Talk About Travel: Travel Staffers Help You Plan Great Escapes

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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, September 28, 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, September 28 at 2 p.m.

Browse an archive of previous live travel Q&As.

The next Travel chat will be on Monday, Sept. 28.

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Christina Talcott: Good afternoon, and thanks for joining us! It's a lovely fall day today, and hopefully our stories on seeing fall foliage from above put you in the mood for some outdoor adventures.

I've got my own big adventure coming up: I'm moving to Budapest for a year. This is the last time I'll be hosting this chat, though I'll be chatting the next two Mondays and plan to contribute to Travel while I'm away.

I've already got trips planned to Eger (wine country) and London (cheap flights from Budapest), and my boyfriend, who's there on a fellowship, has a running list of the best thermal baths, snack carts, bike routes and museums around town.

But I want to consult the experts: You. Where are your favorite sights, meals and experiences in Budapest, Hungary or central Europe? Is there anyplace in that vicinity you're dying to read about in the Travel section? Additionally, if anyone has advice on culture shock, learning a new language or moving abroad in general, I'd love to hear it. My favorite suggestion wins a prize.

Ok, chatters, let's get going!

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Philadelphia: I'm planning a cruise for my wife and myself next summer. Princess Cruise lines says it will arrange airfares for us, but is it better to do it ourselves? Can they get a better deal than we can?

Carol Sottili: If the cruise line arranges airfare and the flight is delayed and you miss your ship's departure, it guarantees that it will fly you to the first port of call. Transfers to the ship are also included. When you buy your own tickets, you'd have to pay to get to the first port, unless you purchased travel insurance that covers this situation. And you have to make your own way from the airport to the ship. I'd ask Princess to quote a price with air - if it's the same or close to what you can get independently, you may want to go that route. But they don't usually give you an air itinerary until just a few weeks before departure. I always book my own air (it's often cheaper that way), but I take an early nonstop flight and make sure there are other later flight options.

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Detroit: Hi travel crew, thanks for taking my question. I have to cancel a ticket to London on Iceland Air due to unforeseen circumstances. The ticket was non-refundable. I called Iceland Air and they said they don't do vouchers and the best I could do is get the taxes from the ticket back ($100). Do you know if I have any other recourse or am I SOL?

Thanks!

Joe Yonan: Sounds like you'd be better off rescheduling it than canceling it. Would Iceland Air do that (for a fee, I'm sure), if you have a definite date you could switch the trip to? Otherwise, since it was non-refundable, it would seem that, well, there's non refund coming.

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Washington, DC: Hi all...

Because of work schedules, my husband and I never took a summer vacation this year. We are hoping to take off a week in November and would like to go somewhere warm - we are thinking of the Bahamas or perhaps another Caribbean island. Do you have suggestions of an excellent place to stay? Since we haven't vacationed in two years, we can afford a little splurge. We like smallish hotels or resorts - not huge gated communities. The priority here is relaxation - sitting in the sun with a book, not partying. We do not have kids. And as much as I can appreciate unplugging from it all, we still need to be somewhere where there is internet available.

thanks!!

Zofia Smardz: I gave a chatter this same answer last week, but my colleagues who've been there are so high on it, I'm offering it again -- Bahama House Inn on Harbour Island. Check it out.

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Chinatown: I plan on traveling to Quito in May. I'm seeing flights around $600 that have a layover in Colombia, and there are also flights around $750 with a layover in the U.S. Is it troublesome to have a layover in another country (does it involve customs or immigration, even though it's only a pass through country)? Is it better to pay the extra money and have a layover in the U.S.? Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: I personally love international layovers: It's like you get two countries for one airfare. Depending on your layover time, you can get a Colombian meal, do some Colombian airport shopping, soak in the foreign airport scene (just don't leave or else you will have to go through security again). As long as you have sufficient time to make your next plane, I would opt for the cheapest and most exotic itinerary. (Conversely, if you are a nervous or novice traveler, opt for the U.S. layover.)

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Fredericksburg, Va.: After several summers of travel in Mexico and Latin America, my husband and I are ready to return to Europe. We prefer off-the-beaten track and economical destinations, and we wonder if there is any place in Europe that fits the bill. Please recommend a destination where the culture is authentic and not packed with tourists.

Joe Yonan: Hmm. What an excellent question. I'm going to throw some possibilities out there and then let the crowd react.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

?

Montenegro

?

Sardinia

?

OK, travelers, what do you say?

Zofia Smardz: Bulgaria. I'm not kidding. It's beautiful, historic, has beaches, mountains *and* architecture. And I don't think the tourist hordes are there -- yet.

Zofia Smardz: There's also. . .Albania. I don't think much of anybody goes there.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Headed to Munich in December for Christmas Market and the current prices are $593 for an airline ticket. Do you think they might drop or should I book at that rate?

Carol Sottili: It doesn't get any cheaper than that, assuming taxes are included. Buy now.

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Washington, DC: Hi travel staff, What's the best way to get a temporary cell phone while visiting Europe (Italy)? Thanks.

Christina Talcott: It depends on how long you trip will be, but renting a phone can be a good option. Just don't rent one at the airport, since it'll be super-expensive. Here's one company that'll send you a phone by mail to use within the dates you're traveling, then you can send it back by mail when you're done: Cellular Abroad. Another option is Travel Cell. Bear in mind that you pay for the handset plus minutes on incoming or outgoing calls. If you're chatty it can really add up. Be sure to consider using an online service like Skype for longer calls.

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Washington, DC: As proof anyone can have a bad night, I love Hawaiian Airlines but I was on an overnight flight this week where pilot forgot to turn off seat belt sign for 5 1/2 hours, no turbulence whatsoever. Flight attendant took great joy in saying he couldn't possibly hang my Burberry suit in the closet and laughed about its presence in the overhead bin. Lastly, lead flight attendant wished us "Maloha," as he garbled words Mahalo and Aloha. Really bad flight.

Joe Yonan: I don't mean to sound TOO unsympathetic, but you had a turbulence-free flight during which the worst thing that happened was that you had to keep your seat belt on, your suit got wrinkled and the flight attendant uttered a Hawaiian malaprop? I'll take your "really bad" definition of a flight anytime!

On that seat-belt-light issue, I was on a flight recently during which I really had to use the bathroom, but the light was on because of REAL turbulence. It was a tiny plane, so the flight attendant was seated near me, facing me, and I said, "Can I go use the bathroom?" And he said, "I must tell you to stay in your seat." I thought the wording was awkward, and sure enough, after we landed, he said that you should never ask whether you can get up while the seat-belt sign is on, because they're required to tell you to stay put, whereas if you get up and just go, they'll usually just look the other way. (Unless it's dangerous, of course.)

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Seaford, Del.: My husband and I are going to Italy next month and plan to rent a car as we have done several times before. Friends who are accompanying us have been strongly advised by their agent to purchase an international license. We have never done this before. Although the fee is minimal through AAA, this is just another expense we'd rather not incur if not entirely necessary. Any thoughts?

Zofia Smardz: You really have nothing to lose by getting one. The cost is minimal and the time investment even more so -- I got one for a trip to France in May because all my research said it was strongly suggested, though not strictly required. I paid about $35, I think ($20 for the permit and $15 for photos). It may have been a bit more, but not much. We ended up never using it -- didn't need it to rent a car, and we never got stopped anywhere, so I was sort of kicking myself afterward. But on the whole I think it didn't hurt to have it, just in case. Maybe you've been lucky on your past trips never to have been stopped. The U.S. diplomatic mission to Italy Web site says you should have an international permit, and other sites indicate that the police may fine you if you're stopped for whatever reason and don't have a translation of your license. You'd probably be okay if just one person in your group has the permit (my husband didn't have one).

But let's hear from other folks who may have more direct experience. Chatters?

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Boston: Posting early...I read the transcripts each week and have noted a lot of recent questions about traveling to Boston. Readers should know Joe's advice has been pitch perfect, both for sites and restaurants.

Glad to know so many want to visit our city, and that they are getting such good advice.

Joe Yonan: Aw, shucks. Well, I guess that's what 17 years of living somewhere (and frequent visits back) will get you!

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Downtown DC: I'm going to be renting a car for a trip in a couple of weeks, and I'm confused about insurance.

I've always turned down the insurance offered by the rental company, thinking that the insurance offered by my credit card would be all that's necessary. But now I'm not so sure that's a good plan, mainly because I don't own my own car and therefore don't have a car insurance policy for anything to piggyback onto. So should I get the proffered insurance package after all when I pick up my car at Avis?

Christina Talcott: Check your credit card's insurance policy, which is usually sufficient. There are a few exceptions with some policies - for instance, mine doesn't cover trucks - so make sure you know the rules. To be safe, bring a copy of the credit card policy with you when you pick up the car in case they ask for proof (most times they don't). Usually, buying supplemental insurance is unnecessary, but do what makes you feel comfortable.

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Annandale, Va.: What happens if an airline changes your flight and cuts it too close to make a connection? I just got a notice from Continental that my Newark to Reagan flight is now a couple of hours earlier at 9:00 am. The problem is, I'm coming in from Lima, Peru at 7:42 am (also on a Continental flight). While I don't mind getting home earlier, what happens if I don't get out of customs in time to catch the plane? Should I contact Continental and try to change to a later flight?

Carol Sottili: You'll probably be able to make the connection as long as your originating flight is on time, but I'd also be concerned. Continental will eventually get you home, but if the next flight is booked, you may not get on that flight. Maybe you'd be better off changing your ticket to the 10:55 a.m. flight and then, if you get there early enough to make the earlier flight, you can pay $50 to change the ticket (Continental charges $50 for same day flight changes). You may also want to look at a map of the airport and figure out the arriving/departing gates and distance between the two.

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Bad flight: Ohhh my Burberry suit got wrinkled! And I had too many $20s and they wouldn't fit in my wallet! My diamond shoes are too tight!

Joe Yonan: LOL

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Arlington, Va.: My husband and I are going to be in Belgium for a week in October. I checked with my health insurance and they confirmed that I have emergency coverage internationally but they were cryptic about what constitutes an emergency and what I'd have to pay out of pocket up front (and then hope they would reimburse when I submitted a claim). I haven't found my insurance company to be very helpful with anything even remotely out of the ordinary before, so I'm a little worried about this especially with flu season coming and everything. What do you think of travel health insurance? Would you recommend it? Thanks!

Christina Talcott: You should be able to get travel medical insurance for $30 or so, which might put your mind at ease. Here are three sites: InsureMyTrip.com, SquareMouth.com and QuoteWright.com, all of which should give you several options, but bear in mind you may need to pay for services upfront and then submit claim forms - first to your primary insurer, then to your travel insurer - to get reimbursed. Do any of you chatters have first-hand experience with Belgian health care for visitors?

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Columbia, Mo.: Having never flown to California before, can you tell me which LA area airport would be most convenient for a visit to family in Oxnard? Any advice would be appreciated.

Joe Yonan: From my initial poking around (aren't the Internets a wonderful thing?), I'd say that LAX is your best bet, but I'm willing to be proven wrong by any more firsthand-knowledgeable chatters out there. The other nearest major airport (around 50 miles from Oxnard, as is LAX) is Bob Hope in Burbank. It does look like Burbank could be a quicker trip to Oxnard than LAX would be if there's any traffic (not that LA is known for traffic or anything), but here's the rub: From Columbia, the flights to Burbank have two stops and run about $420 in late October. To LAX, you'd pay about $320 with just one stop. (No nonstops that I can find.) The cheapest of all would be $240 into Santa Ana, but that's also two stops, and it's farther away -- and on the wrong side of downtown LA. Google Maps estimates that in traffic, it could take up to 3 hours to get from there to Oxnard.

So unless I'm missing something, I'd suggest you fly to LAX.

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D.C.: I'm heading on a cruise in early November, and am spending one night in Ft. Lauderdale. Ideally I was hoping to stay on the ocean, but am not finding any good deals - do you have any suggestion? Any help is greatly appreciated!

Andrea Sachs: I am not sure what you are using as a strategy, or what your price range is, but I typically use Kayak, Priceline et al. to see what's out there. Then, I narrow down my choices. For example, I found the oceanfront Beachcomber Resort and Villa on Getaroom.com, from $125. The city's tourism office (www.sunny.org) also has a hotel search engine. The Little Inn by the Sea (from $73) looks adorable. Also, if you are AAA member, ask about a discount. Of course, rates are usually higher for an ocean location. For a cheaper rate, look for a hotel near the beach that offers free shuttle service or bike rentals to the beach.

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Travel gets you through!: Amazing how traveling can help you get through all the craziness of life. I'm heading to the North Fork of Long Island Wednesday night for a long weekend. The promise of amazing vineyards, locally grown foods, small villages, turning leaves and the Long Island Sound is the only thing getting me through the next few crazy busy days...

Joe Yonan: Don't you need a sipping/tasting buddy? I appear to be free...

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Denver: Is there any rhyme or reason to airfare these days?

I just booked a round trip flight on Alaska Airlines at about a $60 discount by booking the codeshares on Delta rather than the Alaska flights themselves. To make matters stranger, one flight is codeshared as a Delta flight, but the return is a Northwest codeshare.

The end result of this seems to be that I can't select my seats in advance, but I guess I'll do just about anything for a lower fare.

Carol Sottili: Flight prices have never made any sense. I can often fly to London for less that the price of a flight to Myrtle Beach. As for code shares, each airline sets its own prices, so it is possible to get a cheaper rate on one airline than the other. You often see this on international flights - flights to Munich operated by United are cheaper when purchased through Lufthansa, for example, because Lufthansa is having a sale.

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Potosi, Bolivia: Anyone here visit Potosi, Bolivia? To which city did you fly initially?

I am planning a trip to Potosi to do some volunteer work, and I have been told a few ways, but they don't seem the safest for a single woman. I am thinking of joining a group trip just to travel there. Any suggestions?

Christina Talcott: I'm throwing this one out there. Can anybody help?

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Bethesda, Md.: What are your hunches regarding holiday travel this year? Will decreased number of flights just make for horrendously high fares?

I'm looking for a flight to Western Michigan for Christmas. Should I just buy it now? Or is there any hope that prices might come down a bit?

Zofia Smardz: Have a look at our Coming and Going column yesterday. It really is the definitive answer -- nobody knows. So track your flight -- you know where you're going and which airlines fly there.

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Washington, DC: My husband will be gone most of November, and I'm thinking of taking the kids (2 & 5) to a beach for a few days. Where would you recommend, warm and direct flight? I'll be solo, so (sigh) good room service and kids club is more important than trendy scene or great restaurant.

Carol Sottili: If you are looking to go to the Caribbean, Franklyn D. Resort in Jamaica offers a personal nanny for each room, plus kid's club. That would give you freedom to go to the spa or just read for a couple of hours each day. Prices include free transfers from Montego Bay - Air Jamaica flies there nonstop from BWI.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm hoping to visit a friend in New Orleans sometime between Oct-Dec. What should I expect to pay for a plane ticket from DC to NOLA? I'd love to book early, but have to save up a little first, so I'll probably be booking at the end of Oct. or into Nov. for a Nov.19 or early Dec. trip. Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: As long as you stay away from the holiday periods, expect to find fares for around $155.

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St. Paul, Minn.: My mom is going to be on a business trip in Japan the week prior to Thanksgiving, and has asked me to join her at the end of her trip so that we can spend a week or so on vacation. I've never been to Japan and would love to go. I have a 4 year old and a 1.5 year old who would be making the trip with me - both have passports, both are decent travelers (they flew from here to Honolulu, about 8 hours), etc. But is 8-10 days a sufficient trip to see some of Japan? Is this feasible with two little kids? There is a non-stop from Mpls - is that better than flying to Seattle/San Francisco/somewhere out west as a stopover?

Joe Yonan: All else being equal, I'd take a nonstop over one with a layover, especially with youngsters. How great that they're good travelers! I'd say 8-10 days is absolutely enough time to see some of Japan. My only caution about the feasibility is that especially in Tokyo it would be great if you had the help of a local or someone else fluent in Japanese. It can be pretty difficult to find your way around otherwise (even if you take taxis). Even with help, you should build in lots of extra time in your itinerary for getting lost. Having said that, getting lost in Tokyo can be a blast.

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Quiet resort: To the poster looking for a nice vacation at a quiet resort: Consider Northwest Point Resort on Providenciales. I'm not at all affiliated with the place--I just loved the island and the "resort," which was actually just condos on really nice, secluded property with a lovely pool and its own beach. We loved having the freedom to cook in our unit (and even do laundry--here's to light packing!), and the place felt very private.

Providenciales has awesome snorkeling and great food.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for the great tip!

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Re: Oxnard: Joe's analysis is pretty much right on.

Burbank is a breeze to fly into and highly recommended if you can do it without much hassle. But LAX has ever so many more flights.

Ontario, John Wayne (Santa Ana), and Long Beach would be further away than LAX.

Joe Yonan: Good. Thanks.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Hi -

My family and I (wife and four-year old) are looking at the Dominican Republic for a trip over the holidays in December. Based on your experiences, is it safe? Anything to be worried about? And, are there lodging options outside of the all-inclusives? That seems to be all we can find in the Punta Cana area.

Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: To be honest, I wish I knew the answer, but every time I tried to leave my DR resort, I was warned not to go outside the gates. (I did sneak in a bike ride and nearly ran over a chicken and was in turn nearly run over by a car.) DR pretty much sticks its tourists in all-inclusive resorts. With a child, I would not recommend being an independent traveler there. I think there are better islands for that: Barbados, St. John, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas. However, if you do wish to find a hotel in DR that is not all-inclusive, check out the country's tourism site, which lists hotels island-wide: www.godominicanrepublic.com.

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Flying United: I have a question about United's fees. I usually fly Southwest, but am looking to fly into Redmond, OR, and United is one of the few carriers that services the tiny airport.

Currently, Travelocity is showing a ticket from BWI for 426 (Dec 17-29). I want to nab it, but my dates aren't set in stone, and I'm wondering what United's fees are for changing tickets.

My other option is to fly Southwest into Portland, and then drive 3 hours. I would choose that only to get the flexibility Southwest offers. But the driving makes it less than ideal.

What would you do, and would you nab that ticket now?

Carol Sottili: If you change the ticket, you're going to get hit with a $150 change fee from United plus a $25 fee because you bought the ticket through a third-party booking site. That's pretty steep. I don't think I'd buy until dates are firm. You're right, Southwest's policies are different - they don't refund your money for most tickets, but they do allow you to change without penalty (if there is a difference in the price of the ticket, you do have to pay that).

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re: Belgian Health Care: I'm American, but I've been to both a Belgian emergency room and a Belgian regular doctor's office. (lucky me!) Both times, I paid about $30 for the visit AND the medications I needed (at least two prescriptions each time.) The doctors and pharmacists also gave me tons of paperwork to file for reimbursement with my health insurance when I got back home, but I didn't bother for that price. I wouldn't worry about travel health insurance in Belgium.

Christina Talcott: That's what I suspected, that health care costs are very low there. (Sigh.) Still, it's all about peace of mind, isn't it?

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Crazy airfares: A few months ago I was pricing trips from DC to Buenos Aires. I could fly IAD-BUE for about $1200; it would cost $300 less to fly from BWI to Chicago to Dulles, then to BA on the very same flight that would cost $1200 without the other two flights.

Carol Sottili: We could write a book!

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Trying to plan a large mixed-age family trip (about 10 of us) this winter. Besides beaches, which are too cold within our range anyway, where can we go on a budget that provides activities besides skiing (other snow activities fine). Would love to have indoor or heated outdoor pool and hot tub. We love the idea of an all-inclusive, but looking too pricey. Main goal is to have some fun stuff we can all do during the day and be all together in the evening.

Carol Sottili: Take a look at the Canaan Valley Resort in West Virginia - www.canaanresort.com. It's reasonably priced and offers all sorts of activities, including ice-skating, tubing and snowshoeing. It also has a spa. Or maybe the kids would prefer a Great Wolf Lodge (www.greatwolf.com) with its indoor water park - one is located in Williamsburg and another in the Poconos.

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Government Taxes and Fees: I was about 30 seconds away from purchasing a ticket on Southwest, when I was blown away by the Government Taxes and Fees. I'm used to seeing them in the $44 range (I often fly United, purchased through Orbitz or Expedia). Southwest is quoting $38.01 for one ticket, and $36.27 for my return.

How is it that their taxes are about double what I pay using other sites/airlines?

Andrea Sachs: The airline does not set the taxes; the government (local, state and federal) and airports do. Taxes are used for security, airport improvements, etc. Southwest has no control over this. However, be sure you book on Web site that does not charge an additional surcharge.

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International driver's permit: My husband and I rented cars for several trips to Italy and I don't think we ever obtained an international permit -- so far it has not been an issue with all our rentals through National/Europcar. But here's my best advice: Get one of those Alfa Romeo diesel hatchbacks we got on rental last year. We toured the whole Veneto on one tank of gas and had some real fun zipping around!

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for your thoughts on this.

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I was on a trans-Atlantic flight last year...: And the seatbelt sign stayed on for hours through clear skies/no turbulence. The flight attendants were all up and about, serving drinks and food, and finally, about five hours into the flight, passengers began to get up to use the toilets (drink service, after all). One of the attendants got very angry and went on the intercom to remind everyone that FAA regulations required everyone to stay seated while the light was on, etc., and about 15 seconds later the light went off.

Joe Yonan: Very funny.

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Arlington, Va.: I think this question may have come up here recently... I have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and may need a CPAP machine for it. I know there are models out there that are small and light for travel. Do you know if I will need to make sure it fits in my one allowed carry-on bag or do airlines allow me to carry it on in addition to my regular bag? I suppose I may be able to just put it in my checked bag if necessary.

Zofia Smardz: According to a chatter in a previous Travel chat who was also a CPAP user, you're allowed to carry the device on in addition to any carry-on baggage.

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Alexandria, Va.: Re: Trip Insurance - we have an expensive vacation planned for the Galapagos in March 2010. I think we should sign up for trip insurance, but don't know of a good source or what we should expect to pay. Any suggestions? Although we used FF miles to get to Quito, the rest of the trip is pretty pricey. Thanks!

Carol Sottili: Three good sources for travel insurance: www.quotewright.com, www.squaremouth.com and www.insuremytrip.com. Read the fine print before buying.

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Bend, Ore.: My wife and I want to travel to South Africa over spring break (late March). We've seen some great flight and hotel packages for a few days in Cape Town and a few days on safari through South African airlines that seem to be much lower than most other safari packages. In fact, the prices seem almost too good to be true. Any ideas on whether these are indeed the value they appear to be? Any other outfits you suggest we check out?

Also, we'd like to go to see Victoria Falls. Any suggestions on how to get a cheap flight from Jo-burg and hotel there?

Christina Talcott: South African Airways does have some good specials lately. Just make sure to compare prices to buying a la carte.

When I went to South Africa I had a great experience using Go2Africa.com to book my lodging at the

game park

. They can arrange lodging and transportation for you to go to a park outside Cape Town; consider Shamwari or Kwandwe for Big Five spotting, or Addo Elephant Park if you love pachyderms.

Both SAA and Go2Africa can also help with arrangements for Victoria Falls, though I've never been. Anyone out there with advice on that?

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Anonymous: The Ft. Lauderdale convention center website generally has a list of decent hotels to stay at. There are a bunch of little hotels close to the beach in Ft. Lauderdale - the Winterset is also a decent one.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks, Anon, for the tip!

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Eastern Europe : IMHO, the things that make Eastern Europe more interesting than "regular" tourist Europe:

-Russians with track suits

-Horrible pop music, in airports, taxicabs, and shops

-Train cars that are outdated but somehow quaint

-So much meat on offer, you could eat it for 3 meals a day and also order a glass of meat on the side and meat for dessert

-"Modern" Soviet buildings interspersed with classical art nouveau, cubist, medieval, etc. styles

-Restaurants where you can reserve the exact table you want, and a system that tells you the table is taken at X:00, which if you have an hour before then means you can sit there

-Menus where the prices are per kg, which cause complete sticker shock until you realize you should order in the 200gm range

-Hangover beer (Poland) and excellent beer (Croatia & Czech Republic)

-Fun local drinks like bison grass vodka, Unicum, walnut liqueur, Becherovka, Slivovice

-Mostly no euros, so interesting money

-Being told that 4 more years of a US President that you didn't vote for is "only 4 years", because from their perspective 4 years of bad government is a walk in the park

Zofia Smardz: Funny, but oh so true! :-)

Christina Talcott: Mm, meat in a glass. I think I have my central Europe bucket list now. Thanks!

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Chicago: Christina - I am envious that you are off to Budapest. One don't-miss event is the Opera. I understand they open every season with Ferenc Erkel's "Bank Ban." I have only seen a movie version, but it is a sweeping historic drama, and the music is late romantic - like Verdi. It is a rare treat because other opera companies don't have the singers that can handle the Hungarian language, so it is an "only in Budapest" experience.

Christina Talcott: Wow, that sounds amazing! Thanks for the tip!

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Washington, DC: I am planning a trip for early next year to Mexico, specifically the city of Puebla. Continental usually offers flights there for around $300 round trip, sometimes even lower, but everything I am seeing is in the $400 plus range. Should I anticipate that the rates will lower somewhat, or have airline fares gone up across the board? Just trying to see if I should wait or move on the current fare. Thanks!

Carol Sottili: As Zofia pointed out in earlier post, our Coming and Going column this weekend addressed airfare trending. I would add that your chances of finding a sale are better if there is competition on the route. If Continental is the only airline that offers decent connections, chance of a sale is not as great. That said, airlines sometimes do across-the-board sales that will include smaller venues. I'd probably check prices for the next couple of weeks and then buy.

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For Christina--sites to see: Christina, consider Wroclaw and Krakow in Poland, and Bratislava. Honestly, just do it all! Lucky you, have a great, safe and fun year! You'll be missed.

Christina Talcott: Thank you! Bratislava is definitely high on my long-weekend list.

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Columbus, Ohio: Re: traveling with C-PAP. The C-PAP qualifies as medical equipment and is not counted against you as baggage. It will need to be hand-checked in security.

I have traveled safely with mine since I was diagnosed three years ago.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks so much!

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Culture shock: I moved overseas several times when I was young due to my parents' jobs. The hardest move was actually coming back to the United States after living in Belgium for four years. When we returned, I was starting high school, and I had no clue about the cool trends in clothing, music, TV, movies, food, or basically any of the things that kids care about at that age. I was considered a major nerd for a while.

Anyway, this problem is probably less severe nearly 20 years later, when the Internet makes it easier to find out what's going on in other countries besides just world news. So, I'd say to anyone who will be moving: Check out social networking sites, online newspapers, and other media that help you get a feel for the way a place will feel when you get there!

Christina Talcott: Great advice, thanks!

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Tahiti?: My wife and I are finally getting around to taking our honeymoon a couple of years after the fact. We'd like to rent a house in Tahiti or somewhere in French Polynesia, but we don't really know how to do that. We've used VRBO or Home Away many times domestically and never had a problem, but can we trust this for overseas? Should we talk to a travel agent?

Andrea Sachs: Both of those rental home Web sites are very reliable, both here and abroad. Also try Vacationrentals.com, which is part of Home Away. You can also try a travel agent, though make sure you choose one who specializes in the region. Tahiti's tourism office has a tool that allows you to find a specialist per your zip code: www.tahiti-tourisme.com/discover/tahitihotelsresorts.asp.

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Robbed: On my most recent travels, prescription drugs were stolen from my luggage. They weren't life-critical or expensive (Ambien), but it seems like the theft should be reported to someone who might actually care or investigate, which I'm not sure the TSA does. Do you have any advice on how to handle this? The trip, BTW, was international from Milan through Philly to Knoxville on US Air, so a number of handlers were involved here and abroad. I know I should have carried on the drugs, but still... Just one more reason to carry on luggage!

Joe Yonan: If you really want to increase your chances that someone will investigate, complain to the TSA and to the airline AND to the airport. According to this 2008 blog post from our sister publication, Budget Travel, TSA says that "for every TSA employee that touches a bag, six to ten airline or airport employees and contractors touch the same bag out of the view of passengers." But the TSA also says that it doesn't necessarily forward complaints it receives about baggage theft to the airlines. I'm not sure that it's worth all this, frankly, since it sounds like you're not actually interested in reimbursement, but I appreciate that you want it to be noticed.

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Eye Street -- For Christina: Christina,

While in that part of the world, be sure to check out Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, about 90 mins from Prague. It is a "spa town" and simply gorgeous! Stay for a weekend in the spring or fall. You will love it!

Christina Talcott: Great idea! I'll put that on my list.

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Houston, Tex.: Stupid Travel Agent question - how do they make their money? I thought that a travel agent could get me a better deal than I could myself and was paid somehow by the resort/airline. I tried to use one to plan my honeymoon and found that the quote she got from the resort was $90/person for an all-inclusive resort (not dealing with airfare) more than what I could get sitting on my bed on my computer. Am I paying $180 for her time. Just confused and I would love any insight you might have!

Carol Sottili: Travel agents can't always get you a better deal. It depends on the resort and the relationship the agency has with the resort. Travel agents also offer other advantages. They can sometimes get you a room in a booked resort. For example, several years ago, I wanted to go to Atlantis in the Bahamas, and it was sold out. My travel agent sister-in-law got us in because her agency had a block of rooms set aside for their clients. And if they know their stuff, they can steer you in the right direction. Also, especially if their agency does a lot of business with a specific resort, they can run interference for you if things go wrong.

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Central Europe: Head north of Budapest to Slovakia they have great castles, spas, and mountains. I love the Tatras which has an amazing castle, great skiing, and spas. Trencin is also very picturesque, with an amazing castle that over looks the medieval town.

Christina Talcott: Awesome, thanks!

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Anonymous: What is up with that purple background on the home page?

Zofia Smardz: I don't know, but I agree that it's weird. We'll have to check with our online folks.

Joe Yonan: It appears to be part of an immersive advertising "experience." Click on it, and you'll see. Sigh.

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Great fares!: Hi Crew,

Just wanted to report on some great fares for long weekends for my family of three. Together we are paying $300 total r/t to Detroit for a long Halloween weekend to visit family in the suburbs there. And in January, paying $340 total r/t to Tampa. Yes, we leave from BWI and yes we live in tysons, but these are direct, nonstops at convenient times and no checked bag fees either! Woo hoo!

Andrea Sachs: Total?!?!?! That's amazing!

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Rockville, Md.: My girlfriend and I are looking into off-season trips to Montreal and Quebec City. Flying into Canadian airports seems unnecessarily expensive for a short-haul flight, so we were thinking about flying into Burlington, VT, renting a car and driving up. (1) Any thoughts of other cheap ways to get up to MTL, and (2) Are there any nice places to spend a day between Burlington and MTL?

Thanks!

Joe Yonan: Burlington is only a couple of hours from MTL; I used to do the drive from Boston all the time, and would stop for lunch in either Burlington or Montpelier, depending on timing. If you had planned to rent a car in Montreal anyway, this is absolutely a good way to go. The drive is lovely. If you hadn't, you'll be adding significantly, of course, to your expense here with the rental car and might instead consider taking the bus from Burlington to Montreal. For something slightly more involved but perhaps more fun, until Oct. 12 you can take a ferry across Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh and then hop on the Amtrak Adirondack for the trip up to Montreal. (After Oct. 12 you'd have to make the 23-mile drive to the Grand Isle, NY, ferry station from Burlington; a cab costs $50 or $60.)

Oh, and the best places to spend the day between Burlington and Montreal are ... Burlington and Montreal.

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Dupont Circle, DC: Belgium health care: I can't speak to hospitals but I know that each town has a pharmacy open 24 hours, although exactly which pharmacy switches on a rotating schedule. The pharmacists can give you a lot of medications without a prescription (my BF had a problem arise for which he was able to show up at a pharmacy, receive a consultation and medication. He paid only for the medication and it was very reasonable).

Christina Talcott: More on Belgian health care. Thanks!

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Alexandria, Va.: Hey Travel Staff! I need to book tickets to Amsterdam for early December, any idea if fares will drop this fall, right now I'm seeing flights in the low $600's? Thanks

Zofia Smardz: I met with the head of Airfarewatchdog.com last week who said that fares to Europe are high now and likely to remain so. The only relative bargains (in the $500s)are to Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Ireland. So unless you're going to one of those, I'd grab that fare. Low $600s ain't bad.

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Beach mom: Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands would be a lot easier to get to with two toddlers, not to mention she won't need passports.

Carol Sottili: Passport issue could be a factor. I don't think U.S. Virgin Islands are all that easy to get to. I'm fairly certain you have to connect.

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Japan: I didn't find it too difficult to make my way around Japan -- Tokyo, Kyoto, or smaller towns. I was actually impressed with the amount of English signage.

Joe Yonan: In Tokyo, I was flummoxed much of the time, but maybe that's just me. Was great fun, and didn't want to leave, but still.

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Washington, DC: Belgium in October- I lived in Belgium for about a year and a half (moved back 2 years ago), and had very good experiences with health care. My regular insurance (no supplemental travel insurance) required paying upfront and then submitting claims, which were promptly rejected. HOWEVER, the cost of a doctor visit was approximately 30 euros out of pocket, for a specialist. Hospital visits ran from 50 euros (for the 24 hour clinic) to about 500 euros (being admitted through ER and having tests). If it would make you more comfortable, then by all means get travel insurance, but if I had known beforehand how cheap quality care was, I would have canceled my regular insurance and paid out-of-pocket.

Also, if you do need a doctor, you can check the website of American Embassy in Brussels, which has a great list of doctors who speak English. I used this and had great results.

Christina Talcott: Great advice on the English-speaking doctors through the Embassy. Thanks!

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Delta "Medallion Seating": Hi, Flight Crew,

Delta now reserves the best coach seats for members of the Medallion Club. According to Delta's Web site, the unclaimed seats are "released" for the general public on the day of the flight. I'm wondering if this means that I should check availability at 12:01 a.m. on the day I leave to see if I can get a bulkhead spot. Do you have any information?

Thanks!

Joe Yonan: I've got a call and email into Delta about this. Doubt I'll hear back before the chat's end, but they promise me some info by the end of the day, so check back with us next week and hopefully I'll have more for you.

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For the Bend traveler: If you aren't sure what day you are going to leave what you could do is book the flight in separate parts. If you aren't sure of your leave date but are sure of your return date....you could book the return flight first. Then speculate with purchasing a southwest flight to Portland and then an Alaska/to bend.

Carol Sottili: Except one-way flights are often more expensive....

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DC: Any suggestions for a nearby overnight or two to celebrate a 5th anniversary? We'll have our 16 month-old with us, and I'm pregnant, so no celebratory drinking for me. In the past we've done a vegan B&B, Boston, NYC, etc., so we're pretty open as long as it's within reasonable (driving) distance and not too pricey. Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: I would suggest Cape May or Ocean City, NJ (dry town!), which are so pretty (and quiet) off-season.

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Columbus, Ohio: Learning a new language--advice for Christina: Tutor a native speaker in English. Seriously. When I was a college student, I spent summer quarter of freshman year in Xalapa, Mexico. My director of studies hooked me up with a young Mexican national who was soon going to the US for cataract surgery. We agreed upon a nominal fee and met for an hour every day.

In addition to my teaching my student medical vocabulary he might need to know, he taught me street language I might need to know. The bonus was that we became pen pals for many years after.

Christina Talcott: That's wonderful! I learned a lot when I taught English to French adults in Paris, though I can't say how much English they learned...

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Mount Pleasant, Mich.: For the CPAP user. Remember to take an extension cord with you. My husband just got back from a business trip to DC and needed one as there wasn't an outlet near the bed. This happens a lot.

Zofia Smardz: Good to know, thanks!

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Alexandria, Va.: My husband and I are visiting Philadelphia in two weeks. Any suggestions for some unique activities (we've done the liberty bell, independence hall, etc.) and some great restaurants to visit? Thanks!!

Joe Yonan: For the restaurant piece, check out Tom's recent Postcard, and then read this article by the Food section's Spirits writer on BYOBs in Philly. Lots of good recommendations.

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For South Africa...: Our safari was planned through 2Afrika - with 2 days each in Victoria Falls, Chobe National Park and Okavango Delta. It was a fabulous tour, they took care of everything! In Victoria Falls, we stayed at VF Safari Lodge; the lodge has a free shuttle that runs to the falls several times a day, all day long. It stops at several hotels on the way. It's very easy to arrange.

Christina Talcott: Terrific, thanks!

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Ft Lauderdale, Fla.: For the cruiser who wants to spend a night on the beach here, just to let you know that the hotels here are all (with the exception of The Marriott Harbor Beach) across the street from the beach, meaning that to get to the beach, you must cross A1A. Still, the beachfront hotels offer you glorious daytime views (at night, the ocean is, of course, just dark) but if you are not going to be here longer and are looking for a more exciting nighttime view, you may want to consider staying on the Intracoastal - boats travel on there all night long, and it is lined with restaurants and clubs so there is always something exciting to see.

Andrea Sachs: Great to know. Thanks!

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Philadelphia: What are the rules on Amtrak's quiet car and is it self-policing? This wasn't that big a deal to me, but I was riding in the quiet car when a person took a phone call. The person across the way became agitated and the talker replied the call was important and continued talking. I know protocol should have been the talker should have moved to another car, but if that doesn't happen, would a conductor have the ability to do anything or are "quiet cars" merely suggestions?

Andrea Sachs: From my understanding, the conductor has the authority to move the person to the loud car if they are disturbing the peace.

However, according to Amtrak guidelines, some chatting is allowed:

Quiet Talking Only, Please: Customers must strictly limit conversation and speak only in quiet, subdued tones. If you'd like to carry on an extended conversation, please relocate to another car.

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Chicago: Tip to the traveler to Puebla, Mexico: Check the fares to Mexico City as well - there is direct bus service from the Mexico City Airport to Puebla - and it is only a couple of hours, since you are already on the eastern fringe of Mexico City.

Carol Sottili: Thanks!

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Flying to Vic Falls: It has been my experience that flights to Zambia/Zimbabwee are very expensive from Jo'berg. I flew from Harare to Jo'berg and there were two fares business or coach-everyone paid the same price. There are not many flights so you just need to decide if $500+ is worth it to you plus visa fees. The falls are outstanding and there are some interesting things to do in Victoria Falls and Livingstone.

Christina Talcott: Yikes, that's a chunk of change. Then again, flights to SA aren't cheap, either... Thanks for chiming in!

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Belgian Healthcare: Having been taken to the hospital twice in Belgium (once in Brussels, the other in Brugge), their healthcare is on par with France and the Netherlands. Friendly and helpful staff, and I never received any bills that my insurance carrier didn't cover.

Christina Talcott: Great, thanks for writing in!

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For Columbia, Mo.: If LAX is the best option I would drive to either Kansas City or St. Louis. It will probably be cheaper from either of those. Plus, Southwest serves both and actually has a nonstop to LAX from MCI. The drive for you is a little further to Kansas City but I drove to Kansas City dozens of times for the cheaper flights. Good luck!

Joe Yonan: Thanks -- good suggestion.

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Re: Budapest: Not exactly off the beaten path, but I love the Great Market Hall in Budapest...I can go and eat all day long and be happy as a pig in mud. I also love the Grand Circus in City Park--it's so completely old-school and a little terrifying in a Cold War meets Pee Wee Herman sort of nightmare.

Christina Talcott: I'm so there. That's exactly my kind of nightmare. Thanks for the tip!

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re: travel agents: I also wonder about travel agents. I used one recently that was supposed to be geared for high-end resorts. I told her where I wanted to stay, and what rates I was able to find on my own. She said "oh, I can beat that, and quoted me a rate 10% less, with a guarantee of a room upgrade if available. So I went with it. Turns out her rate was without tax (which made it exactly the same rate as I would have been able to get online), and not only did we NOT get an upgrade by booking through her, we were relegated to one of the worst rooms in the class that we booked. I would be very hesitant to use a travel agent again.

Carol Sottili: Good travel agents are worth their weight in gold. But there are those who are not good. Word of mouth is the best way to find a good agent. You should also check their references, find out how long they've been an agent and whether they've taken any advanced training. ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents - www.travelsense.org) also lists agents who specialize in specific areas.

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Europe: The likely place I would target in Europe is the area of the Alps and the surrounding areas which would be northern Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and Southern Germany.

I know about the main cities. Would I would be interested in are the locations off the beaten path. For example for those who live in Budapest..where are the popular locations they would travel to?

Christina Talcott: Sounds great!

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Amsterdam ticket, again: Forgot to add that when moving abroad its best to take only half as much household goods as you think you might need because most places are much smaller and the most important adjustment you will have to make is getting used to the local time/customs, i.e. how long it takes to get your phone set up and if you need to add some financial incentive to make it happen this century, "today" could mean anytime this month, etc. Take your patience and sense of adventure!

Christina Talcott: Great advice!

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Credit Card/Car Rental: Do read your credit card policy. I have found that one of my credit cards does cover part of the insurance, so I usually supplement it with some of what the rental company offers.

Christina Talcott: More on rental car insurance...

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Christina Talcott: Wow, that hour flew by! Thanks for joining us, and thanks for all your wonderful suggestions for me. I'd like to send a tote bag to the person who sent in the funny list starting with "Russians in track suits." Send your address to me at talcottc@washpost.com.

Have a great week, everyone, and see you next Monday!

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