Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt's Attractions

This clearly is not the time to visit, but Egypt is a country everyone should see at least once. Its monumental attractions--the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel--and many, many others are well-known, but equally impressive is the friendliness of the people. Admittedly much of that friendliness is motivated by a desire to make a sale, but Egypt is the only country I have visited where virtually everyone you meet who can speak English will say "Welcome to Egypt."
Egypt was the first country I visited once I had seen much of Europe, and I've returned several times. On that first trip I travelled alone, with only a reservation at the stately if down-at-heel Hotel Semiramis right on the Nile. The sight of the river from my balcony that first morning is one I'll always remember. The Semiramis is no more, but there is no lack of interesting, inexpensive places to stay in Cairo. A quick internet search uncovered several thatlook nice and are very modestly priced--the Arabian Nights Hotel downtown near Al Azhar Unviersity has rooms with breakfast and bath for only $20, while near the Pyramids at Giza the Horizon Pyramids charges $42 for a room with the same amenities.
The wonderful Mena House right beside the Pyramids is a worthwhile splurge. And a Nile cruise is not to be missed, although access to many tombs is restricted now because of the deleterious effect of too many tourists on ancient frescoes. On my first trip I was able to book a cruise on an old-fashioned boat (think Death on the Nile) after I arrived, but to be sure of getting a berth it is better to reserve ahead.
Egypt is not an easy country for travellers, but there are few places in the world with equal historic riches. We can all hope that the riches survive the present unrest, and that order is soon restored in a way that will meet at least some of the popular demands. The long-suffering Egyptian people deserve that.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dormitory Delights

There doesn't seem to be any central source of information about them, but rooms in college or university dormitories are still a good bet during school vacations. Many Canadian unviersities open their residences to non-students during the summer, as do some in the United States, in Spain, Scotland, Ireland, Malta and Argentina, among others I have written before about the many options available in student residences in high-priced London during school holidays. Near New York City, Long Island University offers rooms to visitors starting at about $50 a night when classes are not being held.
Usually rooms in residences are considerably cheaper than those in commercial lodging (other than hostels,) and they often come with other perks like low-cost dining options and use of sports facilities. Generally the rooms are singles, with shared bath.
B & J Publications used to put out a book called "Campus Lodging Guide" with details on residences open to visitors, but unfortunately the last publication date seems to have been 1999. If there are Websites offering similar information on a number of such residences in different universities, cities and countries I have not been able to find them. Such a listing, preferably with an online reservation form, would be very helpful to budget travellers.
So, for the moment you have to do some research yourself. If you plan to visit an expensive city during summer or over Christmas, check out its colleges and universities to see if you can book a room and save some bucks. And if all else fails, you can always sign up for a summer course that gives you access to on-campus housing.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Teaching English

Native English speakers have a particular advantage over speakers of most other languages. Since English has become the de facto international language (replacing French, which replaced Latin,) there has been a large demand abroad for people capable of teaching English to locals.
Native speakers are in great demand, because they can teach the correct accent, slang, etc., and this leads to many employment opportunities abroad.
Who has not considered teaching English in some distant, exotic country? For the adventurous, it can be a rewarding life, and opportunities exist from Chile to Mongolia to Western Europe. Some English teaching jobs, partiuclarly those in Japan and the Gulf States, are very well-paid, while others offer little more than subsistence wages. But they all provide the chance to live and work in a foreign country.
For qualified or experienced teachers, the Website offers a wealth of information and updated job openings. If you just want to sample teaching English abroad, the site has a number of short-term teaching gigs in South America, Asia and Africa. You need to pay for the latter, but rates are usually reasonable and often include some training in the art of teaching your native language (it's not as easy as it looks.) For example, a four-week stint teaching English in southern Thailand costs just $1495 plus air fare and some other expenses, and includes a week of teacher training.
If you are very independent, it is often possible to just go to your desired destination and set yourself up as an English teacher for private students, or connect with a language school there. This is not likely to work in Western Europe unless you happen to hold a European Union passport, since rules on work eligibility are strict in Europe.
I have taught English to speakers of other languages, but so far only in Montreal. I found it both challenging and rewarding. though not very lucrative. For the better paid positions, it is important to have a university degree or two and special training in education or specifically in the teaching of English.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Westjet Review

Yesterday I had my first opportunity to travel on the Canadian carrier Westjet ( from Tampa to Montreal via Toronto. I booked my one-way ticket through Expedia ( and it cost only $140 U.S., about $60 less than I had paid for my trip down.
My general impression was favourable, given the rigours of air travel today. Most appealing, there is no additional charge to check a bag. I have become used to having to pay $25 or so on most airlines in North America. Both planes were newer versions of the Boeing 737, and while leg room was close to non-existent, seats were comfortable.
Westjet does charge for almost everything on board, and since the airline has gone cashless you could become a very hungry camper if you did not happen to have a major credit card (Visa, Mastercard, American Express) with you. The only thing available for free is juice or soft drinks and a tiny package of pretzels or a cookie. I sampled one of the sandwiches (turkey and brie) for $6.50 and found it soggy but otherwise OK. I did not try the inflight entertainment (which costs extra,) but was able to catch part of the hockey game on the screen of a guy in front of me.
In Toronto I found the transfer process a little less difficult than it had been last summer with Air Canada. You still need to go through customs in Toronto, then schlep your bag to another area for re-shipping. The area is not very well marked and would be easy to miss.
My flight to Toronto arrived ahead of schedule, and when I got to the boarding area for my Montreal flight another Westjet flight to Montreal was taking on passengers. I asked about getting on it, and was told I could but there would be a $56 charge and I would still have to wait for my bag to arrive on the next flight. I decided to wait for the next flight myself.
Westjet isn't Air Canada's Rapid Air (with almost hourly flights between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa and easy re-booking,) but it doesn't cost as much either.
For greater savings on Westjet flights, become a Facebook friend or a Twitter follower and look for the special deals offered on Thursdays until they sell out.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

More on Jordan

An indispensable Website for anyone considering a trip to Jordan is It is a labour of love by a frequent visitor to Jordan who clearly appreciates the country. She concentrates mainly on Wadi Musa and Wadi Rum, mainly Bedouin towns where she has made many friends over more than 20 years of travel to the country. She also includes a lot of useful information about other cities and regions of the country. In addition, she addresses concerns many people have about dress, customs and so forth in a country that is at once very familiar and very different.
For travellers relatively unfamiliar with the Middle East (and that includes me) Jordan could be a good introduction. Thanks to its history as a British mandate under the League of Nations, Jordan is a country where a lot of people speak English. It is also the location of many Biblical sites--Mt. Nebo, the Dead Sea, the River Jordan etc. and was the home of many early Christians. In Madaba, St. George's Church contains a lovely ancient mosaic floor map of the region, dating from the 6th century, and the ruins of early churches have been discovered in Petra and Jerash.
Still, Jordan is now primarily a Muslim country, and different rules of conduct apply. Modest dress is a requirement--no shorts or very short skirts except in resort complexes, long sleeves, high necks for women. Most Jordanian women wear a hijab, a scarf tied around the head, but visitors need not do so.
Because it is very compact, Jordan's attractions are generally easy to access. The ancient Roman city of Jerash is just a short drive from Amman. The same applies to Madaba, Mt. Nebo and the Dead Sea. Aqaba, the Red Sea resort known for scuba diving and snorkelling, is only about a four hour bus ride from the capital.
If you are adventurous and know a little Arabic, it is possible to visit most of the country's highlights by public transit at very low cost. On a visit to Salt, former capital or Jordan with many beautiful Ottoman-era buildings, I used a shared taxi from Amman that cost only about $1.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jordan on my Mind

I was recently reminded of a trip I took to Jordan in 2003 by a book I read called Naked in Baghdad. It was written by Anne Garrels, an NPR correspondent. She was in Baghdad during the runup to the war, and left via Amman just about the time I arrived there, I believe. She survived the shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad and a lot of other scary incidents.
My original plan had been to go to Iraq, but on arriving in Amman I quickly changed my mind. The closest I had ever been to the front lines in wartime was covering a hostile corporate takeover--what exactly had I been thinking?
I took advantage of being in Jordan to tour that small country at a time when prices were low and there were very few other tourists around. I enjoyed my stay at the Hisham Hotel in Amman, a homey place in a leafy setting near the French Embassy. When I returned to the hotel after a trip down south, they remembered me and had even kept a phone message--that's the kind of place it is. I paid around $40 for a room with continental breakfast. The rate now (from is around $105. The Hisham is within walking distance of the Roman Theatre downtown, one of Amman's few historical attractions.
Petra, the ancient Nabatean city featured in an Indiana Jones movie, is the undoubted highlight of the country. It is a huge site with many ancient buildings (the Treasury is the most famous,) and it would take a long time to see it all. Still, you can get a good idea of the place in two or three days, especially if you make use of the donkeys and horses that are for hire. A ticket for three days admission costs about $85. You can reach Petra by air-conditioned JETT bus from Amman for about $11.
I was one of a handful of guests at the Edom Hotel, a modern place in Wadi Musa very close to the Petra main gate. A room cost about $45 with breakfast, as I recall. It was exciting waking up to the call to prayer (live, not pre-recorded) from a nearby mosque. The rate at the Edom seems not to have changed much, according to Next door, the Movenpick is the best hotel in Wadi Musa and a worthwhile splurge at least for a meal. Rooms start at about $140 per night.
If you are an animal lover, stop and visit the Brooke Hospital for Animals near Petra main gate, where veterinarians care for the working animals of the region for free. I'll be writing more on this pleasant Middle Eastern country--while prices have risen in the past 8 years, it is still cheap compared to many other places in the world.

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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Yoga Retreats in the Sun or Snow

Looking for a different way to enjoy a beach or mountain vacation at moderate cost? Consider a trip to a yoga retreat. Yoga is a system of traditional mental and physical practices that originated in India, and continue to be popular for their benefits to mind, body and spirit. Yoga has become almost mainstream as a form of fitness in the West today, but there is more to it than stretching.
If you want to experience a revitalizing vacation, you could spend a night or two in a yoga retreat in the sun for less than the cost of a pair of Lululemon yoga pants. The Website lists yoga retreats around the world that accept visitors. There is one called Discovery Yoga in St. Augustine, Florida, the charming original Spanish capital of the state. A bed in a shared room plus one yoga class costs as little as $40 a night. It seems to be one of the more casual and inexpensive retreats.
A little more costly and a lot more demanding are the retreats connected with Sivananda Yoga. You can practice your downward dog on the shores of the Caribbean Sea at Paradise Island in the Bahamas. The charge for a bed in the dorm starts at only $69 a night, but the program is rigourous. It includes morning and evening sitting meditation and two yoga practice sessions every day, and attendance at all sessions is mandatory.
There are also Sivananda retreats in the Austrian Tyrol and the Laurentians of Quebec, but the latter is open only in summer. Kripalu in Lennox MA and the Esalen Institute near Carmel CA are better known retreat centres with extensive programs and higher prices.
If you have a serious interest in yoga or a particular program but cannot afford the cost, it may be possible at certain retreats to work in exchange for room and board, a practice known as Karma yoga.
While all your friends are bragging about their high-priced hedonistic holidays, you can one-up them be discussing your low-cost yoga retreat with its mental and physical benefits.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Cutting Travel Costs

Today's online version of the New York Times( has a story giving 11 ways to cut travel costs in 2011. I didn't find anything particularly useful personally in it, but some people might. The article lists some Websites that can help you save money.
The Times Frugal Traveler column is also a good source of first-person advice on getting around cheaply, and one of their recent columns gives a helpful round-up of various low cost bus services (including Megabus, which I wrote about earlier here) along the East Coast of the United States.
It is hard to find genuine budget travel information today, when most travel writing seems to be geraed to plutocrats, and every little bit helps.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Friends with Flights?

I have not been able to verify this independently, but I heard on Clark Howard's Money Show on CNN that certain airlines and rental car companies are offering huge discounts for very short periods on flights and cars to people who become their friends or fans on Facebook. I must say I've never considered bccoming friends with an airline, but I suppose it's not a great leap from being a member of a frequent flyer program. Despite our best efforts, most of us seem to be turning from humans into commodities one way or another.
I checked the Facebook pages of several airlines and did not notice anything about discounts through Facebook, but they may exist. If you are a Facebook addict, it could be worth your time to investigate whether they actually exist and are worthwhile for you.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Travel Resolutions for 2011

Here are five travel resolutions you might consider for the coming year:

1. I resolve to travel more. Lots of things seem to be conspiring against travel these days, from the weather to the world economy to enhanced security measures at airports. But it is in times like these when travel becomes even more important. By travelling we can help break down the barriers that separate people, barriers that make it easier for demagogic politicians to infringe on our liberties by invoking the threat from foreigners or terrorists.
2. I resolve to travel in as sustainable a manner as possible. This means usually favouring non-profit lodgings like hostels, monasteries or university residences over big chain hotels, and locally-owned hotels and tours over those owned and managed by multinational corporations. When you stay at a locally-owned hotel or guesthouse, it is more likely that most of the price of your room will stay in and benefit the local economy. This is particularly important in Third World countries, and is also likely to provide a more intimate, authentic experience of a different culture. It also means travelling by train or bus when possible, rather than air or private car, since mass transit is more ecologically efficient (and usually cheaper.)
3. I resolve to research my destination(s.) Nothing can substitute for adequate research in making a trip more enjoyable. With the ubiquity of the internet, there is no excuse now for inadequate research. Travel sites and blogs (ahem) can be helpful, but don’t neglect regular news sites and those connected with a particular interest of yours. Most cities around the globe now have English-language newspapers, and many of them are online. Guidebooks are indispensable for longer trips, or trips to a new destination.
4. I resolve not to let the budget tail wag the travel dog. Ten or twenty years from now, you probably won’t remember how much that special excursion or wonderful meal cost, but you will remember if cost kept you from doing something amazing. I have three big travel regrets—not taking a helicopter excursion to view Angel Falls in Venezuela, not taking a balloon ride over the Serengeti, and not seeing Berlin before the Wall came down. In retrospect the cost of these trips would have been comparatively insignificant. It’s important to be reasonable about travel costs, but as the ads say, some experiences are priceless.
5. I resolve to try to bring the wonder of travel to everyday life. The metaphor of life as a journey is a cliché, but if we can bring some of the excitement and fresh perspective that makes travel so enjoyable to our interactions at home and at work, we can to an extent enjoy a permanent vacation. Try to view your neighbour, your family member, your co-worker or boss as if you were meeting them for the first time, and your home as if you had just arrived from a foreign country. What would you notice, what makes this place or person different or interesting? What is there to enjoy or admire about this person or place? There’s always something.