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Your "Flight Crew," sitting from left: Christina Talcott, Andrea Sachs, Cindy Loose. Standing from left: Scott Vogel, K. C. Summers, John Deiner and Carol Sottili. (Julia Ewan -- TWP)

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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, March 31, 2008; 2:00 PM

Got a travel-related question, comment, suspicion, warning, gripe, sad tale or happy ending? The Post Travel Section Flight Crew is at your service.

On the itinerary this week: an excursion to Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia; a long weekend in Shepherdstown, West Virginia; and timetravel(!) as our writers and readers tell stories about going back to someplace special from their past. All other travel topics are open as well. If you have insights, ideas or information to add to the discussion, just press the call button above your seat and we'll get to you as soon as we can. Different members of the Crew will rotate through the captain's chair every week, but the one constant is you, our valued passengers.

We know you have a choice in online travel forums, and speaking for the entire Flight Crew, we want to thank you for flying with us.

A transcript follows.

You may also browse an archive of previous live travel discussions. For daily dispatches, check out Travel Log, the Travel section's new blog.

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Christina Talcott: Hello chatters! Welcome to the last March edition of Travel's chat. Today's Flight Crew includes John Deiner, Cindy Loose, KC Summers, Scott Vogel and your host, Christina Talcott.

I just got back from a week-long road trip around Virginia and North Carolina with my beau, visiting friends and family and doing some sightseeing (well, if you count eating BBQ and drinking microbrews "sightseeing"...). Since we took his car, we could bring all kinds of stuff, like bikes (great greenways in Radford, Va., and Charlotte, NC!), guidebooks and a cooler. The one thing that weighed down the trunk and didn't get touched was the tent. Somehow nights by the campfire in the Smokies got scrapped in favor of hotels and friends' spare bedrooms.

I'm usually more of an under-packer, but the tent made me think of other times I'd packed something I didn't need at all, like when I went to Japan with a suitcase heavy with bags of jellybeans for a friend's "guess the number of jellybeans" contest that never happened (no, not because we ate them all).

I'm sure I'm not the only one with stories like those. Who out there has gone on a trip lugging something completely unnecessary? The craziest story gets a prize from our Box o' Promotional Junque: a lovely tea towel featuring New Zealand road signs (Kiwi xing, anyone?).

Bonus question: Speaking of signs, on my road trip I learned a fun fact about road numbers in the US. Anyone want to guess what it is? First right answer gets another prize: a pretty wood box containing a compass, for your orienteering pleasure.

Ok, ready to chat? Let's go!

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Thanks for the Disney World advice: Thanks to everyone last week for all the helpful tips about solo travel to Disney World. As one chatter suggested, I did price the nearby Marriott complex, and rooms were less than the Disney moderate resorts. However, when I added in the cost of a rental car and Disney theme-park parking ($11/day), the difference was negligible. So I'm staying at Disney and letting them transport me to and from the airport and around the property.

For anyone contemplating a trip to Disney World or Disneyland, there is a mind-boggling array of websites out there, chock full of menus, photos, advice, discount codes, etc. Two I find especially useful are http://www.allearsnet.com and http://www.mousesavers.com.

John Deiner: Glad you booked your trip, and thanks for the tips on good Web sites.

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Washington, D.C.: Big NAY to TSA for the nipple piercing incident. Unless she had iron bars in her nipples (or maybe whatever it was Janet Jackson wore at the Superbowl) those shouldn't set off the metal detectors (trust me, I know). Definitely deserves a second look to find out what set off the detector, or if someone was fooling around and could tell she had them pierced and wanted to give her a really hard time. Let me tell you, I would have been livid had that ever happened to me.

washingtonpost.com: The Monday Rant: You Pierced What?!? (Travel Log blog, March 31)

Cindy Loose: Me too, especially since the only piercings are in my ears.

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Mt. Pleasant: How much extra time do I need to allow to get from one of the cheap off-site lots to BWI? My flight is 8 a.m. on Thursday, if that makes a difference. We would usually Metro, but our arrival back makes driving the better option.

Andrea Sachs: I usually book a reservation at Econopark (remember to print out the coupon), which has on-spot pickups (no waiting around at bus stops). I give myself an extra 10 minutes or so, since it only takes them about eight minutes to reach the airport.

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Arlington, Va.: I need to travel to NYC to obtain part of my uncle's cremains from his widow to take to a family area for "scattering" ie we have a tree at an arboretum, etc. -- car is not an option. I won't have an urn, but part of the remains, and no paperwork. Can I fly? Take the train? Give up?

Thanks!

Scott Vogel: You can fly, although it's to check first with the TSA (www.tsa.gov) for further information on how to transport cremated remains on a plane. Ashes will need to go through screening, and it's a good idea to use a container that will not block screeners from electronically scanning them.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello Travel Team,

I wrote in late last week wanted to re-submit. Fiance and I are trying to find some place in the US to spend a weekend after my bar exam in late July that will be fun, relaxing and a bit low key and if possible not too pricey either. We thought about doing a New England roadtrip, any suggestions on good destinations to stop and stay?

Thank You!

Cindy Loose: I think we need more details in order to answer. Low key--does that mean rural as opposed to a big city? Do you have a car and plan to drive? Is it really a weekend, cause if so a driving tour of New England sounds like too much travel for too little time. Do you like the beach, cause that could be low key and great for July.

You have lots of decisions to make before planning--like how much time and money do you have, and what kinds of activities are appealing?

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Judiciary Square: Hi, I'd like to take a kinda close amusement park trip this summer with my 3 yr. old. I've narrowed down the choices to Williamsburg for Busch Gardens, or Pennsylvania for Hershey Park or Sesame Place. Anybody have any experience with these parks and opinions on which one might be a better choice? If it matters we would stay about 3 to 4 days and do other stuff in each area. TIA

Scott Vogel: You can't go wrong with Sesame Place but my vote is for Hershey Park. My little one loved the new Boardwalk waterpark they opened last summer and there's a walkability to the place that's really helpful for parents of children unwilling/unable to walk long distances. Would love to hear others' thoughts on this one.

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Metro Center: Hi Flight Crew!

Have you had any experience with/heard about booking flights with Vayama? I did a kayak.com search for a flight to Beijing and the cheapest by far was with Air Canada through Vayama. I'm a bit wary of buying through a company I've never tried before. Any advice?

Thanks!

KC Summers: Hi MC. We haven't used Vayama, but a friend of mine is in the midst of arranging a trip to Bulgaria with them and says she's been impressed with their responsiveness -- there was some problem with an erroneous double booking but they called her to assure her they were fixing it.

Our standard advice for those dealing with newcomers to the scene is to never pay by check or cash -- always use a credit card so you can dispute charges if problems arise. And check them out with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.com) -- look for patterns of complaints.

Anyone else out there with experience with Vayama?

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Falls Church, Va.: We would like to go to Asheville for a long weekend over the summer to celebrate our anniversary. We were going to stay at the Biltmore but the prices are around $900 for two nights which is a lot more than I wanted to spend. We are not looking for budget accommodations, I am willing to spend the kind of money one would expect for a nice hotel in a major city. Do you have and recommendations for places to stay and other things to do? If you have thoughts on good places to stay on the trip down or back that would also be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for all your help.

Christina Talcott: Wow, funny you should ask... I just got back from Asheville, and WOW, what a great city! I stayed at the Marriott Renaissance, where I paid about $150 a night with my AAA discount. There is construction going on around it at the moment, but it may be finished by the summer. It's got a nice big pool, hot tub, fitness center, restaurant and bar, and a mini laundry room (great if you're like me and pack a tent and three sleeping bags instead of enough undies...). Other things to do: EAT! There are such great restaurants there, like Early Girl Eatery, 12 Bones (for BBQ), Mela (for Indian), Mellow Mushroom (pizza) and fantastic microbrews on tap everywhere. The shops are fun, with affordable jewelry and crafts and funky head shops and clothing stores... Visit the Biltmore, of course, too... On the way down, we stayed in Charlottesville one night, but sometime I'd love to break up the drive to Asheville with a stay in Warm Springs, Va., about an hour off I-81, for the Jefferson Pools and the great B and Bs. Oh, and if you can, take 29 all the way down to 40 instead of 81 - much prettier.

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Road Numbers: Did you learn that even numbers run E-W and odd numbers run N-S?

Christina Talcott: Ding ding ding! E-mail me your address (talcottc@washpost.com) and I'll send you your prize.

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Arlington, Va.: Now might be a good time to get a new passport or get your passport renewed. My teenage son and I took his renewal application to the post office one day during his Spring Break and he received his passport in the mail last week. It took all of EIGHT days! (Note: We did not pay for expedited service either.)

Cindy Loose:

I think you're right that the big rush is over for now so it is a good time to apply. Which post office you go to seems to matter: We went a couple times to a Bethesda on a weekend and found rather long lines, but my husband happened to notice that a post office near his mother in McLean had no lines even on the weekend. If you can go by a post office on a week day, better yet.

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D.C.: Hi! I'm going to Costa Rica to the Pura Vida spa recommended by Kim O'Donnel on a previous chat. I leave on Saturday and am so excited. My question is that I was told by the travel agent and the spa that I can use U.S. currency there, or easily exchange money. Given the dollar's recent drop, is the U.S. dollar still widely accepted worldwide (and specifically in Costa Rica)?

washingtonpost.com: Kim O'Donnel's blog post on Pura Vida ("A Mighty Appetite," washingtonpost.com)

Christina Talcott: Here you go!

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Dupont Circle: I'm planning a trip to Holland and Germany in May to eat tons of asparagus. Any tips on good places to do that? (Particularly near Munich?) And is it possible to get it cooked without ham?

And, on a related note, what are the must sees in the Munich area?

Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: What a tasty idea for a trip -- with a splash of lemon. From my research, I found the Lower Saxony Asparagus Route in Germany (www.germany-tourism.de/ENG/destination_germany/master_tlfstrasse-id39.htm?cc_lang=), which might be a good place to start your food quest. In the Netherlands, it seems Westland and Limburg are popular asparagus centers.

For the ham and Munich questions, I need some help from the chatsters.

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Gambrills, Md.: We're going to the Grand Canyon for a week in September. I was able to use travel miles to get our flights, but as for everything else there is so much information out there it's difficult to sort through it all. We'll be flying in and out of Las Vegas and renting a car. We're interested in hiking, white water and mule rides among other things. Any hotel, excursion and other advice you can give will be appreciated. Thanks

John Deiner: Hey, Gambrills. That's a great time to go . . . you'll be just past the peak crazy summer season, and the weather will be nice and mild.

We'll let the clicksters weigh in on this as well, but it's late to be planning whitewater and mule rides; those often book more than a year in advance. If you want to do that, do it immediately to see if there's anything available. The overnight mule rides often have cancellations, but you can never count on it. One thought: Get to the North Rim, which offers several different day tours via mule. I'm thinking those may be easier to book.

If you want to hike to the bottom, it's likely that lodging is booked already as well; it's not recommended to hike to the bottom and back in one day (and actually foolish to do so).

But it's well worth your time to hike a mile or two or three into the canyon and back up. Just give yourself plenty of time. It's a fantastic experience. And make sure you drive or shuttle to other points along the rim; the views are constantly changing.

One place I love that's within four or five hours from the South Rim (it could be longer or shorter, it's been a while since I've been there) is Monument Valley. John Ford shot a lot of his movies there, and it's a wonderful experience.

Try to stay at the lodging inside Grand Canyon National Park if you can -- the nighttime walks along the rim are fantastic, and try to book at least one meal at the El Tovar.

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Married a New Zealander ....: Speaking of lugging unnecessary things around when you travel ... does my (Kiwi) husband count?

Christina Talcott: Haha, that's mean and funny - and I hope it's not true!

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Washington, D.C.: Because I have a rule that I must wear everything I bring on a trip, I don't quite have a response for your contest. My rule has caused me to pack carefully and led to some unusual outfits. For example, I wore my bathing suit while doing laundry on the Alaska cruise where it was too cold to swim, and I have been seen wearing a parka (think Michelin man), gloves, and ski cap during an unseasonably warm trip to Canada.

Christina Talcott: That's a great rule! Better be careful no one sneaks stuff in your suitcase before you leave, or you may end up sporting a snorkel mask or bunny ears next time you go on vacation...

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Harrisburg, Pa.: The most useless thing I ever packed on an airflight: Let's just say there are dangers to last minute packing on trash day. When I arrived at my destination, I discovered I had flown with my recyclables.

Christina Talcott: NO YOU DIDN'T! That's ridiculous!

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Washington, D.C.: What were your criteria for choosing whose story to tell in Going Back?

washingtonpost.com: "Going Back" stories submitted by readers (Post Travel Section, March 30)

Scott Vogel: First off, deciding upon 10 readers' stories from the very many great stories we received was exceedingly difficult. We tried to find stories both compelling and compellingly told, and also to reflect geographic variety, variety in readers' backgrounds, etc. Having said that, even given those constraints, there were many more that were good enough to make the package, but we simply didn't have room for them all. We encourage readers who didn't get to participate to contribute their own stories online. For further info, see the Travel section's home page.

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Central Virginia: I just had a terrible thing happen -- I was so excited to be planning a trip to Portugal (I've never been overseas before) but I just injured my foot. No serious walking allowed for weeks! Could be months. Ohhhh no!

So my question is, what kind of vacation would you recommend that would be fun but wouldn't require a whole lot of hoofing around? I would normally be looking into things like hiking or museum-exploration or suchlike, but this -&%#! foot injury is an unwelcome and unfamiliar constraint.

Hellllp!

P.S. I can spend fifteen hundred to two thousand, and the time can be anything up to ten days.

John Deiner: Hey, CV. How do you feel about cruising? If you picked the right ship, you can easily spend 10 days lounging around enjoying the sites. One recommendation: a Panama Canal cruise. The highlight is going through the locks, and you can watch from the privacy of your own balcony (your budget may accommodate that). Or go on something like the Queen Mary 2, which is so lavish (including a beaut of a spa) you won't want to get off, and it's completely accessible.

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Packing for France: I know you've covered this before but I couldn't find it in the archives. What types of walking shoes do you recommend for Paris and are there any general packing tips you can give someone who is spending 4 days in Paris and 5 days in Normandy walking the beaches in late May?

KC Summers: A popular subject. I like Ecco, Munro and Josef Seibel shoes (available at Nordstrom and Walking Company stores -- probably on zappos.com too). None of these brands have ever let me down. All black leather of course. Slip-on monk-style shoes for winter, strappy sandals for warmer months, can go with casual or dressier outfits. Also, for summer I have a pair of black huaraches with soles made of tire treads, that look good with both skirts and pants. Got em from the Sundance catalogue and boy are they comfortable.

As for packing suggestions: Take things that will double for both casual and dressy, e.g. black pants that you can dress up or down. I have some black tech pants from REI that I can go hiking in, then go out to dinner. And since late May can be iffy, take layers and a rain jacket with a hood.

Other tips from the chatters?

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Anonymous: It seems I can never fly with a certain airlines without some unusual event happening, such as being bumped to a middle seat, bumped from the flight entirely, luggage lost for three days, etc. A mathematician friend of mine calculated the percent of these incidences happening and the percent of times they happened to me on these flights, and he stated that either I am a one in a four million unlucky person, or these things happen at a higher rate than is claimed, or, shudders, there is someone at the airline who is making this stuff happen because, again, it would be one in a four million this happens by chance. I'd hate to think there is someone out there who hates me that make who could arrange that, but then I hate to think I am that unlucky. I tend to think it is the third option: aren't mishaps underreported? Again, it seems I can never fly without seeing these things happen, and I can't believe it doesn't happen much often when I don't see it.

Cindy Loose: Dear Anonymous:

In fact, we know who you are, and you are being targeted. Do you recall once saying something unkind about the airline? Well you might not remember, but they do. And there's no use switching airlines, because they've all been told. Your best bet is to drive.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us: I would not be shocked to learn that problems are underreported, since incidents like lost luggage are self-reported by the airlines. I know for a fact that statistics the airlines report to the government about how many planes are late are misleading: If a plane is diverted or doesn't leave at all, it is not counted as late, under the reporting rules.

To me, a plane that fails to leave at all is really late, but it doesn't count at all in late stats. If such a creative way of accounting is used when reporting late flights, I can only imagine other creative interpretations for counting things.

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Bethesda, Md.: Re: Asheville. There's a lot of really nice B and Bs there, too, mostly much, much cheaper than the Biltmore. Recommend looking for one within walking distance of "downtown" Asheville so you can go out to eat, shop, etc. without driving.

Christina Talcott: Hey, great advice. I was so happy with the Renaissance I didn't even look into other places. But you're right - being downtown is key, especially if you're going to try to walk off all those meals!

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College Park, Md.: What practical benefits will D.C. area travelers gain from the recent open skies agreement with the EU?

Christina Talcott: Carol just wrote about that on Friday. Posting the link in a sec...

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22152: One of the funniest conversations to have with people you've just met in hostels is "what's the stupidest thing you're carrying in your pack?"

My sister and her girlfriends win the prize in my mind, though, for bringing ROLLERBLADES on a three-month backpacking tour of Australia. Needless to say, they never used them once, and quickly found a friend with whom to ditch the blades!

Christina Talcott: Wow, rollerblades are heavy! You know, I thought it was smart to ditch my cute, old-school, white roller skates when I moved back home from Paris instead of fitting them in my suitcase, but I've always regretted it. I loved those skates!

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washingtonpost.com: What's the Deal: Will Open Skies Mean Lower Fares? (Travel Log blog, March 28)

Christina Talcott: Here's Carol's blog item.

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New York, N.Y.: I am traveling next week to Colombia and was thinking of taking my travel size Brita water filter. Do you think that would be sufficient to obtain clean drinking water or should I stick to bottled water?

Andrea Sachs: I would stick with bottled water, as I would worry that the Brita filter might be faulty. Also, in many cases, the only way to really purify water is to boil it or add a chemical purification system to the filter (to kill those nasty viruses). You can also buy iodine or chlorine tablets.

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Cleveland, Ohio: I wanted to respond regarding a recent discussion about solid shampoo and other toiletries. Lush has a great selection of solid products. I was very skeptical at first, but their shampoo bars are great! There's a store in Georgetown. It's, of course, more pricey than a drugstore, but I'd say it's worth it to avoid airport hassle!

Christina Talcott: Wow, great recommendation! I have to check those out. The next challenge: Does anyone sell leak-proof travel soap containers?

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Logan Circle: I am planning a 5-6 day trip to the Bahamas in early May. Although we are flying in and out of Nassau, we would like to get out and explore possibly Eleuthera. Is it better to arrange internal flights or take the fast ferry?

Scott Vogel: You can do either, although it's worth keeping in mind that the fast ferry I think you're referring to leaves for Eleuthera just once a day (in the morning) and returns in the evening. For some reason, the travelers I've spoken to consistently recommend flying, although to be honest I can't tell for sure why that is. (Maybe someone out there can?)

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Adams Morgan: Packing stuff you don't need: Many years ago my boyfriend and I went hut-to-hut hiking in the Austrian Alps. We didn't really do much research in advance -- just went to Innsbruck, visited a hiking club, bought some maps and took off. Because we hadn't done much research, we had no idea the huts were heated and supplied beds, food, etc. (We also didn't know you often need reservations, but that's another story.) As a result, we carried sleeping bags, thermarests, a tent, and enough food for the trip, none of which we really needed. It was a great trip, but in retrospect, it would have been a lot more fun without having to carry those heavy packs filled with things we never used.

Christina Talcott: Yikes! Sounds like a little research can go a long way...

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travel hairdryers?: Hi Travel Crew,

The noise from my current travel hairdryer is creating hearing loss plus it's a clunker, so looking to replace it with something sleeker and quieter! If you have you reviewed previously, can you provide a link? If not, please consider! In the meantime, any suggestions??

Thanks from a traveler with a mop of hair on her head

Christina Talcott: I'm gonna have to throw this one out. Anyone have advice on travel hair dryers?

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My husband's never let me forget having packed THESE!: Once, long ago, when we drove -- thank goodness we weren't flying! -- to an out-of-state conference, I packed my strap-on leg weights (5 pounds apiece) in my luggage to use while exercising in the hotel gym. My husband's never let me forget having packed these, as he got stuck hauling my bag up to the room. I pointed out that I really did use them, but he was (and still is) un-consoled!

Christina Talcott: Aw, at least it made for a good story!

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Hershey Park: As the parents of older twins we really recommend Hershey Park, but don't wait for summer. The ideal time to go is before school lets out. We went early - the hotels were cheap and the lines were for the most part non-existent. Not short - non-existent. There were only a couple of rides were we could not get on the next time the ride stopped. On a number of cases we walked up to rides which were not moving at all because no one was on them. We walked up and they had the ride to themselves. We had to set a rule that they could not do a ride more than twice so they we see more of the park.

As for things to do in the area you have a short drive to Pennsylvania Dutch County.

Scott Vogel: Hershey Park receives another favorable opinion from a parent of little ones. Thanks.

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Formerly Springfield, Va.: Hi Crew - We are planning a trip to Hawaii in June, including a long-anticipated visit to Volcanoes National Park on the big island. As a weekly chat reader, I thought I would turn to you for your take on this scary snippet from the Park Services Web site:

The following orders issued by Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando are in place until rescinded:

Crater Rim Drive between Kilauea Military Camp south/southeast to Chain of Craters Road is closed to all visitor activity, including driving, hiking, and bicycling until further notice.

Crater Rim Trail from Kilauea Military Camp south/southeast to Chain of Craters Road is closed.

All trails leading to Halema`uma`u crater are closed including those from Byron Ledge, 'Iliahi (Sandalwood) Trail, and Ka'u Desert Trail.

Can we still go? Can we get to the lava viewing place at night?

Please help me - who knows when we can ever get to Hawaii again??

Thanks.

John Deiner: Hey FSVA. I think you should let nature play out for the next few months before you panic. Here's what the site also says:

"Most of the park and its facilities remain open including Kilauea Visitor Center, Volcano House hotel, Kilauea Military Camp, Volcano Art Center Gallery, Thurston Lava Tube, Devastation Trail, Kilauea Iki Trail, Sulphur Banks Trail, Chain of Craters Road, Kulanaokuaiki Campground, and all backcountry campsites."

Haven't been there in a while, but it still seems as if there's plenty to see, though.

Anyone out there with a better idea about the nighttime lave viewing?

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Aberdeen, Md.: The most useless item I ever packed was a pile of engineering textbooks, on a trip to Italy. I was spending 3 months in Italy on an internship with an engineering company, and I thought that it would be useful to have some key textbooks with me for reference. Predictably, I did not open them even once while I was there. The choice to bring them was made even worse by the fact that on the way over, I was transferring planes in London - between Heathrow and Gatwick! So I had to claim my luggage, make the trek between the airports, and check it again, then do the same thing on the return trip.

Christina Talcott: Oh man, that sounds awful!

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for the person going to the Grand Canyon: Zion National Park is about 2.5 hours from Las Vegas, the Zion Narrows hike is amazing (Weblink: http://www.nps.gov/archive/zion/ZionNarrows.htm)

John Deiner: Hey, good stuff. I didn't realize it was that close . . . that place is a beaut.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Hello. I really enjoy reading your chats every week. I am hoping you can recommend a place in the continental US that has water as clear - or nearly as clear - as the Caribbean for our summer vacation. We also are traveling with a twelve and a fourteen year old boy so it needs to be family-friendly. Thanks very much.

Cindy Loose: I'm thinking that any ocean beach might not be clear enough to fit your definition, since the waves tend to swirl the sand. If I'm guessing right about what you mean by clear water, then maybe you should be thinking of lakes. Check out Lake Michigan, which has small Caribbean-like waves.

Who else has ideas. My first thought was actually something like the Finger Lakes, but I'm not really sure how clear they are.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hey! We were thinking about taking a trip to Virginia Beach this summer, but don't know too much about the area. Would you recommend VB as a beach destination?

KC Summers: I really like VaBeach (that's what they call it, as in va-voom), but I'm partial to the calmer northern end. It's gorgeous, more like the Outer Banks, with wide, quiet beaches, dolphin sightings, and no honky-tonk. Course, if honky-tonk's what you're after, the downtown area is classic urban beach with a three-mile boardwalk and lots of action. I love the restaurants down there too, and great sunset cruises. Details at www.vbfun.com.

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Alexandria, Va.: For the person heading to Asheville -- the city has its own lively arts scene but the surrounding mountains are home to all sorts of artists working out of their homes, and you can go on a driving tour of their studios much like you'd wander the wineries in Virginia. You could drive to Penland, a well-known craft school about an hour from Asheville, and see their small museum, visit the resident artists' studios, and pick up a guide for a self-tour of studios in the area (with more of a focus on craft -- like pottery and glass -- than on "fine art" like paintings and such). It's a gorgeous, gorgeous area just for the drive alone, and it's pretty cool that there are so many artists making a living in them thar hills.

Christina Talcott: Wow, that sounds incredible! Still there, Asheville-bound? Are you considering a month-long stay now?

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Grand Canyon advice: We hiked the Canyon in the fall, and while some people do it in a day, it is definitely not recommended. If nothing else, you'll be rushing through a lot of beautiful scenery. It was a great experience, and I would have hated to have to hurry along the whole time.

The in-park lodging does fill up early, but you can go online and check for cancellations. Bright Angel Lodge is the inexpensive option, and is only a few feet from the South Rim. Staying in-park is the best if you can manage it, because the nearest non-park options are a 15-minute drive or so. If you're in the park, you can leave your car in one place and not use it the whole time you're there.

Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon fills up a year ahead of time, because there are only 10 beds for men, and 10 for women, but again, people may cancel at the last minute.

It is an extremely well-run park. The eating options are inexpensive and good (try either one of the cafeterias, but the Maswik has a broader selection and is pretty cheap).

I would at least hike down the Bright Angel trail a couple of miles. Be warned that coming back up, the altitude will hit you if you're not used to it. But if you take your time, even if you're not in great shape you should be OK. The South Kaibab trail is a little steeper, but is less crowded. The park shuttles will stop there regularly.

John Deiner: Excellente. And as far as I can tell, it's nearly impossible to rush through that scenery -- it's so exhausting. When I hiked it last year, rangers told me that folks frequently do get stranded down there overnight because they miscalculate their own endurance, and people do die making the hike. So let's be careful out there.

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The totally unnecessary "wedding quilt": My very thoughtful friends bought my husband and me a "wedding quilt" when we got married. It was a machine-made cheap tapestry of dogs playing pool, you know the one, about 3' by 5'. It came with instructions: take it on your honeymoon and bring back pictures of you, holding the wedding quilt, in front of different sites. So we did. Looking back, it was a lot of fun, mostly because it was so obnoxiously tasteless. We still have it too, 11 years later.

Christina Talcott: That sounds so awful, yet fun at the same time.

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Honolulu, Hawaii: Re: Asparagus in Germany

White Asparagus Soup!!!! This is the most delicious thing ever. I was an exchange student in Frankfurt while in high school. Go there to find that oh-so-delicious soup. It's been over ten years, and I still remember that manna from heaven.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the tip, Honu.

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Pittsburgh: Last week, inspired by the Flight Crew's dedication to traveling with carry-on luggage only(!), I asked Michael Dirda on the Post's Book Chat to suggest a way to ship home the boxful of books I anticipate purchasing while in Portugal in a few months, but without breaking the bank. His reply was that I should check the box of books as checked luggage. But I want to avoid dealing with checked luggage this time! Is there a problem with packages and boxes of purchases going permanently astray when shipped to the US? And if the books were gifts, would they be exempt from my $400 customs limit?

Christina Talcott: I sent home boxes of books once from France, and since I sent them the cheapest way possible, they took about six months (!) to arrive. Then again, I mailed a poster home from Prague this summer and it made it in a few weeks. It was totally smooshed, though, so pack your books well so they don't get beat up in transit. Anyone know about customs limits?

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Alexandria, Va.: We're planning on going to Aguadilla, PR in late October for a wedding, what is the average airfare we should look to pay? And what airlines offer the best deal/time flexibility? I missed the boat to book tickets and not only did the price go up, the flight I wanted is no longer available!

Would it be easier (more cost effective) to book separate legs of the flight as most flights seem to connect in NJ, and when I'm in VA, it seems like a waste to fly north to head south.

John Deiner: Oh, if only Carol were here. But I'm thinking you haven't missed the boat at all, it being hurricane season and all, and sometimes excellent fares pop up (I'm thinking Spirit here). In fact, just fake-booked on Spirit out of DCA through Fort Lauderdale for $277 round trip....and that seems really good to me!

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Road Numbers: Did you also know that three digit road numbers that start with an even number go around a city (and the last two numbers are the interstate it's off of?) and with an odd first number go into (or through) a city? Also numbers get larger going south to north (10 - 80) and west to east (5 to 95). My dad taught me all sorts of fun interstate stories when I was young.

Christina Talcott: Wow, I bet your dad was fun to have on road trips! I was wondering about the number sizes, too. Don't California and Florida both have Route 1s along the coast?

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Old Town: Hi Crew - Where do you recommending find decent priced street art in Paris? I'll be heading over there in a few weeks and would like to purchase a few bits of street art that isn't outrageously priced. Is there a particular area/street that young, aspiring artists gather and sell their wares? We're staying on the Left Bank and hope to find a market or two there - any suggestions?

Also - any idea of ballpark prices for someone to get a charcoal portrait done?

Scott Vogel: Love this question. I've seen some cool and reasonable stuff in the Beaubourg area around Centre George Pompidou, but I'm really out of my element with this one. Am throwing this out in hopes that our more aesthetically-conscious chatters have some ideas.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Help! I'm desperately in need of a long weekend mini-vacation. I want to go somewhere warm, with beaches, in the U.S. and at the beginning of May. I thought about Key West, but the price of flights are ridiculous. Can you suggest somewhere else that may fit the bill?

John Deiner: Hey, Pitt. I'd suggest anywhere on Florida's southern Gulf Coast, from like Tampa southward. You can get to Tampa for under $200 round trip if you catch a deal, and the prices will be way low since it's out of the peak season.

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Asheville Places to Stay: My husband and I were in Asheville this weekend. We stayed at Willow Winds which was in Asheville but outside of the downtown area. The property has about 15 cabins for rent, 1-3 bedrooms. Ours had an upstairs with a small kitchen, dining table and living room. Also a large porch with two rockers. The downstairs had a large bedroom and a hot tub outside. There were hammocks, walking trails and gardens throughout the property. We loved our stay.

As for things to do the downtown is great to walk through. Lots of independent shops. We went to an outdoor Japanese spa called Shoji where we rented a large private hot tub and watched the sunset over the mountains.

Christina Talcott: I saw a brochure for Shoji and was wondering about it. Glad to hear you enjoyed it! The cabin rec is appreciated, too.

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Falls Church, Va.: We are considering a resort in Aruba this summer. It offers a meal plan that for about $40/day covers dinner in their restaurant or any of about ten partner restaurants. Any thoughts on food cost in the Caribbean; is this a good deal? Are we likely to find the restaurant choices too restrictive?

Cindy Loose: Food in the Caribbean at the finer restaurants tends to be a bit higher than comparable restaurants in D.C.-area because they have to import so many of the ingredients. However, the range of prices vary by restaurant as much as they do here.

I assume you're talking $40 per person for dinner? If so, then the answer of whether it's a good deal depends on the restaurants you have to choose from.

I'd suggest you try to find menus online for a least a couple of the restaurants listed. If you can buy a meal there for $40 or less--meaning all else is equal--I'd allow myself the option of picking my own restaurants. This is particularly true if you plan to travel around, because you might find yourself in a wonderful location where you decide last minute you want to eat. If you plan to mostly hanging close to the resort, then being confined to a handful of restaurants isn't such a big deal. I notice at www.aruba.com, dozens of restaurants are listed, so you can get an idea of the whole range of choices.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello. I am going to be traveling to a major European city with my boyfriend this summer. He has never been, but I have been several times before. What is a good strategy for allowing him to check out the major sights while maintaining my excitement for a city that I love?

I suspect trying to mix some of the classic sights with some off the beaten path kind of activities might be a good approach. Other ideas?

KC Summers: Hey Wash. Wish you'd mentioned which city. Anyway, I've found that when revisiting a place with someone who's never been there, half the pleasure is in seeing it through their eyes -- kind of makes it come alive again, you know? But your idea of mixing in classic sights with new stuff is a good one. Check the guidebooks and Web sites for ideas for new places you can combine with old pleasures. For example, if you're talking about London, you could take him to the Tate Modern (which you've probably seen) via the Thames footbridge (which maybe you haven't). Or do the British Museum, then nip over to the Sir John Soanes House.

Seeing a new show (theater, music, art) in an old venue is another way to keep the excitement alive. Good luck and let us know how you make out!

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Washington, D.C.: Travel Crew, I hope you can help me out! I'd like to take a vacation this time next year. I'm hoping it's the shoulder season in a lot of places, so less crowded and more affordable. I'm looking for somewhere exciting and a little off the beaten path. Maybe somewhere around the Black Sea, or Eastern Mediterranean like Lebanon. Or perhaps North Africa? Cyprus? Any thoughts or recommendations? Thanks so much!

Cindy Loose: This time of year is a good shoulder season in many places. Just avoid the spring break crowd, which has just disappeared in the last day or so.

We've been hearing good things about North Africa; check our Web site for the most recent stories. Cyprus, none of us have been. I'm thinking the Black Sea might be a bit cool this time of year. Lebanon sounds like more adventure than I'd want, but I'm guessing someone will write in to say I'm wrong.

If it were me, I'd consider Croatia and other parts of Eastern Europe.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: For winter break the senior year of college, I had big plans to write most of my thesis. I needed to bring all my materials from DC to Chicago, so I packed three suitcases for the three-week trip, one exclusively full of books. Since I had so much luggage, and quite heavy at that, I took Amtrak since I wouldn't have to pay extra for the additional suitcase or weight. Well, the train was delayed about seven hours because we got caught in a snowstorm and a train ahead of us was derailed and we had to stay to pick up their passengers, but that's another story. Anyway, needless to say I didn't work on my thesis at all, had taken a 16-hour train ride for no reason and had about a ton of luggage to get back to my dorm room (actually an on-campus trailer park) upon my return.

Christina Talcott: Ugh, that sounds awful, just awful! Seems to be a theme here: Books + Travel = Nightmare.

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Olney, Md.: Florida's Route 1 is a US highway as in "US 1". California's is a state Highway, as in "CA 1", the way Rockville Pike is "MD 355".

Christina Talcott: Aha. Makes sense. Thanks!

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Beach, Vacation: Can you recommend a good sunny, beach destination for May? We're looking to take a long weekend trip. Preferably, a southern drive -- anything within 4-5 hours south of DC. Any thoughts?

John Deiner: Hey there. Five hours will get you to the Outer Banks, and it's great that time of year. Whether you can swim is another thing: Water is still pretty darn cold, but the beaches are clean and people-free and warm.

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Richmond, Va.: Re: taking human ashes on the plane

They won't let you take the ashes if they're packed in a metal container, because they can't x-ray them. (A cardboard box would be okay.)

You can't ship them by FedEx or other non-USPS service, because the Postal Service has a monopoly on shipping remains, even if they're ashes. We found this one out by going to FedEx, and when they asked what was in the container, we honestly told them "my father's ashes." Sorry, can't take them.

The Postal Service was happy to oblige, but you have to send them via registered mail, and the earliest they'd deliver would be a day after the burial service, which didn't seem like a great plan.

So we took the package to a different FedEx location, and when they asked what was in the box, we were prepared: It was "materials for a family reunion" which was true enough, so far as it goes, and they accepted the box, and it arrived on schedule.

Scott Vogel: Definitely want to avoid a metal box for ashes.

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Clear water: Nothing beats Lake Tahoe, but if Caribbean-like swimming is your goal, it probably won't work. Though lots of people do swim, it's really, really cold.

Cindy Loose: Beautiful area, though, but you're right, cooooold, even in the height of summer. Surprisingly, while some parts of Lake Michigan are way cold--like around Mackinaw Island--there are very swimmable areas, like an hour or so outside of Chicago. That, by the way, makes for a nice combination city/beach trip.

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Washington, D.C.: The most ridiculous thing I've lugged around is a lamp. I'll spare you the details of how I ended up with that as a (fragile!) piece of carry-on luggage. But after having to board with it two separate times before my original flight was cancelled, then re-boarding yet again the next day on a new itinerary that arrived at a time when I couldn't get a ride and had to make the trip from Dulles to DC by bus and metro, I was really, really tired of that lamp.

What should one expect to pay for a ticket to Amsterdam in August? Any suggestions for things to do/see in Belgium that are within reasonable driving distance from Amsterdam?

Christina Talcott: Ha! Sounds like a bad travel companion. As for Amsterdam and Belgium, I'm afraid I'm going to have to throw it out to the chatters. Anyone have Belgium advice?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Crew,

I'm going to Chicago for a long weekend this summer, which is something I've done rather frequently in the last couple years. I was thinking of taking a little road trip up to Milwaukee this time (probably just for a day). But I'm not sure what exactly I'd do. Any suggestions?

Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Milwaukee: Something's Brewing (Post Travel Section, March 27, 2005)

Cindy Loose: Yeh, it's worth a visit. We've attached our most recent story, but you can go into our archives for a story I did a few years back, too.

Milwaukee has an amazing museum designed by Calatrava. In summer it has tons of ethnic festivals. This summer they're opening a new Harley Davidson museum. There are nice restaurants along the river.

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Anonymous: Greetings, O Titans of Travel, and thank you for your informative chats.

Do any of you have experience with overnight trains in Eastern Europe -- specifically Prague to Krakow? Trying to figure out if I should splurge for a sleeper cabin of my own or take my chances on a room full of couchettes with strangers.

I've read these trains can be unsafe, but what may seem "unsafe" to some could qualify as nothing more than "adventurous" to others. Any thoughts??

(I'm a male traveling alone, FYI.)

Christina Talcott: Anyone out there with EE train experience?

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Good afternoon!

I'm heading to Istanbul with my mother in June. My first time, and she'll be working so I'll be entertaining myself for parts of the day. Any suggestions for things to do together (or for me on my own?)

Thank you!

washingtonpost.com: Two Turkeys: Solo vs. Tour Group (Post Travel Section, July 7, 2002)

John Deiner: Hey, Philly. Just gonna slam out this story for you. It's sort of old, but so is Istanbul and a lot of what we did is still applicable no doubt. One suggestion: Get a lot of sleep before you go to the Grand Bazaar, because that place is exhausting.

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something completely unnecessary? Don't think so...: As a geologist, my favorite souvenir is a piece of rock of the country that I'm visiting... but sometimes the geology of a country is diverse, therefore more than one rock needs to be packed... at the end when I'm going through customs in the airport with a heavy suitcase, always the same question comes up: "what do you have there? Rocks?" And yes, it is necessary.

Christina Talcott: Wow, bet you have some sturdy bags...

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NoVa Native: Boyfriend in Iraq and I are looking to meet somewhere this July for some R and R. We want to scuba dive and are looking at areas that are somewhat centrally located. Right now we are focusing on Egypt (a night or two in Cairo for sight-seeing, the rest of the time in Sharm el Sheikh for diving/beach). The diving is supposed to be great on the Red Sea, but I'm somewhat concerned about the heat in July (and having to dress very conservatively). Our other options we've considered were the Canary Islands, Malta, and Croatia, but Egypt is much cheaper. Will we be miserable there in July? Much thanks!

KC Summers: Depends on your tolerance, NN. Temps can routinely reach 100 degrees F and higher in summer. As one Web site put it, if you like swampy temps above 100, you can save money.

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Help! Aiuto! Auttaa!: I recently moved to the US and my family is visiting me (4 adults). We would like to visit some relatives in Philadelphia for a day what's the best and cheapest way to get there without renting a car? Is there a bus that we can take or is the Amtrak train the only option?

Also I would love to take them to the Baltimore Aquarium but once again I have no idea of how to get there without a car. Any recommendations?

Grazie!

Scott Vogel: You can definitely get from DC to Philly by bus. Visit one of the online consolidators like www.gotobus.com for further information (I found roundtrips of $28, cheaper may be available.) As for a DC-Baltimore trip to the Aquarium, consider going during the week so you can take advantage of MARC trains that go from Union Station to Baltimore's Penn Station, and then take the city's light rail service to Inner Harbor, where the Aquarium is located.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Flight Crew! Love all you do! A dear college girlfriend and I will get-away to Curacao over Memorial Day weekend for much needed R and R. But I'm a big culture vulture, loving all things of the African diaspora and can't lay on the beach for 5 nights/6 days. So we'll definitely spend time at the slavery museum. We'll also do some snorkeling and try to find some local nightlife. Any other suggestions for things to do or accommodations? We prefer off-the-beaten path.

Also, I was trying to find a link to the travel section on "how to plan a vacation" with search tips, websites, etc. Could you post?

Thanks!!

washingtonpost.com: Hurricane? What Hurricane? (Post Travel Section, June 4, 2006)

Washington Post Travel Section main page

Christina Talcott: Here are some links for you!

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Arlington, Va.: You are my heroes! I bought the Sunday WP at 5:30 Sunday afternoon on a whim. I've been looking for a cheap ticket to Europe for the summer to no avail. I noticed your note on page F2 about frequent flier tricks. I had exactly 80k miles on USAirways, but couldn't get a coach class ticket to Europe that way. Because of your tip, I have an open-jaw (!) ticket to Europe Business class. I had never thought of doing that! I can't express how thrilled I am! Thank you so much!!!

washingtonpost.com: Coming and Going (Post Travel Section, March 30)

Cindy Loose: I am soooo happy for you! Thanks for letting us know.

I almost never fly business class, so I was in pig heaven. If it's United, you're in for a treat on the meals on the way out, at least---they have a chef that is actually making restaurant quality meals to serve on board. Way back, same old same old, but still better than coach.

Have a great time.

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On Belgium: There are many wonderful places to visit in Belgium. Brugge is always popular. Ghent is charming. Brussels itself is a great Capital city and easy to explore by foot after an approximately 3 hour train ride from Amsterdam.

Christina Talcott: Great! Thanks!

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re: Eastern Mediterranean: Turkey is the answer for the person looking for a getaway this time next year. We just got back from Istanbul 3 weeks ago, and had so much fun. Everybody tells me it is even better in April/May because of the spring colors, nice weather etc. It is much more affordable than rest of Europe, and this time of the year hotel prices aren't that high, and the places are not crowded. Local people told us normally in the summer a lot of places are full of buses and tour groups, and we were lucky to linger at our own pace. Our friends are there now, and they are also going to Cappadocia, which looks very interesting. When we were there, people were also talking about the Mediterranean Coast, which I understand gets warm enough to swim in May. I have a friend from Cyprus and she tells me it is pretty much sleepy until the summer, kind of like Greek Islands.

Christina Talcott: Sounds wonderful. Thanks!

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Can you provide a link...:...to an article on selecting carry-on bags that fit on airplanes?

washingtonpost.com: All kinds of packing-related goodies: The Packing Issue (Post Travel Section, Nov. 5, 2006)

Christina Talcott: Here you go!

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Alexandria, VA: After reading the Yellowstone story in yesterday's Magazine, I'm considering heading out to Wyoming this spring or summer. I've heard the crowds at Yellowstone can get crazy, but what about Grand Teton? Is Jackson a good place to visit for a week or so?

washingtonpost.com: Prairie Home Companions (Washington Post Magazine, March 30)

Andrea Sachs: Last year, 591,627 people visited Grand Teton in July; at Yellowstone, the number is 822,773. Conclusion: Both are extremely popular parks. However, you find your own open space if you are willing to get off the beaten paths, such as the Jackass Pass. Park rangers can point out more remote areas, but don't skip the big attractions for fear of crowds. They are worth a few elbows and pushes. And, yes, Jackson Hole is a great home base for the week. From there, you can boat, hike, fly fish, llama trek, eat well and play hard. See the chamber of commerce for more info: www.jacksonholechamber.com

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Vacati, ON: Hi, I'm going to find myself traveling between LA and Las Vegas in the next couple of weeks. Besides Joshua Tree, any must-do places to visit? Particularly interested in great/offbeat places to stay or see.

Thanks!

John Deiner: I'm going to throw out a vote for Palm Springs if you get a chance. It's got a really cool vibe to it, and I dunno . . . after hours driving through the desert, it's neat to see so much green.

Other suggestions?

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Pittsburgh: Report from the passport front: My husband never had a passport till now. After numerous delays, including his having to obtain an official birth certificate from out-of-state (as well as natural procrastination!), he finally went to our local post office on March 13 to get his photo taken and submit his completed application (he'd downloaded the form and filled it out at home). He did NOT request expedited service, since the person handling his application at the post office told him that while they were officially telling applicants to allow four weeks, it currently wasn't taking that long.

Long story short: Passport arrived March 26 -- less than two weeks after he applied (including mailing time in each direction).

Cindy Loose: The State Department will be happy to hear about happy customers. I can add that my mother-in-law's renewal only took two weeks, too.

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Silver Spring, MD: Worrying about not getting to see flowing lava at HVNP is kinda like worrying that your trip to Denali will be ruined if the mountain is hidden by clouds.

It's a terrific park, just go and enjoy. And hope you get the Thurston Lava Tube all to yourself, as my wife and I did.

John Deiner: Good point, SS. But now our reader is going to be worried about having to share the Lava Tube.

Seriously, I was in the park when half of it was closed because lava was oozing over the main roads, and it was still unforgettable. Of course, there was lava oozing over the main roads . . .

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eastern europe trains: I just took an overnight train from Krakow to Berlin. I've heard they're safer than they used to be, and certainly nothing happened to make me feel remotely unsafe. That said, I really wished I'd splurged for a nicer compartment with fewer beds - it was hotter than Hades in there, and I was on the very top bunk, which made it really hard to get down (and into the cooler corridor) in the middle of the night without disturbing my bunkmate/strangers.

Christina Talcott: Fabulous! I knew someone would have advice.

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(Still) Married to a New Zealander ...: We're looking for a beach-y getaway first weekend of May and my Kiwi has never been to either Mexico or Caribbean. We've got about 1,500 saved for a four night, five day indulgent break. We don't want to spend hours in planes and wouldn't mind going scuba diving for one of the first days. Any suggestions - which airlines/airports should I go to for the best price/best schedule?

As for my previous comment about lugging unnecessary things ... he's a honey of a guy, but I wish he would learn to read a map!

KC Summers: Probably best for you to start by looking at nonstop flights to the Caribbean (assuming you're talking about leaving from DC?) -- we'll post the list from our last Caribbean issue. Nonstop destinations include Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Aruba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. There are also charters to Cancun. For the best price, I recommend going to a big discounter like Apple Vacations or Liberty Travel and scrolling through their offerings. You can save a lot of money that way.

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washingtonpost.com: You Can Get There From Here, Nonstop (Post Travel Section, March 2)

KC Summers: For the Caribbean/Mexico bound. Thanks Elizabeth!

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Boston, MA: About your unnecessary baggage question: my sister and I drove to Maine for a long weekend. We met at my parents' house (where I was visiting) and she helped me put my bags in her trunk. After a beautiful overnight in Boothbay Harbor, we decided to stay there for the rest of the weekend, but had to move rooms twice, finally to the third floor of our shoreline motel. As we put our loads down, my sister said, "What do you have in this bag?" I said, "I thought it was yours." I opened it: it was our younger brother's suitcase -- filled with hockey skates, pucks etc. which my sister had kindly grabbed from our parents' front hall.

Christina Talcott: Haha, that's great! bet your brother was annoyed.

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McLean, Va.: I recently returned from San Jose, Costa Rica. In going through security there, they took my very small bottle (1oz) of hand sanitizer which was in a requisite plastic bag placed on the conveyer belt. My protests that it was under 3 oz were to no avail. At least one other passenger had the same experience. How common is this getting to be?

Andrea Sachs: I had them (them being BWI officials) take my container of cereal that had a splash of liquid in it. So, I would say: pretty common. Sometimes, you just have to let it go -- or scarf down your breakfast earlier.

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Tampa, FL: To the traveler in Pittsburgh wanting to get away - I moved from Pittsburgh to Tampa last August and I would recommend flying into Tampa. Southwest has direct flights from Pitt to Tampa that are usually affordable, and once in Tampa, you can rent a car and drive to Clearwater Beach, St. Pete beach, Sarasota, Captiva Island, etc. All of these areas are within a hour of Tampa and the beaches are wonderful.

John Deiner: Hey, Tampa...it's a great area. Thanks for the suggestions.

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Have Citrus, Will Travel...: Things taken and not used: too many to recall.

Oddest gift souvenir (for Mom): a lime tree picked up from Home Depot in Florida. We stashed it in the back seat of the car, drove on the auto train and returned to Maryland.

Her reaction: priceless!

(By the way, that little lime tree is still hanging in there!)

Christina Talcott: Aw, that's sweet!

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For NoVa Native who wants to scuba-dive with boyfriend in July: Have you considered the Azores? The Gulf Stream favors the temperatures there, and you can rent equipment on most islands if you don't want to pack your own (see today's Flight Crew topic).

KC Summers: Nice idea, thanks -- wouldn't have thought of that.

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Vienna: Most useless thing I ever took on a trip: a beautiful Boston fern. We'd used several of them to decorate the stage at a conference and when I found out the florist was just going to throw them away, I HAD to have one. She wrapped it up for me and it turned into a giant (4 foot tall) paper-wrapped cone of fern. I had to connect twice on my way back to DC from San Francisco and I lugged that thing all the way through O'Hare AND Hartsfield airports. Carried it on both times (pre-9/11) and Freddy the Traveling Fern lived a long and happy life in my apartment.

Christina Talcott: Glad to hear he's still hanging in there!

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EE Train Travel: As a single female living in Prague in 2001-2001, I did a lot of train travel, both solo and with friends. I made the Prague to Krakow overnight trip solo and it was by far my easiest, nicest train trip. Granted I was in a 3-person compartment by myself, which you obviously can't guarantee. Expect to get woken up twice by armed guards to check passports as you go across border crossings, but you can stay in your compartment. The hardest part was arriving in Poland at 6am half asleep. I'm sure things have changed since I was there, but I don't think it is necessary to book a private compartment. Enjoy, Krakow is beautiful!

Christina Talcott: Love to get solo-women perspectives. Thanks!

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Parents of 3 year old: May a throw in my suggestion for Dutch Wonderland. It is a great small park in PA Dutch country. I loved this park as a child and it was all I remembered when I brought my own kids last summer. There is now a small water play area that the kids enjoyed. The rides are tame, the lines short and there is just a cleaner, calmer atmosphere there than other parks.

Sesame Place is very close to my parents so we go every year. There are shows and dry rides but it is primarily a water park. The staff there can be quite clueless so do not expect much and you will not be disappointed. Take advantage of these parks now because the kids will still love Hershey Park when they are 10 but will long be done with Sesame Place.

Also timing is critical with a 3 year old you are not beholden to the school schedule to use this to your advantage. Go when school is still in session, less older kids, less lines and more riding. Really I miss those days so much.

Scott Vogel: Thanks for the reminder -- I couldn't agree more about the merits of that little amusement park. It's truly great for the little ones. You might want to consider a Hershey package. Some of them include tickets to both parks at reduced prices.

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Go to Sharm: Sharm el Sheik is great and don't be put off by the high heat - there is always a light ocean breeze and rest assured, while it is always prudent to respect the culture, you'll see more half-naked Italian tourists than if you were in Europe. The scuba diving in Ras Mohammad National Park is precious and the Egyptian hospitality is world-famous.

KC Summers: Okay, sounds like they should go for it!

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Packing mistakes: This wasn't a mistake so much as...well, you decide. Once packing for a business trip, my boyfriend put a very heavy hard-covered dictionary in my bag when I wasn't looking. I commented on how heavy the bag was and couldn't believe I had packed so much, but didn't have time to repack so I just left (and this was pre-wheeled bags). He said later he thought I'd open the bag in the office before leaving and find the dictionary, but I didn't and wound up having to lug it for the entire trip. And no, we're not together anymore. He did stuff like this all the time, which can be funny unless you're on the receiving end. I did laugh when I found the dictionary, but I didn't want to always have to check for this sort of thing.

Christina Talcott: Wow, that sounds like an annoying habit.

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DC-Philly: I just moved from DC to Philly so I've got some bus experience down pat. The Chinatown buses that I've taken have been reliable (Apex or New Century 2000 whatnot) but I always get nervous that I'm going to end up on the wrong bus. Roundtrip is $35. Greyhound is always reliable, a lot more organized and $43 (I think). Since Chinatown is first-come seating, I'd recommend Greyhound if you're traveling in a group. Also, if adventure isn't your thing, the Chinatown bus might be a little too stressful.

Scott Vogel: That's what I love about these chats. You name the topic -- we'll find ya a reader who's an expert.

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Washington, DC: Hi Travel Gurus, love your chat.

For your questions about lugging around unnecessary items. I find myself constantly lugging around those 12-packs of soda cans, opening up the box to take one out, and leaving the rest inside my car trunk. That causes the cans to eventually come loose from the box and roll around during my drives.

One day it completely backfired, and after hitting a pothole on I-95, 2 cans burst open, drenching my luggage and all the clothing that was inside, including an outfit I needed for a family function. Needless to say, I now make sure to check for loose cans of soda rolling around in my trunk.

Christina Talcott: Yikes!

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Delaware: My girlfriend and I are heading to Niagara Falls for a long weekend in the middle of June. I would like to take a day tip to Niagara on the Lake and check out some wineries. I'd like to set up a tour of sorts, is there a good website or company I can contact that can help me out with a winery tour?

Cindy Loose: You could check out www.grapeandwinetours.com, although I can't vouch for them personally. There's also niagarawineryguide.com, or I'm sure the tourism bureau would have suggestions too.

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Nationals Stadium: Do you have any experience with Caravan Tours? I'm particularly interested in Central and South America. They seem very reasonably priced.

Thanks.

Andrea Sachs: We have never used them, but according to traveler feedback on independent sites, the overall experience is pretty strong.

Can anyone chime in with a personal account?

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Clear water: On a snorkeling trip in the Keys, we were told the clear water is b/c its too warm to support algae and plankton (what make the water green). I can't imagine the Great Lakes would be crystal clear, nor any lake, really. I love lakes more than the ocean, but they ain't clear. Try the Keys.

Cindy Loose: Not very good beaches in the Keys, though.

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Lugging around: I'm 35 and have been out of the house since 18, but after a recent trip home, I decided I had to have my high school yearbooks, which were heretofore held by the parents. Those things added so much weight to my bag that I had to open the expansion zipper. Then as I got ready to check in, I noticed weight restrictions/fees on NWA's checked luggage, and started worrying that they would decline my bag completely! (Thankfully, they didn't.)

Christina Talcott: Lucky!

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Falls Church, Va.: Re: Unnecessary packing. For their first Thanksgiving visiting us, my mother-in-law said she would make her traditional mashed potatoes -- and she flew up from Memphis with five pounds of potatoes in her luggage!

Christina Talcott: Because you can't get potatoes here....?

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Bowie, Md.: We're planning on a trip to Japan for 2 parents and 1 HS grad in summer 2009. On the list is Tokyo, Yokohama and Hiroshima. We're thinking about being there for 2 weeks. Should we be making flight and hotel arrangements NOW or wait and see if prices change and the dollar gets stronger?

Christina Talcott: Sad to day, I wouldn't count on the dollar rallying... But you'll have to wait till at least this summer to buy flights, anyway.

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Alexandria, VA: Some answers for various posters...

Vayama.com is fine to use for flights. I've used it several times for Europe trips.

For asparagus in Germany, go to Schwetzingen, the asparagus capitol of Germany. It's near Heidelberg.

And for amusements parks for toddlers, you might want to look at small parks in PA like Idlewild.

Christina Talcott: Wow, great!

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Arlington, Va.:

We are toying with the idea of a 10 day trip to Hawaii this July/August, with additional 3 day outbound and inbound stops in San Francisco. I'm finding cheaper fares with two round trip tickets, IAD-SFO and SFO-HNL, rather than a single ticketed fare of IAD-SFO-HNL-SFO-IAD. Will that be a problem? Is Honolulu the best place to enter the State?

Never been to Hawaii. Recommendations of places to stay, things to see, to do?

washingtonpost.com: Hawaii stories from the Post Travel Section archives

Cindy Loose: It's not a problem if you're allowing lots of time in between flights. The problems arise when a person books flight A with plans to pick up flight B. Flight A is late and they miss flight B, and then discover that the agents taking tickets for flight B will not help because they consider you just an ordinary no-show, and you simply lose the ticket for flight B.

It seems like you've got days between the sets of flights, so the scenario I just painted doesn't seem to apply to you.

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LAX Rant: No real question, just wanted to get this off my chest: LAX signage systems leaves MUCH to be desired! I recently flew from DCA to and from HNL through LAX (both ways), and wow, the lack of information astounded me.

Although I booked through Orbitz on "Delta," I actually flew Delta partners the entire trip: Alaska Air between DCA and LAX, and Northwest between LAX and HNL. What no one tells you -- including the signs at LAX -- is that Alaska and Northwest are at different terminals at LAX, so you have to actually leave security and go back through another security checkpoint to make that particular connection! Thankfully, I had ample time both ways to make the connections.

In any event, don't most airports tell you gate information, even for flights in other terminals? ("You're at D12. Your connecting flight leave from A11.") Am I making that up?

Christina Talcott: Consider yourself unburdened.

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Houston, TX: I'd like to find a travel agent to help me plan my October honeymoon in Italy, but there are 10 front and back pages of them in the phone book, and each of my friends recommends someone different. How does one choose a travel agent? Are the Internet sites dangerous?

KC Summers: I always say choosing a travel agent is like choosing a doctor. You probably wouldn't use the Yellow Pages for that. A friend or colleague's recommendation is best (and if you have that many friends recommending travel agents, you're lucky -- just go with someone whose opinion you trust). If no personal recommendations, try going to to the American Society of Travel Agents' Web site, www.travelsense.org -- they have a finder service, though I find it hard to use. You can also try calling the embassy of the country you'd like to visit and see if they have a list of preferred tour operators or agents.

Internet sites are all over the map. There are good ones and shady ones. Look for agents who are members of ASTA and/or the U.S. Tour Operators Association. Also check for a pattern of complaints with the Better Business Bureau. There can be some surprising, high-profile names in there.

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Gaithersburg, MD: For clear Caribbean like water (not in temperature)...check out Lake Superior in Northern Michigan. In summer, fly into Marquette, rent a car, and try Grand Marais, MI. Nice bay, small marina, sand dunes and waterfalls within ten minutes. Three restaurants, two hotels. Beautiful and family friendly.

Cindy Loose: Thanks. And the water is clear in Lake Powell, although it's so deep you're not likely to see the bottom, but very very clean and clear. One of my favorite places ever.

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Dulles, Va.: Hi! I really hope you have time for this one... My friend and I are going to Salzburg for a few days, and are hoping to take a day trip to Vienna while we're there. Is this possible? I think it is only a few hours by train, but how would I book the train tickets? Also, once we get to Vienna, would it be better to do a guided tour (even though we both hate those) or is it doable to see the highlights of the city during a day trip of our own?

Thanks a million!!!

Christina Talcott: Quick suggestion: Try downloading podcast tours for Vienna.

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Funny road sign: I just wanted to share this... I should have taken a picture, but it was in the middle of a busy road and construction zone... We were in the Cotswolds area of the UK when we came upon a traffic sign on a red light that read: "priorities changed." That was it. It made us laugh for about a week... "The light's priorities changed. She is sick of being a working woman and wants to stay at home with the kids instead." I guess you had to be there...

Christina Talcott: Send that pic to us at travel@washpost.com!

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Arlington, Va.: About the New England Road Trip...

Relaxing means not tons of people packed somewhere, so maybe perhaps more rural. We could either drive or take trains. I am not a big fan of the beach, growing up on lakes I am not a big fan of salt water (I know, how awful) unless I am going somewhere I can scuba dive.

It would be a long weekend as I will be done the exam on July 30 and my birthday is Aug 4 so the Fiance and I will have some time, we can take off probably up to a week.

Money is flexible... We went to Barcelona for a week last year and I just want something that isn't quite that pricey.

We like to go to National parks, kayak, explore small towns, EAT and just relax at some nice spots like B and Bs, and boutique hotels (spa time). Weekend getaways we have loved were to the Greenbrier, St. Michaels, Falling Rock at Nemacolin and Biltmore in Coral Gables. Those places had fun things to do nearby, but also seemed relaxing and we just wanted something a little further away to give me more of a vacation since I will be studying pretty much everyday for the whole summer.

Thank you again!

Cindy Loose: Okay, that helps--time is up so feel free to try again next week for others to help, but I'm thinking: Check out flying cheap to say Burlington Vermont, or even taking the train there. Then meander through the countryside up to Montreal, or better yet, Quebec City. Check it out and let me see what you think.

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Christina Talcott: Well, we managed to cover body piercings, Asheville crafts, asparagus and the Grand Canyon, and I think we all learned more than we thought possible about highway numbering systems. Can the recycler from Harrisburg and the zippy Road Numbers answerer please send me your addresses? Thanks to everyone for chatting! Talk to you next week!

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Christina Talcott: P.S. My e-mail is talcottc@washpost.com.

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