Thursday, February 28, 2013

Facebook Uber Alles?

I recently tried to check some hotel recommendations on TripAdvisor (,) and found the Website asking me whethermy email address was connected with a certain picture and Facebook account. Rather than answer, I decided to close the site, since I find this interaction between Websites kind of creepy.
A few months ago I found Couchsurfing ( trying to do the same thing, and again my response was just to close the site. Now I notice that Couchsurfing seems to have given up this practice, and I am glad.
I have never signed up with Amazon ( because I find their practice of recommending books for you based on the books you are searching very invasive. I realize that all these sites are free, and I suppose these interconnections are a way of trying to monetize their users. I wonder who well it works. In my case, I have just decided to skip TripAdvisor for now, or just check it at the library or on someone else's computer.
I would be interested in hearing if anyone else has had similar experiences, and if so how you reacted. Perhaps I am just being over-sensitive.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tips on Tipping in North America

Are you annoyed by the increasing number of people who seem to expect tips just for doing their job? I find tips jars showing up in more and more shops these days.
However, in some cases workers really do depend on tips for a large share of their income. I was surprised to learn from one of my favourite PBS shows, Bill Moyers ( recently that in the U.S., restaurant workers who receive tips have a minimum wage of just $2.13 per hour. That certainly helps explain why you can find some pretty good restaurant deals in the U.S.
Here in Quebec, on the other hand, restaurant workers who get tips also earn a minimum of $8.55 an hour, and that must be one of the reasons, along with high sales and other taxes, why dining out in Quebec is usually pretty expensive.
I personally would prefer that restauarnts just pay their workers decent wages, so we didn't have to try to figure out what is a reasonable tip. However, that doesn't seem to be likely to happen anytime soon in North America. Now that I know how much restaurant workers earn here, though, I certainly will consider whether I should always, as is my usual policy, just use the GST/PST amount (around 16 per cent) as a tip.
And in the U.S., I will be careful to tip 15 or 20 per cent as long as the service is decent, now that I know how little my server is probably earning. It seems pretty disgraceful that the country that prides itself on being the richest in the world can't afford to pay its relatively unskilled workers better. Working in restaurants used to be mainly a stop-gap job for students and others, but in today's job-starved economy it is turning into a career for a lot of people.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Retreat in Rural Georgia

If late winter is getting you down and you seek an escape, consider the virtues of staying for a few days or longer at a Trappist monastery in Conyers, GA called the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1944. This is an offshoot of the Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky, and it is open to all who wish to experience the quiet life for a short period.
From the pictures on its Website ( it looks beautiful, and its territory covers more than 2,000 acres, so there is lots of room to roam. Suggested donations for room and board range from $60 to $100 per day, but if you are short of funds you can still visit and pay even less than this.
Visitors are welcome to participate in worship starting at 4 a.m., but there is no obligation to take part. For more information or to schedule a visit, call 770-760-0959 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday.. For men over 18 only, there is also a program that permits longer stays.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

TransPacific Bargain Cruise

Would you believe a price as low as $47 per person per day on a cruise from Shanghai, China to Seward, Alasks? The ship calls at one port in South Korea, two in Japan and the most interesting, at least to me, one on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. That is the price for an inside cabin on a cruise offered this April by Celebrity (
If you opt for a more desirable outside cabin, the rate is still very reasonable, as low as about $68 per person per day. Unfortunately this is one of those cruises where there is no break for single travellers, who have to pay as much as if there were two of them in the cabin and eating meals. This strikes me as pretty unfair, but it wouldn't keep me from taking advantage of a deal like this.
The additional costs for air fare and shore excursions, of course, would have to be factored in and would probably more than double the cruise price. Still, this could be a very attractive proposition for certain people.
I found information s about this cruise in Phil Reimer's column in the Montreal Gazette ( Reimer's Website,, is one worth checking regularly if you are still a fan of ocean travel despite the recent horror stories.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Cheap Hotels, Tours in Greece

A Website based in Toronto called Greek Escapes ( is offering some good rates for tours and amazing rates for hotels. Hotel rooms in Athens, the Greek capital, start as low as $18 a night in March. When was the last time you saw a hotle room in any capital city of Western Europe (or Eastern Europe, for that matter) for less than $20?
Tour prices also seem pretty reasonable. For instance, a seven night tour of Athens and classical Greece including the Byzantine monasteries at Meteora starts at $870 per person double occupancy, $1205 single. The tour includes breakfast and some dinners, and tours of Corinth, Epidaurus, Mycenae and Delphi. There are a number of other tour options, many of them including cruises through the amazing Greek islands.
I had heard that Greece lost a lot of its tourist business to Turkey in recent years because Turkey had, according to rumor, lower prices and better service. Perhaps the economic crisis that has hurt Greece so much will begin to turn the tide of tourism back in Greece's favour. I hope so, becuase it is a country well worth visiting.
With prices like these, this could be a good time to see some of its wonders.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Iran

Think you're up for an adventure? I bet it won't be as daring as the exploits of a young British woman who writes about her hitchhiking and backpacking through Europe, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and yes, Iran. She travels sometimes with others, sometimes alone, and illustrates her wanderings with beautiful pictures at
She carries a tent so she can sleep outside if necessary, and it often is in the remote areas she visits. She also stays at guesthouses and with hosts she meets through Couchsurfing ( When hitching is not possible, she resorts to buses or shared taxis called marshrutkas found in most of the countries of the former Soviet Union. She also seems to speak Turkish and some Russian, which no doubt helps her get around relatively safely.
Seeing her lovely shots of the snow-covered peaks of the Caucuses renewed my interest in visiting this part of the world. And, who knows, perhaps Iran is also a posssiblity.
The author also writes movingly about her father's death in Britain. My only criticism of her blog is that, for my taste, there is a little too much information about drinking. But then she is young and British, so I guess that is to be expected.
In any case, this is a great read for armchair travellers.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Paying for Travel

Ah, yes, if we didn't have to worry about paying the bills, we could all travel a lot more. Obviously the best way to pay for travel is out of savings or by charging everything to a credit card and then paying the balance in full when it comes due.
If it is not possible to pay everything off at once, you are probably better off taking out a loan to pay the credit card bills, since credit cards tend to charge very high rates of interest, close to 20 per cent. The cheapest source of credit is usually a line of credit from a bank, or a margin loan against securities. With a margin loan, the interest is also likely to be tax deductible. Of course, if you take a large margin loan relative to the size of your portfolio, you may face margin calls if the market drops.
Retirement accounts are another possible source of funds. Most financial planners screech at the idea of withdrawing retirement money early, but I think it can make sense in some circumstances.(I am more familiar with Canadian than American retirement accounts, so these ideas may not apply to U.S. residents.)
In Canada, you can withdraw money without penalty from Registered Retirement Savings Plans at any age. The money withdrawn becomes taxable income, and tax will be witheld. However, if your other income is low or non-existent, you may be able to recover the witheld tax the following year.
Retirement accounts such as RRSPs are a good idea for many people, I believe. However, at some point before you reach age 72 they have to be cashed in and all the money withdrawn becomes taxable then. And with tax rates expected to rise in the forseeable future, you may end up being in a higher tax bracket in retirement than you were while working.
So the take away, I think, is even if you have to dip into savings or borrow a little, spend the money to travel while you are still energetic and in good health. Who knows what the future holds?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

State Parks in Peril

I have written before here about the attractions of America's state parks, wilderness areas where you can enjoy the great outdoors without spending a lot of money. However, I was unpleasantly surprised when I came across an article in a recent edition (Sept.-Oct. 2012) of Budget Travel magazine ( saying that many of these parks are either in decline or actually endangered. One of the featured parks used to be a favourite of mine, Blackwater Falls in West Virginia ( A couple of times when I was living in Washington DC I met my parents there for a weekend, since it was about equidistant from my place and their home in Columbus, OH. It is a beautiful patch of Appalachia, with comfortable cabins that rent for as little as $84 a night and camping spots from $20 a night. However, it and about a dozen other West Virginia state parks may soon be disfigured by drilling and development associated with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in order to exploit the enormous natural gas deposits of the Marcellus Shale. These parks have mineral rights under them that are owned by private parties.
The Marcellus Shale also extends into Pennsylvania, and the Ohiopyle State Park in southern Pennsylvania, very near Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece in the woods known as Falling Water, is similarly threatened.
Even the iconic Niagara Falls State Park near Buffalo, NY, sight of so many honeymoons in the last century is, according to the magazine story, suffering from severe neglect and looking shabby. The economic crisis that is ravaging local and state government finances is to blame for this, as for so much else.
So if you want to visit a particular state park, the best time would be soon. And if you are really concerned, you can donate to parks in most states. It wouldn't hurt to write to the governor of the state where the park is located, either. If enough people protest, it is possible these important parts of our natural heritage can be saved.

Friday, February 15, 2013

West Coast Ferries

Some of the recent news about cruise ships has been unsettling. I was surprised that the passengers aboard the ill-fated Carnival Triumph, adrift in sewage in the Gulf of Mexico for five days, did not attempt to stage a mutiny. Have travellers become so inured to bad conditions through years of being subjected to humiliating security checks, at airports and elsewhere, that they will put up with almost anything?
In any case, for those of us who love to travel by sea, it is good to know that there are sometimes alternatives to the mega-ships of the major cruise lines. On the West Coast of North America, one of the most scenic cruising areas in the world, a number of ferries operate that provide an option.
These are working ships, not glamourous floating hotels, but they give passengers a chance to view mountains, forests and wildlife at moderate prices.
The Alaska Marine Highway System( has an extensive network of routes and ships that travel from Bellingham WA through the inside passage along Vancouver Island and along the shore of Alaska. Fares and routes are complicated, and you have to pay extra for a cabin, meals or a vehicle. However, these ships can get you from Bellingham to Ketchikan for as little as $239. and serve a number of ports that the big cruise ships never visit, so you can see more of the authentic Alaska not gussied up for tourists.
In British Columbia, BC Ferries ( also provide transportation not just between Vancouver and Victoria, the most popular route, but to many more remote areas of the mainland and Vancouver Island.
Finally, a nice way to travel between Victoria B.C. and Seattle is on the passenger-only ferry operated by Victoria Tours ( Fares start as low as $85, and the route goes through beautiful scenery in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. I took this trip about a dozen years ago, and found it delightful, especially since the ferry docks downtown in both cities.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Budgets for Long-Term Travel

Considering taking a round the world or other long trip? If so, you will want to consult the Website for a story detailing the actual costs incurred by 11 long term travellers, both singles asnd couples.
The budgets vary quite a lot, but most are in the $60 to $120 per day per person range. Many of the itineraries include relatively expensive countries such as Australia and New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada, or the countries of Western Europe.
I don't know about you, but I find it pretty easy to spend $50 a day or so on average just for basics like food, transportation, a little entertainment and a few necessities like the occasional haircut or piece of clothing, right here in North America. The price can easily go higher if there are big car repairs, medical bills (dental and vision) etc. So the idea of spending a little more while travelling the world is appealing.
Of course, unless you put stuff in storage you will still need to pay rent and utilities while you are on the road, and travel health insurance is a good idea, so total costs may be higher than the figures quoted. And even storage costs something, unless friends and family will oblige.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ukraine River Cruise

The ship above is the Viking Lomonosov, which cruises between Kiev and Odessa in warmer weather. It belongs to the Viking fleet ( and offers a way to visit Ukraine, a little-known but very interesting country, at relatively modest cost.
I took this cruise in the summer of 2010 (please see blog posts from the late summer and fall of that year.) While it was not cheap then and is even more expensive now, a minimum of $2438 for the 12-day cruise not including air fare, it does provide a way to visit the highlights of Ukraine without having to grapple with getting around on your own in the Russian language.
And considering that the cruise includes lodging, meals with wine, and a lot of shore excrusions, the price is not exorbitant. What I especially appreciated was that the ship has single cabins, so you are not stuck paying a big single supplement as you are on most cruises if you travel solo.
This cruise covers eastern and southern Ukraine, but I have yet to visit western Ukraine. It's on my list, and I suspect it may be easier for someone like me with little Russian because the language used in the west is Ukranian. Ukranian is similar to Russian, but some of the region was formerly part of  Austria-Hungary and I suspect German may be fairly commonly spoken.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Website with Budget Airlines

If you are used to booking flights with sites like Orbitz (www.orbitz,com) or Travelocity ( you probably realize that they often don't include the cheapest flights, because many budget airlines do not participate in their bookings. Therefore, you miss out on flights with companies like Ryanair ( and similar European carriers which often greatly undercut the major airlines.
Now there is a Website, that includes all the possible flights between two destinations. The downside is that they direct you to the site of the airlines, you don't seem to be able to book directly with them.
I checked for a route that would interest me, Montreal to Moscow, but unfortunately I couldn't anything under $1300 or so. These seem to be two markets where budget airlines just are not an option. Even checking London to Moscow didn't reduce the cost very much.
However, if you are travelling in countries other than Russia and Canada, this site could be very helpful. (Hmm, what else do Russia and Canada have in common besides huge territories and cold weather?)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Valentine's Day Rail Sale

Via Rail Canada ( has announced a 50 per cent off sale from the regular adult fare provided you book by Valentine's Day, February 14. The offer is good system-wide and in all fare classes, for travel up to June 14, 2013.
So if you have ever yearned to take the train across Canada, one of the world's great rail journeys, this could be a good time to book it. You can even travel first class with big savings. I have never taken the train all the way across the country at one time, but I did make the trip from Montreal to Edmonton in a roomette when I was going west to teach at the University of Alberta. It was a very pleasant experience and gave me a real feel for the breadth of this country. The first night after leaving Montreal we were in Ontario, and the second night we were still in Ontario.
 Or if you just want to take a short trip within Canada, say Montreal to Toronto or Ottawa, by booking it now you can save big.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Tips on Points

If you are addicted to accumulating loyalty points, or even if you only accumulate them on a couple of cards or airlines, you can benefit from the advice given by the points guy, He covers most airlines and their frequent flyer programs, as well as major hotel chains and credit cards with links to airlines or hotels.
For the recent major snowstorm in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, he had a post with suggestions that could apply to any massive weather event. With many airlines cancelling large numbers of flights, most of them offered re-booking without charge. In a case like this, the best thing to do is to re-book as soon as possible, in order to get the best chance of reaching your destination quickly when flights resume.
Another post discusses the likely effect on frequent flyer programs of a possible merger between US Airways and American Airlines.More than a decade ago, I was able to use miles accumulated on US Airways to book a flight to Buenos Aires on American.
 There were a number of posts on the frequent flyer I use most often now, Air Canada's Aeroplan, and information on special promotions where double mileage is awarded for a short time.
I've never had the patience to spend a lot of time maximizing the benefits from loyalty programs, but if you do this is definitely a site worth a look.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Southwest Airlines Sale

Southwest Airlines ( has cut prices for many flights and many cities during the period April 2 to June 8. The catch is you have to book by midnight tonight, and there are some blackout dates. The fares start at $49 one way, for travel any day except Sunday.
The $49 fares apply to short-haul flights up to 500 miles, with fares rising as the distance increases. Many airlines seem to be doing these flash sales that are good just for a couple of days, and if you aren't watching you miss them. The best way to be sure not to miss them is to sign up for fare alerts on the Website of your favourite airline, or follow the airline on Twitter (

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Book Today for Airline Savings

You have until the end of today (11:59 p.m. Eastern or local time) to book some good deals on Jet Blue Airlines ( The one-way fares start at $49 for travel in February and March mid-week. For instance, you can fly from New York to Burlington, VT for as little as $49 one way to enjoy some northeastern skiing. Of if a sun destination is more your style, one-way fares from New York to Ft. Lauderdale, FL start at $85, or Tampa FL for $89. Prices include government taxes and fees, but there may be additional fees for checked baggage or other items..
A number of destinations in the U.S. and the Caribbean are on sale, though not many fares are actually as low as $49. Still, this could be a good chance to book a last-minute getaway at moderate cost. For anyone who like me has spent recent weeks in Canada or the northeastern U.S., a travel break probably sounds pretty appealing right now.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Moscow Hotel Deals

Believe it or not, there do seem to be some deals on Moscow hotels at the moment. I checked prices at a number of hotels in Moscow for the night of March 3 with, and found some bargains.
The lowest price, and this is for a place where I actually stayed a few years ago and liked, was at the Maxima Irbis in the northwest sector of the city, convenient if you are arriving at Sheremeteyvo Airport. The price for a room was $88, just over half of what I paid on a visit in September, 2007. This is a smaller but modern hotel, with a great buffet breakfast and English-speaking staff. The main disadvantage is that is it a fair walk to the closest Metro.
Second lowest was another place I stayed, the Izmailove Alfa Hotel on the east side of town. The rate there for the same night was $110. This hotel is huge, part of a large complex of hotels built for the 1980 Olympics. The location is great, right beside a Metro station and next to Izmailovo Park, a lovely green space. On weekends there is a very good flea market held here. Breakfast is a treat, and the hotel has a certain retro feel with floor attendants who handle your keys. English is spoken by some, but not all the staff.
The Cosmas Hotel is another even larger behemoth, very close to the All Russia Exhibition Center and its Metro. Rooms there go for $125. Close to Moscow State University, the Universitetskaya Hotel is a high rise run by the Moscow Patriarchate where rooms go for $134. If you long to be even more churchy, the Danilovskaya Hotel is actually located on the grounds of the Danilovsky Monastery south of the Moscow River, where the Moscow Patriarch lives. A room here will set you back $210.
Finally, if you want to really splash out on a beautiful, historic place to sleep, The Metropol Hotel right across from the Bolshoi Treatre charges $391 for a basic room. If this is beyond your budget (as it is for mine,) at least walk into the plush Art Nouveau lobby to admire it, and check out the mosaic on the front wall by famed turn of the 20th century artist Maxim Vrubel. There is also (or was the last time I looked,) a plague saying that an early Bolshevik named Sverdlov lived there.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Advice on Volunteering Abroad

Check out the latest blog post on the Website of for some good advice on volunteering abroad. It is a guest post written by Shannon O'Donnell, who hosts the site as well as one specifically dedciated to volunteering, She has even written a book on the subject.
O'Donnell is a youn g American who has been travelling and volunteering abroad since 2008 and has learned a lot through that process. Her suggestions include choosing a good fit in volunteer jobs--in other words, don't volunteer to clear trails or do a lot of outdoor work unless you really enjoy that sort of thing; research organizations in your area of interest; and if you pay to volunteer, find out where the money is going, how the organization works with the community, and what exactly is expected of volunteers. Unfortunately, if you have only a week or two to volunteer at a specific time, you will probably end up having to pay a fee.
The whole area of volunteering and wanting to help people in less developed countries is a difficult one. You have probably read about Russia recently banning the adoption of orphans from that country by Americans. Russia is a developed country in most ways, and a very proud one, but because of its culture and history does have many children who grow up in difficult conditions in orphanages.
O'Donnell does not mention this in her blog post, but I think a good way to find volunteer opportunities abroad is through faith-based organizations. I have seen some amazing work being done by Christian charities abroad, such as the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in Salt, Jordan, run under the auspices of the Anglican Church. Christian churches are also active in social work in Russia, something that is not always appreciated by local religious and political authorities. For an insight into this world, check the blog of, a young American missionary now married to a Russian.
As a regular community volunteer, I am fascinated by the prospect of volunteering abroad but have yet to do so. The great thing about volunteering is that it is so diverse--you can volunteer for a few hours, a day or much longer. You can try out different types of work--I've done everything from cleaning cages at a bird sanctuary in Florida (the vulture cage was a little scary,) delivering meals on wheels in Montreal, teaching English, walking dogs, driving seniors to medical appointments, being a receptionist at a free medical clinic, leading discussions for an educational institution.
It has almost always been a good experience, and sometimes even the events that I wondered about have, in retrospect, been very valuable. For a short time I was driving for a gentleman in his 90s who lived near the top of the mountain in Montreal, the most expensive place to live. He and his wife were clearly better-off financially than I was, and I wondered about volunteering for them. However, they were very well-travelled people who had known the Juan Domingo and Eva Peron in Argentina (yes, that Evita) and had many interesting stories to tell, so I felt well rewarded for my minimal effort.
Of course, not all recipients of volunteer work can offer much in return, and sometimes you may feel pretty incompetent to help them. But at least you will have the satisfaction of having tried.