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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, July 13, 2009; 2:00 PM

Have 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, July 13, at 2 p.m.

You may also browse an archive of previous live travel discussions.

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Zofia Smardz: Hello out there all you chatters! I'm Zofia Smardz, the new (and I mean brand-new!) deputy editor of the Travel section, and this is my maiden flight at the controls of Travel Talk, so please bear with me, I'm just earning my wings. Luckily my trusty crew -- Scott Vogel, Andrea Sachs, Carol Sottili and Christina Talcott -- are on hand to help me through the bumpy spots. Joe Yonan, our fearless editor, is out of town so can't join us today, but he'll be back next week. Meanwhile, we hope to make it a pleasant afternoon jaunt for you.

We'll take all your smart travel questions, of course, but what else do we want to talk about? Yesterday, the Travel section published three fun and funny pieces about last-minute getaways and how to pull them off. We took you to the beach, on a cruise, and to another big city on just a few days' notice. And we still managed to get great deals (although Christina did have to stay at the Chicago airport). So, maybe you could tell us about any last-minute trips you've taken that turned out fabulously -- or disastrously. Send in your stories -- plus any super tips you may have for last-minute planning -- and the best tale of wonder or woe wins a fun beach bag (it is that time of year).

Okay, let's go!

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Washington, D.C.: For the poster who asked about volunteer vacations- I went on a Global Volunteers trip a few years ago (to Rarotonga, in the South Pacific), and it was fantastic! Everything was extremely well organized, there was a balance between work and fun time, and lots of interaction with the locals. They have worked with the IRS to ensure the program fees can be counted as a charitable donation, so I was able to claim them. I would HIGHLY recommend their trips.

washingtonpost.com: Global Volunteers International Service Programs: Teaching, Child Care, Community Development

Scott Vogel: Thanks for the suggestion!

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Air Asia: Last week someone asked about Air Asia. I flew on them several times a few years back through several cities. It was clean, efficient and CHEAP. Flight attendants are pleasant and speak English as well as the local language. They do charge for everything - beverages, snacks, pillows so be prepared. They also line people up to board so be prepared for a cattle call - once the airport opens the gate area, expect people to start lining up. But for short hauls, not bad.

Scott Vogel: Thanks for following up on last week's chat.

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Downtown, D.C.: My family's coming to visit in Aug. and we were thinking about taking a trip up to NH and ME. The thought was to fly into Boston and then drive up the coast. I have five days total. How much would you do in that amount of time? Where would you stay? I've never been up there so have no idea... Thank you!!

Zofia Smardz: Great idea! Massachussetts' North Shore is studded with lovely places -- Gloucester, famous old fishing town; Rockport, a little gem on Cape Ann (the "other cape") with loads of shops and art galleries; Newburyport, at the mouth of the Merrimack River, is my favorite because I'm from near there, offers lots of boating and kayaking, etc., plus shopping. Be sure to hit Portsmouth in N.H., it's been beautifully gentrified and is quite bustling, have lunch on the water (Portsmouth Harbor). Not much farther is Ogunquit, lovely beach town, and of course, Kennebunkport, summer home of the Bush dynasty and a few other celebs.

I wouldn't go much farther than that if you only have five days, although the distances aren't that great. But you'll want to linger in a few places and see the sights.

Other thoughts, chatters?

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Connecticut: Husband and I are planning a driving trip to Connecticut the second week in October. I haven't been to Connecticut since I was in college (a loooooong time ago), but remember the glorious yellow maples (and little else). Any suggestions beyond leaf-peeping? Bicycling routes appreciated.

Zofia Smardz: Don't know where in Connecticut you're headed, but the Connecticut River Valley is beautiful, there are lots of state parks and things to see and do -- you can a ride in a riverboat! Check out the state tourism Web site for the region.

Other suggestions, folks?

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Washington, D.C.: Whoa! What is with the high prices to Asia. I've been trying to get to Jakarta from Washington in August, something I did last year for $1000. The best price I've been finding is $1327 and mostly it's clocking in at $1445. I'm in the 4 week period. I keep trying to decide whether I should wait until the 3 or 2 week period to see if prices come down or is this as good as it's going to get. Is it the cost of oil? Limiting flights in and out?? I thought a recession should be cheaper pricing.

Carol Sottili: Maybe you were lucky last year. I think $1,000 to Jakarta is pretty cheap - it's not one of those Asian destinations that typically pops up when sales are announced. If your dates are not flexible, I'd buy now. If you can go any time, you may want to track it for a week or so.

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Kensington, Md.: Usually just a lurker on this chat, but I just wanted to say I was really disappointed in this weekend's section -- I literally got nothing out of it that was remotely useful. Please tell me this isn't the new direction of the section. It has been going downhill for a while now, and it really needs a burst of creativity.

Zofia Smardz: Oh, I'm sooooo sorry to hear that! Didn't get anything out of our last-minute planning tips? I hope future issues will serve you better. But help us out here -- tell us what you'd like to see more of (and less of) in the section. And I'd like to hear that from anybody else who wants to offer thoughts, too!

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Washington, DC: Any suggestions for a weekend getaway from D.C. that does not involve driving? Amtrak goes to Harper's Ferry, but are there walking/public transportation/taxi options once there? I'd love the kind of getaway with country scenery/walking and a small main street with cute shops, but any suggestions of destinations or how to plan such a trip would be much appreciated.

Zofia Smardz: Go -- Harper's Ferry is beautiful. Once you're there, you don't need anything but your own two feet. This is a totally pedestrian-friendly town, all the shops, restaurants, museums (much of the downtown is a museum) and everything you need to see nestled within the two main streets, and it's just a short -- though steep! -- walk up the hill to Jefferson's Rock for what Jefferson called the most beautiful view he'd ever seen (or something like that; don't remember the exact wording. If you want a real hike, you can cross the trestle bridge over the river and head up Maryland Heights. Be prepared, it's a workout!

Anybody want to add anything?

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Atlantis question: Hi. I'm planning a family getaway to Atlantis in November (Thanksgiving). Do you think it's best to wait to book to see if they drop rates or offer specials as the dates get closer? Or, should I book ahead?

Carol Sottili: I'd be surprised if sales were offered at Atlantis over the Thanksgiving holiday. It's a popular destination for families, and the kids are off that weekend. If you really need to go then, you'll probably have to pay the going rate. In years past, it often sold out over holiday periods, but there has been more availability since economy went sour.

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Arlington, Va.: Travel insurance: a worthwhile extra purchase or not? My boyfriend and I just reserved a trip to Italy with Virgin Airways vacations for a few months out. Normally, I think travel insurance isn't worth it, but since this is pretty far in advance and things seem to be so unpredictable in the travel industry lately, I'm wondering if we should pay a little extra for the peace of mind. What's your opinion?

Carol Sottili: Depends. I usually get travel insurance for expensive trips. It doesn't cost that much, and if I break my leg or get called for jury duty or my house burns down, I'm covered. But you need to read the fine print. If you're afraid that your travel company may go bankrupt, for example, make sure the policy covers that. Go to www.insuremytrip.com, www.squaremouth.com or www.quotewright.com to compare policies.

Carol Sottili: Let's try to publish this response - technical glitch I hope is fixed.

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Kaneohe, Hawaii: Have you done an article on or has anyone had experience with either house swapping or house sitting? Any Web sites to recommend? How are pets and cars worked into the mix? Thanks!

Scott Vogel: To my knowledge, we have not yet done an article on this growing trend, but one outfit that is consistently mentioned by travelers is Home Exchange (www.homeexchange.com). Anyone out there have experience with house swapping?

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New York, N.Y.: Help. My friend and I can't commit to a vacation destination for the end of the summer. Our requirements are good food, not too much driving (i.e., no scenic drives), not too hot, affordable (under $1,000) and someplace we haven't been to before. The last requirement is the hardest - between the two of us, we have already been to most places that fit the bill (Newport, Montreal/Quebec, Chicago, DC, Philly, Boston, Maine, San Fran, San Diego, Pacific NW, Santa Fe). I was thinking a few days in Martha's Vineyard. Any other suggestions? I need a vacation.

Christina Talcott: Boy, you two have been a lot of places! How long is your trip going to be? If you've got at least three nights, consider Asheville, NC. I'm here right now and wish I didn't have to leave! The restaurants are amazing, there's a huge range of lodging options and there's a ton to do (artists working in studios in old warehouses down by the river; adventure sports of every kind; history, architecture and nature at the Biltmore; live music every night; free theater and music and festivals; beautiful scenery you don't have to leave downtown to admire). It's also up in the mountains so not too hot. Anyone have other suggestions?

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Dupont Circle: Hi! I'm hoping that someone has some suggestions for me: going to Nigeria for a few weeks; need some portable but healthy snacks in case I get stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours. What would you bring? (Keep in mind: rainy season.) Thanks!

Zofia Smardz: This is a toughie -- I've never been to Nigeria, but wouldn't some good old standard trail mix do? Let's throw this one out to the chatters. Helpful suggestions, folks?

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Arlington, Va.: Just curious about passport stamps. We took our kids over to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls earlier this summer. It was the first time our kids had used their passports and they were excited to get "Canada" stamped inside their booklets. No luck though - there was no stamp. Is there no passport stamping needed when going into Canada?

Scott Vogel: I know what you mean about the little ones being disappointed about not getting their stamps. You're right, though. In most cases, it does not seem to be standard procedure.

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Kensington, Md: Also an observation-for the last several months, the Travel section has been heavily produced with articles from non WP staff as well. The NYT is doing the same. If you have a travel writing staff, why are some issues nearly 100 percent written by freelance journalists?

Zofia Smardz: Perhaps you've heard a little something about the downturn in the newspaper industry? Alas, the Washington Post, like every other U.S. paper, is affected by declining circulation and advertising, which of course affects our staffing. We still have a staff, and it's brilliant, of course, but it's much smaller than it was only two or three years ago, thanks to recent buyouts. The world is a big place, and there's only so much of it that four or five people can cover on a weekly basis. And of course, traveling, even when you get the best deals, is kind of expensive. So we're forced to rely more on pieces from freelancers who find themselves in exotic locales that it's too costly to send our writers do. It's just economics, plain and simple.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi Crew - Loved Sunday's edition on last-minute travel! Submitting early for your help with a family vacation to Seattle at the end of August. It is our first time and we want to see it all, including the San Juan Islands to see the orcas, but I'm having trouble with the logistics. The ferry sounds like a nightmare during peak tourist time, but if we took a boat to San Juan then we may not want to get on another boat once we get there to go whale watching. Do we need to spend the night in the San Juan Islands? And do we need a rental car in Seattle? Thanks for your help!

Scott Vogel: Thanks! As it happens, my family is visiting the San Juan Islands even as we speak. Thanks to the wonders of wireless communication, I've been able to take the liberty of disturbing them. Here is their reply:

"You need a car in Seattle to drive to Anacortes, it's about an hour and a half north. The ferry is easy at off peak hours, try to avoid Fridays. We went Saturday afternoon and were easily able to make the ferry with only a half hour to spare. The ferry ride is easy and lovely and only about 40 minutes. Take it into Friday Harbor and catch a whale watching boat there. You can find pamphlets and magazines on the ferry that will direct you. Btw there are wonderful b&bs on the islands."

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from the noath shoah: there is not much to do in Gloucester (say it like glaw (rhymes with claw)- stah) except people-watch, honestly. I would recommend Manchester (now hideously renamed Manchester-by-the Sea) for the beach and a couple cute shops. Also there is Essex, famous for fried clams and clam chowdah!

As for Maine, there is also a lot of shopping to be done in the outlet stores, and don't forget the lobstah rolls!

Zofia Smardz: Thanks so much for these wicked good recommendations!

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What I would like to see in the Travel Section: I would like to see more about specialized group tours. For example, one of the chatters earlier asked for information about volunteer groups. I would be interesting to learn about the different groups that do this sort of thing -- what are their demographics, what type of work do they do, where do they go?

Another example would be Elderhostel. How old are the people who take these types of trips, what are the typical hotels like, what is the satisfaction rate, etc.

The types of specialized group tours goes on and on, I'm sure.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for these ideas! I've wanted to get someone who volunteered with a group to write for us and will redouble my efforts.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What's happening with baggage assistance at Dulles? I left for an overseas trip on Delta with four large bags and wanted the assistance of a skycap, but the individual refused saying that Delta did not allow him to work with their passengers. I ended up hauling the bags in two trips using one of the little rental carts.

Carol Sottili: I didn't know that Delta had discontinued its relationship with skycaps. US Airways replaced them with employees a while back. The relationship between the skycaps and the airlines has been strained. Several groups of skycaps had sued various airlines over curbside fees, saying that passengers were no longer tipping them. Some airlines got rid of the curbside fees when they started charging for each checked bag, but they still didn't kiss and make up with the skycaps.

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2009 Tour de Lance: I am going to see the last two days of the TdF in Provence and also Paris (we leave Friday for Provence and will be there a week).

Any tips, especially for Paris? I think we have the Provence plan staked out well.

Zofia Smardz: You won't lack for things to see and do in Paris, so the question is how long do you plan to be there? There are all the obvious sights -- Notre Dame (and all the other churches), the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre. I love the Marais and the Place des Vosges. Take a boat tour on the Seine; at night is especially lovely, and you get a completely different view of the city. A lovely hidden little gem is the Musee de la Vie Romantique on the Rue Chaptal.

If you want to venture slightly outside, Versailles is of course a must (check out the domain of Marie Anoinette and the little faux rustic village she had built as a playground for herself and her ladies-in-waiting), but personally, I'm partial to Malmaison, the Empress Josephine's retreat from the capital. It's a mini-version of Versailles, but gorgeous, lovely gardens, and best of all -- it's not overrun by tourists the way the big palaces are.

I'm sure the rest of the flight crew or other chatters have tons of tips for you. Guys?

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Thoughts on Harper's Ferry: HF is one of my favorite places, for all the reasons you mentioned. There is also a thriving river tubing business that shouldn't be missed, although I am not sure whether there is close access to the train station. You could google for the info as the companies all have websites. There is a great bookstore in town that is run by the Park Service. Lots of great local history books. And a yummy frozen custard shop that will tickle your taste buds.

Zofia Smardz: Another Harper's Ferry lover! Great tips, thank you!

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Washington, D.C.: I'm going to the west coast at the end of September, and have not bought tickets yet. I'm seeing $500-600 round trip fares. Am I better off buying now, or waiting for another month to see if prices improve?

Christina Talcott: I guess it depends on where you're going. If it's a big hub like LA or SF and you don't mind a connection, then you can do better than that for sure. Check AirTran, Virgin, JetBlue and Southwest, which might not show up on online searches, or sign up for alerts from farecompare.com so you know first when prices drop.

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Chicago, IL: Do you guys--or the peanut gallery--know of any good spots for a romantic dinner in or around Burlington, Vt.?

Scott Vogel: Peanut gallery, the floor is yours...

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Snacks for Dupont Circle/Nigeria: I am completely smitten with Lara Bars. They come in a gazillion different flavors, are all natural, and delicious. The Annapolis Whole Foods has the best selection of flavors that I've seen. The ingredients list reads something like Nuts, Apples, Coconut, Dates. No HFCS, no sugar, no junk! Enjoy!

Zofia Smardz: Sound great, thanks!

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McLean, Va.: I was reading through a transcript of a recent chat and noticed a question from someone asking how they can get to Dulles airport from DC when the afternoon HOV restrictions are in place on I-66.

Please note that the afternoon HOV restriction on I-66 includes an exemption for solo drivers going to Dulles, so the poster could legally take I-66 as long as he/she went straight to Dulles (via the access road). No need for any workarounds.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for that input! Here's the exact language from the VDOT Web site:

Motorists traveling to and from Dulles International Airport to go to the airport to catch a flight or to pick someone up at the airport are permitted to use I-66 inside the Beltway (I-495) during HOV hours. Motorists traveling to or from Dulles International Airport are not exempt from HOV restrictions on I-66 outside the Beltway (I-495). You are not permitted to use I-66 inside the beltway during HOV hours if you are going to the airport to eat, get coffee, get gas or any other reason other than boarding a plane or picking someone up at the airport.

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Arlington: Trying to fly domestically for a wedding on Labor Day weekend (D.C. to Texas) and the fares are all over the place! I wish I would have bought the tickets last week because fares have risen $90 in 4 days! Will fares continue to rise up until the actual holiday weekend, or can I hold off and hope for a drop?

Carol Sottili: There is no pattern to airfare sales. My guess is that fares were lower because one airline had a sale, other airlines followed suit, but the sale has since ended. Go to www.bing.com/travel or www.farecompare.com to see if they have any projections on sale possibilities. There is always the chance of last-minute sales over Labor Day, but you'd be taking a big chance.

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Tokyo, Japan: Hi! My husband I will be traveling to Honalulu, Hawaii in October. He has some business to take of there but we will then have 3-4 free days so we wanted to go to another island. I was thinking Maui but someone suggested Kona. Where would you guys recommend? We're thinking of doing some water activity but not too much and we love just walking around, people watching and good food. Hope you can help! Thanks

Andrea Sachs: Each island is so different, it all depends on your interests. I would suggest the Big Island, which has two great towns to stroll through, or Maui. (Kona is a city on the Big Island.) Both also have wonderful beaches and parks, for more serious walks. And on Maui, if you time it right, you might see the whales coasting by.

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Arlington, Va.: I have a question about Cayman Island/Grand Cayman. I am looking to get married there, but I know that it's a big cruise ship stop - is it super touristy? Any other information/tips on things to do or not to do? I looked in the archives but didn't see anything.

Thanks a ton!

Carol Sottili: It's pretty touristy, but it's very nice. I felt safe and comfortable wandering around. It's not a quaint, out-of-the-way island. When I was there, snorkeling was good, beaches nice, plenty of shopping, good restaurants.

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Sterling, Va.: We have to be at a wedding in Salt Lake City on August 22nd. We'll be there for the weekend, but I have a (moderately active) pregnant wife. Any ideas on what we can do there when we're not at the wedding?

Andrea Sachs: I enjoyed walking around the Great Salt Lake (just avoid hot days, or bring a mask). If you have a car, check out Antelope Island State Park, which has hiking trails and beaches. You might also want to head into the mountains, to Park City, for some exercise and good eats.

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Connecticut: While driving thru Connecticut a few years ago, I noticed on a tourist information sign that there is a Woodtick Recreation Area in Connecticut. Yes, really! And remember, Lyme disease is named after a town in Connecticut. For some reason, I didn't want to go to that park.

Zofia Smardz: Sure sounds like someplace you might want to give a wide berth, though being in Connecticut, it's probably quite nice!

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Washington, D.C.: I need to buy a birthday present for my son's girlfriend. She is taking a solo cross country train trip this August stopping in Chicago, Glacier National Park, Portland and Seattle. Do you have any suggestions for a gift that she could use on her trip?

Christina Talcott: Here are my ideas, from all over the map: a travel towel that packs up small (try Aquis or any travel catalogue); a big memory card (2G or more) for her digital camera (if she has one, or if not and you're willing to shell out for one, you can get a decent one for $100 or so); a lightweight cotton pareo that can be a blanket, towel, picnic blanket, shawl, sarong, etc; a guidebook or two for any of her stops. Who else has suggestions?

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Portable snacks: Trail mix is portable, but not particularly healthy. Maybe you could bring some granola bars or pretzels/crackers. Also, some fruits/veggies like carrots and apples tend to hold up pretty well for at least a few days (maybe 5 or so).

Zofia Smardz: More ideas for snacks for Nigeria. Thanks!

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New York, N.Y.: Hi, Flight Crew (and welcome Zofia)

Do any of you guys do something special to your sunblock to prevent it from turning into warm, slimy, disgusting goo by the end of the day? I use the semi-ubiquitous Neutrogena, and it's great cold, but the texture when warm is... special.

Carol Sottili: I've tried 'em all because I spend every weekend at the beach. I keep going back to Coppertone's sweatproof, waterproof, no greasy residue SPF 30 - it works, and it's not yucky.

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NH and Maine: For the chatter who's thinking of flying to Boston to see NH and Maine - why on earth would you want to fly into Boston? The airport is a nightmare. You can fly from D.C. to Portland, Maine for under $150 round trip. Or fly Southwest Airlines to Manchester, New Hampshire.

Zofia Smardz: Good point. But then they need a different itinerary!

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Tampa, Fla.: How badly are the airlines cracking down on carry-on luggage? I have an old over-size garment bag that's 48 inches long (it was designed to hold overcoats). It will not fit the sizing containers at the gates if stuffed full. But it will easily fit when not full. I merely have to push down the top a bit (2 or 3 inches). Do I have to worry about having to check it?

Andrea Sachs: If you can squish the sides with rope or a bungee cord and make it the acceptable size (check the airline's Web site for dimensions), I would go ahead and use it. However, these days, especially with checked baggage fees and more people flouting the rules, the airlines are getting stricter. But more important, to be fair to the other passengers: We all need to share the overhead space, and should not be piggy about it.

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Arlington, Va.: re: Travel insurance. I would guess that most people look at insurance as an expensive option that they don't need...until they do. The comparison sites you noted are excellent for sifting through the options. Of course the price goes up with the cost of your trip if it includes things like trip cancellation. Check to see if your own health insurance covers you abroad before you buy a policy with lots of health coverage. When I go to SE Asia I always buy a policy that had a large amount of coverage for emergency medical transport just in case something happens to me over there and I need special transportation home. Trip interruption can be worthwhile. Last year I was caught up in the Bangkok airport closure. I submitted all of my extra expenses that resulted to the insurance company and they paid me $600 which was the trip interruption limit for the policy. Of course my expenses were over $1000 and the policy cost me a couple of hundred itself. But getting some money was better than no money.

Carol Sottili: Good points.

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last minute travel to San Fran?: Hi - thanks for the timely article yesterday - I may have a chance for a last minute trip to San Francisco in August - will probably have a couple of weeks notice - I'm mostly worried about the best airfare deal I can find. Any tips, outside of yesterday's article for good fares to San Francisco in mid-August? Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: Sign up for e-savers and check such sites as TravelZoo.comm for deals. If you see a fare in the low- to mid-$200 range, grab it! You just found yourself a deal.

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NH and Maine: don't fly into Boston, fly into Manchester and rent a car there. It is a a couple of hours to Portsmouth and Ogunquit/Kennebunk from there.

I just got back from a week in the Portsmouth area, and it wasn't bad, but nothing struck me as outstanding either. Personally I'd stay in the Ogunquit area (but if you aren't comfortable with "alternative" lifestyles, then it might not be your kind of town) at one of the seaside hotels. Portsmouth was a nice to visit, vs. nice to stay sort of place, in my opinion. However, Wentworth by the Sea (where I stayed) is a real gem.

Zofia Smardz: And a bit more on NH and Maine. Apart from disagreeing about Portsmouth, good thoughts. The Wentworth is a lovely old restored hotel, can be a little pricey. A side day trip from Portsmouth are the Isles of Shoals just beyond Portsmouth Harbor. Fantastic rocky islands, one was the setting of the Anita Shreve novel "The Weight of Water."

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Not much in Gloucester?!: Hmm, I have to disagree. If you've got 5 days, consider chartering a deep sea fishing boat - you can do trips for pretty much any size group. It will take you out for a half-day (you can have the bar stocked & available, if that's your kind of thing). My BF's company did that last year and we all had a fantastic time.

Zofia Smardz: Wow, lots of North Shore chatters on the site today! Keep 'em coming!

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Arlington, Va.: I have a regional travel question for you. Should rental rates along the Outer Banks or Delaware be a little lower this year due to the recession? We're thinking of renting a house the week after labor day, hoping that seasonal rates will drop a little by then.

Andrea Sachs: It seems like the trend is too keep rental rates flat, at the very least, or perhaps throw in perks or specials, like rent five nights, get one free. However, the owner or managing company also might negotiate a lowe price on the phone. Just be polite and respectful and see if maybe they can skim $100 or so off the rent.

Also: The closer you book to your desired departure date, the more desperate they are and the more willing they may be to make a deal. Good luck!

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Potomac, Md.: Planning to spend a week in Europe, London and Paris from August 15 to August 23, 09. Is it something doable? Is airfare cheaper with hotel and air package than getting flight tickets separately? Any tips and suggestions for this trip would be highly appreciated. Thanks.

Jay

Carol Sottili: Very doable. Price it out both ways. Go to a tour operator such as www.virginvacations.com to see what it can offer (a quick glance shows Paris/London trips starting at about $1,350 per person double), and then price each component out separately. If you're traveling alone, you'll probably get a cheaper price doing it yourself.

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Flights to Europe making me crazy: I'm flying Sarasota/Prague, then Budapest/Sarasota in October, and am tearing my hair out trying to make reservations. So far it seems to be about $250 cheaper to buy two separate trips on Delta: one roundtrip Sarasota/Atlanta, then a second booking for Atlanta/Prague plus Budapest/Atlanta. The two trips mesh perfectly time-wise.

My question: if I'm going Delta all the way, even if it's two separate bookings, can I check my luggage all the way through when I first check in at Sarasota and then at Budapest on the way home? And do I have any standing for help from Delta if, say, the first trip/leg (Sarasota to Atlanta) is late and I miss the second trip/leg leaving from Atlanta?

Andrea Sachs: To check bags, you need for all legs to be on the same ticket. You are going to have to retrieve and recheck again at your layover. And while Delta will be more helpful because you are on the same airline, they are not as responsible because, again, you are technically on two different tickets/trips.

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Arlington, Va.: How last minute does a trip have to be to count as last minute? The only truly last minute trips I've taken were to Vegas. However, my friend and I decided to do a long weekend in Paris in the winter of 2003 and it was awesome. I was just surfing the net and saw a deal for flight+hotel to Paris a week out for under $500 each, and we booked the day I saw it. We were able to do pretty much everything you need to do in Paris in four days. As a bonus, it wasn't too crowded and for half our visit the city was made even more beautiful by a fresh blanket of snow.

Christina Talcott: I guess the idea of "last-minute" really depends on what you're comfortable with, and how you're traveling. Most airlines have lower "advance booking" rates if you're two weeks out or more; Amtrak gives you AAA and other discounts only three or more days in advance; road trips can be planned with just a day or two's notice. But I like your point about last-minute travel vis-a-vis when you decide to book. There is that whole other category of seeing a deal that's expiring soon and just jumping on it without all the advance hemming and hawing. Sounds like your Paris trip was a great example of that last kind of trip working out great!

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Ideas for the traveling birthday girl...: How about a gift certificate to Magellan's or TravelSmith catalogs, so she can select any birthday gift/travel-related item she wants or needs?

Christina Talcott: Nice suggestion, thanks!

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Gift suggestion for train trip : I suggest a nice pair of compact binoculars. Especially, useful for Glacier Nat'l Park, but useful anywhere. It's amazing how much more wildlife you can see with even a smallish pair of binocs.

Christina Talcott: Ooh, nice one. Thanks!

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Re: Gift for son's firlfried: Maybe get her the National Parks America the Beautiful Pass. She'll need to pay an entrance fee at Glaceir (and most NP's) so this will help her trip and last for a year longer.

Christina Talcott: That's a great idea. I like that it'll last far beyond her summer trip.

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Md.: Sigh. People, people, people. You CANNOT bring fresh fruits and veggies into foreign countries. nor can they into ours. Assume all foodstuffs are suspect unless packaged commercially and unopened when you cross a border. Bringing in certain things can be a huge no-no - you risk the transmission of pests and diseases.

Zofia Smardz: Right you are!

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Last Minute Travel!: I had just finished semester exams in college and we needed some sun (Charlottesville in December was a bit icy that year). Being an avid cruiser, we decided to see what popped up and we ended up with a week cruise to Mexico, Grand Cayman and Belize (where none of us had ever been) for $350 per person. A FABULOUS vacation, a FABULOUS trip, and my favorite memory was either boating up the Belize River surrounded by monkeys and crocodiles, sweating buckets thinking "Christmas is next week" or laying on raft in the gulf, drinking pink drinks with umbrellas thinking "it's snowing at home."

Zofia Smardz: Fabulous!

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Good morning/afternoon! I have an eight-hour layover on Sunday in Heathrow and am hoping to visit the British Museum (quickly). It looks like I can get there in 45 minutes. Do you think this is too risky?

Andrea Sachs: I feel like it's doable, as long as you leave at least two hours for check back in at Heathrow. Just plot out your route like a general. Know how to get to the museum from the train station (or however you are traveling), when the train returning to the airport is leaving, etc.

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Chesapeake Beach: We traveled to Wells Beach in Maine last summer and had a lovely trip. We stopped in Rye Beach, NH on the way to Maine and had a great day there. There is a center and small maritime museum, hiking trails, playground and a rocky beach. Truly a great stop.

If there is time while staying in Southern Maine I would highly recommend a trip to Freeport. The L.L. Bean flagship store is well worth the trip. The outlet was my favorite with its canoes stuffed with "reject" totes at incredible prices.

If roadside kitsch and off beat is your thing (and it is mine) the Desert of Maine, also in Freeport, is well worth a stop. It is 40 acres of sand (actually glacial silt but it looks and feels like sand) in the middle of the Maine woods and has been a tourist attraction since the 1920s.

Zofia Smardz: And yet more Mass., NH and Maine travel. Thanks!

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Hong Kong: Submitting early because of the time difference, and I apologize now for how long this is. Has anyone had any experience booking tickets through Best Travel Store? I'm trying to fly back to the States for Thanksgiving, and I found a fare of $972 on their Web site. When I tried to book it (because the lowest I've seen elsewhere is $1400, and that involved 31 hours of traveling), I got an e-mail 24 hours later saying that the fare, advertised as "special to our site!", was invalid, and my reservation was canceled. This has happened twice more, with slightly more expensive fares (about $1100 and $1300). But, almost a week later, all three fares are still listed on their Website. I've tried e-mailing customer service to ask what fares ARE valid, but haven't heard anything back. My sister, who pointed me to the site, had no trouble with them.

Also, how early should I book tickets for Thanksgiving travel? (I'd leave Hong Kong Nov. 19 and return Nov. 29.) Average seems to be around $1700 right now, and, though I want to save some money, I also don't want to spend 31 hours traveling on both ends of a 10-day trip.

Carol Sottili: If it's the Best Travel Store out of Monrovia, Calif, it has an A- rating with the Better Business Bureau, so it's legit. If your sister is in the United States, might be easier for her to call them directly and then email you. It could be a glitch in their system. Also, I looked at Vayama.com and it has a good fare on Qatar Airways.

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Best last minute trips!: Best last Minute trips: One trip to Paris Feb 08, the other one to Dublin Feb 09, we bought last minute packages that wereon sale for a long weekend three days before the departure which was more than enough time to go to the library and spent some time looking for the places that we wanted to see in such a short time...both trips were GREAT and under $500! With flights and good hotels! February is a great time of the year for last minute trips!

Zofia Smardz: Great -- agreed, no one travels in February, but they should!

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Alexandria, Va.: I messed up my passport application so I won't be able to take the cruise I was planning for the end of August. Any decent U.S. locations? I see that New Orleans has some discounts. Will the heat be unbearable?

Andrea Sachs: How about Alaska or New York to Canada? You can also contact the State Department about the passport application. You can try its expedited service. Separately, the agency recently issued a statement saying that due to the newness of the sea portion of the Western Hemisphere initiative, they will help out travelers in a jam. I am not sure if that means they will accept a birth certificate or what, but you should definitely inquire.

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For London and Paris bound: We've had a hard time getting good package prices to multiple cities. Usually we found doing the "multiple city" booking option for the transatlantic flights and then taking either European carriers (like EasyJet) or taking the train (via the chunnel, very fast and fun) within the continent to be the cheapest. Then we just book the hotels separately.

Carol Sottili: Except you often land in one airport (Heathrow, for example) and leave from another (Stansted or Luton, for example). That can be a hassle depending on where you're staying. I've done it both ways.

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Burlington dinner: There is a lovely restaurant called A Single Pebble which has unusual and distinctive Chinese food. I think it would qualify for a nice romantic dinner, if you are seated in the smaller dining room (near the front door) rather than the larger room down the steps. Food is truly excellent.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for answering this one for us!

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Burlington Vermont Dinner: Go to The Inn At Essex. Lovely dining room; staffed by students at the Culinary Institute. Great food, peaceful, looking over flower gardens.

Zofia Smardz: And another good suggestion.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: I am hoping to travel with my aging parents to Vienna, Prague, and Berlin over the winter holidays. Are there resources available for that area for travelers who have a hard time getting around? Are there things we should plan to do or places we should avoid?

Christina Talcott: There are lots of resources for travelers with mobility or other challenges, including those listed here. Certainly in Paris you should plan to take taxis rather than the Metro or walking, since there are always too many steps in the Metro (not sure about Vienna or Berlin). Also, be careful to book hotels with elevators or ground-floor rooms, if possible. Any specific mobility-related suggestions for any of those cities?

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Bowie, Md.: Two weeks ago, I booked a trip on Delta from DCA to Phoenix, both ways through Cincinnati. After Delta's service cuts last week, my return flight from Cincinnati to DCA is now canceled, and the last flight between the two airports leaves after my flight from Phoenix arrives in Cincinnati. Of course, they did not e-mail me to tell me this.

What can I ask Delta to do in this situation? How many alterations to my schedule will they make without charging me a change fee, considering the need for a change is their fault?

Carol Sottili: My guess is that they'll reroute you and get you back with no change fees. If they don't do that, let us know.

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SWDC: Gift for cross-county train trip:

If it August, I'd suggest a sleeper upgrade for one night of the journey - but that's peak season and they're outlandisly expensive (if not sold out). It can be quite a value - $130 or so - off-peak.

Depending on tastes, how about something that she can use once she gets to one of the cities - like a REI gift card that could be redeemed in their Seattle flagship store, or a gift certificate to Powell's City of Books in Portland.

Christina Talcott: Great ideas! Keep 'em coming!

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Annapolis, Md.: Hi travelers!

My husband and I will be in Seattle for a couple of days in September. (I posted a question on this previously but it did not surface for an answer. Is Seattle that uninteresting?) We are planning to go to the Space Needle, but is this a big tourist trap? Do you have any "must see" sites? Thank you for the chats!

Scott Vogel: The Space Needle is touristy but actually worth it; also, the entire Seattle Center, where it's located, is interesting to walk around.

Friends in Seattle recommend: Staying at the brand new Four Seasons if you can afford it "and have hot chocolate at Franz choc at the bottom of four seasons." It's a city of neighborhoods, so give yourself time to explore places like Ballard, Fremont, Madison Park, etc. "Also, pike place market is still great. Go to Ballard and eat at oaxacan grill. Castagna cafe at pike place for lunch, dinner or amazing brunch." Finally, "Don't miss Seattle art museum sculpture park at sunset."

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Washington DC: Ridgefield person here, with advice for Nigeria-bound.

I spent a month there so have a pretty good idea of the place. First, the only guidebook is the Brandt one and it is ok. I liked Abuja, clean, friendly, safe. Some of the modern architecture there is interesting too. It's fun to go down to the lake and eat the fish on the floating stands. Don't let people tell you it's unclean, it's fine. Also, GREAT Indian food in Abuja. I really liked a place not far from the Hilton (Not Wakkis, although that is ok too). There is a good Thai place in Abuja too -- we mainly ate foreign, on the whole Nigerian food is not so good. In Lagos, the hotels are disappointing, including the ridiculously expensive Eko. There is a very good Italian place in Lagos (in the Bradt guide). Finally, everything is expensive and don't ever buy wine! Every bottle we had had gone bad. Stick to the Star or Kastle beers. Oh, and only fly Virgin or Aerocontractors for internal flights. The other companies crash quite regularly.

Zofia Smardz: Here's more grist for the mill for our Nigeria-bound traveler. Thank you!

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Dining near Burlington: "Black Sheep Bistro" in Vergennes, about 20 minutes south.

Ate there returning from the Shelbourne Museum. One of my great dining finds ever.

Christina Talcott: OMG that place is AMAZING! I would go there again solely for for the mayonnaise that comes with the fries. Ridiculously good food and service.

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General chat question: ...How far in advance can we submit questions for the chat? Is it just the day of the chat, or can we submit questions days ahead of time and still have them (maybe) be answered?

Thanks!

Signed, A Curious Chatter

washingtonpost.com: The chat is normally available to take questions a few days before the time of the chat and all questions are grouped together despite the time of submission.

Christina Talcott: There you go!

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Vermont: From a VT local...

Explore all of Vermont's restaurants and bars at http://www.7nvt.com/(The 7 Nights Guide, run by the local independent newspaper 7 Days - contains customer feedback, contact information, links to websites, price estimates, etc.) In particular, I would recommend the Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond, Michael's on the Hill in Waterbury, or for a real splurge (and about 1 hour drive from Burlington) The Pitcher Inn in Warren.

Scott Vogel: More dining suggestions in Vermont... Thanks!

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Oooh, I can combine my question and story into one... Last Wednesday, I was on the Chicago Tribune's Web site and at the very top of their main page, they had a link about super sale fares on Southwest and AirTran -- fares that were $30, $60 or $90 one way based on mileage, but you had to purchase by that night. It was so amazing that I forwarded the link to my boyfriend of only a couple months and we decided we were going to take a trip. We get all excited, but talk of the trip led to talk about the relationship and we decided not to book. Which was sad. But it's great because it opened up a really good conversation. So that's the last-minute story, but my question is, how can I find out about deals like that normally? Anything besides just signing up for e-alerts and Travelzoo?

Carol Sottili: One of my favorite sites for deals is www.independenttraveler.com. They do a good job of keeping up on the latest airfare promos. And try www.budgettravel.com.

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Washington DC: Hey folks -- love your chats and articles! So now I turn to you for some help/advice....

I need to get to Honolulu in around mid-August this summer. I've been pricing it, but so far the cheapest I can come up with is about $800. That sounds high, but it's been so long since I've paid for that trip I don't know if it's right or if I should wait for it to go lower. Complicating matters, the former farecast.com (now a bing site, it looks like) never seems to be able to offer a prediction lately.

So... should I bite the bullet with 800, or wait just a teensy bit longer? I'm getting anxious with my departure a little less than a month away.

Andrea Sachs: Here are some facts that might help you (I hope):

Hawaii is down in tourism and desperately needs the dollars and visitors.

Not so long ago, flights were in the $400 range. However, with kids now on summer holiday, the prices are higher, to take advantage.

So, I would wait for a tiny bit, then grab the lowest you can get, which very well might be in the $800 stratosphere. You can save some money by booking a package, but that's only if you need a hotel, too.

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McLean, Va.: I don't know if this counts as "last minute," but last year our family had booked a weekend at Virginia Beach for the weekend after Labor Day -- which turned out to be the same weekend the region was hit by Tropical Storm Hanna.

At the "last minute," we decided to keep our reservation and go for it, despite the weather. It turned out to be one of our best beach trips ever! We spent Saturday by or on the beach watching the roaring surf and feeling the strength of the winds, which greatly impressed the kids. By evening, the storm had passed, but so many people had cancelled that we were able to just walk into a restaurant without any wait and spend all day Sunday (a gorgeous, sunny day) on a pleasant, uncrowded beach.

Now the kids only want to go when there's a storm coming!

Andrea Sachs: Last minute gumption--love it!

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Washington, D.C.: This is for the Hawaii poster. We just spent 5 days on Oahu and 5 days on the Big Island. This was our first trip to Hawaii. Everyone told us each island is different, but the Big Island is so different. Everything seems very remote there. The Kona side of the island is pretty, warm and fairly well-populated. The Hilo side (eastern side) is so different. It rains there a lot and it is much cooler, but well worth it to see the live volcano! There is one major road (two lanes) which goes around most of the island. Much of the landscape is black volcanic rock. We stayed North of Kona in the resort area which was just beautiful -- very lush with greenery right next to the volvcanic rock, but you should be aware that things are not near each other. You can ride to the next town over for dinner and it will be a half hour drive. We stayed in Waikiki on Oahu. We drove all around Oahu, but the vibe there is so different then the big island. We did not get to visit Maui although we wanted to, but the Big Island was definitely worth it.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks for great advice. Mahalo!

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Carol Sottili: To all my favorite chatters, this is my last chat. I've taken an early retirement package, and my last day is Thursday. Thanks for being a part of my Monday afternoon for many moons. It's been a blast.

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Silver Spring: Submitting early, because of a meeting. I've been asked by a relative for the name of a hotel/s in walking distance of the National Mall, up to about $150/night for 2. It's not so easy; I live here, so I don't look for hotels here! Can you help me?

Christina Talcott: There are so many to choose from. They can probably find good deals ($100 or less) by using a site like Hotels.com, Hotwire.com or bidding on Priceline.com.

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Arlington, Va.: Are you sure about the baggage checking question? I have been on separate tickets (and separate airlines, however Alliance partners) and have been able to check my bags all the way. It took them a little time to do something on their computer to make it happen. I would guess that Delta should be able to do this. Whether they will or not is an open question. It is also likely that the person would have to collect bags and clear customs in Atlanta prior to continuing home to Sarasota anyway since Atlanta is their U.S. re-entry point.

Andrea Sachs: Good point (on Customs). I have flown on two different tickets and was told to follow the protocol. However, you could very well be correct, especially since it is all on Delta and they just need to print out one baggage ticket. However, you do have to check-in twice, I'd imagine. Best to call Delta and inquire.

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Zofia Smardz: Okay, well, whew! That was some flight. Lots and lots of questions -- a bumper crop, there's no way we could have answered them all! But come back next week and we'll try. Meanwhile, the last minute stories were all good, but I found myself smiling at the thought of someone cruising up the Belize River thinking "It's snowing in Washington." So send us you're info, and we'll send you the bag. Travel@washpost.com.

Thanks again all for making my first flight so smooth, and see you next week!

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