Saturday, July 28, 2012

ONroute a Step Up

ONroute stops along Ontario's famous highway 401 are making travel a little easier for motorists in that province. Earlier this week I stopped at several while driving from Montreal to visit friends at a cottage in deepest Eastern Ontario, then back to Montreal. The rest stops are all equipped with fast food outlets, different ones at different stops, tourist information, fairly clean rest rooms and gas stations. One of the places where I bought gas, near Napanee, even had full service.
None of these items may seem like a big deal to those who live in the U.S. or other more densely populated countries. But Canada is sparsely populated outside the big cities and outside a strip that runs about 200 km. north of the border with the U.S., and finding essential services while travelling by car can be difficult. A few years ago I stopped to get gas at a large station in Renfrew, ON that also included a convenience store, but no washrooms for travellers. Route 417, the main highway from Montreal to Ottawa, has no rest stops and few places to get gas that are easily accessible from the highway. Strange when you consider that Ottawa is the capital and Montreal is one of Canada's largest cities.
The province of Ontario plans to open more ONroute stops along some of their other highways, but I saw no mention of the 417. In any case, things are looking up for those of us who drive frequently between Montreal and Toronto.
My trip was both pleasant, seeing old friends and enjoying the country, and exciting, getting caught in a major storm system that brought visibility to zero and forced me to stop along a tiny provincial road. I pulled off the road as far as I dared, put on my emergency blinkers, hoped that any passing logging truck would see me in time to stop, and cowered in the car until hail let up after a few minutes. When I could move again, ice fog from the hail blanketed the road ahead.
The trip back was not quite so exciting, though heavy rain pelted down for much of the time I was on the 401. Such is summer in Canada.

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Different Prices for Different People?

According to a recent article in The Economist, some Websites including the popular travel Website Orbitz ( are using software designed to identify the most affluent online customers in order to offer them higher-priced goods. The Internet was supposed to give consumers equality before merchants, and in many cases it has been good for consumers of travel products. Now you don't need to deal with a travel agent to buy an airline ticket or book a hotel, you can check prices and availability yourself online.
But according to the article, the type of computer you use and where you live may influence the products and prices you see. Users of Apple products are considered to be more affluent than those of us with humble p.c.s, for example. It is relatively easy to get around this--just don't buy Apple products. I know many people swear by them, but the only Apple product I ever owned caused me to swear at it. It was an Ipod nano, and it was so hard to use that when it was stolen I never bothered to replace it.
Changing where you live may be more difficult, expensive and even undesirable. But if you live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, expect to be quoted higher prices than some unfortunate person who lives in Camden, NJ.
It appears to be an online jungle out there, pricewise. As for me, I will probably avoid booking with Orbitz even though I don't have an Apple. If I were more tech savvy I would be able to tell you about clearing your browsing history and eliminating cookies, the pieces of software that enable Websites to track customers, but that discussion must be left to the future.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Electronic Book on Russia Now Available

If you haven't kept up with all the postings here, or if you just want a lot of information about how to visit Russia on a budget in one place, check out my new ebook "Budget Travel Tips for Russia." It offers ways to save on food, lodging and transportation while visiting one of the world's most challenging countries for travellers. It is available for purchase from my Website,
I couldn't find anything similar on the market, so decided this would be a good way to help people who want to travel in this very fascinating country without breaking the bank. It is filled with links to useful Websites, as well as tricks I have picked up over a number of visits to the country Ronald Reagan once dubbed the "Evil Empire."
Depending on how this goes, I'm thinking of producing a series of similar short ebooks of budget travel tips for other places I know well, such as Montreal, cruises, Berlin, Washington, etc. The major publishers seem to be neglecting the budget market now--even Lonely Planet guides contain high end hotel choices for the well-heeled. And since the whole publishing scene is very much in transition, this is as good a time as any to experiment with new ways of helping people travel better and for less money.
In any case, I would very much appreciate your purchase and feedback.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Voluntourist

If you are considering volunteering overseas, you owe it to yourself to read the book of this title by Ken Budd, a 40-something editor who lives in the DC area. Impelled by grief over the sudden death of his father, and by the realization that he himself is not likely to be a father, he embarked on a journey to make his life more meaningful by volunteering in five different foreign countries for relatively extended periods.
He worked with children, both disabled and normal, he taught English, he worked to help preserve the rainforest in Costa Rica, he laboured in a Palestinian refugee camp on the West Bank, and near the Kenyan town of Mombasa. Budd explored many different types of volunteer assignments in various cultures, and recounts his experiences in an entertaining way. He sometimes learned as much from fellow volunteers as from the people he was trying to help.
Not all of his stories are likely to make you want to sign up for an assignment right away. He writes about the exhaustion associated with many of the ventures, and the culture shock. Volunteers usually live in rough conditions, and always encounter unexpected problems
. Budd's first big volunteer experience was in the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and there he was fortunate enough to have a shared room at a Marriott Hotel, courtesy of the Knights of Malta. Most of the time, though, the facilities were far more modest and sometimes hard to tolerate (or at least they would have been for me.)
Budd doesn't seem to have experienced any great revelation about the meaning of life on account of his many volunteer efforts, but clearly they touched him deeply.
I applaud people like Budd who are willing to pay to put themselves in often difficult situations in order to help those in lesser developed countries. But based on my own considerable experience with volunteer work here in North America (everything from teaching English to serving on nonprofit boards, walking dogs to delivering meals on wheels,) I suspect the challenges of doing this type of thing overseas would not be for me. But it is very interesting to read about, and I recommend the book. My only minor criticism is that there was perhaps a little too much about the author, and no assessment that I could find on the impact of these types of programs on their target countries.

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Online Reviews

There has been some discussion in a LinkedIn group to which I belong about fake reviews on I'm not sure there are a lot of them, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised. I don't understand why people put a lot of faith in ratings by sites like this and These sites neither vet nor pay reviewers, and while most people are honest there are always some who are not.
And speaking of honesty, what can you say about businesses that take advantage of the unpaid labour of thousands of contributors in order to enrich themselves? Trip Advisor is a publicly traded company with a market cap of more than $6 billion. It reminds me of the Huffington Post, which rarely paid writers and then went on to sell itself to AOL for, if I recall correctly, $310 million. It's all part of our brave new Internet age, where you too can fight like a lion to get an unpaid internship at some gigantic Wall Street bank or other large corporation.
It is very convenient to be able to get reviews of hotels, airlines and cruises at the click of a mouse. The fact that some of those reviews may be fake is, perhaps the price you pay for this ease of access. I certainly have looked at these sites too, and actually contributed to TripAdvisor before they made it too difficult, not by verifying contributors but by requiring numerical ranking according to certain criteria.
However, I would not put a lot of trust in online reviews. I'm more likely to check a guidebook if I really want the low down on a place. Some information may be out of date, but the vetting process that goes into producing most guidebooks makes it more likely that their information will be relatively unbiased. Guidebook publishers seldom pay well, but at least as far as I know they still pay something and thus attract a better, more professional class of reviewer.

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