Illustration by Karol Banach for The Washington Post; animation by Elizabeth Hart/The Washington Post
You asked and asked and asked, and we answered and answered and answered. During our weekly Talk About Travel Web chats, we have noticed that some queries appear repeatedly like unclaimed pieces of luggage on the baggage carousel. We have culled the most common questions and provided answers — hopefully definitively.
When should I buy my airline ticket? Is there a way to game the system?
Book a ticket when you need it. And no, there isn’t. But it’s a qualified “no.” Research suggests that if you buy your ticket when most people do — between one and four months before you fly — you’re likely to find the lowest price. Don’t push the button too early or too late, because fares tend to rise, especially as you close in on your departure date. Some airfare soothsayers claim you can find a bargain by waiting until a particular day and time, like Wednesday at 1 a.m. in the airline’s time zone. But the savings are minimal and probably not worth your time, not to mention the lost sleep. As Srikanth Sastry, a software engineer for Google Flights, recently told an online forum, “The expected value of waiting is negative.” — CE
Are all-inclusives worth it?
Yes: Joe and Lorraine have three school-age children. They want to know exactly how much that Caribbean vacation is going to cost before the credit card bill arrives. The couple like their margaritas, and the kids feel all grown up ordering an endless stream of burgers and virgin frozen drinks from the snack bar. They all love snorkeling and banana-boat rides, which is why they chose an all-inclusive that includes watersports. And when the social director yells “Limbo,” they’re first in line. No one is a foodie. A buffet with lots of choices is good enough. Bonus: Their package included airfare.
No: Mary and Edward spend their weekends exploring wineries and hitting the newest restaurants. They don’t like crowds and still talk about that trip they took hiking the Alaskan backcountry. Neither can remember ever having eaten from a buffet. They like an occasional cocktail but don’t drink very much. Their idea of a vacation is meeting the locals and getting to know places tourists don’t typically visit. They work hard, so they aren’t worried about paying more than expected. — CS
Can I take this-or-that item in my carry-on?
Since 2006, the Transportation Security Administration has limited “wet” substances to 3.4 ounces in one quart-size plastic zip-top bag. The restriction covers liquids, gels, aerosols, creams and pastes, with an exception for travelers needing larger quantities of medications, baby formula/food and breast milk for the flight. (Be sure to inform the security officer of your extras.) However, many items, such as nail polish pens and coconut cream pie, fall into a blurry area. For these objects, plus thousands more, the agency has designed an app and online tool called “Can I Bring My . . . ?” For example, plug in tapioca pudding, gummy worms and denture glue, and the Oracle responds with “check only,” “check or carry on” and “special instructions” (3-1-1 applies). Also, remember that TSA restricts objects that look or behave like weapons, such as baseball bats and water guns. The best advice: If you have any doubt, pack it in your checked bag or leave it at home. — AS
I just had a horrible travel experience and I want to complain. What’s the best way to do that?
The ideal time and place to resolve a travel-related problem is now. So if you’re experiencing substandard service, say something as soon as possible. Whether you’re staying at a hotel, renting a car or flying, chances are an employee is empowered to help you fix the problem by offering you a different room, a more convenient flight or another vehicle. If that doesn’t work, then a brief, polite e-mail sent to the company after you return is the best course of action. A paper trail is important, because you might have to forward it to a supervisor, or to a consumer advocate like me. If the e-mails don’t work, try escalating it to a manager. I list the names and addresses of most customer service managers on my Web site. And if that fails, contact me directly at
I am in charge of planning a multigenerational trip/honeymoon/babymoon/girlfriends’ getaway/trip with kids/etc. Help!
Planning a trip with a specific purpose will need fine-tuning, but general rules apply no matter what the occasion. First, ask lots of questions of the participants. What’s the goal of the trip? What’s the budget? What are their interests? What mode of travel is preferred? Is alone time necessary or is everyone group-oriented? How many days can they get away?
For groups comprised of individuals traveling from far-flung destinations, choosing the right spot is key. Start by looking at Web sites of the participants’ home airports for common destinations. Concentrate on nonstop flights. If connections are mandatory, choose flights that depart early in the day, which will afford more options if a flight is missed.
For groups in which each person has a different idea of fun, compromise is necessary. If it’s an annual or biennial event, take turns choosing. If it’s a one-off, choose a trip that everyone can at least grudgingly accept: A cruise, an all-inclusive or renting a big house in the Outer Banks may fit the multigenerational bill.
For honeymoons and babymoons, set a budget and a goal. There is nothing wrong with spending a week at Sandals, but couples looking for adventure should consider a more unlikely destination, such as Iceland or Chile. For those on a budget, a trip to a drivable destination, such as Maine’s Acadia National Park or Charleston, S.C, will save money. And don’t forget cities: Manhattan, Austin, San Francisco and a host of others are worthwhile destinations.
When it comes to group and special-occasion vacations, the more planning done in advance, the better. Before you go, make the dinner reservations, arrange the tours, figure out the train schedules and agree on who is paying for what. — CS
Is it safe to travel to (destination of concern)?
Countries deep in the red zone, such as Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, are an unequivocal “no.” Nations that wade in yellow, such as Egypt, Kenya and Tunisia, are trickier. The State Department regularly updates its Web site with alerts and warnings that are guided by current events. For another perspective, or simply an enlightening read, check out other governments’ travel advisories. For Denmark, Gov.UK cautioned: “The annual Grindadráp whaling season in the Faroe Islands typically takes place between June and September. This event has attracted protesters and there will be an increased security presence during this time.” Who knew?
Also take your cue from the travel industry. Airlines, cruise lines and tour operators will cancel, suspend or reroute service if the situation on the ground is too precarious. Tour companies usually have staff members in the field and will adjust their itineraries to safeguard their clients. Most companies post their crisis-related alterations and cancellations on their Web sites — for all eyes to see.
If all systems are go, then the decision turns personal. Ask yourself if you can truly relax and enjoy the destination. If you can’t, find a new vacation spot. We’ve heard that Cape Cod is lovely this time of year. — AS
Where can I find hotel deals online?
Hotel bargains are plastered all over the big online sites, such as Expedia , Orbitz and Booking . They’re almost impossible to miss. Don’t forget the hotel Web sites, too, which may offer equally attractive deals with better terms. But which deals can you trust? Let me warn you about two common gotchas. First, the so-called “opaque” rates on sites such as Hotwire and Priceline, which can deliver spectacular deals — up to 40 percent off the published rate — but with a few notable restrictions. You don’t find out which hotel you’ve booked until you’ve paid for it, and the purchase is completely nonrefundable. So if you’re liable to change your mind or you want a sure thing, book somewhere else. The second general category is the travel club. These are aggressively marketed memberships that supposedly offer access to deep discounts. I haven’t found a legitimate one yet, so if you see a pitch for a travel club, don’t walk away — run! — CE
How do I choose a cruise?
Major cruise lines once had fairly specific identities. Carnival was the line for younger partiers, Royal Caribbean was family-oriented, Holland America catered to an older crowd. But in recent years, those distinctions have eroded. Instead, the individual ship, price, itinerary, time of year and departing port are the deciding factors. Yes, a Disney cruise to the Bahamas over spring break still draws mostly families with younger children. But so will just about any mid-priced cruise sailing from Florida at that time. Here are some basic instructions for choosing correctly:
Pick an itinerary: The Caribbean and Alaska appeal to families. The Mediterranean is more about sightseeing in the ports than time spent aboard ship. River cruises, sailing vessels and expedition itineraries attract an older, well-traveled crowd.
Figure out a budget: Moderate lines include Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Costa. Holland America, Azamara and Princess typically cost more. Luxury lines include Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea.
Consider the group: The newest, biggest ships offer more kid-friendly activities. Couples who prefer fewer children onboard should opt for cruises outside traditional school holidays.
Do homework: Web sites such as Cruisecritic.com offer in-depth articles on the various ships and lines. — CS
I am a woman traveling solo. What do I need to know?
Gender should never be an obstacle to travel, but unfortunately some countries are not as welcoming to women as others. Some destinations — India and Egypt, for instance — frequently appear on worst-places-for-female-travelers lists. (For example, see International Women’s Travel Center’s top 10 and Thomson Reuters Foundation 16-city survey of public transportation systems.) But don’t draw a red lipstick X over these spots; just follow these empowering guidelines. (They apply to solo men, too.)
Always know where you going. Research in advance safe neighborhoods and methods of travel. Choose a hotel in a lively area with a constant stream of people. In certain countries, such as Mexico and Brazil, use only certified cabs; ask a hotel or restaurant to call you a ride. Also always make sure that someone — your mother, the concierge — knows your general whereabouts. Wear plain clothes and follow local dress customs, especially in Muslim countries. Stick to busy districts and streets and avoid traveling at night. If you feel unsafe or sense that someone is following you, duck into the nearest hotel or restaurant and ask for help. And even if you are feeling nervous inside, always walk tall, with confidence and attitude. (In addition to all of the above, I also wear a “wedding band” and often drop hints that my “husband” is waiting for me. It’s not the most feminist approach, I know, but it works.)
If you feel overwhelmed by sprawling urban areas, pad your itinerary with trips to smaller towns and villages — Oaxaca instead of Mexico City, for instance. For occasional companionship, sign up for a walking/food/cultural tour. Or reach out to a meet-up or hiking group, such as the Hash House Harriers, an international hiking and running club. Journeywoman.com also has sage advice from the well-traveled sorority. — AS
I’ve never been to Europe, help!
Rules number one, two and three: Don’t try to do too much. You don’t want to look at the photos later and not remember if that cathedral was in Rome, Barcelona, London or Vienna. Ten days and three cities is a good starting point.
For the tour-averse first-timers who want to do the planning and go it alone, an itinerary that concentrates on countries where English is either the official language or commonly spoken, such as Ireland, England and Holland, works.
If you’re more adventurous, but traveling with a group is a no-go, book with an independent tour company, such as Monograms, Untours or Foreign Independent Tours. These agencies plan individual trips with airport transfers, train tickets, hotels, sightseeing tours, etc.
Social types who feel more comfortable with a guide in charge should opt for an escorted group tour with a company such as Collette, Trafalgar, Tauck or Globus. (For a list of tour operators, contact the U.S. Tour Operators Association via www.ustoa.com). — CS
Why can’t I use my frequent-flier miles?
Miles may be the only currency that consistently loses value over time. Every year, airlines and hotels “enhance” their programs by making it more difficult to redeem your rewards. Not an improvement, if you ask me. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are the latest companies to dilute their schemes. The main reason your points and miles are so hard to redeem is that this travel currency is practically worthless. But technology can offer a little edge. A site called ExpertFlyer lets you find available seats, which can save you a lot of time. There are also a number of loyalty-program consultants online that can help you maximize your rewards. As a loyalty program atheist, I can’t recommend any of them. I can, however, advise that, unless you’re a frequent business traveler, you refuse to play the mileage game and instead buy your ticket based on price, convenience and service. — CE
I have a long layover. How should I fill the empty hours?
Before you even think about stepping outside, figure out how long it will take to exit and re-enter customs, immigration and security, and if you need a visa. Also calculate the estimated round-trip travel time, including potential traffic hazards. Now compare that number with the hours between flights.
If your layover is four hours or less, you should probably stay put. But no need to cry over your Auntie Anne’s pretzel. Most international airports offer exceptional dining and shopping opps, plus some unique diversions: nature trails and movies (Singapore), museum-quality art exhibits (Amsterdam’s Schiphol), guided airport tours (Brussels, Prague, Frankfurt) and even an ice skating rink (Munich). You can also book a day room at a mini-hotel (London Heathrow, Japan’s Narita, Beijing) or consider buying a day pass to an airport lounge.
For longer layovers, check the airport’s Web site or stop by the on-site help desk for information on transportation options as well as distances to major attractions. (Oftentimes, public transportation can be quicker than cabs.) Also consider a tour that caters to transit visitors, such as London Magical Tours, which departs from Gatwick and Heathrow.
If you decide to explore independently, pick one neighborhood — such as Dublin’s College Green and Temple Bar area, accessible via Airlink — and check your watch frequently. — AS
Which Caribbean island should I go to?
There are more than two dozen Caribbean islands, plus Bermuda and Mexico’s Cancun and Cozumel, and each has its own flavor. Here are some ideas:
• Snorkelers and divers: Bonaire, Grand Cayman, Cozumel
• Nature lovers: Dominica, St. John, Tobago
• Vacation-time maximizers: Nonstop flights from our region’s three airports on commercial airlines travel either year-round or seasonally to Aruba, Bermuda, Cancun, Grand Cayman, Jamaica, Nassau, Dominican Republic, St. Martin, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. (Norwegian is scheduled to start nonstop service from BWI to Martinique and Guadeloupe in December).
• Beach connoisseurs: Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos, Anguilla
• Partiers: Aruba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico
• All-inclusive fans: Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cancun
• Loners: Saba, Eleuthera, Curacao — CS
I want to visit Orlando. Can you help me?
May I recommend the service of a qualified travel agent? You can find one at the American Society of Travel Agents’ “Find an ASTA Travel Agent” page. You might also try the Airlines Reporting Corporation’s (ARC) agent finder, which lists ARC members. I’m glad you mentioned Orlando, because it’s a good example of why it’s so hard to deliver trip-planning advice on the fly, and without knowing more about you. A destination like Orlando offers a lot (I know because I live there). Even if you narrow it down to one theme park, there’s still too much to choose from. A qualified travel agent can help you sift through all the options and find the best vacation. Orlando is an excellent choice, by the way. Fall is a magical time to visit. — CE
How can I experience the northern lights?
The northern lights appear in the Northern Hemisphere as aurora borealis and the Southern Hemisphere as aurora australis. The colorful spectral shapes burn the brightest in higher-latitude areas close to the poles, such as northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Antarctica. The ideal setting is dark with clear skies and no artificial light pollution, and the optimum times are from late afternoon (5 or 6 p.m.) to early morning (6 a.m.), December through February.
Travel operators in the northern destinations arrange tours of various lengths and prices to see the northern lights. The guides are similar to wildlife trackers and know the best viewing spots. Unfortunately, the lights don’t always show up. To increase your odds, book a tour during high levels of solar activity. To track conditions, download the Aurora Forecast app and check the heavens above. — AS
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