Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pay What You Want Restaurants

One way to save money while travelling is to frequent restaurants that allow you to choose what you wish to pay for a meal. This concept seems to be spreading, and there is a list of a number of these restaurants at in a story in the San Jose Mercury News. Unfortunately the link to it does not seem to work, so you may have to search for it yourself if you are interested. You can also reach it from a link on my Facebook page, which is public.

In a story reprinted from Britain's Guardian newspaper, they discuss restaurants in Melbourne, Australia; Killarney, Ireland; Denver, Colorado; Red Bank, New Jersey; Vienna, Austria; and Amsterdam, Netherlands that follow this concept. All are in the moderate price category.

There used to be a restaurant like this in the Notre Dame de Grace area of Montreal, but it closed quite a while ago. It didn't attract tourists, being aimed at lower-income people of that generally affluent part of town.

The idea is interesting, but I wonder whether for most people it actually saves money. I have read studies that generally show that when people are allowed to choose their own price they often overpay because they don't want to look cheap. In any case, if you happen to be in or passing through any of the cities listed, it might be worth a look.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Religious Refuges

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I like noncommercial lodgings such as monasteries and retreat houses. They are usually less costly than their commercial counterparts, in my experience are always spotlessly clean, and generally ate staffed by very friendly people.

One I checked out lately when I thought poor weather might force me to stay overnight in New York City is the Leo House (,) a hotel run by Catholics that welcomes people of any or no faith. :Leo House is situated on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, which I think used to be the garment district and perhaps still is. From the Website it looked very inviting, and the prices certainly are. A single with toilet and sink but shared shower starts at $105, a double with the same facilities is $125. Rooms with full bath run a little more. For an extra $9, you can enjoy a buffet breakfast. In pricey New York it almost sounds too good to be true, and I suspect it is fully booked most of the time.

A far smaller place at the other end of the country is the Lutheran Center Hospitality House ( in Billings, Montana. This is intended for accommodation of family members of patients who are undergoing medical treatment in the area, but may accept other travellers if there is room. My cousin Pat has stayed there, I know. Rooms cost only $30 for a single, but a reference is required from a pastor or medical professional.

In this sparsely-settled area of the country, people from outlying farms and ranches may have to travel long distances for medical treatment.

Christianity is a long-established religion. If you want to experience one of the newest and fastest-growing religions, you have that opportunity at the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, Florida, which is operated by the Church or Scientology ( Unfortunately guest rooms are reserved for members of that church, but you can have a good meal at reasonable cost at the hotel's Garden Cafe. A buffet lunch costs $14, and a la carte items are also available. Alcohol is not served at this restaurant, though it is at a more expensive eating place in the hotel. Tipping is not common, and our waiter explained that if you leave a tip it goes toward buying uniforms for members of their religious order, the Sea Org.

I enjoyed the buffet lunch there recently, and found the food very tasty and the atmosphere very welcoming. Our young (and gorgeous) Italian waiter was very attentive, and we were surrounded by other people from foreign countries who are in Clearwater taking courses or otherwise furthering their spiritual lives.

After lunch we were taken on a tour of the refurbished 1920s hotel by another young Scientologist, and it was clear that a lot of money and work has gone into re-creating with modern amenities what was once one of the most elegant hotels on the West Coast of Florida. I remember having lunch there with my parents once when I was a kid.

 Tours are free for groups, but must be arranged in advance. There is also free valet parking. A meal at this hotel is a good opportunity to gain some insight into this new and somewhat secretive religion. My impression following the visit was quite positive, seeing a lot of tidy, friendly mostly young people scurrying around with focus and purpose. The picture below is of the lobby of the Fort Harrison. restored to its original glory. Thanks to David Foote for his picture.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Weekend Hotel Deals in U.S. Cities

This weekenmd or next are great times to get deals on hotels in various U.S. cities. Travelocity ( is offering some exceptional rates on lodging in some of the country's largest and most expensive cities, as well as in smaller centres.

In New York City where the average hotel room usually costs more than $250, you can stay at the Affinia 50 for as little as $129, or at the Hotel Mela for as low as $127. Both these hotels are lcoated in Midtown.

Prices are even lower at some Chicago hotels. The Holiday Inn Express Magnificent Mile has rooms starting at $69 per night, and the Tremont Hotel nearby offers rates as low as $73. The Magnificent Mile is the city's main shopping area, home to lots of designer boutiques and upscale stores as well as the John Hancock Tower with its wonderful observation area offering a panorama of the region, and the landmark Water Tower.

Similar prices on rooms are avialable in San Diego, California at the Wyndham Garden and the Days Hotel Circle. San Francisco, CA, Orlando, FL and Las Vegas, NV are among the other cities where you can find bargain prices on hotels.

The problem, if you need to fly, may be getting there. For the second time this week, airline cancellations today are running well up in the thousands becasue of severe winter weather in the eastern part of the country. This time it is the Southeast and Texas that are most affected, earlier in the week it was the Northeast.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kiev On Your Own


Protests against the government continue in Ukraine, but I would like to return you to a more peaceful time there, August of 2010, when I visited. 

If you like Orthodox churches, you’ll love Kiev. The main sights in the capital of Europe’s second largest country are all churches—St. Sophia’s, where Ukrainian kings used to be crowned; St. Volodmyr’s, with its blue onion domes sprinkled with gold stars; St. Mikhail’s, recently restored after having been destroyed in Communist times; and the most important of them all, the Pechersk Lavra., a cave monastery where monks have prayed and been buried in catacombs for close to 1,000 years. There you descend carrying a candle through narrow passageways, and if you lean against anything it is likely to be the glass-enclosed remains of a saint.

There are other sights—the tree-lined shopping street Khrashatyk, the Maidan with its fountains and government buildings; and on the outskirts, Babi Yar, a memorial to the Jews and others who were massacred there during World War II.  Andrei’s Descent is a steep cobblestoned artistic and shopping street crowned by St. Andrei’s church, a turquoise and white edifice that bears a striking resemblance to the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, probably because it was designed by the same architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

Kiev was one of the earliest Russian settlements, built by the Vikings in the 10th century. In 995 the rulers and their followers adopted Orthodox Christianty, and despite 70 years of Communism the religion seems to be flourishing again. I was in Kiev to catch a slow boat to the Black Sea, A river cruise on the Mikhail Lomonosov. Whenever I take a cruise, I like to add on a few days to explore on my own, to get a better feel for what it might be like to actually live in a particular place, and I like to do it without spending much money.

I stayed at the Roosiya Hotel, an air-conditioned Soviet-era behemoth  located near downtown. It proved to be very comfortable and to provide a lavish and tasty breakfast buffet as well as a mini-bar in the room.. The nightly rate was just $70, a big bargain compared to Moscow.  The dining room was very large, as were the tables. The hotel had clearly been designed for the group tours that flourished in Soviet times, but it had adapted to capitalist reality, with English-speaking front desk staff and waiters.

 I decided to visit St. Volodmyr’s Cathedral first, since it was clearly within walking distance. It was a beautiful place with its star-studded domes and yellow brick, and also quite active. It is the headquarters of the Kiev-centred Orthodox Church. Inside a ceremony was going on with singing by young people and blessings from priests in gold-embroidered vestments.

It was August and very hot, so I tried to time my sightseeing for cooler parts of the day. The next day I headed downtown, through a long perekhod and beside the Bessarabia market, crammed with all the produce for which this region, which used to be called the breadbasket of the world, is famous. Now much of the produce is imported.. I had to ask directions to Kreshatyk, the main street of Kiev which is lined with greenery and strolling shoppers. The buildings along Kreshatyk are mainly Stalinist-ere. solid and spacious, often with Art Deco flourishes. I stopped beside a fountain where a fuzzy dog was cavorting, watched over by a doting middle-aged woman. I asked whether it was her dog, and she seemed pleased that I wanted to photograph the animal.  I also bought an ice cream cone to fuel my sight-seeing.

Soon I arrived at the large open square called the Maidan, where in 2004 enormous crowds carrying Orange banner. had succeeded in overturning election results. There were lots of water sprinklers with people running through them to cool off. I headed for McDonalds nearby for lunch.   In former Communist lands I find its familiar food and clean restrooms are a boon. From there I climbed a steep hill to St. Sophia’s, a green and white religious complex that is now a museum. Admission fees are low, just a few dollars, and the wide green lawns offer a respite from traffic chaos. I saw the graves of some of Kiev’s earliest rulers, and for once did not have to wear a head scarf. Leaving St. Sophia’s I spied St. Mikhail’s church across a large square, but contented myself with taking pictures from afar. Then it was time to head back to the hotel, stopping along the way  to pick up bread, cheese and beer for dinner.

Another day I took a taxi to Andrei’s descent and wandered down its uneven paving stones, very glad I had worn tennis shoes instead of sandals. It was too early for many shops to be open, but one man was taking luxurious-looking sheepskin jackets and rugs out of his old Lada. Unfortunately it was too hot to even contemplate buying sheepskins. At the bottom of the hill I wandered past a small park with a statue of one of the Cossack hetmen who had ruled over this region in the 16th century, then got lost.  A young man who, to my surprise. spoke English directed me to the Metro. I took it back to the Maidan. On the way to the hotel I went in search of a building called the House of Chimeras, a concrete home covered with strange gargoyles, built around 1900 when Kiev was enjoying prosperity.

Once I joined my cruise, we took a tour of the Pechersk Monastery. The street outside was decked with flags and we were hurried along, because it was the day of a visit by the Moscow patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Chruch. Religion in this part of the world is complicated. The lavra is enormous, with many different buildings. The most interesting are the catacombs. This trip is not for the claustrophobic, but it is a fascinating testament to the faith of the early monks in this them remote part of the world. And the service I attended on Sunday at a small but beautiful church near my hotel showed that the faith is still strong. The church was filled with worshippers, and nuns outside were soliciting funds for the Holy Land.
For more about the 2010 trip, please refer back to posts for the fall of that year. The image above is of a small chapel connected to one of Kiev's many churches.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Women's Travel Blogs

There are some wonderful travel blogs out there written by men, such as and the frugal traveller blog of the New York Times written by Seth Kugel, but I especially enjoy travel blogs written by women.

Recently I came across another very good one,, written by a young woman who is multilingual and enjoys travelling and often hitchhiking in remote parts of the Muslim world. That strikes me as a pretty dangerous way to go, but she writes about it in a most interesting way. Actually, when I was in Jordan about a decade ago I met a middle-aged woman from Ekaterineburg, Russia who was also hitching through the Middle East, and seemed to really be enjoying it.

I learned about this blogger because she was hitching for a while with another blogger I like, the British author of This latter traveller and blogger has recently spent four months in Yerevan, Armenia and has also voyaged extensively in Turkey, Iran and Central Asia. Her blog includes a lot of great pictures, while that of her friend is more text-heavy. Both make great reading for the armchair traveller.

I have never hitchhiked myself, though I did once accept a ride on a country road in County Donegal, Ireland when a young couple offered me help in a the kind of downpour the Irish call "mist,"  I have also used the gypsy cab system in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Another blog I like to read occasionally is not strictly a travel blog, but is a very insightful account of the joys and travails of living in St. Petersburg. It is, written by a young American woman who moved there several years ago. She is a committed Christian who has taught English and worked in orphanages, and has become a wife and mother. She married a Russian man she met through her church, and now has a very young son. She recounts the difficulties of raising a child in a small Russian apartment and dealing with local bureaucracy,as well as the fun of life with her new family and friends in one of the world's most beautiful cities.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jet Blue Travel Deals

Jet Blue ( is offering some unusually low fares on many of its routes this winter, provided you book by the end of tomorrow, January 17.

There are quite a few restrictions with these fares, such as seven-day advance booking, and travel is confined to the period of Jan. 23 to April 2. In addition, flights must be on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, and some routes may have further requirements.

Sample fares from New York include $99 to Tampa FL for sun seekers, or the same price to Denver CO for skiers. From Boston, you can fly to Washington DC for just $54, to Charlotte NC for $59, or to the Turks and Caicos Islands for $219.

I have yet to fly Jet Blue, but I did notice that during the very bad holiday weather in the northeastern United States this year they shut down operations for some time, leaving many passengers stranded in airports. Other airlines also cancelled many flights, but they were the only one to completely cease operating for a number of hours in their core market.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

All Hands Volunteers

If you enjoy hard physical work on behalf of people affected by natural disasters, you may be interested in using your next vacation to serve with All Hands Volunteers ( in the United States or abroad. Unlike most groups that offer volunteer opportunities overseas, they do not charge a fee to participate.

At present there are openings to work cleaning up the damage from Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern United States, or on a multi-disaster relief program in the Phillipines. In the past All Hands has worked in Haiti, Japan and the U.S. Gulf Coast, among other areas.

These projects look as if they are geared to the very strong and fit, with sic days a week of physical work on location. Perhaps there are other more sedentary jobs available, but if so they are not mentioned on the Website.

I like to learn about volunteer opportunities that do not seem to be a rip-off. I am appalled by some of the volunteer groups that advertise widely and charge high rates to people who are willing to work without pay. That said, even All Hands says it costs about $15 per day for the housing and feeding of volunteers, and that they woiuld appreciate donations from those volunteers who can afford it. And naturally transportation to the work area is at the expense of the volunteer.

Just a note for those who like numbers--on checking my blog stats, I noted that today I have reached an all time page view total of 77,777. Since 7 is considered a highly spiritual number, this must mean something, though I'm not sure what. Anyway, thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

No Single Day for Best Air Fares

If like most people you book airline tickets online, you may wonder which is the best day of the week to find good deals. Some people say it is Tuesday, when a lot of airlines announce sales, or Webnesday, or Saturday, or very early in the morning.

According to, there is no best day of the week to get good deals, nor any best time of day.  Big price reductions can pop up at any time, and unless you want to spend a lot of time online checking various airline Websites, it may be better to let someone else do the legwork. On Airfare Watchdog, you can input the cities to which you want to travel and asked to be notified when unusually good deals pop up.

I also find that Twitter ( is a good source of information on flash sales and other reduced prices for travel. By following your favourite airlines and hotel chains, you can be among the first to know when rates are reduced. Twitter is also useful if you are travelling during inclement weather and want to find out when airlines waive change fees, something that has been happening quite a lot lately here in North America where the winter has been unusually harsh.

If you are a fairly infrequent traveller or just don't want to be bothered with the mental clutter created by trying to get absolutely the best fare, you always have the option of booking six months ahead or more. That will ensure that at least you aren't paying extra for last minute bookings, and your fare is likely to be among the best available.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Retirement in Uruguay

I follow the blog posts of Linda Brown at with interest, and was surprised to read when I checked recently that she is in the process of becoming an expatriate from the U.S. and moving to Uruguay.

Brown, who is in her 70s, has been travelling extensively and writing about it for many years, but always returning to her home in Clearwater, Florida where I heard her speak some years ago. She ranges widely--Eastern Europe, India, the South Pacific, South Africa and various other places, often staying in hostels. She finances her travels mainly with her income from Social Security, and encourages other retirees to do the same.

Her recent blog posts tell of her enchantment with Uruguay, a quiet country that is sometimes called the Switzerland of South America. It is not particularly inexpensive, but has an equable climate, friendly people, and a foreign lifestyle. I have visited Uruguay myself and while I wasn't particularly impressed, I know a lot of expats love it. I was there briefly at a time of severe economic crisis in 2001.

Brown explains the complexities involved in becoming a legal resident of Uruguay, which are considerable. She recommends highly a publication of on retiring in uruguay. As a resident, one is able to access the government-financed healthcare system and to travel freely.

I am noticing a trend--a lot of people I know seem to be considering leaving North America for sunnier or cheaper climes. One friend will soon be scouting out expat possibilities in northern Thailand, another is spending a lot of time in Guatemala. I'm not at the expat stage myself yet, but I wouldn't mind taking a year or two in Russia or Ukraine, destinations that attract few of the traditional sun-seeking retirees, probably because they aren't very sunny.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Cruise the Lena or the Volga

One of the problems with tours and cruises in Russia is that most of them tend to concentrate on the two main cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. They are both great places, but there is also a lot more to explore in this vast country.

For example, you can cruise on the Lena River in Siberia. This is the river from which V.I. Ulyanov acquired his work name of Lenin, because he was exiled near the river. The cruise is not cheap, but it will show you some very remote parts of the country. A 15 day cruise including air fare from London starts at about $3600.

Or for something a little warmer, consider the southern Volga cruise between Moscow and Astrakhan. This takes 14 days, again with flight from London, and rates start at about $2500. Ports include Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, Samara, Volgagrad where the decisive battle of World War II was fought (the city was called Stalingrad then,) and Nizhny Novgorod, among others.

These cruises and a number of other tours by land and river are offered by, the successor to the former British branch of Intourist, the state travel agency in Soviet times.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Fare Sale to Australia

Australia's national carrier Qantas ( has a fare sale in progress fro travellers from Los Angeles. Roung trip economy fare is as low as $1328 to Melbourne, just a little higher to Sydney or Brisbane.

Your trip must start between February 10 and March 31, or between July 24 and September 17. There is a catch, though--you must book no later than tomorrow, January 6, and tickets are non refundable.

Australia is one of the many places I have not visited, but at these prices it is tempting. The fares aren't much higher than many fares to Europe.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Journeys in Albania

That is the subtitle of a fascinating book called "The Accursed Mountains" by British journalist Robert Carver. It tells the story of his travels through this little-known country in 1996. shortly after the end of Communism.

Even in Communist times Albania was an outlier--isolated by high mountains, ruled by a dictator named Enver Hoxha, and allied with China rather than Russia. According to Carver, things did not improve with the arrival of democracy.

He tells some harrowing tales of the people he met and places he visited in a country where robbery, rape and murder were common, and where the major ambition of most people was to emigrate, preferably ot the U.S. In general, his experiences get more difficult as he moves through the country from south to north.

The north is the less developed part of Albania, a land where wolves roam freely and the main occupation in the mountains is sheepherding. Still, he encountered many smiling, hospitable people who went out of their way to help him. Albania has a strict and ancient code of hospitality that imposes great burdens on anyone who takes a guest into his home.

 Only being accompanied by an Al;banian makes a foreigner relatively safe in certain parts of the country, because if one Albanian kills another Albanian, a blood feud between the families is likely to result. Lone foreigners may be fair game.

Carver's book is beautifully written, but it did not make me anxious to visit Albania. Shortly after Carver left, in the spring of 1997, the country descended into absolute chaos.

I know someone who served with the Peace Corps in northern Albania fairly recently, and wonder what her view would be of this book. I checked for information on the safety of travel to Albania now, and found very different opinions. One post, written by an Albanian, said it is still very unsafe, but many people disagreed.

Even if you have no interest in visiting Albania, though, this is certainly a book that makes for good armchair travel.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Learn to Teach English Abroad

Language Corps ( is a U.S. based organization that provides training for English teachers in a number of locations abroad. The choices are wide and the fees are reasonable.

You can take a four-week TESOL certificate in Europe, Asia, or Latin America, and in either Turkey or Morocco. The choices in Europe are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Italy, Russia or Spain. In Russia, the courses take palce in beautiful St. Petersburg. The only similar program I know of in Russia is given in Moscow.

For the Russian training, the course fee is $1695 and accommodation for four weeks is a mere $550 for a single room. Assistance in finding a job is also available, and according to the Website most of the people who obtain their certificate are offered jobs almost immediately.

. The English-teaching field is complex, with several different certificate programs on offer. Probably the most widely recognized one is the CELTA, but many jobs overseas require just any four-week certificate  plus a university degree.

If you are lucky, you may be able to obtain work on the spot with little or no training. However, teaching is not easy work, and knowing something about how to do it well will always give you an advantage.

 Because of the difficulty now of making money as a writer, several writers I know have trained in teaching English, and I am considering doing so myself. An English teaching certificate is a good credential to have.