Talk about travel: Frequent flyer miles, giant cruise ships, Boston and Seattle sights, noise-canceling headphones, St. Pete's beach, foreign ATM fees, do you need a travel agent?

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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, March 8, 2010; 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, March 8 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 Q&As.

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Zofia Smardz: Good afternoon, chatters, and happy Monday! Hope you all had a good, restful weekend and got out and enjoyed the sunshine (at last!). We did, and now we're all raing to answer your travel questions -- all except Andrea, that is, who's off to California to report a couple of stories. But the rest of your trusty crew is here, and here's our chat question of the day for all of you: To travel agent, or not to travel agent? Where are the places where it's better to have an agent plan your trip than to try to go it alone? Send us your best/worst experiences working with a travel agent, or tales of times when you wish you had used one instead of trying to be the expert yourself. The most frustrating, funny or fascinating account wins a well-planned prize.
And now off we go!

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OT Alexandria, VA: Just wanted to let you know that the Adventure Travel Expo was really informative and interesting. Who knew there'd be an indoor zip- line, segways, a makeshift pool to try out scuba, Ethiopian coffee, and lots of dancing and music? I was pleasantly surprised and got lots of brochures so I can compare my favorite adventure tour group (GAP Adventures - no affiliation) with all the others. The only problem is picking the next place to go!

Nancy Trejos: I was there yesterday! I was tempted to try the indoor zip-line. I too got tons of brochures. Good luck picking your next destination!

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Rockville: Hi Crew. I'd like to take a group of about 15 girls on an overnight trip that's not too far away. This would be a church trip and so it can't cost a lot of money. (I'm thinking even four hotel rooms would be too much.) But a giant cabin...that could work. I'm stumped as to how to find something like this. Any ideas? Thanks!

Becky Krystal: I think you might be able to find something in our cabin guide from last year.

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Anonymous: In a talk at the travel show at the convention center this weekend (a giant event about which not a word appeared in the Washington Post as far as I can tell), Arthur Frommer talked about trends and bargains in the travel industry. He particularly decried the launching of super cruise ships that carry 6,000 to 8,000 passengers but are too big to visit 80 percent of the ports that smaller ships routinely visit. So passengers might spend several days at sea between ports, entertaining themselves on what Frommer (disapprovingly) called floating amusement parks. Have you guys written about this phenomenon? It sounds like a far cry from the traditional cruise experience, and not very appealing.

Zofia Smardz: The answer to your question is that yes, we have written about this phenomenon. Have a look at this story we wrote just a few months ago about the Oasis of the Seas,the newest of these vast luxury liners and would-be setter of the trend Frommer is decrying.

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Chicago: Hey guys -- how soon in advance should I purchase an international plane ticket? We're looking to travel to Asia in September, and not sure if airfares generally fall, rise or stay the same when you're about 6 months out. Thanks!

Christopher Elliott: If you see a fare that you can afford, buy it. Airlines constantly try to raise prices as the travel date gets closer. A good site to follow the ups and downs of fares is Yapta. However, a good travel agent will do the trick, too.

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Silver Spring: Hey Crew, Not the happiest question, but here goes: how do we get a ticket refunded by an airline? Last month, Lufthansa cancelled our flight from Kolkata to Frankfurt, due to a looming strike. Both other LH flights that week were full, forcing us to book on another airline. We'd like full or partial refunding of our ticket, since we weren't able to wait around for an open flight. Lufthansa maintains the onus is on our travel agent, as it was a special economy fare. Are we owed something here? We feel for the airline, but we tried to play by their rules and got nowhere. Thanks

Carol Sottili: This isn't going to help you now, but the best time to negotiate a refund or vouchers is right as the event is unfolding. In other words, you should have insisted at the ticket counter in Kolkata that they reimburse you. That said, I believe Lufthansa owes you a refund. Look at the European Union's regulation 261/2004. It seems clear to me that you are owed a refund. I'd send the company a certified letter (Lufthansa Customer Relations, PO Box 425
East Meadow, NY 11554) outlining your situation and citing the regulation.

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Boston Hotels: I have to make a seven night-trip to Boston in July, staying in the Back Bay section of town. This trip is on my own dime and the $200 a night rooms I'm finding are making me wish I had my expense account for this one! Do you have any experience using those sites that quote you a price and don't tell you where you're staying until afterward? Am I better off waiting longer to try and get a deal on a room?

Joe Yonan: I've never used an opaque-booking site for hotels (too much of a control freak!), but I can point you to some hotels in the Back Bay that you might look into. Keep in mind, though, that the Back Bay has the most expensive hotels, and July is high high season. But I looked up the quotes for actual weeks this July on the hotels' own websites, and here are some ideas. (You might be able to find cheaper deals at the aggregator sites.) My favorite, the Charlesmark, has rooms starting at $179. Same starting price at a lot of other people's favorite (I haven't stayed there), Newbury Guest House. The very stylish Back Bay Hotel (formerly Jurys Boston) starts at $183. And the MidTown Hotel, not as stylish but functional (and with a nice rooftop pool) starts at just $129. The latter might be your best bet, actually, as it looks like they're always running various specials, particularly if you book in advance and stay a certain minimum number of nights.

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Houston, TX: I'm traveling to Oklahoma City later this week on business and will have a free day on Saturday. Anyone have suggestions for what to see and some good places to eat that are unique to the city/state? I'm mainly interested in history and cultural landmarks, not in shopping or club-type nightlife. Thanks.

Nancy Trejos: There's the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum which honors the victims of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. There is also the Oklahoma History Center, where you can learn about Oklahoma's American Indian heritage. You can also go to the Oklahoma Indian Art Gallery and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. If you like unusual museums, you can check out the American Banjo Museum and the Oklahoma Museum of Telephone History. Do you like gymnastics? Oklahoma City has the International Gymnastics Hall of fame. As for food, Oklahoma City has lots of good barbeque and steaks. Mexican and Tex Mex are also popular cuisines. Cattlemen's Steakhouse has been around since 1910. Earl's Rib Palace is supposed to have good bbq. Classen Grill has been around forever and is known for its Mexican egg scrambles. Also check out Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy. Have fun!

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Arlington, VA: I need to transport the ashes of my recently departed father from DC to CA. I plan to take them in my carry-on luggage. Will this be a problem going through security? Thanks for your help.

Becky Krystal: It shouldn't be so long as the container can be put through an X-ray machine and not show up opaque. Have a look at the TSA guidelines.

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Falls Church, VA: Travel Crew: I'm sure this is just a variation on a theme from your usual submissions, but husband and I are trying our best to be able to join my parents over in England this summer for their 40th wedding anniversary. Of course the time we'd need to be there is the first week or two in August--right when fares are the highest I'm sure. I'm seeing fares now at $1000 (even with one stop there's not much difference from a nonstop--less than $100)

Question--last summer I got a very good fare to Paris, via Dublin, for $700, but I waited to purchase until end of April. Do you all have any read on the market this year? We can afford to wait, but just wanted to see if you all had any insight into this summer's international fare market.

Carol Sottili: Another crystal ball question. There will be sales. But $1,000 for nonstop flights during summer isn't bad. My guess is that you went Aer Lingus last summer, and, unfortunately, that airline has pulled out of Dulles. I don't think you're going to see a $700 fare this summer.

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Alexandria: On a return trip from Germany, I have a 6 hour layover in Amsterdam. Is that enough time to make a trip into the city worthwhile? If so, what would you do with a couple of hours to kill there?

Nancy Trejos: That's not a lot of time, but then again Amsterdam is not a huge city. If you can swing it, the top three museums, I think, are the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum, and the Anne Frank House. Or if you don't want to go to a museum and it's warm out, try a canal cruise or bike around the city. Both are great ways to see Amsterdam. It's a great city. I loved my visit there a few years ago!

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Bethesda: I noticed that all CoGo yesterday was about the Caribbean, are they no deals to anywhere else? I know Europe has a bunch of sales. I am surprised that you didn't have anything else

washingtonpost.com: What's the Deal? The best Caribbean travel deals by land, sea and air.

Zofia Smardz: It was our Caribbean issue, so we focused on the Caribbean. We'll have a regular column this week, with deals to all sorts of places.

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Harrisburg, PA Trip Help!: I have a business trip to Harrisburg coming up in 2 weeks and would appreciate hotel and dining recommendations. We will be there for two nights. Thank you so much!

Becky Krystal: Here's an Escapes on Harrisburg we had a little while ago. Be sure to check out the accompanying details box.

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Washington DC: How do you personally approach FF miles? Use them for quantity (number of economy flights) or quality (fewer, but business or first class)?

Christopher Elliott: As a consumer advocate, I've found that frequent flier programs really only benefit the airlines running them. My advice would be not to collect them in at all, if you can help it.

Why? They're hard to redeem, highly addictive (I've called them the crack cocaine of the travel industry) and like a bad drug habit, they lead to bad decisions, like booking a more expensive flight just for the miles.

If you can resist all of that -- and that's a big "if" -- I would burn the miles quickly. Remember, your points will expire if you don't. Use them for anything you can ... magazine subscriptions, flowers, a cruise. But getting award seats might be at the bottom of your list.

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India Help!: I want to travel to India for about 10-12 days either May or September (Golden Triangle) with a Budget of $1400 max. The problem is I'm on my own and would like to avoid a single supplement fee (or at least a reasonable fee -$200-). Companies such as Intrepid, Gecko etc do have trips but they exceed 12 days by far. Is my only option Friendly planet and/or Smartours?

Becky Krystal: Our Way to Go Guide 2009 had a listing of tour operators with quite a few options on single/solo travel. See if any of those help.

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Bethesda, MD: Hey Crew, I'm trying again from last week. The story on Kolkata makes me want to take a trip to India but as a single woman traveling alone I'm nervous about crime. Where can I find a good 7 to 10 day tour that focuses on culture and history without sacrificing safety?

Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: Mmm, Kolkata: Eats on the streets and off the beaten path (Post, Feb. 28)

Zofia Smardz: See our earlier answer re India, the question was similar.

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Cruise help!!: My husband and I are leaving for a 5 day cruise in the carribean on Regent Cruise Line. One of the stops is Princess Cay's in the bahama's but there's no excursions that the boat offers. What is there to do at this stop? We're also going to Grand Turks so we're going to go snorkling there. We'll be at this stop for about 12 hours.

Nancy Trejos: It looks like a good place for relaxing, eating and playing. You can play volleyball, basketball or go to the sports pier to rent sailboats, watercraft and kayaks. There's a coral reef surrounding the island that is great for snorkeling (if you don't get snorkeled out in the Grand Turks). There's also great live reggae and calypso music amid the mangrove trees. If you just want to relax, there are plenty of tiki huts, hammocks and lounge chairs available. For dining, there are two open-air barbeque buffets and three bars, so you'll never get thirsty! Enjoy.

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Re: Travel Agent or Not: Depends on the travel agent. A good travel agent has a number of affiliations, so they will have the connections at the right places. Hotel has to prioritize its clients somehow, so if you are Joe Smith coming from the internet, you go to the "generic" pile and get a "generic" room assigned. But a good travel agent who sends a number of clients to same hotels or cruises, or tour companies, will get priority treatments for her/his clients. Once we got upgraded to a suite in London, and had a bottle of champagne. Similarly, had an upgrade at a Princess Cruise, because our agent had a preferred status. It can work to your advantage if your client has the right connections and knows your expectations well. Also, I think for all special trips, pick a travel agent. Who wants to deal with canceled flights, rooms that have a view of the street etc. When you are unhappy, you will have someone work on your behalf when you relax on the beach or have a drink at the bar. This has worked for me many times. I think a good agent is worth paying extra $50-100 for for the planning of the trip. Otherwise you spend hours on the internet getting more confused, and you still have to deal with stuff if things don't turn up like you expected. Let someone else deal with it, and enjoy the time with your loved ones on your limited time off is my philosophy. If it is irrelevant, hotel sites are fine I think. Also, booking my own flights are fine, too unless it is related to a bigger trip.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for the thoughts!

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McLean, VA: Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for good noise-cancelling headphones (preferably under $100) that can be used with an iPod or plugged into a plane's in-flight entertainment system?

Becky Krystal: This round-up has some more expensive models, but our Road Test from a couple of years earlier compared how a $40 one stacked up against the pricier options.
Chatters, any recommendations for our traveler in search of silence?

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Arlington, VA: Any opinions of Iberia airlines? They've got a really good deal to Madrid in September ($623 nonstop from Dulles) and I'm thinking about grabbing it! Also, is that a good time to go to Spain?

Becky Krystal: I chatted briefly with one of the authors of our recent story on Salamanca, Spain, and he said he liked Iberia, especially for their fares. Said the food wasn't anything to write home about, but that didn't deter him. Input from any of the chatters on the airline?
And, yeah, I think September would be a good time to go, in terms of both weather and lessening crowds.

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Chincoteague/Assateague:

National Seashore and Wildlife Refuge are both operated by the Interior.

Chincoteague is a small town with B&Bs. The coast is more wild while Assateague is a park beach.

If you want to do both, what I would suggest is to travel to Ocean City and stay there then drive down to Assateague for the day. Then drive down to stay and have dinner at Chincoteague and then spend the next day there.

Assateague is a beach with not much facilities around it other than a basic bathroom sort of what you would see in a park beach.

Chincoteague is more wild and marshland. There is a beach area but its just more marshland.

A similar area to these two areas is how the coast of Virginia Beach where you have the hotel strip with the large beaches and then to the South its more marshland, swampland,and wildlife refuges or bird sanctuaries.

Carol Sottili: This is a reader's response to last week's question about Chincoteague and Assateague. Some good info here.

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Crystal City: Hello, Crew! Submitted with no luck last week and was hoping you all could still come to my rescue. My boyfriend and I are headed to Spain (3 nights) and Germany for (5 nights) during the 2nd week of May. We wanted to get some big city action before heading out to see some countryside. My boyfriend and I were both in Germany as teenagers (he lived there for 5 years, and I went on vacation), so we've done the tours and museums thing before. Now that we're in our twenties, we are interested in just experiencing culture, seeing sights, eating and drinking. We are leaning towards making Berlin our large-city stop (not Munich only because my boyfriend was there a few years ago, but we're not opposed to going there), but are having trouble finding info about small towns nearby except for Potsdam.

Any recommendations for the small-town portion of our itinerary outside of Berlin? Or should we bag Berlin and opt for a different itinerary?

Thanks, Crew!

Zofia Smardz: It all depends on how far from Berlin you want to venture, but here's a story we did last year on a trip through eastern Germany, on the trail of Martin Luther, that mentions smaller, historically significant (and lovely) towns not all that far from the great capital. And there are a few more in this one, about a boat trip down the Elbe from Berlin. I've been to most of these towns and can vouch that they're worth visiting. Eastern Germany, the former communist sector, is still largely unexplored and unknown, virgin territory, so to speak, so think of yourselves as pioneers!

Zofia Smardz: Here's one more I just remembered -- about a canoe trip on the canals that run from Berlin into the surrounding countryside. It also mentions several towns to visit.

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Kingstowne, VA: I just found out that I'm slated to go to England in October. Any idea what I should expect for airfare - or what a good fare is?

Carol Sottili: London is typically the cheapest across-the-pond city to get to from Washington because there's competition - three carriers (United, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways) fly there nonstop. But fares have been pretty high. Expect to pay about $750, and maybe $100 less if you hit a sale.

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Re: No Travel Agent for NoVA: I love to travel and one of the best parts of travelling is planning the trip myself. I haven't used a travel agent in years--ever since it became so easy to find information and book everything from Accomodations to Zoo tickets online. A couple of years ago, I booked a 2-week trip for our family to South Afica, including a walking safari, tent camping in a national park, tours of fairly unknown (in the US) Zulu-British battlefields and a homestay in a remote area just outside the Swaziland border. My family still talks about this trip and I get a real sense of accomplishment about what I was able to do with a computer, a telephone a guidebook, and a map.

Zofia Smardz: More power to you! Thanks for responding.

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Silver Spring, MD: Would you suggest travelers checks for a young twenty-something to take to Europe for 10 days? We are trying to avoid the fees for using an ATM and this person does not have a credit card.

Joe Yonan: I find travelers checks to be a hassle when I travel. It's true that some of those foreign transaction fees (on credit card transactions) and ATM fees abroad can add up, but you're paying a fee for the travelers checks, too, right And there are some cards out there that don't charge an ATM fee. According to a January posting on about.com, when they tried a raft of cards in Italy, one from EverBank (online-only checking) had no ATM fee. If I were you, I'd look into the pre-paid Cash Passport card by Travelex. It's like travelers checks but in electronic card form. Still secure, but none of that signing-paper-trying-to-find-someone-to-take stuff. If chatters have experience with these, please pipe in and correct me if I'm wrong!

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Kansas: Hello, I was just wondering if anyone had suggestions for the best bank to use overseas to avoid massive transaction fees when using their credit card? I'll be traveling soon and would like to pay for a substantial part of my trip with my credit card, but in the past my bank has had ridiculous exchange rate fees and other pesky fees that made paying with a credit card much more expensive. Thanks!

Becky Krystal: Well, Capital One doesn't charge for foreign transactions, as noted in this Q&A and on their Web site. This article on using a credit cards overseas is a couple of years old, but I think it'll provide you with some good context.

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Rockville, MD: A comment about FF miles: I've used them for award tickets pretty successfully in the past couple of years. You just have to be flexible IMO. For example I was flying from DC to New Zealand for a cruise... there were no FF seats there, but I was able to get one to Sydney, then took a $150 one-way flight from Sydney-Auckland. Just last month I flew to Quebec City via FF miles. Used Star Alliance and a combination of United and Air Canada flights.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for sharing!

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Seattle:

Someone from last week is planning to come out here for a wedding at the end of August.

I would suggest you come out for a week and enjoy some stuff out here.

In the summer finding something around $325 or lower is a good deal.

The last time I checked Southwest has opened late August availability yet. When they do they likely will have some promotional sale that the other carriers would match. In terms of direct flights you have Southwest and Airtran from BWI, Alaska from National, and United from Dulles.

August is the busy tourist season and its also the nice weather season so plan on doing something outdoors.

There are a variety of day or overnight trips from Seattle you can do with a rental car:

1. Mt Rainier NP enterence is about 90 minutes from the airport.

2. North Cascades NP is about 2+ hrs from the airport.

3. Port Angeles and Olympic National Park is about 2:30 drive and potentially a little longer if you use the car ferries.

4. From Port Angeles, Forks is 90 minutes and the ocean is about 2 hours.

5. Portland is about 2:30 from the airport, Vancouver is about 2:30 from the airport.

Other than the national parks, along US 2 and I-90 that passes through the Cascades, there are a bunch of trails you can take for day hikes. You can take an over night trip to the San Juan Islands.

In Seattle itself there are various boat tours that run in the summer and you can take a passnager/car ferry to bainbridge island, bremerton, and a few other islands. About 2:30 drive is Mt St Helens. On the east side of the mountains you have Leavenworth (2 hours), Lake Chelan (3 hours), and Yakima (2:30). On that side you have tons of Apple and fruit farms and wine fields. About 20 miles southeast of Yakima is a large wine country.

30 miles outside of Seattle are snoqualmie falls which is in the same area as twin peaks. On the other side of the Cascades you have the home town of Northern Exposure where the outside scenes were shot and it was used as the street set.

Around the Seattle area you have quite a few Indian casinos. This part of the country has the densest area of different native amercian tribes and reservations. Any map in a book that shows the location of tribes will have a blow up part to show western washington area.

The one thing I do have to mention in this...because of the way the weather has been so far this year with it being an El Nino year which has made it drier which means a greater liklihood that by August there could be drought/water conservation warnings and a very high wildwife danger with the possibility that some of these areas I have mentioned could be closed off due to wildfires. Wildfires are more common on the east side of the Cascades, but they can occur in the mountains and foothills on the West side.

Joe Yonan: Thanks so much.

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Washington, DC: Hi Crew! (Submitting early as I may be in a meeting during the chat.)

My boyfriend and I will be driving down to St. Pete's Beach to attend a friend's wedding over the last weekend in September. I've never made this drive before, but have done several other (very) long-haul trips. I don't anticipate having to split up the driving on the way down, but would like to take our time driving back up to DC after the hectic wedding weekend.

Do you (or any chatters) have ideas for good stop-over cities? We'd like to keep it relatively cheap, but wouldn't mind spending an evening somewhere with things to see and do in the interim. Again, I've never made this drive and have little idea of what to expect, but assume that we'd be somewhere in the South or North Carolina area when we'd want to stop for the night. Thank you for any ideas!

Zofia Smardz: Not sure what route you'd be taking, but maybe you'd consider stopping a little earlier, in Macon, Ga. Andrea loved it there, considered a real "find."
Of course, there's always Savannah or Charleston, too. Other suggestions, chatters?

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Former Travel Agent : Kind of off topic - just a reminder. As a former travel agent and now a meeting planner (over 15 years)I would like to remind people that if you know an Agent or a Planner don't just call them out of the blue to ask if you can get upgraded or get a free room or free anything. It puts the TA on the spot and it's not always possible. If you plan on paying the TA for their time that's one thing but I can tell you most people have no intention of doing that.

Zofia Smardz: Ah. Good to know. Thanks!

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Amsterdam Layover: Based on my most recent experiences at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, six hours between flights is not very much time at all if you're connecting to a flight to the US. Not only do you have to go through security to get into the passenger terminal, but anyone getting on a US-bound flight has to go through a second security screening at the gate, which can really draw out the process. As an example, the boarding process for our flight last fall from Amsterdam to Dulles took nearly 2 hours due to the second security screening -- and this was before the "underwear bomber" incident.

So if you're still intent on getting out of the airport and into the city for a six-hour layover, I strongly advise taking this into account and paring down the list of things you try to see or do.

Zofia Smardz: For our Amsterdam-layover traveler. Thanks for this advice. Very good to know.

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Re: Alexandria: I had a 6-hour layover in Amsterdam last year on my way home from Turkey and I had enough time to get into the city. The fact that the train station is right in the airport makes it easy. I will say that the line at the Anne Frank Museum was ridiculous when I got into town at 9 a.m. I ended up walking along the canals and doing a quick spin through the van Gogh museum.

Zofia Smardz: And another view on Amsterdam layovers. Of course, this was pre- the Christmas Day bombing attempt, so keep that in mind.

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Ashton: Travel Agent expertise came in extreme helpfulness when I wanted Paris, my friend wanted Zermatt, and the end of the trip was aimed at a final week in Malaga at a time share. The plane flew into Paris, we took the train to Zermatt, spent a few days in Monaco too, wound up touring around Spain, and flew home directly from Madrid to Dulles. After 2 weeks of closely scheduled travel and jam-packed vacation togetherness, I was never so glad to say farewell, even though we were speaking again a few weeks after our return. (The relationship never quite recovered, however.)

Zofia Smardz: I guess the travel agent couldn't help with the relationship dynamics. Thanks for the account!

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San Francisco, CA: Any thoughts on what do to in San Fran that's a little off the beaten path. So outside of the Golden Gate Bridge, California Academy Sciences, Union Square, etc.

Thanks in advance.

Nancy Trejos: As an alternative to the Golden Gate Bridge, you can take the pedestrian path under the bridge to the California Coastal Trail, where you'll have an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean. Or hike to Angel Island, which also has stunning views of the city. Or you can drive up U.S. 101 to Muir Woods, which has a large number of redwoods. And instead of Union Square, go to the Mission District, which is a very artsy community that has great bohemian bars, restaurants, boutiques, and coffee houses. If you like Mexican food, it's definitely the place to go. For great sushi and noodles, go to Japantown. Enjoy!

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Bethesda: Hi, the B&B recommendation in Lynchburg yesterday was nice. I have another suggestion: The Craddock Terry Hotel (www.craddockterryhotel.com) I stumbled upon this place on my way back from Spartanburg (where I picked up my new BMW - another story, highly recommended). It is an old shoe factory, and is beautifully renovated, has a lot of character. Rooms are beautiful and spacious, they have magazines, coffee, tea in the lobby, and you can even sit or play with the owners' dog! Also, they have a brewery in-house, and another lovely restaurant with more upscale but very good food (and not stuffy). I would go back just to stay at the hotel. I hadn't made reservations for my trip, but this was featured on the USAir magazine on my way to Greenville, so I thought I'd check it out. It turned out to be a gem!

Becky Krystal: Glad you liked my review of the Carriage House Inn Bed and Breakfast. The Craddock Terry was one of the places that came up in a previous story on Lynchburg. I didn't get a chance to check out the hotel, but we had a good meal at Shoemakers American Grille, which is in the same complex.

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Chevy Chase, MD: We are planning to fly to Barcelona in early July and return from Paris at the end of July. Airfares to these destinations are very high, regardless of whether I try round trip or multi-city combinations - $1,300 - $1,600 range. It is the same whether I try a site like Priceline or the airlines themselves. Prices even went up when I checked today as compared to 2 weeks ago. I thought with the economy being in such rough shape that the airlines would have trouble selling seats and that prices would come down. I'm not sure whether to wait or purchase tickets soon. My question is this, are prices likely to drop or rise as the summer approaches? JA

Carol Sottili: I've never seen summer fares to Europe so high. Even spring fares are hovering around $1,000. I think there will be sales, but it will be up to consumers to keep up - the few sales I've seen so far have been short lived with limited travel dates. Sign up for sale notifications at sites such as Kayak and Yapta. You also have a couple of things working against you - you want to travel around July 4, when fares are often more expensive, and you're flying into one city and out of another, which will often add a couple of hundred to the price. Have you looked into flying out of New York?

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Silver Spring, MD: Hi there! We have just a few days (4) and a few bucks (1,000) to get away in the next few weeks. We want to end up someplace warm-ish, but don't want to waste money on flights. Our thought is to drive to Charleston SC. The thing is that it's a 10 hour drive. We just moved and would like to check out the famous NC furniture bargains. Is that a good midway point to break up the trip? Where is that exactly? Is it on the way? Any other suggestions for places to go or midway stops to Charleston? We're open to ideas... Thanks!!!

Zofia Smardz: High Point, NC, is the furniture center of the universe. It's a bit out of your way, though, because Charleston is a pretty much a straight shot down I-95, and High Point is much farther inland, on route 85. You could certainly do it, though, if you're spreading the trip out over two days. I drove to Charleston from DC a couple of years ago and did the trip in 8 hours all in one day. It's not bad, actually, because once you get past Richmond, the traffic is light and the drive is easy. So you might consider just heading straight down and taking advantage of your very few days.

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Meeting someone at the Gate?: Hi FC, I'm in need of your expertise. My 14- yo cousin wants to come visit me in NYC. She's flown once before in her life (when she was 5) and obviously never alone. It's a direct flight from a small airport in Ohio to La Guardia so that should be fine. However, is it possible for me to meet her at the gate in LGA? I know they do this with kids, but she's not really a child. But also she's not a traveler and would be kind of fish out of water alone in the airport. I know it would ease her mom's mind if I could actually pick her up/drop her off. Ideas? Do I work with the airline?

Becky Krystal: Yes, this would be handled through the airline, but you'll also have to make sure your aunt specifies you as the pick-up person. Each airline has their own policies (and fees, most likely) for unaccompanied minors. I've looked at a couple of airlines' Web sites -- Delta, Southwest, American -- and the individual picking up a child traveling alone can come to the gate provided they are the person specified on forms filled out by whoever is sending the child off. You'll need to get to the airport in time to go through the security process. At 14, your cousin shouldn't be too old for this procedure.

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foreign atm fees: I discovered a chart online showing a ton of US banks and their various credit card and atm card transaction fees for foreign transactions. I opened an account at TD bank just to get a fee-free ATM card for my foreign travel after getting ripped off by Bank of America for years.

Zofia Smardz: How useful! Thanks for passing it along.

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Fairfax: Going to Boston for a weekend in late March. I'll be on my own on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. I was thinking about doing the Freedom Trail and maybe the Institute of Contemporary Art. Any other suggestions or good restaurant ideas? We're staying in the Back Bay area.

Joe Yonan: Lots of Boston-bound these days! You can't go wrong with the newish ICA, which is just stunning. I'm not a huge Freedom Trail fan (probably jaded after trudging it so many times with visiting friends/family when they came to town), but it does take you into the fab North End, which I can't argue with in the slightest. So when you go to the ICA, you should eat at Sportello, Barbara Lynch's great inspired-by-old-lunch-counters spot nearby in Fort Point Channel (and go to her late-night cocktail bar right underneath, Drink, if you at all can), or to Flour Bakery also in Fort Point, owned by my favorite pastry chef, Joanne Chang. While in the North End, take a break at Neptune Oyster and buy some pastries at Modern (don't listen to people who say go to Mike's), and hit Salumeria Italiana for other gorgeous food supplies you might wanna take home.

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cruise ships: Cruise ship ads will specify when a ship is small enough to get into certain ports, but will not say, regarding a large ship, what you might miss. They're job is marketing. Here's an area where a travel agent might be of help, if they've had customers reportiing on experiences on different ships (the Cruise Critic Web site can also help). I prefer a larger ship for increased stability (I get seasick), but there are disadvantages, and a customer needs to research in advance. The cruise company won't tell you.

Zofia Smardz: For the first-time cruisers. Thanks!

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Florida chick: have to disagree with the Seattle tips, most of which focused on parks that are hard to see if you are not a big hiker. who goes to a wedding with hiking boots, etc.? they might be 90 miles from Seattle but that does not mean 1.5 hours - Mt. Rainier esp. takes hours to reach and is less than rewarding to a non-hiker. I think a ferry ride or three around Seattle harbor, to an island or just a round trip, is a better way to get into the NW zone. The fantastic museum has a new sculpture graden and is worth half a day. Pike's Place is touristy but fun and has food for all budgets. Experience Music project is whacked out and a must for rock lovers; next door is a medium-sized but perfect science center with a butterfly center that will make you smile. The Boeing tour (tons of walking and stairs) will meet with approval of teens and people who love planes, as will the history of flight museum (they are not near one another.) there's more to the NW than hiking trails and trees. I prefer the south but even three days could really give you a flavor of this unique area.

Joe Yonan: Another side...

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Re: Travel Agent: I think the value of a Travel Agent becomes relevant when things go wrong - like insurance. If you have no delays and get what you think you'll get, it is fine. But if the flights are delayed, if someone gets sick and has to go back, if the room is different than what you were promised, etc. It is good to have someone fight for your cause. My time is too valuable for me to spend hours on the internet, print copies and contact information for 10 different hotels, operators, entry tickets, and then stand in line when the flight doesn't take off. Also, the agents sometimes have access to specials not available to public. Once we had a $500 shipboard credit this way on top of an upgrade. I also don't feel like I can keep up with what's happening in different parts of the world in terms of what's good and new

Zofia Smardz: Good thoughts, thanks!

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Atlanta: A good travel agent is the best. EVEN when you're 'just booking some flights.' Jeez - one could spend one's whole life just looking around on the internet...what do you think your time is worth? To make me not be infuriated, a lot.

That having been said, I did book tix to visit family in FL - I just went to three sites...one needs to not get crazy that one did not save that extra dollar...sometimes it's not worth it.

And we're going to disney as a family in a few months - definitely good for a travel agent. I can call her and have her do a lot - without dealing with disney OR their website (which sucks big time). And I've heard that when you work with someone who does it often, it's not unusual to get a few extra perks.

A few years ago (well, more than a few) my husband and I went to Spain for our honeymoon and boy am I glad we had a travel agent. It was back when fees were changing and travel agents were just starting to charge for stuff - so he told us this upfront, it wasn't very much, and well, we didn't have to worry so much about accommodations, etc, he did basically everything for us and it was great. We certainly got to explore, but that was the point - not spending too much time and energy worrying about some stuff, so we could focus on the vacation...

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for your views!

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Pittsburgh: Back when I was planning my first trip to Portugal's Azores Island eight years ago (to meet long-lost cousins, as well as see where my ancestors hailed from), I had no idea which other islands to visit besides the ones in my family tree, for how long, where to find English-speaking tour-guides while there, how to book connecting travel (flights or passenger ferries) between islands, what were decent hotels for a woman alone, etc., etc. Friends who'd never been to the Azores but who were experienced world travelers all agreed that in general the first time they visited a place they liked to use a professional travel agent, to help avoid potential travel disasters. I gratefully took their advice, and wound up being glad I did.

First I checked with local travel agencies, one of whose responses was, "Where's the Azores"? Another tried to talk me into a trip to Portugal with just a couple days' stop on one of the nine islands. Taking these as ill omens, I realized that my best bet might be to contact travel agencies in parts of the country with the heaviest Azorean-American population concentrations (California and Southeast New England) so I started searching for possible candidates on the Internet.

I winnowed my Internet search down to the 20 seemingly most promising possilibities, then sent each an individual email describing the sort of trip I was seeking (including stays for a few days on my ancestral islands), my window of available dates, interests, etc. One agency replied within a few days with a complete itinerary that sounded ideal. Other agents, howeveer, tried to convince me to go to destinations like mainland Portugal instead -- guess they had vacancies to fill on that tour! -- others ignored my window of possible dates, one tried to put me on a religious pilgrimage tour, while others never even gave me the courtesy of a reply. Meanwhile the agent who'd replied first with the tour fitting all my requirements contacted me to ask if I was still interested. I was unwilling to commit without some other tours for comparison, as I wasn't knowledgable enough to know whether the first tour was the best.

I recontacted several of the next-most-promising tour providers, got a few more solid itineraries -- and discovered that none measured up to that first response. So I went ahead and booked with them, and had a smooth trip as a result. I've subsequently learned that they are highly reputable, and have recommended their services to several friends and acquaintances planning their first trips to the Azores (who've been satisfied with this agency's results too!).

This wasn't an easy way to plan a trip, but at least I got exactly what I wanted, and at a fair (though not cheap) price.

My advice: Even (or especially) if you have to choose a travel agent via the Internet, do your homework and comparison shop. In the long run you're more likely to get a satisfying trip out of your efforts and expense.

Zofia Smardz: Thank you for this very detailed information/response. Glad your trip worked out well!

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St Pete Beach: What I would do if you are driving down and back up is to go different ways and stop on your way down and on your way up.

One te way down you could go down the coast to Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and Savanah.

On the return you could go up to Atlanta and then go to the Smokies.

That time of year is very risky with potential tropical storms or hurricanes.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for these ideas for our St. Pete's-bound traveler.

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Argentina Trip: My sister and I are going to visit a friend who now lives in Buenos Aires in May/June for 7-9 days. What are the must see activities for Buenos Aires? Also we would like to do a short side trip to one other place in Argentina...considering the large distances and our desire to minimize cost which would be the best choice: Medoza (for wine), Iquazu Falls, the Lake Country, Patagonia? Any other tips or advice for Argentina?

Becky Krystal: See if this article on Buenos Aires inspires you. And last week's chat had a thread on Argentina that might help you decide on a side trip.

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For the Charleston-bound: 4 days can be perfect for heading to Charleston, however I'd strongly suggest against stopping in High Point. As the flight crew said, it's an 8 hour drive without traffic. I go down there at least 3 or 4 times a year and absolutly love Folly Beach. The problem is that the trip is really only worth it if you get 3 nights in there. It's close enough to Charleston (20 minute drive) so that you can go into the city but it's far enough away that you can relax and enjoy a small town feel.

Zofia Smardz: I agree. Thanks!

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Chicago, IL: Just a couple of comments - For the Boston traveler asking about opaque hotel reservation sites; I've had great luck with them when I traveled to Indianapolis, both downtown and airport locations, as well as downtown Minneapolis. The strategy I follow though, is not to be a bottom feeder looking for the lowest possible price, but a decent discount on the top-end three-1/2 and four star properties. I did a quick check and they had a Boston back bay 4-star for $165 and 3-1/2 for $89, and oddly, a 2-1/2 star for $132. If you go to a site like bidontravel.com -users of the opaque sites share their results - it is a good bet that the 3-1/2 star is the Hilton or Milleneum. Check what those hotels are asking for your dates before you book through the opaque site.

Also regarding the travel agent topic; I don't have much use for them since I enjoy travel planning; I read and compare several guide books from the library before I go, and use internet sites to plan down to daily details, like current museum exhibits, or to order theater and concert tickets. The best advise I ever got though, was from a Thai travel agent before my first trip to Thailand; she happened to run an agency in the building next to my office, so I stopped in. She told me to to buy business class tickets for all my domestic flights - they were only a few dollars more than economy, and you get access to the lounges which often have full hot buffets, open bars; and your luggage will get priority handling and be first off the plane. It was really worth it, especially for short-hop Phuket to Bangkok or Chiang Mai runs; and I never would have imagined I should fly business class!

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for this!

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Downtown, DC: A friend and I are driving from Austin to Los Angeles for a mini road trip. We'd like to do a few stops along the way and are pretty flexible...anything from random displays on the side of the road, to national parks or attractions. Any suggestions?

Nancy Trejos: I actually did that drive a few years ago. There's plenty to do and see between Austin and Los Angeles. From Austin, I went to Santa Fe, which has a lot going on this year because it is celebrating its 400th anniversary. From there, I went to Flagstaff and then the Grand Canyon. I didn't make it to Sedona but it is supposed to be beautiful. If that's too far north for you, why don't you explore Tucson? Andrea and I recently wrote about escaping the cold D.C. weather for Tuscon and other destinations. It looks like there's a lot to do there.

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Arlington, VA: I used to do the drive between DC and St. Pete to visit my family (now I just fly instead). But I used to always stop on the way down in Savannah. That was about 8 or 9 hours from DC. Since I was driving alone I needed a break. And the rest of the drive the second day was relatively short in comparison. On the way back I would either stop in NC somewhere or just buck up and drive all the way through. I think the route I used to take was in the neighborhood of 920 miles/15-16 hours.

Zofia Smardz: More for the St. Pete's bound. Thank you!

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Northern Virginia: For the couple looking for trips to small towns outside of Berlin--When we lived in Berlin about 10 years ago, we would take day trips to Luebbenau in the Spreewald. While most of the Germans we saw there seemed to prefer taking "party boats" through the canals, we found a place that rented 2-man canoes and so we would paddle ourselves through canals that the tourist boats couldn't traverse. It was a lovely, calm place to spend a summer afternoon.

Zofia Smardz: What to do outside Berlin. Thank you!

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Washington, DC: I'm planning to fly to Barcelona in September for a Med cruise. How far in advance should I buy R/T tix to and from Dulles to Barcelona? My intent is to arrive during daylight. I've looked at Travelocity and Orbitz for flights that enable me to fulfill that wish, and the fares were running in the high $800 range. Are these the norm for mid-September? Thanks.

Carol Sottili: Most flights from Washington to Europe arrive during daylight, as they fly all night and arrive in the morning (there is a nonstop morning flight on United to London that arrives at night, and some airlines will connect you on day flights through New York). I think you may be able to get a cheaper fare on Iberia depending on your dates/days of travel - I saw a $618 round-trip fare on Kayak.

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Washington DC: I have a work meeting in Boston that ends at 11 am on a Sunday, with a flight back to DC at 5 pm. I've done a short weekend there before and have seen Faneuil Hall and the Freedom Trail. Any other ideas? While I appreciated Sunday's Chinatown story, dim sum solo isn't that much fun.

Becky Krystal: If you don't mind a short train trip out of town, I wholeheartedly recommend checking out Quincy, Mass., and visiting Adams National Historical Park. Peacefield, John Adams's home, is really something else and feels way more intimate than any other presidential home tour I've been on. You can also visit the tomb where John and Abigail Adams and John Quincy Adams and his wife are buried, which is inside a church with a wonderful story of its own. My husband and I did this on the spur of the moment on a Sunday before catching a flight out of Logan, and it was a great and easy way to spend a couple of hours.

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for church ladies: try the Pipestem state park in West Virginia. The huge indoor pool and rec center, with quilts on display, make it ideal for any weather. the outdoor stuff is great and the ampitheater has fun bluegrass in the summer. golf, tennis and outdoor swimming also. there are many good cheap choices in the W. Va. park system but fewer are ideal for year round (unless you all ski.) Pipestem meets that bill. it is far from grocers and restaurants - pack in your grub or eat their dining hall fare.

Becky Krystal: For the traveler with a gaggle of girls.

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Can I go to Bora Bora or someplace like it?: Hey guys, last week I saw one of those lists that displayed island that everyone should aspire to visit, Bora Bora was one. Just because, I checked on the hotels and flight information for 7 nights and found that I could buy a very nice car for the costs of 2 people. Do you have any suggestions for an island in the south pacific that is even slightly more affordable?

Carol Sottili: Bora Bora can be reasonable. Go to Air Tahiti Nui for a list of well-priced packages. You won't be staying in an overwater-bungalow in a five-star resort, but prices are right. Also, look into Fiji.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm planning a trip to Peru for the beginning of May with a friend. She wants to hike to Maccu Picchu and I want to take the train. The question is, how should I fill the 3 days until I meet her in Maccu Picchu? Is there enough to do in Cusco? Should I stay longer in Lima by myself? Any other options?

Thanks!

Nancy Trejos: There are many sights and monuments around Cusco. Here are just a few: the Santa Catalina Convent and Art Museum, the Museo de Arte Popular, the Museo de Historia Regional, Museo Palacio Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo, the Museo Arqueólogico Koricancha. There's also the Monumento Pachacútec and the Inca ruins of Sacsayhuaman, Q'enko, Tambomachay and Puca Pucara. Cusco itself is a beautiful town with many historic churches and convents to explore. You can also visit the picturesque Sacred Valley, which is between Cusco and Maccu Picchu. I don't think you'll be bored in Cusco.

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Re; FF miles: I always use my miles for stopover trips. For example last summer I was in Istanbul, and on the way I stopped in Munich for 3 days. With a regular ticket, you would pay extra, but if you are FF, you can stay overnight (airlines have different amount of days, check before you book). Before I stayed in Paris for a couple of days, and once in Salt Lake City coming back from CA. It pays the best that way in my opinion

Becky Krystal: Very clever.

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Re; Travel Agent: An experienced Travel Agent will be able to tell you all the differnces between ships, ports, brands, what's included and what's not and will find you the right ship at the right time for your needs. I find this piece indispensible when it comes to agents. And some will also get you better cabins based on their relationship with the cruise.

Zofia Smardz: True, thanks!

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Any thoughts on what do to in San Fran that's a little off the beaten path: Take BART to Berkeley or downtown Oakland!

Zofia Smardz: I second that!

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Not to TA: I understand the argument that people say it's not worth the time and effort and that you should just get a travel agent. While I'm not going to argue that TAs have their time and place, planning the trip for me is half the fun! I love spending the time on the Internet to see what the best places to eat, the best tourist attractions, and really getting a feel for the place that you're going.

Two Thanksgivings ago, my grandmother wanted to take us on a trip to Prague and started talking to a travel agent. The best the TA could do was well out of her price range, however. So I took to the Internet and found solutions that she hadn't considered. This made my grandmother incredibly happy and made a memorable trip for everyone.

I'm not saying that every TA experience is like it, but count me for one that'll almost all the time enjoy doing the work myself.

Zofia Smardz: Yes, planning trips can be fun. . . if you have the time. Thanks for this!

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Washington DC: I simply can't imagine ever wanting to use a travel agent. We plan everything from weekend getaways to driving trips in the US to trips to Europe, Africa, and Asia ourselves. All the information is available in guidebooks and online. Yes, it takes time to go through it, but that's a huge part of the fun of traveling. First, it's just great to spend time reading and anticipating. Second, sometimes you don't know what you're interested in until you read about. If we just gave a travel agent a short list of our preferences and interests, we'd just get an itinerary that reinforced past patterns. By browsing through books and articles, we find the places that make us say, "I never would have thought of something going somewhere (or doing something) like that, but it sounds fascinating." And finally, we enjoy the trip a lot more when we know more about what to expect. If you just arrive in the middle of a city without having studied maps and history, you'll end up disoriented in many ways.

Becky Krystal: Yes, there is something great about the DIY approach. You definitely sound like you handle it well.

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Arlington, VA: Two seniors (my spouse and I) would like to visit Savannah, GA next month. We do not drive. Would like to get some tips about travel in Savannah. Will appreciate recommendations for hotels. How far is the airport from the historic/downtown area? Any information about public transportation will also be much appreciated. Thanks for this great service you provide to travelers such as us.

Joe Yonan: Savannah's downtown is about 20 minutes from the airport by cab. If you're confidence walking a lot, I'd stay in the historic district and stroll the squares. I'm not sure your budget, but the Broughton Street Guest House is lovely for around $200/night (in the carriage house). Once you're there, if you need help getting around, this gorgeous city also has pedicabs and a great on/off trolley car system available.

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LA-bound??: I've never been to Los Angeles, but want to go. Normally, planning a vacation is easy. But LA is so spread out, and I don't normally drive too much. Am I better off going a package route with flight/hotel/car? If so, what sites would you recommend for this?

Carol Sottili: I don't know that a third-party booking site is going to make it much easier. Maybe cheaper. You still have to know where you want to stay in Los Angeles. And that depends on what you want to do there. I always stay in Santa Monica even though it's not Los Angeles proper because it's right on the beach. But if you are more interested in doing touristy things like touring studios, shopping in Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, etc., Santa Monica is off the beaten track. I'd probably first invest in a good guide book (Fodor's or Frommer's is fine) and start reading to come up with an itinerary. And then I'd start trying to locate centrally located hotels. Also, go to a site such as Tripadvisor to read hotel reviews. I often price out components separately, and then compare that to a package deal on a site such as Expedia.

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re: Iberia Airlines: No no no! Last autumn I was going to fly them DC to Paris (via Madrid) because I got a deal for under $600. Two weeks prior to the trip, I was informed that Iberia had changed my flight (what's new?) -- and it had me leaving from Boston -- not Dulles. With no way of getting to Boston! The Iberia reps were puzzled as what to do. So now I am supposed to lay over in Boston and Madrid before Paris? Noooo way. I canceled my flight, got a 100% refund, and booked an equally cheap flight on United/Air Canada. It was the puzzled Iberia reps that told my inner me not to fly That Airline.

Becky Krystal: OK, traveler considering Iberia, are you listening?

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Washington, DC: What airlines fly nonstop routes from DCA, IAD, or BWI to New Orleans? Thanks.

Joe Yonan: I see US Airways from DCA, Air Tran and Southwest from BWI, United from IAD. Chatters, am I missing anything?

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Re: Travel Agent: Just to clarify, I never ask my travel agent what she can get for me. She is the one who always offers how they can enhance my trip and what she can do on my behlaf, knowing what I care for. In my book, that's a good travel agent!

Becky Krystal: Agreed.

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Sort of answers your question...: This doesn't really address the travel agent part of your question, so I'm not submitting it for the win. But, on a related note, we just got back from Egypt, and there's no way I would try to do that trip entirely on my own. Although many people speak English, the whole experience of trying to negotiate baqsheesh (tips or bribes), buying train tickets, trying not to get scammed in taxis, being harassed by shop owners, and not being able to find good maps in English, convinced me that a tour was the best thing to do. We took a tour for three weeks and then finally had enough information about how the country worked to do a few days on our own, thanks to our tour guide patience and education. And those few days were exhausting enough. I can't believe I was even considering doing it on my own.

Plus, a shout out to Gecko's, our tour company, which was wonderful. I'll definitely travel with them again.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks for letting us in on this.

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Las Vegas Deals?: Hello! I am going to Vegas in mid April. Flights are ridiculous and hotels aren't much better. Am I better to wait until a last minute deal pops up? I'm a little flexible on when I can leave for the weekend, either do Thurs-Sun or Fri-Mon or some combo that has me there on Saturday night for a concert at the Hard Rock. Any ideas?

Carol Sottili: Have you tried pricing it out as a package? You'll probably save money that way. Try Vegas.com or an airline vacation package. Also, if by mid-April you mean the weekend of the 9-12, that's still considered Easter week, and it'll be expensive.

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Arlington, VA: For the person looking for hotels in Boston, there's a Hilton Back Bay as well which is huge, so you should be able to find deals there. We stayed there last year and had a great view of Fenway Park from our room.

Speaking of which, for the person looking for things to do - if you have any interest in baseball at all, take the guided tour of Fenway Park - it's great!

Joe Yonan: Fenway, absolutely. I'm not even a big baseball fan, and even I can't resist the charm. It's gorgeous.

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Washington DC: Travelers checks: I first went to Europe in 1970 when travelers checks were a must if you did not want to risk losing cash. The last time I took them, maybe 4 years ago, I found the only place that would cash them were banks--merchants looked at them blankly, as did small hotel operators. I second the TravelEx card suggestion. When getting it, I also suggest getting $50 to $100 in cash for wherever you are first landing, so you don't immediately have to go searching for an ATM.

Becky Krystal: Thanks for the report.

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Travel agents: Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon, but my best vacations have been self-booked, and the worst was done through a travel agent. Admittedly that was a group trip, something not really possible without help, especially in the pre-internet era (c. 1989), but still: a skeevy hotel in a bad neighborhood and a third-rate cruise that was totally wrong for our group (us = teenagers, everybody else = blue hair) do not a good vacation make. There were other problems, too, including but not limited to a sexual assault; suffice it to say that you will never again see me on a group tour, or a cruise. On the other hand, I organized a three-week self-guided tour of England for my family via guidebooks, maps and the telephone, and it went very well. If I was a very busy person I might make the calculation that my time is better spent letting someone else plan my vacations, but I'm not that busy and I am that much of a control freak, so no travel agent for me.

Becky Krystal: No, you're not a curmudgeon. :)

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Dallas, TX: San Francisco thing to do: Dim sum in Chinatown (Great Eastern, yeah!), ferry over to Sausalito, I think $7 each way and great views of city...eat seafood over there at the Spinnaker...

Nancy Trejos: Oh yes, the ferry to Sausalito. Good idea. And dim sum in Chinatown. Yum. Thanks for your input!

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Arlington, VA: I went on Saturday to the travel expo. Arthur Frommer gave a speech that was rather interesting.

When you says "tons" of brochures that is almost literal. I thought my fingers would fall off by the time I got home with my bag. I noticed that the tour companies there seemed to be very high end. Browsing through the prices later made for a bit of sticker shock. The one company called something like Cox and Kings was really crazy. I suppose they need to make enough money to print those books/brochures they were giving away. But the Bhutan itinerary for example seemed be about double the government mandated rates that tour companies in that country charge. Their India prices are also astronomical. A 12 day trip for something like $10K per person double, not including international airfare! Granted they use the highest end luxury hotels and palaces, but still!

Is Washington considered a market that will pay for ultra-luxury? I know we have a lot of rich people here. And I know that I am willing to spend a reasonable amount on some luxury, but even I have some limits.

The show seemed smaller this year with respect to the number of exhibitors.

Nancy Trejos: This was my first time at the expo, so I'll take your word for it in terms of the show seeming smaller. And yes, I too noticed that some of the prices quoted by the tour companies were pretty high. However, I did have conversations with some tourism officials who were pushing their destinations as budget-friendly. Nicaragua is one that comes to mind. Thanks for your input!

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Dallas, TX: re travel agent: spend a few $ to have them available to you for when things go wrong...which will happen at the worst possible time and in the worst possible place. Standing in line with 200 people at 3rd world airport when your flight is cancelled...or get on the phone to your trusted agent at home and have him/her fix your situation...which would you choose?

Zofia Smardz: Choice seems pretty clear!

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Rockville, Md: Dear Crew, because you (and the crew of readers) have always been so helpful to me in the past, I just wanted to drop this hint as it almost ended up being a travel mess for me. Although Montreal (Trudeau) Airport recommends 90 minutes advance check-in for flights to the United States, on my flight last week from the time I arrived at the check-in line to entering the plane was 3 hours. The line behind me as I finally exited passport control was the exact same length as it was in front of me when I arrived (I was only there that early because I was splitting a taxi with a colleague on an earlier European flight, which apparently did not have these kinds of check-in problems). And you can imagine the escalating chaos as staff had to start pulling people out of line to the front so they could make it to their flights. Although it is a drag to hang out at the airport (particularly in the section for US-bound flights) given restricted schedules in general and how packed flights are from Montreal, that is not a place you want to miss a flight from.

Thanks again for all your hard work, it is appreciated!

Nancy Trejos: Wow, that's a long time. I'm glad you made your flight. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

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re: frequent flier miles: Collection of miles really depends on where you fly and how often you travel. I, for one, am glad that next month I'll be taking my next free trip (well, $84 in taxes, and $25 ticketing fee) to Eastern Europe thanks to miles -- a trip that otherwise would have cost me AT LEAST $900.

Becky Krystal: Well done!

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Re: Charleston: Not sure if their $1000 includes food/entertainment, but we just took a last-minute package trip to Charleston for just over that (Travelocity). Non-stop flights from DCA, three nights in a very nice hotel. We stayed at the Harborview Inn, but we could have booked a different hotel for less. No need for a car with that length of stay.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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Frequent Flier Programs: I have to fly a decent amount for work and life so it makes sense for me to maintain a FF program. I've never had an issue using the miles, but I use them for me-time fun travel time when I can be flexible. For example, "I want to go to location x in about 5 months" not "I need to go to my sister's wedding and have to be there on x date by y time and then leave on day z". The latter is just frusterating to try and do, I'll admit it. Plus, the other benefit of using miles and booking early is that many hotels have early booking deals when you pay in full online early. I've taken a lot of really nice vacations at a fraction of the cost using these methods.

Becky Krystal: Thanks for sharing your strategy.

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Raleigh, NC: Hi flight crew,

I truly hope that you or the chatters can help with this question. I am taking a family vacation to Barbados in two weeks and we're planning on staying in Holetown. Do you know anything about Holetown especially information about the beach, shopping and restaurant/nightlife? Thanks.

Nancy Trejos: I was just in Barbados a few weekends ago and had dinner in Holetown one night. It's a very cute town with cobblestone streets and lots of shopping and restaurants. Sandy Lane Beach is great for swimming. Holetown Beach is kid-friendly, and there are restaurants there, including one called Olive. The St. James Parish Church is also interesting to see. I have to admit, I had an underwhelming meal in Holetown, but other like restaurants The Coach House and La Terra are supposed to be better. But I would recommend exploring the rest of the island, particularly the beaches of the west coast. The west coast is a more unexplored part of the island and some of the beaches there were just breathtaking. Definitely go to Bathsheba and Bath. I will be writing a story about my weekend there. It was lovely.

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DC: I'm thinking of going to Toronto in June, and I'm seeing fares of around $1,000 round-trip for two people. That just seems ridiculous to me when we're going cross-country in a week for much less than that. We'll probably wind up driving (again), but do you think there will be any last-minute deals to look out for? It seems like United and Air Canada are the only 2 airlines that go from any of the DC/Balt. airports to Toronto.

Carol Sottili: Have you considered flying into Buffalo? It's usually much cheaper - right now, fare for nonstop flights is $119 round trip including all taxes on Southwest out of BWI. Located about 100 miles from Toronto, plus you have to go through the border crossing. If you can save that much money, may be worth it.

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Burke, VA: Have you heard about the plight of the people who were supposed to sail on the Star Princess out of Santiago March 2? First Princess insisted the cruise was leaving on time and that passengers were responsible for getting themselves to Santiago, in spite of the fact that the airport was closed and the State Department issued travel warnings. Those who had purchased air fare through the cruise line found themselves unable to rebook, as the flights were through a consolidator. Then Princess delayed the start of the cruise to March 4 and made passengers who had miraculously gotten to Santiago stay in hotels during the aftershocks. Those who had the Princess travel insurance are only being offered 75 percent--in the form of future cruise credits. Add to that the generally unhelpful responses passengers were getting from Customer Service. I've been following these developments because I was planning to be on that cruise, but cancelled in January. There are some important lessons to be learned: 1) Book your own air travel. The belief that if you purchase through the cruise line they will be sure to get you there is false. 2) Buy travel insurance, preferably not from the cruise line. The "cancel for any reason" coverage is worth it (it's what I used).

Christopher Elliott: Excellent points.

I have received at least a dozen complaints about Princess and the way in which it has handled itself, post earthquake. In my experience, Princess wastes no opportunity to underscore the importance of trip cancellation insurance, and although I haven't been in touch with Princess on this case -- I'm working with my colleague Anita Potter, who is trying to mediate these cases en masse -- I'm fairly sure the company is still using that tried-and-true line.

Your rights as a cruise passenger are outlined in Princess' cruise contract.

Check out paragraph 3 for the bad news.

Personally, I think the only way Princess will move on this is if enough people apply pressure to the company to offer refunds or some other gesture of goodwill. I've worked with Princess on similar issues in the past, and I hope it will do the right thing.

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Bethesda: I have used Hotwire many times for hotel bookings and have been happy except for one occasion (Munich, where the hotel was not as close to downtown as I thought). I think they are very reliable in US cities, especially when they give you the section of the city. You can look at the map and decide if you can live with that area, which most of the time is what I care about. I have saved hundreds of dollars this way. In Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Paris, London it worked beautifully for me. I generally end up staying at a 4-star hotel this way, which I couldn't afford if I were to start with the hotel name. Hope this helps.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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Chantilly, Va.: Had a trip to Spain booked on Iberia Air a couple years ago, when they suddenly canceled the flight a couple months out. Didn't have any trouble getting a refund, so that part was good, anyway. Booked a replacement flight on another airline that was rather more expensive -- Iberia's rates may be good, but only if the flight actually happens!

Becky Krystal: True enough!

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opaque hotel booking--: It's not as opaque as you think! betterbidding.com is an online forum that can help you figure out the hotel depending on where it is and what amenities they offer. I'm not affiliated with them or anything, but I've used it several times with fantastic results.

Joe Yonan: I'll check it out...

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Local late-season skiing, + flying next year: Have you or any chatters out there been skiing in West VA or PA late in the season? Enthusiastic recent beginners want to go one more time close to home if possible -- but with these nice temps, is that even realistic? And for next year's season, what are some reasonably-priced places that don't cost an arm and a leg to fly to (maybe close to a major airport) that also have decent beginner programs? Love the chats. Thanks!

Carol Sottili: Best bet for late in the season is Canaan Valley region of West Virginia, but it'll take four hours or so to drive there. Resorts include Canaan Valley Resort and Snowshoe Mountain. Fly to Salt Lake City next winter and go to Park City. Or fly to Denver, and go to Copper Mountain.

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Ashburn, VA: I am going to Dallas for a few days. I've looked around on the web, but there doesn't seem to be alot of real interesting things to do in or around Dallas. People have said to go to the aquarium, etc., but are there things that are must sees that are more unique to Dallas?

Becky Krystal: How about the Dallas Arts District?

Zofia Smardz: And of course Dealey Plaza, the place where JFK was shot. You just have to go there.

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Arlington, VA: I disagree somewhat on the FF mile question. I personally cash mine in on international business class or first class awards since that gives you the biggest bang for the buck. And as long as you either plan way ahead or last minute it is not that hard to book an award in my somewhat limited experience. As long as you are somewhat flexible with your dates. Booking coach may or may not be tougher. And I have found that you really need to call in order to get the best selection of partner airlines flights over what the airlines' websites. But have flown several long-haul flights "up front" for little money. I have gotten most of my miles from credit card bonuses and spending that I would have done anyway paid off every month.

Joe Yonan: I've been able to do all right with my FF miles, too. I used to be an AA mile-collector, got a few good trips out of that, and now I'm mostly collecting on an Amex card that lets me use them for all sorts of things, which I like.

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Nicaragua-April: I have a business trip to Managua the week after Easter (the whole country shuts down for Holy Week, apparently) and will have parts of both weekends free. I hear Managua is nothing special in itself, but any suggestions for other day trips (even overnight if there's some night life)? Leon? Granada?

Nancy Trejos: Granada, known as the oldest city in the American continent, is supposed to be beautiful and is just 45 minutes from Managua. Leon was the capital of Nicaragua before Managua and has great art galleries and a beautiful cathedral. You might also want to consider taking the ferry to Ometepe Island, which has amazing views and the Pre-Columbian Museum. Or you can go to Somoto's Grand Canyon.

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Seattle:

I live here and the times I stated in my post are expected drive times. The time it takes for me to get to the airport (outside of morning rush hour) is 45 minutes. The amount of time it takes to get to the Mt rainier entrence is 45 minutes.

You dont need to be an avid hiker to see Mt Rainier. The trails at the visitor center are very friendly and short. You dont need to do 10 mile hikes to see something.

In August when they are traveling is when the nice weather is. Enjoy that time of year. Every weekend there are a few events happeneing around town.

Rainier is very popular on the weekends (they have weekend busing where you park outside the gates) so go on a weekday.

There are a few museums...an Art museum, an aquarium, the boeing museum (Where Captain Sully will be speaking tonight). In Tacoma there is the museum of glass.

You also have many small towns on the water outside of Seattle that you could travel to and spend the day or overnight. The most popular of these is Port Townsend.

Becky Krystal: Thanks for following up!

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DC: Do you guys have a section of your site or an article dedicated to Cruises 101? I'm looking at taking some family on a cruise - a first for all of us, and would like to know where to start. Is there any wisdom on where the best rooms tend to be, when to go, how to get deals, etc? Thanks!

Carol Sottili: Our site has an archive of cruising articles, which you'll find helpful. Just to put in my two cents....I think the best rooms are suites with balconies as high up on the ship as you can get. There are good deals just before the holidays and during hurricane season (ships will change itineraries to avoid storms, but you may miss some shore visits). The Web site Cruise Compete is a good place to price out cruises. A good site for cruise info is Cruise Critic.

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ATM cards overseas: Depends on where you're going. I have a Citibank ATM card, which I've used at ATMs at Citibanks in Brazil (also at some Brazilian banks, using the ATMs specifically labeled as being for international transactions, though the rate wasn't quite as good as at Citibank). I don't use the ATM/debit card for purchases overseas due to fewer protectons as with a credit card. My credit card has a 3% foreign currency transaction fee.

Becky Krystal: Thanks for the input.

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noise-cancelling headphones: I like my audio-technica's. They've made a big difference on my flights with less background noise and being able to hear the words in a movie or music. Purchased on Amazon.

Becky Krystal: For the traveler ISO headphones.

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Sicily/Amalfi/So Italy: Thinking of weeks in Southern Italy - Amalfi, Sicily, and what else? Is there a central place to stay from which we can do day trips?

Carol Sottili: Amalfi is a better choice than Sicily, which is an island. Naples is probably a good choice, but I'm not overly fond of that city. Make sure you take a look at our next Going Our Way column - it's about Sicily.

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Washington, D.C.: My fiance and I are looking for a honeymoon destination in early November. The requirements are: beach (and somewhat reliably good weather), no more than 4 hours' flight from DC (we can only stay a week). Doesn't have to have much else to do there - we just want a pretty, relaxing beach with a very nice hotel. Is it too risky to go to the Caribbean the first week of November?

Nancy Trejos: You do risk some rain around that time, but the further south you go, the better chance you'll have of enjoying a rain-free vacation. Hurricane season ends Nov. 30 but the storms tend to happen earlier in the season. Why not try the ABC islands--Arub, Bonaire and Curacao? Hurricanes tend to bypass them. Grenada also tends to have calm waters. And Jamaica usually has good weather, even in November.

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Bend, OR: Hi, Flight Crew!

Heading to South Africa (Cape Town/Safari/Vic Falls) in two weeks!!! As I pack, any suggestions of things not to forget? Any can't miss things to see in Cape Town?

Becky Krystal: My go-to guy on South Africa, Brad Walters, said:

The one can't-miss in Cape Town is a trip to the top of Table Mountain. You can drive or hike part of the way and then take an aerial cableway 3,000 feet up for unforgettable views of the city below and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.
If you have time for a daytrip, drive down to the Cape of Good Hope. (And remember to stay on the left side of the road!) While not technically Africa's southernmost point, it's hard not to feel like you're at the end of the world. The drive down, through small fishing towns and along dramatic cliff-hugging roads, is an experience in itself.

Chatters, any advice on packing necessities?

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Zofia Smardz: Okay folks, that does it for us for today. Hope we were helpful. Meanwhile, the chatter from NoVa who planned their own two-week trip to South Africa, complete with safari, wins our question of the day contest. So send me your info to smardzz@washpost.com, and we'll send you your prize (a travel planner, maybe? :-)) Thanks all for your questions, and see you next week!

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