Talk about travel: Beating the crowds, checked baggage fees, traveling with kids, island vacations, obese flyers, Boston attractions, California coastline drives, more

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The Flight Crew
Washington Post Travel Section
Monday, April 12, 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, April 12 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: Afternoon all! And a lovely afternoon it is. After last week's heat wave, we've cooled off a bit here in Washington and now it actually feels like spring. And there are still a few cherry blossoms hanging around if you want to hop down and see. (At the very least, you'll catch the azaleas as they burst into bloom.) But if you're interested in traveling elsewhere, here we are to help with the where and the how and the why. Did you read yesterday's issue and the story on traveling in Greece and trying to get away from the madding crowd? Tell us about your own best experience in successfully escaping the tourist hordes, whether it was an entire vacation or a moment on a trip, and best anecdote wins a prize from our drawerful of travel booty. Okay, we're off!

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checked baggage fees: Thought I would pass along my experience so someone else does not make my same mistake. I have recently learned that although most of flights to the Caribean do not charge for checking luggage (at least the first), US Airways charges. Also, read carefully whether the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are included in the definition of the United States for the carrier that you intend to use - and thus you have to pay if you intend to check luggage.

Christopher Elliott: Great advice. This is particularly true of award tickets. Airlines bend their definition of "domestic" when it suits them, excluding faraway places like Hawaii or Puerto Rico, when it comes to frequent flier tickets. So yes, definitely, pay close attention!

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Washington DC: What you didn't mention in your item about the new MAve hotel at 27th and Madison in New York - and perhaps didn't know - is that there's been a hotel there for years. Previously, it was the fondly remembered (by me, at least) Hotel Madison, which my wife and I stayed in three times. As far as I could tell, it was the cheapest hotel in Manhattan with private baths, generally around $100. You got what you paid for.

We stayed there the first time about 6 years ago. They had a little website (still up, here: http://www.madison-hotel.com/) that charmed me by explaining that they didn't have room service but listing a bunch of nearby delivery joints. The beds sagged, the carpet looked about 40 years old, half the knobs on the dressers were broken off, the TV got only a couple of fuzzy channels, and the pipes clanged all night long. But the sheets and the bath were (reasonably) clean, the location was decent, and the price was right.

The second time, a few years later, the website mentioned they had renovated, and I worried that the charm would be gone. But it turned out that only the lobby was renovated, and they had installed new bulletproof glass, so it still felt like home.

The last time we went up to the city I saw that it had closed. We got some fancy downtown place through Priceline - a Hyatt or Hilton, I don't remember. Yes, it was more comfortable, and we had views of Central Park, but somehow it didn't feel like we were really visiting New York.

washingtonpost.com: For its prime New York locale, MAve earns a rave (Post, April 11)

Zofia Smardz: That's a sweet story. A moment of silence, all, for the late Hotel Madison. Thanks for sharing!

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Clifton: We want to take a much needed family trip in September. My husband has a busy work schedule from October through December so I thought it's cheaper to have vacations when all the kids go back to school. There'll be the 4 of us, 2 kids (ages 4 and 1). We were thinking about California. What do you recommend? I love San Francisco, but I don't know how accommodating it is for the kids. There's always San Diego...Zoo, Sea World, etc. What are your recommendations?

Carol Sottili: I think San Diego would be a great choice. I lived there when my kids were the same age as yours (mine were born there), and it was a wonderful place for a young family. (I'm heading back next week for a visit - can't wait). We went to the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld at least once a week (we had yearly memberships), and my kids loved both, as did I. The San Diego area also offers lots of other attractions that appeal to parents and kids - wild sea lions at La Jolla Cove, the Wild Animal Park, and Legoland. Plus it's not far from Disneyland.

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Washington, DC: Hello, I submitted this last week but you must have been busy with other questions! I'm traveling to California in a week and plan to drive up the coast from LA to San Francisco. We plan on seeing Hearst Castle and Big Sur and just stopping and checking out random sights along the way. Can you recommend any cool hidden beaches or trails or any other off-the-beaten path experiences on this route? Thanks so much!

Zofia Smardz: I actually did this drive once, but it was oh so many moons ago that I don't really remember it that well. I do think you should make a stop in San Juan Capistrano -- a little off the route but worth it if you have time (you don't say how much time you have for the trip). Otherwise, though, I'm throwing this one out to the chatters -- thoughts, folks?

Nancy Trejos: I did that drive a couple of times. The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo is a fun landmark. Morro Bay is a nice beach town. There are also some pretty vineyards aroudn there. And I didn't do this, but I hear the drive from Pebble Beach into Carmel is gorgeous. (By the way, Hearst Castle is awesome!)

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Silver Spring, MD: Where can we take an island vacation that is more than beaches and drinks? We tend towards more European and Asian adventures, but I know my husband would love an island getaway for his 35th. I don't want to spend a fortune, but we can splurge a bit. If we did a week away, where can we go without me (not a big beach fan, more in to shopping, exploring and art museums), getting bored? I don't know one island from the next... (the extent of our beach vacations has been Cozumel, Puerto Rico, Phuket and Key Largo). Thanks!!

Andrea Sachs: You won't be bored in Puerto Rico, because the island is so diverse. You can hike the rain forest, explore the museums and shops of Old San Juan, go out to the west coast for surfing and small coastal towns, or venture into the center to explore coffee plantations. Barbados also has plenty of off-beach attractions. And for really exotic, consider Brazil or Nicaragua.

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Washington DC: Hi! Do you by any chance know if there is luggage storage at Rio's international airport? Many thanks.

Joe Yonan: I don't know from personal experience, but internationalairportguide.com does list luggage lockers among the amenities at GIG.

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Dulles to Europe: Hi Crew, I'll be flying from Dulles to Europe (yay!!!) on a Friday afternoon. Am aghast to see that the TSA Wait time website is down, and I'll also need to check a bag with Lufthansa. Will arriving at the airport 2 hrs ahead of time give me plenty of time, or would 2,5hs or even 3 be better?

Christopher Elliott: On a Friday afternoon? If it were me, I'd arrive at least three hours before your scheduled departure. Bring a good book and you won't have to worry about a long line or traffic. Or maybe I should say, you'll have to worry less!

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Falls Church, VA: We have a long mid-summer weekend coming without the kids. We are thinking of going to the Finger Lakes Region of New York for a little nature, good food, a lot of relaxing? Good idea? Do you have a better one that we can drive to (already been to Ahseville)? Suggestions if we go?

Thanks for your thoughts and comments.

Andrea Sachs: I fully support that idea. It's lovely up there. Other ideas: the Berkshires in Massachusetts, Long Island, Charlotte or Wilmington, N.C., or New Haven and the Connecticut coastline.

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For Washington, D.C., planning to drive up the coast from LA to San Francisco: Between Monterey and SF, check out Pescadero (home of Duarte's, famous for its artichoke soup and ciappino seafood stew) and Half Moon Bay (with its semi-tame pelicans at the marina, mooching scraps from fishermen cleaning their catches). There's also the Pigeon Point lighthouse in the vicinity.

Zofia Smardz: For the California tripper. Thanks!

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Indianapolis, IN: I have been on six flights in the last month and on three of the six I've been seated next to individuals so large that they could not lower their tray tables, even with the seat ahead of them upright, and the armrest could not be lowered between us. These were all pleasant people who seemed aware that they were using part of my seat. One fellow sat holding his left arm or gripping the seat ahead of him. Had he not, it would have been in my lap. I sat scrunched against the window and couldn't even put my legs in front of me because he took up part of my leg room as well. I am sure we were both relieved when the three-hour flight ended. Another man apologized to me for his size. I am a slim woman and probably was less discomforted by being squished than a heavier person would be, but I paid for a full seat and shouldn't have been obligated to share it. All my recent flights have been completely full, so there aren't empty seats to move to. If there had been empty seats, I might have been vying for them with other people seated next to obese travelers. Are the airlines doing anything to address the obesity problem? Or do passengers like me, who do not complain, simply going to have to put up with it?

Joe Yonan: I find this such a fascinating topic. You remember the recent issue with movie director Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines, right? They've had a longstanding policy requiring passengers who can't comfortably lower the armrest etc. to buy a second seat, and Smith complained VERY loudly about it.

I'm not entirely sure what the answer is here, but I have some thoughts. I think that if you are uncomfortable, you should complain. I think the airline shouldn't pit customer versus customer, when everybody simply wants to be comfortable. I think airline seats should be larger all around -- not just for the obese passengers, but for all passengers. I think that's not about to happen anytime soon, given the state of the airline industry. I think it's interesting that in 2008 in Canada,

the government ruled

that obese passengers (as well as disabled ones who require the presence of an attendant) must be able to get two seats for the price of one, and that the estimated cost to the airlines was only about 75 cents extra a plane ticket.

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Family trip to Chicago, update: Thanks for the advice. I contacted three airlines to get group rates for 10 from DC to Chicago in June.

They were all higher - by a good 25% - than what I could find on the internet. Go figure.

Zofia Smardz: Go figure, indeed. Certainly seems odd, wonder what's up with that?

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Boston: Recently a reader posted a negative comment about travel stories that focused on food. I have a different point of view.

I really appreciate the diverse focus of the travel section articles, because there is something for everyone whether you are interested in adventure travel, cultural travel, family travel, staycations, or travel for eating. Yes, sometimes there's a travel section that doesn't interest me, but other times I read and appreciate every article.

I also read the food section, and note that there are often travel references there...and I really like this integration. You have to eat while traveling, whether or not food was the motivation for your trip.

I'm sure the previous poster did represent some readers, but I wanted you to have another perspective. Thank you.

Joe Yonan: Thanks!

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Chicago IL: Best experience getting away from the crowd: We were at Arches NP in Utah last summer when a massive afternoon thunderstorm rolled in. My wife and I pulled over to watch the rain while pretty much everyone else left. Fifteen minutes later, the rain stopped and we had the Park Avenue canyon all to ourselves, listening to the distant thunder boom off the sandstone walls as small waterfalls were forming along the sides and creeks were trickling in the distance. All thanks to a storm that cleared everybody out.

Zofia Smardz: Just wait out the storm! Good advice, thanks!

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Baltimore, MD: My fiancee and I are headed to Paris in mid-August. Plane tickets right now are in about $1000 apiece. I'm hoping for a drop to about $700. Am I being a bit too hopeful?

Carol Sottili: I don't think you're going to see $700 (including taxes) to Paris this summer. It may not go much below $1,000, especially for nonstop flights. Keep an eye on Air France for sales if your dates are flexible.

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Avoiding Crowds: I live in NYC, and I avoid crowds by staying in town on holidays like Memorial Day, Presidents' Day, etc. It's so quiet and peaceful. And, of course, I stay away from Times Square and other tourist destinations on those weekends.

Zofia Smardz: Good strategy, I know. My husband and I think nothing beats Washington on major holidays, when *everybody* leaves town and we have the place to ourselves. Thanks!

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Washington DC: In May, I will be going to visit a friend in Cape Town. A friend of hers is a member of a church in Bethesda which has a "sister parish" in Johannesburg.

Members of the church in Bethesda have knitted sweaters for the church members in Jo'burg (yeah, winter is starting now, and it does get cold enough for sweaters), and my Cape Town friend's Bethesda friend wonders if I can take a suitcase of sweaters and pass them off during my layover in Jo'burg to someone from the Jo'burg church.

I arrive in Jo'burg at 5:20 pm and my connecting flight to Cape Town leaves at 8:10 pm, so that leaves me a little less than three hours to get through customs and get out of the secured area to hand off the sweaters. Is this possible? OR, could I check the bag of sweaters but mark it for delivery to Jo'burg, with the name of one of the Jo'burg church members?

I've left a message with South African Air to ask their advice but have not received a reply yet.

Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: I would think that you'd have enough time to hand them off. (Just be sure you are allowed to bring in a suitcase of sweaters. Depending on the law, you might be taxed if they think they are for resale.) If you checked the bag, a church member could pick it up, but he or she may need a bag check receipt. In addition, I am not sure the airline can put a tag for J'burg if your itinerary is to Cape Town. Best to get in touch with the airline for advice, or simply take the sweater as carry-on. Or, perhaps you can save yourself the complications and send them by mail?

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Cambridge, MA: Help! My mom is coming to town tomorrow and I have no ideas for things to do with her. I'm from DC and just up here for law school and with all the studying, haven't gotten to know Boston very well. My mom will be here Tues-Sun. She has a conference during the day but wants to hang out in the evenings. Other than going out to dinner, I'm at a loss for fun things to do with her. She'll also have all day Saturday, so ideas for that would be appreciated as well! Thanks so much!

Nancy Trejos: I've spent a bit of time in Boston recently and really enjoyed the new Harborwalk, which stretches from Chelsea Creek to the Neponset River, through East Boston, Charlestown, North End, Downtown, South Boston and Dorchester. It's a great way to see the waterfront neighborhoods. Another great place for a walk or a run: The Esplanade by the Charles River. The new Institute of Contemporary Art, also on the waterfront, is worth checking out. I also did a whale watching cruise, which was a lot of fun (you get on the boat near the Aquarium). And Boston Common is really pretty. You can also do the Freedom Trail walking tour of the city, which will take you to Paul Revere's house, the old State House, and the Boston Massacre site among other historical places. Faneuil Hall is also a fun marketplace. And if you're looking for a good dinner spot, Clio in Back Bay is a fantastic restaurant.

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Del Ray, VA: Hi, crew. My sister is going on a Mediterranean cruise for her honeymoon in August. Stops include Croatia, Venice, Turkey. Do you have any tips or ideas for a wedding gift -- other than cash -- that would be useful to them on their trip?

Thanks in advance.

Carol Sottili: I'd contact the cruise line and buy them ship credits that can be used for shore excursions, photo packages, etc.

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Arlington, VA: For escaping the crowds at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, they have two nights a week (Wednesday and Friday) that they have evening hours through 10 pm. Other nights they close at 6 pm. My husband and I went on Friday night and enjoyed the museum with a much better people to art ratio.

Zofia Smardz: Ahh -- missed that when I was last in Paris, but great to know, thanks!

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Ft Lauderdale, FL: re: drive from LA to San Francisco. Although my northbound drive was many years ago, I agree that Hearst Castle and Big Sur are beautiful stops. We also enjoyed the afternoon we spent in the Dutch village of Solvang, about 2 hours north of LA. There were lots of neat shops and bakeries, photo ops throughout the town, and even someone walking their pet llama down the main street. Definitely an interesting stop!

Nancy Trejos: Ooh, sounds lovely. Wish I had known about that when I did my L.A. to San Fran trip. Thanks for sharing!

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Herndon, Va.: Crew: My wife and I have been "on-line planning" a trip to the Grand Canyon, including driving to both the North and South Rims. Any advice/tips from you or your "readers" would be welcome.

Andrea Sachs: I am a bad American and have never been to the Grand Canyon. Though I have heard that the hike down is incredible and a great workout.

Any proud chatsters have advice for our Canyon-bound?

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DC: We would like to go to Prague and Budapest this summer, first time for both of us. We were thinking of going in July. Can we do both in one week, and what is your advice on how to plan, what to see, etc.? Thank you.

Zofia Smardz: Yes, you can. They're not far apart, and train connections are excellent. There's tons to see in both cities -- Prague, especially, which is a little jewel of remaissance/Baroque architecture that was basically unscathed in WWII. To plan, get yourselves a couple of good guidebooks and check out Web sites such as Prague.cz and the Budapest Tourism Office site. They'll highlight all the major attractions for you, such as Prague's Wenceslas Square, the Old Town and Charles Bridge, the hilltop castle and Golden Lane, or Budapest's Parliament and Castle Hill and Heroes' Square and more. With only about three days in each city, you're going to be very busy, but you should be able to fit in most of the major sights. And definitely definitely worth doing. I envy you -- can I come along?

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Avoiding the crowds at Ayers Rock: Sunrise at Ayers Rock. We were the only ones there, and much closer to the Rock than the much advertised Sunset Viewing Locations which are packed full of people wanting to watch the colors change. Sunrise was cooler, quieter, and just as beautiful as the sun's rays gently colored the Rock.

Zofia Smardz: Terrific. I'll keep it in mind if I ever go to the Outback!

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Bowie, MD: Any updates on the possibility of a strike at American Airlines? I've got a flight on AA later in April (returning early May), and (obviously) hope to not be affected.

Christopher Elliott: We're still a ways off from a strike. This week, the National Mediation Board will reportedly consider the requests of two unions that want to be released from mediation, which will start a 30-day clock to a possible strike, according to The Dallas Morning News. So I think you'll be fine.

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Alexandria, Va: For the people from last week who are traveling to Tokyo and are interested in textiles, the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum near Lake Kawaguchi at the base of Mount Fuji is an amazing museum. Itchiku Kubota made beautiful kimono using his own unique dying technique, these kimono are works of art! The kimono are on a rotating display in the museum and the museum itself is in a gorgeous setting (if the weather is nice you can see Mount Fuji.) Address: 2255 Fuji-Kawaguchiko-Machi, Yamanashi 401-0304.

Zofia Smardz: Here you go, Tokyo travelers. Thanks much for this!

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Escape: If you're taking a cruise, visit the CruiseCritic.com message boards to find independent excursions instead of the ones run by the ship.

The first time we did this, we got private snorkeling lessons before a group of 50 descended on the dive shop; and a van tour of Aruba by ourselves, generally leaving each stop before five busloads of familiar faces descended on them.

Zofia Smardz: How very smart of you! Thanks!

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Passport question: I'm heading to various countries in Central Europe in three weeks for 12 days, passport expires in September 2010. I'm finding conflicting info about how long passport has to be valid after returning from travel--some sources say 6 months and others say 3. All countries, including Czech republic, are listed on the US State Department's website's list of Schengen Agreement countries, and each country's page at the State Department's site says passport needs to be valid only 3 months valid after travel is over. Is this the best authority on the subject? I realize I can get an expedited new passport if I have to, but would rather not spend the money. But would rather trip not get interrupted, too!

Christopher Elliott: The State Department Web site is the most authoritative source for your visa needs, but it wouldn't hurt to double-check with the country you'll be traveling to, and also consulting your airline. Sometimes (though rarely) airlines have stricter requirements than those listed on the State Department site. If you show an airline representative the actual visa rule from the site, it's usually enough to let you board the flight. But still, it's better to check with all three places, just to be extra certain.

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Upstate NY: I'm headed to Lake Canadaigua for a wedding the end of May. I know the best way to get there is from BWI to Rochester, but we're driving. Anyone know the best route? Quick looks at maps are showing MD-29 to 70 to 695 around Baltimore then onto 83/15 into PA, then state route in NY is the most direct. Is that better than 270 to 15 into Harrisburg and 83/15 the rest of the way?

Also, any suggestions as to what to do besides sit on the deck and watch the lake? We'll be there a week.

Zofia Smardz: Another one for the chatsters. Anyone made this drive/been to the lake?

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re: drive from LA to San Francisco: Point Lobos State Park (nature reserve), a few miles south of Carmel. Go at low tide in order to get a better view of the tidal pool creatures!

Zofia Smardz: good one, thanks!

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For Washington, D.C., planning to drive up the coast from LA to San Francisco: When I was a kid, we did this trip a few times, and I remember loving Carmel and Solvang. I can't remember if they are right on the coast, but if not, I don't think they are far inland.

Nancy Trejos: Another vote for Carmel and Solvang!

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Re Solvang, CA., on the Calif. coastline: It's Danish, not Dutch.

Zofia Smardz: Now that is really good to know, especially if our traveler stops there. Thanks!

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UA Rule 270: I purchased a non-refundable ticket to HNL on UA on March 21 to visit a friend. Last Thursday, he received orders that would conflict with the visit. Reading UA's CoC, I cannot tell if I have a case to get the $150 change/cancel fee waived. Exception 2 would seem to indicate yes and Exception 3 says no. Can the members of the Flight Crew parse this text? I'd go alone if it means not losing $150.

Carol Sottili: My reading indicates you'll have to pay the fee. Exceptions are made when your traveling companion meets certain criteria, but the person you are visiting is not traveling with you. But you could always ask. I'd write them a letter, and if your friend whom you were visiting received military orders that you could supply to document your case, that can't hurt. Go to United's refund page for instructions.

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NY, NY: Best for getting away from crowds: Listening to the locals. I arrived in Siem Reap by myself with the weekend to see the temples of Angkor Wat. I picked a driver from the pack and asked him if he would drive me for the weekend (you need a driver to get around the huge temple complex) and what the best way to go about it would be. He said that most people follow the same path where the sun was said to be best at certain times of day. He suggested a different route that would be less croweded. Indeed, in many spots I was nearly alone in these great temples if not all by myself at times! The near silence really heightened the majesty of the place, I have beautiful photos with nary another tourist in sight and a phenomenal experience!

Zofia Smardz: Excellent tip, thanks! I bet it was awesome to be alone in the temples.

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Arlington, VA: I'm hoping you all can give us some good ideas. Our first wedding anniversary is coming up in June and we'd like to enjoy a week-end away. We're looking for relaxing, romantic and only a few hours away. Do you have any ideas? We've though of Virginia Beach, Hershey, maybe the Eastern Shore, are we missing anything?

Nancy Trejos: There's Williamsburg. It's charming and historic and the Williamsburg Inn is supposed to be very romantic. Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County, Maryland is great for hiking, picnicking, and horseback riding. Shenandoah National Park is also beautiful and has some wonderful places to stay. Any chatsters with other suggestions?

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California Road Trip: No south-to north trip is complete without a stop for lunch at Pea Soup Andersons in Buellton, CA just north of Santa Barbara (shown briefly in the movie "Sideways"). For a reasonable price, you get all you can eat pea soup, bread and your choice of drink, including milkshakes! The place has been around for 85 years and is a true California institution.

Zofia Smardz: More California tips. Thanks!

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Washington to London: Hi Travel Gurus -

My fiance and I have a wedding to go to in London Thanksgiving weekend. We're planning to turn this trip into our honeymoon, and also go to Scotland and the Netherlands. Right now, we're planning on leaving around Nov. 17 and flying into AMS, stay for 2-3 days, then fly or take a ferry to the UK, and fly home from London. Any ideas on what the cheapest way to do this is? Right now, our only obligation is the wedding in London on Nov. 27. We're planning to just make reservations as we go. Flights seem to be running around 1,000...should we buy now or wait? Thanks!

Carol Sottili: You could probably save a few bucks by doing a round-trip flight into London and then taking a discount carrier from there to Amsterdam. EasyJet flies from several London airports (not Heathrow) to Amsterdam for about $90 round trip. And you can get a round-trip flight into London at that time for about $700. But you'd have to get from Heathrow to another airport, which is a pain. Maybe stay in London for a night or two first and then go on to Amsterdam before returning to London?

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Obese travelers: I don't agree with allowing obese passengers to buy two seats for the price of one. Why not let everyone do that? Even as a petite woman, I'd love to have two seats to myself (I could lie down and sleep curled up in two seats). I think SW's policy is reasonable -- require them to buy two seats, but reimburse them for one if the plane is sufficiently empty that there is an empty seat they can sit next to. Frankly, I think that the larger passengers on SW seek out small people to sit next to so they will have more room (I think large Metro riders do this as well, but that's another issue).

I also am sorry that SW felt it necessary to apologize to that director, just because he made a big stink. It's not fair to those of us who are smaller to make us suffer. And yes, I know that some people are unavoidably obese, but some of us are unavoidably short and have to live with things being too high for us to reach (see Metro, again). Everyone does NOT deserve special treatment.

Joe Yonan: Yes, I'm not sure I agree with that Canadian policy, either. The order came down in late 2008 and the Canadian airlines had a year to implement it, so seems like it'd be worth checking in with them to see how it's going, wouldn't it? Maybe that's a Navigator column idea!

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Falls Church, VA: Hi there! My fiance and I are planning our honeymoon for September of this year. We'd like to go to the Greek islands, but with the recent economic environment, is it safe to make travel plans? I'm especially worried about the recent airline workers strikes and the protests in Athens. Suggestions for things we must-see/do also welcome in case we end up going. Thanks!

Zofia Smardz: Lucky you, we just did a couple of Greece stories yesterday, one that covered Athens, Santorini and Kos, and a separate story on Crete. Check them out. As for concerns about traveling, you shouldn't really have any. Yes, the economic situation is shaky, but the lead story in many papers today points out that the EU has agreed to finance a $40 billion loan for Greece, which should help stabilize things. And as the State Department points out, Greece is a stable democracy, so even when there are protests, they're not likely to get out of hand.

Beyond that, this is a good time for tourists in Greece -- as we pointed out yesterday, because tourism is down from last year (8 percent), lots of places are offering better hotel and travel deals to attract tourists; tourism is a huge part of the economy, so Greece needs you more than ever, and they're not going to make it unattractive for you to come. So take advantage, and have fun! Greece is fabulous, and the islands especially so.

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Alexandria: A few weeks ago, I wrote in asking about the viability of visiting Amsterdam while on a layover between flights. The consensus seemed to be that I could make a make a quick trip to at least walk around a bit and maybe take a tour or see a museum. Great news.

I just realized that my layover will be on 4/20, a date having significance in a certain subculture that thrives in Amsterdam.

Any thoughts on whether that would this make getting in/out of customs and security at the airport significantly more difficult?

Joe Yonan: I doubt it would make it any different than usual. My sense is that Amsterdam is pretty used to having stoned tourists walking around, so this is a day ... like most other days.

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Fairfax, VA: We went on an escorted tour of Turkey starting on New Year Day. The entire group consisted of 6 persons plus our guide and the bus driver. We had Ephesus pretty muc to ourselves (no cruise ships' visitors at all). The weather in the north was a bit chilly but it was great to be able to stay longer at certain sites, as our guide could get us together more quickly than with a bigger group. The pictures also came out better, no waiting for people to move out of the way, etc...

Zofia Smardz: Yes, traveling on a major holiday will often do it. Thanks for your story.

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damaged passport: Is there any way to figure out how damaged is so damaged that your passport needs to be replaced? Mine got wet. Really, really wet. Still readable, but there are some spots on the info page, and the bottom with the bar code is curled. Not sure whether it could be scanned or not. It was issued in '06, which I think was pre-chip.

Christopher Elliott: What a great question! The State Department Web site, which is the authority on this subject, describes an unusable passport as one that is "mutilated, altered or damaged." What does that mean, exactly? I think it depends on the customs or border agent you work with. I've traveled with a well-worn passport, but you could always read what's in it. I'd say if you have any doubts, then maybe you should get a new passport -- just in case.

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Anonymous: Hate to seem unromantic, since we were there on our honeymoon, but we found the rooms at the Madonna Inn overpriced. Just eating at the coffee shop and visiting the rest rooms (anyone who's been know what I mean) should suffice. Be sure to see "Citizen Kane" before visiting San Simeon/Hearst Castle. It was interesting to hear the guides make a point of saying the film (a fictionalized account of Hearst) was unfair to the man.

Zofia Smardz: More for California. Thanks!

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Nashville, TN: Best "avoiding the crowds" moment: In Cairo I was on the steps of the Egyptian Museum as it opened, and went directly to the Tutankhamen room, having studied a plan of the museum earlier. This gave me a short time alone with King Tut's death mask and all the other Tut treasures. One of life's heartpounding moments, truly.

Zofia Smardz: Sounds like it. Thanks!

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Reston, Va.: Several years ago, I spent a semester in Manchester (UK). My flight home was in mid- December, so it didn't make sense for me to go back to the States for Thanksgiving. I had a paper due on Thanksgiving morning, but no classes that Thursday or Friday (a coincidence, obviously, because of course they don't exactly celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK).

I stayed up all night finishing my paper, dropped it off when the English building opened at 7 am, and got on the next train to London. I spent the next few days wandering the city on my own and was very thankful for getting an entire "car" on the London Eye to myself. London's never empty of tourists, but most Americans seemed to have plans that didn't involve hitting up the usual tourist destinations that weekend.

I'm sure I'm not the only one to do this, but last year we spent the very early morning hours one Sunday during the Cherry Blossom Festival walking around the Tidal Basin. We got our stroll and photo-taking done right as one of the races was finishing up, so we were able to leave just as people started arriving. Worth the lack of sleep!

Zofia Smardz: Another alone at the holidays moment. Thanks!

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Washington DC: Hi Travel Crew

Heading to London in mid-May (unfortuntely in the week between the Royal Windsor Horse Show and the Chelsea Flower show, wish that I could see either of them!).

Have any of you taken a group tour to the Lake District (day tour from London)? Is one day too rushed?

Thanks very much!

Carol Sottili: I think the Lake District is too far from London to do right in one day. It takes four, five hours to get there via train or car. Like going from Washington to New York for the day. People do it, but I'd recommend staying overnight. The Lake District is beautiful and spread out. I've spent several days at a time there and have never run out of things to do.

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Potomac, Md.: Crew

As part of moving out to Seattle, I was thinking of driving out there. What is the best route (I was thinking of driving to Chicago and cutting West is the fastest), for scenic, beautiful, but not too long. (Or should I just pay someone to move my car)?

Thanks.

Joe Yonan: Drive, baby, drive! I think if you've got time, do the road trip. I've always wanted to have more time to do such a thing, so take advantage of it while you do. A reasonable four-day route would put you at about 11 hours of driving a day and let you stop overnight in Chicago, Fargo (ND) and Bozeman (MT). Those upper Midwest states are gorgeous: big-sky country. And you'd have plenty of lunch opportunities along the way: Cleveland, Minneapolis, Bismarck, Missoula, Spokane...

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For Falls Church, who has a long mid-summer weekend coming without the kids: Maybe Hyde Park, New York, along the Hudson River. Check out FDR's family home, Eleanor's nearby cottage retreat "Val-Kill" (where she lived following his death), Vanderbilt Mansion, and the "other CIA" (Culinary Institute of America) with its top-notch student-run restaurants at far more reasonable prices than comparable offerings in NYC. I don't know how much public access there is to West Point any more, however.

Zofia Smardz: Yes, it is definitely beautiful up there.

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Herndon, VA: Hi, and thanks for the chat. We're headed to Bermuda in August on a cruise our of Bayonne. The great thing about this cruise is that we stay in Bermuda for 2 1/2 days, so we'll have time to do some real sightseeing. What are the top 2 or 3 things that we absolutely cannot miss?

Nancy Trejos: If you like dolphins, go to Dolphin Quest Bermuda. Gibbs Hill Lighthouse is supposed to be the oldest cast-iron lighthouse in the world. St. Catherine Fort Bermuda is beautiful and well-preserved. And St. Peter's Church Bermuda is believed to be the oldest Anglican Church in the Western hemisphere. Anyone else want to chime in with their favorite Bermuda spots?

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LA dreams: I'm heading off to LA after graduation to pursue my dreams (I gave myself 2 weeks) - any recommendations of good, but cheap places to stay in Santa Monica (have to fit in some beach time too!)? I'm open to hostels as well.

Andrea Sachs: Santa Monica does have a hostel and it looks pretty nice, though the rooms are dorm-style. However, most beach-side hotels are pricey. Even the Holiday Inn is $200. You can try the Travelodge on Pico Boulevard, a busy street but near the Santa Monica sights. Or if you are flexible, I would consider staying in Venice Beach. Venice on the Beach Hotel, for one, starts at $130 a night.

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Hotel Refreshing Program: We are driving across country and I've been phoning each hotel in turn to see if they have recently painted/installed new carpet/are brand new. Surprisingly high number are doing just that, and I've found the chain I normally use is in the middle of a refreshing program. This is worse than pet dander or cigarette smoke for me--but short of phoning every local front desk, I've found no way to find out. Sleeping in the car instead of the hotel room I'm paying for it not a pleasant option. Why are the hotels doing this?

Christopher Elliott: Hotels are refurbishing now because an economic downturn is one of the best time for capital improvements. You inconvenience the fewest possible guests, and your costs are relatively affordable.

Fortunately, most hotels issue press releases or make public announcements about a remodeling project. They're very proud of the improvements. So, other than calling, you can run a quick online search to figure out if you're going to have to endure the smell of fresh paint on your next stay.

I recently wrote about

the downside of staying in a refurbished hotel

.

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DC: Thanks for answering my question on Prague and Budapest. Since 1 week for both is too little time, to which city would you add an extra day or 2?

Zofia Smardz: I think Prague is beautiful and should not be rushed through, so that would be my pick. But others may disagree.

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Des Moines, Iowa: Getting away from the crowds: We were just recently at the Grand Canyon for a couple of days this spring, and while I was surprised by how crowded the park was (I can't imagine what it must be like in high season), we had great success staying more or less on our home-town time schedule (2 hours later). We were easily up before dawn both days to hike the rim trail: those sunrise hikes encountering no one in 5+ miles were the highlight of my trip. This schedule also favored us at the park restaurants where we never had to wait for a table.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the great insights.

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Beijing: OK, I'm not in Beijing, but I have a tip for beating the crowds that even worked in one of the most populated cities in the world (Beijing) in one of the most populated countries in the world (China) on its busiest holiday (May Day) at one of the world's busiest tourist attractions (the Great Wall). My tip is GO EARLY. We even had the Great Wall at Badaling almost to ourselves that day. Even though I'm not a morning person, I've never regretted getting an early start, whether it's the Great Wall, the Grand Canyon, or Disneyworld. Plus, my boyfriend and I are photography enthusiasts, and morning light makes for the best pictures.

Zofia Smardz: Yes, the early bird. . . as they say. Thanks and glad you managed to beat the crowds in Beijing, of all places!

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For Cambridge, MA: Your mother might also want to visit Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as well as its neighbor, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This Thursday (Apr 15th) is a special "after hours" night at the Gardner. It was a highlight for me, a visitor from Nashville.

Nancy Trejos: Good idea. Thanks!

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San Juan, PR: Wanted to say thanks for your recommendations on Puerto Rico. The mofongo at Raices was great, and we enjoyed hiking in El Yunque rainforest, walking around Old San Juan, and visiting Castillo de San Cristobal. We didn't get to Vieques, so I'll have to take another trip (which won't be a hardship). Thanks.

Andrea Sachs: So glad your trip went so well and we were able to help you with the planning. Yes, you must return to Vieques. The beaches are gorgeous--and empty!

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Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines: Actually Smith complained that he kicked off the plane despite being in accordance with the policy. He was seated with both armrests down and was not taking up any room in the seat next to him. The problem wasn't the policy but the airline employee who ignored it. Southwest admitted as much and apologized.

Joe Yonan: Southwest apologized because he is who he is, and because his Tweets got them lots of unwanted attention. They said on their blog, though, that their action was in accordance with their policy: "We are responsible for the Safety and comfort of all Customers on the aircraft and therefore, we made a judgment call that Mr. Smith needed more than one seat to complete his flight."

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For SS, MD, who's loooking for a reasonably priced island vacation that's not about the beaches and drinks: Don't overlook Portugal's Azores Islands, in mid-Atlantic, a non-stop flight away to/from Boston. The Post had a great article on them a few years back. They have exactly the sorts of things you're looking for!

Andrea Sachs: How could I have forgotten? Thanks for the great reminder--and idea.

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Baltimore, MD: Hi Flight Crew! I really REALLY enjoy amusement parks with roller coasters and other thrill rides, but unfortunately can't get to any because I live in the city and don't own a car. I started Googling around for any tour or bus companies that do day trips to parks in the same way so many do to Atlantic City, but haven't been able to find any. I know they're out there, at least... I think they are, I just have to find them. Is this something I might have to go to a travel agent for, or do you have any other suggestions? I'd like to hit up as many in the region as possible this summer. Thank you!

Carol Sottili: Couldn't find any via Grayline. Next idea was local county parks & recreation departments, which all offer day trips to various places. But none have any amusement park trips on the agenda. Maybe Craigslist? Any chatters have other ideas?

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Silver Spring honeymoon idea: If you're worried about unstable travel conditions, do what we did for our honeymoon a few years ago: the week before the weekend wedding we looked at all the e-fare and special packages available, and picked the one we liked best (Portland, OR as it turned out).

It was great. We had a semisurprise, which was refreshing among all the wedding planning. And we got something nice. I can't recommend this enough.

Nancy Trejos: Good tip. Thanks!

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Overweight Fliers: A couple quick points. 1) If our government required airlines to give away seats to overweight people, costing them millions of $$s of revenue, we'd have a revolt in this country from people who already think our government hates capitalism. 2) We pay for the square footage of our seat - if we want more than that room, we should pay more. 3) Flying isn't a necessity - people don't HAVE to fly. If they choose to fly, they should adhere to the rules of fitting in their seat.

Joe Yonan: Reasonable points, all.

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Wash DC : My wife and I are scheduled to go on a 16 day trip through eastern Europe (Prague, Budapest, Bucharest and Istanbul) in late May. She'll be 5 months pregnant at that point. The doctor says no problem as long as she's feeling good. Anyone have any experience travelling while pregnant? Opinions?

Zofia Smardz: Well, I went to California from DC when I was 5 months pregant and did more traveling around the state and had no problem. This sounds a bit more grueling, though, so lets have the chatsters chime in. Guys?

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Washington, DC: Escaped from the maddening crowds--twin sister wanted to see some underground caves in Portugal during a highly scheduled Globus group tour ("ten cities in five days"). I studied the itinerary, figured out which caves were where, and narrowed it down to the Grutas de Sto Antonio. On a lark I sent an email to a contact listed on the web site asking if any one there would like to give us a guided tour of that cave. Sure enough, a young man who was a guide at that cave responded to my email and after several additional emails, he met us in Fatima. We drove to that cave and another one we didn't know about and gave us a private tour. Then we went to a donkey preserve (where old donkeys go to live out their remaining life in peace and quiet) and a nature preserve complete with HUGE windmills. We saw more in six hours, and got a much better sense of who the Portugese are as a people, than the ten days of the tours. We wanted to pay him US$200, but all he wanted was cost of fuel.(PS: AND he brought cake for us.)

Zofia Smardz: Nice story, thanks for sharing!

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Viva Las Vegas!: We are planning a trip to Vegas in July...is airfare at $900 per person reasonable? It seems very high to me. We would like to fly out of BWI. Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: That seems ridiculously high. When I do a search for mid-July, I find fares in the $200 range. Check Southwest for BWI departures. I stuck in random July dates and found a fare of $370.

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Washington, DC: For Canandaigua-bound: there are many, many wineries in the Finger Lakes region; most offer tours/tastings. Red Newt Cellars on nearby Seneca Lake has a great restaurant... and there's a food/wine institute right in Canandaigua that offers cooking classes and demonstrations.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the tips.

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Seattle move: Yes, drive! I moved from CA to DC and took the northern route. Saw Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, Grand Tetons, Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands (one of the best sights of the trip) and of course no cross country journey would be complete without a stop at Wall Drug. I'll probaly never do this drive again and was thrilled with everything we saw.

Zofia Smardz: thanks!

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Obese travelers: I have a bigger, no pun intended concern, than my comfort (I am a tiny person, yet still get smooshed when next to some people). Airplanes have not adjusted their # of passenger limits to meet the stunning growth in American people since those limits were set years ago. So now we have people who are far, far larger than the average in the 50's or 60's cramming on these planes (along with more and more people insisting on more and larger bags), and guess what? We are endangering ourselves. Planes are carrying more than they are designed to carry. Also, you complain about fares, but heavier planes burn more gas, so fares have to go up. Bottom line: America is simply too fat. it is a fact, so let's accept that and start making people pay for it.

Joe Yonan: I hadn't thought about the generally-heavier-planes idea, but this is interesting, indeed. Thanks for mentioning it.

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Centervile, VA: We have a timeshare and we're using it to go to Shawnee-on-the-Delaware in PA in July. We've never been there (and we're sort of forced to use this as our only option for time). What can we do there? I know we're only an hour from Scranton for one thing. Any tips? Thanks!

Carol Sottili: I went to a family reunion near there last year. I'm not a huge fan of the Poconos, but there's nice hiking and rafting near there. Check out the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

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Arlington, VA: Upcoming road trip from MD to Knoxville TN for a long weekend. Any suggestions on what to see and where to stop for the first night and for our last day coming back?

Nancy Trejos: I did this road trip late last year. Tennessee is great. If you like hiking or kayaking, I'd suggest you go to Concord Park on Concord Lake. Also check out the World's Fair Park. The Museum of East Tennessee History is interesting. The Alex Haley Statue is worth a visit too. A stop worth making, I think, is to the nearby town Gatlinburg. It's a charming, fun mountain town. There's even a Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum there! If you're looking for a town to stop for a night on your way there or back, Roanoke is actually a cute place. The Hotel Roanoke is a lovely hotel, and the relatively new Taubman Museum of Art is interesting.

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LA to SF: Morro Bay is amazing. It is a must! 12 years ago I drove from LA to Sacramento doing college tours and my mom and I drove up the coast. I remember sea lions and lots of birds. Also, depending on how long you have, what about visiting the Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz? Gorgeous is all I can say...also, tide pools in Monterey are fun even if you aren't a kid.

Nancy Trejos: Yes, Morro Bay was great fun! Thanks for these tips.

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LA to SF: The best place to stop is Santa Barbara, a delightful small city on the water with beautiful beaches, a lovely main street with restaurants, shops, and a small but excellent art museum (State Street), and a world-class university (go Gauchos!). And near Solvang is the best pea soup in the country - Pea Soup Andersons - a CA institution! Have a blast!

Nancy Trejos: How could I have forgotten Santa Barbara?! Yes, I stopped there too. Definitely worth checking out.

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LA to SF: Been thinking about doing this trip myself. Given I don't have an unlimited amount of leave, what's the minimum amount of time you (and the chatters) would recommend to make the journey?

Nancy Trejos: It will take you at least six and a half hourst to get from LA to San Francisco so you can technically do it all in a day. But I would suggest you take a long weekend so you can hit a few of the recommended spots. It's a lovely, relaxing ride. Definitely worth it.

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'visit a friend in Cape Town.': Yes, you'll have enough time (if your flight is on time!). Simply have someone wait for you at the international arrivals, and ask them to take you to domestic departures - a local will be very helpful as things tend to get a bit crazy at the inteternational arrivals, even more so since some of the soccer world cup teams may start to arrive. You have to check bags again for your domestic leg, unless you fly SAA.

Andrea Sachs: Thanks for the guidance.

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Damaged passport here: I wouldn't even be asking if I could just mail a damaged one in. But the website says a damages passport must be replaced in person. Any tips on the best place locally to do that? Closest post office to me is hostile and inefficient just to mail a package -- I shudder to think what their passport service is like.

Andrea Sachs: You need to visit a post office with passport services. You can find a qualifying one at http://iafdb.travel.state.gov.

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Zofia Smardz: Well, that's it for us today, folks. Thanks for your questions and for coming along for our weekly ride. See you all next week. And if the Utah traveler who waited out the storm to have Arches all to him/herself would send contact info to smardzz@washpost.com, I'll get you your prize. Bye all!

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