Monday, December 30, 2013

Eating with Locals

One of the joys of travel is discovering local food, and generally home-cooked food is better than you will find in even the best restaurant. Now there is a new way to connect with people who love to cook and entertain in their own homes, while travelling or possibly in your own city.

A Website called provides information on locals who will welcome you for a meal in most of the major tourist destination countries. You see a picture of the host or hostess, information about the meal and a suggested price. Prices can vary widely, but are almost sure to be less than you would pay in a restaurant for a similar meal.

In looking at current offerings, I noticed that prices tended to be higher in Germany than in Argentina, but that is probably to be expected. And just because you are eating with a local for instance in the United States, doesn't mean you will get plain old American food. Russian, Israeli, Japanese and Mexican are among the cuisines you can sample in the U.S.

Speaking of Russian, there are a number of hosts listed in St. Petersburg and Moscow. One that looked especially interesting will provide a Soviet-style meal for as little as $15. As I recall, food in Soviet times wasn't very appetizing, but it was hearty and filling.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The World's Most Dangerous Places

Amanda Lindhout ( must be an extraordinary young woman. As a cocktail waitress in Calgary, Alberta she saved her money to travel. And not just anywhere--to places like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Syria, some of the most dangerous places in the world.

With no university degree, very little journalistic experience and scant knowledge of the countries or their languages, she secured employment as a journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter was a full-time gig as a television reporter for an Iranian news service.

Then things got really interesting. Along with a male friend, she travelled to Somalia, widely known as a failed state and the haunt of pirates. At that point her luck ran out. She and her friend were kidnapped and held for ransom for more than a year.

In "A House in the Sky," she recounts their harrowing experiences. The book is written with a more experienced writer, but it is still an amazing achievement. Her experiences included numerous beatings and rapes, starvation, being kept in total darkness in rat-infested rooms, and being deliberately tortured nearly to death. Through most of her ordeal, she was able to see the beauty in her bleak surroundings, and to retain her dignity.

She and her fellow kidnap victim converted to Islam, but that did little to better their situation. Eventually they were freed when their families came up with some $600,000 to pay the kidnappers and negotiators.

Despite her sufferings, Lindhout managed to forgive her kidnappers, whom she came to see as fellow victims in a desperate corner of the world. She is back in Canada now and has started a charity to assist education in Somalia and Kenya. She has had to undergo extensive medical and psychological treatment, but has not lost her hope.

If you are looking for a page-turner that is also a true story, I can recommend this book highly. It may make you think twice about travelling to dangerous areas, however.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

More than a Room at Drury Hotels

If you are travelling in the U.S. heartland or the South, consider a stay at Drury Inns or Hotels ( These mid-priced lodgings give you a lot for your money--a free hot breakfast, hot food and cold drinks in the evening, free WiFi and up to 60 minutes of free long-distance calls all included with the room rate.

Booking their e-saver rates online, prices range from about $60 per night to about $120, per room, not per person. The evening offer of cold drinks may include alcoholic drinks, depending on local ordinance. (Yes, there are still parts of the U.S. where it is illegal to serve alcohol.)

Being able to eat free at your hotel is a significant savings, and a great convenience after a long day of driving. Most Drury Hotels are located near major highways. The chain started in Missouri and is gradually expanding across the country, but has not yet reached the Northeast or the West Coast.

Drury Hotels received a favourable mention in the latest edition of CSA News, a publication of the Canadian Snowbird Association (

Monday, December 23, 2013

Trains Get Through Ice Storm

Toronto and other parts of eastern Canada have been experiencing a devastating ice storm over the weekend. In Toronto as many as 250,000 people were without power at one time, and some may not get their lights back on until Christmas. Shelters have been opened to assist people who need to get out of the cold.

Meantime, the storm has moved on through Quebec and into the Maritime provinces, disrupting travel by road and air at one of the busiest times of eyar. However, if you are travelling by train the news is better. Via Rail ( reported that while there will probably be delays on several routes, no cancellations are expected. The affected services are between Toronto and Montreal, Toronto and New York, Halifax and Montreal, and Toronto and Ottawa.

I remember the historic ice storm that hit Montreal and surrounding areas in 1997, causing parts of the city to be dark for 10 days. My power remained on, but just listening to the reports about the damage and seeing blackness all around was scary enough.

The experience with this storm illustrates once again that in winter, rail is often the most reliable means of transportation. A huge storm can stop even trains, but generally trains are less bothered by weather than other means of transportation. So if you are travelling in the colder months, consider taking a train when possible.

To all my friends in Toronto, I hope you were not affected by the power outages, or if you were that your lights and heat come back on soon.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Budget Travel Quiz

There is a fun travel quiz in a recent Frugal Traveler column in the New York Times. The reference is

Even if you don't get many answers right, and I didn't either, you can learn a lot about current realities of budget travel. One question is about the cheapest and most expensive centrally-located hostels in the following locations: Tokyo, Cancun, New York, Oslo and Phuket. It turns out that Phuket is the least expensive, Oslo the most costly.

Another question is about the cheapest Big Mac in the world, which turns out to be in New Delhi. The author remarks that you shouldn't be eating at McDonalds abroad. but that's just his opinion. I never eat at McDonalds in North America except sometimes while travelling by car at an interstate rest stop, but I find the chain curiously comforting when I am in places like Russias and Ukraine. You can be assured at least of decent rest rooms.

A question about Asian currencies informs you that four out the five mentioned have gained value against the U.S. dollar recently, while the one that did not, Vietnamese currency, conceals a high inflation rate in that country. So virtually everywhere in Southeast Asia is more costly than it used to be for Americans.

Another topic is the entrance fees charged to Americans in some South American countries. They run as high as $160, and point up the fact that South America is a very interesting but not necessarily cheap destination. Argentina, Brazil and Chile are among the countries where costs can approximate those in North America. For real budget travel, you are better off heading to Central America.

Similarly, Scandinavia is a high cost area. Finland may be a little cheaper than the other countries, and Norway is usually the most expensive. You will get more for your money in southern Europe. And big cities such as New York, London, Paris and Tokyo tend to be much more costly than small towns in their coutries.

You will want to spend some time in places like these, but getting out into the country will make your dollars stretch a lot further. And if you enjoy meeting the locals and speaking foreign languages, it is a lot easier to do (and sometimes required) in places that are not the usual tourist haunts.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Air Canada Deals to Europe

Air Canada ( is offering reduced fares on many flights to Europe, provided you book by 11:59 p.m. on December 19.

Sample fares include Toronto to Athens from $1044, Toronto to Lisbon $876, and Toronto to Venice $1165. All are round trip, and similar reductions are being offered from Montreal. Certain restrictions apply, and you must book on the airline's Website. The prices are in Canadian dollars, which is now worth about six per cent less than a U.S. dollar.

It is a sad fact that fares northward of $1,000 are considered bargains, but that is the reality. You may be able to save a little bit by flying from the U.S. to Europe if that is cconvenient, but don't count on it. According to a blog post in CondeNast Travel ( by Wendy Perrin, air fares from the U.S. to Europe are expected to remain high in 2014, though fares for travel within the U.S. may drop.

It looks as if we all will have to dig a little deeper for that European trip, so do your planning in advance to make sure you get the most out of your travels.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Gift of Travel

If you are uncertain of what to buy this holiday season for a friend or relative, consider the gift of travel. It doesn't have to fit, can be used when the recipient desires, and can be tailored to the tastes of the recipient.

You can even be a little selfish with this gift. If you don't see enough of someone who lives at a distance, encourage them to visit by springing for a plane ticket, a train ticket or at least a bus ticket or coupons for gas. Or tell them that your gift to them will be a visit at a time convenient to them. (For this to work, you have to be sure they will welcome your visit.)

A great gift for a young person is a trip they can take by themselves, as a symbol of their adult status. I was thrilled one Christmas to receive a Caribbean cruise from my parents. Or if you want to spend more time with a child or gtrandchild, a trip you can share is often a welcome present.

A dream trip such as an African safari or ski holdiay in Europe is a gift that the receiver will remember long after he or she has forgotten all those sweaters, ties and electronic goods. A travel agent can help you with arranging a travel gift for someone of your choosing, or of ccourse you can just give money with the proviso that it be spent on travel.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Alternatives to Couchsurfing

Somewhat similarly to Friendship Force ( which I wrote about in the last post, there are several Websites which allow you to connect with people in other cities where you will be visiting, or to host visitors yourself.

The best known is, but it has been getting some bad publicity lately for being in some cases mainly a hook-up site. If this is a concern, there are two other similar sites. and Both are sites that permit you to correspond with people in other places with the aim of meeting and possibly staying with them. Hospitality Club was started by a young German man, while Be Welcome is based in France. Couchsurfing is U.S. based.

Unfortunately all these sites require you to join before you can find out very much about other members. Since I am not willling to join any of them, I can't say much about how well they work. However, the idea is certainly intriguing.

I personally prefer groups like Friendship Force because there is more structure to them, and while you stay with locals there is always someone to run interference in the unlikely event of problems..

Monday, December 09, 2013

Experience the World

Imagine arriving in a foreign city, and someone is there to greet you. They help with your luggage, then drive you to their home. You meet the rest of the family, have a meal and then either rest for a time or go out to explore your surroundings. You stay with this person or family for the rest of the week, going out on sight-seeing trips most days.

This is likely to be your experience if you travel with Friendship Force (,) a hospitality exchange organization. People you have never met before welcome you into their homes, and do their best to make you happy during your stay. Your only job is to be friendly and appreciative.

I have travelled a lot in different ways--by myself, on cruises, on tours and press trips, but never have I enjoyed a trip more than I did my Friendship Force trip to Russia in 2011. You can refer back to posts from the summer and fall of that year for more information on the trip. Meeting and getting to know locals makes all the difference, and it is great travelling with a group of people who are all dedicated to being pleasant.

If you would like to experience a Friendship Force trip this year, check out the catalog exchanges on their Website. Among them are three weeks in Australia and Tasmania, at a cost of about $2300, or two weeks in Taiwan for $1330. If you speak French, meet friends in Paris and southern France for two weeks for $1,175. Prices do not include international air fare.

It is difficult to generalize about Friendship Force tours because they are all different. Your experience will depend a lot on the host you happen to get. I had wonderful hosts in both St. Petersburg and Irkutsk, but some people on my trip said they had to share their room with animals, or that their hosts left them to their own devices too much. It's all a matter of luck.

If you are adventurous, though, it is a chance worth taking. The fact that these exchanges, which rely entirely on volunteer labour by club members, are usually quite a lot cheaper than commercial tours is just a bonus.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

January Travel

You already know that the Christmas-New Year holiday period is one of the most expensive times of year to travel. If you do need to go somewhere at that time, either book far ahead or plan to travel on the actual holiday rather than a date near the holiday.

However, January is a good month for travel savings since few people want to venture out in the middle of winter, which it is for us in the northern hemisphere. The first week of January is a prime time to score deals on resorts, whether sun or snow variety. I have referred earlier to the good prices, at least in relative terms, offered during New York City's January hotel week.

Travel to Europe or the Mediterranean is also possible in January, and tourist numbers tend to be at their lowest. The Website lists a number of escorted tours that are available at a cost of $999 or less, per person based on double occupancy, and some of them are offered in January. You can explore Prague, Vienna and Budapest for nine days in January, or spend 10 days in Morocco. These reasonably-priced tours are offered to a number of other destinations as well--Spain and Portugal, Britain, Egypt etc., but not in January.

So don't let the bad weather bother you--there are a lot of travel options after the holidays.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Ukraine's Dilemma

You have probably seen news pictures recently of big demonstrations in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, Europe's second largest country. Demonstrators want the government to pursue closer ties with
the European Union, while the government favours closer ties with Russia, its powerful ally.
Ukraine is in some ways a divided country, with its more industrialized eastern part very closely
tied to Russia for materials and markets. The western part of the country, where nationalism
flourishes, is more agricultural and favours closer connections with its neighbours to the west
such as Poland and Germany. Russia does not want Ukraine to have closer ties with the West, and because Russia is so important to Ukraine economically, generally Russia gets its way.
During my two-week visit to the country in 2010, I had the impression that Ukraine is very
much like Russia. Granted, I was in Kiev and areas to the south, and did not visit the western part of Ukraine. Certainly the history of Ukraine has been connected to that of Russia ever since the 10th century when a Viking prince named Volodmyr adopted the Orthodox religion and established
Kievan Rus, one of the earliest Russian states.
Like Russia but perhaps to an even greater extent, Ukraine now suffers from extensive corruption and a government that is in many ways a kleptocracy. From what I have read, virtually everything is for sale includeing university degrees, so this might not be the country to choose for your heart bypass.
Still, it is a welcoming, fascinating place and both cheaper and easier to visit than Russia because it does not have such harsh visa requirements. This may not be the best time to go, but I can strongly recommend it as a worthwhile destination that is a little off the beaten path. The picture above is of St. Andrew's Chruch in Kiev, designed by Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrell who also was the architect of the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg. Sorry about the weird layout on this post--I hope to fix it for future posts.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Travel for Free

The Website Budget Travel ( features an article on ways to travel the world for free. Most of them will not be new to you if you are a reader of this blog, and most of them are not totally free. Still, it is a good compendium on how to save money while seeing the world.

Probably the closest to free travel is what they call travel hacking, using airline and other points to reduce your costs. A friend of mine did this recently for a trip to the Grand Canyon from Montreal, and paid only for a rental car, food, entrances and other incidentals. The flights and hotels were on points. The Website is a good source for these sorts of deals, as is the site for airline deals. Keep in mind though, that in many cases you have to spend real dollars to accumulate points or miles.

Trading your labour for a place to stay is another popular way of saving on travel. and are Websites with information on these kinds of opportunities. For rustic adventures, check out the various sites associated with Willing Workers on Organic Farms. Housesitting is another version of this, as is home exchange.

If you are looking to relocate for nine months or longer, teaching English is a possible option, especially in expensive countries such as Japan and Saudi Arabia. The site has good listings of teaching opportunities around the world.

Perhaps the best way to actually travel for free is through work, with an airline, cruise line or as a tour guide, travel agent or travel writer. The travel writing field is extremely competitive, but there are still people who manage to make a living doing it. I wish I were one of them, but even when I was a weekly travel columnist for a major newspaper I had to supplement my earnings with a lot of financial and corporate writing.