Talk about Travel

Sep 16, 2013

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

Hello travelers. Nice to see you on this cloudy Monday. Let's all escape into the sunny, rainbow-streaked world of travel.

For today's topic:  Tell us about a destination that completely upended your expectations. For example, maybe it was more touristy than you had anticipated, or less developed, friendlier (here's looking at you, NYC) or less inviting. Best answer wins a prize that will blow away your high or low expectations.


Just back from several weeks in Europe and wanted to report one major area where US credit cards -- which don't have the "chip and pin" -- cannot be used -- the automated ticket machines at German railway and bus stations. Instead, you have to stand in line at the ticket counter which can take much, much longer. So, need to plan ahead in buying tickets. Since I was only making short day trips on the weekends, I would not have benefitted from a Eurail pass or Germanrail pass. How many more years (decades?) before US credit card providers switch over to the chip/pin cards?!

Thanks for the report. Automated ticket machines are one of the places you're most likely to encounter a problem with chip-less credit cards. Here's my primer on the subject. If we're lucky, we will see more chip cards in the States in the next few years.

For last week's chatter who asked about visiting vineyards in the Chianti/ Montepulciano: Many of the smaller wineries in Europe are also the vintner's home, so tasting at the vineyards can be tricky, if even allowed (we may or may not have interrupted a nice family's Sunday lunch once...). It can also take quite a bit of time to drive between vineyards. However, a lot of the wineries have tasting rooms (enotecas) in town - there are at least 6 tasting rooms near the Duomo in Montepulciano and a large shop in Montalcino that stocks a ton of Tuscan wines and has tasting options. If you do want to visit vineyards, I found the Chowhound threads to be a good place to start research (I think I googled "vineyards Montalcino chowhound" as a start). Off the top of my head, I know that Casanova de Neri, Banfi, Boscarelli and Avignonesi were "visitable" vineyards. Finally, when you are in Italy, ask your hotel for recommendations - they are local and likely have befriended many of the vintners in the area anyway.

All good info, grazie!

For those who think you have to go traditional (Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice) for a trip to Italy, may I suggest some fantastic alternatives, based upon my own experiences. My daughter had a year in the Friuli region northeast of Venice and the city of Udine is a quiet classic with a wonderful Agritourism winery owned by her host parents, the Comelli family ( Beautiful location just below the pre-Alps, wonderful affordable small suites in the old stone wine building, excellent northern wines, different Italian cuisine. Easy to travel by train from Venice or rent a car for the whole trip, where you can tour the region and Slovenia very easily. The other is at the absolute other end of Italy at the toe of the boot. Reggio Calabria is the home of my Italian exchange student son and his family runs Torre Galli, a gorgeous villa B&B nestled in a lemon and orange grove above the seaside town of Tropea, an easy journey from the airport of Lamezia. Beto's mom, Mariella, does a pre fixe dinner every night for the patio restaurant and, believe me, you won't want to miss it. Add to it, gorgeous views of the Mediterranean, an easy train ride to Reggio with it's seaside quay looking across to Sicily (a ferry boat away), a great archeological museum, year-round wonderful fruits and vegetables. Again, not to be missed.

Thanks for the off-the-beaten-path suggestions!

I have a weekend in October I'm not sure what to do with. Friday I have to work in/around Boston and on Monday be in New Hampshire for work. I will probably stop in Amherst on Sunday to see a friend - what else to do?

If you only have a weekend, sounds like you've filled it. If you're heading out to Amherst (not sure how you "stop" in Amherst on your way to N.H., since they're in sort of opposite directions, but you're the traveler), you may as well go out on Saturday and do some touring. Western Mass. is beautiful, and the Amherst-Northampton area especially so. In Amherst there's the Emily Dickinson house -- don't miss it, plus her brother's grandly decayed villa next door. Her grave is in West Cemetery. The Amherst College campus is lovely and there are some nice small museums there as well. There's also the Eric Carle Museum of Picture-Book Art -- if you're a "Hungry Caterpillar" fan, it's a fun visit, or even if you're not. Lovely Northampton is only about a 20-minute drive from Amherst. Have lunch at the Hotel Northampton and take a walk around town, in the Elm Street Historic District -- lots of interesting shops, beautiful buildings and points of interest.  Maybe you can catch a show at the Academy of Music, an old theater that's now a popular music venue Also not far away is Deerfield, with all its candlemakers. Get some Christmas shopping done early!

If you don't like this plan and would rather hang around Boston on Saturday, you could check out the ever-trendier Fort Point neighborhood down on the water. Lots of hot new restaurants, art galleries, buzzy scene.

Chatters, what else?

I am visiting friends in Albuquerque and want to take them out to dinner while I am there. We have recommendations for Sante Fe but none for Albuquerque itself. There may be as many as 6 and we would prefer to eat on the healthy side. A vegan restaurant would be great but recommendations for any other good restaurants would be appreciated. Thank you

What a nice guest you are!

Here are some recommendations. To keep it healthy, ask for less cheese, hold the sour cream and use discpline around the bowl of guac.

Jennifer James 101 (sample dish: dill-crusted and seared salmon with grilled dill pickles)

For Indian: Namaste, India Kitchen or Paddy Rawal’s OM

For local specialties: Mary and Tito's Cafe, which won a James Beard award in 2010.

For Italian: Torinos’ @ Home

For vegan or veggie restaurants, check out Happy Cow.


Travel team - 4 former college roommates all living in different locales - DC, Indy, Louisville, Chicago. We'd like to meet somewhere for a weekend (2-3 nights) where we can relax, eat great food, and of course drink great wine. Preferably we'd like to NOT meet in someone's home city. Any suggestions that won't break the bank on flights or lodging?

How about Columbus? It's getting to be quite the hip place and has an excellent food scene these days. Other options: Nashville, Atlanta and Charleston.

I leave for Paris from Dulles on Thursday and plan to park in the economy parking lot. Is there a way for me to drop my travel companion off with the luggage before parking? If not, no biggie - just trying to save one of us the walk/shuttle ride. Thanks!

Yes, just drive to the terminal and drop your traveling companion off at the departures level.

Planning a complex trip to Europe, what advantages and disadvantages are there to buying tickets through an online travel agency such as Orbitz, Priceline, Expedia, BudgetAir, or Vayama? Not all the itineraries I'm considering that show up on ITA are available from the airlines themselves.

An online agency can offer some peace of mind, since you are dealing with an intermediary. So when something goes wrong, you can turn to the agency for help, as opposed to dealing directly with the company. As a practical matter, some online agencies don't care about service and outsource those functions to overseas call centers staffed by script-reading worker bees. The best way to avoid that is to deal with a brand-name online agency or with a bricks-and-mortar agency, if possible.

What is your favorite website for finding last minute deals, particularly deals to other countries? I'd love to take a trip to some random destination at a bargain rate. Thanks for your help!!

The major opaque sites -- Priceline and Hotwire -- are two standards I like to recommend. Keep an eye on Groupon, which recently acquired the last-minute travel app Blink, for some opportunies, too. Also, most airlines and hotels have mailing lists where they announce fare sales and other events where they dump distressed inventory. And finally, keep an eye on those company's social media accounts; sometimes they'll hold a flash sale on Twitter or Facebook.

Hi, I'm traveling to Italy in a few months. My non-stop flight lands in Rome around 7am Saturday. We will be going directly to the train station to take the train to Florence. What is the best way for us to get to the train station on a Saturday morning? Should we use public transport or hire a cab or maybe something else entirely? thanks!

Based on quick research, I would suggest taking the train from the airport to the station. Trenitalia’s FL1 regional train departs every 15 minutes and travels from Leonardo da Vinci Airport to the main train stations in Rome (Trastevere, Ostiense, Tuscolana and Tiburtina).  One-way ticket is of 8 euros per person.


I'm submitting early because I won't be free at 2pm. Just wanted to offer up a recommendation to anyone traveling to Copenhagen. I was there for 3 days and bought, using my mobile phone, a public transit ticket called "City Pass" good for all the local/commuter trains, subway, and buses (including to/from the airport). There are 24- and 72-hour options; 72 hours runs about $35. You buy it online (including by smartphone) and receive it by text message - just flash the message at the bus driver when you board. Then download the Rejseplanen app for smartphone. It provides comprehensive route planning (in English if you like). With those two items, I was able to go anywhere and everywhere in Copenhagen.

Great tip! Thanks for sharing.

Dear Experts: I hate Christmas and I want to go somewhere civilized ie not the beach or countryside, where I can eat well and be entertained. My parameters are within five hours drive from Washington DC or ten by train (no flying at Christmas for me, thank you very much). I want to make my reservations, if any, this week. Any brilliant ideas?

Many ways to go with this. Not sure if you would consider these brilliant, but you could drive or take the train to such destinations as Philadelphia, Charlottesville, New York or Richmond. Good eating in all those places with plenty of things to do.

Many thanks, Becky, for mailing me an appropriate prize for my entry, which was chosen the winner in a recent travel chat. Yay me, and yay you too!

I think I know who this is, and you're very welcome. :)

Los Pollos Hermanos?

Great choice, though tough if any of the diners don't eat pollo.

We had to go to Wisconsin for a family reunion and were really not looking forward to it. We found a really cute street fair and cafe in Oshgosh and a great time watching kayaking in Wausau. We were impressed by the tour of Lambeau in Green Bay-- it was far better than other stadiums (and we aren't Packers fans at all). The best was Milwaukee. The breweries were great (both large and small), the zoo was amazing, and there were great places to run. We went in thinking that it would be the worst summer vacation ever, but were blown away by the warm weather, nice people, and great beer.

What a happy surprise! Three cheers for Wisconsin.

Is there really a restaurant called "The Chicken Brothers"? Really?

Yes, and it is also has meaning for "Breaking Bad" fans. Wink, wink.

Thank you for taking my question last week regarding saturday stays and last-minute flight prices to London. I was able to get a on Virgin Atlantic, which I'm excited to try, for the same price I'd been seeing for the last month ($1k), so I'm glad I didn't get hammered on the flight. I had a harder time with hotels, but a friend recommended the College of London School of Economics dormitories, which are open for guests during school breaks, which happens to coincide with my trip. So I got a single room with a private bath 2 blocks from Trafalgar Square/Charing Cross for less than $100/night. Given that I couldn't find anything for less than $200/night and I was striking out on Airbnb, I was pretty happy with this find. The problem is there are very few amenities, such as TV, iron, hair dryer, fridge, or even wifi (it's available in other dorms but not mine) but I'll manage. It's only a week and there are plenty of places to get wifi over there. I have two questions. FIrst, what do you recommend for phones over there? Getting a SIM card for my iPhone or buying a cheap phone there? I'll need to stay in touch with my tour group and may need it for other things. I can use my iPhone wifi when it's available, but any other suggestions? Also, I have Global Entry and have never used it. Do I need to do anything ahead of time? I didn't have a chance to enter my ID number when I bought the ticket, and don't want to get stuck not being able to use it when I get to the airport. Should I call the airline? Thanks!

Here's Andrea's piece on SIM cards to help you make a decision. If you can get your iPhone unlocked and get a SIM card, that would probably be ideal. But you could also rent or, yes, pick up something cheap once you arrive.

As to Global Entry, my understanding is that you should have put your membership number (PASS ID) in the "Known Traveler Number" field when you made your reservation. You may be able to remedy that online in your reservation or profile, and if not, you should try calling the airline.

A friend and I just snagged a pretty great airfare to Rome in February -- $695 RT from JFK over Presidents Day week on Aer Lingus through Dublin. We'll be there for a week (arrive on a Friday, depart the following Friday) Now that we have the plane tickets we have to plan the rest, and we don't really know where to start. Should we spend the whole week in Rome, and maybe take a few day trips? Split the week between Rome and Florence, or Rome and somewhere else? What will Italy be like in February, and is there anything we should definitely see or definitely avoid? We're two 30s gay guys who enjoy culture, art, good food, good wine. Neither of us has been to Italy before. Any tips/recommendations on neighborhoods/hotels/sights/gay scene would be much appreciated! Thanks!

There's so much to see and do in Rome (Colosseum, Roman Forum, Vatican, Catacombs, churches, palazzos, churches; take a Vespa tour!) that you could easily spend the week there, taking day trips to, say, Pompeii and/or Naples, Capri, Orvieto. For that matter, you could take a day trip to Siena or Florence from Rome. If I were you, though, and it's your first trip to Italy, I'd split my time between Rome and Florence -- maybe four days in Rome, two days in Florence, just because everyone should see Florence. February, alas, will be quite oool and damp, but the tourist crowds will definitely be thinner, which is great, because they really swell at other times of year.

Chatters, your thoughts? 

I've had been to Patong, Phuket, Thailand before and immediately after the 2004 Tsuami. Both times were pleasant and even after the devastation (which in Patong only affected the block closest to the beach) there was a nice balance of activity and tranquility that I enjoyed. My expectation were shattered when I returned last year; the Russian Mafia has very visibly turned the town into their playground - and apparently violence has followed. Yikes! (just google Russian mafia in Phuket to see what I mean)

 I was disappointed in Phuket, but for different reasons. Now I have double the regrets.

I typically read the "Travel Talk" portion of the Post's Travel section for some good information but haven't seen anything recently on Puerto Rico. Next year (Aug/Sep timeframe) my wife and I are planning to head there (without kids) for our anniversary. Our goals are to relax on the beach but be in an area that is in close proximity to the Cumay Caves and some of the swim-up waterfalls. Can you recommend some coastal cities that would be good

I would recommend staying in Arecibo or Isabela in the north. If you prefer small hotels, check out the charming family-run properties listed on this Web site.

Hi. If I want to fly from San Francisco to New York and find that the cheapest way to do so is to book a flight from San Fran to Washington that stops in New York on the way, is it ok for me to exit the plane in New York? (Assuming of course I don't book luggage). Is it illegal? If not illegal, should I still tell a flight attendant that I've exited the plane?

If you miss a connecting leg on your flight, your airline will cancel the rest of your ticket. So only try this if it's on the return portion of your trip -- otherwise you might get stuck with a worthless return flight.

Is it legal? Strictly speaking, yes. It violates your ticket contract, which is why airlines call it illegal, but there is no law against using only half of your ticket. (Note: I am not a lawyer, although my mother wanted me to be one. Long story.)

Bottom line -- only do this kind of "throwaway" ticketing if you're absolutely sure of what you're doing.

Hi there, I'm looking for suggestions for a place to go hiking for two days that would be accessible from DC with a car. Ideally somewhere with trails and close to a mid-range place to stay for the night (ie. $80-100/night). I know there are loads of options within a few hours of town, but I have no idea how to sift through them, so I'd be grateful for a few top tips!

How about Maryland's Catoctin Mountain Park, the subject of our Escapes feature this week? There's also Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. You can look at some of the park or other area cabin accommodations, or you can make base camp in Front Royal or somewhere along the Interstate 81 corridor and have your pick of chain hotels.

That's just scratching the surface. Anyone else have a favorite locale?

Thanks to my husband's great planning we packed a lot into 8 days...we arrived in Paris on Friday morning & had 2 days there to get over the jet lag. Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur & Jardin Luxumbourg are what I remember most. (I also quickly learned a few key phrases to help with ordering food -- everyone was very nice & seemed pleased I was trying to speak their language. I had always heard the French are rude to Americans, but we didn't find that at all. The scams on the street are for another chat.) On Sunday we took a train to Amboise - stayed at a charming little B&B and walked all over to work off all the great food. Monday we picked up a rental car & visited a couple of nearby chateaus. Tuesday morning we drove to Sarlat - a lengthy road trip with stops at Intermarche to pick up fresh fruit, bread & (of course) chocolate. We also stopped at a few more chateaus on the way. Wednesday we had planned a day trip - kind of a loop through 3 medieval cities. Incredible views & wonderful little villages built around the chateaus. (I saw only the first one - where I hit a rock wall - aka the ground - with my full body weight - tripped over a small rise in the sidewalk. A nice British couple saw me & helped me up. I then fainted & awoke to a crowd of helpful folks leaning over me. I heard one lady ask, 'Is she dead?' Luckily, no...just queasy & sore. I wore a sling for a couple of days as my right elbow took the brunt & hubby kept me steady for the rest of the trip. I'm much better now.) Thursday we had the long drive back to Amboise & the trickiness of returning the car - as the custom is to close between12n & 2pm for lunch & whatever. It was a race to the station after that, but we made it in time for an early afternoon train back to Paris. Friday we went to Versailles - it began pouring rain as we waited in line to enter the palace, but it was worth it. I had never seen such grandeur. (No wonder the peasants revolted!) The rain had stopped by the time we came out so we got some great shots of the gardens. (We then hit the McDonald's of Versailles - I had 'Le Big Tasty' & it bon!) Friday night we walked all over Champs-Elysees. The weather was perfect, we had dinner at a crepe stand & the avenue was filled with people of all ages. At dusk the lights began to come on - including those at Tour Eiffel & at 9pm the tower began to twinkle like a huge, beautiful jewel. It was a wonderful ending to the trip & I'm glad we saved it for the last night. Thanks to my sweet husband my passport has finally been stamped. Tout le meilleur, mes amis.

What a trip! And by the way, have you heard of our new(ish) Travel feature, What a Trip? Feel free to send these sorts of reports our way via that route. Just go to and fill out the form.

Looking for suggestions for a long weekend getaway in October that we can get to without a car (train preferably, or a two-hour or less plane ride) that gets us into nature ideally. We've looked into Harpers Ferry, but unfortunately the train schedule only works for commuters. Any other spots? Small town recommendations are also welcome - we love Charlottesville, for example. Thanks much!

For Harpers Ferry, were you thinking of the MARC train? There actually is one train a day on the Capitol Limited that will take you to and from there on Amtrak (although the Saturday departure is late afternoon). I'm struggling to come up with other nature-centric options within two hours of Washington by train... Options greatly expand if you go the flying route. If you like small towns and nature, I heartily recommend Greenville, S.C. There are nonstops in October out of Reagan National for around $200. I really loved the city when I was there.

I was turned on to Sadie's many years a go for yummy green chile enchiladas. I've recommended it to several folks saying -- if you like it bring me a jar of sauce. If you don't, I'll pay for your meal. Have never had to pay!

What a great deal!

I was utterly heartbroken when my husband was offered an interview for a really promising job in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1970s, because all we knew of the region were photos of a filthy, smoky industrial city that appeared in our school social studies textbooks in the 1950s, and I sure as heck didn't want to live amid such pollution. When we drove up to Pittsburgh it was a bright sunny day with clear skies, and we discovered a surprisingly clean city -- we hadn't heard of Pittsburgh's first and second Renaissances, so had no idea so much renovation had already been undertaken there. Besides cleaner air and water than we anticipated, we were also amazed by the high ratio of cultural institutions per capita, reasonable housing (especially compared to the DC area prices!), and so we agreed that if my husband was offered the job, he'd take it. As you've doubtless already surmised, we've been in da 'Burgh ever since (although we still enjoy visiting the DC area from time to time, since it's only a 4-hour drive each way)!

Pittsburgh is not the pits! So great to know.

Spouse and I want to take our three elementary-school-aged children to Alaska. We assume a cruise is our best bet. Is Disney worth the substantial extra cost? Thanks!

Disney runs a great ship with wonderful entertainment, especially for kids. However, the extra expense is only worthwhile it if your kids are MM fans and might grow bored at sea. However, in Alaska, the ports and landscape are the main attractions, not the ship. So I would pass on Disney and select a cruise line that emphasizes the wildlife and nature.  Hopefully, in a line-up, your kids would choose grizzly bears over a fake mouse.

I'm planning a trip to Israel in January. If the current Middle East situation heats up, and the State Department issues a warning against travel to there, what is the usual response from the airlines? Rebooking for free? Refunds?

If an airline can no longer safely operate a flight to a destination, and is forced to cancel, then you're entitled to a full refund. If, however, the flight is still running, then the normal refund rules would apply to your flight. In my experience, the situation would have to be pretty serious before the airline cancels flights. If you think you might want to cancel, you might consider a "cancel for any reason" travel insurance policy, which refunds a portion of your trip or offers you a credit for a future vacation.

Afternoon, all! My husband and I are attending a wedding in Florida in late October, so we're making a vacation out of it. We plan to also go to Georgia to see my family. Two questions for you--our flights from Dulles to Atlanta, Atlanta to Orlando, and Orlando to Dulles add up to about $600 per person. Should we jump on it? We certainly CAN drive, and are willing to do so, but will probably have to extend the vacation buy a couple of days to accommodate the drive. My other question is about the theme parks. We want to do Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Does the $35 fast pass make sense for this time of the year? I know crowd levels can be hard to assess, but I don't want to have to spend more money than I have to.

Did you say $600 per person? That's a little high for flights between Dulles to Orlando. At that price, I might drive. You can do Washington-Atlanta in about 10 hours by car. Late October is low season in Orlando, so you may not need the passes, but it sure can't hurt. I would get them if you can afford it.

Is it practical to do Machu Picchu and nearby sites plus the Galapagos on the same trip? A crossing to Bolivia also would be possible. If Peru is open-ended, I won't know when I would arrive in Guayaquil or on one of the islands. Can you hook up with a (boat?) trip around the Galapagos upon arrival and maybe even get better rates, or do you have to plan in advance?

I don't know how much vacation time you have, but those are both very ambitious trips. I would choose one for the most enriching experience.

PS In most cases, you need to book the Galapagos boat in advance, since they sell out quickly.

I almost submitted the opposite about Pittsburgh! After hearing such great things about it, I felt totally let down. It felt very mid-1970's. The Strand was OK, but most of our dining was terrible and I couldn't get over everyone dressed in Steelers attire (outside of football season) even at the fanciest restaurant. I didn't even like my sandwich at Primanti Brothers! I feel like the only person who doesn't like the city, so maybe I need some tips to enjoy it more.

We need a tie-breaker for Pittsburgh. Anyone?

Artichoke. re Pollos: Gale was vegan, and look what happened to him


My husband and I are traveling to Tokyo 12/16 to visit our son and his girlfriend. We plan to all meet in Tokyo and take the train (Japan Railways) and visit Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Can you tell me the best train to take? In addition, we plan to head back to Tokyo on the following Sunday to fly to Okinawa where my son lives to spend Christmas. Plus we would like to see Iwo Jima, how do we set a tour up? Any recommendations on where to sleep as we tour mainland countryside. Any and all tips are welcomed. Thank you

Joe, our resident Japan expert, isn't chatting with us today, so it looks as if we'll have to throw this one out to the chatters? Your recommendations, folks?

I am considering meeting my sister in France for a bit of a foodie/wine/girls trip (5 - 7 days). We are saving Champagne for a later date, but are looking at Bordeaux or Burgundy. Any suggestions? Which is easiest to travel to without a car, and easy to get to from a major airport? Thanks!

Burgundy is closer to Paris, but Bordeaux is served by high-speed trains, too, so it wouldn't be very difficult to get there, although it's farther away.  This is a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other; you can hardly go wrong. Bordeaux encompasses some of the world's most famous vineyards -- Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, etc. -- and the city of Bordeaux itself is lovely. But Burgundy is spectacularly beautiful, too, and you can't beat some of those wines! Chatters, what do you think?

We are recently retired boomers who would like to fulfill a dream of walking from Florence to Rome. Can you recommend tour companies in Italy that could help us plan the itinerary, book rooms, support us with a sag wagon, etc.? 

Hmm. Have never done this, though it does sound appealing. Chatters, we'll need your help. Any insight into possible tour companies that arrange this sort of thing?

So here is a straight forward question - will a rental car (on this occassion in Italy) have the same cigartte-lighter-style connector?

Good question, to which I don't have the answer. :-) Let's ask the chatters. Anyone know?

USAA will issue customers a chip and PIN credit card...AFTER you've set up a travel alert on your account. It took a LOT of searching to find that information, but it worked! And the cards still have a magnetic strip on the back for use in the States.

Good to know, thanks.

My husband has wanted to visit Istanbul for many years and this summer we had the opportunity to take a Black Sea cruise that spent two days and one night in Istanbul. While Turkey has never appealed to me, I agreed to go on this trip because I figured there would be a lot more to the cruise than just Istanbul. Well, I was absolutely BLOWN AWAY by Istanbul. It was easy to get around, I loved all the sights we saw (especially the little-visited Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificient) and the food was delicious. Our ship cruised through Istanbul again (without stopping) as we exited the Black Sea and I was ready to jump ship just to spend more time in that magnificent city. Now, we're planning a longer trip to Turkey to include a lot more destinations there.

So wonderful to know because I have the highest expectations for Turkey and, in particular, Istanbul. Glad to know that I don't have to lower them.

Hi - I'm trying to plan a 10 day trip over Christmas for my husband and me. We loved our trip to Crete with a mix of active things, history, and relaxation but I don't know where would offer a similar mix in December. We have a lot of Starwood points so using them would be ideal but we're open to other options. Thanks for the ideas!

Have a look at the Starwood hotels interactive map. I mean, they have hotels all over the world, but if you want to use your points, it's a start. I was just playing around with it and somewhat randomly settled on Quito. Sounds like a fascinating place. Here's our story from this year.

I made reservations through CheapCarribean back in March. A month ago I called to get information on if I could cancel it. I was told I could cancel but would only get a credit for future travel. I called today to cancel and was just told that the hotel requires 14 days (we were scheduled to leave on Sept 28) advance to cancel. I was never told this when I called a month ago or I would've made sure I canceled in time. Now they are telling me I am out all that money ($3000!). Do you think I have any way of getting them to get my money back?

You might have a case if the terms were not adequately disclosed at the time of your purchase. I would start by sending a brief, polite email to the company, asking again for a refund under the terms as you understand them. If the answer is still "no" then please forward the correspondence to me, and I'll see if there's anything that can be done. Here's my email address.

Hi Travel gurus. I have a tough question and I am hoping you can help. My dad is turning 60 in January and the family wants to get together for a weekend celebration. People would be coming from NYC, Northern NJ, and DC (ages 30-61). We want to find somewhere that is not too far (hoping to avoid a plane) and, most importantly, will have stuff to keep us busy in January. We have already done Philadelphia, Baltimore, NYC, and DC for these type events. Boston was suggested but that means a plane, at least for some of us, same with Williamsburg/Richmond. Any ideas?

I vote for Cape May, NJ. It's a lovely town and they try to keep things going year-round. I've been there several times in February (we usually stay at the Congress Hall hotel) and it's been really nice. There's plenty open, you can take long walks along the ocean, have the town to yourselves, in a sense. Chatters, what do you think?

Growing up in the Texas panhandle, I didn't see the Gulf of Mexico until I was in my 20's. We went down to South Padre Island. I expected sand, beaches, quirky little bars and restaurants. What I saw looked like Dallas high-rises on the sand. I was glad that our actual trip was to see the Confederate Air Force, which was based in Harlingen at the time .

Interestingly, I'm headed down to that part of Texas next week. We'll have to compare notes. I will feel lucky if I can avoid a hurricane at this time of year.

How about Pittsburgh or Cleveland?

I have been to both those places, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. Especially Cleveland -- I am such a Cleveland partisan.

Hi, In mid October I'm going to be in Santa Rosa, CA for a long weekend for a family wedding. We've got a day to spend on our own (and a car) and I'm looking for suggestions other than winery tours (we'll have plenty of time for those). Anything have to do with nature (are the redwoods around there?) or maybe a cute little town to walk through. We're going to San Francisco later, so we'd like to stay in the general Santa Rosa area for the day. Thanks!

If you're looking for a fun town to visit, check out Healdsburg. It's just 20 minutes from Santa Rosa.

My wife and I went to Zihuatanejo, Mexico (of Shawshank Redemption fame) for our 20th anniversary. What a quaint, wonderful fishing town with terrific food and friendly people. On Sunday evenings, the entire town comes down to the village center and hangs out on the basketball courts. The men play dominoes, the women chat, and the teenagers flirt and run around. My wife and I just sat on the sidelines taking it all in for hours. We're going back in February for our 25th anniversary!

That sounds magical. And I love your anniversary tradition as well.

Not sure I'm responding to the destination expectations n the right place. But, if this is it, my answer is Kuwait. I was there last fall for a job interview. I researched ahead of time but the opinions differed. It turns out reviews and options differed depending on when the article was written or the person had traveled there. A lot changed n 2005 when women got he right to vote and students began traveling overseas. More western dress began appearing, general attitude of and towards women changed. Obviously things also changed during and after the invasion.

Your answer perfectly fits the topic. I just met someone else who had positive impressions of Kuwait.

It's on the edge of your time restraints but Charleston, SC is pretty nice at Christmas.


I was in Dubai a couple weeks ago, and while the city itself was exactly what I expected (over the top and blingy!) the people completely surprised me by how friendly they were! Tons of employees at the hotels/attractions just standing around waiting to help. And in general things were much less conservative than I expected - no need to have bought that tankini, women in barely-there bikinis were at every pool/beach, and the Burj Al-Arab didn't enforce the closed toed shoes policy - packed an extra pair for nothing! The Emirates First Class ground experience wasn't what I expected either, but that's another story... :/

Fascinating! My impression of Dubai involved prostitutes in the hotels (based on TripAdvisor reviews). Glad I can change that impression.

In England we had no trouble using our ATM cards for places that only took chip-and-pin cards, as long as it was within the daily limit. We did notify the bank ahead of time of our plans.

Another strategy worth considering.

Our rental car did (an Audi from the Avis outside of Venice)... but I have no idea how much that varies!

The "Strand"? Are you sure you were in Pittsburgh??? We have "The Strip" district, which is literally a strip of land just a few blocks wide along the Allegheny River, home to food wholesalers and retailers that offer both groceries and meals of many different national origins, as well as American. We have lots of museums, concerts from classical to jazz to rock, and yes, lots of Black and Gold pride in our Steelers, Penguins AND (hooray!) Pirates. So don't condemn our fair city over a crappy sandwich, please!

Point for Pittsburgh!

Not sure how far from DC but Hudson, NY in the Catskills is a gorgeous little town that has an Amtrak Station. Read about it in Travel & Leisure.

It is indeed gorgeous up there. I was in nearby Catskill and filed this report the other year.

I know you've been asked this a lot - but here goes again: Thinking of taking the family (with two boys, 11 and 8) to grand canyon in March (end, spring break). We would like to go to Phoenix because we have friends, there and drive up (maybe staying in sedona for a night). Best places to stay? we want to stay in the park. Things to do? I know NOT to do that 'walk out in the glass room' because I've read on here that that is a ripoff. but other things? We are kind of outdoorsy people, like to hike and stuff, so that would be good - but the kids are still young ish, so nothing say, 20 or more miles or like that. (we're flying from PDX if that makes a difference). THANKS!

 I would suggest any of the park lodges on the South Rim, especially El Tovar, though you will need to check the seasonal schedule. Some lodges close during winter. Here is more info.

For hikes, best to consult with the rangers at the visitors center, who can map out a route for you. The trip to the bottom is extremely challenging, and even the hike back up to the rim is steep. Little and big legs may tire easily.

Have you thought about flying to Savannah and renting a car? That is showing up for me at $250pp. Another thought would be doing a open jaw ticket and driving to Georgia. Those look to be $250pp as well.

Great ideas. Thanks!

A few years ago, we did a road trip through the South starting in Nashville. We stopped in Alabama, Georgia and on to Florida. While on the road, we stopped for lunch in Vidalia GA, home of the tasty onions. Little did we know that it was the day before the annual Vidalia Onion Festival. Beautiful, creative decorations using real and fake onions of every type, onion bouquets, fences painted with onions, even balloon onions. Even the water tower has onions on it! I don't know that I expected otherwise, but the people were exceptionally friendly and outgoing, and needless to say, proud of their produce! By the way, lunch was delicious!

What a fun place to stumble over.

Muir woods National Monument (Redwoods) and Point Reyes Natonal Seashore.

Ideas for the chatter attending the wedding in Santa Rosa.

The late Charles Schultz had the Redwood Empire ice arena built in Santa Rosa (west of US 101) when his boys were growing up, so they and the whole community would have a place for ice hockey leagues, figure skating and other skating activites. There are wonderful stained glass windows with "Peanuts' characters, a gift shop, a place to eat, or you can just watch for free if you don't skate or don't have time.

Neat, thanks.

We're considering a 10-14 day trip to Italy next fall and are hoping to do something outside the requisite Rome-Florence-Venice triangle that most first-time travelers seem to do. We would most certainly hit up Rome for a few days but beyond that the possibilities get a bit overwhelming! Any suggestions for more off-the-beaten-path locations to experience local culture and scenic countryside? P.S.- I did see your article about hiking the Amafi coast from a few months back and something like that might be fun (depending on weather of course). Thanks!

Check out the earlier posting by a chatter offering some off-the-beaten path suggestions for Italy. I recommend the Amalfi coast hike, definitely sounds doable and loads of fun. You would also probably love the Cinqueterre area, on the coast, and look into Maremma, another coastal area that's a bit different from the usual.

We were concerned about food, currency and languages in cities that didn't even use an alphabet we were familiar with. But Poland was the land from which my grandparents emigrated, where they'd lost their first born to starvation; and I was determined to dip at least a toe in its culture before I died. So this last spring, we went to Krakow (and Budapest, Prague and one city, Vienna, that used the Euro). Long story short, we were delighted on all counts. Food--like pierogies with strawberries (!) to die for; entire populations that broke into English as soon as they heard my husband struggle with 'hello' in their language; ATM machines that took our debit card; hospitality, kindness at every turn. Transportation from Budapest to Krakow was uncommonly challenging, so the hotel lined up a driver for us who had never been to Krakow (250 miles distant) and was clearly nervous. But customer service was also quite clearly the highest priority. Oh, to go back.

What an amazing experience that did the opposite of disappoint.

Could you all please please please please please please either allow submitters to insert line breaks that are actually line breaks, or break up the submissions into paragraphs before publishing them? I want to read the submission on the Paris trip, but the wall of text effect makes my eyes slide away.

To get a real line break like the one you want, you have to hit enter twice. We are so busy trying to answer all your questions that I don't think we can really go into submissions and insert line breaks, especially if we're not sure where the person would have wanted them. Sorry!

I have to agree with the poster about Pittsburgh. We did a family trip there about 9 years ago after hearing about the renaissance of Pittsburgh and the fabulous museums there. We had a great time. Fast forward two years from that trip and our son decides to go to college at the University of Pittsburgh. It was great having an excuse to make lots of trips to Pittsburgh--we always had a good time there. Now that he's graduated, I haven't been back. Looks like I need to remedy that soon!

Hollywood is a rundown, tacky, trashy mess. The Oscars theater is in a mall (they cover the storefronts with curtains for the show.) There isn't a decent movie museum. The Marilyn Monroe museum tries, but is amateurish.. For all the profits and fortunes generated by the movies, the lack of pride in place and its own history is really shameful. I'm a lifelong movie buff and not only will I never go back, I'll never look at movies the same way again.

Mount Rushmore. I finally went three years ago after spending my whole life assuming it was just some kitschy tourist trap that had defiled a mountainside. It was amazing! Not only are the sculptures themselves impressive works of art and engineering, but the entire site is beautifully laid out. Seeing the mountain from the various overlooks on the approach road -- it just peeks out here and there from miles away before disappearing again, each time a little bigger than before as you get closer. Seeing the faces up close, and how they set them off one another, and how the whole composition comes together . . . it was vastly more interesting than I was expecting.

Oshkosh, NOT Oshgosh. My hometown appreciates the kudos, but please spell it right!

Ohmygosh! Sorry about that.

My family took a trip earlier this summer to Lisbon. The four of us were amazed at how friendly the people were and how much there was to do in the city and its surrounding areas. We went as far as Sintra and Cascais and every day was fabulous. Although we tried to speak as much Portuguese as we could, it was very helpful that so many people spoke English -- a somewhat unexpected benefit -- and that those folks were so incredibly accommodating. I think that for my teenagers, this trip was definitely an eye-opener and has made them want to get out and see more of the world.

If you are going to the countryside, you need to experience a ryokan - a traditional inn, usually found in scenic areas. You will sleep on futon in a tatami matted room, and enjoy a communal bath, and be served a traditional breakfast. Get a good guidebook for recommendations.

We went to Islands of Adventure last year in September. The crowds were minimal (I think we went on a Monday), and we honestly flew through the park in half a day. Be prepared for crowds at Harry Potter World--not just in the lines, but around the whole area. That place was packed all day! I also suggest the Crowd Calendar from Undercover Tourist: It has a crowd guestimate on all the Universal and Disney parks. Have fun! :)

Bankof America BankAmericard Travel Rewards, in anticipation of a trip. Seemed to be priced well, but we bank with them

Have you checked out Kayak? I am seeing Thursday night through Tuesday trips for $375. You can probably get a better deal by searching. Airtran looks promising.

Sorry, don't have the answer for Italy. But in Belgium, yes. We used our Garman GPS in a Belgian rental to visit military sites in and around Ypres.

Great stops between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon: Sunset Volcano National Monument: Wupatki National Monument:

For the chatter looking for someplace other than Rome, Florence and Venice, check out Lucca - an amazing walled city just north of Pisa.

Thanks everyone for joining us.  Hope we helped with your travel planning.  Apologies for those questions we did not have time to answer, but please come back next week and post them again.

For today's winner: Hollywood! Poor thing, you deserve a prize for suffering through that trashy glitz. Please send me your address at

Have a great weekend and -end.

In This Chat
Zofia Smardz
Zofia Smardz is the deputy editor of Travel.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Becky Krystal
Becky Krystal is Travel's editorial aide.
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.
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