Thursday, February 27, 2014

Viking River Cruises Price Cuts

Viking ( which advertises heavily on PBS stations in the U.S., is offering some price reductions on specific cruises, provided you book by 9 p.m. tomorrow EST. The cruises are a 15 day one from Amsterdam to Budapest on April 24, which offers free air fare from certain cities. The lowest price works out to some $354 per person per day, however.

There are also lower prices if you want to sail between Moscow and St. Petersburg in May of this year, and there may be free air fare as well. Still, the cost just for the cruise itself works out to minimum $386 per person per day, not a great basrgain. The promotion codes for these cruises are 5 Echo and 10 Echo, and the phone number is 1 800 304 9616.

Above is a picture of the Viking ship I sailed on in 2010 in Ukraine, the Mikhail Lomonosov. Unfortunately this ship, which had single cabins and was relatively affordable, has been replaced by a newer, more expensive ship and the lowest price of today's cruises comes out to $388 per person per day. Four years ago the cost for my cruise was, as I recall in the low $200s per day, and well worth it.

We seem to be fighting a losing battle in our effort to find interesting, moderately-priced travel adventures, especially when it comes to those of us who mostly travel on our own. I enjoyed my Viking cruise, but it is unlikely I will be taking another one, given today's prices.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ten Cheap Destinations

According to Air Fare Watchdog (,) there are 10 cities or countries that are good value now but may not remain so. Some of them are familiar, like Bucharest, Romania and Sofia, Bulgaria, while others, such as Greece are returning to the cheap list.

For many years people were advised to favour Turkey over Greece, but since the financial crisis the latter is once again affordable. One that was new to me is the Dominican Republic, claimed to be one of the least costly destinations in an expensive region, the Caribbean. My local newspaper, the Montreal Gazette ( even featured the Dominican Republic's neighbour on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti, in a front page travel story just this past weekend. Haiti was long considered a place to be avoided by tourists, but apparently that is changing.

Mexico City rates with Air Fare Watchdog as a good option for relatively cheap luxury hotel rooms, which cost an average of $210 per night compared with $730 in New York City. Lisbon, Portugal is another relative bargain, as is Riga, Latvia. Nicarague and India round out the selection of good value destinations.

In order to access this story and other interesting blog posts, you seem to have to sign up for Fare Alerts with Air Fare Watchdog, but it is worth the trouble.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Perspective on Ukraine

If you have been following developments in Ukraine, you know that things are moving rapidly and the outcome is anyone's guess. We can hope that the opposition and the elected government reach a peaceful settlement acceptable to all or at least most of the country.

No one wants to see events develop in a similar way to what happened just 100 years ago, when another crisis in southeastern Europe sparked World War I. At that time the great powers were divided into two primary alliances, the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy, and the Triple Entente of France, Great Britain and Russia. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo led Austria-Hungary to issue an ultimatum to Serbia, and this in turn led Russia, Serbia's protector, to call for mobilization of its army. For an excellent account of the disasters of Russian generalship at this time, read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914."

When Germany, alarmed at Russian mobilization, decided to implement its Schlieffen Plan and invade Belgium, everything changed. Great Britain had guaranteed the independence of Belgium, and so declared war on Germany. Reams have been written about the origins of World War I, but perhaps the most readable book on the subject is Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August."

 More than four years of all out war followed, which eventually drew in the United States. It was a war no one expected to go on for so long, and probably no one really wanted. Certainly no one expected it to lead to the downfall of most of Europe's monarchies, and to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The fact that three of the main protagonists, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, George V of Great Britain, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia were first cousins just made it more ironic.

The situation today is not the same, but it is in some ways more dangerous. NATO, the Western Allaince, is concerned with developments in Ukraine, where many people in the opposition want closer ties with Europe. Russia has traditionally had very close ties with Ukraine--in many ways Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilization. Today, as we know, both NATO and Russia possess extensive nuclear arsenals.

Let us hope and pray that sanity will prevail and that Ukrainians will reach a peaceful settlement of their difficulties, even if this involves a two-state solution. The history of two-state solutions in not altogether encouraging (Ireland, India and Pakistan, Israel and Jordan) but it would be better than all-out war which could escalate to involve most of the world once again.

Below, in more peaceful and warmer times, is the picture of a statue in Kiev of one of the Cossack hetmen who ruled Ukraine many centuries ago.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Best Value Stays

Check the Website of Lonely Planet ( for their choice of the 10 best value  stays around the world for 2014. They include both hotels and hostels. Unfortunately the article does not list prices, but somewhere else I read that at least one of the hotels charges several hundred dollars per room.

I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like good value to me. Presumably the hostels are a lot cheaper, and although I'm not generally a hostel fan some of the pictures make me think perhaps I should give them another try.

Lonely Planet's top pick is a modern hostel call The Backpacker in Cape Town, South Africa, equipped with a bar and other attractions including a friendly staff that will help arrange excursions into the bush or tours of the townships.

South Africa also snagged the nunber three spot with the Drakensberg Inkosana Lodge. The Sydney Harbout YHA, another hostel, was number two. The Old Plovdiv Guest House in Plovdiv, Bulgaria ranked fourth, while the Gasthof Gruner Baum (which means green tree) in Italy's Sudtirol region was number five. Check the article for the remaining choices, and for some great pictures.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Changes at

I have previously written about the Website, which provided extensive information on ways to save money in what can be a very expensive and intimidating city. So when I checked the site recently, I was disappointed to discover that while the site still exists, its founder "Uncle Pasha" has left Moscow.

He has relocated to a town called Kandalaksha on the Kola Peninsula east of Murmansk. (Yes, I had to get out the atlas also) in Russia's far north. He is still in the tourism business to some extent, but now mainly for this remote area. For apartment rentals and other tourist services in Moscow, he recommends contacting his friend Olesya at

Apparently the tourist and Website business did not prove sufficiently rewarding, and he announc3d in one blog post that he was seeking a regular job. He posts some interesting pictures and stories from his current location, and recommends that foreign visitors with any interest in the region plan to visit soon. It seems the government is considering making this a closed region for foreigners, as it was during Soviet times.

The good news about the Kola Peninsula is that there are cheap tourist options there, including a private room with bath for $25 a night. I thought the area would be extremely cold, and I suspect it is at times. But when I checked the weather, I discovered that at the moment it is pretty similar to what we have in Montreal--varying between zero and 25 degrees Fahrenheit. In summer Kola enjoys more than its share of the famous Russian mosquitoes.

It is too bad that tourism in Russia is such a tough sell to foreign tourists. I blame the media for much of the unfavourable perception many people in North America have about Russia. Even many of the media now covering the Sochi Olympics admit that they have been very pleasantly surprised by local hospitality. If only more people would travel to Russia, our view of this vast and fascinating country might start to change.

For more about how to visit Russia cheaply, consult my electronic book Budget Travel Tips for Russia, available on my Website, Below, St. Basil's Cathedral, one of the iconic images of Moscow.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Cheapest Months to Fly

According to a New Zealand-based Website, there are three months of the year when air fares are at rock bottom, and this month is one of them. Fares are 19 per cent lower than average in May, November and February, regardless of destination.

The months to avoid are December because of Christmas, and the three summer months, June, July nad August, when people in the northern hemisphere are most likely to take a holiday. Those months are apparently also expensive in New Zealand, where winter sports enthusiasts flock to the country for skiing.

Of course, to benefit from low fares during the cheap months, it is usually best to book several months in advance. It's not foolproof, but by planning your travels during February, May or November you give yourself a good chance of getting rock-bottom prices for flights.

To read the whole story, go to and click the tab for travel articles.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Budget Retirement Choices

Check out today's Huffington Post ( for one writer's views on the two best budget retirement places in the world. She chooses two colonial cities in Latin America, Granada, Nicaragua and Cuenca, Ecuador.

Both have a low cost of living, and a couple can get by on about $1,000 a month if they choose to go native, or $1,500 for a more comfortable lifestyle. The main reason costs are low is that real estate is cheap, both to rent and to buy.

In both these cities you can rent a decent apartment for about $400 a month, or buy a nice place for under $100 per square foot. Granada is a better choice for small colonial houses that may need a lot of work, while Cuenca has more choice in new construction and is a much bigger city. Both places have established expat communities, Kathleen Peddicord says, and it is relatively easy to meet the requirements for residence as a foreigner.

Both places do look attractive. She does not discuss medical care, usually a big concern for retirees, but I assume it is adequate and available at considerably lower cost than in the United States. I recently spent some time in Florida and needed to get a simple blood test, which would be free in Canada under Quebec Medicare. There it cost $600. I was astonished--I thought it might be $100 or so.

Unless you qualify for U.S. Medicare (based on having worked in the U.S. for 10 years or more) or for the new insurance available under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, forget about retiring in the U.S. as an expat. Costs for real estate can be comparable to those mentioned in Granada and Cuenca, but the cost of medical care could bankrupt you rather quickly.

In any case, the two cities mentioned in the article sound like places to consider if you are willing to relocate to Latin America.

Even with U.S. medical insurance, there are often high deductibles and extra costs

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tour in a Foreign Language

One way to make a tour more interesting is to take it in a foreign language. Travelling with native speakers of your chosen language gives you a lot of language practice, and allows you to interact with people when they are generally in a good mood.

Of course, you should speak and understand the language reasonably well, both for safety (not getting lost or left behind) and for your own enjoyment of the tour. I have taken several tours of varying duration that were partly or entirely in French, and one or two short ones in German. The French tours included a Mediterranean cruise and a Nile cruise, as well as a day trip to the Black Forest of Germany from Strasbourg, France.

If you are looking for tours in French, consider those departing from Montreal as well as those based in France. A company called Celebritours ( has some interesting offerings at moderate prices, particularly given that the Canadian dollar is trading at around 90 cents U.S. For example, a circuit of Tunisia costs about $2,000 Canadian for 16 days and includes air fare from Montreal as well as 34 meals.

Long stays abroad are even less costly, with 22 days in Tunisia with 59 meals for about $1,700, or the same in Morocco for about $2,000. Another Montreal-based company that offers unusual foreign tours is Exotik Tours (

I am less familiar with German language tour operators, but a well-known one is Hapag Lloyd, ( which operates luxury cruises aboard five different vessels. I have seem one of their ships, the Europa, in port here in Montreal. Some of the cruises offered by Viking River Cruises ( have both German and English passengers, with separate dining rooms and decks usually, but no restrictions on joining the other group if you wish.

If you happen to be travelling in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, it should be easy to find German-language tours through virtually any travel agent. I remember booking a plane ticket some years ago at a travel agency in Berlin. It went OK even though the agent didn't speak much English, but it took me a minute or so to recognize that what she was calling Nevark was just the German pronounciation of Newark, New Jersey.

Taking a tour or cruise in a different language is a chance to see new places and greatly improve your facility in that language.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tips from a Third World Traveller

Ma Patricia Yulo is a young woman who has travelled widely from her home base in the Phillipines, and has now written a book on how to travel cheaply.
Not many of her tips will be new to readers of this blog, but they are worth repeating. Her first suggestion is to travel without checked luggage, with just a small backpack. In order to reduce her luggage to this level, she advises taking only the shoes you are wearing and, if heading to warm weather destinations, skipping the jacket. Also. leave the computer at home.
I'm not sure this would be practical for many poeple, but it is an interesting idea.
She also recommends staying in dorms or hostels rather than hotels, and using public transit even if taxis are cheap.
Perhaps the key to her low budget travel style is a lot of advance planning. Study maps of the place you are going to visit, and plot out your itinerary. Sometimes you can save money by buying tickets to events in advance. Also, have a definite goal in mind, such as visiting Japan (or Washington DC) in cherry blossom time, and work and save toward that.
Safety comes before all else, she says, recounting handing over her money when confronted by an armed bandit in Southeast Asia.
Finally, consider travelling alone, she advises.
The reference is

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Most Overpriced Destinations

According to the Website Smarter Travel (,) the following are the most overpriced places in the world: Oslo, Norway; Zurich, Switzerland; New York City; Bora Bora, French Polynesia; Sydney, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; London; Las Vegas, NV; Monte Carlo; and Singapore.

Their choices are based on up-to-date information, and for each place they offer suggestions on how to reduce costs. I have only visited four of these places, since I tend to avoid high-priced destinations whenever possible--I've been to Zurich, New York, London and Monte Carlo.

In addition to the recommendations of Smarter Travel, I would suggest these things for the cities I know. In Zurich, stay at the Foyer Hottingen if you can--it is restricted to women and married couples, and eat at grocery stores such as Migros rather than the very pricey restaurants. Zurich is a pretty city but there isn't a lot to see there, so minimize your time in town and head for a less costly Alpine village.

In New York, visit in January or late August if possible, when hotel rates are at their lowest. Or stay at a place like the Leo House (see the post for Jan. 26, 2014) or at a hostel if you are visiting at other times. Eat mostly at coffee shops for low prices and a taste of the real Noo Yawk.

Visit London over Christmas or in July or August and stay at one of the many residences associated with the University of London or other educational institutions. Get takeout from grocery stores or eat at the least costly ethnic restaurants, which are usually Indian or Chinese.

I haven't been to Monte Carlo for a long time, so can't think of anything other than Smarter Travel's suggestion to stay elsewhere, such as Nice, and visit the principality on a day trip by train or bus.

As for the other places on the list, perhaps wait a while unless the place is really on your must-see list. In the case of Oslo, visit the more picturesque and less costly Stockholm instead, or possibly Helsinki. According to Smarter Travel, prices in Oslo are 20 per cent higher than they are elsewhere in Western Europe.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Winter Travel in Eastern Europe

I have wanted to visit Romania in winter ever since I met a young man on a plane from Berlin who spoke of a driving trip he had taken there with a friend. He spoke of the magic of seeing a horse-drawn cart piled high with hay and its fur-clad driver rising out of the mist in the Maramures one January. The Maramures in northern Romania is the least-developed part of the country, and sounds fascinating.

Seth Kugel, the New York Times frugal traveler ( didn't get that far north, but he writes of travelling through Transylvania recently, and it too sounds very interesting when it is virtually tourist-free in winter. He managed to find inexpensive places to stay, a hotel room for $24 a night, and a reasonably-priced rental car. Despite not speaking Romanian, Hungarian or German, he managed to get around quite well and to have some interesting adventures.

He also writes about a winter trip to Budapest with a budget of $100 a day, not ultra low but low compared to many cities given that it includes lodging, food, local transport and entertainment. I am sure Budapest has changed almost beyond recognition since I visited in the mid 1980s, but I was disappointed to read that he found some of the food less than appealing.

 Even in those far-off Communist days, I thought the cuisine was inexpensive and very good. Food markets were full of produce, and people were elegantly dressed. I remember a Zsa Zsa Gabor look-alike walking a string-haired Puli dog--the pair would have been at home on the Champs Elysses. At least the Budapest opera is still a bargain, with tickets for as little as about $20.

Kugel recalls in another column a weekend spent in a small Hungarian town chosen at random, and his generally poitive experiences there. It reminded me of how often our most memorable adventures occur not in big, well-known cities, but in places we visit more or less by chance.

Speaking of chance, you are taking a chance visiting Europe in deepest winter, since there may be large storm that can strand you for days. But it seems to me to be a chance worth taking.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Budget Traveller

Budget Traveller ( is an interesting site with a lot of useful information, particularly for those travelling to Europe. Written by a young British man, it includes some free e books that you can download.

The ebooks cover luxury hostels in Europe and 48 hour guides to Germany, and there is online information on cheap eats in various European cities including Tenerife, Munich, Oslo and Rome. (I will admit that 'luxury hostels' sounds like an oxymoron to me, but I could be wrong.) I imagine the guide to cheap eats in Oslo would be especially useful, since Oslo is one of the continent's most costly cities.

The Munich guide also looked helpful, since it covers real restaurants and not just my usual staple when I travel in Germany, the schnell imbiss. A schnell imbiss, as you may remember, is a stand or very small restaurant where you can enjoy staples such as wurst or Turkish specialties along with drinks at very low prices. The guides include pictures of restaurants and/or dishes they serve, along with information on prices.

As travel to Europe (or most other places abroad) is getting ever more expensive for us Canadians with a recent depreciation of the Canadian dollar of approximately 10 per cent, these types of details on how and where to save are very valuable. Another good source of budget travel tips for Europe is

Sunday, February 02, 2014

KLM Special Fares to Europe

You have until the end of tomorrow to take advantage of some great deals on flights to Europe, including Eastern Europe. KLM, the Dutch carrier, is offering return fares as low as $929 including tax from Toronto or Montreal to a number of European destinations. The reference is, then check plan and book, and special offers.

Travel must start between May 7 and June 18, or between September 11 and October 15, and it includes a free stopover in Amsterdam. The list of places you can go for $929 return is large, including Moscow, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Bucharest and Lanarca. Fares are somewhat higher, but similar deals are being offered from KLMs other Canadian gateways.

If you are planning to travel during those periods anyway and can commit to specific dates this far in advance, you won't find much lower fares. Unfortunately the tickets are not refundable and change fees are large, $300.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Cunard Offers Double Upgrades

Cunard ( is giving passengers who make new bookings on some of its summer European cruises free double upgrades. That means you can, for example, pay the price for an inside cabin and get a cabin with an obstructed balcony. (I'm not sure what an obstructed balcony is exactly, but at least it is an outside cabin.)

That means a 14 day cruise of the Greek Isles and Turkey can cost as little as $2399 per person, with said obstructed balcony. Not inexpensive, but considering that the rate includes your transportation, lodging and meals, not that expensive either, about $170 per day per person.

These double upgrades are also available on some cruises to Northern Europe, but the prices are a little higher. For instance, a 14 day Baltic cruise with stops in Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Warnemunde, Copenhagen and Kristianstad Starts at $3199. A 13 day voyage around the British Isles starts at $2699.

Cruises leave from Southampton, England. You will need to budget also for the cost of excursions, and air fare to the port. Cruises are a great way to see a lot of places comfortably, and often at moderate cost. Being on the ship is almost a vacation in itself, and Cunard ships are among the best, in my experience.