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Talk about Travel

Flight Crew
Monday, September 13, 2010; 12:00 PM

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Zofia Smardz: Happy noon, chatters! It's a gorgeous day here in Washington -- first scent of autumn in the air. We've got a lot to discuss today, so let's get cracking. We're eager to hear what you think about our question of the week -- sorry it got posted so late. But what do you think? Are frequent flier and travel reward programs worth it or not? Like Chris Elliott, I'm a rewards program skeptic. Well, cynic, really. Just can't get into them. But I'm sure many of you think otherwise, so let us know. And how about those camping, er, glamping stories we ran yesterday? Fun, no? So for our prize question, of course we must ask: What was your best/worst/funniest/most horrific camping experience? Hit us with your best shot, and off we go!

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TSA carryon rules: Hi Travel Team-I know all about 3-1-1 and TSA friendly laptop bags but I heard a new one from an airport security screener yesterday...TSA requires that each passenger is only allowed 1 carryon and 1 personal item (I had yet to stuff my purse in my laptop bag). I was under the impression that this was an airline (not TSA) rule and can't find anything on the TSA website. I'm wondering because I've had airlines and security cite non-existent regulations at me before simply to make their lives easier.Thoughts?

Christopher Elliott: TSA should not be enforcing baggage carry-on limits. (In fact, in the past, the agency has resisted being roped into policing the amount of luggage passengers take onboard.) Is it possible that the agents you dealt with weren't TSA agents, but one of the private contractors like Covenant Aviation Security being used at several airports? That would be one possible explanation.

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Anniversary: Hello Travel Staff! Our first year wedding anniversary is quickly approaching, and we are trying to decide what to do for it. We have about 250.00 to spend, and we can't decide if we want to do a one night stay at a B&B near by (to see the leaves and perhaps hike a bit) or to do a stay-cation and do some fun stuff in the city that we haven't done yet because of the boring chore of being financially responsible. Any opinions? Any recommendations on what to do? Thanks.

Becky Krystal: I definitely understand where you're coming from on being financially responsible and doing a staycation. But even if I say I'm going to relax at home, it never happens. I find just a single night away can be rejuvenating. So for $250 on your first-year wedding anniversary, go for it. Especially if you drive somewhere on a single tank of gas, it won't be too bad. I'd recommend browsing the options in the Shenandoah Valley too. A little farther away is the High Meadows Vineyard Inn, which I know would make a lovely anniversary destination.

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Frequent Flier Programs : Dear Mr. Elliott -- I generally agree with your column, but I don't think the answer is to drop out. I think you should take what you can get, and have realistic expectations with no illusions.First of all don't believe the hype about the free ticket for 20,000 miles. United is not a particularly customer-friendly airline, but within the past year we have gotten two RT tickets to Honolulu (for 70,000 miles + $10 each) for our grandkids, and two business class RT tickets to Paris (one for 120,000 miles, and one for 60,000 miles and an economy class ticket).The good old days when 13,000 miles got you an upgraded business class seat from New Zealand to Los Angeles are gone forever, and what you need to decide now is whether a low fare or some degree of comfort is worth more to you.

Christopher Elliott: Thanks for the kind words about my column. As I mentioned in the column, this was a follow-up to an earlier column on loyalty programs. Many readers responded by saying they had tried to quit, but couldn't. I wanted to write about that. If you go back to the original story, I do say that loyalty programs aren't for everyone, but that some will benefit from them. Sounds as if you fall into the latter category.

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travel - checking luggahe: I think airlines need to make everyone check their bags and just add the lugguage fee to the cost of the ticket. It takes forever to get on & off planes with everyone putting stuff in the overhead bins. Plus, you can't even use the bin over your seat because someone has already "stuffed" their bags in it.

Zofia Smardz: Yes, we have had mucho discussion about this over the weeks. Check out this past edition of Travel Talk.

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Travel Loyalty: I like the programs, but they should be fly-based only - nothing related to credit cards. Half of the planet's ecological waste comes from junk mail related to United sending me mailings for their credit card program that I will never, ever join.

Becky Krystal: I seem to get those offers after every flight I take. I'm talking to you, Southwest.

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Flights to Italy: I am going to Florence, Italy in mid November. I am seeing RT airfare of about $750 right now. Should I wait and hope for a sale or should I bite the bullet and buy now?

Carol Sottili:

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Sofitel Philly: I stayed at the Sofitel a couple of years ago. I thought the room was huge and the bed was comfy. But I found the lack of a top sheet somewhat mystifying. And the exorbitant internet charges were ridiculous. Lots of new options in CC Philly including a new Le Meridien along with the Palomar and some old standbys like the Residence Inn and Courtyard by Marriott across from City Hall. And the 4 Points Sheraton by the convention center, not to mention the Loews in the old PSFS buidling.

Zofia Smardz: The no-top-sheet thing is very European. They just don't use top sheets over there, and if the hotel does indeed change the duvet for every guest, then one's not really necessary, is it? Thanks for those other suggestions -- we will have to check them out!

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FF miles: I have certainly benefited big time over the years when it comes to FF miles. I have been able to fly international, long-haul business class on several occasions thanks to my miles. Most of those were "earned" via credit card spending and bonuses.I have always been able to get a seat but I plan way in advance most of the time, and I am somewhat flexible with dates. Sometimes you have to call to talk to a couple of different agents to get one willing to search partner airlines and more dates, but it's well worth the effort to me.In a few weeks I will be flying international, long-haul First Class for the first time on a trip booked with miles. The big alliances help when it comes to being able to book complicated itineraries and multiple carriers on one ticket.It is a shame that the U.S. airlines treat their coach passengers so poorly. I choose foreign carriers whenever possible because they usually provide much better service no matter where you sit...unless it's RyanAir.You can write your monthly article complaining about frequent travel programs until the end of time but I can't see anything changing since there is a whole industry that exists just to support these programs. And you have the folks at FlyerTalk who have figured out all sorts of ways to game the system.It takes a bit of work and some creativity sometimes but I am nothing but pleased with my travels in these programs.

Christopher Elliott: I agree, one column (or several) isn't going to change anything. But I thought it would at least get people to start thinking about who benefits the most from these program. The program apologists who lurk online think they can win at this game, but they remind me of the folks who go gambling in Vegas and believe they can somehow end up gaming the system. In fact, it's the system is rigged. The house wins almost every time. So for most of us, quitting now is a good thing.

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Arlington, VA: We (husband, 5-year-old daughter, and I) very much enjoyed a cabin/working ranch vacation in Oklahoma last year. We would like to find a cabin in mid-October within a few hour drive, maybe around the Skyline Drive area or West Virginia, that would allow us to bring our 25-pound dog. Any ideas? Thanks in advance!

Becky Krystal: Here's the Virginia tourism site's list of pet-friendly accommodations. From there you can narrow it down by type of lodging and location. You can do a similar search in West Virginia too.Chatters, any specific suggestions? Your fellow chatter and I as a two-dog parent would love to know!

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Holiday Air Fares: Hi - I usually buy my Christmas air travel tickets for four people from WAS to LAX sometime around July/August. This year the prices are really high. We can usually get under $350pp nonstop - but the lowest I'm seeing is $420 with one stop.Do you know why? Do you know if they'll have a sale anytime soon? Considering how low prices are now (we're flying Virgin in early November for $250pp), I'm surprised they're so high in December. Thanks!

Christopher Elliott: Yes. Demand exceeds supply for airline tickets. Airlines have cut back capacity by so much that it's become a seller's market for tickets. The strategy has worked: Airlines are now swimming in profits. Unfortunately, passengers are getting the worst of both worlds now: generally substandard service and higher prices. We used to put up with bad service if the price was right. Now we can only wish for the days of lower fares.On the bright side, if passengers refuse to pay these higher fares, airlines would have to lower their prices. So a sale would not be out of the question. Use a site like Yapta.com to track prices, and book when you see an affordable fare.

Carol Sottili: Agreed. Also, consider alternative airports. I found a $324 round-trip, one-stop fare on American if you're willing to fly DCA to Orange County (SNA). You may also get better fares flying on Christmas Day (time difference works in our favor) and New Year's Eve. And remember to check Southwest - their fares don't show up on other sites.

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reward programs: When I used to travel A LOT for work, it was definitely worth it. Upgrades on hotels, in the airplane, etc. And I charged stuff on my work amex which gave me points to transfer to the airline or hotel. It was DEFINITELY worth it for upgrading to first class when my husband and I went on our honeymoon. And I've gotten tickets and hotel rooms here and there over the years.Now that I don't travel so much, it's tough to keep up with all the rules (you have to travel XXX times in YYY years to stay eligible, etc). I did get a Bloomingdale's gift card from Hilton once cause my points were going to expire, so that was good. I don't expect much from any of it, so when I get something, it's nice.

Zofia Smardz: That seems like a reasonable attitude.

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coming to DC and Baltimore: I am coming to DC for a job interview but thought to make a trip out of this. Want to go up to Baltimore on a Sunday. I know MARC is out (how crazy is that), but want to know best and cheap ways to go to downtown Baltimore. Is it worth taking Metro to Greenbelt, then the B30, then the light rail?

Becky Krystal: Even easier I would say would be Amtrak from Union Station. Tickets can be had for as low as $15 each way, particularly in the morning. The return might be a little bit more. How does that work for you?Good luck with the interview!

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Travel rewards and camping: Price is my biggest motivator, so even though I have frequent-flyer memberships with a few different airlines, I don't travel enough or consistently with one airline to accumulate enough points or miles or whatever to actually use any. I did get and use a free ticket when I got a United credit card, but that's the only time I've benefited.Re: camping--I was a Girl Scout and was on an overnight camping trip when Hurricane Bob hit Connecticut in 1991. We had to crawl under the A-frames for safety; luckily, there were no injuries and the damage to the camp was relatively minor, considering all the big, old trees we were near/under. Overall, I think our parents were probably more traumatized than we were!

Zofia Smardz: Ooh, camping in a hurricane! Now that's scary!

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Camping stories: Last October, we continued our annual tradition of going camping on the beach at Assateague Island. With the sound of the crashing waves, the brisk wind, and roaming wild horses... it's incomparable to camping elsewhere. But this time, the horses got pretty bold and walked right up to our table as we were eating, to try and steal some of our grilled beef (and I thought they were vegetarians).We shooed them away, but then one came charging back, running full speed directly toward my screaming kindergarten-aged daughter.At the last minute, the horse swerved and missed her. It was frightening and amazing at the same time. Of course we went again this year, and nothing nearly as dramatic happened, but we know those horses are not to be messed with.

Zofia Smardz: And we thought they were just pretty little horses!

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Spanish Emersion Schools: I'm looking into a Spring Break vacation with my 14 year old daughter and was wondering about the many spanish emersion programs in Central America. Do you have any recomendations on what to look for and how to tell if a company is reputable?

Andrea Sachs: lack of privacy and the idiosyncracies of a stranger's home (when I did a language program in Mexico City, I was very sensitive to the smells of my family's food, for some reason.) Fields trips/excursions are also a great perk. Be aware that parts of Central America are still developing, so know your comfort threshold. Of course, there are tons of options out there. Ask for their accreditation or whether they are affiliated with the city or national government, or an education facility. Also, ask to speak to past students. You will learn the most from them.

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More (yes, more) about carryons: I mostly travel a few times a year to visit my parents in Florida. I have gotten so disgusted with my inability to get my small carryon into an overhead bin because the airlines let people carry on multiple huge bags that I pay for "choice seat" so that I can board early and guarantee myself some room in a bin. I resent being forced to pay extra because the flight attendants aren't doing their job.

Zofia Smardz: Believe me, I hear you.

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Reward programs: My opinion: if you travel rather frequently or take long flights, if you are a planner (i.e. you think and plan ahead) and if routing options mean you'll be using the same airline a lot, then reward programs can definitely be worth it.My track record for the last dozen or so years: Back when Midwest Airlines was the only one with direct flights to Milwaukee, I flew them a lot. Redeemed a free domestic roundtrip.Back when USAir had a huge presence here, I flew them frequently and redeemed a free domestic roundtrip.Then I began flying Northwest and United frequently. Got the United credit card too, mostly for the bonus mile offer (25k at the time, and only because I pay off the card every month). Redeemed a free domestic roundtrip on Northwest, and at least 1 domestic and 2 overseas roundtrips on United.Recently began flying AirTran and have already redeemed a one-way trip. The programs are not as great as they used to be, but can definitely still be useful to some frequent travelers.

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Beer Bandit: The first time I went "real" camping (I did a little backyard camping as a kid) was in Fort DeSoto Park in Florida. The campground was beautiful... but also completely overrun with raccoons. They would mostly keep their distance, but had clearly grown used to having people around.While we were unpacking, my husband and I left our cooler on top of the picnic table and walked about 10 yards back to the car to get more supplies. When we turned around, we discovered that a huge raccoon had opened the velcro top of the cooler and was trying to wrestle out a bottle of Corona. He scampered off once he realized he'd been spotted, but we made a point to keep an eye on the cooler (and the beer) the rest of the weekend.

Zofia Smardz:

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Most horrific camping experience: While a Girl Scout growing up in Nebraska, summer camping events were practically required. During one of them, not only did we get rained on because we couldn't figure out how to close the top of the teepee(!), but I also got over a dozen ticks! After that, I refused to do any more camping, and haven't been since!

Zofia Smardz: Oh I hate ticks! I'm shuddering at the very thought.

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Fall Foliage: Good Afternoon Flight Crew - When will the 2010 Fall Foliage guide be out?

Becky Krystal: I don't think this is something Travel recently has done as a whole feature. Perhaps you're thinking of Weekend's Fall Guide? They're not yet sure of their plans for this year, but that link to last year's might help some.I'm also guessing this info from a few years ago that ran in Travel might still be useful as a general guide.

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Kyoto, end of October: Hi Crew,Submitting early since I have a meeting at 12 noon. I am heading to Kyoto at the end of October, for 7 days. Thought about a side trip to Nara, but wasn't sure it would be worth it (yes, I have looked at guide books). Was hoping one of you could tell me what your personal opinion is.Many thanks!

Zofia Smardz: Joe, who I guess would qualify as our resident Japan expert, is alas off today. But no doubt there are chatters who can offer you a personal view. Folks?

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Paris hotel: Can you recommend a 3 star (at least) hotel in central Paris for a group of 10 women (5 rooms) for mid October? We had booked months ago at the Hotel Du Lys, and when we called to add a room last week, they had double booked over our booking (nevermind having taken a deposit) and invited us to look elsewhere. Yikes!

Zofia Smardz: I think for a group that large, you might be better off having a travel agent help you with this. Check this Web site for ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents. And perhaps there's a chatter or two who might have some thoughts?

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California coast in a car?: To attend a special event in San Diego in November, I'm thinking about seeing the coast, south from San Francisco, but -- wow -- one-way car rental seems outrageous. Is there another way to do this?

Carol Sottili: Yes, one-way car rentals are expensive. You'll pay upwards of $300 for a couple of days. Have you considered Amtrak? You could take the Coast Starlight from Oakland to Los Angeles, and then the Pacific Surfliner from there to San Diego. Total cost would be less than $100 per person.

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programs...: Having worked for a hotel company...let me just say they put a LOT of money into these programs. whole VERY LARGE departments. And they do see that people in the programs are VERY loyal. There's a reason that they want you to book on their website, as well - they make more money - and now they ply you with points so that you do it.Some people don't care about loyalty, only price, so those are the ones who don't get points anymore. The people who care REALLY care - and give the companies a lot of revenue.Is it worth it - given the amount of money they spend on those programs? Because it's not just setting up the Web site for stuff - you have to train agents, you have to train people to understand the program, etc. And they do A LOT of research into how to get the customers to spend more.Seriously - there was a program where for more money for a room, you got more loyalty points. Not surprisingly, it went VERY well.Why? Because most of those travelers weren't paying for their rooms - the company was - so what did they care? And they got more points, so that when they travel with their family, they can get more rooms...and the hotel company liked them more.

Zofia Smardz: You sound almost like an insider. . .

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Awful camping: When I was a kid (8 or 9), before I got contacts, I was invited camping with some friends. I'd never gone before, so I thought it could be fun, even though I've never really been much of an outdoors kind of girl.It couldn't have gone worse, actually. It rained and our tent collapsed, and when we got it set up again, I had to go to the bathroom, but my glasses had been lost in the chaos.I figured I could make my way to the porta-potties (there was no way I'd pop a squat...) and back in a vague sort of way, so I set off in the dark (since our flashlight batteries had died too).I made it to the bathrooms ok, and was feeling confident on the way back until I climbed into a tent with people I'd never seen before.In my hazy vision state, I couldn't tell the difference between one rainy tent and another in the dark, and luckily the nice people I'd wandered among took my back where I belonged.I've never been camping since, and even though I have contacts now, there's just no way I'd ever do that again.

Becky Krystal: Wow. And I thought my nearsightedness was bad.

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January vacation destination: My husband and I (early 30s) want to take a 2 or 3 week vacation in January. We want some combination of interesting culture/cities, natural beauty, good food and good weather (doesn't have to be beach-hot, but we don't want a winter vacation to Northern Europe). This is our first long trip in a while, so we don't mind a long flight. We're thinking Vietnam -- good choice? Where else should we consider?

Andrea Sachs: The world is yours. Vietnam is a great choice; make sure to add a side trip to Cambodia. Also consider Australia, with a side trip to Tasmania. It is summer there after all. Also add to that list Indonesia --lots of interesting culture, food and toasty warm. Or finally, how about India?

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Worst camping trip: Went to the beach with some friends and we decided to sleep in our sleeping bags ON the beach. We all awoke the next morning to grotesquely swollen faces and extremities due to bug bites. I could not open my eyes and my fingers looked like sausages and wouldn't work.

Zofia Smardz: Yikes, poor you!

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frequent flier miles: A few years ago I had racked up miles on Continental due to some work trips to Asia. When my mother was suddenly and seriously ill in LA, I was able to use the miles at the drop of a hat to go out there on the convenient Alaska Airlines nonstop from National. Continental was even helpful when I had to extend my stays. I got a flight out in less than 24 hours that allowed me to be with her before she died. I don't know how I would have been able to do it otherwise.I now have the bulk of my miles on United, which is less convenient, but has allowed me to upgrade on transatlantic flights and get flights for other family members when they need to travel. So, the miles can be really helpful but you have to be willing to use them.

Christopher Elliott: You make an important point. Miles don't get more valuable with time -- they depreciate. So you definitely want to use them before they expire or before their value drops.

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US vs. Foreign carriers: Can we put to rest the myth that foreign carriers always treat their passengers better than their US counterparts? I've experienced awful customer service on lots of airlines, and American carriers usually rank pretty much in the middle - not the best, but not the worst.

Christopher Elliott: Agreed. Anyone who has flown in Europe recently, and has had to pay some of the outrageous fees by the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet, knows that's true.

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Camping: When my spouse and I were first dating my brother invited us to come camping. (He set up a second tent on his site for us). Well we woke up the next morning with our heads in a puddle. It had poured and water seeped in. Well we grinned got up, showered and headed for coffee. The day turned sunny and we hung out sleeping bags and the tent dried out and we enjoyed the day. . We have now been married over 20 years. So I think how someone deals with waking up in an inch of water is a good test.

Zofia Smardz: It certainly sounds that way, though it's a test I'd rather avoid!

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California Coast by train: The Coast Starlight goes from Oakland to LA Union Station through a valley that is inland from Big Sur, only to tunnel through and go around Pt Conception. Since that's in Vandenburg AFB, it's the only wayt o see that part of the coast, then it's coastal to Ventura, and over through Chatsworth. If Big Sur is what the chatter wants, then a car is the only way. Going south on Highway 1 can be scary, since the south bound lane is right against the cliff edge with a sheer drop to the ocearn and scenic overlooks dotted about. It also takes much longer than the train or driving US 101. We took 2 days from Oakland to Oxnard when we did it.

Zofia Smardz: Thanks!

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Kyoto/Nara trip: It all depends on what you want to see in Kyoto. Daibutsu-Den in Nara is outstanding -- it's a beautiful structure in a lovely park and it is worth a visit. So is the Kofuku-ji, which is a 15 minute walk from Daibutsu-Den, and on the way to the JR Nara station. However, it all depends on what's on your list in Kyoto. Seven days is frankly not a lot of time -- the temples start to run together if you see too many in one day. What are you giving up to see Nara, and how badly do you feel about it? Therein is your answer.

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Horrifying/Now hilarious camping experience: When camping with my grandpa at Zion, I was showering at the campground. After getting into the shower and closing the curtain, I turned to see a scorpion (or something that looked like a scorpion anyway) climbing up the shower curtain! I was about 10 at the time. Obviously I couldn't just run out of the shower, i had to coverup. I slowly opened the curtain, threw my clothes on, and got the heck out of there! Lesson learned: Check the shower before getting in!

Zofia Smardz: Always!

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The bear necessities (camping): I was a kid and my parents took my sister and I camping throughout the Western U.S. In Yellowstone, we saw the "bear proof" trash bins that required one to step on a pedal to get the top to open. We were, fortunately, sleeping in our station wagon when we saw bears briefly peer into our car, and also step on the pedals to open the trash bins. At least that's the story our parents told us.

Zofia Smardz: I think parents like to kid their kids sometimes. . . :-)

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Arlington--pet-friendly cabins: Not to reply to, just a thanks for the link to the VA and WV pet-friendly lodgings. We just got our dog two months ago and had no idea where to start. Thanks much!

Becky Krystal: You're welcome. Let us know how it goes!

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Italy: Hi Crew, I am planning a trip to Italy from Boston, layover at either Heathrow or Madrid airports. How long should the layover be on the way there and for the way back? I am pretty conservative and worry about missing flights, but I also don't want to be stuck in an airport for more hours than necessary. Thanks!

Carol Sottili:

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Florida Keys in October: Good Morning. My hubby and I are headed down to Key West for a much needed break (NO KIDS!) in October. We are driving down to Key West from Ft. Lauderdale. Any recs of places to stop (food, sights, etc.) in the Keys on our drive down to the Southernmost Point?Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: A few years ago, we explored the keys from top to bottom, and also focused on top 10 accommodations, fishing and other side trips. For the PostGuide, go to this page and look on the righthand side.

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"Camping": I did some time "camping" (AKA Basic Training) during January and February in a lovely place in South Caroline called Fort Jackson. They told us it never snowed there and didn't really get cold. During our 3 nights in a tent it snowed and got so cold that our water bags froze. We couldn't even brush our teeth.

Zofia Smardz: Hmm. Could it have been global warming?

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Nara: Nara is definitely worth a day trip. The park and pagotas are beautiful and different from what you find in Kyoto. Don't miss the daibutsu!

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Camping Experience: Hi Travel Crew! When I was about 13, I was a Girl Scout, and we went on a canoeing trip down the Colorado River. In the end, it was a great adventure, but during the trip, it was like a comedy of errors. First, when we settled down for the evening, we didn't take into account that the dam might be opened, thus raising the water level and leaving us with less beach on which to camp. We moved to higher ground and thought all was well. It probably was for everyone else, but at some point during the night, it got cold and started to rain. I had somehow set up my tent to funnel the rain directly into the tent, on top of me. That woke me up! I did not want to get out of my sleeping bag, but I had to get up quickly and re-setup the tent properly so I could try to go back to sleep in my now damp sleeping bag (thank goodness it was a bit water resistant). The next day, after we had been canoeing for a couple of hours, a big storm hit, and we had to stop about halfway to our destination and get everyone over to the shore. The canoe I was in ran over what seemed like a large tree growing up from the bottom of the river. After struggling for what seemed like hours, we finally got off the tree and to the shore. When I got home, I slept for 14 hours straight!

Zofia Smardz: I bet you did. Sounds exhausting!

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Camping in Ireland many years ago : Back in 1970, just out of college, two friends and I went to Europe for a bit over two months. We bought a tent, sleeping bags, a cookstove and an old English Ford. (One of my friends was a skilled amateur mechanic and cars were much simpler then.)Anyway, out on the West coast of Ireland, near Bantry Bay, the hour grew late one day and there were no real campgrounds near, so we asked a farmer if he would mind our camping in his field. He was most hospitable and gave us the okay, so we pitched our tent and, after dinner, made an early night of it.I was the first to wake the next morning and quietly got out of my bag, unzipped the tent fly and made ready to greet the day. When I pulled the fly back, I was staring straight into the eyes of an enormous black bull. Realizing screaming wasn't the best thing to do, I quietly zipped the fly back up and sat down on my bag. It was dawn, so I could see the bull's outline as he walked around the tent, sniffing and trying to figure out what this thing was in his pasture. After a minute or so, he got bored and ambled off, but all I could think of was what would have happened if he had decided to charge our bright yellow tent.

Zofia Smardz: Good thing it wasn't a red one!

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Ponies on Assateague: Horse person here. I'll bet dollars to donuts that the little girl was charged by a stallion who was defending his terroritory. The older stallions get, the meaner they get and the more aggressive toward "intruders." As you said, people see them as cute little mini-horses and they're not. Enjoy them from a distance, and realize that they will defend themselves when they perceive any kind of threat.

Zofia Smardz: Wise words, thanks!

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Arlington, VA: Regarding frequent flyer programs, I'm in agreement with the chatter who talked about flights to/from MKE, planning, etc. It can work out fine if you can plan ahead a little, be flexible, and have reasonable expectations. Don't join an award program because you think you're going round the world in first class next year. Not happening.My wife and I have gotten numerous award tickets in both coach and Business Class in recent years. And we have experienced some of the best service when flying on FF tickets: with an economy ticket from LHR to DCA via ORD on AA, we got upgraded to Business Class on BA going direct LHR-IAD. We got our daughter a coach ticket on DL to go to Valencia, Spain, for a summer program; on her way back she was upgraded to Business Class for no apparent reason.Bottom line: use the award programs for what they're worth, don't expect the moon and stars, and be prepared to do a little planning.

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San Diego: Hello! I'll be in San Diego for 3 months between October and Januray for work. Do you have any suggestions on what part of the city I should stay? Any ideas of what I should plan to do during my free time? Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: Stay in Ocean Beach for its central location and proximity to the water. During your free time, check out Balboa Park, the zoo, the Gaslamp District (restaurants, clubs, etc.), La Jolla (Torry Pines State Park) and the great beach towns north of San Diego (simply called North County), including Encinitas and Del Mar.

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Cabins in WV: The WV state parks have excellent and reasonable cabins in some beautiful locations. I'm not sure about pets, but they may be in OK in some of the parks. The state park website is pretty easy to navigate in order to find out.

Becky Krystal: Good suggestion. I tend to overlook state parks when I'm thinking of getaways, but some of their cabins can be pretty nice.

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South Wales: My husband and I are nearing retirement and recently visited Denbighshire. We both fell in love with South Wales. I'd love to retire there, and he would be in heaven visiting the castles and ancient sites in the UK and Europe. If we were to say, ok lets do it, lets move there - what is the best place to begin? Would it be easier to work the issues if we were to rent a place over there and work out the details?

Zofia Smardz: Maybe you could start with a book. Amazon offers a number, the most recent being "How to Retire Overseas" by Kathleen Peddicord. That would at least be a basic guide. Chatters, anybody out there retired recently and moved abroad?

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Camping experience: Went camping with a friend one weekend long ago up at West Virginia state park. Bunch of guys who were camped nearby stayed up till all hours drinking, whooping it up with their foul mouths, and generally keeping other campers awake.Our friend got up at dawn and, although we didn't need any firewood, took our hatchet and went down to the woodpile near the partiers' tents, where he started chopping wood as loudly as possible. His rationale was that with any luck the party boys woke up after only a couple hours' sleep with thundering hangovers to the accompaniment of the wood-chopping racket (and he wasn't afraid, because he figured they'd be far too wasted to do anything about it)!No way to know whether the rowdy guys learned a valuable lesson, but it sure made our friend feel better.

Zofia Smardz: Amazing that your friend got enough sleep to get up at dawn. . .

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Portland, ME: My husband and I would like to visit Portland, ME over the holidays because it is on our list of possible places to move (even though we haven't been there since we were kids). To experience Portland off-the-beaten path, to get a true sense of what it would be like to live there, where we you suggest we stay, and what should we do? Thank you!!!

Becky Krystal: We've had a number of stories on Portland in the past. Browse our Maine collection to see them.

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Hong Kong: Hello! My husband and I are going to Hong Kong in March to visit a friend. We will have time to go to one more place after Hong Kong. The possibilities seem endless to me as we've never been to Asia. My friend recommends Thailand - a beach resort trip. That sounds amazing, of course, but I'd also like to see cities and history, and not necessarily Thailand. What are your thoughts?

Andrea Sachs: Thailand is so much more than beaches. You have Bangkok, Chaing Mai, Chaing Rai, mountain villages, temples, etc. I am a fan of Thailand and all its craziness. But I would also recommend Singapore and Malaysia.

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DC TO NYC: I used to take the USAirways shuttle regularly for $150-$175 (non-refundable). I've only flown that route a few times in the past five years so I'm not up on current fares. I'm seeing RT tickets in the $250-$275 range for a Fri-Sun trip. Is that about right for ticket prices these days, or should I wait a couple weeks?

Carol Sottili: That's the going rate for the shuttle. But if you're willing to fly out of Dulles into JFK, it'll cost much less. JetBlue frequently sells round-trip tickets for about $130. Or Delta from DCA into JFK is also cheaper. Typically, JFK is much cheaper than LaGuardia, where the shuttles land.

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January vacations: The person looking to vacation in January has options for sure. How about the Mediterranean? I spent 10 days in Malta one October and enjoyed it very much...but probably would have stayed a couple days less if I had it to do over. How about Sicily or someplace like that? I love SE Asia and that time of year will be great for weather...and probably fairly crowded. Also check to see when the new year holiday is in Vietnam to make sure it does not coincide with your trip. Lots of places shut down for the holidays and/or are booked up well in advance.

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Camping with guard dogs: A couple years ago, my spouse and I drove up from southern Maine with our two dogs, who had never been camping before, for a night of camping at Acadia. The day started out rather badly after we waited an hour for a lobster roll at a roadside place that supposedly had the best in the state (after about 30 minutes, spouse refused to leave because it had become a matter of principle).We made it to our campsite around dusk, set up, and headed into town for the best Chinese food we had while living in Maine.That was all good. The worst part came that night. The dogs weren't quite sure about the whole "being outside, but being inside the tent" and decided they needed to protect us from any noises coming from outside.Everytime there was a noise, our golden puppy would give his warning growl and then a woof, which would get his spaniel sister barking a couple times. Unfortunately, we were about 15 yards from the path to the bathroom, so this happened just about every 40 minutes, waking us up every time.We had finally gotten about 90 minutes of straight sleep when the hellions in the tent across from ours woke up and decided that 6:30 am was a good time to start screaming.We were so out of it on the way back that we had to take turns driving while the other person napped.

Zofia Smardz: But at least you were safe!

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Layover to Italy: In 2008, my wife and I flew JFK to Venice with a 90-minute layover at Heathrow. The flight to Heathrow was late, we waited forever to disembark that plane, and had to run down our connecting flight and essentially beg our way in. Just sayin'...

Carol Sottili: You can never plan for every possibility. Just play the odds.

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most horrifying camping experience: Getting lost in the wilds of Virginia on our way to a campground, accidentally "trespassing" down someone's very long driveway (we wanted to turn around), and being greeted by a very unfriendly property owner with a shotgun. We hightailed it out of there SO fast...! Luckily, we found our campground and no one got shot.

Zofia Smardz: I would say that was lucky indeed.

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Overhead bins: I flew back from Chicago over Labor Day weekend. Probably my first flight of the year. I was surprised to see that the overhead bins on the "drivers side" were bigger than the ones on the "passenger side." This was one of the larger jets (two aisles). Is this typical? The passengers on my side of the plane were definitely struggling with the smaller space, and only a few people managed to climb over the center section to use the larger bins. I think next time, I will try to get a seat on the other side.

Becky Krystal: The times I've noticed this is when there are different numbers of seats in the rows on either side of the plane. I've seen it more in smaller planes in my experience. That might be where something like SeatGuru could help.

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Frequent flyer programs: As someone who flys on price and not program, I still ike the programs. I belong to them on all airlines which I fly even if it's only on one flight. I do believe the gate attendants might see that and upgrade (if possible).I'll never accrue enough on any airline for a flight, so I use the miles at the online stores for gifts and magazines, or dontae them to partner charities.I am forever grateful for the co-worker (with many miles) who didn't hesitate flying em to my father's funeral a few years ago when I needed a last minute flight.

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Frequent Flyer Miles: I have frequent flyer accounts with several airlines, but I don't pay any attention to them when booking flights because it's better to get a lower fare now than possibly, maybe, perhaps getting something (partially paid for flight, magazine subscriptions, etc.) later.I do have a Capital One No Hassle Rewards Visa card, and while I have heard complaints about Capital One from friends and family, I've have had mostly good experiences with them.I've taken 2-3 flights that were completely paid for by my Capital One miles. Plus, they let you apply the miles up to 90 days after you book the flights (or other travel, if not flying).There are only two things I don't like about their plan: (1) The points needed in order to get any kind of travel reimbursement have gone up and (2) You can only apply the points to 100% of the cost of your ticket. For example, our tickets to Seattle were $470 each. I had enough points to cover $350, but they don't give you partial credit. I needed to have enough points for the full cost of the ticket.However, I did call them after the 90 day deadline (by which time I had enough points for the $470 credit), and they gave it to me even though it was past their deadline. I don't think this is a favor they will repeat, but I was happy to get the $470 credit!

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Cairo: When is the cheapest time to fly to Cairo? Last time I went, I studied abroad for four months so I have no idea. Thanks!

Carol Sottili:

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Retiring to the UK: Start by asking the British Consulate what you need to do to get visas. Without visas, you cannot live there.Make certain you have health insurance that covers international medical costs (FEP BC-BS works).Make sure you have a US bank account to pay any US dollar based bills. It will be hard to get a UK sterling account immediately. Your car insurance history does not transfer. Your premiums will be the maximum.Join SAGA, the UK version of AARP. It's much better than AARP and I like the magazine, which gets to the US.Finding an automatic transmission car will not be easy.Driving on the other side of the road can be confusing and roundabouts go the opposite direction.It's cold. Brits like it colder and 62 degrees indoors is considered warm enough. Energy costs are higher than here, and gasoline is a favored tax to balance the general budget.

Zofia Smardz: Useful advice, thanks!

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Portland: For a 20-something visiting Portland, any offbeat places to visit? We've already done the typical tourist stuff: the Rose Garden, Powell's, Voodoo, Saturday Market etc. Food (especially a good breakfast place), shopping, nightlife recommendations a plus.

Andrea Sachs: Go to Slappy Cakes, where you make your own pancakes and pick your own fillings. Sadly, that is all I can offer, since most of things I have done, you have listed above.Any hipsters have some suggestions?

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Key West: I can't offer advice on the trip from FLL to Key West as I was so excited to get there we just drove straight through 'cept for the stop at the pirate-themed liquor store... However, in Key West, you must go to Pepe's Cafe and get the catch-of-the-day sandwich at lunch (I suggest blackened). My SO and I were there 2 years ago and we still talk about how good it was (Mahi-Mahi caught that morning in our case).

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January vacation: South Africa is a great deal, there are usually fare sales after New Year, and once you get there its cheap and easy to get around.

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Camping stories: My best and worst camping story: We went to Shenandoah in early October for a weekend camping trip. We were prepared for cold weather; but not nearly as cold as it got. It ended up snowing, we ran out of fire wood and had to trek to the store for more, tents collapsed from the weight of the snow. But, we all had so much fun crowding around the fire and talking all day/night that it is definitely one of my top camping memories now. And we had plenty of adult beverages to keep us warm!

Zofia Smardz: Bitter and sweet! Thanks!

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Spring camping story: Ny Girl Scout troup went on a weekend camping trip during spring vacation in Connecticut. When I woke up, there was weird light coming through the light green nylon tent. When I opened the tent flap I saw an inch-deep layer of snow over the campsite, tents and all. Boy, we were surprised! luckily, being scouts, most of us were prepared with at least a spare pair of shoes.

Zofia Smardz: I bet that light was not so much weird as lovely.

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Best camping experience: My boyfriend and I went to Key West for Christmas one year. We were both in grad school and had no money. We were camping in a tiny tent in a horrid campground, squeezed between two RVs. We had read about the Dry Tortugas, an old fort and natoinal park on a tiny island off the coast, with a smattering of camping spots. We negotiated a deal with a seaplane operator who takes tourists out on daytrips to fly us out there and fly in water and ice to us each day. It was magical - we snorkeled all day and watched the sun set each evening from our camp site. Most nights there were at most two other parties staying there - it was like having our own private island for $15/day plus $200 for the flight - much less than we would have spent in Key West amongst the drunken RVers.

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Portland, ME: Go to Duckfat for lunch, or dinner. Get the fries and beignets. And everything else on the menu.

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Heathrow: for the person travelling to Italy -- make sure you don't have to actually switch AIRPORTS in London. I've had to do that in the past, and it wasn't well explained how to get on the bus, and I almost ended up missing my flight home (and after being in Europe, away from my then-fiancee for 2 months, I would NOT have been too happy about it!)

Carol Sottili: That can happen if you're taking a discount carrier for the second leg, as most don't fly out of Heathrow. But hopefully, they'd know that before they go.

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Go to Slappy Cakes, where you make your own pancakes: You're joking, right? If I wanted to make my own pancakes I'd just stay home. When I go to a restaurant I want my food made for me, along with good service and a pleasant (not noisy) ambience!

Andrea Sachs: No, I am not kidding. I think interactive dining is fun. And they have more than just pancake mix and berries. Guess we will never be dining out together.

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Having a travel agent help: I've never used a travel agent. I'm in midst of wedding planning for spring 2011 and a travel agent may be just what I need to help us arrange a honeymoon (Paris and Prague). How much does a travel agent cost? What can I expect as services?

Carol Sottili: I think word-of-mouth is probably the best way to find someone.

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Christmas mini-vacation: My husband, toddler, and I would like to take a small trip over Christmas break (husband is a teacher). Although we'd like to try a cruise out of Baltimore, cruise lines more than triple their prices that week. Any advice on something we could do on the cheap, for, say, less than $1000 for all three?

Andrea Sachs: No matter where you go, fares and rates will be twice as high because of the holiday. You can wait and see if the cruise rates go down, or try for different times. You might also try a destination that is hurting because of the economy or news, such as Mexico. Some resorts might be having holiday sales; just be sure you go to a tourist destination like Cancun or Cozumel. You might also consider the Gulf Coast of Florida, which also is trying to come back after the oil spill. Look for package deals or tourism Web sites for specials.

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Zofia Smardz: Okay, time's up! Put aside your keyboards and we'll see you next week. Except for the near-sighted person who climbed into the wrong tent when camping as a kid. Send your info to me at smardzz@washpost.com, and I'll send you your prize. Bye all!

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