Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Jan 28, 2019

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

Hi all, and welcome to Talk About Travel. In this week's section, Rich Morin wrote about the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, an annual event that draws birders from all over the world. Have you ever traveled specifically to witness animal behavior? Tell us where you went and why below. Most compelling answer gets a copy of the Moon guide to U.S. National Parks. On to your questions!

Hi! My parents generously come and watch the kids for a weekend each winter while my husband and I go somewhere nearby that would not be fun with/for the kids (so we are avoiding skiing, because the kids love to ski and it seems not fair to go without them). We usually include at least one brewery or winery and a fun restaurant, but need something to do in between eating/drinking. Bonus points if we can walk from our lodging to the brewery or winery. Past trips have included Richmond, Baltimore, Washington, VA, and Old Town Alexandria. Our max driving radius is probably about 3 hours, and we'd go for 2 days, 2 nights. Any ideas? Is there enough to do in Rehoboth in the winter? Thank you!

I just spent the weekend in Ocean City, down the road from Rehoboth. Lots of restaurants were closed, but most will reopen by mid-February. Some shops are open, others have closed for season. If you're into bird-watching, it's fantastic, as all the winter waterfowl are there now. Rehoboth may be a bit livelier, but that wind whipping off the ocean makes walking around a bit of a chore. Have you considered Annapolis? I think that would be a better bet for a winter trip. 

We have tickets booked on Emirates for a trip to Europe in May (thanks to Scott's Cheap Flights) - however, since booking them, we've had to unexpectedly undertake significant house repairs and are hemorrhaging money. We're realizing that it's probably prudent to stay home, but the thought of sacrificing the ticket price is killing us. We called Emirates and they said their hands are tied (based on our fare class) beyond a $300/ticket change fee for a future trip. Given that our tickets were only $400ish, it doesn't seem enticing. We checked our credit card travel protections, and "financial hardship" is explicitly not covered. Are there any avenues of recourse/rebooking/saving the credit that I'm missing? Gah!

Chris Elliott may be better able to answer this, but he is off today. I don't think there is any avenue of recourse. The airline rules re: ticket cancellations are pretty much set in stone. The only time I ever got around it was probably 10 years ago when I went to a ticket office (airlines used to have these in urban areas) and appealed directly to a human being who was sympathetic to my situation. Other times, I've just tossed the ticket because once you pay the penalty, they're often worthless. If anyone out there knows the secret handshake for getting your money back, please share!

Which beaches in the Sarasota/Fort Meyers area do you like to visit?

Sanibel Beach south of Fort Myers and Siesta Key near Sarasota. Anyone have other thoughts? 

The Charlottesville area is fun. Breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants, lots of history. If the weather’s nice plenty of places to walk and bike. If you don’t want to drive, there are plenty of mini-bus or private car tours. And Uber.

Another good idea. 

Charlottesville has nearby wineries, distilleries, and breweries, not to mention some great food.

Another vote for Charlottesville. 

Charlottesville, Harpers Ferry, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Frederick...

All fine choices

I have never been to Germany, but my teenage daughter is studying the language and is interested in visiting -- do you have any broad suggestions for a first-time visitor looking to get a sense of the country? (Say within the confines of a one-week visit.) Focus on one city or move around?

Germany has many different personalities. I'm partial to Bavaria, which is the southern part of Germany. Munich is a great city to cut your teeth on and you could do many nice day trips from there to places such as Neuschwanstein Castle. The Rhine Valley and the city of Cologne are also lovely. 

We're moving and our favorite airline Alaska will no longer work for the routes we'll need to fly. It looks like our options are United, Delta, and American. If you had to chose one of those airlines to go all in on which one would it be? Price is a factor but I'm looking more for which airline will try to do the right thing when things go wrong. I'm flying with 2 small children so making unexpected delays and missed connections as painless as possible is huge. Also, are any of their credit cards worth it? We've just been so spoiled with Alaska.

There are a lot of top-airline lists out there, though most cover the world and not just U.S. airlines. Unfortunately, our home team can't really compete with the luxe service of, say, Singapore Airlines or Emirates. The Wall Street Journal recently came out with an overview of the major U.S. airlines and gave Delta a top ranking. (Meanwhile, American languished at the bottom.)

I recently flew Delta (to Salt Lake City and later Myrtle Beach) and had a great experience, especially on the cross-country flight. The plane had a generous entertainment system, and the flight attendants were very attentive. On a recent return trip on American (I often mix-and-match airlines), the flight was delayed by three hours and I risked missing my connection in Charlotte. American offered to put me up at a hotel in my departure city, but I decided to gamble on making my connection -- and Ispent the night in my own bed!

The moral of the story: If you are flexible and nice, the agents will do their best to help you.

For hard numbers, you can also check DOT's stats on on-time arrival, lost luggage, etc. And when booking your flights, consider travel times, weather and connecting cities. Some advance research can improve your chances of a smooth flight.

For credit cards, I defer to the Points Guy. Here is his 2019 best credit cards list. (Everyone has a list!)

Do you happen to know if there's a place that will exchange -- or just take -- the odd bits and pieces of foreign currency one has left after a trip? Like maybe a charity -- I have seen donation boxes in European airports aimed at outgoing travelers, which always seemed like a great idea.

I often hang onto foreign currency and exchange it on my next trip abroad. I recently added $12 to my travel budget when I discovered a bill from a Middle Eastern country in a pocket and exchanged it for rupees while in Nepal.

If you want to donate it, UNICEF accepts all currencies. Here is info on their mail-in program. If you are in Canada, I think Tim Horton Children's Foundation accepts all currencies.

no there is no secret handshake to getting the money back. Emirates will stick to the fare rules the questioner agreed to when they ticked that little box in the booking.

Yup, that's correct. 

Lovers Key State Park south of Fort Myers Beach is excellent. I have seen dolphins and manatees there too.

Thanks!

I had a similar situation with Emirates, and there was no way, after multiple pleading even through a travel agent, that they would do anything other than allow us to change with a $300 fee. What was maddening is that the difference between the non-changeable fair class and the next one up was only about $100.

Yes, very frustrating. 

I don't understand this term -- can you explain what it means?

Yes, it means you fly into one city and then return via a different city. Example: You fly from Dulles to London and then fly back to Dulles from Paris. 

Chadds Ford is also great for a weekend getaway

A different idea!

Today's code is TT4154. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating.

What's the least expensive destination for a DMV traveler looking for full-on summer weather in April?

Probably cheapest to head to Florida. Anywhere in the southern edges of the state, such as Miami, Key West, Marco Island, would do. You might also try pricing out a package deal to Cancun or the Bahamas via a tour operator such as Apple Vacations or Vacation Express. 

I never been to McAllen but need to be there in a couple of weeks for family reasons. Any ideas for activities while I'm there, preferably outdoors? Is that area currently affected by the border wall craziness?

I love McAllen, but I'm an amateur naturalist who loves spending time watching birds, identifying plants, hiking, etc. That area adjacent to the Rio Grande offers so many outdoor locations worth visiting, including Quinta Mazatlan, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Valley Nature Center, the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen-Rio Grand Valley State Park, home of the World Birding Center.  As for the wall, well, if you're going in a few weeks, should not be an issue. 

If you stay downtown (for example, South Street Inn or Omni, but there are others) you are within walking distance of at least three brewpubs (South Street, Three-Notch'd, Champion, maybe others, and tons of good restaurants). For wineries you will have to go farther.

We have many Charlottesville boosters in our crowd. I wonder how many went to UVA. 

Eat as many croissants and pretzels as you can, and wash them down with Fanta orange soda. I don't know if they use a different type of wheat or what, but the croissants and pretzels will melt in your mouth and the Fanta is nothing like our soda here. It's not some super syrup-y slop. They put actual orange juice in it!

Really? I must admit that I'm partial to German beer. 

I would vote for Berlin -- very cosmopolitan, a wide range of history / art / nature / food things to do, and full of energy but without being overwhelming. Also easy for non-German speakers (the mother in the original post) to navigate.

Berlin is fun, especially for young people. 

You could spend years exploring the country. I really like Hamburg. It's a beautiful city and very manageable. The whole country is great though. I did a trip to visit Roman sites around Germany several years ago that was very interesting. Cologne, Trier, Frankfurt, Xanten.

I've not been to Hamburg, but have heard good things. 

I am taking a bucket list trip to Cuba (my grandparents honeymooned there and I grew up looking at those pictures in photo albums) departing Wednesday. I have been warned not to check bags because it is a nightmare to retrieve (hours long wait, no place to sit. Does anyone's experience say this is true? I am currently trying to get everything into one bag...any other Cuba travel tips would be great!

Cuba follows a different clock than most of the Western Hemisphere. You never know how long it will take -- 20 minutes or two hours. I would recommend carry-on only; you really don't need much but some summery outfits. Other tips: Bring a lot of cash and, if possible, euros or British pounds. Print out copies of important documents and travel info, because you won't have reliable technology. If you want to donate some supplies, reach out to a nonprofit and ask for suggested items on their wish list. I was going to recommend Pack for a Purpose, which matches travelers with specific projects, but the organization unfortunately does not list Cuba. But do keep them in mind for future trips!

Is it too late to start planning a Spring Break trip? And are there overcrowded and/or unfun traditional Spring Break destinations that you would recommend avoiding? Thanks!

By spring break, do you mean the Easter week or a week in March when colleges are typically out? We always went skiing during spring break when Easter fell early, but this year it's April 21, so not a good option. Cruises will be mobbed, as will resorts in Florida. Maybe head to a city that's not known as a spring break destination, such as San Diego. 

Philly may be a good option for a getaway. There are plenty of fun bars, restaurants, and museums that are more grown-up oriented. You could take the train there and back and ditch the car entirely.

Another thought

I am looking for a time to visit Tokyo that gives me the best weather and the lowest price on airline tickets. My preference is spring since my Bday is in April but I do know how expensive the air travel is so I’m flexible. This is for next year if it matters. Thanks in advance.

May and October offer nice weather. If you like sweater weather, April and November are also fine, and fares may be a bit cheaper. Start tracking fares now and you'll then know when a cheap one hits. 

As someone who has lived in various parts of Germany for several years, I second the vote for Munich for a first-time visitor. Lots of iconic German sights—beer halls (where the teen can have a soda), castles and glockenspiels! But I would urge the family to include a day trip to nearby Dachau (which can be reached via public transportation.) It would be a meaningful history lesson for all.

Thanks much.

Any ideas for a weekend getaway similar to Greenbrier, but not as extravagant? We want a weekend away to rest, so don't want to do a city break. But we also don't want to break the budget somewhere as expensive as the Homestead or Greenbrier. Ideally 3 hours or less driving from DC.

For anything really similar, you'll pay the price. This isn't on the same level, but take a look at Capon Springs in West Virginia. 

A friend and I are looking for an air/ all inclusive package to someplace warm in March or April. Mexico could work. We looked at Guadelope when they were flying from BWI.... We are really limited money-wise - $500 to $600 per person for everything. Any suggestions?

I don't think you're going to find anything for that price, but check with tour operators  Vacation Express and Apple Vacations. 

I grew up near Cuyahoga Valley National Park in NE Ohio, and have traveled back to watch the nesting of migratory Great Blue Herons in the spring. (Also, one county over, the Turkey Buzzards return to Hinckley every March 15, with a namesake festival each year!)

We have been to Katmai National Park in SW Alaska several times in the summer when the salmon are running to see the bears at the falls at Brooks Lodge It is very addictive especially when you recognize the indiviual bears and see them interact with each other (see Explore.org).

Their season doesn't start until May.

Good to know -- thanks!

The Shenandoah Valley has a Spirits Trail of wineries, breweries, and distilleries, many located in small towns with quaint B&Bs. Just don't try to 'taste' too many in a day.

Another great suggestion -- thanks!

I have a few hours in transit at KEF. Are there any must-see things in the airport there? Special restaurants or food to try?

If you have enough time to exit the airport, you may want to visit the Duus Safnahus Cultural Center, which is just a couple minutes from the airport. 

Just got back from Disneyworld for our first trip there in 20 years. Went to some of their top restaurants, and I wasn't as thrilled as I was back then. I think the difference is that the food available in the DC area has gotten much much better since then, and that a high-end Disney French restaurant is about on par (and much more expensive) than one in Bethesda. Oh, and we saw plans for their new Star Wars park and hotel. A license to print money!

Thanks for sharing your experience!

Is 4 nights in Venice too much? Are there day trips that I should look into (I won't be renting a car). I'm coming from Naples and have already done Rome and Florence.

Venice is suffering from serious overtourism and, to address the crisis, the city unveiled a campaign called Detourism. The initiative encourages travelers to explore beyond the historic center  and offers suggestions that you might not have initially considered. For our overtourism piece, we suggested Verona as an alternative. Trains run daily between the two cities; travel time is about an hour each way.

I would pay more attention to the where you fly when picking. Do you live near one of the hubs for any of those airlines? Are the places you are generally going (e.g. where family lives) a hub? That would give you the best option of nonstop choices and frequent flights in event of a delay. All else being equal, I'd maybe give it to Delta, but I have been burned by all 3 too many times to count (despite having status on American and United).

Makes sense -- thank you!

We just booked Virgin Gorda for a week in March - It isn't easy to get to, so it isn't overrun. Just avoid the Baths on cruise ship days. The are bringing some huge ships into Tortola, but the ferries bring people over. 

If you have the time to devote to travel, makes sense. 

I fly several times a year on various airlines, and have consistently had a good experience with United (although that may be luck - I know many people who loathe United). Delta has been fine - nothing special but no real problems. However, I will avoid flying American whenever possible, even if it means paying more - they are the worst, worst, WORST.

Thanks for the feedback!

I think the consensus in the frequent traveler community these days is that Delta is a good deal better than American or United.

Thanks for weighing in!

Flight attendants on WestJet, a Canadian airline, collect foreign currency on their flights and, as you indicated, many British airports have collecting bins for foreign money.

Wish they did this on all international flights!

Don't go to Hamburg -- many of the locals still speak "Plattdeutsch" (lowland version of German), very different from what she's presumably learning in school!

That's true in so many areas of Germany. But I find that if you politely ask for people to speak Hochdeutsch (High German), they will. Although my relatives in Austria always start out speaking high German for me, but they quickly revert to a dialect that I can't understand at all. 

I was in Charlottesville in October (first time in 10 years). Love the city. Was really struck by the make-shift memorials to Heather Heyer, who was killed during the rally last year. Buckets of chalk on both sides of the sidewalk where she was hit. Visitors encouraged to write messages on the walls of the buildings on either side of the street. Some very moving thoughts and a living memorial in some ways. That block was renamed Heather Heyer Way. #NeverForget

Thanks.

The prime reason we visited Africa was to see the animals, and wow, was it ever worth it. We made it to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland. While we did not see the Big Five, we did see elephants, several lionesses with their cubs, cape buffalo, hippos, cheetahs, zebras, antelope, kudu, ostrich, wild dogs and so much more. And of course those enormous crocodiles! It was an incredible, awesome experience that I would love to repeat, very soon!

One more animal encounter before we sign off!

Last year was the absolute busiest year of my career yet and now that it's over, I have over four weeks of PTO but...I'm paralyzed as far as planning one. I really feel like I'm coming out of hibernation. Should I start small and local? Or just go for broke and head to Europe. Both? Somewhere in between?

Give our Vacation Finder a try! Alternatively, go to Paris and eat baked goods for the entire four weeks.

I've been to Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Acadia National Parks, as well as the Boundary Water Canoe Area, partly in hope of seeing a moose. They seem to know I'm coming, and vamoose (so to speak).

Annnnd, one more --- I couldn't resist!

Heading to PR for a week in April. How's the island doing? Any must-see places? Thanks!

The islands is doing great. Here is my post-Maria piece.

Hoping to visit the Azores this spring, as a party of 6 adults. Does anyone have experience with transport options once there? Might there be vans to rent? Are Uber or Lyft available? How could I arrange for a driver if necessary? Thanks!

The islands have not embraced the car-sharing community  yet, so you will need to rent a car or hire a driver. (My sister and her husband loved driving themselves around.)

 If you are taking a cab from the airport, ask the taxi driver for recommendations. Many drivers will make themselves available as full-day tour guides. For rental cars, the major companies operate on the islands. Here is some info on rental cars from the local airline.

What's the fastest/easiest place to get passport pictures taken? Is there any point in paying a photo studio for portrait-grade shots?

CVS, though I go to Visa HQ on Mass Ave. for my photos.

Looks like our time is up -- thanks for chatting today, everyone. Turkey buzzard fan, drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize. And join us again next week for more Talk About Travel!

In This Chat
Nicole Arthur
Nicole Arthur is the Travel editor.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
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