Monday, November 28, 2011

Guest Blog on New Zealand "Bargains"

My peripatetic friend and fellow travel writer Paul Glassman sends the following about his recent travels in New Zealand:
"New Zealand is exotic and scenic and homey and surely one of the places to see before you depart. But oh, the sticker shock! With a currency that attracts unwarranted attention from speculators, visitors can be in for unpleasant surprises as the value of the NZ ollar travels like a yo-yo. On a recent day, eggs cost 40 cents a piece, butter--an export item--was over $7 a pound in local markets, and gasoline came in at over $6 (all figures in US dollars.)
Do your homework, though, and you can bring costs into line.
Stay in motorcamps or older hotels in country towns. "Holiday camps" have a range of accommodation from campsites to motel rooms. A good value are cabins, little private rooms with common bathrooms and showers otuside. Price per night can range from $35 to $45. As a bonus, there are shared kitchens. Even if you don't cook for yourself, these are great places to meet your fellow travelers of all ages. In the center of older towns, similar values can be found in hotels that seem to come straight out of Gunsmoke. There's a sink in the room, and a bathroom down the hall.
Check the Inernet for bus passes with companies like and can be abstruse, but generally you can hop on and off at national parks and beach towns that are otherwise difficult and expensive to reach by public transport.
For flights, check In a high-priced landscape, fares can be as low as $50 between Auckland on North Island and Christchurch on South Island.
Compare rental car offers. While Hertz has small cars for over $80 per day, will set you up for as little as $22 daily, with a vehicle that is a few years old.
Restaurant prices seem outrageous, until you consider that tax and service are included. Service workers earn a fair wage, and tipping is considered a strange American habit. And considering high food prices in stores, you'll often find fair value when you eat out.
If you're shopping for your own food, best values are at supermarkets and warehouse stores in urban centers.
Prices for day trips, bicycle rentals cruises and the like are still more than I (and perhaps you) would like to pay, but if you follow these tips, you should keep your costs at a reasonable level. Not to mention that the fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, beaches, wines and flora are priceless."

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Amazing Bargain Tour to Russia and Ukraine

If you are looking for a low-cost trip to Russia and Ukraine, it will be hard to beat one being offered by Friendship Force ( starting next May 1. The trip includes a week's homestay in Lugansk, Ukraine and a week's homestay in Moscow, and is organized by the FFI club of Brisbane, Australia, but open to all. Cost for the two weeks? A mere $525 U.S.

Naturally, this doesn't include air fare, visa cost or insurance, but it is still incredible. It is easy to spend $525 on one night's stay at a luxury hotel in Moscow alone. I was sorely tempted by this trip, but will probably pass because I would be replicating the Moscow sight-seeing I did on my FFI trip earlier this year. Much as I love Moscow and its sights, I'm more interested now in improving my Russian, which could stand a great deal of improvement.

Lugansk is a smallish city in southeastern Ukraine, the more industrial part of the country. While it isn't known for its sights or history, I imagine the home hospitality will be amazing.

Right now there are still 25 places available on this tour, and you can find out more about it on the Friendship Force Website--click the segment marked "Experience the World" and scroll down.

Pictured above are some of the beautiful embroideries that were for sale in Zaporozhe, Ukraine, not far from Lugansk, in 2010.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Free London Attractions

Check out the Lonely Planet site ( for an article listing 20 free attractions in pricey London, England. Many of the city;s top things to see are without price, from the British Museum to the Houses of Parliament, the Victoria and Albert Museum to the older and modern branches of the Tate Museum. All the signs are in English, and the locals speak a language you can sometimes understand.
Seriously, London is a wonderful city to visit, even if you have to save up for a while to afford it. The Lonely Planet story doesn't mention it, but you can spend days at places like the British Museum, not just viewing wonderful exhibits like the Rosetta Stone and the Sutton Hoo treasure (ancient gold relics found in an English farmer's field,) but attending lectures by experts and reading your way through the books in the former Reading Room of the British Library, now housed in this museum. Last time I was there I speed read several of the wonderful books on Arabia written by British explorer Freya Stark. While you're in the Reading Room, you can think of some of your distinguished predecessors in this place, from Chrales Dickens to Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
I understand that London can be a difficult place in which to live, with traffic problems, exorbitant rents, and all of the usual urban hassles. But for the visitor the city has an enormous amount to offer, and much of it is free. If you can find an inexpensive place to stay, through a package tour or by lodging at a student residence, it can be relatively affordable. The city is a good winter destination, because while it rains frequently it very rarely snows, and other tourists are few in number.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beware the Middle Seat

I recently booked a flight with Travelocity ( and found that I had a choice of seats on the second leg of my flight. However, all the choices were middle seats. Several years ago seats booked through Travelocity or its competitors seemed usually to be at the very back of the plane. I don't know whether the middle seat thing is common now, but I'm willing to put up with it for savings on flights.
On this trip I changed at DCA, otherwise known as Reagan National Airport in Washington DC. In Montreal if you are flying to this airport you use a special gate, and a security official came in and told everyone to leave while she "secured the area." I'm not sure how she did this (there was opaque glass blocking my view,) but she was holding a long metal implement with a mirror on one end of it, similar to the instruments border guards in the Soviet Union used to put underneath vehicles entering or leaving that country by land borders. They apparently did this to check for bombs or stowaways (though I don't think there were many people then trying to sneak in.) Today, with the rise of the national security state it isn't just in totalitarian regimes where one encounters walls taller than the one that used to divide Berlin--think Israel and Palestine, or the U.S. and Mexico.
On the bright side of this trip, this time there was no requirement to stay seated for an hour before landing, as there was for a while after 9/11 on flights into Reagan. This flight was lovely, right over leafy northwest Washington and Georgetown, my old 'hood, along the sparkling Potomac past the Washington and Jefferson memorials and onto the runway.

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Monday, November 07, 2011

Airline Complaints Website

I recently discovered the site, where travellers can register their problems with airline and view the experience and advice of their fellow sufferers, er I mean travellers. You need to register to post a complaint, but you can find some useful advice without registering.
It's now been more than three months since I sent a letter to Continental Airlines requesting payment of a hotel bill incurred when that airline cancelled my flight for mechanical reasons. (Airlines are required to put travellers up when a cancellation is for mechanical problems, but not when it results from weather problems.)
I called the airline again last week and was assured a supervisor would call me back later that day, but to my complete lack of surprise I heard no more from them. I am determined to collect the money Continental owes me, but based on what I read on the Website it may take quite a while longer. Unfortunately, it is not just Continental that gets a lot of complaints from customers. Wish I had some good advice for these types of situations, but other than not travelling by air I can't think of any.

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Thursday, November 03, 2011

Another Heartland Hotel Bargain

My peripatetic cousin Pat Piton has unearthed another good hotel deal in South Dakota, one of the states he visits regularly. This one is the Ortman Hotel and Brick Oven Restaurant in Canistota SD, where a single room with bath but no television or air conditioning goes for just $23.95 a night, or $27.95 if you stay just one night. Most rooms have both TV and AC, and start at $33.95 for one, $37.95 for two, and four dollars more for a one night stay. These prices were in effect in 2010, may be slightly higher now. The telephone no. of the hotel is 1-800-801-3132.
I think Pat must take after our great-grandmother Lucie, who moved from Quebec City to Chicago in order to become a successful milliner back around the turn of the 20th century. He has an amazing eye for a bargain. During the summer he found a place to stay at a nurse's residence in Sheridan WY for only $15 per night. Just goes to show that if you look, you can often find inexpensive places to stay.

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