Talk about Travel

Aug 19, 2013

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Welcome again to Talk about Travel! It's a rather dreary day, so a good time to pull up to your computer and have a nice chat about our travel dreams, plans, hopes, etc. Hope you enjoyed our UK package this week. I loved the Dylan Thomas piece (I'm a sucker for literary-themed travel) and the Bristol street art piece was loads of fun. But my favorite was the West Highland Line story -- there's a trip I must take someday!

In keeping with that great article, tell us about your most interesting train trip ever. It can be most scenic, most terrifying, best for meeting people -- whatever.  Mine, hands down, was a trip from Washington to Boston on the day that Hurrican Floyd hit the East Coast back in '99. We left at 8 a.m., the last train out of Union Station (they wouldn't let any more go after that), and we plodded up the coast through the heavy rain past flooded parking lots, boats thrown up onto railroad tracks, oh I shudder to remember. At one point in Connecticut, we had to back up to Grand Central over a high trestle bridge to switch to a diesel engine because the power on the tracks ahead had gone out. I was traveling with my two young sons, and by the time we got to Boston, I was feverish from the stress! The train trip from hell.

Anyway, tell me about yours, and now let's chat.

Scots built crannogs on timbers driven into the loch beds, with bridges to the shore. They were defensive structures, since the bridges could be severed. They remain as tree covered round islands, some visible from the West Highland Line. Others are in other lochs in the more central lochs (Loch Tay for example). Archeologists are exploring them.


We want to take a 50th anniversary trip with our family in July-August 2014. There will be 5 adults, a 10 and 13 year old. No wants to do a lot of daily planning so a tour would be good. We're thinking of Galapagos, Tanzania, Alaska, or Hawaii, all places my husband and I have visited in the past. What do you think? Any ideas for something new, different and exciting?

Since you've been to all those places, you probably already know which one on that list would suit your family best. They're all quite different from one another, so difficult for us to say which would be right for your crowd. All  involve a considerable amount of travel, so you'd have to be sure that everyone is up for that. An African safari would be memorable and interesting for both the adults and kids, and there are plenty of tour companies that offer these. Or perhaps a Costa Rica trip that includes jungle and beach would work, plus it wouldn't be as far to travel.   

I've been to Nicaragua a couple of times to visit a relative who was working there. He took me around for sightseeing in the country, so I didn't have need of a tour operator. But if the poster from last week is looking for tour guide recommendations, I'd suggest looking at the reviews on Trip Advisor of operators out of Granada. Here's the link to them. If the poster gets a chance to go to Leon, I highly recommend a tour to Leon Viejo, the site of the original capital of Nicaragua which was abandoned due to volcanic activity in 1610. The ruins of the city have undergone excavation since their discovery in the mid 1960's and it's now a World Heritage Site. I think it could be described as a Central American version of Pompeii or Herculaneum--although not quite as large. It is an amazing place!

Thanks for the tips!

We are considering taking a cruise in early September from NY to two ports in New England and two in Canada on Carnival. We have an almost 2 year old and are wondering how much fun he would have on our adventure. Any thoughts from the travel crew or chatters? Thank you!

Too bad you can't wait a bit. Andrea's going to be taking a northerly cruise like that in early September and will be writing about the experience. My feeling is that a 2-year-old won't really be tuned in to the cruise, anyway, so just pack a bunch of toys and take him and go have fun for yourselves. Chatters, what do you think? Anybody have any insights on these cruises?

Do commercial travel clubs save money for vacation travel and if so which are the best?

No. The only travel "club" worth belonging to is AAA. In my experience as a consumer advocate, the others range from flawed to fraudulent.

It's not a travel club per se, but if you happen to be a Costco member, some of their travel offerings are a good deal.

I'd like to take my 9 year old son away over Labor Day Weekend, but I'd rather not drive. Any ideas? Thank you.

I think hopping on the train (or bus, but I like the train better!) to Philadelphia would be fun. You could do all the usual history stuff, of course. And the Nats will be in Philadelphia to play the Phillies, so that's great timing if your son is a baseball fan.

Airlines are just a rip-off. Exactly how is getting a seat an extra - is seating now a luxury? I have never seen an airline where passangers stand all to their destination. Am not buying the arguement that these costs were previously folded into the price - What is standard? The metal frame of the plane?

I understand your frustration. At the moment, the "standard" -- in other words, what is included in the seat -- is still being worked out. The Transportation Department is reluctant to get involved in the argument, but at some point (maybe when they start charging extra for seatbelts?) the government will need to step in and say: enough.

I read the chat too late to respond, but it seems to me that instead of an incredibly long DC-Alaska drive, it would make much more sense for the writers to take Amtrak to Seattle and then cruise from there to Alaska. It's a great trip, and without the expense of car rental, meals and hotels, an Amtrak sleeper might even be cheaper.

We answer the questions as they are posed. Some people  prefer the open road to rail travel. Perhaps they prefer having  more control over the journey. But a trail trip does sound more restful! 

My first long distance train trip was the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Adelaide. Did it up right getting a sleeper. Had great food, met some interesting people and going through the outback we saw a whole mob of 'roos. It was magical. We stopped for fuel in Broken Hill, the home of the flying doctor service. It was a quintessential outback town. Unfortunately it was so early nothing was open. The best part of the stop was a sign from about a year earlier delcaring that the town was an alcohol free zone and had been for 3 years. Somehow not being able to drink in the outback was a little scary!

I can see that!

Can I beg for a simple explanation of the pros/cons of getting a SIM card for an upcoming trip to Nepal? Last time I went (2011), I looked into international roaming and data and found that Nepal is obscure enough to not be on AT&T's plan. That means I just ate the cost of any communication - I don't intend to text or call much at all, so that is really not a big deal. But I did have to rely on wifi for any web surfing, email, Facebook, etc. Would swapping the SIM card provide better service for me there? Or would I still have to pay international data roaming charges? (I'm talking iphone 5 via AT&T if it matters) I'd appreciate anyone's experience using their gadget in a less developed area where this isn't so straightforward. Thanks!

Yes, if you get a SIM card that works in Nepal, you should be good to go. If you swap out your current card for a SIM card, you won't be paying roaming -- you'll be paying for the service from your SIM credit. Here's one option, for calling, anyway. You'd have to see if there are any SIM cards that offer data in Nepal. You'll have to make sure that your phone is compatible with the network used over here. Check out Andrea's SIM card primer, as well as mine on using the Internet abroad, for more advice.

Anyone have Nepal-specific tips?

No question, just a report back: During my recent trip to Europe, I had no trouble using a magnetic strip credit card at stores, hotels, and restaurants in Sorrento/Amalfi Coast, Rome, and Switerland. No one asked for a pin&chip card. My card had no foreign transaction fee - a must! However, I was surprised - in Naples and Pompeii - by cash-only at places you'd think would take credit cards: major museum, ferries, entrance fee to Pompeii.

Thanks for the report! I also have had no trouble abroad with my magnetic strip cards. And I'm surprised like you about the requests for cash in Naples and Pompeii!

Hello, Trying to find destinations in the Caribbean that offer non-stop flights from the DC area. Have done Mexico, St. Martin, Puerto rico, so hoping for other places for a 4-5 day trip in December. thanks!

From BWI, AirTran flies nonstop to several Caribbean destinations you haven't hit, including Montego Bay, Jamaica; Punta Cana, DR; and Nassau, Bahamas.  From Reagan National, nonstop flights on US Airways available to Nassau. From Dulles, United flies to Grand Cayman Island and Aruba.  Nonstop flights are not offered daily to some destinations, so you'll have to do some research to find those that fit your travel dates. 

My adult son & I plan to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in January 2015. There seem to be scores if not hundreds of outfitters who provide guide service. Would appreciate any advice on how to perform due diligence and identify some of the most reputable ones. Any recommendations from travelers who have climbed Kili?

Chatters, can you help us out? This may also be the kind of trip where a good travel agent or specialist could be of use. Browse some recommendations from Conde Nast Traveler.

Most interesting train trip ever: Kiev to Budapest with a group of 67 (60 students, 7 leaders) at the end of a summer program in the USSR. The Soviet train was, ummm, interesting, and it was a LONG ride. The highlight of the trip was when we crossed the border into Hungary, because they put a Hungarian dining car on the train. Not to put too fine a point on it, the food in the USSR was generally pretty awful, so we were really heartened by the prospect of food prepared in a different country. The dining car boss, not so much, because he wasn't ready to deal with 67 hungry Americans. He also spoke no English, but he did speak Russian, so I was deputized to negotiate with him to get us all fed. I no longer remember the details, nor do I remember what we ate, but it was delicious. The cost was $1.00 US per person, paid in cash. That was probably illegal at the time (1970), but none of us cared.

Fabulous! So glad you were able to get a decent meal. :-)

In the early 80's, my husband and I took what was supposed to be the Denver and Rio Grande Western train from Denver to Salt Lake City, with a return trip a few days later. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at the station to see a line all the way around the terminal! It turned out to be the last run of the train before Amtrak took over the route. Also, the mountain had slid down over the tracks, and the train couldn't go the whole route. At Grand Junction, we had to transfer to buses for the remainder of the trip. The buses carefully stopped at every town where the train was scheduled. We got to SLC about 5 hours after the train would have arrived. Our return trip was on Amtrak, through Wyoming, on high-speed tracks. We had a great time!

Nice of the bus to make those stops! :-)

I'm traveling abroad at the end of October; I paid my deposit for the trip in June. Have I waited too long to get "cancel for any reason" trip insurance?

Most travel insurance companies require that you purchase this type of insurance within two weeks of making your initial trip deposit, so you may be out of luck. You can give it a try by asking for a quote at one of the online travel insurance brokers, such as Insure My Trip

A few weeks ago I wrote in asking where to spend the night from Acadia to NYC. Thanks for answering and suggesting Newburyport. While it looked like a sweet town, we actually ended up staying in Portsmouth, which we loved! Old houses, James Bond movie outdoors on a big screen by the water, it was perfect!

I believe I threw in Portsmouth as well, didn't I? It's also one of my all-time favorite towns. Glad you liked it!

If the chatters are dead-set on driving to Alasks -- which I think would be pretty cool -- I would go with the advice about buying a vehicle here and selling it there. I wouldn't buy an old clunker, I would buy something sturdy that would be in demand in Alaska, like a big diesel 4WD SUV. Unless it suffers serious damage on the trip, they should be able to get a reasonable amount for it up there. True, this involves more up-front cash out, but the net is probably comparable to driving their own vehicle, and I'd bet it's less than a one-way rental. And there's no duty to worry about if they buy in the continental US and sell in Alaska. Just have to worry about registration and insurance.

I'm headed off to Maine right after Labor Day: 4 days in Portland followed by 5 more based in Boothbay Harbor. I've been to Portland before, but not since it's become a foodie haven. So while I'm eagerly anticipating eating lots of lobster, I'd love some recommendations for 'don't miss' restaurants in Portland. Also, I'll be traveling alone and have had some issues getting reservations for one in some areas--any particularly singles-friendly places you might suggest?

Here's Joe's piece on the food of Portland, which should be very useful. Don't have any specific singles-friendly places, but often it's easier for a solo diner to slip in for a meal at the bar of a restaurant. At least that's what our restaurant critic will recommend here in D.C. Not sure if it's as common in Portland.

Before doing anything else- call AT&T to see if you can get your phone unlocked for international travel because I'm not sure they allow it. Verizon does- I got mine unlocked for travel to Asia and go a SIM card over there. I still mainly used WiFi for data but the calling rates were cheap.

Right, good advice.

I am a self professed train buff, and have taken the trip from Port William to Mallaig described in this week's article, I was just waiting for the description of the "Harry Potter viaduct" to come along the entire time. One of my favorite train stories to tell is that when traveling from Madrid to Cologne with connections in Paris and Brussels, I missed the connection in Brussels by two minutes. In a testament to the reliability of European railroads, they allowed me to book a 12 minute layover in Brussels, but due to a strike in France, my train from Paris arrived 14 minutes late, and needless to say, the connection did not wait for me or anyone else bound for Cologne. I was given a ticket for the next train 90 minutes later and had time to eat lunch and wander around the area immediately next to the train station in Brussels. Another favorite story of mine is that I got to ride in an Acela Express power car from Baltimore to Wilmington September 2001. The power cars don't have the tilting technology that the regular passenger cars do, it is pretty fun to see the curve coming up at speed and then to take it feeling the full effects of the curve, since the tilting technology to help you lean into the curve isn't there.

Interesting, thanks!

Not necessarily the best, but the one that had the most impact was an interview trip I took my senior year of college. I managed to snag an interview with Hewlett Packard, and though I wasn't at all sure I wanted to move to Califiornia, I wanted to go on that trip. It was the first time I had ever flown on my own (had flown once before with my family when I was nine and once with the Glee Club a few months earlier and that was all my experience with planes and airports). I had to take a small plane to Logan and transfer, rent a car, and drive to a hotel in a place I had never been before in a time before GPS. Met up with some friends one day and had the interview the next. When I was done, they asked if I had plans for the rest of the day. I said my flight out of San Francisco was a red eye, so the HR person recommended I drive up the Pacific Coast highway and take myself out to dinner in the city - which I did. I could hardly believe that I was the one walking up to the host at a "fancy" place to tell him I was "dining alone this evening." I made it to the airport on time, returned the rental, and got back to New Hampshire exhausted, but immensely proud of myself. And I have been delighted to travel alone (if that is the best option at the time) ever since. Oh, and I didn't get that job, but I still would like to thank HP for bulding my traveling confidence.

Well, not a train trip, but interesting nonetheless. Thanks!

When you write about New York hotels, you usually focus on the expensive Manhattan boutiques where parking is a pricey extra. Do you have any advice about moderately priced places in New Jersey with good access to public transportation into the city? For someone who sees a hotel room as just a place to sleep, a perfectly adequate chain hotel in NJ with free parking (a big consideration for someone who drives there) might cost half the price of its Manhattan counterpart, and it's no farther away from Times Square than Bethesda or Alexandria is from Capitol Hill. I'd be content to stay in Secaucus or the Meadowlands and take a bus into town if that is a practical option.

You might try the W in Hoboken, which Andrea visited. Many of the usual chain suspects are in Seacaucus/Meadowlands. My family stayed at the Hampton there years ago, and it was fine at the time anyway. Other suggestions?

I really want to take a low key non resort trip to Kauai this fall, from NC all the flights are so expensive. Any tips.

Are you searching from your city in North Carolina to Kauai? If so, try searching to Honolulu and then booking a local airline to Kauai. Also, look at Hawaiian Airlines' Web site for special fares from West Coast, and price ticket from North Carolina to there, and then from West Coast to Hawaii (just be sure you have plenty of time to make the connection, or, better yet, stay a night on the 
West Coast). 

Hello! I will be spending 2 days in each of these cities in the coming weeks. Can you provide your recommendations for what not to miss in each one? I know it's not a lot of time, so I'll only be able to cover the highlights. Thanks!

Oh dear, my fingers could get tired typing all the must-sees. But here goes:

Vienna -- The Hofburg, winter palace of the Habsburgs, and Schonbrunn, their summer home a little outside the city; Stephansdom, the cathedral in the heart of town; the Kunsthistoriches, art history museum (best Brueghels anywhere); the Prater, amuseument park with the giant Ferris wheel; the Stadtpark and the Volksgarten, beautiful city parks. Take a ride out to the Vienna woods, and visit a few Heurigen (wine taverns) in Grinzing. There's way way more but I have to stop.

Budapest -- visit Castle Hill; the Parliament building (see the crown jewels); St. Stephen's, where you can see the right hand of the Hungary's founder, King Stephen; stroll down Andrassy Avenue, the main shopping, cafe and restaurant strip (beautiful buildings); Statue Park , fascinating park with Communist-era sculptures; just go sit in a cafe and soak up the atmosphere.

Bratislava: the Old Town; Bratislava Castle; the PKO (Park kultury a oddychu), a building complex full of artworks; see the street art around the Central Baths; Slovak National Museum and Slovak National Gallery; the museum of clocks in the House of the Good Shepherd is quirky, and the building is fabulous.

That should keep you busy for a while, at least! :-)

My first trip on a train was from Baltimore to Orlando as part of a family trip to Disney World. This was back when the Magic Kingdom was the only thing at Disney, and when you only went once in your childhood, rather than 3 or 4 times. My mom and brother immediately fell asleep when the train started moving, but I was too excited about the trip, so I got to hang out with my dad and the other adults in the dining car. I felt so grown up at only 10 years old!

I'll bet!

My 73-year-old mother would like to go to Barcelona early November. Knowing health limits will probably require an afternoon "rest up" before evening/dining activities, what area of the city would you suggest we stay in? Thank you.

I have been to Barcelona, but stayed outside the city. Perhaps a hotel near Placa Catalunya would fit the bill. Chatters? 

We will be in Venice, Italy for 4 days in mid Oct. at the end of a trip that includes Verona, Vicenza, Bolzano, Bassano, & Padua. Is a day trip to Ravena possible or is it a stretch from Venice? With 4 people would it be economical to find a driver / guide in Venice or train? It looks like train requires a change of trains and would take around 3 hrs. each way. Any recommendations for tour companies in Venice that do this?

Ravenna is often a side trip from Venice -- it's only about 90 miles. You could do that in under 2 hours, by car, but on the train you have to change in Padua. Nonetheless, I'd do it, why not? Ravenna is low-key and lovely, with beautiul churches and mosaics. Worth a visit, and it still leaves you three days in Venice. Chatters, what do you think?

My nephew wasn't very happy on a Disney cruise to Alaska. He missed his room, his bed, his toys, his local playground and his time zone, not necessarily in that order. And the excursions (whale watching, helicopter sight seeing and gold panning) weren't immediate enough for him to really understand.

we flew into madrid, spent two nights there then two nights (maybe one?) in toledo - definitely worth visiting! We had a car, so it was awesome. go to granada to see the alhambra. we didn't get to barcelona - because it was kinda outa the way for what we were doing. i was in san sebastian many decades ago...not much there... we drove thru cordoba, really nice. we spent a couple of days in seville - beautiful! But if you have 9 days, you can see a lot, don't spend all your time in madrid - or barcelona. (disclaimer: i've never been to barcelona). we loved it. so much fun.

Please alert all chatters that the French Government website fails to mention that they require a college transcript or diploma when applying for an extended stay work visa. We arrived for the in-person interview with the many documents they require but were blind-sided by the transcript/diploma request because it was NOT mentioned ANYWHERE on their website or during earlier phone calls to confirm what was needed. Very aggravating.

Chatters duly alerted.

Doing a New Brunswick trip in September: first time in that province. Looking at the bus service and potential destinations, renting a car is the best option. I don't have a car, so the insurance will be tricky. Are there issues about renting a car in Canada that I might not know?

Here's a page with advice from the Canada tourism folks. I've never encountered any unexpected issues renting a car in Canada (well, rented once while already there and then drove over the border the other time). Wisdom from the peanut gallery?

Thank you to all who contributed to the responses for my trip to Albuquerque Balloonfiesta! I have a great list of activities and couldnt have done it without your support.

In 1980 I was a high school student spending a year in Europe - and during one of the school breaks I wound up traveling on a train by myself from West Germany to Berlin, which required crossing East German territory. My friends had gone ahead, which was problematic because I spoke next to no German, but how much trouble could I get into between being put on the train on one end, and meeting my friends on the other? Ha. At some point the train came to a stop and was searched, and East German railway authorities came through to collect an extra fare. As it turns out this was standard and everyone knew this would happen - except me. I was on a tight budget as it was, and this was going to wipe out much of my meager bankroll - so with the righteous (and stupid) indignity that only an 18-year old naive American can have, I started arguing with the official trying to collect. I wasn't told this was part of the deal, I said, and they couldn't just come on and demand more money from me (ha, of course they could!), and basically, it wasn't FAIR. It didn't help that the East German agent didn't speak English - but it wouldn't have made a difference in the end anyway. It wasn't until two soldiers came up and started removing my bag from the overhead rack, and the increasingly alarmed people in my compartment started digging in their own wallets to pay my fee, that I realized I wasn't going to win this argument. I handed over the money - and once the train was underway again, I was lectured by those in my compartment about arguing "fair" with Eastern-bloc authorities. Lesson learned.

I was on that train many times. . .

Hi, Travel Gurus-- I have a few questions regarding the What a Trip article, "Danube River Cruise" for the writer, Mr. Lovelace: 1. Why did you have nothing to say about Budapest, the starting point of the cruise, but you mention a lot about Vienna? 2. What river boat line and ship did you sail on? 3. How were the flights to and from Budapest and Prague? 4. How was the food aboard ship and ashore, if you had special meals ashore? 5. How did you decide about which shore excursions to take? 6 Regarding those excursions, were they included in the cruise fare or extra? 7. How well did the cruise line handle the transfers to and from the airport and the river boat? I know, lots of questions, but this info was missing from the article. That trip is on my bucket list, among other journeys. I'm sure the writer had a great time. Regarding the cultural disconnect w/Salzburg, I think that the real thing about Salzburg is not "The Sound of Music," but it's more about Mozart--the city is his hometown, after all. If Mr. Lovelace really wants to see the Alps, he could either watch the opening scenes in "Sound of Music," which features those mountains, or visit Innsbrucke, the site of the '64 and '76 Winter Olympics on the next trip to Europe.

I will post this, but there's no guarantee that Mr. Lovelace is chatting with us today.

I have not cruised with a child that young, but I have cruised a lot on Carnival. Carnival does not offer any children's programs for children under age 2, but there might be babysitting available at night. So, you will spending all of your time with your child--not a bad thing, but it can be very limiting on a cruise ship.

More food for thought, cruisers.

My wife and I have a 30 hr layover in LA the end of August and are looking for something different to do. We will have a car and can go from San Diego to Santa Barbara. We have been to this area perhaps 50 times so have done the normal stuff. My wife wants to take a tour of the stars homes. Is this worth it? If so, any recommendations?

I never got much out of those movie star home tours. You're on the bus for a couple of hours with an occasional stop, and you do see a few houses of the rich-and-famous, but it's not as if they are inviting you in for a cup of tea. Have you been to Laguna Beach? It's a nice beach town about an hour south of the airport with nice accommodations, restaurants, views, shopping. 

I'm an academic and I've been traveling to Russia for many years for professional research. I'm working on a book on Putin and I'd like to go to Sochi for his spectacle of the decade. I discovered on the official Sochi website that 3 days (tickets to the games and hotel) will cost almost $6000. That doesn't include air fare or per diem. I corresponded with the Russian travel agency that usually arranges my trips to find out whether they could do better for me on Sochi, but they can't. According to them, foreigners can only get tickets and hotel through the official website. Surely I can get a better price, but I don't know where to go next. Can you help?

You may be out of luck. My understanding is that Olympics tickets are always available only through the official Web site -- unless you want to try a scalper, who's sure to charge you even more. But maybe out chatters know something? Folks?

The warm, inviting dining car on a train from Luxembourg City to Rome. After arriving in the City on the day after Christmas, when everything was closed, and spending the day exploring what we could in a cold rain, followed by a long stay in a too-warm and too-pungent waiting room -- the dining car with its dark wood paneling, brass fixtures, small table lamp, white tablecloth, and good food and wine (and a white-jacketed waiter, too) was a godsend for us. It seemed magical at the time and we made a long night of it relaxing at our table. Alas, we've not been able to find a similar dining experience on any European trains since that night, now more than 20 years ago.

Sounds dreamy!

Hello, Experts! I'm in the midst of planning a trip to the Galapagos Islands for next April - calmer water, so I'm told. My husband and I don't do tour groups, but due to the complexity this time I'm ready to turn it over. Am leaning towards Adventure-Life as they have the size boat I think I'd like (100 passenger, I want large - but not huge cruise ship size - as I get sea sick but have a relief band that has saved me many times). Have any of you done a trip like this or have any suggestions?

Alas, Andrea is our only Galapagos-goer, and she's out of pocket on an assignment today. So let's turn to the chatters? What your recommendations, people?

I have about a 90-minute layover at 30th Street Station in Philly on Friday. Are there any walkable options for a burger and a beer near there? I'm tired of that in-station pub.

Just picked this off of the old Google Maps, but Rogue's Gallery and Bar looks promsing. About a 12-minute walk from the station, and if you give it any credence, the Yelp crowd has given it 4 stars. There's also a Trader Joe's on Market Street, if your plan for a sit-down meal doesn't work out. I was definitely eyeing it before my trip home from Philly the other year as I walked to the station.

Anyone have a place to recommend?

Hi Travel Crew, I got lucky and got a work assignment that will take me and my husband to Antwerp between January and April. I will need to work during the week but we will have ample opportunities for 2 and 3 day weekend travel. I know we'll have a blast exploring Brussels, Antwerp, and Amsterdam but what else is doable leaving Antwerp on a Friday or Saturday and being back for work on Monday? Anything we just shouldn't miss? We love everything about travel from getting to know people, to cultural opportunities, to science and nature. Thanks!

You *are* lucky! Antwerp is so conveniently located to so many places and many of them eminently doable in a weekend and easily reachable by train: Luxembourg, Strasbourg, Frankfurt, Cologne, Paris (yes!). You could go to the Normandy beaches. Explore some smaller cities -- Gent, Lille, Reims, Bonn. Have fun -- I envy you!

This is not a long distance trip comment, but perhaps of interest to others who are less than experienced. Don't just hop on the train when one arrives at the numbered platform. I did that, and ended up somewhere in outer Belgium...The conductor came thru to punch tickets, and said as kindly as possible that I was on the wrong train. At the next stop he escorted me to the platform with a train returning to Brussels, explained to the platform manager what I had done, and they got me headed home. I'm gathering all of this, as it was spoken in French, which is not nearly my first, second or third language...Just be sure that the train you get on is the one going where you want to go!

Good advice, even here at home! :-)

(college interview poster here). Tried to miss the crowds from NYC to MA for Thanksgiving by traveling Thursday morning instead of Wednesday afternoon. It didn't work. This was back when Amtrak sold more tickets than they had seats and you stood up until a place to sit opened up. I ended up at one of the tables in the food car. Had a long and fascinating conversation with a structural engineer about how the piers were finally starting to rot in NY harbor. Previously the Hudson and East Rivers were so polluted that there weren't any microbes in the water and hence nothing rotted. As the rivers got cleaner, they had to think about replacing piers that had lasted since originally installed. Unexpected cost of environmental clean up. The sort of thing you never would have thought about yourself if you hadn't been thrown in to a conversation with a total stranger.

Hmm. That is fascinating.

Yes, definitely check out Ghent and Bruges! And Keukenhof in the Netherlands for tulip time - absolutely not to be missed.

Try walking the other way - toward the University of Pennsylvania campus. New Deck Tavern on Sansom Street between 34th and 36th Streets is a good bet.

I would agree that somewhere central and close to public transportation would be ideal. I sort of chuckled at the "rest up" comment because a siesta is a serious thing in Barcelona -- for locals and tourists. Not sure what the health problems are, but be prepared that "evening" activities don't start until very late in Barcelona. Many shops and restaurants are closed in the afternoon and dinner doesn't seem to start until at least 10pm.

I use miles (AA & UAL) for international flights only, preferably business class. Never upgraded before. Which of the following generally yields a better value: (1)buying economy ticket and using miles to upgrade business, or (2) using miles for economy ticket and paying for the upgrade to business class?

One the best uses of miles is to upgrade to business class or first class. Depending on where and how you book your ticket it may have some upgrade restrictions and depending on your elite status, you may or may not get the upgrade when you want it and for the flights you want. I wrote a recent Navigator about the complexities of the loyalty programs and how some travelers are turning to a consultant to find the best way to redeem their miles. That might be the way to go if you're looking for a sure thing.

"However, I was surprised - in Naples and Pompeii - by cash-only at places you'd think would take credit cards: major museum, ferries, entrance fee to Pompeii." Answer -- so they don't have to report the income to the government!


Hi Crew, Going with my S.O. & his lovely 15-year old daughter to NYC for a weekend. Any thoughts on a fun Saturday-night activity that doesn't require being of legal drinking age?? Tix to a broadway show are an obvious answer, but I'm hoping for possibly less-pricey options too. Thanks muchly!

This might be more approaching the Broadway-ticket price category, but "The Ride" sounds like it could be a hoot. You could also spend an evening eating and shopping around Eataly. Also, if a show interests you, try looking around the discount-ticket options. Other thoughts?

Suggestions for an active 3 generational family with ages 13 to 80 and activity levels ranging from 5 mile to marathon? Would a cruise and land package in Alaska work?

It may be too sendentary for your group, although if you opt for the more exciting shore excursions, it could work. You'll find that many of these cruisetours skew older. Make sure you're not going to spend too much time on buses or trains. And look into some of the smaller expedition-style cruise companies. 

We'd had a great dinner in one of those Italian pizza joints in Como such as you find nowhere but in Italy and were heading for the train station to catch an 8 p.m. train back to Milan. Wondering which street to take off the almost deserted piazza, we stopped a young Italian couple (and their toddler son). We couldn't understand one another but, finally, the young man seemed to get it and pointed us 'that way.' We hurried off, concerned about the time and just wandered further and further from light and civilization. Until a car, its lights blinking and horn blowing rushed up behind us and stopped at our side. The young family, realizing finally what we'd actually asked, jumped in their car and came looking for us, dragged us into the car and took us to the station--which we'd been getting further and further from. I was so stressed, I wanted to curl up in my seat for the duration, but, no, husband saw a chance to talk to the elderly couple across the aisle and practice his Italian. Exchanged pix of kids, learned the words for daughter, son, grandmother, grandson, etc., etc., etc. I shall never forget the kindness and grace . . .

Nice of that young family to rectify their error!

Ironically, best train trip was in Egypt in 1985, overnight from Cairo to Aswan region. Train pulls into station, 3rd class cars with no seats, then 2nd class with seats but people shoving into the windows to get on. As college we assumed we were in 2nd class. Luckily, we were in 1st class. Gorgeous new cars and sleeping berths with wonderful staff. Our college group mixed in the bar car with tourists from many nations and stayed until we drank all the beer on board. Woke with the desert on both sides of the train as far as we could see. Visited the amazing Valley of the Kings following the train.


Easy peasy - totally seamless. I've both rented there and driven a rental car over the border many times. As for insurance, since you don't have your own coverage, do investigate what your credit card will cover in case of an accident and then decide on what you'll take on the rental. Might be best to buy the CDW, even though it adds $$ to your cost. Enjoy New Brunswick - it's gorgeous in September!

This is for the person from last week who asked about tours to Vietnam/Cambodia. We spent three weeks over there last year- it was great! I'd encourage you NOT to do a package tour for the entire trip because I think it takes away from the experience somewhat to be on a tourbus with all Western tourists the whole time. Vietnam especially is very well setup for travellers and English is widely spoken among the tourist industry in the popular destinations. We used a small Hanoi based tour company to visit a part of Vietnam that is more remote and difficult to do on your own and that was totally worth it. But for the other parts of the country we just arranged our own accomodations ahead of time and setup daytours along the way. The service at hotels is often excellent (check Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet for recs) and they can arrange train/bus travel to your nest destination, activities, etc. It's also cheap- even $40 a night will get you a nice hotel! If nothing else, it is very easy to visit Siem Reap/Angkor Wat temple complex on your own- just find a hotel that will arrange a driver and/or guide to take you around to the temples. That way you can make your own schedule and arrive in your tuk-tuk (an essential experience) at a popular temple ahead of the tour buses! Outside of Siem Reap I beleive things are more difficult (we only went there) so if you are planning to visit other areas in Cambodia, that might be a good time to hook up with a tour. Have fun! You will love it.

Wow! Just goes to show you that travel advice is so subjective. I adored San Sebastian a few years ago. It's not as bustling at Madrid or Barcelona, but the view of the beach and surrounding hills, greenery and little islands is one of my favorite memories of my trip to Spain, and all the pintxo bars (the tapas of the Basque) were cute and delightful.

The Nats will actually be at home against the Mets over Labor Day weekend. They won't be in Philly until Monday evening so don't use that as a selling point for your son.

Yes, true, I should have mentioned that, but I thought there was a chance they'd still be in town in the evening. Thanks for clarifying.

Go to Bruges and Leuven (Louvain in French). When travelling in Belgium, make sure that you know both the French and Flemish names of the places you're going, as the signs will change without warning. Have a wonderful time. :)

My most memborable train trips were the ones that were not exactly clockwork - Colombo to Badula, Sri Lanka made it as far as Roselle, where we sat for 4 hours waiting for a mechanic. Ha Noi to Da Nang, Vietnam, stopped half-way for a derailed freight on the tracks ahead, - over a 2 hour delay. The funniest was the London to Windsor train, with a transfer in Slough. You could see Windsor Castle on top of the hill in the distance, and they couldn't get the train engine to start. Slough, by the way, is the most miserable place in England, an industrial wasteland commemorated in the poem by John Betjeman: "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! It isn't fit for humans now, There isn't grass to graze a cow. Swarm over, Death!" We made it to Windsor about an hour late.


Good afternoon. If you had one day (from mid-morning Friday to late afternoon Saturday) to tour Napa mid-October, what would your itinerary look like? We have a hotel but the rest is just overwhelming! There are so many wineries and I have heard that you can get to maybe 3 at most in one day ... but which ones. Would three on Friday and one on Saturday sound reasonable? Can we drive or should we take a limo or bus tour? If a tour, can you recommend one? This is our first trip out and we'd like it memorable but not a forced march sort of visit. Many thanks for any suggestions/ideas.

Haven't done Napa in years and years. Chatters, let's have your advice!

Interesting here not necessarily meaning good interesting... After college I had an internship in Paris, and boyfriend at the time was in Stuttgart. This was before the fast train did that route, so I would take a late train from Paris and arrive in Stuttgart early the next morning. Usually pretty uneventful, I'd sleep the whole time. But on one of the trips, just over the German border, so probably around 2am, a whole crew of kids probably a little younger than me (late teens or so) came on the train with boom boxes blaring and tons of booze. The rest of the trip I was exposed to German raver music, and sadly not a one of them offered me a beverage :(

Poor you!

I've taken a number of great train trips. Most recently we took the Alaska Railroad (in a couple of segments), covering nearly all of the route from Fairbanks down to Seward. The train offers incredibly beautiful sightseeing in general, and specifically we had great luck with wildlife - lots of moose, bald eagles, dall sheep, and even a couple porcupines. The portions of the trip in the area immediately around Denali, and from Seward to Anchorage offered especially stunning scenery.


Over the weekend I made airline reservations for a trip next Feb. While reviewing times and connections, there were notes saying things such as "one seat left", "two seats left"... When I got to the part of selecting seats, most of the plane showed as either empty or unselected... So what was the note about? A come-on? An attempt to make me think it was nearly sold out? Well, it worked. Does false advertising come into play? Should any of this ever be taken seriously??

Airlines have a certain percentage of seats available at the lowest fares, and it's usually a very small percentage. As seats sell, and the plane fills, the price typically goes up. But that's not a hard-and-fast rule, so you could very well see the price drop before it goes back up again, especially if sales are slow. My advice is to do a little research on the route pricing in order to get a feel for the going rate before buying. And once you make the purchase, don't look back. 

Apparently American Airlines in their infiinite wisdom has begun a passive aggressive move for the holidays. They just in essence cancelled the return flighs of 6 of my clients from Turks for the week of New Years.. This very thoughtful move will affect many other people and they are offering no other alternative other than a refund. Now in order to travel these clients will be forced to pay double for their airline tickets. i have been in travel for many years and this is one of the worst abuses I have seen. Basically I just want everyone out there to know how bad things have gotten. We are powerless and the DOJ should indeed be looking into this new merger with USAIR.

I'm also relieved that the DOJ took a closer look at the proposed merger. Many airline rules are patently unfair to passengers, even though they make perfect sense to the company. The rebooking policy you cite, which I've had to explain to many unhappy air travelers, is just one example. Here's a tip: You can often appeal an airline's rebooking decision if you know who to ask. Here are a few American Airlines executive contacts. Please let me know if that doesn't work, and I'll do my best to help.

You forgot Brugge - absolutely perfect for a weekend trip and really, really lovely.

Be honest with yourself about how easy going your child is with change, regardless of their age. Is she/he good with new sleeping situations (time, place, etc)? Will he/she be okay with all the different food? How about lots of new people? Or a potential rocky sea? Would they be okay with a strange babysitter? Would YOU be okay with a strange babysitter? How much stuff from home are you willing to bring to make it comfortable for your child? It can be done but do it based on the child's personality.

Wise counsel, thanks!

I love finding small museums while travelling. On a recent trip to New Mexico, we were driving through Capitan and stopped at the Smokey the Bear Museum there (the original Smokey was found New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest). The actual museum takes about a half-hour, but there's a really nice garden outside that showcases plants from New Mexico's various climate zones. (Did you know that New Mexico has over 315 species of butterflies?) And there's a really nice playground for children featuring a fire look-out tower. Our four-year old son had a great time. It's worth a stop if you're heading to Ruidoso or points south.

Thanks! I love weird little museums, too.

I did one week in the Galapagos, one week in Machu Pichu, and one week up the Amazon with Overseas Adventure Travel. Terrific trip

Do you know of a place where I could go to see the fall colors in October? Skyline drive is too crowded. Thanks!

Garrett County/Deep Creek Lake would be nice. And I think West Virginia is great too. Big state, lots of options. Canaan Valley is pretty. I also really enjoyed the small town of Fayetteville, near New River Gorge, which would be just spectacular in fall.

For the chatter wanting to visit Ravenna from Venice: we did that this past February with a private car and driver. The countryside was not that exciting, but the guide was great and got us around easily to the sights that we wanted to visit (which might not be so easily done on one's own). And the total cost was reasonable for our group of five. No stress, no worry, no wasted time changing trains, and best of all, we saw Ravenna!

Thanks! Can you tell us how you arranged for the car and driver?

On a recent morning flight back from the Caribbean to Miami on American, the only breakfast choice was cereal and milk -- in business class! Even worse, it was an extremely sugary cinnamon-flavored cereal, which I wouldn't touch both because of the sugar level and because I don't like the taste of cinnamon. I know -- first-world problem, but still, it seems to me that business class has deteriorated in many cases to about where coach was in the late 1970s. I can't wait to see what the upcoming merger with "Useless Air" will do to the service level.

I'm not sure that merger is ever going to happen. DOJ seems deadset against it, and many travelers feel both airlines should take this opportunity to improve on their own instead of combining operations as a means of raising prices instead of service levels. We shall see.

My wife and I will be in South Africa in early November and are interested in seeing Namibia while in that part of the continent. We have about four or five days available, but haven't been able to find much information on what to see and do. Any suggestions? (But no wildlife, please. We've had our share of wild animals - - been there, done that, have a closet full of T-shirts. Anything else would be welcome, however! ) Thank you.

Anyone been to Namibia?

In 2009, my then Significant Other took the Empire Builder from Milwaukee to East Glacier Park, Mt. We went to the county courthouse, got married, spent the balance of the day in the Park and the next morning boarded the eastbound Empire Builder and returned to Milwaukee to attend a business convention.


I learned the hard way that, for security reasons, the doors on the TGV close automatically, and cannot be manually reopened. This fate befell us at Gare de Lyon when my husband (who speaks not a word of French) boarded the train and the door slid closed right between us just before I could get on. There was absolutely nothing that anyone could do, so I just stood there in shock on the platform, trying not to fall apart emotionally, as the train pulled out of the station without me. Three solicitous young TGV staffers who had been helping passengers board witnessed the entire event (and realized it was no fault of mine that I missed the train), and immediately began to comfort me. Celeste, who spoke the best English, reassured me that they would put me on the next train (leaving in just an hour), that I would not be charged for an additional ticket -- and best of all, that they would telephone not only our friends in Provence to notify them of what had happened, but also the train that my husband was on, so the crew could tell him to wait in Marseille an hour to meet me, so we could catch the local train together to the nearest station to our final destination. Celeste also bought me a bottle of ice cold water from a vending machine, because I'd gotten mighty thirsty shlepping back and forth in Gare de Lyon as they took care of everything necessary to get me onto the next train. The icing on the cake? Despite having had a coach ticket (2+2 seats in each row), I was given a seat in first class (2+1 seats across) where the seats are wider and comfier!

All's well that ends well!

I am looking for a place to stay in the Bahamas in April 2014 for a three-generation family. Could be a resort, condo., etc., but prefer a location with water sports (including snorkeling) and perhaps something w/ a kitchen to prepare breakfast and sandwiches for lunch. Any ideas?

Large villas are available in the Bahamas, but they come with staffs and are typically quite expensive. I know the kids will love Atlantis, and Harborside Resort, which offers one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom villas, has access to Atlantis's resort facilities. 

Our train hit a tomato truck and the engine was too damaged to continue in the California Valley. It took 5 hours for a replacement engine to arrive and during that time the passengers moved around and visited with each other. My husband and I met people from different backgrounds. It was a trip we will always remember.

Just FYI, if you are with AT&T and you want to swap a SIM card in a foreign country you will need AT&T to unlock your phone. If you bought a new iPhone 5 at a discount AT&T won't unlock the phone until you have had it for 2 years. Otherwise, it is an easy process. I used my old iPhone 4 in Dubai by just buying a new SIM card and using a pay as you go plan.

Thanks for this. I was pretty sure there were plenty of you more well-versed in this than I am!

You could just read "Murder on the Orient Express" or "The Lady Vanishes."

PBS (WETA) is showing "The Lady Vanishes" Thursday night. I can't wait.

MOST ALL insurance companies do not allow you to purchase this option more than 7 days from your initial deposit.

Yes, as we said, he/she is probably out of luck. 

Thomson's Safari based in Watertown, MA and Tanzania. They have an excellent reputation for quality and safety.

Excellent, thanks!

A group of 8 of us will be going to NYC this fall for a charity ride near Chelsea Pier. We'd like to keep costs low and thought a home or condo rental would be a good idea. Can you recommend a reliable search engine for such a rental and do you think a one-night rental is even possible? Thank you.

There are plenty of rent-from-owner Web sites, such as VRBO and Homeaway. One-night rentals are often offered, although some will require longer minimum stays. Chris Elliott has done several articles on the pitfalls of renting directly from owners through these sites, but if you don't wire money, talk to the owner, look at reviews -- in other words, do your homework -- you should be fine. 

Here's my latest warning on vacation rental scams. Whatever you do, don't wire money!

Where are some great places to visit where I can see animals in their natural habitat? I've done whale watching in several places, and I saw all kinds of wildlife in Alaska. I'm not really into small birds or reptiles. Other than an African safari, where should I consider?

There are the wild horses at Chincoteague/Assateague. Or the polar bears of Manitoba. And tigers in India. Seals in California or New England. Tons of amazing wildlife in the Galapagos, though maybe that's not the kind of animals you're interested in.

Try chain hotels in Newark or Elizabeth, NJ.

...was traveling from Prague to Munich for Oktoberfest shortly after 9/11/01. I had misplaced my passport, and being the silly 22-year-old that I was borrowed a friend's passport to cross the border into Germany. 3 friends and I took a night train to Munich, which involved a passport check during the night in our train compartment which I was able to pass mussing my hair into my face and holding the passport out of my bunk. Only on the return trip (24 hours and 0 sleep later) did the gravity of my situation become apparent. We had to change trains at the Czech/German border. Security was high everywhere so soon after 9/11. I nervously held "my" passport. Control checked the person in line ahead of me, and the person behind me, but passed me through just seeing the outside of my American passport. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and slumped down to sleep off the previous 24 hours on the return trip to Prague!

A dear friend and I took this route for the scenery and experience, and are longing for more. The scenery, of course, was fantastic. But the people we met were what made it so interesting. The writer-artist couple from New England we met at dinner one night. The man who had biked the coast and was returning home. The sweet elderly man whose wife had missed the all aboard call at a stretch-your-legs stop, and he was holding all their cards and money. She had a cell phone, but it was turned off, and anyway he didn't know the number. (Amtrak hooked them back up.) I'm eagerly planning my next "passport" trip, but it's nice to remember that people who look, eat, and speak remarkably like me can broaden my horizons immensely.


And that's it for today, folks -- thanks for joining us! Sorry if we weren't able to get to your question today -- please come back next week and we'll try to give you the best answers we can, or call on your fellow chatters to do so.

Loads of fun train trip stories today, but my favorite is the group of 67 American students leaving the Soviet Union and hungry for real food in, um, Hungary. Whoever you are poster, send your contact info to me at and I'll send you a little prize! Thanks again all, and see you next week.

In This Chat
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the deputy editor of Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column, clearing the way through the fog of consumer travel issues. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
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