Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Oct 23, 2017

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Hi all, and welcome to Talk About Travel. In this week's section, we took a Highlands road trip on Scotland's absurdly scenic North Coast 500. Do you have a Scottish travel tale to share? Tell us about it below. Bonus points if your passage was blocked by sheep. Most compelling answer gets a copy of the DK-Smithsonian Institution collaboration "Natural Wonders of the World." On to your questions!

Next month I am flying to Florida with my toddler (in my lap) and my husband. We were supposed to be on a 9am flight, but the airlines cancelled it and put us on a 7pm flight instead (so we'd lose a day and get in at bedtime-- totally not acceptable). We called and got switched to an 11am flight. When they switched us, our seat requests were deleted and there are no seats together on the plane. Is there anything I can do to get them to reseat us other than to beg when we check in? I've flown solo with the toddler a dozen times and they've always been fine, I just would really appreciate a second set of hands.

Airlines have repeatedly pledged to keep families together, and there's even a law (not yet enacted) that would compel airlines to do so. I would call your airline now and ask it to seat you together. Remember, you'll have multiple opportunities to find seats as a family: now by phone, at the airport, at the gate, and once you're on the plane. I think you'll be fine, but please let me know if you don't get anywhere. I'm happy to help.

Not a question - but re: last week's threads about so-called "green" hotels who want guests to reuse towels without adequate space to hang them up. I recently had an experience at a Marriott that was even more remarkable. For a 4 day stay, they would give me 500 points per night if I agreed that housekeeping would NEVER enter my room unless I requested something. And they never did, and I got the points, for what that is worth. Talk about a huge money saver for the hotel at minimal marginal cost to them! I'm not a slob, so I was OK with it, but it does say something about cost-cutting throughout the industry. On the other hand, if they start charging for daily housekeeping, then I've got some issues....

Yes, I just heard from another hotel guest who had a similar offer from her hotel. She said "yes." I've heard that hotels are testing the idea of skipping room service. I believe at some point, they'll try to turn the tables, which is to say, if you want room service, you have to pay extra. That'll be an interesting Navigator column!

Two weeks ago, I flew to San Diego and back from Dulles Airport. At Dulles, the security required taking off shoes, displaying electronics, and going through on of those heavy duty scanners. In San Diego, we could keep our shoes on leave electronics in the bags, and go through a normal scanner. Why the big difference?

TSA's strategy is to keep passengers on their toes, so they change it up in ways that seem arbitrary to us but are supposedly deliberate by the agency. (In Maine, TSA asked me to take out any food items. I had an embarrassing amount of cereal.) It sounds like you went through the PreCheck line in San Diego.

Are there any train rides in the area or a couple hours away that you would recommend to see the fall foliage? Thanks!

You are so optimistic, but in case the leaves decide to shift seasons try . . . the Cass Scenic Bald Knob Trip or the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad in West Virginia; the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad foliage tours in N.C.; the Autumn Leaf Rambler in Virginia; the Wilmington and Western Railroad in Delaware; or the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad in Cumberland, Md.



For Chris Elliott -- my peeve about hotel room designs are when the room has a TINY bathroom and the door opens inwards, making it difficult to use the bathroom or even get out. Once, I had to stand in the narrow space between the tub and the toilet in order to open the door... One solution is sliding doors -- this can be done by having the framing for the sliding door on the outside of the bathroom wall, extending only a few inches into the hotel room's entryway corridor. This is for when a door that opens outwards won't work if it extends into the entryway corridor. Hotel room designers should be required to stay overnight in their proposed designs before inflicting them on the rest of us!

I agree! I've stayed in too many hotels where the bathrooms were too small and the doors didn't work. Do you know what's worse? No door at all. A lot of hotels now use these sliding doors that don't lock. What were they thinking?

I booked a hotel room in Las Vegas at the Downtown Grand and now I have to have surgery and won't be able to make the trip. The reservation was prepaid and non-refundable/non changeable. Do you have any ideas/contacts as to any way I could get a room credit or partial refund?

Hotels make exceptions to their rules on a case-by-case basis. If the Grand can't help, please contact me and I'll do my best to assist you.

I'll be returning home from a hunting trip next month into DCA about the time the kids need to be picked up from school. Would it be illegal for me to take WMATA home from DCA, through DC, to my home in MD given I will have luggage, including a rifle in a locked gun case?

I just reached out to WMATA and hopefully will have an answer shortly.

Today's code is TT3387. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating. 

My husband and I will be visiting friends in Tuscon in January and then plan to drive to Sedona. We leave Tuscon on Sunday morning and drive up to Sedona for a few days until we fly out of Phoenix late afternoon on Wednesday. We are in our 60s and while we can do walks, strenuous hiking is a no go. Do you have any suggestions for hotels or must-sees? 

Great question. I visited Tucson this last week and went hiking in Sedona the weekend before. First, it's a little bit of a drive, so you might want to break it up with a long lunch in Phoenix. Regarding must-dos, I have one recommendation about hiking trails. Take those trail ratings to heart. My kids and I dismissed an "intermediate" rating and quickly found ourselves on a steep (but beautiful) trial in Sedona. The pictures are great, but we'll never make that mistake again. 

YES please terminate the automatic daily 'cleaning'! I travel a good bit for work, and do not make a mess in my room - I am mostly only there to sleep. I bring my own towel from home, make my bed every morning even in hotel rooms, etc., etc., and certainly don't need them to go in. Just my 2 cents!

I like the idea of offering a discount or some other incentive in exchange for skipping the housecleaning. I'm not a fan of charging extra for it. Chatters, what do you think?

We're going to Costa Rica in January, and we'll have an afternoon and evening in San Jose. We're staying at the Barcelo, which is not downtown, but we'd like to see the sights. We can't walk great distances. How best to go sightseeing? And would we need local currency to take cabs?

U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Costa Rica and most taxis picking up guests at major hotels probably accept our currency. In a pinch, you could change a few bucks for colons at the hotel or a nearby exchange booth.

To make it easy on yourselves, I suggest taking one of the excursions offered by Barcelo, such as a half-day city tour for $53 per person. See here for other outings. You can also ask the hotel concierge for other outing options, or hire a private guide.

D.C. gun laws are strict and complex. Carrying a rifle on Metro is begging for jail time.

Agree and I have an answer: A WMATA spokesman said rifles are not permitted on its buses or trains. Best to take a taxi, or switch your vacation activity to wildlife-viewing. Cameras are permitted on WMATA.

Sheep tales:

My road trips have been blocked by sheep (and cows) in England, Wales, Ireland and Switzerland, but never in Scotland. That would have to be because I have never had the good fortune to visit. It tops my list of places to go, though. I daydream about Scotland. The word "Scotland" in various forms has been my computer password for years, so I think of the place at least one daily. Sigh. Maybe for my next birthday trip???!!!

I was with a group of girlfriends on a trip in Northern England and when we split up, had planned to head up to Scotland. Meaning, I had reserved an overnight train ticket back to London for a few days out, but nothing else. It was before the big summer events, so I just walked into a tourist help center in Edinburgh and got a hotel for a few days and explored the city. One evening, I wandered into the only shop on the high street that was open despite it being bright daylight. Of course, in early July daylight doesn't end until around 10:30 so it might have been quite late. The owner told me she was just doing her books, and decided to leave the open sign up just in case. I bought my brother a lovely lambswool sweater that he wore until it fell apart many years later. But I had it shipped, and when my package arrived after I got home, I had a cashmere cape, not a fuzzy striped sweater. I contacted the store and she sent me contact information for the woman who had my sweater despite paying (presumably a LOT more) for the cashmere cape. We arranged to do the exchange ourselves and had a good laugh over it. No reason for the sweater and cape to have to go all the way back to Scotland when the items only had to travel between New York and Philly. There were plenty of sheep in that trip (we were constantly opening and closing gates in northern England), but the "lamb" had to come home by way of Philadelphia.

Seriously? Take a cab or your own car. Don't put the rest of us in danger because you're either a) cheap or b) lazy. Legal or not (and I think not) your gun doesn't belong on public transport

I just received the answer (I attached it to another comment): Rifles are not permitted on public transportation.

I rarely chew gum but like to have some for take off and landing during a flight. I flew home for Orlando and realized I was out of gum. I checked multiple stores and found none. I finally asked and was told no gum was sold at the airport. Is this common? I could not think of a reason why. It just seems like a place people would want to purchase gum.

Orlando was my home airport for 12 years but I never noticed the absence of gum. Did anyone tell you the reason for the gumverbot? I find it very odd that they would stop selling gum.

My husband prefers not to have anyone in our hotel room, so we often skip the daily housekeeping . But we do ask for extra towels because they don't dry in the room. Would love a credit but agree that they shouldn't charge for daily service

Thank you.

My 65th birthday trip to St. John was cancelled. When would you guess that the island will resembled it's former (green) self and be open for business, i.e., restaurants operational, blue water, roads open? Our credit is good for one year (last week of September, 2018). Thanks.

Unfortunately, St. John was one of the worst-hit islands and we don't know when the it will re-open. The USVI tourism office has a list of hotels and their status. If the island is not ready within the year, remember that 75 percent of the Caribbean was not affected by the hurricane.

To add to the ongoing conversation on frustrating/annoying hotel design: My family of four typically stays in hotels with affordable suites since we appreciate having the ability to close a door between our bedroom and the kids' sofa bed. Last weekend in Philly we got stuck with a hotel room that had a skylight in the living area. With no way to block the light pouring in from the skylight, our two young kids awoke at the break of dawn. I've noticed this in more than one suite hotel. If it's not a skylight, it's a window overlooking an atrium that has just blinds rather than the blackout curtains provided in the main sleeping room. Young kids or not, do that many people really want natural light flooding into their hotel room at 6 AM? In my opinion the awesome blackout curtains are a highlight of most hotel rooms! Designers need to realize that most people who rent suites do so specifically so somebody (adult or child) can use the sofa bed. Why make it a challenge for that person to sleep past dawn?

Oh, that's annoying. Can you imagine how much worse it would be for someone coming from another time zone, and being awoken by bright lights when their body clocks are still somewhere around midnight. Where do they find these designers? And yes, maybe it's time for a follow-up story. 

After completing a number of escape rooms, my family is interested in looking into some sort of murder mystery event. After some online research, I've found a number of trains, dinners, and full weekends. Is there a good source for reviews on these options? Is there anything people would recommend? It seems like there's enough out there to justify a Travel article ;)

We are planning to run a piece highlighting 13 Historic Hotels of America haunted hotels. A few have special spooky weekends, such as the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa in Eureka Springs, Ark., and the Hawthorne Hotel  in Salem, Mass. Several others have tours, such as the Emily Morgan San Antonio hotel.

There’s always the Walkersville train near Frederick. It has fall foliage rides. Also, one of the conductors looks exactly like Mr. Santa Claus moonlighting in civilian clothes before he gets super busy at Xmas! (I suspect he might be the Santa on their Santa train rides! He has a jolly laugh.)

Too bad he doesn't look like Linus searching for the Great Pumpkin. Thanks!

I would be interested in what housekeeping staff think about the opt-out offer. Do they find their work load better or worse if they only clean once a guest leaves?

That's a great question. If I write something about this, I will ask.

We did a trip there last year. In Sedona we did several hikes - one strenuous, the other not so much - around Cathedral wasn't bad - distance but not a ton of elevation. SedonaHikes is a nice website with good descriptions. We did a really fun day of Jeeping - instead of going with a tour, we rented a Jeep (with lift, etc) from Barlow Jeep rentals - they'll give you a map and discuss trail difficulty with you if you aren't an experienced Jeeper. It was a blast. Also, eat at Elote in Sedona. There will be a line, but it is worth it. Just grab a margarita at the walk up bar then grab a seat on the patio while you wait for your table. Ask for a table on the side with the bar or at the bar for the best seating.

Thank you for the recommendations.

My sister was just up in NYC and asked me if I could check with "my" travel chat on something. She wants to know now that Carnegie Deli Is closed, what is the best deli there? Any suggestions I can relay to her? Thanks, in advance.

Many classic delis continue to carry the pastrami torch for Carnegie. Among them: Katz's, Pastrami Queen, Barney Greengrass and Sarge's (open 24 hours, no less). 

I think the discount or incentive who would make me more likely to stay there again. Charging extra for cleaning would make me less likely to stay there instead of at a hotel that doesn't charge me. But in any case, I typically but the do not disturb sign on the door for my entire stay, which is never long. As long as I have enough towels, I'm good, and I hate being booted out of the room when they're cleaning.

Thank you. But that kind of "unbundling" is exactly what airlines did about a decade ago. Instead of lower fares and then charging extra for the "option" of checking luggage, for example, they kept fares exactly the same and then started charging per checked back. I wonder what would happen if hotels did that?

The reason I heard, many years ago, was that Disney does not sell gum at its parks (too messy to clean up) and somehow persuaded the airport to ban gum sales so that there is a lower chance of tourists bringing it into the parks.

Oh, that's fascinating!

I'm a fan of the discount (or bonus) for passing on housekeeping; not so much a fan of the fee. And hotels should place some limits on it. Skipping housekeeping for a few days is fine. Skipping it for a week may be pushing it and creating more problems for the hotel and for other guests (bugs from food left out, for example). They also do need to check periodically for safety and health reasons.

Thank you. I may have to write something about this soon.

Honestly, if hotels started charging for housekeeping, I would probably just go to an airbnb instead. It's the same thing but usually more room. Why would I pay all of that money for a hotel room to have to pay MORE for housekeeping? I already am annoyed that we have to pay for every single thing on airplanes. Full disclosure: I would probably take the credit too and not take housekeeping, but I believe that housekeeping should still be a staple rather than something to pay extra for.

I hear you. Thanks!

I for one would be very disappointed if housekeeping becomes an extra charge. One of the (minor) highlights of a vacation for me is that somebody else makes the bed every day! It's so nice to come home to a perfectly tidy room at the end of the day. But I am a cheapskate and wouldn't shell out extra money just for that. As it is now, those that don't like housekeeping can just keep the Do Not Disturb sign up 24/7 during their stay, no?

I think most guests would agree with you now. But do you remember what happened when airlines did this a few years ago? It only take a few, very vocal passengers to buy the clever airline argument that checked luggage is a "choice" that we shouldn't be subsidizing, to make something like this happen. And once it does, there's no going back.

The organizations promoting tourism to Cuba are still offering cruises and land trips. How badly did the hurricanes hit Cuba, particularly Havana?

Much of Cuba, including Havana, bounced back pretty fast. The hardest-hit areas (Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, Cayo Santa Maria) are expected to reopen by mid-November, if not sooner.

I've just realized I go between both extremes. On casual trips I'm fine with minimal or no housekeeping - as long as I can hang towels and get them to dry. But I've taken two Tauck tours and been spoiled rotten at the five star hotels. I never say no to the nightly turn down service with clean towels and the all important chocolate on my pillow.

Thank you for the feedback.

I returned from Europe recently, having had a wonderful time, but within a few days had a full-blown flu and miserable head cold. Do you have any advice on how to minimize this sort of thing from happening? I suspect I picked up the bug on the flights back to DC, but of course that's just a suspicion. Thanks!

That is the worst! Here are some tips: Don't use the blankets or pillows on the flight; wear a face mask or less conspicuous scarf; disinfect the tray before using it; don't stick your hands in the seatback pouch; wash your hands frequently; dose up on Vitamin C; and if the person next to you is coughing or sneezing up a storm, ask to switch seats.

I hiked in Scotland last month. Most of the sheep I encountered were in fenced fields, but one day I encountered a pair up high on a mountain path. They had herd markings that appeared to match those I saw later in the day at sea level, so they must have escaped at some point. We exchanged, "What the heck are you doing up here?" stares as I walked by.

Thanks for this! 

Lots of thoughts coming in on hotel housekeeping:

Not that hotels won't try to get extra money from guests, but airlines have an incentive to keep as much luggage off the plane as possible. Hotels don't have quite the same incentive with housekeeping. Wet towels can get moldy, food can attract mice, and some guests use rooms for unsavory activities. The hotels do have some incentive to make sure the room is clean and being used for the right reason.

In addition to checking periodically for safety and health reasons, management may want to know if the client has skipped out (with or without things that belong in the room).

Or checking up on whether the room has been trashed or the occupant has died in the room. I worked with a guy whose back froze when he reached up to close the curtain one night. All he could do was fall over,  it was still frozen when housekeeping found him the next morning and called 911.

While there are days I wouldn't mind skipping the housekeeping, I think we're maybe overlooking the actual housekeeping staff. If it's an option, now the hotel has to manage how many people will opt in/out, and how many people do they need each day. And these people are the lowest on the totem pole for wages in the first place.

I *love* coming back to a tidied room. It is one of the great perks of staying in a hotel. I do tip the housekeepers, too. It's a tough job.

Back breaking jobs, but jobs nonetheless. Please don't put people out of work—keep the keeping of house in hotels/motels.

Housekeepers probably depend on tips to help them get by. The Holiday Inn Express where we stay each Christmas usually asks about needing service on Christmas Day. We always say no but then pad the tips throughout the week.

While I agree that if you're a solo traveler, having the room made everyday is excessive. But as you expertly point out, if the customers start to op out of these services, it will soon become the baseline, and hotels will start to charge for cleaning fees, extra towels, extra shampoo, etc. Raise your hand if you remember that checked bags, a full meal, and blankets were the norm (and part of the base fare) for airline travels. As for having the room made, the sensible solution is to have the "do not disturb" placard have the option of not needing room serviced as well.

And forbidden gum: 

I think that BWI used to ban gum as well to avoid people sticking it under chairs, it getting stuck to the floors, etc.

Gum is not sold at the Honolulu airport. I was told by a cashier that it is to prevent people from sticking it under seats, etc.

Can I add a plea for unscented disinfectant? I once sat next to someone who used a scented product to wipe down every part of his tray/seat, etc., and the fumes were long-lasting and nauseating in the confines of the cabin. Thanks!

Any estimate for when it'll be ready for tourists? I planned to go there next year for my birthday and want to spend my money there.

About 79 percent of the island still does not have electricity, so it has a ways to go.

I'm looking for ideas of places to go on a family trip for my parents' 60th birthdays next year. It'll be 6 people (4 in our 30s, 2 about to turn 60), would like to be within an 8-hour drive from DC. We'll have at least 5 days, maybe a couple more either in April or June. So far Boston, Asheville and the Adirondacks are on the list. Would like a place that has a mix of outdoor activity (kayaking and hiking are the priorities) and at least a small downtown area for a celebratory meal. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated! We're planning to rent an Airbnb so less worried about hotels.

Not sure of the drive time, but how about Portland, Maine?

Looks like our time is up -- thanks for chatting, everyone. Misdelivered sweater, drop us a line at to claim your prize. And join us here next week for more Talk About Travel!

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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