Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Nov 26, 2018

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Hi all, and welcome to Talk About Travel. In this week's section we took a look at Pensacola's hidden charms. Have an underappreciated Florida destination to recommend? Tell us about it below. Most compelling answer gets a copy of Seth Kugel's "Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious." On to your questions!

I am a very lucky winner of a contest for two free air tickets to Canada. There are few restrictions on the tickets, other than that I must use them by June and cannot have any stop-overs. With all of these choices, I'm having a really tough time deciding! I'm thinking about a week-long trip, as I can't see leaving my one-year-old for longer than that. I'd like to get my money's worth (ha!) and travel someplace far from DC, like Vancouver... or someplace I'll never go again, like Nunavut. We're up for hiking and outdoors activities or exploring a cool city. Where should we go? When?

If I had won those tickets, I would head straight for Newfoundland and Labrador. I also recommend flying into Winnipeg and taking the train up to Churchill to swim with the beluga whales in the summer. (I would skip winter; we have stressed out the polar bears enough.) Nunaket, which we included in our overbooked/overlooked piece (as an alternative to Iceland), is another great option.

Here's a link to that piece on overtourism: Detouring.

Hi! My nephew is getting married in mid-August 2019 near Lisbon, Portugal. My husband and I plan to be there. My husband has never been to Europe, and I would like to add 2-3 weeks onto the trip so that he can have the opportunity to see and enjoy some of it. I'd like to include France and Spain in the mix. All of this would be on a budget. Could you recommend a travel agent in Maryland who would be willing to work with me on making this possible? Thank you for your suggestions.

We can't recommend a travel agent (but the chatters can!), but I suggest you check out the directory provided by the American Society of Travel Advisors.

People frequently ask you "when should I book my airfare" and you tell people to start watching the prices, and grab a good deal ASAP. I recently discovered that Southwest Airlines flies to Mexico City, and I am going there next April. I was able get a low fare of $182 each way. I just checked their website this morning, and there are very few tickets available for $360 each way, and most are $519. So, definitely grab the cheap tickets when you see them, even six months in advance.

So great to hear that you snagged a great fare -- and that our advice was spot-on.

I am an experienced and enthusiastic bicycle tourist and have traveled self-contained in many parts of Europe. I turn 70 in mid-April and would like to be on the road on that magic day. I have a friend who would meet me there for a 3 to 4 week self-supported bike tour. We are thinking of meeting in Toulouse and riding from there, but where? I love the Dordogne region but am concerned about the weather being cold and wet. What do you think? Not Provence, please, as have done that enough! Looking for scenery, hilly terrain, good food, not too many other tourists. Ideas?

Backroads, an adventure tour operator, puts together great biking itineraries in Europe. I would use their tours as "inspiration," and tweak as necessary.

Just getting back into the office today and details are still a bit sketchy - so I can tell you what I know: My boss and his family were traveling to Vietnam and had booked airline and river cruise reservations - I am not sure of which airlines/river cruise company. At any rate, they were to travel Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) and one of them ended up requiring extensive emergency surgery Thursday night. He's still in the ICU and is looking at a long recovery. Obviously they didn't go on their trip. I do not believe they had travel insurance. Once the dust has settled, I am sure they want to see about a) rescheduling their trip and/or b) receiving any refund they can get. This is the poster child reason for trip insurance I know, but given they didn't purchase any, what's the best way for them to proceed at this point? I don't want them to shoot themselves in the proverbial foot by doing something hasty when there is a better course of action. Any ideas or guidance would be appreciated! Thank you.

I'm really sorry to hear about this. Your boss might be covered if the cruise was booked with a credit card. That's the first thing I would check. It's not entirely clear where they are traveling from. If they're already in Vietnam, I would also get in touch with the family's health insurance company to see if they are covered in Vietnam (they probably aren't but you never know). If they worked with a travel agent or advisor, I would also get that person involved.  Agents can and often do advocate for their customers in situations like this. Also, reach out to the U.S. embassy or to the closest consulate to find out what kind of help they can provide. I'm also available if you have any questions. Here's how to reach me. Chatters, do you have anything to add?

For last week's chatter, we are decidedly *not* B&B people (way too introverted and prefer the semi-anonymity of larger places). We did 10 days in Ireland, none of them in Dublin, and never stayed in a B&B. The closest to a B&B was a castle in Tralee, but still didn't feel B&B-like, more like an inn. But otherwise, we found hotels in Killarney and Galway. Even down at the tip of the ring of Kerry (The Derrynane Hotel).

The lines between hotels/inns/B&Bs can get a bit blurry in Ireland. When we visited Dublin a few months ago, we stayed at the Brooks, which is a traditional hotel with breakfast included. In Kinsale, Perryville House was more like an inn, with an owner who greeted you, but no continuing interaction. In Dingle, Pax House, one of the best places I have ever stayed in, was more like an upscale B&B, with an owner who did not intrude, but was there whenever we needed anything. 

When will someone develop a site that will allow you to compare airfares after you state how much carry-on and checked baggage you will bring, if you want to select a seat, etc. Until then, Southwest will be my first choice because at least I know what I'm paying and not having extras tacked on.

It would be nice if every travel website allowed you to do that. Kayak.com does a pretty good job, but it's still not quite what you have in mind. Chatters, have you found any search engines that do the trick?

Have any of you used Zicasso? If so, did you have a positive experience? Do any of you have experience driving oneself around France?

The company received strong reviews but I have never used them. Chatters, any firsthand experience?

 

And I have driven around France -- as long as you have patience, GPS and a backseat full of baguettes, you will be fine.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't try to time airfare to anywhere. I just look at the price, ask myself if it's worth it, and book it. Sometimes I'll jump on a sale fare, but more as an excuse to take a trip. It costs what it costs, but hotels and car rentals and restaurants typically cost me more.

I think that's the way to do it.

We enjoyed Nova Scotia - Cape Breton was great. Fly to Halifax. And it may be a bit early in the season but fly to Calgary and go to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. But I must say Vancouver is way cool.

Loved Nova Scotia, too. I took a motorcycle sidecar tour of Halifax that was such a blast.

The Canadian Rockies is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and June is a great time to visit. You'd fly into Calgary and drive to Banff, Lake Louise, maybe even Jasper. I've been in winter and in summer (June) - loved both.

Thanks for the suggestion!

I recommend Prince Edward Island for its scenic beauty and welcoming resort atmosphere, not to mention fabulous P.E.I. mussels, if you like those. And you don't have to be an Anne of Green Gables fan to enjoy the place, either, but if you are a fan, P.E.I. is the spot!

Great suggestion!

I'm due for one after an incredibly busy year at work. I want to somewhere warm with a beach but am not interested in all-inclusive or a party scene, or even luxury accommodations. More like a yoga and meditation retreat with good, simple food, with bonus points for local culture. Is there any place in the Caribbean for that? I'm thinking maybe six days including travel. Would love to throw some money at any island recovering from hurricanes.

I've not been there, but I've heard good things about Tres Sirenas in Puerto Rico. Anyone have other recommendations? 

It sounds like the surgery occurred in the U.S. and that they did not depart for Vietnam. Thus, no need to contact the embassy.

Thanks. Revised the answer to note that I wasn't sure where they were traveling from. Sometimes, people will travel to a destination for a cruise and then depart from there.  Maybe the OP can clarify.

Given that the poster likes hikes and cool cities it seems like Vancouver would be a great choice. Do you have to go roundtrip in and out of the same place? Maybe fly to Calgary and drive through the Rockies to Vancouver and fly back from there?

Great suggestion. Thanks!

I enjoyed your story about seeing Europe by bus instead of river cruise. I went to Vienna, Prague and Berlin last fall solo. The bus tour prices you quoted were really eye-popping! I stayed in a great Airbnb in Vienna overlooking the museum quarter and in Prague at a great apartment a short walk to the old town and right across the street from a big tram stop. (In Berlin my Airbnb canceled on me shortly before the trip and I ended up at a brand new Holiday Inn Express near Alexanderplatz). I used a service called Daytrip between cities that is sort of like Uber where you have a local person who drives you in their own car and you can make stops along the way at various points of interest. Those transfers were pricey (a couple hundred bucks each) but they were door to door. Ultimately I paid probably a third to half of the tour's per person price and had a great experience.

Thanks for the great cost-cutting ideas for Europe!

We will be in Vienna on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and want to attend Catholic Mass with gorgeous music. Any suggestions for church and time? Also, will restaurants be open on those days? Are there any you would recommend for lunch or dinner? Thanks so much!

St. Stephen's Cathedral is absolutely stunning with beautiful music, but the last time I went to mass there, it was packed, and it was not Christmas. I'd also look at St. Augustine's and University Church. As for meals, most of the restaurants at high-end hotels will stay open. I also think Restaurant Plachutta, which serves traditional Austrian dishes, is open. 

Hi, we're looking for a hidden gem for spring break. Someplace warm but where we haven't been before (been to Puerto Rico, BVI, Hawaii, Cuba, Caribbean cruise, Mexico, Florida, other usual suspects). We'd also like to keep airfare under $500 per person (4 people), flying out of Chicago or Detroit. thanks

I'd first try to figure out the easiest places to get to via nonstop flights. I think there are nonstops to Belize: Caye Caulker is a hidden gem off the coast of Belize City. I'd also look at St. Lucia. 

Today's code is TT8627. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating.

Which is becoming most of the time! Recently, I've spent more time in the Pre-check line than regular screening! In Miami, there was a huge line to get to the point where regular and Pre-Check split off. The Pre-check folks were stuck in a very long, slow line just to get to passport control, where there was 1 person working. Meanwhile, regular screening folks were speeding along...Here at Dulles, Pre-Check doesn't open now until 4:30 am, while it used to be 4 am. So, we all get to undress as there's no ability to be passed along because Dulles is in some special zone of concern (which makes sense, I get it), but why is it opening later and later? And there's one screening line for everyone, not even 2. Why is TSA pushing Pre-check, without having staffing to handle it? A bunch of us in Miami were ready to cross under the dividers, but figured we'd get shot or something. There was a whole lot of grousing and complaining about paying for a service and not getting it.

You're not alone. Last year I wrote about how PreCheck lines were slower than the regular lines. It's disheartening to see the TSA hasn't done anything to fix the problem. I wonder if there's a way to renounce your PreCheck membership ...

Andrea suggested St Croix to a chatter last week who was interested in the USVI. We're headed there for a few days in March: any suggestions on what to do or where to stay? We like hiking, good food, beaches, etc. Thanks for your help!

I listed a few places in my hurricane update piece, "The U.S. Virgin Islands clean up for the holidays." I really wanted to explore Salt River National Historic Park, but it was closed during my visit. It should hopefully be open now. I loved wandering around Christiansten; the colorful streets are crammed with cute shops and restaurants. 

Hi! I am scheduled to leave again this weekend for my fifth international work trip of the year - on one of the longest possible flights that exists. I just returned 9 days ago from my last trip and I am NOT looking forward to another 15-18 hours on a plane (and back!). Do you have suggestions and wisdom that I might not have thought of for surviving long, long plane rides? As a bonus, I'm pregnant, which makes it even more uncomfortable (and we have to fly economy...). Thanks!

You must really like your job! Some airlines now allow you to bid on upgrades, and if that's available, I would do that, even if I had to pay for it. Could you also approach HR and ask them to spring for premium economy? At the very least, if you're flying a carrier that has seats with a few extra inches legroom, I'd go for that. And it never hurts to explain your situation to a ticket agent and ask for an upgrade. I'd give you one! If you do get stuck in the cheap seats, go for the aisle so you can stretch out a bit and get up and down easily. Good headphones will help -- earbuds hurt when they're inserted for too long. Chatters? 

Remember that in Europe, the day after Christmas is also a holiday - most restaurants and attractions will remain closed until December 27.

While Dec. 26 is a public holiday, I believe many museums and other attractions will be open. Shops, however, will likely be shut. 

Look at the EuroVelo, which is a network of bike trails and small roads in many parts of Europe, including France. I don't know about conditions in April, but riding the EuroVelo through the Loire Valley was great in September, and super-easy to do on your own, as hotels and B&Bs will advertise that they cater to cyclists by displaying the EuroVelo logo.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Might be helpful to look at places that often host organized yoga or meditation retreats. Thinking maybe like Yoga Journal or something that would have a list of popular venues.

Thanks for the idea.

OP here - they were scheduled to depart Friday and were not able to due to the emergency surgery. Luckily they were stateside when the need for the surgery presented. I could not imagine needing abdominal surgery while on a transAtlantic flight (or worse, in a foreign country). Thanks!

Thank you for clarifying. I hope your credit card covers your purchase. If it doesn't, please let me know. You have other options. I can help.

While coming into the country last week, my passport, when placed in the GE kiosk, prompted an "out of service" message, on 3 machines. I went to find an agent, finally found one, and got snarked at royally. He seemed to think that I was some gray-haired senile old bat, and showed it. But when the same message occurred on the 3 machines he selected for me to use, suddenly there was a system error. I eventually got thru, very little thanks to TSA's finest...If he hates his job that much, maybe he needs a new one. I refrained from any comments, but I'm sure my face showed my feelings.

I'm sorry to hear about this. I think these agents would benefit from some customer service training.

I have to chime in here because I recently had a young guy at a hotel counter treat me as if I were quite senile, explaining everything to me very, very slowly when my credit card was acting up. The joys of being an older woman! 

Our trip two years ago to Newfoundland was a dream - gorgeous, lush, rocky, oceany, lots of great hiking. June may bring ice bergs. We went in August, which brings lots of whale sightings. We stayed in Pouch Cove about 30 minutes north of St. Johns on the coast. Wow! The Canadian Rockies and B.C. are definitely on my wish list. Compare costs - flying to Newfoundland was pretty pricey and, therefore, may help you make the most of your winnings.

You confirmed everything I imagined!

Not exactly a destination, but more or a stop on the way to the Everglades is the "Robert Is Here" fruit stand outside Homestead. They have the best key lime shakes, along with other tropical fruit shakes, smoothies, pies and goodies. We stayed nearby while teaching a fire-training class in the Everglades several years ago and I swear I put on 5 pounds over the two weeks we were there. :)

We visited Florida in early January 2011, primarily to visit Saint Augustine and Tampa. On the drive between the two, we stopped at Blue Spring State Park. So glad we did! We saw manatees basking in the sun, at least two alligators (much more alarming than in a zoo!), and just generally enjoyed walking the elevated boardwalk in the mild weather. Well worth a stop if you like seeing wildlife in its natural habitat.

My family went to Florida annually when I was a kid after my grandparents moved down to the Gulf Coast. We frequently went to Disney World and Epcot, but my favorite place was hands down the Shell Factory, which sells shells. So many shells! And you can buy them as necklaces, plant holders, desk lamps, etc. Just a fun, cheesy, Florida experience.

Hi- We are looking to take a vacation (1 week) in either late Spring or early Summer, but must take our senior dog. She has an achy back so long car rides are not for us. We live in Richmond and typically go to the Outer Banks, but we feel we've done it all and seen it all there. Any suggestions for a 3 hour or so car ride from Richmond for a week? We enjoy outdoor activities (hiking, parks, etc.) as well as good food. Thanks!

How about the Virginia Eastern Shore? Cape Charles is less than 2.5 hours from Richmond. This blog on the tourism Web site is a good place to start your research. 

Even though it's not on a beach, I can't recommend Rancho la Puerta enough. Look it up, it's a wonderful place to reset and get your health renewed. And it's lots of fun too, without being a clubby or overtly social atmosphere.

Located in Tecate, Mexico, Rancho La Puerta may not be as easy to get to, but worth a look. 

Can I rent a car in Washington state and drive to Alaska?

Most of the major rental car companies will allow you to drive into Alaska, but you should stick to paved roads. Before booking, share your itinerary with the booking agents. You might also need special tires or chains, depending on the season.

And I now know what people are complaining about. It was extremely intrusive even with the TSA agent not doing anything beyond what I presume was required of her. If anyone tried to do that to my elderly, frail mother, without allowing her to sit (impossible for the whole thing given what they touched) she would fall down and hurt herself. I saw the scan and where I was flagged for needing extra screening. Why didn't they only touch within that area? That would have been bad enough as it was my genital area, but did they also have to check under the band of my trousers all the way at my waist? Also, the screener looked at me and said it was probably a fold in my shirt. Why not let me pull the t-shirt down and get re-screened by the machine?

That's terrible. I'm working about a story about screening right now. I'll see if I can get an answer.

Where can I go by car from the D.C. area for a short, relaxing getaway the week between Christmas and New Year's? Looking for a vibe like the Homestead, without the stressful four-hour drive.

The Eastern Shore town of Easton is very relaxing. Try the Tidewater Inn or the Bartlett Pear Inn, which has an amazing restaurant.

I suggest reserving a bulkhead or exit row seat. Some airlines charge extra but some (such as Thai and Cathay Pacific and Norwegian) do not. On long flights I find knowing that there's no one in front of me who can lean their seat back is some comfort.

Excellent advice. Thanks!

Yes, but also keep in mind that families with babies often ask for the bulkhead seats. 

I was just on an overseas flight in Economy Plus - I get the seat because I am tall and appreciate stretching out my legs. Alas, I discovered I had a bulkhead seat (not specified in the description, though as the first row after business class, I probably should have guessed.) and while my knees weren't touching the bulkhead, I could not stretch out at all - at least in regular economy, I can shoot my legs under the seat in front of me. Do you think this is grounds for requesting a refund? The whole point of EP is legroom!

Thank you for sharing your experience.

Any suggestions on things to do while in Hilton Head the end of December?

Hilton Head's tourism bureau publishes a calendar of events. The Kayaking Jarvis Creek event on Christmas Day sounds fun!

We have a family of 12 traveling to Spain and Portugal. First trip for some. Early summer. Is it a big problem traveling with such a large group? We prefer private tours. Will be there for 9 days. Any suggestions welcome. 

Not sure whether you're asking about day trips or about arranging the entire vacation. I'd take a look at Viator

Sorry to hear people are having poor experiences with precheck. Maybe I've just been lucky, but for me it's always been a relative breeze. Not having to take off shoes, belt, etc and empty my bag has really been great. And going through a regular magnetometer instead of the Nude-O-Scope is also a bonus. My Global Entry renewal was finally approved after about 4-5 weeks of waiting. No new interview required.

I have had good experiences with PreCheck as well, though smaller airports sometimes combine the two lines and give trusted travelers a card to show the agent.

I know the rental car companies in Alaska forbid you from driving on unpaved roads, but if someone were to actually follow that rule, you'd miss a lot of interesting places. Very little of Alaska is paved.

A lot of paved roads look unpaved, especially after the winter.

For driving a rental car through Canada, after making a reservation I would send an email to the rental car company's customer service department with the details and seek advance written confirmation that it is OK. You don't want to be standing at the rental counter and have the clerk assert--rightly or wrongly--"I'm sorry but the answer is still No." Also, note that there is likely to be a very high one-way drop charge if the car is not returned back to Washington state.

Great advice!

We did Germany last year at Christmas and found that the restaurant, museum, etc. openings were variable. Checking the websites is really the best thing you can do. Also, we had great Korean food in Frankfurt that was open when many other places were closed

Yes, it's always a good idea to check before you go! 

Not a city or town, but in-between doing the "parks" we made a short trip to the Tupperware headquarters and museum. It was interesting, plus you could purchase the various knick-knacks you could only get at Tupperware parties. Brought back memories when my mom use to host them.

A "underappreciated" favorite place of ours in Florida is Cocoa Beach. The beach itself isn't crowded (at least when we've been there) and it's right by Cape Canaveral and the NASA visitor's center and tours. It's also easy to get to from Orlando, whether coming from the airport or - as we've done on more than one occasion - as a relaxing day trip to the ocean to serve as a needed break during a week of Magic Kingdom, etc.

Bodhi Tree or Anamaya in Costa Rica (no hurricane recovery there, but good spots). I've been to Anamaya - you can do a package of yoga or surf, or just pay as you go. I've had my eye on Bodhi Tree. For PR, I've been interested in Hix Island House in Vieques which does offer yoga, and looks beautiful and environmentally friendly.

Thanks for the ideas. 

Rather than try to request, after the fact, a possible refund, why not ask another passenger in the Economy Plus zone if they'd be willing to switch? I'd take the bulkhead in a heartbeat!

Yes, that's allowed. 

Hotels keep lists of local tour guides (I've always had good luck booking one through the desk), some of whom also offer van tours that might accommodate all 12 of you.

A definite possibility, but I'd check with the hotel before going. 

My son now lives in Michigan and I suggested he drive into Canada (through Port Huron) to look for things we miss from our time in the UK. Where should he go? We are talking about foodstuffs ususally, and he has already found a British bakery in Michigan for most of this. The drive is part of the adventure--maybe Port Huron to Ste St Marie?

Kingston, Ontario, a seven-hour drive east, feels very British.  One stop: British Isles Shoppe.

I assume one of your stays will be in Lisbon. I heartily recommend the Hop-on/Hop-off buses.

Thanks -- makes a lot of sense for a group of mixed ages/mobility levels.

It is potentially easier, faster, and cheaper (once accounting for the cost of gas, tolls, and such) simply to order items you miss online. And remember that US Customs can confiscate "foodstuffs" at the border, thus negating the purpose of the trip!

Good point -- thanks!

Just curious. Does Andrea see herself as more of an outdoor person? For a first-time visitor to Canada, I would have recommended Montreal particularly, or Toronto or Vancouver.

I love both outdoors and indoors. For example, Hong Kong and New Delhi are two of my favorite cities, though I will often seek out parks and gardens during my urban stays.

For the Canada chatter, you can often find reasonable fares to all three cities, so I was looking for a more extreme destination. (I did not think the person was a first-time visitor, though I still might suggest Newfoundland and Labrador for the first time.)

I was in Ft. Myers with my mom 2 years ago but she got sick and had to stay in the hotel room. There was a great state park nearby with an elevated boardwalk and I got to see all sorts of really cool animals. It was so great my mom went back with me when she recovered and we did the walk all over again! The State parks in Florida are, in general, severely underappreciated- I've never been to a bad one.

And one last Florida recommendation as we wrap up!

Looks like our time is up -- thanks for chatting, everyone! Robert Is Here fan, please drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize. And join us again 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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