Talk about Travel

Feb 04, 2013

Please note that Talk about Travel has now moved to 2 p.m. Mondays.
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.

Good afternoon, chatters! Welcome back to our fun hour of happy talk about all things travel. Didn't you love our lead stories this weekend, about learning Greek in Ikaria and doing yoga in Costa Rica? And picking up some valuable insight into good living and well-being on the way. Hope you enjoyed my Inn BoonsBoro Bed Check, too, as well as our fabulous romantic Bed Checks roundup, looking ahead to you-know-what day. For our question this week, let's hear about your best experiences in learning (something, anything) abroad. (Mine was my junior year in Vienna -- the greatest!) Most edifying story wins the prize!

Now let's chat.

We are gong to Ireland where we will be renting a car to get to all the destinations we are interested in. Is there a way to practice with a computer driving on the other side of the road, do you have any tips? Any ideas will be helpful. Thank you!

This simulator promises the ability to practice in right or left-hand traffic. Note that, unlike you, the simulator doesn't make a judgment about right and wrong... ;-) Having said that, depending on your general driving ability, you may not have too many problems. I get used to it pretty easily. It helps to start off on roads where there is some traffic, so you can follow along. Turning is where people seem to make mistakes.

Hi - We just returned from a cruise to Cozumel and Key West. Several people were late getting to the ship in Cozumel and were left behind. I'm curious as to how they'd get back. They did have their passports as we were in Mexico. Thanks.

They may not have had their passports. You don't need a passport on a cruise that begins and ends in a U.S. port. I think it's a good idea to carry a passport, or at least a copy of your passport, especially if you prefer doing your own thing over the ship-sponsored excursions. Without a passport, they would have had to take a taxi to the U.S. embassy and then they would likely wait a day or two to get their papers in order. They would then have to fly, on their own dime, to the next port, or to their home, depending on timing. It's an expensive mistake.  

I've spent lots of time abroad and learned lots of different things, but I think my prize goes to my junior year in Paris. Of course I improved my French, learned how to work with French bureaucracy, and learned which crepes make the best lunch, but I think what I learned the most was how to be a grown up. I learned how to cook for myself every night. I learned how to make new friends when you're not surrounded by people your own age every day. I learned how to get to work though metro strikes. (something which I have not yet had to use here in Washington!) And I learned that even though I prefer having my family close by, I am ok on my own too.

Yes, those are the greatest lessons, aren't they?

Where can I swim across the Rio Grande from Mexico to the US or vice-versa? I can swim both ways without a problem. I have swum from the US to Canada and across a number of other state boundaries. My grandfather was from Mexico and I think it would be really cool for an American to swim the other way.

At Big Bend National Park in Texas, I canoed from the U.S. shore to the Mexican shore, though according to the law, I could not land on the foreign soil except to reposition my boat. You could easily swim across the Rio here, though I would check with park officials on whether it is legal or not.

Since many illegal immigrants swim this route to come to America, you really should talk to  a proper authority before donning your swim trunks. Contact a long distance or open water swim club, or the State Department.

Has anyone tried a cooking class in Istanbul that they would recommend? We're interested in something that would be a few hours or up to a day long. A class that includes shopping in a local market would be really great!

The folks behind Istanbul Eats -- who took Tom Sietsema around the city awhile back -- recommend the amateur classes at the Istanbul Culinary Institute. Scroll through and look for the ones that specialize in Turkish cuisine, of course. I don't see anything on the current roster that includes a market tour, but the Istanbul Eats tours do include markets.

I'd studied college Portuguese for two years before my first trip to Portugal. Despite having gotten an A each semester, I found that there's nothing like having to use a language in "real life" situations to increase fluency. I learned so much in just three weeks there!

So true!

...to always have some local currency on you. On a trip to Thailand a few years ago, before an elephant ride our guide told us we did not need to bring our wallets on this outing. I left mine behind. The elephants walked along a trail that stopped at some elephant convenience stores (little huts high off the ground selling fruit for the elephants). I had no cash and my elephant was not pleased and not willing to move on without a snack. Fortunately a friend on another elephant gave me some money to buy my elephant some snacks.I learned that in Thailand and in lfe, it is best not to enrage the elephant.

What a card!

Because of the busy work schedules of my wife and me, our summer travels are pretty much restricted to the latter half of July and the first half of August. This year we would like to go to Paris (including a side trip to Burgundy) or possibly Venice. Yet I've always heard (and the Fodor's France 2013 guidebook makes explicit) that Parisians go on vacation in August and the city "somewhat shuts down". Surely in a city that great and that large, there would be more than enough museums and shopping and good restaurants to keep us entertained. Is the "August vacation" claim true and if so, what does it mean, practically, for travelers to Paris? Would we be better off going to Venice? Please don't say we should avoid BOTH cities!

Oh, that old canard. Pay no attention. I was in Paris at the end of August 2011 -- an unexpected stop on the way home from Florence, thanks to Hurricane Irene here in the States -- and I can assure you that the city is still bustling and busy even in that month. Yes, there are restaurants and shops and other businesses that close, but plenty are open, the hotels still cater fully to tourists, and all the museums and major tourist sites are fully accessible. The town is maybe a bit quieter, but in a good, laid-back and relaxed kind of way. It can be hot, but what the heck. It's Paris! Get an air-conditioned hotel room, take a cruise on the Seine, have cocktails in the hotel bars, have a picnic in the park. And drink lots of water. Go, and have a great time!

From The Road Safety Authority of Ireland, these little video clips might be helpful for driving in Ireland. And there's a useful set under 'Driving: Tutorial Videos' from Driving School Ireland.

Thanks!

My wife and I are planning a post-baby trip to get some sun in South Beach at the end of February. It's our first trip with the newborn and our 2.5 year old and want to stay somewhere where we can walk to the action. Internets say Loews is the way to go for kids, but do you guys have any recs? The ritz, Sagamore, or other boutique or is my best bet the Loews?

With little ones, I would stay away from really boutque-y  chic-y hotels. You'd hate for the kids to spit up on a leather couch shaped like a comma. Loew's is a good choice. Others include Fontainebleau and the Ritz. If you are open to another area, consider Acqualina Resort and Spa, Trump International Beach Resort or  Newport Beachside in Sunny Isles.

When you book, make sure the hotel knows that you are coming with teeny tots and reserve cribs if necessary.

Have any of the chatters gone on one of Rick Steves' "My Way" tours? The gist is that the tour provides hotel accommodations and transportation between locations (usually a bus) but that you are on your own to explore each location i.e. no herd touristing. The tours are limited to about 24 people and a coordinator is with the tour to provide advice, etc. We've done several European cities on our own, but the thought of not having to worry about transportation between cities in a place where we don't speak the language is intriguing.

Help us out, chatters.

Hello FC, I'm headed to Panama tomorrow and would love some suggestions of what to see/do/eat in the Panama City vicinity. I'm definitely planning on visiting the canal but that's the only item on the list so far. Can you help?

Take a look at this story on Panama that we ran a couple of years ago. Our author crowdsourced her trip and got some off-the-beaten path suggestions. Have fun!

I went to Ireland two years ago and had to do all the driving (my friend didn't drive stick). It's not as bad as you think, especially since so many of the roads are highways. It helps to have your passenger be engaged and make sure on the local roads that aren't marked, that you stay on your side. Also make sure you always look both ways before turning and go around roundabouts the right (which is LEFT) way!

Last week, someone inquired about obtaining travel insurance for a cruise because her father "is not in the best of health." Be aware that most policies have exclusions for pre-existing conditions. Also be sure to note that some policies have upper age limits. READ THE FINE PRINT BEFORE PURCHASING.

Absolutely. Thanks for the reminder.

But some insurance policies do allow for pre-existing conditions if you buy within a certain amount of time after you purchase the trip. The policy I bought the other week had a waiver for pre-existing conditions for up to two weeks after my final payment.

This is for the question last week from the person going to St. Croix who was wondering what to do on the island. We've been visiting Croix for many years, and a week on the island can be as adventurous or as relaxing as you like. The northwest corner of St. Croix, where the Carambola is (the Marriott resort they will be staying at), is all mountains and rain forest, and the resort is on a great beach with excellent snorkeling and scuba diving right from the beach. If you are a diver St. Croix is a real destination because it is one of the few places in the world where there is a wall so close to shore that you can swim straight from the beach for a wall dive. You will definitely need to rent a car to get around while you are there (especially since the area around the Carambola is a little isolated). Some people are hesitant to rent cars their first time on island because they are concerned about driving on the left with American cars -- it feels a little strange at first, but it is easy to get used to (although it helps to have someone riding shotgun to remind you to stay left). Carambola is about 45 minutes from Christiansted (the main town) and 25 minutes from Frederiksted (on the west coast), but it is also only 5 minutes from Cane Bay --one of the best beaches on the island with several beach bars and good restaurants. There is a LOT to do on Croix, but the thing that I really love about the island is that it isn't geared entirely around tourists -- I think only 10% of the island economy revolves around tourism, and they only get one cruise ship every few days, even in high season. People who visit Croix usually come for the diving (or at least the snorkeling and the beaches), but most first time visitors usually also visit the Cruzan rum distillery, visit the Whim Plantation, take a drive through the rain forest (there is a great little bar right in the middle of the rain forest -- the Domino Club -- that is usually a "must" stop), and take a catamaran sail out to Buck Island and snorkel the underwater trail there (a National Underwater Monument that should be on the "must" list for any first time visitor that has the time to do it). As for visiting the towns, there is some nice shopping in Christiansted, and a few hours there for shopping and lunch at least once during your visit is worth the trip. Frederiksted is less scenic, but it is close to some excellent west coast beach bars where the water is smooth as glass, and the town really comes alive on cruise ship days (the cruise ship dock is at the Frederiksted pier). But for someone staying on the North Shore who is "happy hanging out reading a book or snorkeling," there is nothing wrong with dividing most of your time between the beach or pool at Carambola and the beach and beach bars of Cane Bay, just down the road. No wrong answers!

Wow. Thanks for all that info!

As a college graduation present my daughter and I are planning a trip to Ireland. Although I love independent travel I am nervous about driving on the left side of the road in a foreign country. I am now leaning towards going with a tour, something I have never done before. Do you have any recommendations for companies that might have a mix of ages, not just students or senior citizens?

Are you sure that the driving alone is enough to make you go with a tour? I really don't think it's that big of a deal!

As for tours with a mix of ages, I'm going to punt and ask the chatters for help!

Be prepared for single track roads, there are quite a few in rural Ireland. There are pull outs and which ever car is nearer one generally pulls in to let the other driver pass. One of the errors I make each time I drive on the left is turning on the the windshield wiper when I intended to use the turn signal. I didn't let that bother me, but it can be a surprise the first time you do it. One thing I did for a friends who was really concerned about driving on the left was challenging her to count the number of times she opened the passenger side door thinking that's where the steering wheel was, and then report back to me (with the tacit statement that I'd tease her mercilessly if it was too many). She said knowing she'd have to tell me how many times she did that helped her concentrate on not doing it at all.

Thanks for the words of warning!

Your response about "that old canard," that Paris shuts down in August, makes me wonder: doesn't that make it a good time to go? If the city is quieter and less crowded (and possibly a bit cheaper for hotel rooms), that sounds wonderful. And while it may be hot, I can't imagine that it's any more miserable than Washington in August. So is August the time to go?

Yes, it's a good time to go, apart from the heat. But it also means that you'll be spending more of your time with more tourists and fewer locals than you would normally. So it depends on what you want -- Paris as it is when the Parisians are at home, or a quiet but possibly more touristy Paris. Also the heat can sometimes be oppressive -- they've had record heat waves in August for several years in a row, so you have to be prepared for that as well! I don't think hotel rooms -- or anything else -- becomes cheaper during August, though. Europe is Europe, and that means expensive.

I didn't go abroad until I was in graduate school, and then I went to the Inter-University Program in Taipei. I'd had tons of written language, but spoken language was only covered in first-year Chinese. It took 3 months before I could eavesdrop on the streets or be able to follow a news broadcast, but once it clicked it was so amazing. I went for one year, stayed for five, traveled all around Taiwan, Japan and China; even became a tour guide in China for a while. My most amazing trip was with the San Diego Zoological Society, and going to see the pandas in the mid 80's. We had to move rocks out of the road from a rockfall to get there!

Fabulous!

I learned the hard way to just spend the extra $40 sometimes. During the heat wave of 2003 I had a 24 hour layover in Frankfort after self-paid weekend tacked onto a work trip and opted for the cheap and "charming" hotel over one that was slightly more. So hot, so uncomfortable, no AC anywhere in the city, really. Well, except for the other hotel I had bypassed to save a few bucks. Found out later I was pregnant, no wonder the heat made me so crabby!

That lesson is not to be beat!

... but I learned in St. Kitts that if strangers on a sailboat anchored in the middle of an otherwise empty cove wave you over, it's worth it for you and a friend to swim out and take advantage of the polyglot conversation and freshly cooked lobsters that the crew just speared and cooked. In other words - when it feels safe but totally out of the norm, take a chance anyway!!

Thanks!

I'm looking to take a Christmas vacation Dec. 15- Jan. 4 to Europe and I'd love to use frequent flyer miles. When can I start booking? I've never actually used my frequent flyer miles before, anything I need to know, any suggestions for good flights?

You can book on most airlines about 330 days in advance, so I'd start looking today. You'll likely find that nonstop flights to popular cities, especially if there's not a lot of competition on the route, will sell out first. Airlines limit the number of frequent flyer seats available on each flight, and there are blackout dates. 

I'm traveling to Turks at the end of may for a group family vacation. What's a reasonable 1-stop fare from DC to Provo? Right now I'm seeing roundtrips in the low 500s. Buy now or should i wait it out?

I am seeing fares that are a whisker under $500 on American.  Turks rarely to never goes on sale. I would grab it.

My wife (non US citizen) still has her maidan name on her passport because it is (was) easier to travel home. I thought I read in your chats that it's acceptable and a marriage license was good enough to prove she was the same person as on the airline ticket. Her green card has her picture as does her passport. Her green card also has my name on it. She has traveled overseas this way 3 times until yesterday when American Airlines wouldn't let her on the plane because her name was different. I had to call the airline (Lot) to get it changed. Of course, I had to cancel this ticket (for a $200 fee)and buy a new one. Lot didn't have a problem with the name difference but American did. We usually fly United for the Chicago leg and never had this problem. Has something changed or is American being jerks? By the way, the flight was late and she missed her connecting flight and is now stranded in London for 14 hours.

I'm sorry to hear about your wife. The name on your wife's ticket must match her ID or passport. American could change the name on her ticket, but it is basically bound by the same rule. The ticket agent should have been able to make that change without a fee, since your wife showed that she was the same person. One other thing to keep in mind is the 24 hour rule, which would have allowed you to correct the name, as long as the change was made within 24 hours of booking the ticket.

I am a middle aged active person who wants to go on a week-long trip with my 88 year dad, who has limited mobility (walks, but slowly). We don't want to do a standard cruise as he's done many of those already. Somewhere in Europe would be wonderful. I've checked out Elderhostel, but most of their trips are too long. Any other resources you can suggest we explore? There must be many others in our situation. Thank you..

Check out the resources on this page. Anyone have recommendations?

I went on a meditation retreat in Germany and though I have never studied German or heard much at all, I learned lots of terms about breathing, stretching, sitting and walking. I can't find a bathroom or order food but I can breath...eins, aus, eins, aus!

Lustig!

Greetings All! Submitting early today, as I may not be available during Live Travel Chat. Can anybody help with suggestions for reasonably-priced (?) Escorted Tours of Ireland into and out of Shannon Airport? Three adults - ideally wanting to travel in July this year; alternatives are June and August. Journey to start and finish in Tulsa, OK. Many thanks. Any help appreciated.

Sceptre Tours has very well-priced escorted tours, though you are traveling during peak season. Also check the prices at CIE Tours International and Gate 1 Travel.

I have plans to travel to Italy in June starting in Rome and ending in Venice [but I could leave from another major city like Milan, if necessary]. I am exploring airfares, and the fares of all of the major airlines are high [in my opinion] and set at about the same level. However, fares of the Russian Aeroflot are substantially less but I would have to change planes in Moscow -- likewise, Turkish Airlines' fares are less than the other major airlines but I would have to change planes in Istanbul. Flying to Moscow or Istanbul to reach Italy seems excessive. What do you know about these airlines [Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines] and what do you advise? Should I wait till it's closer to June in the hopes that fares of the other airlines will be more competitive?

I'd be more apt to fly Turkish Airlines than Aeroflot. Take a look at rankings at Skytrax, a Web site devoted to reviewing airlines. Also, make sure you pay careful attention to the layovers. If you have to stay overnight in Istanbul, you may not save all that much unless you're willing to sleep in the airport.  I'd keep tracking the fares for now, as they do seem extremely high. 

When I was young, my parents moved to Italy (my dad was in the military and had been stationed out there). My parents, intent that we and they would get to truly experience life over there, decided not to live on post. Instead, they lived in a small Italian town, and quickly immersed themselves and us in the life, culture, and language there. My brother was born there, and he and I were enrolled in an Italian Catholic school, and Italian was pretty much our first language. My mom and dad had us all jump right in, and everyone learned Italian quickly, made friends with the people in town, and it was a wonderful experience. Even now, so much in my life is influenced by the time we spent there—the way I pronounce things, my food preferences, and my love for experiencing new things. The best way to learn a language or about a culture is to throw yourself in fully—something I have since done (when I went to Ghana in 2003 and China in 2011).

Definitely, immersion works!

Re: OP w/question about hotels in Miami for sun, sand and surf w/tots, I second the choices of Loew's and Fontainbleau, even though I have never stayed at the former and have stayed at the latter. There's also the Fiesta Americana and other hotels that have pool activities such as a slides and grottoes. I hope the chatter will also get the opportunity to sightsee around Miami, e.g., going to Wolfie's for brunch and the Miami Seaquarium, along with the Everglades. I remember my first trip to Miami way back in April '72; my family did some of these things too, although we stayed at the grandparents' place rather than the hotel.

I'm thinking of taking a trip to Ecuador in late May (inspired in part by your article on Quito). I plan to spend a week there, and due to time constraints I don't plan to try and visit the Galapagos Island (I feel that would be a seperate trip in itself, or require investing another week in the trip.) I would definitely like to spend some time in Quito, and then thought about taking day trips or overnight excursions to Cotopaxi, Mindo, Otavalo, Pululahua or Quilotoa (not necessarily all of these, but those are some of the day trips I identified). Does this sound like a reasonable plan? Am I crazy to go down there but deliberately NOT visit the Galapagos? My logic is that I would like to combine some hiking and adventure tours with the basic creature comforts of being based in Quito. Thanks for your help!

I 100 percent support your decision. Ecuador is more than just the Galapagos. The markets, mountains and indigenous cultures are just as amazing as the giant tortoises and sea lions. Plus, you are giving the wildlife a break, which they seriously need.

If anyone questions your decision, send them to me!

Please help! In a few weeks I'm going on a major trip. I also have some back problems. As I was laying awake with a cold pack on my back the other night I was thinking----how do you get a cold pack (not ice) by TSA? Any suggestions? REALLY need your help here.

That's a good question. My recent piece on how to get through security with special needs addressed cooling items to keep medications at a certain temperature, but not on their own. Do yourself a favor and get clarification by calling the TSA Cares hotline at 1-855-787-2227.

I'd like to take a long weekend and get in some sun and surf. Don't want to rent a car. Don't want to see anything but the beach. And I am traveling by myself. Suggestions of where to go and where to stay would be really appreciated. Thanks.

I assume you mean you want to go somewhere soon, and that you're flying from DC? Correct me if either of those is wrong. Here's a list Andrea compiled awhile back of places where you could get to a beach by noon. Once you're there, cabs await to ferry you to sand. The easiest, of course, would probably be good old Miami. I've not stayed there, but I know people who have liked the Hotel New Yorker.

I'm planning to go to Italy next month for about 10 days and will be flying into Milan. Other than Venice, Bologna, and Rome, are there any other "don't miss" sites? Any advice for a 1st-time traveler? Thanks.

Most people consider Florence (and possibly Siena and/or Pisa) a must-see! I know I do. 

Hello Flight Crew, Yet another question about how to gauge airfare, I'm afraid...I've got 7 people going to Hawaii in mid-August and am trying to find the best way to make the flight costs manageable. We are wondering whether it would be better to try to grab a great fare to SF or LA and then book separately to Hawaii (right now it looks like it still costs $450 from California). We are also willing to open credit card accounts to get mileage offers if that would help. Our dates are flexible so we can leave on a Tues or Wed versus a weekend. Anything to keep the airfare from breaking the budget! Thank you for your wisdom...

It may be cheaper to ticket separately, but you do run some risks doing that. If your initial flight is late and you miss the flight to Hawaii, the airline could look at you as a "no show" and give you a hard time about rebooking. And, if you check your luggage, you'll also have to collect it at the West Coast destination and then recheck it with the new airline, which will incur more costs.  I'm seeing flights as low as $785 round tripfrom Washington to Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines (codeshare with Virgin America from Dulles to LAX, and then LAX to HNL) -- that's not a bad fare. 

Back in the era of film cameras, I found that it was a foolish economy not to take more (rather than fewer) pictures, because whenever I scrimped I inevitably came to regret having missed a great shot. In this digital photography era, the equivalent lesson would be to take along more memory cards than you think you're going to need, and don't forget your recharging equipment.

Right!

To the mother who's planning a mother-daughter trip to Ireland: DON'T do a tour! The flexibility that a car gives you in Ireland far outweighs any perceived problems with driving on the left. Driving on the left is not the "bugaboo" that people tend to think it is. When we moved to Australia, I was terrified about having to drive on the left--until I did it. You will easily adjust to driving on the left and, as Joe said, it helps to start out by driving where others are driving as well. Also, I would recommend renting an automatic car even if you are well-versed in driving manual shift and even thought automatic rentals are substantially more expensive. My husband, who drove a manual car in Australia for 3 years, appreciated that I rented an automatic for him to drive in Ireland. Because many of the roads are smaller and narrower than what we drive here (or what we drove in Australia), he said driving the automatic meant one less thing for him to worry about.

My husband and I are going to Turkey at the end of this month, spending part of the time in Istanbul and several days in Cappadocia. Would you recommend renting a car and seeing the sites there by ourselves, going on organized tours (not usually our thing), or hiring an independent guide?

If doing an organized tour is not your thing, then don't do it. I'm basically a do-it-yourselfer, so I'd almost always rent a car, do some research, and head out to the places I want to see. An independent guide is often a good way to go, though. But again, it depends on what you want to do or see. Take a look at this story on Cappadocia that we ran in 2011 for some ideas.

You know, my most valuable lesson learned was always bring underwear for every day you're on a trip! You can re-wear clothes, but who wants to re-wear dirty underwear? There's nothing like having to miss things you wanted to do on a trip because you're washing underwear in your hotel sink or trodding around Dublin looking for a laundromat. Besides...it doesn't take up much room in your case, so you might as well!

A, uh, fundamental lesson!

If you avoid June through August, it will be less busy. Also, consider flying in and out of Shannon Airport or into Dublin and out of Shannon. (Avoid renting a car for your time in Dublin, if you do use Dublin). Allow for extra cost of automatic if you go that route and absolutely get full insurance : regular CDW + Super/Excess CDW to reduce the deductible to zero - or at most a hundred or so. Most of the highlights of Ireland are away from good public transport. If you want to go with an organized tour, CIE has been in the business for years. Mixed age groups.

Previous questioner wanted to visit Paris with fewer tourists, cheaper hotels - I don't know about the hotels (we did AirBnB) but we just came back from a week in Paris and January is a *fine* time to visit. Yes, we did have record snow, but it was still really easy to get around, and beautiful Paris is even more beautiful in the snow. Christmas decorations were still up, there was ice skating in front of the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and the semi-annual soldes (sales) are going on. Oh, and not so many tourists. Highly recommended. And, we took a great baguette making course, to tie into today's topic!

Really, there's not a bad time to visit Paris, because it's ... Paris. That's the way I look at it, anyway. I'd always rather be there than, well, here!

If you decide also to go to the coastline, be aware that a friend who taught English in a coastal city contracted malaria.

on a teen tour, they taught us to say "where's the bathroom?" in hebrew. It was great. Except that when we got an answer in Hebrew, we'd have to say: um, I don't understand, do you speak english? I don't know what that taught me, but I just thought of that story....

What can you tell me about the Viking Cruises - are they really as wonderful as their advertisement. The idea of cruising on a river sounds great to me and I am interested in booking a cruise - but would like some idea if it is worth it. Thank you

Sounds like Viking's underwriting of Masterpiece is working! Those ads before and after "Downton Abbey" seem to be doing the trick. :)

Who has some first-person experience?

Conisdering a Viking River Cruise in France for September 2014. Have you or the readers had any experience - good or bad - with this kind of cruise?

Viking has an excellent reputation. It's one of the luxury river cruise lines. Others include Uniworld and Avalon Waterways. I took an Avalon cruise on the Moselle and Rhine rivers a while back, and loved it. It's a low-key, gracious way to see smaller towns and cities. Food was excellent, good wine and daily tours were included, and pace was relaxing. If you like glitz and high-energy venues, probably not for you. 

Any suggestions on where to take our elementary school aged kids on their first trip to the Big Apple? Especially interested in some off-the-beaten path ideas. Thanks!

So many things in NYC are of course on the BEATEN path, and you should still see them -- I'm thinking, naturally, of Central Park. You just can't skip it. Too great to miss. But I know what you mean; you want beyond FAO Schwarz, right? A few ideas: There's a great puppet theater in Brooklyn called Puppetworks you might check out. And there's the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, with lots of cool interactive stuff. (They can make a stop-motion animated short film!) Circle Line has kids' cruises to the Statue of Liberty. In Bryant Park, Le Carrousel is pretty nifty. (Not sure when you're going, of course, so it might be too cold for that kind of thing.) The Center for Architecture hosts a family day second Saturday of every month; that includes a fun-sounding build-it-yourself session.

There's much more, of course -- shows, and food, and just walking around!

My family is going to Hawaii next year for a milestone birthday. We are leaving from DC and Atlanta. A friend in California recommended we split up the trip into two completely separate flights in order to take advantage of the deals that are offered from California to Hawaii. Do you think this is worth doing?

Unless you can find substantial savings, I would stick to one ticket for the whole flight. It is easier to rebook if you miss a connection, and you can check your luggage through. In addition, you can often find sales to Hawaii, especially during off-season and shoulder season.

I just did some quick math and found the two a la carte flights costing more than $850 while the one itinerary costs $775. Plus, for about the same price as the two parts you can fly nonstop.

I won a weekly Travel chat contest a few weeks ago and want to say THANK-YOU for the wonderful travel booty! Seriously, it's as if you were reading my mind: the VA Beach towel (amazingly colorfast), the WaPo Travel tote (gotta represent!) and the excellent 'How to Travel the World on $50 a Day' (perfect for my upcoming trip to Europe. Of course, the biggest prize is getting your excellent travel advice every week.

And thank you. We're blushing.

We were on a Viking River Christmas cruse on the Romantic Danube in December. After two days of the seven-day cruise it was announced the river was too high and the ship could not proceed. We were off loaded onto buses for the rest of the week. Total disaster. Never sailed one foot on the Danube. Viking says sorry, but no refunds. Cost about $10,000. Any advice on recourse?

That happens from time to time, unfortunately. I would send a brief, polite email to Viking, expressing your disappointment. You should get an apology and maybe a voucher for a future cruise. But to answer your question: Your rights are outlined in Viking's passenger ticket contract. Unfortunately, cruise lines contracts favor the company, so I'm doubtful you can find anything in there that would put you in a position to demand compensation. 

I want to go on vacation for 7-11 days at the end of March (as a woman alone, if that matters) and wonder of these options, which would be good for travel next month in terms of few crowds, decent weather (cold ok, but not too much snow or rain), major tourist sites open, and bargain independent travel: Iceland, Denmark, Zion NP, Nova Scotia, Mexico City, Lithuania. Or do you have other suggestions that are great to see in March (no beach travel)? Thanks!

I vote for Mexico City!

I took Turkish Airlines to go to Europe in December. It was over $200 cheaper than any other airfare I found (to Helsinki -- in December! Who knew that would be so pricey?) Yes there was an overnight layover, but I took public transit into the city and stayed at a hostel, which was around $40 total, a significant savings. Plus I got to spend a few hours in Istanbul on both legs of the trip (and see a friend who lives there to boot). I personally found it to be worth it. Another benefit is because of the way the flights were scheduled, I was able to keep to a more normal sleep schedule and wasn't jet-lagged on either leg of the trip. The airline is very nice, offering things in coach I haven't seen on most airlines in years -- little travel kits with eye masks, a toothbrush and other toilettries, very frequent food and beverage service, and a good movie selection. I liked it so much I decided to take them again to Europe in spring.

My brother, who flies a lot, swears by Turkish Airlines, fwiw.

I was in Istanbul this spring and loved the cooking class that my friends and I took with Eveline at at Cooking Alaturka.

Paris will always have tourists. There is no bad time to be in Paris. Just go when you can.

Exactly!

We greatly enjoyed and benefitted from the visitors' guide the Washington Post hosted on this site some years ago (a guide for visitors to the D.C. area). Please tell me you still have it, hidden in some new spot on the Website. Dear friends are planning a trip and we'd like to share the site as well as our own recommendations for enjoying the National Capital area. Thank you.

Here it is. It's accessible through the Going Out Guide.

Hello, Travel Experts! I'd love your advice on shopping for a roundtrip flight from DC area (any airport) to Cancun. Haven't been to Mexico before and so just don't know what are reasonable fares for this destination. I'm looking at booking a trip in April. Are there any carriers you recommend above others for getting to and from Cancun? Are there many nonstop options? Or will I find better fares if I buy a trip with a stop each way? Also, we want to overlap a weekend but don't have to fly on weekend days. Would we be better off departing, say, Saturday and returning Tuesday, or departing Friday and returning Monday? Thanks so very much for your helpful guidance.

Airtran flies nonstop from BWI to Cancun, and United flies nonstop from Dulles. You may save up to $100 by taking a connecting flight, but the layovers may be long. I'm a big fan of paying up  in order to get a nonstop flight, especially if my vacation is short: If you miss your connecting flight and can't get another till the next day, half your vacation is blown. You won't see major price differences based on days you fly. 

I'm planning on going to PR 2/28-3/4. I'm looking for a moderately-priced clean hotel in old San Juan for the first night, then a place near a beach with snorkeling. For the latter I'm looking at the Fajardo Inn. Wondering if you have any recommendations?

Check out the Gallery Inn. Looks very tempting. If I were going to OSJ, I'd make a rez there based on what I see on Oyster.com and on the inn's website. But you should probably act quickly: I see just a couple rooms left at the $160 rate.

For traveling with a toddler in Europe - go! It's different than traveling as a couple, but fun and does create great memories, even when they are young. Try to stay somewhere with more than one room and with a fridge/microwave/laundry. There are lots of playgrounds, but not too many high chairs.

Thanks for following up!

This is a never-ending lesson! My favorite example happened not to me but to someone I know -- He was in a small village in rural South America and, at a social event, he invited a young lady to dance ... only to find out when the dance ended and everyone applauded that this was considered a marriage proposal and he was engaged! It's possible he made this up, but stranger things have happened ...

Sounds just the teeniest bit apocryphal. . . :-)

You can always get fast drying underwear at a hiking store like REI. A quick wash in the sink, towel dry to squeeze out as much water as possible and a couple of hours later they are dry. And that way you only need to carry 2 pair. Same with socks. Get some that dry relatively quickly and do the same.

Will there likely be sales this spring...current fares of $1200 + to Europe are too expensive

Fares are super high for spring travel. I'm hopeful there will be some sales, but they will likely be short-lived with restricted travel dates. In other words, you'll need to be flexible to take advantage of them. If you can leave from New York, that might mean lower fares, as more discount carriers, such as Aer Lingus and Air Berlin, fly from there. 

I want to go to the Jazz Festival in Cuba on a US approved tour. What do you recommend?

Due to current laws restricting independent travel to Cuba, you must travel with a pre-approved tour operator.  I had a great experience with Friendly Planet  Travel, though I don't see a Jazz Festival trip in their list of offerings. Insight Cuba does have a jazz tour, though I am not sure if it overlaps with the festival.  Authentic Cuba Travel has a festival trip, but I am not sure if Americans can travel with their group. Best to call these groups and inquire.

 

For the mother and daughter who are planning a trip to Ireland but leery of left-side driving, Ireland has decent public transportation, both bus and rail. Buses are probably the best way to see the country. The fields tend to be walled in; if you're in a car, you won't be able to see over them, but you get a great view from a bus. And the countryside itself is a great reason to visit Ireland. So go Bus Eireann, the Irish version of Greyhound, and leave the driving to them. You can check out the website for schedules and routes.

Thanks! I never thought of the see-over-the-wall thing. Love our chatters.

My son who loves trains would like to take the Acela to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell. Can this be a (long) one-day trip to see the sights or should we really make it two? I haven't been in years but remember doing most of the touristy stuff in one day. This is a 7-year-old, if it matters. Thank you.

It depends on precisely what all you want to do, but if it's just to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, then yes, it can definitely be done in a day. The historic area -- Independence National Historic Park --  in Old City is quite compact.

We;ve been to Zion National Park in Utah TWICE in late March -- I know, because both times were for our wedding anniversary! -- and the weather's lovely then: not hot yet (upper 60s-low 70s in the afternoon, 30s-40s at night). Very few tourists, either!

I think I read that it's not nearly as polluted as it was a few decades back. How good or bad is the air quality now? Thanks!

Indeed, it's SO MUCH better than it used to be. The city has really cleaned up the air.

My dad, a retired Navy pilot, would not let me fly on Aeroflot. Don't know if he has inside info or just too-vivid memories of the Cold War.

That was probably in the old days. They've really improved in the past decade, bought some Western-made aircraft and spiffed up a lot. The food's still bad, though, I gather. :-)

What's the best way to keep my credit cards and cash safe? Traveling to London and Paris. I have a good bag that slings over my neck. What should I keep in the room safe? Should my husband have a money belt? Should I have 2credit cards that I keep separate?

Divide and conquer! Bring only one credit card and minimal cash with you. Best to keep it in a bag or pouch that tucks away under your clothes. If you don't have a money waist pouch, sling your bag over your shoulder, then put on your top coat.

Also have your husband hold some money (but not in his back pocket!) in case one of your pockets is picked.  Keep your passport, excess cash and spare credit card in the room safe.

As a backup, stash a 20 note in your shoe.

I was fortunate to attend summer school at the University of Cambridge on my college's dime, with an open-ended return plane ticket so we could explore Europe on our own before coming home. I was 19 years old then, and it was probably the trip where I became an adult. I learned to juggle competing and varied interests, manage relationships amongst my friends that I traveled with after Cambridge, and trust my gut when it came to exploring: not knowing a lick of German didn't stop me from using Frankfurt's public transportation and enjoying a public pool or wandering through the streets of Venice without a map. The pre-trip planning also helped too with an emphasis on budgeting and planning without feeling overburdened or dictator-ish. It's these skills that have helped me enjoyed life even when I'm not on vacation.

Thanks!

We are planning to adopt in the next year through a domestic adoption agency and will have to, on very short notice, find flights and a hotel somewhere in the U.S. to go meet our birthmother and be present for the birth. (Odds are, TX or FL it seems.) I know some airlines have last-minute deals for funeral travel. Are there any such deals for something like this? Do you have any tips for how we can keep this from being an extremely expensive (albeit also very exciting) trip?

Not really -- even last-minute deals for funeral travel aren't around much anymore. I feel for your dilemma. It sounds like you're not even sure where you're going yet, but as soon as you find out, see if you can book a flight on Southwest -- no change fees. Congrats, and good luck!

I have a wonderful opportunity to go to Turkey in July - I have a cousin who lives there with his Turkish wife. Searching for flight tickets has proven confusing - how do I know what days and what airlines are cheapest? Also I would like to be able to find an inexpensive hostel in case my cousin can't reasonably offer accommodations, or can't bear three weeks of me and my housemate. Yes, I did message them on Facebook but no answer yet...They don't spend much time there.

Turkish Airlines flies nonstop from Washington Dulles to Istanbul, and it has a good reputation and excellent sale fares. As for a hostel, I'd probably start my research via the Web -- try Hostelling International

Husband has expense-paid conference in Edinburgh; I'll pay my airfare and piggy-back on his hotel, but we want to see London, as well. Is flying into Edinburgh and out of London cost-effective, so we can combine both cities for first-ever visits? Is the train between the two set up to accommodate our luggage? Any preference between Heathrow and Gatwick for leaving London? (We've never traveled overseas, so we worry that this add-on might be too complex for first-timers.) Thanks!

Have you priced it out? That's the best way to know whether it's cost-effective. Sounds doable, though. I can't vouch for what the train setup is, but unless you have an obscene amount of luggage, you should be fine. Again, Heathrow vs. Gatwick, price it. Most U.S. flights go in and out of Heathrow, so I imagine that's what will shake out best for you. Don't be intimidated!

I find that when I hand-wash socks, undies, even tops in a hotel room, they'll dry faster if, after wringing them out thoroughly and hanging them up on either towel bars or hangers, I use the bathroom's hand-held hair dryer (warm setting) on them for a while to jump-start the drying process. If they're still slightly dampish the next AM, I use the hair dryer on them again to speed the finishing process. If all else fails, most clothes finish drying quickly once I put them on.

Sony Wonder Technology Lab, arms and armor at the Met, tenement museum on the lower east side

I'm looking for a place to go to in the Caribbean that isn't too hard to get to (one-stop max), not too pricey, and has a good snorkeling beach. Any recommendations?

Take a look at Cozumel (and, yes, I know that it is not a Caribbean island, but snorkeling is good, and it's easy to get to). Grand Cayman is another option. 

Hi Travel Gang! Going on roadtrip through Mountain Passes at the end of the month and would feel more comfortable with a 4x4 or AWD rental. Is there a way to guarantee that the SUV I'm confirming is 4x4? The rental companies descriptions sometimes say Mid/Full Size SUV 4x4 or similar. If it has the 4x4 wording, am I safe to assume that is included in the "or similar" disclaimer? Thanks and Happy Trails!

Hertz guarantees the model on its Prestige Collection. You can get an Infiniti QX56, but it will cost more than the average rental. I wouldn't be shy about asking for a different car if you rent a regular SUV and it doesn't work for the road conditions. No rental company wants you to get stuck in the snow.

My smile for the day - thanks!

When is the best time to purchase a plane ticket from DC to South Africa, and how much should I expect to spend?

South African Airways just announced a sale today for travel April 1 through May 31. Round-trip fare is $1,137, which is a good price. 

My junior year I spent a semester in Cairo. I came from a one traffic-light town in Maine and Cairo was my first experience living in a city. While I am happily living in rural Maine again (after some time in Boston and DC), I absolutely loved my time in Egypt. It was pretty intense culture shock, but the people were friendly and welcoming and my memories all positive. As I watch the news from Cairo these days I really hope and pray that the people kind find peace and freedom.

My wife and I have travelled extensively over the years but we would like to take a cruise TO Europe, but not a multi-port durational cruise. Just to a single port of our choosing.I can find nothing else. Is there any gtravel service that permits one to cruise directly to a port and get off?

Of course there is! You want a trans-Atlantic crossing, as on the Queen Mary 2. One week, one stop: Southampton, England.

I'd like to hear from our travelers if they buy traveler's health insurance, for those whose current does not provide coverage. Thoughts? Places to find a carrier? Experience buying individually or pair with the other suite of travelers insurance packages. Thanks!

We recently ran a comprehensive piece on travel health insurance. Hope this can help you with your decision.

From my research, it seems that most people are very happy with their decision to purchase insurance, even if they never use it.

I have found this to not necessarily be the case on delta. They charge you something for a flight, xx miles - but if then they seem to increase that as the airfare increases - i.e., you'd need more miles if the flight has fewer seats - they just sub miles for dollars. Am I totally off base? It seems like you can basically book whenever and us FF miles - it may just cost you 20k miles today for a flight six months from now, whereas it would maybe cost you 100k for that same flight tomorrow.

Airlines automatically designate a cetain number of award seats per flight. I've spoken with folks who manage award seat inventories, and they say these seats are ones the airline's yield management system, which sets prices and manages seat inventory, projects would not be sold. A second set of award seats, which require more miles, are also set by the system, I'm told. These are seats that might be sold and are tagged as "revenue" seats in the system. I'm not sure if that answers your question, but it might explain the different award seat opportunities you're seeing on each flight.

Is there any way to convince y'all's tech folks to give submitters the option to have paragraph breaks? I find it really hard to read questions that are of perfectly reasonable length but become a wall of text because of the lack of paragraph breaks. Thanks!

There.

 

Is.

 

A.

 

Way.

 

To.

 

Make.

 

Paragraph.

 

Breaks.

 

It's called the "return" key! But to get a SPACE between those grafs, you have to hit it twice, and it's true, there's no indent. We'll try to be better about breaking things up, but we have to spend a good bit of time with the cutters/pasters fixing garbled code, too...

Advice for the chatters worried about driving in Ireland: First, make sure you or someone in your party can drive a stick shift. Automatics can be had, but they are very expensive, and the automatic cars are likely to be larger, which you definitely don't want in Ireland. Also, the act of shifting with your left hand is a continuous reminder that you're on the "wrong" side of the road. Second, take the collision damage waiver. It may be expensive, but if you're worried about driving on the left, that will be one less thing to stress over. That said, I have driven on the left in Ireland, England, Barbados, St. Lucia, Australia, and the Cayman Islands without incident. It's really not that bad.

Thanks for weighing in...

I did it as a student (15 years ago) and the train would have been easy but I took the bus because I could afford it!

I have a cell phone that does not work outside of the US. I can use it for the internet via Wi-Fi, but not to talk or text. Do you know whether I can rent a phone to use in Barbados? Someone suggested I purchase a used phone on ebay and buy a SIM card for each place that I travel. Does that make sense?

For a primer, check out Andrea's story on using phones abroad. But to answer your question, yes, you can rent a phone or get a phone and SIM card.

As another poster has mentioned, driving on the other side of the road is not as scary as it seems. My husband is from England, and all his family is still there. It seems intimidating driving at first, but just find a smaller, less busy road to practice on first and it will help a lot. Also, one thing to remember, is when you are driving (anywhere), you are always next to the middle of the road (on a two-lane road), so that will always help guide you. And as narrow as some of those roads often seem, you would be surprised by how easy it is to pull over on the shoulder and squeeze by the car coming the other way.

Thanks for the encouragement!

I'm trying to help a friend and his soon-to-be husband plan a honeymoon. Do you or the chatters have suggestions for LGBT friendly beach all inclusives? Given that much of the Caribbean is pretty non gay-friendly, I was thinking Costa Rica or Mexico, but have no direct experience.

This piece on the Orbitz blog lists some intriguing options, including one that's not just gay-friendly, it's gay exclusive.

I made plane reservations. Then I changed my name (after almost 10 years of marriage, I thought it might stick). So I had to call the airline and talk with them about this - and put my new name on there! Thank goodness I have an unusual first name, or maybe they would have asked for documentation (I was also traveling with one of my kids, whose name was the 'new' name, so I guess that helped).

I'm glad they took care of that for you. That's how it's supposed to work.

The problem with TSA Cares hotline is that they can answer the question one way, the agents at the departing airport think a different way, and the agents at the returning airport believe it to be another way. Their rules are so haphazard even they can't follow them consistently.

Well, it's worth asking anyway.

I'm from southern NM, and was home for Christmas. The Rio Grande is a dry river bed. All that talk about the Rio Grande & the Colorado not making it to the ocean? Heck, the Rio isn't even making it to Texas these days. At any rate, endurance should not be an issue.

With planning you can find some good deals. For example recently yo could find tickets on Alaska from Oakland or Dan Jose for around $280 RT. If you do this you wnt to break up the trip and spend a day or two in a west coast city on ech way. You can also find deals on Hawaiian airlines and Alaska from secondary cities like Bellingham.

I have found that better than taking extra memory cards is to download your photos every day to your laptop and then upload them to a photo site (like Shutterfly). No worries about losing memory cards.

What's the weather like in Tampa in early April?

Not for public posting: Just wanted to say thanks for taking my Cancun fares question. I'm paying for a trip for both myself and a friend and we already had to change our planned travel dates b/c unwittingly we planned to travel over the Easter weekend and I couldn't find flights under $800 from DC. Yeek!

I live in a flyover state, so I am pretty much two flights from any beach or coast. I'd like to take my husband and son on a 5-7 trip, probably an all-inclusive family style resort. (I never thought I'd see the day, but here I find myself... seeking ease, convenience, and lots of prepaid fruity cocktails.) Do you have recommendations of specific destinations, resorts, web sites etc? I've been surfing cheapcaribbean.com but it stresses me out since I'm scared to book a vacation--which will come at the cost of two years of penny pinching--based on a few online reviews. Basically, looking for something tried and true that won't bankrupt us. Help!

I would try to first figure out which destinations are the easiest to access from your chosen airport. Getting there and back quickly and conveniently will make all the difference. Destinations that are known for all-inclusive resorts include Jamaica, Dominican Republic and the Cancun area. I liked the Majestic Excellence in Punta Cana -- edible food and nice beach. 

At what point in the whole hotel reservations to check-in process does one mention anything in hopes of getting an upgrade? I've never done this and need some pointers. Thanks.

Upgrades happen, generally, because there are unsold rooms available at the last minute. So that means that it happens ... at the last minute. When you check in, you can politely ask the clerk if there are any rooms available that you could be upgraded into. It's best to do this at a property where you have a frequent-customer membership, if possible. And you should be dressed nice and be very well-mannered. It's also best to be specific: "If you have any unsold water-view rooms, we would certainly be available for an upgrade."

Any upgrade pros out there with more thoughts?

I want to take my elderly mother to Yellowstone for a 4-5 day trip. She can walk a little (maybe 1 mile increments) on level ground ( I thikn she could walk from the parking lot to Old Faithful and on the walkway around that amazing hot springs pool there, for example). I would like to make the most of this trip and join a small tour group that keeps mobility issues in mind or hire a private tour guide. If it matters, we hope to gone during shoulder season (probably September). Do you or the chatters have any suggestions.

I would contact an organization that specializes in disabled travel, such as Mobility International USA. You can find suggestions on air travel, accommodations, etc. Or if it is easier, sign up with a group tour that works with travelers with limited mobility. For ideas,  check this Web site

You can also contact the park service and ask for suggestions on accessible routes and trails.

Actually, from what I have seen read and experienced, the problem is when you get back here. There you are likely to be quite diligent and very focused on the road. probably you've been driving here for a long time - and when you get back you'll think - oh this is easy, when in fact, you need to 'relearn' to drive here. Just a word to the wise.

I Have Tried To Do That But my English teacher taught me to hit return then indent for a paragraph.

And that's all she wrote for today, folks! Thanks as ever for joining us and for the great questions, tips, stories and more. And our prizewinner today, I'm sorry, but it's just a no-brainer. Whoever wrote in about enraging elephants, send me your contact info -- smardzz@washpost.com -- and I'll send you your well-deserved prize. See you next week, everybody!

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Travel editor.
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the deputy editor of Travel.
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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