Friday, August 31, 2012

Savings on Cruises, Far East travel

I have recently discovered a couple of Websites that may be helpful for certain kinds of budget travel. The first is, which offers discounts on many different cruise lines and helpful information such as which lines charge the lowest single supplements or, occasionally, none at all. Unfortunately the site has become a lot less user friendly just in the last few days.
When I first looked at it, you could scan for discounts on many different cruise lines, get information on last minute deals, and check into single supplements all without the hassle of registering and specifying a specific cruise region or date. That is no longer the case. From what I gleaned a few days ago, the luxury line Seabourn Cruises is offering steep discounts now on most of its sailings around the world. But be warned, the price will probably still be in the range of $300 per day per person or more. This is a big savings off the usual cost, but not what I would call a bargain.
Another site worth checking into is, a Website run by an Australian woman who has lived in Japan and travelled there extensively. She has posts about budget-friendly lodging in Tokyo and other cities, as well as information on cheap travel in Korea. A recent post about homestays in Korea sounds intriguing, since they start at as low as $30 per person. In Japan, she is a big fan of the Tokoyo Inns chain of budget hotels.
This site isn't updated very frequently and contains a lot of ads, but also some appealing pictures and useful information.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Car Camping

One advantage of travel by car is that, in an emergency, you can always opt to sleep in the car. This is not a practice I recommend--it's not very safe and can be hard on the bod. However, when all other options fail it can be the best choice available.
I've done it at least three times, all in Europe and quite a while ago. I camped in a small car with my friend Susan in the Highlands of Scotland, by myself somewhere near the French-Swiss border, and with three school friends in the hills overlooking Monaco. Actually in Monaco I and another girl slept in my VW, and the guys slept outside on the grass. The police came along and hassled us a little, but we explained that there was absolutely no place to stay. It was Grand Prix weekend, and while we had secured tickets for the race we hadn't bothered with a hotel or other lodging, figuring every place would be out of our price range if it was available at all.
My other experiences of sleeping in the car have involved driving so late that everything was booked up, or simply nonexistent. The only slightly scary time was when I was by myself, but they were all uncomfortable.
I have read recommendations since then about car sleeping, which is an unfortunate daily reality for some people who are temporarily or permanently homeless, and whose numbers have included luminaries like financial guru Jim Cramer. The safest places to sleep are usually hospital parking lots, or sometimes the parking lots of Walmart or other stores. It is better to park where there is some light, even if that makes it harder to sleep. Parking in the woods away from other cars and people is not a safe option.
When you buy your next car, it's something to consider--is this a car I would be comfortable sleeping in? My present car, an old Volvo, actually has a fold-down seat so at least the driver can stretch out. (So far, I haven't had to use it, but I'm glad it's there, especially when I drive on the Adirondack Northway where towns are sparse.)
Today a lot of us are getting experience with sleeping in airports, train and bus stations when bad weather or other problems strike. Luckily I haven't had that experience yet.
If you do find yourself reduced to sleeping in a car, try to think of it as an adventure and keep notes so you can talk about it later.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Affordable American Adventures

I recently discovered a book that should be on the bookshelf of every budget traveller in North America. It’s called “100 Best Affordable Vacations,” by Jane Wooldridge and Larry Bleiberg, published by National Geographic.

If you’ve become cynical about travel in North America (guilty, Your Honour) and think it’s nothing but Interstate highways, overpriced Disneyfied attractions and people telling you to have a nice day, this book will make you think twice. From state parks to YMCA camps, Kentucky’s bourbon trail to Alberta’s icefields, a learning vacation in Maine to a minor league baseball game, it offers something to pique the interest of even the most jaded traveller.

A number of the entries are things I have actually done or places I have visited, although often back in the mists of time. For instance, Bardstown, Kentucky was a vacation spot with my parents when I was a kid. It’s a quintessential small American town with an unusual history. It is the site of the first Catholic church in the United States west of the Alleghany mountains, and the place where the pretender to the French throne who later became King Louis Philippe spent a winter with some of his followers. I remember staying at an old stagecoach inn where they showed us some quite good murals painted by the Frenchmen while they were trapped in the remote town by snow, or so the story went.

Researching Bardstown led me look into Berea, Kentucky, another interesting childhood holiday haunt, this time much closer to the mountains. It is the site of Berea College, still a tuition-free educational institution for underprivileged kids from across the United States, and of a charming southern-style hotel associated with the college. Berea is known for its crafts, some of which are produced by students.

I was pleased to see that some of these places and attractions I enjoyed in the past are still around, and I’ll be telling you about more of them in subsequent posts.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Budget Travel in Japan?

Japan is, from everything I have read, one of the most challenging countries in the world for budget travellers. It is an expensive developed country, and one where the language and culture are quite different from those in the West. This makes it hard to get around independently at low cost.
For example, the main airport for Tokyo, Narita, is about 80 km. from the centre of town. There is train and bus service, but after a very long flight from North America it can be awfully tempting to get into a taxi. That, however, can be a costly mistake, with a fare of $300 or more. And staying at a Western style hotel in Tokyo is probably also going to cost $300 per night or more.
True, there are less expensive options, including the coffin-like capsule hotels, and hostels. Capsule hotels are mainly for males, but I did find at least one for females. Business hotels and some Japanese inns called ryokans are relatively inexpensive, at least compared to normal hotels.
Because I was considering a trip to Japan with accumulated miles, I found a Fodor's Guide to that country at my local library. Fodor's is not known for low-cost travel, but this one does include a page of budget travel recommendations from readers. Among them are buying a rail pass from Japan Rail before you go, getting takeout meals from the basement floor of department stores known as departo in Japanese, and buying kimono at vintage shops that Japanese are reluctant to patronize.
Even with all this good advice, though, I still find myself thinking that the trip sounds costly and perhaps not a lot of fun, trying to get around in a place where I know nothing of the language and little about the culture. I would welcome suggestions from readers with ideas about how to make Japanese travel easier. Or perhaps I will just wait until I can find a tour that sounds interesting and not too expensive.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Back to the USSR

If you aren't likely to travel to Russia this summer, I can recommend a couple of books that will take you mentally not just to Russia, but to that country in Soviet times. The first is "Russian Winter" by Daphne Kalotay, a young American writer. As a debut novel, it is a stunner, beautifully written and with believable, sympathetic characters.
It tells the story of a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi in the later Stalinist years, and offers a picture of how relatively ordinary members of the intelligentsia and artistic circles managed to survive during dark times when people regularly disappeared for no apparent reason. Mostly, they did it by concentrating on their work and keeping their heads down, but also by forging close friendships and other personal relationships that could easily be disrupted by betrayal or suspected betrayal.
Thus, many people managed to find some joy and beauty even in very difficult circumstances.
I had a few minor quarrels with the book, such as the fact that the heroine lived conveniently in a communal apartment that just happened to be right across Theatralnaya Square from the Bolshoi where she worked, and that her relatively elevated pay allowed her to employ a servant. Thus, she was spared some of the most difficult conditions of life during those times, riding the often overcrowded Metro and standing in endless queues to buy the barest necessities. (Or perhaps I'm projecting modern overcrowding of the Metro to earlier times--it probably was actually less crowded then.)
In any case, "Russian Winter" is a book well worth reading, especially for those of us who find summer is a season that needs a little contrast.
The other book, "Red Snow" by Edward Topol, is a crime novel that is a lot more difficult to read. Written and set in the 1980s, it is well-written but depicts a society that was almost unbelievably violent and corrupt. There are no heroes and little beauty in this book.
Topol was a highly-placed Soviet journalist before emigrating to North America,
so I suspect he must be painting a relatively accurate picture of what things were like then.
The Russian police and officials come across as venal and generally stupid, as well as incredibly misogynistic. Sexual violence is rife, and the native tribe (the Nenets) are shown to be both victims and perpetrators of crime.
Set in the oil fields of northwestern Siberia, this is not a book for the faint of heart, but it is nevertheless fascinating because it was written before Chernobyl and before anyone suspected that the whole Soviet system would collapse in less than a decade.

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Saturday, August 04, 2012

Bargains in the Boonies

The usual rule if you are heading to a relatively remote area is to stock up on necessities before you leave, because they may be scarce and are likely to be much more costly if you can find them. Certainly this applies to some Caribbean islands, the Far North and many other places.
However, if you plan to visit Barry's Bay in eastern Ontario, you would do well to save some shopping to do in that small town on the road to nowhere except Algonquin Park. On a recent visit I discovered I had forgotten my contact lens solution, and was able to replace it at the drugstore/general market there for $4 less than I usually pay in Montreal. And I was also able to buy the kind of lens holder I haven't been able to find at my optometrist's for years. The clothing store Stedman's, also in Barry's Bay, is a great place to stock up on socks, underwear and bathing suits at remarkable prices. A couple of years ago I bought a two-piece bathing suit there for just $8, or $4 per piece. The style may not be the latest, but it works quite well. If you are in need of groceries, there is even a Metro store in the town.
In nearby Combermere, stop at the Madonna House Museum and used book store for bargains on books of all kinds, not just religious, and it's open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday in the afternoon during summer. The museum commemorates a Russo-Polish pioneer settlement that was started here in the mid-20th century by a devout Catholic laywoman.
I have not yet made it to Algonquin Park, but I am assured that it's a must for lovers of the Canadian wilderness, a place where you can hear wolves howl and where bear, deer and many smaller kinds of animals are abundant. A traditional Algonquin pow wow is held there every summer, this year on August 18 and 19. Maybe next year, for me.

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