Travel Q&A: Seat assignment fees find buyers

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These questions from readers were submitted to travel experts at the Washington Post:

Q: I've booked tickets to London on British Airways. When I went to reserve seats, BA gave me the option of paying $45 for an early reservation. There'd be no charge if I reserved 24 hours before departure. I find this outrageous.

A: You're right -- the seat assignment fee is outrageous. BA is charging it because it can and people are willing to pay it. The only way it will go away is if the government (British or American) says that the airline can't charge it, or if passengers stop paying it. Unfortunately, BA and numerous other airlines are making money from these fees, and enough people are willing to pay to avoid a dreaded middle seat or one next to kids.

Q: My husband and I are traveling to Vienna and would like to use our iPhones to text each other, call home and access the map. We have AT&T. What are the best options for keeping costs down?

A: You might want to activate an international plan with AT&T, assuming that your phones are compatible with European networks. You can do a calling plan, a data plan or both. There are also apps that let you make calls (or video calls, as with Skype) over Wi-Fi. You can access your maps via a Wi-Fi connection, or look into offline map apps that you can use without tapping into a data plan or the Internet.

Q: My husband and I are planning a weeklong trip to West Virginia. So far on our list is hike/tube/kayak in Harpers Ferry, dinner in Shepherdstown, spa at Berkeley Springs and a visit to the Paw Paw Tunnel. Any other suggestions?

A: I spent a week driving around the state for its 150th birthday and had a blast. Some of my favorite activities from that trip: Pickin' in the Park jam session in the Elkins city park, the Isaiah Morgan Distillery in Summersville, the Museum of American Glass in Weston and the Hatfield-McCoy Trails for hiking or ATV-riding.

Q: I'm headed to London and will be driving to Inverness via Edinburgh. Any suggestions of unique stopping points along the way? I'm especially interested in beautiful churches and ancient cemeteries.

A: Newcastle is one possible stopping point. Traveling along the M1, you could visit York and its splendid Minster, as well as other great churches. South of Leeds, you could follow the A1 and stop in Peterborough to visit Peterborough Cathedral, a magnificent Norman church and the final resting place of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Q: Can you recommend any culinary tours in Europe? Not just cooking classes, but food-related tours that may include classes?

A: There's a world of culinary tours. Saveur magazine recently started offering awards for some of its favorite food-travel services, and its top award for a culinary tour went to Gourmet on Tour, so you might check them out. The reader's choice award went to Tauck.

Q: I'll be flying to California in June for my son's wedding, carrying a long gown. In the past, one would carry on the gown and ask the attendant to hang it up. Is this still possible?

A: There are no set airline policies on this, and even if there are, it's going to depend on the plane type, whether it's a crowded flight and the general attitude of the flight attendants. Wedding gowns are often given extra-special attention, but it's unclear whether that same attention would be given to gowns for wedding attendees.

Q: Is this summer a good time to go Greek Island hopping? Many years ago we always just went down to the pier to book a boat to the next island and found a room with the local renters standing at the pier. Is that still feasible, and what are costs like today?

A: You can still take ferries from island to island. I don't know whether the locals still come down to the docks to nab renters for their rooms, but I'd imagine that given the state of the Greek economy, they have more incentive to do that than ever. That same sagging economy means that Greece remains a relative steal. You can find inexpensive lodging, delicious cheap food and wonderful local crafts to buy for a song.

Q: I'm traveling to Quebec City this summer and would like to plan several days of travel outside the city. I'm thinking of the Laurentian Mountains or traveling along the St. Lawrence. Any suggestions?

A: Either of those sounds good. Along the river, you could visit the scenic Cote-de-Beaupreregion. Farther north is Baie-St.-Paul. You could also stay closer to the city and spend a few days on the gorgeous Ile d'Orleans.

Q: We're getting married in the Caribbean. For our honeymoon, we'd consider going to other islands. On the other hand, we've always wanted to do a train journey. We'll have a week or less, enough frequent-flier miles for two trans-Atlantic flights and a budget of $1,000 to $1,300 per person for the land portion.

A: If you have just a week and are flying out of the Caribbean, getting to Asia or Africa is a tall order. A train journey along the Pacific Coast might work: Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner is a short journey between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, Calif., but if you stop along the way, you can easily stretch that to a week. The Coast Starlight train is another option, operating between Los Angeles and Seattle.

Q: We're off to France next month and are thinking of renting a car to drive from Paris to Provence. What are some don't-miss stops between Paris and Aix, and must-sees in the Provence area?

A: I did this drive many years ago and we stopped in Lyon, which was great, as most French cities are. In Provence, see Avignon, Gordes, Saint-Tropez and Saint-Paul-de-Vence. There are so many beautiful towns in Provence, it's hard to see them all!

Q: Hubby and I are planning to go to St. Louis in May for an engagement ceremony. Is it worth adding an extra day to take in the sights?

A: St. Louis is a great town, especially in the warmer weather, and has a broad array of attractions. You can catch a Cardinals game or spend the day in Forest Park, home of the 1904 World's Fair. It has gardens, bike trails, the famous zoo, an art museum, a science center and much more. For other art/garden attractions: Laumeier Sculpture Park and Citygarden. You can also take a brew tour at Anheuser-Busch or at a local microbrewery. For unusual museums, check out the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, the Museum of Transportation or the Kemp Auto Museum. For browsing, try Historic Cherokee Antique Row; for a charming neighborhood, wander around Central West End. For a water-view of the city, hop aboard a riverboat cruise.

Q: My husband's family is planning an August get-together -- nine adults from 21 to 80. My brother-in-law wants to do something in the Caribbean. Wouldn't that be miserably hot in August? Would British Columbia/Vancouver be a better choice?

A: The Caribbean is hot in August. I've done two family reunions in July -- one in Jamaica and one in the Dominican Republic -- and the older and heavier people in our family struggled with the heat. For western Canada, look into staying at a ski resort, which will have many amenities. Take note of the elevation to make sure that it won't be too much for the older family members.

Q: We're headed on a Bulgarian adventure this summer and will be visiting Varna and surrounding environs. Would love recommendations.

A: Varna is beautiful, and you could have a great time just lazing on the beach. If you're into archaeology, be sure to visit Varna Necropolis (or Cemetery), an amazing archaeological site where hundreds of graves full of gold, jewelry and pottery have been excavated.

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