What an emotional roller coaster ride we've been on these last couple of weeks. There has been heavy TV coverage from Krakow, Poland, a place we've just come back from, and from Rome, where we'll be at the end of this month. Couldn't have picked two more disparate and newsworthy cities if we'd planned it!
But having recently stood in the self same churches, squares, and side streets certainly gave the scenes an added poignancy, personality, and memorability. Chalk up another good reason for overseas travel.
As we should be passing through Rome en route to Sorrento at about the same time as the cardinals choose the new Pontiff, we'll be sure to let you know if we spot any wisps of white smoke.
However, it's not smoke or fire that interests reader J.G. right now, but rather ice and water. He's deep in the planning stages of a summer cruise to Alaska.
He's got a bunch of cruise-related questions: How to book? With whom? Is one line better than another? And which cabin would be best?
Frankly, these are questions that should go straight and undiluted to a travel agent/cruise specialist and not to a couple of independent scribblers with a bare minimum (read zero) of cruising experience.
J.G's final question however, does have some resonance. Do we know anyone who has taken the Alaska Ferry along the Inside Passage? And what are the accommodations like?
Well, we've used the Alaska Marine Highway System on several occasions over the years from Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, and Juneau, en route to Haines. And we can recommend it highly. It's a sort of funky "hop-on, hop-off" alternative to full-fledged cruising, and has little or no entertainment save eco-lectures given by forest service personnel. It provides three square cafeteria meals a day. And as the route runs regularly between Prince Rupert and Skagway, it's happily used by backpackers and locals as well as long distance sailors. The en-suite accommodations are probably a bit basic compared to the modern cruise ship stateroom. But they're similar to econoclass-cabins on the QE2 or those on the Norwegian coastal ferries and are perfectly acceptable. Comfy even.
There's another point we always like to make in regard to Alaska. It is possible, contrary to popular myth, to plan one's own independent tour of Alaska, by land, sea, and air, without taking the standard cruise option. Just ask our favorite Alaska-based travel agent, Randa Szymanski, in Haines. She's at The Travel Connection (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Language and luggage are very much on the mind of Judy M., who is going with her husband to France and Switzerland for a month this summer, and using the railroads to get around. Good for them.
However, this is their first time overseas. Neither one speaks any French or German. And they are wondering if that will be a problem. Nein. And non. And no problema!
English is the lingua franca of international travel these days and you can always find someone who speaks it. As a last resort, ask a kid!
Railroad announcements often come in two languages, one of them English. And departure times are posted in each and every train station.
What will be a problem however, is the size of the luggage that Judy and her husband are planning to take: A super-sized 27 inches by 38 inches, almost steamer trunk proportions. And far too bulky to be hauling round Europe. We've seen marriages break up over less.
Ideal luggage size for railroading is 22 inches or less per person, the standard airline carry-on dimension. This size suitcase can easily be lifted onto overhead racks, carried up and down flights of stairs, pulled over cobbled streets, and fitted into any available cranny.
We advise Judy, and anyone else traveling by rail, to seriously downsize. You'll be glad you did!
Finally, some money questions from Jan B., who is off to Scotland for 12 days in May.
Should he purchase British pounds before departure? Is there a limit on daily ATM withdrawals in the UK? Should he take travelers checks in pounds or dollars? Does Thomas Cook still exchange AmEx checks at no charge?
We recommend taking money overseas in three forms. Credit card, ATM card, and travelers' checks.
Use the credit card whenever possible for the best available exchange rate. When cash is necessary, ATMs are unbeatable for convenience; the withdrawal limit is set by your local issuing bank, not by the country visited.
In today's world travelers' checks are becoming obsolete, but it's still a good idea to take a few hundred dollars worth for emergencies. By all means purchase them in U.S. dollars, not in foreign currency.
AmEx checks are best cashed at their offices or a regular bank. Thomas Cook may provide fee-free cashing, but don't count on it.