Talk about Travel

Dec 10, 2012

Please note that Talk about Travel has now moved to 2 p.m. Mondays.
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Hello, travelers! We are definitely in the holiday spirit this week at Travel section HQ. First, we have some gift suggestions for the traveler on your list. Tom Shroder recalled how he whisked away his family to Spain for Christmas. And Andrea just got back from the Midwest, where she visited towns with Swiss, German and Swedish heritage. So what has been your favorite holiday destination? Best answer gets a prize from Santa.

Let's get started.

New Ulm

I have a stack of very old British pound travelers checks from AAA, but even Tripe A won't cash them for me, as they no longer sell them. Do you have any suggestions on how to get rid of these dinosaurs here in the US? I suspect even merchants in England would refuse them.

Oh, this is tricky, since they're in pounds, not dollars. I think you'd have to take them to a bank with a foreign exchange department, or better yet, somewhere like Travelex, which deals exclusively in foreign exchange. If they do cash them, they'll probably charge you a hefty fee, but it might be worth it just to get rid of them and recoup some of your money.  Chatters, has anyone had actual experience with this?

My mother (65) asked if I (34) would take a short 4 day/long weekend vacation with her in the early spring. Background: We live in Chicago. My likes - basically everything from adventurous outdoorsy to spa to food/wine to culture to lying on the beach. Her likes - lying on the beach, (window) shopping, plays/concerts/museums. She has an adventuresome spirit but in reality is not super active and can get tired rather quickly; also kind of "vanilla" tastes as far as food and doesn't drink. While we both like beach/lying in the sun type vacations, I'd really like to do something a little different. As an aside that goes beyond this forum, she has a history of mental health issues - which is part of the reason I really want to do this, she has had a lot of struggles in life but is in a really good place right now - she loves to travel but really has no one to travel with (and sees me and my husband traveling quite a bit which I can tell she envies somewhat) so I'd like to make this a nice trip for her; at the same time, she can be a little difficult to spend long periods of time with - I try, but its not uncommon if we spend too much time together she GRATES on me terribly (me on her?) and we snap at each other - something I would like to avoid/keep to a minimum. So basically, I am looking for ideas that can keep us distracted enough to not argue, but not overtire her either. All of that within our "likes" and within the States I guess (since we only have 4 days and are departing from the upper-midwest). I realize that's a lot of info but I'm hoping it helps to get a lot of ideas/suggestions from you guys as well as other chatters here.

You say you want to do something a little different, but what exactly do you mean? Some nice places for long weekends that have options for being on the water with plenty of other activities are Miami, Charleston and San Diego. New Orleans could also work. Amelia Island, Fla., is lovely as well.

For last week's chatter who was asking about self-driving tours in Southeast Asia, we drove the Mae Hong Son loop in Thailand a few years ago and it was a fantastic experience. You definitely have to be a brave driver, because there are narrow roads, high-piled cabbage trucks, random cows in the road, etc. But it really wasn't bad and one of our most worthwhile experiences in Thailand. For comparison's sake, there are definitely places in the world I have been to that I would never drive - India and most of the Middle East come to mind. But Southeast Asia is definitely doable.

Thanks for the front-line report.

Hi Crew - Just started a new job where we are closed the week between Christmas & New Year's -- yay for me! Am looking for a place to go for the 28-30 with my tween daughter and my husband that is a reasonable airfare ($250 r/t) away or no more than a 6-hour drive. Not so much skiing as exploring a small town or city. Been to all of the local-ish places. Had thought of Memphis or Nashville, but tix are pricey. Would love your suggestions. Thanks!

Airfares are astronomically high this holiday season.Not many places are going to come in under $250. I did, however, find some decent fares to Boston: as little as $150 on Southwest out of BWI, for example. If you've not been there, it's a great city for exploring. Could be a little cold and snowy, but will be decorated to the hilt. Just the thought of Italian holiday food treats in the North End is enough to convince me.  

Hi Crew - We were thinking of taking our 11-year old daughter to either the Homestead or the Greenbrier for three nights between Christmas and New Year's. What are these places like? Are they hokey and dated? Stuffy? Will there be enough other kids? Stuff to do? We have never done an all-inclusive resort before, and were not fond of our one time on a cruise ship. Are these too similar an experience? Thanks for any feedback.

I have been to both resorts, and though no longer a pre-adult, I have the attention span of one.  Though both places have tons of activities, I easily filled my hours at the Homestead, which seemed a tad more youth-oriented. (Read my Homestead piece here; for the Greenbrier piece, see here.) In winter, for example, you can ski, ice skate, snow tube and more at the Homestead -- snow dependent, of course. The resort also has family-friendly activities planned for the holidays, such as a gingerbread workshop and tea with Mrs. Claus.

Try the Daughter Test: Show your daughter the Web sites of both resorts and see which one she leans toward.

My wife and I would like to take a trip to celebrate surviving the first year of raising a baby. The trip will be just the two of us, and we'd like to go somewhere warm in February for 3-4 nights that is a relatively short direct flight from DC or Baltimore. I find the choices to be overwhelming. Any suggestions of locations, or even better, specific hotel/resorts to look into? Thanks

The Bahamas is the closest foreign warm-weather destination with nonstop flights.  It's a two-and-a-half-hour flight from BWI to Nassau on Airtran. Many different resorts/hotels are offered at all price points. I like the Where to Stay Web site as a good place to start a search.  

Last week, one chatter complained that the DC hotels are already sold out for Inauguration Day. Here's an interesting option: Stay in historic Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and ride the MARC train into Union Station, D.C. Some details can be found here. The train ride takes about 1.5 hours; riders can bring food and beverage aboard. Trains are equipped with restrooms. Several B&B's are located within an easy walk of the train station in Harper's Ferry.

A different idea, for sure. Thanks.

On a flight back from Dubai with my husband recently, we had booked the aisle and window seats. There was no one booked to sit in between us (we checked). But three people came on the flight at the last minute. One person did not have a seat assignment. The flight attendant told him to pick an empty seat. He chose to sit in between us. My husband and I were both annoyed. Could we have just said no or asked him to sit somewhere else? There were plenty of middle seats available that didn't disrupt two people traveling together.

If you didn't speak up, there's no way that person could have known that the two of you were traveling together and wanted to be able to communicate or whatever during the flight. I think you could have made a polite plea that he try another row. But if you were reluctant to do so, then I think that in your place, I would probably have yielded the window seat and moved into the middle to sit next to my husband, and stuck the late arrival in the seat that's hardest to get in and out of. Unless, of course, you or husband have a fond preference for window seats.

Chatters, your thoughts?

Home Sweet Home. No hassles, no travel expenses, no sweat. Day-trips in the area, e.g., to go cross-country skiing if there's natural snow.

Fair enough!

3 years ago I spent Christmas Eve in Torres Del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile. It was technically summer there, but we had flurries at the top of the mountain. It was definitely not your typical holiday destination, but the majestic scenery and cozy lodge were absolutely perfect. And I loved being so far removed from the typical holiday craziness.

Not to go against the point of the Travel Section, but I have a difficult relationship with this city and yet I can't hate Washington, D.C. at this time of year The trains at the Botanic Garden, Scottish Christmas Walk, a downtown Christmas market, holiday decorations at the Smithsonians, Santa water-skiing at National Harbor, wreaths at Arlington, the Capitol Christmas Tree, and the National Menorah and National Christmas Tree. The best part of the last is looking at all the trees from the states and territories, including things that they consider making their state special (the best, though, came after Katrina had struck and the New Orleans-based organization couldn't provide ornaments - each of the other states provided one for the tree. It was gorgeous and brings tears to my eyes even now. Sorry for carrying on. The holidays in Washington are awesome.

Munich before Christmas for the Christmas markets. It snowed. It was very cold. It was busy, but not crowded (Aachen was so crowded we couldn't even pause to buy something). Some of the most beautiful and varied ornaments from hand painted blue glass bells to tiny baskets to wooden creche figures to thin and very fragile blown glass ornaments. German speaking spouse and a suite for a hotel room.

For over 20 years, my family and I traveled to a mountain resort called Coolfont in Berkely Springs, West Virginia. It closed a few years ago and I would like to find something similar. Looking for a similar resort within 3-4 hours of Washington DC with an assortment of housing ranging from cabins, hotels, to rental houses. Onsite dining, massages, walking trails, and other family related activities. Please let me know if you know of anything similar.

Look into Capon Springs and Farms, a delightfully old-fashioned resort in Capon Springs, W.Va. It's the epitome of family-friendly, with some families coming year after year. There's golf, and a spa with mineral baths and massage. In the summer, it's a lot like going to summer camp, but with folks of all ages. Activities include nature walks, live entertainment and bingo.

Another possibility:  It's not quite the same, but there's a community called The Woods near Hedgesville, W.Va., on the way to Berkeley Springs that used to have a lodge but has scaled back in recent years. However, they still do have rental units, plus the place is full of private homes that are rented out to vacationers. There's a spa on-site with massages, facials, etc. There's one indoor and two outdoor pools, a small fitness center, tennis courts (one is indoors) and two golf courses. There's a restaurant at the golf course area. There are no walking trails on the property but it abuts the Sleep Creek Wildlife Management area, where there are trails (but not good to hike on during hunting season). It's within easy driving distance of Berkeley Springs, Shepherdstown and Martinsville, if you want shopping.

A lot of luggage manufacturers promote "spinner" bags, with four wheels instead of two. Have you had any experience with them? It looks to me like they'd be harder to pull in a straight line -- which, after all, is usually what we're doing with wheeled bags -- and four wheels is twice as many to break. Any advice?

For many years I had two-wheeled bags, a small carry-on and a larger one. This year I splurged and bought a set of four-wheeled luggage. I wish I'd done it sooner! I don't find it hard at all to move in a straight line -- I can wheel the bag next to me or in front of me. I always found it extremely uncomfortable to have to pull my two-wheeled bag behind me. Supporting a tilted heavy bag really did a number on my arm and shoulder.

Hi Travel Staff! I've always flown United from IAD to SEA, typically returning on the redeye flight. It appears that they've gotten rid of the redeye in the new year, though, and now have only two flights a day from Seattle to Dulles. Can you shed any light on this? Many thanks!

Airlines often cut itineraries that they deem unpopular or underproductive. 

However, when I do a search for Seattle to Dulles flights, I see redeye flights with connections in California. JetBlue also flies overnight from coast to coast.

For the person annoyed by someone taking the middle seat between her and her husband -- I don't think you can expect in ANY circumstances that an empty seat next to you is going to stay empty. If you really want the middle seat vacant that badly, then you've got to pay for it. I honestly don't understand why this person was annoyed. Sure, you could have asked them to move somewhere else, but presumably you are then just shifting the problem to another person. If sitting next to each other is that important, then one of you should move to the middle seat when the person arrived to take it (I have done that when my husband and I occupy window and aisle seats in the hope that no one will take it and someone does).

Yup. Again, as I said.

Sometimes I like to go away to warm places. I'll do that by going on an Xmas, New Year's or combo Xmas/New Year's cruise to the Southern Caribbean. There's nothing like viewing holiday displays in the tropics, where you can walk the streeets in shorts and no heavy jacket. There's no better feeling than visiting a beach and feel that warm sand and ocean water on your feet. Happy cruising!

Thanks for taking my question. Any ideas for a great, useful gift for my widowed, 64-year-old mother, who will be traveling to Paris this summer with her French Group? We are thrilled she is getting back into travel and other of life's enjoyments. Was thinking a good book about Paris (suggestions?) and luggage or a non-fanny-pack-looking fanny pack...or any other brilliant ideas from seasoned travelers. Thanks and Happy Holidays!

I really liked "The Most Beautiful Walk in the World" by John Baxter. You could also go for "The Sweet Life in Paris" by David Lebovitz. Who has other favorite Paris books?

We just published our Travel gift guide. Maybe the luggage in there would appeal to her. I'm also a fan of Crumpler bags -- durable, colorful and a bit funky.

I love you guys, but I hate it when you essentially do not answer a question, but ask questions of the poster (who may not have the ability to respond during the chat). I think the poster gave a fair amount of information and wish you had been a bit more helpful. For travelling with someone who is difficult, I think it is important to separate (if possible) or join other people for part of the time. I'm guessing in this case, the poster's mother would not want to go off on her own for some of the time. So I'd suggest going somewhere where you spend part of your time with others. For example: go to Yellowstone and take a Yellowstone Institute course for part of the time; go to Milwaukee (or another city) and take some city tours so you are with other people; go take a class somewhere together (e.g., Disney Institute or Chautauqua Institute); Road Scholar might have a short course that would fit the bill (maybe combine their Everglades tour with a few days on your own in Miami Beach, for example). And when you are with other people for your tour/course, make an effort to interact separately with those people.

Sorry you didn't think I answered the question, but I did give some destinations I thought would work. We try to do the best we can on the fly. I think the poster's use of the term "different" without elaborating threw me. Thanks for your suggestions.

Suggestion for the daughter whose mother wants to take a short vacation: go somewhere that you can both do your thing, without the other, for a half a day or so. Ideally you'll be somewhere either with public transportation, taxis, or where one of you can take the rental car without leaving the other stranded. This will help keep the nerve-grate in check. Also, separate hotel rooms, just in case you were thinking of cutting a budgetary corner in that department. You can always get a connecting room. As for destination, can I add to the Gurus' excellent suggestions with Taos/Santa Fe, New Mexico, or Las Vegas? Early spring is a good time to go to the desert Southwest.

My husband and I do the aisle/window thing all the time, even though it rarely nets an empty seat anymore. Given we didn't BUY the extra seat, I don't feel like we can be annoyed when someone sits there, so we just move seats. The benefit is that we get to make someone very happy not to have a middle seat after all!

My thinking precisely! :-)

I've had several fantastic holiday trips to Marseille, France. You can walk through the santons market to buy beautiful local figurines while eating freshly roasted chestnuts. Watch the living nativity procession in a nearby village. Visit the beautiful Provencal countryside. If the weather is nice you can go for a boat ride along the coast to see the cliffs and the gorgeous sea. What a treat!

Ah, yes, we had a nice story on Marseille the other year.

I just booked rooms in Boston this morning! Very reasonable at Marriott...

Good to know. 

My dad and stepmom want to go away for a couple of nights during the holidays and he's tasked me with finding a destination. They are looking for a place that's within 5-6 hours driving distance from Fairfax. They don't want to go to NYC, Philly or Pittsburgh, or Hampton Roads area. They like historic areas, hiking and scenic drives. All I could come up with are Greenbrier and the Homestead. Any other suggestions?

Would they be willing to go 7 hours away? Asheville, NC, is wonderful, if they haven't been. There's history (Tom Wolfe house; Biltmore estate), hiking (e.g. Chimney Rock, not too far away)*and* scenic drives! Or would they consider heading beachward? I love Cape May, N.J., in the winter, and the town really goes all out at the holidays with decorations and various programs and more. Congress Hall is a terrific old hotel that stays open through the winter. Or, if they really like historic areas, what about someplace like Gettysburg? I also recently rediscovered Winchester, Va., which should be lovely at the holidays. About a 25-minute drive away, in the hillsides of West Virginia, is the Inn at High View.   

Chatters, a little input from you?

We will be in London for a week next spring. Is it worth a day trip from London to Paris via the Channel Tunnel? Does the train depart/arrive close to the city centers, and run on a schedule that allows at least a half-day for sightseeing?

This has come up in the chat before, and if I recall, most people said go for it. Anyone care to weigh in again?

Can any of you confirm that a carry on suitcase, under 45 inches (total of height, width and depth), for a flight originating in the US, and landing in Europe, would be OK? I checked the airline website, and it just says carry ons under 45 inches are fine. There is no additional info for international flights. Thanks!

It depends on the airline, but if  you checked the info online, then you should be good to fly. But don't exceed the limits, or they will make you check it.

For example, British Airways allows a main carry-on bag with the dimensions of 22 by 18  by 10 inches.  For the smaller bag, it allows 18  by 14 by 8 inches. On Virgin Atlantic, the main bag can be 9 by 14 by 22 inches.

Love reading this chat every week, you guys always have great suggestions! In a few weeks, I'll be heading to Switzerland for 2 weeks for the holidays, and while there we'll be taking a side trip to Vienna for a couple of days (between Christmas and New Years)... anything not to miss in Vienna during the holiday season?

Some of the Christmas markets will still be up, so be sure to take in a few of those and have some lebkuchen and gluhwein. They are very much part of the city's fabric during the holiday period. And if you're up for some skating, there are rinks set up around town as well -- head for the Rathaus (town hall) and you can hit a Christmas market plus tie on some skates for a spin around the rink in the square. If you're there on New Year's Eve itself, you can join in on some of the spontaneous street parties that erupt around town, or head for an open-air concert (the official, indoor ones are likely to be sold out, alas, or at least cost an arm and a leg to get into).

What else, chatters?

I'd add Savannah GA to that list. Great food, nice people, history, beautiful walkable city, beaches nearby...

Reminder---all the festivities and parades happen on Monday Jan 21 (MLK Day) this year because it falls on a Sunday. Happens every 28 years.

Oh, good point. As far as I can tell, MARC hasn't released their schedule for that day. Usually it doesn't run on holidays.

Before you go, definitely research a few activities where you and your mom can stay mostly silent (like plays or performances or even "interactive" dinners). Try to schedule at least one of these activities per day so that there's something new to discuss, and so that you don't necessarily have to talk to each other the whole trip! Also look into solo activities, like a morning jog or an errand to give one another a bit of space on the trip.

The poster indicated the mother had/has mental health issues. Depending on the nature of the mental illness, I would suggest the mother/daughter get separate rooms so they can both be free of one another for a defined period of time. I would also do what the mother wanted to do more so than the daughter; be aware of any triggers. You and your mother might also want to plan an activity in which the other will NOT come, whether it is AA/OA/NA, a museum, shopping or beach time. Oh and if you mother doesn't like surprises, this is one instance in which I definitely WOULD NOT surprise her.

Yes, I've had that problem. A few years ago, I found and tried to cash in some travelers checks in dollar amounts, that had been given to me several years earlier. The bank at first refused to honor them, saying the checks were "too old." I pointed out that it said right on them that they "never expire." Eventually, I deposited them into my bank account but I don't know if they ever cleared in. I do know that I won't again believe the claims about traveler's checks being better or safer than cash.

Yes, travelers' checks days are so over.

Consider booking aisle seats across from one another, so you both have plenty of leg-room.

Good idea!

Husband and I were in Tokyo for Christmas and New Years four years ago, and it was fabulous. Because it's not a Christian nation, they have a little trouble with the iconography, so you'd see department store displays with a manger, Santa, and perhaps a Godzilla thrown in, which was kind of fun. New Year's Day is a huge, huge holiday, so the whole run-up is very exciting, with temples laying down new straw mats and decorating. It's a big deal to go someplace to watch the sun rise on New Year's, and we wound up on a tour where we (and brother-in-law) were the only gaijin - we sailed out of Tokyo Harbor shortly before midnight, watched the fireworks over Tokyo Disneyland, then on to Oshima Island in time for sunrise on the eastern shore of the island. Memorable indeed.

Driving home to DC from the Midwest on the last day of 1977 via I-70: Stopped at Fort Necessity, Pennsylvania (where George Washington lost a battle during the French-Indian War), and cross-country skiied around the fort area -- the only tourists there that day! Picnic-lunched in the car (with the heat on!), then drove the rest of the way home before dark.

When my husband and I got married we honeymooned in Tahiti and Bora Bora the first 2.5 weeks of December. Our hotel in Tahiti had their reception area fully decorated for Christmas, incuding a 12' tree with wrapped boxes under it and white felt 'snow' with Christmas music in the background. When we were in Bora Bora our hotel had the palm trees wrapped in shiney red paper and green garland. It was quite a sight to come off the beach and lay under a Christmas Palm.

Seven Springs near Somerset, PA has everything you're looking for as well - a nice spa/lodge, good on-site dining with plenty of choices for everyone, and tons of lodging options from hotel rooms to condos to townhomes to large private homes. It's an easy drive from DC and there's lots to do there!

Good thought.

The book "Pariswalks," definitely!

I have a 2 day summer conference in southern France, would like to take a 2 week vacation. Does it make sense to fly into Paris in advance for a few days, leisurely drive south, attend conference, leisurely drive to Spain, spend a few days in Madrid and fly home from there? Will the airfare kill me? any recommendations? We love beaches, big cities, wine and food.

Makes sense to me. Although I might be more tempted to go to Barcelona, which is closer to the south of France. And then you could explore the coastal towns and cities south of there. Dropping off a rental car in a different city may be costly. Research whether it might cost less to take a discount carrier from Paris to your destination in Spain, and then rent a car there. Also, if international airfare is much more expensive departing from a different city, you could catch a discount flight back to Paris. For a list of which carriers fly where, go to

You take questions occasionally about legal IDs for kids traveling alone. Most state DMVs offer official non-driver ID cards to their residents that look similar to driver's licenses. Rules vary by state, but many don't have age restrictions. In DC, you have to be at least 15, but Virginia, Maryland and Delaware appear to have no minimums. To get one, you have to present pretty much the same paperwork you need to get a driver's license. Fees are negligible. If your kid flies a lot, or for a variety of other reasons, it could be worth the time and trouble. (Of course, if he goes outside the U.S., he's already got a passport, right?)

The District




Thanks for these great links.

I have flown the DCA-BOS shuttle six times in the past month and report that the boarding process is broken. On each flight: it was sold out; dozens of oversized bags were let on; I was in the first five rows of economy (the last to be boarded) and before we were called for boarding the gate agents announced that all overhead bins were full and all roller bags would need to be checked; the overhead bins were full of bags of passengers from other rows; due to the luggage delays the flight left late (but arrived on time because DOT lets airlines pad their flight time by 50 percent). I travel light, without a roller bag, so I did not need to check my bag, but the situation is ridiculous and unfair. I suggest the following: airlines reconsider the boarding order (how about last ten economy rows, the first five economy rows, the the middle rows?); flight attendants stop passengers from using overhead bins more than three rows from their seats; gate agents stop people bringing oversized bags on board (the luggage size sign is right at the jetway) AND passengers be charged $100 per gate-checked oversized bag. I hate that the airlines are setting passengers against one another and gouging passengers with outrageous fees, but passengers with large bags deserve to be pay for breaking the rules. Currently, passengers who happen to be in the last boarding group are being inconvenienced.

You make good points, but I don't see things changing anytime soon. We can dream, though, can't we?

St Pancras in London and Gare du Nord are near or in the city centers, but buy your fares now. We scored 69 euro fares from London to Paris 3-4 months ahead, but closer to the date could be wildly expensive--200-300 euros each way.

I second your opinion on spinners. I just spent two weeks schlepping luggage through Europe (Brussels, London, Lille, Paris) by train. One bag was a 4-wheeled spinner and the other was a 2-wheeled roller. The spinner was by far the easier to travel with in airports and train stations. And by the way, while European train stations have ramps and elevators, many have a few final steps to traverse to get outside to the taxi stands (I'm talking to you, Brussels Central).

Yes, you'll get into a major Parisian station (Gare de l'Est, if I'm not mistaken). You can easily see lots of things in Paris and head back.

Do you know of any tours that cater to older adults with limited mobility? My grandmother is 82 with a late blooming desire to travel. Unfortunately, she can no longer keep up with the pace of your standard tour. She has the physical limitations of old age, but no other disabilities. So she really needs a company that moves slowly and tour guides with patience. I'd be curious to hear of any companies that could accommodate her travel needs. Thanks.

Two options: Accessible Journeys and Road Scholar. Other recommendations?

I live in Seattle. There drop of this connection could be seasonal. Same true with a SEattle-Clevland flight. Part of it has to do with route consolidation between Newark and Dulles. Also Alaska runs a direct to National. Their departure to Dulles that leaves in the afternoon is actually I think the last connection of the day between Seattle and east coast hub airports. the next flights are redeyes.

we went with some friends of ours on a cruise - we each have two kids that get along well. It was christmas week...we drove down to cape canaveral (from Atlanta - that's what made it affordable, no airfare) - and we went on a 7 day cruise - it was awesome. We had the best of everything, spent some time with our friends, some time without them, and we went to warm places (though the bahamas was nice, it wasn't necessarily HOT, though, at that time). Also, I live in Portland, and I know there are some redeyes back to the east - maybe check there for the SEA person? it's not incredibly far (and they do have flights from SEA to PDX - might be better than connecting in CA).

One of you travel gurus has a fave smallish, hard sided, probably also a spinner - what is the brand? I have a 20-inch carrry-on, looking for something smaller. I travel light!

Chris Elliott had this to say last week. Maybe that's what you're remembering?

My luggage of choice for the last few years has been a 21-inchTravelPro rollaboard. It's coming apart at the seams right now from overuse. But if I had to buy another bag, that would probably be the one.

If the window-aisle couple didn't want to sit right next to each other since they left the middle seat open, get aisle seats across from each husband and I do this all the time. Works great!

I know this is very early but I am a planner! I am taking my husband on trip for a mile stone birthday in late September (9/28-10/5) but am having a problem deciding where to go. My husband and I would like a beach location that also offers other interesting activities. I really wanted to go to Belize, the 'Blue Hole', the second largest reef, jungle, Mayan ruins seemed perfect except our trip would be during rainy season. We don't want to go to Mexico. Do you have any suggestions?

Costa Rica is less prone to hurricanes than Belize. And it has several different climates -- its Caribbean coast does not get much rain in September. 

Heading to El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in February for a quick visit. Only have about 8 days total. We like cultural things so will certainly be visiting places like the Copan ruins. Also want to work in some active things like ziplining or hiking. Any suggestions? How safe are these places? Thanks!

Have a look at these stories we ran on Honduras and Nicaragua. Lots to see and do, and both countries are safe, as long as you exercise the usual caution and care.

Chatters, your suggestions?

When booking seats for a flight, is there a way to find out in advance if the pilot is not one of the smoothest operators in the company? I don't need a name, just the advice that "Babies and nervous flyers may prefer our later (or earlier) flight, which departs at XX:00." It occurred to me to ask you because I was just on a bus with a driver who veered a lot and almost collided with cars two times in three miles. If I see him behind the wheel again, I will wait for the next bus -- but shouldn't I have a similar choice with planes? Of course, in the air, I'm not (I hope!) talking about near-collisions, but about things like jerky (or generally scary) maneuvering and frequent changes in cabin pressure. Thanks.

There is no way to know in advance the pilot or crew.  One assumes that pilots (at least ones on major carriers) were trained equally and are good drivers. In fact, most pilots are not to blame for the choppy ride; the weather is.

Instead, you might  to look at weather forecasts, then decide whether you want to fly or not. For some insights into turbulence, see my recent piece.

I'm interested in learning how to cross country ski. Are there any resorts in the area that offer cross country skiing to include lessons, without having to go to New England to learn this skill?

West Virginia is a good place for learning to cross-country ski. Look into White Grass, Blackwater Falls State Park and Elk River Touring Center, to name a few. Those aren't resorts per se, but they're all in resort areas. Some resorts may also offer lessons, but I couldn't confirm that off-hand. Wisp in Maryland is another option.

Best place for a non-celebrant to celebrate Christmas is New York City. We used to go regularly when our daughter was young. The holiday decorations are lovely, there are elaborate store window displays to look at, and best of all, there are tons of people about, so you do not feel the least bit left out.

I hope it' ok to solicit gift advice on the chat -- your holiday guide inspired me. My husband travels a lot for work, and has often commented on how he needs a better neck pillow. His current one forces his head out a bit-- I guess it's too padded. Does anyone have a recommendation for a neck pillow that's more squishy? I'd love to get him one for Christmas and haven't had much luck searching online. Thanks!

It's not really squishy, but I liked the Simple Pillow I reviewed the other year. Good because you can inflate it to however big you want.

This year's inauguration is on MLK day. It's possible that MARC will be running that day, because of the inauguration, but usually they do not.

Yeah, I'm a little surpised I couldn't find that info on MARC's site as this point. All I saw was "TBA."

just because it has four wheels doesnt make it a spinner. You need to test it out to see how it moves in different directions. I have a 4 wheel spinner that I can push it or have it straddle against me.

I completely agree with the previous writer. The airlines have to stop being such wimps and make the oversized bag people check them. I pack very carefully so that I can carry on in an appropriately sized bag, and I shouldn't be punished for being a late boarder (I fly United the most, and they board by window-middle-aisle, so I'm always in the late group). Who cares if the gate people tick off travelers? It's not like they didn't know the rules.

I have a direct flight scheduled for 12/22 leaving ~6:30 PM. There is a flight on the same airline leaving earlier in the day, but the later flight was cheaper and more convenient for my family. Right now it looks like the forecast for DC is average/slightly-above-average temps and some rain early that week and I'm guessing the trend should continue through the weekend. Obviously things can change, but how seriously would you be considering a plan B in my situation? I'm inclined to stop worrying and love my itinerary.

If the airline has a recipricol agreement with other airlines that are offering later flights that day, you could familiarize yourselves with those schedules. This way, if your flight is canceled, you can tell them what flight you'd like to be put on. Take carry-on luggage -- it's often more problematic for them to switch you to another flight if your luggage is checked. And as soon as they announce a problem with the flight, either be the first on line to talk to an agent, or have the 800 number ready to dial. Don't just wait at the back of the line. Regardless, there will likely be very few seats on any flights on that day, so I'd hope for the best.  

Do you or any of the readers have any experience with I have used it to make reservations for my upcoming trip to Morocco. Thanks!, a child company of Priceline, is a major player in Europe, with hundreds of thousands of bookings per day.  To be safe, though, I would confirm your reservations with the hotels directly,  just in case the booking was lost during the transaction.

when i was studying abroad in nice, france, we left just before christmas. it was DEFINITELY not cold or anything - but all these Xmas decorations were up, and it was really neat to see them somewhere different. Also, that we were 'on the beach' pretty much, and seeing how they decorated, and having that backdrop, it was just, different. nice and fun too.

When traveling to a foreign country if you have never been to that country is it better to buy a travel package or save some money and do your own planning? Travel packages can be significantly more money, but you can really ruin your vacation if you try to do your own planning when you really don't know what you are doing, where to go, or which transporation is the best to use.

I'm not convinced that travel packages are always more expensive. Some include airfare, transfers, lodging, guides, meals, sightseeing admissions, etc. Add that all up, and you may be surprised at the ala carte cost. But some people don't want to be told to have their bags out the door at 6 a.m. or to leave a cathedral by 2 p.m. in order to catch the bus. It is a trade-off.  Reading between the lines of your question, I think you might be better off taking a tour, at least for your first trip to the country. 

When my sister and I were in our early 20s we took a trip to Thailand. We spent time in and around Chiang Mai. When we arrived we rented a car but hadn't made hotel reservations. We figured we would find a place once we arrived. We took the car way out into the jungle and my sister happened to see a sign for a resort (I can't remember the name) way off the road. We explored the region a bit and when we were driving back to Chiang Mai decided to stop to see if they had rooms. They were shocked at two single women just dropping by. They usually cater to tours. The place was wonderful. The staff treated us like queens and really made sure we had everything we needed. What we had planned as a one night stay ended up 4 nights. So I would say get a car and explore the country. You never know what you will come upon.

Thanks for the note of confidence!

For a DC night out with the wife which hotel do you prefer; Willard or Mandarin?

Good question. You probably can't go wrong with either. I'd say the Willard has the edge on neighborhood ambience and the Mandarin has the edge on dining.

A few weeks ago I asked about mount hood - I live in portland... We're going to mt bachelor and I can't wait! (we just moved to Portland from further east and are LOVING exploring this area!!!). The family hasn't ever been skiing (I have but a LONG time ago) - so we'll see how it goes. Part of me is excited, part of me wants them to hate it because it's such an expensive hobby!!!

Have fun!

If you didn't speak up you can't blame him for picking the seat in your row.

Right. As I said.

Where should I go in February to escape the Chicago winter? Overseas is preferred....

You need to give us more clues: What is your budget? Allotted time? I would say Bali or Australia. Or Colombia or Brazil.

Looking for ideas for a 50th anniversary "getaway" for 3 generations that will involve 2 seniors (their anniversary), 6 adults, 3 children (1, 10, 12) next summer. One senior has issues walking, but uses a scooter to go longer distances than around the house. We were originally thinking overseas (Italy), but a grandson will be playing in a soccer tourney in Scotland (end July - beginning Aug) and money is a concern; not sure what budget would be, but we're trying to be conscious of it. We're not into a beach setting ~ several of adults are more active and would probably prefer more outdoor activities. 2 families are on the East Coast, and one in Seattle, the last in Denver. Any suggestions?! We've been to Sooke (outside Victoria, British Columbia) in the past, but open to any and other ideas.

Don't know if this will be too close-to-home for the Denver crowd, but the Vail/Beaver Creek area is very lovely in summer. Only issue could be the altitude. At the risk of repeating myself (I know, I do keep recommending this city for family reunions), San Diego again comes to mind.  Yes, it has a beach, but it's a real city with many attractions and activities. 

My daughter has a college break at the end of January. She and a few friends are looking for a reliably warm place to go on a student's budget. They aren't looking for a "spring- break" type atmosphere but would like more to do than lazing at the pool or beach. Thanks

Is a beach a requirement? If not, how about Orlando? Weather won't be super warm, but should be pleasant. If they want to party a little more than they will admit to mom, Key West may be fun, although the beaches aren't great. 

Full information on MARC service for Inauguration Day is now on the MTA website . Tickets for this special service go on sale next Monday. To sumarize: There will be 8 Penn Line and 4 Brunswick Line trains. There will be no service on the Camden Line. All trains will be reserved. You will need to choose the train you wish to ride at the time you purchase your ticket. No regular one-way, weekly, or monthly MARC tickets will be honored. The fare will be $25 round trip. No one-way fares will be sold. The ticket will be a special commemorative ticket that the passengers may keep. Sales will be available on the MTA website and in person at the Transit Store at 6 St. Paul Street starting at 8:00am on Monday, December 17. Tickets are non-refundable. Each person may purchase no more than 20 tickets. Again, full information is available on the MTA website.

Thank you! Now they just need to update where I saw that TBA.

If that couple wanted to sit next to each other, they should have gotten seats next to each other. It's unrealistic to expect that an empty seat is going to remain that way, even if you check in advance. Ironically, in this instance if they had booked an aisle seat and middle seat , they probably would have ended up with the row to themselves. Having chosen the aisle and window, one of them could have made the offer to move into the middle. I'm not sure that they should expect other people to suffer to satisfy their request, though, and for me, sitting in a window seat is suffering (because I'm terrified of flying and being close to the window makes it worse). When I was once in a similar situation, traveling single and seated between a couple, I said I was willing to move to the aisle seat to satisfy their request to sit together. The couple expressed reluctance to take the middle and window seats, so I allowed that I was happy to remain in the middle seat in that case. They opted to make the change.

These airline seating dances are just so delicate, aren't they?

My parents (80 and 83) want to go on a trip this spring and I said I'd be happy to accompany them. We were talking about going to Paris. My parents are fairly healthy for their age but I'm concerned about going out of the country in case of a problem. My dad has mentioned going to Maine and I wonder if you have any suggestions for a 7 day trip there that could work. Thanks!

My 89-year-old mother just got back from a tour to Costa Rica, and she's been to Europe at least a half dozen times in the past three years. So I say, take them to Paris if they're in good health. If it makes you feel more secure, get travel insurance that includes evacuation coverage. Maine is a far cry from Paris, but it has wonderful nature-oriented appeal . You could do a coastal trip that would start in Portland and end in Acadia National Park, stopping in Boothbay Harbor. 

I just spent a month in Australia and I traveled through six airports, some more than once. Their security staffs were unfailingly polite, professional and thorough without being intrusive. No shoes off, no belts off, no groping. Then at LAX I was shuttled into a line for the xray scan, although I tried to avoid it, and their video image showed FIVE "suspicious areas" (little yellow boxes) ON MY HEAD! I'm a guy with shaggy hair, and the gadget's sensitivity was cranked up so high that my hair registered as a threat, and a TSA blueshirt wearing rubber gloves PATTED DOWN MY HEAD! while two other blueshirts stood guard next to him. (It didn't look like women were experiencing the same problem.) This is just crazy. In recent years I have also traveled in New Zealand, China, Japan, the UK and Russia, and in no other country will you ever encounter the antics that the TSA routinely gets away with. People who don't travel outside the U.S. don't grasp that the way the TSA is permitted to operate is an international aberration. I'd like to know a lot more about the money behind the TSA: How big is the budget, how many employees, how many billions of dollars paid to contractors, etc., etc. This has to be one of the biggest scams in the federal government, and a lot of people are feeding at this trough.

I can imagine that was truly a hair-raising experience! (Sorry for the pun.) The TSA complaints keep coming. . .

We are planning a trip to Ireland of about 10 days to 2 weeks. We're not tour bus type travelers and love enjoy the flexibility that driving allows. But we're leery of driving a manual transmission left-handed while also on the "wrong" side of the road. We are told cars with automatic transmissions are hard to get and much more expensive. A travel agent scoffed at train travel, said buses are very slow, and suggested we hire a car and driver for the entire trip. The lack of privacy and added expense for that doesn't appeal. We're fine with hiring a driver/guide for a day or two or joining a small local tour group. Your suggestions for how to organize out trip?

If you are unsure of driving, don't do it. You won't enjoy the trip. But to be honest, you will get the hang of it, if you just follow the other cars, especially on the round-abouts.

Automatic cars are harder to find in Ireland, but they are out there. Thrifty, for example, says it "has a fantastic range of automatic vehicles available for rent." It suggests booking far in advance, because of limited supply.

I also prefer to travel solo, but sometimes a driver can add an unexpected personal touch to your trip. I would not rule it out.


I have 4 items for your consideration: 1. For the chatter a couple weeks ago who asked about staying in Ft. Lauderdale before New Year's Day and coming home that day, may I suggest that you stay in Ft. Lauderdale and enjoy the environs? This city is referred to as "the Venice of the South." with all those canals and nice homes. If they want old school, try staying at The Breakers or the Boca Raton Club; if they want to be hip, stay at the W Ft Lauderdale (I haven't stayed there, but it was featured on an episode of a Real Housewives of Orange County). 2. For the chatter who asked about what to do w/the gift money for going to the UK, I recommend going to the Travelex office at 1801 K, get a Cash Passport for pounds sterling, and the card will come with a pin # to get cash from an ATM. 3. Regarding that extra form handed out by flight crews on arrival in LHR, the form is called the UK Landing Form, and it's for people who arrive in the UK and who expect to stay there for a vacation. I think the form resembles the DHS Form 9 for International arrivals and customs. 4. The name of the Madrick museum mentioned by Tom Shroder in his terrific Xmas in Spain article is misspelled. It should be Prado, not Prada. That's all, folks.

Thanks for all that! We'll run a correction on the Prado (I can't believe I didn't catch that!), but may I gently point out that you misspelled Madrid? :-)

Why do rental car companies always give you TWO keys for your rental car? It would make sense if they gave you a choice of one key or two (like hotels usually do), or if they gave you two keys on a key ring that opens so you and your travel companion could each have a key, but they don't. They give you two (usually HUGE) keys on the same key ring, plus a giant plastic tag with the car info on it. Very difficult to put into pockets or a smallish purse (which is what I like to carry when traveling). If I understood why they do this I think it would annoy me less. Any thoughts from you or the chatters?

Hmmm. I have never received two keys. Most rental agencies I have used (the major companies) give me one key, with a warning that I will pay if I lose that key. 

If you don't want two keys, ask the agent to please remove one of the keys. Be sure you have in writing  that you left one at the counter, so that you don't get charged.

forgot to mention (cruise person from Atlanta) - why it was so much fun for the holidays! We're jewish, so it was no big deal to go on xmas - but it was LOTS of fun to see the boat all decorated up. BUT the best part was it was also during hanuka. and the ship's cruise director was jewish and from australia So he managed to do a menora lighting every night (which was really turning a bulb, no flames!) - and he tried to get the ship's kitchen to make latkes. And every night they made something sort of pertaining to latkes, but it never got quite perfect. And they served with apple sauce some nights, some nights with sour cream - (andone memorable night of sour cream with chives!!!) - but the south africans kept asking where the cinnamon sugar was. It made it a great trip (and the kids got to be in a christmas 'play').

I booked a window seat. The older couple I shared the row with arrived before me, and decided they preferred the outer seats. And they were chatty. Very chatty. I should have insisted that we keep to our seat assignments. I'll never be put in that situation again.

The outer seats?? Not following.

You can't really say no - it's an empty seat, you didn't pay for it. As he was choosing that, I'd have had either the person in the aisle or the window move to the middle seat - that's reasonable.

Hmm, I don't understand why you'd be annoyed if someone sat between you and your husband (they're entitled to the seat!!!). My wife and I do this often: pick the window and aisle seat, because if no one's in the middle, then we have the entire row to ourselves. If there's someone in the middle, then we politely ask if they want to switch to the window or aisle (they always switch, no one likes middle). If you're really rude, then you would sit window/aisle, and talk/hand things across the middle person (happened to me before).

I guess I meant "different" as in something other than just beach time. If that helps. And thanks other chatters - some good suggestions!

Yes, our chatters are a helpful bunch.

Hi Gang, Now that AA Pilots have signed off on contract, am I right to think no looming labor issues such as what happened late summer/early fall? Because of all that past chaos, I waited to book my Latin America flight that AA has the only decent schedule for. Should I proceed or will AA go belly up by late January if we all go over the Fiscal Cliff? Thanks!

I'd book it. But not impossible for schedules to change between now and then, especially since the US Airways-American merger talk is heating up again. My guess is the schedules should hold through the end of January. 

Hi T-crew! We are flying from SA (Chile) to Miami on Jan 10 (Thurs). We have 2 hrs to make it through customs and catch our next flight. What do you think? I'm a little freaked out since it seems tight but thought I'd take advantage of your experience! Thanks!!!

I find that gettting anxious about making a flight can be debilitating. Two hours is definitely doable. Just make sure you disembark fast and head straight for customs. Have all of your paperwork ready to go.

If you miss it, don't worry: Go to the gate and explain what happened and they will put you on the next flight. If it is of any help, I have never missed a connection.

from the south of france to barcelona. but be careful! it might split in two and you may end up in northern spain. (thought this happened in 1989, so maybe they don't do that anymore).

You can't expect to preserve an empty middle seat these days when flights are so full; so why not book aisle seats across from each other? I do this with friends - we can still talk and share, yet no one has to suffer in the middle seat.

We spent a wonderful Christmas vacation at Skytop Lodge in the Pennsylvania Poconos. They own 5,500 acres of outdoors, and have all kinds of activities -- skiing, sledding, tobogganing, even dog sledding. On Christmas morning Santa gave out presents -- the visitors put presents on the tree with the names of the recipients. The food was terrific too, and the people couldn't have been nicer. Live music for dancing too when we went. A great vacation.

Someone was telling me there is a ferry from Ft. Lauderdale to Bimini...are you all familiar with this, and are there ferries to other islands from Bimini? Are they costly? Are there frequent departures? thanks

There's been talk of this for a long time, but I don't think it's operating. Anyone know differently? 

How about the Finger Lakes in NY. Pretty, history, 5-6 hour drive.

Right. Also Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. Or Hyde Park -- in fact the whole Hudson Valley! Beautiful!

Thanks for answering my question. We went to Costa Rica in 2009. Any other suggestions?

If you really want to see Belize, why not just wait and go a month or two after the birthday? 

Not that one, the comment was from a chat several years ago. (!) I keep meaning to ask you all to post your travel faves in some kind of a list on the website, but never get around to it. It was probably an 18 inch hard sided bag. I believe one of the women travel gurus posted about it.

Oh, sorry, maybe it will come to us at a later point. But none of us seems to recall at this point.

The person deposited them and DIDN'T KNOW if they ever "cleared in" or were credited to the account?? Give me a break!!

Happy Holidays, love your chat! My bf and I typically book aisle seats across from each other...we both get the leg room and can still "travel together", converse, etc.

we were in ireland, and my husband did most of the driving - but it was really not so big a deal. they say returning is much more dangerous, because you aren't as careful. When we picked B&B's to stay at night, we always chose somewhere (except the first night!) so we could walk into town and not have to drive at night).

Sun Valley Idaho is another great place to spend Christmas. They have tons of early snow this year -- 51" at the top of the mountain. They have a Winterfest with caroling, ice shows, a concert, and fireworks and the Dollar Mountain Christmas Eve torchlight parade. Lots of fun and very Christmas-y.

Looking to go to Puerto Rico for Presidents' Day weekend. Can you recommend a place to stay? Three women in our 30s, relaxation (perhaps a spa) and great food are musts. Btw is it warm enough for swimming/water activities in February? Thanks!

I would stay in Old San Juan, which is packed with restaurants, bars, shopping, etc. El Covento is a  timeless classic. If you prefer to stay closer to the beach, look for a hotel on Isla Verde, such as the San Juan Water Beach Club.

Dear Flight Crew: At some point this year I'm planning on spending a month in NYC. Instead of a hotel, I'd like to rent a furnished apartment/condo for the period. Any idea(s) on real estate companies and/or rental sites I might contact when starting my search? Thanks!

You can try VRBO. There's also Airbnb. But exercise caution before actually putting down any money. Here's a story we ran about vacation rental scams, and our Navigator columnist, Chris Elliott, also recommends prudence and close scrutiny of any rental contracts before you sign.

Thanks for joining us today and for all your great advice. The winner of the prize is the traveler who went to Marseille around Christmas. I say oui to that! Please send your name and mailing address to

Come back next week! Until then, happy travels.

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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