Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Romance of Repositioning

Experienced sea travellers know that some of the best deals on cruises can be found when these ships relocate from one area of the world to another, usually in fall and spring. Many ships that sail in the Baltic and Mediterranean in summer, or off Alaska or Canada, head for warmer waters of the Caribbean or South America in winter.
These voyages often involve crossing oceans, visiting unusual ports, and  leisurely days at sea. They don't appeal to everyone, particularly those with tight schedules or short vacations. But if you have the time, they can be a great way to enjoy a luxury cruise at a bargain price.
I recently came across a cruise agency, Legendary Journeys, that appears to specialise in this type of trip. Among their current offerings are several cruises this fall from eastern Canada, Montreal or Quebec City, to Florida. A 16-day trip from Montreal to Ft. Lauderdale is available on several different ships for as little as $1489 U.S. per person, a price that includes return air fare. Port stops are Portland, Boston, New York City, Baltimore and Charleston.
Next spring, you can sail from Ft. Lauderdale FL to Kiel in northern Germany for 23 days for as little as $2188 U.S. This price also gives you free return air fare, plus a six-day Rhine Valley post tour and stops in the Azores, Portugal, Spain, and England.
For more information, call 1-800-511-5411, or check with the cruise line of your choice for re-positioning cruises.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cultural Exchanges for Adults

If you remember fondly a cultural exchange program you participated in as a student, or if you envy your or other people's kids who engage in such arrangements, you may be interested in new cultural exchange and language immersion programs for adults of all ages. They are offered by a Florida -based organization called Foreign Language Study Abroad Service,, and they cover many different countries.
These are not particularly inexpensive programs--there are cheaper ways to travel. The cheapest cultural exchange program, in Costa Rica, still costs more than $100 U.S. per day for room with a family and two meals. Similar programs in expensive countries like Sweden and Denmark cost $1950 U.S. for one week, which works out to about $270 per day.
Until last year I had never stayed with locals in many years of travelling, aside from renting the occasional room in someone's home or bed and breakfast. But having the chance to participate in a home exchange in Russia showed me that it does provide more insight into a country than you can gain any other way.
The language immersion programs are even more costly, but then you get 10 hours or more of language instruction by your teacher host, three meals a day, and some other perks. On this basis, the cost for one person for one week is $1900 in Italy, $2360 in France, $1990 in Russia. If you stay two weeks the per week cost usually drops, for example in Russia it costs $3090 for two weeks.
These opportunities are available year around, and for all levels of students including total beginners. However, the Website material warns that if you are a complete beginner you may not get much out of a short total immersion course, since you won't have time to learn more than absolute basics.
These programs sound like a wonderful idea to me. I am considering trying one in Russia myself, since I have wanted to study that language over there for some time. Based on my experience as an adult at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, I wondered whether the highly-regarded courses at Moscow State would be right for me.The classes were good at Goethe, but I had too much unstructured time which I tended to fill with reading or watching TV in English. More personalized instruction like this and total immersion could be just the ticket.
To learn more about these opportunities, check the Website or telephone 786-216-7302.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Reward or Hassle?

It is more than a year since I tried to redeem points on my credit card for travel rewards, and I discovered that the redeption process has become much less user friendly. I wanted to use some points for a trip to Toronto on Via Rail (, so I called the redemption number. An agent told me I would need to book the trip on the Via Rail site, and gave me a code I would have to use to send back to the card company once the booking was made.
The problem was I could not get the Via Rail site to work. Then I tried Via's phone line, which was busy. Next I tried a travel agent connected with the credit card, and found out they charge a fee of $39 to make a reservation on Via Rail.
This is not the first time I have heard of trouble with this credit card's rewards service--a friend of mine used points for a flight, but when he got to the airport the flight did not exist. The issuer of this credit card shall be nameless, other than the fact that it is a very large Canadian chartered bank.
Travel rewards are great when they are easy to use, but in this case I am left wondering whether I need to get another credit card. Or perhaps the card issuers should just drop these features, if they can't do a better job with them.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Rental Car Woes

Less than two months after I wrote favourably about rental car deals, I experienced a major problem with a rental car. I had rented a Volkswagen Jetta from Enterprise ( and used it without incident for over a week, when the car suddenly developed transmission problems. That was strange, because it had less than 15,000 miles showing.
It was a combination automatic/standard, a fact that had not been made clear to me when I rented it. I managed to get the car back to the office, limping along at very low speed and making a loud whooshing sound. I was driving in an area where traffic was heavy, and I had been worried that it would conk out at an inconvenient place like a major intersection or a bridge.
The company did offer me a five per cent discount, but that turned out not to be enough to pay for the taxi I had to hire to do a final errand I had planned to do with the rental car.
I was thinking at the time that I had never before had a problem with a rental car, but later I realized that was not true. Long ago I rented a car in Paris to drive my parents to the south of France. To save money, I opted for a manual shift, but I was not very familiar with that type of transmission. When we reached Grenoble, we decided to take the scenic, mountainous Route de Napoleon rather than the boring, costly Autoroute du Sud to the coast. Bad idea.
The Route de Napoleon, so-called because Napoleon marched his troops along it when he made his triumphant return from his first exile in Elba, had seen little improvement since his day. It was a mere two lanes, very steep and with many hairpin curves. It was also heavily used by trucks. My car had great difficulty climbing it, and finally I realized we would have to turn around, with oncoming traffic and a sheer drop on the side. My father climbed out to signal oncoming trucks to stop, my mother sat in back praying, and somehow we made the turn and made it back down the mountain.
As I recall, the rental car company eventually gave us an automatic shift car, and we returned to the autoroute.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Savings on European Cruises

Now that photos of the wreck of the Costa Concordia are starting to fade from public memory, it's a great time to grab some bargains on European sailings. Holland America Line ( is offering some amazing deals on cruises of the Mediterranean or the Norwegian fjords. Prices start at $599 U.S. for the Mediterranean, $699 for the fjords, per person based on double occupancy, for a 7 day cruise.
I can attest that Mediterranean cruises are a great way to see some of the marvels of antiquity as well as scenic beauty and interesting cultures. The Holland American cruise leaves from Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, and visits Portofino, Monaco, Barcelona, Tunis and Palermo before returning to Rome. This gives you a chance to view two of the most famous and gorgeous jet set destinations, Portofino and Monaco, Barcelona with its unique cultural treasures starting with the Sagrada Familia, an unfinished but very impressive cathedral built by Art Nouveau architect Gaudi.  Tunis is noted for its proximity to the ruins of Carthage (remember "Cartago delendum est" from the second oration of Cicero against Cataline, all you Latin scholars,) while Palermo is a charming city despite(or maybe because of) its associations with the Mafia. What more could you ask of a week's cruise?
I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting the Norwegian fjords, but the Holland America sailing sounds like a very inexpensive way to do so. Norway is noted for being perhaps the most expensive country in Europe, so independent travel there is costly. A cruise allows you to view the scenic majesty of the fjords without spending more time on land than you wish. The cruise leaves from Rotterdam, conveniently located near Schipol, the airport for Amsterdam and one of Europe's best. Rotterdam itself is worth a visit for its enormous port and some remnants of traditional Dutch architecture (the city was bombed very heavily during World War II.)