Friday, March 29, 2013

Suggestions for Low-Cost Destinations

A Web site,, is a useful tool to gather some idea of costs in various parts of the world. It ranks cost of living in more than 700 cities, regions and countries for 2013, and some of the results are surprising. For example, Sofia, Bulgaria is considered cheaper than Paraguay or La Paz, Bolivia, and Krakow, Poland is not much more expensive than Paraguay.
By sticking to the destinations near the bottom of the list, you will generally be assured of travelling in low-cost areas. Among the more appealing ones near the very bottom of the list are Nicaragua, Romania, Cambodia and Tunisia. However, the country that ranks absolutely lowest cost for expats, Bhutan, is actually expensive to visit, because the government severely restricts the number of tourist visas it issues.
The most expensive places for expats to live are generally predictable--Japan, Switzerland, Hong Kong, but include some surprises like fifth place Luanda, Angola and ninth place Caracas, Venezuela.. Moscow comes in at 27, my ancestral island of Jersey at 47, while Bishkek, Kyrgystan is just slightly more costly than Vermont, at 357 and 358 respectively.
This is definitely a useful site if you are considering relocating overseas, although the expat standard of living may be higher than you would actually need to live comfortably. Expats who are transferred for a job often have perks such as cars and drivers, or boarding schools for children, items that may not be of interest to you.
Speaking of expats, the Canadian wife of the new Bank of England governor Mark Carney has caused a commotion in Britain by complaining about what she could find in London in terms of a place to live with an allowance of, I believe, 800 pounds a week. It all depends on your expectations.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Save by Being Flexible

There is a new Website that promises to save you up to 40 per cent on air fare and other travel, provided that you are flexible. No, not in a yoga sense, but in terms of your destination. Get Going ( requires that you sign up to use their service, and then choose a particular theme for a trip or at least two destinations.
The theory is that business travellers need to go to a particular place, so by being flexible on destination you prove that you are a leisure traveller. Airlines try to make business travellers pay big money and are more willing to give leisure voyagers a break, at least in theory.
I was not willing to sign up for still more email by providing my address, but according to the airline savings are no better than you can score with other travel sites, at least for the destinations and times that writer checked. However, he was intrigued by the option of exploring different theme trips and letting the site choose for you.
If you are adventurous and not averse to signing up, this site could be worth a look.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cheap Flights to Russia

There seem to be some unusually cheap fares on flights to Russia this spring. According to a flight aggregator site called (,) it has recently been possible to book a round trip from New York to Moscow for as little as $496 in April on Swiss (, and to travel with Aeroflot ( on a fare that is good into mid May for $598.
I checked some random dates in April, and was pleased to find a round trip on Aeroflot leaving April 9 and returning April 16 for only $609.50. That is a remarkably low price for a booking just a couple of weeks ahead. Of course, if you were to book a flight like this you would probably have to pay extra for an expedited Russian visa.
And remember, you don't need to be afraid to fly Aeroflot these days. My most recent experiences with this airline were very good--new planes, courteous staff, and most surprisingly for those of us who remember this airline in the old days, in-flight announcements in both English and Russian.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

VIP Lounge Access

One way to make travelling and flying less stressful is by spending time in airport VIP lounger, rather than pacing the endless corridors or scrounging around for sometimes scarce seats. Lounges offer comfortable seating, usually free soft drinks and perhaps snacks, and quiet for passengers who want to work or rest.
 However, these lounges are usually reserved for those who are flying business or first class, and access to them is seldom worth the additional cost, in my view.
A program called PriorityPass ( will allow you to use lounges at airports in some 300 cities across 100 countrie reagrdless of the price of your ticket. Better still, until the end of March you can do so for a reduced price.
There are several different programs, with the least expensive being $79 for a year's membership, with $27 additional for every lounge visit. If you are sure you will want to use lounges 10 times, the upgrade that provides 10 visits for $199 is a better deal.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reduced Rate at the Metropol

I just came across an unusually low rate at Moscow's famed Metropol Hotel, through For the night of April 28, a standard room is going for $283, about $200 less than the usual rate. Not really budget travel, but a chance to stay in this lovely historic place for a cut rate.
The location of the Metropol could not be better, right across from the Bolshoi Theatre and Red Square. You may spend a fair amount for a room, but you will be able to walk to many of the city's attractions.
I've never been in Russia in April, but apparently spring is the season least favoured by tourists because it usually rains a lot and the remnants of snow are still around, making it cold. Hmm, sounds a lot like Montreal right now.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sugaring Off by Train

One of the fun aspects of late winter-early spring in Quebec and the nearby parts of the northern U.S. is sugaring-off parties. Everybody is tired of winter by this time of year, especially with our recent large dump of snow, so it's nice to get out in the country and enjoy a traditional heavy meal covered with maple syrup in a sugar shack.
There are a lot of sugar shacks that offer these meals, but they are hard to get to without a car. One option is to take an excursion offered by Montreal's commuter train network, the AMT (
 On two remaining Thursdays and all the Saturdays in April, they offer day long excursions to a sugar shack in Mirabel from Central Station downtown, right next to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Prices are reasonable, $38 or Thursdays or $42 on Saturdays, which includes transport, an all you can eat meal that usually is made up of pancakes, bacon, ham, and potatoes, all swimming in this season's fresh maple syrup. You can also enjoy maple syrup on a stick dipped in snow to solidify it, traditional Quebecois music and a walk in the woods. And you can bring your own wine or other alcoholic beverage--I have actually seen groups sharing a bottle of whiskey with their meal.
It's several years since I have been to a sugar shack, but with the ease of getting there by train I may visit one again this year.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ethics of Travel Writing

The ethics of travel writing has long been a topic of contention. At least since Mark Twain agreed to write about Thomas Cook's tours in the 19th century, travel writers have come under suspicion of having been bought. The issue may date back even further, perhaps to Marco Polo or Sir Richard Burton.
As we all know, travel is expensive. Countries and companies that want to attract tourists often sponsor travel journalists on press trips where most costs are covered. In return, the journalist is supposed to do his or her level best to write and publish articles or produce radio or TV reports about the destination.
The other fact about travel writing is that, with a very few exceptions, it pays very little. So the person who wants to write about it either has to pay for trips out of his limited earnings, or take sponsored trips.
Full disclosure--I have taken sponsored trips in the past, in addition to doing an enormous amount of travel on my own. That means, or used to mean, that I will never be able to write for the New York Times (www.nytimes.com_, which was one of my ambitions at one time.
From the consumer's point of view, the fact that a lot of travel stories you read are the result of sponsored trips does pose a certain risk. Even if the writer discloses that he was on a sponsored trip, did not having to pay for the trip prejudice him in favour of the destination? It certainly meant that that particular destination got covered, rather than another one. This is one reason it is hard to find a lot of stories on inexpensive destinations, cheaper hotels, nonprofit lodgings, etc.
I don't know what the solution is to this issue, but I just want to warn you that stories you read in print or on the Internet, or hear on radio and television, may not be from unprejudiced sources.
When I write here about a destination I have visited, I will try to inform you if I was there as a result of a sponsored trip. In some cases it may be hard, because I have travelled in a number of countries both on my own and on press trips.
If you enjoy this blog, please visit my Facebook ( page, follow me on Twitter (,) or connect with me on LinkedIn ( Thanks.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Expat Women's Blogs

A good way to get a feel for a country before you visit is by reading the blogs of people who live there. If those people are expats, they are likely to notice and write about things that locals might not even think worth a mention, but that you too might find unusual. The experience of living in a country is not the same as just visiting, but it can give you some helpful insights. For women travellers, the blogs of other women can be especially useful.
Therefore, before heading off to a new country, you could broaden your research beyond guidebooks by checking out the blogs written by women and listed on a blog roll at
The site is not particularly active, but there are a large number of blogs listed covering most countries of the world. I checked out a couple on my current favourite country, Russia, and was particularly impressed by one called The writer's account of a trip to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, accompanied by many beautiful photos, made me nostalgic for that very intriguing part of the world. However, another post, about the visa hassles of people she knows, made me remember that Russia too has a dark side.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Alliance Francaise for Language Learning

If French is a language you want to learn, the big dog among language schools is the French government-affiliated Alliance Francaise ( Based in Paris, it has branches around the world (including many in the U.S.) and offers courses at all levels, as well as teacher training.
Attending a course during the summer in Paris provides you with a purpose beyond sightseeing, ready-made companions, and access to moderately-priced accommodation in an expensive city. During July and August, you can even stay at regular university residences while attending classes, or with a family for more practice and immersion in the culture. I was not able to verify exact prices from the Website, but they are sure to be a better deal than most budget hotels. It is also possible to book furnished apartments through the lodging service if you desire more privacy and amenities.
French is no longer the main international language, but it is still very useful for travel in Europe, in Quebec, in parts of West Africa and parts of the Caribbean and South America (French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe.) And French culture, with its emphasis on elegance and style, is one of which most other cultures are in awe. The famous line about good Americans going to Paris when they die still holds true for many, and even the quintessential German film star Marlene Dietrich chose to spend her last years in Paris.
You could do worse than starting to study or brushing up on your French at the famed Alliance Francaise.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Viva Argentina

With the election of the first Argentine Pope, tourism to Argentina is almost certain to increase. That is a good thing, because Argentina is a very interesting country and one that can be budget-friendly if you take care.
Argentines tend to be friendly, and welcome visitors to the country they are very proud of. One of the most European-seeming countries in South America, Argentina is best-known for the tango, gauchos and the Perons, whose political party is still in power. It is possible to visit on your own even if your Spanish, like mine, is very limited.
Buenos Aires is a pleasant but enormous and very busy city. To my mind it doesn't have much in the way of sights, but the parks and the pedestrian street Florida are worth a visit, in addition to attractions such as the Cathedral and the Casa Rosada, Argentina's White House. When I was there in 2001, you could see tango dancers performing for tips on Florida.
 Best of all, the price can be right. A quick check of revealed hotels where, in late April, a double room can be had for as little as $24 (the Hotel O'Rei in the Microcentro.) Close to the famous San Telmo market, the Viejo Telmo is a two-star place where rooms start at $30. In the $75  range, Dazzler Suites offer more upscale lodging both in Recoleta, near the cemetery where Eva Duarte de Peron is buried, and in the Microcentro, the Argentine term for downtown.
If you stay in Buenos Aires, be sure to venture out of the city on day trips to visit an estancia and see gauchos, to Tigre in the Parana River Delta, or to see the Children's Village founded by Eva Peron. Even better, go farther afield to beautiful natural attractions like Iguassu Falls on the border of Brazil, or San Carlos de Bariloche in the Andes. Argentina is big, so air or long distance bus travel is required to see the more remote areas. I have heard that the bus system is good, but have not experienced it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Allegiant Air Deals

Allegiant Air ( is one of the budget airlines operating within the United States and to some cities very near the Canadian border that offers very low prices at times. Generally the best deals can be obtained by booking at least a month ahead, but if there is space you may also get a low price at the last minute.
Allegiant generally flies from second-tier airports, one of the factors that allows them to keep prices low. For instance, in the Tampa area of Florida they fly from the Clearwater-St, Petersburg Airport rather than the much larger Tampa International Airport. And some of the prices are very good from now until late in October, as low as $40 to Chatannooga, TN or $69 to Buffalo, NY.
From Chicago/Rockford to Las Vegas, you can pay as little as $65 one way if you fly on April 7 or 8.
I have flown Allegiant once, from Tampa to Plattsburgh, NY and the service was fine. The Plattsburgh Airport was another story, at least at that time about three years ago. If you scroll back to blog posts for early 2010, you can read the story of my misadventures in Plattsburgh. They were not, however, the fault of the airline, and I would not hesitate to fly with Allegiant again.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Disappearing Language Schools?

I thought I had found a very inexpensive place to study Russian that I was going to tell you about. I discovered it in a Google search, in one of the ads on the side. The Website is, and the school was located in Luhansk, the easternmost city in Ukraine, in the Donetsk region.
However, when I tried to find it by typing the address directly, I could not get to the page. Has the school disappeared, or did it ever exist? Further research unearthed the fact that Luhansk, according to my Bradt ( guide the best-preserved Soviet city in Ukraine, is also considered a scam capital of Ukraine.
So, as of now, the best deal on Russian lessons still seems to be the London School  in Bishkek, Kyrgystan. They offer various programs including private lessons for only $6 an hour, and cultural and horse-trekking options in summer.
I have emailed with someone who studied there and recommended the school, so I know it exists or at least did exist. Still, it is good to be cautious when dealing with longuage schools abroad, especially those in relatively remote areas. Perhaps it is best to pay more to study at a recognized place such as Moscow State University, or at least in a major city. Then, if something untoward happens, you have other options. What options would you have in a town like Luhansk?
Unfortunately, scams abound on the Internet, so why would they not also apply to language schools?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Driving in Europe

I bought my first car (yes, a Volkswagen Beetle) when I lived in Europe. I was studying in Italy, but to get the Beetle I had to go to Germany, to Mahag, a dealer in Munich. Mahag had a program designed for expats where you bought the car, drove it around for a while, then shipped it to North America.
Buying the car was easy, everything was done with German efficiency, but getting it home was a little harder. It meant driving through the Brenner Pass in April in the snow, surrounded on all sides by large trucks. Luckily my friend Eleanor, who was very brave, had come with me so I didn't have to do it alone.
At that time I wasn't sure whether I would ever be able to return to Europe, so I wanted to see as much as possible before going back to the U.S. After the term had ended I headed, with my friend Dorrie, across the St. Bernard Pass to Switzerland. I didn't see any of the famous dogs, unfortunately, and the only adventure was being able to answer correctly in German when the border guard asked whether I had bought the car in Germany. Actually, it would have been pretty hard to deny that, since I had oval-shaped Zollfrei plates and a big D for Deutshcland on the back of the car.
 We stayed near Geneva for a few days with a friend of Dorrie's who was living in a house on Lac Leman. Then Dorrie left for France, and after an abortive attempt at summer glacier skiing at Les Diablerets, I headed off alone toward the Spanish border.
I stopped for the night at a small inn and made the mistake of ordering steak tartare, which I liked at that time. There must have been something wrong with it, because the next day when I reached Carcasonne I felt very sick. I spent a day or two in my room at a motel before I was able to explore Carcasonne, the magnificent walled city reconstructed in the 19th century.
Then I made for the Spanish border, driving along mostly deserted roads through the vineyards of Languedoc-Roussilon. I was determined not to get off the road, because there were signs warning that this was a military zone for equipment testing. Since France's military equipment then and now includes nuclear weapons, I didn't want to take any chances.
I crossed the Spanish border with no problems, and marvelled at the elaborate blasck and white costumes of the handsome guards. I believe they were part of Franco's feared Guardia Civila, but they were very civil to me. The next destination was Tossa de Mar, a beach resort on the Costa Brava. That was were my trip and my life came close to ending early, but that is a story for another day.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Renault Buyback Program in Europe

Travelling around Europe by car is not the first choice of most visitors, but it does have some advantages. A car enables you to penetrate out-of-the-way corners where few other tourists venture, and to find lodging and restaurants in small towns and rural areas that can be significantly cheaper than large cities.
I have driven around much of Western Europe, but not in recent years with much greater volumes of traffic. It was an interesting experience, but fairly isolating except for the times when I travelled with friends or my parents. In general, renting a car on your own is not the cheapest way to go. For two or more people, though, it can compare favourably to travel by train or bus. And, in a pinch, you can always sleep in or beside the car.
One interesting option is the buyback program offered by the French car manufacturer Renault ( This program is available for a minimum of 21 days, and offers pickup and drop locations in several European countries other than France, as well as many in France. The trick is that non-French locations usually have an extra fee. The price includes complete insurance, roadside assistance and the help, should you need it, of 17,000 authorized service places in Europe. There are age requirements--any driver 18 or over can rent. The cars are brand new.
I checked a 21 day rental for what seemed to be the least expensive car, with manual shift, and it came to $1,030 U.S., $300 some dollars per week. This is not a huge bargain, but compares favourably to many car rentals with their added fees.
My friend Pat McDougall and his wife Marie used this program to travel around France and Switzerland a few years ago, and were mostly pleased with it. The program is available only to non-residents of Europe.
If you choose to go with Renault, it might be easier on your nerves to pick up the car in a city smaller than Paris. Facing the Peripherique of Paris with jet lag after an overnight flight is not an experience I would wish to have.
I will regale you with some of my tales of adventure and mishap while driving in Europe at a later date.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Spring Cruise Price Reductions

If you don't mind weather that may be a little chilly, consider taking a cruise in May from Montreal to Boston on Holland America's Maasdam. I've sailed the St. Lawrence several times, and it is a great cruise. In addition to wonderful scenery and interesting, historic ports you are almost certain to spot many whales around the area where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence near Tadoussac. The price for this 7 day cruise is as low as $599 if you book with
There are also deals if you prefer warm weather. For example, the same Website advertises rates starting at $1414 from Tampa to Boston for a 19 day cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dream. This is a route I have never sailed, but it sounds appealing.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Book Now to Save on Cunard TransAtlantic

From now through March 11, Cunard ( is offering special low fares on certain transAtlantic sailings of the Queen Mary 2. For an inside cabin, the cost for a 7 or 8 day crossing between New York and Southampton is as low as $999 per person.
There are also reduced fares between New York and Hamburg. The lower rates apply to certain sailings between June 2013 and January 2014. This is an excellent chance to experience the elegance of Cunard at a bargain rate.
I have yet to travel on the Queen Mary 2, but I remember two crossings on the Queen Elizabeth 2 very fondly. The last got me to New York on September 4, 2001 and I was very glad I had woken early for what was to be my last glimpse of the World Trade Center.

Escape the Middle Seat

If you hate being stuck in a middle seat on a plane, especially for a long flight, there is now a free service that will send you alerts when a better seat becomes available. Expert Flyer ( enables you to be informed when a seat of the type you want on a particular flight is open.
I personally don't mind middle seats that much on realtively short flights, perhaps because I'm fairly small. It's good that I don't, because I've noticed lately that when I book low fares via sites like Travelocity, it usually means a middle seat.
Expert Flyer also has a more extensive system of alerts for frequent flyers, but unfortunately that one is not free.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Homestay Booking Sites

One of the most interesting and least expensive lodging options is a homestay. Staying with a local person or family can give you more insight into a culture that years of staying in hotels might do. This is especially true in cultures where people tend to be very private or suspicious of strangers, such as still the case sometimes in former Communist countries.
A Website,, provides a matching service between hosts and guests in a number of countries. I wasn't able to find out too much about it without creating a profile and registering as a guest for a specific city and period of time, but they claim to have thousands of both hosts and guests in countries around the world, and the service is free. However, I did find one listing for a homestay in Minsk, Belarus for only $10 per night, an amazing price
Another site,, offers farm stays in that little-known, still Communist country at reasonable prices. Belarus is one of the most rural countries in Europe, with large swaths of primeval forest and herds of European bison as well as ancient castles and fortresses.
In Japan, gives you a selection of places to stay with the locals, often in rural areas where homes are likely to be more spacious. Prices are higher, starting at around $45 per person per night, but still quite moderate considering that Japan is a highly developed country.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Hollland Hotels on Sale

Spring is a delightful time to visit Holland, when all the tulips are in bloom. Even if you aren't a big flower person, the huge displays filled with all types and colours of tulips almost makes you understand why there was a Tulip Bubble back in the 1700s, when for a while a single tulip bulb cost more than a house in Amsterdam.
Check out Orbitz ( Faces of Holland promotion for reduced rates on many hotels in the Netherlands. Most of the ones featured in Amsterdam are still over $100 per night, but in smaller cities prices can be lower. For example, the NH Marquette Hotel in Heemskerk offers rooms from as low as $60 a night, while the Apollo Hotel Utrecht City Center has rooms starting as low as $64 a night. Some lesser-known cities have featured hotels where room rates are in the $50 range.
I stayed a couple of years ago at an NH Hotel at the Vienna Airport, and found it very nice. It offered soundproof rooms and a particularly sumptuous buffet breakfast.
In Holland, you can be assured of getting a good breakfast, usually including eggs, ahm and tasty Dutch cheeses, in most hotels. 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Serve in the U.S. or Abroad

Those concerned with issues of social justice and willing to commit for a year of service in the U.S. or some overseas countries might consider the Jesuit Volunteer Corps ( Unfortunately, you also need to be under 35 and most volunteers are very recent college graduates.
In fact, being a graduate is also a requirement. Being Catholic is not, though the great majority of volunteers are practicing Catholics and most are women.
The Corps works in 36 cities in the United States and in Nicaragua, Chile, Peru, Tanzania and Micronesia. They serve the poor in various capacities as teachers and community workers. They also commit to simple living themselves, and to community and spirituality. The program is open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and to Canadians.
It is no secret that college grads today are finding it especially difficult to integrate into the work force. For those with the right stuff, serving the poor for a year could be a good choice. The Jesuits are one of the Catholic orders especially noted for rigour, particularly intellectual rigour, so I expect the experience would not be for the faint of heart.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Choose Overland for Savings

One way to cover a lot of territory at reasonable cost is to travel with an overland expedition company. These companies organize trips to remote areas for groups, and travel is often by specially-designed truck.
For example, Odyssey Overland ( is a British company that offers expeditions spanning several months in various parts of the world, including Africa, South America and Central Asia. Travel is by truck, and some of the lodging is camping in tents provided by the company. Rates are moderate, considering that they include transportation, meals, lodging and some sightseeing.
A trip from Kathmandu, Nepal to Istanbul, Turkey traverses China, some of the stans such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and others, as well as Azerbaidjan, Armenia and Georgia, but leaves out the more dangerous stans, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The tour lasts about three months and the cost is under $6,000, though you have to budget for about another $770 to cover the cost of visas.
This itinerary sounds fascinating, but the conditions also sound pretty rugged. If you are in very good shape and are the outdoorsy type, this could be a good opportunity to visit some interesting, little known parts of the world.
I have travelled only once with a British tour operator, Swan Hellenic ( and really enjoyed that trip, an East African safari. It was supposed to be a luxury trip and mostly was, except that for one or two nights we had to double up in rooms and some people had to sleep in tents, where they became bug fodder. There was no room at the inn because of a border war that had sent a large number of tourists fleeing into Kenya from Tanzania.
There was some grumbling in our group, but in general the attitude of the Brits was very positive, and I had a good experience of their grace under pressure.