Talk about Travel: The road trip issue

Nov 19, 2012

Please note that Talk about Travel has now moved to 2 p.m. Mondays.
Have a travel-related question, comment, suspicion, warning, gripe, sad tale or happy ending? The Post Travel section's editors and writers are at your service.

Hey, travelers! So sorry we had to bail on you last week thanks to technical problems. But we're back and hope to make it up to you today. Did you see our road trip issue this weekend? Fun stuff, and just in time for the holiday. Andrea explained the confounding new world of automated tolls, Rita Zeidner had tips on how not to ruin your sports gear and I rounded up what's happening in the world of highway rest stops. I was a little floored by how many people have shared their memories of rest areas they've visited, so let's go with that. Tell me which ones you've loved or which ones you've loathed. Best answer gets the prize.

road trip

Heading to Brussels in March, when is the best time to buy a ticket, I usually look 4-5 months out?

I'd track the prices now. Get familiar with the going rate, and when price goes down, buy. If you see prices creeping up, don't keep waiting. That usually means seats are selling out, so fares will continue to increase. Some studies show that best price for domestic tickets is about six weeks out, but that does not seem to hold true for international tickets. 

I'm driving from DC to the Midwest for Christmas, but I don't have a car so I need to rent. I NEVER rent cars. What's the secret for finding the cheapest rates? I'll be gone for a week, so it's going to add up, and even a little daily savings will make a big difference. Thanks for your help!

Hotwire and Priceline are two options. My favorite, though, is Costco. We've heard from chatters who agree that the warehouse club has saved them a bunch when it comes to car rentals. Of course, you have to have a Costco membership.

I liked the toll article in yesterday's paper (though I think the "I didn't know it was a toll road" argument is nonsense) but I wanted to give some comments on the Florida SunPass for readers interested in one. I live in Virginia but I drive to Florida twice a year, so I got a SunPass because I HATE sitting on line at a toll plaza. Readers should know there are two types of SunPass transponder. One is a plastic box similar to an E-ZPass. The other is the "SunPass Mini," a small paper-like thing with a microchip inside it that's similar to a Transcore gate opener used at many gated apartment or condo complexes. The plastic box carries a $25 NON-REFUNDABLE fee. The SunPass Mini costs $4.99, but they give you $4.99 of toll credit as long as you use it within a specified time, I think 30 days. Also, FDOT will tell you the SunPass Mini will not work unless you permanently affix it to your windshield (meaning you can't move it between cars). That's not true. On the advice of friends in Florida I fastened mine to the windshield using scotch tape and it functions perfectly. I recommend NOT permanently affixing it precisely so you can move it from car to car. (Also note that you can add a car to your SunPass account via their website. So if you go to Florida and rent a car, if you have a smartphone or tablet, first thing to do before you even leave the car rental place is to log onto the SunPass website and add the rental car's license plate number to your account. That way if you didn't bring your transponder, or if it malfunctions, your SunPass account will still be billed for your tolls and you won't get any violation notices.)

Thanks for the personal report on the SunPass. It sounds like a good option for people who frequently travel in Florida.

At the end of October, somebody asked whether they should go to Uluru (Ayers Rock) on their upcoming trip to Australia. Zofia, who had not been, answered "Yea". A couple weeks later, a poster who had been there answered "Nay". Well, I've been there twice, so maybe I can break the tie with a resounding, "Maybe". I think Uluru is the kind of place that should be visited if your really have an interest in the geography of the land, the Aboriginal culture, and/or a spiritual interest. Don't go just to "tick" another box of what to see in Australia. It takes a lot of time to get there from just about anywhere in Australia and food and lodging are expensive there (especially due to the weak U.S. dollar) because everything has to be shipped in from hundreds of miles away. So if your time and/or budget are limited, it may not be a good destination. Also, the time of year for visiting is a factor. I would never think of going there in the Australian summer as the temperatures are brutal (way over 100 degrees) and the flies are incessant. I will say that I enjoyed both of my visits because we went in the winter once and once in the spring. I have had a fascination with this feature ever since I was a kid, so it was a "must" for me to see once. (I saw it a second time because my MIL wanted to see it.)

Thanks so much for weighing in with your very helpful insights. Uluru is still on my personal bucket list. If ever I get to Australia again, I will head straight there!

Carol, you were way off advising folks to allow two hours and steer clear of Heathrow and Frankfurt, on their way to Prague. Heathrow not part of Schengen, so no passport control there, and Frankfurt now has a 50 minute minimum connecting time....

I don't like connecting in Heathrow because of its size. If you have to change terminals at a busy time of day, and you're already exhausted from flying all night, it can be daunting. And Frankfurt is also quite busy. 

We will be traveling in Europe in the near future and will be taking an intercontinental flight on Alitalia between Paris and Rome. Does the EU have the same regulations for liquids in carry on baggage that the US does? We are contemplating purchasing toiletries once we arrive so that we don't have to carry them with us from the US, but wanted to buy larger sizes to use for the duration of the trip. We will be traveling light with only backpacks and don't want to check our luggage. Thanks for any guidance toward where I could find this info.

Here's the info, straight from the EU web site:

Liquids carried in the aircraft cabin such as drinks, toothpaste, cosmetic creams or gels must be carried in a transparent plastic bag - maximum capacity 1 litre - and no container may hold more than 100 ml. Liquid containers larger than 100 ml must be placed in checked baggage. The volume restriction does not apply to medicines and baby food.

That is easy, the ones that are closed when I have to go to the bathroom NOW!

Ha. So true.

First off, thanks to the person who provided me with a wealth of information on what to do with only 2 days in Malaga/Costa del Sol. Today's question is: will 80 minutes be enough time to make our connecting flight in CDG to BCN? The flight lands at 6am but I know we have to go to passport control before moving on. I didnt want to risk missing our connection and not getting to Barcelona in the early monring as planned. Thanks!

The Paris airport is undergoing a massive renovation project aimed in part at speeding up the connection process. Depending on your arrival gate, you might be in the new facility that recently unveiled additional passport control checkpoints.

Yet, in all truth, it is hard to know how long the process will take. If you are on the only arriving plane, you can zip right through the lane; if you are one of three planeloads, it can take much longer.

Eighty minutes is a somewhat comfortable amount of time. Don't stress too much. If possible, deplane as quickly as possible and head straight for passport control -- no stopping at the bathroom. Have all of your paperwork in order and go . . .

Alternately, since you are not exiting in Paris, check with the airline about whether connecting passengers pass through passport control in Paris or wait until Barcelona.   

Whenever the chat resumes :-) .... what will parking be like at National...we have a very early flight on Thanksgiving morning. Any idea if there will be spaces available?

Do check before you go. DCA has a great tool that lets you see live parking availability. An airport spokesman says there should be plenty of parking at the daily and hourly garages through the holiday. Economy will fill probably fill up by Thanksgiving and stay full throughout the weekend.

We are considering a cruise that spends a day in Belize. Two of us our active and are thinking about cave tubing, but we wonder if there is another adventure experience someone recommends. Parents are older, so has anyone taken the city bus tour or something else not involving a lot of walking?

When I stopped in Belize City, we went off exploring on our own, taking a ferry to a small island called Caye Caulker. Lots of fun, but we were nervous about getting back in time, as the ferry "schedule" was more like a theory. Plus there was lots of walking involved. As for a city tour, I wouldn't recommend it. Not that much to see. There are Mayan ruin tours, but we did not do these, so can't say whether any good. Chatters? 

How do I find a reliable travel agent? And is it worth it to use a travel agent if I'm just doing a basic flight/hotel booking for international travel? Can they get me discounts that aren't available to the public?

I think the best way to find a good travel agent is by word of mouth. Like doctors, lawyers, etc., it's best not to pick someone out of the yellow pages. Some travel agents specialize in certain regions or are certified via tourism offices to sell specific destinations. For example, Tourism Austalia certifies agents. The American Society of Travel Agents also allows you to search by expertise.  Some agents do have access to discounts, although you should always do your own comparison pricing. As for whether to use a travel agent, I think it's a great idea if you have an agent you trust.  

As a frequent driver of 8 hour car drives, I think fancy rest stops are a waste of money. In general, I prefer the rest stop to have a functioning bathroom and be well lit. That is all. I much prefer to stop to eat or get gas at an exit where the choices are not constrained by who gets the government monopoly.

That's definitely one train of thought.

I traveled to Russia in 1995 and took a group bus trip from the city where we were staying to a small town about 2 hours away on bumpy Russian roads. At one point the group insisted on stopping for the restrooms and the driver found a small roadside store. The first person off the bus reported back on the status of the restroom and the rest of us decided to use the woods in 2 feet of snow instead.

Look around on the web for codes, I've never had a counter ask me for the actual coupon or to prove I work for a certain company. Also, if you don't rent them very often, compare which company takes debit v credit & how much they hold. For instance, Alamo takes debit cards with proof of return travel, and doesn't place any hold on the card, while other companies place a $250 hold on debit cards and some even do a credit check before they let you rent, even if you have a reservation. Start looking now, and make a reservation, you won't have to pre-pay or even put a deposit, but you can spend the next month looking for better rates and then cancel the previous reserves.

The Florida Welcome Center! My family used to drive from Indiana to Disney World on vacation every year when I was little and the free orange juice was always a sure sign that we were almost "there". (Even though it was still several more hours away.) That was also where my mom would let us change into shorts for the first time on the trip - a big deal when we had left 15 degrees and snow the day before :-)

Yes! This sounds very familiar to me.

My daughter's dad just moved to Arizona, and purchased a ticket on Southwest for her to travel to visit over the Christmas holidays. Daughter is 14, so dad did not go with the unaccompanied minor ticket, as Southwest does not require them for children her age. I checked TSA's website to find out what info we need for her at security, and could find all kinds of information for traveling with minors, and minors traveling on an unaccompanied minor ticket, but I could not find anything about minors who are too young to have standard photo ID . To make matters even more fun, Dad booked the ticket for Dec. 22, which I am imagining will be one of the busiest travel days of the year. What is required at security in this situation? I'm guessing I won't be able to accompany her to the gate, but would I be able to be with her until she passes through security to verify she is who her ticket says she is (and help her with shoes/computer bag/liquids/etc.)? Have any parents dealt with this, and have suggestions? This is all new to me, so any help is greatly appreciated!

We'll throw this out to our chatters, but I have had no trouble getting passes to help my mom through the security process. I stay with her through the TSA process and then wait by the gate until she boards the plane. Just remember to bring your ID and give yourself plenty of time to stand in line at the ticket counter in order to get your security pass. As for your daughter's identification, according to the TSA: "If your child is younger than 18, they are not required to have ID to travel. They’ll just need their boarding pass." But I would take a copy of her birth certificate. 

Outside of Chicago, I was unaware of the tolls. I saw the signs, but never saw the toll booth. Apparently if you have the easy pass, it's a high speed reader, but if you pay cash, you actully have to take an exit ramp, which was not very clear. Finally figured it out, and went online to pay the $0.10 toll that we missed.

Good move. Pay that dime before it mushrooms into some crazy amount.

The cheesiest one always wins, South of The Border! How can you not stop at a place that Pedro is tauting for miles and miles? Yes, the food is awful, and the tzotchkes even worse, but it's true Americana and you can't beat that!

I'm thinking Memphis could be a fun long-weekend vacation in the near future for me and my husband (both in our late 20s). However, all I know about it are Graceland (which I've been to once as a kid and remember liking) and the Armitage, which I only just learned about. What else is fun to do in Memphis? I like learning about historical stuff, and my husband likes beer and sports. Any suggestions? I see a lot of museums, but which ones are actually worth our time? And what are the best places to catch good music at night?

Not sure what you mean by the Armitage. If you mean the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home, that's actually just outside Nashville, I believe. I'd think you'd definitely want to see the National Civil Rights Museum in the old Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I'd also check out the Memphis Walk of Fame, which honors the city's many famous musical celebrities, much as the Hollywood Walk of Fame honors movie stars. If you're into music, the Stax Museum might be worth a visit, too; it's a museum dedicated to soul music. Or the Sun Studio, where Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and other famous music legends recorded. Have a look at this story that we ran a couple of years ago. I'm not sure about music venues for the evening, so let's ask the chatters to throw in their two cents, too. Folks?

I really like taking road trips, but I would also love some new games to play. Our main two are the alphabet game (trying to find every letter in order on billboard signs) and finding every state license plate. Does anyone have other games they like to play? My husband and I can get really competitive.

Hm, good question. My husband and I sort of mentally collect amusing road signs -- the CHILDREN ones we saw on Cape Cod come to mind, as do the icons for nudist colonies we saw in Quebec -- but that's not too exciting. Let's throw this out to the peanut gallery. What do you all do to pass the time?

I wasn't there on a cruise, but we did see a number of people on excursions inland in Belize. Looked like they were mostly zip lining/ cave tubing. It's a bit of a hike from Belize City, but if you go with a cruise-sanctioned excursion, you should be fine. And I also loved Caye Caulker!

Yes, the cruise ships will wait for you if you are on a cruise-sanctioned excursion. Wish we would have had more time to spend on Caye Caulker, an island where no cars are allowed. But we forgot about the time difference, so had to cut it short. 

They need to be immaculately clean, the bathrooms operating properly, and safe. We pack our own lunches while driving, so in pleasant weather being able to dine at a picnic table is an added benefit (as opposed to in the car, when it's brutally hot or cold, and we need the A/C or heat, as the case may be). The remainder is just window-dressing (although a good map posted in the visitors' center is nice, and a person on duty to give travel advice can be worth their weight in gold).

For my first trip to a particular region of a foreign country I had to find my travel agent online, since no agents in my region knew the first thing about where I wanted to travel (one even asked, "Where's that?" No kidding.). So, I composed an email describing in as much detail as reasonable what I was looking for on my trip, then emailed it separately to 20 different agencies I'd found by searching the Internet that seemed promising. Ironically, the first to reply turned out to be the most knowledgeable one (and the one with whom I ultimately booked my trip), although I was unable to realize how good they were until I heard from several others and thus could compare.

Great strategy. Thanks!

I remember some rest areas from my youth and later years: Maryland House, the rest areas in New Jersey, and the ones in Florida that display fresh fruit outside the entrance. Regarding Maryland House, my Mom told me that this place is going downhill w/respect to the food service establishments. Regarding the ones in Florida, I recall one year when my Mom and I took a bus tour from her retirement community in South Florida to Orlando, we stopped at a rest area on the Sunshine Highway. The entrance had this marvelous display of bags of oranges and beautiful strawberries. Too bad I was unable to buy the strawberries! Regarding the New Jersey rest stops, I recall buying one of those terrific, caloric Cinnabon pastries and asking the folks who were nice enough to drive me home if I could eat it in their car. They said Yes, if I didn't mess up their car seats. I made sure that I didn't mess up their seats! Altogether, some fond memories of rest stops of years past. I do hope that MTA gets the word that Maryland House needs to step up its game.

Consider the word passed on to MDTA. They're pretty excited about having a Phillips Seafood there, which I guess is a step above typical rest stop fare.

We are flying overseas on Friday. Our first flight (to Chicago) departs at 6am from National. Normally we'd be there at least two hours early for an international departure, but unsure due tothe early time. Will the airport/ticket counters even be open at 4am? Thanks for any insight!

Call the airport ticket counter for your airline and ask. It probably depends on your airline. JetBlue, for instance, opens at National at 4:30 a.m. and Delta lists "ticketing hours" beginning at 3:30 a.m. In my (sad) experience, some don't open until 6.

Very excited for an impromptu trip to Palm Springs in 2 weeks. Husband and I love all things mid century, fun food, outdoors, and boutique hotels. Would really appreciate any ideas on things to definitely do and places to eat while we are there, we've never been to LA or Palm Springs! thanks so much.

Here's a Postcard on Palm Springs from our dining critic Tom Sietsema. And here's a nice story Travel + Leisure had last year on the area. Other suggestions?

Not sure if this counts...along the VA/NC border in Chesapeake along hwy 168 is the border store where half the store is in NC and have in Virginia. As for other rest stops along interstates...the ny state ones actually have gas stations and a restaurant on them. When I was traveling in Wyoming along I-80 the rest stops are walled off to help block the wind if you want to have a picnic and the tables there.

Because Costco only works with a limited number of companies, I also throw my dates against a more general aggregator (e.g. or travelocity) to get a complete sense of the landscape. Usually end up with Costco or pulling up discount codes and plugging them into individual companies websites to find out what's cheapest - with company experience or in terminal vs. shuttle as a tiebreaker. Note that rental car pricing is insanely dynamic - you can adjust your pickup or dropoff by as little as a half-hour and get a wildly different rate. Also, keep checking back - prices may suddenly drop in the week leading up to the trip. Bottom line is that the more time you put into this, the better deal you can drive - but at some point the law of diminishing returns kick in.

Great advice.

For the novice car renter - don't worry about your rental being week-long. Many places run specials on weekly rentals which make them cheaper than renting for 3-4 days. I'm renting over the Thanksgiving holiday, and a Wednesday-Sunday rental costs up to $70 more with some companies than renting on Wednesday and returning the car the following Tuesday.

So true. Sometimes a weekly rental is less than a short-term rental. Look for specials online.

The ones on the Ohio turnpike that don't have changing tables in the men's bathrooms. C'mon, Ohio--men change diapers, too!

Worse than the Russian one -- this was in 1979, between Prag and Wien. It was a large cement wall parallel to the highway and with a large parking lot. On the other side was a field where people just went anywhere there was a empty patch of ground. We chickened out.

My husband and I will have a 10 hour layover in Moscow that we were hoping to use to get into the city to see the major sites. I have heard there are outrageous visa costs. Do you know if this is accurate? If so, is it worth it?

Yes, it's accurate. It costs nearly $200 to get a Russian visa, plus time and travel to the visa processing office (most applications must be made in person). And that's barring any difficulties that require you to use expedited service, which is at least another $100. We ran this article about the difficulties of obtaining a Russian visa some months ago. I gather that the process has improved, but it still takes time and quite a bit of money. Is it worth it for one day in Moscow? I'm afraid you'll have to be the judge of that. Personally, I would probably give it a try, because it seems crazy to me to be right there and *not* try to see the city, at least the highlights of it, with so much time on your hands. Chatters, your opinions?

Hello! This is more of staycation/splurge, but I hope you can help. I am looking for a hotel in DC proper for NYE. My two requirements are not usually ranked on most sites! Great bathtub and great in-room dining. Any suggestions would be much appreciated, thank you!

A few ideas:

- The Four Seasons claims it has "deep soaking tubs." For in-room dining, you can order off the restaurant menu from Bourbon Steak, which was in Tom Sietsema's fall dining guide.

- You could splurge on a suite at the Hotel Monaco in DC and get room service from Poste.

- At the W, get a suite with a tub and food from Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Hi Gurus - My family of 3 (two adults, one 11-year old girl) does not have any seats together for our Thanksgiving flight to DTW on Thursday, nor for the return. I'd just like one of us parents to be sitting with our daughter. What is the best strategy to accomplish this? Gate agent? Begging other passengers? Thanks for any help.

Twenty-four hours before departure, check-in online and see if you can change your seats. At this point, some seats may have opened up.  If  this does not work, call the airline to see if the agent can pair a parent with your child. If not, start hitting up everyone at the airport: Start with the ticketing agent, then the gate agent. As a last resort, ask the flight attendent if she or he can help. Most likely a solo traveler will be a good egg and give up his or her seat for you.

Too bad you are not flying to Hartford, or you could have my seat.

I don't know about MD & DC but in VA you can get your daughter a VA DMV ID.

Yes, check with your state. 

Does Travelocity bait consumers? We are trying to book our post-Christmas trip, but everytime we try to book the ridiculously priced trip ($520 coast-to-coast nonstop, roundtrip), it disappears and the only available fare is $100 more, with a stop. Bait and switch is my only explanation...

Prices change at the blink of an eye --a major downside of booking online. It has happened to me countless times on a variety of booking sites.

I don't know if this qualifies as bait-and-switch, but it is annoying. If the disappearing act happens more than a few times, call Travelocity's toll-free number and explain what is happening. Perhaps the agent on the phone can help pin down that fare.

If the problem is not resolved, you might want to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

I was a bit amused by Becky Krystal's article about rest stops on the Interstate because I had to laugh at the decision about what to eat at the Maryland House involving fast food. You're showing your youth there, Ms. Krystal! I remember when I was a kid in the 1970s the Maryland House had a white-tablecloth actual sit-down restaurant. It was always mobbed, too. Eventually fell victim to people's desire to eat quickly and get back on the road with minimal lost time (I guess the same thing doomed Howard Johnson's restaurants, for that matter). But my #1 memory of the Maryland House back then is that en route to New York when we stopped there once one of my younger brother's stuffed animals must have fallen out of the car because about 20 minutes after we left, he started SCREAMING about it.....and he screamed all the way to Brooklyn. D'oh.

You're not the first person to point that out to me. I'm in my late 20s, so apparently I missed a totally different iteration of the Maryland House.

Hope your brother has recovered from that trauma!

We used to play, "I Pack My Trunk for Paris." It's an alphabet/memorizing game. Person !: "I pack my trunk for Paris and in it I put an apple." Person 2: "I pack my trunk for Paris and in it I put an apple and a boat." Person 1: "I pack my trunk for Paris and in it I put an apple, a boat, and a cheeta." etc. Also, you can play "I Spy." "I spy with my little eye, something that begins with 'A,' " then the other person has to guess what the other saw. Then Person 2 goes with "B," and so on.

Melissa and Doug both sell Travel Bingo and Travel Hangman sets for about $10. Money well spent!

Might be harder to do if one of them is driving, but good thought!

Is currently closed and undergoing construction. Not sure what the plan is; I've just driven by.

Yup, covered that in my story. The plan is to reopen it in December 2013.

No great stories, but taking this opportunity to call on folks to have more fresh fruits and veggies available at rest stops. Those little cup-of-fruits don't quite cut it!

I've seen some fruit for sale, but not everywhere. I love the idea of those three service plazas on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that have seasonal farmers markets. I'm sure you can get great stuff there.

I'm the guy who wrote in a few weeks ago about an interesting experience with CDW when renting a car at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. At the rental counter, I found out that the company refuses to accept CDW coverage offered by U.S.-issued credit cards other than Platinum MasterCard, so my Cap One VISA wasn't going to cut it, Vikings or no. I argued about it with Orbitz and with the company itself -- which shall remain nameless unless you want me to spill all the gory details in an off-line e-mail (I'll use David Petraeus' account). I wound up getting a $50 voucher from Orbitz and absolutely nothing from the rental company. They insisted the language is out there in plain sight on their website -- and I'm sure it is, somewhere. I found language on their website and that of their German affiliate that directly contradicts their assertions regarding CDW. Again, I can e-mail details if you would like. But the bottom line is that U.S. renters need to be very careful when renting a car abroad. Do a lot of research, then do some more, so you don't get a $100 surprise at the rental counter.

Good advice, thanks!

Behavior by security screeners at the Boston terminal of the USAir shuttle to DC yesterday was bizarre. One screener unclasped my watch. In 12 years if post-9/11 flying I have never had one touch my watch or jewelry. Is this acceptable protocol? Another screener opened my husband's 3-oz bottle of lens solution, then did not screw the cap back on tightly, resulting in damage to other packed items. This was in mid afternoon, before the terminal got busy. What is going on here? Should I complain through channels?

Security officials should never touch you without first explaining what they are about to do, then asking for your permission. You could also opt to take off your watch, bracelet, etc., yourself and  place it in a bin.

As for the other issue, it would be nice if TSA returned inspected items to their pre-security state, but the inspectors are in a rush and can be sloppy.  Always repack yourself, including tightening tops.

If you wish to complain, fill out a form with TSA. Include as many specifics as possible, including time, date, terminal, etc. However, only complain about situations that truly violated your civil rights and privacy.

I stop to pick up the hotel coupon books!

When I lived on Long Island for two years, I made a point to stop on the NJ Turnpike for gas everytime I traveled south. Easily $0.20/gal cheaper (or more) than what was on Long Island. I did wish I could pump it myself though, when only a couple of gas attendants were working and the lines were longer than they needed to be.

1) I want to second checking back on car rental rates. We saved almost $100 on a rental for a Christmas rental in 2010. We changed the reservation 2 or 3 times, each time we saw a better rate (with the same company). We also use Kayak as a starting place, then check the individual companies that have the best rates. 2) I second the Four Seasons tub. A friend and I were lucky enough to stay there one night and were sad we didn't have time to use the tub. It looked glorious.

Thanks on both counts!

I loved stopping at Delaware House growing up, as I would get to play a few video games in their arcade while everyone else stretched their legs. I also loved eating at the Roy Rogers there. I haven't been to the remodeled version of it yet (it'll probably be a let-down). In the early-mid 80s, the West Virginia welcome center on I-64 in Huntington offered free small cups of Pepsi.

Anyone have any experience with the Gili islands? I'm thinking of heading there in a few weeks for some SCUBA diving. Any recommendations? Also, is it feasible to do a day tour of Bali?

The Gili Islands are new to us.
Can any chatters help out with some tips?

I've done the cave tubing in Belize and it was fantastic, so I'd hate to advise you to skip it, but it's probably not a good choice for your parents if they aren't active. Bummer.

Maybe the parents can do a tour of ruins while the younger folks go cave tubing? Whenever we do an extended family cruise, we split up for shore excursions based on interests. I, for example, am an avid birder --my feelings aren't hurt when I'm on my own!

Hello travelers. I'm eligible to use the Pre-check lane when I travel on Wednesday. Do any chatters have experience with this and flying US Airways? US Airways has two terminals, and only one with Pre-check. Do people with Pre-check use one and take the little shuttle between the two or do they wait in the long line? Also, am I automatically to go to Pre-check or does someone in TSA tell me? Very confused and don't want to wait in a long line if I can avoid it! Thanks

Here's a bit of info from TSA:

If the agency determines a passenger is eligible for expedited screening through TSA Pre-check, information will be embedded in the barcode of the passenger’s boarding pass. TSA will read the barcode at designated checkpoints and the passenger may be referred to an expedited screening lane.

If your flight is not at the terminal with Pre-check, I wouldn't go out of your way to go to the one that does. You might eat up any time you saved in getting between them.

Happy to hear about anyone else's experience with this.

Don't know if your Daughter has a photo ID for school, but that is what my younger brother used when he came to visit me last summer (same age). When I sent him to my brother I got a gate pass no problem, and he used his school id to get through security no problem. I even stayed at the gate until I saw his plane lift off and leave. This year prior to his moving back to NJ to go to schoo there and live with the older brother, he went to the SC DMV and got a DMV ID and he uses that as well. I believe that in this are you can probably get the non-Drivers ID card for her, but I would check with the airline or the TSA hotline to see if the school ID would suffice.

School IDs are a good idea. And if you couple that with a birth certificate copy, should be no problems. 

For the husband that likes sports, the Grizzlies basketball team plays at FedEx Forum right between Beale St (night time music and food) the the Civil Rights museum. University of Memphis basketball is also huge in Memphis and played at the FedEx Forum. There is an Indian Reservation, Chucalissa. The Memphis Pink Palace Museum was the home of Clarence Saunders who owned Piggly Wiggly groceries and started the first self service grocery. His home has been expanded and there is a planeterium and an IMax theater. If you like to gamble, Tunica County Mississippi is about thirty minutes outside Memphis and home to the third largest group of casinos in the US after Vegas and Atlantic City. Its worth the drive just to see these huge high rises looking over the cotton fields. The Overton Park zoo in Memphis is very well respected. St. Jude Children's Hospital is an impressive site and Memphians are proud to have the hospital there. Don't forget the ducks in the historic Peabody Hotel. Also walking distance to Beale Street. Lots of great eating if you are a barbeque fan.

Right, the ducks! How could I forget the Peabody ducks? Thanks for that and all the other tips!

A solo passenger who's stuck in a middle seat might be the most willing to swap for an aisle or window seat, if you have one to offer in return for sitting with your child.

My thought precisely.

I want to send (not take) my daughter and her boyfriend on a week's (or so) vacation. They are fully capable of enjoying themselves but their respective disabilities limit their ability to deal with financial transactions, currency exchanges, and transportation connections in unfamiliar places. I would like advice on where to look. A cruise seems obvious, but does not appeal to my daughter.

There are plenty of tour operators that specialize in travel for the developmentally disabled. The Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality is a good resource. But your daughter and her boyfriend may prefer being independent. Would they enjoy Disney? Or perhaps an all-inclusive resort? 

You should do a day trip to Joshua tree national park.

When I was a kid, my family drove across Ohio every summer. These were the days before Ohio installed toilets in most of the rest stops and the only options were the pit toilets or nature. Between my nervous mother and my sarcastic father, I was convinced that small children regularly fell into the pits and that I was going to be next. This was the setting for many of my childhood nightmares.

Oh, dear.

In celebration of Mom's 80th birthday she would like to go to the West Coast of Florida. We wanted to go to Naples but I am having trouble finding a four star place with space on Martin Luther King's Birthday weekend. I am unsure of what other beaches/towns/cities to look at to find a similar feel (more Bethany than Ocean City). If there are specific hotels/resorts to recommend that would be great. To give you an idea we are looking for something more Marriott than Ritz level. Many thanks

Have you looked into Sanibel Island? It's not overdeveloped with highrises (or wasn't, last time I was there) and is more laid-back than, say, Fort Myers.  One downside is that most of the beaches don't have the soft, white sand that you see in Naples or Fort Myers -- it's coarser and full of shells. But if you weren't planning to take long, barefoot beach walks, that might not matter to you.

Over the last few weeks, every chat I've read has had at least one ad that blocks the text of a post. It's irritating. I keep sending this questiont to the producers -- can anything be done about this, or is it my computer? I hate to miss even one word of these great chats!!

We don't want you to miss anything either! I'm not too well-versed in this problem, but I'll pass your comment on to our tech folks.

I am a fan of the Cheesy South of the Border rest Stop along I-95 at the NC/SC state line, esp. at night. I love the cheesy signs that pop up mid way alnog the interstate half way to the state line, and find them a fun distraction to a long 8 hour drive. They help to break up the monotonous drive, and at night to see things lit up is fun for me. I pass through for the kitsch value. But most importantly it means there's only two hours left in the drive before I get to mother's. It's a throw back to childhood as we drove to South Carolina to stay with my Aunt and Uncle for the summer and it helps bring back fond memories.

My favorite is "Contact." You think of a thing, give others the letter it starts with (ie. B) and they try to guess by asking questions like so: Q: "Is it a sign by a highway?" A: "No, it is not a billboard"... But if the person answering the questions can't think of an answer with the right letter to satisfy the question and someone else in the car guesses what the questioner is thinking they can say "Contact," both questioners say "billboard" in unison and the person answering the questions has to give another letter of the real answer.

Having done this with children and grandchildren -- no problem going thru security -- ticket agent will give a pass.... stay until the plane is off the ground. try not to book a connecting flight and if you must don't ever book a flight where the connection is the last of the day. Make certain child has debit or credit card to purchase something on the plane. too many of them no longer take cash. Or make certain to purchase water or drinks before child gets on plane.

Great ideas! We can tell you are a veteran of airport with kids. 

One of my favorites is the Vermont Welcome Center (can't remember which highway, but there can't be too many options). It has a wonderful display of local artisans, pristine bathrooms, and a playground with a wonderful spongy surface underfoot. Oh, and free wifi.

I've heard good things about this one too. On our way to Quebec last year, we stopped at a smaller stop north of Burlington, which was serving coffee. Nice touch.

The poster who inquired about Belize got me thinking - hubby and I are talking about taking an Alaskan cruise in the spring/early Summer. Would we be okay weather-wise and perhaps save a little money traveling a week or 2 prior to the official shoulder season? And to see as much as possible, including Vancouver and take the train tour usually offered, what route do you recommend?

It'll likely be cool and maybe a little rainy, but we went on an Alaskan cruise in late August, and it was also cool and rainy. No guarantees when it comes to Alaska weather, but we just put on our rain slickers and our sweaters and had a great time. We ended in Vancouver, and I wish we would have had more time there -- seemed like a very neat city. We also did the train tour -- I could have lived without that, but I like being out and about rather than looking at the scenery through a window. Next time, I'm going to take the Alaskan Marine Highway System

Apologies in advance if this more of a GOG question: Family trip to DC, coming Dec. 20 and leaving Dec. 25. First time for the fourth-grader and second-grader, so we'll want to hit the top sights. What should we anticipate for crowds at Smithsonian, Archives, etc? Any other tips? Thanks!

The museums in Washington are pretty much crowded year-round, but they're big, and they handle crowds well, so don't worry! Come and enjoy!

While I would prefer to pay less for food than the amounts they usually overcharge at rest stops, I do stop, eat, and gas there. When I have taken trips and gotten off the highways to buy gas or get lunch, it seems I always choose an exit where the nearest food place is a mile away and have to go even further to make the needed turns to get back onto the highway. When you stop at a rest stop, you don't have to worry about getting lost.

the lack of NHL season means I suddenly find mysefl with about $5,000 dollars (between tickets, concessions, and post-game beer) that I didn't expect to have. My husband and I would like to finally take a long-awaited overseas trip in the early spring. I'm thinking a packaged trip is our best bet because of costs, but tours aren't really our thing. And while I'm a history and culture person who loves cities, my husband prefers the great outdoors. The carribean doesn't appeal to either of us, so we're thinking either Iceland or England/Scotland. Doable? Recommended packages?

People do love Iceland, and we've heard from readers who have had good experiences with those Icelandair packages. Anyone else have packages to recommend?

Or you can get the classic Auto Bingo cards at the National Building Museum. Granted, my nieces were confused by many of the bingo spots! Lots of items no longer as common as in my youth.

For the person looking for a flight to Brussels in March -- I was in the same boat last year. I found that the ticket prices varied very little. It always seemed to be around $800 for a non-stop, and I never saw the price fall below $765. (I flew at the end of March, and think I purchased by ticket sometime in January.) From what I am seeing now, prices seem to be more expensive this year. It seems the IAD-BRU route has plenty of business people, gov't and military types flying it to keep prices high.

Exactly! And fares are about $100 higher this year.

I'm confusing myself reading about automated tolls, so . . . HELP! My wife and I are driving in a rental cargo van to Miami, FL and back in early December. If we're just on I-95, will we hit toll situations when we'll have to take notes and get on-line later to pay? Will Virginia let us use a transponder from our car if we advise the VA "toll" folks in time?

You need to ask the rental car company about which transponders or toll payment systems they recommend for your drive.  In addition,  some states still employ toll collectors, so carry lots of small bills and change.

For Virginia, you can use E-ZPass (if you already own a transponder, just make sure it charges you for the toll, not the rental car company. You might have to register the rental car plates; contact E-ZPass for specifics). For Florida, you might want to buy a SunPass  or rent one through the car firm, though you will pay a daily rental fee, plus taxes.

I'm not a big road trip fan, but I am excited to be heading to Turkey for the first time in April. Any must eats or sees? With airfare currently around $780 round trip, should I buy now or wait?

I haven't been to Turkey, so will leave the eats & sees questions to others. Low fares to Turkey are being driven by Turkish Airlines, which is making a big push in the United States. Buy now!

Since I'm unable to travel to Germany for the real Christmas markets, which of the ones closest to Virginia are worth my time- Busch Gardens, Bethlehem PA, New York City or Baltimore?

The scenes are different. Bethlehem sounds like you'll get a lot more of that German vibe. New York would be a bit more eclectic -- here's Andrea's story from last year.

I read Mr. Elliott's article about cruise line policy affecting pregnant women within their 25th week of pregnancy. I wondered why cruise lines do not include a paragraph or two in their Terms and Conditions regarding these would-be parents. I would think that if blind/visually impaired guests or guests using wheelchairs or scooters are required to have travel companions, why wouldn't the same policy apply to pregnant women if they're accompanied by their partners? Also, I would recommend to the couple mentioned in the article that they work with a physically present travel agent instead of somebody on the phone or using a web site, because having a human travel agent will be enormously helpful in obtaining all of the info needed to advise the pregant woman and her husband with their issue with Carnival.

I agree iwth your idea about working with a travel agent in person. At the very least, seeing that someone is pregnant might trigger a mention of the cruise lines' pregnancy policies!

My wife and I will be going to Vegas for 2 days in late January. Does anyone have a recommendation for a day-trip tour to the Grand Canyon. I did a bus tour several years ago (my wife has never been to GC), and all I remembered was a very long day. I know the tour will be long because of the distance, but anything more unique or better than a typical bus tour would be appreciated.

Helicopter tours from Vegas to the Grand Canyon are very popular, and much more exhilarating than a long bus trip. Many companies off the tours; check the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's Web site for options.

Since you are only going to be in Vegas for two days, you might look for a stunning scenic area closer to the city, such as the the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. I included the park in a recent piece about fall colors out West.

So my company closes the week between the holidays and my daughter has off. This year my husband's company decided to close too but too late to make any "real" plans. I was thinking we would do a staycation in Washington. Challenge: finding a hotel that will provide us a bit of space/privacy (suite or the like) for a couple and a 12 year old that doesn't break the bank (less than $350/night). Any suggestions? Thanks!

Check out this list of kid-friendly hotels from Sounds like a suite is what you need.

I think 80 minutes is way tight - if you book it, make sure it is all on the same ticket because the airline will have responsibility if you miss the CDG-BCN leg. I have heard, from friends who travel through CDG often, that non-Schengen to non-Schengen connections are actually okay (for example, Asia-CDG-USA). We were on a flight from non-Schengen through CDG to ARN (Stockholm, which like France is Schengen). We were flying business class (so shorter lines) and had an infant with us (separate, shorter lines). The line to clear passport and then re-clear security was so long that after a while they were just yelling out flight numbers and having us go only when our flight was called. We had a 3 hour layover and it took us 2 hours to get from one flight to the other (and we had no laptops or liquids or other things to unpack). If you come in at a remote stand you will have to wait for a critical mass of passengers before you can get on the bus. It is seriously the most annoying "developed" airport I have ever flown into. (My experience is from August 2012, so I think it is recent enough to be relevant.) On the way back from Stockholm to the US there was a problem with our ticket and we had to be escorted through exit immigration and security by an Air France lady and made our (international, in business class) flight about 10 minutes before the door closed. Too close for my comfort.

Thanks so much for the front-line account.

Hopefully the Barcelona-bound traveler won't have such a harrowing experience.

Joshua Tree is in the high altitude desert, so if you go, be sure to pack accordingly for much colder temperatures than down in Palm Springs.

The best rest stops I've experienced are the Autogrills on the toll roads in Italy, though there was also one between Bern and Geneva that I remember fondly if only because of the vast selection of Swiss chocolates.

I'll be in Germany for the Christmas markets, what might be good gifts to bring back? (Adult daughters and a 13 year old grandson, price range around $150 each for the daughters and $50 for the grandson.)

Nutcrackers! The genuine article, not the made-in-China knockoffs. They're beautiful and collectable. Large ones for the daughters and a small one for the grandson. That's what I'd do, anyway. Or you could get something in cut crystal for your daughters -- a bowl or glasses. The crystal is lovely; I particularly like the colored glass. Chatters, your ideas?

My theory is that Boston/Logan Airport has a huge guilt complex over the fact that TWO of the 9/11 flights departed from there, ever since they seem to be the most stringent of all the airports I've traveled to/through.

Interesting theory. 

I will be going to South Africa in April and I will be in Cape Town for 4 nights. One day is taken up with a coach tour of the peninsula and other areas, but I have 2 free days to explore. Besides Table Mountain can you think of some shouldn't miss things to do while I'm there. The rest of the trip will be spent in and around Kruger so I should be getting my animal fix. Thanx

Chatters, help us out here!

We are a group of eight friends in our mid-30's interested in a vacation rental in Italy for one week at the end of June. We are hoping to visit wineries, eat plenty of local food, and experience some local culture. We would also like to be close enough to a beach that it would be possible to go for a day-trip. Do you have any suggestions for towns or regions where we should begin our search?

If it's your first time in Italy, you'll probably want to see some of the sights in Florence, Rome and Venice. But that's a busy trip that will keep you hopping. Sounds as if you are more the Tuscany villa or Amalfi coast kind of crowd. I would also highly recommend Sicily, specifically Taormina. 

A few years ago I saw an estimated vlaue of frequent flyer miles of something like 2% of the value of the ticket one purchased to get them. I think it's come down since then. Obviously the exact value varies depending on airline, ability to use them within a required amount of time, etc., but have you seen any even ballpark figure lately? I recently did use 25k miles to fly first class across the country, which I didn't think ws too bad, but I'm not sure I'll choose one airline over another to get miles if the cost differs.

Sorry I can't answer your question myself, but the Points Guy has a good guide that might help.

Hi, Crew. I submitted a question when my travel (to/from Newport News) on Frontier was disrupted by Hurricane Sandy, leading to two not-obvious flight cancellations. I submitted an online complaint last week that detailed my concerns with the service I received while trying to rebook. Ultimately, I booked my own alternative flight at my own (considerable) expense, and Frontier hasn't even managed to process my refund (after three weeks). Questions: How long does the refund typically take, and is there a better way to submit my complaint so that the airline will hear me? Thanks for any help.

This is Chris Elliott's area of expertise, but he's flying today. I looked through some of his columns on the subject, and he says it is not unusual for refunds to take two or three billing cycles. Sometimes a certified letter can help with complaints. Send it to:

Frontier Airlines, Inc., 7001 Tower Road, Denver, CO 80249-7312 (Attention: Customer Relations)

All states offer a non driving photo ID card through their DMV office.

I went this summer. I also could have done without the train trip. Definitely enjoyed the land portion of the cruise in Denali National Park. We went on the summer solistice and golfed at 10:15 PM -- so light! Don't worry about the direction N-S or S-N. And, I stayed a couple of days in Vancouver and loved it. Take as many excursions off cruise as possible. And, Princess was touted as the best line (which we didn't take but wish we had).

Just about every cruise line has ships in Alaska. Princess is a nice one. Holland America is also upscale without being one of the luxury lines. 

Friends of mine just got back and can't stop talking about Ephesus.

Need I say more?

I love that game! :-)

The National Zoo!!! (Just be sure to bundle up).

Love the zoo, which is great for first time elementary-aged kids, as well as almost-30-year-old Washington residents. Ahem.

I will be in Amsterdam next week (sunday-Wednesday) with some free time. Beyond the traditional Amsterdam sites ...what is something unique I could do?

Here in the Seattle area there is (1) the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, (2) route 520 bridge over lake Washington, and (3) route 167 hot lane. What can go wrong did go wrong in Seattle when they started to do photo surveillance on the Narrows, which caused numerous problems that forced the delay of the 520 replacement. The 520 is now variable tolls for all lanes. 

Another issue is the ferries. There isn't a one-card-pays-all. The transponders are sold in Safeway and other stores. Is it worth the money if you don't regularly cross the bridges? With the Tacoma  bridge, because one side has a toll and the other side does not, it's easy to bypass that toll by returning via ferry or by looping around the peninsula down to Olympia.

Thanks for the inside scoop!

I still remember, with a shudder, the first Georgia rest stop I hit after crossing the state border. On an endless loop, playing all the time from the sound systems through out the rest area building - "Tara's Theme" from "Gone with the Wind" IT NEVER STOPPED!!!


To the poster who is flying out of National on Friday on an overseas flight, I would say get there an hour ahead of time. The first flight is to Chicago so I typically treat those as domestic flights. If you were flying from National to London, no stops in between, then I would try to get there at 4am. Now, with that being said it is a holiday weekend so you might want to take into account many others with an early morning flight. Good luck!

Thanks for the helpful hints.

Not to excuse their behavior, but isn't Boston/Logan one of the sites piloting 'enhanced' TSA actions?

Indeed, it is.

I recommend the decorated gingerbread hearts (on ribbons) for all ages. (Assuming they don't mind cute kitsch.) You technically *could* eat them but they last for years in their plastic coating as decoration, too.

It is a long drive, but it was worth it to rent a car and drive to the south rim. We were on east coast time and left at 6am, got to the Hoover Dam around sunrise, and then made it to the Grand Canyon by lunch. We stayed for an hour or two, got dinner on the way home, and were back in Vegas before people started going on for the evening. It was totally worth it.

Any of the handmade, wooden Christmas ornaments are also terrific -- and make great gifts. Glass ornaments are nice, but too easily broken getting them back to the US.

You can legally smoke pot.....

We weren't going to suggest that. . .

Most important amenity -- other than the bathrooms -- is nice outdoor space, preferably with picnic tables. Rest stops in the Western US tend to be very nice, esp compared with the heavily-travelled I-95 corridor. Worst rest stops? On the Jersey Turnpike, no question.

Thanks for playing, everyone. Enjoyed all your rest stop tales. But I'm feeling nostalgic, so I'm going to award this week's prize to the traveler who was always excited to hit the Florida welcome center with OJ. That may as well have been me. Please send your name and mailing address to

Have a great Thanksgiving and stay safe out there on the roads! See you next week.

In This Chat
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the acting editor of Travel.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
Jane Touzalin
Jane Touzalin is acting deputy Travel editor.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column, clearing the way through the fog of consumer travel issues. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
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