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Talk About Travel: Travel Staffers Help You Plan Great Escapes

The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, October 5, 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, Oct. 5 at 2 p.m.

Browse an archive of previous live travel Q&As.

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Joe Yonan: Greetings, travelers, and welcome to today's chat! Did Sunday's cruise section put you in a seagoing frame of mind? Does news of the Oasis of the Seas, the biggest ship ever, make you want to book, or run the other way? We're here to answer your cruise -- and other travel -- questions, and we (think we) have special guest Carolyn Spencer Brown of cruisecritic.com on board to help. (She's traveling and attempting to do this through the power of the Internets, but her connection seems wonky so far.)

In the meantime, here's your challenge. We'll send a prize to the person who writes our favorite answer to the following: Describe your fantasy cruise, top to bottom and start to finish.

Let's chat!

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Friendship Heights: Your cruise info was very timely for me. I'm getting dragged, kicking and screaming, on a cruise to the west coast of Mexico in January. I am not particularly social, so don't really care to introduce myself to my tablemates and find all the "cheesy fun" really off-putting. I'm more likely to rob a bank than line dance. Oh, and I'm very afraid I am going to be seasick for the entire 7 days. Is there any hope for me?

Christina Talcott: While I can't speak to how much fun you're going to have, here's an article we ran recently about how to avoid motion sickness. Anyone have advice for the cruise-resistant?

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Rockville, Md.: I'm a solo female going to Beijing and Shanghai in Mid November. I would like to visit the less popular part of the Great Wall and I was thinking on the Si Ma Tai or Mutianyu portions of the Wall. Which one will be better?

I would like to avoid taking public busses and when I think of a two hour taxi drive with only the driver there makes me feel uneasy (Yes I've done that in the Middle East and I would like to avoid it if possible) Group tours tend to visit the more popular portion of the wall so I'm at lost here: Which portion of the wall and how to get there!?

Zofia Smardz: I'm sure there's someone out there with an answer to this question. Folks?

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Reston, Va.: We're planning a weekend in Richmond and would like ideas of fun things to do there with a preschooler and good restaurants to take kids to that adults will also enjoy. I know about the Children's Museum.

Zofia Smardz: Maymont, a 100-acre park in the heart of the city centered around a grand Victorian mansion, is a beautiful place to visit and is great for kids, with a nature center and a children's farm where your toddler can touch and feed the animals, and an extensive wildlife park.

Right next door is Byrd Park, a 200-acre public park that's also lovely and free. It's probably too late in the season to ride a paddleboat on one of the lakes, but there is a children's stage where events often take place, and of course, it's just a good place to take a picnic and let kids run around.

Or take a cruise on the

James River and Kanawha Canal

along the historic Canal Walk. Your toddler probably won't get much out of the history narration, but she or he will probably like riding in a boat.

As for restaurants, I always go to the Tobacco Company in Shockoe Slip (I know, I know, I'm in a rut).

But let's hear from some genuine Richmonders!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Crew,

Thanks for taking my question! We want to go to one of those all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean for a relaxing few days for my 30th birthday (mid-March) but have no clue where to start. Would love to stay on a budget of $1-1.5k... what locations should we look at for ease of travel and a low budget? Recs for which resort will give us the most bang for our buck?

Carol Sottili: Three places that specialize in all-inclusives, plus offer nonstop flights: Cancun, Mexico; Dominican Republic; and Montego Bay, Jamaica.

There are literally hundreds of all-inclusives in these three locations. I'd go to a travel agent, a third-party booking agent (Expedia, Travelocity) or a tour operator (Apple Vacations, Vacation Express) and look for one that fits your budget. Iberostar in Playa del Carmen, Mexico comes to mind, although that's more family oriented. You'd probably be better off closer to Cancun's hotel zone.

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Planning a wedding in Honolulu: Hoping you all can help me with this question since the wedding board people kind of scare me.

I'm planning a wedding in Honolulu for February with a reception to follow in my hometown in Michigan after we return. I'd like to make the "wedding favor" something from Hawaii.

Real flowers won't work because bringing them to Michigan in March would kill them. What are some ideas of easily portable (lightweight), inexpensive (but not cheap) items we could look for in Hawaii to use? Any thoughts?

Joe Yonan: I've got just the thing: Spam!

Christina Talcott: I would love one of those dancing hula dolls, but if that doesn't scream "wedding favor," what about leis made out of shells or nuts? Anyone else have suggestions?

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Bris bound: Trying to plan a trip to Montreal for my new nephew's bris. Problem is we don't know when the baby is coming, due on Halloween. The plan is to buy tickets (7 day advance- bris is on day 8) as soon as my sister goes into labor. Trying to do research on possible flights from all reasonably close airports- DCA, BWI, IAD , even Philly.

Travelers are myself, my Dad and my 16 month old. Any suggestions!? Sister says that flying into Burlington VT is cheaper but no non-stops anymore.

Trying to not spend a fortune on the flights. Thanks!! Oh, we have our passports!

Carol Sottili: I think you're going to wind up paying a fortune or connecting. There is a nonstop flight into Burlington, which is a two-hour drive from Montreal, but it's even more expensive than the $566 r/t flight to Montreal. Amtrak is cheap ($146 r/t is adult fare), but it's long (15 hours each way). No cheap, easy way here.

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Swine Flu: Will the swine flu reduce the rates of air fare as people may be fearful of flying or traveling? What about to Mexico in particular?

Thank you!

Zofia Smardz: I don't think we can really know what effect swine flu worries are going to have on air fares in general, any more than we really know why they go up or down all the time anyway. But it is the case that fares to Mexico right now are a bargain, as George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com told me a couple of weeks ago, and swine flu fears are definitely a big part of the reason. So if you're a bold traveler, now's the time to head south to the land of the mariachi.

Joe Yonan: Also, for our Oct. 25 Caribbean special section, we'll have a piece on a trip to Isla Mujeres that focuses on the swine flu issue...

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm headed to Puerto Rico in December. Is it advisable to rent a car? Is it easy for someone to get around? How are the drivers there?

Andrea Sachs: I rented a car in PR and had no problems, minus getting lost a bit, but no worse than in D.C. Traffic can get a bit hairy around San Juan, especially during rush hour, and in the mountains, the roads are windy and dark at night. The drivers are also mindful of street signs and rules. All in all, driving is a great way to see the country and to not have to rely on the mileage of others. (Note: Ask the rental car company for road maps, and get a few copies, in case some get wet on the beach or blow away.)

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Reston, Va.: I have known for a couple years that I am erroneously on the TSA watch list, which has been a problem only because I cannot check in online before I fly. Now I have received an e-mail from my preferred airline, Southwest, telling me I have to provide additional info when I fly, including a redress number from the TSA. Any tips on navigating the watch list redress process with the agency?

Andrea Sachs: To my understand, the Southwest Airline update in account info is part of a system-wide TSA directive (per Southwest):

As you may have heard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has implemented new information requirements for passengers via its new program, Secure Flight. Airlines are now required to ask for Customer names exactly as they appear on government-issued photo IDs. Customers will also be asked to provide their gender and date of birth.

You do not need to update your MySouthwest account today, since you can enter your Customer information at the time of each reservation. However, once you do update your MySouthwest account, it will make it easier to make Southwest Airlines reservations when you are logged-in, since you will have already provided the necessary data for the Secure Flight requirements.

Back to Andrea: I received the same notification and plan to update my account to follow protocol. However, this new information does not have to do with being on a watch list. If you are mistakenly on that list, you need to contact DHS: www.dhs.gov/files/programs/gc_1169676919316.shtm.

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Budapest Favorite: I read the chat after the fact, but wanted to submit my favorite place to see in Budapest. Well, slightly outside of it. Ten years ago it was known as Statue Park - it's where they put all the old Communist statues from the city after 1989 instead of destroying them, as happened in so many other places. It was awesome, wandering through this piece of history. Like I said, I haven't been there in 10 years, but you used to have to take a public bus 30 minutes or so outside the city and then take the bus back. It was a little scary, since I was out there by myself and the bus stop was only a little sign, but I made it back with a candle of Lenin's head for the memory!

Christina Talcott: Great suggestion! Statue Park is definitely on my list of places to see, and I'm glad to hear it's worth the trip. Thanks!

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi. We will be traveling by car to Greensboro, N.C. for a long weekend soon. We have two children, 2 and 5. Do you have recommendations for things to do in that area, including southwestern Virginia? We like hiking and are interesting in mining for gems. Thanks.

Joe Yonan: You're in luck: A few of us have just been in southwestern Virginia, all working on different stories. I climbed 50 feet up an 80-foot poplar in Meadows of Dan. Melanie Kaplan wound her way along the nearby Crooked Road (for great mountain music). Coming soon: a stargazing focus at Primland. Maybe other chatters have mined for gems?

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Anonymous: Chances of snowfall-- enough to impair driving in a rental car-- in Ontario (Montreal, Ottawa and a little further west) in mid-October? Come on, I want a confident guess. Thanks.

Joe Yonan: I'd say the chances are very slight, based on looking at average temps listed on weather.com. In Ottawa in mid-October, it's highs in the mid-50s and lows in the upper 30s. About the same in Montreal.

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San Antonio, Tex.: I recently returned from a 4-week trip to Europe so I'm just catching up w/old chats. I wanted to address the questions about using credit cards overseas and also changing money. I have used a Capital One Visa card in Europe for many years. It pays rewards, is accepted everywhere and does not incur any additional fee. Some places had minimum purchase requirements and one place didn't take any credit card unless it had a pin. To exchange money I use a Capital One DEBIT card because they don't charge a conversion fee and you get your money in local currency. ATMs were not hard to find. I did get a nominal ATM fee sometimes. I opened the Cap. One checking account just to get the debit card in order to change money while traveling. It's a no fee, no minimum balance acct. HOWEVER, to avoid the conversion fees, you need to deposit $1000 a full statement period prior to your trip. But you can deposit the additional funds you want to withdraw during your trip right before you leave. You need to wait until all the charges have posted and the statement period has closed before withdrawing the $1000; it needs to stay in until then to avoid the transaction fees. I do advise carrying a backup card (not Discover--not used in Europe) just in case. Despite calling Cap. One before I left, I got an email from them on the last trip to alert me that there were suspicious internet charges on my card. Luckily the card hadn't been out of my possession so I didn't cancel it. Turned out the suspicious charges were the automatic renewal of my Norton antivirus plus a credit of the VAT from a previous trip to Ireland. One could wish for a little more common sense on their part but I was grateful for their monitoring of my account.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for this very valuable info!

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DC: Hi - thanks for considering my question. I have 10 days to travel between Christmas and New Years. My boyfriend and I want to drive south from DC to visit Savannah, my parents in north eastern Florida and then Miami for New Years. What do you think of this plan? Do you have any suggestions? I've never road tripped on Christmas, would anything be open along the way if we drove on Christmas Day? We are not Christian and hence have no problems traveling on the holiday. If you had ten days during that part of the year is there a different road trip south from DC that you might suggest?? We are very open to adventures.

Joe Yonan: I actually did almost just this thing a few years ago, with the exception of the DC-to-Savannah part. Instead, I flew to Atlanta to visit friends, then rented a car and drove to Savannah for Christmas then wound my way down to Miami for New Year's, staying in St. Augustine and Tampa in between. I wasn't driving on Christmas Day itself, but roadside gas stations and service areas will still be open for those traveling on the day.

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Raleigh-Durham, NC: Cruise ships often go to ports with great nightlife, Key West, Cabo, etc., why don't ships OVERNIGHT at these ports?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: In a nutshell, cruise lines say all the right stuff about overnighting in really great ports of call but the truth is they want you to be onboard. Late night partying -- casinos, cocktails, shopping -- is a huge revenue generator.

Also, it costs cruise lines more to overnight in ports than it does to head out to sea. So there are definitely economic reasons for this.

Carolyn

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Kailua, Hawaii: I am living in Hawaii and would like to meet my two daughters - one lives in the NYC area and the other in Tampa, Florida - for the Thanksgiving holiday this year. Both daughters have time constraints due to college and work schedules so they can travel only from Tuesday, 24 Nov to Sunday, 30 Nov. I have more flexibility with time. Can you suggest a "half-way" point for this holiday?

Carol Sottili: If all three of you want to fly nonstop, an obvious destination is Los Angeles. I'd recommend opting for a nonstop destination at that time of year, as flights will be going out full - if one of your flights is canceled, there is a good chance it will take a while to get on another flight. You could stay in Santa Monica or Venice near the beach - hotels are expensive, but try renting a condo or apartment through www.vrbo.com or www.cyberrentals.com.

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Bethesda, Md.: In response to the question from Rockville, MD re: visiting the less popular sections of the Great Wall of China:

- Simitai and Mutianyu are both popular destinations and known by Beijing cab drivers, so you'll be safe taking cabs there ( 2 hours) - At Simatai, while it will be touristy at the beginning, if you keep hiking for about half an hour, it will become much less so and can turn into a nice hike - To get to sections not as well known but with stunning hikes, such as Huanghuacheng or Jiankou, cab drivers won't be as familiar, so you should hire a good tour operator, like WildChina (www.wildchina.com), to customize a trip for you. You can also customize a great hike that takes you from Simatai to the Jinshanlin section. Full disclosure: I work for WildChina's US office!

Zofia Smardz: Thanks so much for this information! (And I have a feeling I may know who you are. . . :-)

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Washington, DC: Going to San Diego for 4 days - any must do's?

Joe Yonan: Eat fish tacos!

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Laurel, Md.: I know this might seem like a minor question, but my choice of a 14-17 day cruise depends on the answer:

Can anyone who's done it tell if it's worth visiting the Copper Canyon off a cruise ship docking in Topolobompo? I just got off a (different) cruise where I had a meal with a couple who had done it, and they said it was very disappointing and not worth it. In summary: $400 as a shore excursion; 7 hours by bus each way; central activity was one hour looking over a balcony edge.

This is important, because I'm planning a Panama Canal cruise of 14-17 days, and need to know if such an excursion is worth choosing an itinerary around.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: It's a long trip, the Copper Canyon add-on, to be sure. I think if you have the energy and enthusiasm, you should do it. It's a part of Mexico that, as I understand it (haven't been though one of our contributors just turned in a story about it last week, hasn't been launched) is just special and magnificent.

Panama Canal, aside from the canal and some jungle expeditions, not so much to do....

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Washington, DC: Metro It or Super Shuttle It? My twin sister and I have a flight out of Dulles this Friday on Iberia at 8:50 p.m. Super Shuttle is scheduled to pick us from from New Carrollton at 4:15. I'm concerned that traffic will be extremely heavy (three day weekend, showers in the forecast), and worried that 4.5 hours isn't time enough for the trip and check in. My question is whether it might be safer/better to go by Metro/Washington Flyer. FWIW--we have e-tickets, assigned seats, and I plan to print boarding passes beforehand (if I can figure out how to do it). Thanks.

Christina Talcott: You're smart to think about all the options to get there, and I think your instinct is correct - getting from New Carrollton to Dulles at rush hour might be tough. I think you'd have better luck taking the Metro to Rosslyn, then taking the 5A bus to the airport. Definitely check in online and print boarding passes before you leave for the airport so you can go straight to security when you get there.

I'm curious to see how the new security area at Dulles is working out - has anyone been there in the last couple of weeks and can say if it's faster/better organized than before?

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Atlanta: to Friendship Heights:

Stop stressing. You're going on a cruise. You can sit on deck and read a book all day for all anyone else cares. We didn't have any table mates we didn't know, we ended up talking with the people next to us, anyway. We took excursions, and never spoke with anyone else, except who we went with. We kept to ourselves, and didn't do the 'cheesy' stuff - played in the pool, took naps, etc. One night went to the piano bar and had a BLAST. You're going on a cruise - do some research into excursions, then figure if you want to go through the cruise or not, and have fun.

Joe Yonan: Word.

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for Friendship Heights: My husband had been told (by colleagues who had never cruised!) that he would hate cruising, but when some friends invited us to join their group, we went - and he loved it! We definitely match the reluctant cruiser's profile (the type who never could stand a pep rally) and yet even on Fun Ship Carnival, we had no problem occupying ourselves with more congenial activities. There's generally plenty of options, and sometimes it's nice to let the extroverts in your group pull you into things you would never initiate on your own.

Joe Yonan: More reasons to let the reluctance become exuberance!

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DC - traveling soon: I have 14 hours at the Narita Airport. What should I do?

Joe Yonan: I started looking into this at the end of last week's chat and didn't get very far before we ran out of time. But since then, I ran into this helpful Web site all about layovers at Narita. Looks like there's plenty to see in Narita city, including a temple, and that you'd have lots of time to do it.

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Wilkes-Barre, Pa.: A couple of weeks ago I submitted a question about any comments on Megabus's longer trips, specifically their NYC to Toronto trip. The question wasn't responded to, but I do have a report. My round trip was fine. I departed at Noon, and we arrived about 15 minutes later than the schedule. The bus made stops in Syracuse (25 minutes), Rochester (momentary), Buffalo Airport (momentary) Downtown Buffalo (Driver change) and at the boarder (approx 30 minutes: needed to take all belongings off bus when going thru customs/immigration & no forms to fill out).

For those people who might fly to Burlington VT and then drive to Montreal, this might be a good alternative for visiting Toronto. At least 10 people got on at the Buffalo Airport( Southwest and Airtran both fly there in addition to others).

The bus stop in Toronto is near Bay and Dundas, but did let off 2 passengers at a Subway station a couple blocks before that. I took the overnight ride back (leaving at 9:30PM) On that trip the bus only stopped at the border, Buffalo(driver change) and and the Airport ( one passenger was actually flying to NYC getting there just about the same time we were due, after having a 4 hour wait) Evidently no tickets to/from Rochester and Syracuse that night.

I would definitely do it again, especially if I could snag another RT for $24.50 !

Joe Yonan: Good to know -- thanks much.

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Hong Kong: Hello, Flight Crew! This isn't a fall cruise question, but it is a cruising question. Do you have tips or pointers about small-ship cruises in Alaska? My parents would like to take a family trip next summer -- late May to early August, as my sister is a teacher. My Mom would also like to go into Denali Park. Total trip would probably be 10-14 days.

Where to start? We're in the research stage at this point.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Frankly, if my budget's in good shape, there's no better way to do an Alaska than to cruise on a small ship. You see so much more and are surrounded by so much less (er, masses of people, etc.). I'd encourage you to check into Cruise West; it's an American owned cruise line that offers close-up, small ship trips. It's a bit pricier than big ships (less efficiency of scale) and the ships aren't flashy or splashy but you'll get more than you pay for.

If you're really splurging, try American Safari. Totally immersive, even smaller ships with a hint of luxe.

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Rockville, Md.: Howdy. I'm planning a trip to Europe in the spring (April-ish), hoping to fly into Munich and out of Geneva. Right now, the flights are in the mid-$700 range (and it's the same, roughly, for flights in and out and Geneva and in and out of Zurich). This seems rather expensive, but what do you think? Obviously, I have a lot of time still, but I don't know if this is as good as the fare will get. I can fly to Munich and from Geneva nonstop each way, which is valuable.

Carol Sottili: If that includes all your taxes/fees, and flight times work, that's not too bad. There are occasional sales to Europe that go as low as $550 or so, but they're usually limited to specific cities/dates. Perhaps you should just track it for the next month or so before buying. Personally, I don't mind paying extra for nonstop flights at convenient times.

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Hostel marketing: I was amused the other day to receive a Royal Caribbean flyer that said it's cheaper to take a European cruise than a hostel trip! I was like, wow, a cruiseline comparing itself to hostels!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I haven't seen that ad, very curious. But it's kind of a sign of the times -- that cruising is cheaper than HOSTELS, LOL. Message there is -- deals are fantastic but they won't last forever.

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Spam Is Not A Bad Idea: But instead of giving Spam for the Hawaiian-themed wedding favors, how about picking up Spam musubi makers? They're available in Hawaiian stores (away from the tourist areas) for about $3 or $4 each. Directions for making Spam musubi are widely available on the Internet (I just looked).

Joe Yonan: I've never made it, but it appears so simple you might be able to make musubi while dancing the watusi.

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Dayton, Ohio: We are looking at spending 2-3 nights in a coastal town near Boston, Mass., this November. Any suggestions for favorite places and B&B's?

Zofia Smardz: I like Newburyport, which is about 30 minutes north of Beantown, at the mouth of the Merrimac River. Lovely harbor town, with a pretty and very walkable downtown, lots of shops and galleries. I've never stayed in a hotel there, since I have family in the area, but I've always thought the Clark Currier Inn looks like a really nice B&B.

Also very nice is Rockport, on Cape Ann. Again, I don't really know the best B&Bs, but I'm sure there are some chatters out there who do, so let's hear from you!

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Md.: I have a question re: carry-on luggage. Every time I fly, I pass a little bin that says "if your carry-on fits here it qualifies as carry-on; if it doesn't, it doesn't and needs to be checked." and every flight I see 99% of the people bringing something larger on board with no one giving a second glance.

Can you link me to different models and brands that technically qualify? and to a link of what the actual carry on requirements are in terms of the size of the bag?

Christina Talcott: Some airlines have different rules, which you can find on their Web sites (usually under "travel tools" or "plan your trip"), but most require carry-on bags to have total dimensions (height plus length plus width) of 45 inches. Most luggage vendors will specify whether their bag is "carry-on friendly." In general, look for a standard 21"- or 22"-high suitcase. Here are some carry-on options from ebags.com. As for what other people bring on board, I guess it's just lax enforcement on the part of airline employees, plus a lack of courtesy on the part of those passengers.

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To Maine from NC: June of 2010, we are thinking of a trip to Freeport Maine and LL Bean. Would it be best to fly to Boston and rent a car and drive up? We have other sights to see going up and then back down to Boston to depart. Is 8-10 days realistic to do this? Am not exactly sure where in Maine Freeport is located.

Joe Yonan: That's absolutely the best way to do it. Freeport is a lovely drive up the coast from Boston -- only about 2 1/2 hours (if you didn't stop along the way, which you of course should). The drive takes you right through Portland, which is worth staying in for a few days, if only for the great food. 8-10 days is a nice, luxurious pace to this trip. For that matter, if you stay that long, I'd say you should probably stay a night or two in Boston on each end, too.

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To Carolyn Brown: On my first cruise I learned that the lines' marketing plan is based on the captive audience concept -- offer the lowest realistic based price possible and then get add-ons.

I already shop for independent shore excursions before booking the ships'. What are the other top money-saving tips one can get?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: This is a great question. There are tons of ways to save money. Starting off with booking your own on-shore outings is perfect (though I'd be careful with planning anything too complicated). Some other quick thoughts: You can't bring liquor onboard most lines these days but you can buy packages, so if you drink it at least saves some money (same applies for water and soda). If you like to stay in touch while on vacation, try for Internet cafes in ports rather than the ones on ships -- pricey pricey pricey! If you have to use it, then see if you can get a package.

Finally, one thing I've noticed lately is the spas are finally unbending to offer discounts beyond the usual". Used to be maybe you got a deal on a port day, say 10 percent. But now I'm seeing deals on sea days and for expensive treatments.

I'm on Seabourn Odyssey right now -- and there was a sign up that certain treatments like hot stone massages -- were discounted 20 percent today. Mind you it's still too expensive, but at least we're seeing some movement.

Also, if you do go to the spa and you get the dreaded product pitch at the end of your treatment, JUST SAY NO.

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Hawaii wedding favors: I have a very pretty (okay, I like bright colors) Hawaii surfboard magnet stuck to my three-hole punch - it was a gift from a colleague to remind me to take a vacation once in a while. While gaudy magnets are perhaps a little too tacky and touristy, how about a small photo of your wedding service, framed, for each guest/party at your reception?

Or how about just a simple, single orchid for every guest to take home? Some are very hardy. Talk to a good florist in your hometown about what might be available at reception time that wouldn't cost your your firstborn.

Christina Talcott: Nice ideas, thanks! A Hawaii-inspired favor might work better than a made-in-Hawaii souvenir. In that vein, what about leis made in Michigan?

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Rockville, Md.: Help! Bought a ticket, a month ago, for a friend's wedding in Egypt in January. Have not bought insurance yet (have since learned I should have bought it within 2 weeks). Now the groom is having visa issues and the wedding will be postponed until March. It'll cost over $400 to change the $1300 Delta ticket. Any suggestions? Many thanks!

Carol Sottili: Travel insurance wouldn't have helped you here, unless you purchased a "cancel for any reason" policy. And even the most generous require that insurance be purchased within 21 days of ticket purchase. I think you're going to have to pay the penalties. For insurance info, go to www.insuremytrip.com, www.quotewright.com or www.squaremouth.com.

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Raleigh-Durham, NC: RE: the hesitant cruiser, these days you can dine by yourselves, you don't have to participate or go to the "off putting" contests, and there are many private hideaways on mega-ships these days.

Christina Talcott: Here you go. Thanks for the tip.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Have to second this advice to "hesitant cruiser". Hate the traditional cruise "set dining, set tablemates" scenario, have hated from the very first day, 11 years ago, I took my first-ever cruise to write about it for the Post!

The good news is today that most lines have made great strides in offering alternatives so don't let that keep you away....

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Alexandria, Va.: First off, great section on cruising yesterday! While we've only been on two cruises, my husband and I are already big fans. I cannot imagine how huge RCL's new ship must be in real life!!

My question: we're headed to Seattle for the first time in two weeks. Any suggestions on things we must see/do? I've heard the Underground Tour is cool, but wonder if it's worth the money. I've also heard that taking a boat out to Bainbridge Island is a must. We're staying by Pike Place Market, so any food suggestions are appreciated also.

Thanks - love the chats!

Joe Yonan: I haven't been in several years, but my favorite things to do were:

-- Shop for vintage clothing, and window-shop for midcentury modern vintage furniture. The city was rife with great examples of both.

-- Drink coffee and engage in PDE (peak donut experience) at Top Pot. Oh, and notice how Top Pot seemed to decorate from the same midcentury furniture shops I had been ogling.

-- Yes, boat out to Bainbridge Island.

-- Shop and nosh at Pike Place. I bought beautiful dried pepper strand, hazelnut flour, etc.

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for China travel, ER: I was recently in China and only visited a popular section of the Wall. I'd suggest the woman try to connect with some people staying at a hostel in Beijing and find others to travel with, or try to arrange something in advance with like-minded people--perhaps through the Thorn Tree on the Lonely Planet site. I also want to let her know that a friend who wanted to visit a section of the Wall that was off the beaten path and not fully restored could not get a travel company to book him a car (they thought it was too dangerous to walk along the Wall there) and had to try several cabbies before he found one that would take him. I think she'll be able to visit the sections she wants, but will need to be persistent. Good luck and have a great time! P.S. Other than normal caution, I would not be too worried about traveling alone in China.

Zofia Smardz: More for our China traveler. Thanks!

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Ashburn, Va.: My fantasy cruise...EVERYTHING ALL INCLUSIVE! All the food in ALL the restaurants (no $20 surcharge for the steakhouse), all the beverages I care to drink all the time (alcoholic & non alcoholic), a stateroom with a view, a balcony and a bathtub. A first class comedian (Jeff Dunham, Ron White...) and a Cirque du Soleil show. A pool large enough to actually swim in and not be overrun by kids. Free internet, tennis courts, cooking classes, and fishing off the boat. All excursions included at every port-of call. Room service included (for when I want breakfast in bed). Stops at ports-of-call where I won't get bombarded by timeshare sellers, shady cabbies and/or aggressive shopkeepers. Oh, and it all must be within the same price as a 4-5 star all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic (my island of choice). I should keep wishing....

Joe Yonan: I really like the way you think. If your fantasy ever comes true (doubtful, but fun to imagine!), can we be the first to know?

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Italia!: I might be a bit late in submitting but my husband and I are leaving this Saturday on our two week honeymoon to Italy. We'll visit Rome, Florence, Venice and enjoy day-trips to Siena and Assisi.

So, the question is, for all the travelers out there: 1. Best place to eat in each city. 2. Your number 1 NOT TO MISS event/site in each town.

We've done our research (including Tom Sietsema's Rome postcard) but we'd love to hear what others have experienced.

Thanks for such a great job travel gurus!

Christina Talcott: For Rome, I say take a walking tour of the forum, but that's more "duh" than "hidden gem." I'm going to throw this one out there to the chatters.

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RE: Redress Number: Once you obtain a redress number from TSA, it will make booking future travel easier. Go to http://www.dhs.gov for further information on obtaining one. It essentially identifies you as not being a threat, along with your gender and DOB. Hope this helps.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks!

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Philadelphia: Please recommend a good website to find the best prices on rental cars in Ireland. Thanks for your help and very entertaining weekly chats.

Andrea Sachs: I would use the same aggregator sites as I do for domestic rentals. On Kayak, for example, I found $22 a day through a rental company called ACE, with pick-up in Dublin. Priceline also had similar prices, and Economycarrental.com and www.kemwel.com have good rates.

To save money, try to lock in the price in U.S. dollars. And check the rental car requirements to be sure you are of the correct age.

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Great Wall: Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the company but my husband and I did a hiking tour of the great wall. We went from one section to another other (20 watchtowers). This is the area that I think you are looking to go to. There were three of us on the tour. If you do a google search the name of the company should pop up. It was a great experience.

Joe Yonan: Sounds, well, GREAT!

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For Richmond-bound: The advice about Maymont is right on. As for restaurants, Bottoms Up Pizza is a favorite in Shockoe Bottom (as is Shockoe Espresso if you need a jolt). Also, try Carytown for Nacho Mama's and super-cute shops. If there's a kids movie playing at the Byrd Theater, it's a must-do because it's an old-time, single-screen theater with an organ player prior to showtime.

Zofia Smardz: Great tips, thank you! I love Carytown, too.

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To Carolyn Brown: Cruise lines offer for sale merchandise with the come-on about advantages like no duties. Since I'm a regular purchaser of alcoholic beverages, I can and do purchase them at good prices on board.

But, is there any economic advantage to other on-board (or in-port) merchandise, like watches, perfume or art? Or do lines just sell these because of their high value-to-bulk ratio?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: You know, I have to say -- NO. There's no real advantage (the liquor is a decent deal but only if you're homeporting it and can load the stuff into your car at cruise's end).

I was on Independence of the Seas, Royal Caribbean, in April in the Caribbean and did a price test where I compared a brand of watch and a brand of lipstick sold onboard, ostensibly in duty free, and in port (St. Maarten) and also at the airport. The cruise ship was shockingly more expensive, significantly so with the watch which was much pricier than a lipstick.

Royal Caribbean has this rule that says "if you can prove you got a better price on-land, bring us proof and we'll match it" which is completely unrealistic. Can you imagine hordes of cruise passengers getting off the ship in St. Thomas or St. Maarten and asking shop keepers for prices so they can go back and get the same deal on the ship?

And as for art auctions, lots of pros and cons but I'd say stay away. Interestingly, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas is the first new ship (mass market) since I've been covering cruising to say it's eliminating the art auction.

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Boston-Cruise: May not be a fantasy cruise but this past June I went on a cruise with my mother. My father stayed home and my husband was off climbing Mt. McKinley. We went on a week long cruise up to Canada. It was a wonderful way for the two of us to reconnect since I now live far from home. Honestly, the only thing that would have made this a fantasy cruise would have been to add all of my family and a bit warmer weather. Oh and maybe the rock wall some of these boats have since I like to rock climb.

Joe Yonan: Whatever fantasy means to you -- this sounds very sweet. Thanks.

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A tip for "To Maine from NC": It sounds like you'll be driving up the Maine Turnpike and exiting in Portland. If your route has you using I-295, DO NOT take the I-295 exit from the Maine Turnpike. Instead, use the next exit from the Turnpike, which is barely half a mile to the north. Then go east for about half a mile and get onto I-295. The reason is that the I-295 exit carries a 60 cent toll whereas the next one is free. Normally I wouldn't care about paying the 60 cents, but when the detour is less than a mile long and involves no traffic lights, I'm all for avoiding the toll....and in this case, it's a matter of principle, as the I-295 exit is known in Portland as the "Tourist Exit" because everyone in Maine knows not to use it. Take a look at this spot on Google Maps and you'll see what I mean about how easy it is to avoid being played for a sucker.

(Long story distilled, the reason for the one exit having a toll and the other not having one is that the Maine Turnpike is set up to allow Maine residents to use the road at minimal expense while charging out-of-staters more, and out-of-staters are more likely to connect to the other Interstates.)

Joe Yonan: Thanks for this advice!

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New Security @ Dulles: I just went through the new security at Dulles Airport last Friday and it was very smooth but in a weird place. You have to go downstairs and then do this go up go down thing to get to the shuttles. The signage isn't that great for the shuttles after security so beware to look for the right one to your gate. There are some 16 lines that will probably be all open at the holiday, but only 3 were open for us last week.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks so much for the front-line report.

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Native New Jerseyan: Ooh, please don't spend $400 to have a private shopping tour in NYC (Sunday's Travel Q&A). Get a laminated map where some of the shops are shown on a numbered legend (can't think of the name right now) for about $10, and let them explore. Much more satisfying than having some one lead you around. The girls can start on Broadway in Soho, and make their way back into the side streets, and other neighborhoods. And other shoppers on the street LOVE to tell you where they've been, and what was good and what wasn't. Save that $400 - for a great find. Part of shopping is knowing that YOU found it yourself.

Christina Talcott: I have to add that last spring I visited what seemed to be the holy grail for teen girls shopping in SoHo: TopShop. While I couldn't even figure out how to wear half the stuff, I could almost smell the other shoppers' euphoria. This spring, Andrea wrote about shopping in New York, mentioning the Market NYC, where young designers sell their creations Friday-Sunday. A real allowance-friendly option, of course, is second-hand stores, which can be goldmines in New York.

Joe Yonan: Also, I have to add that the suggestion for the private shopping tour was just one of many ideas, including lots of free ones.

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for Italy: For the Italy visitor - my absolute favorite place in Rome is the Borghese Gallery. My favorite hidden gem in Florence (if you have the time) is to take the #7 bus up to Fiesole and tour the Roman and Etruscan ruins, and my favorite restaurant in Florence is a small local place called Icche Che Che (loosely translated from the local dialect as "What we've got is what we've got"). The church in Assisi is my favorite church in all of Italy, and the town is beautiful (all pink and white!). Siena is probably my favorite city in Tuscany - I just love the fact that each street corner is marked with what contrada (neighborhood) you are in - even the street lights are done in the contrada's colors. Don't forget to visit the church with St. Catherine's head!

Christina Talcott: Love it! Thank you!

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US Air - flight cancellation notice: My wife and I had a flight from IAD Friday night to Myrtle Beach via Charlotte. Apparently, there was a problem with the plane that was supposed to come into Charlotte for the Myrtle Beach leg.

We checked in from the office, printed out our boarding passes, schlepped out to IAD and got all the way to the gate before finding out the Myrtle Beach leg was canceled -- and that was only because I asked to verify. Otherwise, we could've been stranded in Charlotte overnight, and was told without hotel compensation. Fortunately, we did find out (furiously) and were able to leave the next morning.

There was no weather or reason to suspect any problems, just a mechanical problem and a freak confirmation at the gate. What is the appropriate response here from US Air? I believe the plane was operated by Republic or Air Wisconsin or other sub-contractor for commuter planes, if that matters. Thanks, crew!

Carol Sottili: I think they would have put you up in a hotel and paid for it. According to the airline's contract of carriage, they will pay for overnight accommodations unless the cancellation is caused by weather or air traffic control issues. I believe that mechanical problems fall under the airline's control. They should have told you that your connecting flight was canceled before you boarded. As for a proper response, you won't get much more out of the airline now. They put you on the next flight and you slept in your own bed.

Joe Yonan: FYI, I just bought trip-delay insurance from Amex. For all trips I book with the card, if there's a delay and they don't get me on alternative transportation by 9 p.m., Amex will give me $200. Some other bennies, too. I'll report back if I ever have to use it...

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going to montreal: The sister is wrong about no non-stops to Burlington, Vermont. United and US Air fly non-stop from DC area (Dulles and National). However, Airtran has stopped service from BWI. I talked to the help desk at Burlington Airport. He said that AirTran plans to restart the direct service in the spring. However, those flights are not cheap. For Thanksgiving I had to shell out $380 round trip.

If you have any American Express points you could use them to fly Air Canada to Montreal. They consider BWI to Toronto to be a special short flight and only charge 15000 miles for a round trip ticket (plus taxes, etc.) No charge for luggage. I would think Montreal would be the same. And I have had no problem using points to fly there when booking less than three weeks before the flight. You need to shift the points from American Express to Aeroplan. They will tell you if a flight is available before you do the points/miles transfer.

Carol Sottili: She was probably referring to the cheap nonstop AirTran flights, which, as you state, have been discontinued. The nonstop flights on the legacy carriers are very expensive. $380 round trip isn't bad - when I did a search on flights just a week out, it was more like $625. I'm guessing they don't have AmEx points, but good tip for those who do.

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For the hesitant cruiser: I wouldn't worry much about the seasickness thing unless you're on a very small ship. Most likely the only time you'll feel that you've been at sea is when you go ashore and you notice that your legs have adapted slightly to the ship rocking. Most ships are large enough that you don't notice this while aboard.

(I also thought I would not enjoy cruises as I am in my 30s and I like to plan trips myself, but for the Alaska Panhandle a cruise was, understandably, the only viable option unless I had spent tons more money, and the cruise proved to be so enjoyable that two years later I went on another cruise, on the very same ship, around the Baltic Sea.)

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I get seasick, or at least mildly queasy, probably on three cruises out of 10. A lot depends on where you stay (cabins in the middle and bottom of ship much better than higher up), where you cruise (avoid the Bay of Biscay and North Sea at all costs) and what kind of potion you take (once I pop a Bonine, I'm pretty much set though ginger, dramamine and seabands are helpful). Seasickness is no reason to stay home.

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Washington, DC: My wife and I are celebrating our 10 year anniversary this December -- and want to take a trip in late December to celebrate. I was considering Paris -- but have gotten mixed feedback on whether Paris around Christmas is a good idea or not. Any advice? Also, I found direct flights for around $820...is that a good price for Christmas through New Years?

Andrea Sachs: For the holidays, that is a very good price. (This year, Europe fares are remaining high, but aren't spiking over the holidays.) Despite the cold (but what's Christmas without a little nip on the nose?), Paris is gorgeous over the holidays. The stores are decked out in holiday cheer, the churches are bursting with choral music, and the streets are crowded with Christmas markets. Though some restaurants might be closed for the holiday, you won't be left on the street starving. For a list of events: http://en.parisinfo.com/shows-exhibitions-paris/festivals-and-fun-1/coming-up-christmas.

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My dream crui, SE: departs from New York City. I sneak on the cruise with my stash of diet soda, to avoid the outrageous charges by the cruise line. A motor malfunction forces us to stay in port for the duration of the cruise. Because we are still in NYC, we are subjected to the city's ban on smoking, so I'm not subjected to smoking everywhere, including the public bathrooms and walking deck. And everyone on board is safer because there aren't improperly-discarded cigarettes everywhere, thereby reducing the fire risk. So I end up visiting NYC and staying in a room that is probably cheaper than most hotel rooms in New York.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Pretty funny -- I did a one night cruise to nowhere out of Manhattan a couple of years ago (NCL's Norwegian Spirit) and it was a blast and for the money -- we got food, entertainment, accommodations -- it was a great value and a pretty interesting, and different way to spend the weekend.

Remy's story in this Sunday's Post really hit on how this kind of trip is really great if you're cruise-skeptical. You can get your feet wet without making huge commitment in time or money.

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re: seasick on cruise: Travel stores sell wrist bands that have a piece which presses on an acupressure point. I've used this with great success! When I cruised Alaska the ship concierge was handing out Dramamine. Rather than be doped up, I sported my bands and was awake for my vacation ;-)

question: BF lives near Norfolk. I live in Rockville. Southwest changes at BWI for Norfolk flights. Can I book our flights together and just miss the last leg of my flight? ie, get off at BWI instead of changing planes? Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the tip.

As for the flight: When you book a flight, you are obligated to continue that flight to the end. First, you might not be changing planes, just dropping off the BWI folks. Also, the crew might do a count of passengers, which will cause them to wonder where you are. Why don't you just book your flight one way to BWI? Southwest does not charge passengers more for booking two one-ways.

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Washington, DC: This Sunday's focus on different types of cruises was great. We are interested in taking a cruise either out of Baltimore or Florida, probably 8 nights or less, and would like to find an option that includes some extended time in a good port of call where we can stay out late, enjoy dinner, maybe some nightlife. Are there any such cruises where the time in port allows that? e.g. so that you don't have to be back on the ship until late, say midnight, or early the next morning for a morning departure from the port?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Pretty much the only option you have is to cruise to Bermuda from Baltimore on an itinerary that stays there for two, three nights, depending on cruise's length. There are usually options, too, from Norfolk.

Bermuda was the first cruise I ever did. From New York. Celebrity Zenith (no longer Celebrity Zenith). We went to Bermuda, were there for one day (cruise was in September), a hurricane blew up, we had to leave! Exciting but fun.

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Alexandria - dream cruise!: Sail out of Baltimore in early September (done this before and it was so great not to have to fly!). Room will have a shaded balcony and a hammock - bathroom will have a claw footed tub. The TV will also have ESPN, to make my husband happy, since it'll be football season.

Sail north along the eastern seaboard, stopping in NYC and going all the way up to Canada. Turn around and cruise full speed down to Bermuda. After Bermuda, cut over and go down the east coast - Charleston, Savannah, St. Augustine, east coast of Florida, Miami, Key West. Then sail the eastern Caribbean - Virgin Islands, Turks and Cacaos, down to Barbados. Then a few leisurely days at sea on the way back to Baltimore.

The ship will have endless ice cream sundaes, foot and ankle massages while you lay on deck, a well stocked library, great big band music to entertain in the evenings and absolutely NO children.

Realistic? Probably not :) But one can dream!

Joe Yonan: Yes, one can -- as you demonstrate!

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Hostels vs Cruises: LOL - that was very funny! I'm a great hostel supporter, with this being the 100th anniversary of the hostel movement, do you plan to have a hostel travel feature? Or a chat on best hostelling stories? I have a few ...

Zofia Smardz: That's a good story idea. We'll have to consider it. 100 years already -- how times flies!

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San Francisco: Hi travel crew,

My bf and I are thinking about skipping the family fest of Thanksgiving and traveling abroad instead. Any insider tips on cheap places to go? Thanks!!!

Andrea Sachs: Right now, Mexico is the cheapest place to go. After a slew of bad events, the country is desperate for visitors, so you can find cheap air and hotel.

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New York, N.Y.: I am flying on Thursday. Today a co-worker came in, announced his wife has the flu, and he thinks he's coming down with it. If I get the flu, what are the rules and procedures about flying and refunds?

Carol Sottili: As far as I know, there are no rules and no refunds. If you choose not to fly, and you don't have applicable travel insurance, you won't get your money back. You'll have to pay the penalty (usually $100 to $200), and then you'll be able to use the ticket in the future.

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Greek Islands Fantasy Cruise: My fantasy has long been to cruise the Greek Islands--I'd love to see Homer's "wine-dark seas" for myself. I'd like calm weather, an opportunity to go swimming, a bright blue sky, brilliant sunsets, lots of wonderful Greek food (succulent grilled octopus, hummus, pita, stuffed grape leaves, tangy feta cheese), an unlimited supply of white wine, and Apollo to rub sunscreen on my back.

Not too much to ask, is it? :)

Joe Yonan: How about Mercury to speed you along? And Dionysus to supervise the food and drink?

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Central Cal: Fantasy Cruise: First, I want to be in that luxury villa, the one that you miss unless you look for it. I'd like to cruise around the tip of South America. It just sounds so out of the way and exotic to me. And the cruise must end in Rio at Carnival, with two of those dancers in headdress waiting to escort me to the parade... Hey, you said it was a fantasy!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Love these fantasy cruises! I'm kind of agreeing here with Central Cal, both in the type of cruise (luxe is nice, sigh) and also -- South America is an amazing place to cruise. I can't understand why it's not, er, hotter than it is! You've got the fab metro spots of Buenos Aires and Rio, the lovely desert-like small towns, the penguin-watching, Ushuaia, which is like Switzerland-by-the-sea, the Falkland's, which are a bit of Brit, and best of all the Chilean fjords which are so remote feeling they make Alaska's look like a Manhattan canyon.

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Alexandria, Va.: For the chatter looking for places to eat in Rome, Florence & Venice...my wife and I spent a week in Rome and Florence for our anniversary and enjoyed Trattoria da Mario in Trastevere (Rome)and Il Latini in Florence. Research travel guides like Rick Steves and places like Trip Advisor and gayot.com helped.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for this!

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Cleveland, Ohio: Hello to Carolyn from CC!

I am a cruise addict and currently have 2 cruises booked. I am looking forward to cruising next Feb. on the Carnival Dream with John Heald as the Cruise Director to be an added bonus. Until then, hubby and I are looking forward to going on Holland America's Eurodam in early Dec to escape our chilly Ohio weather. We have no desire to sail on the Oasis of the Seas but we will be sailing on the same day in Fort Lauderdale so we hope we will at least catch a look at this new, huge mega-ship.

I'm curious to know Carolyn's opinion on what a large ship like Oasis will impact the ports of call she will visit when 5,000 passengers get off this one ship.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: First of all, I love John Heald, he's an amazing entertainer, a talented writer, and a great human being!

Just got back from a Eurodam cruise....

Re Oasis, I've seen it now twice in its shipyard in Turku, Finland, and what surprised the most both times (surprised twice cause the first time I saw it literally was a construction project; the August visit it felt more like a ship) was how cozy it felt. It didn't feel massive, oddly. The neighborhood concept, from this vantage point (and could change of course when I actually cruise on the ship in November) really made sense. Another interesting thing about the ship that felt less claustrophobic to me was that public room ceilings are higher than the average.

And there's so much more outdoor space on this ship. One of the things that cruise ship designers tend to miss on is the fact that you're out at sea and there's only a sundeck for outdoor space, maybe one restaurant. On Oasis, you can be outside in mulitple venues.

My husband, who's a also a cruise journalist, is a serious "big ship lover" and I'm really partial to smaller vessels. But we're doing Oasis on our own vacation and I'm actually excited about it....

Carolyn Spencer Brown: PS First of all, the ship's got so much going on that I'll bet a fair amount of folks won't even get off. The max Oasis can accommodate is 6,400 or so -- wow! -- but the cruise line has been very careful to choose initial ports that can handle the crowds, like for instance Jamaica, which has enough stuff for people to spread out all over the island.

The other thing that I learned in August when I was at the shipyard was that Royal Caribbean has developed new technology to deal with anticipated crowds. One of the biggest bottlenecks when you're in port, for instance, is getting back on the ship. You have to queue up to get your key card swiped and also to get your bags, airport-like, through security. If you're unlucky enough to get back just as 34 tour buses have rolled in, you're in trouble.

But RCI is creating facilities in port where people can "check back in" from multiple, rather than one or two, stations, so should facilitate. They're redesigning port terminals so they can do this on-shore rather than onboard.

Mind you, all good intentions aside, nobody really knows what will happen until the ship starts cruising. But Royal Caribbean really does have a track record with biggest-ship-ever intros.

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Washington, DC: Metro it or super shuttle it followup: would you recommend NC to Rosslyn & then the 5A bus OR NC to West Falls Church and the Washington Flyer? Money is not the issue; time is. Thanks.

Christina Talcott: Sorry, I overlooked the Washington Flyer schedule! You're right, that looks like the best option, with less of a chance of hitting traffic.

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Bethesda, Md.: Sorry to be a downer, but Southwest Virginia is not a side trip for a long weekend in Greensboro. Too far away and too many slow mountain roads once you get there. Not much going on in Greensboro, but you could check out the Duke mansion - kind of a mini-Biltmore Estate. Also, the Old Salem historic district in nearby Winston-Salem (but watch out for dead man's curve on I-40, unless they have fixed it in the 25 years since I have been there).

Christina Talcott: My favorite place on the way to Greensboro (if you're taking Route 29, which is ten times more pleasant than I-81) is a little pizza place in the Crossroads Market, just south of Charlottesville, called Dr. Ho's Humble Pie. The walls are covered with pictures and postcards and kid-decorated paper plates, and the pizza's divine. The grownups will have to fight over who gets to try one of the microbrews on tap there. Plus, you can gas up at the filling station right there.

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Ft Lauderdale, FL: For the cruise-resistant traveler: Cruising does not have to be a social whirl of "cheesy fun." If you don't want to share a table with strangers, you can ask for a table for just you and your traveling companion. If the ship cannot accommodate you with that (perhaps it is too crowded), you can request cabin service or stop for a solo meal at one of the restaurants rather than going to the main dining room. Instead of opting to play bingo or a trivia game, go to the library and enjoy a good book with the beautiful backdrop of the ocean from the windows. When you get to the ports, you have the choice of taking a ship-sponsored excursion or going out on your own. I, personally, hate shopping so on one cruise, I chose an ATV tour of some of the ruins in Mexico. Since the ATVs are for solo drivers, I only had to follow the path of the group leader. Whenever we stopped, the group would get off of the ATVs, go to the site & either listen to the group leader or meander on their own. Personally, I think cruising is a great way to go regardless of how sociable a person you are since you get to see so many places. At a later date, you can travel back to any individual place that especially interested you.

Joe Yonan: I've been on only one cruise in my life. You champion Googlers are welcome to try to find it, but I THINK it's pretty tough to get unless you look at Nexis or the like. Why am I challenging you so? Perhaps because it was full of "cheesy fun" the likes of which might possibly embarrass me.

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Rockville, Md.: Family of 5, (65, 63, 29, 28, 26) want to go to either Europe, Central or South America over Xmas and New Years. not too particular where. Can you help narrow it down?

Joe Yonan: My best holiday trip was to Spain. I spent Christmas in San Sebastian and New Year's in Barcelona, where the streets were empty by 11 p.m. because everybody was inside with their families. The tradition is to pop one grape for each chime of the clock at midnight, toast -- and then hit the streets, which they did. Big time.

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Takoma Park, Md.: My husband, two kids and I are going on our first cruise from San Diego on Holland America in December with three stops in Mexico (Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo). Any suggestions for saving money by booking our own excursions? I speak Spanish, so can easily bargain with any providers, but wonder about issues like making it back to the ship on time? Also, what kind of savings could I expect over going with the cruise ship offerings (which seem extremely expensive to me, because I know what things in Mexico generally cost)?

Carolyn Spencer Brown: In those ports, which are really cruise-central, you can easily find independent operators who will offer the same experience at about a 1/3 or more discount. You might also look at websites like ours -- or others -- where people talk about their trips. It's a great way to join up with other families or couples or whatever and tour on land together....

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For MD: I have occasionally seen attendants stop people to have them check their carry-on bags in those basket-things, and did once see an attendant on BA (I think) make a man turn around on the jetway, go back, test his bag, and then gate-check it.

Granted, more often people ignore the size restrictions, but if you are over and they pull your bag you really have no grounds to argue it (or not pay the checked baggage fee). Each airline should list on its Web site somewhere what its size requirements are, and be aware that something that just fits for one airline may be too big for another airline. (Also, it seems that London Heathrow may be stricter than many airports when it comes to things like luggage size - the majority of people I've seen pulled have been there.)

Christina Talcott: Good point. Thanks for the Heathrow tip.

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Somewhere, USA: Re new TSA name matching: How can I find out whether the presence or absence of a middle initial make any difference? My understanding is that TSA was concerned that "Jim Smith's" airline ticket be issued in the name on his driver's license, ie "James Smith." My passport does not contain my middle initial but my driver's license does. First and last names (very uncommon) are the same on both documents.

Andrea Sachs: According to TSA, submit the name "as it appears on the government issued ID they plan to travel with." In addition: "For the near future, small differences between the passenger�s ID and the passenger�s reservation information, such as the use of a middle initial instead of a full middle name or no middle name/initial at all, should not cause a problem for the passenger. Over time, passengers should strive to obtain consistency between the name on their ID and their travel information."

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The District: A friend and I have purchased tickets to the World Cup games in South Africa next year. While it appears we have a friend helping us there with lodging, the airfare may be a problem.

Doing a basic Hotwire search, if I wanted to leave from DCA to JNB next week it would be only about $1100 but next year around the end of June and the beginning of July, it's at least $1900. I really want to pay less than $1300, any suggestions?

Carol Sottili: $1,900 doesn't sound bad. Fares to Johannesburg in the June 11-July 11 World Cup time frame are incredibly high. The old supply and demand. You could try pricing tickets into London, and then separate tickets from there to Johannesburg, but I think any flights into South Africa are going to be high that month.

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Cruise Ships: Not to make anyone nervous, but I've always wondered how the Titanic would have measured against the modern behemoths. It would be interesting to see a graphic showing the outline of the Titanic against that of this Oasis thingy.

I've only been on one cruise (not my cup of tea) but Titanic did cross my mind that week staring off in the night on the top deck. Wondering how big it was compared to the Royal Caribbean ship we were on.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: You know what's the weirdest thing? There's a cruise line this week (I think) that's celebrating the sinking of Titanic by cruising by that spot (off coast of Halifax).

Look, there are plenty of smaller ships to try if ginormous isn't your thing. I'd take a look at Oceania, Azamara, and some others --

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Chicago: Cruises are for senior citizens...and their parents. I've never been on one, but my parents, (with their limited mobility), enjoyed several. I've witnessed the frenzy of souvenir hawking in Puerto Vallarta, Roatan, and Playa del Carmen when the big boats call. And those neon wristband IDs! No thanks!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Ok, I hear you about cruises being for seniors -- and that's certainly the case on lines that skew to older travelers (we'll all be there someday) but I'm wondering: If you haven't been on a cruise how can you possibly know for sure?

There are definitely lines I'd reccomend more for younger folk. Royal Caribbean, Ocean Village, NCL, Carnival, than for older ones.

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Just back from Boston: Wanted to say thanks for your efforts on Boston. So many great places to eat. Flew out on Southwest since it just added Chicago to Boston. Stayed at a $40/night hostel near Fenway that worked out well. Spent the bulk of money on great seafood and pasta in the North End. A genuinely nice getaway.

You don't have to spend a lot of money there to have a good time. $15 for a weekly pass was amazing, especially when the ferry from Charlestown to Long Wharf was included.

Joe Yonan: So glad to help. It's a fun city.

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More on Copper Canyon: A number of years ago we took the train to Copper Canyon. Having seen it, I would definitely say that it is NOT worth $400 and a 14-hour round trip for a one-hour look at the canyon. If you have seen the Grand Canyon, you definitely don't need to see Copper Canyon. If you haven't seen the Grand Canyon, you still don't need to spend that money and time to see Copper Canyon.

Joe Yonan: Another point of view...

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San Ramon, Calif.: Please review the eastern seaboard best foliage viewing Fall cruises.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: I can't figure out why cruising to Atlantic Canada isn't more popular than it is! It's an awesome region for cruising, lots of culture, great small towns, restaurants and museums, and lots of really active recreational options, from speed boating at the Bay of Fundy to riding bikes on the rail trail on Prince Edward Island.

And Quebec and Montreal are two of the greatest cities anywhere!

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Washington, DC: For the Italy travelers, the good news is that it's really hard to find a bad meal there. In a three week trip throughout the country a few years ago we had only one mediocre meal. Everything else ranged from good to excellent to extraordinary - and that was on a pretty strict budget. (This will probably start a small border war, but I thought the same was NOT true in France. There was plenty of good dining to be found, but just wondering into a cafe was not a reliable strategy.)

Christina Talcott: Sounds great. Thanks!

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Follow up to last week's chat: Crew, were you able to get an answer about Delta's seating? I called, and the rep had no clue!

Joe Yonan: I'm sorry about this -- I called and talked to a PR flak who promised me a response, which I never got. Let me shake the tree again.

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BWI-Norfolk: Bizarrely, flights to BWI are more expensive than flights to Norfolk even though the ones to Norfolk stop at BWI AND THEN CONTINUE. Thanks for answering my question, though.

Andrea Sachs: The confounding world of flight pricing.

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Fairfax, Va.: My husband and I need to take a week-long vacation in December and January (a tug-of-war between job demands and use-it-or-lose-it vacation time). He wants a warm destination, easy to get to, and without the stress of foreign language or culture. We both love the beach, but he cannot take much sun, so ideally we could stay there, walk on the beach in the evening, and do something else during the day. We like scenic drives and easy-to-moderate hiking; not so crazy about city life, no interest in casinos, party scenes. We're also not golfers. A road trip is a definite option. Military history/aviation is a plus for him.

We have taken lots of great trips together, mostly involving national parks, but those are easier in warmer months. We want good food and comfortable lodging - no camping - but should avoid a blow-out, as we plan to go to Hawaii in the spring or early summer.

We went to Key West a couple of years ago, and have cruised with friends; that's probably not something for just the two of us.

Right now I'm thinking that driving around Florida is our best option, but maybe there's a Caribbean island that would fit the bill. Any suggestions?

Joe Yonan: You sound like the perfect candidate for the feature we're soon debuting by KC Summers and Carol Sottili, dubbed Going Our Way. Read this primer on it, and send your information in as instructed, and maybe they'll take you on!

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Secure Flight: I'm a (very) frequent Delta flyer and found myself a little annoyed having to re-enter my date of birth and gender every time I made a booking - thought this could be saved in my traveler profile.

Andrea Sachs: Let's just say it's because it's a new program. Getting the glitches out. In three months, though, we will have to find a new excuse.

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On cruises: What, exactly, count as international waters? I took a cruise out of Baltimore last year and two hours out of port, they opened the casino and duty-free shops; even though you could look outside and clearly see we were still in Chesapeake Bay.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Great post. Baltimore has a special deal with the rules. Once the ships pass under -- oh, heck, think it's the (Chesapeake) Bay Bridge, could be the earlier one -- ships are allowed to open casinos. That's what has helped propel the port to its growth status. Otherwise, the 8 hours required to trawl down the Chesapeake was a downer for casino and duty free fans.

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Cruise questions: A couple of cruise questions: I'm probably going on a cruise in February. I'm pretty claustrophobic, and I bet that our cabin will be pretty small. How can I mitigate this for the trip?

Also, I have a completely irrational fear that I've never admitted to anyone (except everyone reading this chat, now): I'm afraid the boat will sink, a la Titanic. I know this is stupid and unfounded, but I can't get it out of my head. Perhaps this question belongs to Carolyn Hax...

Thanks for the chats!

Carolyn Spencer Brown: The ship won't sink. It's virtually impossible. But as a fellow claustrophobe -- make sure at the very least you book a cabin with a window (balcony's better). And stay outside as much as possible!

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Chile: Hello,

We are celebrating our 10th anniversary next year and we want to go to Chile. Our anniversary is at the end of November. Is that a good time of year to go?

We are thinking of a 10-14 day trip and seeing as much as we can without overloading ourselves. Wine country is one definite stop.

Andrea Sachs: November is spring in Chile, a great time to visit, with mild temps. Of course, the climate varies depending on where you are. The north is drier and warm year-round; the south and Patagonia area are wetter; and the coast is cooler than the central regions. For wine tours and events, see www.enotourchile.com. Another good wine source: www.winesofchile.org.

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for the anti-cruiser: I completely understand the anti-cruiser's trepidation about a cruise. I was dragged kicking and screaming on one and managed to survive with a couple of good books and a deck chair for most of the day, but in the evening I must admit that watching the karaoke was an absolute blast. In my opinion, karaoke has to be truly good or truly bad to be entertaining, and let's just say I wasn't disappointed.

Carolyn Spencer Brown: Too funny -- also, remember that there's a whole other world in expedition cruising. Not so much about the ship -- but about experiences in places like the Galapagos or Antarctica that you can't otherwise have.

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Europe with a 12 year old?: My daughter's been wanting to go to Europe for Spring break, but I'm a bit confused as to how to do this. Do we take a cruise where they stop at various cities, just fly to an European city and explore (reserve hotels of course) or go to one of those guided tours where they take care of everything? What do you recommend for someone who has never been to Europe?

Zofia Smardz: If you've never been to Europe at all, I'd consider a guided tour. They'll shepherd you around and show you the sights you ought not miss.

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Bris/Megabus/Cruise: Montreal Bris. Have you thought of flying Southwest to Albany & driving up to Montreal? Thanks for the info on Megabus to Toronto, you've sealed the deal for me, and I'll do it. (I'm going to NYC this weekend for $2.50.) Finally, my dream cruise. It would be on a wooden sailboat that left from Alexandria, and would go down to Bermuda. No fancy meals, just good seafood. No tacky evening shows, just speakers on navigation, astronomy, history of Bermuda, etc. No photographer every 5 ft. blocking your way, and then trying to sell the picture to you. (Insult to injury.) Deck chairs for reading, and a good library. Since it's my fantasy, the weather would be perfect, and there would be a handsome, studly you guy who had a thing for fat, middle-aged women. Oh, and even better than the stud, my luggage would magically fly from my home to my room on the ship without me ever having to touch it.

Joe Yonan: Fantasy is a glorious thing.

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Joe Yonan: Land ahoy! We've pulled into port, people, right on time. Thanks for your great questions -- and many thanks to the inimitable Carolyn Spencer Brown for helping us answer them.

Now for our prize-winner: It's the Ashburn chatter whose fantasy cruise includes EVERYTHING in the price. Send your mailing information to us at travel@washpost.com, and we'll get you your booty.

Until next time, happy travels!

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