TRAVEL CNS-SCHENSUL-COLUMN HK

Penguins don't care about time. But if you do, it theoretically can be any time you want in Antarctica, which covers all time zones.

Jill Schensul

Remember back in elementary school, the teachers reassured you there were “no dumb questions”?

So you’d ask. And all through fourth grade have to live with the reputation, “Oh, there’s that kid with the dumb question.”

You’ve learned to keep your mouth shut since then. Except, well, when you’re on vacation. Maybe it’s a little of that “letting your guard down” syndrome, the one that makes it easy to get pickpocketed, or sold a bridge.

In fairness, though, travel is a time when questions really are appropriate. We travel to learn new things, after all. To go somewhere different. Sometimes, really different.

In fact, the questions can start when a trip is still just a twinkle in a traveler’s eye.

The American Society of Travel Agents recently compiled a list of the most “bizarre requests made of an ASTA professional travel agent,” on the occasion of the inaugural National Plan your Vacation Day. Travel agents are not just a luxury, but a necessity for some folks, obviously.

As I read their list, I recalled that cluelessness is not limited to the travel agent milieu. So I tracked down some of my other favorites – from cruise lines, tour operators, national park rangers and so on.

Also, as I looked them over, I realized that some of these questions are not entirely dumb — it just depends on the context. There’s probably a place or a situation somewhere in the world where a dumb question, with maybe a little tweaking, is actually a “good question!” (another reassuring teacher refrain).

We are not laughing at people. Really. OK, yes we are. But we’re probably laughing with them, just a little. At least if you’re like me and ask the occasional clunker. Or brought, say, a very cordial press luncheon with officials to a crashing halt with just a passing query. (“How long do you celebrate the death of your Queen Mother?”)

Have fun, and let this serve as a reminder that in travel, as in fourth grade, there are such things as dumb questions. The good news is that if you wait long enough, someone else will probably ask your dumb question for you.


MOST RIDICULOUS REQUESTS

(According to ASTA travel agents. Some of the comments are theirs; others, mine.)

Can you please book the honeymoon suite for us and another couple? (Maybe it’s just cheaper than two adjoining rooms.)

Can you guarantee that no pet has ever been in the hotel room? (Send my husband in for assurance about cats; if he keeps breathing, it’s 100 percent feline-free.)

Do they speak English in Britain? (Try asking for “earbuds” in the U.K.).

Can you book two rooms in different parts of the resort — one for me and my wife, and the other for my girlfriend? (Duplicity has its price.)

Is our relationship like a client/lawyer relationship? (ASTA wonders if this is the same client who asked the previous question.)

Don’t tell my fiance this is where I took my first wife for our honeymoon. (Can I tell her about the first wife in the first place?)

I would like to go somewhere where there are NOT a lot of men. (Who asked this, a woman or a man?)

I’d like to meet Elvis. (Which one?)

I’d like to get married in the Caribbean on an island where the marriage is not legal in the U.S. (ASTA refers, again, to Question 4).

Will there be shadows on my face at 4 p.m. when the pictures are taken? (Will you be facing east or west?)

Will you watch my pet while I’m away? (If they say “yes,” call me.)

I’d like to visit Scotland and Denmark on the same trip. (Agent explains they don’t have enough time to travel the distance.) But they’re only an inch apart on the map! (Try getting big enough so each inch of you is actually one mile, like the map, then just walk from Scotland to Ireland.)

Can you arrange for the whales to jump in the background while I’m proposing to my girlfriend? (If you go to Sea World, but they’re union. And pricey.)

Can you ask the airline to block the seat next to me so I can stretch out? (WHAT, THIS IS WEIRD?)

MEMORABLE CRUISE QUERIES

What would happen if I flushed a ship toilet while still sitting on it?

Does the crew sleep on board?

Why is the microwave in my room not working? (Because it’s a safe.)

Why did I pay so much to have such an awful view of the parking lot? (Asked while still docked in port.)

Is that fresh or salt water in the toilets? (Some cabin stewards can’t help but answer: “Last time I drank some, it was fresh.”)

Why are the ruins in such poor condition?

What do you do with the ice carvings after they melt?

Has this ship ever sunk?

How do I know which are mine? (Referring to the pictures in the photo gallery.)

What time does the midnight buffet start?

This is our family’s first cruise and we have several cabins on different decks; do all of the decks go to the same ports of call?

Do these stairs go up or down? (Hey, if you’ve ever been on a badly designed big cruise ship, you may wonder.)

BAFFLEMENT EVERYWHERE

(Questions know no bounds. From the National Park Service, Visit Britain, Visit Scotland, the Australian Tourist Board and the United States Tour Operators Association.)

Can I fish off the cruise ship?

Is Wales closed during the winter?

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Who performs in Piccadilly Circus?

Is this where Sharon and Ozzie actually live (at Osborne House, Isle of Wight)

Which bus takes you from the Orkney to the Shetland Islands?

What time does the Loch Ness monster surface and when do they feed him?

Is Edinburgh in Glasgow?

Which direction is north in Australia?

Was this man-made? (Grand Canyon)

How much of the cave system is underground? (Carlsbad Caverns)

Do you know of any undiscovered ruins? (At Mesa Verde National Park)

GLAD YOU ASKED

(Dumb, sometimes, but these questions do raise good points.)

Does the time difference mean we’ll get there faster? (No. But you may have more vacation time when you get there. Going from Auckland, New Zealand, to Papeete, Tahiti, I gained an extra day of sightseeing. And in Antarctica, it’s any time you want it to be. Covering the bottom of the globe, it’s theoretically in all time zones. Time is often cited in places where there are research outposts. So it could be noon at a U.S. research site, but 5 p.m. over on another berg settled by the Brits.)

Will there be noisy guests at the hotel? (You never know about your next-door guestroom neighbor, but if you’re talking about an overall hotel, it’s actually a good question. I stayed at the 2,000-room Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tenn., during a high school cheerleaders convention. Noisy. Yes. But cheerfully so. Also ask about noisy construction.)

Is it windy on the beach? (During a hurricane, probably. And my friend Nancy, a devotee of Aruba, says that the constant wind, combined with suntan lotion and sand, often leaves her looking like “a breaded veal chop.”)

What time does the sun come up in Australia? (“At sunrise” is the snarky, accurate response. Then again, in some places at some times of year, the sun never rises. Or sets.)

What language do they speak in Spain? (OK, maybe not so dumb. In addition to Spanish, or Castilian, people speak Catalan, Basque, Galician and Romani. In general, languages can be surprising. For instance, in Africa, there’s not one “African” language, but 2,000 or so. They fall into four basic language families, which narrows things down. Even so, they can sound vastly different.)

Why did they build so many ruined castles and abbeys in England? (Um … so yeah, that’s dumb. But in Islamic architectural design, even the most stunning monuments are a little incomplete, an acknowledgement that only God is perfect and can create perfection.)

Are there toll roads on the way to Hawaii? How can I get to Europe without going by air or sea? Islands are usually kind of a problem to access by car — all that pesky water, you know. Getting from one continent to another can be positively intimidating by car. But, well, that’s what bridges and tunnels are for. You can get to many islands under your own horsepower: the Florida Keys; Tybee Island off the coast of Georgia; Orcas Island, Wash.; Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick. And there are plenty of minds at work on ways to connect bigger land masses — Asia to Alaska, for example.

Can we pet the lions on an African safari? (Unfortunately, in some places you can. That’s why people get killed on safaris. That’s also why people don’t think wild animals are wild. And why dumb animal attractions are popular.)

DUMB, MAYBE, BUT ASK

I’ll leave you with my favorite example of cluelessness. At a national park visitor center, there was, all of a sudden, a great deal of screaming and crying. The source was a family of tourists, who had gotten their hands on bear repellent spray.

They’d sprayed the mace-like aerosol on themselves — thinking it was like bug spray. It was to spray at the bears to repel them.

Would it have been a dumb question: “How do you use this spray?” Maybe, but less embarrassing than the result of not asking.

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