Talk about Travel

Dec 16, 2013

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Good afternoon, travelers. Very nice of you to join us today. It's chilly out there, so naturally, we're thinking of the winter Olympics and Andrea's trip all the way to Sochi to preview the host city. Or maybe you saw the new Hobbit movie, or are planning to over Christmas? If so, be sure to check out our story on Malawi's Mount Mulanje, which some rumors say inspired J.R.R. Tolkien. Then there was my somewhat less exotic, if still fun, holiday season trip to New York. I've been there seemingly countless times in the run-up to Christmas. What are your favorite holiday travel traditions or destinations? My favorite of your answers will win a little prize.

Now let's start chatting!

I gotta get away!! I have from Dec 21 to Jan 2 off and realize beachy, Caribbean vacations will be pricey ... any suggestions though? I don't need to be away the entire time. I need sun!!

I've received several press releases from Caribbean resorts about last-minute holiday discounts, although I have not vetted them. Check out Capella Marigot Bay on St. Lucia, Palladium in Montego Bay, Santa Barbara Resort Curacao & Marco Island Marriott in Florida.  Airfares, however, are going to be high, and I don't see any way around this, unless you are willing to drive to Florida.  

Hi! My husband and I are flying from DC to Buenos Aires in February and paid $1500/each for our tickets. I was hoping to use air miles for at least one of the flights, but we booked late and at the time, I was just short of the miles to use an award ticket. But NOW I have them and award flights are still available. Would Delta let me convert my existing ticket to an award ticket? Seems like even if I pay a cancellation fee, plus $82 for the award ticket, I'd still save about $1,000 and if I hold onto my miles, I'll never be able to use them (I now have about 140,000 miles thanks to a recent credit card special deal). Of course upgrading wasn't an option because we didn't pay for the base economy fair. Thanks in advance for the advice!

If you have the miles, you can certainly use them-- just be sure the flight is available with that amount of miles and on those days.

I just called Delta (advisable in these situations) and the agent said if you have a refundable ticket, you can cancel that ticket and rebook the flight using your miles, without losing any money. If you have a nonrefundable ticket, you will have to cancel your ticket, but you will retain that amount as credit (minus the change fee).

Looking for a decent hotel or bed-and-breakfast in Annapolis where we can walk to resteraunts and what not. If it is a bed-and-breakfast, prefer it not to be a victorian-grandmother-bric-a-brac-explosion. Any ideas?

Stay at the Maryland Inn (now part of Historic Inns of Annapolis)! It's right downtown, just walk out the door and you're in the middle of the shops and restaurants. Very historic and charming. Now bills itself as a boutique hotel. The other two members are the Governor Calvert House and the Robert Johnson House, also very nice. No Victorian bric-a-brac! Rates are reasonable. Chatters, what do you think?

We're flying American to the Caribbean this February for a technology-free vacation. The airline's policy is that you can carry a guitar onboard "only if they can be safely stowed in an overhead bin or approved stowage location in the cabin." I've seen a lot of people bring guitars onboard through the years, but with overhead space filling immediately these days, I'm nervous they'll try to make us check it. The horror stories about broken guitars and uncaring airline staff have us questioning whether it's worth the hassle. We value your input! Thanks

How valuable is the guitar to you? If you think you're going to spend too much time (and energy) worrying about it, then I think I wouldn't risk it -- and I can see why you'd rather carry it on than check it, given the horror stories you've heard.

But if you decide you really want to take the guitar, I'd urge you to arrive early and sweet-talk the gate agent(s) and, then, the flight attendant(s), impressing on them how much you value your baby and don't want to see anything bad happen to it. I can't make any promises, but seems like that would increase your odds of it not having to be checked.

You saw this page on the TSA site, I assume?

TSA does suggest, if you check the guitar (or any other instrument), that you "include short written instructions, where a security officer will notice them, for handling and repacking your instrument. Make sure these instructions are very clear and understandable to someone with no musical background." It does make you wonder how far you're supposed to go, with the latter: "Dear TSA agent: What you are seeing is called a guitar (pronounced git-TAR), a stringed instrument used to make many types of music...."

There is another option you might consider. If the guitar is worth a lot (monetarily and otherwise), and it's crucial to you that you have it for the vacation, you might consider a private service that specializes in shipping delicate items, such as Amerijet.


I'm submitting my question early so we can get a variety of responses. I'm heading to London 12/22-1/1 with my two teenagers. We're on a wicked budget but still want to make the most of our trip. Any tips for cheap and fun things to do either in the city or nearby? Also looking for great low budget places to eat. I would appreciate any and all advice from Talk about Travel editors and readers about great things to do in London. What are your must-see/do/eat tips? It would be greatly appreciated if loads of folks could weigh in on this one . Thanks!

Where to start? Lucky for you, some of London's best museums and attractions are free, including the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Those would all go to the top of my must-see list, though you'll have to pick and choose depending on your interests. (Here's a more comprehensive list from the London tourism site.) It's also free to walk around, of course -- stroll Borough Market, Portobello Road, along the South Bank, across the Millennium and Tower bridges, through parks such as Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

Worth paying for: the Tower of London. Depending on your budget and interests, you could look into a London Pass. If you use it wisely and enough, you'll save money on a bunch of paid attractions you may be interested in.

Lots of options for cheap eats. Check out markets, such as the aforementioned Borough, pop in to any of the many smaller ethnic food stalls and restaurants around the city. You'll also see fast-food places you're familiar with and ones you're not -- Subway (never did get to try their tandoori chicken sub when I was there!), McDonald's and Pret a Manger, among others.

Other suggestions, folks?

Our kids complained that we travel too much, so we are staying home this Christmas. Any suggestions for a program of sightseeing for longtime area residents this holiday season? I'm thinking music and off- the-beaten track museums or visits.

I love visiting some of the area's historic homes in the Christmas season. The Heurich House  in Dupont Cirlce  is a great one, or the Stephen Decatur house in Lafayette Square, and Marjorie Merriweather Post's former estate, Hillwood.  Also Woodlawn Plantation and Gunston Hall in Virginia, two of my favorites, less well known than Mount Vernon, but don't pass up that one, either. Oatlands, out in Leesburg, is another good one, if you're up for a little drive.  The houses are often decorated for the holidays and some have candlelight tours, although those may be hard to get into. And you'd have to visit most before or right after Christmas -- some close for the month of January. There are scores of choral groups in the Washington area that offer Christmas concerts -- again, usually before Christmas, though. Check out the Post's Going out Guide or join in their chat Thursday at 1 p.m. for more info on these kinds of tours and events.

You came to the right place - I lived in London for a year as a starving student and believe me, it can definitely be done on the cheap! While accommodation and the plane ticket over aren't cheap, most of what you can see/do there is free! Second the recommendation for Pret a Manger. You must see some theater while there, so get your tickets from the half-price booth in Leicester Square (it *may* be possible for your kids to get discounted tickets with their student IDs, but that may only apply to UK schools). If this is your first time in London, splurge on the London Eye - you won't regret it! Virtually all museums are free, as Becky said, so take advantage. I also think London is just really fun to walk around in. Go up and down the Thames by foot, sit in Trafalgar Square and people-watch, visit Camden Town and Portobello Road for cheap and unique souvenirs, walk through Hyde Park, St. James Park, Regents Park... God you're making me nostalgic!

All great tips, thanks!

Get an Oyster card for use on the Underground, buses, and certain rail lines. After a certain number of trips (I forget off the top of my head) the rest of the day's travel is free.

A multi-day travel card will get you all the travel you want in central London for one (fairly) low price.

Further clarification...

I am going to Europe in May, and I'd like to do a one-night stopover in Paris on the way home from Rome. (I know it isn't enough time, but 24 hours is better than nothing, right?) BUT I am afraid that if our flight to Paris gets delayed the day before for whatever reason, we'll miss our flight back to the States from Paris the following mid-morning. If I schedule them all together, we would be covered under airline policies, right?

Yes, if you buy them all on one ticket, you should be covered. Not always easy to book this sort of trip online, as most searches don't allow for overnight stopovers. Instead you might have to book it as a multicity trip, which could cost more.  A travel agent might be able to help, although they do charge for booking airline tickets.  

I'm celebrating my 40th birthday in Castara, Tobago. We're signing up for a snorkeling tour, but would love any advice on good snorkeling spots (especially those we can reach from the beach). Any other must-sees would be appreciated!

I think this is a question for the wider group. Anyone?

I'm traveling to Western Europe at the beginning of February and have NO IDEA what to wear. I'm 35 and I don't want to look like a touristy nerd, but I also don't want to freeze myself and have inappropriate footwear! Do I need boots (Can I wear my Uggs)? What kind of coat (I'm partial to a wool coat, but people around me are insisting on a puffy down coat!)? I've traveled to Europe once before, but we backpacked, it was in May and it was GORGEOUS weather everywhere we went. So much easier to pack summer dresses!!! Thank you!

It's going to be pretty cold, so be prepared. There may be snow, and yes, you can wear your Uggs, why not? They'll be warm and comfortable. Great idea. I've traveled all over Europe in all sorts of winter weather and never worn a puffy down coat, so you don't have to, either, as long as you have a warm wool coat, or something like a shearling, that you can take with you. A good pea coat would do the trick, especially if you wear warm layers underneath it -- long-sleeved shirts and sweaters -- and warm knit slacks with knee socks. A good hat (or earmuffs), gloves and scarf, and you're all set. Some may suggest silk long underwear -- you could always bring it along, because it packs so easily, but it may be overkill in these cities. On the other hand, the leggings could be good under jeans, if you wanted to wear them. 

I'm looking for suggestions please as to an affordable destination for a girls' weekend. We're located in Columbia, SC, the DC area, and North Jersey. We're not necessarily particular about where we go, as long as we keep the costs relatively affordable (<$1000 each) and there is a spa nearby. We're fine with warm weather or cold and want to catch up and relax away from the kids. Any suggestions on a place to go after the New Year? Thanks!

I'm sort of thinking south because of your friend in Columbia, but popping into my mind right now are Charleston; Greenville, S.C. (loved that city); and Asheville.

We stay home for Christmas. I like to open presents from Santa under the tree in my den. However, we love to make the trip to Georgetown for Christmas eve. We do some last minute shopping, have a nice stress-free dinner out, and go to 9pm mass at Trinity. Lovely way to spend the evening.

I spend every Christmas Eve in Georgetown -- at home! ;-)

Hello, I have a couple of questions for you. First, my son needs to travel to Genoa, but the return date is very open ended. Is it better to by a one way ticket or is it possible to buy a round trip with no actual return date. If so, is that more expensive? Two, have you ever heard of WebJet? If so, any thoughts? I found a one way ticket to Genoa for $900; same flight is over $3k through other services. How can that be? Thanks!

You can't buy a round-trip ticket with no return date. If you get a round-trip ticket, you'll have to pay the penalty for changing the return date, which will be steep, plus the difference in airfare. But one-way tickets can also be expensive. Price it out both ways. Some just buy two round trip tickets and don't use the second portion, but most airlines have rules prohibiting this, and reserve the right to cancel your flight if you get caught.  I know WebJet as an Australian travel company. I did hear that it had expanded into the United States a couple of years ago, but don't know much more than that.  It has a B grade with the Better Business Bureau. 

We just booked a trip to Copenhagen and Stockholm for March (yes, we know the weather is less than ideal). Can you point me to articles on the cities or does anyone have any suggestions for our trip? Thanks!

St Martin-in-the-Fields for free concerts and their Cafe in the Crypt. It's on Trafalgar Square, and is a great place to take a break, get some soup to warm up. I also enjoy the Stockpot restaurants - they have a very reasonably priced menu, and have locations near many tourist sites. I love to start a sightseeing day with a full English breakfast; their's can't be beat.

I was in Paris in January for their record snow, so I have recent experience with the snow and cold! Wool coat is fine - you won't see many puffy coats in Paris. Uggs will make you stand out as a tourist, so you might want to look at boots - I scored some Tods moto lace-up boots right before my trip and they were perfect - I looked reasonably hip and they were warm enough. Layers are crucial, it's warm inside so you'll be taking things off. Scarf and hat are key items, both for warmth and looking like a local. Paris is even more magical in the snow than it is the rest of the year, so I'm wishing you a lovely snowfall!

Under Armour Cold Gear! I wear UA regularly at work since I'm usually outdoors and always cold in the winter and it's a lifesaver. I've even worn it under business attire for an outdoor winter event. The outlets in Leesburg have an UA store and the prices are quite reasonable. I've had my UA for years now and add to it occasionally... I even have UA socks and underwear :)

I have had good luck quoting tickets through HipMunk and am seeing around $1150 from the midwest now. This is all with Delta, and the Rome-Paris jaunt is booked as a separate flight from ours going to and coming from Europe. We should still be safe, though, right?

I would not assume that. Delta doesn't fly between Rome and Paris. I'd check with Hipmunk. 

or whatever they are called. Where do I purchase one, and are they universal or specific to each country/continent? I'm traveling to New Zealand, if that helps with the answer. Thanks!

You can find adapters online, at electronics stores, in big chain stores, etc.  Just do an online/call search of "travel adapters and converters."

I just used one abroad that had different positions for each region. It was very compact, and no extra accessories to haul around. I believe it was a Dynex, and it works in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, North America and South America (not sure if Australia and NZ use the same voltage).

I have a quick question - I want to take a plant home with me next week to my mother. It's a small plant (would fit in a coffee cup) and I see the TSA's site says plants are fine - but do you know if the X-rays will be able to see through the (presumably) ceramic pot? I can throw it away, if TSA fights me, but I'd prefer not too. Related note - I noticed at BWI over Thanksgiving and found it hilarious that the station for mailing items that TSA won't let through security (and marked as such) is on the SECURE side. Why even bother having it.

A ceramic pot should pose no issues. As for confiscated items at TSA checkpoints, I'm guessing they have control over these stations even though they are on the other side of security. 

For the person who asked about safaris last week. Abercrombie & Kent do an amazing job. Yes, they are expensive, but the drivers and hosts are all very well informed, the food and lodging were outstanding, and there are several special experiences you can't get elsewhere. On our safari, we did see one cut-rate expedition stuck in the mud next to mating lions! Pretty sure that tour group was wishing they had spent a few more bucks.

Thanks for following up.

Depending on what electronics you are talking about it is likely these days that all you need is a plug adapter, not a voltage converter. Laptops, tablets, etc all have transformers that work with out 110v system or foreign 220v systems. You just need to have the correct plug adapter to plug them in. And in lots of places even that isn't necessary these days as many hotels have outlets that work with several different plug types.

Great to know.  Thanks! Though I would not rely on small hotels to have adapters.

For traveling with electronica, check out Brookstone, which has pretty decent voltage converters. You need two things: a voltage converter, to convert (e.g.,) European 220 V 50 Hz to U.S. 110 V 60 Hz; and a plug converter. I believe both Australia and NZ are 220 V 50 Hz, but I wouldn't be surprised if the plugs are different. One interesting piece of trivia: you don't need a voltage converter for anything that is rechargeable, such as a cell phone. You just need the plug converter. For things that have to be plugged in to operate, like hair dryers, you need both the voltage and plug converters.

Amazing info. Thanks!

Upon further investigation the Rome-Paris is offered through Alitalia. I assume you would not advise this. Sorry for the continual questioning on this one topic! I certainly appreciate your expertise.

Alitalia is a Delta codeshare, so it may be fine, but I'd still verify with Hipmunk. 

Indian! Lots of good options. The food is fantastic and cheaper than most of the other restaurants in central London.

I'm with you on that.

A day trip to Stonehenge and Bath from London is very much worth it. I think I used Big Bus Tours for the one I took and was happy with it.

If it fits into the chatter's budget, then yes. I heartily endorse Bath (which is easy to get to by train on your own), though it may not be up the alley of every teen.

We haven't flown in maybe ten years and have flights in early January on United. We have our seats, what else do I need to do leading up to departure day?

Decide whether you are going to carry on your luggage or whether you want to check it. Check-in luggage costs extra on United for domestic flights. For exact pricing, go to the airline's Web site and plug in your flight details. If you are going to carry on your luggage, make sure it's the correct size. Again, go to the Web site for details. You can get a boarding pass 24 hours before the flight, which allows you to go straight to the security line (you'll have to stop at the ticket counter if you are checking your bags). I'd also sign up on the airline's Web site for a MileagePlus account, which will allow you tot sign up for flight status notifications. If you are a worrier, you might also want to familiarize yourself with the airport and with the United terminal so you have an idea of where you are going before you arrive. 

When do you suggest booking a room for the 4th of July weekend in New Orleans? I hoping prices may drop but my better sense is telling me otherwise.

Most likely, prices won't drop but will only rise for the holiday weekend. You could always book and if the price drops, call the hotel and ask if they will reimburse you for the difference. Or, if they have a flexible cancellation policy, you can cancel and rebook at the cheaper rate. But I would not wait too long to reserve, especially if you plan to stay in one of the main neighborhoods. Additional note:  Some hotels might also require minimum-night stays.

Couple planning a Hawaii trip for April 22 - May 3, 204. Maui, Ohau, Hawaii. Doesn't matter which we fly to/from. See all the discounts being offered now but not for when we are going. When is best time to to buy airfare? Live in the East so non-stop from NY would be convenient but can do West Coast. Thinking Hawaiian Airlines to take advantage of inter-island flight discount. Recommendations?

I would look for the cheapest fare to Honolulu, regardless of airline, since that will be the biggest travel expense. You can fly pretty cheaply around the islands.

You are traveling after spring break, so fares should go down. Check the airlines for sales (likely after the winter holiday), and grab whatever price fits with your budget.

Heading to Istanbul in early January for 6 days. What are the not to miss and off the beat things to see?

Well, of course, you must see the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. The archaeology museum is fascinating, and the Topkapi palace. Those I would classify as must-sees. For off-the-beaten path things we'll have to turn to the chatters. Your recommendations, people?

You talk funny!

Hipmunk, for those who haven't heard of it, is not part of Alvin's clan. It is a travel search engine. 

My go-to suggestion is always London Walks. They have so many different walks around London based on different themes and the guides are so knowledgeable! They aren't free (9GBP for adults), but well worth the cost and if you do more than two walks, you should get a Walkabout card which gives you a 2GBP discount. I've done pub walks, royal walks, the Olympics walk and neighborhood walks, all of which were delightful! It's a great way to get to know the City.

Have a layover of that length in early February on our way back to the US from Dubai. What should we see?

There's lots to see and do in Amsterdam. Take in as many of these as you can:  the Anne Frank House museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandt house museum, the Van Gogh museum, the Jewish museum. Take a stroll through the red light district, just for the experience. Take a canal boat tour. In fact, you might consider taking the special bus/bout tour  -- known as the Floating Dutchman -- offered from Amsterdam's Schiphol aiport. It'll show you all the highlights of the city -- and even take you right into the canals.

I'm heading to Paris for a few days in January. What are some must see/must do things in Paris in the winter? We love good food and drink. I'm sure we'll do the Louvre. Musee D'Orsay and the Eiffel Tower (with lots of layers on), but are there some other must-see places that are winter friendly?

I'd hit Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, the Hotel des Invalides (Napoleon's tomb), the Rodin Museum (shouldn't be so crowded in the off-season), the Pantheon and many cafes! Also might go to Versailles. The gardens won't be as splendid as in the spring, but the palace is always worth a visit. What else, chatters?

I second your caution about not relying on smaller hotels to have adapters. Also, if you're trying to plug in a hair dryer or similar item that requires voltage conversion (see my earlier post), be sure what you get converts voltage. We got an adapter from a country hotel in the U.K. and thought it was for both voltage and plug, but it was only for the plug. When we plugged in a white-noise generator so my wife could sleep, it blew the main fuse, so the entire hotel went dark, and of course it totally fried the white-noise generator!


I think it's always best to be prepared for every electronics situation.

Stop in at Tescos, a super-store grocery (as in Walmart) -- lots of good food in the deli section.

If I ever get to go to London, I want to go to Trafalgar Square, so I can sing the great English music-hall classic, "I Live in Trafalgar Square (with four lions to guard me)" (there are several performances of it online)! Perhaps the family planning to visit there can rehearse the song beforehand, then video themselves singing it, as a free souvenir? Here's the link.


Any recommendations on a (relatively reasonably priced) hotel in Savannah? We'll have a car, so it doesn't need to be super close to the walking areas, but a safe neighborhood is a must. Thank you in advance!

How bout The Marshall House, the city's oldest hotel? I haven't stayed there, but it gets lots of praise. Not sure when you're traveling, but in mid-January rooms start around $171.

Decide what you want to wear on your flight so that, e.g., your shoes are easy to take off and put back on, and (if you're female) you're not wearing an underwire bra. Also, the clothes need to feel loose and comfy in-flight, and be appropriate for the weather at both your departure and destination points.

Lots of underwire bras are actually made with plastic. I wear them and never have had a problem, but I usually go through the full body scanners rather than the older machines. 

The Blue Mosque. The palace for sure. A half-day cruise on the Bosphorus. Walk across the bridge over the Bosphorus and up and down Istikal street.

Yes, cruise on the Bosphorus definitely. Thanks!

Always compare doing two separate trips---to the west coast and then to hawaii and compare. also look at booking two one ways like flying say on united there, then Delta on the return from a different island then using an inter island carrier. Easter is later this year in the later half of April so there isnt going to be much fare drops until after that week after (if at all) because when May hits the summer travel starts. You may find cheaper fares flying direct from non hub airports like San diego, San Jose, Oakland, or Portland. Alaska also does flights from Bellingham where you could find some deals.

Good suggestion. I'm channeling our previous advice, though, and thinking we usually suggest if you're going to do a separate West Coast flight, give yourself an overnight there just in case things go awry.

In the process of buying airline tickets to Europe leaving from Dulles. One flight has an 1.5 hour layover in Paris. Is this enough time or should I go with the 4 hour layover in Paris?

I'd go with the longer layover.

Well, that's a wrap for us today. The prize winner: the chatter who likes to spend Christmas Eve in Georgetown. I believe you may have been the only one to answer! Please send your name and mailing address to me at 

Thanks, and we hope to see you again next week.

In This Chat
Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Travel editor.
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the deputy editor of Travel.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
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