Sunday, August 31, 2014

Luxury Hostels in Europe

If the term "luxury hostel" sounds like an oxymoron to you, you may be behind the times, or just a plain moron. At least that would probably be the opinion of the creator of a useful Website called

Trendy hostels with modern design and unusual facilities and perks are spring up across Europe to cater to a new type of traveller termed a flashpacker, or a backpacker who has grown up. These new-style hostels offer private rooms, sometimes restaurants or swimming pools, or even 24-hour breakfasst on demand. For example, at the Ostello Bello conveniently situated near the Duomo in Milan, each room comes with a private bath.

At the Gallery Hostel in Porto, Portugal, the friendly staff will take you on free guided walking tours of the city, while at the Circus in Berlin you can enjoy cocktails in the snack bar. In Tampere, Finland, the Dream Hostel is located in the heart of the active nightclub district. This last could of course be a two-edged sword, if you were hoping for a good night's sleep. I recall staying at a nice hotel in downtown Helsinki which lacked air-conditioning. It was summer, so my window was wide open to hear the inebriated bar patrons leaving when the bars closed at 5 a.m.

You can download a free guide to Europe's luxury hostels if you subscribe to the newsletter offered at the Website, which also provides other useful information to keep your travel costs down.

Friday, August 29, 2014

New Budget Airline in Russia

This fall, a budget subsidiary of Aeroflot ( is supposed to resume operations in Russia. The line, called Dobrolyot, was operating briefly this spring but had to shut down because of Western sanctions. At that time it was flying to newly-annexed Crimea.

Anything that makes the cost of travel in Russia cheaper is to be applauded. The vast country can be quite expensive, although I was surprised to discover that a flight from Moscow to Irkutsk on Aeroflot cost just about $600 return in 2011, provided you booked several months ahead. The flight took nearly six hours one way, and would probalby have been a lot more expensive in North America.

You will probably recognise the image above, of St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. I am hoping and praying for a quick and peaceful settlement of the Russia-Ukraine hostilities, since both these countries have a lot to offer the traveller.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Low or No Single Supplements

One of the problems of setting out to travel alone is the nearly ubiquitous single supplement charged by tour companies and hotels. You may pay nearly as much or even exactly as much for a hotel room, tour or cruise as two people travelling together would pay.

This practice seems unfair, but the companies do it because they can get away with it.

According to Affordable Tours (,) there are a number of companies that charge little or nothing to lone travellers in terms of a premium for voyaging alone. Azamara River Cruises has a single supplement of just 125 per cent of the per person double occupancy charge, while Tauck Tours offers up to $600 off the usual single room surcharge. Regent Cruises has reduced single supplements on some cruises, as does Avalon River Cruises.

If you sail with Ama Waterways, the single supplement is waived on some cruises in Europe this November.

Unfortunately, all the above companies seem to have pretty steep tariffs to start with. For instance, with Ama Waterwyas an eight-day cruise between Luxembourg and Nuremberg starts at $2899, or about $362 per day.

If you want to take a tour or cruise and are travelling alone, it cn't hurt to ask whether the company will set you up with a roommate of the same gender so you can both save money.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Budget Safaris

A safari in East Africa is one of the great travel adventures, but it is seldom cheap. In addition to the cost of air fare to get there, there is the cost of transportation to game parks, admission to the parks, lodging,food and guides

A company called offers a number of tours, including some that are quite reasonably priced. For example, a three day, two-night tour from Nairobi to the Maasi Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya costs as little as $330 per person. This includes adventure camping, hotel or airport pickup in Nairobi, transportation, park admission and meals. If you are a fan of the British television show "Big Cat Diary," it is filmed on this reserve.

The organization also lists volunteer projects, baloon safairs, longer and more luxurious safaris and one program that combines visiting several children's homes with wildlife viewing. It is good to see that some tour operators are making an effort to cater to travellers who can't afford to stay at the traditional lodges.

This company's Website is a little frustrating because it does not seem to list prices for its safaris--you have to ask.

I took a traditional safari a long time ago, and while it was expensive I still consider it money very well spent. Seeing wildlife wandering freely in great numbers is truly an amazing experience.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Travel Health Insurance

The prospect of getting sick or being injured while travelling is one of the things that, unfortunately, keeps many people at home. It is a risk, no question, but you can mitigate some of the risk by purchasing travel health insurance. As mentioned in the previous post, check with your credit card company to see if health insurance is included, and if so for how long.

There is a post on has some interesting suggestions about checking into specific types of insurance aimed at students, seniors, or practicioners of certain high-risk sports. It also recommends speaking with a travel agent who specializes in this kind of coverage and looking into insurance that may be provided by the volunteer project you are joining, if you travel to volunteer.

The thing to remember about travel health insurance is that it is in the company's interest to interpret your coverage very narrowly. I recently purchased health insurance from a company I will not name, and was surprised to find that it would not cover me for a potentially life-threatening reaction to a prescription drug, because the drug was to treat a pre-existing condition. And remember, the companies have full access to your medical records.

Another time I was travelling to an area considered a war zone, and was told my insurance coverage would not be operative. "Even if I just fell at the hotel and broke my ankle?" I asked. I was told it would be decided on a case-by-case basis, probably another way of saying no, I would not be insured.

The country where it is most important to have medical insurance is the United States. The medical care in the U.S. is world class, but so are the prices. However, if you are visiting the U.S. and do not have insurance, remember that hospitals are required by federal law to treat you for life-threatening conditions regardless of your insurance coverage or ability to pay.

 Of course, the hospital will try to collect for the cost of your care afterwards, most likely at highly inflated prices (don't ask,) but if you are a foreign resident with no assets in the U.S. they may have trouble doing so. I am not advocating avoiding paying your debts, but the U.S. system is so complex and so expensive that you may not be able to do so.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Credit Cards and Travel

This is a huge topic, and this post will only scratch the surface of some considerations with regard to credit cards and travel. One of the most important things to remember is to notify your credit card company when you plan to travel. If you don't, you could encounter the unpleasantness of having your card denied when you need it most.

Also, if you are on an extended trip be sure to check credit card charges carefully. People I know and I myself have encountered fraudulent charges during a trip, so it is best to have online access to your credit card bills.

Another no brainer with regard to saving money on credit cards--pay off the balance in full every month. The easiest way to arrange this is to have the money deducted from a bank account.

On the subject of premium (fee charging) credit cards, the jury is still out. It depends on your individual situation. I found my Gold Visa card issued by the Royal Bank of Canada ( was worth its price when I was taking a lot of short trips, because it provided out-of-country medical insurance for about a month, provided you charged the trip or the flight to that card. However, as you get older the amount of time you get medical insurance diminishes, and I'm not sure it is still worth the cost.

If you have a credit card of any kind but especially a premium card, check the insurance coverage you get with the card. It may extend to trip cancellation or interruption, or even lost luggage or trip delays caused by airlines.

Another thing to check before deciding on a credit card is the exchange rate they use when converting foreign currency. Some Canadian banks had to settle a class action suit some years ago because they were charging exorbitant rates for foreign transactions. If you use a particular foreign currency often in your travels, consider getting a credit card issued in that currency. Many Canadian banks offer U.S. dollar cards, for example.

A credit card is very handy when you travel, but if you have poor credit there are often ways around it. For instance, in the U.S. I have recently observed people renting cars at Enterprise by using a debit card and making a substantial deposit.

I'm not going to get into the intricacies of credit cards that are connected with airline rewards and frequent flier miles. For information on them, consult or

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Deals on Cruises

Cunard ( has some interesting reductions and special deals on certain fall and winter sailings. For example, a double upgrade on some October and November crossings on the Queen Mary 2 means you can enjoy a balcony stateroom for the price of an inside cabin. That can work out to $999 per person for travel between New York and Southampton, or $1,299 between Hamburg and New York.

In January, the smaller Queen Victoria offers a crossing from Southampton to Florida with stops in Punta Delgada, Azores; Antigua; Tortola B.V.I. and Nassau. The 13-day voyage starts as low as $1299 per person, an amazing $100 per day. If you can afford the time, consider the world cruise which takes 82 days and starts at $11,311 per person. Portions of the longer cruises also sound interesting, with a Panama Canal transit cruise for as little as $1,724.

Even when you add on the cost of air fare to the ports, some of these sound very reasonable. You may have noticed that I mention Cunard often, perhaps because it is the only line I have sailed on more than once. Both crossings were on the Queen Elizabeth 2, the first in 1981 and the second in 2001. (Actually, I have sailed on ships of the Black Sea Fleet twice also, but this line is no longer providing passenger service.)

If you hurry, you may be in time to book some steep cruise discounts through Travelocity ( This offer expires tomorrow and includes a 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise from Port Canaveral, Florida starting at $365, and a Western Caribbean voyage from Galveston that also lasts a week for as little as $440 per person.

For 2015 bookings, it may be better to wait until cruise week at the end of October, when a number of lines offer special savings.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Cheap Hotels

Cheap Hotels ( is a Website I just discovered which claims to list more than 100,000 hotels worldwide. Among its featured offerings are the Euston Square Hotel in London, where rooms start at $104; the Hotel Harvey in Paris, with rooms from $142; and the Bedford Hotel in New York City where you can spend a night for as little as $113.

Of course, there are also plenty of other sources for inexpensive hotels such as,, and, so Cheap Hotels is operating in a crowded market. However, one of its advantages if your credit is dodgy is that they list some hotels which do not require a credit card to make a reservation. Before booking with any of these sites, be sure to check exactly what is included in the room rate (breakfast, tax, parking, etc.) and what the site's cancellation policy is.

According to a survey conducted by Cheap Hotels, the area of the U.S. you want to avoid if you are seeking inexpensive rooms is the Northeast. This month, the lowest price they found for a hotel on Nantucket, a charming island off Cape Cod in Massachusetts, was $301. Nearby Martha's Vineyard, favourite vacation spot for President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other liberal luminaries, is almost as costly with the cheapest room in the range of $270 per night. The Portland, Maine area was similarly priced.

Those of us who live near the Northeast are aware that it is a pricey part of the continent, but it is also a region with a lot to offer in terms of history, scenery and attractions. After all, most of the original 13 colonies were in the Northeast.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ride Sharing with Uber

You have probably already heard about Uber (,) a ride sharing service based in the U.S. that operates in 43 countries. It is an alternative to taxis, and easily accessible for smart phone users via an app; The appeal is both lower rates and ease of use, since you can book and pay via your smart phone .

For techno dinosaurs like me who lack a smart phone it does not seem to be an option, but it certainly sounds interesting. It would be especially attractive in places like Moscow, Zurich and Tokyo where taxis tend to be very costly, and it claims to operate in all those cities as well as many in North America and elsewhere.

There has been a lot of push-back against the service from taxi drivers and their industry, and according to a story I saw yesterday the city of Berlin has banned Uber. However, if you live in one of the many cities where Uber does operate, you could make extra money by becoming a driver for them using your own car.

I often enjoy using the gypsy taxis that tend to ply the roads in Russian cities. Will Uber put them out of business, I wonder? Or will car owners continue to offer rides to strangers for a consideration of a certain amount of rubles? I would hate to see the gypsy cabs disappear.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Airbnb Competitors

Any successful idea, such as renting out rooms or apartments on a short-term basis to travellers, usually sparks competition. While Airbnb ( is the largest room-sharing service, it does have competition.

One of them is called Wimdu ( and some of its offerings are bargain-priced, such as a room in the heart of Havana for just $29 a night, a one-bedroom apartment in Berlin for $74,  a room along the Seine 15 minutes from Paris for $55, or an apartment with balcony in Split, Croatia for just $44.

Another company in the same business is Roomorama ( Its lodgings seem to be higher-priced, though that may mainly reflect market rates. For example, in London a small (322 sq.ft.) studio apartment near Broadway market will set you back $205 per night, and a number of other places for rent are still more costly. In Berlin, a one-bedroom apartment with balcony in the central Mitte neighbourhood goes for $155 per night.

With all these services, you need to do your homework. Read reviews if available, check the policies on cancellations and so forth. You will be dealing with a private person in most cases, and it is not like a hotel where there is more structure and often a connection to a hotel chain in case you have serious problems. There have been some horror stories about using these roomsharing services, but then it is also possible to have hassles with hotels. As always, the rule is caveat emptor.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Private Plane Bargains

Tired of being cramped in economy? Eager to try a more expansive flying experience? According to an article in the Daily Mail (,) if you can fly at the last minute with a group of mates, flying private may be within reach even for budget travellers.

You are no doubt familiar with re-positioning cruises, but private planes too need to re-position from time to time, and thus may have empty seats for sale. A company called Private Fly ( in the UK offers the chance to buy seats that would otherwise go empty, and in some cases the per person cost can rival that of budget airlines.

Current offerings include a flight from London to Ajacio, Corsica on Aug. 14 for 2000 pounds, or one from Nice to Birmingham tomorrow for 1400 pounds.  Depending on the number of seats in the aircraft, this can work out well for a large family or group of friends. One London to Corsica flight cited in the Daily Mail article worked out to 235 pounds per person.

There are potential problems with this type of arrangement, since the market for private flights is basically unregulated, and a flight could be cancelled at the last minute. Another source of relatively low-cost private flights in Europe is the company Victor (,) also based in the UK. Membership is free.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Low-Cost South Korea

South Korea is a relatively well-developed country economically, but it can still be a bargain for visitors. So says an article at

The country has plenty of hostels where a bed will cost between $15 and $25 a night. In the capital Seoul, stick to the Hongdae district for the best bargains, since it is where students hang out. A Metro ride anywhere in the city costs just $1.30, and inter-city express buses cost only about half what train travel does. They are slower, however.

Traditional Korean food is both tasty and inexpensive. In a Korean restaurant the sizzling barbequed meat served with unlimited soup and side dishes costs only about $10, or if you prefer vegetarian fare a dish called bibimbap with rice, vegetables and spicy sauce goes for $3 or so. Seoul is a very large, lively city with lots to do at any time of day, and according to the story the people are very friendly.

By coincidence I had seen a show about South Korea the day before reading this story on the TV program Ports d'Attache (,) and it did indeed look interesting. Haven't been there yet, but it's on my list.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

YMCA Hotels for Savings

The YMCA Or Young Men's Christian Association operates a number of hotels around the world, in addition to providing other useful services such as moderately priced gyms, children's programs and so forth. The hotels generally aren't fancy, but they offer clean, safe rooms and sometimes other services. I have stayed in Ys in Ottawa, Montreal, and Vancouver in Canada and in Dublin, Ireland.

There is a listing of some of the Y hotels at It is not complete, but is a good starting point for finding these modest lodgings when you travel. Y hotels can be found in, among other places, Norway, India, Argentina, Armenia, France, Hong Kong, Switzerland and New York City. Opting for a Y is particularly attractive in pricey destinations such as Norway and Switzerland, Paris or New York City.

For example, a bed at the Basel YMCA hostel starts at just 29 Swiss francs, or about $40. In Paris during July and August only, you can rent a room in the Y's student residence in the 9th district for as little as 36 euros per night, or about $50. Rates are higher in New York City, but still low by local standards. A room at the Vanderbilt Y on the East Side costs between $119 and $139.

Everyone is welcome at these hotels--you don't have to be either young, male or Christian to qualify. If you do not find a Y hotel listed in the place you plan to visit, do an internet search and you may turn up something. For example, there are both a YMCA and a YWCA hotel in Montreal, but neither is listed on the international site. YWCA hotels are less numerous and they tend to prefer female guests, but they too are a good option in places such as Hong Kong and Vancouver. If you recall, even the Village People sang the praises of the YMCA back in the day.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Travel the World for $25 a Day

According to a blog by a couple of young Polish travellers, it is possible to enjoy touring the world for less than $25 per day. The site details their strategies and recommendations for ways to visit even pricey destinations at low cost.

These ways include things like Couchsurfing ( and staying in hostels, so it certainly is not luxury travel. But for the adventurous, it offers some good tips, and even those of us who are willing to spend more can benefit from some of the advice.

One recent post names six European cities that are especially affordable--Budapest, Hungary; Prague, Czech Republic; Lisbon, Portugal; Madrid, Spain; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Nice, France. By choosing these destinations rather than the bigger places like London, Paris and Rome you can stretch your travel dollar a lot farther.

Along these same lines, check out Tim Leffel's Cheapest Destination blog ( Tim is an American who has written a lot about budget travel, and he is worth reading for inspiration if you are contemplating long-term travel. I learned recently from this source that Kyrgystan in Central Asia fits into the category of cheapest destinations, and that alone in Central Asia it offers visa-free travel for citizens of many countries. The difficulty and cost of getting visas for the Silk Road lands is one of the major deterrents to travelling there.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Retro Lodging in a Kommunalka

If you are nostalgic for the old days of the Soviet Union, or even if you are just curious about what life was like then, consider a stay in a kommunalka. These communal apartments where each family had a room or occasionally two rooms as living space but shared the kitchen and bath with other inhabitants of the apartment, were once normal housing for Russian families. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin grew up in one in St. Petersburg.

One of the private lodgings listed on the Website is in a kommunalka at the nrothern edge of Moscow, near Sheremeteyevo Airport. You can rent it for $25 or $30 per night, with discounts for long stays. You share the clean but rundown surroundings with your host and her daughter, and also with an older unrelated couple. You have your own room, so in some ways it is more private than a hostel.

If that seems a little too extreme, the site also lists a number of other reasonably-priced lodgings with private hosts known to the site owner, Paul Voytinsky, who unfortunately no longer lives in Moscow. As I mentioned in an earlier post, he moved late last year to take a job on the Kola Peninsula north of St. Petersburg.

A strange feature of communal apartment living, at least for us North Americans, is the fact that each family has its own toilet seat which must be carried to the toilet. Using someone else's seat is apparently very bad form. Disputes may also arise over use of the communal kitchen.

Many Soviet era films showed the bad feelings that could result from living in such close quarters, so if the kommunalka interests you I would suggest booking just for a day or two until you are sure this style of lodging is acceptable. I wonder whether there are other similar places for rent in other cities? If you have ever lived or stayed in a kommunalka, I would be interested in hearing about your experience.

For more information on visiting Russia at low cost, please download my ebook "Budget Travel Tips for Russia>"

Friday, August 01, 2014

Student Tours in Europe

Being a student in Europe is a wonderful experience for most North Americans or other foreigners who try it. The fun of discovering new and different ways of doing things, practicing foreign languages, and seeing the cultural and architectural riches of the Old World is something few who do it ever regret.

However, Europe by and large is not a cheap destination today, and travelling around it can take a big dent out of student budgets. So it is good to know that there are some tours specifically geared to those from other countries who are studying in Europe. A company called Bus2Alps ( offers a number of day, weekend and week-long trips for students.

Many departures are from Florence, Rome or Prague, but it is possible to join the trips from just about anywhere. And prices are reasonable--for example, a day trip from Florence to the famed Cinque Terre along Italy's coast costs just 40 euros. A week-long trip from Florence visiting the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, France and Belgium costs just 659 euros. That includes accommodation in top-ranked hostels, walking tours in each city visited and some other tours and  activities.

This tour company is recommended in an article by Jill Comoletti at It definitely sounds worth a try if you are fortunate enough to be studying in Europe, and since lodging is at hostels there is no single supplement for lone travellers.

When I studied in Italy long ago, prices in Europe were generally lower than in North America and it was inexpensive to travel around on one's own. I also took a student tour to Russia at Christmas break, and at Easter visited Greece and Turkey with some friends. Weekend trips took me to Munich for Oktoberfest, to Rome for sightseeing, and to Monaco for the Grand Prix. At the end of the year I spent six weeks driving through some parts of Europe I had not yet visited, and I have great memories from all those voyages.