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The sugarhouse at Hurry Hill Farm near Edinboro, Pa., sits amid maple trees from which sap is collected in tin buckets.
The sugarhouse at Hurry Hill Farm near Edinboro, Pa., sits amid maple trees from which sap is collected in tin buckets. (By Paulette Dininny For The Washington Post)

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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, March 9, 2009; 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: Seeking out underground art in Paris, sampling the freshest fish in the Florida Keys and tapping for maple syrup in Pennsylvania.

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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Scott Vogel: Hi everybody -- Welcome to this special unseasonably warm weather edition of the Travel chat, where today we're joined by Christina Talcott, Carol Sottili, Andrea Sachs, Nancy McKeon and yours truly. We're here for all your questions, ideas, helpful suggestions for fellow chatters, you name it.

Maybe it's the mercury levels -- Today's contest revolves around wacky weather we travelers sometimes encounter. We want to hear about the most shocking/awful/amazing weather system you've ever encountered on vacation. The chatter with the best story gets a free guidebook to the U.S. city of their choice.

Okay, let's begin...

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Beltsville, Md.: I travel fairly often to visit my girlfriend who is currently in school in Iowa. I use Kayak to find the best rates on flights. Are there other sites that have similar qualities of Kayak? Cheaptickets is pretty good too, but not nearly as user friendly. Thanks! Also, is it possible to get a direct flight to Iowa?!?

Christina Talcott: Hi Beltsville, there are lots of different search engines out there that are similar to Kayak, including two that just launched in February: Fly.com (owned by Travelzoo) and a new one on TripAdvisor.com, which we mentioned in this week's Coming and Going column (link below). The ways Fly.com and TripAdvisor display results look a lot like Kayak, as well as SideStep.com, another search engine you might want to add to your searching arsenal.

As for nonstops, where in Iowa are you going? If it's Des Moines, Northwest (nwa.com) flies there direct from DCA. You might consider signing up for frequent flier miles with them, or at least sign up to get their latest deals. If you fly somewhere other than Des Moines, let me know where and I'll see what I can find. Hope that helps!

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Stormville, N.Y.: I am looking for information for buying or renting a cell phone for use in Romania and Hungary. The phone is to be acquired in this country and should have enough time allowed with it so no minutes would have to be added in Europe.

Nancy McKeon: I had an immediate (but only semi-informed) reaction to your question but checked with Post tech guru Rob Pegoraro to get his thoughts. Rob doesn't think it makes sense to buy a phone and prepaid minutes here when you can get the SIM card, and most likely the phone, for far less overseas. Phones there are "open." The only exception would be if you could buy an unlocked GSM phone for very cheap here, but Rob thinks you'd have to hit eBay or some other reseller for that. Let us know if we're missing your point.

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knitting needles: Help, please. I am flying on Friday and would very much like to knit in the airport and on the plane. Is it permissible to carry on knitting needles? Thanks.

Scott Vogel: Here's the skinny from the TSA's own Web site:

"Knitting needles are permitted in your carry-on baggage or checked baggage. However, there is a possibility that the needles can be perceived as a possible weapon by one of our Security Officers. Our Security Officers have the authority to determine if an item could be used as a weapon and may not allow said item to pass through security. We recommend the following when bring knitting needles on an airplane:

-- Circular knitting needles are recommended to be less than 31 inches in total length

-- We recommend that the needles be made of bamboo or plastic (Not Metal)

-- Scissors must have blunt points

In case a Security Officer does not allow your knitting tools through security it is recommended that you carry a self addressed envelope so that you can mail your tools back to yourself as opposed to surrendering them at the security checkpoint."

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi, I've asked this before. Please, would one of you answer this question?

In your opinion, how has travel blogging affected the travel industry?

Nancy McKeon: Well, my main answer is the obvious: As they've done for every other activity, blogs have turned the search for travel information into a very interactive thing, a real conversation. Of course, I'm including the kinds of reviews you can read on such sites as TravelAdvisor.com.

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Arlington, Va.: I am flying to Orlando on April 15 and have not been able to find a good rental car rate. Do you think the rates will come down in the Orlando area as it gets closer to my travel date? Any suggestions?

Carol Sottili: Try www.hotwire.com. I've always had good luck with that site for rental cars. It won't tell you the name of the company until after you pay, but it uses the bigger firms, including Hertz, Avis and Dollar.

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Fall Wedding: I'm planning to attend a wedding in Denver in early October. Do you think now would be a good time to buy plane tickets or should I wait for the possibility of better deals?? Thanks for your advice!

Andrea Sachs: Airfares now are rock bottom, so if you find a good fare, grab it. On a quick search, I found October fares starting at $176. Maybe I can get a wedding invite, too??!?!?

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washingtonpost.com: Coming and Going (Post Travel Section, March 8)

Scott Vogel: Regarding the above question...

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Overseas tours: Good Day, The chats are great! I am traveling to Russia and Germany this year and want to do some quality sightseeing with guides in the larger cities. I used Viator before, but they do not seem to fit the bill. Any other suggestions? Thanks!

Scott Vogel: In looking for tour operators, I've had good luck by contacting the tourist boards of the cities themselves. Many times, the very best guides are either affiliated with the boards or closely associated with them, and the staff will often have lists and contact info.

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Rockville, Md.: Are you serious? According to SeatGuru, on our international flight on Delta, our jet doesn't even have in-seat entertainment - just the overhead screens. When we flew Delta cross-country last summer from IAD-ATL-LAX, we had in-seat entertainment. But we don't get that on a flight that is twice as long? Please tell me that SeatGuru might be wrong.

Sincerely, A very concerned husband of a nervous flier who needs in-flight entertainment.

Carol Sottili: I wouldn't count on Seatguru being wrong. I haven't flown Delta internationally, but I've been on several other airlines on international flights without personal entertainment systems. Maybe you should buy a DVD player? There is a company called Inmotion that rents them -- they have a store at Dulles airport.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend and I finally found a week when we can take vacation at the same time. We have one week in August and a limited budget. We really want to get out of the country, but stay away from really touristy places like Cancun or Jamaica, etc. We'd like something a little more off the beaten path. I was really interested in the article about Caribbean Island discounts, but most seemed to exclude the month of August. Any suggestions for places to look for a week at a budget of around $1000/person in August? Or are we out of our league?

Andrea Sachs: Actually, there should be a lot of deals in August, because summer is still slow season in the Caribbean. For that budget, you can go to Puerto Rico and feel very far removed from the tourist crowds. Go west to the surfing beaches of Rincon, or central to the coffee plantations and rain forest, or south to Vieques or Culebra, two pristine and unmobbed islands. Depending on air fares, you could also go to Belize and rent a bungalow in a small beach town. Outside of Panama City is also lovely, around Gamboa. And while there are tourists in Barbados, the island does not have the tackiness of, say, the Bahamas.

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Bethesda, Md.: Flight Crew, HELP! My wife and I will be in Italy next month over Holy Week. We're trying to book our train fares online on TrenItalia between Rome and Florence and our subsequent trip between Florence and Venice. We want to book in advance because everybody says that the trains fill up during this peak travel time. Also, there are better rates for booking in advance. However, our credit card has consistently been denied through their website (and no, believe me, this has nothing to do with our credit rating!) We called the credit card company and they say they have no record of being requested for the charge and they weren't the ones who denied the charge. The Italian customer service hasn't been much help either, from what I can get of them. Apparently this is a consistent problem for non-European residents who try to book via TrenItalia's website. Two questions:

1) Do any of you have personal experience with this issue (or know people who have experienced this issue), and if so, how did you (or they) solve it?

2) Is this something that a travel agent could help us out with? Or are they likely going to run into the same problems that we are?

Thanks for your guidance!!!

Scott Vogel: First off, Bethesda, you are DEFINITELY not alone. I too experienced major problems with booking online with Trenitalia recently, and ultimately resorted to waiting until I arrived in the country and doing my booking in various train stations.

But you're right not to do the same thing during Holy Week or other holiday times. First off, I would contact the Italian tourist board (www.italiantourism.com) and if you don't get anywhere with them, check out the list of travel agencies specializing in Italy tourism on that site.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Crew:

I booked a fare to Sydney and Melbourne in October. I have 8 days in between the 2 cities. I have been to the Great Barrier reef, and I don't want to go to Ayers Rock. Is Queensland, Wellington and Auckland doable in 8 days? (Flying SYD to Queensland -- then flying in between the other 2 NZ cities, and then to Melbourne.) A NZ acquaintance thinks it's doable. Do you think it is too much? Should I try Perth, Adelaide or Brisbane instead?

I tend to be a city guy when I travel, but would like to see the scenery in NZ. Is Auckland overrated (it seems from the tripadvisor boards, no one seems to think it is worth more than a day or two)?

thanks

Carol Sottili: It sounds too ambitious to me, but I prefer delving deeper to the see-more-superficially tactic. Going to Perth would be like flying from here to the West Coast -- it's a long trip.

Anyone out there know Auckland?

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Crew,

I'm taking my girlfriend on a brief trip to Charlottesville this weekend (where we went to med school together). It was a little bit last minute, so we couldn't stay in the only B&B near campus (Dinsmore, all booked). And, more importantly, all of the old restaurants we wanted to hit up seem to be gone! OXO, La Avventura, etc.

Does anyone have a good recommendation on a fancy restaurant to go to? Vegetarian options are a must (so Shebeen probably won't work). And anyone else have any hotel recommendations that might provide more of a B&B/boutique feel?

Trip is this weekend! Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: If It Tastes Good, It's in Charlottesville (Post Food Section, May 7, 2008)

Nancy McKeon: There's lots of good eating in C'ville: see the attached story from the Food section's Jane Black. But for accommodations, this is really last-minute, especially for a university town where parents flood the place on special weekends. If this weekend is special for you and your girlfriend, you might try the Clifton Inn (which, I have on good authority, has ONE room left for ONE night at $129; the other rooms are $465 a night) or Keswick Hall, where a junior suite will run you about $380 a night. If those aren't realistic (how special a girlfriend IS she?!), just google Charlottesville B&B, as I just did, and work your way down the list that pops up. As for a fancy place to eat, Keswick or Clifton could fill that bill as well. Or you might like to travel a way out of town, up to Barboursville, where you can eat at Palladio (the winery is owned by an Italian wine company, and the winemaker here is Italian, so the restaurant has a full-blown accent as well!

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NW D.C.: I am thinking about taking a Mediterranean cruise with my husband in the fall (Oct or early Nov) and that I am seeing some good deals (around $2k total for 7-nights oceanview room). I'm interested in your thoughts (and chatters as well) on where to go and which line. Would the Eastern side (Greece, Croatia, Italy) be better that time of year in terms of weather compared to the Western side (Spain, France)? Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, and Norwegian all have options, but the most appealing itineraries are on Costa, which I'm not at all familiar with. Any suggestions about what would be best for a 30-year old first-time cruising couple would be much appreciated.

Carol Sottili: I haven't done a Med cruise, but can tell you that Costa is an Italian line that attracts Europeans. My guess is that NCL would offer the best rates. Celebrity and Royal Caribbean are similar -- Royal Carib typically attracts more families, but this itinerary will not be a favorite for families with younger children.

I'm not sure about weather -- any weather-involved chatters out there?

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Pittsburgh: Wackiest weather? Hubby and I took a long camping trip in the Pacific Northwest to celebrate completing grad school, and one day in mid-September were hiking partway up a glacier on Mt. Rainier. Suddenly heavy winds arose, and we started getting bombarded by grit (glacial till?). All we could do was take shelter under some large bushes and small trees alongside the glacier until the worst of the windstorm subsided, then walk down to our car and drive back to our campsite. But that grit somehow managed to work its way through all our clothes (even the underwear) and (despite our having been wearing headgear) it took a couple shampoos to get it all out of our scalps. Ick!

Scott Vogel: Okay, I'll admit it, I had to look up what glacial till was. In any event, wow, what an experience.

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Metro Center, D.C.: Hi Flight Crew! I need some advice. Every year for our respective birthdays, my boyfriend and I plan a trip for each other. Think somewhere near by (short plane trip) and preferably beachy. In the past we've been to Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, and Huatulco, Mexico. So far all the places I've come up with (Costa Rica, St Thomas) all have airfares of $400 or over. I'm looking for something much cheaper, preferably $300/person tops. This would be for mid June. Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: Does it have to be by plane? What about the Outer Banks? Ocracoke Island is one of my favorites. Or, how about the Cape Fear Coast in North Carolina, Georgia's Barrier Islands or the Florida Keys (you can fly into Miami and Fort Lauderdale for cheap, then drive down and visit the beaches and attractions along the way to Key West).

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Crazy Weather on vacation: This probably won't be all that unusual, but a couple of summers ago, my family and I took a Caribbean cruise. The itinerary was supposed to be St. Thomas-St.Maarten-San Juan-Labadee (Hispaniola). Well, the hurricane brewing down there apparently didn't like that itinerary. We were able to go to St. Thomas and St. Maarten, but then were routed to the Bahamas instead of the other two ports. That's not the cool part though.

I've got AMAZING pictures of the leading edge of the storm that became the hurricane. We were touring St. Thomas (we paid a taxi driver to drive us around) and he took us up to the top of the "mountain" which was more a hill overlooking the port. In each of my pictures you can see half blue sky and half black clouds and then the town below. I'm not a photographer, but they are by far the coolest pictures I've ever taken. I'd have preferred not to have to outrun a hurricane on a cruise ship, but whatever.

Scott Vogel: Gee, that musta been like your own private episode of "Storm Stories." Thanks!

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Balt. Md.: Do you think air fares are rock bottom for travel to Denver in June as well, or will those go lower?

Andrea Sachs: I don't have a crystal ball, but if you see a flight that's cheap now, get it (departure day and month don't matter, in other words). Prices could go up, but for now they are half what they were last year.

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Crazy weather: When I was about nine, a hurricane hit the area of coastal Connecticut, where I grew up. It was July and I was at a Girl Scout day camp that provided one overnight stay for older girls. My group was just old enough for our first overnight campout, but because it was a day camp and not a resident one, our A-frames were wooden platforms with canvas coverings. Not exactly meant to withstand the elements. We ended up having to crawl underneath the platforms for safety.

I was not as scared as I probably should have been--looking back, it was seriously dangerous. But I still have my bandana that proclaims that I survived Hurricane Bob! (Which, incidentally, is a dumb name for a hurricane.)

Scott Vogel: That would have been 1991, which makes you...

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Tampa, Fla.: This year I am turning the big 5-0, and instead of a party, I wanted to take a trip someplace I have always wanted to visit. I would love to go to London, but with the dollar in the tank, I am wondering if it would be worth it to go right now with the dollar worth so little.

I would like to stay somewhere wonderful, but not have to break the bank to do it.

Anyone have suggestions and/or sources I could check out that would help me plan a great trip, but not cost me and arm and a leg?

Carol Sottili: If you've always wanted to go to London, go. The dollar is much stronger against the pound than it was. Not too long ago, you needed $2 to buy one GBP -- now it's more like $1.40. Hotels are expensive there, but there are deals. British Airways (www.ba.com) is offering good fares/free hotel nights. Explore options at www.visitlondon.com.

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Washington, D.C. : So, I'm kinda sorta maybe freaking out a little. I'm traveling to Europe with a few friends and a couple of them are fairly experienced travelers. I haven't left the country in 10 years. They're just informed me that we'll be staying in hostels for the week. We're 4 women, all in our mid- to late 20s. My question - what are hostels like? My friends tell me that since there are 4 of us, it'll pretty much be like a hotel since we'll get our own room. But I've been reading reviews and tips online and seeing things like "bring your own bedsheet because there are bedbugs" or "make sure you have a lock to lock up your bags" make me really skeptical. Is this going to ruin my trip? Or am I worrying over nothing? Any suggestions on things I MUST take with me?

Thanks for the help. I didn't know who else to ask!

Christina Talcott: Ok, deep breath! First thing's first: You're going to Europe! How exciting! Next: Get the name of those hostels your friends booked and go online to find out what kinds of places these are! Hihostels.com has info about individual hostels all around the world and is a terrific place to start. TripAdvisor.com, guidebooks and online travel sites can also give you a good sense of what to expect. Hostels aren't all the same, but the ones I've stayed in in Europe have been clean, compact, user-friendly and simple. Be warned that you might encounter some loud, younger guests, but that generally these places are safe and well-run. The only truly dirty hostel I've ever stayed in was in Chicago, FWIW...

If your friends haven't booked rooms yet and are planning to do it on the ground, you can offer suggestions on where to stay, or you could even book in advance, if that would make you feel better about the situation. Me, I like to book places in advance so I don't have to waste valuable sightseeing (and eating!) time pounding the pavement with my backpack. Plus, doing all that legwork before you leave means you can get a place that's a good price, in a good location, with the kind of amenities you want: A private room for four, with secure storage for your stuff (lockers are best), and preferably places that provide sheets and towels at no extra cost.

On that note, here are a few things I'd recommend bringing: A small lock for luggage, lockers, etc; a compact travel towel just in case and/or some kind of sheet/sarong/blanket thing (I love my beach towel-sized cotton sarong, which I use as a blanket, pillow, picnic blanket, bathrobe substitute...); lightweight flip flops for shared bathrooms or cruddy showers and headphones or earplugs in case you get noisy neighbors or thin walls. Pack all of this in one easy to carry bag (I like a backpack or a carry-on size rolling bag) so you're not dealing with a lot of stuff to haul around.

Finally, don't forget to talk to your friends beforehand to make sure you're all on the same page when it comes to safety, budget and getting along on the road. Check in with us again before, during or after with any more questions or comments, and have a fabulous trip!

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Stormville, N.Y.: Thanks for the quick reply on phone for Europe. This is for a friend who flies to Budapest and transfers for a flight to Romania. So no chance to buy one in Hungary. They do not sell any in the terminals. (In addition,in Hungary you need to prove that you are a resident to buy one -- security... terrorism.) She speaks Hungarian but not Romanian. She wants to have the phone upon arrival in Romania to contact relatives, and possibly to call them from the airport in Budapest. So the language is one problem, the other possible problem is if residency is required there, too.

washingtonpost.com: I recently was in Spain and France and rented a phone before I left via CallInEurope.com. I don't know whether they cover Hungary and Romania, but the service was very convenient and I was happy with it. I would only suggest making sure the phone is charged before departure, fortunately when I landed in Paris there were charging stations around and I had time to wait for my travel companion. -- Elizabeth

Nancy McKeon: Ugh. Restrictions such as those make easy solutions tough. But take a look at our colleague Elizabeth's idea. Go to that Web site (I couldn't tell quickly whether it would cover Romania and/or Hungary, but you could ask them) and see if that might do the trick--they can also rent you the phone, and your friend can do it here, before she leaves. Good luck.

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Wild Weather Story: I was in Thailand with a good friend of mine when we decided that it might be fun to take a sea kayak around some of the closer islands. It was grey and windy but otherwise seemed fine. We had only been out for 20 minutes or so, when I noticed a strangely shaped cloud several miles away. As I looked at this trumpet shaped cloud, it dawned on me that the wind was picking up and the sky was getting darker. We quickly decided that it may be better to get to shore as quickly as possible, furiously fighting the waves and learning that big waves are best met with the kayak perpendicular to them. We made it back in record time and got to experience the joy of the sun coming out as we reached shore and the funnel-cloud faded harmlessly away in the distance. My arms still hurt.

Scott Vogel: Yikes - I'll bet that was some furious paddling.

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Charlotte, N.C.: I know I'm supposed to be saving all of my money for retirement, but I couldn't pass up the price on round trip tickets to Italy for Spring Break. I found tickets from Charlotte to Milan for $488 rt -- isn't that amazing? I had a question on touring Rome while having a rental car. We are going to visit Rome mid-week, so we need to find somewhere to stay (a family of 4) that is nice and safe and has free or cheap parking near the metro/train station. Do you (or other chatters) have a suggestion? Thank!

Carol Sottili: Wow, you're going to drive in Rome? Brave person. I drive in NYC with no fear, but Rome scares me.

As for hotels, look at www.enjoyrome.com for options. Any chatters have a favorite?

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San Francisco, Calif.: For the chatter asking about squeezing three New Zealand cities in between Sydney and Melbourne, he/she should stay on the North Island and go between Auckland and Wellington. Both cities are worth two or three days each, which leaves time to see some of the incredible scenery in between them or elsewhere on the North Island. There's a national park -- Tongariro, I think -- that's just about between the two cities.

Don't get me wrong, Queenstown and the South Island are amazing, too, but getting there would take a lot of effort in a limited time.

Carol Sottili: Thanks!

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Seat Entertainment: As of about two weeks ago, United flights from LAX to Sydney and back did not have in-flight entertainment. Always bring your portable music player and a good book.

Carol Sottili: That's my usual plan of action.

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Hollywood, Md.: I've found some really inexpensive airfare/hotel packages to Dublin Ireland for this spring, but I'm wondering if there is enough to do in Dublin and the surrounding area to fill up five days? Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Nancy McKeon: I would vote yes, but if you get bored, you can always rent a car and try out another city, or get out into the awesome countryside. Ireland just isn't that large a country--a short ride can take you to a different world.

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Washington, D.C.: I know that now is supposed to be a great time to travel if you have the funds, but I'm wondering if we've already seen a lot of the deals pass? I am traveling to Jamaica in very early March. I missed some specials about a month ago and am wondering if I should take what I can get now or if it's likely there may be more price cuts in the future? Under normal circumstances I would just book, but it seems like there may be more deals to come?

Carol Sottili: Did you mean very early April, as it's already March 9? Air Jamaica is offering discounted airfares - go to www.airjamaica.com.

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Delta No entertainment!: Delta has NO entertainment on each seats for some long flights, that is positively true :( I had a flight with them from Jordan to New York for 13 hours just like that! And then from NY to Egypt 10 hours... those are really long flights and there's no electronic that can last that long.

Carol Sottili: A DVD player may be a good investment.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi, Flight Crew. I'm planning a day trip to New York, and I'd like to see an evening Broadway show, and then return to D.C. right afterwards. Are there any trains or buses that would depart late enough at night to make this work? Not sure how much time I should allow to get from the theatre district to whichever departure point.

Scott Vogel: I'm not finding any trains or buses that leave later than about 11 p.m. (anyone out there know of any?) and in most cases I wouldn't advise chancing a post-theater trip from Broadway to the various embarkation points.

Here's a thought, though. Any chance you can leave during the week? More and more shows are starting to have a 7 p.m. curtain on Tuesdays, and that extra hour might be all you need.

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Washington, D.C.: Some of the wackiest travel weather I've encountered was actually last weekend! Having never been to North Carolina, my husband and I plotted a weekend trip to Cape Hatteras. We saw the possibility of rainy weather but decided to chance it. The rain whipped up against the car as we drove through the national seashore, only letting up once we had comfortably settled into our hotel room. (Ocean view for $60! - definitely the off season. There wasn't a restaurant open in Hatteras Village.)

But the worst part was the drive home, when the rain turned to snow right about at Richmond. The I-95 bypass around the city was not plowed, and as we crept along in the right lane, we saw car after car landing in the ditches on the side of the road. We made it home safely, but much later than we had anticipated!

Scott Vogel: Whoa, you were caught in the thick of it. I love the "we saw the possibility ... but decided to chance it" part. Amazing the things that winter can get us to do.

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London: For Rockville: Last year when I flew on Delta (round-trip, Gatwick to Atlanta) neither plane I was on had in-seat (seat-back?) entertainment, just the overheard screens that come down and the big one at the front of the cabin. It wasn't too bad flying to Atlanta, but coming back I was in the second row in the cattle-car cabin and the giant illuminated screen was a nuisance. At least on that flight they gave out eyemasks.

Carol Sottili: I think this is fairly common on many larger airlines whose fleet contains lots of older planes.

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Charlottesville: For the C'ville visitor: Hamilton's (downtown) is a good choice for dinner; for lodging, the South Street Inn is downtown, too, or for something more bucolic try the Inn at Sugar Hollow in White Hall. For the person going to Australia, I spent two weeks in Queensland in 2007 and found plenty to do. Or how about Tasmania?

Carol Sottili: Another vote for Tasmania! I'd love to do a biking trip there.

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For London-bound: Also check out www.londontown.com for discounts. It's been a few years since I used it, but I got a hotel room in Knightsbridge, a block from Harrods, for only 80 pounds a night (going rate was upwards of 220 pounds). Can't hurt to try. They also have discounts for attractions and stuff.

Carol Sottili: Another good idea.

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OVERRATED: Auckland is nothing special, but really, none of the cities in NZ are worth more than a day or so each. Wellington has the most to offer I think.

In terms of scenery, the South Island is definitely where to focus. Dunedin is spectacular and has lots of wildlife to see as well (penguin reserve, albatross colony, etc.).

Carol Sottili: More Australia/New Zealand recommendations.

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Ex-Washingtonian: We were living in the DC area in June 1972, when we had a car trip to Illinois scheduled to see relatives. Hurricane Agnes was forecast to strike DC, then head up the coast towards Long Island, then up toward the Maritimes and out sea. The Hurricane had other notions, however, and decided to follow us on I-70. We left after work, only got as far as Belle Vernon, in Western Pennsylvania (where semi-trucks were splashing us so we could hardly see), so we spent the night at a motel and tried again in the morning. It rained all the way to Columbus, was gray and cloudy past Indianapolis, and even as we crossed the state line into Illinois we could see the line of clouds to the east. Apparently Agnes was so huge that half of the storm was out to sea to the east of the East Coast -- a real whopper!

Scott Vogel: More storm stories... You guys are intrepid!

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Arlington, Va.: Any advice for budget bike tour companies? My mom really wants to go on a bike trip somewhere (anywhere outside the US), but all the companies I've found are REALLY expensive. I'm looking for $2000/under per person for a week.

Andrea Sachs: Bike tours are typically expensive. However, there are ways way to save money. For example, take an inn-to-inn trip in which the company shuttles your bags, but you are your own guide. (Check out the trips from PureAdventures and for bike and barge tours, 4Winds.) You can also try to join up with a local bike group that organizes trips abroad. Bike tours in the States are cheaper, too (first off: you don't have to pay as much airfare). Bicycle Adventures has some California and Oregon tours for under $2,000 (Hawaii is a bit more).

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RE: Australia Travel: Adelaide is a nice little city with a European feel to it. You can do day trips from there to Kangaroo Island (it's a short flight), which is really nice, albeit not an urban experience at all. If you're feeling more adventurous, you can fly from there to Coober Pedy, spend the night in an underground hotel and visit the opal mines.

Carol Sottili: More ideas.

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Washington, D.C.: I was wondering if anyone has ever been to any of the Caesar's Resorts in the Poconos. The ones with the round beds and heart shaped jacuzzis. I remember the ads from when I was a kid. We want to plan an easy anniversary getaway. No planes, no rental cars and not much pressure to do anything but be together. Wondering if anyone is Chatland has any experience with these resorts.

Scott Vogel: Gee, uh, no one here has been there. Come on, somebody, give us more on those jacuzzis!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: For Chevy Chase, Md. - If you're considering staying in Australia, some thoughts: we spent 3.5 weeks in Australia this past November, and some of the best times were the few days we spent down in Tasmania. It's a totally different feel from the rest of the country (much more rural than the cities, with a more rainy/cool climate - and LOTS of sheep). Wineglass Bay (on the Freycinet Peninsula) was gorgeous, and we ate fantastic food. The opposite of Tasmania was Noosa Heads, a resort town about 2 hours north of Brisbane. We sat by the pool, walked through the Noosa National Park, and went up to Fraser Island (the world's largest sand island, and home to the last wild dingoes).

Carol Sottili: Thanks.

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RE: Show in NY: There is always Amtrak #67 with a 3 am departure out of Penn Station (and a 7 am arrival in Washington -- also stops at New Carrollton). While not the best, I have used it several times to come back from late events in the city. No sleep, but Penn Station is still very much alive at that hour and lots of uniformed police around.

Scott Vogel: Here's another idea -- I agree it's not the most convenient connection, hey, thanks!

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Alexandria, Va.: Going to Rome in September, but no idea as to where to stay. With so many choices, how does anyone know what a good (and safe) place is?

Nancy McKeon: Okay, it's homework time--for you. You've got to come to grips with what you want to concentrate on in Rome, then figure out a hotel that's convenient to all that. To start, go to Venere.com. It lists 600 hotels in Rome, plus 540 B&Bs and 125 self-catering apartments (and more, but that's enough). Each one shows where it is on a Rome map that marked with the local attractions. Personally, I'd stay away from the Repubblica-Termini area; there are plenty of luxury hotels there, but once you start sliding down the economic scale, I think there are some pretty sketchy places and side streets there. Prati and Vatican are lovely neighborhoods for locals to live in, but a bit far from what we think of Romanness (yes, yes, I know, the Vatican, but other than the basilica and the museums, it's pretty broad and spread out over there, as I recall). The area around the Pantheon is lively and small-scale, and some swear by the neighborhood charms of Trastevere. Last year I wound up near the Spanish Steps, in a small B&B high atop the shops on the Via Condotti (Venere calls this the Colosseum area)--a modest place in a very chic nabe, and just around the corner from the Inghilterra.

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Washington D.C.: For the poster who asked if there was enough to do in Dublin: Do you like to drink? If so, I can assure that if you went to 50 good pubs a day, you would only scratch the surface.

Nancy McKeon: Amen. And book stores.

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Wheaton, Md.: Going out to San Diego for a family reunion in July. The reunion starts on Friday, and we'd like to find a less expensive hotel from Tuesday night thru Friday morning. Since the beach hotels are more than we'd like to pay, is there an area with something interesting or worthwhile to walk to (NOT Hotel Circle), like a small commercial area - think downtown La Jolla, but in SDO, just less expensive and not too far of a drive from the beaches. Not asking for much, am I? Mille Grazie!

Carol Sottili: Search for hotels in Hillcrest or Old Town. Don't know if they're cheaper, but should be less than staying downtown or at the beach.

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For Charlottesville B&B:: You MUST check out the Inn at Meander Plantation. My husband and I went last month and absolutely adored it. It's technically a B&B, but it feels much more like a boutique hotel. A little pricey, but definitely worth it. And definitely check out their restaurant, whether or not you stay there! Call ahead and ask about vegetarian meals - I'm sure they'd accommodate.

Nancy McKeon: Here's for you, boyfriend who waited till the last minute to book a B&B!

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Burke, Va.: I am would like to spend a week in a mountain destination within 1 days driving distance this summer . My family (including a 5 year old and a 1 year) would rent a house/cabin/condo for the week (my youngest does not behave at restaurants so we need a kitchen). We have been to Canaan Valley a couple of times and enjoyed it but want to go somewhere new. We are thinking of somewhere near Shenandoah Park or the Poconos but I am open to other ideas. Do you have a suggestion for a mountain family-friendly destination?

Christina Talcott: Within Shenandoah National Park, you can rent cabins or suites with kitchenettes (microwaves and fridges) for light cooking (www.visitshenandoah.com). Lots of parks in Maryland and WV have nice cabins, also, for very reasonable rates. Lost River State Park, not far from Canaan Valley in WV, is a mellow place with a variety of full-kitchen cabins, some with wonderful porches, plus a pool and lots of hiking trails (wvstateparks.com). Also in WV, Blackwater Falls and Cacapon have cabins, too. In MD, I liked my stay at Herrington Manor State Park, which has a lake and hiking trails and fully equipped cabins and in the mountains of Western Maryland (www.dnr.state.md.us). HomeAway.com and VRBO.com also list rental properties that aren't in parkland (VRBO lists the lovely Sunrise Farm House in Warm Springs, Va., which I've been eying for my own next cabin getaway). Any other suggestions out there?

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London: For Tampa: Yes, this is definitely the time to consider coming - the exchange rate is more in your favour now than it has been in years (save a few months ago, when it was exceedinly dangerously low). The one thing to watch for, however, is that many locals are having "staycations" because the pound is so dismal, which might make it slightly more difficult to get to specific attractions/more crowded, but I suppose that's really only noticeable to those who are accustomed to the flow of people through the year. But there are great deals to be had, if you can take a little time to research them. Many hotels and B&Bs offer discounts through the seasons, and a quick Internet search should lead you to sites that pull together offers. If you are comfortable with the thought of hostels, I suggest staying with Hostelling International-affiliated ones (there's a low membership fee, but at least over here there are perks beyond the three pounds off per night members get), because those tend to attract people who are less into partying all night with strangers and more into getting to know strangers but being able to get some sleep. Don't worry about "youth" in their name - I've never heard of an upper age limit at a YHA hostel. But you can sometimes find better deals at B&Bs or even small hotels, especially if you compare prices between those and private rooms in hostels.

When might you be able to be in London? Four dates to watch out for, as they are big for local travel (and so prices go up): Good Friday and Easter Monday bank holidays (10 and 13 April), early May bank holiday (4 May), and spring bank holiday (25 May). Then we've only one more bank holiday before Christmas (31 August).

Carol Sottili: Thanks much!!

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More on electronic devices: As someone else pointed out, some flights are so long they outlast your battery life. There are various devices you can use to get around this. (I haven't yet taken a trip that is longer than my iPod's endurance, but I'm sure I've seen an external battery pack for iPods. If I were already spending the money for a really long trip, I would factor in that purchase as a vacation cost.)

Carol Sottili: Good point.

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washingtonpost.com: Hostel Environments: Eight Bedtime Stories (Post Travel Section, Aug. 6, 2006)

Christina Talcott: Here's a package we ran a few years back on hostels, for the nervous Europe-bound traveler.

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Alexandria, Va.: Re: Dublin in 5 days. YES! There is certainly enough to do. We just spent 6 full days there. The city is highly walkable, and one can spend a whole day or two just strolling around the city, stopping for tea or cakes or pints every few hours. THere are great museums too (many free), and the city's rail system (DART) goes to many of the seaside towns, which are worth a day trip themselves (esp. the Cliff Walk in Howth, which is lovely, or the Cliff Walk from Bray-Greystone, which I have not yet done).

Nancy McKeon: More raves for Dublin.

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Regarding Hostels in Europe....: To the four women traveling in Europe and planning to stay in hostels... seriously, take a look at staying at more central hotels instead. With four people sometimes it even works out cheaper (or at least about the same) for a better location and a better experience. Too often the hostel is farther away from the city center. You would be amazed at the deals that you can sometimes find in really nice hotels if you have three or four people sharing, even in Europe.

Christina Talcott: Thanks for the advice! Yes, sometimes hotels can be even better deals than hostels.

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In-flight entertainment: Never rely on the airline to entertain you. I once was on a transatlantic flight that had individual movie screens -- and mine was broken (and the flight was full, so I couldn't switch seats). Sometimes the movie selection is terrible. Sometimes the choices are the same on the return trip, so you've already watched everything. Sometimes the crew stops the movie due to turbulence.

If you take long trips and don't always want to read, you should invest in a small DVD player or video iPod. I never go on any trip without my iPod Touch, loaded with a bunch of TV episodes and usually a rented movie. (And since the introduction of third party applications last year, it also has several games and e-books, including on the new Kindle app.)

Carol Sottili: Good points. Also, planes offering different amenities can be swapped at the last moment.

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Halifax, Canada: Three members of a group of 4 heading for a guys' golf weekend at Pinehurst N.C., arrive at Raleigh-Durham airport with about 5 hours (10 am - 3 pm) to kill before the fourth member arrives. Any ideas for something interesting to do or see while we're waiting for our friend? Anything worth seeing in Raleigh or the neighbouring towns? Thanks.

Scott Vogel: There definitely are things to do. North Carolina native Jenny Abella, one of our editors here, writes "Go to Chapel Hill (specifically Franklin Street), as quintessential a college town as you can get. Trolley tours in Raleigh (and tours of gov's mansion). Duke chapel/campus. if it's nice there's Duke gardens. oh and Duke's Nasher art museum."

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Washington, D.C. - hostels: Thanks so much! I feel better. And you're right - how worried can I be while on vacation! We're going to Greece, btw, in case you were wondering. I'm told that it's going to be beautiful and the average temps (in the 60s) will be perfect for sightseeing. So I'll keep taking the deep breaths! Thanks again!

Christina Talcott: Oh, sounds like a lovely trip. I forgot one last thing: Take plenty of memory cards for your camera!

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Weather: When I was 6, my family went on our first vacation. We went to Topsail Island, North Carolina. It was my parents, myself (6), my brother (3), my sister (1), some friends of the family, and their daughters (4 and 1). We got down there, only to have to evacuate one day later because of Hurricane Bob. My parents didn't want to go to a shelter with so many young children, so we went two hours away to some relatives of our friends. I remember them taking us to a beach there, but it got so windy that the sand was stinging us. I remember walking back to the car under my towel, like a halloween ghost who forgot to cut holes in their sheets. But the worst part was that night. I slept in a guest bedroom that had a painting of someone who looked just like Bob from Sesame Street. I don't know how I slept that night, but as a six year old, it was horrifying.

Scott Vogel: OH NO! That Hurricane Bob really messed with our childhoods.

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Judiciary Square: I'm looking for a fairly close long weekend trip over Easter. I'd like something very toddler friendly and was thinking of the beach, either Ocean City or Virginia Beach. Does anyone know if the rides are open in OC on the weekends in April? Or any other ideas for a weekend away? Thanks.

Andrea Sachs: From what I can tell, the Ocean City boardwalk does not open until late spring, around Memorial Day weekend. But Virginia Beach is a great idea for families, especially with the aquarium and marine center and the naval ships of nearby Norfolk. You might also consider taking the ferry from Lewes to Cape May, which has a host of distractions. Just remember this is off-season, so many attractions may have limited hours or be closed.

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bike tours: Smithsonian runs some interesting European ones. I was eyeing a Burgundy one for the fall, not sure about price though.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the tip.

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Typhoon!: In 1977 as a 20 year-old sailor, I visited Hong Kong. I was determined to get a tattoo. I visited several tavern, working up some nerve. But, as an added surprise, I was meeting friendly compatriots: flight attendants with time to kill, lonely American women who wanted to talk about home. It was one of the greatest days I had on liberty. I collected several phone numbers with the promise that the next day, when I was once again on liberty in Hong Kong, I would call and reconnect. Finally, I made my way to the tattoo parlor. As I arrived, I bumped into a shipmate. We were being immediately recalled to the ship; the ship was leaving within the hour getting out of the path of an incoming Typhoon. I made it back to the ship and watched as we left port mourning the dates I would never have the next day. Bounced around the ocean like a tin can for several days. Never got the tattoo, either.

Scott Vogel: That darn typhoon, keeping you from those lonely American women...

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Washington, DC 20009: Quick question - Do I need a car to visit Myrtle Beach? I am finding well-priced air/hotel but don't know if it's a walkable area for simple things like dining and convenience stores. Is there a better part of the area for such? Much thx!

Carol Sottili: Rent a car. You'll have more choices if you can drive. But if it's cost prohibitive, pick a hotel in the downtown area close to where Route 501 ends.

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Baltimore Md.: Phone for Hungary: Check out Mobal World Phone. You buy it, you don't rent it. It can cost as little as $49 and comes with a UK phone number, yours for life. You can make incoming/outgoing calls in Hungary for $1.25 a minute. This purchase perhaps only makes sense if you have future trips planned, but it is an easy option.

Now my question: I heard a report on NBC news last night about how the cost of plane tickets is going down. I am going to the UK in mid July and wonder if that will be an exception or if I should wait as long as possible to book? Thanks.

Nancy McKeon: Okay, here's a good tip for the Hungarian/Romanian phone person. As for your question, good Samaritan, I always bounce these to Carol, our flight/Deals guru. I think she would tell you to sign up for alerts and pounce when a price appeals to you. But my crystal ball is cloudier than hers. Farecast.com and Farecompare.com are two sites that track fare trends, so they may help.

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Philadelphia, Pa. : For the chatter asking about Caesars Poconos Resorts, I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I've been there (heart-shaped tub and everything). We were there in July (can't remember which one) and enjoyed the paddleboats, pool, and tennis courts. Overall, if you recognize that it's going to be completely ridiculous (everyone asks if you're on your honeymoon/babymoon/engagementmoon), you can have quite a good time. One other potential bonus: when we were there (2007), they were affiliated with Starwood, so we got upgraded, thanks to my husband's platinum status.

Scott Vogel: There you go -- admit the ridiculous!

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Train NYC to WAS: I think you read that incorrectly Scott. There is NO connection on that 3am from Penn Station Amtrak, it just ALSO stops at New Carrollton (no check baggage though), if you happen to live there. It also goes on to Alexandria/King Street but the train tends to get held up at Union.

Scott Vogel: Thanks for the clarification.

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Olney, Md.: This site, www.italiarail.com, sells tickets in US$ and will mail valid Trenitalia tickets to your home. I have used it before and they are valid tickets. But as always in Italy, you have to have it stamped in the yellow machine at the end fo the platform before you get on the train.

Scott Vogel: Thanks for the tip -- And yeah, don't forget to validate.

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McLean, Va.: Hi Crew--Just signed up for a tour of southern Italy in late September. When is the best time to start looking for fall airfare sales from D.C. to Rome? Right now there is nothing below $1000 for an economy seat.

Carol Sottili: There is no best time. You just need to keep tracking the fares. Be prepared to purchase as soon as a sale is announced. Various third-party booking sites (www.orbitz.com, www.travelocity.com) and aggregator sites (www.kayak.com, www.farecast.com) have sale notification systems.

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NoVa.: For Italian train reservations last November, I used AAA's travel agency, and I had no problem getting the rail pass and train reservations I needed. All I had to do was give them our passports and Visa card.

Scott Vogel: Here's another for getting Italian train tickets stateside. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Question: $750 airfare (all taxes incl) to Paris from Dulles in mid-June. One stop. Good deal? Or likely to go lower? I'd prefer nonstop but Air France is at about $1300 right now....

Carol Sottili: That sounds good for mid June.

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Alexandria: Hi Flight Crew - How much should I expect to pay for a round trip ticket to London in mid-August? I am seeing fares in the $700-800 range. Is that high?

Carol Sottili: No, that's not high for summer, as long as it includes taxes/fees.

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Mexico safety?: Hi all! Is Mexico too unsafe to visit right now, or is it just the usual situation? I'm thinking about going (female, solo) to a beach retreat, and I'd have to go through Mexico City. I've been to Mexico before and know the usual precautions, but I'm wondering if there's something else going on that I need to be aware of. Thanks!

Nancy McKeon: As you obviously know from reading the paper, there are places in Mexico where it's definitely too dangerous to hang about these days. That activity may be spreading, but is largely confined to the border town areas. Mindful of vacationer revenue, the Mexican government is beefing up security at beach resorts (on both coasts). The U.S. State Department also points to Oaxaca state, Acapulco and Mexico City as places for heightened vigilance. That said, follow the usual precautions.

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For the Charlottesville visitor...: Try the Silver Thatch Inn. Decently priced, nice restaurant, and bend over backwards to cater to this vegetarian with food allergies.

Nancy McKeon: More on C'ville!

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New Market, Md.: I am visiting Los Angeles in early April and have been looking at helicopter tours of the area. Is there any way to check the safety records of the companies that offer this service?

Andrea Sachs: I would contact the LA tourism office to see if they have any accredited heli-tour companies on its roster. You can also call the tour companies and ask about the pilot's credentials, and get references of past passengers. You might also check with the FAA and the Flight Safety Foundation.

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Central Cal: The week prior to my senior year in HS, a friend and I took a 'California Vacation'. Sleeping bags in the back of my Mustang driving around the state.

We found ourselves in Lake Tahoe enjoying the lake and the cooler, mountain weather. Until nightfall.. The weather clouded up, cold winds began to blow and reports of possible snow flurries came over the radio. Of course we had no tire chains and being young and inexperienced in snow mattters we decided to beat a retreat. Once on the highway, the snow really started coming down. I turned on the wipers, which hadn't been used in a coon's age. Dry and broken, they fell dead away. I'll never for get driving around Lake Tahoe, heads hanging out of the car, with snow blowing in, teeth chattering away. And this happened the last week of August.

Scott Vogel: Some more great anecdotes. Will post as many as I can.

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Anonymous: Not exactly freaky weather for the time of year, but it had results that were unusual to me: in Bolivia one June there was snow, and I saw children making not snowmen, but snow llamas (the four-legged kind, not like the Dalai Llama).

Scott Vogel: Here's another...

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Arlington, Va.: In December 2004 I was scheduled to drive to Ohio for Christmas on Thursday (I believe it was the 22nd). Wednesday morning I was at physical therapy, saw the storm approaching and changed plans. Left a very nice sunny and 40s in D.C. to get a bit colder, but still sunny all through Pa. About 5 miles from the border with Ohio the rain started. It quickly switched to snow and the usual hour to ninety minutes to Akron turned into 4 hours. All the time telling my parents we were going to wait out the storm, so as to not worry them. Showed up after dinner, parked the car, came out the next morning to 24 inches on top of the car. Luckily people in Ohio know to slow down, don't speed, don't hit the brakes and stay in your lane unless absolutely necessary. We didn't see one spin-out or accident in our crawl along 80 and 77.

Scott Vogel: And another ...

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Arlington, Va.: Planning our honeymoon to Italy for late October/early November. Want to go for two weeks and definitely want to visit Rome, Florence and Venice. I'd be interested in any and all tips you have for anything (airfare, getting around in country, sites not to miss, etc.). Love your chats and am so excited that I finally am in need of some exciting travel advice!

Nancy McKeon: There's not world or time enough to answer your broad question. Read some of our earlier stories (search on www.washingtonpost.com/travel), invest in a guide, then hit our well-traveled readers with specific questions, okay?

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Rockville, Maryland: My wife and two young sons (ages 4 and 2) are headed up to the New England area at the end of April and beginning of May for two family events on consecutive weekends (one event in N.J.; one event in Mass.). We thought of making a trip out of it but need some help trying to figure out what to do. We started looking around and saw plenty of aquariums, children's museums but we do a lot of that already. We're not really old enough for Pilgrims and art museums, although the Eric Carle museum and the Dr. Seuss gardens are options.

We are a little concerned about the weather but are troopers and don't mind a little rain. The kids travel well and like to be on the go and doing things, both indoors andout. We don't mind hotel-hopping but are not against finding a central location and taking day trips. Our initial thoughts are to do things in the morning and early afternoon, leaving the late afternoon for travel and naps (and peace and quiet for mom and dad).

Any thoughts and suggestions you may have would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks

Christina Talcott: I like the idea of finding one place and doing side trips nearby. Since you mention the Eric Carle museum, I'm guessing you'll be in the Amherst area for the Mass. part. Why not find a nice rental, maybe on a lake, nearby and set up camp there for a mellow week? Andrea wrote about Northampton a couple of weeks ago (link coming up), which might give you some ideas. Of course, there's so much to do in Boston - make way for ducklings! Sailboats and cobblestones! - that you could easily entertain the kids there for a week. Other suggestions?

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Ozzie or Kiwi: What about Tasmania? A short flight from Melbourne or brave the seas on the ferry.

Carol Sottili: A third vote for Tasmania.

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Re family week in the mountains: We loved Cheat River Lodge in Elkins, WV. www.cheatriverlodge.com

Christina Talcott: Terrific! Thanks!

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Houston, Texas: Re: Poconos. The chatter might be thinking of the "Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge" commercials -- where all you have to bring is your love of everything. Sadly, they went bankrupt and I believe that particular property is closed. I looked into going last year for a weekend only to be disappointed by this news! :)

Scott Vogel: Thanks -- Now I'll never get their old jingle out of my head!

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washingtonpost.com: Northampton, Mass.: Where the Alternative Goes Main Street (Post Travel Section, Feb. 15)

Christina Talcott: For the New England-bound family.

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Anonymous: For the chatter looking for a mountain getaway, my wife and I rented a cabin in Berkeley Springs, and it was fantastic. Pet-friendly, very modern. The owners were really easy to work with. http://www.wvcabinretreat.com/

Christina Talcott: Great suggestion. Thanks!

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Budget bike tours: Sherpa (http://www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk/tours/cycling/cycling.asp) does self-guided cycling tours.

Scott Vogel: Regarding the earlier query.

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Sydney: New Zealand's cities are VERY skippable. If you're a city lover, don't waste your time in this unbelievably gorgeous country.

I'm a dual US-Australian citizen and have spent a lot of time in NZ (and in Oz, of course). I don't have time to shoot down all of the poor advice I see in the Post re: travel down under. But, please, do not miss Queenstown, Nelson/Abel Tasman National Park, one of the two glaciers (Fox or Franz Josef), and Milford Sound in New Zealand and ALL on the SOUTH ISLAND. That's not to say there's nothing to see on the north island.

Crikey.

Carol Sottili: Really? Poor advice? I hate those types of blanket statements with no proof.

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Ellicott City, Md.: For Chevy Chase: We spent eight days in Queensland a few years ago. Four days in Port Douglas, and four days in Mission Beach, which was a perfect vacation. Plenty of different things to do each day, but very laid back at the same time. I spent three weeks in New Zealand about ten years ago and covered a lot of ground but was very rushed. Take your eight days and hang around Queenstown and take a few days to go to Milford Sound (I didn't -- no time!) New Zealand deserves at least six weeks if you don't plan on ever going back.

Carol Sottili: And more thoughts....

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Wacky weather: We honeymooned in Cabo San Lucas a few years ago and enjoyed Tropical Depression "Bud" for half the week. When we complained to a cab driver he said "You should consider yourselves lucky. It only rains here a few days a year and you're getting to see them!"

Scott Vogel: Wait, when did they start naming tropical depressions?

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Olney, Md.: An excellent choice for a reasonable hotel in London in the Umi Hotel. The one on Leinster Sq is about GBP 104 for a quad room many nights, which comes to about $50 per person. TripAdvisor (also Venere) is a great source for what's clean in London. If anyone finds a bedbug, it appears in a TripAdvisor (or Venere) review. And a place that's really clean and safe will have many reviews commenting on that. American sites will rarely have enough London reviews to determine a hotel's true cleanliness and quiet.

Nancy McKeon: Sounds like good advice

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Wacky vacation weather: It was my daughter's wedding in Vegas in early March.

You can expect a weather change between D.C. and Nevada and I thought that I prepared for it. Checked the "average temps", brought layers, etc. Left BWI in usual weather for D.C. left my cape in the car and wore what I needed for the shuttle to the airport and the wait to check baggage. So far, everything normal.

What was not normal was the weather while we were in Vegas. I was expecting 50s to low 60s, maybe. What I got was high 70s and 80s. It was soooo hot and I had slacks and short sleeved blouses. Never had to wear the long sleeves that I brought as layers. It was a nice wedding but the walks between buildings was torture. OK.

Time to leave. Made the transfer between planes in San Antonio, yes, San Antone! Didn't have to worry about delayed luggage on the way back. As we flew northeast, over the mountains, I looked down and saw snow! All over, including in the air. It was snowing and blowing when we landed at BWI and almost didn't recognize our Grand Caravan so the shuttle bus driver could stop right by it. I got my remote out and got the back gate up and reached for my cape. My husband and son took the blankets that we always keep in the car. Found the window scraper and started to clear off the snow and ice crusted car!

The contrast between that morning were astonishing!

Scott Vogel: Thanks... running out of time...

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Stormville, N.Y.: Thanks again for the help re cell phone for Europe !

Scott Vogel: You're welcome!

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Alexandria, Va.: I will be traveling to alone to SE Asia in October and would like to add on a short trip. Is Beijing OK to do alone now? I would love to stop on the way home but do not want to have to bother with a tour.

Thanks,

Andrea Sachs: I have a female friend who ONLY enjoys Beijing on her own, so she can set the pace and pick the places. She has never felt unsafe, though the usual "be wise" tips hold. For advice, see www.journeywoman.com/girltalk/china/china_tips.htm.

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Cloudburst in France: While on a trip to France a few years ago, my husband and I visited Monet's house and gardens in Giverny. It was a lovely spring day. Suddenly in the afternoon, the sky went dark, the clouds broke open and poured rain, and everyone who was there ran for cover into the gift shop (which used to be Monet's studio)! The storm lasted for more than an hour! It was a little crowded in there, but it gave me time to contemplate the great talent at work in that building, rather than just shopping and running out. A very sweet memory!

Scott Vogel: The painting Monet forgot to paint!

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Silver Spring: My Brother and I want to plan a "trip of a lifetime" and are willing to spend the extra money to do it. We are both in are early 60's, like to walk and explore, and are in reasonably good shape, though a bit overweight. We were thinking about a trip to Antarctica but wonder if you have some other "outrageous" vacations you could suggest? Thank you!

Andrea Sachs: My dream trip is Bhutan, a mix of culture, Buddhist traditions, amazing people and stunning landscape. Scott's is taking his child to Paris. Others: Turkey, Jordan, Morocco.

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Laurel: From my house I can drive into downtown Philadelphia into about two hours. But I prefer not to. What's the best place to execute a park-and-ride for that city if you're going to ride SEPTA for the day?

Christina Talcott: Why not drive to New Carrollton or Wilmington and hop on Amtrak to 30th St. Station? You can get on SEPTA trains or subway from there. Or if you want to skip Amtrak and park in the Philly suburbs you could investigate parking in, say, Media or something (see this map: http://www.septa.com/maps/click_map.html).

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Scott Vogel: Okay, folks. Thanks for all the good talk as usual, and sorry to dredge up those memories of Hurricane Bob! Speaking of which, the chatter who wrote about trying to sleep while seeing "Sesame Street" poster of Bob, please contact me and claim your prize: vogelsi@washpost.com. See all of your next week!

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