Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Sep 25, 2017

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Greetings all, and welcome to Talk About Travel. In this week's section, we extolled the charms of Chattanooga, Tennessee as part of our ongoing series, "You're going where?" Do you have an "unsung city" you'd like to see featured in the series? Tell us where and why below. Most compelling answer gets a copy of National Geographic's "Ultimate Journeys for Two: Extraordinary Destinations on Every Continent." On to your questions!

I'm looking for advice on getting to the LIRR platforms without carrying my luggage up or down stairs.

There is an escalator between the LIRR and Amtrak concourses. And there are elevators between the platforms and the concourse. Here is a link to the  working/nonworking status of LIRR escalators & elevators. 

Loved every word. Anyone who travels, either for business or pleasure, has met up with these problems. It would be easy to blame everything on deregulation of the airlines, maybe that is the root cause. I sure don't know. What I do know is that the industry currently has free rein to do whatever it wants, and no one will stop it. If there is a movement to never fly again, well, those people will be replaced by hundreds who do want/need to fly. Or never go anywhere they can't drive to. Our elected representatives sure won't write legislation on the subject - they are too busy arguing about how much time to take off! I had an instance here in Virginia with an insurance issue. When I contacted the State Corporation Commission which oversees insurance companies, I was told that the insurance industry wrote the rules they would follow (!), and if they follow those rules, there's nothing the SCC can do. Seems the same is true with airlines. They wrote their contract of carriage (to their own benefit), and if they meet that contract (or not), who's going to do anything? Toothless FAA? Especially these days when only company profit matters? We all play the baggage fee and buy-a-better-seat game every time we fly. I sure do, being of a height that the current seat distances mean knee injury otherwise! Even safety concerns with seat and aisle widths don't make a dent in airline thinking - - they meet the standards they set. And profit is everything, right? Sorry to run on. Sore subject.

Thank you. I'm glad you liked my story.

I bought round trip tickets for airfare (DC to Italy) - 2 airlines, 4 legs. The tickets were sourced by a tour company. Seat assignments weren't listed, so I contacted the airlines. For my return flights, I was able to pay for seat assignments. For my outward bound flights (in early October) I have not been successful in getting assignments. I have Brussels Airlines flights operated by United. Each tells me to call the other, and when I got both in a 3-way call , both said they were unable to access the seat chart. The Brussels rep told me I won't be able to get an assignment until the gate opens three hours pre flight. The tour company says I should be able to get a seat assignment when I check in online, 24 or 48 hours in advance. They aren't sure. I think I've bought a cheap ticket on a flight that may be sold out and that not matter how early I arrive, I risk being bumped. What else can I do to get assigned seats? If I do get bumped, what are my rights and what can I do to improve my chances of catching up with my tour? (I do have trip insurance, but would, of course, rather not have to use it,) Thanks

The kind of ticket you bought may limit your ability to get an assigned seat. Normally, you should be able to call the airline to reserve a seat -- for a price. If you purchased this ticket through an agent or online travel agency, I would recommend contacting the agent. They should be able to fix this for you.

I'm trying to visit the 50 states, so I would love to see some features from places like Omaha, NE, Bismark, ND or any other city in states where it's less likely that you'd visit unless you're trying to set foot in each state.

We actually did Omaha in June -- read the story here -- but have not yet done Bismark!

I recently booked a round-trip business class ticket from Dulles to Bangkok using United Airlines miles. (In case anyone is curious, that took 160K miles plus $97 in fees.) I won't actually be flying on United, but on its Star Alliance partner airlines ANA (to Tokyo) and then Thai Airways (to Bangkok). My confirmation number is the same on ANA and Thai Airways. When I go to the ANA and Thai Airways websites to look up my reservation, I see that each airline lists the flight on the other airline as part of my itinerary. This all seems copacetic, but I've never flown on partner airlines before. I have two questions: Will ANA check me and my suitcase in for my Thai Airways flight at Dulles? If I were to miss my 2.5 hour connection in Tokyo, would Thai Airways then put me on the next available flight? Thanks, gurus!

I believe the answer to your question is "yes" and "yes." If airlines codeshare, they also have interlining agreements for luggage. That means you can check your luggage to your final destination. And if your itinerary is on the same reservation number, you would be protected if your outbound flight is delayed.

Hi, I'm looking for advice for Alaskan cruises in the July timeframe for an extended family of 70-somethings, 40-somethings, and one 7-year old. None of us are experienced cruisers but are looking for something exceptional to celebrate my mom's 70th birthday. Thanks!

Just about every major cruise line, and lots of smaller ones, offer Alaskan itineraries. Figure out your budget, desired cruise length and embarkation city. Leaving from one city and ending the cruise in another will likely cost considerably more in airfare, so you may prefer doing a round-trip cruise.  For first-timers, a round-trip cruise on a traditional cruise ship from Seattle or Vancouver into Alaska's Inside Passage may fit the bill. Look at Holland America, Celebrity, Princess, Norwegian and Carnival.  

Just a reminder to those who book flights in advance - periodically login and check your flight for changes even if you signed up for flight alerts. I happened to login and see that one leg of my trip changed and gave me an 8 hour layover. Since this resulted in a greater than 1 hour arrival delay, I was able to change my flight for no charge. When I asked the agent why I didn't receive an alert, she said even though this flight change occurred 3 weeks ago, flight alerts are typically only sent out within 60 days of the flight. I'm glad I checked because this is a holiday flight and at this point there were only 5 flights available and of those, only 1 that worked for me. If I had waited to receive the alert to change my flight, there probably would be none available (or, at least, none that worked for me).

Thank you or the reminder.

Chatters weigh in on "unsung cities":

The strongest "You went WHERE?" reaction we've ever received was visiting Buffalo, NY., in the dead of winter. We enjoyed cross-country skiing in the Southern Tier, and a day-trip to ice-choked Niagara Falls and the charming Niagara-on-the-Lake (although, or especially, because some of the tourist attractions were shut down).

How about Abilene, KS (Dwight Eisenhower's home) or Sturbridge MA ( a lesser known to Williamsburg VA site of early Americana).

A few years back we decided to tour Iowa and Des Moines made a wonderful base camp. It's a scenic drive from either Kansas City or Omaha. From there, you can see the (in)famous seven bridges of Madison County or head up to Ames or go to the Amana communities. These were a fascinating religious organization where all property was held in common until the middle of the Great Depression. It was a part of American history I had been unaware of. Plus Iowa is home to Maytag bleu cheese.

We just spent a lovely day in the Bronx at the New York Botanical Garden with its exhibit of Chihuly sculptures and then had dinner in the nearby very vibrant Little Italy section. But when you say you are going to New York City for the Bronx, you get plenty of puzzled looks.

My father's hometown was Oakland, California, which I consider vastly underrated (especially compared to neighboring Berkeley and cross-Bay SF). I adored the 1960s song "Oakland, We're For You," which had this couplet: "Where did all the people go when Frisco burned? / They all went to Oakland and never returned! / It's got pride, it's go hope, and oh, what a view / Oakland, we're for you!"

Hello there, My husband has a lifelong dream of visiting every continent. He still needs to visit Australia, Asia, and Antarctica. I'm thinking of surprising him with a cruise to Antarctica. I have no idea where to start looking for good cruise companies. Which do you recommend? Also, side note: I'm terrified of open waters (I saw the "Titanic" at a formative age) and dying of drowning so any cruise that is super safe is a huge plus.

If you don't like open water, you'll want to do a shorter cruise. Silversea offers a 10-night trip to Antarctica from Ushuaia. I'd also look at National Geographic, although its cruises are longerand Ponant

I took your advice and spent a weekend in Milwaukee. The cheese curds were bangin', lots of cute neighborhoods and friendly people, and everything was just a short drive away. But the absolute must-see was the Milwaukee Art Museum. If you're a fan of architecture, it is worth the trip.

Glad to hear it -- here's the piece for anyone who missed it!

Is Sturbridge really considered unknown? (I am serious not snarky!) The cultural blindspots we grow up with are fascinating - I grew up in New England and went there too many times to count - I always assumed that like Salem and Plymouth everyone knew about it even if they didn't live close enough to go. In terms of a recommendation - Mystic, CT - one of the best aquariums in the country (complete with some very cool Titanic research) and a historic seaport village in one small town. Lots of fun and well worth a trip.

"Unknown" might be overstating it, but, no, I don't think it's well-known outside New England (Southerner speaking). We did a nice piece on Melville just this week that had lots to say about Mystic.   

A month or so ago, in one of the many travel-related Internet articles I read, there was one that talked about a new app or website that charts a city's hotel prices as to which weeks are the most expensive because of big conferences, etc. I went on the site and looked at the chart for NYC. I think it was a new site still in some beta testing. But, of course, I cannot find that article anywhere and thus can't find the site, Do any of you know which website/app it is?

I've searched my files and asked the usual suspects for this information. Nothing! Chatters, do you know about this app?

Today's code is TT1844. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating.

Where can you suggest this 32 year old male go for much-needed rest and recreation during the upcoming Columbus Day long weekend? Ocean City, Rehoboth Beach....? Get on Amtrak to Philadelphia or New York? Somewhere else?

A trip to Manhattan is a very different weekend than a trip to the beach. If rest is more of a priority than recreation, rates at the Delmarva beaches are now low and the crowds are gone. Extended forecast looks good now, but it'll be a bust if the weather is bad. I'd likely opt for a weekend in the city instead, even though it will cost more.  And look at nonstop fares to Boston and Charleston. 

My 84/87 year old parents are coming off a very hard year of illnesses, hurricanes, and feeling so tired. So what does my mom want to do? Get out of town. She loves Santa Fe but can't take the altitude. She's thinking of a destination spa. She just wants to move and get out of the house so she doesn't feel so bad. Any ideas? It'd be the two of them (dad with Alzheimers), and me, maybe my dad's aide. Yes, I know travel may not be ideal for my dad. We're taking everything into consideration. Thanks!

Not sure where everyone lives, so it's difficult to say. If they live in Florida or Texas (hurricane reference has me thinking this is the case) and you live in the District, maybe have mom, dad and aid fly here and then drive to a nice spa resort, such as Nemacolin or the Greenbrier or Omni Homestead. Or maybe you fly to them and leave dad and aid at their home while you and mom go to a spa resort near them. 

I have flown the same itinerary as the individual with the question about reservations three times over the last three years. I have always been issued two reservations numbers, one for United and another for ANA and Thai. As I recall it is on the United reservation page near the United reservation number. If that second reservation number is entered on the ANA and Thai reservation pages, a seat assignment can be made. It has always worked for me.

Thank you for the report. This helps a lot.

Hi. My family was planning a vacation to the Caribbean for spring break. The original plan was scuba and chilling on the beach, but I'm now wondering if there are any organizations sponsoring "service" vacations? i.e., helping with clean up, re-building houses, etc? We'd pay all expenses, of course. Spring break isn't until March but it sounds like some places could still be needing help?

That's a difficult question to answer. Habitat For Humanity has a registry of volunteers for rebuilding efforts, but it notes that shelter, food and water are now in limited supply. New volunteers would strain the situation. "Volunteers from outside the immediate area will be needed," it notes, "now is just not the time." In other words, it's too early to plan a volunteer vacation, but in a few weeks we should know more. I think by Spring Break, there will be plenty of opportunities to help.

More "You're going where?" suggestions:

I agree with the OP for Buffalo. My boyfriend's best friend lives there and we love going during winter-early spring time to see hockey game, visit Niagara Falls and attend concerts. We always enjoy going and see our friends, but always get weird look from people when we tell them we are going to spend a couple of days in Buffalo!

Actually, well sung. Bethlehem Pa in the Lehigh Valley. A compact college town which hosts multiple music festivals, including Musikfest in August and the Celtic Classic the last weekend in September.

This city is delightful. We stayed at a waterfront boutique hotel that was in stumbling distance of Heinold’s First And Last Chance Saloon, an old haunt of Jack London which hasn't changed at all since he was there. Oakland is home to Fenton's Creamery and the Chabot Space & Science Center which is wonderful for scientifically minded kids of all ages. And if you really need big city tourist stuff, Oakland is an easy relaxing ferryboat ride from San Francisco.

Although people in this area are well aware, I suspect the rest of the country may not be wise to the beauties of lovely Alexandria, Virginia. Easy access to DC, great history, shopping and food. No car needed! Pittsburgh is also high on my "You're going where?" list, because I love the Andy Warhol museum. Cleveland is a place I want to visit--so many great things to see and do there, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Roswell New Mexico has a great art museum with a lovely Peter Hurd and Wyeth collection. Being from the Brandywine valley it was surreal. Plus there's alien footprints on the sidewalk.

The Paris of Appalachia, otherwise known as Pittsburgh, PA. It hasn't been the dirty smoky city for more than four decades.

Yes, seriously. Was our first road trip with a brand new baby. Just far enough from Denver to feel like an adventure and let us iron out the kinks of travel with a little one. Also Fort Collins, CO.

I was just there and think it'd be great for either beach time, history tours, restaurants, or all of the above. It's a perfect place if you can't decide between the beach or the city.

I'm totally willing to play the wait for a seat game, but not when it comes to risking not sitting with my preschooler. On 2 recent occasions, we've had trouble - once with a split reservation (had to book separately -- and one seat got moved to a "better" row) - and once they simply didn't have available seats unless we paid for an upgrade. Rather than risk early morning bargaining, I paid for the upgrade...

Which is exactly what they wanted you to do. I can't wait until that family seating rule takes effect. 

Seneca Falls NY, inspiration for "It's a Wonderful Life" (the city puts on a Bedford Falls festival every December) and site of the first women's rights convention (visit Elisabeth Cady Stanton's house). It is hard to believe that both of these things could be true about the SAME place!

We wrote about Seneca Falls this time last year!

I flew from Portland to DCA last week on Alaska Air, connecting from Medford, OR to Portland via Horizon. Checked in 24 hours ahead of flight, and 5 hours later received a text that Horizon canceled my flight. Counter at Medford gave 'pilot shortage' as the reason. I had no idea until then this was a widespread issue w/Horizon this year and would have purchased a different itinerary had I known. Any advice as to how long this is expected to last? Thanks.

Horizon has experienced a shortage of pilots for its Q400 turboprop planes, according to reports. It's really difficult to know when the problem will be fixed. You can avoid this problem by avoiding Horizon Air. Note that a pilot shortage is something over which the airline has control -- not an "unforeseen circumstance" -- so it would have to take care of you under its contract of carriage. It can't just cancel the flight and walk away.

Hello! I have a budget, have about ten days vacation and am flexible on destination. We've traveled a lot and so I am open to suggestions on where to go next. Is there a website for this type of open-ended-destination search? Everything I find, I have to enter a destination to get pricing. That's the issue--I can't decide on destination. I appreciate any suggestions. Thanks!

I have France on the brain and need some recommendations. Thanks to Facebook's "On This Day" feature, I know it was exactly five years ago that we went to Ireland and enjoyed an amazing 10 days on a self-driven tour of the country, using a loose itinerary through Isle Inn Tours (who we learned of through this chat)! So I'm wondering - do you all know of a similar company that specializes in French vacations? We know next to nothing about the country, only that we love wine, food, and castles, so we'd rely heavily on an expert's advice. Isle Inn was super helpful in tailoring our trip to our interests, booking all our accommodations and giving us guidance on what to do in each location (spend 2 days in Dublin and do X, Y, and Z, then drive down to Kilkenny to stay in this fabulous hotel for one night and check out X while you're there, etc) without making us commit to a firm schedule if we got distracted by, for example, incredible castle ruins on the side of the road. I find it too overwhelming to try and plan our own road trip (finding the right accommodations and knowing how long to spend at each place) but am absolutely fine with being set loose with a car once a tour company has given us a loose agenda. Do you know of any such companies? Thank you!

Don't know of one that specializes in France, but there are several good tour operators that offer independent itinerary planning. They include Monograms, Rick Steves' Europe My Way and Untours. 

We had booked our favorite place on our favorite island - Virgin Gorda - and the resort was demolished. They announced on their FB page that they are cancelling all reservations for the upcoming season. We also have flights (Southwest to SJU) and a combo of CapeAir and AirSunshing to/from VG for March 2018. I am trying to think through our options - if there is another resort on island, perhaps keep the flights and contribute to the tourism economy and maybe do a little relief work. Power will be out for months. Perhaps I'm jumping the gun in thinking of it too soon - thankfully SW will let us change, not certain what the other two can do. I'm really in the mood for a quiet beach vacation - Not a big resort, quiet beach, cooking at home and/or eating out at local places - any suggestions? I'm considering donating my deposit with our favorite resort to help them rebuild. Perhaps they'll let me use it in 2019! We've been vacationing with this family run place for years, so it was so difficult to hear that they lost so much, including the owner's home - she's living in the office for now.

It's impossible to know what the island will look like in March. Normally, the tourism infrastructure is quickly rebuilt, but these storms were extraordinary. One report noted that some of the Virgin Islands had been reduced to a "wasteland." I recently wrote about when to return to the scene of a natural disaster, and I think you should strongly consider keeping your plans -- particularly if you're going to be outdoors or under water most of the time. But it's too early to know.

When I was dreaming of my first trip to the Azores, from which my grandparents emigrated, I went into a local travel agency and asked if they had tour information about the islands. The agent replied, "Where's THAT?" (I wound up being able to do the online research for my trip in the early days of Google).

Ha, here we are singing the islands' praises.

Winslow AZ - you can stand on the corner next to a mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford. There is a kitschy Eagles museum across the street too. And - Mary Coulter who designed many Grand Canyon Hotels designed a hotel in Winslow that was re purposed to a railroad office and then turn back into a hotel at La Posada. It was an excellent portion of a Grand Canyon adventure - and we were pleasantly surprised having added it to the itinerary based solely on the Eagles song.

Our own Andrea Sachs was there last year when she drove Route 66.

Any islands/attractions not to miss or resorts you recommend for the islands near (ferry-distance) from Phuket? We're trying to finalize some trip plans and are struggling with the week or so we'll have in this area. Thanks!

A friend of mine who is married to a Thailand native just returned from Santhiya Koh Yao Yai Resort & Spa, a 20-minute speedboat ride from Phuket, and had nothing but good things to say. 

I'm supposed to go to Puerto Rico in November. I'm hoping it will still be possible. However, knowing that we might have to postpone, is there anywhere else you would suggest in the meantime? I have small kids and we're looking for a fun but easy trip.

Cancun or Jamaica would be alternatives. 

Have you visited Fort Monroe, VA. Located in Hampton, VA? It's a hidden gem with 3 miles of beaches and wonderful restaurants. This time of year the locals have ghost walks and house tours that are fabulous. Just saying!

I have not, but happy to share your review of Fort Monroe National Monument and the surrounding area

Love the chat and looking for your inspiration! A childhood friend and I are turning 50 in a year (time to plan!) and are looking for a combination trip: a few days of activity, good food and some comfort. Could be anywhere but would prefer not to be constantly concerned about food/water borne illnesses. For example: 2-3 day bike ride from Prague to Vienna, boat ride to Budapest, etc.? Hut-hut-hiking in Slovenia? New Zealand? We have 2 weeks. We are both active and are experienced travelers and would love to hear about others' great celebratory getaways. Thanks!

The Italian Dolomites or the Austrian Lake District come to mind. 

Thank you! I looked on the Silversea website. Am I reading that right--cruises starting at $15,200 per person? Definitely didn't realize it would be so expensive. Regardless, thank you for the information!

Cruises to Antarctica are very expensive across the board, plus Silversea is a luxury cruise line.  You may be better off crossing another continent off his list first. 

Yes, they are in Florida and I'm in the District. I like your idea about using DC as a base and will look into the places you name. I know of them, but haven't yet made it to any of them. Thanks for your help! (My mother thanks you too).

Make sure you don't go to any of them during school holidays, especially Omni Homestead, unless you like children. I'd try to go during the week. And add Woodloch to your list. 

Sorry that I do not have names of companies that can help, but the DK Eyewitness Back Roads series of books are full of super detail to put together great road trips. We just used the one for Ireland for an amazing 3-week road trip, and there is one for France as well.

Thanks for the tip. 

More "You're going where?" recommendations:

Duluth, MN - beautiful, shore of lake superior, gem of a downtown

One year no one had much money but wanted to go SOMEWHERE. We opted for Aberdeen, Md. (We live in Bowie, MD.) We are all baseball fans so took in a game at the stadium that's owned by Cal Ripken. Very nice place with lots of baseball history displays. Had a crab feast at an authentic crab house. Also, had breakfast at a real diner. Stayed in a campground right on the water. Turned out to be a really good vacation!

Hamilton, Ontario. Much as I adore Toronto, we always try to spend a night or two in the Hamilton area, specifically Burlington, home to the Royal Botanical Gardens

Moab, Utah! Great for outdoor enthusiasts. Excellent local shops and restaurants and near Arches National Park, Canyon Lands National Park and off-roading trails. Epic stargazing tops it off

We spent my 25th birthday week (47 years ago today!) camping on Vancouver Island, including just outside Victoria, which we visited as well as parks farther up the island.

Thanks for the suggestion!

In case you're interested, DiveBVI has numerous photos of the damage, particularly on Virgin Gorda. 

Thanks for sharing!

Try Senior Discovery Tours! They have lots of tours in Eastern Europe, including a cycling tour from Prague.

Thanks for the tip!

Be sure to take the Canadian railroad trip eastward after your cruise. My parents did that for their 50th wedding anniversary and said it was the best part of their celebration!

And the advice keeps coming -- thanks!

Look like our hour is up! Des Moines fan, drop us a line at to claim your prize. And be sure to join us here again next week for more Talk About Travel. 

And on this note, we sign off until next week.

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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