Talk about Travel

Jul 30, 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.

Good day, chatters! I'm back after a two-week hiatus, and glad to be conversing with you again today. I missed you! Hope you liked our funny story on the Ugandan safari and the stroll down Beatles memory lane in Hamburg. Can you believe that was 50 years ago? Ah well, life goes on. What's on your mind on this hot (surprise) day in the nation's capital? Send in your questions and your best tips/ stories for a travel-related escape from the heat, and the best one will win a prize.
Now let's chat.

You've written a number of stories -- most recently yesterday -- about renting apartments from owners who turn out to be delusional exaggerators if not outright crooks. But you haven't explained why anyone would want to do this in the first place. London, to use yesterday's example, has many thousands of rooms, ranging from hostel dorms to five-star super-lux. Getting a room in an established commercial property pretty much guarantees that it meets at least minimum standards, and if there are problems you can take complaints to senior managers, corporate headquarters and legal authorities. Even bed-and-breakfasts are licensed and inspected. And if you pay by credit card you can get your bank involved too. Renting somebody's private apartment -- which almost certainly violates their local laws and their own lease -- leaves you entirely at their mercy, especially if they demand cash up front and can sue for even talking about them. Your victim yesterday lost more than he would have paid for a nice room in an well-located hotel (check Kayak). Why isn't a hotel always the smart choice? One of life's basic rules is that if it sounds too good to be true, it is.

I'm pretty much with you on this -- I'd almost always prefer to stay in a hotel, unless I personally know someone whose apartment I could borrow. But I think what drives a lot of travelers is the idea that they could save money staying in an apartment, by being able to cook in occasionally and saving on tips, etc. There's also the sense that you're more in control -- you don't have to leave so housekeeping can come in and tidy your room, you can come and go unobserved. I think people feel there's just a greater sense of freedom staying in a flat. I still prefer the hotel option, because I personally don't want to cook while on vacation, or make my own bed. But that's my explanation for the reasoning for many people.

Chatters, agree or disagree?

We are celebrating our 25th anniversary in NYC, and I'm stumped for activities other than a Broadway show, as well as a place to go for dinner. Gurus, help?

I'd recommend checking out the High Line and Eataly. Eataly might be a little too boisterous for an anniversary dinner. On-leave editor Joe Yonan recently wrote about some very appealing vegetarian restaurants, if any of those are of interest. This is our restaurant critic Tom Sietsema's most recent report from New York. Anyone else have a place to recommend?

A cousin has not-so-conveniently decided to get married in Jamaica over the week between Christmas and New Years. The wedding is near Kingston, but we could fly in wherever and drive/shuttle. I can't seem to find flights cheaper than $775, and that's on the very low end. I'd be okay (well, not really, but whatever) flying out on Christmas, but my fiance can't get that many days off. Ideally I want to fly back on Dec 30th because I/we don't have vacation days left. What do you think are the best days to fly out there? Do you think prices will get any cheaper or should I just bite the bullet? I'd appreciate any tips!

You must really love your cousin. It will likely be cheaper to fly into Montego Bay, but the cost of getting to Kingston will negate the savings. It's cheaper to fly to Kingston from JFK, as JetBlue flies between the two nonstop, but you'd have to get to New York. I think you just bite the bullet and buy.

If I take the first 5A Metrobus from Rosslyn which arrives at Dulles at 5:42AM, would I have enough time to make a 7:10 flight? Or should I spend the money on an earlier cab to get to the airport?

You should be fine, though the 5A is not always 100 percent reliable. You could always try the bus but keep the number of a taxi cab handy. (Unfortunately, Washington Flyer does not depart till 6:15.)

This was accidental, but an escape none-the-less. My parents, brothers and I took a 3 week trip through New Zealand and Australia to celebrate my high school graduation. Our third day there we decided to take a helicopter up to Fox Glacier to walk around. Upon exiting the helicopter, the guides gave us crampons to strap to our shoes to make us a little more sturdy on the ice. It was pretty warm up there with the sun reflecting off of the glacier. We plodded along....the guide first, then my mom and I, my two brothers, and my dad (a big athletic guy) bringing up the rear. My brothers were complaining about the glare and the heat when all of a sudden we hear a scream and a splash--my dad had fallen into a glacial pool. After a few minutes of pure panic, we pulled him out and all fell over laughing. The guide told us that was the first time in his 35 year history that he had ever seen someone fall into a glacial pool. Needeless to say, our adventure was over and we heli -ed it out of there!

I hope it wasn't too freezing!

Yesterday I bought travel insurance for the first time, and found the comparison process challenging, even though I am a knowledgable traveler and worked with insure my I and presumably others would find an overall analysis useful so that we don't buy more insurance than we need but don't fall into pitfalls like the recent traveler who was denied coverage because she understated her cost by a small amount. Although insure my trip said that kind of problem only arises with cancel for any reason coverage, it led me to wonder when one should pay extra for cancel for any reason and when regular travel insurance is likely to surfice. And how much medivac insurance is really needed and what does it cover? Trying to read the fine print on the policies is overwhelming to most travelers, so an article with a general analysis would be quite helpful. Thank you.

We've actually covered travel insurance a good bit of late. Here's Chris's piece from our recent travel guide. Also check out his FAQ and another story that ran in the Health section.

Tenament Museum, Museum of the City of NY, Museum of Sex - and yes, the Highline is fantastic.

Being in an apartment also helps you pretend that you live there...that you're not just a tourist. While I thought the renter in the story was entitled to be upset about the condition of the apartment he rented, a little research would have told him the neighborhood wasn't good and that very few places in the UK have air conditioning. And in defense of their laundry appliances, they may dry much more slowly but they use a lot less energy. I don't recommend renting an apartment unless I know the area and standards well. It was a good article.

Agreed. I found it hard to believe that the renter didn't look into the neighborhood. Every Olympic story has mentioned that the stadium and park were being built in a fairly downtrodden part of town, in hopes of helping to revive it. But that would require reading, of course.

We're considering doing the apartment rental because we have small children, and think they'd be more comfortable in a home rather than a hotel room. It would make it nicer for us, too, when one of them needs a nap.

Good points.

Do you have links to old articles or discussions on Caracau? Looking for information on what to do, how long to visit, where to stay, how to get around, etc. if visiting. I have not found an easy way to find old articles or discussions from the website. Thanks

Do you mean Curacao? If so, yes. Andrea was just there the other year. Our stories don't typically specify a detailed itinerary like you're asking for. For that, you might check out a guidebook such as Lonely Planet, Frommer's, Fodor's, etc.

I'm contemplating an extraordinary (for me) trip next year to celebrate my 60th birthday. Among other places I am looking at Croatia and South Africa. My question concerns travel agencies. I have received several emails from travel agencies representing both places, and each has great sounding trips. My concern is that I don't know anything about these agencies. What criteria do I use to make a choice amongst them? While they all have great reviews on their websites, nobody pleases all of their customers and I would like to know the problems as well as the successes. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Do you mean tour operators? Travel agencies typically don't run their own trips. They instead sell tours that are operated by various companies. When you're looking at a specific tour company, look at how long it's been in business, what it includes in the price, the names of the hotels (you can then investigate these separately), the number & types of guides and whether it is a member of various groups, such as the United States Tour Operators Association. Any chatters have other suggestions? 

Having rented flats all over the world I find that they provide a more relaxed pace. We don't have to leave to eat breakfast by a certain time, if the weather is terrible there are usually better lounging spaces in a flat, dinner is more leisurely because we don't have to eat by a certain time, a concern if you are in a more rural area, and for the most part I find hotel rooms slightly depressing unless you are willing to shell out big bucks. To each their own.

Right you are.

I understand the concern regarding vacationing in an apartment but when I've gone to Paris, I feel less like a tourist and a little more like a Parisian. It sort of add to the adventure. Also, the people has a great time shopping for bread, wine and other food at grocer stores. Making the bed or washing the dishes was minor compared to having a washer and dryer and bottles of red wine.

I haven't been to Hawaii since 2002 so I decided to place it on the list for a 2013 trip. My travel dates are flexible, so I want to know what months constitute the offseason in Hawaii. I heard in the past it was Sept.-Oct. but didn't know if that was still true.

According to Frommer's, there are two off-seasons: spring (mid-April to mid-June) and fall (September to mid-December). But also keep in mind that spring break often takes place in April, so schedule any trips after that for the best bargains.

I have a birthday coming up and want to escape for a night in the area. Perfect schedule would be to check in on a Wednesday and check out Thursday. I love spas and great food, and I hate to admit, luxury. But I don't have a ton of money for one night. My taste is more expensive than my wallet. Any suggestions? Thanks!

How about Berkeley Springs? Former staffer Christina Talcott lived up the spa town on a budget.

in very expensive cities (like London) I think people try to save money wherever they can. If you are traveling with a couple of kids you also probably want a little more space than one (small) hotel room. So the idea of having a whole apartment is very attractive. Plus it is more likely to be in a place where real people live rather than a tourist or hotel district which is something lots of people enjoy...the whole "live like a local" thing. Personally I like to stay in serviced apartments or apartment hotels. So you get the best of both worlds. I don't need a lot of amenities and room service and all that stuff. But I do like having a bit more space and a refrigerator to put some food in etc.

On my bucket list is to splurge on a hotel room, and now that a baby's in our future my husband and I want to make that happen. We're thinking of a weekend trip to either San Antonio or Charleston (we've been to Savannah and heard it was similar maybe even nicer). So any recommendations for either and flight & season-wise when is the best time to visit?

I love the idea of Charleston. Had a wonderful, romantic, food-filled weekend with my husband there last year. I think fall would be a nice time to visit -- then again, I think fall is a great time to visit anywhere. But you know, we went in the middle in December and that was great too. Warmer than here, for sure. As far as flights go, definitely look into flying out of BWI. Southwest has made it very affordable to get down there. Right now, I'm seeing fares as low as $71 each way.

Here is acting Food editor Bonnie Benwick's recent Bed Check from Charleston. When I was looking for places to stay, I was intrigued by the HarbourView Inn and especially the Restoration on King.

I am traveling to Chicago in August and am having an incredibly difficult time finding a hotel that does NOT allow pets. I am allergic (esp. to cats) and it seems that every hotel now allows pets. This has become a huge problem. When I call to request a non-pet room, the hotel tells me that they "clean the room" and it won't be a problem. (this is so ridiculous I'm not even sure where to start but unless they throw away all of their linens and carpets it most certainly will be a problem!), I just got off the phone with a hotel that does not even block off pet-friendly and pet-free rooms. Can you please help me identify hotels and hotel chains that do NOT allow pets (service animals excluded). At this point I have no idea what to do!

I find it hard to believe that there are *no* pet-free hotels in Chicago, which is, after all, a huge city. It would help to know what price range you're looking for, but just looking quickly on, I find a Best Western Grant Park Hotel that doesn't allow pets. Also the Central Loop Hotel Chicago, and a number of others. Maybe some Chicago chatters can give us some specific tips on other dander-less hotels for this traveler. Folks?

If you are travelling with a family or group, a house or apartment makes sense. There's nothing more miserable than being in a hotel room with 4 or more people! Plus you have access, usually, to a washer.

You could spend a whole day just walking around shopping in Manhattan and/or exploring Central Park (also, see if there are any concerts in the park). Go see a show at the Comedy Cellar if you're into stand-up. There are countless museums and art galleries. Take a tour of NBC studios at 30-Rock. See if you can get tickets to be in the audience for one of the late shows. There's always a symphony/ballet/play/rock band playing somewhere. Go to the top of the Empire State Building. Get some Italian food in Little Italy. C'mon, if you can't find something to do in NYC you're not trying!

For me it is not the Beatles but Miniatur Wunderland that is the main attraction of Hamburg. Haven't made it over there yet but hope to soon.

My husband and I typically prefer to stay in a hotel for many of the reasons Zofia mentioned. However, this spring we decided to take our 16 year old nephew to Bermuda for several days. It goes without say that we preferred not to share a room and bath and the cost of 2 rooms was rather prohibitive. So, we looked into renting an apartment. We had some great luck due to a cancellation (this was last minute over the Easter weekend) . We rented the whole bottom floor of a house that is a two-bedroom/two bath with a kitchen, dining room, living room - on the harbor facing Hamilton. It was great and the view fabulous! All for a fraction of the cost to stay in a hotel. We were able to cook breakfast, make sandwiches for lunch and then go anywhere we wanted for dinner. Our nephew could stay up and watch movies in the living room when we went to bed without us worrying about his safety. Not that we would necessarily rent a place all the time, but for larger groups and extended stays I would definitely consider this option. I will say that I got really nervous after wiring the money to them ahead of time - which I had just done and then was the topic of considerable discussion on this blog about that time. Fortunately, it all worked out and the owner was great.

Glad it worked out, but I  must say that I agree with Chris that you should consider a request for the money wired up front to be a big red flag.

I unexpectedly have a lot of free time over the next month or so, and I'd like to take the opportunity to do some solo travel. Budget is a concern, so I'm looking for the best way to search any date/any destination and see a list by price. When I look at the "Deals" section on Orbitz and similar, it's only showing me options of places I've been many times before, which isn't what I'm interested in. (I live in Los Angeles, if that matters!)

Try Kayak Explore. Check out top deals on Airfarewatchdog as well.

Does anyone on the Travel Crew have any idea how hard it is to book a ticket for the SInkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto? I get into Tokyo on a Friday and want to go to Kyoto that weekend - from what I've read, you can't book tickets online (unless you speak Japanese) so I'm concerned about not buying a ticket until the day of and not being able to get to Kyoto. Any ideas?

That is a popular train route and you should not have a problem getting a ticket the day-of.  You can get them at the station.

When I traveled in Japan, I bought a seven-day Japan Rail Pass, a good option if you plan to use the train a lot. It works on bullet trains, local trains, buses and more. You must puchase it in advance of your arrival. For info, see here.

I wish that were true for less-than-5-star hotels! How many times I've booked a hotel room that turned out to reek of mildew and changed to another room only to discover more of the same -- or had a TV that didn't work -- or been told that room service ended before I arrived -- or that if I want more towels, I'll have to pay for them -- etc. And did you ever see the cleaning staff do a half-assed job of wiping the toilet and rinsing the glasses and then put the "sanitized" strip on the toilet and the little paper caps on the glasses to make them look clean? I have! Plus those stupid, attached hangers and nothing to read except the 'phone book, hotel guide and Bible ...

Oh dear. I think you need to start staying in a slightly better class of hotel. :-)

Hi there, I am searching your travel archives on TX and see LOTS on Austin and Dallas, but nothing on San Antonio. I thought you might have something, it's the home of the Alamo, after all! Thanks for sending anything you might have.

Personally, I can see renting an apartment if you're going to be there for a week, but the article was about someone who was only going to be there for 3 days, I would def. use a hotel for 3 days.

Me too.

We often travel as part of a group of extended family, usually six adults (three couples). An apartment is much less expensive than three hotel rooms, three motel rooms, or any combination. Since we only get together about once a year, if that, we have much more time together in the morning and evening. There can be down sides, such as finding an apt that is elderly-friendly for the parents. But by saving money this way, we can usually stay together longer, which is why we're there in the first place. A bonus is we usually have laundry facilities as well. But, saying all this, we only deal with licensed apt "brokers" that we find on third-party websites. We've even rented an entire B&B, which worked out great as well. It may take a bit more time in the planning, but is so very worth it in the end.

Absolutely worth it to use the pros.

I'll be traveling to Ireland soon and was told it's better to purchase a throwaway phone when I arrive.... but I should buy one with a sim card that I could possibly reuse in the US upon my return... Any suggestions?

You don't necessarily have to buy a throwaway phone. Here are your options, as laid out by Andrea last year.

Hello Gang! I have a travel "protocol" question. We just returned from a wonderful 10 Day Stay in SFO. We took a number of day tours as well as stayed in one hotel during that amount of time. A wonderful, yet new experience for us. My question is this: What are considered proper tips for various folks in the hospitality industry? Consierge for dining suggestions. Day Trip Guides out of the City, or Half Day Trip Guides. Bus Drivers Maid Service We stayed in a modest hotel, but were there for this extended period. We never thought about some of these issues before we went, but felt very sensitive to them since our stay was longer. Thanks!

First, remember that tipping is not mandatory (here's what the experts told me last year). It is a special thanks for a job well-done. If you feel that the staffer went above and beyond, give them an extra dollop of dollars and change.  Most often, you should tip housekeeping,  tour guides and bus drivers, concierge (if they do more than just hand you a map) and bellhop (if they do more than hold open the door).

Here are some guidelines from the Emily Post Institute. Also, remember that each country is different. Some have open palms (Morocco); others disdain tipping (Japan).


Can you tell me which Caribbean island have the clearest and calmest water that you have seen? I'm trying to find an all inclusive spot for a week in September and would love some suggestions.

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Stayed at the Majestic Elegance all-inclusive last summer and was very impressed with the beauty of the water and the beach. 

I rented an apartment in Avignon France last year (through one of the apartment rental web sites). Although I was nervous about it, it worked out great. It was much much cheaper than it would have been for the four of us (friends) to rent two hotel rooms (we paid 360 euros for 7 nights). We could have saved more money if we choose to prepare our own meals. The apartment also gave us a bit more space; helpful since we each live alone in our normal lives. The apartment owners did not ask for any money upfront and had us sign a contract and buy insurance, which made us feel better. I think apartment rentals can go bad (either scams or the rental is misrepresented), but it can also work out.

All good points. Glad these apartment owners did it the right way.

You should be more adventuous. Get a copy of Time Out when you arrive, then pick something odd but interesting. Off Broadway theater. Off off broadway theater. What the heck is broadway theater. I think the NY fringe festival is coming up. Less odd is Mostly Mozart. Wander a neighborhood. Take the Staten Island Ferry out and back. Shakespeare in the Park. If you want a little more conventional, the Bronx zoo is better than the National Zoo. The American Museum of Natural History is better than the Smithsonian. And you could take 3 days just in the Met and not see everything you want to see. I suggest the new Islamic art galleries.

We find renting apartments nice when we are traveling with others... it's nice to have a living room to hang out and chat in rather than having to sit in a hotel lobby. Also handy to have a kitchen even if you're not really cooking... but want to keep fruit or yogurt or the like around for snacks, or drinks in a refrigerator, etc.

"Your room won't be ready until..." two or three or four hours from whenever you show up! Another problem with hotels, especially if you arrive wanting to shower or nap. Does this also happen with apartments?

Central Park (go biking, go birding, go row a boat, visit the Zoo); Ellis Island; Staten Island Ferry (free); take in a Mets or a Yankees game. Numerous outdoor concerts throughout the city during the summer. For restaurants, use the New York Magazine database (select for Critics' Picks in different neighborhoods at different price-points) or check out the Chowhound Manhattan board for ideas.

When I was a pre-teen, my older (teenage) cousin was visiting us during the summer. We lived in Baltimore at the time and Dad thought a great summer's evening would include going out for ice cream. My cousin, two siblings, Mom and I couldn't agree more so we got in the station wagon and Dad started driving. We seemed to be driving a while but, as kids, we were enjoying ourselves with road games. Imagine our surprise when we ended up in NYC! Dad said it was okay anyway so we found a motel that had adjoining rooms (a little too near the airport in Newark, NJ - thought the planes were coming through the roof!), and we spent the night there. The next day, we went into NYC, saw the sights, ate in an Automat (so cool for us kids), and drove back home that evening. I can't even remember if we ever did get our ice cream, but we all still talk about that trip... not to mention what the desk clerk must have thought when he saw the 6 of us coming in with no luggage.

What a prankster your Dad was!

Renting somebody's private apartment -- which almost certainly violates their local laws and their own lease -- leaves you entirely at their mercy, especially if they demand cash up front and can sue for even talking about them. Is that stuff found on craigslist?

Hello - I am one of those travelers who regularly rents apartments. I use reputable sites such as HomeAway, and have had no trouble. Apartments are less expensive, and give you more living space, and a kitchen. Bank transfers are the norm, and I have never run into issues. It's really a great way to travel.

I will be taking a laptop with me to Europe in the fall. Sixth time in Europe, first with a laptop. I saw how useful my daughter's was in Italy and Germany this spring. She's 23 so I'm umm, older than that. What should I carry the laptop in, so as to not look like a hippie backpacker clinging to the illusion of youth? A messenger bag? A tote? A grown-up looking backpack? I'll be with an escorted tour group for two weeks, touring Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, and Morocco. Thanks!

If you think your shoulders can take it, I'd go messenger bag. I'm a fan of Crumpler. Have a look at their laptop bags. For two weeks, though, a backpack might better distribute the weight.

I will be traveling to Barbados via Miami soon. I've heard horror stories about going through customs in Miami. Is it really that bad? I have a 2.5 hour layover. Also, I will only have a carry on bag, if that helps...

Miami is a busy airport, and waits are often long. But your 2.5-hour layover should cover it. I would not worry. 

It appears that the Reeperbahn has become quite gentrified. Hamburg's red light district was a raucous place because it had the biggest harbor in Germany. I guess sailors just aren't what they used to be? I had the good fortune to be an exchange student there in the 80s, and was quite confused when asked my price in the Sankt Pauli - so innocent! I'd heard that it had become the venue for Broadway shows and the like. Ah, the good old days...


Love the chats! A friend of mine is getting married in Lake Placid in September, so a girlfriend and I are flying into Albany on a Thursday and driving up. Any suggestions for things to see/do on the drive up? We'll be in Lake Placid for Thurs & Fri nights, but want to spend Saturday night somewhere else on the way back. We were thinking Saratoga Springs? We'll have pretty much all day Sat and Sun to wander the area. We like wine, quirky shopping, good food, architecture, and nature (but no hiking. We like wine better). Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Do you like to relax? Writer John Deiner visited Saratoga Springs a few years ago and had a fine time spa-hopping. He also found abundant art galleries, boutiques, museums, golf courses, public gardens and parks, theaters and walking tours. And, of course, there's the area's famous harness racing track, which also includes a casino with more than 1,700 slot machines. Sounds like something for everyone!

Hello! We are heading to East Madison, N.H., and need some layover suggestions to break up our trip. We will be able to spare a 24 hour layover on either end. On our way up, we were thinking of staying in Mystic, CT. Do you have a suggestion for where to stay on our return trip home? We'd like it to be somewhere interesting. Also, we'll have two boys with us, ages 4 and 8. Thank you!

I'm assuming that you're driving? :-) Along your route, there are lots of pretty places to choose from I love Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow in New York. They're about a half-hour north of NYC, beautiful little towns in the lush Hudson Valley, with tons to see, though more for you than your little boys, perhaps. But if your older one knows the story of Rip Van Winkle, or the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, it might mean something to him to see Sunnyside, where the author, Washington Irving, lived. There are other beautiful estates to visit also and Tarrytown's a cute town to walk around in.

Another gorgeous town is Stockbridge, Mass., where you can visit the Norman Rockwell museum and just enjoy the lovely surroundings.

Chatters, your suggestions?

Hi, my husband, 7 month old son, and I are going to the Outer Banks next week. We haven't been there before, and, other than the beach, am not sure what to do with a 7 month old. Any chatters have good ideas for adventures that we would all like? We are staying in Kill Devil Hills.

The Outer Banks are so great. It'll be crowded, but there's tons to do -- shopping, eating, touring, beaching. I love the northern end of the Banks, between Duck and Corolla. Duck is a terrific little town for shopping and dining. Corolla is more remote, but there's lots to do there -- take a tour of the historic Whalehead Club and climb up the lighthouse. Be sure to visit the wild pony museum in the historic village. You might be able to take a tour out to the beach to try to see the ponies (don't try to drive out there yourself), but talk to the folks in the museum first.

There's also Kitty Hawk to visit -- closer to where you're staying. There's a museum and a memorial to the Wright brothers, and it's all really fascinating.  And in the south, there's historic Roanoke Island and the famous Christmas shop.

There's tons more, but that's just to get you started.

Also in Stockbridge, MA is the Boston Symphony's summer home: Tanglewood

In Western Mass don't forget the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. Six Flags New England is also just outside Springfield for the young people. You could check out Tanglewood on the way. The area is beautiful even if there is no concert at the time you are coming through.

My husband and I received $250 voucher each from United and are looking to take advantage of it before it expires (May 2013). I would like to take the opportunity to use it for a trip to Europe (we've never been). Considering my husband does not like long flights, what places can we go where it is easily accessible (either nonstop or not so long flight times)? Would Spain or France be ok? And what months are good to go temperature wise? I was looking a December flights (thinking it might be fun during Xmas time) but worry that it may be too cold for us. It would be our "first" international trip so we just want to experience the culture and food and not be afraid to go sight see by ourselves without having too much of a language barrier issue (hoping that we could get by with a dictionary and hopefully some citizens will speak english). Thank you!

If you're going to Europe, it's not a short flight. United flies nonstop from Dulles to many cities in Europe, including Paris, Madrid, London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, Geneva, Manchester, Munich, Rome and Zurich. London is the shortest flight, but even that takes seven hours there and eight hours back.  I think you'd be fine in either Paris or Madrid, but I also love the German Christmas markets. If you don't want to drive, one option is to stay in one place, but then do day tours from there, via a company such as Viator

What's the best way to get from DC to Pittsburgh for someone without a car? Greyhound and Amtrak seem to both go through Harrisburg, which is out of the way and makes the trip twice as long as it should be. Is renting a car the only other way to go?

Have you looked at Megabus? You might want to call to confirm, but given the travel time of a smidge under 6 hours, I think that sounds like a direct trip. You could, of course, also fly, but it would be way more expensive than the bus.

If you're going to stay somewhere a week with your teenagers, parents sometimes would like a little privacy at night if you know what I mean. So we compare the cost of 1 apartment vs. 2 hotel rooms.

I swear by B&B's. You only get one room and somebody makes you breakfast in their kitchen instead of you making it in their kitchen. That's why I wouldn't rent my apartment.

I've been doing apartment rentals from time to time since the late 80s. The first one was near Euston Station in London and I felt comfortable with the deal as it was a serviced apartment block that had a small space ad in the back of The Economist--not exactly Craigslist. I rented a wonderful historic home in Taos a few years back through VRBO. And I'm renting a basement apartment in a private home in Portland OR next month. But I only do rentals on reputable, dedicated sites. And I would never, ever, wire cash in advance to anyone or pay with a debit card. I do think that for shorter stays or smaller towns, a hotel or B&B is the best way to go. That's what I've done in places as disparate as Bozeman, Montana and Portree on the Isle of Skye.

Just a quick thanks - I was reading Travel Talk in the paper this weekend, and saw Becky's mention of Costco for car rentals. We have a Costco membership but had never used it for travel. I checked the price for an upcoming car rental we need in Denver, and it was $100 less than the rental we had already booked. So thank you!

I am thrilled to hear that. Glad we could help!

Late October I will have 4 days between flights through Johannesburg. Any ideas for a place to relax?

Though not quite relaxing, I highly recommend the Apartheid Museum, the  Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, and a tour of Soweto. To decompress, try the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden. Or pal around with real-life Dumbos at the Elephant Sanctuary.

No matter where you go, be street smart and city wise. 

Hi Travel Geniuses - thanks for taking my question! I have a couple of friends heading out to Harpers Ferry next weekend for a float trip. We'd like to hang out and grill after the trip, somewhere around Harpers Ferry. Any ideas on parks or the like that have grills available (and allow alcohol)? If not, any recommendations on food in the area?

Well, you won't be able to grill or drink alcohol in the national park. There are a few town parks listed here, but I'm not sure you can do what you want to in those either. Our most recent story on Harpers Ferry had just one restaurant recommendation, for the Secret Six Tavern on High Street. Other places to find good eats, folks?

I am a fussy hotel traveler, only want (5) star Euro hotels when traveling in Europe. 1. Is it a better option to stay in a chain hotel (preferably American chain), i.e., Starwood, etc., when traveling abroad or 2. For example, Rome, where I am traveling to, are the small (5) star boutique hotels as substantial?

You're lucky you can afford that! :-)

Personally, when I travel, I try to avoid the American chains, otherwise, what's the purpose of traveling. There are many lovely -- and expensive -- boutique hotels, or European chain hotels, all over the continent. I don't have a specific recommendation for Rome, alas, but I would urge you to try out the local product. Chatters, any specific suggestions for Rome?

I am a recent widow (6 months). My wonderful husband and I enjoyed traveling together, and I do not want to give up traveling and sit home alone. Nor do I wish to travel with anyone else. I am leaving Wednesday for a week in Seattle, sort of a trial trip in anticipation of a visit to Europe next year. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have had dinner in a restaurant alone. Any suggestions that will help me get out and about and not huddle in my hotel room? Not really looking for sight seeing tips or restaurant recommendations (have thoroughly researched these) so much as encouragement and ways to force myself out of my comfort zone.

As someone who almost always travels alone for work, I can offer up a few tips. I try to have some kind of reading with me whenever I go out to eat. It helps me feel less self-conscious. Occasionally I'll sit at the bar, maybe chat some with the bartender. Also have a list of things you want to do. Giving yourself an itinerary will keep you from sitting around. You could even sign up for a walking tour. Fine to do on your own, but you'll also get to spend some time with other travelers who you might end up wanting to see again.

And if you feel like spending a night in the hotel with room service and an on-demand movie, that's nothing to be ashamed of! Have a great trip. 

Don't forget about Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA. It's where the interstate through Conn meets up with the Mass Pike.

My husband was very leery of a long flight to Europe too. I took him to Iceland for his first trip. Not that long a flight and he loved the combination of nature and European city. It worked! There have been many trips to Europe since then.

I haven't actually done this, but I've heard of some great walking tours in New York, which give you a chance to check out neighborhoods you might not see otherwise. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is also on my list. Or you could do your own walking tour; there is an architectural guide to New York City that is just fascinating. It's kind of heavy to carry around. so it's good to write down the places you want to check out. I think it's published by the American Institute of Architects. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is also one of my goals. New York is a great city to walk in! And don't forget the Cloisters. It's kind of out of the way, but well worth the trek if you like medieval art.

Walking tours are great. Here's a story we did not long ago on a number of walks around Manhattan and the city's shorelines.

If they have a 4 & 6yr old with them, then Springfield MA is a great idea -- in addition to b-ball hall of fame, they HAVE to stop at the Dr Seuss memorial! Apparently some of the Springfield museums are not bad, as well.

Right! Dr. Seuss! And not far away, in Amherst, is the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Another good one for kids. Also, Amherst is beautiful (much prettier than Springfield).

It's in Lenox Ma, not Stockbridge...but they're close by.

Stayed at casita in Santa Fe, fantastic, great kitchen (listed under a local) realty co then in Venica, CA, a private beach apt - terrible w/ dirty kitchen, tiny kitchen and tons of crazy street noise. The ad was misleading (photos). Guess that 'sthe chance you take.

Caveat emptor!

Hampton Inn Majestic - on Monroe in the Loop. Allows service animals, but no pets. same with The Wit (Doubletree) on State.

Any thoughts on where to eat in Portland, ME (lunch) and what to do with kids? I feel like I remember an article about Portland a few years ago, but its so hard to search for travel articles with the new (old) website.

Here are a few recommendations from a recent story. You'll find some older material in our archives.

Anyone have more ideas?

It's been almost 15 years since my husband and I traveled overseas. Next year we plan to take our teenage daughter to London and Paris. I feel lost about traveling in Europe. We used to go to developing countries and mainly took a stash of $1 bills for purchases. We could also use a credit card to get the local currency from a bank. Does no one use traveler's checks to exchange for currency anymore? What's this about needing a credit card with a chip in it? Will my credit card company really charge me a fee every time I use a credit card in Europe? Should I take a wad of cash with me or exchange money beforehand? I am really at a loss.

Take a deep breath. You will be fine. Travelers checks are going the way of the dodo. Here's a story we had the other year on currency exchange. Usually your best bet is to get most of your currency abroad, from a bank or ATM. You could also exchange some before you leave, just so you have a bit of cash handy. Most credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee of a couple of percentage points. Here's a good rundown from NerdWallet. As to the other part of your credit card question, you're referring to chip-and-pin. Only a few American credit cards are using that technology these days, but generally you'll be fine without it. People seem to run into problems the most at places like gas stations and automated train ticket machines.

Hello travel crew. I am considering a cruise out of Barcelona for next year and am starting to look at flights. I saw a Finnair flight from JFK with a layover of around 9 hours in Helsinki ($700 RT) Is that enough time to explore a little outside the airport? Also, have any of you flown Finnair? While I can go from JFK, EWR or PHL would be a little bit easier to get to.

Seven hours should be a long enough to do a bit of exploring. It takes about 35 minutes to get from the airport to the city center. Finnair runs a bus between the two, or you can take a taxi. The airline gets good ratings - Skytrax gives it four stars. Also, take a look at TAP Portugal out of Newark. 

The Westin Excelsior in Rome is fantastic. Right in the middle of Via Veneto.

I'm taking a cruise to Bermuda, so we will be in port for 3 days. Other than going to the beach, do you or your readers have any suggested tours, restaurants, views, etc. that I should experience while I'm there?

Make that beaches, plural. There are several great beaches on the island, so you can go beach-hopping if sun and sand appeal to you. You can also rent horses to ride on the beach. I haven't been there in years, but as I recall the aquarium is good, and there's a lighthouse that provides beautiful views. There are also nice views to be had if you roam the hills in a scooter, but scooter driving there can be a perilous business, so depending on your driving expertise (and nerve) you might be better off taking buses. Visit historic St. George, one of the first English towns established in North America. I took a nice snorkeling trip there -- not like Hawaii or Cozumel, but pretty good fish.

If I get "cancel for any reason" travel insurance, could I cancel a cruise a few days before departure if a hurricane is imminent? Should I?

Read the fine print. And you won't get a full refund - cancel for any reason policies typically won't pay more than about 80 percent of the trip cost. Here is a list from InsureMyTrip of companies that offer this type coverage. 

Good grief -- Jo'burg is the crime capital of South Africa! Can she take the train or fly to Cape Town for a day or two?

It's a small state but Rhode Island has a lot of nice beach towns like Pt. Judith, Watch Hill, Newport, etc., depending on how much you want to spend and whether you want laid back or more happening. You can also take the ferry to Block Island, or you could take the Fast Ferry from Quonset, RI to Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket if you have the time.

Good point. When I was in Rhode Island the other year, I went to Watch Hill (twice!) and also beautiful Block Island.

Our daughter is an army Captain stationed in Seoul. We would like to meet her somewhere either in the spring or fall for about a week, and were thinking about New Zealand or Australia. Considering weather and price, which is the better season to go, and is there an alternate place to think about instead of those two locations? Hawaii can be a stopping point for us in the spring, as we will have a son and daughter-in-law temporarily stationed there in May-June, but our daughter has already vacationed in Hawaii and would rather go somewhere neither of us has previously visited. Thanks!

Australia is a large country with different weather patterns, but I'd probably opt for spring. New Zealand also has different climates depending on where you go, but again, I'd probably choose spring. Have you considered Fiji? 

We are vacationing later in August -- for the first time ever -- at Barnagate Light/Ship Bottoms, NJ (on Long Beach Island). Any suggestions (attractions, shops, restaurants, etc.)? Thanks

I haven't been there in several years, so maybe our chatters will have better ideas, but if I remember correctly Ship Bottom has more restaurants and is more built up than Barnegat Light. I loved the parasailing, although you can do that at just about any beach. Used to go to a restaurant we liked called the Sand Box Cafe in Ship Bottom. Marvel's Bakery in Beach Haven is great. 

Was in Japan two years ago and had no problem. I too bought the 7 day rail pass and was able to get all around Japan NO problem. I highly recommend getting the rail pass It will make your life easier. And the people at the train station desk are very friendly and helpful and speak decent English.

Thanks for the helpful second opinion.

On Friday I was on 7:15 SW flight from BWI to Hartford CT. It eventually left after 11 pm. Because they texted the time changes all day, I didn't have to wait at BWI. And just before departure, we were called to the podium and given a $100 voucher. Everyone who was originally on that flight and stuck it out got one. Wow. That never happened before. Way to go, Southwest!

Wow indeed. I'm glad it worked out for you, but it can be a bit risky heeding those alerts. I know of people who have missed flights or barely missed flights because they did the sensical thing and didn't come to the airport, only to see their delayed flight un-delayed.

I am planning my milestone birthday adventure next year and am trying to plan a trip to the Grand Canyon. While it is not close to Vegas, I was considering taking a trip to Vegas, then head off to Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon before heading back. In my doing my research I've come across Grand Canyon railway and wanted to know if you had any experiences with them.

I just came back from the Canyon and we drove from Vegas. Despite the miles, the road trip flew by. The landscape is stunning. Definitely stop at the dam and pop into some of the Native American crafts shops outside the park.

If you prefer to have someone else drive, take the train, which leaves from Williams in Arizona. The company offers packages including transport, hotel, tours, etc. To be honest, from what I saw, the train seemed very touristy and very crowded. I prefer driving, so that I can stop and explore the area and stretch my legs.

Hi. Where can two adults enjoy some sun and relaxation in March for 4-5 nights without being overrun by spring breakers and also without breaking the bank? I checked into Key West, for example, and the type of hotel we'd want will cost almost $500 a night! We'd like to spend less than $250/night on a hotel. It doesn't have to be a beach vacation, just someplace with sun. Not New Orleans, as that is "home" and I go there twice a year, anyway. Thanks!

San Diego? Somewhere in Arizona?

We are planning a trip to London and Spain next year, and wondered whether it's possible to use London as the home base. Can we fly there, stay for a few days, travel to Spain, and then reenter the UK for a few more days? Or would the UK immigration officials eye us with suspicion?

I did this a couple of years ago -- flew into Heathrow, stayed a few days, flew out of Stansted to Alicante, then flew back into Stansted for a longer stay in England -- and had no troubles. 

I know that trip insurance is expensive, but when you need it, it is invaluable. We had to cancel two (prepaid, no refund) tours because of unexpected surgery with an extended recovery period. In both cases we received refunds for the entire cost of the tour (airline tickets were on miles, which were recredited), with only a doctor's note explaining the need for the extended recovery time. One tour would have been to the Canadian Rockies at the height of the heat wave, so I guess it's a potential escape from the heat.

I love guided bus tours and have gone with three companies --- Trafalgar, Grand Circle, and Prudent Tours. All have been excellent. Just FYI. Also, we were in London years ago and got a special deal (6 days/nights at a much reduced cost if we flew British Airways); we chose one of the cheaper hotels, but it wasn't out of the way at all: it was just a short two-block walk from one of the many Underground stations.

My wife and I have planned a trip for early November to visit our son who will be studying in France. My wife's father is 86 and in an assisted living facility here in Maryland. In case he falls ill or worse and we have to cancel or suspend our trip, would travel insurance pay for airline change fees, Eurostar train payments we've already made, and the like? And would it only pay for her, or for both of us?

Most insurance policies would cover both of you, but you need to read the fine print. Compare policies at InsureMyTrip, QuoteWright or SquareMouth

Hi All, I'm flying Singapore Air business class out of Newark on Friday and am trying to determine if EWR has an express security line for Business Class? Does anyone know? Thanks!

The airport does have a fast-track line for biz and first-class passengers.

Recently celebrated my 60th (sadly...) birthday at Keene's Steak House, 36th and 6th. Very lovely meal, amazing memorobilia, Teddy Roosevelt's pie, old pipes hanging every where from the ceiling. Apparently you used to leave your pipe where you smoked it....

I have an iPhone that, without buying anything special or doing anything more than turn on, I have used without a problem in Canada, Mexico, Ireland, Costa Rica, UK, and Australia. I remember 5-7 years ago your phone was nothing more than a paperweight abroad, but my experience in the last 3-4 is that a US phone will work just about everywhere. Whether you can do so for a reasonable price is quite another story...

I just used my iPhone in Canada, though I was  roaming (according to the little sign at the top). I also switched over to international service so that calls and texts were cheaper. Those roaming charges can hurt.

Id suggest the ABC islands....there is A LOT LESS likelihood of a hurricane. In September for a weeks stay at one of the other islands you are looking at around a 30% chance of getting hit by a hurricane or very strong tropical storm.

We went to Croatia last year and didn't use a tour operator- it took a bit of work but was fairly easy to arrange everything ourselves. In the tourist areas, English was widely spoken. However, an older couple we know went on a Rick Steves tour that included Croatia (I think it was a multi-country trip) and loved it.

AMTrack has one train each way that stops at Pittsburgh. It's the train that goes between Chicago and DC. My daughter has taken it many times when she was living there. I'd pick her up at the Rockville train station because we live near there but you can also get it at Union Station.

I'm so sorry for your loss. When I was traveling solo, I found it helpful to carry around a small journal. This was helpful in restaurants, or when I just wanted to sit and people watch for awhile. I used it not only for writing down thoughts about the trip, but also for planning the next day's itinerary and even just pretending to doodle when I wanted to look like I was busy! Also, try to find organized activities that take place after dinner, before bedtime. Those seemed to be the hardest to fill. Good luck to you!

We are going to watch the Cowboys-Redskins in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. Our flight is scheduled to depart DCA around 7:30 a.m. Metro says it is running on a Sunday schedule. Should we drive to DCA and park? We are returning to DCA around 1:00 a.m. Friday. So all told, we're going to Dallas and back in less than 24 hours. Would grabbing a cab be the easiest?

Personally, I would take a cab since parking might be hairy over the holiday and Metro scares me when it runs holiday schedules.  If you choose to drive, check the airport parking situation before you go. DCA has updates on parking availability.

Okay that's it for us, folks. Thanks for all the great questions, suggestions, recommendations, etc. Looks as if I should have made apartment rentals vx. hotels the questions of the day today, but who knew? It was a spirited discussion! As to my escape-the-heat question, the winner today is the person whose dad fell into a glacial pool while on a glacier walk. Send your contact info to me at, and I'll ship off a cool prize. Thanks again for chatting all, and join us again next week! Ciao!

In This Chat
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.
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the acting editor of 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.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
Jane Touzalin
Jane Touzalin is acting deputy Travel editor.
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