Talk about Travel: Biking the Gap Trail, reconnecting kids with nature

Mar 12, 2012

Have a travel-related question, comment, suspicion, warning, gripe, sad tale or happy ending? The Post Travel section's editors and writers are at your service.

Happy spring, chatters! Well, okay, I know it's technically not spring yet, but it sure feels like it here in Washington today. Lovely, sunny day, temps going into the 60s. Hope you're all enjoying similar balminess wherever you are. Don't you think that our biking story by Nancy Szokan really set the mood for spring and springlike activities? Made me want to haul out the bikes and just get going, though I don't know that I'm ready for 300 miles! Nancy's here with us today to answer all your biking-related questions about her trip and any others you may want to take, so fire away. And while we're on the subject, let's hear about your own adventures on lengthy multi-day journeys -- biking or hiking -- away from civilization. Best story, as usual, wins a prize. Not, alas, a bicycle, but something useful, we hope.

Nancy got a little jump on the chat over the weekend, answering a lot of reader questions about her story. So she put together the following little primer for you all:

Lots of readers have emailed me saying they might try the Great Allegheny Passage or the C&O Canal trail, and most of them asked the same questions. Here's what I told them:
  What kind of bikes did we ride?
  Aluminum-frame hybrids. Both our bikes are old, neither is anything special. We happen to have straight handlebars, but dropped handlebars wouldn't be a problem, I think. The main issue is tire width: I normally ride on 28mm tires, but switched to 32 mm for this ride, and I would not use anything narrower -- the C&O, in particular, has too many ruts, roots and muddy spots.
 Did we do any training?
 In short, no.  We rode a couple of 10- or 15-mile rides in the weeks preceding. But remember, we took this very easy -- except for one 45-mile day well into the trip, we rode about 30 miles a day.

  How did we find our lodgings?
  This is a web site I forgot to mention in the story:  It includes really good practical information on both trails.  Go to its "trail planning" link and you see a map of the C&O -- click on Great Allegheny Passage to get that map.  Then you can just click on a town and see all lodgings, food sources, bike shops, etc. within easy reach of that town. Using that, you figure out how many miles you want to ride and pick your stops.

I loved the story about the redwoods. My husband and I visited last June on the way back to San Fran from our first anniversary trip to Napa. I was also skeptical about how interesting a bunch of trees could be, but they were truly magnificent and awe-inspiring. We only hiked the short trail but found plenty of beautiful photo opportunities. We also stopped at the gift shop and brought home a bronzed fern leaf ornament to hang on our Christmas tree every year in remembrance of that special trip.

Yes, that story seemed to strike a chord. Thanks for writing.

Hey travel folks- does the Post still an annual travel-related photo contest? I have a fab photo I want to enter, but I couldn't find any info on timing, etc. Or maybe this wasn't the Post at all and I'm thinking of a different paper! Can you solve my confusion please? :)

Yes we do, but we haven't yet publicized it or started collecting photos. Look for the announcement sometime in late April or early May. The winning entries will be published in August.

I'm hoping Nancy Szokan will be on today: I have been dying to try the GAP trail, but have not done an unsupported multi-day ride because the logistics always seem too daunting. What did you pack, and how did you carry it?

Hi, we packed LIGHT. For me this meant one pair of shorts, one pair of long pants. A few shirts, layerable and ranging from lightweight to hoodie. One knit (non wrinkle) dress, which I changed into every night; one pair lightweight nonbike shoes.

Also a rain poncho.

Then the predictable wallet, phone, camera.

We carried everything in lightweight nylon panniers. I also had a sort of carry-off -- a shoebox-sized bag that strapped on top of the bike rack and had a shoulder strap. That's where we put valuables so we could take them with us -- locking our bikes and go to lunch, or for a hike.  

Dear Zofia and other colleages, Congratulations for your articles, they are always fascinating. May I suggest that a paper be written in your section about a well kept secret, the Montreal-Trudeau airport and its wonderful City, Montreal. Summer is coming and it's the time for your readers to plan vacations.This topic would be just captivating and Montreal-Trudeau being the gateway in North America for lots of travelers, this subject could be perfect. My question is when this article will be written?

Thanks for the suggestion. We've written quite a few articles about Montreal, actually. And have one coming up next week, about sugar shacks in Quebec.

I will be visiting a friend in Atlanta for my birthday (beginning of April) and we'd love to have a nice dinner at a nice restaurant. Do the travel crew, or the chatters, have any recommendations? We have a car, have no food allergies or restrictions, and probably expect to pay around $100/person. Thanks in advance!

We asked restaurant guru Tom Sietsema, but he didn't feel that his Atlanta info is up-to-date enough to be helpful. So maybe some other chatters can pitch in here?

When is the section between Homestead and Pittsburgh scheduled to be complete? If one takes Amtrak to Pittsburgh, I see that the train arrives at midnight. Any hotels close to the train station which are bike-friendly?

I don't know what their schedule is -- but if you notice on the website it points out that there is only one mile missing. Then it goes on to say that the route around it is so daunting that not even "experienced" cyclists should attempt it. I can't imagine what that means.

As for hotels in Pittsburgh, you've hit on exactly the reason we didn't take Amtrak. The train itself was cheap -- I think $47. But getting in at that hour, you pretty much have to stay nearby, and every hotel I found cost well over $200. So it was cheaper to rent a car one-way.

If the chatter from a few weeks ago who wanted to hike in Cornwall is still lurking, we have another reader recommendation:

I can wholeheartedly recommend two small, associated, well-established companies in Cornwall: Adventureline Holidays, owned by Martin Hunt, and walkitcornwall, owned by Paul Simmons. Paul leads trips for Martin when the latter is guiding elsewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed a fantastic week of walking in Cornwall in 2010 that I arranged through Adventureline. Paul was our ideal guide. The entire experience -- lodging, food, pace, activities, scenery, camaraderie -- was wonderful! I was so pleased with the experience that I am taking another walking trip with Adventureline in June.

My sister and I will be going to Brazil in late december through early january. We plan on spending 5 days to a week in Fortaleza where we have family friends. Any ideas for things to do there? We also plan on going to the Amazon for a few days and Riode Janeiro for a few days. Any must sees in any of these places? Thanks

Here's our very recent story on Rio. Check it out for things to do/see. As to Fortaleza, I'm not familiar with that area, so chatters, can you chime in?

No specific recommendations, but I watch Top Chef many of the most talented contestants come from Atlanta restaurants. You might look up some of those restaurants.

What, Where, rest stops, maps, references? Thanks.

The GAP trail is the Great Allegheny Passage, across the mountains from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md.  You can see the story here.

It's an easy route, because it's on the old railroad tracks -- no steep climbs, over bridges and through tunnels.

The best web sites to check are and


I know you focus more on air travel but our family is considering a trip via car from the Midwest to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole. I will have to do the majority of the driving and unfortunately, I am afraid of heights. Do you or any chatters know how the drive is once we get to the Rockies? Thank you.

I only have vague memories of driving in the Rockies about 25 years ago. I don't remember anything horribly scarifying, but then I was younger then! Chatters, anybody had experience driving over the mountains? Let's hear from you.

Yes, the chatter who wants to hike in Cornwall lurks every week -- sometimes even in real time -- and very much appreciates all the recommendations!

Great! Welcome back!

Hi! A group of 5 friends are looking to rent a nonrustic cabin within a 6-hr drive of DC/NoVa in a pretty setting for drinking coffee in the morning, hiking during the day, some bluegrass jams/performances at night...and maybe a brewery nearby and historic downtown. Signs are pointing to Abingdon, Va., but most of the accommodations there are a bit small. We are open to anywhere - any ideas?

Well, if you still like the idea of Abingdon, I've found some really charming options on the Virginia tourism site. The properties here look big enough for you. Ditto here.

Might I suggest an article I read last year in another paper.

Thank you. I guess. :-)

I'm planning my parents 15'th anniversary honeymoon in the Mediterranean. I'm looking at either a Mediterranean cruise ten days or less or a tour of Greece,Italy or Turkey. The only problem with tours is that Mom wants it in more than one country, and no more than 10 days. I have a $5,000 total budget. Any ideas?

Their 15th anniversary? My kids didn't even plan a 25th for us, and I'm not holding my breath for the 30th:) Cruises are more relaxing as you don't need to move hotels every night, so there's none of that "bags-out-the-door-at-6am" nonsense. Downside is that they will miss many of the major cities not located near a port. $5,000 as a total budget will work in the spring and fall shoulder-seasons when airfares are lower.  And cruising is cheaper right now  (Concordia disaster is still fresh). If you want a tour, you can get a list of reputable companies via the United States Tour Operators Association

Heading to Key West and the best rates for rental cars out of MIA are with SIXT. Have you had any experiences with them?

Sixt is a major family-owned European chain. I don't get many complaints about them -- I wouldn't hesitate to rent through the company.

So, Nancy, what do you do if you get a flat tire that is unfixable? I never do these trips because of this very reason.

if you carry spare inner tubes, any mere flat (leaking tube) is fixable, in my experience.  you don't repair the old tube, you just replace it. that's what we do.

but if, say, you crash into a tree and seriously bend your wheel, making the bike unrideable, yep, you're in trouble. in this era of smartphones, it's less of a problem than it used to be -- along trails like these you can locate a bike shop and they'll help you figure out a way to get tehre . (like calling a local van service.)

it has not been my experience that it happens often, and we take bike trips pretty often.


I will be in Austria in early June and would like to visit/stay in 3 cities. Are Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck the best choices? any hidden gems? first timer in Austria

Those three are probably most people's top choices, and they are all wonderful. Beautiful cities. But Graz, which is the second-largest city in the country, is also interesting and less well known, i.e., less visited. It has some beautiful architecture and a lovely Old Town and a castle on a mountain. I also love places like Melk, on the Danube, with its gorgeous abbey, and Baden, just south of Vienna (you could easily hit it while in the capital). Austria is just generally a gorgeous place. You really can't go wrong wherever you go. But bottom line, I'd say that for a first-time visit, you've picked the top three.

Ah! We did the C&O a few years ago and are planning a GAP trip this summer! Perfect timing! (Though now I hope all the hotels aren't booked since you wrote this article!) Biking for 4.5 days on the C&O was wonderful and we are looking forward to the GAP trail. My story from our C&O Canal trip was biking in the rain. We packed ponchos and trash bags to cover ourselves and our panniers, so we were set. It was amazing and freeing to be able to pedal through the mud and get all messy not having to worry about getting to work unscathed or cars skidding behind you. It was the same feeling as playing in puddles as a kid-- is there anything more fun?

Nothing that I can think of! Thanks!

We're in Fortaleza so maybe can help the poster. I'd first ask them, however, what their family and friends have suggested. They'd also need to say just how much "alone" time they'd have and their mode of transport. It's really not the most exciting city in Brazil, and visitors tend to head to the many beach towns in the area (including famous Jericoacoara, which may be too far for the poster) or, with more time, the mountains in the interior. Guide books such as Lonely Planet's guide to Brazil will also have suggestions. I'm sure the poster knows taht late December and early January is high, high season in Brazil (second only to Carnaval), so prices can be high, hotels and flights booked well in advance, etc. The Amazon is a long ways north, and requires a fair amount of research (especially if they want a tour, stay in a jungle lodge, etc.). And it's a hot and rainy time of year in the Amazon!

Thank you for this!

I celebrated a special birthday in Atlanta a few years ago and our night started with dinner at the Sundial Restaurant, located above the Westin Peachtree Hotel. The restaurant revolves and is located seventy-some floors above the ground, allowing for amazing views of the entire city. If you can plan dinner at dusk, you will get beautiful night views as well as daylight 'sightseeing.' The food was good, and the event seems extra special when the city is your backdrop! We topped off the night with a horse and carriage ride through the city, but that, of course, was an added bonus.

Here you go, Atlanta diner!

There are several lists of best rail trails. I did one for Adventure Cycling a few years ago and will send it to you. Trails web site did a list also. Bob in Bethesda

Check out -- the site operated by the Rails to Trails conservancy. 

My husband and I always favored cruise travel. We've taken 19 or more cruises to countries all over the world; unfortunately my husband passed away recently. It is my understanding that a person traveling alone must pay the same rate as a couple. Are there any cruise lines that offer single accommodations and a single reasonable rate?

You are so correct: Cruise lines stick solo travelers with a single supplement; so basically you are paying for a phantom passenger. However, Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic has two floors with cabins tailormade for singles --in size and price. Passengers in these cabins also have access to a lounge and special activities that bring together other solo travelers.

Some cruise lines also waive the single supplement on specific voyages. For example, Avalon Waterways waived its fee for a numer of 2012 cruises. Here's a list. Check our What's the Deal? column for other specials.

Finally, some travel companies and cruise lines will pair single cruisers. And if they can't find you a roommate,  you pay the same price as if they had found a match. Ask the cruise line and/or cruise specialist about such arrangements.

Going to Atlanta GA in April and want to know what are some things I can do? I am a photographer and artist, preferring to see exhibits for these things too. Thank you.

Hmm. Looks like it's time for an Atlanta story. I do know that there's the High Museum of Art, considered the leading art museum in the South. There are several other art and design museums as well. There's the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium. (largest in the world by volume of water). There's the Atlanta Botanical Garden, with its 600-foot canopy walk. And tons more. Chatters, can you help out here?

We did the Rockies,I-80 in Wyoming. The worst part was from Salt Lake City to Park City (a huge incline)--but you won't be going that far. The approach from the East is gentle. I'd stay out of Colorado and when you plan your route, check differential altitudes between points to tell how much you have to climb. I did this so we wouldn't be sleeping above a certain altitude.

I second going on a day trip to Melk from Vienna. It was one of our highlights of our Germany/Austria trip. We were the only english speakers for a tour so we got a private tour of the Abbey and the museum which is excellent. We then took one of the river boats down the Danube river to Krems and caught the train back to Vienna. We had an enjoyable time sailing down the Danube drinking good wine and seeing the sights along the river.

Yes, Krems is another beauty. Thanks!

Hello -- Are there any airlines thta currently offer a ticket which allows unlimited (domestic) flights during a set period? I seem to remember that one airline had unlimited flights M-Th and Saturdays for one month, for something like $400. Thanks!

I think you're talking about something JetBlue has done a couple of times. Those passes sell out FAST, and I don't think anything like that is available now.

We drive to Jackson often, usually from Salt Lake City, but I do know if you come up from the south through Kemmerer, WY, you are following a valley all the way, and there are no scary mountain roads, and I believe (from a trip by car from Maryland years ago, that coming in from the east toward Kemmerer (sp,?) that we avoided mountains.

We hiked Zion Narrows last September, we love hiking but do it rarely. Luckily, we'd been planning the trip since the Spring, so we were prepared for the overnight hike and camping in the solitude. We had to reserve a specific campground and hope we could hike to it in time. As it turned out, we got one of the camp sites near the middle, so we thought we'd make it easily by sunset. Little did we know how grueling the 16 mile hike becomes when you are crossing the stream/river every few steps. We barely made it before dark set in, and the next day, we had expected to finish with time to drive out of the local town and into a place near Area 51 to camp a second night. By the time we got out of the slot canyon, the sun was setting on our second day of hiking, and as our luck had it, there were no vacancies in the tourist town, we did find a hotel to stay in that night 30 miles from Zion. I slept until noon while my husband did our laundry!

Sounds exhausting!

Last fall with the early snow there was a lot of sticks on the C&O Towpath near Little Orleans. I hit a stick which flew up and broke off the casting that holds the derailer on the bike. I had to walk out a couple of miles. I was surprised but it happens. I met a thru biker and he says he carries a spare casting. Bob

Wow, what a pain.  I'm surprised, on that stretch of the trail, that you only had to walk a *couple* of miles -- I didn't get the feeling there were a lot of bike shops nearby.

(You know, even if I carried a spare casting, I'm not sure I'd be able to put it on.)


Hi! Do you ever actually use the photos that people submit? By this I mean in a regular column, not in the "winners column". Thank you Beth

 Afraid we don't use reader photos in the section, except for our occasional Sign Language feature, although we have had some user-generated photo galleries online in the past, so keep any eye out for those on our Web site. Also, the Metro section occasionally prints photos from readers, I believe.

Check out all our public galleries here. Submit away!

Try Rathbun's, 112 Krog Street

a word about the High Museum, it doesn't open until noon on Sundays and workers inside will high five each other keeping you out in inclement weather.

I'm not sure I would have had the guts to go into the Vidigal favela, as the writer of the cited article did, but that said, my wife and I spent a little time in Rio in December, and never felt unsafe. Full disclosure: we arrived in the middle of the night, had a driver waiting to take us to our hotel, and stayed the second night on our cruise ship, which departed very late in the evening. We did the usual tourist stuff: walked around Copacabana and Ipanema, went to one of the beachfront cocktail places, and went to the top of Sugarloaf. The Sugarloaf trip is a must-do as far as I'm concerned, at least if you're not bothered by heights. And we were on Copacabana and Ipanema beaches on a Sunday; the people-watching alone was just about worth the trip. One thing I would advise is to learn a little Brazilian Portuguese if you can. I did the 30-lesson Pimsleur series before we left, and it was a great help. I was surprised by the number of people we encountered, even in the big cities, who spoke no English. Boa viagem! (I think -- grammar isn't Pimsleur's strong suit.)


going to Cayman Islands end of May - what do I need to know? I will be staying for the week, am single. am a photographer, love adventure. Suggestions? Thank you.

Cayman Islands consists of three islands: Grand Cayman, which is the most populated and touristed, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. If you are staying on Grand Cayman, you can always take a short flight to one of the smaller islands. Paradise Cayman Vacations also does day trips. Last time I visited Grand Cayman, I spent all my time snorkeling. The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism has a good list of snorkeling beaches. 

I am due to fly from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania via Doha, Qatar to Colombo, Sri Lanka from 1400GMT 8th March to 0400GMT 9th March. Should I be concerned about risks from the expected solar storm along my route? What advice would you give me and other travellers?

I don't think we can really do anything about the situation, short of throwing a giant tarp into the atmosphere. And from what I have read, the worst is over.

I am assuming that the experts won't fly in a risky situation, similar to an electric or snow storm. In addition, pilots do have backup navigation. My advice: Look outside your window at the wonders of nature.

I really enjoyed visiting the Carter Center / Presidential Library. And th grounds are lovely.

Is there a train that travel across Canada?

Yes, VIA/Rail Canada serves a trans-Canada route. You can book a Vancouver-Toronto trip through a tour operator like Canada Via Rail

Actually you can drive from Salt Lake City to Jackson without going over maountains - we just did it last September. Go east out of Salt Lake on their Beltway instead of going north on I-15. Continue east on I-80 to Evanston, WY, then head north toward Randolph or take 189 to Kemmerer follow 89/30 north.

My husband and I have decided to drive up to Philadelphia and spend the night and do some sightseeing. I've never spent any time in Philly and other than the famous historic sites, we wondered what we should try to see when we are there. Any suggestions? We would probably check out the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and would not be adverse to driving out of the city if there were something to see. Thanks for your help.

If you're going soon, definitely check out the Van Gogh exhibit at the art museum -- it's getting great reviews. If you're not going until the end of May, you might try to get into the new Barnes Foundation museum  -- a fascinating, idiosyncratic collection that was house for years in a private mansion, now moving to a site near the big Museum of Art. (

As a longtime Philadelphian, I always recommend the Reading Terminal Market -- one of the biggest, oldest markets in the country, in a huge old trainshed right downtown, two blocks from the ornate City Hall.

And if you want to drive, we always recommend the Amish country west of the city -- look on a map for the towns Paradise, Bird in Hand, Intercourse.

Hi. My husband and I are taking a short weekend trip to NYC next month. Even though we've never been there together, and it's been a long time since either has been there, we'd still rather stay away from all the "regular" sights. Can you point me in the direction of an article/book/website that might highlight some off the beaten track sights/things-to-do? Thanks!

I find the most offbeat attractions in Time Out NY. Check out the weekly listing of events here or pick up a copy of the weekly magazine when you are there.

I would also recommend taking the East River ferry and wandering around Brooklyn. Another favorite: the Rubin Museum of Himalayan art.

in town is most of what I know: babette's is really nice, the atmosphere is fantasic. french ish food - on highland poncey highlands. pura vida in the highlands, tapas, really fun. mitra in midtown some suggestions, anyway.

When is the best time to get a ticket? I heard that August 16th is the beginning of the shoulder time for Fall. I thought about going with IcelandicAir with stops in Iceland before going to London. I live in Atlanta. Thanks for any input.

Shoulder season dates are variable, and I'd say they generally start closer to the end of August. If you are going to stay in Iceland for a day or two, that makes some sense. But if not, I'd pay extra for a nonstop to London. Fares right now are running about $1,200 round trip at the end of August. That seems high to me. I'd wait it out and keep checking for cheaper fares.  

Looking for a charming small hotel in Brussels Belgium that is near a metro and in a safe neighborhood with restaurant choices nearby. Mid price range.

Chatters, any recommendations?

We are in Europe for 2 years as tourist. We have a temp resident visa for the first year, but would like to spend a month or two in several different places during the 2nd year. Will we have problems moving around without a Visa? The longest stay would be 4 months in Portugal, going into other countries for 1 week at a time during that stay. Thank you for any assistance you can give us.

I don't go into DC often, but when I do, I take I-66 East and use the exit towards Independence Ave. The ramp leads to a Yield where traffic needs to cross Ohio Drive. I know this isn't a major intersection, but it seems like it could use work to make it easier to cross. Either a stoplight or traffic circle would help.

We'll forward your recommendation to Dr. Gridlock!

for bbq - fox bros. on dekalb ave., candler park i have heard great things about the rests in the NYT article, but haven't been to any of them.

i need a cheap ticket to Albania in summer how much is it ?

From where? What month? And what is your definition of cheap?

 I have never seen a sale to Albania. There just isn't the demand. For June, I am seeing flights on KLM for about $1,300. If you can finder a cheaper airfare to Greece or Turkey, you can take a bus from Athens or Istanbul.

My husband and I will have one free day in New Orleans in April. Do you have any suggestions for how we should spend our day there--other than the Hollywood tour that was written up recently?

Hi, I was interested to read about the DC to Pittsburgh trail ride. I was wondering how much of the trail is paved (vs gravel). Also, how would you recommend handling possible "breakdowns," e.g., flat tires or other problems along the way? Thanks!

Nancy says:

Almost none of the rail is paved. That's the first thing my husband said when he saw the photo accompanying the story: Let's warn people that almost none of it is paved.  The 140 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage are almost all crushed limestone, a really pleasant biking surface. The C&O towpath, remember, was invented for mules, so it's a lot of  dirt, some  gravel or crushed stone. In dry weather it's pretty comfortable biking, if a little bumpy at times.

You need to carry spare tubes, a pump or CO2 inflator, and a couple of bike tire wrenches, because you need to be able to fix a flat on the trail.  If you don't change tires often (we don't), practice once before you go (we did, and it's a good thing, because we had a flat and needed to do it.) 

Admitting this in case it helps anyone in the future: I spent the entire day meandering around Old San Juan yesterday not having any clue that a) PR is the Atlantic, not East Coast Time Zone, and b) it doesn't observe DST. I didn't notice any changes in time on my phone, and checked a few world clock websites, and somehow still wound up an hour and half ahead all day. At least I didn't have to be anywhere!

I did the same thing in Belize City last year. Wound up missing a boat from an small island. Luckily, still managed to get back to the cruise ship before it left. That's the kind of detail that can go overlooked and then come back to bite you! 

If you're going to start bicycling more, on a bike that you've already had for a few years, do yourself a favor and take it to a local bike shop for a complete tune-up. If your tires are starting to show cracks, get new tires and tubes. You are far less likely to get stranded by a breakdown if your bicycle is in good shape.

That is SUCH good advice. We did that -- I forgot to mention it -- and found that one of my husband's bike pedals was almost cracked. It very likely could have  broken on the trail, stranding us.

I wonder how many questions you'll get from people booking last-minute tickets to one of 8 fascinating tournament hosts? My school drew ABQ, where I have never been: any can't-miss highlights? I assume a car is necessary (games are at UNM). Thanks!

We haven't had a whole lot on Albuquerque, but here's one story.

Anyone have suggestions?

Hello travellers - I'm planning a trip to Dubrovnik in a month and would like to do a day trip to Montenegro and/or Bosnia. We will have a rental car, so can be flexible on destinations and timing. Do you guys have any destination preferences in those two countries as well as any tips for making the trip by car? thanks!

Chatters, need you for this one.

Can you recommend a reasonably-priced hotel in New York City for a quick spring getaway for a mom and two teen daughters? We're open to midtown or downtown. Thanks!

I recommend the Bowery Hotel on Bowery and the Pod Hotel on the East Side.

the zoo, we have pandas. but you have them in DC too, I suppose. right next to the zoo is cyclorama, which is interesting. There's stone mountain. beautiful. And piedmont park, if you're wanting to take pictures.

In order to help the person posting a question last week regarding toy stores in/near Harrogate, England, I contacted a friend who lives there. This is what she said:

There aren't actually a huge number of toy shops in Harrogate or Leeds really. Most are small independents that don't have web-sites for online ordering or gift cards. The best options would be Early Learning Center, which is for children from Baby up to 10-12 years, Toy Master Shop, which has a branch in Harrogate and House of Fraser in Leeds. There is also a Toys R Us at an out of town shopping centre on the way to York. I've been told that all of these stores have online voucher/gift card options available. I myself have been to Harrogate and the area numerous times, but I can't comment about the toy stores. A trip to Betty's for tea -- now that's something I can recommend.

Wow, thanks to you and your friend for going the extra mile! Let's hope the original poster is tuning in today.

My husband and I are interested in going out to see Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob in late April or early May - any recommendations for interesting inns, B&B's or restaurants in that area of western Pennsylvania? We don't want to stay in a chain hotel/motel if at all possible.

If you'll be in the vicinity of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a must-try restaurant is the Out of the Fire Cafe in Donegal, Pa., where I ate last year during a Fallingwater excursion. It's a sort of down-home organic-local spot, terrific food, and the only downside -- at least last summer when I was there -- was that you had to bring your own wine. Can't recommend it highly enough. Wish I could say the same about my lodgings, so no recommendation there! If you're near the Seven Springs ski resort, Helen's restaurant (on the resort property) is also very good.

My wife and I would like to take a cruise to Alaska. We could go this summer and take one of the big cruise ships with lots of activities to keep the kids interested or we could wait a few years and go on a my smaller non big name ship for more of a nature experience. Do you have any thoughts on weighing the two choices? Thanks

So is the decision whether to take the kids now or go without them later? Because, depending on the kids' interests and ages, they may enjoy a nature-oriented cruise. We did the big ship sans kids, and if I had to do it over again, I'd go with a smaller vessel. Take a look at Alaskan Dream Cruises, American Cruise Lines, American Safari Cruises, and Linblad Expeditions.

I'm going to be telecommuting for the next year and figure it's a good time for an adventure. I plan to spend a month each in cities all over the country, but would love to find a little Mayberry or two to hang out in, for some variety. Any perfect small towns fit the bill? I'm thinking more west than north. Thanks!

How about one of the places mentioned in Annie Gowen's recent Kansas story? There's Council Grove and Cottonwood Falls. I also spent a pleasant few days in Grafton, Ill. A lot of pretty little towns there along the Mississippi River.

Hi travel gurus! My parents are talking about taking a trip this summer to Paris and London but are finding the flight prices in London rather high (I'm guessing due to the Olympics). Unfortunately they can only travel in the summer since my Mom's a teacher. Would they be better off saving London for another year? If so, what's a good city to pair with Paris? Thanks!

Maybe they're a little higher because of the Olympics, but airfares to London are high in summer, and they may not be any cheaper next year. Paris is a good city to twin with London because it's easy to get from one to the other. But there are also plenty of cheap air tickets from London's smaller airports (Stansted has some of the best deals) to cities throughout Europe; check out choices at EuroFlights. We went from London to Alicante, Spain and spent four days roaming the Costa Blanca coast, which was fantastic.  

Could you please post the link to the article that was done several months ago in the WP on layovers? I can't seem to find it. I am thinking of doing a trip to Asia with a 12 hour layover in Beijing.

Hi, this is probably for Chris Elliott. I'll try to keep it brief. Checked online my airline reservation with KLM for roundtrip flights to South Africa for a couple of weeks from now to make sure everything was ok. On one of the legs--Johannesburg to Paris--I had paid for extra legroom seats 3 months ago (was given the seat numbers over the phone). Come to find out, the reservation was showing NO seats for us on that leg. I called and KLM admitted that we had no seats assigned for that flight and admitted that they had my payment. The agent told me how I could get a refund for those seats and assigned me regular economy seats since there were no more economy plus available. I protested to her and to customer service on the website that we are now penalized with cramped seats (we're very tall) for a loooong flight, through no fault of our own. I suggested that KLM either honor our request for the extra legroom in economy or bump us up into business class. I haven't heard back from them yet, but in anticipation of a negative response, do you have any email addresses for executives at KLM that I could use to plead my case? We leave in less than 2 weeks. Thanks for your help.

Hmmm, an upgrade to business class might be (pardon the expression) a stretch but it isn't asking too much for KLM to honor your original seat requests. Here's how to reach the airline online. If they don't respond within a week, try an appeal to one of the following. And if none of those work, send me an email.

Can you recommend small hotels or B&Bs on Oahu or Kauai? We're open to any locations on the islands.

I've only stayed in larger hotels, but the Hawaii Tourism Authority does a good job of listing all sorts of accommodations. Any chatter have a favorite place to stay? 

I'm sure you've noticed that when staying in any NAME hotel in different locales, the quality isn't the same across the board. I understand the Ritz is consistent - they always are on the list of best hotels in almost every city in travel magazines' annual surveys, but do you know of any mid range hotel brands that are consistent? It would be nice when planning a trip to know that you'll always get the same level of quality when you stay at a NAME hotel in any city. Thanks!!

A lot of chain hotels are franchises. The quality relies so much on that individual owner or the management team. I have found pretty consistent quality with Starwood properties, especially W Hotels. Properties granted four or five diamonds by AAA are also uniformly good.

Mostar is doable from Dubrovnik.

fritti or sotto sotto are great for italian type stuff.

We're a couple going to visit family and friends in Chicago (city and 'burbs). Our flights are May 16 - 26. We were wondering if there are any good hikes outside Chicago? Also, what events will be going on in the city? Finally, I know it's always windy there, but what should I expect from the weather otherwise? Thank you!

Chicago has lots of hiking in and around the city.  When I lived there, I loved to walk along the lake and stumble into the different attractions along the way. The Lakefront Path goes from Hollywood Avenue on the northside to 71st street on the southside.

For more natural hikes, try the Des Plaines River Trail, Swallow Cliffs or Waterfall Glen. Also check out the day hikes organized  by the Forest Trails Hiking Club.

For events, check out this list from the city and pick up a copy of the Chicago Reader.

May is one of the lovelier months-- true spring. But these days, it's hard to forecast the weather. Just check a few days before you go. And honestly, the wind is no worse than NYC.

The problems, especially technical, resulting when United and Continental merged, were largely predictable, but I don't begrudge them for not thinking of everything (though when you phoned their system and finally got an attendant who said your flight was international and so they'd have to transfer you and then you end up back where you started-- that's bad). However, I was perplexed that their Facebook page largely brushed off any problems as no worse than would be expected and largely resolved already. UA, accept blame, say you could have done better and will do so in the future. The airport personnel we dealt with acknowledged there were problems and worked hard to overcome them. UA's PR department could learn from them.

I've been fielding a lot of complaints about the technology problems resulting from the merger. Most of them are relatively minor, but some have been significant. I may write something about it soon.

It was so great to see your article on bringing kids to nature. We have reservations in Yosemite in July and our two boys - 6 and 8 - are very excited. I have been holding off on buying the plane tickets because of the high prices. We will fly into LAX around the 4th of July. I know you don't have a crystal ball, but do you think there will be a summer sale? I have been pricing out since last August, and am hoping for $350 or less. Thanks!

So glad you liked the story. We found some really cheap airfares online when checking the details box for that story, although I think they disappeared quickly and the final bottom line was about $360. Still not bad. I don't know about sales; we just can't predict. Summer is high season for travel, after all. Just keep checking the fares, sign up for sale alerts with United ans also on or or If you see a sale, jump on it. And keep your fingers crossed!

Hi, I'm thinking of trying to see some of Charleston SC in a day - fly down in the morning, come back the same evening. It seems the airport is close to town. But I don't know enough about the sights, etc -- is this somewhat reasonable?

Sure, it's possible, but if you can stay overnight, do so! You'll want to stay longer, believe me. Pretty much the whole historic area is walkable. You can head toward the battery and just admire the houses. If time permits, go to Fort Sumter. Tour a historic home or two. Eat at FIG, Husk or Hominy Grill. Check out the market.

I will be a couple of days in Havana and I'm in debating on whether or not going to one of the famous night shows there, this is Tropicana or Cabaret Parisen. I'm not sure if there are other options but any comment on this will be greatly appreciated. Also I will be staying in old Havana, is there something I shouldn't miss there? I'm mostly interested in photography, and learning more of the Cuban culture. Thanks

To be honest, I had heard that those shows were overpriced and touristy. But I can't say for sure, since I did not go to one. I found great music along the Malecon, where people congregate with guitars.

Just wander Old Havana and you will trip over everything you need: the Chocolate Museum, a cigar hotel and museum, Revolution Plaza. I think random walking is the best form of sightseeing; though if you want to be more organized, grab a copy of Lonely Planet.

Uou will have no shortage of photo opps. Be sure to get shots from all angles, including the rooftops (many bars and retaurants have rooftop spots).

My husband and I are expecting our second child in early June, and would like to take the family (including new baby and our 2 year old) to the beach this summer. Ideally, it would be as close to DC as possible, with a place very close to the beach that has its own pool. We'll be on maternity/paternity leave all summer (lucky us!) so date is flexible. Would love any advice you could give on best places for young families (ie quiet, but not too quiet!) Thanks so much.

You're going to spend a whole lot of money to fill that bill.  The Village at Nags Head comes to mind, but it is not close to D.C. Or perhaps Bethany Beach,  which is fairly close, quiet and family oriented. 

The bike trail sounds wonderful. How long should an average rider budget to complete the journey?

Nancy says:

It depends on what you mean by average rider.  We like to do about 25-40 miles a day, and I'd say we averaged 30. The 300 mile ride took us 10 days. 

Lots of people do 60 miles a day -- remember, this basically feels flat and most people can ride 8-12 miles an hour without too much trouble. 3 days for the C&O's 180 miles is a very common ride -- I think people stop at Hancock and Harper's Ferry.  At that pace you'd need a little more than two days to do the GAP. 

My rather impulsive teenager is going on a school trip to Northern Ireland and the Republic, and he will need Euros and pounds. We don't want to hand him an unlimited credit card. What is the best way to supply him with money? Should we buy a one-time credit card (and do you know if these are valid overseas?) Get him the foreign currency in DC before he leaves?

It's been a while since my daughter, the world traveler, was a teen, but we put money on a prepaid credit card. We used Visa Buxx, but you should definitely check out the fees before you go for this - I think they've gone up. Maybe just a debit card tied to a bank account at home would work best. I would not give him lots of foreign currency.  

From looking at the archives of this chat, there are a lot of people who have been to Paris! I'm looking for suggestions for a cheap hostel for 3-4 nights. I don't have a particular neighborhood in mind, so any suggestions are welcome. Thanks!

Chatters, answer away.

Planning first trip to Playa del Carmen. Do you or the chatters have any tips re: restaurants, beaches, bars, shopping, or day trips? Sorry, I know it's a tall order. We just don't want to miss anything!!

Are you staying at an all-inclusive? If not, you won't feel that badly going outside the resort to eat and drink. I've always stayed at all-inclusives in this region, so don't know all that much about the bar/restaurant scene. But I've heard from friends that there are some worthwhile places, including Brochetas and Como Como. Shopping and bars for tourists are concentrated along 5th Avenue. I enjoyed a day trip that included snorkeling in the cenote caves - went with a group called Alltournative. And then there are always the Mayan ruins, although that'll take an entire day if you go with a tour.  Any chatters have other ideas? 

We will be visiting the Berkshires in July and staying north of Pittsfield near Jiminy Peak. It's a short car ride to Williamstown and N. Adams. Never been there but we're wondering if there anything up there worth checking out?

Lots and lots, especially in the arty and outdoorsy vein, such as the Norman Rockwell Museum, Mass MoCA and the church in the Arlo Guthrie song, "Alice's Restaurant" (now the Guthrie Center).

Here is a great source of info.

If you lick a banana slug, your tongue will go numb.

If you lick a banana slug, you DESERVE to have your tongue go numb!

Someone I know who's a travel agent gave this tip. Is there any truth to it? "Don't search flights more than three times in a day because the rate of a flight you want to book is going to continuously go up after searching for it three times in a day because airlines know you're trying to find the lowest rates."

I've investigated this repeatedly, the last time in 2010, and found that most of these fare differences are the result of website caching, not manipulation by travel sites.

I don't think the "three strikes and your're out" advice is true -- yet. Airlines and other travel companies would charge dynamic fares tailored to the individual passenger if they could. They just haven't been able to figure out how yet, as far as I know. 

We will be flying to Europe out of JFK in June and need to determine the best way (not too expensive, yet not cumbersome) to get there from the DC area. What is the best option for a family of 4 with 4 bags? Drive, fly, train?

I'd go with driving. You can find long-term parking for about $15 a day near JFK. Flying is easiest, but most expensive. Other cheaper alternative would be to take one of the buses (Bolt Bus, Vamoose, Megabus, etc.) to the Penn Station area and then train from Penn Station to JFK via Jamaica. But with four bags and four people, I would not recommend that -- plus that strategy saves more money for a solo traveler than a group of four. 

Headed there with my husband's extended family this summer. Anything to do in the area, or on the way there, if we've had our fill of the lake?

Have a look at the Deep Creek Lake tourism site. There is, of course, plenty of hiking in the area. When I was out there some years back, we trekked to see the gorgeous views of the river at Potomac State Forest. In the area, you can also go horseback riding, among other things.

Thanks again all, for a great chat. Although there seemed to be some story boycotting going on today, after the discussion of the past couple of weeks. Coincidence? :-) Anyway, since a couple of you did offer your tales, I'll give you both a prize. So the folks who took the exhausting hike in the Zion Narrows, and the couple who got all happily mud-spattered biking the C&O towpath -- send your contact info to and I'll shoot something your way. Thanks everybody and see you next week.

In This Chat
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the acting editor of Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
Jane Touzalin
Jane Touzalin is acting deputy 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, clearing the way through the fog of consumer travel issues. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
Recent Chats
  • Next: