Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Eurolines Pass Offers Value

If like me you long for the days of easy, unlimited travel with a Eurail pass on European railways, you may want to look into the travel passes offered by Eurolines (www.eurolines.com.)

While bus travel isn't as glamourous or as comfortable as rail travel, it can be a lot cheaper with a Eurolines Pass. The minimum cost for 15 days of unlimited travel on their network is 215 euros for an adult in low season, which is basically winter. Best of all, you can plan your trip as you go.

The routes accesible with this pass stretch from Alicante, Spain in the south to Stockholm, Sweden in the north, and from Dublin in the west to Vilnius and Bucharest in the east. In other words, you can cover most of western and eastern Europe.

My experience with bus travel in Europe has been limited to tour buses, but the reasonable cost of these passes means that I will definitely explore it in future. The flexibility of this type of pass, compared with the need for advance booking with most types of Eurail passes, is enough to make it attractive. The significantly lower cost is an added bonus.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Savings on Viking Cruises

Viking River Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises.com) is offering 2 for 1 pricing on many of its remaining cruises for 2013. For example, on a Danube cruise between Budapest, Hungary and Bucharest, Romania the price has been cut by half, to $3,156 per person. The cruise lasts eight days, and the price also includes three nights (total) in luxury hotels in Budapest and Bucharest, a number of sightseeing tours, all meals, and entertainment aboard.

While the price is still substantial, it does offer an easy way to see the countries of Hungary, Romania and a bit of Bulgaria, places that can be difficult to visit on one's own. Viking is also cutting prices on some air fares to connect with these cruises. If you wait until November, air fare for the above cruise from Toronto falls to $797.

The catch is that to secure these deals on Viking cruises, you have to book by the end of July.

If you are among the people who don't need a visa to visit Russia, there are also some good prices on Moscow hotels at the end of August. Hotels.com quotes an average price of $137 per room at the Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya, one of the Stalinist Gothic buildings that ring the city. This is a very good price for a centrally located luxury hotel, and one with unusually interesting architecture.

The church below is St. Andrew's in Kiev, Ukraine, one of the stops on Viking's cruises on the Dnieper River. The architect of this church, Bartolemeo Rastrelli, also designed the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

West Jet Reduces Fares from British Columbia

West Jet (www.westjet.com) Airlines is offering reduced fares on flights to and from Prince George, B.C. and other destinations in that province to destinations in Canada and the United States.

The promotion, in honour of the royal baby named George, starts today and flights must be booked by July 28. Prince George is a city in northern British Columbia.

West Jet is Canada's second airline, not as well known as Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) and lacking as extensive a network of destinations. However, it does offer rooomier and more comfortable seats and pleasant service, and sometimes lower fares.

If you have always wanted to explore the beauties of British Columbia, this  could be a good opportunity.

I am not sure the above sale is still on, but I did find another sale today from several Canadian destinations to sun spots--for instance, Toronto to Tampa for as low as $180 one way if you travel in August. You must book by 6 p.m today mountain time, 8 p.m. EDT.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cheap Travel in Russia

The Website www.hofa.ru offers some remarkable deals on lodging and meals in Russia. Whether you want to stay with a family and eat all your meals out, eat breakfast or breakfast and dinner and be escorted on walking tours by your host, or just take care of yourself in a self-catering apartment, the price is right.

 Hofa, based in St. Petersburg, also can issue the all-important invitation most visitors need in order to secure a visa. I inquired about lodging in Moscow, and was surprised to find that an apartment starts at 49 euros, not much more than half the lowest rates charged by other sites I have examined. Even cheaper is a room with a host outside the city center, which starts at 29 euros single, 44 euros double, breakfast not included.

If your Russian is rusty or non-existent, they can provide hosts who speak English, at a slight extra charge. They also can provide accommodation in most of Russia's large cities.

My only complaint with this Website is that they do not publish prices, you have to inquire about an actual itinerary in order to discover your options.

For more information on saving money in Russia, please order my electronic book, "Budget Travel Tips for Russia."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Best Places to Teach English

English tesaching is probably the most popular job among those who want to live abroad or finance long term travel, and while it is often possible to find teaching work of some kind in virtually any non-English speaking country, rates of pay and conditions can vary enormously.

There is an interesting post on the blog of Nomadic Matt (http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/great-places-to-teach-english/) giving his opinion on some of the most rewarding places to pursue this type of work. He himself has taught English abroad, and rates South Korea and Japan as the top two destinations in terms of pay and standard of living. The Middle East comes in third--I presume he means mainly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, not poorer countries like Egypt and Jordan. He also favours Mexico for the friendly people and pleasant lifestyle, Central Asia for its remoteness, and Argentina mainly for its way of life. His only choices in Europe are Prague and Ukraine. Most English teaching positions in the states of the European Union are closed to those without European nationality.

I have not visited all of the countries he mentions, so cannot comment on them. However, from what I have read the Middle Eastern oil states are very difficult places to live, especially for women. The pay may be good, but you earn it in terms of putting up with a lot of boredom. I agree that Mexico and Argentina seem generally to be pleasant places to live, as do Prague and Ukraine.

Matt's comments are addressed mainly to younger readers, not to middle-aged and older people who choose English teaching as a second career. The latter will find some destinations, such as Saudi Arabia, off limits because of their age.

Matt does not mention Russia as a good place to teach English, but it certainly seems to offer a lot of jobs of this type. For those willing to work as private tutors living with a family, pay can be very good--shades of Czarist times, when Russian nobles employed tutors from Western Europe for their children. A good source of information on teaching jobs in Russia is the Website www.expat.ru.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Air Canada Sale

Living in Canada means paying a lot for air fare, so whenever I see a worthwhile sale from a Canadian airline I feel obliged to let people know about it.

Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) has a sale on most of its destinations that expires on Monday, July 22 at 11:59 EDT. Some of the reductions are considerable, but naturally there are restrictions. I checked into some fares from Montreal to several European destinations and found Brussels for $893, and Paris for $900 round trip including taxes. You must travel on certain days of the week and leave no sooner than Sept. 11, and there are other requirements as well. There are also what seem to be good deals to South America, such as Bogota for $829 round trip.

In addition, destinations in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean are included in this sale. So if you haven't decided on a trip yet for this year, check them out.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Share a Room to Save

Further to the question of how to save money on lodging while travelling, there is a new Website, www.easynest.com, that offers to find you a roommate to share a hotel room in certain cities.

It didn't seem to be possible to find out mcuh about the site without signing up, which you can do easily through Facebook (www.facebook.com.) Like many people, I suspect, I am reluctant to sign up with still another Website that may bombard me with unwanted email.

However, I was able to determine that there is a hotel in New York, the Mildord Plaza, participating in the program. A shared room there will cost $100 per person. At the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel in Hong Kong, you can get a shared room for $130 per night. These are both very expensive cities, so the savings is well worth the trouble.

This is a new site, but one that shows promise. As always, of course, exercise caution in terms of your roommate selection if you decide to give it a try.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Informal Lodgings

A friend just sent me a story from CNN.com about hotel prices and how to get the best ones. It is no secret if you have travelled at all recently that hotel prices everywhere are rising. Even simple chain motels in small cities in the U.S. Northeast are charging $100 or more for rooms, not including tax.

There is a way to beat the high cost of hotels, though, if you are intrepid. You can tap the informal
lodging market, the one that is composed of private individuals who rent out rooms in their homes or apartments. Yes, you can use sites such as www.airbnb.com, but there is another way that may work even if you don't use the Internet.

My cousin Pat sometimes finds private rooms on his travels through the Upper Midwest by inquiring at the local hospital or Catholic Church. People who have a family member in hospital may need inexpensive places to stay if the patient is there for a long course of treatment. At the pastor at a Catholic or other church may know about people, often widows, who rent out rooms to make ends meet.

One of my favourite writers, Natalie Goldberg, says in one of her books that if she needs to find a good restaurant or a cheap place to stay in a new town, she often asks at the local bookstore. Of course, with the demise of bookstores everywhere, this may not be so easy to do now.

I myself found a room this way a long time ago in Bressanone/Brixen, Italy. I asked a young boy if he knew of any rooms for rent, and he led me on a long trek up the mountain to his own home, where I rented a room from his parents for a couple of weeks.

Informal lodging probably works best in small towns and rural areas--don't count on it in big cities. And be sure to use your common sense. If you think that your host might be a modern version of the owner of the Bates Motel in Psycho, keep moving.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Moscow Then and Now Continued

 The last 40 years or so have been a period of rapid change, and nowhere more than in Moscow.
In 1970 when I first visited the Russian capital, there were huge lines of people waiting to enter Lenin's Tomb to catch a glimpse of the preserved leader. As foreigners, we were ushered to the head of the line. Today there is a very short line, if any, to view the body of the brilliant Bolshevik comrade.

In 1970 I attended a New Year's Eve party at the Russia Hotel, an enormous monolith facing Red Square. At one time it was the largest hotel in the world. At our party, we started toasting at, if I remember right, 4.p.m. Moscow time when it was midnight in the Soviet Far East. In 2007 the site of the hotel was invisible behind boards that hid a monstrous hole where the hotel had been. I'm not sure whether the site has been filled in by now.

In 1970 GUM, the beautiful arcaded shopping centre on Red Square, had little worth buying. In 2007, there was a lot to buy but little I could afford. I settled for a fast food lunch that provided me a view of the shops below, and being serenaded by a visiting pipe band that played "Scotland the Brave," a tune that would not have been heard in the Communist period.

Another huge change has occurred on the south bank of the Moscow River, where a rather gaudy white and gold cathedral, Christ the Saviour, now stands. In 1970 there was a year-round outdoor swimming pool here, and Muscovites were braving the cold and snow to enjoy a heated swim. The original Christ the Saviour had been torn down on the order of Stalin, who hoped to build a large Palace of Soviets on the site. However, when the soil proved to be inadequate for this project, the swimming pool was put in its place.

The bodies of Soviet leaders which used to be buried in the Kremlin Wall have, for the most part, been re-interred on the grounds of Novodevichy Convent. One wonders how leaders like Khruschev and Molotov would have liked the religious surroundings.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the triumph of capitalism over Communism better than the House on the Embankment. This upscale apartment building used to house Stalin's top henchmen, at least until they were hauled off to trial or the gulag. Today it is still a highly desirable address, and is surmounted by an enormous silver-coloured Mercedes-Benz symbol.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Many Uses of Craigslist

Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) is an indispensable resource for travellers or those who want to travel. It is a good source of short-term rooms and apartments when you travel, since there are Craigslists in virtually every major city in the world.

Just looking at what is offered in Moscow today, I found a room in a shared flat for only about $665 for the rest of the summer, or a very nice apartment in central Moscow for about $65 a night, with the price negotiable for longer stays. There were many similar places to stay--check under vacation rentals or sublets.

Craigslist is also useful in finding tutors, tennis partners or other friends in a city where you don't have many contacts. I have used it to find tennis players in Florida, and right now am studying Russian with a young woman who advertised on Craigslist here in Montreal. She is not a trained teacher, but she arrived from Moscow recently so she is up to date with current language usage, which is not always the case with expats who left many years ago. In addition, I can study what I want, and the cost is very reasonable.

If getting the money together to travel is an issue (and when is it not?,) you can check Craigslist for jobs or roommates, or use it to sell some of your stuff before you leave.

Of course, it can be dangerous to book an apartment or room overseas sight unseen, or to send money to unknown persons.

Still, if you exercise caution, Craigslist is one of the best free resources on the Web.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Flash Deals on Hotels

If you haven't decided where to go on holiday yet, you can get some great savings on hotels in Dallas, Sherman Oaks CA, the Washington DC area, even in Montego Bay, Jamaica and London with Orbitz (www.orbitz.com.)

The trick is you have to book them by noon on Friday. July 12, but the deals seem pretty good. Near Washington, an expensive town, a room at the Colony South Hotel in Clinton MD goes for as little as $50, while in Dallas a room at the La Quinta Dallas Park starts at only $32. In pricey London, a flat at the Think Apartments in centrally-located Earl's Court can be booked for $116, cheap by local standards.

And for another splurge, the Round Hill Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica, a five star resort, will put you up for a rate of $131.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Fall Savings to Asia

The Website www.airfarewatchdog.com is a useful way to find out about often unadverttised deals on air fares. At the moment there are some good fares from Montreal to various destinations in Asia--for example, Montreal to Seoul for $1117 on Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) which requires you to travel by Oct. 31. Book directly on Air Canada's Website for this fare.

Flying with United (www.united.com) or Delta (www.delta.com,) you can reach Beijing for as little as $965 return by booking with Hotwire (www.hotwire.com,) or travel from Montreal to Shanghai and back for $1066, also on United or Delta, with booking on Hotwire.

Airfare Watchdog has a feature where you can ask to be alerted when fares are reduced to particular destinations from your originating airport. In these days of escalating travel costs, it could provide savings.

If you are flying, be sure to register for the Twitter feed (www.twitter.com) of the airline you are using. With weather problems seeming to be increaisng in many parts of the world, this will alert you if your airline is waiving change fees because of adverse weather.  Air Canada did this today for flights to and from Toronto, which was hit by serious flooding last night that is causing delays and cancellations at Pearson Airport.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Moscow Then and Now

It;s a lazy, smoggy Sunday here in Montreal. Enjoyed a lovely weekend visit from my friend and fellow writer Linda Cahill, a former Montrealer who now lives in Toronto. She wanted to revisit old haunts to establish settings for the crime novel she has almost finished. We saw part of the German Grand Prix before she left, and now I'm following the Wimbeldon Men's Final on TV.

Came across a piece I started writing several years ago, and thought you might find it of interest, contrasting two visits, widely spaced in time, to Moscow.

Returning to any city after 37 years, you can expect to see a lot of changes. When that city is Moscow, the differences are astonishing. I first visited Moscow for New Year of 1970, on a Swiss student tour. In the fall of 2007 I returned alone--that in itself was a big change, since it was very difficult for individauls to travel in Russia during the Soviet period. Almost all travel then was with a group, and at the untender mercies of Intourist, the state tourist agency. You were encouraged to stay with your group, not to venture out alone.

In 1970 foreigners were segregated at special Intourist hotels, counselled to shop in Beriozka shops that were closed to locals, and generally kept under control as much as possible. If you did go out by yourself it was easy to get lost, since there were no accurate maps published for Soviet cities. Outdoor advertising was nonexistent then, the only posters visible usually contained pcitures of Lenin or Marx and admonitions to work harder or celebrate the Soviet Motherland.

The lobbies of Intourist hotels contained paperback copies in several major languages of the classics of Communism, and you could take with you as many as you could carry. I used to have quite a few, including Lenin's "Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism." Unfortunately, I found most of them very hard going.

Today foreigners are not segregated in Moscow, except, as is common everywhere, by wealth. In 1970 I was in a hotel within walking distance of Red Square. In 2007 all those hotels cost more than $300 a night, so I opted for a new hotel in the suburbs. The ruble, which had been worth more than $2 at the official rate in 1970, was around 30 to the dollar in 2007. But as a dollar holder, I was still considerably poorer in Russian terms--how did that happen?

The Beriozka shops are gone, but have been replaced by Chanel, Fendi and other upscale retailers frequented by New Russians and rich foreigners. The wide streets that were mostly empty in 1970 now endure traffic gridlock much of the time. Then, the city was very dimly lit at night, but now lights and colour are everywhere in central Moscow after dark.

Because I stayed in the suburbs in 2007, I had to learn to use the Metro. Clinging to my Metro map for dear life, I ventured toward the cashier and asked in fractured Russian supplemented by fingers for a 10 ride ticket. After I received an electronic ticket from the broad-faced woman behind bars, I stepped over a sleeping stray dog and onto the long, long steep escalator to the train. (to be continued)

Friday, July 05, 2013

Moscow Airport Hotels


As a result of reading about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, I learned of the existence of a capsule hotel right inside Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, the Capsule Hotel Air Express-SVO. This is not a Japanese capsule hotel, with coffin-like rooms, but a place with regular rooms and private baths (although some rooms lack windows.)

I could not find a date in the near future with availability, but according to trip advisor (www.tripadvisor.com,) a 10 hour stay cost about $150. The minimum stay is four hours, which sounds a lot like the hot sheet motels found in various cities.  However, this capsule hotel is not the least expensive place near the airport.

The Hotel Midland Sheremetyevo, which is also connected directly to the airport, has rooms for as little as $43, while the Sky Point Hotel can put you up for rates starting at $66. Both these are considerably less than you would pay in central Moscow, so if you are willing to brave the Metro and bus connections to downtown, they could be a good choice for a visit.

There is no need to feel sorry for Mr. Snowden, having to spend days in the Moscow airport. I haven’t spent much time in the international terminal at Sheremetyevo lately, but if it is anything like the domestic terminal at that airport it is modern and clean, superior to many airports in North America.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Tips for Travelling Women

If you are female and worried about travelling, the Website and newsletter Journeywoman (www.Journeywoman.com) has some useful information.

It is no secret that women can have more problems travelling than men do, especially in parts of the world where equal rights for women are not accepted, or where there are restrictions on local women in terms of getting around and dress. In watching news from Pakistan, for example, I am often struck by the fact that there seem to be few if any women out in public.

In addition, some women feel anxious travelling alone or without their partners. If this is you, Journeywoman could be an inspiration. Toronto-based Evelyn Hannon has been travelling for many years, and is keen to encourage other women to get out there too.

Some of the sections of the site that are especially useful are those about how to dress in various foreign cultures, and about hotels and guesthouses that particularly cater to women travellers.

Monday, July 01, 2013

EU Welcomes Croatia

Today Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union (http://ec.europa.eu,) and the first country to join since the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.

The other countries of the former Yugoslavia which are not members (all except Slovenia, which is already a member) are in the process of applying for membership, as are Iceland and Turkey.

We've all read the stories about severe economic problems in parts of the EU. However, the fact that so many countries still want to join certainly speaks to a considerable amount of success for the union, as does the fact that the euro is still trading well above the U.S. dollar.

Croatia is a small country which includes some of the most beautiful sights in Eastern Europe--the Austro-Hungarian influenced capital of Zagreb, the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, and many picturesque islands in the Adriatic. Like many other parts of the former Yugoslavia it suffered greatly during the recent Balkan wars.

Not everyone in Europe or abroad supports the EU, but I believe it has been a remarkable story of achievement. It grew out of the European Coal and Steel Commission, set up after World War II to try to ensure that "never again" would a war of that scope occur in Europe. So far, fighting among European countries in the postwar world has been confined to those outside the EU.

For travellers, not much will change in Croatia right away, since the country is still using its own currency, the kuna, worth about 17 and a half cents U.S.

Happy Canada Day, and congratulations to Croatia.