Friday, February 24, 2012

Reduced Fares on a Great Rail Journey

The trip from eastern Canada to or through the Canadian Rockies is near the top of the wish list for most rail buffs. It's a long time since I took it, but it really was spectacular, giving a sense of the vastness of Canada that you totally miss when you fly.
Now you can save on this iconic trip offered by Via Rail Canada ( if you book by March 9 for travel by May 31. Fares are reduced in some cases by 75 per cent, and the cost for travel in Sleeper Plus Class with an upper berth is as low as $750 from Toronto to Vancouver, or $562 from Toronto to the charming mountain resort of Jasper, Alberta, The fare includes full service gourmet meals. I haven't travelled on the refurbished Canadian so can't vouch for food quality, but have heard it is good.
If you have always wanted to see central and western Canada by rail, this is probably as good a time as any to book a trip and save some money.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Use your brain in Spain

Looking for an inexpensive Spanish vacation? If you don't mind doing some work in return, consider the program offered by Grupo Vaughan ( for volunteers to help Spaniards learn English. The program lasts six days in several different locations in central Spain, and includes all costs except air fare to Madrid. No teaching experience is required, and there is no upper age limit. Being a native English speaker is a requirement, though.
The schedule is quite full, with conversation classes and various activities where you are expected to interact with your students, most of whom are business people. If you think this sounds easy, think again. One of my early English teaching experiences involved speaking with two men, one from Uzbekistan and one from Afghanistan, who both worked as mechanics. After just a few minutes I ran out of topics--my knowledge of mechanics is very limited. I asked about their families, but knew that it is not considered polite in their cultures to inquire much about their wives. The time passed extremely slowly. A program like the Vaughan program, which requires a lot of interaction most of the day, is probably best for garrulous people.
There are other openings for volunteers to speak English with people trying to learn that language, and many are listed on The Republic of Georgia has been bringing in many volunteers who are willing to commit to a semester or more teaching English to school children, and Chile also has a big push on for English learning at all levels of education.
If you are determined to find some way to teach English abroad, these volunteer programs are a good way to try out the field and see whether you enjoy it, before you commit to an expensive certificate program or sign a long-term contract.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shuttle not always so Super

I have been a fan of the Super Shuttle service ( for quite a while. They provide airport transportation at many airports in the United States and a few in Europe for not much more than half the cost of a taxi. You usually share the trip with a few other passengers, so the trip takes a little longer than it would by taxi. Still, I mostly find the savings are worth it.
Or at least I did until a recent evening when I got a driver who admitted he had been on the job for just two days, and who seemed to have no idea of where he was going. He was using a GPS system, but it didn't seem to work very well, and he had no backup plan. He had great difficulty finding a certain hotel, and ended up asking a taxi driver where it was. Luckily the driver took pity on him and told him, or we might still be driving around in circles. The concept of a map appeared to be foreign to my driver.
He was a very pleasant older man, and while I wanted to tell him perhaps he should seek other employment, I wimped out and didn't do so. A trip that normally takes 40 minutes or so ended up taking nearly two hours, and for all I know this driver is still out there costing other travellers large amounts of time. However, jobs are hard to come by in the area where I was, so I didn't want to report him to the company. I hope he has learned on the job, or at least purchased a map.
This was an object lesson in how saving money may cost you a lot of time.

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Monday, February 06, 2012

Low-priced smarTours

Last year my friend Marilyn talked about having taken a safari to Kenya, and this year she is planning a Russian river cruise. Both are with a company based in New York called smarTours,
She said they were a good deal, so I decided to check out their Web site and I tend to agree. While I am not generally a fan of tours because I believe they insulate you too much from the real experience of travel, in some circumstances they are advisable, even preferable. For example, I imagine it would be a lot of hassle, very expensive (and possibly dangerous) to visit the African wildlife parks on one's own. Some people do it, but for most of us a tour is the best way to go. I certainly enjoyed the photo safari tour I took.
Smartours has a 12 day trip visiting some of the top game parks in Kenya, and the price starts at $3859 including air fare from New York and taxes. The river cruise Marilyn is taking from St. Petersburg to Moscow along the Volga lasts 12 days and prices start at $2789 including most meals and a lot of sightseeing. A similar cruise along the Dnieper River and Black Sea in Ukraine has a base price of $2669. Single supplements are generally reasonable.
One trip that intrigued me was for 14 days to Turkey, including Cappadocia, Ankara and Antalya, starting at just $1899. This works out to about $130 per day, a very low rate for everything that is included.
If you like tours, this company may be worth checking out.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Cruise Ship Discounts

There's nothing like a picture published worldwide of a half-sunk megaship off the rocky coast of Italy to make people think twice about taking a cruise. The tragedy of the Costa Concordia will not, I hope, have any lasting negative impact on the cruise industry, but it is bound to make some people think twice. That in turn is leading to price reductions, even on some very expensive cruises.
The website keeps track of cruise bargains, and there are some amazing ones out there, such as Seabourn Cruises starting at about $300 per day, a huge reduction from normal fares on this luxury line. Some bargain cruises start at less than $100 per day for short cruises in the Caribbean. When you consider that a cruise includes not just lodging but meals and transportation, even $300 per day per person can stack up well compared to other forms of transportation.
The lines usually make a lot of money on shore excursions, but by researching your cruise stops in advance you can often figure out ways to see the sights at lower cost. For example, in Piraeus, the port for Athens, you can take the subway downtown instead of an expensive excursion, and walk up to the Acropolis on your own (provided, that is, there are no strikes on the subway or at historic sites.)
While ship travel is generally very safe, security at sea is always a concern. The tendency of the cruise industry to promote cruise ships as floating hotels may lure passengers into too much complacency. The last time I sailed on the QE2 (the ship, not the monetary policy) in September, 2001 I was reassured when the Sunday service included the singing of the traditional sailors' hymn "Eternal Fatheer Strong to Save" with its line about those in peril on the sea. That seemed to be a ship where safety was not taken for granted.

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