Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Budget Airlines in Europe Can Charge for Luggage

The European Court of Justice recently ruled that it is legal for budget airlines such as Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) to charge extra for checked luggage. These low-cost carriers are known for charging extra for a number of items that are usually free on other airlines, so look for total costs to increase if you fly in Europe on anything other than the legacy carriers.

Ryanair's charges for checked bags can run to more than $100 during holiday seasons. Some people may be able to travel with carry-on bags only, but I find it pretty near impossible given the security restrictions on what you can carry on.

Here in North America we are used to paying extra for checked luggage on most airlines, and while Air Canada and West Jet held out against the trend for a long time, they too have recently instituted extra fees for checked baggage. The bottom line is, I suppose, that you need to add some extra money to your travel budget to cover the fees, or plan to travel with just a carry-on.

In a post a while back I mentioned that Czarist Prime Minister Peter Stolypin was assassinated at the Opera House in Odessa, Ukraine, pictured below. I need to correct that, since I lately learned that the event took place at the Kiev Opera House. That information is contained in a new book on ``The Romanov Sisters`` by Helen Rappaport, a compelling if rather sad tale. It is about the four Romanov girls who were killed, along with the rest of their family, at Ekaterineburg in 1918.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Best Budget Travel Blogs

Flipkey, a subsidiary of Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) has published a list of what it considers to be the 25 best budget travel blogs this year. So if you are looking for inspiration or just some armchair travel, their list might be a good place to start.

I saw a lot of familiar names and checked into a few. One of the top is the Hobo Traveler, (www.hobotraveler.com) by Andy Lee Graham, a veteran of some 16 years of continuous travel covering 96 countries. A lot of the content on this site requires that you sign up, which I did not want to do, but I was able to watch a number of videos. I learned about a phenomenon in southeastern Europe, especially along the Adriatic, called sobe-girl rooms.

These are rooms in private homes or apartment buildings where you can stay in low season for as little as 10 euros per night, and that is for room with a private bath. They rent for about 150 euros per month. The drawback is that they are often located far from the sea or the city centre. In another video, Andy lets us ride along with him as he tried to take an overnight bus between Pristina, Kosovo and Montenegro, only to be dumped short of his destination at a small bus station where he had to wait for a bus that would leave at 6 a.m. He certainly lets you in on the nitty-gritty of budget travel, which sometimes includes hassles like this.

The blog A Little Adrift (www.alittleadrift.com) is written by a young woman who has been touring the world for about six years and writing about it. She does return to the U.S. from time to time. At the moment she has just returned from travelling in South Africa and Kenya. Her site contains a lot of useful practical information, particularly for long-term travellers.

To see the complete list, go to www.flipkey.com/blog/2014/09/25/top-25-budget-travel-bloggers-to-follow-in-2014/.

Friday, September 26, 2014

When to Splurge

We all like to save money on travel, but there are times when it may be worthwhile to splurge a little. That is the theme of a column in the Seattle Times by well-known budget travel expert Rick Steves. If you live in North America you have probably seen Steves on public television, or you may have read one of his guidebooks.

Steves is the kind of travel writer most of the rest of us envy. He has a pleasant personality (or at least seems to on TV,) good ideas and has become a one-man corporation with books, tours, radio and television shows among his other endeavours. He also seems to have unlimited energy.

However, like the rest of us he is getting older and realising that just as money is a limited resource, so it time. Therefore, it is possible to justify the occasional indulgence such as a gondola ride in Venice or a private walking tour with an experienced guide in any city.

 I agree, and I have splurged from time to time myself when on the road. Once in Cairo I hired a taxi to take me to the step pyramids at Sakkhara, where I was able to walk around on my own early one morning. There didn't seem to be any organised tours, and I really wanted to see these monuments.

Another time, also in Cairo, I dined with some fellow travellers at a wonderful Indian restaurant at the Mena House Hotel. I can still remember the taste of the sea bass. When I was in Prague I joined a Norwegian woman I met on a tour for dinner in an elegant hotel dining room.  Even in that grey Communist city the room looked as if it had changed little since 1910.

More recently, when I was returning from Moscow on United Airlines (www.united.com) I paid extra for an economy seat with more leg room and ended up meeting an interesting young woman whose father lives in Moscow and who attended my graduate school. That was a wonderful flight, with a great view of the almost endless mountains of Greenland.

Of course, the best kind of splurge is the one that doesn't cost much. An offer on transAtlantic sailings of the Queen Mary 2 from Cunard (www.cunard.com) falls into that category. If you book by Oct. 10 for sailings in November, the per person rate for the best available cabin is as low as $599.

I tried to add the link for the story by Rick Steves, but it doesn't seem to work. On another topic, if you are interested in the future of blogging (and who isn't?) check out a story in the New York Times and my comment on it at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/25/garden/when-blogging-becomes-a-slog.html?comment#permid=12894470.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Uncomfortable Future for Budget Air Travellers

The future will be uncomfortable for airline passengers who want to save money, and who refuse to pay the exorbitant amounts charged for business or first class seats. So says an article in India Today (www.indiatoday.in) which details changes such as seats where customers actually stand up, called vertical seats, and extra fees for overweight passengers.

The vertical seats are expected to be introduced within five years, and some airlines such as Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) are already charging for the use of toilets on some of its equipment. An Indian budget airline called GoAir (www.goair.in) is growing fast and plans to expand its employee numbers by some 2,000. However, only females need apply. I'm not sure whether this is because females on average weigh less than males, or because they are considered to be better pilots and flight attendants for some other reason.

Such blatant gender discrimination would, of course, be illegal today in most Western countries, but airlines could get around it to some extent by restricting the height and weight of employees. Every extra pound an airline carries causes it to need more fuel, and therefore to be more expensive.

If you needed an incentive to lose weight, the prospect of having to pay more for your airline ticket may be just what the doctor ordered. I don't know when the fee for being overweight is expected to go into effect, but already on small commuter planes there are sometimes weigh-ins for passengers and their luggage if there is reason to believe the plane may become too heavy to take off safely.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Goats on the Road

A Website called Goats on the Road (www.goatsontheroad.com) details the extensive travels of a youngish Canadian couple who have been travelling and making their living abroad for the past five years. (Why is it, I wonder, that so many long-term travellers tend to be Canadian?)

The site includes a lot of useful information on how to sustain the travelling lifestyle by such expedients as teaching English in China, house-sitting and blogging, as well as interesting reports on their travels through such places as Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and elsewhere. They seek out little-visited parts of the world, and enjoy it when they are among the few Westerners in a particular place.

I found their report on teaching in China very good. They speak of the friendliness of the locals, the tasty food offered at low prices, and the nitty-gritty of a busy day teaching English to local children. This should be prescribed reading for anyone who plans to teach English abroad. Teaching English is a tough job, even in Canada, but also a very rewarding one.

Their report on Central Asia interested me a lot, but I expereinced some difficulty in scrolling through this and other sections of their site. Perhaps it is just my old computer.

In any case, this is a good source for travel inspiration, especially if you want to be a long-term voyager.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Learn a Language for Free

It is hard to over-emphasise the importance of knowing foreign languages when you travel. True, many people around the world speak English today, especially many in the tourist business. But there is no substitute for being able to get around in a foreign country using a foreign language. It enables you to feel more at ease, to get off the beaten path, to get to know the locals.

The problem is that learning a foreign language, even to a "Schlafzimmer" level, requires considerable work and often even more expense. This is especially true the older you get, since young people often pick up other languages relatively easily. After all, we all learned English once, some of us when we were children.

There is a Website called Memrise (www.memrise.com) that provides resources for learning a number of languages for free, including English. The courses are online, so you can work at your own pace. I am just starting to explore the site, having done part of the Basic Russian course and the start of the advanced German vocabulary course.

Be warned, the basic Russian course starts with the alphabet, which I thought I knew but discovered I don't know perfectly. I did better on the small part of the German vocabulary course I attempted, with 100 per cent accuracy, but suspect if I were to work on it longer I would start making mistakes.

The difficulty for some of us is that studying new languages may cause us to forget the ones we already know. Getting into a cab last night I mangled my address in French so badly that the driver said "English, please." Once when I had spent several weeks in Italy speaking only Italian, I found I was beginning to have trouble understanding English. I'm not sure what the cure for this is.

Memrise has a social element, which I have yet to explore, and naturally you can have access to more courses if you pay a monthly fee. Still, even the free part of the site seems to have a lot to offer.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Prague at Low Cost

There is a post on www.apartmenttherapy.com about a weekend in Prague that cost the traveller less than $100. And no, she did not stay at a hostel, but shared a room at the Casa Marcello in the old Jewish quarter of the city that cost about $100 a night for two people.

Prague is one of Europe's most beautiful and least costly cities. It survived World War II unscathed by bombs, so much of its medieval heritage is preserved. In addition, it is known for excellent local beer and hearty food, so it is very popular among young travellers.

A short tour of Prague Castle which included the old royal palace and St. Vitus Cathedral cost $12.50 per person, and lunch with two beers at the Strahov Monastery not far away came to about $15 per person. The Old Town Square is one of the city's main attractions, with its fascinating astronomical clock, and you can walk around for free. Dinner from a street vendor cost $5.

Another favourite activity of tourists and locals alike is strolling across the Charles Bridge, lined with medieval statues. You can rent a paddleboat on the Vlatva (fornerly Moldau) River for $12 per hour, and enjoy great views of the city. A visit to the world famous Old Jewish Cemetery where tombstones are virtually piled on top of one another costs $15. Most of the sights in Prague are accessible on foot, but wear comfortable shoes to handle the cobblestone streets in the old section.

It's many years since I was in Prague--it was in Communist times in the 1980s when tourism was highly regulated. You received coupons you could use to buy meals in restaurants or at your hotel. Even then the city was appealing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Marriott Offers a Budget Brand

Marriott Hotels,the American chain known for its medium-priced and upscale hotels, has opened its first budget property in Europe, the Moxy Milan at Malpensa Airport. The hotel provides modern design, sound-reducing walls, free wi-fi and large screen TVs in every room. Best of all, until the end of October a room costs just about $75 per night.

This is the first of several planned Moxy budget hotels in Europe, in Munich, Berlin, Frankfurt, London and Oslo. For more information, check their Website at www.moxy-hotels.marriott.com.

The story of this hotel chain is interesting. It was begun by a Mormon businessman, J.Willard Marriott, who opened several cafes called Hot Shoppes in the Washington D.C. area. They served wholesome, tasty food but of course no booze. When I lived in D.C. there were still one or two of these cafes around. Later he moved into hotels, and today Marriott is known worldwide for quality.

If this tradition of quality continues with the budget brand, the Moxy Hotels could be worth a try.

While my general opinion of Marriott Hotels is favourable, I recently saw a story reporting that in some properties they have decided to leave envelopes with a specific request for guests to tip the housekeeper. While I do tip for stays of more than one night, I resent being asked to cough up money by the hotel itself. Why, if they are so concerned about the housekeepers, don't they just pay them more?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Share Rides to Save

We;ve all seen big cars on the road, usually with just a driver and no passengers. Think about how much money and fuel emissions could be saved if cars carried one or more passengers in addition to the driver. That is the idea behind a Website that offers to link up cars and passengers, https://www,erideshare.com/#.

The site includes bringing people together for regular local trips such as commuting to work or school, as well as long distance travel. I'm very familiar with carpooling, since that was how I got to high school --at first our parents had to drive us, then when we were 16 we all got licences and began driving ourselves. Mine was a one-car family, so on days when I had to drive my dad got a ride to his office with a colleague.

Most of the ads on the site are for local carpooling, but there are also several hundred for long-distance travel. Many of the destinations seem to be in California or Western Canada, but there are also a number in other locations, mainly in Eastern North America. There are a few international listings, such between Florida and Costa Rica, Budapest and Prague, or Brescia and Lausanne.

You can join the site either as a driver seeking passengers, or a passenger seeking a ride to a particular place.

On another subject, if you have free time in October Cunard Line (www.cunard.com) is offering an amazing deal on its cruise to New England and Canada. This 12-day trip from New York can cost as little as $799 per person for the best available cabin. I've sailed these waters several times, and always enjoyed the voyage. You need to book by the end of September to get the reduced price.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Seattle on a Budget

You might think that a city that recently passed a law raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would be expensive, and in the case of Seattle generally you would be right. The new wage rate doesn't come into effect right away, but it is bound to add upward pressure to prices in an already fairly costly destination.

Still, there are ways to visit this beautifully-situated city that retains a gritty feel of the Old West without breaking the bank. There are many cheap alternatives to more expensive tourist experiences--for instance, you can take a harbour tour with West Seattle Water Taxi for $4.75 instead of the price of $23.75 with regular tour companies. Check out Goldstar.com for discounted theatre and concert tickets.

Seattle is known for its Happy Hour offerings. Even the elegant Four Seasons is affordable if you wait for the cheese and antipasto buffet offered in the bar starting at 9 p.m., since it costs just $8 then. There is also a free walking tour of downtown, provided by www.seattlefreewalkingtours.org/ where you pay what you want but must reserve at least an hour in advance.

The renowned Seattle Art Museum is one of many in the U.S. where you can pay what you want, but the suggested donation is $19.50. This museum has a great collection of Russian art, with particular emphasis on the early Soviet period.

It is easy to reach Seattle from Portland by train or bus--www.boltbus.com is the cheapest option, with fares as low as $10 one way. From Victoria B.C. you can enjoy a scenic cruise to Seattle for as little as $128 return in summer with www.clippervacations.com. I have taken this latter trip, and really enjoyed it.

The biggest cost in Seattle is lodging. You can resort to a hostel, or use sites like www.hotwire.com or www.priceline.com to bid for travel. Also, there are a few budget inns such as the College Inn near Seattle Unviersity or the Sixth Avenue Inn downtown.

For some more ideas on saving money in Seattle, consult www.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/travel/budget-friendly-seattle-from-meals-to-messages.html for Seth Kugel's take on the city. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wilder Shores of Travel

Tired of Tahiti and bored with Barcelona? If you are one of those people who has travelled extensively and you are looking for something unusual, check out a tour company called Wild Frontiers Travel (www.wildfrontierstravel.com.)

This British-based company has some unusual offerings that sound very appealing for the adventurous with relatively deep pockets. For instance, you can ride horses through Wadi Rum in Jordan, the place where some of the old film about Lawrence of Arabia was made. Or you can visit several little-travelled countries on one tour to Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan. If walking appeals, consider a walking tour in the mountains of Oman.

These are just a few of the many tours that are likely to spark your imagination. These trips are not cheap, generally between $200 and $400 per day, and the price does not include air fare. It does include pretty much everything else, though, and there is no mandatory single supplement. Unfortunately, travelling far off the beaten track is often costly if you want to do it safely.

I am partial to British tour companies, particularly for exploring fairly remote parts of the world. The Brits have long experience in many of these places because of their empire, and it is not unusual to find Brits who speak more than one difficult language.

I do find the Website of this tour company is a little ethnocentric, aty least when it comes to travel to Iran. They give information on obtaining visas for Brits, but not for others. Did you know that if you are female and want to apply for a visa, your passport photo must show you in a headscarf? That could make it a bit awkward--do you need to get a new passport if you aren't wearing a headscarf in your current photo? Anyway, aside from visa hassles Iran sounds like a fascinating place to visit.

Closer to home, Porter Airlines (www.flyporter.com) has a big sale on. You can save up to 60 per cent if you book by midnight on Friday. Sample fares include Montreal to Chicago for $191 Canadian one-way, or $180 Canadian to St. John's, Newfoundland. Prices include tax.

Monday, September 08, 2014

September Bargains

September is the month when temperatures start to cool in much of the northern hemisphere, and inevitably some people start dreaming of a way to prolong the summer. It is also the beginning of shoulder season, when summer's high prices begin to drop.

Allegiant Air (www.allegiantair.com) has some unusually attractive fares this month between some of its northern gateways and the Tampa-St. Petersburg airport in Florida. For example, the one way cost of travelling between Plattsburgh, NY and Tampa is as low as $102, while a flight from Roanoke VA to Tampa begins at just $50. Even the flight from distant Fargo ND is affordable, as low as $117, while a trip from Niagara Falls NY can cost as little as $106.

I have never spent the fall in Ireland, but I did spend one winter there and found it very cold (no central heat) and damp. A tour company called Budget Travel (www.budgettravel.ie) is offering some interesting deals on package tours to sun destinations in September. For instance, seven nights and flight from Dublin to the Algarve in Portugal starts at just 239 euros per person for bed and breakfast. Similar deals to Gran Canaria start at 359 euros per person, or you can visit Corfu, Greece for a week for as little as 399 euros each.

Whenever I am in Europe I become envious of the low-cost travel opportunities Europeans tend to enjoy. So if you happen to live in Europe, you lucky dog, check out  local travel agencies for inexpensive packages to interesting places.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Nostalgic Travel to India

In yesterday's Budapest Times, (http://budapesttimes.hu/2014/09/05/the-travelling-times/) there is a fascinating story on returning to India after a long absence, and an accompanying story on what the country is like now.

Writer Christopher Maddock is an Englishman who joined the hippie trail as a young man in the 1970s, travelling overland to India and beyond. That was at a time when it was relatively easy to travel through Iran and Afghanistan, which is no longer true.

He writes of his shock on seeing his first dead body in Varanasi, and of subsisting on a very low budget with all the accompanying hardships. Today he finds much has changed, but that eternal India persists.

One difference he notes is the absence of snake charmers now. They were outlawed after a campaign by animal rights activists. I never associated India with animal rights, but then I guess in the land of the sacred cow it makes sense.

It would be valuable to read an account someone had written of a trip many years ago that was actually written at that time, compared to the account of a return visit. However, few of us keep such meticulous records--I certainly don't. I know someone, Montreal poet Stephen Morrissey, who claims to have recorded every day of his life since he was a child, but most of us are not that organised.

In any case, Maddock's stories are well worth reading. For some shorter posts I wrote about returning to Moscow after 37 years, you can refer back to posts for July 2013. I have since written a longer version of that story, which perhaps I will post here someday. That's the great thing about writing, you can keep changing and hopefully improving it.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Trade Time for Accommodation

Lodging is often the largest cost in a travel budget, particularly for long term travels. One way to cut the cost of your bed and meals is to donate your time in exchange for a few hours work a day. The work ranges widely, from tutoring English or another language to helping with children, elders or animals, to doing heavy manual labour.

Workaway (www.workaway.info) has listings of hosts around the globe who are looking for help with various tasks. They have thousands of possibilities, so you should be able to find something of interest. I checked mainly for openings in Russia, and they ranged from Astrakhan to Vladivostok, basically all across the country. They included working at a small hostel in Vladivostok, helping with English practice for a family in Siberia, or similar family-based openings in several other cities.

Options in other countries were such things as working with alpacas in Germany or New Zealand, or working on an organicc farm in Norway. Expectations of the amount of time a volunteer must devote to work also vary quite a lot. From my limited experience of farmers, they seem to work all the time, so they may expect a guest to do the same. It is important to discuss such expectations in advance.

HelpX (www.helpx.net) is a similar organisation to Workaway. However, it seems to have mainly openings on farms or in hotels, hostels or b and bs, rather than with private families.

For countries where you need a visa, this type of exchange may not be ideal because the companies do not arrange visas for participants. However, if you can find something that sounds appealing,  living with regular individuals rather than just meeting people in the tourism industry can be a very pleasant and valuable experience. I learned this from travelling with Friendship Force (www.friendshipforce.org,) a group that arranges cultural exchanges.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Ordinary Life in Crimea

Today is the first day of school for many people here in North America, so it is perhaps appropriate to write about an interesting blog by an English teacher who lives in Sebastopol, Crimea. Crimea, you will recall, used to belong to Ukraine but was annexed by Russia following a referendum this spring.  I have seen very little coverage in the mainstream media since then of how things are going there.

The blog, at http://sandymillin.wordpress.com/tag/crimea, tells about  subjects such as the impact of changes in currency from hryvnia to ruble on ordinary people, and includes many photos. It gives the impression that, at least in Sebastopol, the change in government was quite welcome and the economic impact minimal.

This is not completely surprising--even when in visited in 2010 it was obvious that Sebastopol was very much a Russian town, since it is the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and Russian naval officers and sailors were in evidence everywhere. According to a guidebook, it is also one of the cleanest-appearing towns in Crimea, very shipshape compared with more casual places.

The currency change in Crimea is somewhat similar to what happened in East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I remember being told by a guide in Dresden in 1991 that there had not been much problem for most people. Ostmarks were converted into Deutschmarks at a ratio of one-to-one up to a certain limit. I forget exactly what the limit was--certainly no more than 10,000. This didn't bother many people, since few had large amounts of savings in Ostmarks, and the one-to-one ratio was very generous compared with the actual value of the Ostmark.

In any case, it is encouraging to discover from Millin's blog that life in Sebastopol seems to be proceeding normally, with people going about their ordinary business and with tourists still arriving, at least from Eastern Europe. She says she has heard of some people leaving because they do not want to live in Russia, but others who are planning to leave eventually are in no hurry to do so. Apparently no one anticipates the imposition of a new Iron Curtain to keep Russians from leaving the country.

Unfortunately Millin does not update her information on life in Crimea very often, since she also writes about other topics such as learning English and her own efforts to learn Russian. She is missing a good chance to provide citizen journalism from an interesting part of the world.

Sorry about the fact that part of this post is in italics. My computer is acting up and I'm not sure how to get back to plain type while using this application. Below, the Catherine Palace in Pushkin, Russia. It was Catherine the Great who originally added Crimea to the Russian Empire.