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Now That You Ask . . .
We Answer the Most Popular Questions From Our Weekly Online Chat

Sunday, February 1, 2009

If we've told you once, we've told you a thousand times . . .

And now we're telling you once more. Yes, it's that time again, when we take a look at the questions our readers send in all year during our weekly online chat, pull out the most common ones, and compile them in one place. With answers, of course.

So, read, heed and go. And if you don't see your own questions addressed below, join us (most) Mondays at 2 p.m. on http://www.washingtonpost.com/travel and ask away.

QCan you suggest a local getaway, B&B or regional spa?

AYou bet. Once you've narrowed down your choices -- beach? mountains? city? country? -- here are some resources that will get you there.

First, check the Travel section's Escapes features, which run Wednesdays in the Style section, and our regional getaway page, The Long Weekend, which runs in the Sunday section. Go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/escapes for the archive of local getaways (organized by state) and other Post articles about regional attractions and bed-and-breakfasts. And check our nearby states' tourism Web sites: Maryland Office of Tourism, http://www.mdisfun.org; Virginia Tourism Corp., http://www.virginia.org; West Virginia Division of Tourism, http://www.wvtourism.com; Delaware Tourism Office, http://www.visitdelaware.com; New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism, http://www.nj.gov/travel; Pennsylvania Tourism Office, http://www.visitpa.com.

The mid-Atlantic region has many spa options, with different types and price ranges. In Virginia, choices include Lansdowne Resort, a corporate conference center in Leesburg; Kingsmill Resort and Spa in Williamsburg; and the venerable Homestead resort in Hot Springs. In West Virginia: the upscale Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. In Maryland, the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michael's and the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge. In Pennsylvania: the Spa at the Hotel Hershey in Hershey, the posh Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, the Bedford Springs Resort in Bedford and the earthy spa retreat St. Joseph Institute in Port Matilda.

At such sites as Spa Finder (http://www.spafinder.com), Spa Addict (http://www.spa-addicts.com) and Spa Magazine (http://www.spamagazine.com), you can search by region and type of spa experience and use filters to identify those spas that provide slippers or include weight-loss programs.

When's the best time to go to . . . ?

There are, at minimum, three questions embedded here: When will I find the best weather? The lowest prices? The smallest crowds?

First, weather: Several Web sites give average monthly temperatures for areas all over the world, such as http://www.weatherreports.com, which charts average temps in 70,000 U.S. locations and 6,500 overseas destinations. If you hear that your destination has a rainy season, do some research: That can mean anything from constant downpours to short periods of showers between sunny skies.

For the best prices and least congestion, avoid traveling during school holidays, if possible. (Many schools this spring are breaking somewhere between March 23 and April 13.)

If school-age children aren't dictating your travel dates, your best bet is always a location's "shoulder season," that period just before or just after the high season, when the weather is still good but crowds have departed and prices have dropped. You'll have to do location-specific research to pinpoint a shoulder season at a particular place, but common sense will get you started. Cities in Europe, for example, get the most visitors in summer. Prices start dropping in September, although airlines in recent years have held off on major sales until at least October. To find fairly exact dates for a shoulder season, check a hotel that gives date ranges for high-season rates; the dates just before and after make up the shoulder season.

What are some cheap hotels in Paris? In London? In New York?

The range of lodging options in these cities is as vast as the Atlantic, and what one traveler considers cheap might be pricey for another. In general, however, to find lower-priced accommodations, start with online hotel discounters. For a broad sampling, go to Kayak (http://www.kayak.com) or SideStep (http://www.sidestep.com), aggregators that link to the sites with the most competitive rates. Also try Quikbook (http://www.quikbook.com) or Hotels.com (http://www.hotels.com). For hostels, check Hostels.net (http://www.hostels.net).

For Paris, London and other European cities, HotelsEurope.com (http://www.hotelseurope.com), EuropeHotelsOnline.com (http://www.europehotelsonline.com) and Venere (http://www.venere.com) are well worth a look, as are such stalwarts as Orbitz (http://www.orbitz.com) and Expedia (http://www.expedia.com). Budget Travel magazine (http://www.budgettravel.com) and Lonely Planet guidebooks (http://www.lonelyplanet.com) often have good suggestions for low-cost guesthouses, B&Bs and hostels. Also check the city's tourism office for specials. And if you don't mind a bit of mystery, Hotwire (http://www.hotwire.com) offers discounted hotels but keeps the name secret until after purchase, and Priceline (http://www.priceline.com) lets you set your own price.

Other cost-cutting tips: Look for hotels outside the city center, and consider booking an air-and-hotel package. For more ideas, see our insider lodging story on Page P7.

What can I do in . . . ?

Don't waste time huddled in your hotel room with guidebooks when you could be out exploring. Go to the library and check out guidebooks ahead of time. Or download onto your iPod or other gadget guidebooks by Rough Guides and Lonely Planet. For more personal recommendations, log on to TripAdvisor (http://www.tripadvisor.com), which posts reader reviews of hotels, restaurants and attractions in cities worldwide. You can also post questions. Urban guides by City Search (http://www.citysearch.com) also can be fruitful (check out the "Best of" lists), and at Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree), you can receive advice from those with firsthand experience. Lonely Planet's pocket-size "Encounter" series (Amsterdam, Athens, Buenos Aires, Edinburgh, Istanbul, San Francisco, Tokyo and others) are great take-alongs.

For restaurant reviews, see the Zagat Survey (http://www.zagat.com) or Chowhound (http://www.chowhound.com), or buy/download a Zagat guidebook for the city you're visiting. Also, peruse local newspapers and magazines, such as Montreal's Hour (http://www.hour.ca) or any Time Out title (http://www.timeout.com). Finally, consult the city's tourism office for info on attractions, events and discounts.

Can I take my eyedrops (juice box, hair spray, baby formula) in my carry-on?

The Transportation Security Administration's rules allow liquids, gels and aerosols through airport security if they're packed in a three-ounce or smaller container, then placed in one quart-size, zip-top clear plastic bag. The few exceptions are baby formula, breast milk, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, essential liquids for disabled passengers and other medical-related items. (Eyedrops and juice are considered exceptions if they are for medical purposes.)

If you're carrying any of these exempt products and they exceed the three-ounce limit, pack them in a separate plastic bag and declare them to TSA officials at the checkpoint. Keep medications in their original packaging and include the prescription or other medical documentation.

As long as toiletries, food and drinks fit the size parameters, you can tote them in your carry-on in that zip-top bag. That includes snacks from home. However, half-empty containers larger than three ounces are banned, even if they squish to three ounces.

The rules apply mainly to items that you carry into the security line. Once you're in the secured area, you can buy toiletries, drinks and eats, and carry them onboard. And a word here about duty-free items: If you have to make a connection, you may have to go through security again, without gaining access to your checked luggage, so the bottle of great olive oil you bought in one airport might be confiscated at the next one.

For more information on the TSA rules, go to http://www.tsa.gov.

How do I find a travel agent?

Cast a broad net by asking friends and colleagues if they've had a good experience with a particular agency or agent. If that doesn't work, check the Web site (http://www.travelsense.org) of the American Society of Travel Agents. You can search by Zip code or city for agents near you, or search by specialty -- say, Italy or skiing. Once you identify a company, ask questions to see whether its agents really know the place you want to visit, either through personal experience or by sending numerous clients there.

As for knowing whether an agency is reputable: ASTA membership is a first line of defense, since the trade group will remove agencies with egregious problems. Also check with the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.com) to see whether complaints have been lodged.

A second source: Tourism bureaus of foreign countries and cities often list travel agents with whom they do business. Links to most tourism bureaus can be found at Tourism Offices Worldwide Directory (http://www.towd.com).

Recently, some Web sites matching travelers and agents have sprung up online, including Compete4yourseat.com, Tripology.com, Zicasso.com and AdventureLink.com.

How about a tour operator?

See our story on Page P8. For more info, turn to the two major trade groups: the U.S. Tour Operators Association (800-468-7862, http://www.ustoa.com) and the National Tour Association (800-682-8886, http://www.nta.travel). Their Web sites allow you to search by destination or specialty. Both require members to have insurance and to abide by a code of ethics. Additionally, USTOA members must post a $1 million bond in case they go belly up.

The tourism bureaus of many countries, cities and states also list tour operators; find links at http://www.towd.com. Check with the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.com) for consumer complaints before you book.

Where should I go on my honeymoon?

According to the 12th annual study by Modern Bride magazine, announced in 2008, the top five honeymoon spots are Italy, Hawaii, Tahiti, Mexico and Greece. Mexico, Las Vegas and the Dominican Republic were named the most affordable in 2007. While traditional hotels and resorts in these locations remain popular, more couples are searching for that perfect eco-lodge in Costa Rica or out-of-the-way pensione in the Italian Alps.

This is one of those trips that calls out for a travel agent. Local agencies specializing in honeymoons include MacNair Travel & Cruises/American Express in Alexandria (800-833-4382, http://www.macnairtravel.com) and Perfect Honeymoons & Holidays Travel in Vienna (800-320-7373, http://www.perfecthoneymoons.com).

Check a honeymoon issue of Modern Bride or a similar magazine for ideas. Also peruse such Web sites as the Knot (http://www.theknot.com) and the Wedding Channel (http://www.weddingchannel.com) for advice.

What can I do in Las Vegas besides gamble?

People-watching could keep you occupied for days, but if you want to get off the Strip, there's no shortage of activities. Visit Hoover Dam, hike at Red Rocks, boat on Lake Mead, take a day trip to Death Valley, ski Mount Charleston or goof around at the Pinball Hall of Fame. Free spectacles include the dueling pirates at Treasure Island and the Fremont Street Experience downtown.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (877-847-4858, http://www.visitlasvegas.com) is full of good ideas. Also go to Vegas.com (http://www.vegas.com), which has the rundown on all things Sin City.

I want to drive to New York City but not park in Manhattan. What are my options?

Thank goodness for New Jersey. From the Beltway, the drive to northern New Jersey is 3 1/2 to 4 hours; from there, park and take a ferry or a commuter train into the city. Two options:

· New Jersey Transit trains operate from numerous locations, but the Metropark station is convenient to the New Jersey Turnpike (take Exit 11 and go north on the Garden State Parkway to Exit 131A) and has ample parking. Parking is $9 per day. Info: 973-275-5555, http://www.njtransit.com.

· NY Waterway operates ferries to midtown and lower Manhattan from several ports in Jersey, including Hoboken and Weehawken. Parking, schedules and rates vary by location. Info: 800-533-3779, http://www.nywaterway.com.

I'm going to Hawaii for a week. Which island(s) should I go to?

Picking a Hawaiian island or two requires a bit of matchmaking: You'll have to fit your personality and interests with the island's. If you're looking for a good time, with night life and shopping, head to Oahu. Eco-adventurers should venture to Kauai, whereas those needing pampering would like tiny Lanai. The state tourism office's online guide (http://www.gohawaii.com) details each island's attributes. The isles also have their own tourism offices and Web sites.

Above all, don't overdo it. If you try to hit too many, you'll spread yourself too thin and come away not appreciating anything. Instead, pick one or two and then check the inter-island flights or the new Hawaii Superferry (http://www.hawaiisuperferry.com). Or avoid airport-hopping and long ferry rides and go directly to Maui, a short boat ride from Molokai.

Which Caribbean island should I visit, and where should I stay?

The Caribbean comprises hundreds of islands, and island features vary widely. Factors to consider include proximity, weather patterns, night life options, beach quality, watersports availability, language and cost.

Vacationers with limited time may want to choose an island accessible by a nonstop flight, such as Jamaica, Puerto Rico or Nassau in the Bahamas. Beach lovers who like out-of-the-way destinations should investigate Anguilla or Antigua and Barbuda. Divers would enjoy Bonaire, the Cayman Islands, St. Eustatius, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos. Naturalists would be happy in Dominica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Barbados and Puerto Rico have great golf courses. Budget-conscious travelers should try the Dominican Republic. Francophiles would like Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Myriad guidebooks and Web sites are devoted to the Caribbean and include lodging options for various tastes and budgets, from low-key beach bungalows to all-inclusive resorts. The Caribbean Tourism Organization's Web site (http://www.caribbeantravel.com) has information on more than 30 destinations; other good resources include http://www.caribbean-on-line.com and http://www.caribbeantravelforums.com, as well as each island's tourism office. Valuable guidebooks include "The National Geographic Traveler Caribbean," "Fodor's Caribbean" and "Frommer's Caribbean." Magazines devoted to the Caribbean include Islands and Caribbean Travel & Life, both of which have Web sites (http://www.islands.com and http://www.caribbeantravelmag.com, respectively).

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