Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Oct 16, 2017

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Hi all, and welcome to Talk About Travel. In this week's Cruise Issue we focused on shore excursions, both traditional and DIY. Have you had an especially memorable port of call experience during a cruise? Tell us about it below. Most compelling answer gets a copy of National Geographic's lavishly illustrated  "Timeless Journeys: Travels to the World's Legendary Places." On to your questions! 

Any recommendation on top places to see and eat.

Los Angeles is a big place. Where are you staying? 

We just returned last evening from a two-week trip to Iceland and England. One of the highlights was a three-night stay at St Hugh's College, which is one of the 38 colleges at Oxford University. We've stayed at colleges across Canada for many years on summer vacations, but this was our first trip to England and when I was booking rooms I came across a website featuring accommodations at colleges all across the UK. While most of them are available just during school breaks, Oxford is one (along with Cambridge and a few others) that have rooms available DURING the school term. We had a double twin room on the St Hugh's campus, which is about a 15 minute walk from the center of Oxford, though there is frequent bus service downtown and the drivers will gladly make change if needed. There were other choices closer in, but St Hugh's was the cheapest of those available for our dates (£70/night, with bathrooms down the hall) and included a free full hot English breakfast in the dining hall and free parking had we driven. The only caveat is that after you reserve a room, you'll likely hear from your credit card company since the reservation is handled by a firm called "Speedy Booker". :)

Great tip, thanks! We ran a piece in April about the Canadian equivalent. Read it here

A while back there was conversation about how annoying it was that there are not enough towel racks in hotel bathroom to keep your wet towels and be eco-friendly. Recently we were staying at the Biltmore Inn, and we had a super-fantastic time. But they had next to no towel racks and you couldn't put them over the shower curtain rod because it was covered by strange pelmet. I carefully moved some unused towels and opened out my towel to dry. We came back after evening housekeeping to find my wet towel carefully folded and aesthetically pleasing. I did mention it to the very nice concierge, saying that no doubt the housekeeper was told to fold the towels tidily - we laughed at the conundrum.

That's interesting. I've received several complaints about lack of towel racks after my Navigator column on hotel design. I wonder what else is missing. Chatters, let me know please. This could be an interesting column.

Thinking about doing a crossing on the QM2. How formal is the dress code and do you have any tips about doing such a trip one way and flying back?

A couple of years back, Travel's own Andrea Sachs wrote about doing just that; read her story here

Back in early August, the Travel section had an article about the gift shop, Skeletons in the Closet, located in the LA Coroner's Office. That piqued my interest and I emailed the article to my daughter who lives in LA. She was also interested by the article and promised we'd go there on my September visit. Well, we did it and it was great! The architecture of the building, which used to be the LA General Hospital, is fantastic. Parking is free at the office, but you have to go inside and get a parking permit which, amusingly, is signed by "Quincy". (I had to explain to my daughter just who "Quincy" was.) The folks who run the gift show were so friendly and we each came away with a souvenir. I got the collapsible cooler with the seal of the LA Coroner's Office on it. When I was packing to return home, my daughter suggested I put some of the extra items in the cooler, tag it and check it as a piece of luggage. (No charge with Southwest!) I said that I didn't want the baggage handlers to think I was transporting body parts, so I just crammed everything into my suitcase. Anyway, thanks for the article. Neither she nor I would ever have known about this place otherwise.

Thanks for sharing -- this story was one of my personal favorites! Check it out here if you missed it.

Hi, I'm traveling internationally, specifically DCA-DTW-NRT-MNL. The airline recommends getting to the airport 2 hours for domestic flights and 3 hours for international. Since the first leg is domestic, do I follow the 2 or 3 hour rule? Thanks!

I think you'll be fine getting to the airport two hours ahead, as long as it's not a holiday weekend. 

I'm heading to China for work at the end of the month. Any general travel tips for the area? I'm not sure how much sightseeing I can do, but tips on getting around, culture, etc? Thanks!

Assuming you're headed to Beijing, check out the two quick-hit itineraries we wrote about in August. 

For the person who wrote in last week: You could also exit Penn Station on 7th Ave. and walk a block over to the Herald Square subway station to take the D train to Yankee Stadium.

Yes, the Yankees list the D train as one of the several ways to get to the stadium. 

Any suggestions for a place less than 2 hours from No. Va. to spend an "historic" Thanksgiving with good food and ambiance?

I'm sure it's already booked, but my first choice would be the Inn at Little Washington. A person can dream. I'd do a search through the Historic Inns of Annapolis to see if any fit the bill. Frederick, Md., is another idea. Chatters have thoughts?  

What about the Red Fox Inn & Tavern in Middleburg or the Ashby Inn & Restaurant in Paris (Virginia)?

What should an airline--Delta--do when a passenger has a bad experience in a "business-first" seat? I paid $3500+ for my seat on a flight from Charles de Gaulle to Raleigh-Durham (North Carolina), over nine hours in all. The floor beneath my seat was wet. Pillows, comforter, socks, feet, all got wet and cold. There was no replacement comforter on this full flight (just a thin blanket). I was cold and miserable for the duration. So far Delta has offered $50 off on another ticket; I seldom fly, so that's not satisfactory (is in fact an insult). This was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation trip for which my husband and I had planned and saved for three years. The vacation itself was marvelous; the trip home was horrendous.

I would let Delta know that it can do better. Here are a few executive contacts at Delta. If that doesn't work, please contact me and I'll do my best to help.

Off to the PNW this week for a long needed break. Any can't miss inside activities in case the forcasted deluge happens? I have Powell's on the list. I like art, music and the like. Shopping, not so much (books excluded of course).

Yes. Check out the Oregon Historical Society, which has a really impressive JFK exhibit that runs through Nov. 12.

Love the chats! Hubby & I are going to Hawaii - Big Island and Oahu in a few weeks. We've been to both before and wondering if you & the chatters have suggestions on things to do/see that are a bit off the beaten path. We'd love to see more nature, culture, history, authentic food, etc. Thanks!

Have you checked out Waimea Valley yet? It's one of my favorite places on the North Shore of Oahu, and not terribly touristy. If you want to get out and hike and experience some local culture, I highly recommend it. Chatters, what are your favorite off-the-beaten-path destination in Hawaii?

On the one hand hotels/motels have notices about reusing towels for environmental reasons; on the other hand many places do not have actual bars to hang the towels meaning that one has to fold the wet towels. More bars are needed. In showers there needs to be a bar to hold onto not just one to grab when entering the shower (the placement of these bars is another problem since we have been in places where the bar is actually next to the toilet making it difficult to grab as one gets in the tub). Many floors of the tubs are slick and it is easy to slip if there is nothing more than the wall to hold onto. Bars are needed and not just for the disabled.

I agree. I think I may need to write something about this. If you've noticed missing towel racks, electrical outlets, or really anything in your hotel room, please contact me. I'm going to add this to my Navigator schedule. There must be a reason all of these amenities have gone missing, and I will find out!

Did the flight attendants not attempt to dry the floor when the issue was brought to their attention?

Are you still there, original poster? 

One of my issues with hotels and their towels is this whole "green" initiative that we're supposed to hang the towel up to re-use it. But even when I do that housekeeping invariably replaces it anyway. So, even when I'm trying to be good it doesn't matter.

True. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville, VA just opened Thanksgiving dinner reservations. It's $85/person and there are seatings at 12/12:30 and 3/3:30.

Thanks! I have a gift certificate to that restaurant. You just reminded me to use it. 

How about the Boar's Head Inn in Charlottesville? We were there last Thanksgiving; they also do the holiday illumination with candlelit streets and carriage rides that weekend.

Thanks for the idea. 

I'm traveling and driving a rental car this week. I've always taken a pass on getting the prepaid gas on rental cars, mainly because I didn't know how much gas and how much range was left. However, with nearly all cars having a range monitor on the dash, I'm rethinking that strategy. We might pay a couple of extra dollars for the rental car company gas, but the convenience at the end of the trip would be worth it. I didn't think about this when I picked up the car, so I'll have to wait until my next trip to try it. What do you all think?

Prepaid gas can be incredibly convenient, but it only works to your advantage if you run your tank dry. If you leave a little gas in the car, you're basically subsidizing the next renter's fuel. 

Chatters share their memorable shore excursions:

I've only been on one cruise and the most memorable port of call experience was not organized by the cruise line. My husband and I had a day in St. Maarten where we had not planned an excursion but wanted to leave the ship, so we hailed a cab and asked the taxi driver to take us around the island for a couple of hours. It was (comparatively) inexpensive and the cab driver was a natural tour guide - we learned a lot, saw a lot, and did it on our own schedule. It was one of our favorite parts of the cruise vacation.

Hmm...Kayaking with frequent bald eagles in sight was pretty terrific in Alaska. They really do hang out on what were basically sand bars so we got pretty close. And the seals frolicked around the kayaks too. Not sure if they were all that interested since they didn't stay for long, but they seemed fine with us wanting to see them. Oddly enough, I think that going to Iceland is a bit like being on a cruise if you don't rent a vehicle and head out on your own. Staying in Reykjavik and taking day trips out into the countryside and then finding entertainment at night in the city is a lot like being on a cruise. That being said, I am going back and I will do the trip where you swim in the Mid-Atlantic Rift between tectonic plates. But I want to be scuba certified first!

got off in Cochin, India -- charter plane to Agra. Overnight in luxe hotel. Very early AM tour of Taj Mahal and back to ship. An amazing 24 hours.

My husband and I were in Alaska and we opted to book our whale watching excursion ourselves with Captain Shawn on his small fishing boat. It was fabulous! Captain Shawn's wife met us at the port and drove us along with a family of 3 to the boat, so there we only 5 of us total on this trip. At one point the Captain cut the engines and turned on the underwater speakers so we could hear the whales, a few minutes in and all of a sudden we heard (and then saw) a whale surface about 20 feet from the boat, the Captain said "that's too close, without our engine on they don't know we're here and they could flip this boat over if they were to come up under us" and he promptly turned the engine back on. I will never forget being that close to a whale, nor forget the panic in the captain's voice. Another bonus of booking with them, they served homemade salmon spread.

Having taken many cruises, I have opted for both cruiseline sponsored and DIY excursions. The funniest sponsored one was an ATV trip in Mexico on a cruise celebrating my son's high school graduation. Since they had recently had a lot of rain, we both were completely covered in mud by the time we returned to the ship, mostly because I was so slow that I was behind all the other ATVs. But the highlight of that tour was when we were visiting what was supposed to be an ancient Temple ruin. They took us to a dug out circle and explained that this was where the people sat and prayed. They also told us that if we looked around, we could probably find some ancient artifacts but were asked to please not touch anything as it would ruin the site's integrity. My son and I laughed for days because the "artifacts" we found were all tiny plastic toys! The most memorable DIY excursion was on a cruise honoring a friend's 85th birthday, with a group of people ranging in age from late 20s to 85. We rented a van that ended up not being suitable for the trip. This was in Roatan and they also had endured many recent rainstorms. The a/c was not working so several of us became carsick traveling the curvy mountain roads. We came across another van that was completely overturned at the bottom of a small mountain and, due to wet roads and bald tires, our van was unable to climb the mountain. The driver tried several times but we kept drifting back downhill until we finally got stuck in a ditch. The driver made us all get out and walk to the top of the mountain (including the 85 year old), while he solicited help to get the van out of the ditch. He then drove to the top, made us get back in and drove us back to port. We were very grateful to make it back!

This will be our first trip to "see" Spain and are considering a 15 day Cosmos bus tour followed by 7-10 days of "free travel" to areas we might wish to spend more time experiencing. Is this a reasonable plan or should we do otherwise?

If you want to immerse yourself in Spain, I think that's a fine plan. The bus tour will likely take you to all the top tourist cities, and then you can go out and explore the places that weren't covered. And by spring, perhaps the Barcelona demonstrations will be in the past. Don't miss the Costa Blanca coast, which offer a string of nice fishing villages with good restaurants, old churches, beachfront boardwalks, etc. 

Recently traveled on AA and had a mechanical delay of nearly four hours. The boarded and deboarded the original plane. The second plane pulled up to the gate but was also deemed unfit to fly. The third and final plane got us en route. The day after the flight, 3,000 miles was deposited into my frequent flier account as an apology. Is this appropriate? I asked for a $250 credit but they would not budge. Thanks!

It depends. If you were flying to Europe, you would be covered by EU 261, the European airline consumer law. American would probably owe you some money, depending on the length of your delay. If you were flying in the States, it would owe you nothing under the law. So 3,000 miles would actually be more than it should have given you. I guess that's what you get when you have a deregulated industry with almost zero competition.

Today's code is TT8970. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating.

I've had Global Entry since 2012 and have loved it. However, for the last few months the process has changed to the point that I don't see why I'm paying a fee. The last time I flew, upon entry I went to the machine, got my slip, and stood in a tremendously long line to have an immigration agent still demand to see my passport and ask questions about my trip. What's the deal with this change? Have any of you experienced this yet? Why pay for Global Entry and submit to an intrusive background check if I'm still going to be questioned by an immigration agent?

That's a great question. I've heard similar reports from people with TSA PreCheck. While most Global Entry and PreCheck lines move quickly, an increasing number don't. That doesn't seem to bother the Department of Homeland Security. It doesn't care as much about your wait time as it does about security -- and having your personal information that came from an extensive background check for which you paid.

Are there any good attractions in that area? I am going to stay at the Hyatt there for a weekend and was looking for things to do off of the property. The Harriet Tubman museum is already on the list. Thanks.

If you like nature, head to the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Great place for hiking, biking and birding and exploring.  And it has a neat visitor's center with info on the Underground Railroad. For shopping and good restaurants, I'd head about 20 minutes north to Easton. Cambridge has some shops, etc., but it's not anywhere near as tourist-oriented as Easton. 

I will travel through Istanbul for an upcoming trip, as I have done many times. On one occasion, my connection was cancelled in Istanbul - Turkish Air provided a hotel room, I got a visa at the airport, spent the night and flew out the next day. At present, U.S. citizens cannot get a visa for Turkey from the United States, or through the Turkish e-visa program. If my upcoming connecting flight in Istanbul is delayed or cancelled, will I be able to get a visa at the airport so I can go to a hotel, or will I be trapped at the airport? Appreciate any guidance. Thank you.

There is a transit hotel that you could stay in at the airport, if it's not booked. But you won't be able to leave the airport to go to a hotel. 

How do car rental agencies link a car model to a size? I am a tall individual looking for a rental in late fall from MCO Orlando and I see listed as a full size car a Toyota Corrola. Can you suggest some web sites or tips?

I  just call the rental desk at the airport and ask what type of cars they have.  I started doing that when I kept getting Chrysler PT Cruisers, which I could not stand. The rental sites list an example of what they offer in each category, but that can vary greatly. 

I fly Delta One (their business class) internationally at least once or twice a month. I've never had a wet floor so my sympathies to the earlier poster, that had to have been frustrating. I would suggest escalating the complaint; however, I wouldn't expect much more than 5-10 thousand Skymiles or maybe an additional $100 being provided. I had a really bad crew and dinner service on my last flight up from S. America and got 15k Skymiles as a reference point for compensation (I'm a Diamond medallion member). If you have status you can expect more in compensation but it sounds like the poster is an infrequent flyer.

Thank you for the advice. Much appreciated.

Pump hand soap! I hate using the bar of soap.

Thank you.

But the Bishop Museum in Honolulu is fantastic. And the best hula I saw the entire trip was one woman at that museum who did the dance using her arms and upper body but resting on her knees the entire time. Truly a story without words. On the Big Island, there is at least one family that takes you up to the top of Mauna Kea at night, sets up their own telescope and does star, etc. gazing right next to the real observatory. So a non-professional telescope, but in the same conditions that they put the big one. Hey, if you have time, see if the real one has visitors days? The top has clear skies something like 350 out of 365 days a year.

Thank you. Great recommendations!

You only need to follow the domestic departure guidelines, but oh my gosh did I have a heart attack when I was running late and was barely going to make the domestic luggage check-in and the automatic check-in said I was too late and would I like to move to a different flight or just use carry-on. I went to the ticket counter, and they said it was fine, domestic departure rules apply.

I'm guessing you were not there two hours early. I finally broke down and purchased a Priority Pass, which gets me in to the executive lounges. I now get to the airport earlier when I know I have a quiet place to park myself.  It's not perfect, as the lounges are not always located in the right terminal, but it's something. 

Our precocious 6-year-old has been begging to go to Legoland and Universal Studios. How many days would we need to hit both parks realistically? Is there a particular time of the year that is less crowded than others? Will it be as bad as Disney? Thanks.

If you go during the week while schools are in session, it won't be as crowded, especially in early December and in January after the holidays. I think two days at each is enough for a 6-year-old. Legoland has a deal where you get a second day free at the park if you book an overnight.

Does fear have an effect on travel, whether it involves the decision to travel or whatever choices and actions are made while abroad? If fear is a presence in travel, how can we overcome it? (I apologize if these questions seem to come out of left field.)

Yes, fear certainly does influence where we travel, or whether we travel at all. There are several fear of flying courses, if you suffer from aerophobia. But other fears can keep travelers grounded, including fear of terrorism or of the unknown. I haven't come across any program that treats these phobias in the context of travel. Certainly, you can prepare for your trip by taking a safety course such the Travel Heroes class developed by Depart Smart.

Hello! My husband and I, my mother-in-law, and our three kids (a 3 year-old and twin 1 year-olds) will be in NYC in mid November for two nights. Do you have any recommendations for hotels with connecting rooms or suites that won't break the bank? We usually stay at places like Embassy Suites, but so far the places like that I have found either don't have availability or are "luxury" and crazy expensive. We would prefer to stay in Manhattan to make nap times easier, and want a hotel, not a private rental. Thanks!

I'd look at the Holiday Inn on the Lower East Side. But for your crowd, a private rental makes more sense. 

Can we please acknowledge the fact that hotels want us to re-use the towels because it saves tremendously on their laundry costs. The "going green" spiel is designed to convince guests to re-use their towels and save the hotel a bunch of money. If they would just be honest about their motives for goodness sakes.

Yes, acknowledged. Even if they don't want to!

Not an attraction - but from a few years ago I can really recommend Bistro Poplar. My husband really enjoyed his meal and they went out of their way to make a wonderful vegetarian meal for me. Chef asked me to choose a base - rice, pasta, lentils - and then choose two vegetables I saw on the menu. I still remember it - I had lentils with pea shoots and artichokes and was it good ... ! We also stayed at the Hyatt and enjoyed it. It was an overnight birthday jaunt for my husband.

Bistro Poplar's menu looks quite nice!

Depending on your level of travel experience you might consider just planning your own trip. Spain is pretty easy (at least the parts I went to were). Trains and buses between places work well or you can rent a car if you prefer. I just did Madrid and Andalusia by train and bus. I barely speak any Spanish but had no trouble.

I agree.

More outstanding cruise excursions:

Hi, my husband and I have only about 5 cruises under our belts. While the excursions on our Alaska and Panama Canal cruises were amazing, the best one we ever did was on a cheapie cruise to Mexico. We took your advice and hired a cab at the pier to take us to a private beach (even though we are not really beach people). We didn't really know what it would be like. It turned out to be us and one family with three well-behaved children. We relaxed with adult beverages and spent most of the day sitting in beach chairs in the surf. Then we walked down the beach and ordered some lunch by pointing to the pictures on the menu -- turned out to be delicious. And a heavenly day.

Entered at Marseilles and took the train a couple of stops east to the nearby town of Cassis - had to walk a couple of miles to get to the town and waterfront from the train stop but it was totally worth it! Quiet town right on the Mediterranean, very few tourists, passed by vineyards while walking to there, lots of local boats at the port and great beach area surrounded by high cliffs. Quintessential Cotes du Rhone experience!

About 45 years ago, when I was in my twenties, I took a cruise on the Alexander Puskin from Montreal to St Pierre et Miquelen and back to Montreal, It was very rough on the Gulf of St Lawrence and most people were seasick. The weather was deemed to be too rough to land on St Pierre so we watched as the few people on board who were destined to see those islands were taken off on a zipline to a very small boat and then transported into the harbour. I was glad it was them and not me. It reminded me of a story I was told by a naval person that the Britsh Navy did not consider seasickness to be a legitimate disease until, in WWII, some very senior navel types were in Quebec City on business and were persuaded by some Canadian naval types to go on a small cruise. They werre taken out into the St Lawrence and were very very seasick. Accordingly, seasickness then became a legitimate British Naval condition.

For me, the best one was in Nassau going out in the "glass-bottom" boat. It ended up being just big windows on the side, but the tour guides were funny and my four-year-old son's love affair with the undersea world exploded that day (even if we didn't see a goblin shark or an angler fish). The wonder in his eyes made it well worth it -- and increased my own sense of wonder as well.

Not worth the trip AT ALL! Went last spring and while the lines were not long each took FOREVER because there are a lot of rides that have to board (like 8 people), then you get your 45 seconds on the ride and the de-boarded. And none of the rides are terribly exciting. Even the lines for food were crazy and slow. And I was also travelling with a baby who I was wearing and I was not allowed on anything even the most tame rides. Whereas at Disney I could ride almost everything besides the roller coasters.

I've not been to the one in Florida, so can't opine. But the one in California is fun. 

Heard from the grapevine that WN will be flying to Hawaii? Any tips for those of us who love SWA but flying from the East Coast?

Yes, it is official. The airline will start selling tickets in 2018 and will likely begin out of cities in California. That's all we know right know. More to come! 

Looking for a last min escape to Mexico or Caribbean... any recommendations on where to start?

I'd likely go through a tour operator. Try Vacation Express or Apple Vacations. And before you book, always price out the components separately to make sure you are getting a deal. 

Cambridge has plenty of great restaurants of its own, no need to travel to Easton unless you really want to. My favorite there is the High Spot gastropub. Bistro Poplar is an upscale French place. Others include Stoked wood fire pizza, RAR Brewery, Rock Lobsta and Jimmie and Sooks. Lots to choose from!

I still like the shopping better in Easton, but there are more restaurants opening in Cambridge all the time. 

Yes, I know -- bad idea to begin with. But my wife is a teacher, so that's one of the few times we can get out. She wants to see "Miss Saigon" before it closes. Any recommendations for a somewhat close-by hotel that's not TOO Times Square touristy -- and won't break the bank? We plan on going Dec 29-31, so hopefully leaving BEFORE NYE night will help us out.

I'm an anxious traveler, so when I'm going to NYC specifically to see a Broadway show, I stay within walking distance of the theater. I've had good luck getting price reductions at the major chains by joining their customer loyalty programs. Chatters, if you have specific suggestions, post them here next week!

All the suggestions here are good, but my number one wish list is central heat and AC, not the noisy window units. Almost every time I'm at a hotel, it's either freezing cold and loud because the unit is on, or hot and stale when it's off. Actually, we recently stayed at the MGM Grand in National Harbor (even though we're locals), and it had central heat/AC in the room. Much nicer and more comfortable.

Hear, hear!

In Alaska - helicopter ride to a glacier to go dog sledding. Most expensive excursion ever, but SO worth it for a once in a lifetime activity.

Great excursion to close with!

Looks like our time is up -- thanks for chatting today. Taj Mahal and back in 24 hours, drop us a line at to claim your prize. Until next week -- happy travels!

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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