Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Inexpensive Hotels in Ukraine

Although Ukraine has been much in the news lately, it continues to be a place with reasonable prices for the budget traveller. This is particularly the case when it comes to lodging, a big component of the budget for most voyagers.

In the capital Kiev, a search on www.hotels.com for two days late in May, after the scheduled presidential election, revealed that the Hotel Ukraine, a large Soviet-era hotel overlooking the city's famed Maidan is renting single rooms for just $43 a night. The hotel has air-conditioned rooms, a necessity for the city's hot summers.Even less costly is another large hotel that looks as if it were built in Soviet times, the Slavutych, where a room for these dates costs just $17. Be aware, though, that it is on the east bank of the Dnieper River, not downtown.

I was not able to find the Rus, a hotel similar to but less central than the Ukraine, where I stayed in 2010 on the hotels.com Website this time. Then I payed about $65 a night for an air-conditioned room with minibar and a great breakfast buffet. The staff were helpful and English-speaking.

In Slovyansk in the far northeast of the country which has suffered some unrest, you can still get a room at the Taler Hotel downtown for just $23 Canadian a night, according to a report today in the Toronto Star (www.thestar.com.) The correspondent says the hotel boasts a brew pub with decent food and also, to his chagrin, a bowling alley right above his room.

On the other side of the country in Lviv, a city noted for its Hapsburg-era architecture and pro-western outlook, a room at the three star Leotel Hotel in late May goes for just $28 on hotels.com.

Below is an image taken from the balcony near my room at the Hotel Rus, of surrounding buildings in Kiev.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Earn Extra Miles with American

American Airlines (www.aa.com) has a special promotion in effect until May 23 that permits you to earn miles for playing games and for performing social actions, as well as for actually flying.  You can earn up to 700 miles by playing online games, up to 350 for social actions and thousands of bonus miles when you fly.Thanks to www.flyertalk for this tip. Flyertalk is the source for up to date information on the best frequent flyer deals, and its forums give you a place to sound off about airline experiences, good and bad.

One current forum thread concerns a passenger who was sitting next to someone who had a seizure and covered his seatmate with bodily fluids. The person so covered could not get up to use the washroom because the doctor said the patient could not be moved, and flight attendants offered no help. Another not so great airline experience is on the news shows here this weekend--the great Canadian luggage toss from an Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) plane. The airline has offered an apology in that case, and said offending employees will be fired if they are identified.

Incidentally, if you plan to travel soon in the U.S., be aware that the average daily cost for a business traveller is $255 U.S. This includes $105 for a hotel room, $57 for a rental car, and a whopping $93 for meals. You may not be able to do much about the hotel cost, but it does seem it should be possible to shave quite a bit off meal prices, by having breakfast at your hotel, and choosing fast food for at least one of your other meals. Many motels and hotels in North America now include breakfast buffets with your room price, a welcome development.

Happy Easter, everyone, and please remember our fellow Christians in the Middle East, especially Syria, and those in Ukraine who are in harm's way this holiday.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Autoslash for Lower Rental Rates

Autoslash (www.autoslash.com) is a Website that promises to secure the best deal on car rentals by finding the best coupons, tracking rental rates constantly, and searching multiple vendors. You can also use it if you have already booked a rental car online.

From what I could tell on their Website, the service is confined to the United States, at least at present. Car rental is one of the most opaque areas of travel costs. There are all sorts of rates, and then there is the question of insurance. I often rent cars in the U.S., and have been surprised to find that the collision damage protection provided by my premium credit card is not acceptable at some rental companies. You must also have private insurance on your own vehicle if you wish to decline the often exorbitantly-priced rental car company insurance.

Buying the insurance offered by the rental car company can easily double or even triple in some cases the cost of a car. However, if you are not a car owner, you may have little other choice. Even if you decline to buy the insurance, laws in most U.S. states provide some liability coverage for third-party damages in event of an accident. But without insurance, you could be on the hook for the entire cost of your rental car and other charges if you are involved in a serious accident.

I have yet to book a car rental online (I prefer to prefer to check rates by phone,) but if I ever do I will consider booking through Autoslash for convenience and savings.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Best Choices for 2014

According to Budget Travel magazine, the best value travel destinations for this year are spread around the globe. Their number one choice is South Africa, followed by Venice, Italy and the Dominican Republic.

Buenos Aires is fourth, then Orlando, Florida, Atlantic Canada, Philadelphia and Warsaw, Poland.he final two are Seoul, South Korea and Riga, Latvia.

As I mentioned in another recent post, South Africa is a fascinating country, but air fare to reach it can be costly. One of the bargains there is the entrance fee to Kruger National Park, only about $20 and all the wildlife you can spot. Hotel rates in the country are down about seven per cent from last year compared to the U.S. dollar.

Venice is a gorgeous city, but I have always found it kind of a rip-off for the average tourist. The baggage handlers at the port were, in my experience, very money-hungry and except for the public vaporettos plying the canals, bargains were very few.

Buenos Aires is worth a visit, and tickets for a concert at the beautiful Teatro Colon start at only about $10. Hotel prices are lower than last year by about 8 per cent. However, for my money the real beauty of Argentina is found in its natural wonders such as Iguassu Falls.

Atlantic Canada is a pleasant summer destination, much less crowded than most resort areas in nearby New England. Philadelphia is a good weekend escape, with lots of history, great museums and culture. Warsaw is another very interesting city--don't miss the free piano concerts on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer at Lazienki Park.

To read the whole story in Budget Travel, so to http://budgettravel.com/features/10-best-budget-destinations-for-2014, 19628/.

Thanks for reading, guys. On two recent days the page view count surpassed 1,000, a record for this blog.

With regard to the last post on Brit in Ukraine, Phillips reports today that he was kidnapped by militia from the Donbass People's Army and forced to undergo a drug test, which luckily he passed. This type of independent reporting is valuable, but can be hazardous in a quasi-war zone.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Brit in Ukraine

For up to date video posts about developments in Ukraine by an independent journalist, check out http://grahamwphillips.com. He has been posting a lot lately, as things heat up again. Recent posts are from Sloviansk and Donetsk, and I saw some earlier ones from Odessa where he was asking passsers-by which they favoured, Russia or Ukraine. The answers seemed to be about equally divided.

Phillips is 35 and has worked for media such as ITN, Pravda and the Kyiv Post, among others. His Russian seems good to me, though I am certainly no expert. This is often not the case with network journalists who must usually rely on translators. It is interesting to see how much an independent reporter who is willing to tell and show us what is going on can discover in this part of the world.

Warning to the politically correct--some sentiments expressed by Russians and Ukrainians interviewed may be offensive. This is a different culture, and they do things differently there, including sometimes thinking and talking about politics in ways that would not be acceptable in the West..

Phillips says he will not accept advertisements on his site, a policy which I applaud and follow myself.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Which Side for the Cossacks?

I saw on the news that the unrest plaguing eastern Ukraine has now reached Zaporizhzhya, home of the Zaporizhzhyian Sich of Cossacks. The riders shown above are modern re-enactors of some of the extraordinary feats of horsemanship performed by Cossacks. I saww one guy who stood atop two galloping horses, another who rod underneath the horse.

Cossacks were originally sent by Russia to fight for and hold the territory of southeastern Ukraine against the Tatars in the 16th century, but they were later joined by escaped serfs, convicts and others who were not happy in Mother Russia. There were only two requirements to be a Cossack--you had to be male and Christian. According to the Bradt guidebook on Ukraine, modern Ukrainians regard them as the precursors of their first independent government.

Today I suspect Cossacks like the actors above find themselves divided between those who support Ukraine's current government and those who favour closer ties with Russia. In any case, I would definitely want these guys on my side.

If you happen to visit Zaporizhzhya, don't miss the Cossack Museum on Khortytsya Island in the Dnieper. It tells the story of this group of men and the surrounding area, and admission is very inexpensive, probably less than $1.

Cossacks were also noted for dancing, and you can view a modern day Cossack dance troupe at www.zapcossacks.com.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Boston More Costly than Budapest

According to a report in the Daily Mail (www.dailymail.co.uk,) a weekend in Boston, Massachusetts will cost quite a lot more than a similar weekend for two in Budapest, Hungary. The Boston break comes to $647 U.S., compared with $184 U.S. in Budapest. (I have changed the original British pound figures at the rate of $1.57 U.S. equals one pound.)

The higher cost of hotels in Boston accounts for most of the difference, but meals too are inexpensive in Budapest. A three course meal with wine for a couple costs just about $41 in Hungary`s gracious capital. I haven`t been to Budapest since the bad old days of Communism, but even then the food was exceptionally good. And the price for a meal now sounds like a bargain, since last week at the Alpenhaus, a Swiss-themed restaurant in Montreal, a main course with wine came to about $40 U.S. for one.

Vilnius, Lithuania is only slightly more expensive than Budapest, while Warsaw, Poland and Prague, Czech Republic are also relatively cheap in this survey. The least costly place in Western Europe  for a weekend break turned out to be Lisbon, Portugal.

The prices do not include the cost of travel, unfortunately, or we could all nip over to Budapest next weekend for an inexpensive Easter meal.