlights: the most amazing bioluminescent bay that feels like you're swimming in stars. One of the most memorable experiences I've had traveling. Untouched beaches that go on for miles and you take a bumpy, unpaved road to go, and a few sleepy towns where you don't feel like you're being judged for being the tourist ruining the town. And of course, you can still use the dollar and don't need a passport. Amazingly beautiful AND easy - what's not to love?

In 2008 a friend and I went to Norway and I have submitted responses to questions about Norway in this chat since then. Last night's episode of Amazing Race was set in the Lofoten Islands which we visited. The economy is driven by fishing and tourism, mainly Brits and Italians. The scenery is spectacular. I would heartily recommend visiting there and watching the episode if you are at all interested.

Yes, Norway does seem like a spectacular place to see.

Low on time, low on scheduling flexibility, low on money, high on desire. I know, a pretty impossible combination. But I'm looking for a quick international trip before the year's out, the week before Christmas. I've been trying to figure out what places are the cheapest to get to (aside from Mexico as I've been there many times before) and am up for pretty much anything. Is there a list of a few countries to which there are typically cheap flights from the US? (I'm in D.C.) I was thinking of the Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, or Panama area. Farther south seems to get more expensive, and farther Caribbean-ish also seems to get more expensive. And anywhere else in the world seems to get more expensive. Is this your experience? I'll be at work so am submitting early and won't be able to participate live in the chat, but I'm usually a regular!

I don't know of a list. It's quite cheap to get to Iceland -- you could very reasonably do a Northern Lights trip there on one of those Icelandair packages. Turkish Airlines will frequently pop up with cheap flights to Istanbul, so be on the lookout for that. I'd recommend you subscribe to newsletters from sites such as Airfarewatchdog or Travelzoo to stay abreast of good deals.

Can you please give me some good suggestions for a Caribbean resort, with a great pool, that would be good for us to take our teenagers to? They mostly want to sit on the beach, maybe do some watersports, and definitely swim with some dolphins. They want to go to Atlantis, but that is just too expensive.

Most of the major resorts and all-inclusives, such as Beaches and Sandals, have seriously fun pools. The Bahamas tourism office has some specials at the moment, such as $250 instant airfare savings and $50 dive credit. Check out the deals here

You can also stay at a cheaper property in Nassau or on Paradise Island and buy a day pass to Atlantis's pool area.

Southwest no change fees is a great benefit, but remember that the credit is one year from when you first put money down - not the date of the flight you cancelled. On the Glacier trip, the train trip out is pretty much big sky country - not a lot of scenery. Might be worth looking into getting off on one end (East Glacier) and getting back on at the other (Whitefish, West Glacier) (or visa versa) to get the benefit of the train trip through Marias Pass/the Cont'l Divide. People also like the Issac Walton Inn right off the train line in Essex, but I've only passed by and never stopped.

The baby is little -- put her in a backpack and go wherever you want to go!

Great advice!

Do you have any knowledge about how safe travel is on Honduras' Bay Islands (Utila/Roatan/Guanaja)? Has violence on the mainland affected safety of tourists on the islands? I hope not!!

Here's the State Department page on Honduras, with links to current notices and warnings. Some pertinent info:

Although Copan, Roatan/Bay Islands, and other tourist destinations have a lower crime rate than other parts of the country, thefts, break-ins, assaults, and murders do occur. Exercise particular caution walking on isolated beaches, especially at night. Coxen Hole on the island of Roatan should be avoided after dark.

A group of 3 of us are going to Ireland and Scotland in June, 2014. We'd like to fly into Shannon and stay in Ireland for 5 days. Than fly to Edinburgh and stay for 5 days. Does it make sense to try and buy one way tickets so we can return to the US from Edinburgh?

That would likely cost way too much money. Try pricing it as an "open-jaw" round trip, flying into Shannon and home from Edinburgh. Or, if international flights arriving and departing from Shannon are much cheaper (which they may be because Aer Lingus often offers sale fares to Shannon), buy a separate round-trip ticket from Shannon to Edinburgh.   

What is the best way to order tickets (want an aisle seat) Also, is the New Yorker hotel a good choice for walking to most sites? Looking at 12/6 to 12/8

I would call Radio City Music Hall directly and ask the agent for his/her suggestions on best aisle seat in the house. You can also book online and choose your seat from the seat guide. But I prefer talking to a live person with expertise.

The New Yorker is a good launch pad for exploring Midtown sights. It is also near major subway lines, so you have lots of touring options. The downside: You will bump elbows with the hordes.

How? It was an e-mail. I could have ignored it. Do you think they would have called if I hadn't accepted the change on-line withing a few days?

So sorry -- I thought they notified you by phone. I don't know what would have happened. I have heard of phone systems that handle flight changes in that way. I seriously doubt they would have canceled your flight because of the non-acceptance. More likely, they would have made the change and expected you to show up.

Please suggest reliable tour guides/outfitters (kayaking & hiking) and trustworthy resorts (small or large) for a poss late December vacation in Costa Rica for family of 4 adults. Maybe quiet-charm resorts + great local restaurants rather than 4-star glitter but don't know where to start (except with you, of course!). TY!

Scan this Going Our Way on Costa Rica from the other year. Perhaps some things you can use in there.

Hello! I unexpectedly will be by myself for two days in Paris and would love to take an overnight trip somewhere - maybe wine country? I'll be with friends for a week in Paris itself but due to travel schedules I'll be on my own and probably ready to outside the city. It's in a couple of weeks and I'm a woman in my mid 30s FWIW. Thanks!

Sure, wine country is always nice. Lyon could be fun too.

No question, just some observations from a repeat visitor to Turks & Caicos. My wife and I have been back to Royal West Indies three times since our first visit 10 years ago and have yet to be disappointed. It's a laid back, well maintained property with beautiful landscaping and friendly staff. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and each includes a mini kitchen, an excellent value for the price. We've especially appreciated the free bicycles (one-speed beach models, nothing fancy) that you can check out for a few hours at a time to do some exploring (we once used them to visit the Conch Farm on the northeast end of the island). Over the years, we've seen some much-needed improvements to the Grace Bay area--the installation of actual sidewalks along Grace Bay Road and a well-stocked (albeit pricey) grocery store with a coffee bar, bakery, and deli that gives one other options for quick meals. Our last visit in 2012, we had some memorable meals several new restaurants within walking distance of RWI (Lemon Cafe and Garam Masala). There's very little to do other than relax and enjoy the stunningly beautiful beach (yes, you can and should walk for miles) and the clear water. But that's exactly why we go there when our batteries need recharging!

I would not go until at least July. Depending on the snow levels, Going to the Sun Road may not be open until well into summer.

The only part of the Caribbean we've been to is Key West, if that counts, and it was unbearably hot and muggy the May we were there. I wonder, which Caribbean islands have the coolest temperatures and lowest humidity, and at what time of year? (We're not beach or water people, but prefer walking around seeing the sights on our own).

Key West is not geographically the Caribbean, although it can get just as hot. More importantly, it does not have a Caribbean vibe. If you are into sightseeing and don't like hot temperatures or the beach/water, not sure why you would go to the Caribbean. Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao are more desert than tropical, so humidity is lower. 

I will be in Europe over Thanksgiving and I'm trying to pick between Barcelona or Athens for a couple of nights...Could you help me chose? Thanks!

Not really. They both sound fabulous to me!

I am moving to a retirement comunity a few miles from Dulles Airport. However, I fly to my son's home in Indianapolis on Southwest from BWI. That is my preference because of the senior fares, ability to cancel at any time, etc. Since I will be giving up my car, I need to find a inexpensive way to travel from Dulles to BWI. What are my options.

Well, the cheapest ways I can think of would definitely not be the fastest. That would be getting from your home to the Metro -- you can ride the Metro to Greenbelt and hop on the B30 bus to BWI. Or get to Union Station and ride the MARC train to BWI. The 5A Metrobus serves Dulles -- it will take you to L'Enfant and you can hook up with Metro that way too. You could also see if any of those shared van services such as Super Shuttle would be acceptably priced for you.

Do you have thoughts on the come-ons they do on the plane: sign up today, one time only, for XY credit card and get all kinds of amazing benefits. I have not done it, not liking the sales pitch or pressure, but wonder if they are any good?

Short answer: they are not. You'll pay an annual fee and most of the offers come with significant strings attached. Plus, you could pick up a nasty mileage-collecting habit that will lead you to buy things you don't want or need and give your business to an airline that doesn't deserve it. By the way, I'd be happy to send you a draft chapter from my upcoming book about loyalty programs, no strings attached. Here's my email address.

This weekend, I'll be flying into Burlington, VT and renting a car to drive to Montreal. Are their hidden international fees for traveling across the boarder? What should I be looking for & is there a a rental car company that has a better policy for crossing the border?

I've not encountered hidden fees driving into or in Canada. I, for example, rented in Burlington from Alamo to drive to Quebec City. Most of the major car rental agencies post policies on their site, or you can call to ask. Just confirm the details again when you are renting the car. 

Christopher Elliott's piece on rental car damage charges last week was fascinating. However the real villains of this trend to charge renters outrageous fees for minor damage seem to be not the car rental companies , but third parties like PurCo Fleet Services - the firm mentioned by Elliott . A quick Google search will find plenty of complaints about high fees and threatening behavior on the part of this firm. It seems obvious that legislation is required to prevent firms such as this from behaving in such a fashion - it almost seems akin to extortion. Are the major rental companies aware of the potential damage to their reputations from outfits like this, or is the lure of some easy money too much to ignore? Thanks for this article - topics like this are one of the major reasons I read the Post.

Thank you. That wasn't an easy story to write. Amazingly, some car rental companies feel like the victims and view collection agencies and firms that handle damage claims as tools to even the playing field against the bad guys -- us! I had several heated moments during the interview process, because a lot of car rental folks are honestly puzzled that their customers would see things differently. Fortunately for us, some courts have sided with drivers. Except maybe in Colorado.

Just wanted to report on what seemed to be a very poorly-timed vacation we had planned to visit Big Bend National Park, White Sands National Monument, and Guadalupe National Park from Oct 2-12. As a furloughed federal employee, it was particularly frustrating. We ended up searching for state parks and found several very nice ones that were open and relatively empty of people. There is a Big Bend State Park virtually adjacent to the national park, which has very nice hiking trails. However, other than the highway bordering the Rio Grande, there are no paved roads in the state park at this point, so access is limited without four-wheel drive. We also visited Oliver Lee State Park in New Mexico (near Alamogordo), which had one very strenuous and beautiful hiking trail, at the top of which one could see the entire Tularosa Basin (including White Sands from a distance). Finally, we went to Franklin Mountain State Park which is within the El Paso city limits. Another relatively strenuous hike up the mountain, which offered panoramic views of El Paso and the surrounding area. Finally, we also went to Marfa, TX, which was not affected by the shutdown, of course. Lesson learned was to make the best of what could have been a pretty sad situation. We had a lovely vacation with absolutely gorgeous weather every single day and were able to take advantage of parks we would not have otherwise seen. Fortunately, it was in a part of the country that is not highly visited, so we were able to make plans on the fly pretty easily.

Good for you. Some people would have just thrown their hands up in the air, but you made the best of a not ideal situation.

I'm going to China, where apparently one needs to bargain for anything one wants to buy. What is the proper bargaining stance? Is this OK: "Are you kidding me? Only a fool would pay that." Or "it's lovely but too expensive for me to buy." What would you recommend as the ideal strategy? Many thanks!

I would keep it simple and courteous and avoid insulting local cultural practices. Say, "Thank you, but I think so-and-so item is worth this amount and that is all I am willing to pay." If they don't match it, walk away. More often than not, they will run after you with that price (but be prepared if they don't).

However, you won't bargain everywhere. Price tags in stores, art galleries and restaurants are set.

RE: cruise passport - just back from a river cruise. They collected the passports AND said that you could get it back in 24-48 hours - that's pretty standard on small river boat cruises. I got mine and kept it in my room safe. I saw other folks having concierge show them their passport, periodically, to ensure it WAS safe. RE: ATM/credit card report - used mine in Finland, Russia and Baltics. At the Finland airport, the machines had two slots - one for ATMS without chips, they would STILL not read my card. Glad I had cash to change. Later, I found an ATM which would read the card. My credit card does not have a chip and I never had problems using it in any reputable establishment. I was conscientious enough to let the clerk know I had to sign (or "no chip") and it was fine.

Travel Gurus - A couple of girlfriends and I would like to get together in the Spring for a fun, spa weekend. We'll be coming from San Jose, CA, Long Beach, CA, Indiana, and the DC area, and were thinking of Sedona, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or Denver. Thoughts on how to narrow this down to a more reasonable planning process? Thanks!

Maybe you should pick the spa rather than the city. Browse through Web sites such as Spa Finder to figure out which offer the desired services, prices and location. 

Travel Gurus: Last week I wrote in with a query about getting advance seat assignment on a Lufthansa codeshare flight while booking through United's website with United miles. I just want to follow up with the resolution as it might be helpful for others. Lufthansa does not allow advance seat assignment for economy on certain intra-Europe routes but does allow for advance seat assignment on intercontinental flights. I booked on United's website with miles. Immediately after I booked, I retrieved my reservation on United's website. There was a hyperlink for "other booking numbers" or something along those lines. When I clicked on that hyperlink, I was provided my booking number on Lufthansa. From there, one click over to the Lufthansa website, entered in my booking number, and voila... seats selected! No phone calls to customer service. Easy!

Glad it worked out for you. Hoping your advice will help fellow travelers.

PLEASE tell me I'm not the first to suggest this. Come on! Beautiful city to spend wander. Fabulous fort. Delicious restaurants (seriously good!). Rent a cheap car and hike the rainforest El Yunque. And you can stay on the beach in the Arlington of San Juan, Condado.

Hi ~ catching THE last cruise out of Norfolk ;-( any suggestions/advice for using the jitneys to get around Nassau? Any suggestions for what to do a night for middle aged non-drinkers? Enjoy reggae and live music....

The jitney is a fun and cheap way to travel. Just be aware that they don't run very late into the evening and you may have to order a cab back to the ship. You can also take the water taxi.

I would recommend Club Waterloo for a nightclub or a fish fry, for a rousing good time.

Well, that was quite a nice hour. Thanks for joining us. You all had some wonderful Caribbean endorsements. My favorite: Bonaire. Donkey sanctuary?! Love it. Please send me your name and mailing address at becky.krystal@washpost.com.

We'll be back next week, same time, same place. See you then!

In This Chat
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
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.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
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