Talk about Travel

Sep 26, 2011

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. This week we headed south to the mountains of Peru and the coast of the Dominican Republic. Plus, one writer recounted how her shiny shirt flummoxed the TSA.

Greetings, Travel Earthlings.

Hope everyone had a great weekend.

Send us your questions, comments, hopes and dreams, and we will respond accordingly.

And for the question/topic of the day: frequent flier miles and programs. Do you find them delightful or cumbersome? Do you cash them in for trips or do you  end up with oodles of magazine subscriptions  (I am currently awaiting my US Weekly care of Delta.)

Best story wins a subscription to the Post --kidding! But you will get a prize.

howdy... we are going to be in massachusettes for three weeks in october,a week of that staying in boston itself.SO my question is to see the rest of the state should we drive each day and get a hotel in different towns or.. pick one or two places to stay then drive to what we want to see?Being from west coast of california it is hard to judge travel time back east.We want to see concord,berkshires and lowell and salem and plymouth.any advice...random or otherwise..thank you and even nantucket if we can manage.

You are definitely moving around the state a lot, so I would set up three home bases. One in Boston, the other down by the Cape (or Nantucket or the Vineyard, if you decide on an island sidetrip), and the last one in the Berkshires.  This way, you can spend more time touring vs. driving. From Boston, you can explore Salem, Concord, Revere, Marblehead, etc. From the Cape, you can visit the shore towns, plus the islands. And from the Berkshires, you can visit Stockbridge, Williamstown, Lee, etc. En route to the Cape, you might also want to detour in Providence, R.I., a great city with small town appeal.

Note: Because you are traveling during peak foliage season, be sure to book your lodging in advance.

I'm headed to Korea for business, near Seoul. What are the tipping customs in that part of the country?

According to the Bradt guide we used in our Tipsheet accompany the tipping roundtable, you tip 10 percent in restaurants and give 1,000 Korean won to hotel porters (per bag) and maids (per day). But since readers have pointed out some discrepancies between what the guide says about various countries and their personal experience of same, it might be best if we ask any chatters who've been to Korea for their input. Folks, let's hear from you.

Some friends and I are going to Richmond Thursday. We'd like to lunch at a nice place before we visit the Faberge Eggs show at the museum there. Any suggestions for this lunch?

Check out some ideas from this Postcard From Tom on Richmond restaurants. Our colleague in Weekend Amy Joyce also enjoyed her lunch at the in-museum restaurant, Amuse. That should be a decent start!

I'm hopeful you will be able to share tips regarding renting a car in Polokwane, South Africa, such as recommended companies, types of car, guidelines when crossing borders. Our travel plans at the end of November include driving through Botswana to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Kruger NP, and northern Limpopo Province. Thank you.

You have stumped the Travel Crew (at least this member). I have only taking escorted tours in Africa.

Chatsters, can you help?

Have any of you been to the Hard Rock at Punta Cana? It looks beautiful but its pricey and I can't seem to find out much information about it. Most of the reviews on Trip Advisor are glowing but from first time reviewers - not sure if you can rig the system. I'm trying to plan a special family vacation and I'm not sure I have found the right spot. How do you know?

I have stayed at Hard Rock properties in the States and always rocked out (in a good way). However, the experience will probably be different in Punta Cana, since service is often a bit slower in the Caribbean and the resorts more expansive and impersonal. If you have kids, they will probably enjoy this resort. You don't want anything too upscale that takes away from the family fun.

You might also consider Iberostar and Gran Bahia properties, which rank high among DR visitors.

Hi - I want to go to Costa Rica for a week this summer. How hard is it to rent a car and book my own hotels. Specifically, are the roads decent and well marked, or will I be in over my head. Weighing this option versus doing a gate 1 tour. Any advice would be welcome.

Booking hotels is easy enough. CR Tourism has an extensive directory that you can check against review sites, such as TripAdvisor. Driving depends on where you're going. If you're sticking to the tried-and-true, it should be fine, but if you're going into the interior or some less traveled area, may be a slog. 

Not the DR - but the Commonwealth of Dominica, airport is Melville Hall. I had been there in the 90's, and it was a 7 hr, one-stop flight via Miami. Now, it is 22 hours via Miami and San Juan! Any ideas on what's happened? Noto too many people would do a 22 hr marathon, at double the cost of the 90s. Thanks

Most airlines have contracted their service in recent years. If a destination isn't profitable, it's cut from the schedule. Dominica doesn't have an international airport, so most of the flights that land there are from other islands. It's possible to get there in much less time than you've found, but you'd need to ticket on two different airlines, and that's very costly. For example, you can get to San Juan on Continental in time to get a flight on American to Dominica, but it's a tight connection. 

While in the Berkshires, don't overlook Northampton! A fabulous town with great food and shopping. Also, Amherst is an incredibly cute college town as well. (I went to UMass and love the whole Western MA area - make time to enjoy it!)

Great point. Though just to clarify for our Californians, Northampton and Amherst are in the Pioneer Valley en route to the Berkshires.

My husband and I use our United Mileage Plus (soon to be Explorer) card for everything. So far, we have paid for at least 8 trips with miles. When your airfare if covered, you can spend more on where you stay and activities there. I also got bonus miles for signing up for a US Airways card and that got us one free RT trip for both of us. They are totally worth it.

Wow, eight trips. I am duly impressed.

I love FF miles. I am shocked that so many people think they are too much trouble. But I suppose it depends on how you use them. I use mine for business and first class trips to Asia. And for that they are soooo worth it. I flew first class last year from Washington to Bangkok and back on Lufthansa, Thai Airways and United. This year I am going again, first class on United and Thai and business class on Air Canada. I have miles in the bank for a trip next year on Cathay Pacific in first. And I'll still have enough for at least 2 more business or first class trips to Australia or Asia. Unless the airlines keep devaluing miles by requiring for miles for flights. But most of my miles have been "free" bonus miles obtained via credit card sign ups and usage for things I would be buying anyway.

You definitely know how to work it!

Hello! In a few weeks my husband and I plan to drive from Pittsburgh to the Tahquamenon Falls state park in the upper peninsula of Michigan. We're already planning an overnight stop to Toledo, and from there will likely follow Map Quest's advice and will spend much of the drive on I-75 through MI. Any ideas of fun places to stop along the way? Could be an afternoon stop or an overnight, but preferably not too far off the highway since we'll be in the car so much already. Thanks!

Not my part of the country, alas, so I don't have any advice. We did recently do this piece on Detroit that actually makes it sound interesting, but that's probably not what you have in mind. Surely there are some chatters from area who can offer some pointers. Guys, what to see and where to stop in Michigan?

Hi Travel Gurus, We have plans to travel to Athens at the end of October and are obviously following events in Greece with great interest. We know there's the possibility of protests, strikes, less than optimal public services, and the like, but we're still looking forward to the trip and figure that tourists will be especially welcome given the economy. Should we reconsider our plans? Is it too early to decide? If so, what would cause you to seriously rethink a Greek vacation this fall?

A good source of information is the US embassy site in Athens. Also, check out the State Department page on Greece. I don't see any warnings, but that could change if the situation deteriorates. I wrote a column about travel to Greece last summer, and the consensus was there's nothing to worry about -- at least not yet.

I am planning to travel to Guatemala next year and visit Antigua. I am interested in any recently published travel articles on where to go and what to do in Guatemala.

Here are the handful of stories we have run on Guatemala. But looking at the pub dates, we definitely need to go back!

I would suggest checking out Lonely Planet's travel forum, Thorn Tree, for advice, as well as the traditional guidebook for planning. And World Hum has some great pieces, though they might steer you away from certain places. (Example: Violence on Guatemala's Buses.)

If you want some great bbq, Buz and Neds is on Boulevard off of the I-95 exit. If you want something, go to Carytown (Cary Street off of I-195), which has restaurants of every type. The Musuem is basically at the end of Carytown. The Musuem itself has a nice lunch place that has won some accolades.

Tom Sietsema was not a fan of Buz and Ned's, but as we know, all such things boil down to taste! And, yes, Carytown would be a great neighborhood to check out.

We have a son in the Navy and a Southwest credit card that we use for everything. So far he's always been stationed in a Southwest city, twice in San Diego. We haven't paid for a flight from Columbus OH to San Diego ever. We love these frequent flyer perks!


The original poster -- "Specifically, are the roads decent and well marked, or will I be in over my head" -- begs the question. I've driven in Costa Rica to and from hotels that I booked myself, and yes you can do that easily. But no, the roads aren't well marked and many of them are less than decent. It's like driving around the backroads in a rural county somewhere. Perfectly safe, and people drive well, but the system clearly developed for people who know their way around and don't need to do things like name their streets. Be prepared for lots of "take a left at the big tree" or "it's just past the used car place."

Thanks for the insider advice.

Hello, I am going to Hawaii in April 2012 for an event, so the date is non-negotiable. I've read online that April begins the unofficial "off-season" in Hawaii, but the flights right now from WAS to KOA are running around $1100. Is this high or do you think the prices might go down? Thanks for taking my question!

Actually, April is right in the middle of Spring Break. This is the off-season in Hawaii, if I'm not mistaken. The fares sound a little high, but I'm told all of the airlines are looking to cut capacity and raise fares, so I wouldn't bet on fares coming down anytime soon. Then again, they might ...

In November I'll be traveling to Bangkok, via Tokyo on United to visit my new niece. I'm 6'7" and bought an economy plus seat but am wondering if there's anything I can do to ensure a bulkhead or exit row seat so I survive the 20+ hour flight. I think they reserve those seats for families with babies (bulkhead) but what about those of us who are unnaturally tall? This is my first international flight so I don't have any miles to cash in for business class. Any thoughts or suggestions are welcome.

You should call United and explain your situation. I don't believe the bulkheads are reserved for families with babies, but they do tend to go quickly, so your best bet is to act now and try to get one of them. Are you on a Boeing 777-200, I think? Check out Seat Guru's maps of the two international configurations of that plane, with subtle differences: configuration 1 and configuration 2. I'm not sure which one you're on, but look for the green seats indicating that there's more room, and call up United pronto.

Hi Travel gurus, My fiance and I are getting married next year and debating honeymoon destinations. Two places we are considering are C. America (most likely Costa Rica or SE Asia (most likely Vietnam). Do you have any thoughts on either regions/countries? We are looking for a mix of adventure/relaxation. Both Costa Rica and Vietnam seem to fill the bill in this respect- we love to hike, and want to end the trip somewhere on a beach (where we could potentilally scuba dive as well, but this isn't a requirement). Good food is a plus, we like to experience new cultures in general. On one hand, this would probably be our one oportunity to visit SE Asia in the forseeable future, but I'm nervous about the language barrier. However, neither of us are fluent in Spanish either (biut speak a little). Any thoughts? We would be going in either October or November if that makes a difference. Thanks!

Your mention of wanting good food causes me to cast a vote for Vietnam. I haven't been there, but that part of the world is at the very top of my list, hopefully in 2012, for the food alone. I think you could get around the language barrier by hiring a guide for a few key visits.

This is a pretty open-ended question - I will be in Miami Beach for a few days this fall and would love to hear from the Travel section and chatters about any can't-miss attractions, restaurants, etc. Thanks.

I'd check out the Design District, if I were you. Here's a story from 09 about it, complete with restaurant recommendations. (I second the vote for Michael's Genuine.) Otherwise, one of my other favorite places to eat is Sardinia Enoteca. And I think you'd be remiss to not check out the gorgeous Art Deco buildings, perhaps by taking a walking tour.

My family has decided to meet in Denver for Christmas this year. My niece and her family live in the area, but her place is quite small for a gathering, so I'd like to find a mountain cabin around the area where we could all hang out. I struck out with an online search last night. Would you have a suggestion about how to find this kind of lodging besides googling variations of "mountain cabin near Denver?"

I would check out the Colorado listings on VRBO to see if anything appeals to you. You can also search for vacation rentals, "retreats" and more on the Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau site.

I'm thinking of a 9 day trip to Costa Rica next year, probably March or later. What's the preferred time of year to travel there (less rain) and what would be a good airfare for that time from any of the WAS airports?

Answer somewhat depends on where you are going in CR, but March or April would be fine. After that, it gets rainier in many areas. But I went in rainy season, and never had full days of rain - just afternoon showers. Expect  to pay about $450 round trip, although sales will sometimes bring fare closer to $350. 

What National chains if any, offer your money back upon request? Hampton use to offer that deal, but I think they had too many takers.

This article from Budget Travel should have the answer for you.

Going to Austin- what are the don't miss attractions & restaurants?

Not sure when you're going, but:

1. Soak up the weirdness.

2. Take a dip in Barton Springs.

3. Hear some music: go to Antone's, or the Continental Club, or find something here.

4. See the bats.

5. Eat some world-class barbecue.

6. Eat some world-class non-barbecue.

7. Eat some world-class interior Mexican food out of a truck.

My favorite restaurant in the world is Barton G's. It is a little pricey (but not break the bank), but the presentation and food is definitely worth it. I also love getting drinks at some of the swankier hotels. Delano is my favorite.

Traveling to Moscow in a few weeks and have been reading in guidebooks that harassment from police is still a problem, esp. in touristy areas like Red Square. Wondering if the Flight Crew (or other chatters) have run into this, and if so, what the best course of action is to combat it. Thanks!

Unfortunately no firsthand experience to share on this. Chatters? Anybody been to Moscow lately?

If it's not too far out of the way for the drivers from Pittsburgh, Traverse City is a nice town.

Re tipping: I was surprised to learn that I am supposed to be tipping hotel maids. As a non-expense account traveler, I tend to stay at mid-level chain motels, and I have never seen a tip envelope in a room. Is leaving cash in the room a custom only at luxury establishments, or have I been stiffing the housekeepers at Hampton Inns and La Quintas across the country? Should the amount left be calculated as a percentage of the room rate, or do you recommend the same amount everywhere? I would be interested in a story where you go out and actually ask hotel maids from a range of places how many travelers tip them and how much they leave (you'll have to guarantee anonymity, and chances are they'll underplay it anyway, but you could still get some useful information).

Tipping housekeeping is now standard practice, regardless of the level of luxury. (Well, if you are staying in a dingy, half-star place, I might flee before housekeeping even has a chance to come change the towels). Unlike restaurants, the tip is about $1 or $2 a day, no matter the room rate. However, if your housekeeper is exceptional, like she gives you extra bottles of Kiehls shampoo, you might want to give a bit more. If you don't see a envelope, grab one from the front desk and address it to the staff, so they know that you did not leave it unintentionally.

(If you are on a budget, avoid places that require a tip, such as a hostel or rental.)

We love your story idea. In fact, it'd be interesting to do a weekend of housekeeping ourselves, to really understand what goes into the job.

Hi Gurus! Am off on my first European trip in several years (to paris), and I'm just wondering about the best ways to get the best deals on currency exchanges - how much hard cash should I take with me, do I need to do anything special to make sure my debit card works in Paris, can I get cash out of Parisian ATMs, will my AMEX and Visa cards work OK in most shops/restaurants, etc. Is there a definitive guide or Web site you can point me towards to answer these questions? Thanks!

I've just been to Europe myself, including Paris, so I can vouch that you should have no trouble using your debit card in Parisian ATMs. This is in fact the best way to go to get cash, the fees are much lower than if you try to convert at a currency exchange. If you have a Capital One Visa or Mastercard, use that; there are no conversion fees, although you should call the company to tell them you'll be traveling, to avoid the possibility that your card may be refused. Ditto for your debit card, just to let them know it's you and not an identity thief. I used my Capital One all over Florence and Paris and had no problem whatsoever. Amex charges high fees; I'd put that card away for the duration, or use it only in an emergency. All shops, restaurants, museums, public transportation, etc., take credit cards. You'll find you don't need that much cash; mostly you'll want it for tipping or for small purchases, and possibly taxis, if you take any. And there are ATMs all over. If you want some cash on hand upon arrival, I'd buy maybe $50 worth of euros and then get all the rest of my cash from ATMs once in Paris.

I used to travel a lot. My best year I was Gold on Northwest/Delta and platinum on American. Then I moved and quit traveling as much. Now I'm down to just silver on Delta, and I don't see any value for attaining elite status (at least the lowest level status). I no longer qualify for the elite TSA line, haven't received any upgrades. The only thing I get is to check a bag for free, and honestly, even if I started paying to check my luggage, it wouldn't cost near as much as it costs me to actually make elite status. Oh and I get to choose a "premium" seat. I'm no longer loyal to one airline, and next year, I think I'm going to loose all status. And because I'm trying to reach status, I've got 100,000s of miles that I've never used b/c if I used them, I wouldn't be paying for a ticket and earning those miles to reach elite status. Next year, my tickets may be frequent flier tickets.

Burn those frequent flier miles and when you're done, cut up your card. Take it from this frequent flier skeptic, it's just not worth playing the game.

Bought 4 tickets to Hawaii in July before I found out I was pregnant. Traveling in November. My doctor just recommended I didnt travel due to long flight (ie. deep vein thrombosis, etc). We purchased the insurance through United. Is that a good enough reason to receive a full refund?

Doctor's orders sounds as if it is good enough, but don't know what type of insurance you purchased. The policy's fine print should reveal all. 

My husband and I love to travel together, but have had our adventures put on hold since we had twin boys a few months ago. We are excited to start showing them the world in a few years, when they are better prepared to join us. Some thoughts have occurred to me though: They will have bed times far earlier than ours. The thought of sitting in a tiny hotel room in the dark by 9 PM seems depressing. I have heard of other couples leaving their children locked in the hotel room while they go to the hotel lobby or bar. (I also remember the unfortunate case of the little girl who was kidnapped in such a situation). Do people commonly do this? Is it safe? Is it legal? (Maybe leave a monitor on?) Also, at what age have you chosen to have a separate room for your little ones?I feel like with suites hotels, the adjoining room option is now less common - is it? If adjoining rooms aren't available, how old do you think kids should be before they get their own hotel room? Just curious how others handle these issues... (No, we can't afford to bring a nanny or other family members to babysit. Sigh.). Thanks!!

I have three kids and we've been traveling with them since they were only a few weeks old. I wouldn't leave the kids alone, ever. Once they're out of the crib, your twins will be getting into everything ... nothing will be safe from their little fingers, including (but not limited to) toilets, electic sockets and expensive ceramics. Believe me. I've learned this the hard way. Regarding two rooms versus one -- when we had our third, we moved up to two rooms. It was too crowded. Make sure they're adjoining rooms. I think a good age to move them into another room is when they move from a crib to a bed, and they can stay on a hotel bed without falling off. (So age two to three, give or take.)

Hello, Do you any recomendations on tour groups for travel to europe. I am thinking of traveling to London and Paris next year. Thanks.

Dozens of reputable tour operators offer an itinerary that includes London and Paris. Start by looking at the United States Tour Operators Association Web site. For example, Collette Vacations has a London/Paris tour. 

Anyone have any experience with them?

I've not been on one of their trips, but they have a good rep as a discount tour operator. They have an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. 

I love you guys and think you give great travel advice. And thanks for taking the time for these chats. But I ask for a favor: please stop giving medical advice! On multiple occasions, you have suggested that chatters use melatonin for jet lag. Melatonin is a hormone. Would you recommend that people use human growth hormone or insulin? I know that melatonin is available over-the-counter (as is insulin, usually), but that does not mean it is without risks. You also sometimes suggest ambien, but at least that requires a prescription so a chatter would have an interaction with a medical professional before taking that.

I take your point about the medical advice thing, but your analogy is faulty, because melatonin is available over the counter, unlike HGH or insulin. I'll go ahead and remind chatters who may not have realized it that, indeed, we're not doctors. All I can say is that melatonin has helped with my jet lag. I follow the recommended dosage and the warning that it shouldn't be taken long-term. If any chatters have concerns about it, they should take it up with their medical professional, of course.

Let me clarify: I guess some forms of HGH and insulin may be available over the counter, but melatonin still strikes me as a little different here. Again, your point is valid about medical advice generally, but I'm not the first person to recommend melatonin for jet lag.

Do you have any recommendations for a B&B or nice inn within a few hours drive for a nice couple of days off over the winter that also has or is really close to cross country sking. We will have a couple of days off around the holidays. Thanks for any suggestions.

I've stayed at two in Maryland that come to mind: Lake Pointe Inn of Deep Creek Lake (ski at Wisp) and Savage River Lodge (ski right there in the middle of the forest).

Good Morning! I'm heading off to Vegas in 2 weeks for the first time. We'll be there for 4 days. Not really a gambler - what are some must sees, must dos?

I've been to Vegas a couple of times in the last year and am not much of a gambler either. But I still managed to have a good time. You should get on a casino floor just for the experience, but you don't have to spend too much time there. There is plenty to see and do there, and in recent years, the food choices in Vegas have gotten so much better. Our food critic Tom Sietsema earlier this year had a couple of recommendations for restaurants. It follows up on another piece he did out of Vegas last year.  Beyond food, there are tons of entertainment options. Concerts headlined by big-name stars like Celine Dion, magic shows, Cirque de Soleil shows, plays, you name it. You can find a list of them here. A couple new casinos worth checking out are the Cosmopolitan and the City Center for their shopping, dining, drinking, entertainment venues and general people-watching. There's also the interesting new Las Vegas Mob Experience museum. Hope this helps!

You forgot the LBJ Library.

That's a good one, sure. Not on my personal must-see list, but still.

I had a fleeting thought of Ireland... a week in the irish countryside, bed and breakfasts... etc. Seeing the locals. I literally can't find a travel agent in Portland, Oregon.. they seem to not exist. There are multiple agencies online that book these kinds of vacations, but of course since I read your column, I'm highly skeptical and concerned about getting screwed. Any suggestions? Reputable agencies or perhaps an online travel agent?

You can safely book with a travel agent based elsewhere in the country. Promise. For example,  CIE Tours, Affordable Tours and Sceptre Tours are very reputable. Tourism Ireland also has some good package ideas, as does Aer Lingus.

Lots of griping lately about baggage fees and I've managed to avoid them now for most of the time they've been enforced. How? I fly Southwest, or I fly Delta, which my SO and I are frequent flyers. So folks, quitcherbellyaching and join a frequent flyer program, or fly Southwest. No more baggage fees. And I'm a hardliner -- wheeled carryon baggage should be charged $50 a bag.

Fair point. I'm definitely a frequent Southwester for those free bags.

My husband and I flew back and forth to his home country numerous times, but never acquired enough points to pay for our flights. However, my husband has been able to pool our points (along with our kids' points) and has paid for his father to fly overseas several times. I'm happy our points were actually usable, even if it wasn't for us!

That is a wonderful use of points.

Has anyone flown Turkish Airlines? Is it nice? I am not the best flier ...

I've flown Turkish Air from NY to Istanbul, and between Mideast cities, and I plan to fly it next month from DC to Istanbul. So, long story short, I like it. The service is good, the food isn't bad, and on my transatlantic flights, I had my own TV on the seatback in front of me in economy class. It's a long haul from the U.S., so not an easy flight. But I had no problems with Turkish Air. I hope that doesn't change when I fly it next month! The fares from DC to Istanbul have been really cheap lately, definitely worth the price.

We're going to be stopping in San Juan on a cruise this fall. Do you have any suggestions on what to see and where to eat/drink in Old San Juan?

I asked a friend who goes to OSJ pretty much every year, and loves the food/drink there, so for that part of your question here says:

Baru   -  excellent, sort of Spanish/continental.  wonderful seafood risotto and tiny lamb chops with pineapple salsa.  Lovely wines. 
Pamela's -- rational Puerto Rican food on the ocean.  Very good.
The bar upstairs at El Convento Hotel for very nice tapas and drinks.  And good for lunch. 

I have not been to Costa Rica, but I think Vietnam could be a fine honeymoon destination. For diving/beach though make sure to check when you plan to go against the climate charts. Those monsoons hit pretty hard. I was in central Vietnam a couple of years ago in November which is the rainy season for that particular part of the country. One day in Hoi An was a complete washout. The language thing could be an issue. I had a guide with me most of the time which really helped a lot to smooth out those problems. They may also want to consider Thailand. More English spoken there, great food, and a better developed tourism infrastructure. Plenty of opportunities for hiking and such in certain areas. And plenty of beaches and dive destinations. And the culture is just as interesting as Vietnam. Although you have to get out of Bangkok or Phuket to find the "real" Thailand. But I love Bangkok and its chaos anyway.


I worked as a maid in a Cape Cod motel once. I definitely always leave a few bucks for housekeeping since then! If there's no envelope, I take a sheet of notepaper (there is almost always a notepad) and wrap it around the money and write THANKS! on it so they know it's not left behind accidentally. You can't imagine how excited you are to get an extra $3 after wiping up sticky dried apple juice spills or picking up a damp heap of towels.

Thanks for the real-life anecdote. It's great to hear from the other side.

First off, bags fly free. Learn to pack smart and you won't even pay an overage fee. Second, there is NO WAY my husband and I could have gone to Europe for our 10th wedding anniversary last June if it weren't for FF miles. It may have taken us ten years to save up for them, but it was totally worth it. And even after cashing them in, we still have over 20,000 miles apiece. We've started planning our next European vacation in about five years (in late winter).

Nice, nice and nice.

Go to Wolf Hollow in Ipswich! It's a wonderful wolf preserve. My partner surprised me with a trip to Wolf Hollow on our last Boston trip, and I loved it!

Who knew?!!?!?

I loved the Southwest Air program until earlier this year, when they changed t hings dramatically, supposedly for the better, but to my way of thinking they totally screwed things up. I no longer have any idea how to earn points and how to redeem them, so i've pretty much quit trying.

I hear ya. I accumulated a bunch of credits in the old program, some of which are going to expire soon. So I'm straddling this line between old and new, which is more than a little confusing. We'll see where I end up!

The following site lists cabins in every state. It's a pretty low-frills site but I've found a few different cabins in VA that I've been happy with:


I made a bucket list of sorts to accomplish before my 30th birthday and one of the items is rafting. Obviously this is somewhat weather dependant and I can't put this off too much longer. Do you have any specific companies to recommend within 3 hours driving distance of DC? Thanks!

We just had a story that talks about rafting on the James River in Richmond with Riverside Outfitters. There are some good companies in the Shenandoah, too, but I'm not a rafter so not coming up with the names. Chatter, sure you guys know who they are?

Hi there, My girlfriend and I are headed to Australia for about ten days over the holidays to attend a friend's wedding there (bride and groom are Australian and live in Sydney, so it's not a destination wedding, per se). The wedding is on Dec. 28 in Sydney, and we're looking for a couple of 2-3 day trips on either side of that date. We were thinking Great Barrier Reef (Cairns), but apparently it's extremely unpleasant there at that time of year. Any ideas? We're open to air or rail travel, but really don't want to have to drive, if possible. Thanks!

Chatters, need your expertise on Australia, too!

We're thinking about taking the family (4 kids ages 6 to 12) to NYC for a few days between Christmas and New Year's. What are some of the can't miss sights that the kids would enjoy? I also vaguely recall that in the past you have recommended staying in a hotel outside the city and taking the train in. Can you provide some details? Thanks!!!

No matter where you stay in the area, prices will be high, due to the holiday season. But consider staying in Brooklyn or Jersey. The W Hoboken is great and very close to the train station. (Here is my review.) The Hyatt Regency is also nice, with amazing view of the Hudson.

Book well in advance.


As for kid activities, all I can say is walk and look and be amazed. I love the ice skating in Central Park (Rockefeller Plaza is too nutty) and checking out the department store windows all dressed for the holidays. Check NYC and Company and Time Out NYC for holiday events.

Until they are 18 or 21 or thereabouts, most places won't let your kids have their own room. You need to have an adult in the room with them. That's just the way it is. And nobody should leave very young children alone in a hotel room, monitor or no. Fires and other emergencies happen.

The only reason I enrolled in them is because I do quite a bit of cross country travel living on the west coast and family and friends on the east coast. Most programs it's 25000 miles means a free flight so that is about 5 trips for me and I earn enough for a free trip. I make about five cross country trips just to see family. I may make one for work. I use it because it's there. When I purchase tickets I don't go buy flights just for the airline and frequent flyer miles..I look at price and costs for baggage and flight length. The only time I would use frequent flyer miles for other things would be if I felt I rarely fly that airline so this will go to no use. What I am surprised airlines haven't done is allow passengers to use miles for free check bags.

I was excited when Southwest bought AirTran b/c of the ability to get flights out of National, but it's been a long time now - is this still going to happen eventually?

It is. You can read this FAQ item on the AirTrain site. Bottom line is it will probably not be until some time next year. Doesn't sound like they're commiting to anything firm yet.

I like the Southwest policy, but they aren't always the cheapest carrier, even taking the policy into consideration, so, like most people I fly based on price.

True enough. That's especially the case as you start to get closer to a specific departure date.

I've done really, really well with miles...visiting Europe (4 times), Australia, California and the Canadian Rockies all on miles, plus various other trips around the US. While there have been a couple of times I couldn't get a ticket with miles, usually around the holidays, I've been mostly successful. Note I am a solo traveler...were I looking for 2 tickets or more, it would be harder. I can often be flexible about dates, and am willing to fly mid-week. Sometimes I've been forced into some weird itineraries....3 legs of a trip to get from Boston to Calgary, Canada, flying out well before dawn, but for FREE it was worth it. I've booked mileage trips with several months notice, and at the last minute. All in all, for me it's been a great way to travel.

I need to get tips from you!

If you can arrange all of your travel on a single airline (including their international partners), it's worth it. I opened an affiliated credit card to get United miles, which enabled me to upgrade my transPacific flight on Air New Zealand in 2010 to business class (with seats that fold flat into beds!) With that trip, plus some other 2010 travel, I earned Premier status for 2011, allowing me two free checked bags, priority boarding, free exit row seating and free upgrades if available on United, Continental, and US Airways (I had no international travel plans this year, alas). It'll be a let down next year when I go back to being a "regular" person.

I would LOVE to use my United miles, but it's just getting too difficult. A few years ago I flew myself and friends first class to Vegas (best use of miles ever), but now it's nearly impossible to find the flights I want, especially international, unless I'm booking 6+ months in advance, which my job doesn't allow me to do. I'm sure United won't lose a lot of Mileage Plus members, but I'm definitely planning on stopping my Mileage Plus credit card. Not worth it.

I am United member as well and feel your pain.

The poster titled their question car rental in South Africa, but they seem to be asking for a comprehensive guide to 3 countries. I'd suggest a good guide book to start, such as that published by Lonely Planet (may have to get the all-Africa book or buy more than one individual guide). I did drive from Maputo to Johannesburg to Victoria Falls and back in 1999 when I was working in the Maputo, but it was my own car. Have to drive on the left, of course, and be ready for potholes, etc. (we had no major problems). Poster doesn't say why they want to drive this long route, but I'd suggest at least consider flying, even if they want to travel on their own (btw, Vic Falls has two sides, Zimbabwe and Zambia so poster should decide which one).


I currently live in DC, but as a Tulane grad, I try to return to New Orleans every couple years for a visit "home", with a trip upcoming in November. Since my frame of reference is from well over a decade ago, I'm afraid my activity options might be a little rusty. Any new excursions/attractions/restaurants in the Big Easy that've gotten on the Flight Crew's radar lately?

Here's what Tom Sietsema said about restaurants there after he visited in May.

I've got some other ideas for breakfasts and drinking spots.

Here's an exploration of locations inspired by "Treme."

And if you're a history buff, have you seen the expanded WW II Museum?

I love the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Great theater. Lovely walkable town. A few fun shops skattered among the grandma clothes emporia. Great, independent book stores Peddle boats and kayaks on the river. Irate swans who will steal your sandwich if you aren't careful. Wide range of restaurants. Awsome chocolate/candy stores. But the trip is long and my car is 14 years old and is not fun to drive. Enter Aeroplan, AirCanada's reward miles program. They consider DC to the London, Ontatio airport to be a "short trip." That means that it is only 15,000 miles for a round trip ticket though the international taxes and fees mean I pay about $150 for the trip. No fee for up to two checked bags. You can direct miles/points from several US carriers and hotels to the program and they take American Express transfer points one to one, even with the increase in the CA$. The first time I figured this out, I joined the program and reserved my seat on the phone. Transferred the miles on-line while still on the phone and the person helping me was able to see the transfer 30 seconds later and confirm the seat. All of this less than two weeks before the trip.

It isn't a frequent flier program, but I recommend Amtrak's rewards program to people who travel a lot by train. If you have their credit card your points don't expire. And you can buy tickets for other people with your points. My one complaint is the black-out dates are pretty extensive, and even include things like the Monday after Thanksgiving. But I've had 4 R/Ts to New York free so far this year, and plan to do at least 2 more (maybe 3 if I can get around the Christmas/New Year's blackouts).

I just used points to get a ticket from New York this weekend. I do find the points pretty easy to use, except for the blackout dates. But I was able to reserve a seat for a Sunday train the night before and even changed my departure time at the last minute, no problem. I just realized this weekend that I've racked up more than 40,000 points. So I too have plenty of trips to New York that I can take this year! On another note, I was just talking to friends about how expensive the train is to and from New York. But they pointed out that you can get $49 one-way tickets if you reserve weeks ahead of time. If worse comes to worse, you can change your reservation very easily.

There are a ton of great outfitters in Shepherdstown, it is gorgeous up there, and you can buy apples at farm stands.

Terrific, thanks!

We have most of ours locked up in an Amex. Unfortunately, it's through Delta, which doesn't have a hub in our city (Philly) but it's a legacy from a prior job. We used ours ten years ago to take a trip to the Czech Republic, a joyous by-product of which was our first son (nine months later). Today, I booked our second FF trip, or at least held the itinary, for the first international trip for said son and his younger brother this coming summer. I'd call it a life-enriching product, to say the least.

this is the one for WVA

Got it, thanks!

I am bad at miles. I travel with some frequency for pleasure (probably 5-6 round trips a year), but I'm by no means a power user. So when I'm actually booking a flight it usually seems more important to get the best price and schedule for that particular flight than to maximize miles. The result being handfuls of miles on a variety of airlines. My husband and I do have a mileage credit card, but we need to reevaluate it. Delta miles were very convenient when we lived in the DC area but are far less useful now. Should I be trying harder?

My philosphy is:  Don't be a slave to miles. Get the best flight and one day, a free trip will hopefully fall into your lap.

We drove from San Jose to Arenal easilly the trip from Arenal to the coastt was a little dicey. Pot holes roads not marked well but absolutely great fun. Rent a jeep or other four wheel drive, get a really good map and compass and drive it is the best way to see the countryside. People were wonderful and helpful when we were lost even when they spoke almost no english and I spoke no Spanish. You have to have someone who likes driving and with a litte sense of adventure.

Yes, sense of adventure and humor is necessary. And patience. Roads get washed out, which sometimes means long detours. But I also loved the people. Very easygoing and friendly. 

Thanks to the Flight Crew for the fantastic book they promptly mailed to me for winning the chat prize a week or two ago!

You're welcome!

My girlfriends and I are planning to travel to San Francisco next July. Right now, it seems that flights are running around $500. My friends think the price will come down signficantly. I think $500 is what we should expect to pay. Please tell me they're wrong!

I would hold out for a lower fare. There is lots of competition to that area, which means frequent sales. Flexibility could result in much lower fares. Look at alternative airports -- think Oakland on that end and BWI here. And nonstops often cost more than connecting flights, but I would pay up not to connect.

Instead of gate 1 consider the local company costa rican trails. They have very reasonably priced packages, including drive yourself or packages with transportation in private vans. They were very helpful to us in arranging a trip with exaclty what we wanted....

Costa Rican Trails has been in business for about 15 years with a BBB A+ rating. Visit Costa Rica has a list of other tour operators. 

I am researching an international vacation over the Christmas holidays and want to try and get a deal by booking airline tickets and hotel all in one (destination is still up in the air). I have found interesting things on Friendly Planet and Gate 1 Travel. Any others that are worth looking into?

Take a look at the United States Tour Operators Association Web site. 

I agree with Tom Sietsema (and respectfully disagree with the poster), Buz & Ned's is not good barbecue. At all. Carytown is nice if you want to wander and shop and get a little something to eat but nothing too special. If you want a lunchtime treat and a little history with that, head over to the Jefferson Hotel. They have a bistro called TJ's that is wonderful.

More for the Richmond traveler.

My husband and I (plus grandparents) are going to Univseral Orlando in a few weeks. My 11 month old will be coming. I know there is not much activity wise for her to do. She will enjoy watching everyone and everything. I am curious though, has anyone been with a child that age and is there something that they did really enjoy. Also we will be going out to dinner one night for our anniversary (just the two of us), any advice on the best restaurant whithin the Universal area for dinner. Thanks.

There's not that much for an 11-month-old at Universal Orlando, unfortunately. There are play areas at the parks that can be used by toddlers, but it's basically a theme park for tweens, teens and young adults. I had an annual pass to Universal for several years, and have been to the parks with an 11-month-old many times. We liked the Cat in the Hat ride at Islands of Adventure.

See if Frankenmuth "Little Bavaria' is your kind of place. About 4 hours from Toledo. Great selection of hotels, restaurants, shops and very walkable. Or, a little north of there, Bay City. Good downtown for lunch, pubs, historic lumber baron homes, some of which are B&Bs. Recommended as overnight stop, also. You might consider deviating off I-75 north of Saginaw and driving along the Sunrise Coast (M13/M23) through Tawas, Oscoda, and Alpena. All would be good places, especially if nature, lighthouse (Tawas Point) shipwreck museum (Alpena) interest you.

Thanks! If the chatter's interested, here's a story we had the other year on Frankenmuth. It did seem charming.

Chatter, keep in mind that you will have to drive from Denver to a mountain cabin. If it's snowy, which is not at all outside the realm of possibility, the drive could be treacherous. And the trek along I-70 can be clogged with ski traffic Just something to consider. That said, when looking at VRBO and Homeaway, I would look in the Frasier/Grand Lake or Frisco/Dillon/Silverthorne areas. These would be within a couple hours of (normal) driving from Denver and should have a lot of second homes up for rent. The further away you get from the ski resorts, the cheaper they'll be too.

Good advice. I was out in the Frisco/Dillon area a while ago. It is beautiful.

Hello! I hope to spend a day or two traveling either up or down the Eastern Shore (Delmarva Pennisula) this winter. Can you recommend any motels or B&Bs that are $100 or less a night, either in the north near Chincoteague or the south near Norfolk? Thanks!

Sounds as if you want to travel the Virginia Eastern Shore. Chincoteague has many B&Bs at different price points. Also, instead of Norfolk, consider Cape Charles. I loved staying at the Cape Charles House B&B. 

We also considered Vietnam for our honeymoon but were warned by a couple of people that it can be rather chaotic and that there are a lot of vendors, taxi drivers, etc. hawking their goods and services to the point that it can become overwhelming. Just something to consider, although this was a few years ago so maybe it's settled down somewhat. Since we were looking for something a bit more relaxing, we decided against it, but in some ways I wish we had done Vietnam anyway because with a kid in tow, it's unlikely we'd get there now!


Thanks for the frequent flyer skeptic article. (It helps me feel good that, despite many overseas flights during college and grad school, I never got a frequent flier card or what not.) I just shopped around for the cheapest flights and that seemed to work! (Unfortunately, flights to and from Europe seemed to have gotten much more expensive in the few years since.) I did benefit from quite a few vouchers from volunteering to take later flights, however. In any case, it's good to hear an expert speaking against the idea that you need to spend money to earn money, whether it's on flights or life in general.

Thanks. Glad you liked the story!

We have a U.S. Airways credit card, and probably get about one round trip ticket per year from the miles we accrue on it. Plus, once a year they send a voucher for a $99 round trip companion fare ticket to anywhere in the U.S. if you purchase a regular price ticket. Not a bad deal - we use the card to buy stuff we need to purchase anyway, and pay the balance off every month.

"Pamela's -- rational Puerto Rican food on the ocean. Very good." What does rational food mean? Traditional, maybe?

Yes, my friend typed too fast, and I skipped over that. Traditional, indeed.

Actually it's not just Capital One whose cards do not charge foreign transactions fees. More and more of Chase's cards are offering this as well. For example the Chase British Airways Visa card does not charge fees. I think the new Explorer" cards they offer also do not charge foreign transaction fees. Definitely worth finding out before you go. Also, put your money in a bank with low or no ATM fees to save money that was. Bank of America charges huge fees at foreign ATMs, but TD Bank charges no ATM fees and reimburse you for the fees charged by the ATM owner as long as you have the right account. I opened an account there specifically to avoid fees when I travel.

Good to know, thanks!

May I suggest Sabah, Borneo? Climb Mt. Kinabalu, some decent beaches near Kota Kinabalu, orangutans in Sandakan, and diving in Sipadan? Plus, you're in Malaysia which has some of the best food in the world.


They are only open between Labor Day and Memorial Day according to their site. I've been running into this alot...anyone know of something that still has trips in October?

You have already done a story on this a few years back! I remember reading it with interest, and changning my tipping habits as a result (increased the amount I leave to $4/day!). One of the guys who writes for the travel section actually did it all, from Bell Hop to Housekeeping - it was a story that stuck with me!

Yes, Gary did it. But I think the landscape has a changed a bit since we ran that story. (Good memory!)

Please do that story, and then report back if you really think $1-2/day tip is sufficient. Even for a mid-level hotel, if you can afford the $60/night, you can afford an extra $5/night at least for the tip. Even if you can get down to $40/night for lodging, don't stiff the housestaff. Stay someplace cheaper if you must, or as you say at a hostel.

I always tip $5 a day -- unless the service is really spotty -- regardless of quality of hotel chain. And I always say good morning to the housekeeping staff I see in the halls. It's not a great job and I'm sure doesn't pay well. At Sen. Kennedy's funeral, his son told the story of trying to tell his father that he'd left money on the hotel bureau. His father explained the money was for the maid: "Making beds all day is back-breaking work." That struck a chord with me and have been even more attentive to housekeeping.

My husband travels a lot and is loyal to Usairways and the star alliance. We've used miles for two tickets to Greece and three tickets to St. John at Thanksgiving!

In February, we used ours for two roundtrip tickets to from Sacramento to London, plus three nights in a lovely hotel (with full English breakfast!) across from Lancaster Gate.

For east coast to Hawaii always look at booking separate trips from east to wat coast then west coast to Hawaii. You could save money especially if the light you are looking is a direct light from east coast or central hubs. Hawaii off season is actually January through early February where you can fnd deals. Another off season is around may...after spring break and before summer...and September after summer but before holiday season.

Somebody had a query on Botswana a few weeks ago. Deliberate government policy to keep it a high end, expensive destination. Many of the places that make it special require specialized transport (small planes). Air Botswana has a monopoly on flights from South Africa to the capital Gaborone and prices reflect this. Check out Trip Advisor for Botswana, South Africa and Namibia as many tour operators post online there and deal with very specific questions. Recent series of excellent trip reports include costs, best time of year to go, vaccination requirements, regions with malaria and so on. Most organized tours combine South Africa with Botswana and/or Namibia. Even Americans used to long distances between places completely underestimate the standard of the roads, distances and the time it takes getting from A to B in Africa, southern Africa included. I would use experienced tour operator for Botswana. Lots to consider, including things you might not think to consider!!

Thanks for the input. Much appreciated.

Just returned from a long weekend in the Big Apple, staying at a 4-star hotel (Sofitel New York). Left several dollars every day for the maid(s), since you may not have the same person cleaning your room every day. Had several thank you notes left for us...I'm sure they appreciated the cash and it certainly isn't a budget breaker for most guests.

You have inspired us all.

I do nto agree with your advice to the Paris traveller that there are no issues using credit cards in Europe. As was discussed in a chat a month or two ago, American credit cards usually lack a chip that most European cards have, so you may have some trouble using them especially in machines. I could not use mine in the train station machines. Just be prepared for that.

All I can say is that I had absolutely no problem. I didn't use my credit card in very many machines, it's true, but buying RER tickets in the train station machine, I personally had no difficulty.

I have gotten two rounds of magazine subscriptions from Delta, and I was very happy with them (I can't afford the Wall Street Journal otherwise). I used to use my Continental miles for flights, but they never seem to add up to enough any more. Now I use my Capital One card's miles because I can use them for any flight I want. Their minimums went up within the last couple of years (instead of 25,000 points for a ticket, it is now something like 60,000), but I think most companies that offer points or miles have increased their minimums.

Yes. Leave something for the maid. I know that none of the chatters are messy, but my one summer of hotel housekeeping *in a high end establishment* was QUITE eye-opening into just how piggy people can be. And by "piggy" I mean downright disgusting. Your $2-3 really helps to folks who aren't being paid much at all to do a lot of hard work in a very quick timeframe.

Elton John returns for an in-house engagement at Caesars. If you can get tickets, run, do not walk. No one does it better in a better Vegas venue that the Colosseum.

Help - trying to find a new place for a winter vacation. Husband and I have gone to adults only, all inclusive in Mexico for the past several years and want to try something new. Like the all inclusive format, but was hoping for a place with a fab beach and the opportunity to go off the resort if we wanted to.

I liked Barbados when I went a while ago. Beautiful beaches. Honduras has some wonderful beaches, and cheap private islands. Andrea had a great time getting out of the resorts in Jamaica. And one of my personal favorite beach/historical sites/quaint city vacations is Cartagena, Colombia.

How'd you like last night's debut of the TV series "Pan Am"? Oh, for the days of dressing up for flights, spacious seats, and attentive service...

Shoot I missed it! Will have to look for it On Demand.

I'm in awe of those who find it easy to book their trips. I find it easy to accumulate miles and hard to cash them in for flights. One problem is that we are in a city in Brazil from which we normally would need to use TAM Airlines to first get to Sao Paulo or Rio in order to fly overseas, and TAM restricts booking of domestic flights using miles to 90 days in advance (and even then it's tough). Hard to play in advance.

I have a beef with class of service restrictions on miles earned - some discounted fares earn no miles or just 25% of miles flown on some airlines. I usually don't discover this until I'm awarded 800 miles for a trans-atlantic flight and then realize i was on an "O" class fare. It's also nearly impossible when purchasing online to know in advance what fare class code you are buying or what they mean on different airlines or with their mileage programs; L, M, X, O, S???? I wish the airlines could disclose how many mile we will earn up front - but I realize the convoluted math in this with so many different earning levels, and programs etc. On the positive side, I just redemed 35,000 Continental Miles (the minimum) to go to Cancun over the Christmas-New Years holidays on the exact days I wanted! The only drawback is that is it via Panama with a 3-3/4 hr. layover - but at least I have a lounge pass. I got this on the day that Copa opened bookings for their new direct route from Chicago to Panama. I'm extra greatful because the current cash fare for holiday travel is over $800.

Thanks, chatteratti, for a lively conversation. Loved the anecdotes about frequent flier miles. Maybe I can stop ordering magazines now and actually take some trips.

Today's winner is the chatster who uses the family's miles to fly in their father. Please message me your address and name at 

See everyone next Monday!

In This Chat
Flight Crew
The Washington Post Travel section is your source for narrative tales and practical advice about journeys far and wide -- from weekend trips to the Eastern Shore, to two-week jaunts to the Far East -- plus consumer news, penny-pinching strategies and deals galore.
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