Talk about Travel (Nov. 11)

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Nov 11, 2019

Join the Travel team to discuss your travel-related questions, comments, suspicions, warnings, gripes, sad tales, etc!

Hello and welcome to Talk About Travel! This week, our own Andrea Sachs has a dispatch from Grand Bahama Island, which is recovering from Hurricane Dorian and ready to receive tourists. Also this week: a Navigator on "disembarkation sickness"; a pitch for Fells Point in Baltimore; a Tampa local rediscovers its riverfront and expert tips for handling long flights


Here's our chat question: What good deeds have you done while traveling? Most compelling answer gets an Atlas Obscura Page-A-Day 2020 Calendar. And please, if you wind up winning don't forget to email us at to claim your prize. 

On to your questions!

Any guidance about Swiss International as a carrier to and from Europe? Viking offers them as a carrier in conjunction with cruises?

It's a fine airline, but they are very by-the-book. If you have a nonrefundable ticket, don't even think about trying to get a refund.

Today's WaPo has an article by Hannah Sampson in the "By the Way" column. It talks about people going to the airport and through security to see people off, pick them up, or even just to go there to eat and watch the planes come and go. Pittsburgh airport has MyPITpass which allows this. I am old enough to remember doing this at the Philadelphia airport in the '70s. I can't imagine O'Hare or Atlanta allowing this to congest their already busy areas, but maybe a smaller one would be able to manage it. Is this really a trend in airports of a certain size? Would YOU actually go to eat and watch the planes depart and arrive?

Hannah writes for a different section, so we can't really offer any insights into her piece. But yes, I think people do enjoy watching planes take off and land, similar to train spotters.

Here's Hannah's article. It seems like plenty of people in DC like this -- when I first moved here from California, one of my friends took me to Gravelly Point Park in Arlington to watch planes land/take-off from DCA. But that's not actually at the airport. Chatters what do you think?

What are your favorite hotels and why? What are your favorite things to do on the Amalfi Coast? Thinking of it for next Sept or Oct.

Chatters, any advice?

Hi! This is for a trip in August 2020: Can you recommend a tour outfit who can drive six of us from Galway to County Kerry? It would be great if the same company could take us on a couple of day trips while we are in Galway. I’ve had good luck with a couple of other such drivers, but neither one operates outside of Dublin. Thank you.

Chatters, any recommendations?

Heading to Italy over the holidays. Besides the usual touristy things, anything we shouldn't miss in Rome and Milan?

Lucky you! Since reading "Under the Tuscan Sun" I've wanted to visit Italy during the holiday season. Here's a recent piece we did on Rome's hidden green spaces -- some of them might be even lovelier in the wintertime. Our friends at By The Way published a city guide to Rome, so you could start there for things to do and places to stay/eat. And don't forget to bring home some unique souvenirs: we suggest olive oil, leather and/or handmade paper. Please report back and tell us how the trip goes!

What are some reasonably objective sources of information about airlines to avoid if possible in terms of flight cancellations and delays, customer experience, etc.?

I like the Airline Quality Rating, which is the oldest and most established. 

I'll be in downtown Auckland NZ on Christmas day and am having a hard time finding any information on what might be open or going on over the holiday. Any suggestions?

Auckland's tourism office has a list of events. Here is a sampling. Your hotel concierge will also have information and ideas.

Just found a great deal on an Alaskan cruise for September 2020. The itinerary I wanted at a great price (which allowed me to afford a balcony). It leaves from Seattle and returns to Vancouver. Is it better to book RT air into/out of Seattle and rent a car or do an open jaw flight and fly into Seattle and out of Vancouver? Or is there a still better way to do it?

If you can get a lower fare to Seattle, and you have an extra three hours, you can take the QuickShuttle.  I've always flown into Vancouver for a cruise, but I've heard of people saving money by flying into Seattle. Chatters, what's your experience?

In 1974, when I was in second grade, our class had a unit on manners. We took a class field trip to Dulles Airport. We ate in a restaurant and rode the people movers. My dad was one of the parent volunteers. I still remember him pulling out the dining chair for our female teacher. It was all so sophisticated!

So fancy!

Some of my fondest childhood memories are from times my parents would take us three kids to (what was then) Friendship Airport to watch the planes take off and land. My dad always had an interest in flight and had even served in WWII aboard an aircraft carrier. He could tell us what types of planes we were watching and I loved sitting on the leather (vinyl?) chairs and looking out the big windows of the terminal while eating the sandwiches Mom had packed as our "picnic" lunch. It sparked such an interest in us that my older brother even became a licensed private pilot in adulthood, and I passed on a love of flying to my son. Unfortunately, times have changed so much that we can longer pass down memories of spending the day at the airport just for fun.

Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

Two things: what are temps likely to be like at the end of March in Austin, and is there anything unusual to do with a couple of three-year-olds and a five-year-old other than the bat cruise, the nature museum and the zoo?

Weather is unpredictable as you know, but temps in March 2019 were primarily in the low 80s, with a few cooler and hotter days in the mix.  Some kid-friendly activities include Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms, Inner Space Cavern, Betty and Edward Marcus Sculpture Park (peacocks!), BookPeople Storytime and the Texas Toy Museum.

I used to stay at particular guest house when visiting a theater festival. Eventually, I stopped going every year and when I did go, I ended up staying with a dear friend's in-laws as I had gotten to know them very well and they really liked having a house guest. Then I heard that one of my former hosts had passed away and his wife had been obliged to move into a memory care place in town. So I went to visit. Her memory was terrible for new people, but she still remembered me from most of the 10 years I had stayed with them for a few days each year. It was nice for her to talk to someone whose name she remembered, especially as she told me that she had no idea who her assigned table mates were for meals, though it was always the same people and the staff told her that their table was always talking and laughing. We chatted and I helped her get ready to go on an evening outing. A few days later, I went back for another visit and she was just as surprised and happy to see me the second time. We had nearly the same conversation as before, but that was OK. I know that she didn't get to remember having a visitor, but for the minutes that I was there, it was enough.

Several weeks ago hubby and I visited Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square PA. We are members, and walk there for exercise three times a week. We recognize other regular walkers who do the same- it's great exercise and so beautiful! Last week, as we were outside, before entering the Visitor's Center, I noticed that someone had dropped a hearing aid. (One usually costs more than a thousand dollars.) Picking it up, I intended to take it to the "lost and found" at the Visitor Service desk. However, when we got inside the building, I saw one of our regular "nodding acquaintances" looking around on the floor. I went up to him and asked if he had lost a hearing aid. He had! He introduced himself as Jim and was so thankful to get it back. We chatted a bit and made a new friend. That's always a good thing and an ample reward for a small act of kindness.

I wasn't the traveler -- my friend was. This was in the early 1970s, when it was still possible to accompany passengers to the gate. I took my friend to JFK for her flight back to Chicago, and a snail would have left the line in the dust. I was getting nervous that she would miss her flight -- so of course, the couple ahead of us in line had some insurmountable problem, compounded by the fact that neither of them spoke English. I saw they were wearing "Hello, My Name Is" tags from a German travel agent, so I limbered up my limited German and explained what had happened. The woman understood me, but her husband had the same glazed look she had worn while listening to the airline rep's English. To make a long story short, they had missed their connection at JFK (not their fault), and the airline was going to put them on a flight out of LGA and pay for a taxi. When I explained this in German, the woman saw that her husband hadn't understood word one, so she said to him in Croatian, "We don't have to pay for the taxi." At which point I explained the whole thing again in Croatian. They were two very happy travelers, once they got over the shock of being in line ahead of the one American in the airport who spoke both of their languages. And my friend made her flight.

You guys seem to be big AirBnB fans. Typically, how much less do you pay for an AirBnB booking than you would pay for a decent budget or moderately priced chain hotel in the same place? (Don't compare it to the Four Seasons.) Do you actually consider other options before each trip, or do you go straight to AirBnB? After reading the article you linked to last week about scams, and the report about shootings at a AirBnB party house, I am even more certain that there are no circumstances under which I would go to an AirBnb property.

I rented an Airbnb in September in Provo, Utah. I think you really have to do your research and run the numbers. Read the reviews carefully. Watch for properties with negative reviews or none at all. Once you have the final price, calculate the nightly rate and compare it to a hotel. Even with all the recent news, I'm still a fan of vacation rentals. But it's not for everyone.

Overall recommendation: Don't go in high season; it's an anthill. Hotel recommendations: 1) Hotel Parsifal, where we stayed quite a few years ago. It's still there, according to a Google search a few minutes ago. Small, comfortable, very friendly staff. 2) Palazzo Avino (formerly Hotel Palazzo Sasso) -- I'm not sure if the hotel changed names or the Avino is a different property. We were only in the Palazzo Sasso to attend a wedding reception and lunch. The hotel was luxurious to the max, and lunch ran about 3 1/2 hours and was beyond description. 3) Ristorante Cumpà Cosimo. Again, not sure if it's still there, but if it is, it's well worth a visit. Also, try walking down one of the paths to the Tyrrhenian Sea -- but remember, you'll have to walk back up!

Thanks so much for the tips! Dreaming of an Italian seaside vacation already....

Do you know whether On the Go Tours is considered a reputable operator?

I have not hear anything negative about their tours.

Chatters, any good or bad recommendations you can offer?

Work is crazy so I'm looking for a Thanksgiving weekend getaway for myself and my husband. We could leave Thanksgiving Day, but need to be back for work again on Monday unfortunately. Any suggestions for a place to drive to from DC that won't have horrendous Thanksgiving traffic, or a place to fly that won't break the bank?

Given this is one of the busiest travel times of the year, it's fair to expect that it will be crowded/expensive to get anywhere. Have you thought of doing a staycation? The city should be a little cleared out for the holiday, so it could be a good time to go see some new things, try a new restaurant, etc. Chatters, any suggestions?

Is four nights on board a small ship enough time to get a sense of the Galapagos?

It all depends on how much you love wildlife and being on the water, but, yes, four days is a significant amount a time to explore several of the islands. For environmental reasons, you will be limited in the amount of time you can spend on the islands as well as where you can roam. So pick an itinerary that matches your interests. You can also book a hotel on Isabela, Santa Cruz, etc., and explore a bit more on your own or with a day guide.

Go to the top of the Duomo and walk along the spires. There’s a fast track ticket you can buy on the spot that takes you up quickly in an elevator. Around 20 euros, worth it not to wait in long lines. Visit the Brera Museum and see Hayez's "The Kiss." Go to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana to check out DaVinci's Codex. Whatever is playing at LaScala, get a ticket. There’s a fun LaScala Museum next door to the opera house. Visit the Navigli neighborhood for music and bar hopping. Lucky you!

OP, are you there? Thanks so much for sharing! 

If I understood the chatter's question, they want to know if it's a good idea to fly R/T to/from Seattle and rent a car for the trip back from Seattle to Vancouver at the end of the cruise. Flying to/from SEA is probably going to be cheaper than an open jaw to SEA and from YVR. BUT! Renting a car in Canada and returning it in the U.S. could get very expensive, so some kind of mass transit is probably a better bet. Also, if you do go R/T thru SEA, allow plenty of time to get to the airport from the cruise ship. Remember, you'll have customs formalities on exiting the ship in Vancouver, then a border crossing into the U.S., then airport security formalities at SEA. Maybe book a flight for the day after your ship arrives in Vancouver?

Thank you for unpacking my answer. I just skipped to the conclusion, but I'm grateful that you laid out all the options. I appreciate that.

Hi-Travelers beware of the Melia resorts. I booked at a hotel in the Dominican for July but given the coverage about the island, we decided to cancel and go elsewhere-when i called the hotel to cancel the agent told me that there was no booking in my name (tried both last name and first) or by my email and further since i had not created an "account" with the resort, i could not have made a booking. So imagine my surprise when i get charged in full--have been fighting with the hotel ever since. I asked them to pull the call and they said it (conveniently) was one of the calls that had not been recorded; they produced a false invoice. What is my recourse-I understand the policy but are we not to rely on the hotel's agents when they tell us there is no booking? Travelers beware of the Melia resorts.

Did you happen to get the confirmation of the "nonexistent" reservation in writing? If you did, it should be fairly simple to fix. If not, then it'll be a little more complicated. You'll need to appeal to the management and possibly dispute the charge on your credit card. I can help. Here's how to contact me.

We are planning a trip to  Cabo San Lucas in the Baja early next year for about a week.  We do not want to spend all out time at beaches. Do you have any suggestions for day trips? We will have access to a rental car.

We just ran a piece about this area. Hope this helps! I also recommend Cabo Pulmo, for the coral reef and UNESCO site; Milaflores, for the leather and furniture; and Agua Caliente Ranch,San Jorge Ranch or Santa Rita Ranch, for the thermal waters.

We are going to Santa Fe over New Year's with two teenagers. We are planning on seeing Meow Wolf and going to the Jemez Springs bath house. Do you have any suggestions for any other things that would appeal to the kids?

I have two suggestions. You have to check out Bandelier National Monument and drop by the Santa Fe Farmers' Market on Saturday. Chatters, what about you? 

Since we seem to be getting a lot of Europe questions, thought I'd post this article by Carol that answers frequently asked questions about traveling to Europe, in case it's helpful. 

It turns out that we will have the week after Christmas free. Do we have time to plan a trip to Disney World in Florida? Two adults, one of whom uses a power wheelchair, and an eleven-year-old.

You do, but it will be very busy. If you can wait until the first week of January, you'll avoid the crowds.

No way would I want to go to a busy airport like JFK, ORD or IAD just to watch planes. That said, you can do a lot of plane-spotting without entering the airport. For example, Gravelly Point in Arlington, which Helen Carefoot mentioned, is right of the arrival end of runway 19 at DCA. And certain spots along Rockaway Blvd. in Queens offer a view of planes landing on runways 22L and 22R. There used to be a great spot off the arrival end of runway 4 at LGA, but airport expansion and/or road realignment took it away. (23rd Ave. just east of 82nd St. offers pretty good viewing, though.)

These are great suggestions, thank you!

I believe a couple of weeks ago someone asked about accommodations on Sanibel Island. In 2017 we stayed at Beachview Cottages and loved it. The brightly painted cabins were well equipped and well maintained. They were just steps from the beach on a quiet part of the island. The shops were a pleasant bike ride away. We took the auto train, which was fun, but it was a long drive from Sanford to Sanibel!

Thank you. Sanibel is one of my favorite islands. I appreciate the recommendation.

As a kid, I used to be taken to the Pittsburgh airport to watch takeoffs and landings. As I recall, they even had an outdoor viewing section on a rooftop. My husband took our kids to a country road in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to watch planes take off and land. In Columbus, Ohio, there was a restaurant (Hangar 99, or something like that) where you could watch the planes. I think it's a swell idea for a smaller airport. Even in Orlando, I believe you can get a pass to accompany someone through security to the gate. So I wonder if it is not new but not advertised very much.

In St. Maarten, lots of people gather on Maho Beach to watch the planes seemingly pass inches overhead.

Most to all airports offer passes, but you need a valid reason, such as accompanying a minor or senior. Plane-spotting, sadly, isn't one of them.

I flew with them a couple of years ago and thought they were very good and the staff friendly but professional. I'd have thought the clue in 'non refundable ticket' is fairly obvious!

Yeah, but people still try! Still, we don't hear many complaints about Swiss, which is good. I would not have any problems flying on Swiss. Especially in business class. I know, dream on, Elliott! ;-)

Make sure to visit Ravello. It’s an easy cab ride from the town of Amalfi. A couple of famous villas up there—one Hotel Villa Cimbrone, a high end hotel whose grounds are open to the public. Walk through to stand at the Belvedere Terrace of Infinity for a 5-star view above the coast. In Amalfi visit the paper making museum, which offers tours in Italian and English. Starting from Sorrento, take the public buses one way and then return by ferry. Totally different perspectives. If you like to walk, go along the Sentiero dei Dei, the Pathway of the Gods, along the ridge above the road.

Thanks for the suggestions! Adding these to the travel bucket list for sure...

Always good advice. But my impression is that AirBnB listings often don't provide a precise address or other important details until AFTER you book. And the story about scams revealed blatant lies, fake "customer" reviews and outright fraud. How do you conduct reliable research? At least if you book with a chain hotel, you have a pretty good idea of what you're getting. What you be sure about with an AirBnB?

You can share your concerns with the host before you book -- ask for an address, for example, so you can Google it -- or speak to the hosts by phone. If the host is dismissive or cagey, don't book.  More often than not, Airbnbs work out. I just booked one in Waco and all signs look good. The couple just messaged me the access info, plus I have their phone number. But I also know the name of several nearby hotels, just in case.

And remember when you could take people to or meet people at the gate. I have a great memory of my mom taking me to the airport to fly back to my city from my hometown (I had come home for a wedding) and her matchmaking me with a guy who was on the same flight who switched his first-class seat to sit next to me in coach and then we ended up dating for a bit. Those were the good old days!

Yep, I remember that, too. And you're right -- they were the good old days.

Two thoughts for the Milan traveler: go to Chinatown for a meal -- there is wonderful food (don't miss Ravioleria Sarpi) and it is a fun break from the tourist center. And don't miss the Museo del Novocento, which is just off the Duomo but isn't overrun and features 20th century Italian different from most of what you will see elsewhere.

Thanks for the suggestion!

I'm confused by Chris Elliott's response: A: Christopher Elliott It's a fine airline, but they are very by-the-book. If you have a nonrefundable ticket, don't even think about trying to get a refund. If I buy a nonrefundable ticket from ANY airline, I don't expect I'd successfully request and obtain a refund. I wouldn't expect anything different from Swiss International, so I'm confused as to the point Chris is trying to make.

Airlines bend or break their own rules, including the ones about nonrefundable tickets. I don't think I've ever seen Swiss do that. That's what I meant. Sorry to confuse you.

I am a traveler but this is my first time using points to do so (it's always seemed a hassle, but I have 200K Amex points so am going to put them to use). I went to ANA to find points flights from DC to Tokyo and they all have waitlist. What does that mean? I can get on a list but may not get off? How does all of this work? Also United has peak times and I don't understand how that works/what that means either. HELP

That is exactly what it means: You are on a wait list for an available seat. You can cancel your reservation and book a seat without points or wait to see if a points seat opens up, but there is no guarantee. The airline will reach out if it has a seat for you. (Only a select number of seats on a plane are available for purchase with frequent flier points.) Peak times means popular travel times, such as holidays and reasonable flight times, meaning not red-eyes or 5 a.m. Typically these peak times go first and fast.

Roman churches are famous for their crèches and Romans try to visit a number of them over the holidays. Do a self guided Caravaggio tour, visiting San Luigi dei Francesi to see 3 of his paintings about St. Matthew and then Santa Maria del Popolo to see his St. Peter being Crucified and St Paul on the Road to Damascus. Take a food sampling tour. They stop at 5 or 6 places to taste various Roman specialties including the famous fried artichokes in the Jewish Ghetto. Walks of Italy offers one such tour but there are others. The Testaccio neighborhood fo an evening stroll and bar hopping. The Barberini Museum if you love Renaissance and post Renaissance painting. Visit Santa Maria della Vittoria church to see Bernini's St Teresa in Ecstasy, made more famous by its prominence in Verghese's Cutting for Stone a few years back.

This sounds like a great itinerary. Thanks for the tips! 

Going there Jan. 22-29 and staying at the Verandah Resort in a beachfront suite. What do I need to know about this island concerning travel, shopping, fishing, etc..? What vaccinations might I need?

I have never gotten vaccinations for the Caribbean, but here are the CDC's recommendations. You can also check with a travel clinic or an infectious diseases specialist. The country is generally safe. For additional details, here is the State Department's country profile. The country's tourism office has a very good Web site, with a ton of attractions.

Chatters, any specific recommendations?

Is the Middle East safe for USA citizens in particular: Istanbul. Cappadocia, Jerusalem and Petra?

All those places are fairly safe, with an asterisk or two. You should be fine in Istanbul, but stay away from the border, according to the State Department. For Israel, stay out of the areas known for conflict, and you should be OK -- again, according to the State Department. Here's the Jordan report.

Be very careful if you do this. People have been seriously injured - and even killed by the engine thrusts.

Good advice. I have to say, I instinictually ducked when they flew overhead.

Waco? Waco? Lord, why?

You'll find out soon enough . . .

Andrea: I was in Saint Maarten this past Spring and the view from the beach was no longer possible. There had been hurricane damage and some injuries during viewing.

Oh wow! Good to know. Thank you for the update.

I went to Egypt with On The Go tours about 10 years ago and had a wonderful time. Still in touch with the tour guide Ehab. We went from Cairo, Valley of the Kings, down to Aswan, Luxor, a Nile Cruise (had the option of a felucca) and then over to Alexandria and Siwa. Lots of good information from tour guides and accommodations were wonderful. My Mom (because she was 65) had to get a fitness waiver signed by her doctor.

Thank you for the great review!

We love the Island Inn there. And a guess for Waco? perhaps the phenomenon that is Joanna & Chip Gaines


That does it for this week's chat. Thanks as always for your readership, thoughts and suggestions. And please remember that if we don't get to your question this week, you can always submit next week. Thanks for your lovely answers to this week's question, and guest house traveler, please email us to claim your prize. Have a great week!

In This Chat
Nicole Arthur
Nicole Arthur is the Travel editor.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column. 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.
Helen Carefoot
Helen Carefoot is Travel's editorial assistant.
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