Monday, February 29, 2016

$430 from the U.S. to Japan with Hopper

If you fly with United Airlines and use the app called Hopper, you can score some amazing round trip fares to Japan from the United States. Return fares are as low as $430 for travel this spring.

Hopper, which was voted the best mobile travel app by Apple last year, is also a good way to obtain lower prices on flights in general. I can't tell you much more about it, unfortunately, because while I do have a smart phone I have not used it for travel booking. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't trust mobile technology that much.

However, if you are adept with the mobile thing, this could be a good year to book that trip to Japan to view the cherry blossoms.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Inexpensive Homestay Tours

If you enjoy meeting the locals and really getting to know a culture from the inside out, you can't go wrong by taking a trip with Friendship Force And as a bonus, a number of their trips are very reasonably priced.

For example, this year you can travel to Sao Paolo and Curitiba, Brazil for 14 nights for just $1125 U.S.  That price includes homestays in both cities, most meals and tours, but does not include international air fare or visas, which most travellers need for Brazil.

Another possibility is a 12 day trip to Pau, France and nearby northern Spain for just $1775 U.S. without air fare. If dancing is your thing, consider travelling to Bogota, Colombia in the fall for an exchange concentrated on dance. The trip lasts nine days and costs just $900 U.S.

Another exchange involves staying with locals in three eastern U.S. states, New Hampshire, Connecticut and New Jersey, and visiting sites associated with colonial history and the American Revolution. This 15-day voyage costs just $1285 U.S.

I have heard that Friendship Force is having some trouble attracting new members, so if you want to explore this unique way of travelling, don't put it off too long. I have participated in two of their exchanges, both to Russia, and found them very interesting. The exchanges give you an insight into the culture that it is hard to acquire any other way in such a short time.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

More Megabus Woes

Check out the Frugal Traveler column in today's New York Times for a story on the exploding Megabus The frugal traveler happened to be on a bus between Chicago and Milwaukee when it first caught fire and then exploded. Luckily, no one was hurt although many people lost their luggage.

The columnist paid $11 for his ticket for a trip that would have cost $25 on Amtrak, the national rail company in the U.S. Megabus advertises fares as low as $1, but most riders pay quite a lot more. The bus company has been plagued with problems in North America--four people were killed in an accident in 2010, 26 were hurt in a crash in 2014, and another 19 were injured in 2015. Here in Canada, there have been announcements that anyone who travelled on a certain Megabus between Toronto and Montreal last August should be tested for exposure to tuberculosis, since one passenger on that journey had active TB.

I have travelled on Megabus between Montreal and Toronto without incident, and I would take the service again. Accidents can happen anywhere, and there was a fatal one on Amtrak last year. However, certain companies do seem to have more than their fair share of incidents--I am reminded here of Allegiant Air This company seems to have a large number of problems with its planes. I have flown with Allegiant with no trouble, but I'm not sure I would do so again.

On a cheerier note, there has been a big fare reduction on the Union Pearson Express train that connects downtown Toronto with Pearson Airport. Fares now are as low as $9, down from $19, if you have a Presto card.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Senior Nomads

There is no age limit to travel, luckily. Some people have medical issues or family responsibilities that limit their ability to get around as they get older, but in fact that can be a reality at any age.

It is good to know that a lot of people keep on travelling into their senior years, and some actually become what it politely known as "location independent" or nomadic, moving from place to place as the spirit moves them, or the authorities move them on.

I have written previously about one or two such people who maintain blogs, and recently discovered another pair, Alison and Don ( They are a senior couple originally from Vancouver, BC who have been on the road for several years. They have visited a number of countries in Europe and Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Antipodes, and their blog is full of great photos as well as musings on both the outer and inner aspects of travel.

If you are wondering whether this lifestyle might be for you, check out their blog for information on how they manage this lifestyle despite the fact that one of them has significant health issues.  Of course they both must manage things like investments, taxes and the usual business of daily living while on the road, and that can be a challenge even at home.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Clearwater Beach--Too Successful?

Clearwater Beach (,) a resort on the Gulf Coast of Florida directly west of Tampa, used to be a pleasant, laid back small town with a beautiful beach and not much else. When I first visited as a child, there were just a few small motels and the elegant Clearwater Beach Hotel.

Today the Clearwater Beach Hotel has been replaced by a larger, more modern version called the Sand Pearl, and the small barrier island of Clearwater Beach boasts 96 hotels in all. In addition, nine more are under construction and it is getting hard to catch a glimpse of water for all the high-rise hotels. Tourist numbers have reached record levels for Clearwater and the adjacent beaches of Pinellas County.

Clearwater Beach has not been a great bargain for many years, but now it is being plagued by over-building and sometimes horrendous traffic tie-ups. All traffic on the island must navigate through a round-about at the entrance, and sometimes cars are lined up all the way back to the city of Clearwater. Because of all the construction parking on the beach itself has been reduced, and city officials are struggling with how to deal with the tourist hordes. (One way might have been not to approve the construction of so many new hotels at the same time, but it is too late for that now.)

There are alternatives to driving, including a ferry that goes between downtown Clearwater and the beach. Parking for it is free, but the ferry itself costs $4. I couldn't find out much about it during a recent visit. In addition, a trolley service called the Jolley Trolley connects the beach with downtown and an island called Island Estates, technically a part of Clearwater Beach but lacking sand.

Another option might be to drive to Island Estates and park in the shopping mall parking lot, then take the trolley to the beach. You could still get caught in traffic, but at least wouldn't be burning your own gas. There is also talk of building an aerial gondola system from the city of Clearwater to the beach.

If you want to stay on the beach itself, be prepared to pay quite a lot, especially at this time of year. A quick perusal of  the Website of a company I have rented from ( http://www.florida-beachrentals.comshowed nothing under $178 per night for a week in the near future, and most places well above that--$400 per night or more.  Fall is the best time of year to find reduced prices and fewer tourists.

There are a few restaurant bargains in Clearwater Beach, luckily. All day Mondays you can enjoy a yummy burger with chips and cole slaw at Frenchy's on Baymont for $4.75. For a meal with a waterfront view, Jimmy's Fish House in the Holdiay Inn is a good bet--I usually have the cup of soup with half a club sandwich for $8.75. If you don't mind eating dinner early, check out the early dinner specials at the Island Way Grill on Island Estates, which go for $14.90 for a whole meal with soup of salad, main course and vegetables, and dessert.

Being an early bird is a good idea for parking too, since beach parking is free until 11 a.m.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Monday, February 15, 2016

Find a Travel Companion

Today's travel industry is geared primarily to those who travel, like the animals on Noah's Ark, two by two. Single travellers are generally faced with paying single supplements for hotel rooms, tours and cruises, and these supplements may double the cost of a room or trip. Some enlightened countries, primarily those in the German-speaking region, still have hotels where it is possible to get a single room, and there are a few travel companies that do not charge single supplements.

However, travel is a lot easier and usually cheaper if you can find a compatible companion. It is safer to travel in a pair rather than alone, and sometimes more fun. While it may be harder to meet locals, you will never lack for someone to talk with.

There are several online organisations that offer to match you up with a suitable travel mate. The longest established is, the online version of a company established by Jens Jurgen back in the 1980s. I remember writing a column about it for The Globe and Mail ( back then, and fortunately the organisation still exists. Jurgen is no longer actively involved.

This exchange offers three categories of membership--bronze which is free, silver for $12 for six months, and gold for $25 for six months. The paid categories offer more perks such as more detailed profiles. While it is not a dating site, some of the testimonials state that the individual found his or her mate that way. is a similar group, and membership is free, as it is at It wasn't possible to learn very much about these sites without registering. Travbuddy seemed to be a more active site, with a feature where you could input a country or activity and find potential travel mates. Travelchum had some articles on travel but the latest seemed to be from October, 2015.

Still another possibility is the site Wayn stands for where are you now, it has been around for quite some time, and membership is free. However, I couldn't get much information about it without registering.

Keep in mind that travelling even with the most compatible companion will probably involve a lot of compromise. If you're not willing to compromise, you may be better off going alone. (This is what I do most of the time.)

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Beware the Bumps

If you have been following the news you have probably seen the story about the rough voyage experienced by passengers of the Royal Caribbean Line's ( Anthem of the Seas. The megaship, which can carry more than 6,000 people, hit a storm in the Atlantic while on a cruise from New Jersey to the Bahamas.

The line has offered passengers a full refund on the cost of their trip, plus 50 per cent off a future cruise. This strikes me as a pretty generous deal, but I suspect many litigious passengers will still sue. A few passengers were injured, and the ship sustained substantial damage.

Unfortunately, storms at sea are not unknown. Every form of transportation carries risk, and while cruises can be relaxing and inexpensive vacations, there are no guarantees. A bad storm can be both dangerous and unpleasant. I once encountered a major storm crossing the Atlantic in summer, and would definitely think twice before crossing that ocean in winter.

In these situations, the cruise line owes affected passengers little or nothing, so it is good to know this before you sail.

On a happier note, Air Canada (,) has a Valentine's Day sale in effect until Feb. 15. Some of the round trip fares are very reasonable--Montreal to Dublin for $666, Montreal to Copenhagen for $819, Montreal to Dubai for $825. Similar fares are available from other Canadian gateways, and they are in Canadian dollars, now worth just under 72 cents U.S.

For years Canadian air travellers have been flying from U.S. airports to save money with budget airlines, but perhaps now the trend will reverse with the low loonie. Americans may choose to fly from Canada to overseas destinations if they live near the border.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Savings for Skiers

There are not many advantages to getting older, but if you happen to be an older skier you can benefit from significant discounts. At close to 100 resorts in the United States and Canada, you can actually ski for free once you reach a certain age.

The minimum age varies from as low as 65 to as high as 90, and free skiing may not be offered on weekends or at other busy times. Still, free lift tickets are a perk well worth waiting for. The online magazine provides a list of the resorts that offer these deals, as well as other articles of interest to the older winter sports enthusiast.

Among the resorts they mention as being particularly geared to older skiers are Lake Louise in Alberta, Megeve and Chamonix in France, Verbier and Zermatt in Switzerland, and Cranmore Mountain in North Conway, New Hampshire.

I once skied part way down the mountain in Megeve, before I realised that I was out of my league and would have to walk the remainder of the trail carrying my skis, a humbling experience. I have visited North Conway NH, but for outlet shopping rather than skiing. It's good to know it is possible to combine the two.

Reading and writing about skiing is tempting me to again take up a sport I abandoned long ago.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

50 Per Cent Discount in Kandalaksha

Times are tough in Russia now, and that means bargains for travellers. If you are willing to venture off the beaten track to places such as the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest of the country, travel costs can be very low.

For example, you can rent a large room in an old-fashioned but high-ceilinged apartment near the railway station in Kandalaksha for just $12 per night per person, probably with a short city tour given by the host. This is a 50 per cent reduction from the usual price, and is in effect until April or May. At that time the whole apartment may be available for rent.

If you want to explore the remote territory where the excellent film "Leviathan" was made, consult The Website is run by a man who used to offer cheap rooms and tours in Moscow--he is a travel agent and can provide invitations and assistance for foreign visitors.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Guest Post on Australia

Dale S. Brown of Washington, DC is one of the nice people I met last year on a trip to Russia, and she kindly agreed to write a guest post about her recent trip to Australia, a country I have never visited. An edited version of her post follows.

"Australia, a Friendly and Safe Country

My trip to Australia the first two weeks of November, 2015 was wonderful. My friend and I got a deal which enabled us to take the trip within our budget.

We took the Free Walking Tours in both Sydney and Melbourne, Both tours had guides who were humourous, informative and great at keeping their groups together. At the end of the tour the guide asks tourists to pay what they think the tour was worth, so it actually isn't free, but you pay what you can afford. Their dependence on tips practically guarantees quality tour guides.

We visited almost all the top tour destinations including the Sydney Opera House, took harbour tours in both Sydney and Melbourne, visited the Eureka Tower in Melbourne and the Sydney Tower in Sydney. We also saw the Australian Museum, the Art Museum of New South Wales, and the Queen Victoria Art Museum, and visited both Bondi and Manley Beach.

The Australians we met were friendly and willing to help us. They cheerfully gave us directions and told us about the customs and people of Australia. Of course, it helped that they spoke English.

We felt safe in Australia. In Melbourne we were out after midnight on crowded streets where we felt very safe, perhaps because the country has strict gun laws.

Australia reminded me of life 20 or 30 years ago in the U.S. Small businesses and independently-owned restaurants outnumbered the chains and franchises. Meals at restaurants were relaxed, and servers didn't grab your plate as soon as it looked like you had finished your meal (as they often do in the U.S.)

All in all, the trip was definitely worth the long plane flight."

Dale got a package that included round trip air fare and six nights in a mid-range Sydney hotel for $1,884 U.S. per person. She added on trips to Melbourne and the Great Barrier Reef, as well as costs for meals and sight-seeing. She sent along a great photo to accompany this post, but unfortunately clumsy me could not find a way to post it.

If you have always wanted to visit Australia, this should be a good time. The Australian dollar, like the Canadian, has declined because of low prices for commodities and is trading in the 70 cent U.S. range.