Friday, November 30, 2012

The Joy of Thrift Shopping


One of the fun aspects of travel is finding bargains on clothing, souvenirs and other items. A good way to ensure you are usually getting good prices is to patronize thrift shops, which exist in most developed countries. These are places, usually run by churches or other non-profits, that sell mostly second-hand items at very low cost. An added benefit of this kind of store is that profits go to support a good cause.

 I recently read about a thrift shop in Gulfport, FL where T shirts go for 50 cents most days, except Thursdays when all clothing items are on sale at 50 per cent off, bringing the price down to a quarter. The beach towns near Tampa are full of second hand shops with many good bargains. Some people claim that it is possible to furnish an apartment in that part of the world for under $2,000 by judicious use of items from thrift stores and used furniture places.

It takes some patience to find the deals , but they are there. I once bought two tall brass lamps from the Art Deco period at Kimberley Home Thrift Shoppe in Clearwater, FL for just $10. Similar lamps on Ebay ( cost at least $50 a piece. I have also found nice low-priced things at the St. Vincent de Paul shop in Clearwater.

Wherever you are, you can find thrift shops by doing an online search for that city or area. And if you cannot find any, there are often even better deals at garage sales or swap meets.

However, not every item in a thrift shop is a bargain. Sometimes newer or designer pieces are priced as high as they would be in a regular store. And remember to check out the merchandise very carefully in a thrift store or at a garage sale. Plug electronics into a socket to make sure that they work. Many thrift stores do not accept returns.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fine Online Guide to Jordan Travel

If you are considering a visit to Jordan, there is a virtual guidebook to the country available online at Visiting Jordan is something I would recommend strongly, not just for world heritage sites like Petra and Wadi Rum, but for the hospitality of the people.
Jordan Jubilee, which is also available in book form, is the work of a woman named Ruth who has been visiting the country frequently for some 20 years and has been "adopted" by some local families in Wadi Rum and Wadi Musa. (Wadi Musa is the town near Petra, and Wadi Rum is a desert preserve where part of the Lawrence of Arabia film was made.)
The Website includes information on transportation, lodging, food, shopping and local customs, and recommendations for guides, particularly in Wadi Rum.  There is also a lot about the local culture, and suggestions on how to dress and deal with the locals. One important point--do not offer a much lower price to a merchant. Bargaining is allowed, but the first price quoted is likely to be close to the price you will pay, and vendors will be insulted if you quote too low an offer and may refuse to deal with you further.
I am highly impressed that Ruth has managed, travelling as a single woman, to insert herself so well into Jordanian society. I too was alone when I visited Jordan in 2003, and found it intimidating at first. That had something to do with the fact that war had just broken out in Iraq with the American invasion, but I still believe that many women find the heavily male-dominated Arab culture (at least in the pbulic sphere) difficult to deal with.
In 2003 I stayed at the Hisham Hotel in Amman, which is situated in the embassy section of Jebel Amman in a flourishing garden. The Hisham is still there are still looks charming, but prices have risen a lot. I think I paid about $40 a night, but now a single costs about $105 with breakfast. According to Jordan Jubilee, hotels tend to be booked up quickly since tourists have returned to the country in large numbers. So far, at least, it is a peaceful haven in a troubled part of the world.
In any case, Ruth has done a great service for her fellow travellers in hosting this site.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Last Minute Hotel Deals for Mobiles

For smart phone users only, there are some very interesting savings on same-day hotel bookings with Hotel Tonight (,) such as a hotel room in the D.C. area with a list price over $900 for only $90.
At present the app covers mainly U.S. destination all across the country, with a few in Canada, the U.K. and one in both Ireland and the Netherlands. However, the company is expanding fast and should soon cover most major cities..
For further savings, use the promo code npyles1 and get $25 off your first booking. Thanks to Nicole Pyles for her tweet about this. Hmm, still more reason to succumb and get a smart phone.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tips for Travel with Limited Mobility

One of the factors that can make it hard to travel is injury or illness. Still, many people who struggle with health issues manage to get around the world surprisingly well. For those with mobility issues caused by leg, knee, hip or back problems, the Website may be of interest.
The work of  veteran travel writer Judy Wells, who is still travelling after a number of joint replacements, it offers useful information on how to travel with less than perfect health. For instance, you probably didn't know --I certainly didn't--that the Roman Colisseum is equipped with an elevator that you can use from the entrance level to a good viewing level.
Wells also discusses gear that may be of interest, such as collapsible canes that fit into a purse or backpack. While some of the advice is common sense (don't climb steps to see the view from a turret or lookout if you can avoid it,) some other information was news to me, such as the fact that most cruise ships are now equipped with elevators so you no longer need to negotiate steep, narrow staircases in sometimes stormy seas.
If you need to be concerned about these issues, it is imperative to do some research before you travel. Some countries such as Russia have very few accommodations for people with limited mobility.
Disability can strike at any age, so it is good to find information that makes travel easier even if you can't physically get around as well as you used to.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Electronic Books for Christmas

If you hate the frenzy of Black Friday shopping at the mall, consider buying your travelling friends and family members some ebooks instead. Specifically, buy my ebook of Budget Travel Tips for Russia, which is crammed with good advice forindependent travellers to this fascinating country.
It is available for only $1.99 on my Website, In a compact form, it brings together information not available elsewhere on how to visit Russia at reasonable cost--tips on where to stay, visas, where to eat, how to get around and where to learn the Russian language. It is possible to visit Russia without knowing a word of Russian, but in that case a tour is the way to go. For independent travel, you should have at least a smattering of the language.
While I really hope you will buy my book, a lot of other travel books are also available now in electronic form, and if you want to save space when packing you may prefer electronic guidebooks over hard copies, which can be cumbersome. Some of my favourite guidebook series are Rough Guides and Bradt Guides, both from the U.K. They publish guides to a lot of out-of-the-way places that make fascinating reading evne if you never plan to go there.
Incidentally, if you ever wondered why the biggest shopping day in the U.S. is called Black Friday, it's not because it's something negative, like the Black Death (though if you were caught in mall traffic you might think so.) The term for the Friday after U.S. Thanksgiving refers to the day of the year when, traditionally, retailer financial accounts moved from the red for loss to the black for profit. These days, of course, with shopping creeping even into Thanksgiving Day itself, Black Friday may be coming a little earlier.
Thanksgiving is a huge holiday in the U.S., with most stores closed so that people can get together with family and friends to celebrate, usually with a turkey dinner. It's not such a great day for turkeys. Although I grew up in the U.S. I kind of missed out on Thanksgiving as a big deal because my father was never at home that day--his employer chose Thanksgiving weekend for the annual meeting, which usually took place in another city. When I was older I sometimes went to join my parents at this event, once in Mexico City and once in Los Angeles.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Free Stays with the Monks

Although I am not generally a fan of gender segregation, I recently learned of such a good deal for men only that I had to write about it. At Mount Athos, the renowned Orthodox holy site in Greece, men can stay at any of a number of monasteries for free. Conditions are very rigourous and you need to apply six months in advance, but it sounds like a fascinating adventure. (You do need to pay between $50 and $60 for a residence permit and ferries to the site.)
There is a very interesting account of one man's visit to Mt. Athos in the current issue of International Travel News(,) a mainly reader-written print publication that offers a few of its articles for free online.
The writer, Bill Altaffer, says that his visit to Mt. Athos, difficult though it was, was the highlight of his lifetime of travel. The difficulties include problems getting accurate information while at the monasteries, travelling between monasteries, and living conditions in the monasteries. He had a good meal at the start of his visit, but then things went downhill. Lodging is in dormitories, toilets are Eastern style, and there are no bathing facilities for guests. Silence is observed at all meals.
Still, although he returned from the trip thinner, dirty and tired, Altaffer found it very inspirational.
International Travel News itself could be worth investigating for its no-holds-barred first hand accounts of international travel. A subscription costs $24 a year.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Volunteer with the Poor Overseas

If volunteering overseas appeals to you but you don't want to pay the high fees some organizations charge for the privilege of working for free, consider volunteering with the Brothers of the Missionaries of the Poor (
This Catholic charity operates in a number of developing countries and welcomes volunteers to do hands-on work assisting some of the most disadvantaged people in the world--those who live in poor areas and also suffer from illness or physical handicaps or loneliness. There are missions in Jamaica, Haiti, India, Kenya, Uganda, the Philippines and Indonesia and the start of one in North Carolina.
Volunteers pay their own transportation costs, but their room and meals are covered by the brothers during their time at the mission. At present two weeks is the maximum volunteer time.
This program sounds like a real commitment, certainly not a vacation. Every day starts at 6 a.m. with Mass and prayers. It would probably be best suited to those who are Catholic or at least Christian, since there are fairly strict guidelines volunteers must follow.
It is nice to see that there are some programs, at least, that do not seem to take advantage of their volunteers.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Savings on Culture in New York

If you are heading to New York City anytime soon, check out the November 12  guest blogpost by Jeff Dobbins at It offers many tips on low-cost or free attractions in the city, along with suggestions on how to eat inexpensively.
You probably already know about a lot of the free sights, like Central Park, Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building. but did you know the ferry to Staten Island, which sails by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, is also now free? (I can remember when it cost a quarter.)
New York has some of the best prices anywhere for high culture--for instance, same day tickets to Carnegie Hall for $10, and same day tickets for orchestra seats the Metropolitan Opera for $20 on weekdays or $25 on Saturdays. And for half-price same day tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows, there are always the TKTS booths, of which the most convenient is at Times Square.
This guest post is well worth printing out and tucking away for your next visit to New York.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Choose Dushanbe or Tashkent, not Tokyo or Hong Kong

According to a report in the Telegraph (,) Tokyo and Hong Kong are the most expensive places to live in the Asia Pacific region, while Dushanbe, Tajikistan is the least costly. Tashkent, Uzbekistan is the city where living costs have fallen the most this year, because of a devaluation of the local currency.
Other large Japanese cities make up the rest of the top 10 most costly places in Asia, expect for Papetee, Tahiti which comes in at number 10.
Travel costs are not completely correlated with costs for locals living in a place, but there is usually a considerable degree of similarity. So if you are planning a trip to Asia or the Pacific, it may be good from the point of view of cost to concentrate on Central Asia rather than East Asia. And that is certainly the case if you are considering relocating to a cheaper place than your own home town.
The cost differential is not surprising, since Japan and Hong Kong are highly developed and most of Central Asia is still considered to be among the emerging economies.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Holiday Trips for Singles

The winter holidays are, for many people, a time when they prefer to be out of town. This is especially true for people who have recently suffered the loss of someone close, or for singles who may have little or no family. All those ads depicting happy families may be things you want to avoid.
It used to be that the Soviet bloc countries, where consumer product advertising was almost non-existent, were great for Christmas avoidance. That has changed, of course, but Russia, Greece and other Orhtodox countries still celebrate Christmas later and in a more subdued fashion than Western countries do. I have also heard that India and to a lesser extent China and Japan are places where Christmas is celebrated little if at all. The same, of course, is true for the Muslim world.
A recent story on the New York Times ( newswire by Stephanie Rosenbloom offers a number of suggestions for single travel during the holidays. She suggests city escapes, especially to places like Venice, Dublin and Istanbul. I agree that cities are usually good destinations for singles, but you need to be careful at Christmas. I once planned to spend Christmas in Berlin, until I discovered that virtually everything there, including many restaurants, closes for four days.
All inclusive resorts in the Caribbean are also popular with singles, as are singles cruises. For information on the latter, check out
Learning vacations, which I have written a lot about, are also popular with singles. So are volunteer vacations such as those offered by Habitat for Humanity, a group that builds homes for low-income families and offers some programs for women only.It's hard to feel left out at the holidays when you are are contributing sweat equity and learning construction trades. Check their Website,
Unfortunately I was not able to find Rosenbloom's article on the Times Website (I read it in another newspaper,) but you may be able to view it from her Website,

Friday, November 09, 2012

Better Prices with Priceline?

I'm a big fan of travel Websites, but Priceline ( is one I have yet to try. It's the site known for allowing customers to bid on hotel rooms--in other words, you can specify the date and city and the price you will pay for a room, and Priceline will find you a place at that price if anything is available. Like the other big travel sites, Priceline also offers deals on flights, cruises and rental cars, as well as last minute deals.
Some of their last minute flight deals are impressive--Chicago to New York for $234, a 50 per cent reduction from the published price if you booked within two days of departure. Most of the last minute deals seem to be for U.S. destinations. There are sales for the next three days on four-star hotels in many U.S. cities--Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Dallas, Altanta, San Diego with rooms available at $99. The rates for weekends at hotels in various U.S. cities are even more impressive, as low as $45/
Priceline must be doing something right, because its stock price has been soaring (it's listed on the Nasdaq.) It is trading at around $627 per share today, and has a market capitalization of more than $31 billion. Revenue per share is listed on Yahoo finance at $101, with a return on equity of 44 per cent.
In general I avoid high-priced stocks and Internet stocks, and this is certainly not a stock recommendation. I remember the first dot-com crash when Internet stocks were valued to some extent on their burn rate, or the rate at which they were burning through cash. I believe the accounting with these stocks has been cleaned up since then, (at least I hope so.)
I usually don't mix travel and investing, but I am interested in why this particular stock is doing well. I would welcome comments from readers who have used Priceline, or those who have invested in it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Sales on Hawaiian Resorts, Canadian Trains

Book today with Travelocity ( for big reductions on some Waikiki resorts. Rates for resort hotels start as low as $101 for a resort hotel near the beach, but you must book by the end of today.
You have three days to take advantage of Via Rail's ( 50 per cent off sale. This is a system-wide sale that can reduce travel costs to $69 for Montreal to Toronto in economy class, $296 for Toronto to Vancouver. The discounts also apply for business class travel, and travel must be completed by the end of January.
I suspect that blackout dates for the holidays also apply, but this is still a very good deal, making rail travel once again competitive with bus fares on a cost basis. Rail travel is almost always more comfortable that bus voyaging, at least in my experience.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Adventures in Language Learning

Writing a recent post about language learning reminded me of my own adventures in foreign languages. My first formal foreign language was Latin, three years in high school. Now Latin isn't spoken much anywhere outside the Vatican (and even there, I have heard, Italian is far preferred) but it is fun to study. (I didn't think so when I was expected to do two hours of Latin homework every night.)
Learning Latin sets you up well for the complex grammar, much harder than English, of many other languages. Obviuosly it helps with all the Romance languages--French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian, but it is also useful when learning lnaguages such as German and Russian where nouns and adjectives are declined, just as they are in Latin. And Russian includes a number of words--cauchemar, journal, etc. borrowed directly from French.
I also took two years of French in high school, another year in college and a couple of years in grad school, followed by further formal and informal study later. For a time I was quite comfortable working in French, the official language of Quebec, but in the last few years I have become lazy and my French has deteriorated.
Even before any formal language study, though, I learned a little German, as many Midwesterners do. It was a long time before I realized that a few common words I heard, like "Gesundheit" when someone sneezed, were actually German. My mother learned some German as a child in Illinois, and for a brief period I had a German nursemaid, so the language always seemed familiar. In my opinion German is the easiest foreign language for native English speakers, because there are few unfamiliar sounds. The grammar is a bitch, but speaking is relatively easy.
One of my proudest moments was when I had started talking to a woman at a cafe in East Berlin and she asked me whether I came from West Germany.
I will recount more on language acquisition in later posts, but wanted to mention one very useful tool for learning to speak and understand a language, the Pimsleur tapes ( They offer conversations with native speakers that can really help you deal with pronounciation and also understand natives when they speak, usually much faster than English-speakers speak. I am working on the Russian series and find it quite good, though you will need to supplement it with grammar and written work.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Chain Hotels Worth a Look

They don't get much respect, but chain hotels can be good choices for travel in Europe. Many Websites recommend small, local places for the traveller hoping to save money, but the chains can also be worth checking out.
Holiday Inn, ( for example, has a lot of hotels in Europe and many of them are reasonably priced. I have stayed at two of their hotels in Berlin and found both to be of good value. The first, back in 2000, was the one on Prenzlauer Allee in an interesting sector of the former East Berlin that has since become quite trendy. The other was the Holiday Inn Express on Stressemann strasse, near Potsdamer Platz. Checking prices for these places this month, I found both offering rooms for less than $100, and the Holiday Inn Express had singles with a very good breakfast buffet for about $78.
Holiday Inn guarantees that its Website offers the lowest prices for rooms, and if you find lower rates on other hotel sites they will match that rate. While $80 dollars or so per night isn't a huge bargain, it compares favourably with rates available at chain hotels in many large North American cities. And with Holiday Inn's loyalty program, you can build up points toward free stays.
Other hotel chains that deserve a look are Ibis,, which has more than 900 properties across the world, and the relatively new Easy Hotels operated by the same company that operates EasyJet Airlines.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Language Learning Inspiration

Probably nothing enhances a foreign vacation more than the ability to communicate with the natives in their own language (OK, maybe tons of money would, but let's be realistic.) Learning languages is work, but it can also be fun with the right attitude.
The thing about languages is that they are objective--French or Russian or Mandarin don't care whether you find them impossible, with strange sounds, strange alphabets or enormously complex grammar. Even if you think you know a language well,if for example you studied it in school for several years, if people can't understand you it doesn't do you much good when you are travelling.
There is a Website run by a young Irish man named Benny who is fascinated by learning languages and claims he can become fluent in three months, which is the title of the Website, It's a complicated site with various forums, a blog and a lot of helpful suggestions. For example, if you want to learn a certain language, register with and accept guests only from the country of your desired language, then arrange with them to speak to you only in that language. Benny claims to have done this a number of times with no bad experiences.
There is no need to pay high fees for formal langauge training, according to Benny (though that cannot hurt.) With enough motivation, it is possible to learn a lot of languages in a relatively short period of time, and without spending a lot of cash.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Groupon Discount for Baltic Tour

I am new to Groupon (,) but they are offering what seems like a good deal on a cruise tour to Helsinki, Finland and St. Petersburg, Russia in November. An eight-day tour including air fare to and from New York starts at $1,899, a 43 per cent reduction from the normal price.
There isn't much information on Groupon's site as to what is included with this arrangement, but the trip is organized by Beyond Boundaries Travel, a Colorado-based company that specializes in ski and other active tours but now seems to be venturing into other areas.
You have about six and a half days to take advantage of the low-cost offer, so there is time to check it out.
Especially for people in the hard-hit New York area, this could be a welcome change of pace from storm news and recovery efforts.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

All Aboard for Bargains

This is an amazing season for cruise bargains, and another good source for them is the Website They offer a number of what sound like great deals, starting with an 18 day trans-Atlantic cruise from Miami to Amsterdam. Stops include Madeira, Lisbon, LeHavre (for Paris) and Dover (for London,) so you can visit several European capitals en route. And the price starts at an amzaing $1,099 per person, not much more than $60 per day.
If fall foliage is of more interest, the same company has a combined rail-cruise that starts in Boston, with a four day hotel stay, includes rail transportation to Florida and a Caribbean cruise. This trip lasts 20 days and again, the price starts at only $1,099 per person. (On this trip I would check in case the rail portion is affected by the recent super storm Sandy.)
These are two of the most spectacular cruise deals, but the company also has many others available for Alaska and trans-Atlantic. Makes you think it is too expensive to stay home, when travel can be this affordable.