Talk about travel: New TSA rules and regulations

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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, December 28, 2009; 2:00 PM

Have a travel-related question, comment, suspicion, warning, gripe, sad tale or happy ending? The Post Travel section Flight Crew is at your service. They were online Monday, Dec. 28, at 2 p.m.

Don't forget to submit your vacation photos and photos of your pets on vacation to our photo galleries.

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

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Becky Krystal: Good afternoon, everyone! We hope you got to your holiday destinations at least relatively smoothly, what with blizzards, security concerns and airport floods among the issues you may have encountered. We're back mostly intact here on the Flight Crew and ready to take your questions, but first, we ask you: After reading William Powers's story this weekend on paragliding in Argentina, what's the most daring thing you've ever done on vacation? Let the games begin!

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Detroit, Mich.: So passengers are being punished for TSA's incompetence? What if I am traveling with my 3-year-old and she has to use the bathroom during the last hour of a flight, are we going to be prohibited from doing so? I find that ridiculous and unacceptable.

Christopher Elliott: You're right, it's clear to a lot of people that TSA didn't take the time to think about its new security measures before putting them in place. And then it didn't bother telling us what the rules were, either. We had to rely on rumors and personal experience to connect the dots. (Late yesterday, I posted the actual security directive on my site. It's interesting reading, but my sources say it's already obsolete.)

I'm hearing that the TSA has already eased up on the rules. Hopefully, it will ease up a lot. These rules don't make any sense on a lot of levels -- whether you're a three-year-old or a 30-year-old.

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Adams Morgan: How are airfares to Mexico, specifically Cancun, looking so far this year? I am going to Cancun in April and am seeing prices about $100 higher than they were at the same time earlier this year ($272 in 2009, $408 in 2010). Can I expect them to go down or am I stuck with higher prices?

Thanks.

Carol Sottili: One of the issues may be the date Easter falls. It's April 4 in 2010, so the week before or after may be subject to low-fare blackouts. Fare departing April 3 and returning April 11 is $505, for example, while midweek flights later in the month are $294 round trip. Bing.com/travel predicts fares will drop in next week.

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New York, N.Y.: Someone needs to have the Amtrak personnel take classes in dealing with the public. I am tired of being yelled at by Amtrak employees when I board their trains. They are always yelling at us to board faster. Believe me, those of us towards the back do not want to be there, but we're not going to start shoving people aside. They are always yelling about the need to leave on time, but that's not our fault. If you don't start letting us board on time, then it's not our fault the train is leaving late. Yelling at us isn't going to get anyone to move faster. Until I read that Amtrak personnel have learned how to respect customers, I am never riding Amtrak again.

Zofia Smardz: Nothing worse than having someone yell at you to hurry up when you're in a long, slow-moving line. I feel your pain.
However, I've traveled Amtrak and not had this same experience. I've often found the personnel quite helpful, in fact. Perhaps things have gotten worse recently, though? Any other chatters want to share your Amtrak tales?

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Washington, DC: I am going to Panama in a few days, on a 5:30 AM flight out of Dulles. I thought I would have to arrive at the airport by 2:30, but do you think it would be wiser to get there by 1:30 AM? Is Dulles even open that early?

Joe Yonan: I think you'll be fine getting there at 2:30. Dulles is open 24/7. What airline are you flying? If it's Copa, their ticket counter is open at 2 a.m.

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Anonymous: Traveling on Delta to Munich to go skiing in Garmisch. Will we have to pay extra for our skis as check luggage?

Christopher Elliott: It depends on the airline. For example, if you're flying on Delta, the combined weight of the ski/snowboard bag and the boot bag may not exceed 50 pounds or excess baggage fees will apply. Here's the full rule.

I would check with your airline before flying. Just to be safe, I'd make a printout of the requirement from its site, in case a ticket agent tries to change the rules or re-interpret them in a creative way. If you know what I mean.

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Farmington Hills, Mich.: I've been checking airfare daily for a trip to FL in Feb. (12--20 or so) and NYC in March, and the prices are outrageous. I know that there are fewer flights etc. this year, but I can't imagine paying more than $300 (and $400+ for direct flights) to Fort Lauderdale (I've been checking Miami too--same thing). I know it's a popular time to go to FL, but I go every year, and I want to know if I need to resign myself to paying a lot more, or wait and it might come down?! Thx

Carol Sottili: Do you go Presidents' Day weekend every year? My guess is that it's so high because many people have a long weekend, plus kids get winter break that week. Try other weeks in February to see if the fares are different. And try flying midweek if you can. For example, round-trip fare leaving on Feb. 3 and returning Feb. 10 is $239 nonstop on Delta from Detroit to Miami.

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February getaway: Hi there- I actually had a really smooth holiday weekend. Flew to Atlanta on Christmas Eve and back yesterday. No delays or security problems. I was actually surprised!

Now I am looking to take a fun trip in February to take a break from this cold. Probably just a long weekend. It doesn't need to be somewhere beachy, but I am looking to go somewhere warm, with plenty to do and that's and relatively affordable. Any ideas?

Nancy Trejos: Glad you made it through the holiday weekend!

If you only have a long weekend, I would suggest somewhere in Florida. Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, the Keys are all great. My colleague just suggested Amelia Island. She had a good experience there in the winter.

If you have a bit more time, you might be able to find good deals to the Caribbean. Consider Barbados, St. Lucia, Jamaica. Puerto Rico is a quick and fun trip too. Have fun!

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Reston: Most daring?

I "ran with bulls" in Arles, France before a bullfight. (Real bulls, real bullfight. Only two bulls though.)

I went ballooning in Tuscany. Just a passenger.

I've gone for a few sea plane rides - Vancouver Island and also Lake Como.

I went mountain flying, once over the Cascades and once over Whistler. Over Whistler I was the pilot (with a CFI next to me).

I went horseback riding on the beach in Peru and we all stopped to have some food on the beach, prepped by some locals in a hut on the sand. I had ceviche. That counts as the most daring of all of the above BTW.

Do I win? ;-)

Becky Krystal: Wow, that's quite a list!

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Arlington, Va.: The article in today's paper about the idiotic new security measures (staying strapped to your seat with empty hands and nothing to do for the last hour of your flight) mentions that some one was on a flight from London to National. Who has flights that go directly from London to National? I didn't think this was possible.

Will we ever graduated past this security theater to some sort of logic-based security system? Restricting people for the last hour of a flight does absolutely nothing to increase security. If this yahoo had tried to set off his bomb two hours before the end of the flight the other day would we all be required to sit still for the last two hours? Where does this all end? This is a classic government over-reaction.

washingtonpost.com: Security heightened for flights bound for United States (Post, Dec. 28)

Joe Yonan: That London-to-National thing caught my eye, too, and is in the process of being corrected. It was to Dulles, not DCA.

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Mount Laurel, NJ: My college-age daughter and I are going to visit Paris in early January. We have been there before so we are looking for things to do that are off the normal tourist track. Also looking for some good yet inexpensive restaurants. What are your suggestions?

Zofia Smardz: Have you been to the Rodin museum? Not entirely off the tourist track, but if you haven't been, go. It's the best spot in Paris. I also like to send people to Malmaison, the Empress Josephine's little palace outside town -- a wonderful and nearly tourist-free alternative to Versailles. Might be a bit nippy in January, but well worth seeing. In town, try the Victor Hugo museum, the museum of Romanticism (16 Rue Chaptal) and take a boat tour down the Seine -- it's a different way of looking at the city.

For places to eat, check out our recent Travel article on wine bars. And here are some recommendations that our restaurant critic, Tom Sietsema, gave in an earlier chat:

Wine bar: Former architect Serge Mathieu dispenses organic wines from around France -- and terrific ideas on where to dine in Paris -- in his little wine shop called La Cremerie, which serves soups and charcuterie in addition to all the grape juice. 9 rue des Quatre-Vents

Good deal: Le Pamphlet chef Alain Carrere trained under the celebrated Christian Constant at the Hotel de Crillon, and it shows in such dishes as roast duck paired with polenta sticks, veal with gnocchi and chocolate mousse gilded with salty caramel ice cream. Great food at a great price: $48 for three courses when I was there last year. This bistro in the Marais is also friendly, intimate, stylish. 38 Rue Debelleyme, 3rd.

Top chef destination: Le Comptoir is a tough ticket, but it's worth the effort to get a table. Yves Camdeborde is among the French maestros who started the trend of Big Deal Chefs opening up small, affordable restaurants. I remember eating an excellent foie gras custard with basil juice (it works!) and encountering an amazing cheese tray. 9 Carrefour de l'Odeon.

If chatters have other suggestions, we're all ears.

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Washington, DC: Hi Travel Crew! Hope your holidays were happy and travel-stress-free :)

I am hoping you, or some of the other chatters, can give me some ideas. My husband is deployed to the desert and will be home late next summer. I wanted to take a week to go on vacation somewhere relaxing in August....perhaps the Caribbean or Aruba. Somewhere that doesn't require hours and hours of flight time. Any thoughts of a good place to go in August....and do resorts usually run specials in the late summer? We would really love a place where we can just lay on the beach, relax and spend a week eating good food and not worrying about much of anything!

Much thanks....

Carol Sottili: He'll deserve a relaxing vacation. Aruba is a great place, but you probably won't see many specials, as it is outside the hurricane belt. Islands that are more prone to hurricanes do often run specials late August-October, but I don't know that you want to risk it. I just researched Caribbean/Mexican destinations for the Going Our Way column scheduled to run next Sunday, Jan. 3. Take a look at that. Meanwhile, in Aruba, I liked the looks of a place called Bucuti Beach Resort. If you want to go cheaper, there are many all inclusives in Playa del Carmen, south of Cancun. Go to a site such as Apple Vacations to get an idea re: prices and locations.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: In March, we are flying to Rome. We were looking at a flight through London with an 8 hr layover. Now with the increased security, will this be a long enough time for a quick jaunt into the city? Otherwise we will look for more direct flights.

Christopher Elliott: An eight-hour stopover isn't a lot of time, even when security is "normal" (not that anything will ever be normal again). If you figure an hour to deplane and get through customs and then an hour to get into London, that leaves you five hours. Best-case scenario is that it takes two hours to go back, but that's very optimistic. That leaves you three hours. I would say it's possible, but if it were me, I'd just stay put. Incidentally, you shouldn't have to endure an eight-hour wait in London. That's way, way too long.

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Washington, D.C.: On Saturday, I was originally booked on a Continental flight from Tampa thru Newark to DCA but there were delays so they moved me to a USAir flight. Found out about the flooding at DCA during my layover in Charlotte. Good travel karma must have been with me because there was at least one USAir flight that made it to DCA on Saturday night - the 745pm from Charlotte and I was lucky enough to be on it! They parked the plane in the usual spot for the commuter jets and bussed us to another terminal and our bags came out on the American Airlines belt. I don't know how we lucked out, especially since the 2 flights before and the 2 flights after were canceled.

Joe Yonan: You did have good travel karma! I was not so lucky. My attempts to get from DCA to DFW on USAir were hamstrung by the snowpocalypse, then the flooding threw a kink into things this past weekend. The silver lining: I had just decided to sign up for American Express's travel-delay protection plan, wherein you pay an extra $10 a trip in exchange for being able to get reimbursed from Amex for expenses related to your delay -- hotel, meals, etc. -- subject to certain restrictions. Looks like I'll be able to get the $125 back I spent on a hotel in DFW and a meal at DCA because I didn't leave until midnight Sunday instead of 11:30 a.m. Saturday. The fact that it was a weather delay doesn't pose a problem.

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Bowie, Md.: If I use frequent flier miles for my ticket, but the flight is canceled due to weather, and I decide to take a refund instead of rescheduling (due to missing the event I was traveling to, for instance), will the "refund" include the miles spent on the ticket or just the fees I paid? Would there be any way to get the miles back, or are they just gone in this situation? My upcoming flight is on Delta, if it matters.

Christopher Elliott: Delta's Web site and contract of carriage don't specifically answer your question, which I find troubling. If your flight was canceled, you should receive all of your miles and fees back, just as you would receive a full refund if you paid by cash or credit card.

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Please Be Advised That: Here is a note for chatters with future travel plans on Northwest. DL & NW legally become one airline on 01/01/10 with mainline flights being operated by Delta Air Lines, though they will have their NW flight numbers for a few more weeks. NW's website and reservations systems will shut down on 1/31/10.

Zofia Smardz: Yes, thanks for reminding us of this. We did an item on it in the Coming and Going column recently.

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Arlington, Va.: How are the departure lines at Dulles? What time should I arrive at the airport for a 11 a.m. international flight?

Carol Sottili: I was there this morning. We left very early (6:15 a.m. for a 9 a.m. flight - we'd usually leave an hour later), thinking it would be a nightmare. But my daughter was at her gate in no time. Took only ten minutes to get through the line at United, but that was because we checked in online, including checking in her luggage, at home (also, you save $5 a bag doing it online). United lines were much longer for those who needed to check in. It took her only 20 minutes to get to security, and she said that there were no unusual security measures: She did not get patted down, and didn't see anyone else getting that treatment. Everyone (domestic and international travelers) goes through the same security lines, but it's possible you may be subject to more scrutiny as an international traveler (my daughter was flying to Los Angeles).

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Arlington, Va.: I'm considering booking flights with Spirit Airlines from DCA to Ft. Lauderdale prior to a cruise we are taking in April since their schedule is excellent for our time schedule and the price is much lower than any other I've found. We plan to fly out the day before our cruise and there is a return flight mid-afternoon so we don't have to worry about debarkation times.

I've never flown Spirit Airline and I have heard both good and bad about it. I know about the fees to check bags and to reserve seats. Is there any need to reserve a seat if I don't mind sitting in a middle seat for a 2.5 hour flight? How reliable are the are departure/arrival times? Is there anything else I should know about this airline to help me in deciding whether to book with them? Thanks for any advice.

Christopher Elliott: Interesting question. You're right, Spirit doesn't miss an opportunity to charge fees. The latest Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the Transportation Department is not much help, since Spirit isn't big enough to report its numbers. Only complaints against Spirit are listed in the report (19 in the latest month, which isn't that bad). I think being aware of some of the issues you've already mentioned will ensure your flight will be as problem-free as possible. I've flown on Spirit before, and I wouldn't hesitate to fly on it again.

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Pittsburgh: This won't seem like much to most folks, but since I'm highly (as it were) acrophobic my most daring travel experiences have been walking across the Peace Bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, and the suspension bridge over the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Covington, KY. These experiences have helped me overcome my fear a bit.

Becky Krystal: Hey, one man's cake walk is another's daring. Thanks for writing in.

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Please Help!: Any non-water related activities to do in the following islands?

Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas; St Croix, USVI; Basseterre, St Kitts; Roseau, Dominica; Bridgetown, Barbados

We will have the typical 8-hour cruise stop in each of these islands and ideally we would like to visit the downtown on our own (walking) but I'm not sure if the ports of these islands are close to the city centers. I will be with three seniors with good mobility but not interested in doing strenuous hikes (volcanoes-rain forest) or big tour groups. Also renting a car will not be possible. Our interests are mostly sightseeing and photography. Suggestions will be greatly appreciated!

Joe Yonan: I put your question to Carolyn Spencer Brown of cruisecritic.com, which has port profiles at this link that you might find helpful. Here's what else she said:

"St. Thomas: Right by the ship dock is the Paradise Point tramway that takes you to "Mountaintop" -- gorgeous views, an easy outing. Also one of the lesser-known pleasures of Charlotte Amalie is the city's historic district, it's pretty compact and does require some walking but worthwhile.

"St. Croix: Fredericksted, the port town (to call it a city is a stretch), has historic sites and art galleries in town; Fort Frederik, from 1760, is a national historic landmark and actually quite a lovely place. There's also the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts and a handful of galleries. A nice place for lunch (at least the last time I went to St. Croix) is Le Saint Tropez, right in town.

"St. Kitts: It's a pretty sleepy place! The St. Kitts scenic railway offers lovely views; Romney Manor, once owned by Thomas Jefferson's grandfather, is home to a botanical garden.

"Dominica: You have to get out of town; there's nothing in the city. There's a rainforest tram that's fun (not too much fun!).

"Barbados: Activities are pretty spread out, so without a car you're limited. The nearest spot is the city of Bridgetown, and it's a bit more developed than most Caribbean cities, with a sprinkling of history and some shopping, but you'd have to take a taxi. Focus otherwise really is on beaches, hiking, etc."

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Clifton, Va.: So what happens if I have to really, really go and its 58 minutes before the flight lands? Do I say I just drop my pants and let it go in the aisle? Or what? What about folks with young kids?

Obviously we have airline security designed by morons in law enforcement who don't have a clue. The idiot with the bomb in his crotch wasn't in the bathroom. DHW under Napolitano and Obama just don't have a clue. Go talk to the Israelis please! Before thousands of folks die!

Christopher Elliott: I share your frustration. Actually, I've heard the one-hour sit-down rule has been suspended as of this morning. I'm working on confirming that. In the meantime, expect the unexpected when you're flying into the U.S. from abroad. I don't think anyone -- not the airlines, not the TSA, and definitely not the airline experts -- really know what to is happening at this point.

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West Coast, USA: Thank you all for always making a girl want to keep reading the Washington Post...online or otherwise. I truly enjoy your articles and I will always think the Washington Post is the best newspaper in the country largely because of what you write and share with the rest of us.

Zofia Smardz: Aw, shucks, thank you. That is so good to hear. Usually we just hear the gripes, so we really appreciate that you took the time to send a compliment!

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Flying to India: My most daring travel escapade was taking my 2 year old to India this fall for my brother's wedding! LOL! Not only did we all escape without stomach issues or H1N1, we had a fabulous time meeting my sister-in-law's family and eating delicious food (my 2-year-old still asks "Spicy?" if he deems new food suspicious).

I've been meaning to write because I've seen a few emails asking about airlines to that corner of the world and we LOVED Emirates Airlines. The Dubai airport is just amazing (we wished we had more than 1.5 hours each time -- and when does that happen?). The food was decent (and plentiful) and the entertainment centers in back of the seats was great (200+ movies/TV shows on demand plus video games). They also do a really nice job with kids traveling -- gave them extra toys, came around and took a polaroid snapshot, etc.

I've never had the opportunity to fly on Singapore Airlines, so I can't compare, but the fares on Emirates were the best we could find (used Expedia /Travelocity /Orbitz etc. to get connections within the US).

Becky Krystal: A twofer! Thanks for the story and advice.

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Rochester, MN: Hello, Flight Crew. I'm sure your inbox will be full today. What I wonder is why the TSA and Homeland Security are so reactive. The Christmas incident involved the bathroom, a blanket, and, for timing, the descent. Suddenly, bathrooms, blankets and the last hour of the flight are facing new regulations. Why can't the TSA and HS people sit down and work out a proactive system of regulations? Otherwise, the way they're reactively taking away each of the passengers' activities and possessions, we're eventually just going to have to fly naked.

Christopher Elliott: Flying naked? Now there's an idea.

I wrote about the many inconsistencies in TSA's approach to security in a column a few weeks ago. And I think I agree with you. If we wanted real air-tight security, forcing us to fly au naturel (no luggage, either) would be the only way to ensure complete security.

TSA has no discernible strategy when it comes to dealing with the bad guys who want to blow up planes. They're just making this up as they go along.

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Washington, DC: Dumb question, but I need to ask: how do you get air miles? How can I find out if credit cards offer air miles?

Joe Yonan: Mostly from flying, but credit cards are a good source, too. Look at frequentflier.com, which has great info on choosing a card, among other things related to the points-obsessed.

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Most daring thing you've ever done on vacation?: 1.Walk alone for hours in a remote section of the Great Wall of China during winter.

2. Sit at the front of a horse carriage in a remote village of Egypt...that was a huge mistake since I'm a female and I didn't know I was not suppose to do that...well I paid a high price for that mistake (unfortunately)

Becky Krystal: Now I'm really curious about what that high price was.

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Washington, D.C.: Thinking about spring break in Ft. Lauderdale -- when is the best time to get deals on flights and hotels?

Carol Sottili: There is no best time - it's all about tracking sales. Several sites do a decent job of tracking fares. I like Bing.com/travel. You can also sign up for fare sale notifications at most major third-party booking sites, including Kayak. Hotels.com is a good place to start researching hotel sales, but go directly to the hotel site before booking.

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Columbia Heights, DC: I'm sure you're getting many of these questions, but wanted to know if there are any new security restrictions on domestic travel this week due to the Xmas plot? I'm flying from IAD to Boston tomorrow, should I just pay to check my bag to make things easier?

Thank you.

Christopher Elliott: I've spoken with dozens of domestic air travelers, and they tell me that nothing has changed in the way of screening, and the lines aren't significant longer than they are at this time of the year.

You should still plan to arrive early -- after all, this is one of the busiest times of the year to fly. Give yourself an extra hour to check in, at a bare minimum.

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Del Mar, Calif.: What is specifically prohibited from being in a passenger's hands the last hour of an international flight?

Does this include newspapers, magazines, books? Pens? Paper/Notebooks?

Christopher Elliott: There are conflicting reports about what is -- and isn't allowed.

The security directive issued on Friday forbids passengers from having anything in their lap. "Passengers may not have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination," it says.

I've heard that the directive has been modified this morning, and that it would allow books and newspapers. I am working on confirming that. Meantime, I would put everything away when the flight crew asks you.

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for deployed spouse: Just a thought, but Aruba is, literally, a desert island. All its water is created via desalination. It has no native plants or animals except a few scrubby bushes and lizards. In August, the temps are about 100 and the sun is brutal. You certainly know your husband, but I would think taking him there after a desert would be a bad idea. How about Belize? St. Lucia?

Carol Sottili: He may be sick of the desert by then, although the winds do keep it reasonably comfortable. Belize and St. Lucia are lovely, but she didn't want to fly for a long time, so I was looking at places with nonstop flights. Maybe Puerto Rico?

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It's A Small World, After All: On my first trip to Australia I climbed Uluru (Ayers' Rock.) That's something I wouldn't do now, because I now know more about the cultural affront climbing is to the religion of the local aboriginal people.

What struck me in 1988 was how minimal the safety precautions were for climbers. Basically, except for about 20 meters of freehand climbing near the bottom, there was a chain to hold onto as you went up and down. That's it.

But while I was about half-way up The Rock, I made a passing comment to the woman behind me on the chain. She had an American accent so I asked where she was from. "Annandale, Virginia," she answered. In fact, she lived about five blocks from where I lived at the time. We talked throughout the rest of the climb and descent, traveled together into Alice Springs and wound up staying a couple for nearly two years.

Should I have saved this story for your Valentine's Day chat?

Becky Krystal: Great story. My mind is spinning with puns for love on the rocks.

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Leominster, Mass.: I've been bursting with questions about the new security restrictions and I haven't heard any answers to these:

When they say "no personal items on laps," do they mean something as small as an iPod or a paperback book?

Since I'm assuming that tray tables must go up when the no-items-on-laps restriction goes into effect, does that mean that beverages have to be finished even earlier, and even for people with a history of deep vein thrombosis who NEED to stay hydrated?

Are you allowed to touch your carry-on bag stored by your feet even if you can't stand up to reach the overhead bin?

What about parents who travel with an infant in their lap? An infant is a pretty personal item, I'd think.

What about small children who can't sit still? Can THEY have personal items? Or are we going to see a lot more cases of "air rage" committed by adults who can't stand other people's noisy kids?

Christopher Elliott: The rules are changing even as I write this. It's my understanding that some of the restrictions that were in place yesterday have been lifted.

- "Personal items" is such a vague concept, I don't think anyone knows what it is, or isn't. But I can answer the second part of the question: Your electronics must be turned off during takeoff and landing, and that would include your iPod.

- I'm not sure if a flight attendant would confiscate a bottle of water that you keep in the seat pocket, and that is there for medical reasons. Hopefully, your crewmember would have enough common sense to let that one slide.

- The bag in under your seat is questionable. According to the first security directive, "Passenger access to carry-on baggage is prohibited beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination." That would probably include anything under your seat.

This is all subject to change. The details of these new requirements are still unfolding.

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Boston: I love your chats, but have a comment about some recent advice. Several readers have asked about warm winter getaways, and you have recommended Florida, and Miami in particular. December-February, Florida can be pretty iffy. It is likely to be warm compared with DC, but you may still need a jacket or sweater during the day. And the water may be too cold for swimming.

Winter is generally milder in the south, but you can't count on warm and sunny. A few years ago I planned a break to southern Mississippi in January, wanting to get away from New England weather. It was colder there than at home in Boston that week.

Not that it's a guarantee, but if you're contemplating a sun break somewhere, check average temperatures for that month before booking flights, or you may be very disappointed. And guaranteed beach weather may require going further afield, such as the Caribbean or Mexico.

Becky Krystal: I hear ya. It can be rather variable. I spent more than a few winter breaks in Florida, which ranged from balmy to 40 degrees.

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for Bowie: Delta cancelled 3 out of 6 legs of our trip (round trip, so two changes per way) and we got 100% for the whole trip back no questions asked, even though we conceivably could have wrangled the trip using other flights plus the noncancelled ones. We didn't even have to argue. I just called and got $ back. Caveat: we bought through Expedia and they were the ones I called. But still, refund had to come from Delta.

Christopher Elliott: That's the way it's supposed to be. Thanks for sharing that happy ending.

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Havre de Grace, Md.: I just (its 12/26) found a room a couple blocks from Times Square on NYE for $330! Amtrak from ABE is out of the budget ($400 r/t for 2). Megabus picks up at White Marsh, but I'm nervous about possible lack of parking. Haven't you talked before about a place you can park overnight in NJ and take the train in?

Carol Sottili: Here's what we've written on the topic:

New Jersey Transit trains operate from numerous locations, but the Metropark station is convenient to the New Jersey Turnpike (take Exit 11 and go north on the Garden State Parkway to Exit 131A) and has ample parking. Parking is $9 per day.

NY Waterway operates ferries to midtown and lower Manhattan from several ports in Jersey, including Hoboken and Weehawken. Parking, schedules and rates vary by location.

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Washington, D.C.: So I just very very last minute decided to fly to Miami tomorrow! What kind of new restrictions am I going to face on a domestic flight? Anyone know if they reopened that bookstore by the security lines in Reagan or should I go to the bookstore before I head to the airport to get reading material for the flight? Am I going to face any bad weather tomorrow or coming back on Saturday? How crazy is Saturday going to be with all of the returning holiday travelers?

Christopher Elliott: I've spoken with many domestic air travelers since Friday, and as far as I can tell, it's business as usual. The new TSA restrictions affect inbound international flights.

But bear in mind that "as usual" at this time of year still means long lines and full flight. So Saturday could be as crazy as ... the last Saturday after the New Year.

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Arlington: We are looking to travel to France mid-May. I am just starting to do our planning. Is $950 a reasonable price to Paris? Thanks!

Zofia Smardz: I flew to France last May (early in the month) for about $650, which was a deal at the time. Fares to Europe have definitely gone up, and many airfare watchers think that's just inevitable, both because of demand and because airlines just can't afford to keep fares low. In comparison, $950 seems high, but that is what I'm finding for May. You may want to wait a bit and sign up for sales alerts with Air France or Delta and track airfares on Airfarewatchdog.com. And if you find a cheaper fare, jump on it.

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it's clear to a lot of people that TSA... Do you think Homeland Security does this on purpose, to keep potential terrorists from being able to anticipate what sort of security measures they might encounter?

Joe Yonan: Yes. They said as much, even.

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Princeton, NJ: Sooooo, the system really didn't work. How much of a hassle are we in for now? I'm pretty much going to be traveling light, and I am now thinking I might as well get my travel-sized toiletries AFTER I arrive (I KNOW it wasn't a liquid that was trying to be ignited, but still). Predictions?

Christopher Elliott: On inbound international flights, expect big delays and headaches. On domestic flights, I'm not seeing much of a change. I've talked with dozens of passengers, and they tell me everything appears to be as it was before the attempted terrorist bombing.

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Arlington, VA: Most daring vacation adventures:

  • Hot air ballooning over the Valley of the Kings in Egypt
  • Parasailing on the Red Sea
  • Scuba diving "shark dive" in Roatan, Honduras
  • Chasing a school of hammerheads down to 44m in the Red Sea
  • Hang gliding in Rio

Becky Krystal: The competition for our most daring trip is heating up. You all are brave!

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what's the most daring thing you've ever done on vacation? : One time I didn't put on enough sunblock and my nose burned. I guess I'm not big on adventure. Give me some sand and a book and I'm set.

Becky Krystal: You are wild and crazy. :)

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Maryland: The lady with the 3-year-old might want to plan ahead. How about plan on using the bathroom 1.45 hours ahead of scheduled landing, and then not giving her liquids? She won't die. If it comes to it, put a pair of training pants on her. Sorry she finds the rules unacceptable, but the alternative is, don't fly. Get over it.

Christopher Elliott: While I see your point, I see hers too. I'm the father of a three-year-old. When she needs to go potty, she needs to go potty. You can't argue. These new TSA rules need to be thought through a little more before they're made permanent, in my opinion.

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Desperate for warmth: I am desperate to go some place warm and cheap for a couple of days. My definition of warm is 60 degrees or above. I'm not much of a beach person; I'd love some place where I could get a hotel from which I could walk or cab to some interesting sights - historic, museums, neighborhoods with nice shops and cafes, etc. My budget is limited ($600 or less for 2 nights hotel and flight). Plus, I'd like a short (less than 2.5 hrs) and direct flight. Any suggestions?

Nancy Trejos: Assuming you're on the East Coast, Florida is probably the warmest and closest place you can get to. I know you're not a beach person but you might like Amelia Island. It has an interesting history. Fernandina Beach's historic district looks like a Victorian village. And you can ride horses on the beach. Ft. Lauderdale is also a beach town but it's got lots of fun cafes and shops.

If you're out west, I would suggest California. Los Angeles and Santa Barbara are great to visit.

Anyone else out there got suggestions?

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Boston: I'm off to Sydney, Australia, for a week in February with my spouse and wonder if you have any ideas on "must do" activities and places to eat? We already have a hotel, so we do not need help for that.

Becky Krystal: Chatters, any favorites for the couple headed down under?

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Washington, DC: My boyfriend is in Chicago for a little over a month, and we've talked about meeting in the middle, which seems to be...Cleveland. Is there anything fun to do in Cleveland for a few days for a young couple? Or is there somewhere else approximately equidistant from here and Chicago that's fabulous?

Nancy Trejos: I've never been to Cleveland but I've always wanted to go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Cleveland also has a bunch of museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It sounds morbid but the Lakeview Cemetery apparently has great views of the city and pretty monuments to John D. Rockefeller, Eliot Ness, and others. The botanical gardens and Severance Hall where the orchestra plays are also supposed to be worth seeing.

But why not go to Chicago? It's not a long flight and you can often find decent fares.

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Reston, Va.: Hi crew - hoping you had a festive holiday. Help is needed. I am wanting to travel to Paris in early June with my 13 year old son to celebrate my 50th. I don't have a lot of time to spend on the logistics/planning so would like advice on a travel company that could help with airport transfers, tours, hotel, etc. We'd like to be central to the major sites and don't mind being part of a group tour/package. My son loves history, art and museums so that would be our focus but we would also be ok with having some downtime to ourselves (shopping would not be on our agenda). We don't need over the top hotels - location and safety are the priorities. We'd have about 7 days for the trip and would like to do some travel outside of the city if time allows but would like to do everything we can while we are in Paris as we won't be returning for some time. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Carol Sottili: Just about every major tour operator offers a Paris itinerary. Check out choices at the United States Tour Operators Association. Much depends on your budget.

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"If we wanted real air-tight security, forcing us to fly au naturel (no luggage, either) would be the only way to ensure complete security.": They'd also have to do body cavity searches or use x-rays, as surely someone would figure out a way to swallow a bomb (or to.....uhhh....put it the other end) and then detonate it. Drug smugglers already swallow bags or condoms full of drugs before crossing the border.

Christopher Elliott: Good point. Full body cavity searches for everyone!

Seriously, though, I think we've already gone a little too far. These full-body scanners are invasive enough. It's a slippery slope. Someone needs to say "enough."

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Capitol Hill: How does not being able to hold something in your lap for the last 60 minutes of a flight - including a book or magazine - make us safer? Won't someone just try to blow up the flight 63 minutes before it lands?

Joe Yonan: You are not the only one who had this thought. Strikes many of us as lunacy, too.

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Alex., VA: How does the airline industry justify or explain its reticence to agree with the limits on sitting on the tarmac? How do they justify a wait of more than 3 hours after pushing away form the gate? Is it really about maintaining the queue? I know that the tower is busy, but couldn't that be managed in someway that is better than schoolyard rules?

Second question - I see that the airlines could be fined up to $27500 per passenger? Does the passenger get the cash? Why should the FAA get it - they weren't trapped on the plane?

Christopher Elliott: The answer to your first question is that there are many circumstances under which a flight may have to wait for an extended period of time, including weather and air traffic. The airline industry, as I understand it, wants to have the flexibility to operate the flights the way it needs to. I think it has a valid point, and that its opponents -- the so-called "passenger rights" lobbyists -- have hurt the cause of passengers more than they've helped, as I pointed out in a recent column.

One question 2, I believe it's $27k per aircraft, and you don't see any of that money if you're one of the people stuck on the plane.



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West Palm Beach, Fla.: How does a first time cruise goer really know who to trust to book off boat tours when cruising to Alaska

Carol Sottili: The cruise lines charge more, but they do a good job of vetting the companies. If you want to choose your own tour operators, approach it the same way you research any company - look at how long it's been in business, read reviews, find out if its a member in good standing of various trade organizations and look up complaint records at the Better Business Bureau.

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DC Hotels: I want to take a vacation to ... DC! Any suggestions for a hotel with a good brunch option for a girl's night out in January? We are looking for a good deal, about $100 a night, we are planning to go out on Saturday night and want to be able to have breakfast/brunch on Sunday without lugging bags to a restaurant.

Becky Krystal: My vote would be for the Tabard Inn. Some of the rooms might be a shade above your $100 guideline, but the charm that the place oozes is worth it. And I highly recommend the brunch. Just make sure you book a table in advance as the place fills up. Do yourself a favor like my friends and I did for my bachelorette party and order the doughnuts.

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CoHi on the Hill: While this may not be as daring as paragliding, the most adventurous I've been on a vacation was trying to navigate the rail system in Frankfurt, Germany in search of a public pool. Not knowing a lick of German paled in comparison to how much I was seeking relief in August 2003, the summer with the once-in-a-century heatwave. Amazingly, my friend and I did find a pool although neither of us dared to don skimpy men's swimwear (me) or don a bikini bottom, sans top (her).

Becky Krystal: Hopefully you remembered sunscreen, unlike one of your fellow chatters.

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Going to Panama: Thanks so much for the info about arrival time at Dulles. I am flying Copa, and, until I booked my flight, had never heard of Copa Airlines before. Does it have a good reputation?

Christopher Elliott: I'm familiar with Copa. I don't get a lot of complaints about the airline, and wouldn't hesitate to fly with them. Please let me know how it goes.

Joe Yonan: This was the first I'd heard of it, too, to be honest with you. Have chatters had personal experience that might be helpful here? Carol pointed me to its three-star rating (out of six) at airlinequality.com.

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Spirit Airlines: I have moral qualms with Spirit Airlines - I refuse to use them, no matter how cheap they are. They booked two passengers on US Air 1549 last year, and after the plane went down in the Hudson, tried to charge them cancellation fees for not using the return portion of their ticket.

Christopher Elliott: I remember that. Spirit was technically correct to deny the refund, but it was also obviously wrong. Thanks for pointing that out.

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Last Minute, DC : Am I crazy for trying to get away this weekend for $500 or less? I don't have plans yet and truthfully don't really care where I go, except it would be nice to be warm. On top of that I'd be traveling solo, so last minute deals on double occupancy rooms are no help. Any advice/tips? Or should I just stay put?

Joe Yonan: Well, that's a pretty tall order, but lemme try. Seems like Florida is the ticket, but that's a tight budget. You could get to Fort Lauderdale Friday-through-Monday on USAir for $414 r/t, which doesn't leave you much moolah for much of anything else, does it? You could fly into West Palm and back out of Fort Lauderdale for $350, but that complicates things. Hmm. Once you're in FLL you can get hotel in the $70s/night, according to bing.com, but that still puts you over budget.

Chatters -- and Carol! -- help! Is this doable, or should our last-minute traveler take a last-minute trip to a warm bathtub at home instead?

Carol Sottili: Take a look at Lastminute.com. They have several Florida deals within your budget, although they are all to northern Florida, which isn't really warm. Nothing to Caribbean comes in that cheap.

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Redding, Conn.: My Mom and I are celebrating milestone birthdays, and would love to go away to celebrate. We are looking for a 3 night escape to a beach location with accommodations that offer a spa, a nice beach, good food, and maybe some shopping. We'd like a less than 4 hour plane flight from the New York area. The catch is we can only do it over MLK weekend, and right now we are having trouble narrowing down the field. My Mom is a bit of a cautious traveler so we need somewhere safe. Please help--I need a vacation!

Becky Krystal: Might I suggest Amelia Island, Florida? It's about a three-hour flight from New York with all of what you're looking for. I've been there in the winter, and it's still beautiful then.

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Bethesda, Md.: Decisions, decisions, decisions ... or should I say "indecisive"? Family of 4 (2 adults, 14 and 12 year old boys) looking for a 4-5 day getaway during spring break. Love cities, beaches, culture, any kind of physical activity. Thinking of: Costa Rica; Puerto Rico; Dominican Republic; Mexico (Yucatab/Caribbean side) and even London. Can use Marriott Rewards points for hotel, but that kind of eliminates DR (only a Courtyard in Santo Domingo). Where do you think we can get the best value for our hard-earned $$ at that time? Love the chats and thanks for your help!

Carol Sottili: Those are very different destinations. If the kids love culture, London may be fine - my 14-year-old son hated it. To quote him, "If I have to see one more cathedral or museum, I will jump off the London Bridge." Plus it's a long way to go. Costa Rica is also not close, but it may be fun for kids because you could combine jungle/beach, plus people are lovely, and it's not too expensive. Mexico is probably the cheapest of your choices, as it offers several Marriott properties, including the very nice JW Marriott, plus it is fairly easy to get to. I've not been to Puerto Rico, but it also offers several Marriott resorts/hotels. Not been to DR either. Anyone out there have thoughts?

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DC: Would you happen to have any recommendations for places to stay in Lalibela, Ethiopia? Do you think four days is too long to spend there? Should I try to fit in Gonder or Axum too? Thanks!

Nancy Trejos: The Seven Olives hotel is government-run and supposed to be one of the best. The Lalibela hotel is pretty basic but gets decent reviews.

I've always been fond of seeing as much as possible when I travel so I would probably fit in a side trip somewhere, but it's up to you. It depends on how much you want to move around in a short period of time. Good luck!

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Reston, Va.: Should I ship valuables ahead of me when I am on vacation? By this I mean camera gear, laptops, anything breakable or attractive to thieves.

Currently to fly home to the U.S. from abroad you will only be allowed ONE carry-on (this means one only - luggage or handbag, one one one) and I bet we see zero before too long.

Joe Yonan: I dunno -- I'd keep valuables right on me, and instead ship home all the non-valuable stuff to make room. I wouldn't trust the postal service, especially depending on the country you're visiting, to handle your breakables/valuables. I speak from experience opening a package of pottery from Mexico that arrived in chards, and sending a box of books/notes from Japan that took weeks to arrive.

Christopher Elliott: Airlines won't assume responsibility for checked luggage that contains valuables like cameras and jewelry, at least on domestic flights. I might consider shipping (and insuring) anything that you need while you're there -- unless you plan to carry it on your person.

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New Orleans: Is it ever possible to find a car rental at an airport without reservations? I'm flying to visit my folks next week, flying into PIT. After that, it's a 1-1/2 hour drive home. My parents are twitchy about driving in snow, so depending on how heavily it's coming down I may want to just drive myself to spare them the ordeal (and me the anxiety of riding on a snowy interstate with my dad).

Christopher Elliott: Yes, you can. But you can also make a reservation and cancel without a penalty. It might be a good idea, given the possibility of bad weather, to make a reservation and play it by ear.

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Silver Spring: Why, if the idiocy of the new security rules is instantly obvious to everybody including security experts and passengers, did TSA make them up?

Who are they trying to fool? What do they think passengers will DO FOR AN HOUR AT THE END OF A FLIGHT with nothing to read or work on?

Why wouldn't the terrorists just get whatever it is out of their carryons 65 minutes before the end of the flight? Or at the start of the flight?

Christopher Elliott: Good point. And yes, I think they're making this up as they go along.

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Becky Krystal: Well, thanks for joining us this week. If the person from Arlington whose adventures have included parasailing on the Red Sea would send an e-mail to travel(at)washpost(dot)com, we'll get you your prize. Happy New Year and happy travels to all of you!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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