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Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Apr 24, 2017

Talk about Travel is here to help at 2 p.m. Mondays.
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Hello all, and welcome to Talk About Travel. In this week's section, Andrea headed to the International Travel Goods Show in Las Vegas for an advance look at the latest travel gadgets and gizmos. Is there a travel device you can't live without? Tell us what is is and why you love it below. Most compelling answer gets a copy of the new Moon guide to California and Las Vegas. On to your questions!

I have a trip planned to Spain for late September. I was tracking the fare on Google flights. Economy was about $500, but I was also thinking about doing business class for about $2500. Didn't pull the trigger because I wasn't sure the expense was justified. Now the business class ticket has gone up by about $1000 (economy went up by $200). Any chance it might come down again? Or did I miss the window?

No way to be certain. You could have initially looked while a sale was going on, and now the sale is over. Or the seats could be filling up, which means the fares go higher. I'd try going to an airline site that covers the route to see if you can view how many seats remain on your desired flights. Some airlines, such as American and United, allow you to view this information before purchasing. If the flight is wide open, there may be another sale. If seats are mostly booked, prices will likely continue to go up. 

This December I'm joining a Road Scholar tour that includes the R/T international flight from JFK. But I need to purchase a separate R/T ticket from DCA to JFK. Is it a good idea to book it right now? Both travel dates are on the weekend. Are there any advantages to having the tour operator book this ticket rather than doing it myself? Many thanks.

If the tour operator will book the airfare add-on, may protect you in case you don't make the connection. Definitely worth investigating, and worth a few extra dollars. If not, book a flight that gets you there early enough that you could get on a later flight and still make the connection. In other words, head out early in the day. And I'd also try to book with an airline that has a codeshare with the airline you are flying from JFK, allowing luggage to be checked through. And finally, yes, I'd arrange all this sooner rather than later because your situation does not allow for lots of flexibility.  You might also consider going the day before, although that gets pricey in New York. 

Want to minimize over-booking to the absolutely greatest extent possible? All we have to do is change the rules for who gets bumped first. Require the airlines to first bump their most important frequent flyers, then their next most, and on down the line. The least important passengers get bumped last. Airlines will do ANYTHING to please their Unobtainium-level frequent flyers. Witness United bumping a fully-paid for first class passenger a week before the debacle in Chicago. Another, and more-important passenger wanted his seat. The bumped passenger was threatened with being handcuffed and dragged off the plane. (The LA Times article also discusses how United on another flight tried to remove first-class passengers to make way for—drum roll, please—United CEO Munoz and his family!) After 9/11, the airlines immediately went to the feds and swore that the inevitable new security procedures must not inconvenience their frequent flyers or else the entire industry would go bankrupt. Requiring the airlines to first bump their highest-level frequent flyers would give them all the incentive they need to turn their massive computing and analytical powers—the same that allow them to change fares daily and hourly—to minimize overbooking. I have every confidence they are up to the task. In other words, make bumping passengers so painful that the airlines will do whatever it takes to minimize it.

Excellent question. I have a Navigator on the topic coming out in a few days, which will discuss the legislative efforts to address this issue. But in the meantime, you can avoid flights that tend to get overbooked. Regional carriers (those little turboprop planes) and popular a.m. flight tend to be more overbooked. Flights at less popular times of the day, like the red-eye, are generally not as full. But I agree with you: something needs to be done.

Hubby and I hope to celebrate our 30th anniversary in a 'European' city without going to Europe. Will Montreal fit the bill? What neighborhood should we stay in? We're a little uncomfortable with private owner sites...

Absolutely! Or consider Quebec City. The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is the perfect honeymoon hotel!

For Montreal, I suggest looking for hotels in Old Montreal or Plateau Mont-Royal.

So if airlines routinely overbook flights because they operate with such razor-thin profit margins, how can Wow be so cheap? As in $500 cheaper than it's nearest competitor that doesn't require a ridiculously long layover somewhere. I know about paying extra for baggage and food and space, but seriously, they do maintenance on their planes, right? And pay their employees?

Airlines like WOW tend to have a lower cost structure because they are start-ups. Reduced labor costs, a newer, more efficient fleet, perhaps even better management -- it all adds up. At some point, though, WOW will need to raise fares in order to stay profitable. Then passengers will jump to the next start-up, low-fare carrier.

Thank you in advance for answering my question. We travel overseas annually but have not flown domestically in several years and frankly are rather dreading it, and have some questions. We are lying from Bentonville, Arkansas to Portland, Maine this summer on American and wonder what "entertainment access" we will have. Will there be any entertainment for us to listen to or watch using our noise cancelling headphones, so do we need to plan to bring our own entertainment? We have heard so many horror stories about flying domestically anymore, we are not looking forward to that part of the trip. We would appreciate any advice. Cheers!

You'll likely connect through DCA, so you'll be on two different aircraft operated by two different companies doing business as American Eagle, part of the American family. Several aircraft run on the XNA to DCA leg, including the Embraer 175,  a comfortable, but small aircraft that typically offers WiFi, but you have to pay for it.  There won't be any entertainment. The next leg will likely be on a Canadair Regional jet, which is another small aircraft with no entertainment. The good news is that both flights are relatively short: One is about two hours and the other is about three. Bring a book or some sort of already downloaded entertainment in case the WiFi doesn't work. 

I asked this last week, but it may have been too late for an answer. Are there any European countries which restrict medically necessary, prescription medications for visitors? I understand many Asian countries ban ADHD medications, and the US Dept of State's OSAC website indicates France frowns on Epi-Pens. The OSAC website refers readers to the International Narcotics Control Board, but that website isn't consumer friendly in regards to identifying country specific information. I don't want myself or my elementary aged child to end up in jail (or sentenced to death) due to medically necessary medication, and I would like to know before I book my trip which countries should be avoided.

For the best information, you will need to ask the consulate or embassy of the country you are interested in visiting. Laws change all the time, especially as countries crack down on illicit drugs. You might just need to carry a doctor's note, but before you book a trip, go to the governmental source with the list of prescriptions. (A travel clinic might not even have this information.)

A 2016 report from Australia did provide these insights: "Anything containing codeine, pseudoephedrine, such as cold and flu tablets, morphine or dexamphetamine is prohibited in Bali, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Thailand requires travelers to carry a permit for personal medications and people visiting Canada and Vietnam are advised to carry a letter from their doctor listing prescribed medicines and their dosage. The UAE also may ask for documentation for certain medication, and passengers who don’t have the right paperwork may face prosecution."

I enjoyed the gadgets article, and was especially interested in the luggage tags made out of the fuselage skin of planes. However, these run up to $85, and I can't imagine actually using something I spent $85 on as a luggage tag! What if it got lost, or stolen if someone recognized what it was? That may be more valuable than the contents of my suitcase!

So glad you enjoyed the piece!

The PlaneTags creator considers the item as more than an ID tag; they are unique pieces of art. However, (sssh!) I do see the product for much less on Amazon.

I know there are issues if you try to travel internationally with a nearly-expired passport, but what about trying to rent a car (domestically or internationally) with a driver's license that will expire in a couple of months. I will be heading to England in the early fall (Sept-Oct) for a couple of weeks, and my current driver's license expires at the end of the year (Dec 31). Normally the renewal letter wouldn't arrive until late October or early November. I'm guessing that I won't have a problem if I try to rent a car while there, but I hate to assume anything, especially not when I'm several time zones from home. Am I worried about nothing? Thanks!

I've never heard of that being a problem for a car rental. If it's expired, that could be an issue. Otherwise, I think you're fine. It's probably best to check with the car rental agency or your travel agent.

Today's code is TT9186. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating.

We would like to send our son and his family on a vacation with their two children (ages 4 1/2 and 2 1/2) to begin to heal after the death of their six year old daughter. They think this sounds like a good idea and I suspect they would like like to go in late May or early June. I'm thinking of an all-inclusive, relaxing, beachy place, but am open to any suggestions (though all- inclusive, with babysitting, is probably best for them). Doesn't need to be budget, but not high-end either. Many thanks.

I'd suggest a destination they can get to via a nonstop flight. Cancun offers a good combination of frequent nonstop flights and a wide variety of all-inclusive properties. The Riviera Maya area south of Cancun is nice for families. Look at the Dreams or Iberostar properties there. You may also want to go through a tour operator, such as Apple Vacations or Vacation Express, which does package deals. And I am very sorry for your family's loss. 

While I am sympathetic to air passengers needing assistance, the number appears to be growing when I fly. In the case of an emergency deplaning, who is responsible for assisting these passengers? Are other passengers to be delayed in deplaning while those need assistance are helped? Secondly, since Christopher's column indicates that airlines are to give priority seating to these passengers and I understand there will be or has been proposed that families may also get priority in seating, what's left for regular passengers? I was on a flight delayed because a father insisted on sitting next to a child, instead of a row away, who appeared to be an older elementary student--taller than I--and someone had to exchange seats in order to meet the father's requirements. On two other flights just as the pilot told everyone to take their seats, parents got up and took their child to the restroom, one delaying takeoff. On Southwest one pays to board early and on other flights passengers pay extra for special seats -- why shouldn't families?

You raise one of the biggest issues for air travelers today. In order to make more money, airlines have segmented us into "haves" and "have-nots." There are so many layers of privilege, it's confusing. They've made passengers feel they're entitled to special treatment when, in fact, they shouldn't be. I'm all in favor of asking to sit next to my 12-year-old son, but insisting that you have a right to it is the kind of entitled passenger behavior that airlines have been breeding for years. At some point, it's probably going to create yet another spectacular in-flight incident like the David Dao expulsion on United Airlines.

Hi, Travel gang, we haven't had a vacation in the 8+ years since our first daughter was born. We don't live near family and really don't ever have breaks (I know, I know, first world problems and all). This year we pulled the lever and reserved a five night Disney cruise for June with our 8 and 5 year old. The terrible thing is I can't get over how much money it was! We are so desperately in need of a vacation but I can't relax - can anyone talk me off this ledge??? It's going to be awesome right?

I have not been on a Disney cruise, but I hear good things. Read more about the line and reviews at Cruise Critic. Any chatters have more to add here?  

For the chatter last week who's visiting friends and wants to visit the Wadden Mud flats: A good city to soak up vibes on the way to the North Sea is Hamburg. You can do a Wattwanderung from Cuxhaven to the island of Neuwerk. Cuxhaven isn't (in my opinion) very attractive (although I have friends who love it) but it's probably the best jumping off point for the mud flats. Wear shorts and a bathing suit under them. Wear sneakers with socks to protect your feet. My husband cut his foot on a shell on one of those walks. You can also go on mud flat walks from other places (the East or North Frisian Islands) but it's much more time-consuming to get there. If you're going to be in Germany between May 25 and June 5 (Ascension Day and Whitmonday) book your accommodations in advance - quite a few people will be travelling then. You mentioned tulips - I think the tulip bloom is pretty much over by now.

Thanks for the ideas. 

Hello, I am travelling to the UK this August, my passport expires January 2018. It is good for close to 6 months, but not exactly. Should I renew it early? The state dept. website says "six months remaining validity recommended". Thanks.

Just renew it and then you won't have to worry about it and can focus on your trip.

Contemplating a European river cruise in the fall. A friend on a Danube cruise a couple of Septembers ago had to be bussed a healthy chunk of it because water levels were too low. Acknowledging that rainfall is not dependable, nonetheless, are there any European rivers that that have (semi-) reliable water levels in the fall?

I've written several stories about river levels and cruises turning into bus tours, and as far as I can tell there's no way of picking which river is less likely to be lower. Chatters, do you have any suggestions?

I believe there have been more cruises on the Danube that have been turned into bus tours than along the Rhine in recent years. But that's no guarantee. 

Aack! I posted my question to the wrong chat! I need to rent a car to drive to the NY/NJ area, can pick up in Rockville, Silver Spring or Bethesda. I just want a compact car with automatic, air, rado and a trunk for as little as possible. Which booking service would be the best on my wallet? Oh, and sorry Alyssa, I meant to post to the Travel chat.

If you're a member of Costco, I'd try them first. If not, Avis/Budget or Enterprise will likely give you the best rate. 

Hello. Any reviews on Disney cruise line for couples. Is it overrun with children? Thanks.

Disney has a good rep, and according to cruise sites, those who are young at heart, but without children, do sometimes frequent the line. But it is heavily populated with children, especially during school breaks. Would not be my first choice unless I were totally Disney involved. 

Consider going to New York the day before. One time when we got caught in a horrendous traffic jam en route to the airport, we arrived too late to board (although the flight hadn't departed yet), so we were switched to the next flight, which would still get us to our red-eye international flight in Boston about two hours ahead of time, although we'd have to take Logan's bus shuttle to Terminal E (international flights). Unfortunately, that next flight was over an hour late in departing, so by the time we reached the desk of our foreign airline in Boston, it was already closed. Worse yet, at that time of year our flight only went twice a week, but I was supposed to be speaking at a conference in two days. So, we made our way back to the customer complaints office of USAir (as it was called then), who put us up at a hotel overnight, and we had to make complicated alternative flight arrangements, which wound up costing us thousands of extra dollars and taking us a total of 40 hours on three flights (instead of the non-stop we'd planned). Nowadays we try to arrive a day early if at all possible (or at least schedule a 10-12 hour layover, so there are two flights in between our domestic and foreign flights).

That's definitely the safest way to go, but unless you're willing to stay at a hotel in New York right next to the airport, which is expensive and has nothing to offer other than lodging, you could very well get stuck in a traffic jam from Manhattan to JFK. As long as your connecting flight is leaving later in the day and you can get a first flight out of Washington, should be fine. 

Similar to the WOW poster- I hear a lot about billions in profit from airlines...and about razor thin edges for profit margins. It's one or the other. Which is the truth? And why is that so different from a stadium that can't overbook its seats. (Admittedly I did poorly in econ but I can't see what the difference is here)

I've been covering this industry for a long time, and it's either feast or famine. They're either rolling in profits or burning the furniture to stay alive. Why anyone would want to work in the aviation industry, I have no idea! But I've never fully understood how it can be so volatile. It's a topic worth exploring. I'll add it to my Navigator list.

I just note that for a start-up, profitability is not the highest priority. Many start-ups in various industries lose money for a long time just to establish market share. Amazon did that for a long time. Chances are airlines like Wow are actually losing money as part of their business model.

That's an excellent point. For some start-ups, they expect to operate at a loss for the first few years until they get a foothold in a market. It's built into the business plan.

Husband and I are looking for a quick (3 night) getaway in mid-August. We've done most of the VA things- Charlottesville, Lynchburg, VA Beach, Cape Charles, etc. Thoughts? We are currently considering Louisville, KY and Chicago, IL. We prefer being outdoors (hiking, biking, etc.)

For hiking and biking, I wouldn't really recommend Chicago, unless you like urban biking (the path around the lake is nice, but busy). I don't know much about Louisville, except that the city started a bike share program this year.

For more nature, I would recommend Asheville or Burlington, Vermont. One great ride: from South Burlington to South Hero Island.

When passengers are bumped, as in the notorious United case a couple weeks ago, does the airline offer vouchers -- which are likely good only for future travel on the same airline with complex conditions -- or does it offer actual cash? An "$800 voucher" might really be worth zero to someone who doesn't travel a lot, but $800 cash, is, well, $800 cash.

If the airline is seeking volunteers, the agents typically offer vouchers, which are useless if you don't need to travel within  a year of the bumping. However, as the agents get more desperate, they might offer cash -- or feel free to approach the agent and tell him or her that you are willing to give up your seat for cash. If you are involuntarily bumped, only accept cash. However, if the airline can put you on a flight within an hour of your original departure, you won't receive any compensation.

The other side of the coin is that some passengers seem to regard this as an opportunity to behave badly -- under no circumstances should a passenger sneak back onto a flight, because it would mean at minimum the entire rest of the passengers would need to be disembarked and screened again, and the plane searched -- on the theory that if they throw a temper tantrum, it will be recorded and posted, so then they can get their 15 minutes of celebrity, or at least a first-class upgrade they don't deserve.

You're right. No matter how wrong the airline is, it's not a license to disregard the instructions of the crew. I'm not defending United's actions, but agreeing with you that there was a better, more polite way of handling this dispute.

As someone who has actually benefited from overbooking in the past, I'd hate to see some knee-jerk legislative fix upend the practice - and overshadow the more comprehensive passenger-oriented legislative fixes that could be made (or worse - rolled back). Despite the horrible United situation, all the oversell situations I've seen work as intended - someone is willing to be 'bought off' by the airline, which frees up a seat for someone who really has to be on the flight. As long as airlines give their employees sufficient power to make the right offer and adjust their overbooking to match today's reality of fuller flights and fewer guaranteed rebooking opportunities (a big assumption, I realize), then there's no reason to legislative ban the practice. Instead, how about a targeted law requiring airlines to disclose their involuntary bumping policy with specificity and a reimbursement policy that doesn't encourage them to go after their lowest paying customers first (like maybe making the compensation keyed to the highest fare paid for the flight, regardless of whether that's the person bumped) .

Thank you. That's true, many passengers benefit from overbooking.

Readers' must-have travel gadgets:

The Cup Pilot. I swear I don't work for them, but my spouse bought me one years ago. It is the niftiest thing. It is a holder for a cup (or water bottle) that hangs by a hook from a closed tray table. It is very stable and just terrific for those cramped economy seats. I can have my drink or water right there in front of me, relatively securely, without that tray table having to be down, which gives me more mobility in my seat.

Travel devices I can't live without. (1) A baby carrier. Seriously. We still stick our 3.5 year old in a softsided carrier backpack at times (a Beco Toddler in this case - it folds up fairly small and stuffs in my backpack). Sometimes you just need to get from point a to point b and little legs are DONE. So happy we don't need a stroller any more! (2) Colored coded packing cubes (supplemented by plastic zipper bags). The little has green, I have blue, etc. Super easy to pack and to grab what's needed. (3) Baby wipes. You just never know when you might need some.

Well, it is google maps, of course. I have no sense of direction. None at all. It is pathetic. I can lose track of whether I am facing generally north or generally south coming out of a below-ground red line station. Google maps has saved me over and over again. All over London. Closer to home. I especially love that I can compare travel times walking vs. taking public transportation so easily. I'm on vacation. If walking is 27 minutes and the tube is 24 minutes, I'm walking.

Headphones. Head. Phones. HEADPHONES!!! As much as I feel sorry for the babies who have to take that flight or train ride, and as much as I feel sorry for the horrified parents who can't mollify the babies no matter what they do, it is much easier not to feel ill will when I'm listening to something more enjoyable on headphones. I have discovered at the train station that I left headphones behind, then run the risk of missing my train because I must go purchase some now.

A few years ago, before a two-week trip to Africa, I bought a Pac-Safe shoulder bag. Lots of compartments that can be latched shut, so pickpockets can't get in, plus a slash-proof strap. And two water bottle pockets. My other must-have accessory is an empty water bottle that can be filled up after you go through security. I've only seen one airport (Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe) that had NO water fountains after security.

Finding that most flights from East to West Coast are more expensive in many cases than, say, flights from U.S. to Europe and other worldwide destinations. Is it really that more people are flying domestically so there just aren't as many seats, or is it more a product of the current worldwide economic status?

I fly frequently to California to visit my daughter, and the flights are jammed. I have not been on a flight that was not overbooked in my last four or five trips. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, load factors are very high for cross-country domestic travel, so my experience is not unique. Packed planes equal higher prices. As for Europe, travel numbers are down, so that may be having some effect, along with the number of discount carriers that have jumped into U.S-to-Europe routes. 

apparently several airlines are offering various retail giftcards now to bumped passengers. Frankly I find them almost as annoying as vouchers since many gift cards expire or charge monthly fees. Gimme cash.

Yes, Delta Air Lines is known for its gift cards used for compensation. But if you wait long enough, they have to offer cash by law.

Got a deal in Amtrak for roundtrip tickets to Philly from DC. I will meet a friend there and was wondering if there are any events going on there for this weekend. I’ve been to the main sites before so I would like to explore other areas this time. We are interested in food and outdoors but we are open to other options. Wondering if there are any groupons worthwhile!

Time Out Philadelphia has a great calendar of weekend activities. Check a few days before you go. Visit Philly also lists upcoming events.

As for Groupons, I suggest you take a minute and look at the offerings since they are always changing.

Last week, someone wrote in saying that they were going on a trip with a stop in Russia and wanted to know how long it took to get a visa. While the information that Andrea provided was useful, it did not address the case where someone is traveling on a cruise and making a port stop in St. Petersburg. (The OP did not provide that information, but it's possible that's what they were doing.) In that case, if you book a guided tour with a Russian tour company, they obtain the visas for their clients and it's an easy process. All you have to do is provide passport information to the tour company. There are many tour companies in St. Petersburg who provide tours and obtain the visas but I would say, based on my research, that the "Big Three" are Alla, SPB Tours and TJ Travel. We booked a 2-day tour with Alla during our stopover in St. Petersburg on a Baltic Cruise and the visa process and the tour itself were great. Just note that you must remain with the tour for the duration--no wandering off on your own or skipping the tour on Day 2 to do your own thing.

Great info! Thanks so much.

I'm flying Fiji Air in a few weeks, and called them to get seats farther toward the front. The rows are 14 and 15, but in none of the Seat Guru charts do I find the letter I was given. The aircraft may be a 330-200, or a 737-800. Are there other sources of plane seats information? Thanks

Have you looked at Fiji Airway's site? That's where I'd start. And if the letter isn't listed, you need to call and make sure you have seats!

Hi all, Spending 7 days in England, and know that the VAT is some huge amount like 17% (more?). I know there's some way to get it back, but is it worth it? Do you have to spend a lot? Thanks!

Depending on what you buy and the cost, the VAT can take a bite out of your wallet. On some goods, the tax can reach up to 20 percent. Here is a list of taxed goods.

Whenever I travel to the UK, I always arrive at the airport a little early so that I can get my VAT refund. It is a pretty quick and easy process. Just make sure to ask for a form at the shop and keep your receipts. Here is a good guide on how to get your refund.

Back in 1988, I needed to rent a car in Germany while visiting a friend there. I had been in Europe all summer and my license expired while I was away. I pointed this out to my friend, who said "They don't know what a US driver's license is supposed to look like, so they won't notice." She was right - they didn't. And I got to drive on the Autobahn.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

BJ's also has very good car rental deals. As does the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal if you have any credit cards giving you access to that.

Thanks.

Our family of three older teens and two adults will be travelling around England this summer; London, Brighton, Chichester, Bath and other spots. Would we be better off renting a car for our travels (not in London) or travelling via rail between cities? Is it a trade off of price and convenience?

Because you are visiting so many cities, I would suggest you rent a car (hope you can drive on the opposite side of the road!). The cost of trains and cabs for the five of you will add up. Plus, you will have a lot more freedom to pop into charming towns you might have missed if you were traveling by train.

8 and 5 are perfect ages for a Disney cruise. They are going to be happy beyond all possible comprehension. All you will have to do is sit back and figure out how to relax after being out of practice. Try to figure out in advance which night(s) you might want baby sitting and reserve ahead of time. My nephew was 2. That was too young but even he enjoyed the night he got to hang out in the kids area with a sitter all to himself and watch Cars to his hearts content.

Thanks for the comforting words!

Has anybody ever won a prize like this from a timeshare sales company and successfully used it? I know I have to sit through the scammy presentation, which I'm dreading, but the prospect of those free tickets seems like it's worth it. (and no, I have zero plans to buy a timeshare, none, zip, zero, I'm familiar with the pitfalls)

Good question! I would reflexively advise against it, but let me put this one out to our chatters. Has anyone been able to redeem a "free" ticket on a presentation like this?

More travel-gear favorites:

My favorite travel device is good luggage. After years of lugging around hand-me-downs from friends and family, I made the jump and bought some well-made, ergonomic pieces that have served me well as I've traveled locally, regionally, domestically, and to going-on five continents. I have a small turquoise carry-on from Samsonite that I bought at Kohl's and a big hardshell suitcase I bought at Costco; both pieces have wheels and have held up well these past few years. I cannot imagine running through airports with my old dufflebags and even older suitcases like I did for years!? I'm now expanding my collection to include good camping gear. I donate old items to Goodwill so my clutter at home has also decreased and I hope someone gets good use of my old stuff. Now if only I could procrastinate less when it comes to packing those beloved bags, I'll be truly be all set.

Go-go Babyz Travelmate Mini. I just used it to roll my kid's carseat around the airport with her in it instead of lugging it with straps or carrying it on top of everything else you need to carry. Best $50 I spent on the trip.

I always carry one of those little external battery packs (lipstick-sized) to keep my phone charged - after all, my phone contains maps, google translate, emailed confimations, and a camera! With long days on the go away from the hotel, this is a must-have.

...for the price, the best in-flight entertainment hands down is a dead-tree issue of the local newspaper, purchased at the airport. For less than $2, a major city daily can keep me occupied for a couple of hours (including puzzles), and if the local paper's small, I buy a magazine of interest as well. Sunday papers cost more, but provide longer entertainment.

Next winter, my husband and I will get a few nights for our first kid-free vacation and are trying to decide where to go. We will likely only have three nights, so want travel to be quick and easy (direct flight, no customs, etc). We want to go somewhere warm. And we want the focus to be on relaxation but for there also to be some things to do - we have three toddlers, so are equally excited about sleeping in and strolling quietly through a cultural site. Where should we go? Before you say Key West, while I know it is PERFECT, it was also the site of our last pre-kids getaway so we want to try something new. Our current front runners are New Orleans and Puerto Rico.

Those are great options, though I don't know how much rest you will get in New Orleans! I would add to that list Charleston, Asheville or Amelia Island, Fla.

Someone asked a similar question last week about domestic flights, so I'd like your input on booking tickets for an overseas trip. I'll be traveling to the UK in early September and I have specific times in mind for my flights. I see some flights that have good schedules, but I'm hesitant to book this early if there is a risk that the times will change.

I would not worry too much about flight times changing to the United Kingdom, especially if you are flying nonstop to London. Almost all the flights leave in the late afternoon or evening, fly overnight and land in the a.m. (There is also a day flight on United). On the way back, there is more variance in flight departure times, so that could be more of a concern. For early September, I'd be booking soon. 

Looks like the Swiss travel pass can be purchased online. But easy to purchase upon arrival at the Zurich airport?

My philosophy is to book as much in advance as possible, so you don't have to waste time once you arrive. Plus, advance purchases are sometimes cheaper.

I had this issue earlier this year. To answer the writer's question. Your passport needs to be valid throughout your trip. I returned January 3rd with a passport that expired on January 17th. To Andrea's comment (and my Husband's many muttered comments): I'm cheap. No need to cut six months off my next passport by renewing this one early. (BTW, I renewed upon return and have already traveled on my new passport.)

That is a very valid point. You can wait till you get back, but just factor in heavy application times, when State Department gets slammed with renewals.

I went to Russia with a group tour in 2008, and the visa application was like trying to get a job at the NSA: List EVERY job you've ever held, with supervisor and contact information; every school you've ever attended; every organization you've ever joined; every place you've lived; past and present medical issues, etc., etc. Is the application still as intrusive?

I applied for one a few years ago and don't remember listing EVERY job. But that would be a short list, unless they wanted to know about dog and kid sitting.

It's hugely simple - they'll give you the form at the shop when you buy an expensive good and you can pop them in the post past security in the freepost envelope.

Thanks for the supporting advice!

It's totally worth it if you're making a big purchase (over $100 for example)! I let it go if I'm in a small shop or just getting a few things. Not all shops may have VAT forms available but the bigger ones should: just make sure to ask before you pay or it may be too late. (As I've learned the hard way.) As Andrea Sachs said, if you get the airport a little early, you should be able to go to the VAT counter and take care of things quickly. I've also done the mail-in forms in a time crunch.

Good to know. Thanks!

With a job involving lots of international travel (30% last year,) I appreciated the article on reducing travel stress. The best piece of advice I can offer is to actually pack (not just have lists or pre-packed toiletries) several days in advance of your trip. Nothing stresses me out more than rushed packing the night before departure, and my goal is to pack no less then three nights early, preferably the weekend before. This allows me to start my trip much more relaxed. And most people totally neglect planning for the return home. I try to change bed linen and towels before departure, and to make sure to have some apples and other hardy produce with pantry and freezer items on hand, so I can have some homemade meals and avoid an immediate grocery run on return. These planning steps make a big difference, especially when I have little time at home between trips.

Thanks for the article on Ireland. I cycled Slea Head Drive last summer and took a picture of the same house!

If the airline won't let me sit next to my kid, and other folks won't switch seats, I will, not gladly, instruct his neighbors on how to keep the deadly allergens away and administer the Epi-Pen.

Right -- the protocol (or lack thereof) for handing out seat assignments for adults traveling with children is yet another major problem with the system. Look for a column from Chris on this topic. 

To go to Europe without crossing the pond, what about Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, a group of small French islands off the south coast of Newfoundland. It is really France - 220V, euros, and a guillotine in the local museum [only used once, apparently]. There are ferries that run from the Newfoundland village of Fortune (which is about 5 or 6 hours out of St John's) or you can get there via Air Saint Pierre out of major airports in eastern Canada. We stayed at the lovely Nuits (pronounced new-EEE) Saint Pierre, which is lovely B&B/inn a few blocks from the ferry terminal.

I kind-of volunteered to get bumped last Christmas on my United flight. Thing was, while I didn't mind getting in 6 hours later -- and the later flight would have been first-class -- I had worked til 3am the previous night and had gotten three hours of sleep. I asked if I would get access to the lounge and they said they never do that (and he said that staff also don't get access to the lounge). It never came to needing to make a decision, as I was able to board, but goodness. I have no idea how common that is, but just providing lounge access would have made me more amenable to being bumped instead of sitting in a waiting area for 8+ hours.

Free vacations from timeshare presentations were a staple of my childhood. We probably went on one once every 2 years or so. Yes, the tickets/hotels are "free," but prepare for a very hard sell and at least a half-day to full-day of required activities. My parents were strong-willed (and cheap), so they never bought anything. During one trip, my brother and I didn't have to go the presentation, so we just slept in the hotel room and watched TV all day.

Ha -- glad to hear your family was able to game the timeshare system. 

Even more travel favorites:

... my Baggallini purse. Sydney is my favorite, so many pockets for organizing, a strap to lock my wallet inside, a zip pocket big enough for passports. Love, love, LOVE it. I am on my third one. Not because they don't last--they do! But on my third one just to have different colors and styles. I think it was originally designed by flight attendants, so, you know, they have it figured out.

Socks... good moisture-wicking socks that keeps your feet cool when running around the airport, but warm when cruising at 35,000 ft. I'm one of those that takes off the shoes during the flight (sorry) because it's so much more comfortable. Having warm, dry socks is key, and it helps with odor.

and gizmos aplenty! But my favorite for travel is my old Nook Color. It has about 75 books on it and while it works well it's old enough that if it dies or is disappeared I won't be heartbroken.

I don't think Asheville is very warm in winter. Did you mean someplace else?

It isn't very warm, like Florida, but it doesn't get piles of snow!

Let's say the airline gets to the point where they are drawing names from a hat (or letting the computer pick someone). Would it be fair for the airline to let the passenger pay $50 to have their name removed from the hat so they pick someone else? There might be times when someone absolutely needs to get to their destination and should have a way to get a pass from being bumped. Not sure if paying a fee or just explaining your need would be better.

They choose their victims based on several factors, such as when you checked in, your status as a frequent flier member, cost of tickets, etc. You can plead your case, but it doesn't really work.

The NFL Draft is in Philadelphia Thursday through at least Saturday, expecting about 300,000 attendees (weather-permitting). Keep that in mind if you are visiting the sites, such as the Art Museum, etc., since they will be mobbed.

Good advice!

Looks like we're out of time -- thanks for joining us today! Extoller of decent luggage, drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize.

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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