Sunday, October 30, 2011

More Monastery Madness

I recently discovered a good online source for lodging in monasteries, convents and guest houses with religious affiliation. It is It covers places around the world, not just those in traditionally Christian countries like Italy, France and Belgium.
For the most part, monasteries and their ilk provide clean, quiet, lodging for travellers at lower cost than hotels with similar amenities. Since the beginnings of monasteries in the early Middle Ages, some religious orders have made hospitality for travellers and pilgrims a large part of their mission. That tradition continues today, sometimes in surprising places.
Even in the hedonistic beach resort of Mombasa, Kenya you can take refuge in a guest house with Christian affiliation. And in pricey Reykjavik, Iceland, there is a Salvation Army guest house right downtown where a single room goes for about $60 a night.
Some other interesting choices include the New Valama Russian Orthodox monastery in Finland and the Monasterium Poort Ackere in the centre of medieval Ghent, Belgium, At the latter, rooms start at 46 euros per night. And who knew that monasteries catered to spa travellers? At least one does, near Kobelnz, Germany, where nuns with training in mind-body wellness operate a health resort in the picturesque rolling hills near the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine Rivers.
For extensive travels, you might want to invest in one or more of the three guidebooks associated with this site.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Universitetskaya Hotel

I have discovered another budget priced hotel in Moscow, an expensive city. No sorry, it's not in the Kremlin, but it is well located near Moscow State University, hence the name Universitetskaya Hotel (
I had heard of the hotel before, but thought it was open only to people studying at the university. It is managed by the Pilgrimage Center of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, and open to all. (However, the hotel's Website talks about its quiet, homey atmosphere, so don't expect party central.) Single rooms with bath and breakfast start at 1800 rubles, about $75, and basic doubles start at twice that amount. There is free parking, a rarity in Moscow, and the hotel is in a green area of the Sparrow (formerly Lenin) Hills.
It sounds like a good bet for those looking for a peaceful refuge in a busy city that is not far from downtown. It is rated three stars and is 15 storeys tall.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tour d'Afrique for Bicycle Adventures

For those who enjoy cycling and camping, Tour d'Afrique ( provides plenty of choice in overseas adventures. The company, based in Toronto, started out offering a bicycle tour from Cairo to Capetown, the length of Africa. They still offer this option, but have added many others.
I learned about the company by attending a very interesting illustrated lecture in Montreal by Victor Breedon. I had seen the lecture announcement, about a tour by bicycle from Istanbul to Samarkand, and knew I couldn't miss it. The Silk Road through Central Asia is one of my dream trips. I assumed Mr. Breedon would be a young man who had done the trip on his own, which would be a remarkable accomplishment. To my surprise he turned out to be 60-something, and to have done the trip with a group, still a remarkable accomplishment. He said that the trip, which lasted about two months, cost in the region of $6,000.
The entire Silk Road trip goes all the way to Beijing, but it is possible to take only some segments of the route, as Mr. Breedon did. Tour d'Afrique also has other routes through South America, North America, Europe and Asia. Most of them involve some camping and some nights spent in hotels. Buses accompany the bikers and provide refuge for those who become exhausted en route. Crossing the Andes or the KaraKum desert as their trips do, I would be in the bus all the time I suspect.
For the more adventurous, though, these tours sound like a very good deal. Be prepared for rugged conditions--on Mr. Breedon's trip they went through about a week when they were not able to bathe, and as for toilets, best not to ask. I wish someone would offer a Silk Road trip on donkeys or camels.

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Monday, October 17, 2011 Hard to Access

I was hoping to use the Website to talk about my experience with Continental Airlines (I'm still waiting to be reimbursed,) but found that I was not able to sign on to the site. My computer is reasonably new, so I don't know what the problem was.
On a brighter note, I was finally able to get through to comeone at Continental who gave me information I should have been given a lot earlier. She said that in order to receive reimbursement for a hotel I paid for when a flight was cancelled for mechanical reasons, I needed to send in the original receipt from the hotel (I had sent a copy.) Now I have to go through the whole maneuvre again, wait for mail to be received and sent, etc., etc., but it does look as if I will finally be getting back the money I was promised. It would be very helpful if the airlines could set out clear guidelines on their Websites on what to do in cases like this, since it is very difficult to reach anyone who can be helpful by telephone.
Incidentally, I discovered that at least with Continental, I should have pressed the button for feedback rather than the one for refunds (go figure.) I can't promise this will work with other airlines.
My travel problem pales in comparison to one I heard about last night, from a friend who was pickpocketed in Rome and lost all his ID, passport, credit cards, cash etc. the day before he was supposed to return to Montreal. Luckily he was travelling with his girlfriend who was able to get him some money. He said the Canadian embassy in Rome was not helpful because it was a weekend and they were closed. However, he was able to get on his return flight without a passport even though everyone except his travel agent had told him it would be impossible. He got on the return flight by going to the airport and speaking with a supervisor of his airline. Just goes to show you should never take no for an answer, and that travel agents can be worth their money.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Budget Travel Russia

Russia must be one of the most difficult countries in the world for the average budget traveller. The main reason is the plethora of restrictions that the Russian Federation continues to impose on foreign visitors--not just expensive visas that are difficult to obtain on your own, but registration requirements that make it almost impossible to travel around the country other than on a pre-arranged itinerary.
Therefore, a Website like is a welcome addition. Much of this site is still under construction, but what is there is useful, especially information for those planning to travel across the country on the Trans Siberian Railway. The site offers advice on what to bring, even on which berths to choose depending on your budget and number of companions, if any.
The site inlcudes helpful links to hostel and hotel booking services, as well as information on some of the country's best known tourist attractions. Once all the items listed on the home page actually exist, the site will probably be even more useful.
According to some surveys, Moscow is now the world's most expensive city. Having been there recently, I do not believe this. Perhaps for certain types of top end travellers and expats living there it is true, but certainly not for the average visitor. A ticket on the very extensive Moscow Metro costs about $1 (compared with $3 in Montreal,) and it is possible to find a quite decent hotel room with huge delicious buffet breakfast for less than $100 a night. That is very hard to do in most large cities of North America. Food costs are comparable to those in North America, and some items (vodka, beer, wine) are considerably cheaper.
This is somewhat tongue in cheek, but another method to visit Russia on a budget is to visit Ukraine instead. Ukraine does not have the extensive visa and registration requirements that plague the Russian traveller, prices there are comparable to or lower than in Russia, and the country is quite similar. In fact, the Russian culture which has now spread so widely, across the largest country in the world, originated in Kievan Rus.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Currency Volatility

Fluctuations in the value of currencies can have a big impact on travel costs. In recent weeks the U.S. dollar has gained significantly and is up nearly nine cents against the Canadian dollar, more than 10 cents compared with the euro.
While it is impossible to protect yourself totally against the impact of currency changes on travel costs, there are ways to minimize the problem. Once you have committed to a trip by buying an airline ticket or a tour package, you can estimate what your out-of-pocket spending will be in foreign currency and go buy that amount. (Currency exchange offices usually have slightly better rates than banks.) Then, whatever happens, you will have enough money in local currency to enjoy the trip.
If you travel to a particular country or region frequently, it can pay off to stockpile some currency for future trips, either in cash or in travellers cheques. (I still have some Swiss franc travellers cheques I bought in the 80s--not a great financial investment, but psychologically comforting.) Canadians are fortunate in having the possibility of opening bank accounts in U.S. dollars. I have one account that actually pays a little (very little) interest.
And if you visit one particular country very often, you may want to open a bank account in that country.
Any readers who have other suggestions on how to deal with currency issues, I'd like to hear them.