Friday, November 29, 2013

Expat Concerns

Moving to another country when you are young is often relatively easy. You have little money, are usually in good health, and employment opportunities abroad may be plentiful. That was my situation when I moved to Canada from the U.S. in my 20s, and it is still the case of many expats today.

However, as your time abroad grows and your situation changes, things can become more complicated. Recent legislation in the United States is, according to an article in Main Street ( leading many Americans who live abroad to renounce their U.S. ctiizenship or at least to consider doing so.

The number of actual renunciates is still small, under 5,000 per year out of a population of Americans abroad estimated to be at least 10 million. U.S. citizens have long suffered under onerous tax reporting requirements regardless of where they live, but the introduction of a law known as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act in 2010 is apparently finally encouraging a lot of them to jump ship.

This law requires reporting by individuals of details on foreign accounts if the total of funds exceeds $50,000. For those with multiple accounts, the reporting can become pretty time-consuming, and it is in addition to the reporting required at a different time of year called the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts, where the total of funds held abroad need only exceeed $10,000.

In addition, a section of the FATCA that is scheduled to go into effect next year requires that foreign financial instituitons report on accounts held by U.S. citizens, and this has led many such institutions to refuse to open or continue to operate accounts for Americans abroad, which can make living abroad pretty difficult.

I understand that Canadian financial institutions have been exempted from this latter requirement, because of the large number of Americans (estimated to be more than one million) who live in Canada.

So far I have been able to keep up with all these filings, in addition to doing two tax returns in Canada. However, it is not fun and many expats turn to expensive accountants because they feel they are not up to the task. My advice--you can do it if you try, and save yourself a lot of $. But be prepared to devote a week or two to the filings. It usually takes me most of the month of March to complete my tax forms.

These are all things to consider, particularly if you are an American who is thinking of emigrating for the long term. Citizens of other countries are not generally so burdened by their governments, but may also face considerations of how to handle finances as an expat. For example, Canada has an exit tax that may apply if you move abroad permanently. It's good to know before you go.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Avoid Charles de Gaulle this Weekend

The main international airport for Paris, Charles de Gaulle, is expected to be shut by a strike that will start on Friday, Nov. 29 and last through Sunday, Dec. 1.The German carrier  Lufthansa ( has cancelled all its flights to and from that airport for those dates, and other airlines may follow suit.

It is an unfortunate fact of travel that plans can be sideswiped by any number of events--strikes, bad weather such as the weather that is now affecting the Northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada, mechanical problems. It is best to be prepared for such misfortunes, so you won't despair if they occur.

Airlines usually offer cancellation or re-booking in these circumstances. If you need to spend overnight in an airport, be prepared with travel snacks, earplugs and an eye mask, and plenty of reading material. It also helps to carry extra money in cash for any unplanned expenses. And if you incur expenses, keep track of them because you may be able to secure trimbursement from your airline, travel agent or travel insurance company.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Deals for Christmas Markets

Christmas markets brighten up the pre-holiday scene in many places in Central and Eastern Europe. These specialty markets offer toys, Christmas decorations, traditional beverages such as gluhwein, or hot spiced wine, and traditional sweets including stollen. They are fun, and can be a good source of gifts for people who have everything.

This year British Airways ( is offering weekend breaks to three cities known for their Christmas markets--Vienna, whose market dates back to 1294, Ptague and Berlin. The Prague and Berlin packages are moderately priced, considering they include flights from London and two nights in luxury hotels plus some extras. The per person price for Prague is just over $300.

In Berlin, the package includes flights, two nights at the elegant Berlin Bristol Kempinski and some extras, and costs about $400 per person. The pre-holiday period is a good time to visit all these cities, because crowds tend to be small at tourist attractions. In Berlin, don't miss the Christmas market at Alexanderplatz.

Friday, November 22, 2013

72 Hour Sale from Southwest

In the U.S. at this time of year, consumers are bombarded with information about special promotions for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. This year a number of stores are actually opening on Thanksgiving Day itself, next Thursday, in order to firm up their bottom lines.

You don't generally see much in the way of travel sales, since the Thanksgiving weekend is generally the most crowded time on airlines, trains, buses and the highways, even worse than Christmas.

Southwest Airlines (www/ is bucking the trend, however. For 72 hours this weekend starting today, they are reducing fares on some flights to as little as $72 one-way. It isn't for Thanksgiving travel, but applies on certain dates between Dec. 10 and March 12. One sample of a $72 flight is from Washington- Baltimore to Columbus Ohio or Indianapolis IN. That route doesn't interest me now, but I used to fly fairly regularly between Washington, where I was studying, and Columbus, where my parents lived..

For more information on the offer, click "Special Offers" on the airline's home page.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Discount Fares from NYC, Toronto

Trip Advisor ( which is well-known for its travel recommendations, is venturing into the discount airfare arena. Current deals include several from New York City--for example, to Paris return for only $561, provided you fly out on Dec. 5 and return on Dec. 12. Similarly, rates are low between New York and LAX (Los Angeles) on certain dates. Leaving New York on Jan. 10 and returning on Jan. 24 will cost you only $278.

I liked Trip Advisor when it started because you could post whatever you wanted to in terms of reviews of hotels. That is no longer the case, now you have to follow their own template, which is a lot of work. This makes me suspicious of the reviews on the site--are there really that many people who do all this work for free? How many of them are paid by other sources? Still, I do look particularly at hotel reviews but I take them with a grain of salt.

If rail travel appeals more than flying and you want to get out of Toronto this weekend, Via Rail ( has some unusually low prices on many routes, provided you book by the end of the day today. One way to Ottawa or Montreal is as low as $27--some other conditions apply too.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Take a Tour by Taxi

If you don't like standard bus tours, or if you are too exhausted from travel to venture far on your own, you can always opt for a tour by taxi in an unfanmiliar city. Even if you just have a couple of hours, a taxi tour will let you see the highlights, accompanied by the individual perspoective of your driver.

There are a number of organized taxi tour companies listed on the Web for cities such as London and New York, and some others. But virtually anywhere, if you check with taxi drivers waiting in front of big hotels, you can find someone who speaks English and will be happy to drive you around for a while. If you are a little adventurous, ask the driver to show you his or her favourite spots, not necessarily the best-known landmarks. Just be sure to agree on a price and a time in advance.

Taxi tours work especially well for groups, where the cost can be shared. I once joined with some other journalists while we were on a press trip of Northern Ireland to see the major trouble spots of Belfast, something our hosts certainly were not going to show us.

My dad, who never liked regular tours, would hire cab drivers outside his hotel to tour places such as Mexico City or Quebec City during business travels. He always enjoyed talking with the drivers and discovering something about their lives, a trait I picked up. Not all taxi drivers are chatty, but many are and they can be a great source of information. They often feature in news reports from abroad as "informed sources."

So even if your time in a place is limited, there is no excuse for not seeing something of the sights.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Travel Tips from an Expert Vagabond

There is an interesting post of 30 top budget travel tips Matthew Karsten, the expert vagabond, has learned in his three years of overseas travel (

This Matthew is not to be confused with another one,, who also is a long-term traveller. (At first, I thought it was the same person under a different name, but no.) This Matthew was a photographer in Miami until three years ago when he took off for a year of travelling around the world.

He enjoyed it so much that that one year turned into three, and he is still going, in search of adventure. He says he spends $1,000 to $1,500 per month, and is able to make some money while travelling.

There are too many tips to list here, but they include things such as not taking yourself too seriously. Any traveller in a foreign country is likely to do things the locals consider weird, so don't take it personally if they laugh at you, laugh right along with them. I imagine sometimes this could be easier said than done, but it's good advice.

Also, stash cash in various places on your person and in your luggage, so that even if you suffer a robbery or your ATM card stops working because of a blackout, you will always have some of the ready. Matthew doesn't mention currency, but I assume he means U.S. dollars, still the most widely accepted currency worldwide.

It might also be a good idea to travel with some concealed gold or precious jewels. I remember reading that the Romanov women, during the Revoloution, sewed jewels into their corsets. Not sure that would work today, what with airport X-rays and such, and the fact that few people wear corsets. It didn't help them, either, but some Russians who fled at that time were able to survive because they smuggled out jewelry. Vladimir Nabokov's family was one of them.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Russian High Speed Trains

In the past few years the high speed trains that are found across Western Europe have begun penetrating Russia. So far the only routes available are between Helsinki, Finalnd and St. Petersburg, Russia, and between St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Russian Railways ( has plans to expand the network across the country eventually. In the meantime, the high speed trains that are operating sound interesting. They rival air transport in terms of time, particularly when you consider the cost and incomvenience of getting between the airports and downtown.

Fo instance, the train between St. Petersburg and Moscow takes just over three and a half hours, and delivers passengers to the downtown of both cities, not to distant airports. The cost is just over $100 one way, about double the cost of a regular train between these two cities. The high speed fare does include some soft and alcoholic drinks and snacks.

Sapsan is the name of the fast train between Moscow and Petersburg, while the one between Helsinki and Petersburg is called Allegro. I was especially glad to read about the new train between Helsinki and Petersburg, because I travelled this route in 2005 and was disasppointed. I chose to go first class going in from Helsinki on what turned out to be a Russian train. This was little better than a second class car in Western Europe. On the way back I went second class on a Finnish train, which lacked air-conditioning on a very hot summer day.

I wanted to travel by train in order to arrive at the Finland Station in Petersburg the way Lenin did in 1917 when he returned from exile to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. However, to my chagrin the train came into
a new station farther from town, and all my planning was for nought. Still, it was an interesting trip.

For more information on travel in Russia, check out my electronic book "Budget Travel Tips for Russia."

The image aboveis of the Circum Baikal train, which is decidedly not high speed but provides some great views of the southern end of Lake Baikal.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Discounts on Cross-Border Flights

Air Canada ( has recently announced reductions on many of its cross-border flights this winter. The rules vary depending on the destination, but most discounts are in effect during November, December and January. Fares are generally lowest for mid-week flights.

Flights must be booked by November 13, but may sell out earlier. Advance purchase of up to 30 days may be required. The sale applies to one-way flights, so there is no need to book a round trip.

I checked into a sample routing for a specific date using Cheap Air (,) and discovered that even with the discounts, Air Canada and West Jet ( were about $25 more expensive than their U.S.-based competitors. In this case, a flight with a U.S. line could be $150, but it was at least $175 with the Canadian carriers.

However, if you are flying during the depth of winter, it may be more advantageous to pay a little more to fly through Toronto, where they are very much accxustomed to dealing with snow, rather than someplace like Washington DC or Charlotte NC, I am referring to people like me, who usually have to make connections on cross-border flights.

Keep in mind that the cheapest fares ofter require you to fly early in the morning or late at night.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Cash Disappearing on Airlines

I recently flew with US Airways (,) and while the flights were fine, I was surprised to discover that it is hard to do much of anything with cash. If you want food onboard, you need a credit card. If you want to check a bag, you can still pay cash but they would much prefer a credid card.

The lesson, is suppose, is don't try to travel very far without a credit card. There is a popular television program in Canada that deals with debtors, and the host invariably requires the people in debt to destroy their credit cards. I wonder whether she realizes she is sentnecing them to stay in one place?

I also am concerned about what happens if you lose your credit cards overseas? Hope it never happens--that must be a very difficult.

Incidentally, a good way to save on food costs while travelling is to pack your own meals. That way you can eat exactly what you want, and you are more likely to eat healthily. I usually carry snacks when I travel--nuts, hard boiled eggs, fruit,crackers etc. Sandwiches are good provided they don't contain anything likely to spoil quickly, like chichen or mayonnaise.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Trip Preparation

One stressful aspect of travel is preparing for the trip. Regardless of how much you look forward to your travels, the many tiny tasks that need to be accomplished before you leave can start to seem like a hassle. This is especially true if the trip is prolonged, or to a remote area.

Something I find useful in preparing for a trip is making a "to do" list several days before, and checking off each task as I accomplish it. This gives me a feeling of satisfaction that I am not forgetting important things. Some people also use a packing list, and I sometimes use an abbreviated form of this, including essentials such as computer, cell phone, passport, credit cards and cash.

The very devices such as computers that make our lives easier also can make our luggage heavier, since they need to be on most trips with us. This is where I can see the value of light weight alternatives such as tablets and e-readers, though I don't yet have either myself.

One positive aspect of modern travel is the ease with which you can buy most forgotten items abroad. There aren't many parts of the world where it is still hard to buy clothing, personal care items or technical equipment, so if you do forget something it is usually fairly easy to replace it.

I would be interested to hear from readers about how they make travel preparation easier, and will pass along useful suggestions in a future post.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Start of Savings Season

If you are travelling in the northern hemisphere and especially in Europe, the months from November through March can be a great time for tourism and savings. You will want to avoid the Christmas-New Year period, when prices tend to rise, but otherwise it can be the time of year when the costs are lowest and the crowds thinnest.

The latter is an especially big factor in major European cities and their attractions. Most of the big European museums and palaces now require timed tickets during the summer months, but in winter the crowds are much smaller. And intense cold and snowstorms are becoming less common in Europe, just as they are in North America.

I have enjoyed two visits to Berlin in December, one to Moscow and Petersburg in that same month, and travel to Paris, Brusssels and Geneva in January.European resort areas such as the French Riviera, the Amalfi coast of Italy, and the coast of Croatia are good destinations for long-stay vacations at low cost in winter. Check with a travel agent for specifics.

 For the lowest hotel rates in big cities, try to time your stay for weekends when business travellers go home. Winter is a good time to explore train travel and the various types of rail passes available in Europe. Trains tend to be able to get through storms that may ground air and car travellers.

If you are a skier, the pre-Christmas period is a good time to find bargains either in Europe or North America.