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Talk about Travel

Flight Crew
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:00 PM

Travel with coupons and other money-saving traveling strategies, the TSA's more aggressive pat-downs, holiday vacation planning, and more.

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Nancy Trejos: Share your survivor stories with us. Most fascinating story gets a prize. Let's chat!

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Seeking Warmth!: Hi--My husband and I are looking to take a mini-break someplace warm in February. We'd be leaving from New York, have about four days and won't have a car. Other than Mexico, we're open. Where do you suggest we go?

Joe Yonan: I'm a Puerto Rico fan myself, especially for relatively short trips, because you can find direct flights at reasonable prices (I see $330 r/t from JFK on Jet Blue), which means you can leave in the morning and be there in time to go to the beach. Also, you can stay in Old San Juan and get around on foot pretty easily, or stay on the beach. That would be my old standby -- or perhaps Miami, for some of the same reasons. But if you want to branch out a little bit, you might check out Puerto Plata or Punta Cana in the DR. Also easy/cheap to get to. And there are many other ideas -- which I'm sure our chatters will expound upon!

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Atlanta: On December 29, I used Holiday Inn's website to make a prepaid reservation for a February stay. On January 1, a mere two days after I made my reservation, the hotel was dropped from the Holiday Inn chain. I no longer want to stay there if the hotel cannot even meet the Holiday Inn chain's meager quality standards.Unfortunately, I cannot cancel the reservation via the Holiday Inn website, nor via Holiday Inn's automated phone system, nor by speaking to a Holiday Inn reservations agent. They all say I have to call the hotel directly. Worst of all, the last Holiday Inn agent I spoke to claims that, on December 29, they had no idea that this particular hotel would be dropped from the chain a mere two days later. Any suggestions?

Carol Sottili: Have you tried calling the hotel directly? If they can't help, contact your credit card company and dispute the charge.

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Full-body scans: safe in pregnancy?: Why haven't we heard anything about the risks of back-scatter X-rays in pregnancy? It seems to me that using any amount of ionizing radiation in early pregnancy could pose a future public health problem. Should any woman of child-bearing age who is sexually active submit to this procedure as she might be pregnant without knowing it?

Christopher Elliott: The machines have been studied, and although the government claims the scanners are safe, some experts dispute that claim. I'm not aware of any studies on pregnant women, but I do know that many pregnant women refuse to use the scanners. I should mention that there are also concerns about the potential effects of the scanners on young children. We have decided not to put our three young children (ages 4, 5 and 8) through the scanners. There has to be a better way.

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Dubai: Hi Travel Crew! I have a good friend moving to Dubai soon and I'd love to plan a visit sometime this year. Preliminary searching has shown airfare of about $1K for the Spring. Is this about what I should expect to pay? Any particular time of year cheaper to fly there?Thanks!

Carol Sottili: Summer is considered low season in Dubai, as it gets very hot.

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Washington, DC: We are getting married in July and looking for a place nearby (within a 3-4 hour drive) to "minimoon" instead of taking a full-blown honeymoon. Ideally, it would be somewhat secluded in a natural setting (woods, mountains, beach, etc) or small town (not a city), have some activities (hiking, pool, etc), nice amenities and good food, and not cost more than $450 a day, food and lodging and everything included. We could do a resort-type place, a B&B, or a lodge/inn etc. We're just not sure where to start looking around here. Any ideas? Thanks so much, and happy new year!

Carol Sottili:

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Joe Yonan: Was anybody on the USAir flight from Boston to DC this morning that featured the cell-phone-talking, wouldn't-sit-down passenger and his clicking overhead baggage? If so, please let us know what you saw! Email us w/your contact info at travel@washpost.com.

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New York hotel review: I enjoyed reading the review of the new New York hotel. But, savvy travellers know that most hotels, and even some sports clubs, keep the sauna turned off, as it wastes electricity to keep it turned on 24x7. Instead, when you go to a sports club, and you want to use the sauna, just go into the locker room and turn it on (or make sure it is already turned on) before you begin your workout or swim. By the time you are finished with the workout, the sauna will be piping hot for you!

Joe Yonan: Yep, I'm savvy enough to get that. But there was no switch in sight in this case -- and no sign indicating anything... I was trying to make the point that savvy hotel owners make things as smooth as possible by letting their guests know procedures, you know?

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Hagerstown, Md: Hi there - I'm headed to Hagerstown for an afternoon meeting this weekend, and I'd like to explore the area a bit. Any suggestions for what I shouldn't miss - or an idea for something more exciting along the way? I'll be leaving from Bethesda.

Andrea Sachs: the town of Boonsboro (and the Nora Roberts connection, including her bookstore and inn) and Laila's Kitchen, for Afghani food.

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RTW Trip: We are in the planning stages of a mini-RTW trip for us and our kids. I've read lots of articles and know about Airtreks as a travel agency - is there any other place you know of? Are there search engines that allow you to maximize a specific airline alliance (like Sky Team or One World)? We plugged in our itinerary to Orbitz and ended up with about $3500 per person across many many carriers/alliances. We are planning to take our kids (first grader and preschooler) to India, Thailand, and Sweden over 6 weeks - any of these unsuitable or someplace we should see instead (kids and we have been nowhere)? We will be taveling to/from JFK in an effort to get the cheapest airfares - or will that not matter? And what would a decent budget for this be? We are looking at spending roughly $20k on the whole adventure, including airfare and lodging, and knowing that we will be staying with friends/family for about 3 of those weeks. Does that sound reasonable? We can flex up to $30k but would prefer not to. Thanks! Any insight from the broader audience would be great.

Christopher Elliott: There are two sites where you can connect with mileage experts, who can help you make the most of your loyalty points. One is Flyertalk (also, see InsideFlyer, a sister site). The other is Frequentflier.com. RTW trips can get pretty complicated, and I usually advise travelers to consult a knowledgeable travel agent who can figure out the best routing and may also be able to help you optimize your mileage-collection. I would defer to an offline agent on the budget question.

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London and Venice: We want to book a trip to Europe in June, 3 days in London, 5 days in Venice. I get a price of $10,000 for 2 adults and 1 child. I think it's pretty good but my husband thinks we should wait. What do you think? Thanks a lot!

Carol Sottili: Nearly impossible to answer unless we know whether you're going budget, luxury or somewhere inbetween. Coach airfare, if you are flying into one city and out of another, should cost no more than about $1,100 each for June travel. That leaves $6,700 for transport, food and accommodations. Very rich for my blood, but if you are staying in suites at the St. James and Hotel Cipriani, might not be enough.

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Paris Rentals: What is the current legal status of short-term rentals in Paris? I recall reading something about the government banning rentals that are for less than one year. Yet I see plenty of listings for this summer on vrbo.com. We are thinking about going to Paris in July. Any help would be appreciated.

Carol Sottili: Seems as if the neighbor has to complain before officials respond.

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Seated the last hour of the flight?: On Saturday, I flew from Vegas to DC. The pilot came on an hour and a half before landing and said if you needed to move about the cabin, do so now because everyone had to stay seated the last hour of the flight. I thought that restriction was rescinded several years ago. Has this been reinstated?

Andrea Sachs: That rule required passengers to stay seated for the last 30 minutes of the flight, and it was indeed lifted. However, are you sure it was not related to turbulence? When the air turns bumpy on the final portion, the pilot will frequently turn on the fasten your seatbelt sign before the approach and keep it on till landing.

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Where is a story link: to this Boston-DC flight...hadnt heard anything about this.

Joe Yonan: Sorry! It's here.

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Physical trip: I love travel and find that I am more active during travel. Rather than sitting at a computer all day I am walking or hiking for hours. But my most grueling trip was a three-day hiking tour of the hill tribes of Thailand. I describe the first day as a test of aerobic competence (because most of it was uphill), the second of balance (because some of the paths were on the edges of steep hills), and the third a test of your joints (because much was downhill). It was a great trip--thanks to nightly Thai massages we had no muscle stiffness. Each day we would ask our guides how long and strenuous our trek would be and would get various answers from different guides. I think some were afraid to tell us the truth. And while we were working hard to make it through the trek, our porters were carrying our gear, includign all our drinking water, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes constantly, and wering homemade flip-flops! It was a great trip to an area I had not known much about. I'd highly recommend visiting Thailland and the Hill Tribes.

Nancy Trejos: My body aches just reading this. But it sounds amazing. Thanks for writing in!

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Airline or Airport employees?: Over the Christmas holidays my mother and I traveled in and out of DCA and DFW. Mom needed a wheel chair. The gentlemen really took excellent care of her and never seemed to be rushed. To whom do I contact to praise their efforts?

Christopher Elliott: If the services were provided by your airline, I would start by sending a brief note to the company through its website. The message will be forwarded to the right department.

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Chicago/Pittsburgh or Montreal/Quebec City?: My husband and I are wanting to take an overnight trip on Amtrak. We have 7-10 days to spend - going in August 2011 - and are torn between Chicago/Pittsburgh or Montreal/Quebec City. Can you give me some ideas of interesting and not to miss things to do in each city (besides art museums and baseball - which we love) so we can make up my mind? Neither of us has been to Chicago or Pittsburgh, but my husband has been to Montreal and Quebec City. He's leaving it up to me.....Thanks

Joe Yonan: OK, those are tough choices. It really comes down to whether you want foreign or domestic. Montreal and QC have a European feel to them, thanks to their Francophilic nature. I love Montreal (below) for its food, shopping, art, music, general walkability. Quebec City is similar, just a little more quaint. Then there's Chicago! Hooboy, a great restaurant town, one of my favorites, and the architecture is spectacular. Fabulous waterfront, good shopping, too. Pittsburgh I haven't spend any time in, but I hear great things. Hmm. Chatters, what do you think?

Nancy Trejos: If you do end up going to Pittsburgh, the nearby Carnegie Library would also be worth checking out. I agree with Joe. Tough choice. But I don't think you can go wrong with either one.

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Some may see this as grueling: I recall doing a southwest trip where I did 12 national Parks and monuments in about 14 days.It was a fun road trip...I did hiking too in the middle of summer in the dessert. In Moab the temps were up near 105.

Nancy Trejos: Okay, 12 national parks in 14 days is quite ambitious! Thanks!

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Amtrak cancellations/refunds: I'm considering taking the train from Portland to L.A. in March. Rates seem to be changing daily, so I am tempted to book soon, but I'm confuse by their refund policy. 10% fee for both basic fare, and accommodations?

Joe Yonan: Unless I'm not reading it correctly, I think that 10% fee is only for "multi-ride" tickets.

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hotel review: I generally enjoyed yesterday's Bed Check. It's good to see a review that points out the areas where the place could improve. But I found the "cliche alert" device REALLY annoying.

Joe Yonan: Didn't mean to annoy you! Don't worry -- it's not a device I plan to use again anytime soon...

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Thinking Ahead: Some friends and I have decided that we want to go to the beach/Atlantic City over Memorial Day weekend. Do you think we'll end up having to do a weeklong rental, and is there a place to stay on the Jersey Shore without it being too "Jersey Shore"?

Carol Sottili: Atlantic City.

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Mini-honeymoon suggestion: My husband and I did the same thing & went to the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels. We splurged on a package that included dinner, a cruise of the Bay, and daily tea. It was fantastic, luxurious, and did not break the bank. Also, St. Michaels is small enough that you can easily take it all in within 2 or 3 days.

Joe Yonan: Nice.

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Colombia : If I have one week, and spend the first few days in Bogota, what do you recommend for the rest of the week? If I've seen lots of Spanish colonial cities in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, is Cartagena still worthwhile? Otherwise, I've thought of Leticia for the rain forest or Santa Marta for the beaches.

Nancy Trejos:

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Costa Rica: Interested in planning a vacation to Costa Rica sometime in May-June timeframe and would like to experience both the rainforest and the beach. Do you have any good suggestions on locations for each? Since going to the beach from San Jose requires a bit of travel time, I want to be sure to maximize time at both locations.Thanks!

Andrea Sachs: I would evenly divide your trip into two parts, jungle and beach, booking a flight from San Juan to the rainforest, then to the beach and back. For the jungle part, I would check myself into an ec0-lodge for four or five days that includes lodging, tours, food, etc. Some good choices: Selva Verde, Casa Corcovado, Pacuare Lodge. For a great list of beach areas, see www.anywherecostarica.com/destinations/habitat/beach. When I visited CR, I stayed near Playa Flamingo. I will never forget the sand that was as white as the bleached teeth of a celebrity.

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Minimoon Suggestion: I strongly recommend the SAVAGE RIVER LODGE 3 hours from DC near Frostburg MD, nestled in the woods, luxury cabins, fabulous food. Check it out at www.savageriverlodge.com

Carol Sottili: Thanks for your idea.

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Colombia follow up: Are there good beaches close to Cartagena? I've heard the city beaches are dirty. And is Tayrona close to Cartagena or Santa Marta?

Nancy Trejos: between Cartagena and Santa Marta. But again, I think Cartagena is worth visiting once.

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Physically grueling vacation: Out of town marathon: I thought I'd give the Philadelphia Marathon a try this past fall. I looked at as a mini-vacation as quite a bit of planning was involved. I need to stay near the Art Museum the evening before and wanted to stay near by after but budgets won that argument. I got to explore Center City, Reading Terminal, and Old City that weekend. Enjoyed really good Italian food (couldn't tell you what restaurant) the night before. After nearly 30 years of my parents talking about how they used to eat crabs and fries at DiNardo's, that was my go-to post marathon spot. They even gave me my beer in the 26.2 pint glass I brought along. This was not my first marathon but it was definitely the most mentally challenging as there were LONG stretches with no spectators. After the marathon, I had to take an ice bath to speed up recovery so I wouldn't stiffen up on the car ride to North Carolina for the remainder of Thanksgiving week. I love marathons but the expense of an out of town race will make me second guess it in the future.

Nancy Trejos: I admire anyone who completes a marathon. I've never tried it myself. Glad you survived!

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Selecting a Caribbean Cruise - Help!: We're thinking of taking a Caribbean cruise in April on Princess. Can you please describe the pros and cons of a Caribbean cruise to the different parts of the Caribbean (southern, eastern, western)? We've never been to the Caribbean before and are not sure which itinerarry will be the best fit for us. If it matters, we're in our early 30's reasonably fit, and enjoy history/culture and outdoor activities, not really interested in shopping or gambling. Also, when would you suggest we look to book airfair? Thanks!

Carol Sottili: Western Caribbean may suit you best.

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Christmas travel story: I traveled over the holidays and my one flight was on christmas day....ohhh the number of people who havent flown in years...if ever. What a nightmare.

Joe Yonan: Yep, the combination of Christmas being on a Saturday (meaning many many many people would be traveling on the Sunday) and the East Coast snowstorms added up to a pretty disastrous experience for a lot of folks. Tell us more: Where were you traveling from and to? Set the scene for us -- since we didn't chat last week, we want to let you, and any other chatter who wants to, vent.I got pretty lucky. Was visiting family and friends in Texas (Fort Worth and Austin first, then San Angelo to family), and was set to drive from SA to DFW for the flight on Sunday -- and not looking forward to that. American's computer called with a recorded message in the morning saying my afternoon flight to DCA was canceled and I was booked on a 7:20 a.m. flight out of DFW the next day. Easy-breezy. Didn't have to try to get through on the phone, just had lunch with the family and took a leisurely drive to DFW later in the day, after booking a night at the Grand Hyatt in Terminal D -- and knowing I'd get reimbursed for it cause I have Amex travel-delay protection. Since I was flying out of that terminal, I got to leave my hotel room at 6:15 and made it with plenty of time to spare. For those who know how much I like to cut it close, this was a godsend.How was everybody else's holiday travel? Catch us up!

Nancy Trejos: make it back to London. So I hung out in Paris and flew back to New York from there instead. I made it back in time for Christmas, and then the blizzard hit! I can't complain though. Paris and New York are good places to be stranded. Please share your stories with us!

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Minimoon: Slightly longer drive -- 5 hrs at most -- but what about the Homestead or Greenbrier? $450 a day would work at both places.

Joe Yonan: Yep.

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Colombia: The person going to Colombia deserves brownie points for not spelling it "Columbia." I've wanted to go to Colombia and definitely see the Andes there. Quite a variety of scenery in the country.

Nancy Trejos: many people get that wrong. And yes, you must go to Colombia. It's amazing.

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Physically grueling vacation: Just think of that Chilean miner who was trapped underground for 10 weeks, who then came to NYC in order to run the New York City Marathon this past fall, as well as make TV appearances. I bet HE was one exhausted tourist!

Joe Yonan: Good point!

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Physically grueling vacation: Funny you should ask. My husband and I just got back from a grueling and thrilling trek through Western Sikkim in late Nov/early Dec. Physically grueling primarily because of the inclines and the altitudes (up to 13000+) feet, but also the COLD. I had not anticipated how cold we would get once we stopped hiking and set up for the night. With temps around freezing, once you stop moving, your body cools down very fast. We ended up putting on essentially every item of clothing we owned by the third day (including several layers of long underwear) and just did not take it off until the end.The physicial exertion at that altitude was also a bit of a shock, for those of us who dwell at sea-level. Simple activities like putting on your shoes and lacing them up left us out of breath, so you can imagine how exhausting 4-6 hours of trekking was!But the experience and the views were definitely worth it!! And what was really amazing was the ability of our guide and associated helpers to trot up steep inclines at high altitude, while we trudged slowly along -- and they were often carrying supplies on their backs!

Nancy Trejos: Wow, takes my breath away.

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Airline comes through: Since airlines generally get very bad publicity, I would like to say that the major airline whose name starts with "U" came through with a full credit card reimbursement when we had to cancel a trip on short notice for medical reasons. It did take talking to two agents -- the first one said we never do this, but the second one said sure, no problem. So at least once "U" Airlines did do the right thing.

Joe Yonan: Good to know. But a question: Is the U in this airline's name the first letter of a full word (United), or is it just an initial (US Airways)? Let's give credit where it's due!

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Airline comes through (cont.): It was United.

Joe Yonan: Cool. Thanks.

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Children and scanners: I can understand not wanting one's young children to go through a full-body scanner due to unknown issues regarding radiation exposure, but how do you explain to a child that a complete stranger (a TSA agent) is now going to touch them and that it's OK for THIS stranger to touch them? I can imagine lots of children simply not responding well to pat-downs.

Andrea Sachs: I think you explain it the same way you teach a child about why it is okay for a doctor for prod and touch areas normally off limits to a stranger. This person is a professional and is performing that pat-down to keep the child and everyone else safe. However, remember that a pat-down is a last resort. Most likely, your child will never have to undergo.Here is the advice from the TSA:Transportation Security Officers will work with parents to resolve any alarms at the checkpoint. If required, a child may receive a modified pat-down. Parents are encouraged to ensure their children have taken all items out of their pockets as they go through the security checkpoint.

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Travel on Xmas Day: I flew out of National on a 10am flight on Xmas day and it was easy, breezy. Short lines. Small crowds. They weren't even sending anyone through the full-body scanner. The only problem was that the snow flurries started so the plane had to wait in a LONG line for the one de-icer machine so we left 20 minutes late.

Joe Yonan: Ah, yes, de-icing. That held me up in DFW a little bit, too.

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Physically grueling vacay: Had to be my honeymoon! We climbed Mt. Vesuvis on a very steep foot path, sea kayaked in the Mediterranean and climbed 415 uneven steps up to the top of the Duomo bell tower in Florence. It was a great experience though and helped us work off all the pizza and cannoli's we ate!

Nancy Trejos: That's a lot of work! Thanks for sharing.

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American?: Can you tell me what the deal is with American removing content from Orbitz? I have a flight on American next week that I booked through Orbitz. Is it still good? Should I panic?

Nancy Trejos: you have to go through American Airlines reservations at 800-433-7300. And over the weekend, Expedia dropped American from its listings.

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US versus foreign airline in coach?: Which do you think would be better: Taking a non-stop US domestic airline flight in coach to and from a foreign country -- or taking a shuttle flight and then changing planes in order to connect to a foreign carrier's flight? So many people complain about coach service on US carriers to and from foreign destinations that I wonder whether the hassle of changing planes (and terminals) in each direction would be worthwhile in order to get better coach service?

Carol Sottili: Depends on where and when you are going and which airlines serve the destination. If I'm going to London, for example, I'm flying Virgin or British Airways. And, although they both serve Washington, I would be willing to fly to New York to take one of these carriers, unless it's the dead of winter (would not want to risk weather problems). But if I'm going to Rome, I'll avoid Alitalia and opt for United. Go to Skytrax to look at airline ratings.

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Beach/Atlantic City during Memorial Day weekend: Re: Poster asking about renting during Memorial Day weekend at NJ beach or Atlantic City, they should be aware that the air and water temperatures are not at the levels they would be during July and August. So, if they're expecting 80 degrees in the air and the ocean, they'll be sadly disappointed. I know this because I've been to AC during those weekends in the past, and my family has advised me that I should wait until the weather gets warmer in late June. The poster should take along some sweaters or windbreakers for walking on the famous Boardwalk, especially in the evening. Try going to the shore via Amtrak and NJ Transit, then use the jitney to get around AC. Don't forget to bring home some salt water taffy from Fralinger's or James'!

Joe Yonan: Thanks for the advice! Of course, if you're chilly you can always warm up by doing some GTL.

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African Safari recs?: My husband and I received an amazing gift - a fully paid safari (up to 3 days) at a destination of our choice (we have to cover airfare). We plan to use miles (either British Airways or American), so would like to choose a destination that these airlines fly to. It's a little overwhelming to sort through all the tours that are available, so we're hoping you all can give us some advice. Side trips/city visits would also be welcome since this will likely be a once in a lifetime visit to Africa for us. Thanks!!

Carol Sottili:

Nancy Trejos: I really liked Fitch Hattons safari in Kenya, but Carol is right, it's hard to say without more information.

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International anniversary trip: Looking for a city for anniversary trip in late May/early June. We had considered Central America/Caribbean since husband's not much of a beach vactioner, but are leaning towards Montreal. But Montreal airfare is looking like $600/person, and that's not even the direct flight. Do you expect airfare to stay at that price, and do you have any other recommendations for international cities to visit at that time that might be a cheaper flight? We like museums, fun local shops, local music, good beer, wine, and food. Some of our favorite US cities are Portland, Chicago, and NYC.

Joe Yonan: Hard to say about the flight to Montreal; Bing isn't offering me any predictions at the moment. But you might consider Toronto, whose fares are about $440 for that time frame, at the moment.

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cruises: Thge other part to consider besides where the cruise goes is how long will you be on the island.Some cruises will stop at an island for 12 hours or more, while others are only there for 5-6 hrs.Another factor...do you want to see places or be on the boat for a while. a western caribbean cruise out of Florida ---you will spend alot of time on the boat.If you want to just visit places and the ship is just the way to get around...then do the easter carribean out of San Juan because you will travel so each day you are on a different island and then your return trip may be a day at sea.

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London and Venice: Not sure about pound but all the experts say by the end of the year if not sooner the Euro and the dollar will reach par ie 1 dollar buys 1 Euro.

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Bahamas cruise: My husband won a Carnival cruise to the Bahamas (through his job). He won the same one last year so we're not that excited - going to Nassau and wondered if we could just take a cab to a beach - and what beach would you recommend that is easy to get to, and not too crowded - we'll be leaving January 23. thanks. Any other exciting things to do in Nassau - other than Atlantis?

Carol Sottili: I took a cab to the beach last time I went on a Carnival cruise that stopped in the Bahamas. Was not a problem. We went to Paradise Island - beach was crowded. There are less crowded beaches, such as Caves Beach, but no facilities.

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Bike NZ?: For various reasons, I've gotten a "bug" to bike around/through New Zealand. Any ideas/pointers for where to start doing research?

Andrea Sachs: I would go straight to the experts, such as the tourism office, where they can help out plot out a route. Or try a bike tour group, such as www.cyclenewzealand.com. You will need to choose between the North and South islands (I would vote for South), and whether you want to go solo or with a group. If you go with a group, you won't need to carry your gear and can enjoy the ride without the stress of planning. But if you like adventure, go solo.

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Nancy Trejos: Thanks all for starting the new year chatting with us. We're looking forward to many more fun chats. Glad you all made it back home despite all the storms, delays and airport hassles. And to the person who climbed and kayaked through his/her honeymoon, please send me your address at trejosn@washpost.com to claim your prize. We'll be back next week!

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