Talk About Travel
Hosted by Craig Stoltz
Washington Post Travel Editor
Monday, December 6, 1999
The Washington Post
Every Monday at 2 p.m. EDT, Washington Post Travel editor Craig Stoltz joins us for our weekly live travel discussion.
A transcript of this week's discussion is below. You may also browse an archive of previous live travel discussions.
Craig Stoltz: Good afternoon, fellow travelers, if it's 2 p.m. Monday it's time once again for our weekly Post Travel online salon, your opportunity to close the office door, angle your computer monitor away from prying eyes and spend some quality time seriously thinking about being somewhere else.
As usual, members of the Travel section staff unwise enough to have returned from lunch will be on hand to respond to your questions, and Carolyn Spencer Brown, who probably enjoys being elsewhere as much as anyone on the staff (which is not to say that she *doesn't love her job,* she rushes to add) will be right here too. Of course we invite, and in fact demand, lurkers and listeners to join in with their own advice, comments, warnings and extra-legal tricks in response to any question or comment.
This week we'd like you to weigh in on the new airfare-finding software we wrote about in yesterday's Travel section, an unnamed, still-not-really-public Web tool found at www.itasoftware.com. If you've checked it out, let us know what you think. If you haven't, duck away to the url, register a logon name and password, and give it a whirl. (It works only for domestic and Canada flights now.)
To summarize yesterday's story: ITA's tool is a breakthrough consumer technology, so easy to use and so well tuned to the average user's needs that we suspect the major online travel sites, like Expedia.com and Travelocity.com, will suddenly find themselves scrambling to keep up. (Yesterday's ink-and-paper story can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/travel/front.htm.) And as regular visitors to this salon--and readers of the Post Travel section--know, we've cultivated a reputation for being extraordinarily tough and impatient--if not downright surly and ruthless--about online booking tools, so this is not an act of praise we have made lightly (or without having anticipated, at night before we fall asleep, the likely damage to our reputation if for some reason we are proved wrong or excessive in our assessment). The tool is now available for regular use, once you've registered, so there's no reason not to start using it to find fares if you find it useful.
[[Annoyance to note: Speaking of Web sites, ours (i.e., washingtonpost.com) is misbehaving badly today, dawdling and drooling in a very unattractive way. We'll do the best we can--but impatience, I suspect, will be punished.]]
So: All of that said, let's get on with the day's activities. You, sir, with your tie tangled in the hinge of your tray table? Yes, sir, you had a question?
São Paulo , Brazil:
Hi, Craig.Your chat is great and very popular here in Brazil.My wife and myself are planning a complete Rt.66 drive from Chicago to L.A. next coming May.I have visited several Internet sites as well as consulted several books about the mother road but not much information is available about the portion between Kingman, Az and Topock, AZ via Oatman.Do you have some information about such portion? Other tips about safety, current paving conditions, places to stay,Internet sites to visit, etc...will be welcome.If someone prefer to contact me directly, my E-MAIL address is nsbj-cyberspace.com.br
Thanks a lot.
Craig Stoltz: We post this question here first today, asking our vast, worldwide clicking audience to help Nelson of Sao Paulo. He's posted this question for three weeks running but we haven't published it in this forum because, um. . .nobody on our staff has a clue. Perhaps someone here can help?
Clicksters? Can you do your part as hosts of Brazilian travelers seeking to explore our culture from the road up?
Just returned from an Orlando vacation. I agree with you that Universal's Islands of Adventure was excellent and not crowded at all!
Sea World is advertising its newest theme park, Discovery Cove, opening Summer 2000. Do you have any news on this besides what's on its website? It's a dolphin, snorkel, beach encounter like you'd find in the Caribbean, but instead it's right in Orlando! For $179, I'm wondering if it's worth it.
Also wanted to mention two underwater adventures -- snorkeling with manatees on Florida's Crystal River -Fun2Dive, 888-588-DIVE- and WDW's Epcot, The Living Seas scuba dive. Both events were wonderful and hardly known about in the general public.
Craig Stoltz: Thanks, Ashburn. A few other details about Sea World's new park: They'll limit visitors to 1,000 per day, and reservations are ESSENTIAL (nice move, we think); you can snorkel through reefs of fish (sharks and barracudas included, but they're behind glass); there's going to be a stingray petting lagoon; the dolphin lagoon will include sunken ruins; there'll be a tropical bird free flight aviary; and--call 'em nuts--a plain-old swimming pool. Meals, all equipment and a personal guide included--all but incidental drinks and snacks. Value for $179? Sounds like it to us, but everything sounds good on a press release. And remember, for a family of 4 you're looking at a $800 day. Yikes.
But: Be preapred for animal rights action: swim-with-dolphin parks and concessions are loathed by the animal rights crowd, and I suspect they will not let this opening pass without "comment."
I like booking my own travel online. Until this new site you're gushing about comes up with actual online booking I'm not exactly sure how useful it is. I like not having to deal with REAL LIVE PEOPLE if I can avoid it when making my travel plans. :--
Craig Stoltz: I share your desire to avoid sales-ey type communications. We've heard from a few people who use the information they get from ITA to then do the online booking elsewhere. The value ITA brings is that it allows you to make an unbiased survey of options, comparing fare vs. convenience, comparing carriers, etc. I'd say that, until you can book via ITA, you should consult it and do your online booking elsewhere. It's a great tool to surface options that the other sites, which use more limited technology, often cannot deliver to you.
To Nelson of Sao Paulo: Boa Dia. Como vai? Recently, the Public Broadcasting System did a TV show on route 66 based on the old song. You might check out their web site for a copy and also, the American train system, Amtrak, goes through Kingman, AZ so they might have information at their number 1-800-USA-RAIL.
Craig Stoltz: How did I know our friend(s) in Arlington would come through?
I checked out that new online fare finder that you raved about on Sunday. It was great -- the fares I found to my Midwestern hometown were much lower -$40-$100 less- than anything I found on other Web sites. I haven't had a chance to book a flight yet, but I'm wondering: Are these fares too good to be true? How is this site ferreting out information that others are missing?
Craig Stoltz: The short answer is: My own, and the staff's testing, suggest the fares are real (we've only done spot-checking, however, and can't say we've really tested that fares listed as availble will always be available).
The long answer is, ITA was built from the user's needs back to the source of the fares; just about every other tool started out as a database owned and operated by airlines, which, thanks to various biases and old-technology problems, don't really address the questions customers want.
Some folks have e-mailed us (and ita) and said airline booking agents "couldn't find" the fares ITA said were available. But one agent then confessed that the fares were available through the airline booking site. (Apparently some databases that phone agents use are not the same as the databases Web systems use.)
If you find an ITA fare that you can't get booked, let us--and ita--know. We want to know all the ita site's shortcomings too.
How crazy am I to think I'll be able to get a good fare flying into Miami on Christmas Day and flying back the next morning? IAD OR Dulles; I'm flexible. Should to stop thinking wacky thoughts NOW or plan on it?
Craig Stoltz: We plugged in your numbers and came up with a $168 roundtrip fare on Southwest via BWI. Not bad.
For $219 and a little inconvenience, you can fly out of BWI and into IAD.
On USAir, $353 will get you roundtrip nonstops from IAD to Miami.
Worth it? You tell us.
My mother likes to travel to unusual places and often for Christmas I give her guidebooks for her planned destination for the year. So far this year I haven't been able to get her to commit to where she's going. She wants to go to Viet Nam and her travel companion wants to go to Jordan, so they'll probably go somewhere ELSE. Meanwhile I am left in the lurch for a Christmas present. Can you recommend any travel book that discusses interesting places to visit? Otherwise I guess I'll be making a fruitcake.
Craig Stoltz: The trick, Vienna, is to give her a book that will help her make up her mind. Head to the travel essay section of your nearest bookstore (usually located within the guidebook section). Among the writers we like (and who often write about numerous trips to varied destinations) are humorists Bill Bryson and Peter Biddlecomb. Also, the Travelers' Tales series might be a good bet; one of the newest is "A Woman's Passion for Travel: More True Stories from a Woman's World" and this is an anthology of stories from writers both well known and obscure.
Do any of you clicksters actually use travel essay books to figure out where to go?
We're sending our parents -who live in Buffalo, NY- on a trip to Italy this spring. We've heard that we can save a lot of money by booking the trip through Toronto via a Canadian travel agency, owing to the US-Canada exchange rate. Do you know if this is so? Is there anything we should look out for if we do the booking this way? Any alternative ways to save on an Italy tour booking -they're first-time European travelers and don't want to go unescorted-? Thanks.
Craig Stoltz: You could probably save some money by booking through Toronto, and being that your folks live right over the border it may be more convenient for them to fly from there but more important than saving a few bucks, particularly on a first European trip to a non English-speaking country, is finding a reputable tour and/or travel agent. Among the tour operators we've heard good things about here in the U.S. are Globus, Cosmos, Vanguard. They operate a whole range of trips to various European countries.
Anybody else have experience exploiting the favorable currency numbers by booking with a Canadian agency? Any tricks or pitfalls?
In answer to Arlington,
We are now testing booking in our alpha test.
We plan to offer booking in late January or
Craig Stoltz: [[This response came across the wires from ITA CEO Jeremy Wertheimer, who called earlier to say he'd be monitoring the salon for comments. If anyone else has questions for Jeremy, I'll post them and he can respond.]]
Driving from the NJ suburbs of NY in the pm of Dec 27 back to DC--good or bad idea?
Craig Stoltz: A bad idea any time, but not as bad as you might fear on the Monday after Christmas. I wouldn't be any more afraid than I am at any time of year.
I have enough frequent flier miles for a trip to the caribbean and wanted to know if you could suggest how I can find a cheap hotel package. I'm not particular about the island - just some place that's warm and keeps the rum flowing! Any ideas you could provide would be most appreciated.
Craig Stoltz: If your frequent flyer miles will get you to the Dominican Republic, Cancun or Aruba, you can find some pretty good deals on lodging. You can try packagers like Vacation Express and see if they'll sell you the hotel portion without air. Aruba has a pretty good "hotels" portion of its Visitors Association site, so give that a try. (Also, take a look at www.travmart.com. It has an online guidebook which features links to *just a precious few* lodging sites for each island. It's a great way to start a Web search of destinations where you're looking for islands.
Another resource is Moment's Notice -- 718/234-6295 or visit www.moments-notice.com., which offers pretty good last minute deals. We've also seem some decent properties offered via auction; check out onsale.com.
And, if you're looking for *real* deals, try lastminutetravel.com. They don't have much inventory yet, but what they have is pretty well priced to sell.
I made the mistake two years ago of driving back from NJ suburbs to DC on the Sunday after Christmas. Nightmare and a half! So last year I got up early and drove back Monday morning and came right to work. No traffic at all, as long as you time DC rush hour right!
Craig Stoltz: There you have it: Monday's going to be no problem. Maybe.
In order to keep my frequent flier miles -United- from expiring, I have to buy some-travel-thing before Dec. 1, so I'm thinking of treating myself and husband to a hotel weekend. Catch: I usually stay in B&Bs and so have no clue where it would be fun to stay locally. Catch #2: Has to be a chain included on United's list, so only chain hotel recommendations, please.
Craig Stoltz: Boy, this is a tough one: a fun local hotel that's part of a big chain. If United partners with Starwood, that's a good place to start; they have some nicer properties in their portfolio (including the W hotels, though none in our area yet; I think the Mayflower may be part of the group). Other "fun" corportate chains? The mind reels. If it's still flagged a Westin, and Westin is a partner of United's, the hotel on M Street near Georgetown is attractive and upmarket.
Anybody have a favorite corporate hotel here in the metro area?
Will you or anyone at the Post be covering the US Tour Operators Association meeting this weekend?
There staying at the Bellagio - sounds like fun.
Craig Stoltz: No, we won't, but if you go, please feel free to update the members of this forum when you return. Bellagio is supposed to be a *blast.*
I just tried the ITA beta software, and you're right. It really is a giant step forward. I especially like the ability to sort the information different ways -after- entering in generic info: for example, asking for all flights, but then being able to sort by airline, or by nonstops, or by price. Very cool. I also liked that it highlights itineraries that are in and out of different airports, so you don't arrive into dulles when your car is at bwi. Finally, I like the 50-miles feature w-regard to searching alternative airports. What a find!
Craig Stoltz: Another soul saved from the abyss of dispair. . . .
Yet another person from Arlington, VA:
I know it's a bit premature to ask, since ITA hasn't even gone officially "live", but is there a timetable for the availability for booking internationally? Most of my discount travel hunting isn't domestic, and I'm always on the lookout for Euro deals. Any favorite bucket shops-discounters for Europe, Craig?
Craig Stoltz: Jeremy, are you there?
Michael in Bethesda, MD:
I am looking to take a vacation to Las Vegas, NV next month because I understand that protitution is legal there. Is this true or just another hoax? -Erhart
Craig Stoltz: I have forwarded your question to "Tell Me About It" columnist Carolyn Hax, whose forum is at 8 p.m. tonight. She may want a word with you.
Hi Craig, Carolyn, and staff!
I am thinking about visiting New Zealand next year, probably late winter-early spring our hemisphere. I'm hoping to spend about 7 days there, which is about the maximum amount of time The Man will let me take off work. Am looking for places to see, places to avoid, or recommendations for a good tour company. -I happen to like all-inclusive package tours because of the labor-saving aspect--I give you a check, you get me there and back, give me a place to stay, and show me around--and would especially like a good recommendation on one of those to N.Z., although I know they're probably not as cost-effective as doing all my own shopping for best airfare, best hotel rates, etc.- Any thoughts or recommendations from yourself or the travelistas? Many thanks.
Craig Stoltz: Actually, WDC, package tours often can be a better value -- and a time-saver -- than building a trip a'la carte, particularly for any destination that's somewhat exotic. In terms of research, I'd start with the obvious (the New Zealand tourist board) to figure out what you want to see and who you want to arrange it (www.tourism.net.nz/).
Any Old Zealanders have specific suggestions about operators or specific things to do/see/eat?
Couldn't Washington solve the expiring-miles problem by trading miles for a certificate for a later -unspecified- flight? That's the method you used to use to spend frequent flyer miles, but I'm not sure if any of the airlines still allow the option of doing it that way.
Craig Stoltz: I'm not aware of any airlines that permit you to buy an unspecified ticket for a later flight. Anybody out there ever managed to do that with frequent flier miles?
Through the wonder of miles, I have a free flight and hotel booked in Paris in February. What is not to be missed in and around the city and easily accessible by public transit?
Craig Stoltz: Gary Lee, tanned and rested and just back from a week in Trinidad--and who also owns a place in Paris--offers this:
"In Paris, you definitely don't want to miss: walks along the Champs Elysee on the right bank and the Blvd. St Germain Des Pres on the left bank. The former would be for window shopping at the haute fashion houses, the latter for real shopping at small and less expensive boutiques. The Marais and Bastille are wonderful trendy neighborhoods with stylish cafes.
"One memorable though pricey place for dinner is Jules Verne, the restaurant in the middle of the Eiffel Tower.
"For day excursions go to Versailles and Givervny. The former, the base of a classic museum, is about a half hour from the city by subway train. The latter is home to a poignant small musuem devoted to Monet's works. Versailles is a must; Giverny is a good distraction if you have time.
"Finally, for a winter stroll, the Luxemborg Gardens is perfect."
We plan to be able to start saving souls bound for Europe from the abyss of despair starting mid-2000, and we plan to have full
International done by late 2000.
Craig Stoltz: There you have it. . .
Just to let you know, I tried the new ita web site. I punched in the parameters for a flight I had recently booked after grinding through Expedia and then talking to United. -I had a special coupon that couldn't be redeemed anyway except in person-. Anyway, the flight I had finally decided on popped up immediately with ita -- I think it was about the same fare. All the other options I considered seemed to be there too, but it was very clear and easy to sort out the non-stops from the one and two stops. I liked it!
Craig Stoltz: Yes, the non-stop vs. one-stop feature is really good. Flying non-stop is sort of the poor-man's first class--a slight form of dignity avialable, I had always thought, at a cost. ITA lets you see what that cost, if any, is.
Hi Craig and Carolyn--
The other day I had the chance to hear the president of Amtrak speak about train service in the Northeast corridor and the much anticipated Acela high speed train. I didn't get to put my question to him, so I'll ask you two. My complaint about Amtrak has always been that even if you pay for a reservation, the ticketing process does not assign or guarantee a reserved seat for the duration of the trip. -This counterintuitive ticketing process is in stark contrast to the ticketing process on Japan's bullet train, for example.- Will Amtrak riders who place reservations on the new Acela trains be given seat assignments?
Craig Stoltz: Good question. Carolyn "Joannie Deadline" Brown just got on the phone with Amtrak, and here's the story:
"Acela, also known as Amtrak's new high speed train, is expected to begin next spring (2000); while there are no specific seat assignments, when you purchase a ticket you're guaranteed a seat."
Hi Craig - I need your help or help from other clicksters. My boyfriend is turning 30 next year and I want to take him on vacation, on me. Where can I find a nice, inexpensive spot? I'm not looking for tons of nightlife or a very touristy spot. I'd like the Caribbean but I'm open. I'd like to do Cozumel. I can spend no more than $1500-$2000 for the both of us. We'd be travelling around April - June. What do you think?
Craig Stoltz: The CheapO Caribbean Trifecta is Cancun, Bahamas and Punta Cana (Dominican Republic). Cozumel's OK too. Bahamas can be glitzier in some places (casinos, orgiastic hotels like Atlantis), Punta Cana is a remote tourist enclave and Cancun is busy, overbuilt and full of Americans re-enacting their college days. The season you suggest if full of deals.
Also check: Shop St. Martin, St. Kitts, Antigua--all hit by Lenny and may be in recuperation/we-need-customers mode by spring. You can think of that as economically exploiting others' misery, or assisting in rebuilding efforts.
Also check onsale.com, a good source of off-price Caribbean deals.
Any advice for those looking for a hotel room in Manhattan under $150 for New Years? Also, know of any cool alternatives to Times Square? Thanks.
Craig Stoltz: The short answer, from Gary Lee, lodging and millennium reporter for the section.
I found the "When in Paris" list a little trite. Try St. Chapelle, a lovely little church in the middle of the Seine with heavenly stained glass, the Conciergerie next door where Marie Antoinette's tears are imprinted in the floor as well as the breathtaking cathedral at Chartres, less than an hour from Montparnasse. For shopping, die and go to heaven at Galeries Lafayette, just
behind the Paris Opera, another good choice.
Craig Stoltz: Hey, give the guy a break. He just got back from Trinidad.
Thanks for the info, Arlington!
what's the URL for this IATA site everyone is raving about?
Craig Stoltz: It's www.itasoftware.com.
[IATA is something entirely different, a travel agent organization.]
My wife and I are planning to take a Western US trip this summer. We want to go from SanFrancisco to Phoeinx by car.
We have the AAA Tourbooks.
Any suggestions for food or lodging along the way?
Craig Stoltz: I'd go down the California coast and then cut west at Route 10; you can pass through Palm Springs and visit the awesome-lonesome Joshua Tree National Park.
Clicksters have other advice?
[Says Brown: Along the coast, stop at Cambria, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and, yes, LA.)
I tired ita and it did something that I haven't seen before. I randomly picked a round trip flight from Sacramento to JFK. Most of the flight finders will automatically go east--that is, they will route me from Sacramento through Chicago or Salt Lake or Dallas or something. The software won't backtrack to SFO. ITA found flights through SFO and LAX. A short flight to one of those airports, followed by a nonstop flight on a larger plane can do a lot for comfort level. And the prices weren't that much diferent.
Craig Stoltz: Interesting. ITA claims it reaches deeper and wider for routes and fares; this appears to be an example.
Craig, I'm planning to go up to NYC between Christmas and New Years -but not for Y2K- to check out the sights - I love NYC at Christmastime. There is a hotel reservation web page that others have used to score great deals on a hotel room in midtown but I can't seem to remember what the URL is. Do you happen to know what it is and do you think there is a chance at getting a nice deal -say $100 a night-. Thanks.
Craig Stoltz: hoteldiscounts.com and quikbook.com
I heard a confusing commercial for Southwest about cheap airfares bought before Dec. 31 for travel beginning by Nov. 30. -I know the dates sound strange because it's Dec. 6; that's why I'm confused.- Can anyone straigten it out?
Craig Stoltz: I think this means they didn't want to update the commercial when Nov. 30 passed, but the deal's still there. Happily, southwest.com is a super-easy, super-clear Web site that will let you know quickly whether the low-fare's still available for your dates.
Actually IATA is an Airline organization...
Craig Stoltz: Thanks. Boy, is my face red.
Takoma Park, MD:
My husband and I would like to take a 4-5 day vacation somewhere on the West Coast of FL. I read your article about Sarasota, but we have a 6 month old and it sounds like it might not be the right place. I've heard about lots of resorts around Marco Island, Sanibel and Captiva, but they sound a bit to expensive for us. Also, what do you think about Naples?
Craig Stoltz: Yes, the other places you mention, including Naples, are generally more expensive. I suspect Sarasota has the biggest selection of moderate-priced properties of the places you mention.
Craig, earlier in today's conversation, you ask:
"Do any of you clicksters actually use travel essay books to figure out where to go?"
Answer: No. I use the Washington Post
Sunday Travel Section.
Craig Stoltz: Everyone will think that we wrote this ourselves. I have witnesses to prove otherwise.
Thanks, Reston, and happy travels to all. Keep those online travel comments coming, and next week, in our Sunday paper, brace yourself for visits to King Arthur's England, rural Virginia to give that under-challenged gas-pig SUV in your driveway a real workout, and a checkup on about-to-be-handed-back-to-the-Chinese-just-like-Hong-Kong-but-different Macau.
Oh, yes, and next week begins (are you sitting down?) a new era in air passenger service, ushered in by airline's self-created Service Commitments. No, really.
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