Talk about Travel

The Pitons on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia (AP/Scott Sady).
Feb 03, 2020

Let's discuss your travel-related questions, comments, suspicions, warnings, gripes, sad tales, etc.!

Hi all, and welcome to Talk About Travel! In this week's section, Travel contributor Will Hawkes shares his picks for the 10 best slow trains through Europe. Taken a memorable train trip in the course of your travels? Tell us about it below. Most compelling answer gets a copy of "Forest: A  Journey Through Wild and Magnificent Landscapes," by Matt Collins and Roo Lewis. On to your questions! 

For last week's chatter about hiking in Ireland, we went on a self-guided Dingle Peninsula hike with Hillwalk Tours (hillwalktours.com) in August, and I recommend them highly. They arrange B&Bs along your route, transfer you if needed, and transfer your luggage between B&Bs. The information sheets they provide about the daily routes are extremely detailed. The major difference between an "easy," "moderate," and "difficult" hike are the hours of hiking per day. We found the "moderate" hike to be doable, but I might go with "easy" on a future trip. I definitely will book with them in the future.

Thanks for sharing. 

If the traveler to San Diego in March is listening... i have a few thoughts on traveler's interest in Carlsbad. I'm a federal retiree who lived in Washington DC, but moved to San Diego area three years ago. Carlsbad is indeed a nice little town, with several very good restaurants - Campfire (Bib Gourmand from Michelin - great food and inventive, good cocktails), Jeune et Jolie (superb French restaurant), Cicciotti's, Vigilucci's, plus lots more. It has a nice beach and nearby sidewalk for long walks, a fantastic sunset-watching spot where people gather around a little park area, and yes, shopping. Also, if chatter wants to hike, there is Torrey Pines State Preserve (just south of Del Mar, so yes, a drive), with a nice uphill hike up to some great ocean views, or they can walk along a very nice beach. There also are places to rent a bike in Carlsbad. On the way south from Carlsbad, Leucadia and Encinitas offer more great food, a bit of a surfer/hippie vibe, and more beaches. The Flower Fields are pretty amazing, and the San Diego Botanical Garden (actually in Encinitas, east side of the I-5) is very nice. There is quite a variety of lodging in Carlsbad, too; a lot of it is right at the coast.

The beach towns north of San Diego are lovely. Thanks for the recommendations. 

It is publicized that parking at National Airport is free for one hour. What about if you are 5 mins late after the free hour? Do you pay for an hour 5 mins or the time beyond that? I was charged for two hours. Comments?

Rules from the DCA Web site:

Note: For stays of longer than 60 minutes, regular parking fees will apply. 61 minutes will cost $12 (same as two hours of parking). There is no first-hour discount for any parking duration longer than 60 minutes.

I'm looking for a hotel in the 6th or 7th Arrondissement of Paris. Near a Metro/bus stop, and a garden courtyard would be lovely. €200 or less would be great, thanks.

I have not stayed in either of these arrondissements, so will throw it out to our chatters. I do like the Astotel chain, but I believe they are all located on the Right Bank. 

I will be spending my 50th birthday in the 50th state this year. Unfortunately, we will only be there for 10 days. We've decided on 4 days on Oahu and 5 days on Maui. Given the limited time we want to ensure we don't miss any awesome sites but are a bit overwhelmed with the amount of information out there. We have Pearl Harbor on our must see list, any other suggestions for the two islands would be much appreciated. Thanks!

You're right, there's a lot to see. I'm going to give you my favorites from both islands. On Oahu, you have to make it up to the North Shore, maybe spend an afternoon over at Waimea Valley hiking around. On Maui, I'd drive up to Haleakalā National Park is epic. But bundle up -- it can get cold. Over to you, chatters. Where would you go on Oahu and Maui?

I'm thinking about purchasing travel insurance for a trip to Europe this summer. I recently got some info from American Airlines about their Emergency Assistance Plus program and I'm wondering if it's worth looking into or not bother. Thanks!

Yes, absolutely. The policies offered by the airlines can be a little pricey and might have some restrictions. I would check with a site like TravelInsurance.com or Squaremouth.com, which will allow you to shop for and compare several different policies side by side. You might also check with the major travel insurance companies (AON, Allianz, Generali, Travelex, etc.) to see if you find something that meets your needs at a lower price point.

hi there. thanks for your terrific chat. What are recommended places within a few hours of Arlington/DC?

For a day trip, Liberty Mountain Resort or Whitetail Resort. For overnight, Wintergreen Resort. For a weekend, Snowshoe or Seven Springs. If you want to downhill and xc, Canaan Valley Resort and White Grass. And I'm guessing we'll get chatters weighing in with other options, such as Bryce and Wisp.  I have not skied this winter, however, and I'm thinking the conditions in our region may be lousy. 

I train trip in late September that was memorable for 2 reasons. First, it was my almost-2 year old son's real 1st train ride ever (and, of course, like many children at that age, he's fascinated by trains). Second, the train actually "walked on water." OK, maybe not. But we chose the trip from Hamburg to Copenhagen by train (and, in fact, chose Copenhagen over Berlin) as our vacation destination after I had a conference in Hamburg) in part because I had read that the train drives directly onto a ferry boat for the 45 minute crossing of the Baltic Sea. And, it's true, though the ferry (which has 3 cafes, a duty free shop and a Lego-themed (of course) play area for kids) allows cars, bicyclists, and walkers, there are also tracks to allow the train to drive right on. Passengers disembark and are free to roam the ferry until an announcement is made about 15 minutes before you hit land in Denmark at which point you get back on the train and it drives right off the ferry for the remainder of the trip to Copehagen.

Wow, who knew? You can check it out here.

I fly to Asia and back regularly, usually on United, and have noticed that there is less padding in the plane seats than there used to be. This weekend I flew from Mumbai to Zurich, then Zurich to Newark, and the seats in economy plus were only slightly more padded than a metro seat. I'm petite, with minimal personal 'padding,' and on such long flights it becomes very uncomfortable. The kicker is that on the short connection from Newark to DCA, the seat had several inches of padding - why can't they use such seat cushions on a long haul flight? Curious whether anyone else has noticed this, and why United would want to make it so 'hard' to travel. Thank you.

If I had to guess, I'd say the thinner padding was on the newer (or refurbished) planes; the older planes have the older, thicker seats. Yes, comfort has gone out the window. Went out the window years ago, actually. Airlines are salivating over all the extra seats they can now fit on the plane thanks to the thinner seats, and all the tasty revenue it will bring them. Whatever happened to customer service?

We are sorta last minute travelers/planners(ie 1-2 months out is as far as we plan) and were hoping to get a trip in to Italy/Sicily in mid to late April/early May. Haven't bought tickets yet. Although it seems that Virus will ultimately fade out in the next 4-6 months, would you travel to this part of the world in this time period? I know at best this would be an educated guess but I'm curious what you would recommend. (For what it is worth, I am in the health care field and understand that flu in this country is a much greater risk than the coronavirus at this point in time).

No one knows. I talked to William Spangler, the global medical director with AIG Travel, last week. He told me that typically, experts look for a high spike in cases, followed by a plateau. That signals that the worst is over. The earliest things would be back to "normal" would be April or May, he said. That said, I will be in Italy in April with my family, and I have no concerns about coronavirus. I think as of now, we're as safe in Rome as we are back home in Prescott, Ariz.

I took the train from Flam to Oslo a couple of years ago. It took 6 or 7 hours and it goes through lots of interesting landscapes. It's a gorgeous part of the world for sure.

But for all the wrong reasons! I was taking the train from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale and, upon boarding, noticed the entire floor was covered with broken-down cardboard boxes. I asked the attendant why and was told that the toilet had overflowed and the carpet was wet. With the cardboard covering, nobody's shoes, roller bags or pants legs would get wet!

It is roughly a six hour trip by train between Chicago and Omaha. My friend and I were returning home after spending Memorial Day weekend, 2019, in the Windy City. 1) We had to disembark in Burlington, IA to get her to the emergency room for reasons. First time I ever traveled by train and ambulance. Hopefully the last. 2) The next day, we resumed the interrupted journey, with new tickets, with the train already two hours late getting into Burlington. 3) All across Iowa, it was storming and pouring. One could not see more than five feet from the train, literally, the rain was so heavy. A solid grey curtain. 4) That was the year of flooding in the Midwest. We were stopped no more than 20 miles outside Omaha, on the Iowa side of the river. The regular Amtrak tracks were washed out/flooded, so we had to use the freight train tracks... behind no less than 3 freight trains that had right of way. We finally pulled into the Omaha depot at 7 AM on Wednesday... The original itinerary was Monday at 7 PM. Final tally: 30 games of gin rummy, 36 hours late, and I taught her three new solitaire variations...

Friend and I are planning a 4-5 day hiking trip in May. We are in DC and NYC, and considering places that are easy to get to: North Carolina, Maine, Vermont. We're also thinking Colorado because of all the direct flights to Denver. I always like visiting places in shoulder season, so I'm open to ski towns. Anything we should add to this list? Any specific places you can recommend this time of year?

Are you talking early or late May? It may still be cold in early May in parts of Vermont and Maine. Same goes for the Colorado mountains. Are you planning to backpack and camp? Or are you looking for hut-to-hut? Or staying in a hotel and doing day hikes? Chatters have any favorite routes? 

Select Hotel, Place de la Sorbonne. No garden courtyard, but a nice little square out front. By the chapel, close to the Luxembourg Gardens and the Pantheon.

Thank you! 

Heading to the Keys for a quick trip later this month. I wonder how the water levels are there. Has anyone been to the Bahia Honda State Park beach? Is it still nice? Can one reliably snorkel at Pennekamp? We are staying in Marathon. Any recommendations or update on conditions would be welcome.

I haven't heard of any problem with the water levels in the Keys. The best snorkeling opportunities in Pennekamp are from a boat. Chatters, have you been out to Bahia Honda lately? What are your Keys recommendations?

After reading so many accounts of people waiting months and months for their Global Entry renewals, I steeled myself for a similarly long wait. I submitted my renewal application last week and 48 hours later, I was approved. No need for another interview, no nothing. Just wanted to add a success story to the pile.

Now that's what I like to hear!

I have never been - but any favorite stops down there? Should i just aim for Key West?

I would take it slow. Make stops in Key Largo, Islamorada, maybe Marathon. Do a little snorkeling or see the Dolphin Research Center. There's a lot more to see than Key West. 

Is there anything that can be done about airlines and shrinking seats? For the second time in about a month, I sat on an airplane where the tray table was hitting me in the stomach. This never, ever happened before these last two flights on small (2x2 seat) planes. The seat pitch is so small now, that I imagine this happens to a lot of people. So, you can buy your ticket for a seat that you fit in with room to spare, can buckle the seatbelt with room to spare, but cannot comfortably use your tray table to put your drink down. Again, I'm not the smallest person but I'm certainly not the largest. Years ago, I weighed more than I do and this never happened, even on small planes. I am currently still smaller than the average woman, as reported in August 2019 here. It's like the airlines are purposely leaving the cheap seats for only skinny, short people (legroom, anyone?) and everyone else has to pay for an upgrade just to be treated like a human who likes to put their drink down sometimes or use their laptop. And you can't even pay for an upgrade on a flight that doesn't have anything but basic coach seats. Oh, and btw? The FAA declined to do anything about the incredible, shrinking seats about a year or so ago. Seriously -- are there no overweight people working for these companies? Signed, furious, humiliated, smaller-than-average woman who is only giving her business to airlines that don't do this. If there are any.

The FAA is still scheduled to make a decision about minimum seat sizes. But I'm not holding my breath. And it's not as if you can switch airlines. They've all shrunk their seats. The problem is the government's: Congress has allowed the industry to consolidate to such a point that it's no longer competitive. We would have to undo several airline mergers to create an airline industry that offered people what they wanted, not the monopoly pricing and service you're experiencing. 

I'd been visiting family on the west coast. Husband took the train from DC to Illinois to visit his family. We arranged afterwards to meet up at Glacier National Park, each of us taking the Empire Builder in the opposite direction, for a week's vacation. The daytime views of the Rocky Mountains from the train are simply spectacular.

My father always liked trains. Not a model train guy, but talked about trains in a wistful sort of way. One time, when I was home to visit, I noticed it coincided with a local train event. Just a short train ride through a local historic site and out into the country. It seemed like a fun adventure. Turned out to be model train enthusiast-types who bought some old real trains and were living their dream. The route was through the facility where my father worked for 30 years and then out and back along.... the road he drove into town every day. But, umm, father-daughter bonding on an old train? Memorable, yes.

I've traveled by train a lot, but the most memorable was a three-week trip from Chicago/Seattle, Seattle/Los Angeles, Los Angeles/New Orleans, New Orleans/Chicago. With stopovers in Seattle, LA, and NOLA, we saw completely different urban environments. From the train, we saw an incredible variety of landscapes, sometimes waking up to what seemed another country. It left me with a much better sense of the enormous diversity of the country between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

When I was a child visiting India in the summers, our family would take a regular overnight train trip to visit a famous temple, spend the day there and overnight train back home. I absolutely loved sleeping on the train, in one of the upper berths. The train would cross the sacred Ganges River at one point, and everyone on the train would toss coins out the window as offerings.

On the night of July 13, 1977, I was a college student on a train bound from Philadelphia to Vermont. Thanks to the famous New York City blackout, however, I ended up sitting for hours just outside NYC, in a non-air-conditioned train car, over a mosquito-filled New Jersey swamp. Eventually the train backed up to Newark, where I called my parents collect from a pay phone. I happily boarded another train back to Philly, and Dad (and our dog) picked me up at about 3 a.m. Quite an adventure. I eventually got to Vermont via car to Connecticut and bus to Vermont.

I was 20-something, alone, nervous, didn't know a word of Italian. The cab driver dropped me off at a station longer than a football field. I couldn't find an entrance, then, once inside, had no clue how to find my train. I just wandered back and forth until three nuns took one look at me and motioned to me to show them my ticket. They escorted me not only to my train but to my seat in an overnight compartment that I shared with a grandmotherly woman with whom I also could not communicate. I couldn't sleep as we chugged through the Alps because I now feared I'd miss my early morning stop. Must have dozed off, though, and awoke as dawn was breaking and we were pulling out of a station I feared was mine. I dashed into the corridor where an American service man was passing by. He assured me we hadn't yet reached Milan. On arriving in Milan, I showed a taxi driver where to take me and he did. The godawful experience continued in Milan and I swore I'd never ever leave the United States again. And I didn't until I was past 60 when my husband dragged me to Rome. Travel with him was--Fun! We've gone back 10 more times.

I'll be renewing my passport soon, but hope to purchase airline tickets for overseas travel before I have a new passport. Since many airlines request passport details during the booking process, is it OK to use the expiring passport info and then update with my new passport number/expiration date when the new passport arrives?

Given the number of complaints we've had from passengers who were able to book tickets with expiring passports, it's unlikely you're going to have a problem. But just in case, I would call your airline to make sure. 

haven't stayed there in a while, but it looks like priceline gives info about hotels including the arrondissements.

I never quite trust the reviews and recommendations on the third-party booking sites, but could be worth a look. 

Next month, I'll be traveling to Costa Rica, and will have one night (a Sunday) in San Jose. Are there any can't-miss sites or tours? Thanks!

I spent my day in San Jose bird-watching, but unless you're into owling, that won't work at night. If there is a performance at Teatro Nacional, that would be a nice night out. Viator also offers San Jose at Night tours. Chatters? 

I am trying to plan a trip to Texas for March/April timeframe (my TX experience is limited to a long weekend in Dallas years ago and airline stopovers). We are hoping to visit family/friends in Dallas and San Antonio. We are traveling with a toddler (will be 17 or so months at the time). Not sure how to best do this. Our initial thought is fly RT DC to Dallas, rent a car, and drive back and forth between the 2 cities. Is that doable with a toddler, who is not a huge fan of driving outside of naptime? Basic googling shows me that driving will take about 4 hours. Seems like flying between the cities will also take 4 or more hours when you include flight time, rental car return/pick up, security, etc. Any ideas I am not considering?

I think it will likely take closer to five hours to make that drive. Perhaps you can stop in Waco for lunch to break up the trip. But I'd still opt for driving over flying. There are nonstop buses between Dallas and San Antonio, but you'll still likely need a car, so that doesn't make sense. 

On my last trip to Maui, we went on a snorkeling trip to Molokini using Trilogy Excursions. Both the location and the company were recommended by locals, and I thought it was great! Friends have recommended driving the road to Hana. I loved dinner at Star Noodle in Lahaina and had a fun afternoon at Maui Brewing Co. in Kihei. But if I go again, I'll probably just spend all day at the beach!

Thanks!

We don't have dates yet, just avoiding Memorial Day weekend. Planning on staying in a hotel and doing day hikes. Thanks!

In that case, perhaps Asheville, N.C. would be a good choice. But read the recommendations that we're posting from fellow chatters. 

Maine and Vermont are cold yet in early May, and in late May, it is mud season and black fly season, particularly in Vermont. I know they close the trails around that time for a while, during the worst of it. The Smokies, down by TN and NC, have some great spring hiking. The flowers are amazing! Still a chance of snow in higher elevations, but far less likely than in the New England states.

Useful info, thanks. 

Trying to meet a friend from a Wednesday to Sunday, flying into Dublin from IAD. Only direct flights leave at 5:30pm. Would have to leave Dublin on 12:30pm flight on Sunday. Do you think this is worth the cost, trouble, amount of jet leg, etc.?

Yes! Airfares to Dublin are typically less expensive than other cities in Europe. And the flight is shorter. Power through the first day, and you'll be fine. 

New Germany State park in western MD rents crosscountry skis and snowshoes. No downhill in the immediate area, and I don't know if they've gotten any snow this year. But it's not a bad drive from here, and the time I went when there was snow it was lovely.

Thanks!

If DC should be lucky enough to get a heavy snowfall this winter -- after all, there's STILL time! -- cross-country skiing is enjoyable in local parks, on unplowed trails. We lived in Silver Spring at the time, and had a delightful afternoon X-Cing in Sligo Creek Park. Even saw a woman on a dog-sled there!

Yes, if you have your own equipment and we ever get any snow! 

I wasn't thinking so much about recommendations from a 3p site, but it does break down the hotels into arondissements, which helps for planning purposes. sorry, that was what I meant!

Thanks!

Sometime in the 1970s I flew Aeromexico from Tijuana to Mexico City. I could scarcely breathe in the tiny seat; I certainly could not cross my legs (I am only 5'5"). I guess now the American airlines are working to become as uncomfortable as some other countries' airlines were decades ago. I won't do long-haul anymore unless I can afford at least Premium Economy.

I hear you. I'd rather spend days in a car than be scrunched up like that.

We were there decades ago, for a few hours' stop on a weekday drive in May. But the one thing that might not have changed was that while we were in the water, a school of barracuda swam by. Fortunately they had no interest in us.

Thanks for sharing your memory. I used to live in the Keys and Bahia was one of my favorite beaches. I'm sure that old railroad bridge is still there. And maybe a barracuda or two.

I'm planning to take two kids (7 and 11 years) to tea while we're in London later this summer. What's the dress code like? Does it depend on the venue? If it matters, we're aiming to do this at a museum.

You'll want to dress nicely, but nothing fancy required. No jeans, baseball caps or sneakers. 

Was just there in December. Didn’t notice anything drastically different than when we were there in 2004. Not sure what they mean by water levels... sea level rise is not noticeable at this point. For the general keys question - Robbie’s! Feed the tarpon and, if you have time, rent a kayak out to Indian Key, which has some great interpretive signs (including one where they admit they made something up just for the sign)

Oh, yeah! Love Robbie's. Make sure you let go of the chum, otherwise that Tarpon will bite your hand.

Several years ago I stayed at the Hotel des Saints Pere - Esprit de France in St Germain and it was lovely - it's in a restored 17th century mansion and has a courtyard!

It looks lovely. 

Hi Everyone!  You are all fabulous!  My fiancé Eric and I are going to London, Prague, Rome, Florence and Barcelona during our Honeymoon. We are leaving the day after the election and since that's November (5th - 24th), we are concerned that restaurants, sights, etc may not be open.  Are there any recommendations you have for those 5 cities?

This is too big of a request to tackle during this chat. But don't worry about things being closed in November. You'll be fine. 

"High tea" is actually a working-class meal typically eaten soon after the worker gets home. I think the chatter may have meant "CREAM TEA," which is the fancy tea with little sandwiches and desserts.

Or "afternoon tea."

Technically, it was the lead up to the train journey but it's still pretty wild. My flight to Venice landed 45 minutes late, meaning that everything else I did was 45 minutes after I had planned and I missed the last train of the night to Florence. Hotels near the train station were about $100USD for the night (and I only needed it for eight hours so I was unenthused about starting my vacation with this) I figured I would hang out at the airport overnight and just take the first shuttle to the train station. Foolish me - the last shuttle left at 1:00AM, first shuttle at I think 5:00AM. The train was at 4... Took the last shuttle because uber wasn't an option (don't remember why) and I had assumed the train station (which looked lovely and glamorous online) would be open 24 hours a day or close to it given Europe & trains. It was not - the shuttle dropped me off in a very sketchy parking lot (think swastika graffiti) and I wandered in the wrong direction for 15 minutes before figuring out it was wrong. Eventually was able to sit on the hotel bar patio across the street for three hours in the middle of the night hoping the drunks coming home from the bar wouldn't see me. Eventually the train station opened and I was able to get on the train and go to Florence a day late (and my AirBnB host was so lovely throughout - she met me at the house first thing in the morning to give me the keys) and totally exhausted. In the future I will either, cough up the $100 or take the train to Rome and back up to Florence (considered and discarded because it got me to Florence later than waiting for the direct train) just to have a place to be during this type of scenario

We were taking the TGV from Paris to Marseille. Husband got on the train, then the door slammed shut before I could board. Since the door was automatic, nothing could be done to reopen it (presumably for security reasons), but three(!) TGV employees who spoke better English than I do French comforted me, got me booked on the next hour's train (in a First Class seat, no less!), then telephoned the train my husband was on to alert him, so he'd know to wait an hour at the Marseille station for me.

Then there was the hours and hours long trip across Pennsylvania when I took a deck of cards and played hours and hours of solitaire that I couldn't win. Not. One. Single. Time. About an hour out of Pittsburgh on the return trip, I realized I literally wasn't playing with a full deck.

In 2012, I flew to Cameroon to visit my son who was in the Peace Corps. He met me in the capital city of Yaounde, and we took an overnight train to the city of Ngaoundere. The train system was built during the German colonial period (early 1900's). We splurged on a 1st class compartment with two beds (about $45 each, 2nd class seats are $17 each). At every town where it stopped, the train was swarmed by vendors selling food and drink carried on trays balanced on their heads. The passengers would lean out of their windows to purchase stuff. It was a rough and noisy train ride. My son had made this trip several times previously, so he came prepared with a bottle of whiskey to share.

Looks like our time is up -- thanks for chatting today, everyone. Hamburg to Copenhagen, please drop us a line at travel@washpost.com to claim your prize. And join us again next week for more Talk About Travel. 

In This Chat
Nicole Arthur
Nicole Arthur is the Travel editor.
Andrea Sachs
Andrea Sachs is a staff writer for Travel.
Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott writes The Navigator column. He is also National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate.
Carol Sottili
Carol Sottili is a former Washington Post travel writer, specializing in travel deals.
Helen Carefoot
Helen Carefoot is Travel's editorial assistant.
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