Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Dec 10, 2018

Talk about Travel is here to help at 2 p.m. Mondays.
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Past Talk about Travel chats

Hi all, and welcome to Talk About Travel. In this week's Caribbean Issue, we headed to the Bahamas for the superlative scuba diving off the coast of Cat Island. Have a Caribbean isle to recommend (or warn us about)? Tell us which one and why below. Most compelling answer gets a "Democracy Dies in Darkness" T-shirt, perfect for seasonal gift-giving! On to your questions.  

Thank you for these chats--the only good thing about Mondays!! I will be driving back from southwestern Connecticut to Toronto this weekend, but I was thinking of taking one day to shop in NYC. What would be a good train station to park my car, go to Grand Central, and then take the train back out and start driving back to Canada? In looking at the map, New Rochelle looks like an option....

New Rochelle could work. It's only 35 minutes to Grand Central and there are parking garages. Any chatters have another idea? I always travel on the LIRR to NYC, but am not as familiar with New Haven/Harlem lines. 

It would be helpful if your contributors included information about prices in their articles, especially when "affordable" is one of the themes of the article. I liked the piece about "affordable Nevis" but when I went to the website of the property mentioned in the article, it was quite a bit more expensive than similar properties in other parts of the Caribbean or Mexico, even actual yoga retreats. "Affordable" is a relative term, I guess.

Glad you enjoyed the piece! Travel stories have an "If You Go" section at the bottom that includes contact and price information for sites mentioned by the author. You'll see hotel prices under the "Where to Stay" header if you scroll to the bottom of the Nevis piece.

I'm about to book a Megabus ticket from White Marsh to NYC. After I select the time, a button pops up for Seat Selection, so you can pick the prime seats, (table, upper level front). When you get on, how do you know if someone has pre selected a seat? What if you select and pay for a Prime seat and the bus arrives in White Marsh and someone is sitting in it? Thanks!

I think it's very much like choosing your seat on a plane. Some airlines, like Megabus, charge extra for reserving a specific seat. If someone is sitting in your seat, you show them your reservation and they move. 

Hi, I wanted to know if you or other chatters have had good experiences with any of the companies which offer self-guided cycling trips in Europe (particularly Portugal) -- i.e., they give you the route, arrange for lodging, and carry your stuff, but otherwise you're on your own. Thanks!

There are many companies that offer these independent biking trips in Europe. I'd do some research on the specific travel company you're considering, much like you'd research a hotel's reviews, ratings, etc., before booking. Any chatter out there have a recommendation? 

Hi, I turn 40 in February and would like to take a trip over President's Day weekend (plus a couple extra days) to mark the occasion. Probably a solo trip, as I'm getting more and more in to that. I love great food, architecture, a walkable city that I can explore on foot, but also beaches, spas, and umbrella drinks (don't need a location with all of the above - I'm just listing some interests). Any thoughts about where I should go? Thanks!

How about Key West? Nice weather in February, and it meets the mark on several of your interests. 

Going to NYC for 1 night before Christmas. Would like a decent hotel near Rockefeller Center...something mid-price range. Suggestions?

I have not stayed there, but have heard good things about the Jewel Hotel. But availability around Christmas may be an issue. 

I recently bought 4 tickets to Italy through Air Portugal. I bought them directly from the airline, and they wanted to charge me $70 per ticket to choose my seats. Yet, while looking at a third party booking JustFly, seat selection was free. Could I possibly contact the airline and ask the,m to waive it, or just wait ubntil check in? We don't fly until June, and we will be travelling with our 12 and 17 year old children.

It's highly unlikely Air Portugal will waive the seat selection fee. I'm not entirely convinced that JustFly will allow you to get around the fee, either. Airlines depend on those fees to make a profit. Fellow chatters, have you been able to avoid seat selection fees by booking through an online travel agency?

I wrote in about the boss who missed a planned trip to Vietnam due to a sudden hospitalization. He is still hospitalized but the cruise line quickly gave them credit towards a future cruise (non-refundable) which they plan to take once he gets his strength back. No word on what the airline has done, but it was Singapore Air (if that makes any difference). Thank you for your kind offer of assistance and they say they have learned their lesson about travel insurance!

Thank you for letting us know!

My son-in-law, a postgraduate student, has spent the past three months studying in Europe and returned home this past Saturday. Although he was originally supposed to come home next week, he had planned this return for more than a month so he could surprise my son for a special occasion. After 20+ hours of traveling and three changes of planes, he discovered that the last leg of his trip (BWI-RDU) had been cancelled due to the prediction of the winter storm. He rented a car from Budget and drove from BWI, enabling him to get home for the surprise before any snow started. However, by Sunday morning, NC had been hit by a snowstorm followed by an ice storm, and was declared a State of Emergency which included advice for non-essential drivers to stay off the roads. My son-in-law called Budget to see if it was possible for them to return the car Monday (today) instead. The agent on the phone explained that Budget is "very concerned about the safety" of their customers so yes, they could return the car late, but would be charged $120 per extra day they had it! When my SIL reminded her that they were in a State of Emergency, she responded, "That's why they have weathermen. You shouldn't have rented the car since they were predicting snow." They don't really have that kind of extra money so they drove to Budget through the ice and snow, taking more than three times the normal half-hour travel time each way. Who should they notify that better customer service should be taught? They are not looking for any compensation (they just won't be using Budget ever again) but definitely think, especially after claiming that customer safety is a major concern of the company, the agent's response was rude and uncalled for. Thank you, in advance, for any assistance you can offer.

I agree with you -- that seemed like an uncaring response to the problem. I think you should consider sending a brief, polite email to Budget. Here are the Budget executive contacts. If you don't get a better response, please contact me directly. Here's how to reach me.

Look at Inntravel. I have used them a few times for trips in Italy and Portugal and always been very satisfied. I live in the US and they are in the UK. Never had an issue communicating with them.

Thanks for the recommendation.

The Megabus website has a lot of FAQs about seat selection + reservations, as well as a link to ask questions of the carrier directly.

Thanks. 

Puerto Rico, Amsterdam (no beach, sorry), St Augustine

More ideas for our birthday chatter

I'd love to offer my services to the TSA. Their GE renewal process is so bad. There are established mechanisms to test programming, ease of use, etc. They obviously did not do any testing. I had to go thru renewal recently, and confirm my retirement (at least I think that's what they wanted), confirm my change of address (I hope that's what they wanted), and select the countries I'd been to (some of course listed not by their common name but 'official' names so did some quick googling). Now it says "Pending" when I check back. At the first submission, I had a response the next day. You might think that renewal would be even more straightforward, but you would be mistaken. And I got to pay for the pleasure. I don't get it. It could be so well done, and they chose to do it so poorly. Thanks for letting me vent.

I haven't written anything about the GE renewal process, but I think that's an important issue. I need to do more research on this. Would you mind contacting me directly (I'm at elliottc@gmail.com). Fellow Chatters, if you've recently renewed GE and can tell me about your experience, please let me know.

Vieques! We aren't usually beach people, but went for 3 nights for our honeymoon before heading to San Juan. We could have happily stayed on Vieques for a week. It's a short flight from San Juan (on a small plane, where one person ends up sitting in the "navigator" spot up front). You can swim in the Atlantic, then take a short drive to the other side of the island to swim in the Caribbean. There are a ton of beaches to choose from, including some in the National Wildlife Refuge. If there were people at the beach we stopped at, we drove 3 minutes to find the next beach all to ourselves. Good restaurants, plus some great food trucks. At night, there's the Bioluminescent Bay. Nothing like kayaking through glowing water! And you can also explore the old military bunkers. When we did, the only map we had was one of those "beach town" silly drawings. We thought we were on a road, but it suddenly ended. We decided to turn around before the giant patch of mud. It was an adventure. It was hit hard by the hurricanes, but reports say tourism is starting to bounce back.

Thanks for the recommendation! (You can read Andrea's story on Puerto Rico's Hurricane Maria recovery here.)

We've decided to hit up NOLA for a few days at New Years. My husband has never been, and it has been quite a while for me. We're open to all suggestions of daytime activities, music at night, and restaurants that are vegetarian friendly (the last part worries me the most). It looks like the city has quite a few NYE events to choose from, so if anyone has practical experience, I would love to hear it. Thanks!

Fellow Chatters, do you have any NOLA recommendations? Any New Years tips?

Today's code is TT7591. It expires at midnight, so be sure to enter it on Monday to get credit for participating.

I have friends who have done several cycling trips in Europe with VBT. I don't know anything about them, but my friends love them.

VBT has a very good reputation. 

Depending on where you are in Southwestern Connecticut - we are in western Massachusetts and often park in New Haven or West Haven at the metro north station. It's still a couple of hours into the city but no traffic stress. If you check the website for metro north, there are many commuter stops on the way to the city all with parking lots although I am not sure how much available parking there is at those spots. There are also trains from Danbury but I have not used those trains. It's pleasant. You go right in to Grand Central and trains from about 5 a.m. to early the next morning.

Thanks for the tips. 

They sound perfect for me! But I wonder since they're not really south of Miami, are certain months too cold to go? And by cold I mean highs in the 70s, which isn't warm enough for me to go in the ocean.

Conventional wisdom says there's not very much seasonal temperature variation in the Bahamas; you'll find some helpful specifics here.

I've had the experience of it SEEMING like I was bypassing the seat selection. Think it was Orbitz booking a KLM flight, where I was able to select a bulkhead seat for free. Fast forward to a couple of days later when I was checking my record on the KLM site and realized I had no seat assignment at all.

Aha! I thought so.

I'm batting around the idea of going there next month for a quick trip (5 or 6 days including travel days) but could use some logistical advice. From what I've read, San Juan has bounced back the best, but I had a more tropical, less urban trip in mind, plus it seems the ocean is calmer on the south side of the island. Vieques is on my bucket list for the bioluminescent bay, but I'm concerned about getting there and around while there and wondering how their power situation is there. I could fly from San Juan to Vieques, but what if my flight to San Juan is late? Could I just rent a car in San Juan and drive to the ferry? I thought about Rincon for the laid back vibe, but the surf is for surfers there.

Take a look at this story by our own Andrea Sachs that ran on Dec. 7. 

Looking for recommendations for a honeymoon in a tropical area with good snorkeling that’s budget friendly. Neither of us drink so we’re not interested in an all-inclusive, unless it has an option that excludes alcohol. Belize is my first choice but I’m wondering if there’s a better option I’m missing? Would going during Thanksgiving week rather than Christmas week save a lot of money? Fiancée is a teacher so we are trying to plan around school holidays.

Belize may not be the easiest destination to get to, but it is budget friendly and has good snorkeling. Ambergris Caye is the top spot, but the snorkeling on the much smaller and less touristed Caye Caulker is also good. And take a look at Glover's Atoll Resort. I'd also consider Bonaire, Grand Cayman and Roatan, Honduras. And Thanksgiving week will not be cheap, but won't be as expensive as Christmas. 

It's not a scam, but it's definitely the biggest headache I ever have when travelling. I will typically reserve a "full size" car. When I do this, I want a car. Not a truck, not a van, not an SUV. But it appears the company doesn't like to stock them. At least the one I've used. So they'll "upgrade" to an SUV/crossover. This most recent time, I wasn't feeling well and my husband likes them, so we took it. And then we discovered a tire with a slow leak, so they had to replace it. With ANOTHER SUV. Finally, we took it back again and insisted on a not-SUV. They didn't have any full size cars, at which point I didn't care and took what they had. It looks like I got a small credit for the downgrade, which was fine. Between this debacle and the time they didn't clean the cigarette stench from the previous renter, I don't have a lot of faith in how these companies are run.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Great article a week ago about the problems with lines for boarding the Amtrak trains and how poorly organized it was. Why, why, can't Amtrak have assigned seats for the trains? It already has assigned seating for the sleeper cars on the overnight trains, so it ought to be able to scale that up to the Acela and Metroliner trains. Being able to pick a seat in advance would avoid the rush/angst of trying to be at the front of the line. Particularly for the "quiet" car which is usually in greater demand than the other cars. Thanks!

For those of you who didn't see the story (it ran in the Metro section), here is the link

There is a World War ll museum that is supposed to be fabulous. Also an aquarium. Don't venture into parts unknown while walking. There is a great street car ride through the garden district. Beignets are probably vegetarian! Commanders Palace is a great restaurant.

The National WWII Museum is incredible. I second that recommendation.

Most people who go to Bonaire go diving. The extent of my water comfort is "lie on the top of the water with a mask and snorkel," but Bonaire is perfect for that as well, since it's one of very few islands where the reefs come right up to the shore - thus a lot of shore diving. I was told that some of the critters I saw in 3 foot deep waters would be noteworthy for even experienced diners. The island is very safe, laid-back, and since it's not a cruise ship stop, there is a remarkable lack of duty-free shops. If the quiet gets too much, Aruba and Curacao are both a short puddle-jumper flight away - our day trip to Curacao was memorable. There is a national park, a large donkey sanctuary with friendly residents, salt ponds, and a surprising variety of food, from the inland shack serving (yummy!) goat stew to restaurants with tasting menus with wine and an ocean view. Not a place to go for excitement (except at underwater sights), but for relaxation it can't be beat.

Thanks for the recommendation!

If you have any interest in art, you simply must go to the sculpture garden situated next to the Museum of art in the always lush and beautiful City Park. This amazing collection of sculpture is free to the public, and only open during the day. take the Carrollton street car and just stay on till the very last stop and you will see the park and the museum when you exit the street car. When you are finished, the very same street car can take you back to downtown, or a connection to uptown. Vegetarian food is far more common than it used to be, and except for the really tourist driven places in the French quarter, you should have no problem finding very good vegetarian options at almost every restaurant.

Thank you!

Fun idea! If you don't mind the longish flight, London, Barcelona, or Dublin might be fun. Otherwise, maybe New Orleans or New York?

The world is her oyster. 

but the local school I am looking into runs their qualifying trips to Grand Cayman. They recommend it based on water temp, visibility, lack of dangerous marine life, lack of strong currents, high safety standards, environmental preservation, a lot of sites available and ease of getting there from DC (direct flights). I think that they have some special deals because they have developed relationships with service providers over the years, but it doesn't sound cheap. Reasonable since I can't imagine trying to evaluate qualifications and safety on my first trip, but not cheap.

Grand Cayman generally isn't more expensive than other Caribbean islands. Is it the flight, the accommodations or the actual qualifying that's costing so much? You could always try to find another local dive operator that uses a closer venue. 

I like the North White Plains on the Hudson line....nice new station, frequent service on Metro North to the city and you can jump over to 87 to head up to Montreal.

Thanks for the idea.

Take a tour! I took the Hurricane Katrina tour (NOT disaster porn) and my friends went on a swamp tour and we all loved them. Didn't get around to a cemetery tour but maybe next time. Oh and I had the best gin and tonic of my life at Lula's Distillery on St. Charles Avenue and everyone there raves about the World War II museum.

Awesome. Thank you.

One time, since three of us were traveling together, we opted to reserve upper seats in the same row but when we boarded, someone was in one of the seats. We showed our reservation but she, in turn, showed us hers. The seat actually had been double-booked, which meant, of course, Megabus received payment from both of us. When we approached the driver, he said there was nothing he could do and since the woman was already on the bus, one of us would "just have to find another seat." I've since taken Megabus, but I never bother to reserve seats anymore.

I hope this was a glitch, not a typical occurrence. 

After just spending nearly $500 (!!) on flight from DCA-MCO over Christmas - thinking if I waited any longer they would just increase in price - I was inundated with alerts this morning when they all dropped below $200! Grrrr...

That's a lot to pay for a flight to Orlando. At that price, I would drive.

My extended family is all going on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Alaska this summer. No one has ever cruised before. The cruise is already booked, but I'm a bit concerned about extra costs on board and for shore excursions for some of the members of our group, who are on fixed incomes. Any tips and resources for how to save on extra charges with Royal Caribbean? Thanks for any advice!

The cruise fare can cost less than the extras. Everything adds up quickly. Cocktails, specialty dining, photos, shore excursions are all extra. I'd look into Royal Caribbean's policy regarding bringing your own beverages onboard. Some cruise lines permit a certain amount of bottled water, soft drinks, wine, etc. If you have some heavy imbibers, they should look at the offered drink packages. Stick with the included dining to save money and don't do the ship photos. As for shore excursions, you will want to get off the ship in Alaska. But you don't need to take a helicopter ride to see a glacier.  Do some research about what's offered by the local tourism office in each of your stops. If you do an excursion with an outside company, make sure it's reputable. And realize that if you are late getting back to the ship, they won't wait for you. 

San Salvador! I went for a 2 week lab with my college marine ecology class! There is (or was) an old naval base on the island that was converted into student spaces for research. It was beautiful and the water was perfect!

Thanks!

I agree it's a great island -- much better in my mind than either Aruba or Curacao, but I need to correct one thing. Cruise ships do stop there -- I've been twice and both by cruise ship.

Thanks for the clarification!

I recently renewed my GE. Took 4 or 5 weeks from submission to approval. I read recently that they're pretty backed up with applications. I didn't need another interview. Got my new card in the mail (same number, new expiry date) about a week later.

Thanks. I'd love to include your comment in my story. Could you email me with a few details? I'm at elliottc@gmail.com

Do not miss the World War II museum. It is award-winning for a reason. Plan plenty of time. Walk about 2 blocks and have lunch at Cochon or Cochon Butcher. Delicious food. It has a terrible name, but the food at G.W. Finns was some of the best we had there. Do a self-guided happy hour tour. Start at the bar at Mr. B's and have something from the bar menu (highly recommend the bbq shrimp). (from 2:00 - 5:30 only) We continued on to the bar at French 75, where we have savory Beignets and the signature cocktail, a French 75. If you don't feel like the full splurge dinner at GW Finns, they serve food at the bar as well. We also swung by Bayona (no bar/happy hour) but we were there so early, they gladly seated us for some apps (garlic soup/grilled shrimp). Emeril's Delmonico was a disappointment. Don't bother. For music, we like Frenchman's street - d.b.a., in particular, for great bands and a nice location.

Thank you for the excellent recommendations.

Is the OP trying to make sure that he/she sits with his children or makes sure he sits away from his children? Sitting away from my kids for a long trip to Italy might be worth the fee.

You've given us a good laugh here!

I agree that 1) Amtrak should offer explicit seat reservations (as is done on done on trains in Europe + Japan) + 2) improve boarding at Union Station. Having said that, it was most amusing to see a reference to Metroliner…which stopped operating in 2006!

The chatter likely has been riding Amtrak for a long time!

Specifically, Virgin Gorda. I'm an addict. We go to the same place just about every other year. I'm a landlubber (no sleeping on a sailboat for me, thanks). You can snorkel off the beaches and take dive trips to several dive sites (Dive BVI has been good for us). We went last February, the first visitors to our regular hideaway since the hurricane. They had one cottage open, and and just gotten their power back. The beach is just as beautiful and relaxing, the people are wonderful, enough restaurants/stores open for food/drink needs. We prefer stargazing as our form of nightlife, and with all the street lights out, it was amazing.

Sounds wonderful -- thanks for the recommendation!

I can maybe think of one time in the past many years where the car rental place hasn’t tried to give me a “free upgrade” to a bigger/less fuel efficient/less useful type of car. The last time we declined it it took them another hour to find us a car (super busy, and oh, by the way, plenty of other people picked up cars in the meantime). Seriously, if I wanted a truck, I’d have said so. It’s not an upgrade if I don’t want it.

That is true. Part of the challenge is that permissive cancellation policies make it exceptionally difficult to manage a car rental fleet. So, the company may have every intention of having a sedan on hand, but will only have SUVs available.

When an airfare goes down after purchase (happens on occasion), I call the airline and ask for a supervisor. Sometimes I can get the reservation rebooked at the lower price (& the original one refunded in full) and sometimes I receive a voucher for the difference [better than nothing]. Certainly doesn't hurt to try!

Great tip. Thank you.

We were recently delayed on an American Airlines flight due to mechanical issues with the plane. The flight was boarded in Columbia, MO and we then sat on the plane for nearly two hours ... and most of us missed our connecting flights in Chicago. When I called (from the plane) to see if we could be booked on a United flight that departed from Chicago later that night, I was eventually told that as of a month ago (more or less) American Airlines no longer "protected" its passengers. That is, American no longer accommodates their passengers by booking them on other airlines (even if it's due to AA's own mechanical failures) unless the delay is more than 24 hours. Hence, we had to spend the night in Chicago and reschedule some important appointments. The steward on the plane from Columbia to Chicago said he'd been in the business for 42 years and never heard of such a thing. However, if it's a new policy it's possible the he, and the rest of us, are in the dark on this. Can you please confirm this new policy that no longer "protects" AA passengers for delays under 24 hours? If it's true, I think AA and other airlines who have changed their policy should be called out on this. I've been flying for a long time, and it seems inconceivable that an airline who creates a delay would not want to promptly accommodate passengers on other airlines and mitigate the damages from the initial delay. I presume this new AA policy would include flights to the Caribbean. Thank you.

Take a look at this article that ran in our business section in October. 

I'm going to be visiting friends in the UK next month and will be driving from London (Heathrow, technically) down to Dartmoor. I have a group of 4 and we decided this would be more cost effective and allow us to sight-see along the way. We're already planning to end our stay in Bath, putting us within an easier driving distance to Heathrow for our departing flights, but would like to plan a stop or two along the route from London. Any ideas?

Our chat is almost over, so going to make this quick. Oxford is a bit out of the way, but it's a lovely town. 

In 2017, my family went to Guadeloupe. It was gorgeous and not expensive. (I'm a teacher, too!) We ended up driving to Kennedy to fly on Norwegian - direct, cheap flight. Airbnb rentals were cheap and our car didn't cost much. I loved our week there.

Thanks!

And check out this Maura Judkis piece on Guadeloupe from a few years back. 

If it's within 24 hours, you can always cancel and rebook.

Good point -- thanks!

My company's HQ is in Danbury, but we're always advised to take the train to Southeast or Brewster, since it stops there more regularly than Danbury.

Good to know!

Eat at Carmo at 527 Julia St, about a block from the WWII museum. Wonderful food, lots of vegetarian options (and some meat, too), great cocktails. And not too expensive. And of course go to the WWII museum while you are there.

Thanks for the recommendation -- and I think that's a unanimous vote for the WWII museum.

Looks like our time is up -- thanks for chatting, everyone! Vieques honeymooner, please drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize. And be sure to join us next week for our very last travel chat of 2018!

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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