Talk About Travel: Travel Staffers Help You Plan Great Escapes

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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, May 4, 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. They were online Monday, May 4 at 2 p.m.

Browse an archive of previous live travel Q&As.

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Scott Vogel: Hello, all, and welcome to today's installment of the Travel chat. Carol Sottili, Christina Talcott and myself are here to take all your questions and field your thoughts on all things travel-related.

Maybe it's a dreary afternoon weather here in Washington, but we're in a bit of a macabre mood. Accordingly, for today's contest, we want to know about the single most terrifying moment in the history of your travels, the time you had every reason to believe, well, this might be your LAST TRIP. The hour's scariest, best story wins -- wait for it -- a copy of "The Survival Handbook," Colin Towell's terrific new tome that tells you, in amazing, exhausting detail, how to survive every outdoor calamity imaginable.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: I visited the Riviera Maya, south of Cancun for 10-day vacation April 20-30 and had a fabulous time, no illness, no violence, only wonderful fun and service. How long do you think the fear factor that the media and CDC has created over the H1N1 flu will hinder travel to these wonderful resort areas?

Carol Sottili: Last I checked, there were no reported cases of swine flu in the Cancun-Riviera Maya area of Mexico. But several vacationers who had visited there did come down with swine flu. No one knows whether they got it on the plane or picked it up in Cancun from an undiagnosed person. Most experts feel air travel is more likely. Read our Coming & Going article that ran in yesterday's paper. I'll send the link along.

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Flying to Tokyo from IAD: I read the article this morning about health inspectors boarding every flight from North America into Japan and inspecting passengers, leading to delays of an hour or more. I arrive in Tokyo Friday at 3:45 p.m. and am supposed to be in a suburb of Tokyo by dinner time. I have no idea how I will navigate the airport once I make it off the plane. I know you can't predict too much, but am I pushing my luck with my schedule here? How difficult is navigating Narita to get to the trains?

Christina Talcott: Hmm, I'm afraid it doesn't look good for quick entry from Narita, though I'd hope that airport staff would get beefed up because of the increased screening measures being taken now. As for getting around the airport, I remember Narita being very easy to navigate -- efficient customs, clear signs to trains, etc. According to the JR-East Web site, it takes about an hour to get from Narita to the central Tokyo station.

I guess it depends what your definition of "dinner time" is, and it definitely depends on where you're going (is the suburb on JR-East, or do you have to transfer to the Tokyo subway?), but if quarantine inspection takes a while, you have bags to claim, etc., it could take 5 or 6 hours to get to your destination. Best-case scenario: you spend an hour in the airport and take a train directly to the restaurant, then you could be there by 6.

But I'd make sure you have a contingency plan in case things take a while. My feeling is that taking a taxi wouldn't speed things up at all, but I could be wrong. Has anyone been to Tokyo/Narita recently and can offer advice?

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Need Vacation Help: My husband and I would like to get away for a week mid-June. We're not sure where to go and have been thinking about a cruise out of Baltimore or a trip to the Florida Keys. With a limited budget, what would you suggest?

Scott Vogel: I like your Key West idea, especially if you're willing to fly into Miami, where flights are quite reasonable for that period, as low as $170 round-trip. Cruise deals out of Baltimore, as of now, are fairly affordable in July, but June is getting a bit pricey.

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Seattle: How do I get a cheap ticket to Amsterdam in June?

Carol Sottili: Right now, fares to Amsterdam are high, about $800 round trip and up. I also tried pricing it into London, then taking discount carrier to Amsterdam, but the savings are not great. You could try www.vayama.com, which specializes in cheap flights to Europe. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are often cheaper days to travel. Swiss Air out of N.Y. is cheaper -- around $618 - but you'd have to get to N.Y.

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washingtonpost.com: Coming and Going: Swine Flu FAQ (The Washington Post, May 3, 2009)

Scott Vogel: Here's our Q&A for travelers on swine flu, published in yesterday's paper.

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SFO, CA: Hi,

I'm sure you get this a lot. But is it possible to "game" the airline website system in order to get a cheaper fare? I'm trying to book a non-stop flight to Hawaii but for $200 less than it is being advertised. Is it worth watching the sites for the next week to see if the price goes down on that ticket? Or should I be focusing on the deciding weather to pay the higher price or have layovers in my trip?

Thanks. And love the chats.

Christina Talcott: Sign up for fare alerts to get notified when prices drop; farecompare.com has one that'll send you e-mails alerting you when prices are about to go down. Alternatively, you could book now and try to get a refund if the price drops. Yapta.com also tracks fares. Anyone else have advice on this?

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NW DC: If you only had 6 or so hours in Brussels this summer (late July) what sights would suggest we do in that limited time?

Thanks! Love the chats!!

Scott Vogel: You're in a fortunate spot, as the Brussels airport is a convenient train ride to the central train station, which itself is very close to the Grand Place. I think there's plenty to explore in that area in a few hours, and you'll want to spend some of that time prospecting for the perfect spot for moules frites....

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Using a Travel Agent (NoVa): Have you guys written about using Travel Agents (specifically how to find a good one)? We are looking to go to a country we know little about (Belize) and are overwhelmed by the options. We are interested in finding someone to help plan our vacation -- preferably someone who's been there and can help us figure out all of the different things we could do (we have some locales/activities picked out but we're sure we are missing some things that should not be missed). How do we find such a travel agent? Side question -- we are considering going in late October/early November but are unsure of the weather then. We don't want to wait till January, but will if the fall is still too off-season. Thoughts?

Carol Sottili: I'll send a link along from a story we did on tour operators/travel agents that specialize in specific destinations. Also, go to www.travelbelize.org for tour operators in Belize. And I'll open it up to other chatters. As for weather, you may get more rain in October/November, but it usually doesn't rain all day.

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washingtonpost.com: With Their Assistance, You Can Get There From Here (The Washington Post, Feb. 1, 2009)

Carol Sottili: Here's link to travel agents/tour operators.

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Crew!

I have a question that I feel like I know the answer to already, but I wanted to throw it out there in case anyone had recent experience with something similar:

We're flying tomorrow morning from DCA to ORD, then from ORD to MKE. When we booked them, the flights had a nice hour-long layover, but due to rescheduling of both flights we'll now be sitting in O'Hare for just over three hours.

If we take only carry-on luggage and hop on a bus to Milwaukee instead of taking that second leg flight, will we be penalized with regard to the flight back (Saturday, MKE-ORD, ORD-DCA, stuck with yet another painfully long layover)? Something tells me that our plan to save time will be a no-go, but if you or any chatters have a definitive answer one way or the other, it'll help with planning "layover bide-our-time entertainment" immensely. Thanks so much!

Carol Sottili: Don't do it. They'll cancel your return reservations. Bring a good book or your laptop and enjoy your layover.

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Washington, D.C.: Scariest moment: I was 17 and it was the 1990's and I was living in western Europe. Some buddies and I took the train to Prague, before it was corrupted with TGI Fridays and Starbucks. It's 2 a.m. on a Saturday and we're finding our way back through Stare Mesto alleyways trying to find the hostel. We're lost and I had to use the WC. I see a dimly lit bar with odd red lights and tell my buddies I'll be right back. I walk through the door and notice there are a lot of ladies sitting around looking bored and not too many men. I ask where the WC is. They point me in the direction, but as I get there, a couple of guys corner me and ask which drugs I want to buy. I feebly say I'm just using the WC, but they persist, telling me all of their great deals. I make my way back to the front door and all the women start leering at me. A woman built like a Soviet female bodybuilder in a leopard print dress lunges at me; her grip on me is impressive. I wish I could say I acted cool under pressure. I did not. I squeaked. She laughed and let go. I ran to the door, went outside, found my friends and forgot I had to use the WC in the first place.

Scott Vogel: Hahaha -- Sure we can laugh about it NOW.

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Washington, D.C.: My scariest trip:

I was studying abroad in Salvador, Brazil, and we had a week off between our five week intensive language course and the regular school semester. Despite my dicey command of the Portuguese language, I decided to take a bus up to Recife and explore. Toward the end of the week I was running out of things I wanted to see, so based on a suggestion in the Lonely Planet guide book, I headed for the zoo. The book told me which public bus to take, so I went with that, thinking it would surely be obvious when we got to the zoo.

Unsurprisingly, it was not obvious. I stayed on the bus for quite a while, and eventually it left the main, paved city streets and began bumping along a dirt road, dodging chickens and goats. I panicked and got off the bus, hoping not to end up even further afield and doing my best to ignore the strange looks from the driver and fare collector, who I'm sure were wondering what a white girl was doing getting off the bus on a country road.

I had no idea how I was going to get back to the city, but I saw another bus stop across the road and decided to wait there in hopes of catching a bus going in the other direction. About 30 minutes later, a bus showed up -- the same one I had gotten off of earlier. The driver and fare collector were of course very curious what I was up to, and in my limited Portuguese, I did my best to explain. They had a good laugh, told me I had missed the zoo by quite a long way, and explained that if I had just told them where I was going, they would have let me know where to get off.

By this point it was much too late in the day to get to the zoo, so the driver took me back into the city and even detoured a bit from his regular route to get me closer to the pousada where I was staying.

I was terrified, and ultimately pretty embarrassed, but the whole thing worked out fine. Lesson: don't be afraid to speak up, even if you might sound silly! An important lesson for studying abroad.

Scott Vogel: A lesson worth relearning, yes.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Maybe you could send this out to your chatters. Our flight leaves National at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday. We live in Silver Spring. The Blue Van would have to pick us up at 2:00 which is ridiculously early. Any other suggestions to get to the airport? I heard the cabs are unreliable.

Carol Sottili: I'd either take a chance on a cab, or I'd drive and park in the economy lot -- it's $12 a day, which isn't all that bad. I think a cab is going to cost about $50 each way.

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Arlington, Va.: I don't know if this is what you are looking for, but I had a "life flashes before your eyes" moment in Valencia, Spain. I was visiting some friends who were studying abroad, and we decided to go for a walk, window shop at the great stores, and get some ice cream after a fresh spring rain. As we were crossing the street, I slipped and fell on the wet asphalt, right when a huge tour bus was rounding the corner. Literally, I looked up and saw headlights. I was paralyzed. Thankfully, a brave good Samaritan Spaniard literally swooped in, and pulled me up on the curb. I was quickly surrounded by people checking to see if I was okay, except for my friend, because she had NO idea what had happened because she was distracted by shoes in the store window! Luckily the only casualty was my ice cream!

Scott Vogel: Okay, but in her defense, they've got really GREAT shoes there.

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Richmond, Va.: I am traveling to Cartagena, Colombia the last week of May; any suggestions on places to stay and what I shouldn't miss? Thanks for your help.

Christina Talcott: We ran a story about Cartagena in late 2007, and the author was absolutely enchanted by the Plaza de San Diego. Another story from 2002 mentions the beaches at Islas del Rosario and the San Felipe de Barajas castle (one of the oldest buildings in Latin America). Anyone else have Cartagena tips?

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Washington, D.C.: I was a teenage passenger sleeping in the backseat. I awoke in the middle of the night to see a tractor-trailer about 15 feet away, barreling right toward our station wagon.

Fortunately, we were both on different ramps of a cloverleaf and passed without any damage, except to my heart.

Scott Vogel: whoa....

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Last Trip: It was the summer of 1981. I was 29 and on the first vacation with my girlfriend. We were in England and I was driving a rental car from Oxford to York. I had successfully driven from London to Oxford and thought I had gotten used to driving on the "other" side of the road and the stick shift, which was also on the "other" side. I was wrong.

It was drizzling as we hit a "roundabout" near Sherwood Forest. Between the rain, traffic moving the "other" way, the rules of the roundabout, and a lack of complete attention due to some misguided idea that nothing would bad can happen since I was young and on vacation, I lost control of the car, skidded into the roundabout and broadsided a large truck. My small rental car practically went under the middle of the truck. The car was completely totaled, but my girlfriend and I were miraculously unhurt. After all these years, I can still sense the collision and it still sends a shiver up my spine.

My girlfriend married me anyway, and we've taken many great vacations over the years. But, I have never rented a car or otherwise driven in a foreign country -- except for Canada.

Scott Vogel: Man, it's amazing how common such accidents still are. You guys were very lucky.

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Alexandria, Va.: Great N.Y. pieces this weekend!

Question for you all: My husband and I are expecting soon. Each year we take a trip around the holidays and were thinking about flying direct to Frankfurt for the Christmas markets there and in Nuremburg. We've done the holiday scene in Munich and western Austria so we know what it's like on the ground but have no idea what air travel with an infant is really like. Are we crazy? Baby would be 5 1/2 months old.

Scott Vogel: Would welcome the opinions of others here but I gotta say -- to me, 5 1/2 months is a great age for traveling long distance, especially by comparison to a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old, etc. That said, choose your hotel and carrier carefully.

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Rockville, Md.: We're supposed to leave in less than two weeks for a cruise to the Caribbean that leaves out of Fort Lauderdale. Should we be concerned about the swine flu? Should we take any precautions? We are both relatively healthy, middle-aged adults.

Carol Sottili: No, you should not be concerned. Only one person who was on a cruise (and it stopped in Mexico and sailed out of San Diego) has been diagnosed with the H1N1, and she may have been infected in San Diego. You'll also have to fill out a pre-boarding questionnaire asking if you've had flu symptoms as part of the new screening process that's been adopted by most cruise lines.

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Need Vacation Help Too: You said: "Cruise deals out of Baltimore, as of now, are fairly affordable in July." What is considered affordable/normal from Baltimore? Everything I see in is the $1,000 per person range.

Scott Vogel: Actually, regarding June -- have just seen $749 per person on Carnival. Not exactly a bargain, I know, but a bit better than a thousand.

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Washington, D.C.: Istanbul 1998. See scam in travel books. Well-dressed Turk grabs you by the arm and says he knows a club, will take care of everything. Walk into dimly-lit club with Russian strippers, order Coke, get bill for $300. I begin crying while strippers yell at him. I'm taken to front desk where I will pay or get beat up, tough guy sneezes really big and I run around him, past the doorman all the way to hotel at Taksim.

Scott Vogel: Those Russian strippers -- wreaking havoc all over our chatters!

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Getting to National: Have any friends you could ask in exchange for dinner, a bottle of wine, baseball tickets, babysitting...?

Carol Sottili: Another idea, but it would have to be a very good friend indeed to pick you up at 4 a.m.

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Mount Pleasant, Mich.: What? No entries in the contest yet? We were flying to L.A. to catch a plane to Tahiti for a cruise in 2001. Original flight from Saginaw, Michigan was cancelled, and we were rebooked on USAir to Pittsburgh, and then on a connecting flight to LAX. Flight to Pittsburgh on USAir was on the oldest, smallest, rattiest, plane we had ever seen. The back seat was a bench for three people, with no armrests. It rattled loudly on the way down the runway, and the seatback in front of me fell off in my lap as we took off. The plane shuddered and went up and down with no warning all the way to Pittsburgh, and oh, we also flew into a thunderstorm. When we finally landed, like the Pope, I kissed the ground. Rest of the trip was okay.

Scott Vogel: Love it -- sounds like one of those TripAdvisor nightmare posts. Glad you salvaged the rest of the trip.

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Memorial Day driving trip: Hi Crew, My husband and I want to take a quick, two-day Memorial Day weekend trip. We refuse to go travel on I-95 North or South (it's a pain) so we are looking for suggestions for other places to go. We have been to: Gettysburg, Baltimore, Philly, Norfolk, Charlottesville (wine tasting), any other ideas? We keep thinking Shenandoah Valley, but we aren't sure what there is to do there. Charlestown and other parts of W. Va. don't appeal to us.

Thanks

Christina Talcott: Shenandoah National Park is gorgeous, and Front Royal, Luray, Sperryville and other Rappahannock County towns are nice places to stay if there's no room at the park's lodges. I'm a big fan of Warm Springs, Va., especially the Inn at Grist Mill Square, the Jefferson Pools and hiking in the Nature Conservancy preserve. Shepherdstown's a gem, Find more ideas in our Mid-Atlantic section online.

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Scary story: Stayed in a hostel in Budapest, shared a very small bunk room with two very good looking boys (tangential to the story). we chat for a while, then go to sleep. In the middle of the night, in a pitch black room, I am woken up by one of them SCREAMING, like he is being murdered. I can't see and start screaming also. Turns out the kid screams in his sleep. I think that was the end of bunk rooms for me.

Scott Vogel: hahaha -- Hostels: Tailor made for terror.

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Scariest moment while traveling: My husband and I went whitewater rafting on the Ottawa River in Quebec. It was a lovely day until the last rapid when our raft hit a wave sideways and tipped to the right. I was on the left and slid down the raft, thinking "Oh @#$%! -- this is it!" I was dumped in the river, lost hold of my paddle, the boat, everything. I was swirled around and around and couldn't make it back up to the surface for air. I remember thinking, "I really can't hold my breath for too much longer here." I have never been more terrified.

I came up under the raft and remembered that they'd told us if that happened to get our heads in the little open compartments, which I did. I got a couple of quick breaths and felt that all would be well when the raft was flipped again, hit me on the head, and down the rapids I went again. It was like being in a washing machine -- the force of all that water was just incredible. One guy tried to grab me, but I was out of energy and couldn't swim.

I fetched up at the bottom and swam over to another raft from our party. They hauled me in (there was someone else from my raft in the same boat), let me catch my breath, and then informed me (in true Canadian fashion) that I owed each of them a beer because they'd saved my life. I would have bought them each a brewery.

Thank GOD for the helmets (my glasses stayed on the whole time -- amazing) and life jackets.

I'd go rafting again, though. It was an amazing trip. I'll skip the flipping, though.

Scott Vogel: Wow -- Rafting: Also tailor made for terror.

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Brussels: Another idea is to take that train to Brussels South (Gare du Midi) and walk to Place Jeu de Balle = Vossenplein, the flea market (with lots of shops around it). Also recommended: Musee des Beaux Arts = Paleis van Schone Kunsten.

Scott Vogel: More ideas for a perfect (one) day in Brussels.

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NYC air travel: Submitting early because of a meeting. I wonder if you or your chatterers have any sense of the two D.C.-N.Y. air shuttles? I have a trip coming in the summer and noticed that Delta seems to be using smaller planes, operated by another company. I've only taken Delta before, but now wonder if it's worth considering other air options to N.Y. Unfortunately I don't think I can do the bus, and the train actually often is more expensive, so I'm hoping you have some insight into pros/cons for the two air options. Thanks!

Carol Sottili: I've taken the smaller planes with no problems. But if you want a bigger jet, US Airways flies Airbus A319s.

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Ellicott City, Md.: My terrifying travel experience: My sister, my friend and I were on vacation in Nevis. We had gone to St. Kitts for the day, and missed the ferry back to Nevis. These guys on a boat offered to take people across for the same fare as the ferry, and they loaded up the boat. Halfway across they started fishing large plastic bags out of the water, and all the locals turned away to avoid watching what they were doing. We tourists figured out that it was drug-related and did the same. We were very glad to get off that boat!

Scott Vogel: Ahh... wow.

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Washington, D.C.: To the parents thinking of going to Nuremberg -- I cannot overstate how much I love their Christmas market. To me, it's just not Christmas unless I can make my way to the market, get some brats and a mug of gluehwein. Your child will be fine. It can be bitterly cold of course, but these last few years I've noticed that some gluhwein huts have become fancier -- rather than just standing outside, you can go into a cozy little hut with a roaring fire place. And get lots of Christmas ornaments that your child will have the rest of his life!

Scott Vogel: Right, and can you imagine the pictures they'll get of the little one?

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Bethesda, Md.: Hey Crew: I'd like to send my parents on a cruise or a trip for their wedding anniversary (40 years!). How can I ensure that all expenses come to me, even though I won't be with them? They won't have my credit card on hotel check in, or if I send them on a cruise they won't have the card at boarding. I don't want them to have to pay for anything. Thoughts?

Carol Sottili: Why not just give them a credit card with their names and your number? That's what I did for my kids when they were in college (in case of emergency).

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well-dressed Turk grabs you by the arm and says he knows a club, will take care of everything: There are travelers who actually follow the well-dressed Turk into a dimly-lit club? If ever I heard of travelers that deserve to be fleeced...

Scott Vogel: I mean, a poorly-dressed Turk in a brightly-lit club is ONE thing...

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I'll win the death story, I think: After I graduated college, I traveled through Europe and Africa for two years. In Paris, I met a wonderful woman from New Zealand, and we headed south to Morocco via Spain and Portugal. While in Morocco, I caught dysentery, which hit me almost all at once while we were deep in the bowels of the city of Fez. I got horrible cramps and began first vomiting, then defecating all over myself.

While curled up in the fetal position, gagging and worse, Sue (the woman from NZ) was sobbing my name when a huge group of young children showed up. They were laughing and chanting "Die American dog, die! Die!" I really thought, "Oh my god, this is it, I've been poisoned and I'm going to die on the streets of Fez." I didn't die. Fortunately, an older Moroccan man came along and helped Sue get me up and back to our cheap hotel. Sue showered me off, cleaned me up, but I just kept getting sicker and sicker, my temperature just burning up to the point where I began having hallucinations. Finally Sue went to the consulate, where some guy came to us and brought these little white pills, and I turned the corner almost immediately. Later, Sue got it, too, and I have a horrible story from her perspective, too, if you want to hear it.

To make this even longer, a couple days before I got sick, we stopped at a barber so I could get a shave. Sue, who was petite and blond and very nice, was with me and the barber was flirting with her, to the point where he began making throat slitting motions in front of my throat! I pulled off the sheet and we left, my face half unshaven.

Can I win?

Scott Vogel: For once, I'm not sure if our prize is enough for a story.

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Maryland: It's not as bad as some stories, but going to my best friend's wedding in rural Virginia. I lived all over Virginia for 18 years, but didn't realize how rural it could really get. The only hotel in the county, which shared a parking lot with the reception hall. Room doors had keys, like real metal keys that any locksmith will cut. Door had what were best described as bullet holes. And shag carpet. I think the shag carpet was the scariest part.

Scott Vogel: Shag carpet: Tailor made, etc.

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Michigan: A question about October Caribbean cruise. We're hoping for western Caribbean (Mexico instead of, say, the Bahamas).

Should we book now? Or wait for a better rate? How far (or not far) in advance are the best rates available?

Carol Sottili: Typically, you save money by booking way in advance. But there may be some very good deals coming up, as the cruise lines are dealing with lots of cancelled bookings. I'd start checking now. Post your requirements on www.cruisemates.com to see what type of rates agents are quoting and then compare them to what the cruise lines are offering.

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Bethesda, Md.: Scary trip -- When I was 19, I went to visit my brother in Sarajevo. He was there working with the military, the war was just sort-of-over and things were mostly safe. About a week in I started craving McDonald's so we drove off to the closet one in Croatia. Just before the border we picked up a soldier who was hitch-hiking. He had bad English, but seemed safe. Another few miles down the road we were pulled over for an 'inspection.' Five guys with machine guns herded us out of the car and started going through our luggage. I thought for sure the headlines would read "stupid Americans found dead next to rental car" but eventually the hitchhiker we'd picked up started chatting with the machine gun toting guys. A few minutes later we paid an 'entry tax' (bribe) and went on our way. Suffice to say, I've learned to ignore those Big Mac attacks since then.

Scott Vogel: Almost turned into a pile of McNuggets, you were.

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Frequent Flyer Miles: I used my frequent flyer miles a few weeks ago to purchase my ticket home for Christmas on Midwest. (I figured my parents paid for all the tickets that earned that trip, so I should use it for a trip they would have paid for.) Now I'm worried that, because I purchased with miles I could get bumped during the travel crunch. Once it's purchased, is a frequent flyer miles ticket the same as a regularly purchased ticket with the same rules about bumping, or do we become the potential sacrifice to those who paid? Thanks!

Carol Sottili: I wouldn't worry about it. You will be bumped before the guy who paid full price, but Midwest has a good rep.

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Travel Agents: Can I please remind people to give feedback? Not just negative experiences but good ones too. I hope they rely on your input to recommend places again and not just freebies from resorts. I know I have made it a point to go back in and let them know how our trip went.

Scott Vogel: Point well taken.

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Richmond, Va.: Take the baby to Germany! I have been to the Christmas markets at Nuremberg with my son when he was a baby (just a few years ago) and they are amazing. My best advice is to use a baby carrier, to keep them close and warm, so they can actually see something, and because it is impossible to navigate with a stroller thru the crowds.

Scott Vogel: Here, here!

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Fairfax, Va.: Posting early so I won't be able to offer my personal travel story du jour. My fiance and I are heading to London in a couple of weeks. I know, I know, make sure to bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes. Any suggestions? I'm in my early 30's, female, looking for cute and comfortable walking shoes. I definitely want to avoid the white sneakers that scream tourist. I hope I don't need the scary looking shoes with rounded heels. Extra points for fashionable styles.

Christina Talcott: Haha, I know what you mean about those rounded-heel shoes! I think a cute pair of what the British call "trainers" -- maybe a colorful pair of Pumas or some classic Chuck Taylors -- would do the trick, especially if you're mostly wearing jeans or pants (unless you can pull off the skirt and sneakers look). A comfy pair of sandals wouldn't be out of place either; Naturalizer makes some cute ones that can handle lots of walking but also dress up for a nice dinner out. Another option is a pair of ballet flats, as long as they have a little extra support. I was at Macy's this weekend and was wowed by all the great, comfy-looking styles. Happy shopping!

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Vero Beach, Fla.: Rail service from Narita is easy to use, based on my experience with the Keisei Skyliner. Deciding which train is appropriate is a matter of finding the best connection to your transit to the final destination.

Narita's international arrival personnel are quite efficient, but I did get grilled with respect to my prescriptions, last visit. My tip would be to bring along written info for any prescription.

My worst travel mess wasn't at all terrifying, just bad luck. I scheduled a trip from Orlando to Washington in September 2004, precisely when hurricane Frances hit. So I rescheduled for three weeks later, just an hour or so before Orlando International Airport closed for hurricane Jeanne. Canceled again.

Christina Talcott: Thanks!

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Minneapolis: Most terrifying moment: returning to the dock and seeing our cruise ship gone. We were stuck in Naples with just the clothes on our back with no way to catch up to the ship, half way through a 12-day Med cruise. We had taken a private day-long excursion and had budgeted three hours for the 20-mile drive back to the ship. Due to a horrible traffic accident ahead of us, it took us five hours to drive the 20 miles and we missed the ship (which had waited for the late cruise-ship-sponsored excursion passengers) by 20 minutes. Seeing a big black hole in the dark, where a giant, lit-up cruise ship should be was a very scary site. We had no passports and had 32 hours to find a way to Athens to catch the ship. Through the help of a port agent and a letter from the police, we were able to fly sans passports (after 9/11) to catch the ship the next day and travel insurance covered all the expenses afterwards. Whew!

Scott Vogel: That's not a story, it's a whole "Amazing Race" episode.

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Washington, D.C.: I was midway through law school, midway through a Delta flight from Atlanta to Washington in late 1983. MD-80 hits an air pocket and the plane falls 2000 feet and a piece of white cake sticks to the roof of the place. Flight attendant and I who both worked for Senator Heflin as interns remembered each other from that flight. Cake still stuck to the roof when flight landed. Pilot kindly added just think what would have happened if we had fallen 2000 feet at lower altitude; it's called a crash.

Scott Vogel: Yikes!

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Reston, Va.: For the chatter asking about Delta v. US Air shuttles -- FWIW, my parents just booked weekend tickets on US Air that were a little more than half the price of Delta. Don't know if that's an anomaly, but worth considering.

Carol Sottili: Probably a sale, as shuttle fares are pretty consistent across airlines.

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Open Water: I was in Caye Caulker, Belize, by myself on a snorkeling trip in a tiny rickety boat. I'm not a strong swimmer, and guess I hadn't really thought about what it meant to snorkel the reefs of Belize -- what it meant was they they drove out to the middle of the ocean and dumped you over the side. I was doing pretty well till I looked up and realized I couldn't see any of the people from my boat, or the boat itself! I tried not to freak out, but I somehow got washed right on top of the coral reef -- the reef you're not even supposed to touch, much less flounder upon, Orka-like. I did finally locate the boat, but I was cut up pretty bad, and spent the rest of my vacation explaining the huge black-and-blue marks on my thighs and arms. So glad I didn't see the movie "Open Water" before I went, or I REALLY would have freaked out!

Scott Vogel: Geez -- that musta hurt!

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For the cruise present: Most cruise lines will let you pre-purchase on-board credits as gifts. They may still have to present a credit card at check-in, but if you prepay a couple hundred in OBC, it should take care of their on-board expenses. As for the hotel, just prepay that too (like hotwire, priceline; lots of hotels do that).

Carol Sottili: Good idea.

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Early flight from National: Call Red Top Cab in Arlington. They've always shown up when I've called to reserve (if not five minutes early).

Carol Sottili: Thanks.

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Africa planning: My wife and I are lucky enough to have World Cup tickets for South Africa for next June. Are there any good sites out there for monitoring African airfares (apart from the usual ones, which mostly seem focused on Europe, Asia and South America)?

Christina Talcott: South African Airlines has good sales and flexible searching on its Web site. You could also try Vayama.com, bt-store.com and South Africa tourism (www.southafrica.net) for updates.

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sounded scarier than it was...: My husband and I flew to O'Hare on a little plane where your carry ons have to be gate-checked. When we landed at O'Hare, I left him on the jetway waiting for the bag while I went to the bathroom, then I waited for him on the concourse. A woman with a toddler having a screaming meltdown was standing next to me. My husband texted me to say he was still waiting for the bag. Instead of hitting "ignore" or "reply," I accidentally hit the button to call him back and then put the phone in my bag, right next to the screaming toddler. He sees I am calling him, puts phone to his ear and hears nothing but blood-curdling screams. I couldn't really figure out what was wrong when I saw him running full speed up the jetway -- I mean, our connection wasn't THAT tight!

Scott Vogel: Absolutely. Hilarious. In retrospect.

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Paris Scare: Hi Crew -

My best friend and I snuck out of our Paris hotel on a rainy April night in 1983, leaving our high school sophomore classmates and chaperones behind. We were feeling tres sophisticated until we were grabbed from behind, dragged into an alley and slammed against a wall. Shocked into silence, we stood mute while our purses were torn from our shoulders and necklaces ripped from our necks. They ran off; we ran back to the hotel. It was a terrifying experience but kept us on the straight and narrow for the rest of high school!

Scott Vogel: Quel dommage....

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Washington, D.C.: My sister and I will be traveling to Europe (France, Ireland and U.K.) and would like to get a cell phone while we are there. How do I sift through all of the information I'm finding on the Internet? Any suggestions so we could use the phone in all three countries? Thanks!

Carol Sottili: I got a very good deal at a place in London called the Car Phone Warehouse (www.carphonewarehouse.com). Give it a look.

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Alexandria, Va.: What day trips would you recommend from D.C. via the train? Is there anything to do in Richmond? I'm from Philly so heading up north isn't preferable.

Christina Talcott: The Richmond train station's right near the Shockhoe district, with shops, restaurants, etc., which is worth a trip. Baltimore's great, Williamsburg's fun, and lots of smaller towns (Staunton, Culpeper, etc) are accessible by trains, usually once a day.

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Anonymous: Recently, when booking a round trip flight between DCA and Houston International, I noticed that flights were significantly cheaper if I booked a longer stay. My ticket would have been $1,300 returning after two days, but if I stayed for four days, prices went down to about $250. The day of the week did not seem to make a huge difference. I was planning on booking two round trip tickets one DCA-IAH-DCA and one IAH-DCA-IAH, thinking that I could fly the first leg of each trip and cobble together a round trip flight for $800 less than what I would have paid. Then someone told me that was illegal. Any truth to that?

Carol Sottili: Yup, it's illegal on most airlines. It's called back-to-back ticketing.

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Washington, D.C.: Narita: I was there a few weeks ago. The terminal is easy to navigate, but there are longish lines to be photographed and fingerprinted, depending on other inbound flights. We used a bus line called Airport Limousine Bus that goes to downtown hotels frequently. They quoted 90 minutes drive time, but it was less than that. I don't know if you have to stay at one of the hotels to get the voucher. The bus stop was steps outside the closest door to where we exited. In all, we landed at 1:30 and checked into hotel before 4 p.m.

Christina Talcott: Great, thanks for the info!

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Deep Valley, USA: Gaming the airline ticket system -- the best thing you can do is not search too much. The airlines seem to look at your browser cookies to see if you've been searching a lot, and offer only higher fares if you have, on the assumption that you really want the dates or times you've been searching for.

So clear your browser cache and cookies before you do a final search.

Christina Talcott: More advice on searching (though I'd have to look into whether sites really do check your cookies).

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Scariest trip: (even though my vote is for the Morocco story, I thought I'd throw mine in, too) I was a teenager, driving with my 10 year old brother, cousin, aunt and uncle to a resort outside of Morgantown, W.Va., for our family's annual Christmas reunion. Right across the W.Va. border, we hit a traffic jam. My uncle being the adventurer that he is, he decided to take a "shortcut." This involved driving off all main roads and eventually going up a mountain on a gravel path, in a snowstorm.

My little brother looked terrified, and I had to keep telling him it was okay, although I was ready to vomit myself. We get off the mountain and, by some miracle of God, find a gas station -- an old, deserted one, with two pumps, and a ramshackle store. A man comes out, wearing a cowboy hat, chewing on a cigarette and says, "Can I help y'all?" My cousin and I looked at each other and went pale. I thought it was something out of "Deliverance." I was never so glad to see the hotel (or my parents) in my life. And this was pre-cell phone, so we couldn't call anyone for help!

Scott Vogel: Ha -- re: the Deliverance comment, haven't we all been there? I remember a similar meeting, although not with a cigarette chewer but an old lady with a mean face who took one look at my sister and I and said -- quietly -- "people."

Pronounced: Pay-ple.

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Scary moment?: Not so scary looking back, but when I was staying in Budapest for a month, I took a bus out to see Statue Park, where they had relocated all the old Soviet-era statues from the city. Wonderful experience, but when I was done I realized the only bus going back was on the side of an empty highway with only a bus stop sign. I had no idea when the next bus was. I just waited, and hoped for the best.

This was also the same trip when I took a Budapest subway car to the end of the line at midnight on my last night there and waited for the next one "just because". Only when I got off the train and was waiting did I realize just how dumb that idea was!

Scott Vogel: Okay, but at least you didn't get the screaming guy in the hostel!

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Scary Story: When I was 23, I went to Bali and went for a long rambling walk. A nice, tiny, Balinese man offered to show me through a lengthy rice paddy, and since I was a little lost, I said yes. The rice paddy was muddy, though, and halfway through, in the middle of nowhere, I slipped and fell so badly that I fractured my back. The nice Balinese man brought me coconut milk (fresh off the trees) and put "cooling leaves" on me, but nothing worked -- I couldn't breathe, couldn't walk, and thought I might actually have broken my neck at first. After sobbing in the rice paddy for a while, I literally had to crawl on my hands and knees out of the rice paddy, across a ravine (over a fallen tree) and onto the road, where a mysterious van picked me up and I ended up at a clinic, where (and here's the really scary part) they gave me mysterious yellow pills. Those things were the greatest pills of all time, but I still don't know what they were.

Scott Vogel: Unreal. Just publishing these as fast as I can, running outta time here.

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Scary trip: Many years ago on my very first trip to Europe, at age 23, I traveled alone to Lisbon. Second day there, still quite jet-lagged, I started walking around the city. After a couple hours, it started raining really hard. And that was when I realized not only did I not know what street my hotel was on, I didn't remember the name of the hotel. So I wandered through the rain nearly in tears for what seemed like hours till suddenly I came across an area that looked vaguely familiar. I was soaked through to the skin, my feet hurt...but after the fact it was kind of an adventure, and didn't affect my desire to travel further over the years.

Scott Vogel: More scariness.

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American in Austria: For the chatter wondering whether or not to come to this part of the world with a 5 month old -- do it! It's actually easier to travel with babies before they're really mobile. Ask for the bulkhead seat when you fly over to Europe as there will be more space, an infant bassinette, etc.

People here travel with kids all the time -- it's no big deal.

My extra advice, though, would be to bring baby OTC meds with you as they're different here (suppositories). Otherwise you can buy supplies (Pampers, for example) here. Also moving about it might be easiest with a baby carrier/sling -- lots of stairs in buildings here, easier to get in and out of public transit as well.

Scott Vogel: The verdict is in: Do it!

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Pentagon City, Va.: My "I nearly died on a trip" story: while in Taipei, Taiwan, I fell getting in the shower, cracked my chin open on the marble shower ledge and blacked out. Came to about 10 minutes later and agreed to go to the hospital, even though I thought I just needed a Band-Aid (even though you could see the bone. That's what blacking out does to you).

Long story short: 50+ stitches, concussion, cracked front tooth and a hairline fracture of the jaw. Doctor said I was lucky I didn't drown in the shower while I was unconscious. I was a guest of the government, so they picked up my bill ($77 U.S. for stitches and an MRI). Oh, and in the process, I threw up on the dignitary who drove me to the hospital, a side effect of the concussion.

Good times! But Taiwan is a wonderful place and I'd go back, though I might wash my hair in the sink this time.

Scott Vogel: Un-be-lie-va-ble.

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NoVa: Terrifying travel. In the late 90's I went to Rome to meet my cousin's new fiance whom I had never met. I had been staying with my other cousins, who kept hinting that something was a bit off with the fiance, but also insisted that he was a really nice guy. So I took the train where they picked me up at a local station, where we were to drive from their town south of Rome for a day trip to Naples and Sorrento. Now I know this is not very politically correct, but I noticed not long into the trip that the fiance has some kind of disorder where he would occasionally have spasms/tremors that caused him to take his hands off the steering wheel while driving. He would shake his head from side to side and wave his arms. At first I thought it was some kind of joke, then I realized that he must have something like Tourette's. But nobody said anything about it.

I tried to ignore the ticks as much as possible, but when we were on the highway, we swerved a few times and I started getting nervous. Then I thought about where we were headed and my heart leapt into my throat. The roads in the hills of Sorrento are notoriously treacherous and wind through cliffs. Many people die each year by running off the narrow roads and plunging hundreds of feet to their deaths.

I tried to keep my fear to myself, and then I started to plead with them that we should just spend the day in Naples. But they insisted that they knew just the restaurant in Sorrento and we continued on our way, which included a swerve here and there about every 15 minutes. Finally as we approached Sorrento, we started to gain elevation and my cousin stopped speaking. I cowered in the backseat. I finally just closed my eyes, but every time I felt the car shake I struggled not to squeal out loud.

We finally reached the restaurant, and I encouraged the fiance to have one too many beers so that I could drive back.

I was so confounded by the whole thing that I never spoke of it again until years later, after they were married. My cousin, strangely enough, did not think the experience was so bad. I, on the other hand, remember that as the worst afternoon of my adult life.

Scott Vogel: I gotta say -- I admire your restraint. That had to be TERRifying.

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Last trip: When I was in college in the late 1990s, my then-boyfriend and I visited our friends who were studying abroad in London. On our return trip, when we arrived at the airport we found out our plane had mechanical difficulties but the person said, "Don't worry, we put you on another airline." It was Kuwait Airways. Uh, okay, fine. We go to their counter and they ask us if we want the smoking or non-smoking section. We then proceed to go through a number of security checks, including getting patted down. I didn't know, at the age of 20, to be scared they were doing all of this or relieved. So we're sitting there, waiting for our flight when the male flight attendants come out and look like Saddam Hussein's twin brother. I have a pretty active imagination so I start freaking out, thinking this will be the last plane I will ever fly. I then start crying and of course the rest of the people waiting to fly are looking at my BF wondering what he did to me to make me cry. I knew I was overreacting but I couldn't stop being scared.

I'll never forget him trying to calm me down, saying that they wouldn't put a bomb on their plane, that they would put one on an airline based out of the U.S.. So when Sept 11th happened I remembered his statement. So while this is probably not the most terrifying 'last trip', at the time I definitely felt like it would be my last.

Scott Vogel: That ole imagination -- double-edged sword, isn't it?

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Alexandria, Va.: Re Blue Van: you can tell them when you would prefer to be picked up; you don't have to take their ridiculous recommendation of many hours before the actual flight. I usually give them a 2-hour window and have never missed my flight.

Scott Vogel: Thanks.

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Going to Paris!: My husband and I are flying to Paris tomorrow for a week-long anniversary trip. I've been once with a group, he's never been. We were hoping to squeeze in a day trip to London but aren't sure if that's something which is actually doable. Do you have any tips or recommendations?

Christina Talcott: It's totally doable! Take the Eurostar over in the morning and back at night. Just plan to see a few things, preferably within walking distance of each other, and you should be able to have a nice visit.

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Reston, Va.: These are the shoes I wear in London:

1. Dansko clogs. I get mistaken for a German when I wear them (probably better than an American).

2. Privo by Clarks. I have a pair of slip-ons with stretchy straps that are really comfy.

3. Merrells. Yes, they're kind of sneakerish, but the black slip-ons are ALL black (no white sole) and they have a version with a mesh upper that's very breathable.

Christina Talcott: Terrific! Thanks!

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Washington, D.C.: Scariest travel moment:

I was a student at the University of Vienna, spending a few days touring Czechoslovakia. Upon trying to leave Czechoslovakia on July 4, 1988 I was detained at the Austrian border and strip-searched. I was told that my passport was not in order and they were taking me to the local police station, where I was detained for over 6 hours. The communists were still in power, and I was sure I'd never leave Czechoslovakia, that I'd just "disappear".

It turns out that we'd mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger jet the day before, and they were feeling more anti-American than usual, but I didn't know that at the time.

Scott Vogel: Few more of these, great stuff.

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Arlington, Va.: I think my scariest moment was when the plane I was on was having some kind of mechanical problem so we had to circle Raleigh airport for a while. They showed us how to get into crash positions and brace ourselves for the impending crash landing. But luckily the nose wheel deployed however it wasn't steerable. So we had to be towed in to the gate. It was interesting to see all of the fire trucks lining the runway. Everyone was very calm though for the most part.

Scott Vogel: And this.

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Houston, Texas: I just got back from Peru to see the Gocta waterfall that Steve Hendrix wrote about in the Washington Post. Is he still with you? If so, tell it was a terrific trip. Tell him they still remember him down there.

Christina Talcott: We'll tell him! He's in the Metro section now, but we see him from time to time, and I know he'd be glad to hear about the waterfall. Thanks for writing!

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Scariest moment in travel: I was at Victoria Falls, and went white-water rafting for the day. During the morning we had a person in the boat who was terrified of going into the water, so we took care not to be too rough. However, when she left after lunch, the guide flipped us at the earliest opportunity. We ended up rushing down a class 4-5 rapid hanging desperately onto the tow line; the guides were actually on top of the upside-down raft trying to make sure no one would slam into the very tall and hard sides of the canyon. They had to pull someone out very, very quickly to avoid that (thankfully it wasn't me). I was nearly swept underneath the raft multiple times, and we all know how being stuck underwater can make breathing difficult. For those two minutes I was pretty sure I was going to die; the rest of it was fantastic.

Scott Vogel: And THIS.

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Philadelphia: It wasn't terrifying for me, but I managed to freak out 9 other hikers on top of Ben Nevis -- there were only the 10 of us at the peak one very gray, rainy day, with visibility all of 10 percent. I was curious and walked near an edge to look down; there were immediate yelps behind me as some of their party rushed forward -- cautiously -- and leaned toward me to ask if I'd like company going back down (I was hiking it myself) and the trail was on the other side, not here, and maybe I shouldn't stand quite so close to the drop. So I thanked them and waited for them to start their descent before I returned to the edge. Both times I was safely several feet back from the edge, but they didn't know me or how well I judge things like vertical drops of hundreds of feet, so I wasn't offended by their concern. (And then I added some extra coins to what I'd originally planned to drop into the mountain rescue bucket in town, since if the group had completely panicked at the top and acted rashly in response to my being near the edge, the mountain rescue team would have had to deal with it.)

(I should note that the party of 9 did not include any children, or anyone drunk or under obvious chemical influences -- in such a case I would have waited for them to leave before even first approaching the edge.)

Scott Vogel: Great stuff -- and the contest is now CLOSED....

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Barcelona short trip: Really enjoyed your recent article on Gaudi, and it coincides perfectly with my upcoming long weekend in Barcelona. I'll be there next Thursday-Sunday and am planning on doing a bike tour of the city and perhaps a day trip to Montserrat. Otherwise, given the time, I'll probably only focus on a few sights. What is not-to-be-missed? Not that big on museums (but would consider hitting one), but I like to climb things (like bell towers), and I usually like to fit in a few major cathedrals/monuments/castles in my travels.

Also, any restaurant suggestions are also welcome, especially looking forward to seafood, paella, tapas/pintxos, and cava!

Christina Talcott: So glad you enjoyed that story! You can browse through other Barcelona stories on our Spain page for more tips on what to see there.

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Scott Vogel: Wow, you guys are a great way to spend the afternoon. Thanks so much for writing in with the greatest collection of chat-time stories I've ever been lucky enough to steer onto the Web. And yes, you are the winner, oh defecating man from Fez. Please send your contact information -- all calls kept confidential! -- to vogelsi@washpost.com, and I'll forward that book, which has a whole page on dysentery, natch. See you guys next week!

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