Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Blogs of War

I like to read personal blogs from war zones to get a different take on what life is like there for ordinary people, and to escape the filtering of news practised by major news channels. However, in searching for personal blogs from Ukraine and Gaza, I am encountering something of a void now.

In Ukraine two bloggers I used to follow have relocated, one voluntarily and the other not. The author of has recently moved from Kharkiv to New York. She wasn't covering the unrest specifically, but her accounts of daily life as an English teacher in a large city of eastern Ukraine were interesting, as were her photos.

Briton Graham W. Phillips (,) was recently expelled from Ukraine to Poland after being held captive by members of the Ukrainian Army. Earlier he had been held by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country. His reporting was good, and he did a lot of work for Russia Today,, and other news outlets. I guess the fact that he was unpopular with both sides in the conflict is testament to his impartiality. Unfortunately his computer and some online accounts were also hacked, and he lost an enormous amount of material.

The best independent (?) blog about Ukraine at the moment seems to be,) although it is very anti-Russian. Another possibility is

The situation is similar in Gaza, perhaps with more justification since Gaza is such a small area and Ukraine is enormous. It is hard to imagine that life in Gaza right now can be anything other than appalling. An interesting blog called by a young mother and cookbook author has not been updated since last year, while one written by two friends, one living in Gaza and one in Israel, was last updated in 2009 at It is highly partisan, but the blog at contains a lot of information about the conflict.

Of course, it is a lot to ask anyone living in a war zone to report on events there for the pure pleasure of it, and I am grateful to any bloggers who try to do so.  My one tentative effort at war reporting came to a quick end once I was actually in the region. It was in 2003 in Jordan, and I had gone over with the idea I might try to get to the front lines of U.S. troops invading Iraq (although I was never a supporter of that invasion.)

However, when I arrived in Jordan I realised it was a crazy idea, and opted to take a tour of Jordan instead. The most violent situation I had covered previously was a hostile corporate takeover in Toronto when I was a reporter for the Globe and Mail (,) and I decided to stick to more peaceful pursuits.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Volunteer Forever

It doesn't take much time travelling in Third World countries to awaken the desire in many people to do something to help the humans or animals who live there. The extent of poverty and difficult conditions abroad is often a shock to those of us from the First World.

Lots of people consider volunteering abroad to help alleviate suffering there, to gain experience working in another culture, or for other reasons. However, there are always costs associated with working for free in a foreign country. Transportation is a major expense, and there are also usually program costs connected with organised volunteer programs. Some of these costs can be quite high.

To make it easier for people to accumulate the funds for their volunteer efforts abroad, the Website provides a platform whereby people can solicit funds for their project from their friends and family, social networks, and from strangers. It sounds a little like Kickstarter, which allows participants to raise funds for business ventures, but this one is for volunteer work.

Volunteer Forever includes articles on low-cost volunteering, reviews of participants' volunteer experiences, and other useful information. I was interested to see that one of the low-cost volunteer programs featured, called, was started by a professor from my grad school, Johns Hopkins SAIS, and one of his associates. It operates in Costa Rica where a two-week placement costs as little as $370, and in Quito, Ecuador where the same length placement starts at $270.

If for some reason it is not possible for you to volunteer abroad at this time, there are always plenty of volunteer options in most cities and towns around the world. It may take some looking and experimentation, but the time spent is worthwhile when you secure a volunteer placement that you enjoy. A good place to start looking is your local Volunteer Bureau, your place of worship or a local hospital.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lufthansa Deals to Europe, India

If you still haven't booked a late summer or early fall holiday, don't despair. Lufthansa is offering some very good fares from the U.S. to various destinations in Europe and India (

Sample fares include Chicago to Budapest return for just $789. Dallas to Istanbul for $979. Chicago to Krakow for $849, Los Angeles to Budapest for $929. amd New York to Milan for just $659.  If you prefer to visit India, Boston to Bangalore starts at only $939. and Los Angeles to Mumbai at $909. These fares require 14 day advance booking, and the New York to Milan one must be reserved by August 7, so it may be too late for that one.

There are quite a few other reasonable fares available, but I concentrated on ones under $1,000 return. While India has not been on my top list of desirable destinations, prices like this make it sound pretty appealing.

Lufthansa is one of my favourite airlines for its efficiency, friendly service and good safety record. At a time when air travel is starting to seem a little hazardous, you can't beat experience.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Travelling Lifestyle

An article in the current issue of Harper's magazine (Http://,) alerted me to a new possibility for continuous travel. It is a rather disturbing story called "The End of Retirement" about older Americans, people in their late 50s, 60s or 70s, who have taken to the road in their recreational vehicles, vans or even automobiles to save money and be able to move around easily in search of work.

Most of them do this out of economic necessity, but some claim that it really is their preferred way of living. Without rent or mortgage and utility bills to pay, they are able to travel to parts of North America they want to visit, and often find work along the way. Many of them head to warehouses run by Amazon ( during the pre-Christmas rush. There they do hard physical work for many hours a day, but receive free hook-ups and parking for their r.v.s.

Others seek out jobs in the national parks and forests, mainly during the summer. Mostly these are minimum wage gigs that entail camp maintenance and clean-up, but allow the worker to live in beautiful natural surroundings. For information about this type of work in the national forests, visit the Website The money these travellers earn usually helps to supplement pension, Social Security, or other regular income.

Another Website,, offers plentiful information on ways to make this nomadic lifestyle work--what type of vehicle to choose, how to provide for necessities like Internet access and showers, the best places to park without being hassled (Walmart lots and hospital parking lots are favourites.)

This type of travel clearly is not for everyone, but it is an alternative that you could check out by renting an r.v. for a while just to see what it is like--it is another take on budget travel.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hotel Bargains in Moscow, Petersburg, Prasgue

Tired of the high costs of hotel rooms in mucxh of Western Europe? Head east, where this summer you can find some unusual bargains.

Using some dates in mid-August, I was able to find rooms in Moscow st the Izmailovo Complex for as little as $72 per night. This is just about three-quarters of the cost when I was there in the summer of 2011. These hotels areen't downtown, but they are conveniently located next to Partizanskaya Metro station and Izmailove Park. They were built for the 1980 Olympics and still feature decor elements from that era, along with a great breakfast buffet.

 If you need to be closer to downtown, the Mercure Arbat has rooms for the same dates for $94. These rates are considerably lower than they were prior to the financial crisis--in 2007 I paid about $160 to stay at a hotel much farther from the centre.

Hotels in St. Petersburg tend to be pricier in summer, perhaps because Peter is more of a tourist destination. There the Red Stars Hotel offers rooms for $115, while the Ligotel charges $104. In Prague, a stay at the Fusion Hotel Prague starts at $53 per night, while the Hotel Julian charges $89. I have not been to Prague since the 1980s, when it was a beautiful but very grey Communist capital. Now I understand it has been spiffed up considerably, and is a favourite destination for young travellers.

Rates above were all found on In case you don't want to venture to Eastern Europe, you might consider visiting large Scandinavian cities, where hotels tend to empty out in summer with the departure of business travellers. Scandinavia is a pricey part of the world overall, but summer can still provide some relative bargains.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Reduced Costs on Viking

Viking River Cruises ( has announced some special reductions along with free air fare on certain of its European cruises for 2014. The fares are still high, but if you are travelling as a couple and want to splurge, this could be a relatively good deal.

 For the November departures of its 15-day Amsterdam to Budapest cruise the rate can go as low as around $320 per person per day. A number of shorter cruises are also included in this sale, and there the lowest cost is around $400 per person per day..

 The cost comes with free air fare from some North American gateways and for some classes of cabins
, all meals and enteratinment on board, free wine or beer with lunch or dinner, and a number of tours.

To get these deals you need to book by July 31, and the booking code is 20 Echo.

I have travelled with Viking in Ukraine and enjoyed the cruise very much. However, the line seems not to be catering to lone passengers any more, and in general to be going upscale, out of my price range. The same, unfortunately, seems to apply to most other river cruises as well. The image above is of the Mikhail Lomonosov, the Viking ship on which I sailed. This ship is no longer part of Viking's fleet.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

U.S. Air Travel Fees to Rise

On July 21 of this year, there will be a small increase in the Civil Aviation Security fee charged to airline passengers in the U.S. If you plan to fly soon, you can avoid the increase by booking your flight within the next four days.

While the fee is still relatively low, capped at $22.40 per round trip, it will affect budget flyers more than others in percentage terms. In addition, layovers of more than four hours on a domestic flight or more than 12 hours on an international flight will attract additional fees. Because many low-cost flights entail long layovers, this too will have an impact on flyers trying to save money.

Other airline fees in the U.S. for airports and for customs and border protection are also expected to increase in the near future, so once again the best policy is to book your flight now. Fees charged to U.S. travellers are still a lot lower than those in Canada, but of course if you fly between Canada and the U.S. you really get hit.

On another subject, I am happy to report that all-time page views for this blog have recently passed the 200,000 mark. Thanks especially to readers in the U.S., France, Taiwan, Russia and Canada, who have been the most numerous lately in that order. And a special welcome to readers in Indonesia, a country I have not seen represented before. Thanks for reading, and I hope you will continue to read my efforts to bring you interesting news that will make your travels easier.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Indian Trains for the Adventurous

Although travel by train in India can be slow, it is also an excellent way to see the country at low cost. So says an article on on the joys of travelling by rail in the subcontinent.

Indian trains carry some 20 million passengers a day, and that is just the fare-paying passengers. It does not include the occasional rat. Meals on trains are plentiful and inexpensive, since most are offered by vendors who travel through the cars.

Don't worry about being charged for bags on the train. You can carry as much luggage as you can manage, and so can everyone else, which can make for crowded cars. Gazing out an open train window is a great way to enjoy the sights and smells of the country. While the train may not run on time, it will give you a chance to experience the vagaries of Indian Standard Time.

As a traveller who has not been to India, I would be somewhat reluctant to venture so far into Indian culture myself. However, the article about train travel was written by a woman named Saanya Gulati, a graduate in international relations of Tufts University, a rival of my grad school, Johns Hopkins S.A.I.S., so I am inclined to give her account credence.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Berlin on a Budget

The German capital is one of the most interesting and affordable cities in Northern Europe. Prices for hotels seem to be rising, but there are still many bargains available. Check out the blog at for some good suggestions on how to eat cheaply at stands selling filling fare such as curry wurst or doner kebab.

These stands and hole-in-the-wall restaurants are also known as Schnell Imbiss, and they are great choices for the budget traveller. Curry wurst is usually just a sausage with curry sauce, but doner kebab can include a variety of vegetables added to grilled meat, all served on pita bread. Add a good German beer and you have a complete meal for less than $10 usually. Stands selling these items can be found all over town, but are especially numerous in the central districts such as Kreuzberg and Mitte, which also happen to be popular with tourists.

Another blog post by the same author, who specializes in really low-cost or no-cost travel, features a walking tour of Friedrichshain, an up and coming part of what used to be East Berlin. It and adjacent Lichtenberg are not espeically picturesque, being filled with modernist apartment buildings of the type found all across the former Soviet Bloc. However, they offer a glimpse of what life used to be like before the Wall came down and are now blossoming with art galleries and sidewalk cafes.

If you are interested in the former East Germany and especially if you have seen the film "The Lives of Others," a visit to the Stasi headquarters ( in Lichtenberg is a must. Admission costs just 5 euros or less, and you can marvel at the antiquated technology that formed
 the backbone of a feared police state.

I'm a big fan of Cold War hsitory and spy novels, and especially like those set in Berlin. I have an edition of three books by Len Deighton (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match) that includes a map showing locations mentioned in the books, so you can plot out your own Berlin walking tour. One time I happened to pass the Anhalter Bahnhof ruins near a hotel where I was staying, and remembered it was the setting of an important scene in one of the Deighton books. To me, incidents like this are part of the fun of travelling.

Things change rapidly in Berlin, though, so soon it may not be possible to see much of the former East Berlin. Much of  the downtown area where the Wall used to be has been rebuilt as the new government centre, and while the new architecture is striking I kind of miss the way this area was when I first saw it in 1991, still bombed-out from World War II and desolate..

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Travelocity's Cancellation Policy

It is a long time since I have had to cancel a flight, so when that happened with a trip I had booked on Travelocity (,) I was concerned. However you book flights, you will notice that usually the cheapest fares are nonrefundable. I wasn't sure what that meant, but thought perhaps you lost the entire value of the trip.

Therefore I was pleased to learn that if you cancel a flight with a few days' notice, you don't get a refund, but you can apply the full cost of the ticket to another itinerary on the same airline booked through Travelocity. There may be change fees if you re-book the same itinerary, and there may be a change in the fare charged. However, there is nothing to keep you from applying the credit to another flight.

While it is not a good idea to cancel flights willy-nilly, it was a relief to learn that the cost of the ticket was not just gone money. Perhaps I should have purchased cancellation insurance, but I have found that the fine print in a lot of these insurance contracts makes it almost more trouble than it is worth.

If you have stories about problems or successes cancelling flights, I would be pleased to hear about them in the comments section.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Bolshoi in the Boonies

One of the joys of travel is the opportunity to see some great cultural performances. From plays in London's West End to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, these are the sorts of events you are likely to remember for a long time.

I have found that performances of the Bolshoi, the Kirov Opera (now known as the Mariinsky,) various operas and concerts in Berlin and New York, and plays on Broadway or in the West End are among my fondest travel souvenirs.

This summer you don't need to travel as far as Russia to see the Bolshoi--at the end of July the company will be dancing Don Quixote at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center ( in upstate New York. Tickets start as low as $32, and lawn tickets as low as $15.

These outdoor music festivals are a great opportunity to see some wonderful performers at cut prices.
The experience of being outdoors usually adds to the pleasure. Tanglewood ( in western Massachusetts is another very famous summer music festival which features both classical and popular choices. Near Montreal, the Festival de Lanaudiere ( is held in a glade of trees that lends a special enchantment to songs such as "In Fernem Land" sung by Ben Heppner, which I heard some years ago.

Friends have recommended the summer opera festival called Glimmerglass ( in Cooperstown, NY, a town which is far better known for its Baseball Hall of Fame ( If you time your visit right, you can enjoy both these attractions.

Both the Saratoga and Lanaudiere festivals open tonight.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Shorten your Stay to Save

One common sense way to compensate for the rising cost of travel is to shorten the length of your stay in a particular destination. In a story in today's Concord Monitor (,) a woman with the delightful name of Chase Binder suggests reducing your stay in a major European city to five days instead of a week. Since you spend one night on the plane going over, you only need to pay for four nights in a hotel.

Try to book an early arrival and a late departure to make the most of your visit, and also begin your sightseeing as soon as you arrive. Don't worry about lost sleep--you can catch up on it for free when you are back home. I have never done quite such a short trip to Europe, but I have taken week-long voyages to places such as Britain, Portugal, and Berlin, either on press trips or on my own. A week is long enough to really feel like you have been away, so perhaps five days is too.

Binder also suggests downscaling on accommodation, saying you don;t really have to stay at the Ritz. Since I never stay at luxury hotels when I am paying, I would certainly agree with her. I would say you might consider downscaling to a private room or a hostel rather than a hotel if money is really tight.

Another good idea is considering places closer to home with a foreign atmosphere. For instance, Bermuda rather than the U.K., Montreal or Quebec City instead of France, New Mexico or San Antonio instead of Argentina.

To read the entire article, click on the "Do,See,Taste" section of the newspaper's home page, then on "travel &tourism."

Friday, July 04, 2014

Weekly Deals on American Airlines

American Airlines ( offers special reduced fare deals every week on some of its routes both within the United States and often internationally. These can be quite significant reductions from the usual fares, and with air fares rising fast, who isn't looking for a deal.

Some sample fares for next weekend include New York to Toronto for $254, Chicago to Huntsville, Alabama for $178, or Chicago to Tulsa, Oklahoma for $194. Fares are round-trip and include taxes. Another recent fare was Miami to Columbus, Ohio for $274.

On American's Website you can sign up to be notified of weekly deals, or of deals leaving from a particular sirport. The weekend deals are an especially appealing option if you are free to travel at the spur of the moment. During summer, though, it is a good idea to make sure you can find a reasonably-priced place to stay as well as a low air fare, and don't forget to factor in the cost of getting to and from the airports.

Happy Fourth of July..

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Cheap Flights New York to London

Norwegian (,) Europe's third largest budget airline after Ryanair and easyJet, has begun flying the very popular New York to London route and is offering some unusally low prices, with a one-way fare in low season starting at $257 U.S.

This airline provides free wi-fi on all flights, but as with many budget airlines there are extra charges for a lot of other items. Norwegian already flies between New York JFK asnd Oslo at very good rates--a one-way ticket in August will set you back just $288 U.S. Once in Norway, however, expect  high prices for virtually everything. Oil-rich Norway is one of the most expensive countries in the world.

Norwegian provides extensive service in Europe, North Africa and even has routes in Asia. A ticket to Bangkok from Oslo can cost as little as about $230. Why is it that Europeans, who in many ways are more highly taxed and regulated than North Americans, seem to benefit from lower air fares?

In any case, more competition may in time lead to lower costs for us too, or so the theory goes. Happy Canada Day, everyone.