Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Jun 27, 2016

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Hello all, and welcome to Talk About Travel! In this week's section, we highlighted a heli-skiing trip that was undone by warm weather. Have you ever had a vacation spectacularly fall apart? Share your tale of woe below. Most disastrous gets a copy "Fantastic Cityscapes," an adult coloring book designed by Barcelona-based artist Mister Mourao. One housekeeping note: We will not host a live chat next Monday on the July 4th holiday. Happy Independence Day -- and on to your questions!

I am looking to book my family's next "vacation" and are hoping you can help. We are a family of 4, 2 adults and 2 small kids (ages 3 and 2). Last year, we went to an all inclusive resort in Punta Cana. This worked well for us because everything was on the resort and we were never more than 5 minutes from our room. The convenience of the all-inclusive was great! So, when one of the kids needed a nap, or anything, we could run back. We stayed at a smallish resort (not hard rock) that had a water park for toddlers and the kids loved that. While it wasn't the most cultural vacation (and hardly a vacation with 2 kids, and because everyone ended up getting a stomach bug on the trip :)), it worked for us and met our needs at this time in our lives. We are looking for something similar for our next trip...an all-inclusive, beach-focused, family-friendly resort, not too far away (we could barely handle the 4 hour direct flight from bwi to punta Cana), with plenty of fun water activities for toddlers. (Note that many resorts have water parks but have height limits so toddlers can't use them). We are looking at the Atlantis but that seems to be too chaotic , or Beaches in Turks and Caicos but there is no direct flight from the DMV to that island. What are your ideas for a family vaca for 2 adults and 2 small kids.

Easiest destination to get to that offers a wide variety of all-inclusives is Cancun, Mexico.  There are nonstop flights from BWI and IAD and the flight is under four hours. I believe Gran Caribe Resort has a waterpark for kids. 

I recently used Homeaway in European locations (Spain and Italy). I booked after communicating with the owners, and it did not appear that I was charged a fee. I didn't use Homeaway's booking page to search for properties by entering dates and locations. I searched for properties first and then booked online. I wonder if that provides a workaround? Or was the fee simply embedded and I didn't know it? Either way, the rates were very good - much better than a hotel. But, I would have liked to know about the fees if in fact they were embedded.

The owners pay Homeaway for advertising on the site. That's how the company makes money. It costs the owner between $349 and $499 per year. 

I'm not sure if Andrea is on, but on the recommendation of her story, I am planning on stopping at the Namibian wildlife sanctuary on my round-the-world trip. The only issue is that it has been REALLY hard to get it coordinated. Using their instructions, I tried paying for the sanctuary and visa processing a month ago, but the payment hasn't been processed, and the payment company won't tell me what I need to do. I'm now at a point where I'm leaving the country in less than a month, and can't get answers from anyone. I'm not sure what my question is, but maybe this: (1) is the experience really worth continuing to pester these folks every day or so? and (2) did you have or hear of anyone else having these types of problems when you were there?

I am so sorry (and surprised!) to hear about your frustrations. You are talking about Na'an ku se, correct?

I reached out them to reserve the dates and paid once I was there. I am not sure why you need to reach them about a visa, since you don't need a visa to visit Namibia or volunteer at the refuge (I am assuming you are American).

If you give me more details then maybe I can better assist. My time there was incredible. I still talk about sleeping with the baboon and show off pixs of my wild baby.

Looking to drive to a beach within two hours of Northern VA. Any place that two adults and an 11 years old (all females) can drive to and stay at least two nites? Not looking to drive over 2.5 hours from Woodbridge. Thanks!

There is no ocean beach within 2.5 hours of Woodbridge, but you can get to Virginia Beach, Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach within three hours, as long as you time it right. 

We've just booked a hotel for a 6 day trip to London in September but have not yet booked airfare. Round-trip (non-stop) airfares from DC area are running about $800-$900. Given the Brexit situation, should we book now or wait a bit to see if fares come down? Any predictions on the value of the dollar vs. the pound in September? Any other advice for travel in England during this slightly chaotic time? Thank you!

If you're finding that airfare on nonstop flights, I'd go ahead and book. There's been chatter about airfares to Europe heading lower because of Brexit, but nonstops will always be the last to see steep discounts. If you don't mind connecting, you may want to wait a bit to see which way fares head. 

Is there an cheap way to buy foreign currency for a future trip? I'd like to lock in some of the cheaper currency for a trip in late fall, but short of prepaying for hotels, I can't figure out how to do it. Most of the currency conversion shops charge so much in fees plus the buy/sell spread that it wouldn't be worth it unless the Euro suddenly shot up a great deal. Any ideas? Or is this something that can't be done on a individual scale?

Yes, you can buy a pre-paid, euro- or pound-denominated Visa or MasterCards, which will let you avoid some of the fees. But the savings are likely to be minimal. If you're traveling this summer, you're probably better off buying currency when you need it, instead of prepaying for it. You're also far less likely to lose the card or the cash in a drawer.

Hi. My family and I leave for Germany in two weeks. Our regular cell plans don't cover anything while over there, but I think it would be nice to have at least one phone for emergencies and texting (airbnb hosts, etc.). Any recommendations on the best way to do this? Change our plans here? Buy something (what?) over there? Thanks!

Are you sure your carrier doesn't offer an international plan? Most do. For example, I have an iPhone and when I travel abroad, I sign up with Verizon for its international calling plan. 

I can't seem to find a clear answer to this question and am hoping you can answer or point me in the right direction. I had radioactive iodine therapy 5 months ago for cancer. I set off radiation detectors for about 2 months. I am flying on Friday, and am worried about setting off the detectors at the airport. Are the radiation detectors at the airports more sensitive than those in other places? Can the detectors tell the difference between medical radiation and a dirty bomb? What do I do if I am stopped for radiation detection? What will TSA do if I set of the detectors?

I'm not a doctor (and I don't play one on TV), but I don't think you will set off radiation detectors five months after treatment. But, just in case, I'd get written proof from your doctor. 

Hello, travel gurus! Submitting early because of a meeting soon and training later. Question: What should UK-bound travelers expect now that Brexit has occurred? For example, is there an attitude change towards Americans or is it the same as always--we're loud, arrogant, ignorant, and sometimes foolish. Thanks.

No changes for the foreseeable future. Their opinion of us hasn't changed.

Closer beaches on Chesapeake Bay?

There are "beaches" along the Chesapeake, but they're not what most consider traditional splashing-in-the-waves type beaches. North Beach, for example, on the bay's western shore, is only about an hour from Woodbridge. 

Cannot be on live but was curious. I am traveling to NYC on Wednesday via train out of Union Station. I haven't travelled on the NE corridor in years and was wondering about security at Union Station and how much lead time I should allow for boarding. Love the Chats and thanks for your help.

Security at Union Station is very unobtrusive and not at all invasive. You will see more officers patrolling the station, but you won't have to go through screening. An Amtrak official will check your ticket and ID when boarding, but that doesn't take much time. I would give yourself a half-hour or so to avoid the rush for seats.

For the last couple years I've had the goal of doing a hiking trip in the UK in autumn 2018 for an important birthday. The plan is to spend a week on the Great Glen Way in Scotland, then go down to Hadrian's Wall for a few days, and end with a couple days in London where I have friends. Now with the Brexit and Scotland threatening another independence referendum, do you think I should move up the trip to next year? Unfortunately, this autumn isn't possible due to my work schedule.

I've been talking with travelers all morning about their UK travel plans, and I don't see any compelling reason to cancel. Quite the opposite, actually. The favorable exchange rate means you can afford a nicer hotel or an extra meal or two at a nice restaurant. I would go, anyway.

I'll be travelling to Thailand in August. Most of the trip was booked using miles and points, so I'm not out too much out of pocket, but I am concerned about getting injured during our trip. We might be renting scooters to get around the small island we'll be staying on and will be participating in water sports, and we'll be in an area where jellyfish stings and Dengue Fever aren't uncommon. Is there a specific kind of travel insurance we should look into? Are there any plans that only cover health issues and emergency medical care? I don't really care about the trip cancellation part.

You're engaging in some risky activities that might not be covered by standard travel insurance. I go into more detail in my frequently asked questions on travel insurance. You'll need to read the terms of your policy carefully and avoid activities that aren't covered or that are specifically excluded. There are more expensive policies that cover certain types of "adventure" activities. Also, you might want to consider a medical evacuation policy.

What are your must-sees in Shanghai that aren't the new Disney Park?

Shanghai is a great walking city. For example, spend some time strolling among the architecture and history of the Bund and along the Promenade. 

Other attractions: Yu Garden (save time for dumplings at Nanxiang Mantou Dian), Jade Buddha and Longhua temples (great vegetarian restaurant inside the Jade Buddha Temple); shopping on Nanjing Road (watch out for those fake accessories); the museums and cultural institutions in People's Square; and the observation deck at the Oriental Pearl Tower (go at dusk or night for the lights).

Do you have T-Mobile? They have free texting. This could be all you need. You can also get your carrier to open your phone and you can buy a cheap pay as you go sim card. You can rent a phone at the airport.

Thanks. 

If you have Verizon, you can rent a phone for the country you'll be going to. They'll transfer your regular number to that phone temporarily and you can buy extra data if you think you'll need it. I did this when I went hiking in the UK for two weeks and plan to do it again. I wanted to use my phone to check in daily with friends via Facebook, since I was traveling alone.

Interesting. But did you do this because your phone wasn't on the GSM system? 

I doubt they much care, so long as Americans bring lots of money!

How true!

Anything special to see/do this weekend in the Steel City? Have the basics, just looking for anything not to miss while there this friday/saturday/sunday. Thanks!

I would check out the upcoming events listed in the City Paper (their town's version).

Going on vacation next week with my husband and two kids, ages 4 and 7. Not worried about the flight, its short and I have plenty of distractions. But regarding checking in (we are flying Southwest out of BWI)... Do I need to bring their birth certificates? We do need to bring their booster seats. Is it best to bring them on the plane? Or figure out a way to check them with the rest of their luggage? Thanks!

You don't have to bring their birth certificates, but I would, anyway. That's especially important if you and your husband don't have the same last name and you have to fly separately. The booster seats get checked or gate checked at no additional charge, normally.

My SO and I (20-somethings) are looking for a one-week trip this September. We've been to Ireland and England, and want to avoid the Caribbean because of hurricane season. We like photography, history and nature and don't like extremely long plane rides, given the short duration of the trip. Any ideas?

How about Iceland? Fares are cheap, flight is not all that long and it would satisfy at least two of your three interests. 

No, we just do a simple pre-paid plan on our phones here. So my question was, do I switch to a more-expensive one for July or just buy a phone when there?

I bought a cheap phone when I was in London years ago and it worked well, but it was hassle to find when I got into the city. I was too frugal to buy one from a kiosk at the airport (they are typically more expensive there), but in retrospect, that would have saved me some time. If your phone is unlocked, you could buy a prepaid SIM card for international calling. Chatters gave any ideas to share? 

I'd like to go to India at the end of the year. I know people in Mumbai and Kerala to visit, but think India requires more planning- unlike say Paris where you can just walk around and use public transit. Is there a good (younger, active) group for lightly organized tours? With an art or other focus? I was really turned off by the tour groups on recent European trips, marching down the street with headsets and leaders with flags.

I would suggest looking at the trips offered by G Adventures or Intrepid Travel. Both limit group size and skew young(er). You can also check universities and museums, which sometimes organize themed foreign trips  -- though those types of trips might attract an older crowd.

I've heard that airlines lower airfares sometime on most Tuesdays? Is there a specific time of day to check for the lowest fares?

There have been lots of studies on when airfares are lowest to purchase, and they often contradict one another. But one study by Farecompare.com claims that 3 p.m. Tuesday is the best time to buy. I would instead suggest you familiarize yourself with the going rate, set up fare alerts and buy as soon as you find a good deal. 

Although perhaps our opinion of them has. *Googles "What is the EU?"*

Good point.

seasoned traveler, now sight impaired looking for European quality small cruise, or a fooddie land tour out of way charming spots, preference Italy or France or UK

You may want to look into a travel agency that specializes in tours for the sight impaired, such as Mind's Eye Travel, especially if you are traveling alone. 

Today's code is TT2225. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it each Monday to get credit for participating.

 

Chris I know you don't like the loyalty programs from hotels/airlines etc. Are credit cards that aren't associated with a program like that but have their own miles and point rewards an equally bad move? I'm researching a credit card that comes with miles/points to be used for a big trip next year and I'm leaning towards something like capital one's card that doesn't tie me to an airline. I tend to fly the most comfortable cheap airline. (ie not spirit but definitely southwest)

Those programs are slightly less bad (disclosure: my Wells Fargo card awards "points" but not airline miles. I never asked for it and if they did I'd tell them to keep the points). For some reason, combining airline miles with credit card spending creates a toxic and highly addictive financial product that encourages people to mindlessly spend, churn cards and engage in other destructive behavior -- that's why I try to steer people away from it. But in the end, I can't make these decisions for you. If you find a card that you like, I can't stop you from applying ...

I had to travel after having not a radioactive iodine treatment, but a different type of radioactive materials test. The doctor said that sometimes people who take the test do set off alarms; he gave me a specific card that explained what was done and who to contact if immediate verification is required. I didn't set anything off.

Agree that it's always a good idea to carry an official explanation if you have any sort of medical condition that can set off alarms. For example, I carry a card complete with X-ray, that explains those metallic implants in my neck due to spinal fusion. I've never had to show it, but I still carry it.  

I'll be traveling to Hiroshima this fall and will have three days to explore and visit. I'll reserve one day for the Peace Museum but wanted your take on other things to see or excursions.

Good idea to not rush the Peace Museum and its affiliated sites. You will definitely have to fight back the tears.

You can easily fill your remaining days with shrines and gardens. Itsukushima Shrine and the Edo-era Shukkeien are the most famous. For a soak, head to the hot springs on Miyajima Island. For traditional crafts: Miyajima Traditional Product Hall; you can learn to bake momiji manju (cake filled with sweet bean paste) there too. Depending on your taste in cars and sports, you also might carve out some time for the Mazda Museum or a baseball game with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Your tales of vacations gone awry:

A friend of mine just returned from France with a travel horror story. She booked an all-inclusive tour, and fortunately planned to arrive two days early. Her flight from Dulles to Paris was cancelled due to a fuel leak. She was put on a plane 24 hours later. Her train from Paris to the next city was delayed because of a problem with a different train. The passengers from the other train were offloaded, and crammed into my friend's train. She missed her bus connection, and it was late at night by now. She would have to wait till the next day for another bus. She opted to take a cab (at a cost of 140 euros) to the town where her tour would start. The good news is that her tour was very enjoyable. This sounds like a good argument for trip insurance, also for allowing plenty of time between your connections.

I was at the theater festival in Stratford, Ontario when the 2003 Northeast blackout hit. Oops. My Friday night show was cancelled (all of them were), obviously. But, in addition, you had a huge collection of tourists depending on restaurants for food and they all had to shut down because they couldn't clean anything even if they had been able to get a gas stove going. The only food you could buy in the entire downtwn was one, lone food truck that made and sold French fries. I was staying at a guest house and my hosts asked me to join them for dinner - burgers and sweet corn on the grill. We just chatted and drank slowly warming wine for the whole evening. I listened to a few radio announcements from my car, but I knew that I couldn't leave until the power was reliably stable since you can't pump gas without electricity and I was living in Jersey City which was more than a tank away. I think I missed my Saturday matinee as well, but that was probably for safety inspections in the theaters. Everything was fine by Saturday night. At a guess, that long chatty evening around the grill was reproduced all over the city of Stratford in the guest houses. No idea where the people in hotels managed to eat.

Minor annoyance more than major awry, but we were in Paris last month when the Seine flooded. I'd purchased advance tickets for the D'Orsay and the Pompedieu - the D'Orsay, or course, closed, (along with the Louvre), and the line at the Pompedieu, even with advance tickets, snaked far out of the building which had us saying "Non!" Apparently that's where all the tourists headed when they couldn't go to the other two museums. On the other hand, seeing the flooded river and wandering the river banks with fascinated locals was quite fun! Our friends who'd rented a houseboat were far more inconvenienced that we were.

Hi Folks, It wasn't a spectacular trip, like, say, the volcano erupting during a visit to Mount Saint Helens, or anything, but it was a set of annoyances for me. I went to visit London on my birthday, which I share with a friend who lives there. Unfortunately, it was the Wednesday before one of their bank holidays. I got to see my friend and his wife that night, sure, but I didn't get to see any of my other friends who live there, because they were all out of town for the long weekend. Adding to the annoyance, I had a day trip to Brussels, planned months in advance, train ticket bought months in advance. That was the day the station was packed so badly with school groups going on holiday, that I missed my train because I was standing in line for well over an hour to get my passport stamped. Did I mention the heat wave that hit England for the whole week? How about the fact that the hotel room's air conditioner fritzed out for a couple of days? As to that Brussels trip, according to my weather app, the temperatures that week were 77, 77, 77, 97, 77, 77..... Guess which day I was there. Mostly, I reminded myself that a miserable day in London or Brussels was better than a beautiful day at the office. It's still a favorite city of mine, and I hope to go there many times in the future. Just not in the high summer.

I'm guessing "I got stuck in St Maarten for four nights because of the snowstorm in DC; moved to a better hotel for less money and was reimbursed by travel insurance," isn't quite a horror story.

We have Verizon iPhones, and I didn't want to spend what they charge for the Int'l plan. For our UK trip, we got a SIM card from Mobal (uses the T-Mobile network, which worked fine in cities and towns, hit and miss in rural areas). The plan is pay-for-what-you-use. You get a US phone number. Calls/texts/data charges are based on country--reasonable enough rates for our needs.

Yet another phone idea. 

2 years ago we took unlocked GSM phones to London and bought "E" sim cards. They worked great.

Yes, a definite option for phones that unlock. 

I have a ten year old flip phone (I kid you not) that I keep as my UK phone (go there once a year or so). You need to be able to call and text each other right? Just make sure your phone is open and get a pay as you go sim card in Europe.

A good idea!

I just finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and now I wonder what it would be like to travel to Guernsey, Jersey et al. Do you guys have any insights?

I visited the Channel Islands last summer, though I focused on three of the smaller islands. But the main two islands -- the history, landscape, people and wildlife -- are equally fascinating.  Here is my piece.

 

Thank you!! I am still researching and don't know that I will really go for getting a new card-I'm not a big credit card person to begin with (I now sound like I'm 110-I'm not I swear) and it doesn't seem like a big enough payoff

You're better off finding a credit card that serves you well as a traveler -- one with no annual fee, low exchange fees, a reasonable interest rate. Points will seduce you into making unwise financial decisions. I've seen it too many times.

I'll have 9 days off in September and am thinking about a trip to either northern Italy (Venice, Tuscany, lake region) or to Croatia. I've never been to either. Priorities would be to have some hiking/nature/vineyard time, good food, and walkable, enjoyable cities. Any preferences on either location? Would 9 days be too much? I don't suppose it will still be beach weather in Sept, though Croatia looks gorgeous...

I can recommend the Dolomites (Italian Alps region) in northern Italy. Lovely villages, great food, lots of hiking opportunities. Explore the Val Gardena Web page for ideas. 

Hello, I'm taking my 14 year old granddaughter to San Francisco July 5-9. Can you recommend a moderately priced hotel in a central location? We plan to walk and take public transportation. She likes the idea of Chinatown. Baltimore Grandma

San Fran hotels lean toward the pricier side, so I am not sure what you consider moderate. I would check the main third-party booking sites, like Hotels.com and Hotwire, or consider Airbnb (the sharing site was born in San Fran, after all). For centrally located properties, you might consider Orchard Garden Hotel, Golden Gate Hotel or Cornell Hotel de France, a B&B in the Lower Nob Hill area and close to the cable car line.

 

I have a flight Friday at 7:15 am! I also have Pre-Check.

You can check wait times here (a TSA tool).

I didn't say anything about cancelling. I asked if it makes sense to consider moving the trip up from 2018 (original plan) to 2017.

No one knows how this recent decision will affect the country, the region or the world. Best to go when you want to go and not try to look into a cloudy crystal ball.

What would you suggest to do on a short trip to Annapolis? Just two days and one night. Thanks!

Visit the Naval Academy, take a harbor cruise, shop along the waterfront, drink a beer at a historic tavern. Get ideas at Visit Annapolis

in London or where ever. I relied on google maps for all my walking and nearly all my public transportation directions. It really helps in an unfamiliar city.

Agreed!

With restrictions lifted (a lot, though not completely) quite a number of operators are offering packages to Cuba. Do you have any thoughts on what to look for -- and look out for?

Price, group size, activities, amount of free time.

I prefer to engage with the locals to better understand the island's history and culture, so I would look for a tour that offers a visit to a co-op farm, a meal in a home, a stop at an artist's studio and a night of music.

I tried that but when I click on "choose this airport" nothing happens.

You need to click on the button next to BWI.

Have any of the WaPo travel crew flown on WOW Airlines? Looking for firsthand reports. I know they will charge for every possible thing, but if I can be prepared for that, I am still considering them for Iceland flights. Thanks.

Alexa, our digital editor, just flew on WOW. Come back mid-July for her report!

Friday, July 1, is Canada Day, a national holiday for our neighbors to the north.

And on that note...

Looks like we're out of time! Flooded Seine, drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize. Happy Fourth of July, everyone -- Talk About Travel returns on Monday, July 10.

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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