Talk About Travel: Travel Staffers Help You Plan Great Escapes
Monday, August 24, 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, August 24 at 2 p.m.
Browse an archive of previous live travel Q&As.
Andrea Sachs: Hello everyone. Today we have a full house, including Zofia (back from woodsy New Hampshire), Joe, Christina and Carol (watching the waves for us from Ocean City). And I am here to talk about sleeping on planes (zzzz), as well as answer any other questions.
With the season's first name storm to hit the news (Hi, Bill), we want to hear your stormiest, windiest travel stories. Ever been evacuated or hunkered down with margaritas to watch a tropical storm? Let's talk extreme Weather Channel.
Washington, D.C.: My husband and I are leaving in a few hours (!!!) to fly to the Netherlands, and I wanted to use this chat for last-minute advice. Our destination was my choice -- he originally wanted to go to a resort in Mexico. The North Sea is no Caribbean Sea, but I'd love to give my husband some of the sun he was looking for. Do you know of any beaches within a few hours drive of Amsterdam? I've heard rumors of a swimmable beach right outside of the city, and another just outside of The Hague, but neither of my guidebooks has mention of these locations. If you or the chatters have suggestions of where we could splash or sunbathe for a few hours, I'd appreciate it.
Christina Talcott: There are a number of beaches along the North Sea, including ones with rentable chalets (check out this article from the Guardian for a few ideas). There's also a section on seaside resorts on the Holland tourism Web site. The island of Texel seems to have nice, relaxing beaches and biking, but browse the site and see what you think. Any chatters have a favorite Dutch beach?
Washington, D.C.: I am going to Mount Desert Isle in Maine later this week; I've never been. Aside from eating lobster, what should I do?
Joe Yonan: You can kayak, camp, hike, see wildlife, take a ferry to Nova Scotia, see gorgeous Tiffany windows at St. Saviour's Episcopal Church, go to a whale museum, and, yes, eat lobster.
Hillsboro, Va.: How can I find a travel agent that specializes in trips to Britain? My family is planning a trip, coming from three different areas of the country. We're at the point of realizing that a travel agent is going to be much better at coordinating things than we could ever be.
Carol Sottili: Just about any good travel agent can handle this sort of trip. The American Society of Travel Agents may be able to help: www.travelsense.org. It certifies agents as specialists for some countries, but Britain is not one of them. Also, go to www.visitbritain.com for ideas. It even offers a first-timers guide to Britain.
Chicago: I just got back from a fantastic vacation out to San Francisco and Wine Country - mud baths might be my new favorite thing ever!
Anyway, I also stayed in a B&B for the first time. The setting was lovely, the food delicious, but the proprietor would not stop talking. Ever. Long rambling stories when all we wanted to do was relax. I tried using common verbal tactics to get him to stop talking, but he totally ignored them, at which point I had to be curt and it was a bit uncomfortable.
Is this common with B&Bs? Because it kind of turned me off from trying one again.
Andrea Sachs: It all depends on the B&B. Some owners are very subtle -- they give you the key, tell you the breakfast time, then get out of your hair. Meanwhile, others appear as if they were on vacation with you. In Virginia Beach, I once stayed at a place where I ended up watching "Wheel of Fortune" with the family, because I could not escape their grasp. Don't give up on B&Bs, though. They are really lovely alternatives to impersonal hotels. If the lodging has a carriage house or separate part of the house, choose that, so you minimize contact. However, if you do get a glom-on host, just be nice but direct. Tell him/her that you would love to talk but have plans to see X, Y and Z. Then flee.
Washington, D.C.: Thirty something single gal looking for a backpacking trip out west next year and need suggestions for outfitters that organize such a trip. Any recommendations from you or the 'nuts?
Christina Talcott: What about Sierra Club trips? Not all of them have volunteer/work components, but some of them might appeal to you. Or check out National Geographic Adventure magazine's list of top outfitters, including companies that take hiking trips in the U.S.; browse it here.
Worthington, Ohio: I haven't flown since I was 11 years old, and now this year I am going to have to fly twice (at least). In October I have to fly from Columbus, Ohio to Dulles International; and in March from Columbus to Orlando, Florida. So my question is about plane tickets... How do I know what a good price for these flights is, and when should I be purchasing the tickets? Any help you could give would be great. Thanks!
Carol Sottili: I'm not sure that those routes are popular enough to be tracked for pricing trends, but try www.farecompare.com and www.bing.com/travel. Those sites will indicate the historic pricing on certain routes, and will also predict whether the cost is headed up or down. Also, go to the airport Web sites (www.mwaa.com for Dulles) to find out which airlines fly between those destinations. I believe United Express flies the IAD/Columbus route nonstop. Also, consider looking at flying out of Reagan National - US Airways flies nonstop from there. As for Orlando, I think you'll have to connect to get to Columbus, but AirTran, a discount carriers flies between the two. Once you figure out the airlines, you can go directly to their Web sites to check pricing.
Washington, D.C.: I recently stayed at a bed and breakfast and when I checked out, there was a line for tip on the receipt. I wasn't sure what to do -- it was unexpected. Are you supposed to tip the proprietors of a B&B and if so, how much is customary?
Andrea Sachs: I have never heard of tipping the owner. Was that perhaps for housekeeping?
Dreaming of a getaway: When is the best time to go to Greece and island hop? No restrictions due to summer, holidays, etc. Best weather, not crowded, all the good stuff in a vacation.
Joe Yonan: I'd vote for late spring or early fall...
Down South: Hi Travel Crew. Quick question. Hubby and I want to go to Hawaii in 2010. It will be our first time there. We have had trouble finding a travel agent to help us and doing it online has been a chore. Saw an ad in the newspaper by a tour company (YMT): 4 islands, 15 days, $1500 n/i air fare. Includes intra-island transportation, tours, hotel (3-4 star). They told us to budget $50 per day per person for food. Is that a good deal?
Carol Sottili: YMT Vacations, also known as Your Man Tours, has been around for about 40 years. It specializes in budget vacations. My mom and my aunt have both gone on their tours, and they agree that it offers a good value. It's various offices have different ratings with individual Better Business Bureau offices - I looked at two and saw an A- and a C+ rating. I would price out the components of the trip separately to make sure you're getting a deal. Look at the ratings for the hotels - a site such as www.tripadvisor.com can give you an indication. And go to Hawaii's tourism site for more info: www.gohawaii.com
Kingstowne, Va.: Yesterday's article on sleeping on planes was interesting to me because since this past February I've used a CPAP device when I sleep. A CPAP is a respiratory machine that mitigates the effects of obstructive sleep apnea. I've never slept very well on domestic late-night flights because I was afraid of being "that snoring guy" who kept everyone else awake. When I use the CPAP device, I do not snore all. It's an amazing device. But I haven't flown anywhere (other than a short hop to Ohio) since I've had the device and yesterday's article made me wonder whether the airlines will allow the use of a CPAP during a flight. (I know the TSA regulations say that because it is medical equipment it's exempt from the normal carry-on limit, but that's a separate matter from actually using the machine.)
In preparing this article, did you perhaps encounter any information on the use of CPAPs in flight? The information I can find online is inconsistent and sometimes flat-out contradictory. Some people say several airlines flat-out prohibit it, others say you should let the airline know in advance that you have a medical condition, others say it's no problem, still others say it's only a problem if you use supplemental oxygen (which I don't). I know the domestic carriers tend not to have in-seat power available except in first class, so that's another issue, but I also know there are battery-powered devices on the market.
I don't plan on flying anywhere soon, but I'd be grateful for any information you might have on this topic.
washingtonpost.com: The In-Flight Nap: It's Not Just the Stuff of Dreams (Post, Aug. 23)
Andrea Sachs: I did not come across CPAP during my research. Sounds very intriguing. But as long as it's not a liquid, which it's not, TSA should not ban it. I would think it falls into iPod, PC, personal device territory.
Washington, D.C.: I don't recall the name of the beach - but I biked there with friends in The Hague. It's not hard to find beaches per se - just follow the tourism. I doubt the water is warm but there are these really lovely food places set up on the beach only during the summer. Great bitterballen and ribs I hear.
Christina Talcott: Thanks for chiming in! Biking to the beach sounds like fun, especially with good food once you get there.
NoVa: Just came back from a week in Denver. Great vacation. Wanted to recommend hiking St. Mary's Glacier, the Denver Art Museum and eating at Snooze.
Zofia Smardz: Thanks for sharing!
20008: I know you've answered this question before, but I can't recall because it had never happened to me! I booked tickets between Detroit and Boston months ago and yesterday decided to check for seats online only to find out that my flight was now hours earlier! Northwest/Delta didn't send me any type of notice of the change. Do I have any recourse? Needless to say the new times don't really work for me.... Thanks!
Joe Yonan: Wow -- can you tell us more? Is it a nonstop flight?
Arlington, Va.: What happened to your colleague Joe Brancatelli? Although I'm not a regular business traveler, I really enjoy his articles for their insights on the travel industry, but I haven't seen anything by him on the Post site or in Slate recently.
Andrea Sachs: Hmmm, think you might have the wrong publication. Joe B. is not part of our staff.
Washington, D.C.: Wanted to register my disappointment with your Thailand story yesterday.
Yes, the financial support of the tribes is a complex issue - but her piece did not adequately explore that side. Instead it appeared as though the author's writing gig was merely justification to satisfy her childhood curiosity, while doing the least damage to her sense of ethics.
It wasn't the trip to see these women that was objectionable - it was the content and style of this particular story that did not sit well.
Joe Yonan: Sorry you didn't appreciate it. I found it to be an interesting exploration of the ethical questions that travel can often raise. After learning about the plight of the women, Amit (who for the record is male) felt compelled to see them for himself and to interview them rather than just avoid the issue entirely and/or to depend on other people's accounts.
Traveling to Barcelona: We're cruising out of Barcelona in October, dates to fly over there from D.C., are not very flexible. I'm currently seeing $775 round-trip -- should I buy? It seems high for that time of year, but obviously the days are passing by and I don't want to cut it too close!
Carol Sottili: $775 including all taxes and convenient connections isn't a bad fare. I'm seeing somewhat cheaper ($710) fares on www.orbitz.com and www.vayama.com. Of course, there could be a sale, but since your dates aren't flexible, I wouldn't count on it.
Warrenville, Ill.: Thanks for your article yesterday on airplane sleep aids.
What I missed, however, is any first-person accounts of trying any of the products that you highlight.
Over the last year sleeping on a plane--even in business class--has become exceptionally painful. I need major neck support. Have you tried any of the products that you illustrated? Did any of them work for you?
Andrea Sachs: Yes, we did try out five products, which were included in the sidebar and featured short reviews. Did you somehow miss that piece? I was a fan of the Neckii and Snoozer.
Cathedral Heights, D.C.: Zofia,
Loved your article about eating in Paris (in fact, loved everything about this week's section). It was while I was in Paris in 1992 that I discovered that I really don't like French food. I liked the bakeries and the bread/cheese lunches we had, but I found our French dinners were not very good. So we found a good Italian restaurant near our hotel and ate there several times.
Still don't like French food, either. When a friend visiting D.C. from out of town a couple of years ago asked about a French restaurant as a possible dinner destination, I told her that I didn't like French food. She said, "That's okay. Most people don't. Only a few admit it."
washingtonpost.com: An Unsavory Holiday In France (Post, Aug. 23)
Zofia Smardz: Thanks so much for your comments! Glad you liked the article! Apparently it wasn't to everyone's, uh, taste. I'm wondering whether you really don't like French food, or whether French food, by the time you went, had already started degenerating. Anyway, Italian's a great alternative! Thanks again for writing in.
Joe Yonan: I love French food, when it's done right. A perfect macaron, or roast chicken, or steak frites? Heaven.
Zofia Smardz: Yes, when it's good, French food is really good!
washingtonpost.com: A New Age: St. Pete's Fountain of Youth
Andrea Sachs: For the visitor to St. Pete in Florida, here are some of the fun things I found to do.
Annapolis, Md.: I guess everyone has to decide this for him- or herself, but I, too, saw pictures of the long-necked women as a child and was totally freaked out. This is clearly child and/or women abuse and should not be condoned in any way, shape or form. The fact that they are virtual slaves makes it even worse. I know there's a lot of evil going on in the world, but can't anything be done to help them? I'm old and disabled and regret the fact I can't do anything to help free them myself!
washingtonpost.com: A Village, or a Zoo? (Post, Aug. 23)
Joe Yonan: I know that the United Nations High Commission on Refugees took an interest in some of the women's plight a year or two ago, and I've put in a call to their rep here in DC to see if I can find out if that case is still active. Nonetheless, you could certainly contact them or an agency like Human Rights Watch to express your concern and offer financial support.
Re: beaches in Holland: Plenty of beaches in the Netherlands - however, sun is not guaranteed (it's often cloudy, typical summer temperatures in the 70s). A nice beach is Katwijk, near Leiden. Avoid Texel (infamous for binge drinking), but the other Wadden islands are recommended, especially Schier (Schiermonnikoog).
Andrea Sachs: Thanks for your beachy good tips.
Austin: OK I'll bite: I'm going on a multi-layover trip to Singapore this fall and it'll be my first time on a 14 hour flight. What's the secret to sleeping and/or surviving the long flight?
Andrea Sachs: What I gleaned from my reporting on this topic: Fly first-class. Okay, second to that: Get a window seat, a neck or traditional pillow and ear plugs, and shut out the world. Also, recline your seat and keep the space by your feet free of bags, so you can stretch out. I am not going to kid you, though: It's tough to sleep in coach. No matter how tired you are. Just don't get frustrated; let dreams of Singapore lull you into some kind of restful state.
Washington, D.C.: Am I alone in not liking B&Bs? Other than for a romantic getaway, I do not like them. As someone who often travels alone or with (non-romantic) friends, I do not stay in B&Bs. They do not have the amenities that hotels do and if I want to meet people, I find it harder to do in B&Bs (since the visitors are usually romantic couples uninterested in meeting others). If I want to meet people, I'd rather stay in a hostel or a smaller hotel.
Joe Yonan: I reviewed inns in New England when I worked at the Boston Globe, and the B&B thing can get really old. There are some exceptions and some wonderful, tasteful, fabulous inns. But in the worst cases, you have to suffer the overstuffed-chair/doily-heavy decor. Then you have to talk to strangers in the morning before you're caffeinated. And you have to listen to the owners tell the same story you've heard a million times before: That they lived in the big city but got tired of the rat race so followed a lifelong dream of owning an inn in the country but didn't realize that it's so much more work than they had thought and they're on duty 24 hours a day, etc. And then you have to eat their cream-cheese-stuffed, caramelized pecan-stuffed French toast, which is about 10 times more food than you want at that hour of the morning.
I exaggerate, of course, and as I said there are thankfully exceptions. But you get the point, which is that I feel your pain!
Metro D.C.: Hello - Sept and Oct are the two busiest months for me at work and I like to plan a vacation for as soon as the craziness ends (light at the end of the tunnel, if you will). I have gone to Florida the last two years but am looking to try someplace new. Is the first week of November still considered shoulder season for the Caribbean? I am looking for a warm, calm beach at as reasonable a price as possible (but who isn't, right?). I've been to Jamaica and St. Maarten already. I was specifically wondering if any one place would be most desirable and reasonable in early November. Thanks so much!
Carol Sottili: Cancun or Nassau are the two warm-weather spots outside the U.S. that are the cheapest and easiest to get to. US Airways flies nonstop from DCA to Nassau - price is about $310 round trip. USA 3000 and AirTran fly nonstop from BWI to Cancun, and United flies nonstop from IAD - price is currently closer to $400 round trip. Cancun is a good bet because there are so many reasonably priced all inclusives. Take a look at www.cancun.travel.
Baltimore, Md.: Good Day, Travel Staff: We're traveling to the UK next month and to help celebrate my wife's birthday while there, I've asked the hotel's concierge to arrange for flowers, champagne and some other goodies. The total should be approximately $150. Can you tell me what an appropriate gratuity should be for this service?
Andrea Sachs: What a sweetheart you are! I would give $5-$8 for that service, since it probably took some orchestration.
Alexandria, Va.: For sleeping on those long (overseas) flights there's always Ambien.
Andrea Sachs: True, but get your doctor's okay first. And try it out before you fly. And don't take it on short flight.
Arlington, Va.: I appreciate the article on the "long necked" women in Thailand. It does certainly point out an issue that applies in many situations. I have been avoiding Burma due to similar ethical issues, although I know there are also lots of people on the other side who say that what the people there really need are visitors to support the locals and hear their stories. But I am not sure the authors claims that he visited as a journalist and not a tourist in this case exactly ring true for me. Especially after he admitted that he has always wanted to go and see these women after reading about them in National Geographic...like animals in a zoo? I suppose poor people with few options are exploited in myriad ways all over the world. I remember being somewhat shocked my first time in Cambodia at all of the very young children who are enlisted in selling all manner of trinkets and guidebooks to tourists at the sights around Angkor. They really descend on you and surround you. I never really knew what to do. You want to help these people, but you don't want to help perpetuate the system they are forced to live under.
washingtonpost.com: A Village, or a Zoo? (Post, Aug. 23)
Joe Yonan: Thanks for your thoughtful approach here. I'm glad that Amit's story got you thinking, which was the point, absolutely. He did indeed want to see them since childhood, and then he learned more about their situation, and then he decided that visiting as a journalist -- that is, uncovering more about them by interviewing them and writing about them -- would be the best way to go. Not to merely satisfy his curiosity, but to help explain their situation to readers.
Minneapolis: I would love to see Europe next spring. However, I hear that England is pretty pricey. What's a great alternative to England?
Zofia Smardz: Most of Western Europe is pretty pricey these days, especially with the strength of the euro. One country that's still a little more affordable is Germany, which is still catching up economically since unification. But for bargains, best to head to Eastern Europe, where most of the countries still use their own currencies.
Other thoughts, chatters? Flight crew?
Washington, D.C.: I'd like to know how to get the best rental car rates. I'm looking to rent a compact car during the week of Labor Day (5th-12th), and the prices I'm seeing ($350-$400) seem high to me. I've tried Hotwire, Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, and would appreciate any other recommendations. Thank you!
Andrea Sachs: I am a big fan of naming my own price at Priceline. They use the major rental car companies. I have a good track record getting a car for my bid.
Capitol Hill: Hey Flight Crew!
I have to go to a last-minute wedding in England in September (I know, terrible!). What would be a decent price, including all taxes, for non-stop fares from D.C. to London?
Carol Sottili: Depends on variables. Early September or late September? Can you travel on Tuesday or Wednesday (usually the cheapest days to fly), or going only for a weekend? Nonstop or connecting? Basically, if you're going in mid-September, leaving Friday and returning Monday, and need to fly nonstop, expect to pay about $800 on either British Airways or Virgin Atlantic. But buy by Aug. 26 - that's when sale fares end.
Re: Netherlands: when I was in Belgium, we drove from Brussels to Knokke which was across the border from Netherlands. It was very pretty, family oriented, and elegant (and it was in May). The seafood was also very tasty. Highly recommend it!
Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the input!
Joe Brancatelli: You guys should check your site more often - his articles are carried on the Business Travel page of washingtonpost.com, through what looks like a partnership with portfolio.com. Nothing new since April, though.
Andrea Sachs: Correct, but I was referring to our staff here.
Tip for Concierge: $5 to $8 on a $150 set-up? Is that what you'd tip a waiter at a restaurant? Please, 15% to 20% of the total outlay! Don't perpetuate the "cheap American" stereotype, please.
Andrea Sachs: Oh shoot. I am so sorry. I am the worst at math. I was going to say 20 percent, then figured I would do that math. Bad idea. Let me try again: 20 percent.
Ambien: May I second your advice to try Ambien a couple of times before using it on a plane? The reason is that known possible side effects include hallucinations. I used to take it and I stopped doing so after multiple instances where I jumped out of bed screaming and swatting at the bats I thought were flying around my bedroom. At home that's one thing, but on an aircraft it would be extremely disturbing!
Andrea Sachs: Wow. That is intense.
Alexandria, Va.: I agree with the article about French food. I traveled to Paris with friends about 3 years ago and really enjoyed the food. Traveled again this past May and the difference was shocking. I was soooooo disappointed - I tried to order a Croque Madame two times and they said they were out - how can you be out of the ingredients for a croque madame in a french restaurant...no bread? No cheese? No Ham? SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO disappointing!!! A few years back you ordered an omelette and you were presented with a great looking plate with the omelette and a side salad - this past May - the only thing on my plate was the omelette - NOTHING ELSE. DEPRESSING!
I still haven't gotten over it - as you can see.
Zofia Smardz: I feel your pain. And your hunger. Sigh. Thanks for writing in. I knew I wasn't the only one!
Question and storm story: I am going to Vienna and Prague this weekend, any recommendations on what to see or do in either city? I'm embarrassed that I forgot to ask until now so please don't hold that against me.
As for the storm watch, about 6 years ago when the DC area was going to be hit by a hurricane, me and my friends made mai-tai's, watched movies all night and waited for the power to go out. It never did but we sure had a fun night! Every time I drink a mai tai I remember that night.
Zofia Smardz: There's tons to do in both cities! In Vienna, be sure to see the Hofburg, the imperial palace in the heart of the city (seeing the camp bed the Emperor Franz Josef slept in is worth it alone)and the Kunsthistorisches (art history) museum, with all the Brueghels. St. Stephan's Cathedral and St. Paul's are beautiful churches. Take a walk around the Ringstrasse and hit the parks -- the Staatspark and the Volksgarten. Visit Mozart's house, and Freud's apartment in the Berggasse. Go to the Prater, the amusement park with the famous giant ferris wheel featured in The Third Man. And that's just for starters.
In Prague, see the Old Town, the New Town and Wenceslas Square, the Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, the Golden Lane, Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, with the Jewish Cemetery and the synagogue. And the Lennon Wall.
Rockville, Md.: Hey Flight Crew! Has anyone been to Princeton? Taking a college tour, and I've heard it's a nice town. Any dining tips? Places to check out? Thanks!
Christina Talcott: Here's a story we ran last year on biking around Princeton. Here's what the author, Christine O'Toole recommended for dining:
"Grab some takeout at Olive's Bakery and Deli (22 Witherspoon St., 609-921-1569), where lunch for two runs about $25. The Main Street Euro-American Bistro & Bar (301 Harrison St., 609-921-2779) dishes up casual pub grub in the Princeton Shopping Center. Dinner for two with drinks costs $90."
Any other Princeton tips?
CPAP: The traveler with the CPAP was asking about using it on the plane. The question had nothing to do with whether it could be carried on (it can). I would contact the airline, because unless his/her CPAP is different than mine, it will run only on 110/120V AC.
Andrea Sachs: I understand. Then, yes, best to contact the airline. Or another CPAP user.
Herndon, Va.: Weather "fun" - Back in the dark ages, while serving in a fun-filled US Army assignment at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, we caught the tail end of a typhoon. I've been in serious thunderstorms, and fairly close to a couple of tornadoes, but this was something else. It was a continual downpour, driven by a high wind - the rain was coming at you sideways. The noise was the worst - a continuous low roar for hours on end. I remember being outside afterward and looking at nothing but blown over trees (the few we had) and damaged buildings - some of their metal roofs had been blown out of sight.
Andrea Sachs: Stormy memories. Thanks!
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend and I are interested in vacationing in Mexico. Beyond the issues of Swine Flu, kidnappings and violence towards tourists were always our main concerns. In the week after Swine Flu was announced two tourists had their heads chopped off for an undisclosed reason.
How safe is Mexico? And when will it be safe to travel again --given president Calderon's new initiatives?
Joe Yonan: You should read the State Department's recent advisory about travel to Mexico. Keep in mind that while there has been an increase in violence, it's particularly been bad in the border towns where drug cartels are battling for control of routes to the US. The advisory warns against non-essential travel to parts of Michoacan and Chihuahua, and the State Department has good general guidelines for traveling to other parts of the country. Keep in mind that the vast majority of Americans who travel to Mexico don't experience any crime. That's not to be cavalier about it, it's just to say that if you keep your guard up and use common sense, you can safely experience the wonderful things about many parts of the country.
Driving to Boston: Hi, I've been trying to find this in Dr. Gridlock's chats and I was going to ask him, but I do not see him scheduled this week. I am trying up to Boston on Friday, coming back Sunday. I went in July and the drive was awful. I took the regular route of I95, to NJTP, to the George Washington Bridge, through New Haven, onto the MA Turnpike. I hear there is a less horrible route through Pennsylvania and you would also pay less in tolls, which would be nice. Any idea what this is? I looked at the map and there could be multiple ways...I think one chatter mentioned the Tappan Zee bridge. Thanks!
Zofia Smardz: I just got back from a week in New England (we stayed north of Boston, and we drove up and back, as we do every year. Normally, we do the route you outlined, except that from the GW Bridge we head up the Henry Hudson Parkway to the Merrit Parkway to I-84 through Hartford (avoiding that awful awful stretch of 95)to the Mass Pike. But on our way up this time, we bypassed the GW Bridge and headed up the Palisades Parkway to the Tappan Zee Bridge, then headed north to take I-84 all the way through Connecticut to the Mass Turnpike. The Tappan Zee was a breeze, no backup at all (the GW was waaay backed up), and we actually cut a few miles off our usual trip! I recommend it.
I don't know about this less horrible and cheaper route through Pennsylvania, but I'm all ears! Chatters, anybody have details about that?
Springfield, Va.: I haven't been able to get online for the past two of these sessions, so please forgive the tardiness of this comment. I noted the August 9 Coming & Going item about cruising without a passport. One paragraph read as follows:
"If you elect to cruise without a passport, be sure that the birth certificate you carry is a real, state-issued certificate and not a copy or a souvenir handed out by the hospital. The genuine article has a raised seal stamped into the paper."
The raised seal thing isn't necessarily accurate. The copy of my birth certificate that my mother received in 1973 when I was born has the raised seal, but when I sent away in 2002 to obtain a copy of it to apply for a passport, the copy I received was on "secure paper" with no raised seal. (This is the sort of paper that has a watermark that becomes visible if it's scanned or copied.) I suspect that Texas isn't the only state that has made this change. Anyway, point being, don't rely on the raised seal as a means of determining whether you have the correct document!
washingtonpost.com: Coming and Going: Cruising Without a Passport; $1 Bus Fares (Post, Aug. 9)
Joe Yonan: Yes, you're right -- we corrected that error a few days after the item appeared with this:
"In the Aug. 9 Travel section, a Coming and Going item on passport requirements for cruises in the Western Hemisphere incorrectly said that passengers must carry an original birth certificate. A copy is adequate."
Washington, D.C.: I'm a newly single 30-something woman looking for a solo weekend getaway not too far from D.C. Looking for spa, food, fitness and other relaxing me-time events. Any suggestions?
Christina Talcott: I like your thinking! Nothing's better after a breakup than treating yourself to some quality pampering and me-time. Berkeley Springs might be right up your alley, with low-key spas, hiking in nearby Capacon State Park and good restaurants in town and just outside (try Panorama at the Peak for dinner with a view). Or try the Hyatt Chesapeake in Cambridge, Md., coupled with a bike ride or kayaking trip in Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, plus dinner at Bistro Poplar or Canvasback. Both Berkeley Springs and Cambridge are such mellow towns that I've never felt awkward when I've dined out or wandered around alone.
Close to Cambridge is St. Michaels, whose downtown is posher than Cambridge's and has a number of nice spas and dining. Nearby, the little town of Easton has a surprising number of good restaurants. Both Berkeley Springs and Cambridge/St. Michaels are about 2 hours or less from Washington. Anyone have other suggestions?
Washington, D.C.: Can you offer advice on using priceline.com for a rental car? You can name your own price, but what if none of the companies accept your price? Do you just keep submitting different prices until it is accepted?
Andrea Sachs: Look at winning bids at www.betterbidding.com. I usually see what the companies are charging normally, then lower it by $10 or $12. I hate to pay more than $25 a day for a car, so usually try to stay in that range. But a lot depends on the destination. If you get rejected, you have to vary one element of the request, such as date or pick-up. So, it's best to get it on the first or second shot. Or try it again 24 hours later.
Unsavory French Food: It is a myth that French food is ALWAYS good. I am French and believe me there has always been plenty of bad meals to be had. Also, there are French people who don't care about food, some who don't know good food from bad and/or cannot cook. On the other end, it's almost impossible to have a bad meal in Italy because Italian cooking is based on a few basic local products and fairly simple dishes.
Joe Yonan: I think you're oversimplifying the situation in Italy, but I appreciate the thoughts nonetheless.
Re: Mount Desert Island: Just have to vouch that there is plenty to do on MDI besides eat lobster -- will be returning next week ourselves for our seventh or eighth visit, and I'm allergic to shellfish! In addition to the lobster pounds there are many really, really good restaurants on the island, and locally brewed beer, mmm, so it's worth exploring some of the other options.
Also -- the ferry to Nova Scotia is a major haul. If the chatter wants a boat ride, there are daily mail boats to and from the nearby Cranberry isles, which are beautiful and quiet and Wyeth-y, you can picnic, walk around, visit an art gallery and be back on MDI with plenty of afternoon left.
Joe Yonan: Thanks much!
CPAP: TSA can't ban CPAP. There are a variety of styles with these machines. The one issue with being on a plane is the issue with the possible need of electricity to operate it. I am sure there are some that are designed for travel that are battery-powered.
Andrea Sachs: Right. That is what I was getting at. TSA won't ban it, but perhaps it is not suitable for an airplane?!?!?
Wheaton, Md.: Ooh, Princeton! Looks like New England, but it's N.J. Just drive around, find the historical sights and enjoy the quaint downtown. I don't have the link, but there's the Delaware and Raritan Canal you can bike or walk; and other small towns to investigate on the way to or from, such as New Hope, Pa.
Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the encouragement!
Washington, D.C.: Question from a cruise newbie: My bf and I are talking about taking a tropical cruise (maybe the Bahamas) near the holidays/New Year's. Any tips on booking times? Or locations? I know that a lot of cruise lines go out of Baltimore.
Carol Sottili: Around the holidays, the Carnival Pride offers a seven-day cruise from Baltimore to Florida and the Bahamas, and the Celebrity Mercury offers 9-night and 12-night cruises. But I would fly to Florida and take a cruise from there, as you won't spend as many days at sea. I like departing from Fort Lauderdale, as it's easy to fly there and the cruise terminal is not far from the airport. Look at www.portevergladescruiseguide.com for a calendar of cruise departures.
Washington, D.C.: Travel tip -- Here's one of the smartest things I did on our vacation this summer: I was flying alone with our small children to Europe, so I bought a box of truffles from Whole Foods, stuck it in a gift bag along with a little card saying that I hoped not to need extra help on the flight but if I did thanks in advance, and when we boarded the plane I gave the gift bag to the greeting flight attendants. Best $7 I ever spent. The flight attendants were so grateful, and although I didn't need to call on them, they certainly were nice to us. At some point in the flight, every attendant came over to thank me and said that no one had ever done this before. It definitely made our flight easier, and it really brightened their day too.
Joe Yonan: Nice. What a great idea.
Paris restaurants: After reading yesterday's article by Zofia Smardz about the lack of good food in Paris, I'm hoping I can get specific restaurant recommendations for an upcoming trip.
Joe Yonan: Sure thing. I had some fine meals when I was there at Mon Vieil Ami on the Ile St-Louis, Chez Paul near the Bastille, and La Verre Vole near the Canal St Martin, among other places. I also asked Tom Sietsema for updated ideas since his Postcard of last year, and he said this:
The views alone would get me back to Les Ombres ("the shadows"), whose windows take in the Eiffel Tower, among other Parisian landmarks. But the kitchen makes you glad to be there, too, with dishes like sauteed pigeon and sole in a frothy wine sauce.
27 Quai Branly, 7th.
Former architect Serge Mathieu dispenses organic wines from around France -- and terrific ideas on where to dine in Paris -- in his little wine shop called La Cremerie, which serves soups and charcuterie in addition to all the grape juice.
9 rue des Quatre-Vents
Le Pamphlet chef Alain Carrere trained under the celebrated Christian Constant at the Hotel de Crillon, and it shows in such dishes as roast duck paired with polenta sticks, veal with gnocchi and chocolate mousse gilded with salty caramel ice cream. Great food at a great price: $48 for three courses when I was there last year. This bistro in the Marais is also friendly, intimate, stylish.
38 Rue Debelleyme, 3rd.
Top chef destination:
Le Comptoir is a tough ticket, but it's worth the effort to get a table. Yves Camdeborde is among the French maestros who started the trend of Big Deal Chefs opening up small, affordable restaurants. I remember eating an excellent foie gras custard with basil juice (it works!) and encountering an amazing cheese tray.
9 Carrefour de l'Odeon.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Travelers!
I'm headed to Europe in a month. I'm taking my digital SLR camera. It won't fit in my carry-on (which will include my little netbook, toothbrush, and change of underclothes in case the luggage doesn't make it). Should I pack it in my suitcase or wear it around my neck on the plane?
Christina Talcott: I wouldn't check the camera or computer if I were you, nor would I wear it on the plane. Is there any way you can bring a larger carry-on? The size limits are rather generous, in my opinion, which means I'm regularly able to carry on a bag with my laptop, a week's worth of clothes and way too much reading material.
On the majority of domestic and overseas flights, you get one carry-on bag and one "personal item," so you could bring on your suitcase and also use a backpack, briefcase and/or cloth or plastic tote bag, like the kind they sell at the grocery store, as your "personal item." Here's what I'd do: Pack your clothes, toothbrush and camera (in its carrying case or an insulated lunch bag, for padding) in one bag (your carry-on suitcase, a zippered tote or even a cloth grocery bag secured with a safety pin), and pack the items you plan to use on the plane (your netbook, maybe?) in another bag. Put the clothes/camera bag in the overhead compartment and keep the in-flight-entertainment bag with you to tuck under the seat in front of you for takeoff and landing. That way you'll have your nice camera ready for shooting as soon as you land.
Columbia, Md.: I've always wanted to see the Grand Canyon and will have about 1 1/2 days in the Las Vegas area before a conference. Is that enough time for a visit to the North Rim? Thanks
Joe Yonan: You can certainly do it, but your time might be a little tight. The trip from Vegas to the North Rim (which gets a fraction of the visitors of the South Rim, so you'll have better access to views) takes more than 6 hours by car, so after the drive and a few hours of exploring, you'll probably want to stay overnight rather than get back in the car. Grand Canyon Lodge inside the park on that side is renowned for its views. One of the reasons the North Rim is so much less crowded than the South is that it takes so much longer to get to from Vegas or Phoenix than the South, and there are fewer amenities.
Minneapolis: I'm heading to New Zealand in late September and returning in the middle of October. I'm getting a quote of $1,235 for a round-trip flight from Minneapolis to Christchurch. Is this a reasonable fare? I think it is, but I have nothing to compare it to. Thank you.
Christina Talcott: That looks like a great fare to me. I just checked FareCompare.com, which tracks flight prices among other stats, and it says fares from Minneapolis to Christchurch in September start at $1232. I'd go for it.
Washington, D.C.: Looking to travel to Miami (but can fly into Fort Lauderdale) Labor Day weekend, have to leave Thursday evening from Reagan. Cheapest flight I'm seeing right now is $379. Do I have a chance of getting anything lower?
Carol Sottili: That's about as good as it's going to get. You may be able to find something cheaper if you fly out of BWI.
For the chatter seeking a European alternative to England that costs less: How about Portugal, including the Azores Islands? Lovely weather in Spring, too, and local festivals in May!
Joe Yonan: Great idea. Thanks.
French food: What a great article! I thought it was just our trip and terrible luck. We had the exact same reaction--come back and get some great French food here. So what can you do? I did use some guide books but often the places were closed, or too expensive. The pastries were excellent, but the meals, meh. Would really appreciate any tips on how to avoid this again, I'd love to try the trip again. Thanks.
Zofia Smardz: Thank you! I appreciate the support. Some readers thought I was just being dumb and naive, but I've since spoken to many friends and acquaintances who shared the same frustrations. Some friends told me about religiously following their guidebooks' recommendations and still having terrible experiences. One couple said they looked for places that were full of French people, thinking that would be a good sign -- but it rarely was.
So. Next time, I'll be sure to check out the food blogs and travel blogs about Paris and France, including David Leibovitz and others. I'll talk to friends and others who have been and take their recommendations seriously.
Chatters, tell us what else to do!
Baltimore: Trying to plan a vacation to Montreal because we can't afford a European vacation. Have you done a story on it? Tried searching, but I can't find it.
Joe Yonan: We did this piece on eating in Montreal a few years ago.
And there was
It's one of my favorite places to visit. Obviously, I need to go back soon so I can write about it, don't I?
Cheap Americans???: We're hardly known as "cheap" abroad. We're often laughed at because of our overtipping. I think the suggestion was right on - in fact a British concierge is probably not expecting a tip at all and essentially you're buying him/her a drink for their efforts at $5-8.
Also for picking a less expensive European country, I say if you want to do England, do England. The pound is weaker than it used to be, and you can do anything on the cheap. If college students can travel, a working stiff can do it. Get hotels with included breakfast, use supermarkets for cheap meals, etc. In fact, for my next trip to two expensive European countries, I have already been trolling Priceline and Hotwire and there are downtown hotel deals for under $100 a night. IMHO the best part of the European experience is free anyway - the different languages, money, architecture, interesting shops, history, etc.
Andrea Sachs: Thank you for rationalizing my bad math. But I agree that we sometimes overtip or get stuck on a percentage but really need to just tip based on the amount of time and effort. How about $12?
Annapolis for a day?: Husband and I want to spend a day exploring Annapolis in a couple of weeks to celebrate our anniversary. Any suggestions for things to do/places to see? Neither of us have been before. Also, we may stay overnight, any suggestions for where to rest our weary heads?
Christina Talcott: I really liked my recent stay at the State House Inn, the same weekend I went on a fascinating tour of the Naval Academy, a relaxing boat tour of the harbor and visit to Historic London Town just outside the city. Davis's Pub in Eastport for dinner or Chick and Ruth's Delly for breakfast (get there at 8:30 weekdays or 9:30 weekends for the Pledge of Allegiance) are great, casual spots; try Lewnes' or O'Leary's for more formal meals.
Birthday gift for a travel lover: My boyfriend loves to travel just as much as I do, if not more. Right now we're in a long-distance relationship and this will be the first time I'm getting him a birthday present so there's some added pressure. Any ideas for good presents for a travel lover?
Joe Yonan: The best gift for a travel lover is ... a trip. Of course.
Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: What a disappointment to read the silly article about the decline of Parisian food. The author seemed to have gotten lots of different things muddled up - the decline in cafe culture, the rise of celebrity chefs, etc. What didn't come through in the article was whether she or her husband had bothered to do ANY research before eating their way through all those mediocre meals. Did they arm themselves with a Pudlo guide, for instance? Did they consult David Lebovitz or Clothile Dusolier's excellent and FREE food blogs? Or visit the TripAdvisor Paris forum for advice? It sounds like they just wandered through the streets and expect outstanding cuisine without doing any homework. This lazy attitude toward tourism and journalism won't pay off in ANY city in the world. Too bad the Post saw fit to publish such a piece of provincial and mediocre travel writing. I know newspaper budgets are strained these days, but this article was characteristic of a sad decline in the Travel section's standards.
washingtonpost.com: An Unsavory Holiday In France
Zofia Smardz: Thanks for your thoughts! As the author of the article, I'm naturally chagrined that you found it silly and useless. I hope you at least enjoyed reading it, and maybe got a laugh or two at my expense.
I did try, though, to make it clear in the article that we hadn't done much research, for which I blame myself, and to stress my message: If you're going to France, don't just assume you'll eat well wherever you go. Overall quality has declined. So DO SOME RESEARCH. And so thank you for the excellent tips on where folks can look for good advice on finding good French food. We appreciate it!
Change in Flight Time: If the time of your flight has been changed and there is another flight with a better time, the airline should make the change for you at no cost. This has happened to me several times, and I have had no problem being put on a different flight. Just call. I have done it as recently as last week.
Joe Yonan: Phew.
Boston: I must be the only person who's reading this that agrees with some of the negative comments that were on the online version of the story. I, too, have been to Paris several times in the past year, and I don't consider myself a foodie, but I certainly didn't think all the food was bad, and I certainly wasn't stupid enough to order French onion soup (can't you get that in Washington?). Didn't you do any research before you left? If you read the blogs, talk to locals, etc., you can find some amazing food in France.
Zofia Smardz: Thanks for your thoughts. I think I've responded to similar ones in earlier answers. (Btw, I ordered onion soup because I wasn't super hungry and it seemed like the safest bet on the menu. I guess it was just stupid.)
Thailand: I thought Amit's piece was very good, and seemed to look at all sides. I have more of a bone to pick with your cousin-brothers over at Slate, and for their ludicrous piece on how safaris might help animals, but somehow, someway, hurt Africans. Nice one, Slate.
washingtonpost.com: Endangered in South Africa
Joe Yonan: Interesting.
Washington, D.C..: I must disagree that there is a stereotype of the "cheap American". Study after study shows the US & Americans to be among the highest and most generous tippers in the world. Europeans tend to rank in the middle or lower-end of such rankings. There are many negative stereotypes of Americans, but poor tipping is not a common one.
Andrea Sachs: I would stay away from generalizing about any nationality, but I know plenty of heavy American tippers.
Downtown D.C.: This is an odd chat. I'm finding it increasingly useless these days. But I still have to read along. I'm struck though -- did Yonan and Zofia not talk? Why didn't you tell her where to eat in France before she left? Help us.
Zofia Smardz: I went to Paris in May, before I started the job here in Travel. Joe went in June. I told him about my bad experience. I'm sure he took it as a warning, right, Joe? ;-)
Ex-Washingtonian: We were living in College Park in 1972, planning a drive on I-70 to see my husband's family in central Illinois. Got caught in Hurricane Agnes when it turned inland instead of heading up the coast as predicted. It was terrifying riding in a car getting passed by 18-wheel trucks splashing up copious amounts of rain from the road that night -- hard to see anything. Finally spent the night at a motel in Bellefonte, Pa., (on the Monongahela River in SW PA), then drove on the next day. The rain continued to west of Columbus, it was cloudy all the way to Indianapolis, and even from eastern Illinois we could still see the cloud bank at the western edge of the Agnes. That was one huge storm!
Andrea Sachs: It's like it was following you. Spooky.
For Princeton: I went to school there and love the town. Anyone can take a campus tour, which is full of good history. The Princeton cemetery has lots of famous people, and just walking around looking at the houses is fun. Olive's is great for lunch, Mediterra for dinner and definitely have dessert at T Sweets! Enjoy!
Christina Talcott: Thanks!
"I don't know about this less horrible and cheaper route through Pennsylvania": There are a couple of ways. The way I use, coming from the Springfield area and going to Maine, would be this:
(1) Beltway to I-270.
(2) I-270 north to Frederick.
(3) Stay straight to take US-15 north towards Gettysburg and Harrisburg.
(4) At Harrisburg, take PA-581 around the west side of the city to I-81.
(5) I-81 north to I-78.
(6) I-78 across Pennsylvania and New Jersey to I-287.
(7) I-287 north to the New York Thruway.
(8) New York Thruway east across the Tappan Zee Bridge, then stay on I-287 (Cross Westchester Expressway) where it splits off.
(9) Exit onto the Merritt Parkway north into Connecticut. It becomes the Wilbur Cross Parkway at some point, but just stay straight ahead until the road ends at I-91.
(10) Then take I-91 north towards Hartford and follow the signs for eastbound I-84. That road will then take you to the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Note that there is a big mess of construction on the Cross Westchester Expressway through White Plains, so avoid rush hours. The only tolls you'll encounter going this way are for the Tappan Zee Bridge (eastbound only) and for the Massachusetts Turnpike; going home to the DC area, you would also hit a toll on I-78 when you cross the Delaware River.
Other routes through Pennsylvania could be to take I-81 north to I-80 and then east, or I-81 up to Scranton and then I-84 east, but these are considerably longer distances than the I-78 route. You could also take I-81 up to Binghamton, New York, then I-88 east to the Albany area and I-90 east. But again, that's an even longer drive and would only make sense in my mind if you are heading to Vermont (or perhaps to Montreal via I-87 and you just want to avoid the New Jersey traffic).
Andrea Sachs: Nice navigational skills!
Washington, D.C.: I was really disappointed at how defensive your were (Joe mostly, I think) about the negative comments on the photo contest. Of course, your staff liked them -- they helped judge them. That's no reason not to listen to feedback -- positive and negative. You actually suggested that one poster's dislike of photos of friends (in the contest) did not make sense because there is a famous photographer who uses his friends. Under that logic, baby pictures (Gesses?) and pet photos (the Weimaraner guy) should abound in next year's contest!
Joe Yonan: Sorry if I came across as defensive. Of course, I listen to the feedback on both sides. What I was trying to get across in that answer was that the mere subject matter of children or friends shouldn't necessarily disqualify a photo, although it does (and did) raise the bar. Indeed, I think Nan Goldin is a good example of someone who takes highly personal photos and elevates them successfully.
Re: Car Rental deals: I have gotten amazing deals with the code from this site. Rented an SUV for 10 days in May in Vegas for under $250. There's also other rental company deals on the same site. Additionally, COSTCO has a GREAT member code that can be found on costco.com
Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the tips. I might have to stray from Priceline.
Washington, D.C.: Re: Couple going to Netherlands and visiting a European beach: Husband: Prepare to see a beach with pebbles but little or no sand. Nice idea from your wife, but frankly, European beaches suck when compared w/North American or Caribbean sandy beaches. I'd rather sit at a Amsterdam canal side cafe and watch the boats glide along than suffer the pain of walking on a pebble or gravel beach.
Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the input.
Washington, D.C.: There is a beach just outside the Hague, Scheveningen, easily accessible by bike, taxi, or public transport. Having spent a lot of time in the Netherlands during the summer, sunny/warm weather is hit-or-miss at best, but the beach is worth a few hours visit. Also, the Hague is a nice little city certainly worth a day trip-- visit the Peace Palace, the Mauritshuis museum, etc.
Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the advice.
Arlington, Va.: Sheesh, people, chill. Why would someone feel it is OK to call someone stupid for ordering french onion soup in Paris? For goodness sake, if that is what you like, then order it! I am going to Paris in October and have been following the David L. (can't recall exactly how to spell his last name) blog, which is awesome. I am doing half my trip on a small group tour and half of my trip on my own in Paris and I asked one of our tour guides from the group tour for some restaurant recommendations. I guess I'll find out in October if this was a good way to find great food or not!
Zofia Smardz: Let me know when you get back!
French food: A great article, especially about the bureaucratic mess. One thing that wasn't mentioned was France's arcane labor laws and generous unemployment benefits, however. It makes more sense to stay on the dole than to look for work, and unfortunately in some unions, growth is stifled and don't hire from outside, thus infusing new blood into circulation, and thus not keeping traditions alive.
Zofia Smardz: Thanks for this!
Boston: I'm packing for a trip to Italy and trying to minimize my liquids. I wear contacts and use pretty basic cleaner--saline solution and a peroxide based cleaning solution. If I can get this out of my bag I won't have to check a bag. Do you think it's reasonable to think I can buy that in Italy for a comparable price? I will not be wearing them on the plane, will be wearing glasses, etc.
Christina Talcott: You could pour the saline and cleaner in 3 ounce containers to put in your plastic liquids baggie if your trip is a short one; if you're going to need a lot of saline/cleaner, take the full-sized bottles with you in your carry-on, but have them ready to pull out at security. According to the TSA Web site, saline solution and other OTC medications are exceptions to the 3-1-1 rule - you just need to present them to the screener for inspection.
Andrea Sachs: Thanks all for the discussion that spun our worlds. We appreciate the questions and comments. So, please come back next Monday for more talk about travel.
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