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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, June 8, 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, June 8 at 2 p.m.

Browse an archive of previous live travel Q&As.

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Christina Talcott: Hello, and welcome to this week's edition of Travel Chat! Got questions, comments, suggestions or travel stories to share? Come on down!

Yesterday we ranmy story story about staying in cabins in the woods, both alone and with friends, and my struggle to build a campfire. Does anyone have a similar story about trip when overcoming a single obstacle overshadowed the rest of the trip? Best story of triumph earns a tote bag.

Let's go!

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Crossville, Tenn.: Regarding the question, last week, as to brand of luggage. I sold luggage for ten years. Simply naming Samsonite isn't enough. That brand has everything from garbage to really high end. Avoid spinner carry-ons. The four wheels are overkill on a small bag and the wheels make it that much tougher to get it into the overhead. I also like Travelpro. Even their less expensive lines are decent. They advertise as being preferred by airline crews and I have to say I don't recall a pilot or flight attendant ever coming in the store and buying anything else.

Christina Talcott: Thanks for the suggestions! Boy, if pilots and flight attendants were buying Travelpro, that's a real endorsement. I still like my spinner bag, though, as you point out, it can be hard to get it into overhead compartments, especially on smaller planes. But for navigating long and narrow plane aisles or getting around on trains, buses and subways, I've found the maneuverability to be a real bonus. I guess it's just a matter of preference...

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Playa del Carmen: Hi crew! My husband and I are going to Mexico in July. The problem is that I don't have a passport yet. I went to the passport agency and was told to come back within 2 weeks of my departure and I'd get my passport there. Can I trust them to come through? I don't have much of a choice but am wondering if I should just forget about the trip.

Scott Vogel: Forget about the trip? -- Absolutely not. Not sure where your nearest passport agency is but we've all had experiences doing this last-minute. The agency likes to say that no one misses a trip if they can possibly help it, and I have to say, despite a few close calls, they've proved very dependable. That said, you may have to pay an extra fee for expediting your passport.

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Washington, DC: Hi,

We are having a horrible time with United and wonder if there is anything we can do, and if it is typical. We bought tickets that we never used and had $2000 in credit. We bought a round trip ticket (for $250) with part of the credit for my husband. He is unable to use the first half, but wants to use the return. According to them, this is impossible. If he doesn't show up for the first leg, the ticket is essentially invalidated, so he cannot use the return without paying s $650 change fee. This is after we've paid the $150 change fee to buy the ticket in the first place. How can this be? Do all airlines work this way? And, finally, do we have any recourse? (This is an issue at all because our baby spent a week in the NICU after she was born and our schedule changed because of that. It isn't like we just randomly changed our plans.)

Thanks for any light you can shed.

Carol Sottili: A $650 change fee? That doesn't sound right. It should be $150 for a domestic travel ticket.

I don't know if your situation qualifies, but go to this URL for United's policy on air travel changes for medical, personal or travel emergencies:

http://www.united.com/page/article/0,6722,52995,00.html

And yes, most so-called legacy airlines (not discounters) have similar rules.

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Grasonville, Md.: I flew SWA from BWI to Norfolk last week. I had a pacemaker implanted in March so had to have a manual pat-down rather than go through the metal detector.

I am a small woman, 5' 1", 110 lbs. The woman examining me was easily a foot taller and 2 or 3 times as heavy. She used some sort of sensor to check my hands and feet, then absolutely mauled me before clearing me to proceed.

I can understand why they need to check under clothes, but she was kneading my unclothed forearms and calves. It was very painful. I asked, what are you looking for? but was afraid to say anything further for fear I would be arrested. She said, you refused to go through the metal detector so you agreed to this search.

The whole experience left me so shaken I canceled my return flight and took the bus back from Norfolk.

Do you know if this experience is typical? Whatever happened to wands?

Carol Sottili: I don't think your experience is typical. But I do think you should complain.

Email your story to TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm thinking of going to Deep Creek Lake over the July 4th weekend with my husband, 2 little kids, and my parents. I know of the Wisp resort. Are there any other places out there that are cheap that we should look at? We don't have much to spend on this weekend, and from their website, it looks like it's going to be about $300/room for the weekend. Any other ideas? I need a shower, so the cabins that you discussed in yesterday's paper are out.

Thanks!

Christina Talcott: Sounds like a nice trip! Wisp would be good for convenience factor (and the Mountain Coaster), but you could also look into renting a house for your group - HomeAway.com has a number of houses in McHenry that are free that weekend. There are also listings at the Garrett County Web site where you might be able to find availability. Book soon and you'll have more options. Have fun!

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Alexandria, Va.: PLEASE......Can you or anyone in the gallery help me find a getaway that is adult only (and ideally singles only)

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

Christina Talcott: Can anyone out there help? In the meantime, can you specify where you'd like to go and what your budget is? Thanks!

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Arlington, Va.: Last week, a chatter asked about Wimbledon. I went in 2001 when I was in London for grad school.

Getting to Wimbledon is easy. The District Line station at Southfields is closest, and from there you can either take a shuttle bus or walk (I walked). Southfields is in Zone 3, so you will need a Zone 3 round-trip (they call it a "return" in the UK) ticket because your regular Oyster Card -- most tourists only need a Zone 1, other than going to and from the airport -- won't work.

There's not much in Wimbledon besides a residential neighborhood.

As for Wimbledon itself, what used to be known as Henman Hill is now called Mount Murray, Murray Mound or Murrayfield, and if Andy Murray is playing the day you're there it will be packed with tennis fans who do not have tickets to Centre Court.

Having been to the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, I prefer Wimbledon. It's more intimate with about half the land area (so be prepared for big crowds all over the grounds), and you never know when Serena Williams or another player will walk past you on the main path.

Indulge in the cliche strawberries and cream, and instead of spending all day in your ticketed seats, watch some of the action on the outer courts, where there's only a few rows of seats on each side.

The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum is on the grounds as well, so you might want to check that out -- especially if it's raining the day you go.

Have a great time, and remember to bring a camera!

Scott Vogel: Thanks for the info!

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NoVA: Last week a poster from Columbia, MD wanted to know how to how to save money on attractions during an upcoming trip to Ireland. Buried deep within one of the links you provided was the recommendation to get a Heritage Card. I'd like to bring that recommendation to the forefront because we found it to be GREAT on our trip to Ireland in April. The card, which can be purchased in advance or at the first Heritage Card site you visit, costs 21 Euros for adults, 16 Euros for seniors and only 8 Euros for children/students. I discovered that many of the sites that we wanted to visit in Ireland were covered by the Heritage Card and we easily added a few more as we traveled around because it didn't cost us anything extra. I calculated that we saved 20 Euros per adult and 8 Euros per student in admissions for our family during our week in Ireland. The website (http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/) is good because it gives a list of all the Heritage Card sites in each region of Ireland, a description of the attraction, the hours and the admission fee charged if you don't have a Heritage Card. So you can easily decide if the Heritage Card would be a good deal for you or not.

Christina Talcott: That's a terrific tip. Thanks for the report!

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Ashburn, Va.: I hope you can help this time! We are going to Myrtle Beach in a couple of weeks, with a toddler. We have never been; what are some must-do's down there? Or where to eat -- we normally go to OBX and there are a lot more options in Myrtle Beach. Thanks!

Carol Sottili: Go to www.visitmyrtlebeach.com for lots of ideas re: kids' activities.

As for restaurants, I like Sea Captain's House (www.seacaptains.com) and Villa Romana (www.villaromanamyrtlebeach.com).

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Independence, Ohio: We are spending four nights in Paris We have a 7:45 a.m. flight CDG to Milan. Should we stay at the airport for one night or will we be able to get transport to airport on a Sunday in time for flight?

Scott Vogel: As it happens, I had an 8 a.m. Sunday flight leaving out of CDG last fall. The Air France shuttle wasn't running that early and a taxi was seemingly our only option. As I recall, the trip cost a whopping 70 euros. Staying at the airport would certainly be a more cost-effective, not to mention less nerve-jangling, option.

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Pittsburgh, Penn.: I have always wanted to go to Istanbul -- I will have some free time in early September to finally get there. How many days should I plan on being in the region? Any tips and tricks and must-sees? Thanks!

Nancy McKeon: If you're stopping in Istanbul on your way to or from somewhere else, then it makes sense to stay for 4 or 5 days in the city. Hagia Sofia is a must-see, as are the major mosques and the Topkapi Museum. Just hanging around the Bosphorus, maybe taking a ferry up and back, is worth doing. The city is one thing, but there's another world on the water, with private swim clubs on barges anchored in the strait with views of enormous Russian and other tankers in the (not so far) distance. But if you're making a special trip, you really should consider expanding your Turkish itinerary. Ephesus with its ruins, Capadoccia with those weird tufa formations and the balloon rides among them, Konya with the last of the dervishes--Turkey is a large, amazing place, with incredible experiences available nowhere else. (Hmmm, I think I've talked myself into going back;)

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Oakton, Va: I'd just thought I'd share a flight experience from last week. We actually had someone mistakenly board the Dulles to Halifax flight instead of the Dulles to Chicago flight at the next gate. Incredibly the gate agent didn't ask him for his passport (which he didn't have) while boarding, and when he asked about the flight going to Halifax instead of Chicago, the flight attendants thought he was joking. He was last seen in the company of two of Canada's finest being escorted to the Canadian Customs and Immigration office.

Christina Talcott: Holy cow, what a snafu!

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Chevy Chase: I have a 90 minute layover in Zurich between two Swiss flights in a few weeks. Is this enough time to make the connection? Anyone know if I will need to clear passport control and/or security to make this transfer?

Nancy McKeon: It sounds like enough time, but maybe someone out there is more familiar with the Zurich airport to answer about passport control and security.

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East Coast-to-West Coast for cheap?: I've been finding some, what I think is good, airfare from DC to Seattle - around $250, give or take for the end of August. Do you think it's possible, with airfare, to stay in Seattle for 3 nights, dine, sightsee and all that jazz for under $1000? Even less preferably? It's the hotels that are more than the airfare. I have a gift card for a B&B to use anywhere, so I was thinking of using that one night to defray the total cost; would it be worth it? Are there any inexpensive (under $100) B&B near the downtown area, or accessible by public transportation?

Scott Vogel: Anybody have some B&B recommendations for a fellow chatter? I can say that if you fail on that front, by all means consider bidding on Priceline. We've recently gotten 4-star rated hotels in Seattle for $105 a night; 3-stars undoubtedly can be found for less.

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Funny camping story: This isn't totebag-worthy but is still kind of funny. When my now husband and I were first dating, I mentioned how I wanted to go camping. We ventured off from D.C. on Labor Day Weekend, thinking we'd drive west until we found a vacancy. We found one at an RV-type campground that had a few open tent sites. It was almost like camping in a parking lot. We were awakened by a dad yelling at his kids in the next tent saying "If you don't stop that, I'll break your arm!" Nice.

Christina Talcott: Oh, dear. Yup, there's one advantage cabins have over tents: They're more soundproof. Well, at least that didn't drive away your then-boyfriend!

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Harwood, Md.: I was stuck for several hours in Raleigh-Durham last Wednesday heading to BWI, due to the major thunderstorms in the DC area. No one likes this; but I always have snacks, water, reading material and try to make the best of it.

Some people were much more agitated, in part because at least one other plane was allowed to fly to BWI on its way to Albany. In response, at least two airline employees made reference to the Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, possibly due to having been struck by lightening: "You don't want to end up like them, do you?"

I thought those comments were extremely inappropriate. I have the employees' names and badge numbers and am wondering if I should take any further action.

Carol Sottili: A couple of decades ago, I was on a flight from San Diego to Cincinnati that got caught in a horrific thunderstorm. The plane was hit by lightning several times, and it dropped straight down for several seconds, sending passengers who were not in their seat belts into the ceiling. Several broke bones. It was not a good experience.

I don't know what tone of voice was used, but if their goal was to convey the seriousness of flying through awful storms, it may have been warranted. If they were rolling their eyes and being snippy and sarcastic, they should be reported.

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Ft Lauderdale, Fla.: First, regarding TravelPro luggage - I have a few of their Platinum pieces, which is their top of the line series & have used them often with no problems, even keeping the wheels rolling through snowstorms & icy (& salted) walkways. The one time I did have a problem with the handle not extending, they repaired it free of charge & delivered it to me next day so I could use it on my next trip.

As for a story of overcoming adversity, I was flying to Ithaca to eulogize my cousin at her memorial service. An accident (not mine) en route to the airport caused roads to be blocked & I arrived at the ticket counter 28 mins before departure so they would not allow us on the flight. They changed the flights and routed us through Philadelphia. We sat on the Tarmac at PBI for 2 hours, causing us to miss the Philly connection. Found a hotel that picked us up and dropped us back off at the airport 6 hrs later (any sleep helped), but got to Ithaca only to find the airline had lost my luggage with my clothes for the service! My cousin's widower picked us up at the airport and had to take me shopping ... for EVERYTHING! The people in the store were magnificent, bringing me clothes, stockings, shoes to the dressing room to try on and with 2 of them and my son scattering throughout to find everything, I managed to get a complete outfit that was worthy of the occasion (jeans and sneakers really didn't cut it). They cut off the tags there and I wore the clothes out of the store, managing to get to the service with almost 5 minutes to spare. The service was, of course, heart-wrenching but beautiful and I will never forget those that helped me face the problems from a certain airline (that never even reimbursed me the cost of the clothes I had to buy, as they had promised they would).

Christina Talcott: Wow, what an ordeal! That's an incredible story, and I'm glad it turned out ok, all things considered. And thanks for the comment on TravelPro luggage. Nice to know they'll do repairs!

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Rockville: I am arriving in Amsterdam at 8am on a Saturday in September and planning on taking a train directly to Paris.

Will I have enough time for immigration, etc. to catch a 9:40 train? I know there is an airport stop for the train, but don't know how close or user-friendly it is.

Nancy McKeon: You also don't know how many other flights are going to disgorge their passengers into the passport area at the same time, and whether your flight will be on time. I had a very smooth, rapid transit through Schiphol a couple of months ago, but that was April and a weekday. Err on the side of caution, please.

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Alexandria, Va.: We are heading to Portland, Ore. and 2 1/2 days to spend touring the coast. We have seen Cannon Beach and North. We are considering heading down to Bandon and then working our way back up but are wondering if we will be spending too much time driving. Any recommendations?

Scott Vogel: That does indeed sound like a lot of driving. Not sure when you'll be there but it's Bard season in Oregon; consider hitting the nationally-known Oregon Shakespeare Festival (www.orshakes.org) in Ashland, definitely pay a visit to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area (dune buggy rides are supposedly terrific). And then there's Crater Lake...

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wheeled luggage: Oh please NO. At least 10 flights recently, I have done the right thing and checked my bag and then I see 5-10 people not be able to get their wheeled bags into the overhead, and thus having them checked by the flight attendant there on the plane for free. It is extremely frustrating, and feels a lot like people are cheating (not to mention delaying takeoff). It is simply selfish to use these bags and pretend they are carry-ons.

Christina Talcott: I agree, I've seen people try to fit the most ridiculously large bags in the overhead compartment. But if a bag's regulation-sized (and not stuffed to the gills), it'll fit in the overhead and is fine to bring on board. Not all wheeled bags are too big to carry on...

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Camping stories: My parents often related that when we were car camping in Yellowstone, at least one grizzly stood up and put its paws on one of our station wagon's windows to look in (seeing if the canned food was worth the trouble?), and that the park service had designed "bear proof" garbage cans that required one to step on a peddle to make the can's lid pop open. As you can guess, the bears quickly figured this out. Smarter than the average bear?

Christina Talcott: Oh boy, I can just see the paw prints now. Yeah, bears are a lot smarter than they look - as long as it's in the service of getting food, anyway.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: I am going to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone in late August and am interested in a half-day photography "course" of some sort. I've looked all over the internet and have only found 3-7 day full trips. Any ideas?

Carol Sottili: While I don't believe they offer such a short program, the Yellowstone Association Institute may be a good resource - 406-848-2400, www.yellowstoneassociation.org.

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For Alexandria: If they only have 2 1/2 days total, they might consider spending it inland, such as around Mt. Hood and environs. I guess Crater Lake would be too far.

Scott Vogel: Thanks for your suggestions re Oregon driving.

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Arlington, Va.: My husband and I have found a fantastic deal on flights to Italy for October (a delayed honeymoon from our April wedding because we wanted to hit Italy in the off-season). We have our lodging already arranged for Florence but we'd love any input on reasonably priced places to stay in Rome and Venice. Also, what is the easiest way to get tickets for football matches?

Thank you!

Nancy McKeon: Don't know about getting tickets to football matches--anyone out there know??? As for reasonable hotel rooms, get thee to venere.com and start looking. There are maps so you can scan the areas where you think you'd like to spend time. Also, take a look at the subway map and check out the areas convenient to the ends of the lines--rooms will certainly be cheaper there. As for Venice, abandon all thoughts of "reasonable," or at least redefine it. But at least a thorough run through Venere will let you know what rock-bottom is, even if you ultimately reject it. The official Venice tourism site also lets you check out all levels of accommodation in town--go to www.turismovenezia.it (you can switch to English). And remember that the Venice Biennale runs through the end of November, so better to nail down your accommodations sooner rather than later.

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Rockville, Md.: Zurich transfer: 90 minutes should be plenty. Even with needing to go through passport control and a re-security check, from landing to arriving at the next gate was just about 40 minutes (Swiss-to-United transfer).

Nancy McKeon: One vote of confidence in Swiss efficiency.

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Zurich Airport: Yes, 90 minutes is enough time to make it through passport control and connect. Had much less than that to catch a connecting train out of the airport and it worked out fine.

Nancy McKeon: . . . and another!

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Pittsburgh-to-Toronto report: I wrote in a few weeks ago inquiring re the lowest-hassle border crossing for a car-trip to Toronto, and appreciated the advice of chatters. Now I'd like to report a bit on our trip traffic:

We had no problems crossing the Peace Bridge between downtown Buffalo, New York, and Fort Erie, Ontario, during weekday middays in either direction. Only catch entering Canada is that we assumed the first booth was the toll-collector, so pulled right up behind the vehicle ahead of us, only to discover it was Canadian customs; the toll booth was farther up (US$3, C$3.75 round trip). Drove back on the first day of the new laws requiring passport or enhanced government ID, so there was even less traffic (probably some potential crossers had been scared off by all the warnings, while others had procrastinated on getting their new IDs). We experienced no difficult questioning from Customs crossing the border in either direction, although we're admittedly a conventional-looking middle-aged couple who were just going there for a long weekend, and the contents of our back-seat (which the agent could see) was consistent with our story.

Toronto traffic starts just south of Hamilton, Ontario, and it's just one big slurb now all the way to Toronto (and doubtless beyond). We had the misfortune on our entry to Toronto to be arriving at the same time as traffic was tied up downtown with both a presentation by US ex-Presidents Bush and Clinton (with demonstrators outside the Convention Center), and our exit street being reported closed (yes, it's worthwhile to listen to radio station CJRT-91,1 FM in the car for such info) due to a bicycle race, so we took the exit before it, and got caught in the downtown Toronto afternoon commute rush on a Friday (the Capital Beltway is excellent training).

We took a quick, sentimental stop on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, where we discovered that parking in a nearby lot cost C$18, which for us would've worked out to about C$1/minute, so we instead just drove slowly along the overlook street, getting a fleeting glimpse and a complimentary car/windshield wash from the spray.

That week the Loonie leapt in value from 82 to 91.4 cents on the US dollar, which reduced the value of our currency somewhat. Warning: do NOT use currency conversion businesses for which you see signs along the highway, as they charge too much. For the most favorable rate, use credit cards for as many purchases as you possibly can, and convert a little US cash into Canadian at a bank (for the best rate).

Carol Sottili: Thanks for the report.

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Seattle on the cheap: If the chatter is okay with Priceline, you can get good hotels in Seattle for $75/night. I know the Hotel Vintage Park (a Kilpton Boutique Hotel) will usually accept a bid of $75 (choose 4 star, Pike Place). With its location, you can take the $11 Gray Line shuttle downtown from SEA and walk a block or two. Other hotels often come up for $75.

So, $200 for the flight, $300 for the room, $18 for the shuttle (prepay for round-trip). Many buses are free in the downtown area. Reasonable food can be found at Pike Place (find a bakery for breakfast, just be aware there are only two places open at 6:30am, which is a reasonable breakfast time for us east coaster's first morning). For dinners and such, hop a bus up to the U District for good, cheap eats.

So yes, I think Seattle can be easily done for under $1000. I spent 9 days there in May, on three different trips (4 days, 3 days, and 2 days).

Scott Vogel: Great post, thank you! I second the motion -- Seattle is definitely doable on the chatter's budget.

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Another Seattle: 4 star for $105, I'd say you overpaid. Most of the 4stars will go for $75-90 (unless its a busy time). Worst case, you can go up to Lake Union and get the Residence Inn for $75/night (includes a NICE breakfast) and take the light rail to downtown. Check out betterbidding.com (its much more friendly that bidding for travel).

Scott Vogel: More info re Seattle hotels and Priceline...

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Fairfax, Va.: Heading to Toronto for a few days at the end of the month with a buddy -- any must-see places to eat/drink/see for two guys with a modest travel budget? Also any advice for Niagara Falls since we'll be stopping there for a day as well. Thanks!

Christina Talcott: For where to stay and eat, check out Cindy Loose's recommendations here. We have another story about Toronto coming up in the next couple of weeks, so keep an eye on the Travel section.

As for Niagara Falls, the Canadian side has a lot more going on, though it's very carnivalesque, with tourist traps of every strips, from Ripley's to casinos. If you like wineries, there are lots of them between Toronto and Niagara Falls - Niagara-on-the-Lake has a bunch. Any last-minute suggestions?

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Seattle travel: Having lived in Seattle, I would certainly imagine that $1000 would be enough for three days in Seattle. In terms of hotels, you might consider checking out the University District. It's the area around the University of Washington and is a direct bus ride to downtown (on many different buses).

One little known attraction I wouldn't miss: the Theo Chocolate tour in the Fremont neighborhood.

Scott Vogel: Great -- thanks to all for the Seattle info.

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cabins: why no WVa cabins???? I would have loved to see some near Harper's Ferry or Shepherdstown, since those places are closer than some of the cabins you did list.

Also, you missed these: http://www.stratfordhall.org/visit/lodging/

wonderful location near GW's Birthplace, Northern Neck, and of course, Stratford Hall

Christina Talcott: Yeah, I was sorry to have to leave out West Va., but this week's cover package was dedicated to just those two states (and state/national parks). Maybe we'll do another story on cabins in other states. And thanks for the Stratford Hall suggestion - I'll check it out!

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Saginaw, Michigan: For the person from Columbia, MD going to Ireland on a budget, strongly consider B&Bs or Guesthouses for value accommodation - (especially in Dublin which is very expensive); menu pages and Ireland web sites will help provide the names and prices of good value restaurants (even better pubs with food) and Early Bird Menus. Not available for every county but covers most popular Tourist Areas (Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Clare etc): checking out Ireland on Trip Advisor Forums also.

Christina Talcott: Thank you!

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Camping Hell: Oh, man. This is just ONE of my childhood experiences with camping, all similarly disastrous.

One of many: The year my dad decided to SEW a tent, because how hard could it be? Well, it looked fine, if a bit lopsided, and all four of us (mom, dad, me, dog) got in there in our sleeping bags and all was well. Until the rain started. This was tropics-class, blinding, deluge-level rain. The seams of the tent? Not waterproof. We stuck it out until we were, literally, floating in our bags in 6-8" of water. (oh, we had also pitched camp in a swale, so we had nice cataracts shooting down the hills and creating a lovely lake for us to float in). Oh, and did I mention the slugs? We were the high ground and the slugs somehow found their way to us, through the not-sealed tent. We were coated with them, inside our sleeping bags.

We (including the dog) spent the rest of the night in a 24-hour Laundromat drying tents, three sleeping bags, and all out clothes in industrial sized driers. Oh, and bonus fun, this was about 2 miles from Three Mile Island in March 1979. We heard about the accident on the TV in the Laundromat.

I am 38 now. I hate camping. People wonder why.

Christina Talcott: Ok, it wasn't that bad until you got to the slugs. Ewwww!

You sound like a candidate for a cabin. Seriously, they're very dry and slug-free.

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Washington, D.C.: For the Yellowstone traveler--I do not know what birding courses they offer, but I took a course with the Yellowstone institute last fall and it was excellent.

China: can you please help on ideas for getting a good airfare to China for July. Also your thoughts of not arranging a tour until we arrive? (I've submitted my question repeatedly over the past several weeks--I know you get a lot of questions--and this is my last chance to get some input from you). Any hints/concerns about waiting until we arrive? Have any of you ever done that? Also, any ideas on whether we can rely on ATMs for cash in China? Thanks!

Carol Sottili: I think it was a photo workshop they were looking for, but the Institute offers all sorts of workshops.

As for China, we haven't answered because we don't have complete answers for you. Airfare to China is very variable. You need to watch sales, and strike when a sale is announced. Go to www.farecast.com, kayak.com, priceline.com to track. And consider going out of Los Angeles or New York, ticketing to those cities separately.

As for a tour once there, can't help, as none of us have done that. And, yes, don't rely on ATMs. Bring travelers' checks.

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Montalcino and Rome: Hoping you can help! My flight leaves tomorrow and I have some unexpected free time in Montalcino and Rome. I was in Rome once before in high school, about 10 years ago. What should I not miss in Montalcino and Rome in the way of food, wine, activities, and shopping? One free day in Montalcino and two days in Rome. Thanks!

Nancy McKeon: Eeek. Montalcino is the easier "problem." It's a classic walled town and just walking the main drag is charming enough. There are some churches with early-16th-century frescoes (San Francesco, for one), but it's a chic town in the middle of brunello (type of wine) country. So just strolling and eating (and drinking) would do me fine. But two days in Rome!? I loved the pasta museum, but that's not a first-visit type of thing. I think you have to hit the Colosseum and the baths and the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, the area around which has interesting antiques shops and is more neighborhoody than the more fashiony area around the Piazza di Spagna (the Via dei Condotti has all the top-name designer shops, including the over-the-top Fendi emporium). Catacombs? Cool. Vatican? St. Peter's and Michelangelo's works there shouldn't be missed. Maybe you could organize the two days around Michelangelo??? Good luck?

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For the chatter looking for soccer tickets in Italy: We were in Milan in May and tried to get tickets for the AC Milan/Juventus match and were so, so unsuccessful. We learned that the banks sell the tickets and it is nearly impossible to buy on the black market since your ID must match the name on your ticket when you enter the stadium (security precaution to cut down on hooliganism). Sometimes tickets are available on the official club websites and sometimes not. The only other thing we could have possibly done was ask the hotel to purchase on our behalf. Sadly, even that would have been a long shot in our situation. Good luck to you!

Nancy McKeon: awright . ..

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Seattle: My wife has one about camping with Girl Scouts and having a mishap with most of their food on a first day of a week long trip but my story took place when I was 2.

My family and some family friends were camping near Sarnia, Ontario when I apparently decided that camping was not for me. I stole the keys from my parents and tried to start the car. Somehow I managed to jam the key into the ignition and break the key in two.

I don't remember this but the family friends always remind me about this whenever we meet - 30 years later.

Christina Talcott: Haha, how awful!

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Wheeled baggage: Airlines need to get stricter about permitting large bags onto planes in the first place. Gate attendants seem reluctant to antagonize someone boarding with a huge bag, but that just leaves the task to someone else. Those little devices supposedly used to measure the size of carry-on bags are currently just decoration.

Christina Talcott: Amen!

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Bethesda, Md.: Vacation overshadowed by one experience: I went to Paris for the first time at the end of this past April. Two hours after arriving in the city, I found myself crossing the Pont Neuf in the pouring rain, and managed not to notice steps built into the pavement until that awful moment when I put my foot down and realized that there wasn't anything under half of it. My ankle got sprained in the process, though I didn't realize the extent of it until I actually looked at the swelling that night at the hostel.

There was no way I was going to give up walking during my time in Paris, so the next morning, I limped into my local pharmacy and promptly realized I didn't know how to say "sprain" or "ankle" to the nice lady behind the counter who didn't speak English. We spent five minutes playing injury charades, and then she handed me off to a specialist, who took me into a back room and fitted me with a sturdy brace (with a sturdy price tag to match). The rest of my Paris trip involved walking very slowly and sitting down quite often, but I got to almost everything I had been aiming for. (The Musee d'Orsay is fantastic!)

And, for the record, as far as I can tell, "I sprained my ankle" is "J'ai tordue la chevillere."

Christina Talcott: Wow, what a disaster! Good job salvaging the trip!

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Christina Talcott: Uh oh, we're out of time. Thanks for joining us, and thanks for all your questions and suggestions. For the camping-phobic slug-attack victim with the tent-sewing dad, please send your address to talcottc@washpost.com for your tote bag. See you all again next week!

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