Jan 24, 2011

The Post Travel section's editors and writers answer your questions about coupons and other money-saving strategies, the TSA's more aggressive pat-downs, holiday trip planning, and more.

Hi, all, and welcome to today's chat. First of all, apologies to those of you who came by last Monday -- we take off on holidays, so didn't chat! We'll take any and all q's today, though.

Our display piece this week, by Post pop music writer Chris Richards, is an ode to the sounds of Stockholm in the winter, so that is our inspiration for today's assignment. Send us stories of your favorite experience of music while traveling: A special concert, a street busker, a club scene, anything. Our favorite will win a prize!

Now for your q's, and our a's.

Hi Gurus! I was searching for Airfare on Kayak.com....I usually find good deals on that site.....anyway I found a really good deal to Tokyo for about $1100 but it's only through Vayama.com and all the other sites show that same flight (Air Canada) for about $400 more. So my question is, should I buy that airfare from Vayama or is it suspicious?? Please help!!!!!

Vayama has a good rep. It's got an A rating with the Better Business Bureau - 136 complaints have been filed against it in the last 36 months, but most have been resolved. It's been around since 2007.  Make sure your plans are solid, as these tickets are not refundable. And make sure that the routing, connection times, and airports make sense. Sometimes tickets are odd - such as flights that leave from Dulles and return to Reagan National.

My wife and I will be taking about 3 days to drive from Memphis to Ashville, NC late next month. Our first thought was to go via Lynchburg (take a distillery tour or two), then on to Asheville via Chattanooga. Then considered going via Birmingham and Atlanta (probably stop for 2 nights in Atlanta). Any idea which would be more scenic? I was assuming the first route would be, but really don't know. It would allow us to cut through Smoky Mountains Natl. Park, but I assume late February isn't the optimum season for that, and, anyway, we'd see mountain scenery around Asheville.

Going through Birmingham and Atlanta would put many more miles on your car and would probably be far less scenic, but this time of year, I'd think it might be a surer way to go than cutting through the mountains, where there's no telling what the weather might be. This, however, is largely a guess on my part. Let's put it to the chatters and see whether anyone's actually taken the drive, via one route or the other. Folks?

Hi folks -- I've gotten to know a bunch of people through a Facebook page, and we're talking about having a meetup this spring or summer. The members are scattered all over the US, in places like Pueblo, CO; Jacksonville, FL; and small towns in CT and NH, although there are large contingents in the Chicago, Seattle, and Portland, OR, areas as well as DC. Our common interest is quirky humor, but we have a lot of artists and other appreciators of high culture as well. These are not high-income folks for the most part, so we'd like to keep costs as low as possible. Any suggestions for us? Thanks!

It's probably because I just immersed myself in its quirky weirdness, but Austin leaps to mind. Go to the Cathedral of Junk, the Enchanted Forest, G'Raj Mahal (below), Lala's Little Nugget and more, more, more. All of the above are cheap.

I would like to take a nice tour of the Italy with a focus on cooking and cultural. Do you have any sugguestion of good tour companies. I am in my 30"s and I would like to take my mother in her 60's with me.

I am a fan of Shaw Guides, which lists an assortment of cooking and cultural tours.  The site shows, for instance, culinary trips to Tuscany and Venice. Most cooking vacations include cultural tours or will provide guests with free time to go exploring. When booking a trip, be sure to ask the company how much time is dedicated to cooking, and whether it's all demos or actually participation. Another good source: www.theinternationalkitchen.com/italian-cooking-vacations.

Some of the best rated companies include: Cucina con Vista, Academie Barilla (yes, the pasta company), Diane Seed's Roman Kitchen.

is it really no charge, even if no weather problems exist? How long is the free switch good for? Is a free switch ticket the same price as a regular ticket?

Southwest doesn't charge a change fee, regardless of the weather. The exact term depend on the kind of ticket you've bought. Here are a few details.

The other week a chatter asked about the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, OH. I spent a week there last summer on a road trip through the mid-west, so here are a few thoughts. The amusement park was great and definitely lives up to the hype. All the rides are roller coasters, so if that's not your thing, you might want to reconsider. Lines were typical of what you'd expect in late July. Sandusky is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to hotels. Because of the park, the hotel prices are very inflated for what they are. The Motel 6 was over $100/night on the weekends. The city has decided to become a "tourist" destination, so there are a lot of themed hotels that have water parks inside of them if you're into that (we were not). There's also a lot of random entertainment, like putt putt golf and go-carts. I found the place to be too kitschy and after a week was more than ready to hit the next destination. A few high points - the light house on Lake Erie is pretty and gets you out of town. Keeping in step with the theme, there is also a Prehistoric Forest that was mildly amusing. Diana's Diner for breakfast was cheap and satisfying.

Thanks so much for this. Sounds as though the park is a more popular place than I thought.

I'd like to try out snowshoeing, and then maybe spend the night at a nice inn or B&B somewhere in MD? Any ideas where I can go, rent snowshoes (maybe get a lesson?) and then warm up with some hot cocoa by a fire someone else has built?

A few options come to mind. The first is Wisp. They offer a package that includes a trail ticket, lesson and rental. You could definitely stay at the resort, but I'd recommend looking into Lake Pointe Inn, which is literally across the street and positively lovely.

Another option is Savage River Lodge. They don't have lessons, but the staff member I just talked to said they'd definitely show you how to use them. "There's not much to it," she said.

My friend and I are looking for a trip over President's Day weekend to somewhere were we can do something kind of cultural/eduational/unusal/interesting. Ideally, I'd like to go somewhere that isn't freezing cold but my friend has nixed the idea of Florida and he's already been to Nashville and NYC this year. I'm coming from DC, but he's in Columbus, OH so I'm trying to think of somewhere in driving distance of Columbus. I've never been to St. Louis, but maybe it could be a possibility. Any advice or other suggestions?

I love St. Louis. It's easy to get to from D.C. - just a short nonstop flight, and fares are usually pretty good. My daughter went to Washington University in St. Louis, so we always stayed on campus (there is a great inn there that is open to the public) or in nearby Clayton. I love the area because Forest Park is right across the street, and it's a great place to hike and jog, plus it offers a zoo and several very nice museums. The Budweiser tour is great. There's a really funky, fun museum called the City Museum. Of course, you have to do the Gateway Arch tour. And then there is riverboat gambling.

Check out this recent Impulsive Traveler piece on St. Louis, focusing on craft breweries. More good ideas there.


A recent posting on the ban on renting out apartments to vacationers in Paris made me think of a similar situation close to home. A woman was renting out her unit in our co-op building against all rules and covenants that she agreed to when she bought the place. She seemed to find the worst kind of vacationers, too. One man asked our front desk staffer to bring in his luggage from the car. Children were let loose in the gym unsupervised. Trash was thrown off the balcony into the courtyard. While our building's suit against her worked its way through the court (which we won), we made every effort to limit the vacationers effects on the residents by doing things like turning off her fobs allowing entrance to the public spaces. So, please keep in mind if you rent someone's apartment unit for your vacation stay that what you've done may be against the rules. And even if it's not, remember that you are not in a hotel. These are people's homes. Act like the guest that you are, even if you're paying for the privilege.

Well said. And while we're on the topic, let's remind travelers how important it is to thoroughly vet any rental you're looking into. There are lots of scam artists out there.

I studied abroad in St.Petersburg in 1996, during that year (and much after) there was a flourishing underground music scene. I went to punk, alternative, and hard-core shows every Saturday. I was the token American in the scene and quickly befriended quite a few of the bands. Fast forward 15 years later and a few of my friends became some of the most successful musicians in those genres in all of Russia! It is beyond cool that I got to see them and know them when they were playing to crowds of about 50 and now a couple of these bands fill stadiums!

Nice! I hope you've gotten to take a little advantage of those friendships and get backstage access/etc. at those stadium concerts!

I have sleep problems and want to take my foam bed wedge with me and check it with the airline. It is very light, but the trouble is it is 24" by 24" by 12" and I can't seem to find a piece of luggage that will hold it. Have you a suggestion for me? I do not want to buy an inflatable bed wedge as they don't hold up.

You might be better off rolling it up, wrapping it in plastic, and checking it. Your airline may charge you for an oversize piece of luggage, so I would check with your carrier before you get to the airport.

I'm planning a trip to Spain. The person I'll be traveling with lives in another (smaller) US city. If we wanted to sit together on a flight from DC to Madrid, but she needs a connecting flight to DC, how can we get those tickets? Should we use a travel agent? How much would that add to the cost of the flight?

You can go through a travel agent, but he/she will charge you - they don't get commissions any longer from airlines, so they charge for their time. Go to a third-party booking site, such as Kayak or Travelocity, and see if you can find a flight from your friend's city to your final destination that connects in Washingtons, although that will mean she may have to connect twice, unless you take the nonstop on United from Dulles to Madrid.  Getting seats together could be tricky online - you'd have to book them close to same time, hope they are assigning seats and hope the plane is rather empty. If not, you'll have to ticket her flight to here, and then book separately to the final destination. No idea how much more it'll cost without knowing the city. But that's easy enough to find out via the Web.

Hello, thanks for your consideration of this question. What is the best/most effective way to make a complaint to an airline? Not for myself, but regarding behavior I've witnessed on the part of flight attendants towards other customers - things that should never happen again, in my opinion.

I would start by sending a brief, polite email to the airline through its website. If it doesn't respond, you can escalate it to a manager. I list all of them on the customer service wiki I edit. If that doesn't work, contact me. Here's my email address. I'll try to get an answer from the airline for you.

Hi Flight Crew, I am going out to Portland, Oregon in August for a week long seminar (M-F 8:30 to 5:00) and have never been there before. What can you tell me as far as restaurants, night life, etc? Is there anything I shouldn't miss while I'm there? I have miles enough to fly coach but it looks like a long flight from BWI. Should I try to upgrade? Thanks and love your chat!!

Well, to me, of course, nightlife IS restaurants. ;-) You should check out Tom Sietsema's recent Postcard for a few great eating ideas, and let me add: Please dive into the food-truck scene as much as you can. Wow. I had some of my best meals from trucks. At the top of the list: Ziba's Pitas.

Travel partner and I are trying to plan a trip in October. We have narrowed it down to Prague or Krakow. We like things on our trips such a history, culture,and good food. We are not big active outdoors people. Any recommendations to help make our decision?

Oh goodness. A Hobson's choice if ever there was one. Two of my favorite cities in the world -- both spilling over with history, culture, and these days, even good food! Both embracing, walkable, beautiful, nearly untouched cities. Both inexpensive. I think there may be a tad more to see inside Prague proper, but Krakow has Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt mines very nearby, both very worth seeing. I think the only way to decide may be to toss a coin! But what's your advice, chatters?

In 2002, I was working at a school in London for the summer. My brother came to visit during the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebration. One of the events was a huge concert at Buckingham Palace. There were giant TVs set up in the parks and surrounding area, so we camped out all day right in front of one in St. James's Park (my personal favorite). In addition to a great day of eating junk food and hanging out with my little brother, that evening I got to see all of my most favorite musicians - Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, the remaining members of Queen, Elton John, and so many more. After Paul McCartney, my most favorite part was when Brian May played "God Save the Queen" on electric guitar on the roof of the palace - amazing. I get chills even when I listen to it on the CD of the concert.

Wow. Chills indeed!

if the meetup folks are willing to brave the heat (you suggested Austin) I would send them to New Orleans. they could use the business and there is something for everyone, from art to jazz to food to, er, adult pursuits.

I'm a NOLA lover, too. Natch.

how do you explain the discrepancy on the amount of travel tax charged by a bargain travel site vs. airline. i found a fare for a multicity route for $938.(461 for base fare & 477 for taxes).; a major airline charges 980 for the same route (846 for base fare and 134 for taxes)

That's a great question. I'm actually trying to answer a very similar one from a reader, involving a certain major airline based in Atlanta. No word yet from the airline about why the taxes on its tickets were higher than those of another airline. If you find an airline doesn't want to answer, you should consider asking the Transportation Department -- here's how to contact it -- which, I'm sure, will be just as interested in the answer as I am.

I get to go to Bali for a few days with a couple of friends and don't know where to start. I dive; they don't, but beach is definitely preferred. We don't need to be near a hot, hip scene, but being near some chill bars and restaurants is necessary. So where do we go? We'd like a two-bedroom villa; any preferred businesses? Thanks!

 I loved, loved, loved Ubud, an arts and crafts hub that is overwhelmingly beautiful. There are a few dive shops in the area, including Bali Sunfish. I would suggest booking a trip or using a dive shop that is affiliated with a recognized hotel. Make sure the gear is in good shape and the dive masters are with you at all times. You might also want to travel for your diving; Tulamben and Amuk Bay have some great sites.

There are lots of villa rental companies, though I don't know of any good ones off hand. I stayed at an intimate resort that felt like a small villa (unforutanly, it has since closed). This  site has some nice listings. And I have worked with Unsual Villa and Rentals (based in Richmond) on other stories and found the company very reputable.

Hi TravelGurus, I've just received a HomeExchange offer for the Whitsunday Islands in Australia! Has anybody ever been to Airlie beach and / or the rest of the islands? We're interested in diving and snorkeling, of course, but also would like to know any good restaurants, daytrips etc.

That sounds like quite a swap! I'm going to put this one out to the peanut gallery. Anyone been out that way in Australia?

A bunch of were on study abroad in France. We decided (like everyone else) to go to Oktoberfest in Munich. The trains, to say the least, were PACKED. So, we got on a train, in one of those train cars, just happy to BE on the train in the first place. This was maybe 1 AM. So, we shared one of those train cars, that seats 6, with a whole bunch of Germans. Who were metalheads. No sleep for us!!! They were playing Metallica and the like VERY loudly the whole time. We had a GREAT time. It was tons of fun, and they taught us to count in German.

You're good at going with the flow, sounds like!

First time poster, long time reader, itching for a prize to take the sting off such a cold day! Several years ago, I was in Beijing, and I attended ana ll-night "rave" on the Great Wall. We danced for a while (without drugs--penalties are serious there, and not something I wanted to explain to my parents) but eventually decided to get off the dance floor and explore a little. It was 2 am, and the guards they had posted to keep people from walking along the Wall had fallen asleep. With the sounds of techno in the distance, we walked along the Wall, quite a ways, and at 4:30 am (Beijing is quite north) watched the sunset rise over one of the Seven Wonders. It's a great cocktail hour story! Thanks for all of your travel help over the years!

That sounds magical. Thanks!

I read in the WSJ that ATMs abroad may require cards with embedded chips or other security devices. How are domestic card issuers responding?

According to Visa, your American-issued card should work just fine. If the cards don't work in European ATMs, I'd expect the major card companies to address that problem quickly. In the meantime, my advice would be to carry a little extra cash and to not rely on ATMs -- just in case.

I have a $150 voucher from United from a botched trip last spring, and I need to use it before June 4. My idea is to go somewhere (in the contintental US) on a direct flight from DC for a [long] weekend, but I don't want the total for the flight to be too much above $300. Any thoughts on someplace that might be fun and doable for a weekend?

If you really want to get your flight on the cheap -- and impulsive -- look into United's E-Fares. Offers go live each Tuesday, and they're usually good for the upcoming weekend or the one after. Typically entails returning on a Monday or Tuesday.

Not sure what deals will pop up there each week, but of United's destinations, you might like checking out Chicago, Boston, Providence, Spartanburg, S.C. (really!)... Let us know if you have specific interests and we can try to narrow it down.

Hi- I am going to the Amalfi Coast this spring. Any advice or suggestions? Worrying about the driving is keeping me up at night... I am planning to rent a car, or is that a bad idea? I have arranged transportation to the hotel, which is in Positano. Thanks!

I wrote a Going Our Way about visiting the Amalfi Coast (below) a while back that may be interesting. As I say in the article, driving the Amalfi Coast is not for wimps. I also found some neat videos of making this drive on Youtube - just do a search for Amalfi Coast driving. 

I am going to a week long conference in New York at one of the Laguardia hotels. My initial thinking was drive to NY... I took the Bolt bus to NY once, but wasn't sure about luggage or getting from the bus stop to the airport. My guess was that flights were out of my budget. I realize I would have to pay parking... What would you recommend.

I would take the bus from DC, then grab the NYC Airporter from Grand Central (you can take a cab from Penn Station). Info: Departure every 30 minutes -Bus Terminal and Grand Central Station. Fare is $12.75. Purchase tickets online at www.NYCAirporter.com. For more information, call (718) 777-5111.

A cab from midtown costs in the $20-$30 range.

wow, no "scenery" in Atlanta or Birmingham? Um, beg to differ. You could easily incorporate a civil rights theme to your drive-thru: churches & memorials in Atlanta and the civil rights sites, memorials and related locales in B'ham are easy to find. Check the tourism boards for "civil rights tours" and driving suggestions. Stand in churches where MLK preached, see lovely memorial fountains and walls, walk the streets were marchers were...and eat some dang good food & sweet tea.

Okay, here's one dissenting view for the drivers from Memphis to Asheville. Thanks!

Hi, A flight i'm scheduled on keeps changing times and is now arriving over an hour after initially scheduled. Are there any actions i can take if i want to arrive earlier? This ticket was non-refundable when purchased. Thanks, Jeremy

If an airline changes its schedule, you're normally entitled to a new flight of its choosing or a full refund. But check your airline's contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline, first. You can find it on the airline website.

Before grad school, I worked in an Irish music archive in Boston, where I met all sorts of interesting people who play traditional Irish music. Fast forward a few years, I am in Dublin doing research for grad school. Bumming around Temple Bar and exploring the music stores, I ran into some people who knew the archive and head librarian (my boss) and had been to the festivals I'd helped organize and document. We had a great time trading music stories and sharing favorite albums.

I know it's been a couple years since the movie, but since it was one of my favorite music-oriented ones of all time, this makes me want to take a "Once" tour of Dublin.

My wife and I were in a pub in Dublin to drink some pints and check out the trad scene--there were some great fiddlers and whistles and all of infectious, rollicking music you'd expect. As our pints got low, I--in an act of chivalry--offered to go to the bar to refill my wife's glass. The music was really thumping and the patrons were reveling in the wonderful time--so much that by the time I returned from the bar, I found my wife dancing with some charming Irishman (aren't they all?) who evidently whisked her off her stool the moment I stepped away. But how could I be mad? The music was amazing, her face was full of delight, and I scored myself an extra pint!


While visiting Toronto 30 years ago (following a conference in Buffalo), we discovered that "rush' tickets were being sold on a first-come-first-served basis at 11 AM on the morning of performance -- for only $5 Canadian (then worth ca. US$4.50) -- for seats in the last row and SRO tickets for each performance of the opera "Norma," starring Joan Sutherland in the title role; by the time we arrived in Toronto, only one performance was left. So that morning we took the subway downtown from our hotel, arriving just after 9 AM, where we learned that only two tickets would be sold per person, and there were only a couple dozen people already ahead of us in line, so calculated that we were sure to get seats! While Sutherland was near the end of her career by then, so her voice was a bit frayed, it was still a sublime experience, as we never imagined we'd get to see and hear her perform live, and we still treasure the memory.

Beautiful. That reminds me of a very different performance I saw in Montreal. My classical-moving-loving friend Allen bought tix to a student chorale performance of a work neither of us knew, so we had exactly zero preconceived notions going in, and it was bliss.

drive (with GPS if desired) or walk or taxi thru some key civil rights sites in Atlanta, many close to the freeway you'll be on as you cruise thru Atlanta.

Another vote for the Birmingham/Atlanta route.

Check this out, southern drivers.

I went to read my beloved "What's the Deal" feature Sunday morning, but I learned that the Post delivers Travel on Saturdays now for some reason. The missus had already recycled Saturday's paper, so I went to read it online. Last week's is still up. Bravo, Washington Post!

Sorry about that! Here it is.

For the chatter considering St. Louis, the city has really awesome vintage stores, too.

Portland has some quirkiness about it you may like. I dont know how large of a group you have but if someone or a few people in Portland has some extra space for you guys to crash it could be fun.

Totally. Have you seen "Portlandia"?

We're going to Benelux this June. How soon do we need to purchase a Eurail pass?

You definitely want to buy it stateside (not all pass types are sold in Europe and those that are typically cost more). You also may get better prices booking farther in advance.  So, I would book tickets as soon as possible, especially since you are traveling at the start of busy season.

I'm trying to plan a girls ski weekend get-together with two friends from college. Two of us live in the DC area and one lives on Long Island, so we were trying to come up with a place that is reasonable to get to for both. Ideally, we'd like a place with ski in/ski out accomodations. So far, the best I've come up with is 7 Springs. Any better suggestions?

I don't think there's any really good skiing that's centrally located. Seven Springs, near Pittsburgh, is an option, and and the Poconos also offers ski areas. Take a look at Camelback and Jack Frost/Big Boulder. Maybe you should just all fly to Park City!

If you want to make a vacation out of this I would suggest: from memphis drive more due east to Shiloh civil war site. Then go and take a tour of the Jack Daniels plant. It's a fun tour and entertaining...then on to Chattanooga and see the aquarium and then up to Asheville through the smokies. If you are planning a return to memphis I would suggest stopping for an evening in Nashville and seeing the downtown music scene.

Thanks for the alternate view!

If you can be civil and *not* use someone's full name, put your beef up on Twitter. Businesses scour Tweets for mentions of their name, and respond to Tweeters. It's a short cut and effective if used, not so much if you just toss trash around. Helps the passenger boil down issue to a few sentences, as most complaints can be....

True, a lot of airlines monitor Twitter. But I would use it as a last resort to get a company's attention, if it's ignoring you.

I grew up in Memphis and have driven to Chattanooga many times. Its an interstate ride (I-40) but there are some very lovely spots, the Tennessee River, the foothills to the Smokeys, Nashville is on the way to Chattanooga. Also, Atlanta is only about two hours (if that) south of Chattanooga, so if Atlanta is your goal, you could get there thru Chattanooga. In late February, daffodils are often out and some tree budding in West Tennessee. West Tennesse is very flat, there are only one or two curves in the highway between Memphis and Jackson TN (80 miles). After that the land is rolling and beautiful. Hope that helps. Be sure to have some barbeque.

The travelers' destination is actually Asheville, but thanks! Daffodils already out in February -- lovely!

Hi Crew! I am going on a business trip to New Orleans in March (the week after Mardi Gras). I loved it the two times I was there pre-Katrina - but have not been there since. We are staying downtown (at the Intercontinental) - several blocks from the French Quarter. Would you please provide an update on safety issues? Can I walk from downtown to the French Quarter using the usual precautions one uses in every big city? I have heard the French Quarter is fine and was mostly not directly affected by the flooding. I'd also love some reasonably priced ideas for dinner. I also might be able to sneak in 1/2 day of sightseeing - anything not to be missed? Thanks for any and all advice!

Absolutely, tourists are perfectly fine walking in and out of the Quarter.  As for reasonably priced food, I'd suggest Willie Mae's Scotch House for sublime fried chicken; Dooky Chase for incredible red beans/rice, gumbo, and more; Parkway for po'boys. Lots more. Check out NOLA.com for Brett Anderson's great restaurant writing. As for sightseeing, there's the expanded WWII museum, plus great neighborhood walks. Beyond the quarter, check out the Garden District and Uptown.

All this talk about music in Ireland reminds me of a funny story from my trip to Ireland in 2004. We were on bus tour of the island, which I thought would be lame (I was on a trip with my parents and they paid), but actually turned out to be a great way to see the country. When we got to our final stop in Galway, we had to suddenly change hotels, because our pre-booked hotel was overrun by an environmental conference headed by Al Gore. The replacement hotel was very nice, but much farther away from the center of Galway, and our tour guide was very apologetic. He wanted to make it up to us, so he drove us into the city on his own time and insisted on taking us to hear some "authentic" Irish music at a local pub. He was embarrassed when the musicians at the pub that night were "Country & Western" singers, and performed such standards as "Paper Roses". It was doubly funny coming from a male singer who looked strikingly like a brunette David Bowie with long hair. Anyway, we still had a great time, even if the music wasn't authentically Irish!


Are landing fees included in the taxes? I saw that for some airlines, they put landing fees in the taxes and these charges could be considerable. Maybe other airlines put the fees in the fare portion of the cost.

Here's a somewhat recent story that explains some of the taxes on your airline ticket. As I said before, airlines may have different ways of charging the same taxes, for accounting purposes, but they should all be charging the same taxes (obviously). If they aren't, then we have ourselves a little problem.

There is no $150 change fee with southwest---but what you really do is repurchase the ticket based on the new fare. Southwest can be expensive in less than 7 days to flight schedule changes. Its weather policy is something different so if they cancelled a flight due to weather then you wouldnt get charged a fee nor have to pay the ticket difference.

That is correct. As I wrote in a recent Navigator column, Southwest is the only major airline to not charge change fees. Yet somehow, the airline still manages to make money. Go figure!

Vayama is totally legit. I've used it several times, and for international travel, it routinely returns the best fares. Good site.

Thanks for the feedback.

Zofia, Cedar Point is a place many people in the midwest and great lakes area road trip to. The weekend are the popular times so they crank up the prices. People will travel there for a couple of Days from Chicago, Indy, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. It is a very popular park and you will Cedar Point advertising in those cities locally.

Good to know, thank you!

I recently traveled from Baltimore to Albuquerque for the Christmas holidays. There were lots of people traveling, and we had our otherwise well-behaved toddler who threw an unprecedented fit both times we went through security. I swear he turned into an armful of eels. But I have to say that the TSA employees were amazing. They were polite, gracious, helpful, and even cracked jokes with everyone around. I was dreading the whole experience and it turned out to be not so bad. (Although I did have to go through the whole body scanner thingy at Albuquerque.) But someone had clearly sent out a memo about professional behavior and they'd all read it and taken it to heart.

It's great to hear that. I've also flown recently with my family, and the TSA agents were very professional and friendly. 

Hi, desperately need a 4-5 day break sometime after Prez Day. Thinking of Fla -- warm, inexpensive. Are there any nice locations from where one could do a significant amount of bicycling and/or hiking? Thanks!

There are lots of bike trails in Florida. Hmm, where to start? Well, you might download this PDF of trails and see what appeals to you...

Hi all - I will be in Cancun for a week in June. Want to visit the ruins at Chichen Itza, but don't want to spend a whole day on a bus tour if possible. Can I rent a car and drive there from the hotel? Do I need special insurance? Are the roads ok, and is this safe to do?

All the major car rental companies operate in Cancun, and you can easily rent a car, probably through your hotel. As for insurance, you need to make sure that you're covered by your credit card or your car insurance policy before you go - if not, buy the insurance when you rent the car. It's a 2-1/2 hour drive to Chichen Itza, so expect a long day, but the roads are fine - you'll take Highway 180, which is a major road. 

Many moons ago in college, my friend and I drove from Roanoke to Louisville for our (then) "dream" concert. We got in a minor accident, got lost, but ended up making it. Once the whole show had ended we went from hotel to hotel trying to find a place to stay - we didn't know you had to be 21+ then to rent a hotel room! Finally, we found someone who let us book a room, slept for a couple of hours and then hit the road to make it back for a test.

Do tell -- who was performing for this dream?

A new experience every night - a combo "girl guitar" class graduation recital whose teacher did a haunting cover of "Wagon Wheel" followed by a high school blues band that rocked the house, then an old-school outlaw country act (I sat next to a couple from Germany that was driving from LA to New York and where almost everybody went out on the dance floor) the next night, and then followed it up the last night with an up-and-coming pop performer in a really small club (and led to me befriending someone who had moved there a week ago.

You had fun in the justifiably self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World. I need to see a LOT more music the next time I'm there.

My favorite was a drunken old man busking on the streets of Glasgow on a Saturday afternoon. He put out his fedora for donations, had no teeth, and was doing a raspy vernacular rendition of "Hoo Much is that Duggie in the Windae?", but he only knew one verse, so he kept repeating it. Glasgow is a hard industrial town full of boisterous but friendly characters, and people like this give it such a unique vibe. We were lucky enough to have a video camera and gave him some whisky money for the priveledge of capturing his song on tape.

Have you put this up on YouTube? I smell viral.

I will be in downtown Ottawa (directly across from Confederation Park) for a meeting and will have about 4 hours free on a Wednesday, about 4-8pm. Any suggestions for one or two fun things to do, preferably close by, but maybe not too far of a walk, given the current temperature there. Museums, nice bars, monuments, I'm open as long as it's something more or less unique to the area. Also for the person traveling to Madrid and wanting to sit next to a travel companion: in principle they should be sleeping on that flight (or at least others are trying) so does it matter if they sit next to each other? For the return, depending on the airline, once you arrive to Madrid, I've found airline staff (US carriers) surprisingly accommodating at arranging those seat changes.

This Impulsive Traveler on Ottawa should give you some ideas for what to do there.

If you choose to go that way, be aware that you may have to reroute anyway - the road through the park is often closed in winter for ice/snow even when the weather in the area is clear. There are alternates that are nearly as scenic, but you have to be flexible at this time of year.

This is exactly as I suspected, hence my recommendation for the other route. Thank you!

I headed to the Bluebird Cafe, a place for songwriters to debut their work. We all sang along to "Redneck Yacht Club" as performed by the original writer, heard a trio of singers vamp up a breathy seduction ballad, and listened to one person play a great song that a fan of his said was he and his wife's "alone time" music.

A little TMI from the fan of that last example, but cool nonetheless.

I was in Italy as an exchange student, but I had only been there 3 days when I was invited by some Italian students to go to a music concert with them. I did not speak any Italian yet, so I was not sure what I was getting myself into. I found myself at a stadium rock concert by an Italian heavy metal band. Not what I expected, but a great adventure nonetheless. As an aside, I became indispensable to my schoolmates throughout the year by translating lyrics to all their favorite music (heavy on the Doors and Queen). I should have started charging!

Now, you realize that you MUST regale us with "Light My Fire" in Italian, right? Too bad this chat doesn't have an audio feature...

My SO and I are looking to take a short (3-4 day) getaway on the cheap. We'd like to go somewhere warm and while we don't want to break the bank, we don't want to stay in any seedy motels. Should we consider all-inclusives? I've heard that Jamaica and the Bahamas are the best bang for the buck nowadays. We'd want a balance of relaxing romance and some fun warm-weather activities. And we'd like to go sooner, rather than later, as in maybe late February. Thanks!

Those are good places, as are the resort areas in Mexico, such as Cozumel and Cancun. For the best deals, go with a package that includes air and all-inclusive digs. Check Cheapcarribean.com, Apple Vacations, Travelocity and pals, etc., for deals. Most of the resorts aren't seedy per se, but may be a bit run down. Check Trip Advisor for the lowdown before you book. You might also consider a short cruise from Florida to the Caribbean. On Cruises Only.com, I found a four-nighter to the Western Carib from $279 per person double on Carnival.

If the poster has the same kind of bed wedge I do, it can't be rolled up or folded. I solved the problem by buying a second one and mailing it to the place where I was staying, and then sending it back in the same carton. Packing stores will have the right mailer for it.

Very resourceful, but was it expensive?

While on a semester abroad and spending a week in Ireland, some classmates and I wandered into a pub to listen to music. We found a band playing American country music. They played well, but people were drinking and laughing and socializing, and not paying any attention to the music. One classmate spoke with the band while they were on a break, and requested "The Rose." The band invited her to sing with them, and when they started up again, the entire pub fell silent and listened to my classmate's gorgeous voice. When the song ended, the pub burst into applause, the lead singer was huffy, and another visiting pub owner offered a regular gig to my classmate.

Were you at the same club as our previous chatter? Or maybe it's pretty common to hear country music in Ireland!

When my husband and I visited Ireland a few years ago, we went to performance by a local group in a theatre. They invited the audience to the pub in back of the theater and said they'd teach us some songs. You had to sign up (for some reason), so I put my name down. Well, it turned out that WE were performing for THEM. I've got a very good voice, but am not so much on the public performances. So I had a couple of drinks, and when it came to be my turn, I got up and sang "Down to the River to Pray" (the movie O Brother Where Art Thou had just come out). Plus, it was the only song my addled brain could think of. I got through it (although I started out too high) and everyone was humming along by the end. But I got through it by thinking to myself, well, I'll never see any of these people again. The next day, we were touring a local castle and a man and his daughter came up to me and said how much they'd enjoyed my song the previous night!

More Irish karaoke! Love it.

Re: I liked reading Ms. K.C. Summer's article about stuffing and wearing multi-pocketed travel jacket instead of a carry-on, Like Ms. Summers, I also like jackets, travel vests, backpacks and suitcases with plenty of pockets. I do have a question though: Considering that her trip to Paris would have cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, why is she concerned about a measly $25 or $50 fee for checked luggage? How much does she plan to spend for meals, transportation w/in Paris, museum entrance fees, entertainment, and shopping? Wouldn't those expenses be larger than a mere $25 fee for her luggage? I concede that the checked luggage fee is a big pain when this service used to be free "back in the day." Bon Voyage, Ms. Summers!

I think K.C. was more concerned about her luggage getting lost than the fee. (Me, I just hate the principle of having to pay.) If you read to the end, you'll see that she decided to check her bag on the way home.

I was in a club called Tipitina's. After an opening by two jazz/blues/soul artists who had remarkably catchy tunes, a trombonist - he was the headliner and there for a CD release party - belted out gospel song after gospel song. You have never heard "I'll Fly Away" until you hear it done by Glen David Andrews.

Ah, Tipitina's. Classic.

What do you think about a trip to Toronto in February? A friend asked me to go over President's Day weekend, and while I'm always up for travel it's going to be really cold there then. The weather combined with the $475 airfare (united, air canada) is making me not want to go. Is there going to be enough for us to do indoors for 2.5 days without having to do a lot of walking around outside? Has anyone been there before in February?

There's a whole underground system. You'll be toasty! Well, almost.

Much of Florida is not that warm in February - sweater weather in general, or cooler. Bikers who want warm should check out the massive Everglades National Park, and use the Flamingo lodge as home base. Three south Florida airports serve the park, so there is a chance of "inexpensive." MIA is closest. Spend a day in Homestead, a 'garden of eatin' with rare tropical fruit and organic fare at low-key cafes. Eat outside in the sun!

Some years ago I was in Nashville with a friend, In one of the bars on Music Row, we struck up a conversation with three very elderly and flirtatious gentlemen. (sample dialogue: "You girls are from Washington? Did Clinton getcha? I heard he got all the pretty girls in Washington, D.C.") Over the course of the evening we learned that one was in George Jones' band, one was a long ago Grammy-winning songwriter and one had been married to Patsy Cline. The songwriter (the oldest in the group) was recognized and invited on stage to sing his long-ago hit. He then proposed marriage to me (telling me he had a king-sized bed) but I told him I had to leave the next day.

Sweet! (I think.)

I went to Folly Beach, SC with a group of friends for New Year's a few years back. We spent the night of the 30th in a small dive, biker bar called the Sand Dollar Social Club. They had a musical act playing - a small all female band who clearly had a lot of sass. One of my friends yelled out a song request. The lead singer responded with, "I'm not your f@&*ing juke box!"

Ha. Sass, indeed!

I just booked a 3-day getaway for San Diego in March where I will be staying in Mission Bay with my boyfriend. Other than the zoo, what are other "musts" in terms of things to do and places to eat?

There is so much to do in San Diego. I don't know your interests, but I could spend a whole day at the zoo and Balboa Park. Another day could be spent at the beach, renting bikes and making the loop around Mission Bay, stopping for lunch along the way in Pacific Beach (I like Mad Dogs Cafe). Or a day shopping in La Jolla, with dinner or lunch at George's at the Cove. Or a night out in the Gaslamp Quarter. I could go on and on....

Just a reminder...if you're looking for a warm break through February, Florida might not make the grade. While it is likely to be warmer than DC, it may not be beach weather. The same for the Bahamas and Bermuda. To insure beach weather, you might need to go further.

You're right. I'm in Central Florida right now, and it's 65 degrees, but it was down below freezing last night. That's considerably warmer than other parts of the country -- but still. If you want a guarantee of warm weather, keep heading south.

I could not find an easy way to do this, either, when I did it a couple of years ago. I used the usual-suspect third-party sites to find the flights I wanted, but didn't want to risk buying each trip one at a time, which was the only way to do it, for fear the second wouldn't be available at that price, as so often happens, after I had already bought the first. So I called the airline to reserve both sets of flights (this was my fallback), then bought them through the cheaper site, then used the airline website to reserve the seats. This still left us not "together" as far as the airline knew, so I just had to hope they wouldn't rebook or otherwise screw us up before the trip. As it was, my brother's flight from the west coast to Philadelphia had to make an unscheduled stop to refuel (!), so if the overseas flight hadn't been late, I probably wouldn't have been allowed to wait for him and take the same later flight without a hefty increase in the cost.

Lots of pitfalls. If I had a friend who was coming from another city, I'd try to convince her to visit with me at beginning/end of trip and book that ticket separately. Might cost more, but if you want to travel together without stress, best way to go.

I was in Prague in March during some classical music week - I paid my ~$10, then sat on the steps of the National Museum as a group of four musicians played Dvorak. Magical.


I was in Calgary for Canada Day celebrations a few years ago. After some concerts with local bands, they started fireworks. The first song? Bryan Adams, "Summer of '69". It was magical in its own right.

Well, he IS Canadian, right?

A friend of mine just returned from Prague and he said it was surprisingly expensive. And also surprisingly and uncomfortably thronged with tourists, even in the off-season.

Hmm, well it's certainly possible that prices have gone up in recent years because it is definitely a popular place to go, as witness the throngs of tourists your friend reports. I'd wager that it's still cheaper than Wester Europe though. But maybe this will help our chatters make up their minds. Thanks for the info!

For my dad's 80th birthday, my parents want to take the train from Toronto to Vancouver. Any advice on where to get details on that trip, particularly, lodging/tour options along the way? I imagine they'll want to overnight a couple of places along the way rather than go straight through...

Have you looked into Canada's VIA Rail? They offer packages that might work for your folks. Looks like there are multiple options for getting from Toronto to Vancouver. They probably include some time sleeping on the train -- see how they'd feel about that.

We will be celebrating our 25th anniversary. Any suggestions? We have done cruises in the southern Carribean, e.g., Celebrity and Royal Carribean. We like the formal dinner, i.e., dressing up etc. We also like visiting as many islands as possible. Thanks!!!

Can it be another set of islands, like Hawaii? I would take my 25-year partner on Cunard's Queen Victoria cruise from Los Angeles to four isles. Seabourn also has a great sojourn from Ft. Lauderdale to St. Barths, St. John, Puerto Rico and Antigua. Make sure you tell the cruise line that it's your anniversary, for some little cruise ship surprises.

In the late '70s we were visiting a friend in New England, who took us out to dinner at a restaurant that had a guitarist/singer for live entertainment. It was a slow night, and he was working his way through a number of Gordon Lightfoot's hits, then asked the audience for requests. I asked if he could perform a portion of Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" -- and he did the whole thing by memory! Needless to say, we left a most-generous tip.

Where were you? This sounds eerily like something that would happen at the legendary Folkway restaurant in Peterborough, N.H. I wasn't there in the 70s, when the place was founded, but in the early 90s, a few years before it sadly closed.

Two quick comments: I liked the story about the guy who visited 8 countries in 24 days. I'd love to see more stories like that. Second, regarding Vayama - It is the Spirit Airways of travel sites. They have the lowest prices, but you get what you pay for. They don't have a toll free number, so when you call, you will sit on hold for half an hour at your own expense. They appear to be using a call center in India, with all the customer service implications that come along with that. I called to cancel a reservation I made just a few hours earlier, they put me on hold for a while, then came back and said it is cancelled and there is a $50 cancellation fee. Sorry, but they are supposed to tell you that before they cancel it. The guy told me he'd waive the fee if I make a new reservation. I said I didn't want that. He told me there's no other option. However, when I asked for a supervisor, he then told me he'd waive the $50 fee. I emailed their customer service to be sure I was not charged. They promised a response within 24 hours. That was January 4th.

These cancellation fees are charged by many third-party booking sites, and they usually aren't willing to waive. Yes, they could have told you that you'd be charged, but I'm sure it was in the fine print. Not saying it's right, but it's common. That's why I almost always book directly through airlines. Just about all of them (not Southwest) charge cancellation fees, too, but at least I won't get dinged from two places.

I am a music guy and have traveled a fair amount to see different bands, but one thing everyone who likes music and food should do is go to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. I normally cannot stand festivals, but Jazz Fest is amazing. There are a lot of stages showcasing a huge range on genres, so there is something for everyone. But the best part is the food. The portions aren't huge and the prices are very reasonable, which allows you to sample a lot. In one day I managed to scarf down gumbo ya ya; crawfish bread; crawfish monica; sweet potato chips; meat pies; jambalaya; andouille, pheasant, and quail gumbo; a pork chop sandwich; and a few beers. Also, the music at the fest ends in the early evening, so you don't have to worry about missing anything by going off to the French Quarter at night. All of us who went in our group agreed it was one of the best weekends of our life (although it required a lot of time at the gym when we returned).

Yep, Jazz Fest is worth it for the po boys alone. Plus the music, of course.

"Dream" concert - now it's a bit embarrassing, but it was a change of pace and senses fail. My tastes now have changed, but i always think back and remember just having a blast.

Oh, now I'm DYING to know. Olivia Newton-John? Manilow? Air Supply?

We have been looking into a vacation this summer at the Tyler Place Resort in Vermont as it focuses on families. Unfortunatly, they seem to be booked and they are VERY expensive. Do you have any recomendations for less expensive but similiar type places? We have 3 year old twins and we love the combination of "camp time" for them as well as family time. Thanks!

Not sure about camps for children, but we like Okemo Mountain Resort.

Yes, it was expensive, but I got a great night's sleep every single night, which is priceless.

Amen to that!

Prague was surprisingly expensive and uncomfortably thronged with tourists when I was there last year, but it was still great - no language barriers, etc. You may have a little more trouble in Krakow and there will be fewer people. Either experience works.

A little more firsthand info to help you out. Personally, I don't think it's true that you'd have more trouble in Krakow, where plenty of people these days speak English.

If you have the time, consider the Bolt bus...it's a long drive (11 hrs) but it was running fairly cheap rates. Travel to Toronto via air is ridiculously expensive!

Has some nice museums, especially the museum of culture/history, and a nice old town. we enjoyed it.

I have a 6:00 Am flight from Dulles to St. Lucia, with a stopover in Miami. Because it is an international flight (is this correct or will I have to do something in Miami), I want to be there early. Is there anyone at the counters at 4:00 AM? How early are employees at the counters at Dulles?

The counters are manned for those early flights, though you can check in online.  However, at that hour, security will only be partially open.

We're coming in for a landing. Thanks for the great q's today. Now for our prize winner: It's the chatter whose wife got whisked out from under his nose at a Dublin pub. Send your email information to travel@washpost.com, and we'll get you a token of our thanks!

See you next week...

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The Washington Post Travel section is your source for narrative tales and practical advice about journeys far and wide -- from weekend trips to the Eastern Shore, to two-week jaunts to the Far East -- plus consumer news, penny-pinching strategies and deals galore.
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