Talk about Travel: Getting lost, Vancouver Island, Cuba and more

Mar 10, 2014

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Hello all and welcome once again to our nifty hour of talk about all things travel. Ask any question about your voyaging needs, and we'll do our darnedest to answer it, or find someone who can if we can't. Our question of the day is inspired by the story on Izmir and southwest Turkey (be sure to read the lovely piece on Kerala, India, too). I found the writer's story about his inability to find his way to his hotel really amusing -- how *did* we ever function before Google maps and GPS?  So tell me about a time you got lost when traveling, and how it all turned out. Best tale wins a prize, as always.

Now, fire away!

My boyfriend and I would like to spend a night away, perhaps at a B&B, an hour or so from DC. Do you have any suggestions? Preferably somewhere less than $250/night.

I'm like a broken record on this score, but I love the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, W.Va. (get a room in one of the chalets). Also very high on the Inn at Willow Grove in Orange, Va., but that's a bit over your price limit. The Inn at Meander Plantation, also in Orange, is a bit cheaper. Or you could try Stevenson's Ridge in Spotsylvania County -- Andrea just spent a night there and loved it.

Does anyone have any tips or must-sees that they can recommend for a July trip to Vancouver Island? My husband and I are going (and leaving the kids!) for a week or so and enjoy all things outdoors. Thanks!

You should plan on spending a day or so exploring lovely Victoria. Butchart Gardens is a must. If you want a really special meal, head to the Sooke Harbour House. Drive from town to town, maybe on one of these suggested driving routes. You can also take wildlife-viewing boat rides, which I would have liked to do there, as well as explore the Gulf Islands.

Hi Travelologists - I just wanted to report on my trip from Boston to Cancun and back last week. I used AA points from my creditcard for a free steerage-class ticket - down on AA and back on USAir. Apparently all the stars were aligned, because the TSA people in Boston were FRIENDLY, my plane change at JFK was AT THE SAME GATE, and immigration in Cancun was a breeze. Coming back from Cancun via Philly was also a walk in the park. US Customs was fast, TSA re-entry was easy, and my bag came off the plane first. The TSA left me a note in my checked bag that they had "opened it for inspection" (I always tie the zipper together with dental floss) and nothing was broken or missing. Sometimes air travel is not quite as horrible as you are expecting.

Thanks for letting us know. I think you've just made my day. Point of correction, though: Your frequent flier ticket wasn't technically "free" -- you paid for it by giving American your business. But apart from that, high-fives all round.

People rely too much on electronics. No one knows how to read a map any more.

I agree, but there's no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Going to Austrailia in November. Will be there for seven days. Trying to plan and overwhelm. Any advice on what is must see. Haven't narrowed down my starting point. Is it easier to fly into one city over another. Thanks.

If you have only seven days, your best bet is to fly into Sydney. As far as what to see, that depends on your interests. I'd likely split my time between urban sightseeing and hitting the beaches. Maybe spend a few days in Sydney and then head to a national park. 

For our anniversary in May my husband and I would like to do a weekend getaway within a two hour drive of Pittsburgh. Any recommendations on where to go for a relaxing short trip?

A few ideas: Cleveland; Presque IsleCumberland, Md.; Deep Creek Lake, Md.

We are driving from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon over spring break with our two sons, 15 & 12. Would love to see the sights along the way, including along Old Rt. 66. What sights should we see and what is the best way to drive? We have never been "out west." Thanks

If you're in Vegas, you should defintely consider seeing the Hoover Dam. It's pretty impressive. We were there last year, and our kids (7, 9 and 12) still talk about it.

If I recall correctly, Andrea visited Cuba fairly recently. It looks like legal travel packages to Cuba for Americans have become much more available in the last couple of years. For us non-Spanish speakers, how widely, if at all, is English spoken in Cuba? Would an American have opportunities to talk directly with Cubans, or would he be totally dependent on guides and interpreters? Are there particular security concerns beyond the usual Third World worries?

I did visit Cuba under the people-to-people program.  Because of U.S. restrictions on American visitors, you have go with an accredited company; I signed up with Friendly Planet.  You are also supposed to stick to the cultural itinerary, but I certainly had time to myself to meet and chat up people.(You'll find loads of chatty people along the Corniche.)

I found the residents warm and friendly, and so eager to talk about their experiences. I was amazed at how open they were. My tour was based in Havana, and most of the people here spoke Engligh. However, I suspect that people in the more rural areas might not be so proficient in English. But with rudimentary Spanish, I am sure you could get by, and the guides are all bilingual.

I felt completely safe walking around. Some friends did find suspicious charges on their hotel bill, and another tourgoer noticed that someone had rummaged through his luggage. So be sure to double-check your hotel bill, leave valuables at your home, and if possible put a little lock on your bags. You might also ask your tour operator if you can bring any supplies for schools or medical centers. You will definitely notice a dearth of supplies.

Hi Travelers, I'm planning a trip to Spain later this year and am looking at flights. There are a number of airline options that I'm completely unfamiliar with and I was hoping you or the chatters might be able to weigh in on your experience/knowledge of any of them -- specifically, Iberia and Finnair. Any thoughts? I'm tempted to stick with airlines that I know, but I was hoping to get some info from those "in the know" on these two other airlines that could potentially be much better. Thanks so much!

There are a couple of Web sites devoted to ranking and reviewing airlines. I like Skytrax's Web site, which ranks the airlines based on comfort, service, etc. It gives Finnair four stars and Iberia three stars. 

Many years ago, a friend and I were driving to Santa Fe. Our hotel was the La Fonda, which is on the town square. We could see it, but got continuously turned around due to one-way streets. We found at least 10 different ways to head out of town before we finally got to the hotel. We parked in the parking lot and just walked everywhere that weekend.

I know, those one-way streets are killers when you're driving!

We went to Vieques, PR for our honeymoon in 2012 and had read about exploring the deserted Navy bunkers and sugar plantation ruins. Our phones lost signal, so GPS was useless. The only map we had was one of those cartoon maps like you get in beach towns. We knew it wasn't perfect, but many of the roads seemed to accurately reflect our route. We then followed what the map claimed was a road... though it looked mostly like a bit of cleared brush. When we saw the downed tree, narrowed path, and giant mud puddle, we decided it was time to turn around. Luckily the mud splattered 4WD jeep was able to (eventually) back out of the woods. We then accidentally found the hidden sugar plantation and bunkers. My husband posted a picture of the map at our "roadblock" with the caption "map not to scale."

Glad you made it!

I will not deny the benefits of GPS devices, but I LOVE a good paper map. The ones I've used on recent trips to Grand Teton/Yellowstone, as well as RI/CT/MA/VT were very helpful. At times we were able to see/do things that we wouldn't have considered had we not looked at the map/bigger picture.

Right!

My wife and I would like to travel more. Any where, we can plan ahead or at the last minute. The big question is how do we go about finding the cheapest deals if we keep all options open.

Airfarewatchdog is good for catching great airfares as the Web site's team finds them. Or you can check out various deals sites, such as Living Social or Jetsetter, for flash sales. Kayak Explore can help you see some of the best fares other travelers have found. You can find more last-minute sales all over the Internet, from Travelzoo and Orbitz to Costco.

I am interested in taking a WW II/D-Day tour of Europe and was wondering if you know of tour operators that are good for this kind of trip? I see some online, but I'd like to know which tours are the most highly regarded overall. Thank you for your consideration.

We don't really vet tour operators, but perhaps a chatter has taken this kind of tour? Any suggestions for a WWII tour operator, folks?

Looking for recommendations on where to stay in Las Vegas with 2 teens. Also the best sites to get discount codes on lodging. I have checked smartervegas.com but we will be there over a weekend and the prices are much higher than during the week.

I would definitely stay on the Strip and choose a theme hotel. Your kids will get a kick out of the over-the-topness of the resort-casino. The downside: As minors, they are not allowed into the casino.

Suggestions: New York New York, which has a rollercoaster and an arcade; MGM Grand, which features the CSI: Experience and David Copperfield (he made me a believer!); or the Venetian, which has a gondola and canals. For hotels without casinos, consider Vdara or Elara, a Hilton Grand Vacations Hotel (I stayed there and felt like a high-roller). For deals, check our Vegas.com, or consider an air/hotel package, such as the ones offered by Southwest Vacations. You may also find deals through the resort itself.

Also save time for a visit to Red Rock Canyon and the Clark County Wetlands Park. You will need a nature fix.

pardon the serious question but in the wake of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy, travel is not all fun and games. Was wondering, i was on a plane that was late due to mechnical problems and the pilot never explained what they were or whether they were fixed. Once i was en route to Turkey and the airspeed indicator didn't work which seemed important. Should they disclose this?

Airlines aren't required to provide the exact reason for a mechanical delay, but your contract of carriage (the legal agreement between you and the airline) usually stipulates that you will be compensated for your delays. Also, EU 261, the European airline consumer law, requires monetary compensation for delays. So, as far as I know, your airline didn't have to tell you about the airspeed indicator, but if your flight was delayed, it had to pay for your hotel room and/or meal vouchers.

Agree that Sydney is the most efficient place to spend the limited time--but spend some of that time on ferries to the beaches and trains to the Blue Mountains. I was amazed at the topography of the Blue Mountains and found it understandable that the original settlers thought them to be impenetrable.

Re: visiting Venice and the smell of the canals I first visited Venice at the height of the summer decades ago. It was awful: too hot, too many people. I swore I'd never go back. Decades later, I revisited Venice in late November. It was wonderful. Not empty (filled with visiting Italians!), but manageable. The cloudy, sometimes rainy, cool weather added to the mystery and romance of the place. The lesson learned: either visit popular sites in the off-season, or choose somewhere else.

Too true!

On May 1, Sunrail Commuter Rail begins 32 mile service from Debarry to South Orlando, providing a greener option for 50+ million annual visitors to Central Florida and relief from traffic-clogged I-4. Initially, service will be weekday, with trains 30 min apart in rush hour and 2 hours apart in non-rush hour. Buy tickets and farecards at the 12 stations with debit, credit, or cash. Prices peak (adults, 18-64) at $7.50 (round trip) and $4.00 (one way). Students (7-17), seniors (65+), and disabled ride for half fare. Anyone wanting a "car - free" or "reduced-car" visit can stay near a commuter station. If arriving in Orlando by air, take bus ($2), hotel shuttle, or cab to accommodations and Sunrail. If arriving by Amtrak, connect with Sunrail at Health/Amtrak or Winter Green Station, which just reopened after a $1.9 million restoration. Trains have conductors, outlets, restrooms, and free Wi-Fi; take bikes; and ride smoothly on steel-welded, Amtrak compliant rails. Consider Sunrail (www.sunrail.com) for a fun, inexpensive excursion for the kids.

This sounds like our semi-regular rail PR person. Thanks for the info, but I've got to think a lot of Orlando park visitors probably want to stay much closer to the attractions, without having to worry about timing a commuter train. I know I'd pay for that convenience.

A friend and I (both mid 30's) are planning a trip to Croatia for a week in June - July. I am feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to figure out where to go. Generally we like beach, good food, culture, history, art, but aren't as big into a crazy party scene. Any recommendations on how many cities to try and hit (and which ones)?

Croatia is best known for its gorgeous Dalmatian seacoast, so you should definitely head to Split, on that coast -- it's  just beautiful and very historic. Farther down the coast is Dubrovnik, also full of history. You might want to hit one of the Dalmatian islands, too, if you like beaches and a quieter scene. We ran a story on Vis, and it sounds idyllic. But you should also give the capital city, Zagreb, a look-see, too, if you're into history and culture (and sounds as if the food scene there is improving rapidly, too). Croatia is a fairly small country, so it should all be doable in a week. Anything else, chatters?

About ten years ago, my sister and I went to Italy and rented a car to drive around Umbria and Tuscany. We were completely winging it. We had had a great trip in Orvieto and had found parking by literally following the signs into the center of town. We assumed we could do the same thing in Siena not realizing how much bigger the town was. I think we ended up on a pedestrian only street in the heart of Siena. We were so freaked out that we figured our way out of town and never stopped in Siena and drove on to some other town. We still laugh about how clueless we were but we did great trusting in fate throughout the rest of the trip even in Florence.

I trust you didn't hit any pedestrians!

We want to take a trip to Israel in December during the holiday break and are wondering when you'd recommend buying the tickets. Also would appreciate your recommendations on where to buy the package and any other considerations for travel to Israel during that time period. It would be a family of five: the parents, a 16 year-old and twin 12 year-old girls.

The best prices can be found about 50 days before departure. Sometimes you'll find low fares on a Tuesday afternoon, when airlines load their new fares. But I'd recommend buying a fare when you see one you can afford, and then not looking back. Airfare buyer remorse can add unnecessary stress to your trip planning.

My husband and I will spend two days in Reykjavik in April. We are renting a truck for one day to see the countryside. Is there a particular route that is doable in one day? We would particularly like to see a waterfall and a lava flow. Any suggestions? Is this possible?

Sounds like the Golden Circle is the answer. It's touristy, but with good reason. Other suggestions, you Iceland travelers?

About 10 years ago my travel companion and I got lost in Jerusalem and somehow wound up in an area right up against the old city that was off-limits to unofficial cars, which we definitely were. A number of obviously agitated soldiers with serious weaponry drawn were coming our way fast... and my companion, who was driving, sent me out to talk to them. Never mind that he's the one who speaks four languages, including Hebrew - he was so upset about having blundered into that spot in the first place that I (English only) was sent to find out how to turn around and get out. Unfortunately the soldiers' only advice was get back in the car, turn around, and get out. All's well that ends well, but it was not a happy moment - we still don't speak of it.

Ooh, scary.

Advice on when is is less croweded time to try and see. Never been but heard the crowds are horrendous. Thanks.

I'd say really early in the morning or perhaps weeknight evenings after work.

Am looking for areas slightly away from Cancun (want to fly there) for a laid back, gorgeous vacation spot. Someone told me Playa De Carmen but looking for additional idea. Is there ferry service from Cancun to Cozumel?

Playa del Carmen is nice, but I would not describe it as laid-back. You'd have to go farther south  to get to less populated areas. And even Tulum attracts its fair share of tourists. Cozumel is less populated, but again, not devoid of tourists. To get the ferry to Cozumel, you'll need to first get to Playa Del Carmen. Also, look  into Isla Mujeres or, if you want something more rustic,  Isla Holbox

I prefer Melbourne. Maybe not as many flights as SYD but not hard to get to. One of my favorite cities in the world. I spent a week there and found plenty of stuff to do. But that is a loooooong way to go for just one week.

Good Afternoon! I'm heading to Rome and Naples in May, and was hoping you could recommend a cheap to mid-range hotel in Rome. I'm also wondering if anyone out there has taken a cooking class in Naples- any recommendations? Thanks so much!

Chatters, can you help us out here?

When travelling for work (pre-smartphone and pre-GPS), my colleague and I got lost returning to our hotel from dinner. It was dark, we were a ways outside of town and there were no city lights to give us a sense of which direction to head. We luckily found a post office and sat in the parking lot until someone showed up to check their P.O. box. Now I'm always sure to pay attention to directions, even if someone else is driving!

Just wondering what city that was?

Hi all, love your chats! I'm trying to plan a trip from DC to Rio in mid-April for about 10 days and flights are currently around $1100. Is this a good price? I could possibly go at another time of year if flights are significantly cheaper - I'm just not sure how low they go and what a good price is. And what should I definitely check out while I'm there? Thanks!

Back when there was a little more method to the airfare pricing madness, you'd see lower airfares to Rio in winter (our summer) and higher fares in summer. Now it's more hit-or-miss. A fare of $1,100 round trip with decent connections is about right: It's often much higher. As for what to do in Rio, any chatters have specific favorites? 

For the past seven years every break that I have for work I used it to travel overseas, to visit a new country and experience new cultures. For those seven years I have learned a lot about travel photography and etiquette when shooting since my camera is often my only companion. Back home I kept practicing photography, I've already completed several photography courses and even submitted my photos to contests and to my surprise I have won in some of them. One of my dreams is to have one of my photos in the cover of a Travel Guide. One of my photos is already in a Fodors travel guide but not in the front cover. My question is; how do I get to know when these publishers of travel guides books are looking for photos? My photo in the Fodors Travel Guide ended up there because I was reading a blog and then a pop up showed up announcing the contest, otherwise I wouldn't know! I have some recent photos from Myanmar, Israel and India that are quite interesting and possibly "Travel Guide Book material."

Sorry but we only know how our Travel photo department works (we rely on staff or veteran freelancers). For other publications, I would contact the photo department and inquire about freelance submissions. You may also find that info on their Web site.

This is more of a local DC question, but thought you guys, or another chatter, still might know. I'm looking for somewhere- anywhere- to rent a manual car in the DC area. Going to Europe in a few months and it's way cheaper and more convenient to rent a manual over there. Problem is, my manual driving experience is limited to a lesson someone gave me a few years ago. I think with practice I'll pick it back up, but I can't seem to find a company that still rents manual cars. I don't have any friends in the area that have one I can borrow (I know someone will suggest that!). I've heard of people who go test drive a manual at a dealership to learn (although frankly I think that's rather lame), but I really want to be able to take a car around for an entire day or weekend. Thanks!

Don't know of any rental agencies that offer manual transmissions, but have heard of a driving school called I Drive Smart that offers lessons on manual cars. 

Am I being unrealistic in hoping to find a hotel room in NYC for a family with 2 kids for under $170 Easter weekend?

Yes.

After my year-long study abroad in Europe ended, I met up with a friend from home to travel through Eastern Europe for a few weeks. We were both well-traveled and she was especially adept at map reading, so we thought we were going to be fine. While in Bucharest, we decided to go out to a "nice" restaurant for dinner before heading back to our hostel for an early train the next morning. We took a taxi to the restaurant and planned to do the same on our return, as we were warned by the hostel to be careful in the neighborhood after dark. What we didn't know was that taxis in Bucharest don't stop to pick up passengers at night, they had to be requested ahead of time. At that point we had no choice but to walk back to the hostel, but got turned around and thoroughly lost. We thought we were back on the right track when someone suddenly started chasing us down a deserted street. We ran like hell and made it back to a main street and finally found our hostel, but I learned my lesson in planning a return route when being out at night in a foreign city!

Good lesson to learn!

I apologize for having told this story here before, but it's so totally on-topic that I can't resist. When I was a kid long ago, we'd take weekend family car-trips in Northern California (where we lived). Unfortunately my mother was not the best map-reader, to put it mildly (this was back in the days when gas stations gave out huge free road-maps, the kind that were unwieldy to unfold/fold). Once, while exploring Gold Rush country in the Sierra foothills, we wound up utterly lost on a succession of back-roads owing to my mother's wrong directions, prompting my father finally to blurt out in frustration, "For all I know, we're going wind up in Timbuctoo!" He was puzzled when my mother and I started to laugh, but that was because we'd already spotted a nearby ghost town we'd never heard of before by that name on the map. I snatched the map from my mother's hands and gave my father the correct directions to get there, where for the record I snapped a picture of my father standing in front of the town sign. This story became family legend. See reference to confirm Timbuctoo's existence: . P.S. From then on I was official family navigator.

Funny!

With that amount of time, you're going to need to be selective. You can easily spend all 7 days in New South Wales to get a taste of Australia. Sydney is great fun: the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Domain, and more will keep you busy. And the beaches are excellent. You can walk along the coastal walk between Bondi and Coogee for some fantastic views. In addition to Bondi, I'd recommend taking the ferry to Manly, a beach town beyond the harbour. I found the town pretty typical of beach towns world over, but the ferry trip will pass through a lot of the harbour, which is a must. For getting out of the city, I'd suggest an overnight trip to the Blue Mountains, north of Sydney. It's easy to get there (I drove, but you can also take a bus), and there are lots of interesting lodging choices. Don't expect to see everything, but you can at least get a taste of what Australia has.

A week in Australia is just not enough time. There's so much to see and do, you'd run yourself ragged. I spent 7 weeks there and did not see everything. One place to stay away from? Ayers Rock. Leave it to the Aborigines, who don't like visitors on their holy ground.

I accidentally wound up on a streetcar turntable in Riga. The man who trotted up to yell at me told me that if I didn't know how to drive, I shouldn't be driving. In my defense, I was told to follow the tracks (as it turns out, not THOSE tracks), and was not familiar with the markings for "do not enter, streetcar turntable".

Another funny one!

Thirty years ago (before there was such a thing called a GPS for anyone except the military) we honeymooned in Portugal. We were driving along the coast and on a whim turned down a side road to see where it went. The next thing I knew, I was completely lost, could not find where I was on the map and dreading what my new wife was going to say when I admitted it. I admitted it, and stopped and asked a young man (I found that young people usually spoke English) how to get back to the highway. He said we should follow him into the small town and then he could get us back. We followed him to his parent's house. It was lunchtime and they invited us in for lunch. Two hours later, full and with new friends, the young man got on his motor bike and we followed him to the main highway (through many turns and switchbacks). It is one of our fondest memories of Portugal.

See, aren't you glad you asked?

I have been perpetually excellent at getting turned around since childhood, and have had some spectacular instances of "creative wandering" abroad. But, as it turns out, I didn't have to go far from home to have my most harrowing experience - some years ago, when I was in my very early 20s, I was trying to get to Arlington (about which I knew nothing) from Gaithersburg (which is where I grew up), and I took a wrong exit off the GW Parkway and somehow ended up driving onto the Pentagon property, so freaked out that my response to the men with guns who were coming towards me (like the Israel chatter) was to KEEP DRIVING. Apparently my flight-or-fight instinct compels me to fly *at* the face of danger... Anyway, eventually I stopped and was able to get calmed down and turned around, but I shudder to think at what could have been had I in fact kept going. And yes, I do still get lost in the place I'm living now, where I've been for almost 10 years. :-)

Deep breaths!

Outskirts of Edmond, Oklahoma. Once the sun rose, we saw lots of oil rigs, farms, etc but nothing was lit up at night :)

Good afternoon, I am trying to plan a trip for about 10 days this July/August. I am most likely going to be traveling alone. I am thinking about visiting either the California coast/redwoods/napa, or Alaska. Are there any travel organizations for a thirtysomething single woman that you can recommend? Thanks!

A lot of reputable companies offer a category of tours for solo travelers, such as Classic Journeys, Backroads (biking tours) and Abercrombie & Kent. You might also consider tours organized by Women Travel Together. For your specific areas, you could see if any regional solo travel groups (such as the Bay Area) are arranging tours to those destinations.

Do you have time for a detour to Zion National Park? The weather's lovely this time of year, being at a much lower elevation than nearby Bryce.

OK I know this is broad but hopefully the group can weigh in. We are looking for an off the beaten path vacation with lots of nature and culture. In the past we've headed to Belize but are looking for someplace new. Considered the Galapagos, but the cost is a bit more than we want to spend now. In the past I have been to Costa Rica myself (husband has not), so we were looking to maybe go there, but then we thought neither of us has been to Panama, maybe that would be a nice trip since it would be new for both of us. So - to the group - Costa Rica vs Panama. Any thoughts?

We had a thread on Costa Rica-Panama in last week's chat, so check that out. Other insight?

Where in Europe would you go if you had a week at the end of July and wanted to enjoy sea and sun, a little bit of culture and local life? Husband and I (mid 30's) are considering Sardinia, the Maltese island of Gozo, or even something in Greece. Ease of access (no long lay-overs), being able to get around on a bike (trying to avoid having to rent a car) are on top of our wishlist as well. Not interested in the party scene. Thoughts from you or the chatters?

I have heard glowing reports about Malta from friends and family. And in the past few years, the island has been bulking up its bike routes. However, with its hilly terrain, you will need some leg strength.

Sardinia also has good biking, but the island is much larger, so you won't be able to cover as much distance. My parents are sailing in Sardinia this fall, so you might care to consider the water option as well.

In yesterday's Post, you commented that a traveler to Europe should ensure the card they use doesn't charge a high foreign transaction fee. My wife and I had a similar dilemma last year prior to traveling to Ireland. I contacted my credit card companies and all had a 1%-3% fee for using the cards overseas. Then, by a stroke of luck and with a little help from my SIL, we got the Marriott Rewards Visa card with a chip. Used it everywhere and no fees. Nil, nada, nishta, nanka, noonie, which all, obviously, mean zero.

Good for you. Here's a page from the nice folks at NerdWallet, which has a list of cards with no foreign transaction fees.

There are several tours that originate in Caen or Bayeux. (Bayeux is worth a visit to see the famous tapestry depicting story of 1066.) I explored all the ones I could find and decided for the three of us, we could do it on our own. Rent a car out of Caen or Paris. It is easy to drive and get around. The Omaha Beach American Battleground Cemetery has a very good visitor center now. There are private museums and public museums along the way. In addition to Omaha Beach, Arromanches was one of our favorite places to visit.  We had the pleasure to have a walking tour of the Omaha cemetery by the head of the cemetery. He knew many interesting stories of men and women buried at Omaha Beach. If one is offered, be sure to take it. You will have a very interesting and moving experience. The beaches and memorials and small towns are stretched all across Normandy, so a rental car makes it possible you to see more than a one-day tour might. You can also hire a guide to go with you in the car, if that suits you. Our hotel, a fabulous chateau in Adrieu, was a complete delight and a culinary highlight, Worth the splurge.

Here you go, WWII traveler!

In Manhattan you won't find anything under $170. But you might in the outer boroughs or New Jersey.

My husband & I are getting an unexpected kid-free week in Nov. (grandparents taking the kids to Disney!) Where should we go that time of year? Are the Greek Isles an option? We'll only have a week.

If you have only a week, Greek Isles may be a bit of a stretch. I'd instead opt for a nonstop destination in order to maximize time on the ground.  Maybe fly into Rome and then tour from there, although it can be rainy in November. Chatters? 

My husband and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in August. due to scheduling issues we have to postpone the big trip we planned (likely a European river cruise - we'll try next year) but want to do something special, probably a 3-4 day weekend trip. I'd love suggestions! We live in the Charlottesville area. Would prefer not to waste an entire day of travel. Love beach, hiking, theater - not really museum people, but will be open to such. Love good wine and food too.

How about Abingdon? It's about 3 1/2 hours from Charlottesville. No beach obviously, but you could hike some of the Creeper Trail or Appalachian Trail. Maybe catch a show at the famous Barter Theatre. There's also at least one winery in the area.

Or head to Virginia's Northern Neck. Wineries, beaches, cute towns, parks and more.

A couple of years ago we went to Italy for our anniversary. We updated our GPS with the appropriate software for Italy and took it with us. We like exploring back roads, so while in Tuscany we often turned off onto what are called "the white roads", often just a dirt or gravel track, to see what was on the other side of the hill. It was funny that the GPS quit talking to us until we got to a main road, then it started trying to tell us how to get somewhere. I never knew you could shut up the GPS by confusing it.

And that is *good* to know!

My daughter is going to Florence to study in June and July. When is the best time to purchase flights?

As soon as you find something reasonable that you can afford! Take it for what you want, but here's some interesting research to come out recently from CheapAir.com.

Morgantown, with Cheat Lake and WVU?

Good thought.

I can recommend Tea at the Fairmont Empress. The tea is lovely and comes with a ridiculous amount of little pastries. They box the leftovers up very nicely as well.

Sounds fun. We did tea at Butchart and can highly recommend that. Took our surplus treats to go as well.

Yeah, I was going to mention I Drive Smart too, but you're still left with the same problem at the end- access to a car. The 90 minute lesson was a great jump start for me, but at $200 a lesson it wasn't something I could repeat over and over! Luckily my dad still had a stick shift at that point and I drive around his car to practice.

We once got so lost venturing out west that when we finally reached the Sierra Nevada mountains we got stuck in a terrible snowstorm that lasted for months. We just decided to have a long party near Truckee Lake that ended up being so crazy that they renamed the lake after us, the Donners.

Har, har. You are such a jokester.

One very very rainy evening my friends and I got off a train in Berlin. We knew our hotel was close (maybe a 10 minute walk) and we had a map. I am hopeless with maps, so I focused on carrying my bag while two of my friends led us to the hotel. 45 minutes later we were still circling around trying to find the hotel. Something was wrong. We were soaked to the bone, everything we had with us was soaked, and we were starving. As the two friends stopped once again to stare at the (drenched and falling apart) map, the other guy in our group finally spoke up: "Maybe you should let the guy that studied cartography in college take a look at the map." Within 15 minutes we were in the hotel. To be honest, we were so tired and thankful to be dry, I don't think we ever even got mad at him for not speaking up for so long.

Wow.

When my son was 19, I took him on a week-long trip to Ireland, which was wonderful except for the last night. I booked a hotel in Dublin, and it was difficult to find because many streets are one-way, there are traffic circles, the street signs are small and hard to see, it was raining, and I was driving on the left side of the road. When we reached the hotel, it was overbooked and they sent us to a different hotel. Trying to get out of the city to the airport the next morning was also a nightmare. I will never drive in Dublin again. My son later said he was in fear for his life while I was driving, and he wasn't joking.

Back in '04, my wife and I were going on a cruise out of Barcelona. We decided to go 2 days early to take in the city. We left the hotel and looked for a bus stop. We came across a line. Thinking it was the bus stop for tickets, we joined. We waited and waited and waited. Finally, we got to the front, only to find out it was the ticket line for a museum. Obviously someone famous, but can't recall the name. Finally, we got a bus and started touring the city. We got off and on several times. The last time on, the bus driver announced, everybody off the bus. We had no idea where we were. We wandered around until a gentleman heard our plight. He knew exactly where our hotel was, but first he wanted to take us to his clothing store where he specialized in leather coats. Of course, my wife, being ever so polite, tried on several coats. When we finally convinced him we were not going to buy, he provided directions and we got back to the hotel safely. Personally, if you don't speak Spanish, don't go to Barcelona.

I'm thinking it may be fun to go out west with my two year old son this summer. My sister would probably join us. We will have already spent time in NYC & CT with friends and in Colorado with family but maybe someplace in California, Oregon or Washington might be different. Anyone have any suggestions of a good place to go with a toddler?

I think pretty much any big city would have fun stuff for your toddler. But since I love it so much, I'll vote for Seattle.

Any recommendations on where to stay in Zanzibar?

There are some suggestions in the details box to this Zanzibar story we ran. Otherwise, we must ask the chatters. Anybody been to Zanzibar?

I, and a travel companion, were lost in Brussels looking for the subway, late at night. We were accosted by a very drunk German man, so I yelled at him in Russian. All I said was "better late than never", but it sure sounded menacing in loud Russian! He turned tail and ran the other way! that was in the mid-90s and I still laugh about it!

Good technique!

A friend of mine went on vacation to San Diego with her 18 month old, and they had blast.

There's a vintage steam railroad at Port Alberni, as well as a restored timber mill for tourists (saw this on one of this great railway journey specials on PBS).

Those both sound neat.

Thinking about a week-long summer vacation. Family wants beaches and I want someplace new. Have done Costa Rica. Is Nicaragua a good option? Is a week sufficient? Is it safe? We would not want an all-inclusive. We'd want to see the country. Would we need to rent a car and how driveable is it? Thank you for any help.

Nicaragua has incredible Pacific beaches, many of which are very popular with sufers and turtles (example: Colorado and El Coco, respectively). The country is also developing its agri-tourism industry, so you can stay on a farm and soak up the culture-- and give a farmhand, too!

The country is much cheaper than Costa Rica, but you also need to be careful. According to the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, "The second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua is a developing nation that faces many economic and political challenges. Crime, while less severe than neighboring countries to the north, continues to affect residents and visitors alike." Before you plan a trip, read their report.

How much foreign cheese can one bring back duty-free to the US from a foreign country? Is there a website with this info? I'd like to bring some back from Europe this spring, maybe a 10-kilogram (22-lb). wheel, if it's legal.

You'll have to research this because it depends on originating country, whether it's soft or hard cheese and other factors. Start by reading the U.S. Customs and Border Protection missive on the subject. 

Aren't DC's cherry blossom areas illuminated after dark?

Not, I believe, with special lights or anything more than the lamps that are already there. But the National Park Service does offer evening tours.

My husband and I went hiking in Sedona AZ last summer and stayed atop a mesa for a bit too long watching the sunset. The hike down wasn't long but cell phone maps don't do you much good when you can't see the trail and there is no signal! Luckily I had a flashlight app.

Whew!

I would LOVE to get to Cuba to scuba dive. Do you or chatters have any ideas how to get connected with something like that?

Officially, you are not supposed to scuba dive if you are an American visitor. The law allows cultural exchange, not recreational activities. I know: I'm a buzz kill, which means I can't recommend those other routes (going through Canada or Mexico and finding a scuba tour operator).

My (now) wife and I also had an experience "winging it" through the Tuscan/Umbrian countryside. On our way to hear Gregorian chanting, we stopped in Montepulciano, where we began our love affair with Vino Nobile. We ate at a little hole in the wall establishment staffed by a solitary older Italian gentleman with a horrible cough. We sat outside and tried to ignore the raspy and wet-sounding hacks he was making (presumably as he prepared the panini). He came out with two beautiful crystal glasses filled with beautiful Vino Nobile, and two panini, each on a styrofoam plate. We ended up missing the monks, but we did see the busloads of tourists who had heard the monks. The"tubercular" (as my wife recalls him) grumpy waiter was way more memorable, anyway.

Nice story.

Hi Crew - Husband and I are going on a child-free three-day weekend to Savannah later this month. First time there. No time to research, so would appreciate any and all tips about activities, dining, etc. Thank you!

Just walk around the beautiful squares. There are many historic buildings and homes -- Juliette Gordon Low's birthplace (founder of the Girl Scouts), the Mercer-Williams house (of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame). Lots of good restaurants, though we'll have to ask the chatters for specific recommendations. Folks?

Greek isles? Fly to Athens, take a ferry to Santorini and enjoy. Beautiful island, friendly people, good food, and good wine. What more can you ask for?

Sounds lovely, if you have the time. Getting to Athens isn't all that simple -- flight with connection takes 12, 13 hours, and then the ferry to Santorini adds another day of traveling. With only one week, including travel time, I'd pick an easier destination. 

We used to spend summers up in Wisconsin with the extended family. Once, after a long day out in the car, my mother and Aunt decided to try to trick the kids into thinking that we were totally lost and turned around as a result of the tornadoes the night before (a regular summer experience). As we drove along, they convinced us that everything was "not quite right" with the landmarks we passed. By the time we got home to our grandparents home, which (as a lake house) had a name on the gatepost, they transposed the letters and said we arrived in the alternative universe version of "home." By then, all but the youngest had caught on, and played along. We still tease him about his fear of spending the rest of the summer at "Pindy Wines." Cruel? Maybe, but it kept a car full of tired kids amused.

Fun!

My wife was going for a run on our first morning in Paris. She went along the Seine, past Notre Dame, and everything was beautiful on a sunny April morning. Trying to head back, she realized she was lost and couldn't even remember what street our apartment was on (In fairness, rue Quincampoix is a mouthful). Bless her, she didn't speak more than a few words of French, either, so she just kept running. Finally, exhausted and covered in sweat, she remembered that we were near the Pompidou modern art museum. She accosted a French passerby and blurted out "Pompidou!" He pointed in a direction, and she made her way home.

Another "whew"!

Do any of WaPo-ers or chatters have experience with any of the off-road rally driving schools? I feel a new phase coming on in my life...

Closest I've come is racing my car at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia. That was a blast. Chatters have any off-road suggestions? 

Monterey is great too. The Aquarium is amazing, Santa Cruz with the boardwalk is just a 40 minute drive north, the beaches in Carmel are very kid friendly - there is plenty to do in the area.

More advice for the parent and toddler.

You guys did a story a few years back on this -- the writer stayed at a B&B on Long Lake in Nanaimo, if that helps -- I found it helpful in planning my trip. My own recommendation is another garden in Victoria -- the house was owned by a Russian emigre -- that's all I remember, but it was beautiful and peaceful.

Yup, here's the story from former staffer Cindy Loose. Thanks for the reminder.

Does anybody in the D.C. area offer training, maybe even on a simulator, for right-hand drive cars? The idea of renting a car in the UK has always scared me because I don't want to try to learn in real-time on real roads, but I would think there'd be a market for classes.

I don't, alas, know of any driving school that offers these kinds of lessons, although it's a great idea, isn't it? Although where would you do it? Seems like something British tourism should look into. As someone who has driven in Britain, though, I can tell you that after the first panicked hour or two, you get sort of used to being on the other side of the road and shifting with your left hand. Your brain just sort of flips, or something. Then when you come home, it feels strange to drive sitting on the left! So give it a go -- you can do it!

It might be easier to get to the Azores (Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic) than to Sardinia, Malta or the Greek Isles. There are daily summer flights out of Boston. Best beaches are on Santa Maria and Sao Miguel. For bicyclists, lots of rural roads with spectacular scenery.

Memorize how to say "Where is...?" in the language of the land you're visiting.

Very smart!

My best friend and I, both 60 year old women, would like to visit Costa Rica. The problem is that I like active vacations (hiking through the rainforest, bicycling, etc.) and she is more into laying on the beach or sightseeing from a tour bus. We have only travelled together once before, because of this. Are they any tour groups that might offer options for both active and sedentary tourists? I imagine there are many married couples like this.

You might consider staying at a resort that has tour options that you can sign up for and your friend can skip. For example, at Selva Verde Lodge, you can zip-line, take a nature hike in the reserve, or go white water rafting while your pal chills at the pool. The Springs Spa and Resort also has add-on tours, such as a day pass to the hot springs and pools.

You might also look at basic tours that offer additional tours for an extra fee. For example, Gate 1 Travel has a simple package with air/hotel/rental car, plus such optional tours as  a canopy tour in the Cloud Forest or a boat tour down the Rio Frio.

Are there any particular concerns about traveling to Greece right now? (thinking about going late May) Do you have any recent stories on Greece?

I wouldn't be worried at the moment. Here's our most recent Greece story, with links to others at the bottom.

What's more cultural than scuba?? Seems counter-intuitive to me. Cuba take great effort to manage and protect their underwater resources...

I signed up and paid for a Viking cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg for July 4 - 17...I am told from both Viking and Travel Guard that acts of war or related to war are not covered by insurance...do I have any hope of getting a visa, and traveling on this cruise? Any hope on recovering the cost?

I'd stay optimistic. Both Viking and Travel Guard are reputable companies. 

We often travel in November, especially over Thanksgiving. Off season makes things cheaper and less crowded. Some of our best November trips included Rome & Pompeii (Naples); Paris and Normandy; Ireland; Cologne, Luxemborg + Belgium; Switzerland; Morocco, London + Bath England. Madrid+Barcelona. All can be done justice in a week.

I like the way you think -- and travel.

I see most are advising 7 days is too short. I have some wiggle room. What is an average length of stay to enjoy the sights.

I'd give it at least 10 days.

Re the previous question, if you go to Cuba legally and don't do anything really stupid, is anybody really watching to see if you go scuba-diving or fishing or dancing in a nightclub? How tight are the rules, really?

It all depends on the tour company. They are supposed to follow our country's guidelines, which means American visitors must stick to the itinerary and not wander off. But one on tour (not Friendly Planet), two brothers spent the entire time drinking and smoking cigars. We only saw them on the bus on the return trip to the airport.

And that's all, folks! Thanks for chatting. Lots of great questions and fun getting lost stories. But the prize has to go to the chatter who got lost in Israel and had to stare down the gun-toting troops. Send your contact info to me at zofia.smardz@washpost.com and I'll shoot off -- oops! -- a prize.

Thanks again and see you all next week!

In This Chat
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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