Saturday, March 24, 2012

Ethical Travel

This is a term that can mean very different things to different people. To some, it means contributing to environmental causes to offset some of the bad effects of the pollution they contribute to as frequent flyers. To others, it means staying primarily at locally-owned hotels and patronizing independent restaurants, particularly in poorer countries, on the grounds that by doing so more of the money they spend stays in the community. Still others try to avoid for-profit businesses as much as possible, staying mainly at non-profit hostels, monasteries, and similar places.
While all these are good guidelines, the main guideline I try to follow is to treat the people I come into contact with while travelling as I would like to be treated, and to patronize companies that treat their workers well. The latter is getting harder to do, as more and more businesses are engaging in union-busting tactics. Here in Canada our national airline Air Canada ( seems to be trying to get out of its commitments to its workers by tactics such as spinning off subsidiaries (Aveos, Aeroplan, etc.) Aveos, which handled much of the airline's maintenance, has just filed for bankruptcy and locked out thousands of workers across Canada. Other workers such as baggage handlers at Air Canada are starting to engage in wildcat strikes to protest the slow pace of labout negotiations.
If you live in Canada, it is hard to avoid flying on Air Canada at least some of the time. However, I for one would be willing to pay a little more for my ticket if it would ensure fair treatment for the airline's workers.
In the United States, American Airlines ( recently filed for bankruptcy and expected to use this opportunity to void the contracts of long serving workers. So pilots, flight attendants and others may be working for a lot less money, and therefore may be understandably disgruntled.
Adverse conditions for workers are nothing new--history tells us that things were even worse in the 19th century, before unions forced employers to make concessions that made working less hazardous and more rewarding, and before governments in the developed countries enacted legislation that at least gave workers some rights and protections. Unfortunately many of these rights and protections are vanishing today. But perhaps if we as travellers began to express an interest in the welfare of the people who provide our travel services, it would have some effect even on giant corporations.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Montreal's Irish Pubs

People don't tend to think of Montreal as an Irish city, but the St. Patrick's Day parade has run here every year since 1824. Scratch a French-Canadian (or, more politically correctly, un Quebecois) and you are likely to find an Irishman or Scotsman lurking. Even our seeming Premier for life, Jean Charest, is half Irish. And the city's flag is quartered with the fleur de lyus of France, the rose of England, the thistle of Scotland and the shamrock of Ireland.
Today, of course, the city's flag should include the symbols of Iran, Haiti, Vietnam, China, Lebanon, Mexico and many other countries if it were truly to reflect Montreal's population.
One of the happy results of Irish ehritage is a proliferation of Irish pubs in Montreal, mostly downtown. They are all fine places for a brew and a burger at reasonable cost, and sometimes for live Irish or other music.
Just the other day I enjoyed lunch at the Irish Embassy on lower Bishop Street, where a pint of local beer and a veggie burger with fries and salad came to almost $17. (High taxes push prices for booze and restaurant meals to pretty astronomical levels in Quebec.) Costs are similar at the other pubs I am familiar with, Hurley's and McKibbins. McKibbins is a good place for happy hour snacks, but get there early (shortly after 5 p.m. on weekdays) or the best will be gone. McKibbins original location is right next to the downtown campus of Concordia University, and there is a branch on St. Laurent Boulevard near Prince Arthur and another in the West Island.
Hurley's is on lower Crescent Street, and downtown on Cathcart the Vieux Dublin has re-opened. Now there is even a new Irish pub on St. Denis near the Cafe Cherrier, one of the chief hangouts for members of the separatist Parti Quebecois.
Montreal's St. Patrick's Day parade will take place tomorrow, and it is free. Happy Shamrock Day, everyone.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rental Car Deals

The cost of most travel items has gone up a lot in recent years, but for rental cars the cost can actually be lower than it was even 20 years ago (yes, I do remeember that far back.) However, while advertised rates may be low, add-ons like collision damage waiver can quickly turn a bargain into a costly undertaking.
There are Websites like and which allow you to compare rates from various companies. Generally, it is cheaper to rent cars at sites away from an airport than at the airport itself. If you are just flying into a city for a couple of days, though, the difference in price may not be worth it, because you have to add on the cost of getting to the other location by taxi, shuttle etc.
I have had good luck renting cars recently from Enterprise ( and from Avis ( According to one source, who managed to score a Cadillac in Florida from Enterprise for just $13 a day, franchise owners and employees at Enterprise have a lot of leeway to negotiate rates. One possible downside, if you don't own a car and have your own insurance, is that they may not accept the collision damage waiver protection offered by most premium credit cards. At least, that was my experience when renting from them in Florida--fortunately, I had other insurance..
If you rent cars often, the annual fee charged by premium credit cards is usually worth it because of the collision damage waiver alone.
As with most travel products, rental cars and their prices are complex, But at least in North America, you can be assured that prices are usually a good deal compared to what they used to be.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Free E-book on Palestine

Pamela Olson ( is a young writer whose work I admire and she is offering a free electronic version of her new book "Fast Times in Palestine" through Amazon ( Ms. Olson studied physics at Stanford, but has managed to make a name for herself as a travel writer about Siberia, the Middle East and other relatively exotic places. I want to read her book on Siberia especially, and as soon as I can figure out the Kindle thing I will have a look at the one on Palestine.
The e-book revolution seems to be upon us, with unknown results. For the moment, though, there is a lot of good reading available either free or at very low cost. As far as writers go, this is quite a mixed blessing, but I guess we all have to join the fray sooner or later. My friend and former co-author Susan Lukowski has recently published a mystery book set in Georgetown, one of the posh parts of the District of Columbia, and it is available as an e-book on Amazon for a mere 99 cents. The title is "Death is in the Details" by Alex Winter, Susan's nom de plume for this book.
I'm working on a short travel e-book myself and will let you know as soon as it is published.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Save with Condo Rentals

For stays of more than a few nights in one place, renting a condominium apartment is often less costly than staying in a hotel, and usually has the advantage of being more spacious. You save by being able to make your own meals, and sometimes do your own laundry too.
A Website that offers condo and home rentals in North America, Europe and a few other places is, and it has been recommended by several friends. The acronym stands for Vacation Rentals by Owner, so all the offerings are owned by indivuduals, not corporations. I recently checked for rentals in two European cities, London and Berlin. London is notoriously pricey, and vrbo's offerings are not cheap there either. The lowest priced weekly rental I could find listed in West Central London was 665 pounds per week for a very cute studio that appeared to be in a laneway (a converted garage, perhaps?) For not a lot more money, you could stay at the Lancaster Gate Hotel in the same area for a week. In Berlin I couldn't find much in the center for less than 60 euros a night. Last time I stayed in a hotel there, I paid about that for a small room and a big breakfast, but that was several years ago.
I mentioned to one person who recommended that I found the prices somewhat high, but she countered that she had, a few years ago, rented a nice place in Puerta Vuellarta, Mexico for only $500 per month.
For single travellers and couples, the savings with apartment rentals may not be huge, but they can be for big families or groups of friends. This past holiday season I stayed in a beautiful waterfront condo in Clearwater Beach FL that could have slept 10 people, and even had its own laundry room. For 10 people, the cost would have come down to less than $10 per night per person. I arranged that through another Website I have used several times, This is a very user-friendly site that enables you to check what is available on the dates of your visit. The people who manage the company are also welcoming and professional, and available to fix anything that goes wrong in a rental.

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Friday, March 02, 2012

Language Immersion Courses

Probably nothing makes a trip abroad more pleasurable than being able to get along in the language of the country or countries you visit. There are many ways to learn a language (the best being growing up speaking several languages,) but for those of us who don't have that advantage, an immersion course can be second best.
I have written before about the many programs abroad that combine language classes with lodging and sometimes excursions--these are often a very good deal. But another possibility is total immersion before you leave.
A couple of well-known colleges in New England offer such programs in a number of different languages. Shorter and less expensive (but still up there) are the 10-day total immersion courses of Dartmouth College ( in New Hampshire, the school about which the early American orator Daniel Webster claimed that "it is a small school, but there are those who love it" in a famous speech. These courses go from morning to night with just a short rest period, and are available at beginner, intermediate or advanced levels. Cost is aobut $3600 if you stay on campus, and the program has been used by many groups including the Peace Corps to train workers going abtroad.
Longer courses are available at Middlebury College ( in neighbouring Vermont. I am somewhat tempted by a Russian immersion course that runs from June to August and costs just a little under $10,000. Participants have to sign a pledge that they will speak only Russian during the course, something that would be pretty tough for me.
Obviously these are both expensive options. For the same money, you could probably study abroad and hire private tutors. But if you prefer the pleasures of northern New England and in the case of Dartmouth if you have very limited time, these programs could be worth a look. And the knowledge of a foreign language you gain may pay off in travel savings or even in a new career.

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