Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
May 04, 2015

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Welcome to Talk About Travel, everyone. I hope Sunday's centerpiece on Texas's Big Bend National Park earned it a place on your Stargazing To-Do list. (Or inspired you to start a Stargazing To-Do list.) Have other astronomy-friendly destinations to recommend? Do so here. Best suggestion gets a handsome Travel-section paperweight. Summer vacation looms -- let's get right to your questions.   

I enjoyed the article about hiking in Big Bend. I spent a week there is the spring of 1998. Spring is a great time to visit (but not during colleges' spring break). We backpacked the Chisos mountains and slept near the rim overlooking the Rio Grande, and at dusk, thousands of cliff swallows were swarming and darting up and down the cliff face. We met a local man who was carrying very little water. He was filtering the black water from a very small stream and he said, "You can drink that!" We also visited Guadalupe National Park on our way back to El Paso to fly home. Guadalupe is spectacular, and also lightly visited.

That sounds amazing -- glad you enjoyed the story!

Love the chat - it's the best part of Monday! We're in Chicago, and traveling to Venice in November for a cruise, and am intrigued but skeptical about the $700 RT flight on Turkish Air, with an overnight stop in Istanbul. (Other airlines are $1150-1300.) Online reviews are really hit or miss with Turkish Air, but I really love the idea of getting the first stage of our jet lag OVER in Istanbul, sleeping in a bit the next morning, and taking the second leg to Venice on the day before the cruise. Can you reassure me that Turkish is a reputable carrier, or warn me off? Thanks!

I have flown Turkish Air several times (most recently to Egypt in February) and have had positive experiences on all my flights. The crew is very nice, the entertainment system is packed with current movies, and the seats are as spacious as you are going to get these days. They also give you little extras, like pieces of Turkish delight.

The carrier has some of the lowest fares around, mainly because they route travelers through Istanbul. If you are in a rush, choose another carrier. But if you don't mind a layover in Istanbul, book that flight!

I'm going on an escorted tour of New Zealand and Australia, including flights from LAX, for a cost of over $6,000. I am thinking to buy travel insurance for canceling, delays, medical care and evacuation, loss of luggage, etc. Should I buy a comprehensive policy, or should I try to get just the coverage I think I'll need, or should I not buy travel insurance at all?

I would consider insurance for that kind of trip. You probably don't need the gold-plated version, but get something that covers cancellations, medical evacuation and hospitalization, and make sure that it covers any existing medical conditions. 

My husband and I are taking a Viking river cruise down the Rhine River in early June. The cruise starts in Amsterdam in the evening. We will arrive in the early a.m. We would like to visit the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House. Will we have enough time for both and should we purchase tickets ahead of time or can we wait until we get there.

You should have no trouble in this compact city. It would take you less than 40 minutes to walk from Rijksmuseum to the Anne Frank House and then to the cruise ship. And the airport is about a 20-minute drive from the dock. You can usually board the ship by 3 p.m., although it won't sail until later. Check with the line to find out how late they will be in Amsterdam. I think you'll be fine buying tickets when you get there. 

I read last week's chat after the fact, and noted the reader who thought the State Department is unreasonable in seeking an emergency contact on passport applications. The writer thought this policy was a bureaucratic overreach. As the chat was in progress, State Department employees were - and still are - diligently and thoughtfully tracking every American citizen in Nepal to ensure they are safe following the earthquake - and fielding phone calls from their friends and family. International air carriers also ask for an emergency contact in case the worst happens. The passport emergency contact system may not be perfect, but it is a blessing of American citizenship for which I am very, very grateful - not an overreach at all.

I agree! Better to have people watching out for you than being all alone. Also remember to sign up for the agency's travel alerts and to register before you travel abroad.

I know this topic has been discussed before, and I picked up good tips already, but I am out of luck. We used United frequent flyer miles for a trip this fall. Most of our flights are on code-share partners, particularly Austrian Airlines. I have the confirmation numbers for Austrian and their flight codes. When I called Austrian Airlines direct to get seat assignments, the recording said for my fare code, seat assignments are only available day of at the airport. Are there any tricks to getting a seat assignment earlier? My spouse and I are traveling together, would really like to sit together and not in the last row of the plane! (and it didn't offer an opportunity to pay extra for seat assignments, which I have found on other airlines.) Thanks.

I actually asked United about this issue last week, but haven't heard back from my contact. My best advice (until I hear back from the airline) is to arrive early and see if you can be seated together. Normally, that's not a problem. I'll update this thread if I get a response from the company.

I'm looking to go to Europe (UK and France) in early July, but do not yet have a ticket. Is it best to buy now, or are there ever last minute fare sales to Europe in the summer if a route has not sold? The flights I'm looking at seem to be in the $1500 range and I'd be willing to wait if there is a chance I could get a cheaper flight later. My initial destination is not tremendously important - I'm flexible so long as it is in the region - I'd prefer to pay $900 or less. Am I crazy to think that I can wait it out to find some deal?

There are discount carriers offering cheaper airfares to Europe. Look at WOW Air out of BWI and Norwegian Air Shuttle out of JFK. 

Just wanted to share I site I have used to help me find the best places to see the night sky when traveling: http://cleardarksky.com/csk/ It does ratings and gives you probably way more than you ever need to know and is always changing. For me the sky while traveling through South Dakota was awesome.

Great resource, thanks!

I'm in the process of making reservations for a trip in September. Deposits are required with the initial reservations, and payment in full will be required as far as eight weeks in advance. At least one company charges. 2% surcharge for payment by credit card! but nothing extra for debit. I'm inclined to pay the fee for credit card payments for the protection it offers in the case of a problem or dispute. Is this what you would do?

I would pay by credit card. If something goes wrong, you can dispute it. But with your debit card, you might not have the same protection.

We want to visit Savannah and can go for a few days the first week of June. No special reason, just haven't ever been. Are we nuts for going then, re heat and humidity? We can deal with some (we live in DC area), but don't want to totally wilt.

It'll likely be in the high 80s and there is a good chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Usually a bit cooler here. Lots of walking is necessary to properly visit Savannah, so if you're bothered by heat, may be better to go in a cooler month. 

My passport is expiring and I'm finding that places that do passport photos are scarce. Where do you suggest?

CVS takes passport photos (I had mine taken at the store in Dupont Circle). I have also ordered photos from VisaHQ at 2005 Massachusetts Ave. NW. There used to be a photo place near the old passport agency on 19th Street. I am not sure if they closed when the agency moved, though.

The best stargazing I've ever seen was while camping in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada. On one clear night it was pitch dark, only a few small towns within an hour's drive, and no city lights. I laid on my back on a picnic table, awestruck by the stars. Unfortunately the rest of my family was asleep in our tents. Most other nights were cloudy.

Great image -- thanks!

The person looking to get seats on Austrian might want to try the Austrian website. Often you can access your booking online and choose seats that way.

Thank you.

I seem to recall some mention of this previously. But is there any issue with buying a one way ticket on Turkish Airlines (FCO to IAD) -- the site charges Euros even though I say I'm in the US. Will I have any issues?

I am not sure if you are asking if it is okay to buy a one-way ticket or to buy the ticket in euros. So I will answer both.

Yes, it is fine to buy a OW ticket, though you might receive extra screening from TSA.  You are receiving a charge in euros because you are departing from Europe. If you booked IAD-FCO, the fare would be in US dollars.

I thought Sunday's article by Christopher Elliott was too one-sided against purchasing travel insurance. While Mr. Elliott did say that he purchased a yearly policy (which is different from the one-time trip policies that most people buy), the tone of this article was that there was seldom any reason to buy travel insurance. The primary example of the article was that of a couple who lost $12,000 on a cruise when the insurance they purchased failed to provide coverage. Mr. Elliott did not mentioned several important facts: 1) you can't rely on what somebody "tells" you about coverage--you have to read the policy; 2) there are policies which will provide coverage of pre-existing conditions if purchased within a certain time after making the first payment on a trip (generally this time is 10 - 15 days); and 3) buying a cruise line's policy is generally the least favorable for the passenger--instead comparison shop on such sites as InsureMyTrip.com or SquareMouth.com. The addition of this information would have made Mr. Elliott's article more well-balanced.

Thank you for your comments. I've written about travel insurance often in the Navigator and have made the points you mention. I also have a chapter in my book, How To Be The World's Smartest Traveler, about insurance. I think you may have missed the point of the story, which was that the "protection" you're being sold as a traveler (on items like rental skis and rental cars) is not always worth it.

Hi Crew -- Is it realistic in 5 nights to do both San Francisco and Yosemite for an active family of 3 (teen kid)? And is it too late to plan for late August? airfares for nonstops seem to be at $425 r/t which seems pretty good. I don't have a sense of how far it is to Yosemite from the city. Thanks for any guidance.

The national park is about 200 miles east of the San Fran area. I think you might feel a bit rushed, especially if your five nights includes travel from the East Coast. But the trip is doable if you get on the road early and know in advance what you want to see and do.

  One caveat: Lodging fills up fast in the summer, so book your lodging as soon as possible!

A friend has advised me that if you check airfares around 3am, you can often find lower fares than at other times of the day. I have never heard of this before so I am wondering about its veracity.

Yes, I've heard the same thing. Usually, it's tied to a day of the week, too. You might find less expensive fares early Tuesday morning -- but do you really want to get out of bed to save a few bucks on an airline ticket? Most of us would rather sleep.

We will be going to Corpis Christie Texas for the 1st time in July and want to stay at a nice resort on the beach.Should we consider N. Padre Island or S. Padre island? We have researched both but found only one resort on the beach on N. Padre and it is remodeling. We found several on S.Padre which look nice. Can you help us?

I have always wanted to go to Padre Island but had heard that it was a party beach town. Perhaps I am misinformed!?!?

Chatters, can you help?

Remember that you are going to have that 20+ hour stop over in Istanbul on the way back as well as on the way over. At least that was what I saw on the kayak listing for a trip to/from Amsterdam/London. 35 hours total travel time both ways. Too much for me for that trip, but I might try it for a final destination closer to Istanbul.

That is the downside and why many people will pay more to reach their final destination a little quicker.

I am always awestruck by the night skies when I am cruising. There is something so special about being in the middle of the ocean (okay, so maybe not quite the middle, but with nothing around, who can tell otherwise?) and having no lights anywhere within miles to interrupt the viewing. That, plus the sound and scent of the water, makes my nights aboard a ship very special and gives me plenty of time to reflect on the wonders of life and the world.

Stands to reason, but this never occurred to me, thanks for sharing!

What's the best deal for a trip to San Diego? Southwest has cheap flights but why are they cheap? Bad Food? Bad Planes? Lose luggage? Also what website should I use to search for flight and rental car. I'm traveling in early June

Southwest is a discount carrier, but its service is no better or worse than many so-called legacy carriers. No one serves food any longer unless you pay for it. Southwest is one of the few that still hands out free pretzels and peanuts. And their planes are fine (mostly 737-700s) and baggage complaints are right in the middle of the pack. To book Southwest flights, you need to go to its Web site: You can also book rental cars through Southwest. To check other airlines, try Kayak, which also does car rentals. 

You can get a guided trip to do star gazing at the summit of Mauna Kea where the big observatories are. Can't get to the professional level stuff (unless you have contacts, I guess), but people will take you to about the same location. Not recommended to do it yourself as the roads are a little rough and ready (rent something capable of off-roading if you insist). My brother and I signed up, but it ended up being one of the 15 days a year when the cloud cover was high enough to be over the 4200 meter summit. Sigh. That trip was a long time ago and I'm still disappointed that we missed it.

How frustrating -- maybe one of our chatters will have better luck!

Fedex/Kinkos does them too.

Great to know! Thanks!

A word of appreciation for your breathtakingly intrepid Andrea Sachs. I loved her piece on Old Delhi and her previous one on travelling in Egypt! She's an entertaining writer and an excellent role model.

Agreed on both counts -- thank you!

I'm going back to visit friends and family in Indiana later this month, and notice that there's a museum and other exhibits dedicated to astronaut Gus Grissom in Mitchell. Has anyone been there? I've been curious about it. Is it explicit enough to merit a detour? Is the museum still open?

The museum just opened, according to its Facebook page. There's contact information on the site, so you can check on the status of the exhibits before you visit. It might be worth a detour.

Just a reminder that you can now earn 15 PostPoints each time you participate in our Talk About Travel chat. Just record the weekly code that we'll post during the chat and enter it into the PostPoints Web site under Claim My Points. The code expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it each Monday to get credit for participating. Today's code is: TT2629.

I will be traveling to Yellowstone this September and would appreciate any recommendations on half day hikes, tours, etc. I will only be in the area a couple of days so I want to make the most of the time I have, but given the size of YNP and the numerous options, I feel overwhelmed. I'd like to cover as much territory as possible and while I am not a seasoned hiker, I also don't want to spend the day on a crowded tour bus. I researched past travel articles on the WP and YNP no longer offers the ranger-led hikes you recommended in 2012. I will be staying at the Lake Lodge if that helps narrow down the options. Thank you in advance for any wise council you can offer!

The National Park Service has free handouts that detail day hikes throughout the park. And there still are ranger-led walks. Also, the park service publishes a list of companies that offer guided hikes. 

My beloved has announced that for her 50th, she would like to be in Africa to see animals. I haven’t a clue how to start and Africa is not a small place. How should one distinguish between the various countries and reserves, and do some provide the better opportunity to see the fauna. Big Cats would be at the top of her list, but I’d like to see elephants and rhinos. (I assume seeing lions and seeing gorillas are two different trips). Any starting point would be appreciated. – thanks

Planning an African safari can be overwhelming. From my experience, I think that Kenya and Tanzania have the best overall wildlife-viewing, though I was recently in Namibia and I still bore my friends with stories of my close-up wildlife encounters. (And still I can't stop: Here is my piece about sleeping with a baby baboon in an animal sanctuary.) South Africa is also an incredible destination that allows you to mix other cultural experiences in with your game drives.

I suggest that you contact an African safari specialist to help. The expert can tell you about the different seasons, lodging options, types of game drives, etc. Extraordinary Journeys, for one, offers a service called "Safari Matchmaker."

In Belize--not sure I'd recommend how we ended up in this exact location--but an astonishingly starry moonless night entertained about 16 of us when the outboard motor on a little boat conked out halfway between the mainland (where we'd gone for the day to Mayan ruins) and Ambergris Caye (maybe 10-15? miles offshore, where we were staying). We floated in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, no cell phones (all the way back in the early '90s), the only light was from the flashlight the boat operator and guide used while working on the engine. They finally got it going after about 45 minutes, which relieved us all. But the stars made the breakdown one of our favorite memories of the trip.

Wow, talk about a glass-half-full perspective.

OK, I am a regular, full (print and online) WashPo subscriber, but it has never been clear what exactly PostPoints get you. Can you explain please?

Sure, here's a link to the PostPoints FAQ.

but if their luggage complaints are right in the middle of the pack, isn't that a miracle? They don't charge for checked bags, so I have to believe that people are much more likely to check them on Southwest. Is that complaint a percentage based on number of flight segments (miracle territory) or number of checked bags (average means average). Thanks if you can clarify this.

I look at the Department of Transportation's statistics, which measure the rate of mishandled-baggage reports per 1,000 passengers. 

There is really no reason to spend the $10+ at CVS or elsewhere. If you have a digital camera and access to the State Department's website, you can take your own picture, use a tool on the website to format the picture properly and then print it yourself. Much cheaper. Go to http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/passports/photos/photos.html to use the tool.

I am lazy, but your idea sounds great for tech-smart folks.

Thanks!

It's not too easy, but, if you head out to eastern Oregon, and travel deep in to the Eagle Cap Wilderness area, the stars are glorious. this was several years ago, and we got a "bonus" - riding through a forest fire blazing on both sides of the trail. Since it was a wilderness area, "let it burn," prevailed. I was scared, but, fortunately, had a calm(er) horse.

Wow, we seem to be developing an astronomy + peril theme here.

I have had a similar experience when connecting to a partner flight; when you view your reservation, it may show an additional record locator number for the other airline's system. Use that code to view your reservation on their system, make seat assignments, special requests. On United's "view current reservation page" I found this message: United Confirmation Number XXXXXX. This reservation contains partner flights. View additional confirmation numbers." There was a link that took me to this message: Additional confirmation numbers These confirmation numbers have been provided for your convenience. You can use them when contacting other airlines for seat assignments or reservation assistance for this trip. Copa Airlines Confirmation Number: XXXXXX

Thank you for the information. This is helpful.

Chris, thanks for your column on travel insurance. I've bought travel insurance once or twice for specific big trips. What is this annual travel insurance you were talking about in your column? Does it cover the missed connections and other problems you can have, or is it just for health and medical needs? And is it expensive compared to single-trip coverage? Or is it more like two or three single-trip policies?

I have an annual policy through Allianz, and yes, it covers all of the basics that you outlined. I didn't buy it personally (my better half made the arrangements) but it cost more than $1,000 to insure my family of five, which, considering all the traveling we do, was a good deal to us.

I feel like this is a question you guys have answered many times (sorry!), but can you please provide the names of a few east coast beaches that allow dogs? We've done the Outer Banks, so ideally it'd be someplace new. Thanks!

No worries! Dogs need beach time too.

First, the rules: Many popular beaches ban dogs during peak seasons/times or on certain strips of sand. So check the regulations before you go.

  Pet travel sites have the most comprehensive lists, such as PetFriendlyTravel.com. One of my favorites: Assateague Island National Seashore. a gorgeous strand that allows dogs on the Maryland side. 

My wife and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary this year, and I need a little inspiration on where to go. We are already taking a family trip in June (courtesy of my parents) to Aruba. Another trip to the tropics is not out of the question, but I'm looking for something a little different. We have a week mid-July where the kids will be in their grandparents' care. Driving or flying is okay, but minimizing the travel time will allow us more time at the destination. Any ideas?

Mid-July in the Caribbean is going to be hot. And getting to Europe will be expensive and long. How about a trip to Maine? Lots of nice resort-like inns there, such as Inn by the Sea near Portland or Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport. Or you could go to San Diego and stay at the Hotel del Coronado

I applied for and was approved quickly for the GOES program. At the same time I applied for my boyfriend, also. He was granted a conditional Approval Notification (as I was) and had a scheduled interview at the DC Enrollment Center. Not sure if I inadvertently completed the online request with an omission or what. In/around 1965, while in high school (17 or 18 yrs old), he was arrested for a misdemeanor. He completed his juvenile probation and the charge was removed off his record. This came up during the interview (3 May 2014) and the CBP official requested he submit a copy of the official paperwork to him. We drove downtown to personally take the “cleared” paperwork, but in the meantime the DC office was temporarily closed for several months for renovation so we emailed it to the barely legible address previously provided. On 11 Jun 2014, we received a letter stating his membership was disapproved cause “applicant failed to provide the required court documents within 30 days to the interviewing officer”. All of this was completed within a week or so. We contacted the Center at BWI, but not much help. Should we try to appeal to the Ombudsman a year later or pay another $100 and try again? He worked 40 years for the Dept of Navy and had a secret clearance (as I did), so not sure why the denial other than paperwork/email lost during the shuffle. We got very busy in 2014 with several family illnesses and deaths and just getting a chance to breathe again. Advice?

It sounds as if you have a strong case for getting approved. I would consider re-submitting your application. If you don't get it, let me know and I'll ask my contacts about this. Here's my contact information.

I’m trying to plan a day trip this summer for two 18-year-olds. Any suggestions for somewhere fun within 2 or 3 hours of the DC area?

Do they like amusement parks? Kings Dominion, about 20 miles north of Richmond, has all the traditional attractions plus a newly expanded water park with several new rides for thrill seekers. 

Lots of great stargazing suggestions coming in:

My grandparents live in northern Minnesota, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Therefore, there is no light pollution at night, and there's no other pollution to interfere with night viewing. Not to mention that it's so remote up there, I can't get internet or cell service on my phone, so I am literally unplugged from the world, and able to connect so much better to nature while I am there. So, the stargazing up in the area is the most amazing I have ever seen--pitch black sky, tons of stars (it's hard to pick out constellations, there are so many stars you never see around here), and you can see the Milky Way! Throw in the fact that you can often see stunning northern light displays, and it makes for pretty awesome sky gazing!

I just returned from LA a few weeks ago and I would definitely recommend Griffith Observatory. During the day you get a great panoramic views of the city, including the Hollywood sign. There is lots of information about astronomy on several levels of the building along with interactive exhibits for kids of all ages and at night they bring out the telescopes so you can see the stars. Best of all it is free! Definitely worth the visit.

I live in Chicago, so never get to see but the brightest stars at home. Most memorable view was from soaking in the hot springs at the Colca Lodge Spa in Yanque, Peru. This was the overnight stop on an excursion from Arequipa to the Colca canyon to see Andean condors. There are several outdoor pools to soak in under the stars; it is on the fringe of the Atacama desert and at an elevation of 11,000 feet - the stars just the clear sky!

When traveling in Madagascar a couple years ago, we were on a night walk in the forest to spot nocturnal creatures, and I commented to our guide how amazing the stars were, and how amazing it was to see so many. He looked at me incredulously, and asked bewildered why we could not see stars in America. Light pollution was completely off his radar.

Tickets for the Ann Frank House sell out weeks in advance, so you may already be out of luck there anyway. But I think they do release some a couple of weeks ahead of time (depending on tour bookings), so you can check on their website often. If you don't get tickets there, be prepared to wait an hour to get in (sometimes longer!).

I went in October and got in without much problem, but maybe I just got lucky. Definitely worth buying advance tickets

I'll have an opportunity to be in the United Arab Emirates (for business) in Feb/ Mar 2016 and was thinking about booking a cruise, departing Dubai thru the Suez ending in Venice. Was glancing at one-way fares from Venice to either IAD or BWI and they're nearly $2K. Need help to make this happen! Not sure if this is considered a "multi-city" trip since I'm arriving in/departing from different cities. There are reasonably-priced flights on Emirates and United from here to DXB, but they don't fly from Venice back here. Is it too early to catch a deal since the schedules are just being released? Appreciate your assistance and advice.

A multi-city trip has different cities out and back or in-between, or involves an itinerary with more than one round-trip. You would use the multi-city tool if you were, say, flying from DC to Dubai for the outbound and returning Venice to DC for the return.

You might want to try Trip Advisor's flight tool. I have inputted some very challenging itineraries and the site seems to find me flights. Because of the unconventional nature of your schedule, you likely won't find a deal. Grab whatever looks good.

Re: hiking there. September is a good month, as it's not as crowded as during the summer. Very many visitors only see the big sights, and don't do much hiking and such. My travel buddy and I were there 2 years ago around Labor Day weekend, and were surprised how few people we saw on some of our outings. Of course, now I cannot recall where precisely we hiked, other than an easy hike to the Natural Bridge. I'll try to remember more and post in the future. But there is a LOT of info available online.

Great advice! Thanks.

Responding to previous comment: Whether or not a traveler SHOULD provide contact information is a different issue. The question is whether the State Department is legally authorized to REFUSE to issue a passport to someone who can't or won't provide emergency contact information, which is very likely to become outdated during the 10-year life of a passport. And, for better or worse, some people just don't have someone who will fetch their body. I note also that State doesn't want a contact who might be traveling with you, which means your spouse isn't good enough. As noted, the State Department provides a registry that allows travelers to provide current itineraries and contact information for each trip, and it's probably smart to use it. But can really State say "You can't leave the country unless you give us some names?"

I honestly don't remember the State Department demanding that info when I applied for my book. Are you certain of this rule?

You can get your passport pictures taken at Costco for $4.99.

Gotta love Costco!

Carol said that Mid-July in the Caribbean is going to be hot. But aren't the island temps pretty steady throughout the year? The main difference is that you're not escaping from a cold place to a warm place.

I've been to Jamaica, DR and Grand Cayman during summer, and I roasted. There is a difference of about six, seven degrees between winter and summer. Maybe I just hit it wrong. 

Death Valley Park. We also saw the Milky Way very clearly many years ago along the Oregon coast. Old Delhi haggling -- I thought Andrea overpaid for a number of items (the scarf in particular, and the salwar-kameez). Speaking as an Indian-American who has spent a lot of childhood and adult time in India, including shopping.

I totally overpaid. I was not thinking clearly.  And my shoes are now covered in duct tape. I will do much better on my second shopping trip!

GET. YOUR. TICKETS. NOW. We were there a few years ago, bought our tickets two months in advance, were there at 9:00 for a 9:15 admission, and the line was already 100 people long -- those were people who DID NOT BUY tickets in advance.

Another vote for buying tickets before arriving. 

Are they into history? Perhaps Gettysberg or Antitem. Are they they into the environment - how about the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center, which are great wetlands. You could do other things on the Bay too. Basically I think you should tap into their interests ... .

Good ideas. And yes, their interests should drive the train.

Austin or San Antonio -- which do you recommend for a long weekend in Texas? Any particular reason why? Thank you.

I would say Austin. It has a bigger "everything" scene: arts, food, fashion, music, lodging, outdoor activities, weirdness.

I was able to get my passport photo taken, and paperwork for my passport renewal, all completed at my local post office. Not all POs do this, however, I believe -- but it sure was convenient for me! Check the USPS website for locations.

The State Department also has a list of post offices that handle applications, though I am not sure which ones offer photos.

I honestly don't remember the State Department demanding that info when I applied for my book. Are you certain of this rule? ============== A request for contact information is on the current passport renewal application. In your chat two weeks ago Chris said his contacts at State told him it was mandatory, and they didn't know what they would do with an application that didn't provide it.

Well, there you go . You learn something new every day.

I would be *very* careful if you do this on your own. Yes, it can be cheaper, but the State Department is very particular about dimensions and your background, etc. If you take a bad picture you could be asked to submit another one which can hold up your application which happened to a friend of mine. I'd rather just pay the $10, but that's just me.

I got mine done at AAA. As a member, it was $7.50 in my area.

Stargazing suggestions still coming in:

Bryce Canyon is a great place to go stargazing. There are frequent ranger programs with fun explanations (the one we went to had adults and kids in the audience pretend to be the sun, moon and earth to explain why one side of the moon always faces earth and also audience participation in skits dramatizing the myths behind the constellation names) and telescopes! My kids saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter for the first time at Bryce.

Best place I have ever seen the stars is the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana. Went on an University trip and it felt like we were the only people for miles (which could have been true). We camped out without tents and fell asleep to the most stars I had ever seen.  

Hi, I would love to take my son there in 2016 over Christmas. Looking at the prices it seems prohibitive, do you have any suggestions to make it more reasonable? Toby

They are very costly, but you can sometimes find deals, such as discounts on specific dates. (Though the price will still be high.)

Check our What's the Deal? column on Sunday!

We're out of time -- thanks for joining us today! Cleardarksky.com recommender, drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to collect your paperweight.

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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