Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Frequent Flyer Tips

If you enjoy earning free miles (and who doesn't?) check out the Website called www.frugaltravel guy.com. It offers a lot of information on the best credit cards to use for travel and the best sign up bonuses being offered, as well as general travel tips.
This writer's definition of frugal travel is similar to mine, not hostels and backpacking but finding decent hotels for modest prices and flying for as little as possible. A lot of credit cards now offer 50,000 or more free miles just for signing up, and that usually equates to a free trip or two. I know people who, like frugal travel guy, just sign up for cards to get the miles, use them and then cancel the card. One friend was able to take a pretty extensive trip in Asia doing this.
You have to be careful how you do this, or it could have an adverse impact on your credit score, but this Website offers tips on that too.
I myself have only once used frequent flyer miles for a trip, and it was a good one, Montreal to Buenos Aires. I have enough miles now on another carrier for a long trip, so guess I should use them soon, as the airlines can make it more expensive by upping mileage requirements.
If you have the patience to juggle a lot of different credit cards and frequent flyer programs, this Website is definitely one what is worth your attention.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Lonely Planet's Eastern Europe Guide

While it is no longer travel's new frontier, Eastern Europe continues to be an area where things are changing very fast, and which is much less swamped by tourists that most parts of Western Europe. I recently came across the Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) guide to the entire region, which covers 21 countries and runs to 1,064 pages. Lonely Planet sells it for $29.99, or you can buy individual chapters.
It's a door-stopper, but crammed with useful information about familiar places and some you may hardly have heard of, like Moldova and Belarus. The thing all these countries have in common is that, prior to 1991 or so, they had a Communist government and most were subject, to one degree or another, to Russian control. Many of them are new countries, carved out of the former Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union.
A section of the book I found very interesting was suggested itineraries, such as one that starts in Timisoara, Romania, where the anti-Ceaucescu first took shape, continues through Chisinau, capital of Moldova, moves on to Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, through Kiev and Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear meltdown, into Belarus and ends in Brest on the border of Poland, the site of a treaty that led Czarist Russia to pull its troops out of World War I, and led indirectly to the Russian Revolution. For a history nerd like me, it sounds great, and there is even an excursion to a national park in Belarus that is the last holdout of European bison. Speaking of holdouts, Belarus itself is one of the last holdouts of Communism.
This is not specifically a budget guide, though each section includes some suggestions of low-cost lodging and restaurant choices. One criticism I have is that prices are generally given in local currency, and except for the few countries in this area that use the euro,these currencies are not particularly well understood. It would have been nice to have an equivalent value in euros or dollars.
Still, for planning a trip or just for dreaming of one, this is a book I can recommend, especially if you are not sure where in Eastern Europe you want to go.

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Sunday, April 08, 2012

Interesting Travel Blogs

I have recently come across a couple of blogs I enjoyed, and thought you might too. The first is www.goseewrite.com, about the land-based travels of a former attorney from Arkansas (no, not Hilary or Bill.) He has been on the road since 2008, visiting as many places as he can reach with minimal air and sea travel. He is a big fan of rail travel, and organized a rail travel challenge for bloggers. I'm just getting into this blog, whose content seems somewhat scattered, but I am looking forward to reading more.
Another good choice if you travel alone might be www.solotravelerblog.com, written by a woman from Toronto who is a former business owner. After suffering a personal loss she decided to pursue one of her passions, solo travel. The site contains a number of useful tips, such as starting slowly if you are new to lone travel. In other words, plan a weekend trip to somewhere close by rather than a trek on the Trans-Siberian Railway. After the weekend, go somewhere on your own for a week, then for two weeks, etc. And to minimize culture shock, concentrate on places where you can speak the language. She also includes 30 ways to minimize costs when travelling solo, an important topic since travelling alone does tend to cost more.

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Cruellest Month

In his wonderful poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot dubbed April as the cruellest month, and this appellation has stuck. A much earlier English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, said that April was the showery month when people began to wend their way towards Canterbury to seek the holy blissful martyr, St. Thomas a Becket. Not all of them, of course, were inspired by the highest motives, since in medieval times pilgrimages were for many the equivalent of modern business travel.
For us moderns, April is still the month when the major feasts of Christianity and Judaism are usually celebrated (sometimes they fall in March.) And for those of us in North America, it is indeed the cruellest month because it is when our tax returns are due for the previous year. Some of us, Americans and dual American and Canadian citizens, have the dubious honour of needing to prepare tax returns for both countries, an increasingly burdensome task. I mentioned to one friend who, like me, is in this situation, that tax preparation must be the modern equivalent of "hew wood, carry water." Buddhists (just to bring in another major religion) are known to say that before enlightenment life consists of "hew wood, carry water."
After enlightenment, life also consists of "hew wood, carry water."
Taxes affect not just how much of our incomes we get to keep for our own use, they also can have a large impact on travel costs. A travel blog in The Economist (www.economist.com) mentions that a recent survey of US cities showed how they stack up in terms of taxes levied on items specifically affecting travellers, not just general sales taxes. These are taxes on airports, rental cars, hotels and restaurants, etc.
All the best places were smaller jurisdictions in California, starting with Orange County and San Diego, and the worst five were Portland, Oregon; Boston, Minneapolis, New York and Chicago. I was surprised that New York was not at the top. The survey did not include European cities, but in Europe high Value Added Taxes in many places have a significant effect on travellers and locals alike.
There is no escaping taxes, so perhaps we should just bite the bullet and get busy with our pencils and calculators. At least that is what I plan to do today. Happy April, regardless of the tax hassles.