Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Jan 22, 2018

Talk about Travel is here to help at 2 p.m. Mondays.
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Happy Monday, chatters -- welcome to Talk About Travel! This week in Travel, a pair of septuagenarians biked from Land's End to John o' Groats, completing the 983-mile route known as the End to End. Have you ever taken a biking vacation? Tell us about it below. Most compelling answer get s a copy of Moon's "London Walks" guide, complete with a removable map. On to your questions...

I'm looking into doing some international travel this year with a couple of tour groups and it seems travel insurance is required by them. I'm fine with that, but while I won't have kids or a spouse back home, I do have pets and am wondering if having to go home early to take care of them if they get sick would be covered. One of them has had health problems lately and while it appears he's all better, I'd prefer to have all my bases covered before I make plans to leave for a week.

I don't believe any travel insurance policy covers the cost of your trip in case your pet gets ill. There are policies that will cover your pet's care if he/she becomes ill while traveling, but that's not your situation. 

I am traveling with three friends to Paris in the beginning of July. We are having trouble getting an apartment rental that meets our needs. A/C is very important! Besides Homeaway - do you recommend any apartment rentals?

The obvious ones are VRBO and Airbnb.

Chatters, can you recommend any apartment rental companies in Paris?

My mom wants to celebrate her 80th with a family vacation to Quebec City. Any recommendations on sights, flights, hotels or museums?

Check out this piece Travel did on Quebec City a while back.

I often take the "commuter" flights on CRJ planes from Minneapolis to Newark, NJ. People are asked to gate-check carry-on bags and to bring only 2 bags, one of which should be put under the seat in front. Routinely people come on with two bags, try to stuff both overhead. They don't fit. They complain. they put nothing under the seat in front of them. And flight attendants do nothing. Help!

I feel your pain. I think it's about time for a story on lax luggage enforcement. If you're interested in sharing your story in more detail, please send me a note.

I really want to plan a 4-5 day vacation to somewhere warm in February. I'm thinking Cancun, but am up for anything warm. What are your recommendations on warm destinations with cheap flights?

Since the trip is short, you'll want nonstop flights. Miami is typically warm, but this year, that's not been a sure thing. Cancun has nonstop flights and reasonably priced hotels. You may also want to look at tour operators, such as Apple Vacations and Vacation Express, that offer charter nonstops to Punta Cana.  

I live in Pennsylvania which was given an extension for the Real ID drivers licenses, but I have business travel coming up and I'm wondering if my PA drivers license will be accepted in Arizona airports? Or should I bring my passport? The government websites are all over the place. The Pittsburgh airport site says the drivers license is okay because of the extension, but what about other states?

Even though the extensions are state-by-state, TSA's acceptance of driver's licenses is nationwide. But it's always safe to bring your passport because sometimes the directive doesn't make it to all ears.

Good afternoon! My boyfriend and I are both dummies who planned a trip to Mexico at the end of February, but both have expired passports. I don't even know where mine is. What are the chances we can get new passports in time, especially with the shut down? Help!

Looks promising for shutdown ending, which is good news for you. As long as that happens, you should be able to get your passports in time via the expedited process. Go to the State Department's site for all the details. 

I am flying to Vancouver this spring. With a US passport, I don't need a visa do I?

Americans don't need a visa to travel to Canada. The State Department lists which countries require visas for Americans.

Am glad to hear that some airlines are finally cracking down on ESAs and requiring medical documentation up front -- the situation has unfortunately been abused by too many passengers, thereby casting aspersions on those few passengers who actually need service animals or other ESAs. Thanks!

You're right, there's been way too much abuse. The Department of Transportation has failed to act, but now at least one airline has. I wonder if other carriers will follow.

Hi there, I am researching travel groups for a trip to Europe on my own. While I don't mind traveling alone, I feel that being a part of a group will provide me with some "checking in" and safety for my first Europe trip. I don't mind traveling with a non-singles group and paying an additional single room fee (or even sharing). I am 50 (ish), so not wanting to travel with a bunch of 20 or 80 yr olds (ouch that sounds offensive). Determining if a group is credible is really difficult. Web reviews are unreliable at best... often sounding like they are written by their Mom or competitors. Do you have any suggestions for travel group companies and how to safely research them? 

Unfortunately, there's no Good Housekeeping seal of approval for tours, but you might want to check to see if your tour operator is a member of the United States Tour Operators Association, a nonprofit trade organization. That's usually a good sign.

Speaking of b-days, any travel suggestions -- of any type -- for someone who is fairly immobile, but does not use a wheelchair?

You might enjoy a river boat cruise in Europe or the States. The boats move at a slow pace, so you can see the gorgeous scenery without getting off.

Today's code is TT5767. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating. 

My family would like to do a tour through Slovenia, the country of my grandfather’s birth. We are looking for a tour that would be good for multiple generations - adults in their 40’s and in their 70’s. Do you have any suggestions for finding tours since Slovenia isn’t your typical travel destination?

Actually, Slovenia is growing in popularity. Many travel groups offers trips there, such as Trafalgar, Kensington Tours and Intrepid Travel. I would check out the different itineraries and see what works best for your multi-generational group. You can sign up whole hog or assemble your own independent tour "inspired" by theirs.

Isn't there "cancel for any reason" travel insurance? Or maybe you can buy such a rider? But always read the fine print! Also, if you are going somewhere where you may be injured or become ill, getting evacuation insurance to get you back to the States may be a good idea. Check with your health insurance provider too.

Yes, there's cancel for any reason coverage. It's something you buy separately. It costs a few percentage points more, and you only get a percentage (80-90 percent) back when you cancel. But it can be worth it, especially if you have a pre-existing medical condition that makes conventional insurance difficult to buy.

I have noticed that the chain I stay with (Hilton) has begun moving the cancellation date back on several of the rates I use. Yesterday, the AAA and AARP and the Hilton Honors cancellation date for a one night stay 01/20 -1/21 were set for 1/18. I am use to the cx date being six hours before check in on the date of arrival or the check in time the day before. Is this the new policy for hotels ? I always read the fine print and was surprised to see this for a member of their frequent stay group.

Yes, hotels are requiring more advance notice. Here is my piece about the policy change.

I refuse to subject myself to the degradations of TSA and the airlines (unless I could afford first-class or private flights), so I explored Cunard line, which is just too formal for my t-shirt and jeans style. Is there any other way to transit the pond in a casual cruise?

Most of the major cruise lines cross the Atlantic, such as Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Carnival. However, Cunard isn't that buttoned-up. I saw many passengers strutting around in bathing suits and shorts. And you can skip formal dining nights and eat at the buffet.

United just changed our reservations from a nonstop flight from IAD to SXM to another flight with a connection at JFK and a significantly earlier departure. The only reason we chose IAD was for the nonstop. We would prefer to fly out of DCA (and there is a later flight that would be preferable): since United changed our flights, do we have a chance to request a different option than what they gave us? If so, how do we do it?

Yes, normally you would have the option of canceling the flight and receiving a full refund. It depends on how major the schedule change was. You can find details in United's contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline.

Bike-tour memories:

My wife and I did a week-long bike tour in the Cotswolds. My wife likes to remind me now that the word "wold" in old English means hill. Needless to say, she tells me our next bike tour will be in the Netherlands!

We did a bike trip in Ireland and it was one of my favorite vacations ever. It was with a small local outfitter on the last trip of the season, so there were only 8 people (including myself, my husband, and my parents). The biking was easy enough that a Guinness at lunch wouldn't interfere with the afternoon leg, and our evenings were spent in quaint inns in tiny towns with lovely pubs. It was a wonderful way to see the country.

On both domestic and international flights recently seatmates have used phones not in flight mode as we are taking off. When I asked flight attendant about it he said he would make another general announcement, which did not curtail my seatmate's activities. Is t really a safety factor to be connected (not through on-board WIFI) or is that an urban myth?

I don't want to start an argument with the airline employees, but I haven't seen any compelling evidence that using phones during takeoff or landing can endanger an aircraft in any way. Chatters, I'd love to hear your thoughts about using a phone when it's verboten on an aircraft.

It's been a long time since I've had to rent a car. I'll need one in March for a visit to SFO, and the less expensive options are from companies I don't know anything about: Fox and Sixt. Anybody have any experience, good or bad, with them?

I've rented from Fox in Los Angeles, and I wasn't a fan. Lines were long and the car models were not my favorites. But the price was right. If you're a Costco member, try its rates. Also, try going through the airline you are flying -- they sometimes offer good car rental rates for passengers. Anyone have experience with Sixt or a better experience with Fox?  

Funny, I've never encountered an ill-behaved service animal or pet-in-a-carrier in an airplane cabin (or in the airport, for that matter). Have I just been incredibly lucky, or are these horror stories quite rare?

Yeah, the joke is that you encounter more ill-behaved passengers than animals. But your point is taken. Most animals that fly are quiet and well-mannered.

We rented an apartment through Haven in Paris a few years ago. They have plenty of different apartments to choose from and we were very happy with our rental.

Thanks for the tip!

I've used "Paris Perfect" on two occasions within the last 4 years, and was well satisfied. The staff was always available on line or by phone, when needed and was quite helpful.

Good to know. Thanks!

Planning on meeting friends at one of them this summer, as it's the only Caribbean place accessible to both of us via non-stop flights. Needs to be kid-friendly as our friends have twins who will be 8 then. Which would you recommend and why?

Playa del Carmen. It's a little bit farther away from the airport, but it is quieter and very kid friendly. 

Our family (six adults, six kids, from age 6 months to 12 years old) would like to spend Dec 22 to Dec 29 in Cancun in a resort that is kid-friendly. We're open to going the all-inclusive route but have concerns because we are all vegetarian and don't really drink. Any suggestions of all-inclusive resorts we should consider or is a non-inclusive resort with a self-catering option the best way to go? We are willing to spend $8k for 4 ppl for the week, for tix and stay. Is that doable? We will be traveling from the DC area. THanks!

Don't do an all-inclusive. You'll be paying to cover the imbibers and buffet lovers. There are lots of companies that specialize in villa rentals, such as Mayaluxe and Luxury Retreats, which may work for you. Or look at hotels that are not all-inclusive and that offer accommodations with multiple bedrooms, such as Fairmont Mayakoba.  

This seems like a great time to get a travel agent.

Yes, but choose your agent carefully. There are still some bad ones out there ...

I did a tour of Italy with Tauck and would highly recommend it. I was also a solo traveler, in my mid-40s, and the ages ranged from late 30s to late 60s (if I had to guess). It is more expensive than other tour companies, I believe, but I thought it was totally worth it - very nice accommodations that were centrally located, excellent planning of the trip (including sufficient down time for us to explore on our own), and nice perks, like private museum tours and the like.

Yes, Tauck is a great operator. I'm a fan.

The person trying to vet group tours might want to check out affinity group tours (through his/her college/university alumni organization, small museums, non-profits, etc.) Often they will have in-person information sessions for those interested in signing up and that would provide the opportunity to scope out the type of people likely to sign up. Or check out travel meetups.

Thanks for the tip.

In response to the poster asking about tour groups, I highly recommend Rick Steves' Europe as a tour provider. I have been on two of its tours (Best of Venice, Florence, and Rome in 10 Days & Best of Barcelona and Madrid in 8 Days) and really enjoyed them both. As a single traveler in my mid- to late- 20s, I enjoyed my time spent with the group (mostly couples in their 40s through 70s) but was also given many opportunities to explore the cities by myself.

Thank you. 

I vaguely recall hearing that if you are going to a USPS office for a passport, an appointment is required. Is that true? Also, if one needs to mail in for a renewal, is it best to wait to see how the government shutdown plays out?

Normally, you need an appointment at a passport center. Here's more information on how to get a passport. Post offices are remaining open during the shutdown, but your passport processing may take longer if the shutdown continues.

I submitted before your previous chat that was cancelled last week. So, my flight on American Airlines for a trip in March was cancelled by the airline a few weeks ago. When I contacted Orbitz, where I made my purchase, they told me that they wouldn't issue a me a refund for 6-8 WEEKS. Meanwhile, I need to repurchase new tickets for my trip since everything else is already booked. I had a open a dispute with my credit card company to get a refund so I can buy new tickets. American Airlines didn't know why Orbitz claimed it would take so long to refund me for the cancelled tickets, but all I know is my new flight reservations were made directly through American this time. I will not be sending Orbitz any more of my business.

This isn't unusual. Some airline refunds can take even longer than six weeks. Airlines blame credit card billing cycles for the refund delays, but I suspect carriers just take their time because they can. Online travel agencies can also cause delays. Funny, they can take the money from your account in seconds, but it takes weeks to return it. What's wrong with this picture?

am travelling to Cartagena in late February. What sights should I put on my sightseeing list? Is the city easy to navigate on one's own, or do you think a tour or guide is better?

Definitely explore the walled Old City, a delightful maze of shops, restaurants, bars, public art and outdoor performances. I didn't want to leave! You don't need a guide, but be on alert for petty criminals. The Bocagrande district is more modern, with big hotels, shops (I snapped up several mochila bags from street vendors), dining spots and a long strip of beach. The area comes alive at night.

I tootled around by myself, walking or taking taxis. But if you are new to Latin American cities, you might want to hire a guide for a day or two.

And if you find yourself in trouble, reach out to the Wicks, State Department wardens who have rescued many Americans. Here is my piece on the amazing couple.

For the poster who is looking for a reputable tour group for a trip to Europe, look locally. After my husband died and I wanted to continue traveling but wasn’t ready to go it alone, I found some local groups that focused on areas I am interested in. One group is through the architecture department of a local university and the other is focused on classical music and is run by a couple expert in that field. I didn’t know anyone before going on these trips and now, some of my fellow travelers are close friends. University alumni groups, museums and all sorts of others do group trips.

Thank you for the recommendations.

My wife came back from Florida this past weekend, and was seated next to a man with an OWL MONKEY in a carrier on his lap. She was freaked out the entire trip, and there was nowhere to move on a full flight. This is getting too much--one person's support animal is another's phobia.

During a ferry ride in Belize, I sat next to a guy with a coatimundi in his backpack. Not that I don't love animals, but when that racoonish critter suddenly stuck his paw out of his carrier and onto my leg (and I had no idea he was in there at the time), I may have let out a little scream. 

I've landed and discovered that since I fell asleep unexpectedly after buckling up my phone was in regular mode the entire time - other than a drained battery and a few texts that had come in nothing happened. I also know people who blatantly ignore the rule and text as long as possible (which incidentally is longer than you'd think) before losing service - all those planes landed.

You are not alone. I think many others have experienced this, too.

I am seeing that many of the international airports have removed their water fountains. Comments? Thanks

I have not noticed, but I do see more bottle-filling stations. Maybe those are driving the change? (I don't want to turn cynical and say they are removing them so travelers are forced to buy overpriced bottles of water.)

An undeniable safety concern is that passengers need to be particularly alert during takeoff and landing, which are the most dangerous parts of any flight. So if a passenger is talking on the phone instead of paying attention, that's a safety concern.

Good point. Thank you.

I was just travelling by air, and saw rampant disregard for carry on "rules". Some bags were nearly as large as my checked full size bag! Two people brought on 4 huge bags, and the flight crew wanted everyone else to relocate their stowed bags elsewhere so these folks could have their huge bags close. Amazing.

Yep, that's pretty amazing. I'd love to include this in my story. Can you send me a few details? Here's my email address.

My friend's a pilot - he says that he's never noticed any interference, even in his own private plane when all 4 passengers are on WiFi during takeoff. May be just an abundance of caution, but this one data point says "no big deal."

Thank you for sharing this.

I'm wondering if there are any groups or travel companies that cater to folks with limited mobility. I can walk, just not very far.

If you can walk, you may be able to go with a tour group that caters to seniors, such as Saga or Grand Circle, as long as you are OK with hanging back when they head out on longer strolls. And consider a European river cruise: Uniworld, for example, offers a "gentle walker" option for its excursions. 

I've read that the signals from cellphones can create interference with the plane's radio equipment that can be heard by and is annoying to the pilots. I think that the rationale is that a few phones broadcasting is not really a problem, but 150-200 phones may be.

I've seen that, too, but it all seems highly theoretical.

I had a good experience with Fox renting from SFO. In general rates are very high at that location....

A vote for Fox. 

I'll be traveling to Boston for the first time. I'll be spending a few days. Any wicked places to visit? I'm into museums and great landmarks, etc. Thanks!

Since we only have five minutes left, I am going to direct you to Time Out Boston, which has a slew of ideas. My faves are the Harvard museums, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, walking/biking trail along the Charles River and the Middle East Restaurant in Cambridge for bands (at least that's where I went mmfpgh years ago, when I was in college).

I thought all carriers had to be small enough to fit under the seat.

If it's an emotional support animal, it can sit on your lap. 

All over Europe, not just airports, drinking fountains are almost non-existent any more. But lots of vending machines for buying bottled water. Grrr...

I did recently resort to filling my bottle in the airport bathroom sink -- a new low.

I am in my early 60's and I've been on three trips with Road Scholar, most recently to the Galapagos Islands. Someone in their 50's will feel right at home. On all three trips, there was a mix of singles and couples, and everyone was very sociable. They have trips all over the world, and their descriptions are pretty clear about the activity level of the tour.

Great idea.

I enjoyed the article this week about City Passes. As the article mentioned you have to do the math to see if it's worthwhile. The few places I have bought them I don't think they had a skip the line feature, but maybe I just didn't read the info closely enough. For me the often-included public transport pass is the bigger draw. I'd also plug cities' tourism websites which often have good deals on things like lodging with special perks. When I visited Hamburg I got the 4th hotel night free, the local tourist card with free or discount admissions and free public transport, and free breakfast all for booking via the city tourism website.

So glad you enjoyed the piece and thanks for sharing your experiences.

Hi Travel Crew! There is family talk about a possible trip to the Lake District of England. Do you have any recent articles about that area that might give us some insight and help in deciding our destinations? Thanks!

I don't think we've done any recent stories, but I can recommend Keswick, Windermere and Ambleside. 

We had a very good experience a few years ago renting through PanacheRental. Friends also have high praise for Ville et Village. Both companies are American-based which may ease any communication fears.

Great to know. Thanks!

I don't think your article mentioned the Citadel, in the upper city overlooking the St Lawrence River just inside the city. They offer guided tours which cost about $16 CDN each, but when we visited last June there was also a FREE tour of the Governor General's second residence inside the Citadel (the main one is in Ottawa). It was windy and showery the day we were there, so we skipped the (mostly outdoor) Citadel tour and opted for the FREE tour. It was quite nice, and (mostly) indoors, but apparently only runs from May through October.

Thanks so much for the suggestions!

public gardens to see the duckling statues!! (or maybe only new englanders like that)

I've done RAGBRAI a few times now - the Register's Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Week-long bike trip from one end of the state to the other - bikes, pie, porkchops and beer. Not a bad way to spend a week.

I did it, too -- one of my favorite rides.

The USS Constitution is the best historic sight, hands down. Don't miss it! A day trip to Salem, MA is also nice (witches, House of the Seven Gables, and waterfront).

We day-tripped to Gloucester, MA., last fall, and enjoyed the town (including the famous fishermen's statue and memorial). You'd need a rental car, however.

Similar approach to a river cruise - how about a trans Canadian railway trip - I've heard it's beautiful.

Great idea. I took Via Rail last year from Halifax to Vancouver. Here is my piece.

I was born in Quebec City and went back there for a family vacation last Fall so here are some good spots: If you are going during the Winter, there is the Ice Hotel that you can stay in or visit, it's more for tourists but you can take nice pictures. I would suggest taking the ferry between Quebec and Levis (on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence river), it's cheap and it gives you a fantastic point of view of the capital where you can take nice pictures from the Chateau Frontenac. As for museums, there is the brand new Lassonde Pavillon of the Quebec National Gallery (Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec) which won architecture prizes. There is of course the Civilisation Museum and the Museum on French America (Musée de l'Amérique française) which are always interesting. If you are going in the winter or in the fall, I would suggest bringing warm clothes as the city is windy and can be really cold, especially when you are close to the St. Lawrence River.

Merci!

Senior Discovery Tours of Canada is a well-regarded group catering to retirees but, I believe, accepting all "older" adults. You can book a tour and travel with the group via a number of Canadian airports or make your own travel arrangements and meet the group at the destination. You can tag along with the group in each city or do your own thing, meeting only for breakfast and diner. Check them out.

Thanks for the tip.

For the writer seeking tours of Europe, I recommend Explore, a UK based company. They tend to use local guides, their trips are reasonably priced and are in English, and typically feature a nice mix of mostly middle aged and older people from the UK, with some Irish, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and US travelers. Trips vary from simpler to more luxurious accommodations, and read the description carefully to see which meals are included. The trips are a good value and it's a solid company. I'd travel with them again.

Thanks for the advice!

My sister is a long-time Viking river cruiser and loves them. What's not to love, I suppose? But she recently took a Gate 1 Travel tour to Italy, and she cannot stop singing its praises. Two very different companies, with high praise (from my sister, at least) for both.

Bet she spent less money on the Gate 1 trip. Both companies are reputable, but Viking is a luxury cruise company, while Gate 1 Travel is a tour operator that caters to frugal travelers.

I face this too often - the airline changes my carefully selected flight due to a change in their schedule. Maybe because I like to plan far in advance. The best thing to do is call; but do your homework first - find out what routes/times will get you from A to B that they could offer. I once got an airline to change my final destination when the 2nd leg of my trans-pacific flight would have required an unplanned overnight connection; I told them what would work for me, and they accommodated.

Good to know -- thanks!

...would be to have everyone on the flight chattering away on his phone.

So true. Someone on my flight was Facetime-ing at cruising altitude. I had to show the flight attendant which page in the in-flight magazine said this was not allowed!

You can always call the airline and ask about modifying the new itinerary - if you've done enough research to suggest specific flights and note your interest in using a different "common rated" airports (i.e. when WAS = BWI+DCA+IAD), you might get an agent who can help - especially when it's clear that the automated system chose an especially poor new itinerary with appreciably worse connections or layover times. Worst case you hang up and assess your other options.

Great idea.

When an airline changes my booking, before contacting them I determine my best-case travel scenario. It's probably more expensive than the amount of the refund, so I insist the carrier endorse the existing ticket to the new itinerary. I keep repeating, "It's an involuntary change, just give me your supervisor." Eventually (several levels up) it seems to work.

Thanks for the advice.

So is that mostly to promote bottled water sales, or has anyone offered other reasons?

We are just speculating. We don't have an official answer.

My parakeet and is were flying back from Atlanta. He can get very chatty and started commenting avidly as were taking off. He could be a bit piercing. I apologized to the person sitting next to me. She fixed her gaze on me and and said, in a strong Georgia accent 'honey, I have three kids at home' - phew!

Your story made our day!

We were happy with the apt we got through www.parisrentalsbyruben.com.

Thanks!

Gibson House Museum!

One more!

If the OP loves museums, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is a must see.

Thanks!

My European friends inform me that they think tap water is gross and don't drink it. This came up because I was surprised that they didn't have any way to fill my reusable water at the airport and at how much bottled water they drink given how otherwise green they are.

Ha -- interesting!

Looks like we're out of time -- thanks for chatting today, everyone! Iowa biker, drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize. Join us again next Monday at 2 p.m. 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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