Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Adventures in Chechnya

Did you know it is possible now to visit Chechnya without a special visa? No, I didn't either until I read a blog called Kate is a young American woman who has been travelling and researching in the Caucuses region, including Chechnya.

Apparently it is as safe now as anywhere else, and there are regular flights from Moscow (you will probably need a Russian visa.) It sounds very exotic, more Islamic than I realised. Kate is especially interested in the position of women in the country, and by Western standards it isn't very good. Women are valued mainly as wives and mothers, and cleaning skills are especially prized. Women do not stroll the towns casually, they always have a destination and usually wear long skirts. Headscarves are optional.

It is good to know that the region has made a recovery from two devastating wars. It certainly sounds as if it is not a destination that attracts many tourists yet. Kate even has a section of her site for those who want to learn the Chechen language, or discover Chechen food, and a blog post on the advantages of long skirts over jeans.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Turn Over a New Leaf for Savings

Canada is known for having some of the highest domestic air fares in the world. There are only two major airlines, Air Canada and Westjet that try to serve the whole very large country, and limited competition is seldom good for low prices.

Now, though, a startup low-cost airline called New Leaf is offering competition in some markets across the country. Based in Winnipeg, it has flights mainly to smaller airports in the West, with very limited service in Ontario and New Brunswick and none in Quebec.

While the fares are low, most flights operate only two days a week. And by the time you add on fees for extras, savings may be minimal. They even charge for printing your boarding pass at the airport and for carry-on bags. Seat selection costs $10 to $25, carry-on bags cost $30 to $80, and checked bags cost $25 to $125. You do get one personal item like a purse or computer bag free, so long as it fits under your seat.

One option I would definitely take advantage of is a $20 Flex fee that allows you to change or postpone your flight once. I wish the major airlines offered this choice.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Inexpensive Russian Summer School

I am indebted to the blogger behind 8 months in Ukraine for the following information, and you should consult her blog for details. I searched long and hard for ways to study Russian cheaply, preferably in Russia, and she has unearthed some possibilities.

The key is to depart from the usual tourist trail of Moscow-Petersburg-Sochi. Three different state universities in the boonies and a Siberian Summer School in Yakutsk, really in the boonies, offer bargain programs. At Kalmyk State University in Elista, a two-week program offering 60 hours of Russian language lessons, accommodations, meals and some excursions, costs just $501 U.S.

The Udmurti State University in a Finno-Ugric region has a program that lasts three weeks with 109 class hours, excursions, lodging and food for just $440. Omsk State University in western Siberia offers a three-week program for $469, with 72 hours of instruction, accommodation and transfers.
In Yakutsk in far northern Siberia, the Summer School lasts three weeks and costs $1012, with meals, a place to stay and Siberian-themed lessons.

The fact that these places are all far off the beaten path just adds to their attraction, at least in my book. Unfortunately it is probably too late to apply for this year, but there is always next year. At these prices, you can hardly afford to stay home.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Eastern Europe Cheaper than South America?

Because of the reversal of seasons, I was thinking this might be a good time to visit the southern part of South America in terms of prices and fewer tourists. However, an unscientific survey of the same dates in early July on Trip Advisor showed that there is more choice of inexpensive hotels in places like Moscow and Bucharest than in Buenos Aires or Santiago.

I uncovered just one hotel in Buenos Aires charging less than $100 per night, and none in Santiago. That compares to three is Moscow and four in Bucharest. The choice in B.A. is the Hotel Tango de Mayo, an Art Nouveau inn near a subway station and relatively central, on the Avenida de Mayo. The cheapest places I could unearth in Santiago were the Luciano K at $111 and the Su Merced at $107. Both are boutique hotels.

In Moscow, the Park Izmailovo was $52, the Mercure Moscow, part of a French chain, was $84 and the Design Hotel was $98. The elegant and beautifully located Metropol was $210.

In Romania, the Mercure Bucharest City Centre was $97, the NH Bucharest $74, the Tangio $62, and the Boutique Hotel Moxa $76. While I haven't visited Bucharest, I stayed in the NH Hotel at the Vienna Airport and enjoyed it. The above prices are all in Canadian dollars and do not include tax and fees, so the total is probably similar to what it would be in U.S. currency. The loonie is trading at around 77 cents U.S. now.

I had been hearing that Argentina is booming again, thanks to a new pro-business government. The business travellers must be the ones responsible for the rising hotel prices, with a lot of places charging $300 or $400 a night or more. Unfortunately, what is good for business is often bad for budget tourists.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fall Bargains on Icelandair

Today is the last day to book for some amazing fall fares between North America and Europe on Icelandair ( Return fares to Copenhagen or Paris start as low as $499 from Toronto, Montreal or Edmonton, and fares to some other European cities begin at $699. Best of all, you can include a stopover in Iceland at no extra charge.

Travel must be between September 15 and December 15, and you must book by midnight today Pacific Daylight Time. Similar prices are being offered from U.S. gateways through the airline's U.S. Website.

It's quite a while since I have flown Icelandair, but I found they offered good fares and interesting routes. I once flew on their subsidiary, International Air Bahamas, from Luxembourg to Nassau with a stop for re-fueling in Shannon, Ireland. Another time I flew from Luxembourg to New York with a stop in Iceland, but it was night and I couldn't see much.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Online Guide to Moscow

Check out the U.S. edition of the Huffington Post ( for a useful free guide to attractions in Moscow. I don't agree with all their selections of the top places to see, but do agree with VDNKh, the All-Russia Exhibition Centre, whose entrance is pictured above. The piece is produced by College Tourist, whom you can follow on Twitter (

The VDNKh is remarkable because it is a time-warp back to Soviet times, but in a good way. It is a large park with many free attractions in the northwest part of the city, easily accessible by Metro.
Many of the College Tourist's choices are the standard ones--the Kremlin, Red Square, GUM etc. and you can't really argue with them. Christ the Saviour Cathedral is a relatively new standard attraction, and it is of great historic and religious significance. However, I get more sense of the importance of Russian religion by just dropping into random Orthodox churches.

The choice of excursions out of the city would not be mine--I have little interest in a big new shopping centre. Far better, I think, to visit Peredelkino, the writer's colony, or Tolstoy's home at Yasnaya Polyana, or to attend a concert an any of a number of country estates near Moscow.

In any case, the article is a helpful introduction for first-time visitors to Moscow.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

High Temps, Cheap Eats in Tajikistan

My friend Paul Gesalman, who is travelling in Central Asia with his wife, reports that in Khujand, Tajikistan the temperature yesterday was 106 F, hot by any measure. The town's museum was closed, but he and his party managed to eat a large meal in "one of the best shashlik houses in town."

It consisted of one skewer each of lamb and beef, a half chicken, a bowl of borsch, green salad, french fries, a tortilla stuffed with onion and meat, a melon plate, another plate of fresh fruit, a pitcher of juice and mineral water. This all came to just $14.50 U.S.

He hasn't been reporting on hotels. Paul is an old Central Asia hand (not that he is old, just a figure of speech) and I suspect he is staying with friends. However, I checked Trip Advisor for hotels this coming weekend in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. I couldn't find any prices of under $100 per night, not including local tax, and a number in the mid $200 range, so the bargains may only apply to food.

Paul has been posting on Facebook some amazing photos of the mountains in that part of the world, and writing about a trip through a local road attraction known as the "Tunnel of Death." Sounds like a great trip if you can tolerate the heat.

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Saturday, June 04, 2016

Floods Close Paris Museums, Metro Stops

If you plan to visit Paris, this may not be the best weekend. According to a report on the BBC, the Louvre Museum and the d'Orsay Museum have been closed because of flooding, and so have two Metro stations near the university. I have been watching some of the French Open tennis matches, and people are often heavily bundled sitting under umbrellas. Floods are also affecting Germany and other European countries.

Unfortunately spring flooding is a common problem in Europe, and if you schedule a trip at that time you may have to deal with floods. There isn't much you can do about it--I'm not sure even travel insurance would cover such cases, which could be considered "acts of God."

France has also been affected recently by strikes, which can also have a huge impact on travel plans. In the United States travellers have been dealing with unusually long lines at airport security. Again, there isn't much you can do about these problems other than cultivating patience.

While I'm not sure there actually are more climate and travel hassles than there were 20 or so years ago, we certainly are hearing a lot more about them in the media.